Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10

Psalm 9-10

As nearly all commentators recognize, Psalms 9 and 10 likely were originally a single composition. This is seen primarily from the fact that there is a single acrostic (i.e. the first letter of each line/strophe in alphabetic order) pattern running through them. The Greek Septuagint, followed by the Latin Vulgate tradition, treats them as a single Psalm, resulting in the number of the Psalms being offset (by one) between the Greek/Latin and the Hebrew. The use of the acrostic technique in poetry seems wholly artificial and contrived to most readers today; however, the number of surviving acrostics in the Old Testament—seven other Psalms (25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145), as well as Proverbs 31:10-31 and Lamentations 1-4—is evidence of its popularity. Apart from any artistic concerns, the device served as an aid to memory, especially for lengthier compositions. Undoubtedly the most famous acrostic is Psalm 119, with the alphabetic structure being indicated in many modern English Bibles. The alphabetic arrangement of the Lamentations was preserved in Roman Catholic liturgical tradition (the settings for Holy Week). The acrostic structure of Ps 9-10 is incomplete (discussed in the notes below), suggesting that the text may be corrupt (esp. in the first half of Ps 10); however, any attempt at reconstruction, to restore a complete acrostic, is highly speculative and scarcely worth the effort.

This Psalm is another Davidic composition following the superscription pattern we have encountered thus far throughout Pss 2-8. The specific musical direction (indicated by the preposition lu^ “upon…”), like most in the Psalms, remains obscure to us today. It clearly relates to performance tradition, but beyond this, it is often unclear whether it refers to (a) instrumentation, (b) musical mode/key, (c) melody, or something else entirely. Here the direction is /B@l^ tWml=u^ (±almû¾ lab¢n), the meaning of which is quite uncertain (cf. also in Psalm 46). The pattern of these directions suggests that twmlu be parsed as tWm-lu^ (“upon [the] death [?] of…”), which scarcely seems intelligible. One plausible suggestion is that the preposition has dropped out, and that the text originally read toml*u&-lu^, indicating, perhaps, that the composition was to be sung by female voices (hm*l=u^ fundamentally referring to a young woman who has recently become mature). The significance of the following /B@l^ (“for a son” [?]) would still be unclear; a direction for male treble voices is possible.

As would be expected for a composition of this length and (textual) complexity, the meter in the Psalm as we have it is inconsistent, and there are a number of questions regarding the division of lines and strophes, especially where the acrostic pattern appears to have been disrupted. I will indicate this Hebrew alphabetic pattern throughout the notes. Generally a new letter is introduced for each pair of bicola (4 lines). I tentatively divide the composition, as it has come down to us, into two main parts (9:2-17 [1-16], and 10:1-18), with an ‘interlude’ at 9:18-21 [17-20]. The first part has a more confident tone, the second more in character of a lament, with urgency in the Psalmist’s prayer for YHWH to act.

Part 1: Psalm 9:2-17 [1-16]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]a

a I will give out [hd#oa] (praise), YHWH, with all my heart,
I will (re)count all your wondrous (deed)s;
I will rejoice and rise up (with joy) in you,
I will make music (to) your name, Most High!

This initial strophe is one of praise to YHWH, as in the opening of Psalm 8 (cf. the study last week); however, the composition overall is not a hymn of praise, but rather a prayer (with lament characteristics), drawing upon the same themes of the justice/judgment of YHWH, in the context of the Psalmist’s opponents/adversaries, that we saw, especially, in Psalm 7 (cf. the study). This comes immediately into view in the following couplets.

Verses 4-5 [3-4]b

b (For) with the turning [bWvB=] (back) of my enemies behind (me),
they (shall) have fallen and been destroyed from your face.
(O) that you (will) have made judgment and ruled (for) me—
you (who) have sat on the covered (seat) judging (with) justice!

The prepositional phrase that opens the bicolon in v. 4, “with (the) turning [bWvB=] of my enemies”, could be seen as continuing the thought of v. 3 (Dahood, p. 53, 55), however it seems preferable to regard it as establishing the setting for what follows. It begins a precatory section, describing, in this Prayer-composition of the Psalmist, what he wishes YHWH will do. As such, I would tend to agree with commentators who read the perfect-tense verb forms as precatory perfects—stating what the author wishes would happen, in terms of what YHWH has already done. This comes out most clearly in the second bicolon (v. 5), for which I read the initial yK! particle as emphatic, heightening the entreaty: “O, that you (would) have…”. It is important to understand how these lines relate in the mind of the Psalmist:

    • The turning back of his enemies behind him—God’s action realized in terms of a life situation (line 1)
      • The concrete manifestation of this—the falling/failing and death/destruction of the persons hostile to him (line 2)
        • yK! “O, that…” – the petition of the Psalmist
      • This reflects God judging and ruling on his behalf (judicial setting) (line 3)
    • And, because God rules (over all) as Judge, His judgment (i.e. what happens to the enemies) is right and just [qdx] (line 4)

The verb bv^y` (“sit”) here implies YHWH sitting on the ruling seat (i.e. throne), as both King and Judge, over the entire world. The “face” of God signifies his manifest Presence and Power—here also in the specific context of facing God in his role as Judge.

Verses 6-7 [5-6]g

g (O, that) you (shall) have called out [T*r=u^G`] (against the) nations (and) destroyed (the) wicked,
their name you have rubbed (out) for the distant (future) and until (the end).
The enemy, (that) they (would) be finished—dried (out ruin)s lasting for (all time)—
and (even) the guarded (place)s you have torn up (so that) memory of them is destroyed!

These two couplets continue the same theme (and the Psalmist’ request), but framed in a global, cosmic sense, reflecting YHWH’s rule over all people (all the “nations”). Here the “nations” (<y]og) are treated as synonymous with the “wicked” (collectively, uv*r*). The verb ru^g`, a bit difficult to translate in English, essentially refers to preventing someone from acting, often by means of a forceful word or command; it is generally synonymous with bWv (“turn”) in v. 4, YHWH stopping the Psalmist’s enemies and turning them back, away from him. It is a manifestation of YHWH ruling as Judge, executing judgment on the Psalmist’s behalf; this is also so of the verb db^a* (“[make] perish, ruin, destroy”, also used in v. 4), which is here parallel with ru^g`—the divine Judgment involves the death/destruction of these enemies, an idea that is most difficult, even repellent, to modern day Christians. Moreover, in these lines the permanence of this judgment—not just death for those persons involved, but perpetual ruin and disgrace, their very memory being “rubbed out”—is most clearly expressed. The idea of future permanence of this judgment is conveyed through several expressions, each of which closes a line:

    • “for the distant [<l*ou] (future)” and “until [du^] (the end)” (line 2)
    • “for(ever) lasting” [jx^n#l*] (line 3)
    • “their memory [rk#z@]” will perish (line 4)

All of this ultimately reflects the power and authority YHWH possesses—His rulings as Judge last forever. As an interesting side note, I have translated the plural noun <yr!u* here literally as “guarded (place)s”, which, in most instances, generally means “cities”, i.e. walled/fortified towns, sometimes guarded with watchtowers, etc. The emphasis here, I believe, is that even the fortified, guarded sites of the wicked are to be destroyed, left as desolate ruins, as part of YHWH’s judgment. However, Dahood (p. 55f) reads the plural in a different sense, as “watchers, protectors”, i.e. referring to the ‘gods’ of these people (the nations), drawing upon a use of this root attested, for example, in Aramaic and Syriac—ryu! = “watcher, (one) watching, guarding”, specifically a heavenly being or ‘Angel’ (cf. Daniel 4:10, 20). I do not find this very convincing, in terms of the immediate context and imagery in the line, though I agree that there may be a bit of dual-meaning wordplay involved here.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]h

In the acrostic pattern, there is no strophe present for the letter d, skipping from g to h. Possibly a portion has been lost; however, in the only relevant Dead Sea manuscript (11Psc), a corresponding d-strophe is also absent, the text generally matching that of the MT. If a strophe has dropped out, it must have occurred by the first century B.C. The apparent confusion surrounding the final word of v. 7, hmh, which, it would seem, properly begins the couplet of v. 8, suggests that the text here may well be corrupt.

h Behold [hmh], YHWH has sat (ruling) from the distant (past),
He set firm His covered (seat) for judgment,
and He judges the productive land with justice,
and rules for the tribes (of earth) with straight (decision)s.

Metrical considerations, along with the acrostic pattern of the Psalm, would seem to require that the last word in MT verse 7, hM*h@, begin the couplet of v. 8; in which case, a slight emendation and/or repointing of the text is likely needed, though the proper solution remains unclear. Dahood (p. 56), on the basis of Ugaritic evidence, posits an interjection (<h, hmh) similar to hN`h!, “see, look, behold!” Kraus (p. 190) would repoint hmh as hm#h), “roaring”, but it seems inappropriate to apply the verb to God in this way; it may, indeed, be the underlying Hebrew read by the Greek Version (met’ h&xou, “with [a] noise”), but the LXX relates it to the end of v. 7 (referring to the destruction of the wicked), not the beginning of v. 8. For lack of any better solution, I tentatively follow Dahood, or, at least, I assume a Hebrew equivalent of hmh => hN`h!; in any event, such a reading fits the tenor of the strophe, which depicts YHWH ruling, from His heavenly throne, since the most distant past. The word <l*ou can refer to either the distant past or distant future; in verse 6, the latter was meant, here it seems better to understand it in the former sense. Both aspects, taken together, connote the idea of “eternity”, God’s “eternal” rule in Heaven. The noun lb@T@ is difficult to translate in English; basically, it refers to the productive parts of the land (i.e. fertile, able to bring forth produce), and thus the areas (of the earth) that are inhabited by human beings, though occasionally it can signify the world as a whole (as understood in the ancient Near East). In any case, here it is the entire inhabited earth that is in view—YHWH rules as King and Judge over all human beings everywhere.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]w

w And (indeed) is [yh!yw]] YHWH a high place (of refuge) for (those being) crushed,
a (safe) high place for times (when they are) in distress;
and they shall be secure in you, (the one)s knowing your name,
for you do not abandon (those) seeking (refuge in) you, YHWH.

The primary image in this strophe is of YHWH himself as a citadel—the fortified city. Ancient Near Eastern cities were rather small in terms of area, comprised primarily of the temple and palace complexes where ruler (and his family, etc) dwelt. They were walled, fortified spaces, set on a hill, or otherwise elevated as a result of being built upon successive occupation levels. Most of the population did not reside within the city walls, being farmers and herders, but would seek refuge there in times of “distress” (warfare, invasion, etc). The specific word used here is bG`c=m!, literally a high, elevated place. It draws upon the idea of YHWH seated high up (above the heavens) on his throne; those faithful and loyal to Him will seek refuge in the place where He is. This proximity to YHWH is defined, in ancient religious-cultural terms, as “knowing [vb ud^y`] His name”. On the significance of this idiom, cf. my earlier Advent/Christmas season series “And you shall call his name…” (esp. the articles on the Names of God). The promise is that God will not abandon or forsake the one who remains loyal to Him, meaning, in the context of the Psalm, that God will answer his prayer. The verb jf^B*, which I translate above as “be secure (in)”, could also be rendered generally as “trust (in)”; as for the verb vr^D* (“seek [out], search [for]”), I have likewise translated with the idea of God as a place of security and refuge in mind (“seek [refuge in]”).

Verses 12-13 [11-12]z

z Make music [Wrm=z~] to YHWH, (to the One) sitting (over) ‚iyyôn,
put His deeds (out) front, (there) among the peoples;
for (He is) seeking (out the one)s wailing, He remembers them,
He does not forget the cry of (the one)s being beaten down.

With this strophe, the Psalm shifts from a petition within a judicial setting to that of a personal appeal or lament by the Psalmist. The exhortation to praise in verse 12 is parallel, in certain respects, to that which opens the Psalm (v. 2). In the second bicolon, God’s faithful ones are described as those who suffer, weeping/wailing/groaning (vb <md) and having been beaten down (vb hnu)—the latter verb denoting a position of lowness and affliction, not necessarily as a result of violent action. As in the prior strophe, the Psalmist expresses confidence that YHWH will not abandon his people when they are in distress. It is interesting how this personal appeal blends so deftly together with an appeal on behalf of the people—i.e. Israel, the faithful among them. The localization of Zion places God’s rule directly in relation to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Israel/Judah.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]j

j Show favor to me [yn]n@n+j*], YHWH, see my beatings down by (the one)s hating me,
(and) raise me up from (the) gates of Death!
In response, I would (re)count all (the) shouts (of praise) for you,
in the gates of Daughter ‚iyyôn will I go round with (news of) your help!

Again, in this strophe the personal merges with the idea of the people (the righteous) as a whole. It is safe to say, I think, that in this Psalm, more than any other we have yet examined, the Psalmist represents the people—the righteous ones loyal to YHWH—and stands for them. Rather than referring to a specific situation of distress for an individual—whether an historical figure (i.e. David) or literary protagonist—it is that of the people generally that is in view. This perhaps explains why the idea of the Psalmist’s enemies/opponents now shifts so decidedly toward the “nations” and the “wicked” in a more general, universal sense. At any event, the suffering of the righteous is still expressed in terms of the Psalmist’s own, in the first bicolon (v. 14). The plea for YHWH to rescue him and “raise” him up from the point of death is presented most vividly, using mythological-poetic imagery to describe death and the grave as a great kingdom (with gates) ruled by a king (Death, personified). On this motif, cf. the discussion on Psalm 6 and also the separate article on “Sheol”. The basic idiom “gates of Death” is preserved in the Greek of the New Testament as “gates of the Unseen [a%|dh$, hád¢s] (realm [i.e. of the dead])” in Jesus’ famous declaration to Peter (Matt 16:18). There is an intentional parallel to “gates of Death” with “gates of Daughter Zion” in the second bicolon (v. 15); the latter is a personification of Jerusalem, as the place where God’s people dwell (and thus opposite of the realm of death and the wicked). The Psalmist promises that, if delivered from his distress, he will spread the praise of YHWH, and news of the help given by Him, throughout all of Jerusalem—that is, to all of God’s people.

Verses 16-17 [15-16]f

f (O, that) they (would) be sunk [Wub=f*], (the) nations, in the ruin they made,
this trap hid to possess (others will) have captured their (own) feet!
(Yes) YHWH (shall) be (made) known (by) the judgment He makes—
with (the) works of his (own) palms is the wicked (one) struck down!

The final strophe of this part shifts to an imprecation (perfect vb. forms again read as precative perfects) against the “nations” (plural) who, as a whole, are synonymous with the “wicked” (singular). YHWH’s judgment against the wicked is notable in that it draws upon humankind’s own evil intent, described three ways:

    • “the ruin [i.e. with connotations of death/decay] they made”, possibly meant to convey the idea of digging a grave
    • “this trap hid to possess (others)”, probably to be understood as an ensnaring net
    • “the works of his (own) palms”, here “palms” being a more concrete and visceral synonym for “hands”

The wicked are buried, ensnared, and/or struck down by their own devices. This is a popular motif in the Psalms and wisdom literature, one which we have already encountered in Ps 5:10-11 [9-10] and 7:15-17 [14-16].

The remaining ‘interlude’ of 9:18-21 [17-20] and the second part (Psalm 10) will be discussed next week, along with a summary discussion of the composition as a whole.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1 Teilband (Psalmen 1-59), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7 (cont.)

Psalm 7, continued

Last week’s study on Psalm 7 covered verses 2-10 [1-9]; here again is the structure of the Psalm as I have outlined it:

    • The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • An oath concerning his innocence—vv. 4-6 [3-5]
    • Call for YHWH to make vindication and deliver justice—vv. 7-17 [6-16], in three strophes:
      • vv. 7-10—Call for YHWH to act as Judge
      • vv. 11-14—Precatory description of YHWH in His ancient role as victor/vindicator
      • vv. 15-17—Precatory description of the judgment that comes upon the wicked
    • Closing statement of thanks to YHWH (anticipating his justice)—v. 18 [17]

As indicated above, the main section—the call for YHWH to deliver justice and vindicate the Psalmist—is made up of three strophes, the first of which (vv. 7-10) I examined in the previous study. Here is my translation of these verses, the poetic structure I identified as a pair of tricolons (vv. 7, 8-9a, three lines each [= 6]), along with three bicola (vv. 9b-10, six lines, with 3+2 meter):

7Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!
8-9a(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples!
9b-10Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

It is a powerful portrait of YHWH as Judge of all humankind; what follows in verses 11-17 [10-16] is a precatory description of His Judgment/Justice. By this is meant that the apparent references to past (and present) action by God reflects the wish of the Psalmist for what should happen. In this regard, the perfect-tense forms of verbs in vv. 13ff I would understand to be precative perfects—i.e. the Psalmist’s expressing his hope and expectation of what will happen, in terms of what has (already) happened.

Verses 11-14 [10-13]

There are 4 bicola (8 lines) in this section, with mixed meter—the second and fourth are 3+3, while the third is 4+3; the first bicolon, as we have it, appears to be 2+2. The verbal forms in the first 2 bicola (4 lines, vv. 11-12) are participles, while those in the last 2 bicola (vv. 13-14) are perfect/imperfect forms. This may roughly be understood as expressing:

    • 1 and 2: Actions of YHWH in terms of his (eternal) character—participles
    • 3 and 4: Specific actions by which He delivers Judgment—perfect/imperfect forms

In the initial line we immediately encounter a textual problem. The MT reads:

<yh!ýa$Álu^ yN]g]m*
“My protection is upon the Mightiest”

This seems to make little sense, as the Psalmist is stating that his shield/protection is upon [lu^] God [Elohim]. Therefore, many commentators are inclined to emend the text, perhaps adding an appropriate suffix to the preposition: yl^u*, “upon me”, i.e. “The Mightiest is my shield upon me”. Dahood (pp. 45-46) opts for a different solution, reading the word lu^ as a divine title, from hlu, meaning “(Most) High, Highest”, similar to /oyl=u# (cf. 2 Sam 23:1, etc). In this case, the line would read “My protection is the Mightiest (Most) High”, or “My protection is God (the Most) High”. Another possibility would be to understand the preposition lu^ as indicating proximity—i.e. beside, alongside—whereby the line could then mean something like “My protection (is from) alongside the Mightiest”; this appears to be how the Septuagint understands the Hebrew. When there are such ambiguities (from our vantage point) in the Psalms, often the context of the poetic parallelism may be the surest guide to interpretation. Let us then consider the 2 couplets (4 lines) of vv. 11-12 together:

{line 1 left untranslated}
making safe (the one)s straight of heart;
(the) Mightiest (is the One) judging (the) just,
(and the) Mighty (One) denouncing (the wicked) each day.

The parallel titles <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest”) and la@ (“Mighty [One]”) in lines 3-4 give credence to the idea that there is a corresponding pair of titles in line 1: lu^ (“[Most] High”) and <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest”). This would seem to be the best way of reading the inner parallelism of the components of lines 1-2 as well:

    • my protection (yN]g]m*)
      • (the One who is) Mightiest (Most) High (<yh!ýa$ lu^)
    • making (me) safe (u^yv!om)
      • (the ones who are) straight of heart (bl@ yr@v=y])

The 1st and 3rd components are mem (m)-preformative nouns referring to safety/protection, while the 2nd and 4th components are construct pairs describing the character/attributes of God and the righteous respectively. Thus, am inclined to read line 1 much as Dahood does:

My protection is (the) Mightiest (Most) High,
making safe the (the one)s straight of heart;

The second couplet is rather more straightforward, with a formal parallelism that utilizes a pair of related divine titles (<yh!ýa$ / la@, “Mightiest” / “Mighty [One]”), along with a pair of descriptive participles indicating, it would seem, two different aspects of YHWH’s actions and role as Judge:

    • fp@ov (šô½¢‰), “judging”, in the sense of establishing justice for the righteous/righteous person (qyd!x*)
    • <u@z) (zœ±¢m), which I render “denouncing” above. The precise significance of the verb <u^z` is quite difficult to convey accurately in English; the basic meaning relates to speaking out angrily against someone, in opposition to them, sometimes with the more technical connotation of a denunciation or curse. The judicial context here suggests the denunciation of the wicked and their (false) accusations, etc. Thus, establishing justice for the righteous (i.e. loyal, innocent) person also entails the denunciation of charges (and/or crimes perpetrated) against them.

The third component refers to different aspects of YHWH’s justice again: (a) it is on behalf of the righteous (qyd!x*), and (b) it is constant/consistent, being delivered “on every day” (<oyÁlk*B=). Here are the three components presented in order for both lines:

<yh!ýa$ [“Mightiest”]
(divine title)
fp@ov [“judging”]
(aspect of justice)
qyd!x* [“just”]
(who it is on behalf of)
la@ [“Mighty One”]
(divine title)
<u@z) [“denouncing”]
(aspect of justice)
<oy-lk*B= [“each day”]
(when it is done)

As in the first line of couplet 1 (v. 11), discussed above, the first line of couplet 3 (v. 13) is also problematic, and considered to be corrupt by many commentators. The MT, as the Masoretes have parsed/pointed it, reads:

vofl=y] oBr=j^ bWvy` al)Á<a!
“if he does not turn (then?) he hammers [i.e. sharpens] his sword”

According to this syntax, the subject of the first verb (bWvy`, “he turns”) appears to be a human being (the wicked?), while the subject of the second is YHWH (vofl=y], “he hammers/sharpens”). But this rather depends on reading the <a!-statement as a conditional clause, “if he does not return [i.e. repent], then…”. However, the <a! particle, especially in the context of an oath (cf. my discussion on vv. 4-6 [3-5] last week), can be used to introduce a curse or imprecation formula, with al)Á<a! as an emphatic negative declaration (or wish). In this case, the line would read: “O that He [i.e. YHWH] would not turn (back) His sword (but) would sharpen it!”

Dahood (v. 46) suggests a repointing of al as al@ (l¢°, instead of al) lœ°), reading it as a form of the Semitic root l°y, “be strong”, and thus as a title/epithet for YHWH, i.e., “the Strong (One)”, in the sense of one who prevails or is victorious. The verb bWv would be understood in the sense of “(re)turn, turn (again)”, with the line read something like “O that the Strong/Victorious (One) would turn (again and) sharpen his sword…”. It is an interesting solution, but I do not quite find it convincing.

Given this reading of the line above, couplets 3 and 4 (vv. 13-14) would then be translated as follows:

O that He would not turn (back) His sword (but) would sharpen it,
bend (down) his bow and set it firm (for shooting);
and (O) that He would set firm His ‘tools of death’,
(and) make his arrows (in)to burning (shafts)!

Here YHWH’s justice is described in terms of military imagery, as weapons of attack—sword, bow, arrows, fire. These lines can be interpreted chiastically—

    • Preparing/sharpening weapons (sword)
      • Setting his weapons (bow) firmly [verb /WK] in place
      • Setting firm [same vb /WK] his weapons (“tools of death”)
    • Making his weapons to be fiery/burning (arrows)

as well as according to the clear synonymous parallelism that is present:

    • Not turning (back) his sword, but sharpening it
      • bending (down) his bow, and setting it firmly in place
    • Making firm his (weapons as) “tools of death”
      • making his arrows into “burning (shafts)”

Some would interpret the participle <yql=d) as referring to the wicked, etc, at whom God’s arrows of justice are aimed, i.e. “(in)to the (one)s burning hot after [i.e. persecuting] (the righteous)”. I do not believe this is correct; the imagery of the couplets is more consistent it is taken as referring simply to YHWH preparing his weapons. I also agree fully with commentators who repoint the opening particle of v. 14 as the precative particle Wl (, “O that…!”) rather than ol (, preposition + suffix); the former provides a perfect match with the opening al)-<a! of verse 13.

Verses 15-17 [14-16]

In the final strophe of vv. 7-17, there is a shift from YHWH in his (ancient) character and role as Judge, toward a description of His Judgment, especially as it is directed against the wicked. This was prepared for by the military imagery in vv. 13-14, of God preparing his weapons for use (see above). Overall, these lines in vv. 15-17 are more straightforward and consistent than those previous, with a 3+3 bicolon format throughout.

See—! he twists and is pregnant with trouble,
(he is in) labor, and gives birth to deceit;
he bore a pit and dug (deep) into it,
and (then) fell in(to) the sunken (grave) he made;
his labor turned (back) on his (own) head,
and upon his (very) scalp his malice came down!

This is a marvelous example of parallelism in Hebrew poetry, and how it can be used to build tension and incorporate different sorts of images within this poetic structure. The sudden shift in focus (and subject) is indicated by the opening interjection “see!” (hN@h!); the subject of the verbs in vv. 15-17, though never specifically stated, is clearly now the wicked person, rather than YHWH. The imagery in the first couplet (v. 15) is that of a woman giving birth, indicated by the three verbs used: (1) lb^j*, “twist, turn”, as of a pregnant woman writhing in pain; (2) hr*h* “conceive, be(come) pregnant”; and (3) dl^y`, “give birth (to)”. This image is applied to a person who makes trouble (/w#a*), i.e. trouble-maker; he toils and is in labor (lm*u*) at this, and eventually gives birth to rq#v#, the basic meaning of which is “deceit”, probably in the covenantal sense of “disloyalty”, but also, most certainly, in the legal context of “false” accusations or charges. For an interesting parallel in the New Testament, involving evil and giving birth, cf. James 1:14-15.

The imagery in the second couplet (v. 16) moves to that of a person digging a (deep) pit or hole. This represents a different kind of labor—note that the noun lm*u* is used again down in v. 17. There is likely a bit of alliterative wordplay intended between the verb hr*K* (k¹râ), “dig, bore (a hole)” and hr*h* (h¹râ), “conceive, be(come) pregnant”; I have tried to retain something of this through the ambiguity of the English “bore” above—i.e. “bore a hole”, “bore a child”. The progression of this labor follows a similar progression as that of a person giving birth; note how this builds through the verbs used:

    • hr*K*—in the basic sense of digging a hole into the ground
    • rp^j*—which here connotes a person digging deep down to the point of at least partially going down into it himself, i.e. “dig, delve (down)”; the verb sometimes carries the meaning of “search (into)”.
    • lp^n`—the person quite literally falls into the hole that he/she dug.

This of course reflects a sort of grim irony, expressed elsewhere in the Psalms (cf. on 5:10[9]), etc, whereby the punishment waiting for the wicked matches his/her own character. The imagery of the final couplet (v. 17) carries out this basic idea—of evil (falseness, disloyalty, etc) thrown out (as accusations, etc) by the wicked ending up landing back down on them (like the flight of a boomerang). It is almost comical now the way that the person’s labor (lm*u*), acting treacherously and deceitfully against the righteous, simply lands down on their own head (using the parallel nouns var), “head” and dq)d=q*, “scalp, skull-top, arch, crown [of the head]”). The noun sm*j* often connotes violent action specifically, but here it probably refers more to the person’s hostile intent, which I render above as “malice”. It is a harsh word, and one that reveals the true character and nature of the wicked person—not only deceptive and disloyalty, but genuinely hostile and malicious.

Verse 18 [17]

The final couplet serves as the conclusion of the Psalm, as a statement of thanks to YHWH, and anticipating His justice:

I will hold out (praise) to YHWH according to His justice,
and (indeed) make music to the name of [YHWH] (the Most) High!

I bracket the second occurrence of YHWH, recognizing the possibility, along with a number of textual critics, that the name should be omitted on metrical/rhythmic grounds. Certainly the names hwhy (YHWH) and /oylu# (“Highest, [Most] High”) make a natural parallel; at the same time, it is also possible that the compound /oylu hwhy  (“YHWH [the] Most High”) could also serve as a fitting parallel to <yh!ýa$ lu^ (“[the] Mightiest [i.e. God] Most High”) in verse 11 (cf. above). At any rate, /oylu# would essentially be equivalent to lu^ as a divine title.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB], Vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7

Psalm 7

This composition in the Psalter is unique in the use of the word /oyG`v! (šigg¹yôn) in the heading to describe it, a musical (or poetic) term whose meaning is unknown to us. It may be related to a primitive root gv (ggv, hgv) which has the basic meaning “stray, go astray”; others would connect it with ugv (Akkad. šegû) which refers to a kind of howling like that of animals, and could possibly indicate some sort of lament. Also uncertain is the significance of the notice “upon the words of Kûš the ‘son of the right-hand’ [i.e. Benjaminite]”; possibly this refers to an accusation made against David (cf. on vv. 4-6 [3-5] below), relating to a tradition otherwise unknown to us.

This Psalm is the longest and most complex of those we have encountered thus far. Not surprisingly, it has a mixed meter with a number of apparent half-lines (cola) which make coordinating the meter and structure difficult; the closing section (vv. 14-18) is more consistent with a strict 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format. Most of the metrical difficulties are in the first half of the Psalm (vv. 2-9). Tentatively, I offer the following outline:

    • The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • An oath concerning his innocence—vv. 4-6 [3-5]
    • Call for YHWH to make vindication and deliver justice—vv. 7-17 [6-16], in three strophes:
      • vv. 7-10—Call for YHWH to act as Judge
      • vv. 11-14—Precatory description of YHWH in His ancient role as victor/vindicator
      • vv. 15-17—Precatory description of the judgment that comes upon the wicked
    • Closing statement of thanks to YHWH (anticipating his justice)—v. 18 [17]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

The Psalmist’s opening petition—the Psalm itself functioning largely as a prayer—is delivered with a pair of bicola (i.e. 4 lines) that generally utilizes the common 3+3 metrical format, though the first bicolon is actually 4+3 (ever so slightly), due perhaps to the inclusion of the divine name YHWH in the initial line. The presence of the divine name often creates metrical tension in ancient Hebrew poetry, and could, at times, be a sign of secondary adaptation. Here are the lines:

YHWH, my Mighty One, with you I have sought protection—
save me from all (the one)s pursuing me and rescue me,
lest he rip (at) my soul like a lion,
tearing (it) apart (with) no one (to) rescue!

Each bicolon ends with a form of the verb lx^n` (“take/snatch away”) in the Hiphil, emphasizing the need for deliverance, for YHWH to rescue the Psalmist in his time of trouble (a frequent motif in the Psalms, as we have seen). The second occurrence is verbal noun (participle) form which I have rendered like an infinitive in an attempt to preserve the rhythmic sense of the line. The shift from plural (“the ones pursuing”) to singular (“lest he rip…”) is not all that uncommon, especially when dealing with opponents of the protagonist in the Psalms; they can be described as many or as one, collectively or individually—the description can be quite fluid. In part, I think, this is meant to reflect the lack of firmness and integrity in the wicked, in contrast to the Psalmist, who remains firm (and unified) in his loyalty to YHWH.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

The petition gives way to an oath in these lines, drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. The force of such binding agreements was magical-religious, and involved an oath. First, the parties of the agreement would call upon God (or the gods) as witness; second, this meant that, by way of certain ritual formula, divine judgment would be brought down upon one who violated the agreement. The idea of the covenant between YHWH and the people Israel was unique in this regard, since God was not a witness, but a participant in the agreement—as the superior (suzerain) to whom Israel and its rulers were the subordinate (vassal). In agreeing to the terms of the covenant, Israel took an oath to uphold it, including the curse/punishment which would come upon them if/when it was ever violated. Here the oath is more generalized, in terms of common morality and the normal functioning of society, but it still reflects the righteousness and covenant loyalty of the Psalmist.

He approaches YHWH, his sovereign, confirming his innocence by way of an oath. It begins as a 4+3 bicolon precisely parallel to the opening of the petition (v. 2): “YHWH, my Mighty One…”. He has sought protection (vb hs^j*) with YHWH as his Lord and protector (under the covenant); the oath is taken in this very context. According to the text as we have it, the first line reads: “YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this [taz)]”. It is not clear what “this” is, which has led some commentators to emend the text. Dahood (p. 42) suggests that here taz) is a substantive meaning something like “insult”, but whose etymology “is not immediately evident”; he cites other such examples in Ps 44:18[17]; 74:18[17], and Job 2:11. While this is a convenient solution, the basis for it seems extremely slight. Some would relate “this” to the “words of Kuš” in the superscription, i.e. presumably as an accusation made against the Psalmist (David), of which we do not know the precise content, though it may be implied in the lines that follow. Indeed, more properly the pronoun (“this”) refers to the following two “if”-statements. This conditional statement (protasis, “if…”) of the oath, taken together, in vv. 4-5 is:

YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this,
if there really is guilt in my palm(s),
if I have dealt (in) evil (with) my sound (ally),
and pulled away (in) empty (word)s (to make him) my foe,

The last line is difficult to translate, but there is a clear contrast (and formal parallel) between ym!l=ov and yr!r=ox, as also between ur* and <q*yr@. The words in the first pair are themselves difficult to translate, though the sense is clear enough. Both are verbal noun (participle) forms with a first person singular suffix (“my…”). The first verb is <l^v* from the root <lv and denominative of the noun <olv* in the sense of a (covenant) agreement that establishes peace, security, and friendship between two parties. The second verb, rr^x* indicates just the opposite—hostility, rivalry, opposition. By acting with evil (ur*) toward one who was supposed to be a firm ally, it would render their bond as merely “empty [words]” (<q*yr@), creating hostility when there should have been peace. This would seem to be the substance of the accusation against the Psalmist—an act of treachery and disloyalty. Verse 6 provides the result for the condition (apodosis, “…then”) of the oath—it is a three-fold declaration, comprised of three lines (tricolon):

(then) let (the) enemy pursue and reach my soul,
and let him trample my life to (the) earth,
and make my (very) weight dwell in (the) dust!

Three comprehensive terms are used to represent the (whole) person of the Psalmist in its deepest sense:

    • vp#n#—refers to the life-breath or essence of the person, usually rendered as “soul” (here yv!p=n~, “my soul”)
    • <yY]j^—a plural noun referring to the physical life, span of life, etc., of a person (here yY`j^, “my life”)
    • dobK*—”weight”, often in the basic sense of “worth, value”, figuratively as “honor”, etc (here yd!obk=, “my weight/worth”)
      [some commentators read ydbk here as yd!b@k=, “my liver”, in the sense of “my inner(most) organ(s)”]

The purpose of this oath is to confirm—by magical-ritual means—the Psalmist’s innocence; from the religious standpoint of the Psalm, it is meant to demonstrate his loyalty to YHWH. He declares, indeed, that he has remained loyal, and would not have acted in such a disloyal way as he is accused of doing. That he is willing to take on the curse of the oath is an implicit proof that he is innocent. This oath section ends with a hl*s# (Selah) mark, frequent in the Psalms, and the exact significance of which remains uncertain. Here it can be used a structural indicator, marking a break before the next major section.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

As indicated in the outline above, verses 7-17 are to be divided into three sections, or strophes. They make up a call to YHWH, for him to act as judge and declare justice for the Psalmist, vindicating him in the accusation against him. The call proper is contained in vv. 7-10, structurally (metrically) one of the most difficult portions of the Psalm. It is a challenge to divide this portion accurately into lines and couplets. As with verse 6, it seems most natural to view vv. 7-9a as utilizing a tricolon (three-line) format. The first tricolon (v. 7) is:

Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!

The three imperatives are intended to stir YHWH to action, which is the emphasis of these lines. The last verb (hwx, perfect form t*yW]x!) is a bit difficult to render; I take it as a precative perfect, reflecting the expectation of the Psalmist, in the sense that YHWH has the power to command (i.e. make) judgment and deliver justice. In the second tricolon (vv. 8-9a), He is seen as acting, and the imagery shifts to the assembling of the tribunal:

(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes [<yM!a%] surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples [<yM!u^]!

This triad marvelously moves from the congregation of Israel (line 1) to an image of all the peoples [of the world] (line 3); in between is the comprehensive, unifying motif of YHWH seated high above on His throne (line 2). The verb form hb*Wv in the second line is best understood as deriving from bvy (“sit, dwell”) rather than bwv (“turn, return”). In the following lines, vv. 9b-10, this triadic structure expands to include a set of three bicola (6 lines), it seems, following a 3+2 meter. With the tribunal in place, the Psalmist now asks YHWH to make judgment on his behalf:

Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

The initial verb (fp^v*, “judge”) is different from that in the prior line (/yD!, “[act as] judge”), and connotes the establishment of justice in the case at hand. The root qdx plays an important role in these lines, with the noun qd#x# in v. 9b (line 1), and the adjective qyd!x* twice in v. 10 (parallel lines 4 and 6). This key root is central to the idea of the covenant, and, as a consequence, to Israelite religious thought and theology as a whole. It has a relatively wide semantic range, but fundamentally refers to something that is right, straight, and according to a standard (measure). The noun qd#x# is often translated “righteousness” or “justice”, much as the similar noun dikaiosu/nh in Greek (indeed, the diakaio- word-group is close in meaning to Hebrew qdx); perhaps “right-ness” or “just-ness” would capture the meaning better, but there is no such corresponding word in English. In the context of the ancient binding agreement (covenant), it also denotes faithfulness and loyalty. In a judicial setting, the idea certainly is that of determining justice, making things right—and, of course, whether a person (and his/her behavior, cause, etc) is just and right. The loyal servant of YHWH possesses a “right-ness/just-ness” that mirrors that of God Himself (note the clear parallel in lines 4 & 6).

The last word in line 2 (MT yl*u*) has caused some difficulty, leading commentators occasionally to emend (or repoint) the text. Dahood (p. 45) suggests that it should be read as yl!u@, as a divine name, i.e. “(YHWH the) Most High”. However, the parallelism in the bicolon is perhaps better preserved by the (Masoretic) pointing—as the preposition lu^ with first person singular suffix—marking an absent, but implied, verb. Note:

    • judge me [yn]f@p=v*]
      • according to my right-ness [yq!d=x!K=], and
      • according to my completeness [yM!t%K=]
    • (decide) over me [yl*u*]

The parallelism in the second bicolon is antithetic, marking the precise contrast—between righteous and wicked, loyal and disloyal—that lies at the heart of the judgment scene. God is able to make a proper determination, since he is the one “examining [vb /j^B*] hearts and kidneys”—both of these inner organs were use to represent (and locate) the mind (thoughts, intention, desire, etc) of a person; in our idiom we would say “examining hearts and minds”. The significance of the characterization of YHWH as “just” (qyd!x*, cf. above) is two-fold: (a) it means that he is able to establish true and proper justice, and (b) it marks the “just” person as one who is, and remains, loyal to YHWH.

[The remainder of the Psalm (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) will be discussed in the next study.]

Note on “Sheol”

In the recent study on Psalm 6, the usage of the term loav= (š®°ôl, sheol) was noted, being the first such occurrence in the Psalter as we have it. As this term will be encountered in other Psalms, and, indeed, is found relatively frequently in Old Testament poetry, I felt it was worth devoting a special study to it. The word loav= occurs 66 times in the Old Testament Scriptures, primarily in poetry (16 in the Psalms, 9 in Job, 9 in Proverbs, 10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and 5 in the Minor Prophets). The context of how it is used makes clear that it is a (poetic) term for the realm of death and the dead, occasionally used as a personification of death (and the grave) itself. However, in spite of this, the actual origins and derivation of loav= remain quite uncertain. It is clearly an ancient, traditional Hebrew word, and yet there are no clear parallels or cognate examples from other Semitic languages of the period (i.e. Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc).

Etymology

The most obvious association for loav= would be with the common root lav, which has the basic meaning “ask, inquire” (cf. Akkadian ša°¹lu, “ask, decide”, etc). Unfortunately, it is hard to see exactly how the word, as it is used in the Old Testament, might relate to this root. One suggestion is that it refers to the realm of death (or the “underworld”) as a “place of interrogation”, i.e. where the deceased is judged and called to account (examined). Another possibility is that it relates to the idea of “asking/inquiring of the dead”, i.e. necromancy and the consulting of spirits (of the dead). Admittedly, such a connection is quite speculative, and far from convincing.

Another conceivable derivation, and one adopted by a number of commentators today, is from the root huv I (vb ha*v* š¹°â), which indicates ruin, devastation, destruction—cf. the related nouns hY`a!v= (š®°iyyâ), /oav* (š¹°ôn)—the final lamed (l, l) being an example paragogic epenthesis (insertion of a letter at the end of a word to aid in pronunciation). According to this theory, loav= would fundamentally mean something like “(land) of ruin”, “desolate (land)”.

Less plausible attempts have been made over the years to connect the word with different ancient Semitic roots (real or putative), but none have achieved any real acceptance by scholars. For a good survey of this evidence, consult the major critical dictionaries such as the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) and the Anchor Bible Dictionary (article “Dead, Abode of the”).

Old Testament Usage

While loav= occurs primarily in Old Testament poetry, there are a few instances in the historical books (8 total) where it is included as part of the traditional narrative. Most notably, there are four occurrences in the Joseph narratives, referring to the sorrow and misfortune that will accompany the aged Jacob when he dies (to meet his son[s] in the realm of death). In Gen 37:35 (following the reported death of Joseph), we read:

“And all his sons and all his daughters stood up to sigh (with) [i.e. console] him, and he refused to be (consol)ed, and said that ‘I will go down to my son mourning, (down) to Še’ol!’ And his father wept (for) him.” (cf. also Gen 42:38; 44:29, 31)

In Numbers 16:30, 33 (the episode of Korah’s rebellion), the emphasis is on the sudden destruction, from natural disaster (brought about by YHWH as punishment), which will befall the rebels and send them “down to Sheol”:

“But if YHWH (should) exercise creation (over the) created (thing), and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them (up)—and all the (ones who are) for them—and they go down living to Še’ol, then you will know that these men (have) despised YHWH!” (v. 30)

The contrast clearly is with the natural death most humans experience (v. 29). Similarly in 1 Kings 2:6, 9, there is a contrast between dying in peace and as the result of violence, etc. Thus, in all these instances, loav= is used in connection with the idea of a person dying under unusual or unfortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the oldest occurrence of loav=, in terms of the age of the preserved text, is in the so-called “Song of Moses” (Deut 32), dated by many commentators (on objective grounds) to perhaps the 12th-11th century B.C. (cf. my recent Saturday Series studies on the Song, esp. on vv. 15-25). The two bicolons (couplets) in verse 22 use the image of a blazing wildfire to illustrate the burning anger of God (YHWH) when he acts in judgment (on Israel, for violating the covenant):

For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!

Other examples from early poetry, preserved in the context of the traditional (historical) narrative are: 1 Samuel 2:6 (Song of Hannah) and 2 Samuel 22:6 (Song of David). The first of these follows closely the idea of God’s judgment (in its violent aspect) and power over the created order (life and death), as expressed in the Song of Moses and the episode of Numbers 16 (cf. above); indeed the statement in 1 Sam 2:6 echoes that of Deut 32:39b. In the Song of David (2 Sam 22:6), loav= is clearly used as a colorful (hyperbolic) reference to the violent turmoil and (destructive) danger the poet (David) faces; note the parallelism in the bicola of vv. 5-6, which is both synonymous (second line [in italics] stating and intesifying the imagery of the first)—

“For the breaking (wave)s of death surrounded me,
the torrents of Beliyya’al struck me with fear;
the twisting (cord)s of Še’ol swirled around me,
the ensaring (trap)s of death hit (right) in front of me.

but also chiastic:

    • waves of death
      • torrents of Beliyya’al
      • swirling bonds/pains of Še’ol
    • snares of death

When we turn to the remainder of occurrences in Old Testament poetry, we may divide these as follows: (a) Psalms and the book of Job, (b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs), and (c) in the Prophets.

(a) Psalms and the book of Job

The word loav= occurs 16 times in the Psalms, and 9 times in the poetic dialogues of Job. Much of this poetry appears to be quite early, and/or preserving genuinely archaic features. The data from the Psalms may be summarized as follows:

    • as a general (poetic) term for the realm of the dead
    • in the context of suffering/misfortune leading or drawing a person to death
    • imagery related to the fate of the wicked

This largely confirms the usage and range of meaning indicated above. With regard to the first point, laov= as a basic poetic term for death and the realm of the dead, this is more or less present throughout; perhaps the clearest examples would be in 6:6[5]; 49:15[14]; 139:8; 141:7 (cf. also Song 8:6). However, in many of the Psalms, the idea is connected with suffering and distress facing the Psalmist, by which his very life is in danger and on the verge of death (88:4[3], etc). Whether this should be taken literally or figuratively, it is part of the motif of a hope for deliverance which is integral to those Psalms (cf. the study on Psalm 6). In Psalm 49:16[15] and 89:49[48], we read of the “hand [dy`] of Š®°ôl“, referring to its power to grasp/keep hold of the dead, or to bring a person down into the grave. A similar anthropomorphic image involves Š®°ôl as one who devours (49:15[14]), possessing a wide mouth (hP#, 141:7) along with a ravenous appetite. This sort of personification of death and the grave was common to Ancient Near Eastern (religious) thought, and the idiom was retained in Israelite tradition and poetry (cf. on Psalm 5:10[9] in my recent study). A more objective image was that of a deep pit (30:4[3]; 86:13), or ropes/bonds which hold the deceased tight (18:6[5]; 116:3). With regard to death and the grave (i.e. loav=) as the fate of the wicked, sometimes indicating an unnatural or violent death (as in Num 16:30ff, etc), this is expressed clearly in 9:18[17]; 31:18[17]; 49:15[14]; 55:16[15].

In the book of Job, laov= tends to be used more figuratively as an image of deep darkness (i.e. characteristic of the realm of death)—11:3; 14:13; 17:13. However, the basic association with the actual death of a person, and fate of the grave, is also very much present, as fits the general narrative context of Job’s suffering (7:9f; 17:13, 16; 21:13). The association with the fate of the wicked, mentioned in examples above, is also seen in 24:19. Of special interest is Job 26:5-6, where there is evidence of a more precise concept of the realm of death as a “netherworld” located under the earth. Here loav= is paired with the term /oDb^a& (¦»addôn, cf. Prov 15:11; 27:20; and also Job 28:22; 31:12; Ps 88:12), probably meant to indicate the decay and destruction characteristic of the grave.

(b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs)

The word laov= occurs 9 times in Proverbs (also once in Ecclesiastes [9:10]); however one dates the various Proverbs, they certainly utilize much ancient (poetic) imagery to make an ethical point. We have, for example, the motif of Death/Sheol as a ravenous, devouring person (1:12; 27:20; 30:16), used to illustrate human greed and wickedness, etc. Indeed, abandoning the way of wisdom, and taking the way of sin and folly instead, leads to Š®°ôl (5:5; 7:27; 9:18)—another adaptation of traditional imagery involving Š®°ôl and the fate of the wicked (cf. above). There is also a wisdom-variation of the Psalmist’s plea for deliverance from death (cf. examples above), with the exhortation to avoid the fate of Š®°ôl by adopting the course of wisdom and prudence (15:24; 23:14). The maxim in Eccl 9:10 is similar to the Psalmist’s statement in 6:6[5].

(c) The Prophetic Oracles (esp. Isaiah and Ezekiel)

There are 20 occurrences of loav= in the Prophetic writings—10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and another 5 in the Minor Prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Habakkuk). The references in Ezekiel (31:15-17; 32:21, 27) are interesting in that they likely represent the most recent occurrences in the Old Testament, perhaps reflecting the intentional use of older (archaic) imagery.

In Isaiah 5:14 we find again the traditional image of the wide mouth and devouring appetite of Death/Sheol; whereas in 7:11 (cf. also 57:9) it is simply the depth of it (in contrast with the height of heaven) that is emphasized. Š®°ôl features in two noteworthy nation-oracles: against Babylon (chap. 14 [vv. 9, 11, 15]) and against Jerusalem itself (chap. 28 [vv. 15, 18]). In 14:9ff we have another example of Š®°ôl as the fate of the wicked; while in 28:15ff this is played on in the opposite sense—the people of Jerusalem believe they will be able to avoid the fate of death and destruction. Isa 38:10ff simply utilizes loav= in the basic sense as the realm of death, the sentiment expressed in v. 18 being similar to that of Psalm 6:6[5].

The traditional imagery of the depth of Š®°ôl, and its devouring appetite, occur again in Amos 9:2 and Habakkuk 2:5. Two other references in the Minor Prophets are especially noteworthy:

    • The opening of the poem in Jonah 2:2-9, very much of a kind with many Psalms in which the protagonist asks YHWH for deliverance from the danger and distress he faces (cf. above):
      “I called out to YHWH from (the things) pressing on me, and he answered me;
      from the belly of Še’ol I (call)ed for help, and You heard my voice.”
    • In Hosea 13:14, the word occurs twice, in parallel couplets, which form a declaration (or question) by YHWH, the interpretation of which, in context, continues to be debated. Reading the first couplet as a declaration, we have:
      “From the hand of Še’ol I will pay to release them,
      from death I will redeem them (as my kin)—
      where (are) your deadly (blow)s, Death?
      where your destroying (power), Še’ol?
      —(their) gasping (for sorrow) is hid from my eyes.”
      Paul makes use of the second couplet in 1 Cor 15:55.

LXX and influence on the New Testament

In the Greek Septuagint (LXX), laov= is translated by a%|dh$ (hád¢s), a word used almost exclusively for that purpose in the LXX. It is often transliterated in English as “Hades”, while the common translation “Hell” is quite inappropriate. In my view, it is better to translate literally as “(the) Unseen (place, i.e. of the dead)”, especially since the realm of the dead is the basic meaning, in context, for Hebrew laov=. The label “unseen” is also appropriate for the characteristic of the realm of the dead as a dark, shadowy place beneath the earth.

This word a%|dh$ occurs 10 times in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation (1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14), it is virtually synonymous with “death” (qa/nato$). Acts 2:31 simply comes via the citation of Psalm 16:10 (v. 27), where a%|dh$ = loav= as the grave in which bodies decay. The occurrence in the saying of Jesus (“Q” [Matt 11:23; Lk 10:15]) also draws upon traditional imagery, though with a contrast between Heaven above and Š®°ôl below (cf. Isa 7:11). Only in two instances do we find a more decidedly negative aspect and connotation of the term, perhaps a bit more akin to the idea of “hell” in English:

    • In Jesus’ words to Peter in Matt 16:18, he states that “the gates of a%|dh$ will not have strength against it”—that is, against his e)kklhsi/a, i.e. believers, those called out to join together as his followers. This could be taken to refer to the powers of evil, etc, though it could just as easily be understood in the more traditional sense of Hades/Sheol as the realm of death—i.e. that Jesus’ disciples will have power over death, and the kind of illness, etc, that brings people to the point of death.
    • A sense of a%|dh$ closer to our conception of “hell” is found in Lk 16:23, within the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, even here, the term need not mean anything more than the place of the dead. The best way to view the scene described by Jesus, in my view, is that both men are in the Unseen realm (i.e. Hades)—i.e. both are dead—but within this realm there is a great separation. The Rich Man is in torment, while Lazarus enjoys (apparently) a more pleasant existence in “Abraham’s lap”. Even so, it is likely that a%|dh$ here draws upon one traditional aspect of loav= mentioned above—as signifying the fate of the wicked. It is this aspect that gave rise to our standard conception of “hell”, and the use of that word, however inappropriate, to translate both a%|dh$ and loav=.

Conclusion

The evidence examined above demonstrates, rather conclusively, I think, the basic range of meaning for the word loav= in the Old Testament, even if its fundamental (original) meaning and derivation remain uncertain. This may be summarized as follows:

    1. It refers generally to death and the realm of the dead, i.e. where the dead reside—both for the grave in the narrower sense, and in the wider sense of a dark, shadowy place of existence (for the dead) beneath the earth.
    2. This foreboding aspect, along with the universality of death, led to imagery emphasizing the all-consuming power of Š®°ôl, and the force by which it grabs hold of people. Sometimes, but not always, this was expressed by way of mythological personification—Death/Sheol as a person—a common ancient mode of expression, especially in poetry, which was preserved in the Old Testament.
    3. Quite often, the word loav= was used specifically in association with death (and the danger of death) experienced in the midst of suffering and misfortune of various kinds (including violence).
    4. As an extension of this, wicked and violent persons were seen especially as belonging to Š®°ôl, which also would be their fate—perhaps through an unnatural or violent death brought about by God’s judgment.
Note on loav= and the Afterlife

One striking fact, which many Jews and Christians today are bound to find troubling, is that, in all these references to Death and Š®°ôl in the Old Testament, there are precious few examples which indicate a specific belief in an afterlife. The references to Š®°ôl, insofar as they describe an afterlife at all, do not go much beyond the basic ancient Near Eastern concept of a dark, shadowy place where the dead have only a limited sort of existence. Even passages which refer to God delivering one up from Š®°ôl (e.g. Psalm 16:10; 49:16[15]; Hos 13:14) do not indicate anything like the idea of resurrection or promise of a future life in heaven; for the most part, they simply refer to deliverance from death in the present. The righteous person, loyal to YHWH, is being pulled down into Š®°ôl, in danger of death, and is saved by God—at least, that is the idea, expectation, and hope expressed in such passages. It is only in later Israelite and Jewish tradition that we find more clearly a belief in the resurrection of the dead, along with a blessed life in heaven (with God) for the righteous. Daniel 12:2, however one dates the book of Daniel, would seem to represent the earliest certain example. By the first centuries B.C./A.D., the belief was quite widespread, enough so that, in the 1st century A.D., the Sadducean denial of resurrection was worthy of comment (Mark 12:18 par; Acts 23:8; Josephus Antiquities 18.16). Earlier evidence for belief in actual resurrection from the dead is ambiguous at best; commentators would cite examples such as Hos 6:1-3; Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:13-14—these refer primarily, in context, to national restoration, but may draw upon a more basic idea of bodily resurrection. Hope for the possibility of personal immortality—dwelling with God in Heaven—without experiencing death at all, may have been present in early Israelite thought as well (cf. Psalm 16:10, etc, and the examples of Enoch & Elijah).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 6

Psalm 6

The superscription to this Psalm follows the common format we have seen for most of the Davidic compositions (romz+m!). As with Psalm 4, the note here is that it is to be played on stringed instrument(s) (the presumed meaning of hn`yg]n+). There is an additional musical instruction, tyn]ym!V=h^-lu^ (something like “upon the eight[h]”), the meaning of which remains uncertain. Possibly it indicates something akin to a musical key or mode, or perhaps a voice range (i.e. upper/lower, cf. 1 Chron 15:21); either way, it relates to a particular performing tradition. The same direction is given for Psalm 12.

The conceptual structure of the Psalm is as a petition or prayer to YHWH; I would outline it as follows:

    • Initial address/plea to YHWH (vv. 2-4 [1-3])
    • The basis/reason for the Psalmist’s prayer (vv. 5-8 [4-7])
      —Facing death: plea for rescue/deliverance (vv. 5-6)
      —The sign of his suffering: weeping/sorrow (vv. 7-8)
    • Declaration that YHWH has heard his petition (vv. 9-11 [8-10])

The Psalm generally utilizes a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format throughout, though there are a few places where it alters or is inconsistent (mixed meter). As always, there are serious questions as to whether, or to what extent, the text as it has come down to us ought to be emended to achieve greater metrical consistency.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

Here the Psalmist addresses YHWH, with these lines (3 bicola, 6 lines) forming the invocation and essential petition:

YHWH, do not judge me with your nostrils,
and do not punish me with your hot (breath)!
Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble;
even my soul is made to tremble (in fear)!
And you, YHWH—until when (will you help)?

The first and third bicola both have 3-beat (3+3) lines; the dual occurrence of the divine name (hwhy, YHWH) in the second bicolon expands the meter to 4-beat (4+4) lines, which has led some commentators to suggest that either (or both) occurrences of the name perhaps should be omitted as secondary. However, the repeated use of the divine name (including twice in the second bicolon) conveys the desperation and despair of the Psalmist, and serves as an effective poetic device. The first two bicola make use of synonymous parallelism, and expresses two different aspects of the suffering the protagonist faces, apparently in the form of some kind of serious disease. In the first couplet, where the parallelism is precise, the idea is clearly expressed that this suffering is the result of YHWH’s anger, according to the basic ancient worldview (much less common today) that disease, etc, is often brought about by divine displeasure or anger. Transposing the Hebrew word order to match our English (left-to-right):

-la^
do not
;P=a^B=
with your nostril(s)
yn]j@yk!ot
judge me
-la^
do not
;t=m*j&B^
with your hot (breath)
yn]r@S=y~t=
punish me

Both the nouns [a^ (lit. “nose, nostril”) and hm*j@ (“heat”) are common figurative ways of expressing the idea of anger. Presumably, the ancient idiom involves the image of a powerful animal (such as a bull) snorting out hot breath. The verbs jk^y` and rs^y`, here translated “judge…punish”, could also be rendered “rebuke…chasten” or “correct…discipline”, giving a much softer sense to the imagery. However, there can be no doubt of the severity involved—YHWH’s rebuke, even if it is meant to discipline or correct the Psalmist, still results in immense suffering.

There is similar parallelism in the second bicolon, the second line of which is picked up in the third bicolon—a kind of step-parallelism that leads to the climactic cry of the final line. The central bicolon of verse 3 [2], with the dual occurrence of the divine name, represents the actual petition of the Psalm, stated clearly, reinforced by synonymous parallelism:

Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble

It is interesting to see how this poetic style allows for the intensity of the thought to build. In the first line, the Psalmist refers to himself generally, with the emphatic use of the pronoun “I” (yn]a*)—”I (am) withering [ll^m=a%]”. The root lma has the basic meaning of “be(come) weak”; the phrase could also be translated “I am exhausted“. The verb lh^B*, in the passive-reflexive, has the sense of “being terrified, frightened”, i.e. trembling with fear/terror. The step parallelism in the overlap of lines 4 and 5 is clear and striking; the Psalmist’s own person (“I”) is now divided into two comprehensive components: (1) his bodily strength (<x#u#, in the plural and usually translated “bones”), and (2) his soul (vp#n#), i.e. the life within his body. So severe is the Psalmist’s suffering that even his soul (his very life) trembles along with his body.

The final despairing question, the outcry of the Psalmist is terse and direct, and is aimed squarely at God: “And you, YHWH—until when [yt*m*-du^]?”. Readable English requires that the line be filled out, i.e. “until when (will you help)”, “how long (must I wait)”, etc.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

As indicated in the outline above, the heart of the Psalm represents an exposition of the petition in verse 3, describing the suffering and despair of the Psalmist—i.e. the reason for his prayer, and the need for YHWH to act—from two points of view. The first involves the idea that the Psalmist, in his suffering (from disease?), is in danger of death. Above all else, death would separate him from the relationship with YHWH, who is the giver and preserver of life. This destruction of the covenant bond (through death) is emphasized in these lines:

Turn (to me), YHWH, take away my soul—
make me safe for the sake of your goodness!
For in death there is no memory of you;
in Sheol who gives out (praise) to you?

When the Psalmist asks YHWH to “take away” (vb. Jl^j*) his soul, this must understood in the sense of “pulling it away” from the point of death, or “snatching it away” from the jaws of death. The verb uv^y` in the Hiphil here expresses the other side of this deliverance—having pulled his soul away from death, YHWH is to “make it safe”, “bring it to safety”, i.e. saving/preserving it. Implicit in the expression “for the sake of your goodness” (;D#s=j^ /u^m^l=) is the idea of covenant loyalty between YHWH and His people, those who have themselves remained faithful to the covenant. In other words, it is a reminder of this bond and the responsibilities of YHWH to protect those loyal to him.

One must be cautious about reading two much into verse 6 regarding Israelite views of an afterlife (or lack thereof). However, generally in the Ancient Near East, the realm of death (i.e. where the dead reside, Job 30:23; Prov 5:5; 7:27, etc) was seen as a dark, shadowy place, and those who dwelt there had only a limited sort of existence. This is the basic idea expressed here in the Psalm. On the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol), which occurs here for the first time in the Psalter, I discuss the significance of it briefly in a supplemental article.

In the remaining two bicola (vv. 7-8), the imagery shifts to the sign of the Psalmist’s suffering, expressed in terms of weeping, crying, groaning, etc. The meter and organization of the Psalm as we have it suggests that the first two words of verse 7 represent a partial line, which, if correct as it stands, likely represents a point of transition from vv. 5-6:

I gasp (weary) with my groaning
in all (the) night my (place) of stretching swims,
with my teardrops I dissolve the frame of my (bed);
my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
it is passing (away) with all (that is) pressing me.

Leaving out the initial two words, vv. 7-8 are a pair of 3+3 bicola, using synonymous parallelism to express the Psalmist’s suffering. The first bicolon makes for a bit of colorful hyperbole—he is weeping so much that his couch/bed is drowning (and dissolving!) in the sea of tears. This idiom, of weeping upon one’s bed, is known both in the Old Testament (Ps. 4:6; Gen 43:30) and Canaanite literature of the period (Kirta I, col. 1:28-30).

The second bicolon describes the effect of this weeping/sorrow on the Psalmist’s eyes (and his entire body) using two verbs, vv^u* and qt^u*, which produce a nice alliterative effect. The former verb has the basic meaning of being worn (or wasting) away; the latter verb the idea of passing away, here in the sense of growing old, approaching death, etc. Most likely there is a conceptual parallel between the prepositional phrases su^K^m! and yr*r=ox-lk*B=. The root suk carries the basic idea of something agitating, disturbing, provoking, etc; the common root rrx similarly of something tight, pressing in, creating stress, etc. Thus the phrases “from (this) agitation” and “with all (the thing)s pressing (on) me” would both refer to the suffering and distress experienced by the Psalmist. However, it should be noted that Dahood, in his commentary (p. 38), reads the second line differently, parsing MT lk as a verbal form (“complete, finish”) and understanding yrrx in the sense of “inner (organ)s” (cf. Akkadian ƒurru, Ugaritic ƒrrt). According to this interpretation, the bicolon would exhibit a different sort of parallelism, something like:

my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
my heart [i.e. inner organ] is made old with wearying.

This reading, however, ignores both the formal parallelism of the line and the foreshadowing that would result between “the (thing)s pressing on me” and the oppressors/opponents mentioned in vv. 9ff.

Verses 9-11 [8-10]

The final 3 bicola form the conclusion to the Psalm, expressing the hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer, and heal/deliver him. The meter is mixed here, but could be made more consistent, to a 3+3 and/or 4+3 format with slight emendation. The sudden reference to “trouble-makers” and “enemies” seems rather out of place in the context of vv. 2-8, but may be an indication that the apparent setting of suffering due to physical disease should not be taken too concretely, but rather as a more general symbol of suffering and distress. There is also the very strong possibility—even likelihood—that the imprecation against the wicked is meant to demonstrate and confirm the Psalmist’s righteous loyalty to YHWH (for more on this, cf. the prior study on Psalm 5).

Turn (away) from me, all (you) making trouble!
for YHWH has heard the voice of my weeping—
YHWH has heard my (plea for His) favor,
YHWH (has) received my petition (to Him).
Let all (those) hostile (to) me find much disgrace and terror,
let them turn (away), finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)!

The language is difficult, and, to some extent, rather obscure. Given the metrical consistency and awkwardness, it is possible that the text is corrupt here at one or more points. In particular, the sense of the final bicolon (v. 11) is a bit unclear. Some commentators would omit the second Wbv)y@ (“let them find disgrace”) as a scribal duplication; however, in spite of the metrical tension, it gives an effective emphasis to the imprecation in these lines. The verb lhb was translated as “tremble (i.e. from fear/terror)” in vv. 3-4; here it seems better to render it in terms of the actual terror that the wicked will experience. It is possible that the verb bWv (“turn”, essentially synonymous with rWs in v. 9) in the final line could be understood as “return”, in the sense of humankind returning to the earth (i.e. the grave), as in Job 1:21; 30:23; 34:15; Eccl 3:20f; 12:7, etc (cf. Dahood, p. 39).

The final word is difficult, and may be intended to close the Psalm on a harsh and discordant note (as appropriate for the fate of the wicked). There are three different ugr roots attested in Hebrew, and the relationship between them is not entirely clear. Here ugr is usually understood as a noun (but with adverbial force) with the basic meaning “(in) a moment”, i.e. “suddenly, at once”. However, there appears to be a traditional association of ugr with death and destruction (e.g., Num 16:21; Job 21:13; 26:12; Psalm 73:19). Dahood (p. 39) goes so far as to see the noun ugr (ug^r#?) here as a synonym for the place of death itself (i.e. Sheol), based on formal parallels with Ps 9:18 [17] and 31:18 [17]:

“Let the wicked turn (away) [WbWvy`] into Sheol” [9:18]
“Let the wicked find disgrace [Wbv)y@], let them … into Sheol” [31:18]

I have tried to capture this close association between ugr and death/Sheol parenthetically in my translation above: “…finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)”.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 5

Psalm 5

The superscription to this Psalm follows the same pattern as that of Psalm 4, suggesting that the word hl*yj!n+ refers to a musical instrument, possibly a pipe (flute) or reed instrument, based on the root llj (cf. 1 Kings 1:40; 1 Sam 10:5, etc); unfortunately, as the word occurs only here in the Old Testament, there is no way to be certain. The Psalm tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon format; however, this is not consistent throughout (at least in the text as it has come down to us), and there are metrical questions in vv. 3b-4 and 5, in particular. Scholars have different opinions as to the legitimacy of textual emendation aimed at achieving/restoring a consistent meter.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

The first two bicola (vv. 2-3a) are straightforward, and establish a prayer-setting for the Psalm, similar in many ways to that of Psalm 4 (see the previous study):

“Give ear to my words, YHWH,
l(isten) close to my utterance;
attend to my cry (for help),
my King and Mighty One!

By any account, the lines in vv. 3b-4 seem to use a different meter, and commentators divide them in different ways; perhaps the most consistent result is that suggested by Dahood (pp. 28-29), requiring no real emendation, but only the slight modification of reading YHWH at the end of v. 3 rather than the beginning of v. 4. This yields two 3 beat (3+3) lines followed by two 2 beat (2+2) lines:

“For to you I make (my) petition, YHWH,
(that by) daybreak you would hear my voice–
(by) daybreak I will arrange (it),
to you I look for (an answer)!”

Conceptually and formally, these represent parallel sections (or strophes), in spite of the metrical differences. The idea seems to be of a nighttime vigil or session of prayer, with the protagonist speaking (and crying) out to God. In the morning, literally at the ‘crack’ of dawn, the Psalmist anticipates a response from YHWH. It is likely that the terse statements in v. 4b make use of the verbs Er^u* and hp*x* in something of a technical sense. The first verb (Er^u*) carries the basic idea of putting things in order, arranging them; Dahood suggests a legal/judicial context of setting forth one’s case (or defense), i.e. before God as Judge (cf. Psalm 50:21; Job 33:5; 37:19). The second verb (hp*x*, root hpx I) has the basic meaning of looking for something, keeping watch, etc; the context here very much indicates the idea of looking/waiting for a response from YHWH, even though there are few such examples of the verb being used this way.

Verses 5-7 [4-6]

The thematic focus in these lines shifts to a contrast between righteous and wicked, pure and impure, such as we have already seen in the previous Psalms (3 and 4). There is perhaps less of an emphasis here on the idea of covenant loyalty to YHWH, but wickedness defined by worship of false/pagan deities (other than YHWH) remains clearly in view. The text as we have it would seem to be comprised of two 3+3 bicola alternating with 3+2 bicola, though some commentators have suggested emendation (e.g., omitting the word la@ from verse 5) to make the meter consistent. There are various sorts of parallelism in these lines, as one can see in the translation:

“For no Mighty One delights (in) wickedness,
(and) alongside you evil does not stay.
(Those) shouting cannot stand up
in front of your eyes.
You hate all (the one)s making trouble,
(and) you shall destroy (the one)s speaking a lie!
A man of blood(y deed)s and corruption
YHWH treats with disgust!”

The holiness of God (la@, Mighty [One]) is set against the wickedness (uv^r#) and evil (ur^) of much of humankind. In Psalm 4, the wickedness of certain segments of the society—prominent men—was in view; here the scope seems to have widened and become more general. Nor is the worship of false deities the primary target, though it would still seem to be a strong point of emphasis. The very expression la@ aý (“no Mighty [One]”, i.e. “no God”) is an allusion to false religion and idolatry, which, according to the covenantal theology and standards of Israelite monotheism, leads to greater wickedness. For this negating expression, describing other ‘deities’ as “no God”, cf. the key references in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:17, 21; also Jer 5:7); similarly, evil can be referred to as “no good” (bof aý, Ps 36:5; cp. Isa 16:6; Prov 15:7, Dahood, p. 30). Moreover, words such as “lie” (bz*K*) and “corruption” (hm*r=m!) can serve as euphemisms for false religion and idolatry. Dahood goes so far to suggest that here <ym!D* is not the common plural of <D* (“blood”), but a plural noun derived from hm*D* (“be like, resemble”), meaning “images, likenesses” (cp. the noun /y)m=D! in Psalm 17:12). I do not find this especially convincing, though a certain wordplay between <D* and hm*D* is certainly possible, perhaps even likely. Idolatry and acts of violence were seen as marks of extreme wickedness, and would often be mentioned together; a particularly relevant example is Psalm 26:9-10. The expression “man/men of blood” is also found in Psalm 139:19-20. The plural <ym!D* (lit. “bloods”) in such instances presumably means “(act)s of blood(shed)”, i.e. acts of violence, which would not necessarily involve the actual shedding of blood.

The point of all this in the Psalm is that YHWH, the true Mighty One, is holy and detests such wickedness. By calling on YHWH to act in His holiness to destroy those who act wickedly, the Psalmist demonstrates his loyalty and aligns himself on the side of the true God. Most likely, this is to be understood as part of what the Psalmist is setting before YHWH (v. 4), as evidence of his loyalty; as such, it is part of the prayer offered in vv. 2-4, with the expectation that YHWH will answer it.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

Based on the Psalmist’s demonstration of loyalty, aligning himself with the holiness of YHWH, he now proclaims that he is deserving of entering into God’s holy place—i.e. the place of His Presence, described two ways: (1) from the ritual standpoint of the Temple precincts and sanctuary, and (2) figuratively as a land/place embodying Divine justice and righteousness (hq*d*x=). Apparent metrical inconsistency has led some commentators to suggest that something is missing at the end of verse 9; this may be resolved, in part, if hwhy (YHWH) is read at the end of v. 8 rather than the beginning of v. 9 (Dahood, p. 33, and see on v. 3-4 above). For the sake of my translation, I have tentatively adopted this division:

“And I, in the vast(ness) of your kindness,
I (will) come into your House—
I will bow down to(ward) your holy Palace,
in (the) fear of you, YHWH.
Lead me in(to) your righteous (land),
in answer to (those) watching me,
(and) make straight your paths before me.”

A pair of terms characterizes the two aspects of the place of YHWH’s Presence mentioned above:

    • The Ritual aspect:
      (1) tyB@, “house” (“your House”), i.e. the Temple as the “house of God”; here, probably, the Temple precincts are meant
      (2) lk^yh@, “palace”, in the expression “palace of your holiness”, i.e. “your holy Palace”; most likely this refers to the actual Sanctuary (Holy Place)
    • The Figurative (religious/ethical) aspect:
      (1) ds#j#, “goodness, kindness”, which can also connote “loyalty”, etc.; in connection, the noun br) (“many, multitude”) should be understood in the sense of “vastness”, i.e. a vast domain.
      (2) hq*d*x=, “justice, righteousness”, also with connotations of faithfulness, loyalty; as indicated above, this should be read in the figurative sense of “righteous land”, a straight and level place, i.e. vast and open.

Most commentators assume that the participle rr@ov, “watching” should be taken in a hostile sense, as of enemies or adversaries. Given the general context of these Davidic Psalms, with their frequent references to surrounding adversaries, this seems likely; what follows in vv. 10ff gives added support to the idea.

Verses 10-13 [9-12]

The Psalm concludes with two strophes contrasting the fate of the wicked and righteous. As noted previously, many Psalms, in the form they have come down to us, were influenced by Wisdom language and traditions, such as are embodied in the introductory Psalm 1. We have already seen how several of these royal/Davidic Psalms (cf. the studies on Pss 2 and 3) close on a Wisdom-themed note. Here, in Psalm 5, we have a strong echo of Psalm 1 with its juxtaposition of the fate of the righteous and the wicked. The wicked are described in vv. 10-11, the righteous in vv. 12-13; in both instances, the prayer context is retained, so that the descriptions are precatory, reflecting the wishes of the Psalmist. The contrasting imagery here is striking: the fate of the wicked is the devouring open mouth of death and the grave, while for the righteous it is a place of safety and refuge surrounded by YHWH Himself. Let us consider first the wicked in vv. 10-11 (four 3+2 bicola):

“For there is no firmness in his mouth,
his insides (are) a yawning (ruin);
a grave (wide) open (is) their throat,
their tongue makes (everything) slippery.
Make them perish, Mightiest, may they fall
from their (own wicked) plans;
in their many terrible (deed)s drive them away,
for they rebelled a(gainst) you!”

The shift from third person singular (“his”) to plural (“their”) may seem odd, but it can be found relatively frequently in the Old Testament, as well as other Near Eastern (Semitic) literature, especially in poetry. Adding to the possible confusion is the preservation in poetry of a final mem (<) as an enclitic particle, which, at times, can be mistaken for a 3rd person plural suffix (“their, them”). Such mem-enclitics, insofar as they exist in Old Testament poetry, probably were preserved purely as a way to extend words and fill out the meter. Here I tentatively follow Dahood in reading the < in the word <B*r=q! as a possible enclitic, which would allow a reading of “his insides” rather than “their insides” and keep the pronoun shift consistent in v. 10a and 10b.

The lines of verse 10 draw upon ancient Canaanite imagery regarding death (twm, personified as a powerful being, Môt); the image of death (and the grave) as possessing an enormous devouring mouth (and a ravenous appetite) is well attested in Ugaritic texts, and is also preserved, to some extent, in the Old Testament (Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5; Prov 30:15f). Consider the pair of specific images the Psalmist uses:

    • Mouth—no firmness
      • Insides [i.e. inside the mouth]—a yawning, gaping ruin
      • Throat—a wide open grave [i.e. place of death]
    • Tongue—slippery

In addition, there seems to be a rich wordplay at work here, which is virtually impossible to capture in translation:

    • br#q# (qereb, “inner, inside[s]”)—rb#q# (qeber, “burial, grave”)
    • br#q#—there is a separate root brq with the basic meaning “be/come near, approach”, and this could allude to the idea that the destruction for the wicked is “coming near”
    • ql^j* (µ¹laq)—this verb means “be/make smooth, slippery”, appropriate in connection with the tongue to indicate deceit, etc; however, there is a separate root (Ugar. —lq) denoting “die, perish”, a meaning which may be attested in Hebrew as well (cf. Ps 36:3; 73:18; Job 31:17; Hos 10:2; Dahood, p. 35). The ability of the tongue to bring destruction is stated famously in James 3:5ff.

An interesting aspect of the fate of the wicked is that, just as they resemble the grave, so they themselves will wind up in the pit of death. For a similar example of such grim irony, cf. Psalm 7:16-17 [15-16].

By contrast, the righteous—i.e. those loyal to YHWH, including the Psalmist—will experience an entirely different fate: instead of being engulfed by death, they will be surrounded by the protecting (life-giving and preserving) Presence of YHWH:

“But they will find joy, all (the one)s trusting in you,
(in)to (the) distant (future) they ring (out);
and you give cover over them,
and they rejoice in you, (the one)s loving your Name.
For you will bless the (one who is) just, YHWH,
like a protective (cove)r you surround him (with) favor.”

Several interlocking strands of motifs are present here, each expressed with multiple terms:

    • rejoicing—verbs jm^x* (have joy, pleasure), /n~r* (cry out [for joy], ring out), and Jl^u* (rejoice, exult)
    • cover/protection—verbs Ek^s* (cover over, overshadow), rf^u* (surround); noun hN`x! (protective [cover])
    • characteristic of the righteous—as the ones “trusting” (vb hs*j*, “seek shelter, refuge”) in YHWH, and “loving” (vb bh@a*) His Name

These function in a positive way, similar to the negative motifs relating to the fate of the wicked in vv. 10-11.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 4

Psalm 4

This is the second Psalm of the collection designated as a musical composition (romz+m!), and one “belonging to David” (dw]d*l=); cf. the previous study on Psalm 3. The precise meaning of the opening word of the superscription remains uncertain—j^X@n~m=l^, found in the superscriptions of 55 Psalms (also Hab 3:19). The root jxn probably originally had the sense of “shine, [be] bright”, but the verb is rather rare in the Old Testament, occurring (outside of the Psalter) primarily in post-exilic writings (Chronicles, Ezra) in the technical sense of one who serves in a position of prominence or leadership, in a supervisory or overseeing role. This has led most commentators over the years to assume that in the Psalms the participle jxnm refers to the person directing/conducting the performance of the composition—a translation like “(the one) directing” is probably as good as any. Its place in the superscription relates to the musical direction which follows, i.e. how the composition is to be performed; in other words, it would seem to reflect a rudimentary performing tradition. Here the instruction simply indicates “on/with string (instrument)s” [tonyg]n+B!].

Verse 2 [1]

The opening lines mark the Psalm as a prayer, or petition, to God; at least, that is the framing structure (vv. 2, 8-9 [1, 7-8]) of the song. The central section (vv. 3-6 [2-5]) provides the religious (and theological) context for the Psalmist’s petition, the first line of which is:

“In my calling (to you), answer me, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of my justice”

As always, in my translation, “Mighty (One)”/”Mightiest (One)” renders the Hebrew plural <yh!l)a$ used as a Divine title (i.e. Elohim), and typically translated “God”. The construct phrase “Mighty (One) of my justice” is a literal rendering of yq!d=x! yh@l)a$, though the expression “my justice” (yq!d=x!) is a bit ambiguous. In the construct syntax it could mean “my just/righteous God”, where the suffix serves as a possessive for the entire expression. However, much more likely is that it is essentially an object suffix, with the noun qd#x# here having a kind of verbal force—i.e., God as the One “working (out) justice for me”; the English “vindication” has been suggested as an appropriate rendering of qd#x# here (Dahood, p. 23). For a similar occurrence in the opening of a Psalm, see 17:1.

The initial phrase reads “In my calling, answer me”; this is often understood in a temporal sense and translated in English as “When I call…”, but this obscures the parallel with the second line, each line beginning with the preposition B= (“in…”). Let us see the two lines together:

“In my calling (to) you), answer me, Mighty (One) of my justice!
In (my) distress, you (shall) have made room for me:
Show favor (to) me and hear my petition!”

There is a chiastic structure at work here in these lines as well:

    • My calling
      • Answer me
        • (Precatory request): In my distress…
      • Show favor / hear me
    • My petition

In between the two imperatives (“answer…”, “hear…”) the core of the request is expressed by way of a precative perfect—i.e., a wish or request phrased in terms of something which has (already) been done. The verb is T*b=j^r=h!, a hiphil perfect form of bj^r*, “be open, large, wide”, the hiphil being a causative stem, “make large, make wide,” etc. It relates here conceptually to the noun rx^, which has the fundamental meaning of something narrow, tight, etc, which presses in on a person (i.e. “distress”). The expectation is that God will literally “make room” for the Psalmist, relieving and protecting him from the forces and difficulties which press on him. The royal setting suggested by the superscription (associating the Psalm with David) may well provide the (artistic, narrative) context for the conflict faced by the Psalmist, a possibility to be considered further below.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

As noted above, these lines, which form the central core of the Psalm, provide the religious and theological thrust of the work. It functions on two levels:

    1. A contrast between the true God and the (false) idols of pagan (Canaanite) religion
    2. A contrast between the Psalmist who remains loyal to the true God and those who have gone after “idols”, i.e. who do not worship YHWH in the proper manner

Within the structure of the Psalm itself, there are two Selah pauses in this section, creating an interesting division:

    • Challenge (in the form of a question) to those prominent men who do not remain loyal to YHWH (v. 3)
      Selah Pause
    • Exhortation to the people, in two parts:
      (i) Promise that YHWH will honor those who are faithful to him (v. 4)
      (ii) Exhortation to purity and repentance (v. 5)
      Selah Pause
    • Challenge (in terms of religious ritual) for people to remain loyal to YHWH (v. 6)

Let us consider the lines together:

“Sons of man—until what [i.e. how long] is my Honor (to be given) to insult?
(How long) will you love an empty (thing) and seek after a lie? Selah
You should know that YHWH does wonders (for the one) loyal to him—
(indeed) YHWH will hear (me) in my calling to him.
You should be disturbed and not (continue to) err—
Show (this) in your heart upon your lying down, and groan. Selah
Slaughter (sacrifice)s of justice and show trust unto YHWH!”

There are several points in these lines where the Hebrew makes translation difficult; it is almost as though the sense of conflict and challenge comes to be expressed through the wording and poetic syntax itself. Some commentators have suggested emending the Masoretic text in various ways, but, for the most part, that would not seem to be necessary. Let us consider each portion of this section briefly.

Verse 3 [2]. The expression “sons of man” (vya! yn@B=) probably has a dual meaning here: (1) as an echo of the common “son of man” (<d*a* /B#), i.e. mortal human being, in contrast to YHWH; (2) the vya! with the specific sense of a certain (prominent man), i.e. “sons of a (prominent) man”, distinguished or notable persons. Also potentially misleading is the expression yd!obK=, “my honor”. We saw in Psalm 3 how dobK* can be understood as a Divine title, i.e. “Honorable One”; here, however, the parallel is with the expression “my justice” in verse 2 [1] (cf. above). In that earlier expression, the significance was a reference to God as the One who works/establishes justice for the person loyal to Him; the sense is similar here—YHWH as the One bestowing honor/worth to those faithful to Him. In any event, the expression is to be read as a Divine title.

The situation, however, is that certain prominent people in Israel have treated YHWH in a shameful way, with insult (hM*l!K=) rather than honor. And what is the nature of this shameful insult? The words “empty (thing)” (qyr!) and “lie” (bz`K*) are almost certainly intended here as euphemisms for idolatry (non-Israelite ‘pagan’ religion), which, according to the tenets of Israelite monotheism (and Yahwism) can itself serve as a pejorative description of any improper religious practice or behavior. It need not always denote worship of other deities; however, if the background of the Psalm genuinely derives from the kingdom period (or even the time of David), then specific Canaanite beliefs and practices, widespread in the surrounding population, may well be meant.

Verse 4 [3]. The Psalmist sets himself in contrast to these ‘prominent men’, as one who is “good” (dys!j*) to YHWH, the adjective having the sense of being loyal (i.e. the king as a loyal vassal) to God. As a result of this loyalty, YHWH hears and responds to the Psalmist’s prayer. The verb alp (al*p=h!), found in some manuscripts, should be read instead of hlp (hl*p=h!); the reference to God doing wonders (i.e. answering prayer, in a powerful/miraculous fashion) better fits the context, and removes the need for any further emendation in the verse.

Verse 5 [4]. The syntax of these two lines is most difficult, and nearly impossible to render accurately into English. Some commentators advocate emending or re-ordering portions of the verse (e.g. Kraus, p. 144-5), however, I do not know that such a step is at all necessary. Consider, for example, the beautiful symmetry of the (Masoretic) Hebrew as we have it, especially in the second line (v. 5b):

WMd)w+ <k#b=K^v=m! lu <k#b=b^l=b! Wrm=a!

The symmetry is both rhythmic/alliterative and conceptual, as can be seen from the following chiastic outline:

    • Wrm=a! “show/speak” (imperative)
      • <k#b=b^l=b! “in your heart” (location)
        • lu^ “upon” (locative preposition)
      • <k#b=K^v=m! “your (place of) lying down” (location)
    • WMd) “groan/wail/weep” (imperative)

I find the first line (v. 5a) actually to be more difficult. What is the sense of the two verbs in sequence? Actually, there is a similar, though different, sort of symmetry involved in this line:

    • Wzg+r! “be disturbed” (imperative)
      • la^w+ “and (do) not”
    • Waf*j$T# “you will err/sin”

The conjunction and particle of negation connect the two verbs, establishing the relation between them:

    • “You must be disturbed”—that is, troubled in soul/spirit because of their “idolatry”; and, if this mindset is in place, leading to repentance, then:
    • “You will not [will no longer] err”—i.e. will not sin (lit. miss the mark)

The sense of repentance is vividly expressed by the image of weeping/wailing/groaning on one’s bed, an idiom found in both Canaanite (Ugaritic) literature and the Old Testament (Psalm 6:7 [6]; Gen 48:30).

Verse 6 [5]. This short line stands on its own—a 4-beat single colon, instead of the 4+4 bicolon format that characterizes the Psalm. It serves, I think, to summarize the section as a whole, making clear the precise nature of the religious failure of the ‘prominent men’. Their failure is characterized by the two elements in this line: (1) sacrificial offerings that are not right, and (2) failing to trust in YHWH. It is hard to say whether by this is meant sacrifices made to deities other than YHWH; much depends on whether the Psalm (and/or its background) is to be dated to the time of David (or otherwise the early kingdom period). In light of the later messages by the Prophets, the expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of justice” could be understood in terms of the prescribed sacrificial offerings in combination with the correct religious attitude and moral conduct (or lack thereof). In either case, there is definitely a ritual dimension at work—i.e. loyalty to YHWH expressed, in large measure, through sacrificial offerings. This loyalty here is defined in terms of “trust” (vb. jf^B*), probably with the sense of relying upon God as a trustworthy Sovereign, expressing confidence in Him. The language and idiom of vassalage is part of the royal ideological (and cultural) background in many of the Psalms, especially those associated with David; for more examples of this, cf. the previous studies on Psalm 2 and Psalm 3.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

These lines return to the petition framework of the Psalm (v. 2 [1]), and may elucidate the context of the Psalmist’s prayer (or, perhaps, to the historical/ritual background of it). A precise interpretation depends on how one understands the noun bof (“good”) in verse 7. Dahood, in his commentary (pp. 23, 25-26), argues that here the “good” from God refers specifically to the rains, and that the setting of the Psalm is a prayer for rain (possibly in time of drought). For an ancient agricultural (and pastoral) society, one need hardly point out the importance of rain—both the proper amount, and in its proper season. Nearly all of the material “good” in society depended upon the rain. The emphasis on the “increase” in grain and wine in verse 8 would seem to confirm this interpretation, especially in connection with other Scriptural parallels (e.g., Deut 28:12; Jer 7:25 [cp. 3:3; Amos 4:7]; Psalm 85:13). However, I would not simply translate bof as “rain” (as Dahood does), but allow the Psalm to explain itself:

“Many are saying ‘Who will make us see the good?
The light of your face has fled (from) upon us!’ YHWH
You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart
from the time (when) their grain and their wine multiplies.

There are couple of points of difficulty that should be mentioned. The first is the position of hwhy (YHWH)—does it belong to the end of verse 7 or the beginning of v. 8? This is especially important, if, as a number of commentators would argue, the MT hsn in v. 7b should be read as (and/or emended to) a form of either the verb sWn (“flee [from]”) or us^n` (“pull away [from]”); something of the sort would seem to fit the context, whereby the entirety of v. 7 represents the faithless words of the “many”. The mention of YHWH could be part of this (“the light of your face has fled from us, YHWH”); but just as easily it could be part of what follows: “YHWH, you shall give joy (to me) in my heart”. Even more difficult, it seems, is the syntax of verse 8. There are two components to this line, each of which makes fine sense in its own right:

    • “You (shall) give joy/happiness (to me) in my heart”
    • “Their grain and their wine multiplies/multiplied”

But how are these two statements related? The problem lies in the connecting word tu@m@, which, as parsed in the traditional MT, is apparently the noun tu@ (“time”) with the prefixed preposition /m! (“from”). Some would read this as a comparative, continuing the contrast from earlier in the Psalm:

“You give joy (to me) in my heart, more than (in the) time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

At best this seems most awkward. Dahood proposes that the mem (m) prefix actually is an enclitic particle that belongs to the previous word (“my heart”), and that tu represents the related time-adverb hT*u^ written defectively (cf. Psalm 74:6; Ezek 27:24). By parsing the initial verb in verse 8 as a (precative) perfect form, it casts the line in a petitionary form much in keeping with the earlier part of the prayer:

“You (shall) have given joy (to me) in my heart; and now, (let) their grain and wine multiply”

In my translation above, I have attempted to capture something of this same sense, while respecting the traditional form of the Masoretic text:

“You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart from the time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

Verse 9 [8] and Summary

If we take seriously two key elements of the Psalm—(1) the issue of idolatry and (2) the idea of rain as the “good” from God—it may be possible to surmise an underlying historical setting. Through much of Israel’s history, from its settlement in Palestine down through the kingdom period, the influence of Canaanite religious beliefs and practices was prevalent in the culture. Most notable were those related to the god Haddu (better known by his popular epithet “Master”, Ba’al [cf. my earlier article]), representing the power of the storm/rain and dispenser of the life-giving waters from the heavens. It is altogether conceivable, even probable, that worship of Baal-Haddu underlies the references to ‘idolatry’ in the Psalm. For many Israelites, especially in the early kingdom period (i.e. the time of David and Solomon), it would have been most tempting and natural to blend together Baal- and Yahweh-worship in different ways. This would have been entirely in keeping with syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in the Ancient Near East, and, indeed, we see evidence for it at numerous points in the Scriptural record of Israelite history. It is hard to explain the prevalence of Baal-worship elements in Israelite society, over such a long period of time—from at least the time of the Judges until the reforms of Josiah—without the power and appeal of such syncretism. And if, indeed, the background of Psalm 4 involves a prayer for rain (cf. above), in the face of the threat of drought, etc, it is easy enough to image many ‘prominent men’ in Israel turning to the Canaanite god with power over the rains, perhaps including him (along with YHWH?) in the sacrificial offerings.

Whether or not such a reconstruction is accurate, there can be no doubt that the Psalmist feels himself at odds with important segments of society, their ‘idolatry’ (in whatever form it took) being central to the “distress” he experiences. In contrast to their lack of faith/trust in YHWH, the Psalms sees himself as remaining loyal to the true God, and this loyalty is proven by the fact that YHWH answers his prayer. It is possible that we have here a kind of parallel to the famous contest between Elijah and the Israelite ‘priests’ of Baal-Haddu (1 Kings 18): those offering sacrifices to other deities (Baal?) will not receive any answer, but YHWH answers (bringing rain) to the one who remains loyal to Him. If the Psalmist is meant to reflect a royal figure (such as David), then it is likely that his prayer is on behalf of the people as a whole; embedded in the Psalm is the message—the hope and expectation—that they, too, will remain faithful to YHWH.

The promise of God’s blessing and protection extends into the final lines (v. 9), and is similar to the statement of trust expressed in Ps 3:6 [5]. We may translate this bicolon as follows:

“In peace I lie down all (alone) and I sleep,
for you alone [YHWH] make me sit secure.”

The basic idea is clear enough, though the specific wording creates some difficulty. The adverbial particle wD*j=y~ can be tricky to render into English. Essentially it means “as one” or “at one”, sometimes in a comprehensive sense (“all together”) or in a temporal sense indicating suddenness (“at once”, etc). Here it is probably meant as a parallel to dd*B* (as an adverb) in the second line:

    • wD*j=y~ “all (alone)”, referring to the Psalmist
    • dd*b*l= “separately, alone”, i.e. by himself, referring to YHWH

Dahood (p. 27) suggests the possibility that wdjy here derives from the relatively rare Semitic (Canaanite) root µdw/µdy, “see, (be) visible”, and that it is functioning as a substantive for the appearance/manifestation of YHWH, parallel to “light of (his) face” in v. 7. It is an intriguing suggestion, but seemingly hard to square with the text as we have it, unless corruption occurred as the original word (and its meaning) was lost in the process of transmission.

The parallelism in the verse continues:

    • hb*K=v=a# “I (will) lie down”, i.e. to sleep
    • yn]b@yv!oT “you make me sit”, i.e. rest, dwell
      and, further
    • <olv*B= “in peace”
    • jf^b#l* “with trust/security”, i.e. safe, secure

Though hard to preserve in translation, the noun jf^b# is related to the verb jf^b* in v. 6; the root fundamentally means “trust (in), rely (on)”, but its range of meaning includes the idea of safety and security—i.e. the security which God provides is the basis for our trust in Him. We have here a beautiful image of complete trust and reliance on YHWH, a model of covenant loyalty, exemplified by the ruler (and/or the Psalmist) and intended as an exhortation for all the people.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1 Teilband (Psalmen 1-59), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 3

Psalm 3

This is the first entry in the Psalter (following the customary order) which begins with a superscription, which for the Psalms typically contain an indication of subject/author and a musical instruction. According to the Hebrew verse numbering, the superscription counts as the first verse, while in most English versions it is regarded as part of the verse. In such instances, I will be utilizing the Hebrew numbering, but with the English numbering in parentheses.

Verse 1

The superscription marks this work as romz+m! (mizmôr) which simply means a musical composition, often specifically one that is sung. It is also said to be dw]d*l= (l®d¹wid), which would be “(belonging) to David”, either in the sense of being written/composed by him or, that he is considered to be the subject of the work. This setting of the song (according to the superscription) is David’s flight during the rebellion by his son Absalom (cf. 2 Samuel 15-18). The historical reliability of these traditional notices is disputed by commentators; generally, it does seem that they reflect attempts to place a particular Psalm into the context of a specific Scriptural narrative, one which fits the overall mood and tone of the work. Critical scholars regard the superscriptions as traditional, but quite secondary to the Psalms themselves; even among traditional-conservative commentators, few would treat the superscriptions as part of the original (inspired) text.

Verses 2-3 (ET 1b-2)

The tone of lament, which, of course, would suit the situation of David indicated in the superscription, comes through clearly in the opening lines, in which the root bbr (“to be many”) appears three times. This sets the lone Psalmist against his “many” opponents and enemies; whether this reflects an historical reality or poetic hyperbole is impossible to say. In any case, it is to God (YHWH) that the Psalmist raises his lament to ask for deliverance:

“YHWH, how many they are [WBr^], the (one)s hostile to me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s standing up against me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s showing (hostility) to my soul!
—There (seems to be) no help for him with the Mightiest [i.e. God]!”

The sense of these lines is straightforward, with one notable exception which affects the specific meaning (and translation) of the passage. In the third line, we have the participle <yr!m=a), from the verb rm^a*, which is typically translated “say, speak”. Following this standard interpretation, the fourth line reflects what the “many” say to the Psalmist (to “his soul”), as a taunt: “There is no help for him with God!”. However, the original, fundamental meaning of the Semitic root rma had more to do with making something visible (“shine, show”), from which came the idea of making something known through speaking. Admittedly, this earlier meaning of rma is not attested much in the Hebrew of the Old Testament; however, poetry often preserves older/archaic usage, and that may be the case in a number of Psalms. Dahood (p. 16) cites examples where he feels rma has the meaning of “see, look (at)” rather than “say”; perhaps the most relevant example is from Ps 71:10, where rma is set parallel to rmv (“watch”) in a construction very close to that here in Ps 3:

“My enemies say/show [Wrm=a*] to me, and the (one)s watching my soul [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)] take counsel as one [i.e. together]”

This suggests that, in these instances, rma may indeed have the sense of looking at someone (with hostile intent). I have tried to capture both possibilities by rendering the participle <yr!m=a) as “(one)s showing (hostility)”. According to this interpretation, the fourth line would not necessarily record the words of the “many”, but could simply reflect the apparent hopelessness of the situation.

Verses 4-5 (ET 3-4)

In these lines, the Psalmist’s hope is restored by reflecting on the character of YHWH—as a Ruler who has proven that he will protect and reward his loyal vassals. It begins with an address to YHWH (v. 4 [3], continuing from vv. 2-3 [1b-2]), then shifts to an objective declaration of His character:

“And (yet) you, YHWH, are (my) Protection (round) about me,
my Honorable [lit. Weighty] (One), and (the one) lifting my head (up) high.
(When) I should call out with my voice to YHWH,
(then) indeed he answers me from (the) mountain of his Holiness.
Selah

Verse 4 (3) utilizes three idioms related to the language of royalty and suzerain-vassal relations:

    • /g@m*, a noun derived from the root /ng (“surround, protect”); it is often translated “shield”, but is better rendered according to its basic meaning (“protection”), perhaps as an honorific attribute of the ruler (i.e. Protector, Defender)
    • dobK*, a noun derived from db^K*, fundamentally referring to something with weight, i.e. value, worth, etc. It refers to the honor (and honorable/noble character) of the ruler, including the authority he possesses to bestow honor on others (cf. Psalm 84:12 [11]). The specific epithet “(my) honorable (one)” as a Divine title, is found in Pss 4:3 [2]; 62:8 [7]; 66:2 (Dahood, p. 18).
    • yv!ar) <yr!m@ (“[the] one lifting/raising my head high”)—to “lift the head” or “lift the face” is an ancient Near Eastern idiom, referring to one in a position of authority who shows favor to a subordinate.

If the Psalmist affirms YHWH’s status as a trustworthy and honorable Ruler in verse 4, he publicly affirms His faithfulness again in v. 5. I would agree with commentators who take this as a conditional sentence, one which demonstrates YHWH’s faithfulness. When a person calls out to YHWH (as the Psalmist is doing), He will answer, responding to the request. We ought to read here the same Ruler-Vassal language of v. 4 and understand the condition as referring to the request of a loyal vassal (e.g. David, in the purported setting of the Psalm). Moreover, the wording “call out with my voice” is presumably meant to indicate the intensity of the situation—the earnestness of the Psalmist, as well as his desperation. The sacred-mountain locale of the Deity is common, especially in the Semitic world where the Creator God °El/Ilu was typically seen as dwelling on (or in) a great Mountain-Tent. The Canaanite sky/storm deity Haddu (i.e. “Baal”) also had a mountain dwelling. Typically, a specific mountain which came to be associated with the deity was based on actual geographic circumstances—but any mountain could fill this role, even a modest hill such as that of Zion/Jerusalem. The mountain was foremost the dwelling place of God (El/YHWH).

This is the first Psalm (in the standard Psalter) with the musical notation Selah (hl*s#). Both the etymology and technical meaning of this term remain uncertain; presumably in the Psalms it refers to some kind of musical refrain, either instrumental or choral.

Verses 6-7 (ET 5-6)

The assurance of the Psalmist in verse 5 [4] receives even greater expression in these lines, with the answer/response of YHWH cast in more personal terms, according to the needs of the Ruler’s loyal vassal (the Psalmist/David):

“(When) I should lie down and sleep, (then) I wake (again), for YHWH rests (his hand on) me.
I will not fear from the multitudes of people placed around against me.”

Verse 6 [5] is probably best read as another conditional sentence, on the pattern of v. 5 [4]; it shows that YHWH’s protection extends even to the times when his vassal is asleep. We should assume here a setting of sleeping/waking in the midst of being surrounded by enemies, a situation which is made clear again in the following line. The verb Em^s* (“lay/lean [on], hold, support”) here is a bit tricky to translate; probably the sense is twofold: (a) of God laying his hand down on the sleeping Psalmist (as protection); and (b) as support under and around him. The idea of full protection all around is implied; indeed, this is the reason why the Psalmist does not fear the enemies surrounding him. The noun hb*b*r= (“multitude”) is related to the same root bbr used in vv. 2-3 (cf. above). However, there is a separate roor bbr which means “shoot (arrows)”, and it is possible that here the expression <u* tobb=r!m@ means something like “(groups of) arrows of the people” which surround the Psalmist. We see this idiom elsewhere in Scripture, most notably in Job 16:13, but there may also be two occurrences in the Psalms. In Psalm 89:51 [50], we read:

“Remember, my Lord, the scorn of your servants,
I carry (with)in my chest the <yB!r^ of the peoples”

Here <yB!r^ as “arrows” (i.e. things shot at him) makes much more sense than “many/multitudes”. Also worth noting is Ps 18:44 [43]:

“You have brought me out (away) from the <yb!yr! of the people”

Here, in the Masoretic text, the noun in question appears to be derived from the root byr! (“strive, contend, dispute”), with the expression <u* yb@yr!m@ meaning something like “from the strife/disputes of the people”. However, again the reading “from the ‘arrows’ of the people”—i.e., the scorn/taunts as something “shot” like arrows by the people—would make equally good sense, and would only require a general repointing of the consonental text. Cf. Dahood, p. 19.

Verses 8-9 (ET 7-8)

Verse 8 [7] the Psalmist returns to the immediacy of his dire situation, calling out to YHWH to act on his behalf:

“Stand up, YHWH, save me, my Mighty (One) [i.e. God]!
That you (would) have struck all my enemies (on the) jaw,
(and would) have broken the teeth of (the) wicked (one)s!”

The verbs in the first line are imperative forms, urging YHWH to take action. The verbs in the next two lines are perfect forms, and are almost certainly to be understood as precative perfects—i.e. what the Psalmist would have God do as though it already has been accomplished. The request is made in graphic, almost gruesome terms—breaking the jaws of the enemies and shattering their teeth—symbolic of a humiliating defeat at YHWH’s hands. According to Israelite (royal) theology, even if the defeat occurs through military action, it is still seen as God’s own work on behalf of his people, and his loyal vassal the king (David). The closing line of the Psalm serves as a final refrain, calling on God (YHWH) to save his people:

“Salvation, O YHWH!—Your blessing be upon your people.”

The prefixed preposition (l) may serve as a vocative marker (hw`hyl^, “O YHWH”), and that is how I have translated it here; otherwise the phrase would mean “Salvation (belongs) to YHWH”. It seems more likely that here it is a general call to YHWH for salvation/deliverance. Actually the petition is two-fold:

    • bring salvation (to the Psalmist) in his time of need, and
    • bring blessing (hk*r*B=) to the people as a whole

This second line, especially, forms a doxology to the Psalm which is quite similar to that of Psalm 2 (cf. the previous study):

“(The) happiness of all (the one)s taking refuge in Him [i.e. in YHWH]”

The general pattern which this establishes between the first two Psalms (2 and 3) is instructive. In each instance, we have a poem/song which draws upon Israelite royal tradition and theology. The first (Psalm 2) is rooted in the tradition of the coronation/enthronement of the new king; the second (Psalm 3) purports to come from a setting in the life of David (as king). However, each utilizes royal language and imagery which expresses the idea of the king as the faithful vassal of YHWH, ruling under His favor and protection. By the time these Psalms took on definite written form, and certainly by the time the Psalter was put together, the royal traditions had been re-interpreted and applied to the Israelite/Judean people as a whole. Most likely this took place under the influence of Wisdom traditions, such as those expressed in the opening Psalm 1 (cf. the initial study). Long after the monarchy effectively ceased to exist, Israelite and Jews—collectively and individually—could identify with the Psalmist. All of the themes and motifs from the earlier royal theology take on new meaning—trust in YHWH, the favor and protection he provides, deliverance from surrounding enemies, etc.—these all now apply more directly to the people‘s relationship with God. We will see this dynamic repeated numerous times as we proceed through these studies.

Interestingly, despite the royal/Davidic setting, there is no real evidence that Psalm 3 was ever interpreted or applied in a Messianic sense; this differs markedly from Psalm 2, as we saw.

Also, for those interested, I made no mention above of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the simple reason that Psalm 3 is not preserved among the surviving manuscripts of the Psalter. This is unfortunate, as it may have elucidated one or two textual points discussed above.

Textual Note on Psalm 2:12

Textual Note on Psalm 2:12

(This note is supplemental to the current study on Psalm 2)

The difficulties surrounding the last two words of verse 11 and the first two of verse 12 have led many commentators to believe that the Hebrew text as it has come down to us (i.e. the Masoretic Text [MT]) is corrupt in one or both places. Especially awkward is the expression “kiss the son”, the customary rendering of the MT rb-wqvn. While this might be appealing to Christians in terms of devotion to Jesus (the Son), for many, if not most, critical commentators today, the presence of the Aramaic word rB^ here seems quite out of place. Just once elsewhere in the entire Hebrew Bible (Prov 31:2) do we find the Aramaic rB^ used, instead of the Hebrew /B# (“son”); indeed, the normal Hebrew word was used earlier in this very Psalm (v. 7). That the text here proved difficult even in ancient times, is indicated by the various ways v. 12 was rendered by the early translations.

The Aramaic Targums, often highly interpretive and paraphrastic translations, here at verse 12 have an`p*l=Wa WlyB!q^ (“receive instruction”). Whether this reflects a different underlying Hebrew, or simply an interpretive rendering, is unclear; it may have been influenced by the use of the Hebrew adjective rB^ (cf. below) in Psalm 19:9. In any case, this line of translation/interpretation was followed by the Septuagint (dra/casqe paidei/a$), and entered into the Latin Vulgate (apprehendite disciplinam). Other early translators understood rB^ to be a different (Hebrew) word, derived from the root rrb (meaning to be bright, shining, often in the sense of “pure, clean”), either as a substantive adjective or an adverb. The latter results in the meaning of the expression being something like “worship purely”, which is reflected in the Greek versions of Aquila and Symmachus, and the Latin of Jerome (adorate pure, cf. the Vulgate “B” text). Unfortunately, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide no help in this instance, since verse 12 is not preserved in either of the Psalms manuscripts (11QPsc and 3QPs) which contain Psalm 2. We are left to grapple with the Masoretic Text, comparing it with the ancient Versions.

There are a number of solutions to the apparent textual difficulty in verse 12, reflecting various degrees of confidence in the Masoretic Text (MT)—the consonantal text and/or the vocalization provided by the Masoretes. Let us consider each of them in turn.

1. Some traditional-conservative commentators are willing to take the MT as it stands, and would explain the peculiarity of the Aramaic (rB^ instead of /B#) as an accommodation to avoid the awkwardness and potential confusion (when reciting the text) of having two similar-sounding words in sequence: /P# /B# (ben pen). The viability of this solution is difficult to judge, since, as far as I am aware, this is the only instance in the Old Testament Scriptures where the two words would have occurred in close proximity. It does not resolve the awkwardness of the expression “kiss the son” in the overall context of verses 10-12, which otherwise appear to refer primarily to the nations’ response to YHWH (not the king).

2. Other commentators would follow Aquila, Jerome, etc, in understanding rB^ not as the Aramaic word, but as the Hebrew adjective (or adverb) derived from the root rr^B* (cf. above). It could be read either as a substantive adjective (i.e., “[the] pure [one]”) or adverb (“purely”), the former being much more likely. This would require no modification of the Masoretic Text, and would have much the same general sense as solution #1—i.e., as a reference to the king, presumably, as the “pure” (or “bring/shining”) one. There may be some basis for such an epithet for the king, based on earlier (cognate) use of the root rrb in Canaanite (Ugaritic).

3. A solution introduced in the early 20th century (by A. Bertholet) would view the MT here in vv. 11-12 as corrupt, the four words (last two of v. 11 and first two of v. 12) having become scrambled. The emendation would involve primarily the word order (and separation):

    • MT (vocalized txt): rB^-WqV=n~ hd*u*rB! WlyG]w+
    • MT (consonantal): rb wqvn hdurb wlygw
    • Emendation [CT]: wylgrb wqvn hdurb
    • Emendation [VT]: wyl*g+r^b= WqV=n~ hd*u*rB!

The Masoretic text (“…circle round with trembling. Kiss the son…”) has been modified to read “With trembling kiss his feet”. See how this would fit in the context of vv. 10-12:

10(So) at (this) time, you should act with intelligence, (you) kings,
(and) receive correction, (you) judges of the earth!
11Serve YHWH with fear,
and with trembling 12kiss His feet,
lest He flare (His) nostrils [i.e. become angry] and you perish (in your) path,
for his nostrils start burning in little (time) [i.e. quickly]!”

A number of distinguished commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld/Zenger) have adopted this emendation, and it is used in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation, among others.

4. Dahood [D], in his provocative Commentary, offers a different solution, one which preserves the consonantal text (and word order) of the MT; he simply parses the letters differently (ignoring matres lectiones, i.e. letters used for vowels):

    • MT: rb wqvn (rB^ WqV=n~, “kiss the son”)
    • [D]: rbq vn (rb#q* yv@n+, “men of the grave”)

where <yv!n` (“men”) is short for <yv!n`a&. He draws upon similar expressions such as “man of death”, “sons of death” (1 Kings 2:26; 1 Sam 26:16), and understands it in the sense of “mortal men”, i.e. men who are destined for the grave. To see how this alters the emphasis of vv. 10-12, I insert his rendering into my translation of vv. 10-12 above:

10(So) at (this) time, you should act with intelligence, (you) kings,
(and) receive correction, (you) judges of the earth!
11Serve YHWH with fear,
and go around with trembling,
12(you) men of the grave,
lest He flare (His) nostrils and you perish (in your) path,
for his nostrils start burning in little (time) [i.e. quickly]!”

The expression “men of the grave” would then be parallel with “kings” and “judges of the earth”, adding to the polemic of the passage as a warning to the surrounding rulers who might be planning revolt at the accession of the new/young Israelite king. Dahood’s proposed solution is most intriguing, if a bit too speculative to adopt outright.

How should honest and sincere students of Scripture deal with such complex textual questions? While the Masoretic Text must be respected, blind adherence to it is certainly no virtue, especially when this extends to the vocalization of the consonantal text. Is to be regretted that Ps 2:11-12 is not among the preserved Scripture manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls; if it were, we may well have a definitive solution to the question at hand. Perhaps the best approach is to bring together and integrate three different aspects, or points of emphasis, in the Psalm which are reflected in the main solutions outlined above:

    1. The (new) Israelite king as the “son” (in a symbolic sense) of YHWH. This is the point made, of course, in verse 7f, and it drives home the central tenet of the Israelite royal theology: the special status of Israel’s ruler in relation to God (YHWH), who provides Divine power and protection on his behalf. The Masoretic text of v. 12, as customarily rendered, reflects this theological emphasis—to “serve YHWH with fear” means that one also must do homage to the Israelite king (“kiss the son”).
    2. The proposed emendation (solution #3 above) enhances the exhortation (and warning) for the rulers of the surrounding nations to serve YHWH the God of Israel. While this includes showing proper homage to the Israelite king, the emphasis in vv. 10-12 is rather on what it means to rebel against the king—it is the same as rebelling against YHWH Himself! This is why vv. 10-12 focus on the need to treat YHWH with the respect He deserves; the danger for not doing so is grave indeed. Thus the emphatic parallelism of vv. 11-12a (according to the emended text): “Serve YHWH with fear, (and) with trembling kiss His feet”.
    3. Dahood’s alternate parsing/division of the first two words of v. 12 gives to the entirety of vv. 10-12 a three-fold parallelism which is most attractive, even though it creates a tension in the rhythm of the lines. It enhances, vividly and dramatically, the warning/exhortation to the rulers of the surrounding nations (and to the nations as a whole). Note the structure of the parallelism:
      • act with intelligence
        • you kings—i.e. the rulers of the surrounding nations
      • receive correction
        • you judges of the earth—i.e. what you think yourselves to be
      • serve YHWH with fear
        go around with trembling
        • you men of the grave—i.e. what you ultimately are, mortals in the face of God

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1-59 (English translation Fortress Press: 1993 [Continental Commentary]).
Those marked “Hossfeld/Zenger” are to F.-L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger, Die Psalmen: Psalm 1-50, Die Neue Echter Bibel: Kommentar zum Alten Testament mit der Einheitsübersetzung (Echter Verlag: 1993).