Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 86 (Part 2)

Psalm 86, continued

Part 2: Verses 8-13

(For Part 1, see the previous study.)

Verse 8

“There is none like you among the Mighty (one)s,
my Lord, and there is no(thing) like your works!”

This second section of the Psalm shifts from a prayer to a hymn in praise of YHWH. The focus in the initial verse is the familiar theme of the incomparability of YHWH—His uniqueness and superiority over every other god or divine being. This reflects the qualified monotheism of Israelite religion in the period of the Judges and the (early) Kingdom period. YHWH’s incomparability is expressed, in each line, by the use of the negative particle /y]a^, which typically has a privative force, indicating absence or lack. This particle tends to function as a substantive verbal element (or as an adverb), with the meaning “there is no…”.

I have presented the verse as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, but it might be more accurate to treat it as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, which better brings out the chiastic parallelism:

    • “There is no one like you
      • among the Mighty (one)s, my Lord,
    • and there is no(thing) like your works”
Verse 9

“All (the) nations that you have made
shall come and shall bow down
before your face, O my Lord,
and shall give weight to your name.”

Metrically, I parse this verse as a slightly irregular (3+2+2+2) quatrain; dividing it into a quatrain with primarily 2-beat lines fits the rhythm/meter of the Psalm as a whole.

The nations are here regarded as among the great “works” of YHWH (“that you have made”). His supremacy lies principally in the fact that He is the supreme Creator—who created all of humankind, the nations and their people. For this reason, all the nations should recognize and acknowledge Him as the Mightiest and Greatest One; worship of YHWH should not be limited to the Israelite people alone. The verse speaks of a future time with the nations will come and bow down before YHWH. This is an important theme in the Prophetic writings of the exilic and post-exilic periods. In these prophetic poems and oracles, it is envisioned that representatives of the nations will come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the (restored) Israelite/Judean kingdom; in the process, they will acknowledge and worship Israel’s God, YHWH. See, for example, Isaian passages such as 2:1-4 (par Mic 4:1-5); 42:1-6ff; 49:6-7, 22-23; 56:6-8; 60:3-16; 66:12ff, 18-21; the close of the book of Zechariah (14:16-21) contains an especially notable prophecy on this theme.

In the final line, the verb db^K* (Piel, “give weight, make heavy”) is used in its typical figurative sense of “give honor”, i.e., considering (someone) worthy or of value. The nations will give honor to YHWH’s name, which implies a ritual or symbolic honoring of YHWH Himself. On the relation of a person’s name to the person, in ancient Near Eastern thought, cf. the introduction to my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

Dahood (II, p. 294) gives an interesting alternative reading of this verse, treating the relative particle rv#a& as conditional, and thus rendering the first line as a conditional clause: “When you act, the nations will come…”.

Verse 10

“For great you (are indeed),
and a worker of wonders—
you, O Mightiest—you alone!”

The Psalmist takes over the worship of YHWH now, in the present, acknowledging His greatness (adj. lodG`). There is emphatic force to the initial particle yK!, and it would be possible (but not necessary) to translate the line as “how great you (are)”. YHWH’s works (v. 8) include creation (i.e., of humankind and the nations, v. 9), but also the wonders (toal*p=n]) He has performed—specifically, on behalf of His people during their history. Through these supernatural and miraculous deeds, YHWH also shows Himself to be incomparable, and far superior to all other deities (“you alone”, ;D#b^l=).

Metrically, I take this verse to be an irregular 2+2+3 tricolon. If one were to combine verses 9 and 10 together, there would be a sequence of five 2-beat lines bracketed by a pair of 3-beat lines. Thematically and poetically, it would be possible to combine the verses in this way.

Verse 11

“Direct me, O YHWH, in your way,
(that) I may walk in firmness for you only,
(with) my heart fearing your name.”

Embedded in this hymnic section, is a separate prayer-request by the Psalmist to YHWH. He asks God to “direct” him on the path. The verb hr*y` denotes throwing or shooting (an arrow, etc), often in the symbolic or figurative sense of showing a direction; in association with the ethical-religious motif of a path (in which one must ‘walk’), this idea of pointing a direction essentially means “instruct, teach”. Such a meaning of the verb is embedded in the derived noun hr*oT (i.e., “instruction”).

The Psalmist wishes to walk in “firmness” (tm#a#) on the path—that is, firmly, with a sure step, showing himself faithful and trustworthy as a follower of YHWH. The noun tm#a# can also connote truthfulness. I have chosen to vocalize djy in line 2 as the adverb dj^y~, rather than the MT dj@y~ (imperative of the verb dj^y`). I translate it as “alone, only”, parallel with dbl in v. 10—that is, the Psalmist wishes to be faithful to YHWH alone, even as he acknowledges that YHWH alone is the Mightiest One. However, it would also be possible to translate the adverb here as “altogether” (i.e., completely).

As I interpret the verse, metrically it is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 12

“I will throw you, my Lord (and) Mightiest,
(praise) with all of my heart,
and will give your name weight for ever!”

I view verse 12 as being dependent upon the Psalmist’s request in v. 11—i.e., “Instruct me…(and then) I will throw you praise…”; however, for poetic concision I have omitted a glossed “then” from the beginning of the first line. There is a parallelism between the opening verbs of vv. 11 and 12: both (hr*y`, hd*y`) essentially mean “throw” —as YHWH “throws” direction to the Psalmist (i.e., instructs him), then he, in turn, will “throw” praise to YHWH. For a musician-composer, praise in song is an especially appropriate means by which to show one’s gratitude. On the idiom of “giving weight” (vb db^K*) to God’s name, cf. above on verse 9; as the nations will all come to worship and honor YHWH’s name in the future, so the Psalmist, being among the righteous/faithful ones of Israel, does so now in the present.

The final word <l*oul= is a prepositional expression that literally means “into/unto (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here more conventionally, as “forever”. Metrically, this verse, again, is irregular, being a 3+2+3 tricolon; it is also possible to read it as an extended 4+3 bicolon, which would represent more precisely the poetic parallelism in the verse. Eliminating either yn]d)a& (“my Lord”) or yh^l)a$ (“my Mighty [One]”, i.e., my God) from the first line would tighten the rhythm, and would make a couplet format more tenable.

Verse 13

“For (indeed) your goodness is great over me,
and you shall snatch me from Še’ôl below!”

The first line of verse 13 echoes that of v. 10 (cf. above), as the Psalmist declares that YHWH’s goodness (ds#j#) is great (lodG`), even as earlier he declared that YHWH Himself was great. The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”; however, as I have discussed repeatedly, in the context of a covenant-bond, it frequently connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”, and so it does regularly throughout the Psalms. YHWH is loyal to the binding agreement (covenant) with His people, and, when they are faithful and loyal as well, He is obligated (as the Sovereign) to provide blessings and protection.

This protection includes deliverance from danger and threat of death, whether by human adversary or illness/disease, etc. The danger to the Psalmist here is described in terms of being pulled down into Še’ôl (loav=), a term used frequently in the Psalms (and on which cf. my earlier note). The verb lx^n` (“snatch away,” i.e., out of danger) also occurs often in the Psalms.

This allusion to danger provides a transition to the final section of the Psalm, which returns to the prayer-petition emphasis of section 1, but with a stronger tone of lament.

Metrically, this verse is a 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Part 3: Verses 14-17

Verse 14

“O Mightiest, boiling (one)s stand against me,
and a meeting of terrible (one)s seeks my Soul—
indeed, they do not set you in front of them!”

Typical of the lament-sections of the Psalms is this opening reference to a group of nameless adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. While the specific motif may be widespread, the adjectives used to describe the adversaries here are less common. The first, dz@, literally means “boiling (over),” in a negative sense—whether boiling over with rage, or with pride, etc; it occurs 8 times in the Psalms (out of 13 in the OT), but 6 of these are in Ps 119; the only other occurrence is in 19:14 [13]. The second adjective, Jyr!u*, means “terrible, terrifying”, often implying the threat or possibility of violence. Elsewhere in the Psalms, this adjective occurs only in 37:35 and 54:5 [4].

The final line identifies these opponents as unquestionably wicked—they do not set YHWH “in front of them”, as their God and Sovereign. This distinguishes the wicked from the righteous, and is main the reason why the wicked desire to attack and harm the righteous.

Verse 15

“But you, my Lord, (are)
Mighty of love and favor,
long in (your) nostrils,
and Great of goodness and trust.”

This verse is a tight 2-beat quatrain—or, we might say, a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, with an introductory line. The introductory line addresses YHWH: “But you, my Lord…”. The remaining three lines describe the attributes and characteristics of YHWH. Lines two and four are parallel, framing the description:

    • “Mighty of | love | and favor”
    • “Great of | goodness | and trust”

The parallel terms la@ and br^ can either be viewed as construct adjectives (“mighty of…”, “great of…”), or as comparable substantives functioning as Divine titles (“Mighty [One] of…”, “Great [One] of…”). Both approaches are entirely valid. The term <Wjr* denotes the possession and/or exhibiting of a deep love; it is comparable to the parallel noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness, devotion”). There is a similar parallel between /WNj^ (“[showing] favor”) and tm#a# (“firmness,” spec. the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness). All of these terms essentially allude to YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant-bond with His people, and to the blessings which He provides. For poetic concision (required by the short 2-beat lines), I have simplified and shortened these terms in the translation above.

The third line (and the central line of the tricolon) contains a distinctive Hebrew idiom. The expression is “long of nostrils” (<y]P^a^ Er#a#), referring to the nostrils (their burning, flaring) as a symbolic expression of anger. Thus to be long in one’s nostrils is the opposite of being “short” in them—that is, one is not quick to anger. The expression connotes the idea of patience, and is often translated (not inappropriately) as “longsuffering”; many translations render the expression as “slow to anger”.

The sequence of phrases and attributes here in v. 15 echoes the famous proclamation in Exodus 34:6 (cf. also Num 14:18; Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:3; Jonah 4:2; Nehemiah 9:17).

Verse 16

“(So) turn to me and show me favor!
Give (now) strength to your servant,
and give safety to (the) son of your trust!”

Since YHWH is Mighty in showing favor (/WNj^, v. 15), the Psalmist, in his time of need, calls on YHWH now to show him favor (vb /n~j*). The related call for God to “turn” (vb hn`P*) to the Psalmist is another way of asking Him to hear and answer his prayer (cf. on vv. 1, 6 in the previous study). The prayer would be answered if/when YHWH protects and rescues the Psalmist from his enemies, and from the danger that threatens him (v. 13, cf. above). Here, this protection is described by the parallel actions of “give strength” (vb /t^n` + zu)) and “give safety/salvation” (vb uv^y` Hiphil). In protecting/rescuing the Psalmist, the “strength” that YHWH gives is His own (“your strength”).

Again, it is important to remember of the covenantal context of the language in this petition. The Psalmist can request (and expect) Divine protection, because he has been faithful to the covenant-bond, and so YHWH (as Sovereign) is obligated to provide protection. The Psalmist’s loyalty is here indicated by the parallel expressions “your servant” and “son of your firmness” (i.e., your faithful son). Almost certainly, the MT is incorrect in the vocalization of the final word ;t#m*a& (“your maidservant [?]”); it should be vocalized ;T#m!a& (“your firmness”, cf. Dahood, II, p. 296), echoing the use of tm#a# in verse 11 (cf. above) and the final line of v. 15. As previous noted, tm#a# connotes faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness; for poetic concision, I have translated it above in the line as “trust” (“son of your trust,” i.e., your trustworthy son).

Verse 17

“Make with me a sign of (your) good (favor),
and let (those) hating me see (it) and be shamed!
(Oh,) that you, YHWH,
would help me and comfort me!”

The Psalmist here further asks that there be some “sign” (toa) that accompanies the act of rescue by YHWH—a clear indication that it was YHWH who did this good thing (hb*of), and that the reason why the Psalmist was delivered was that he was shown favor by God. Upon seeing this sign, the Psalmist’s enemies will come to shame (vb vWB).

The Psalm concludes with a terse renewed plea by the Psalmist, calling on YHWH to give him help (vb rz~u*) and comfort (vb <j^n`). It is best to treat these perfect verb forms as precative perfects, expressing the Psalmist wish (and expectation) for what will happen. In this regard, the yK! particle should be read as emphatic and exclamatory—i.e., “Oh, that…!”.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

Spirit in the Qumran Texts: 1QH 6:19-33

1QH 6

(Unless otherwise noted, the translations of 1QH are my own.)

It is possible that the hymn beginning at line 12 of column V (cf. the previous notes) continues on into column VI. It has been suggested that the hymn extends through 6:18, or even through line 33 (cf. the discussion by the editors in DJD XL, pp. 77-8, 88-90); however, it may be better to treat 6:19-33 as a separate hymn. In any case, many of the themes in column V continue in column VI; the poems certainly share a number of features and aspects in common.

The difficulty in determining the division of the hymns stems, in large part, from the missing lines (1-11) at the beginning of column VI. Lines 12-18 emphasize once again that those righteous persons, who are able to obtain wisdom and understanding, do so through the mercy and favor of God. There is a strong predestinarian orientation to the Qumran Community, which is expressed here in the Hodayot, in a number of the hymns.

Those who receive the inspired revelation from God are described as “men of truth and the chosen (one)s of righteousness” (line 13); they are characterized by virtues that reflect the fundamental attributes of God Himself, being enabled to pursue wisdom and understanding by God’s spirits: “[(those) searching for insight and seeking understanding […] (the one)s loving compassion and (those) lowly [i.e. humble] of spirit…” (lines 13-14). Through God’s favor—His guidance and protection, given through His spirits—the chosen ones are able to remain faithful to the end, even in the face of affliction and persecution (lines 15-18).

The section (or separate hymn, cf. above) that begins at line 19, opens with a blessing (to God) which makes clear, again, that the ability possessed by the righteous/faithful ones is given to them by God:

“[Blessed are you,] my Lord, the (One) giving [i.e. placing] understanding in (the) heart of your servant, (for him) to gain insight in(to) all these (thing)s, and to have under[standing of…], and to hold himself (firm) against (wicked) deeds, and to bless with rightness all (those) choosing (what is) pleasing to you, [to choose all th]at you love and to abhor all that [you hate]…” (lines 19-21f)

As we have seen, elsewhere in these hymns the same wording from line 9 is used with a Divine spirit (j^Wr) as the object of God’s giving (4:29; 5:36) . The virtue or attribute (here “understanding”, hn`yB!), defined abstractly, can also be personified dynamically as an active spirit. The hymnist could just as well have used the expression “spirit of understanding” (cp. “spirit of knowledge” in line 36). It is thus a gift from God that enables the chosen one to have wisdom and understanding, and to resist the evil influences that lead humans to wickedness. Human begins must choose (vb rh^B*) between what is pleasing to God and what He despises/abhors, but only through the favor and guidance of God is one able to make the right choice (on a regular basis).

The deterministic emphasis, in this regard, is expressed quite clearly in line 22f:

“You have given your servant insight in(to) [… (the) lo]ts of humankind, for (according) to (the) mouth of (the) spirits you made (the lot) fall for them between good and evil, [and] you have established…”

In the expression “mouth of (the) spirits” (twjwr yp), the noun hP# (“mouth”) is presumably used in the abstract sense of “measure, portion”. The idea seems to be that the spirits have been measured/portioned out to different people (cp. the similar wording, applied to Jesus, in John 3:34), so that they will incline toward either the good or the evil. As we have seen, according to the thought-world of the Qumran hymns, there are both good and evil spirits that influence human beings, with people being trapped between the two forces. By nature, the spirit/nature of a human being (“spirit of flesh”) is corrupt, being ruled by a perverting spirit (“spirit of crookedness”). It requires a special gift/favor by God in order to enable a human being to be faithful and righteous. The protagonist of the hymn describes this very dynamic:

“And I (indeed) know, from your understanding, that through your favor to a m[a]n you make [abundant his inheritance] in (the) spirit of your holiness, and so you bring him near to your understanding…” (lines 23b-24)

Here, again, we find the expression “spirit of (God’s) holiness” (vd#oq j^Wr), as representing the principal spirit that God gives to His chosen one, reflecting the fundamental Divine attribute of holiness. God gives His holy spirit to all of His chosen ones, but gives to some a greater portion (i.e., a more abundant “inheritance” [hl*j&n~]). This spirit draws the person toward God’s understanding, bringing him/her near to it (vb vg~n`). Significantly, the protagonist states that it is from God’s own understanding, gifted to him by God’s spirit, that he has obtained his knowledge.

The possession of this spirit, and the inspired wisdom/understanding that it brings, enables a person to remain faithful and righteous in all things. This ethical-religious principle is developed in lines 25-33. It is according to the measure/portion of the person’s “nearness” (being near, brwq) to God’s understanding, that he/she will be faithful. The same expression as in line 22, with the noun hP# (“mouth”) in the abstract sense of “measure/portion”, is used. A person will act righteously, and remain faithful to God, to the extent that God’s holy spirit is present, drawing the person ever closer to God’s own wisdom and understanding.

The final line (32-33) makes clear that this faithfulness is defined in traditional terms, according to loyalty to the covenant (i.e., observance of the Torah precepts and regulations): “I will not bring into the council of [your] tr[uth any] (one) turning (away) [from] your [b]inding agreement [tyr!B=, i.e. covenant]”. It was expected that every member of the Community would be meticulously loyal and devoted to the Torah.

In the next note, we will at the remaining lines (34-41) of column VI.

DJD XL = Discoveries in the Judean Desert, Vol. XL: 1QHodayota, with Incorporation of 1QHodayotb and 4QHodayota-f, by Hartmut Stegemann with Eileen Schuller, translations of texts by Carol Newsom (Clarendon Press: 2009).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 76

Psalm 76

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (vv. 10-12 [9-11])

The central portion of this Psalm (vv. 5-10) is a hymn to YHWH. It is framed by a theological opening (vv. 2-4) and religious-ethical closing (vv. 11-13). In this instance, the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker (following verses 4 and 10) is a structural indicator for the Psalm.

As with all of Pss 7383, this composition is attributed to (and/or associated with) Asaph (cf. the earlier study on Ps 50). Like Ps 75 (cf. the previous study), this Psalm is also designated a “song” (ryv!). The precise significance of this term in the Psalm headings is not entirely clear. In some instances, it may indicate a poem that is sung to an existing melody, rather than being an original musical composition (romz+m!); but that would not seem to be the case here. For Ps 76 (and particularly, the central portion), ryv! may relate to it as a hymn—to be sung by people in the Temple precincts, or in a comparable worship setting. According to the heading, it is to be performed on stringed instruments (tonyg]n+).

The meter of the Psalm is slightly irregular, but a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates.

OPEnING: Verses 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2

“(The) Mightiest is known in Yehudah,
(and) in Yisrael His name (is) great.”

The Niphal form of the verb ud^y` in the first line should perhaps be understood in a reflexive (“makes Himself known”) rather than a passive (“is known”) sense. As I have discussed frequently, in ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person. This is very much true in a religious context, in reference to a deity’s name. Cf. the introduction to the series “And you shall call His Name…”.

Presumably, the Psalmist has in mind the great deeds performed by YHWH, throughout the history of Israel/Judah (during the Exodus, et al), as preserved in tradition. The people are reminded of what God has done in the past, raising the possibility that He may once again act on behalf of His people.

Verse 3 [2]

“And there came to be in Šalem His lair,
and His place of cover in ‚iyyôn.”

The historical traditions (of the Exodus and Conquest, etc) are related to the establishment of YHWH’s dwelling place in Jerusalem (here, Salem)—especially the ancient fortified hilltop location (i.e., mount Zion) which served as the site of the Temple. The noun hn`oum= in the second line has the general meaning of “dwelling place”, but often in the specific sense of the covered/concealed dwelling of animals (i.e., den, lair, etc). The parallel noun Es)/hK*s% has the same meaning—viz., that of a concealed dwelling-place (lair) in the wild, best envisioned as a thicket of branches, etc. The imagery suggests the motif of YHWH as a powerful animal (one that hunts prey, cf. below); the ruling figure of a lion is most fitting (as a royal symbol, cf. Gen 49:9; 1 Kings 10:19-20; Mic 5:8; Ezek 19:2ff; Rev 5:5-6). On the image of the lion laying in wait (in its lair/thicket) to pounce on its prey, cf. Job 38:40; elsewhere in the Psalms, this motif is applied to the predatory behavior of the wicked (7:2; 10:9; 17:12; 57:4, etc).

The meter of this verse is 3+2.

Verse 4 [3]

“There He broke (with) His bolts (the) bow,
shield and sword, and (all weapons of) war.”

The idea in this verse is clear: from His dwelling in Jerusalem, YHWH waged war on behalf of His people, subduing their enemies. Of possible historical incidents that could be referenced, one thinks of the dramatic defeat of the Assyrian army, in their attempted siege of Jerusalem, in 701 B.C. (cf. 2 Kings 18:13-19:37). The motif of YHWH as a warrior is relatively frequent in the Psalms.

The noun [v#r# appears to be an archaic term in Hebrew, occurring only in poetry. The fundamental meaning is of a fiery shaft or dart (Job 5:7; Song 8:6), typically used as a weapon. Probably a lightning-bolt is meant here (cf. Ps 78:48), though in Deut 32:24 and Hab 3:5 it alludes to the ‘burning’ that comes from pestilent disease or plague. In any case, here the “fiery darts” are is best seen as a weapon wielded by YHWH, not his human enemies; cf. the explanation by Dahood (II, p. 218).

The noun hm*j*l=m! (“war, battle”) in the second line is comprehensive, and a poetic shorthand for “weapons of war”. YHWH, wielding his fiery bolts from Mount Zion, shatters all the weapons of His people’s enemies. It is this Divine power, that is able to save and deliver Israel/Judah, which the Psalmist calls on in the hymn that follows.

The Hymn: Verses 5-11 [4-10]

Verse 5 [4]

“Shining (bright) you (are), (and) majestic—
from (the) mountains of tearing, they have become prey!”

Apparently the LXX translates ar*on (“being feared”, i.e. to be feared, fearful; cf. in v. 8), rather than MT roan` (“being light, luminous”), and some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 108) readily follow the LXX. The participle ar*on certainly would fit the imagery of the couplet, alluding (as in v. 3 [2], cf. above) to YHWH as a fierce and regal lion. It may be, however, that the Psalmist is here combining the two motifs from vv. 3-4—YHWH as a ferocious lion, and as a heavenly warrior wielding the lightning-bolt. The shining, luminous grandeur of YHWH, in line 1 of the MT for v. 5, follows nicely on the motif of His fiery bolts in v. 4.

The second line (in the MT) has the expression “from (the) mountains of tearing (prey)”. If correct (cp. the LXX, “from [the] eternal mountains”), the expression is presumably a poetic shorthand, meaning something like, “from the mountains where you tear your prey”. For a different way of reading the line, cf. Dahood, II, p. 219.

In my view, the first word of v. 6 is better taken with the second line of v. 5 here. The verb ll^v* II (“[take] plunder”) here properly referred to a predatory animal (i.e., lion) taking its prey. The enemies of Israel/Judah become the lion’s prey.

Verse 6 [5]

“(The one)s mighty of heart have slumbered (in) their sleep;
(of) all (the) men of strength, no(ne) can find their hands.”

The defeat of the human enemies of YHWH is described in terms of weakness and feebleness. The mighty and brave ones have dozed off, falling asleep, and the strong ones are no longer able to function effectively with their hands (to wield weapons, etc). If the noun [v#r# in v. 4 refers to pestilence and disease (cf. above), then the imagery here in v. 6 could be meant to depict soldiers succumbing to illness. Sending disease is one of the deadliest and most effective ‘weapons’ God can use.

Verse 7 [6]

“From your rebuke, O Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob,
both rider and horse are lain fast asleep!”

Whether struck by YHWH’s lightning-bolts, or by the fiery darts of disease, it is by His command, rebuking (rug) the enemy, that they fall. Even the powerful cavalry (and chariot) units of the armies are waylaid by God and “put to sleep” (vb <d^r*), i.e., they are left unconscious and/or lifeless. Cf. the famous tradition of Pharaoh’s chariots perishing in the event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14:17-18, 23ff, 28; 15:1, 4).

Verse 8 [7]

“You (are the one) to be feared—you!
Indeed, who can stand before your face,
from the moment your anger (comes)?”

The participle ar*on (Niphal of ar^y`, “be afraid, fear”), “being feared” (i.e., to be feared, fearful [one]), also seems to have been read by the LXX in v. 5 (cf. above). The reason YHWH is to be feared is that no human being is able to stand before His face when He is angry. The noun [a^ can be understood, fundamentally, in the concrete anthropomorphic (or zoomorphic) sense of burning/flaring nostrils—i.e., as a sign of anger. Searing steam, smoke, or fire coming from the ‘nostrils’ is the terrifying evidence of the anger emanating from God’s ‘face’, which is able to destroy and obliterate the wicked.

Verse 9 [8]

“From (the) heavens you made (the) decision to be heard—
(the) earth was afraid and became still,”

Here the imagery shifts to the more conventional religious motif of God as Judge, delivering the judgment (on humankind) from heaven. The noun /yD! properly refers to the decision rendered by the judge. The entire earth—i.e., all humankind—stands silent, in fear, as YHWH delivers His verdict. The verb um^v* (“hear”) in the Hiphil literally means “make [one] hear, cause to be heard”.

Even though YHWH may have His ‘dwelling-place’ on earth, with His people, on Mt Zion, His true dwelling is in the heavens.

Verse 10 [9]

“in (your) standing up for the judgment, O Mightiest,
to save all (the) lowly (one)s of (the) earth.”

Syntactically, verse 10 continues the thought of v. 9. YHWH, the Judge, stands up to deliver the verdict, the sentence of judgment against humankind. This judgment means salvation (vb uv^y`, Hiphil) for the <yw]n+u^. The adjective wn`u*, along with the related (and more common) yn]u*, refers to a condition of low(li)ness. This condition can be the result (negatively) of oppression/affliction (i.e., being pressed down), or (positively) from a meek and humble mindset. Both aspects of meaning are characteristic of the righteous, and equally inform the usage of yn]u* (29 times) and wn`u* (12 times) in the Psalms.

God’s Judgment brings salvation for the righteous ones among His people—and, it would seem, from among the other nations as well.

Closing: Verses 11-13 [10-12]

Verse 11 [10]

“Indeed, (the) burning of man shall throw you (praise);
and (the) remainder of (the) burning, you shall put around you!”

This couplet has proven difficult for commentators to interpret. The chief cause of the difficulty, it seems, lies with the construct expression “(the) burning (anger) of man” (<d*a* tm^j&). The question is whether this is a subjective (i.e., human anger) or objective (anger against humans) genitive. The context of the Judgment, at the end of the hymn (vv. 9-10, cf. above), strongly suggests the latter. On the other hand, the theme of the hostility of human beings toward God is also present in the hymn. The idea may be that, even those people who were burning with rage against YHWH will be forced to submit and give praise/homage to Him.

I tend to think that the principal thought, expressed somewhat awkwardly by the Psalmist, is that, in judging humankind, directing His burning anger against them (see esp. verse 8, above), His action is praiseworthy (and the righteous who see it will praise Him).

What remains after the exercise of His burning anger, YHWH will put around Himself (vb rg~j*). This could refer to what is left of the wicked (and their lives) after they are consumed, or to the righteous as the remnant of humankind; the latter seems much more fitting to the context of the Psalm here. The circle of the righteous, in the blessed afterlife, dwelling with God, is probably in view. In the communal worship setting (cf. verses 12-13), the circle of the devout/faithful ones anticipates this eschatological scene.

Verse 12 [11]

“Make your vows, and complete (them), to YHWH your Mighty (One);
let all (those) around Him bring along gift(s) to the fearsome (One)!”

The second line of v. 12 draws upon the earlier Judgment scene in vv. 9-10 (and continuing in v. 11), suggesting the image of submissive vassals paying homage to YHWH (as King). The rare noun yv^, of uncertain derivation, occurs only here and in Ps 68:30; Isa 18:7; the context indicates that yv^ is a collective term, referring to gifts brought in homage to a ruler.

However, as I commented above (on v. 11), the scene here has shifted—from the wicked who face God’s Judgment, to the righteous who will remain after the Judgment. The image of vassals bringing gifts to the King refers to the righteous, who give the praise and worship that is due to God. This is done, for example, by faithfully completing (vb <l^v*) what one has vowed to do for God. The verb rd^n` hardly occurs in the Psalms, but the idea of a devout person fulfilling a vow (rd#n#) to YHWH is found prominently in a number of Psalms, usually at the conclusion, but occasionally at the beginning (cf. 22:26 [25]; 50:14; 56:13 [12]; 61:6 [5], 9 [8]; 65:2 [1]; 66:13; 116:14, 18). The vow traditionally involves a sacrificial offering; however, in the context of the Psalms, not surprisingly, this is sometimes understood specifically in terms of an offering of praise and music to God.

This couplet is irregular, with an elongated 4-beat (4+4) meter.

Verse 13 [12]

“He takes away (the) spirit of (the one)s in front—
fearsome He is to (the) kings of (the) earth!”

The high-spirit of “the ones in front” (<yd!yg]n+), i.e., leaders and other prominent people in the world, is contrasted with the “lowly ones” (as a characteristic of the righteous) who are saved by YHWH’s judgment (v. 10, cf. above). As for the powerful and influential people (by human standards), if they are not destroyed by God’s judgment, then they are diminished in spirit. The precise meaning of the verb rx^B* is difficult to determine; if there is not more than one rxb root, then it has an extremely wide semantic range. Probably the primary meaning here is “take away, reduce”, which would be confirmed by the LXX translation with the verb a)faire/w.

The concluding declaration reaffirms the theme of YHWH’s fearsomeness—i.e., that He is to be feared, using the same Niphal participle (ar*on) as in v. 8 (and also v. 5, according to the LXX).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 75

Psalm 75

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This relatively short Psalm is difficult to classify, as most commentators admit. It probably has most in common with the poetry of certain prophetic oracles. The overriding theme of YHWH’s Judgment on the earth—specifically upon the wicked of the nations—shows obvious thematic and stylistic similarities with the judgment-oracles in the Prophets. In this regard, it is worth noting again the tradition that associates Asaph (and his sons) with prophetic inspiration (1 Chron 25:1-2; 2 Chron 20:14ff; 29:30). A similar prophetic tone and style can be seen in other Asaph-Psalms (e.g., 50, 81, 82).

This the third in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50.

There are several dozen Psalms that are also referred to as a “song” (ryv!). As any musical composition (romz+m!) with words could be called a “song”, it is not entirely clear why only certain Psalms have this designation. In this instance, it may denote a poem that is set to an existing melody, rather than being an original musical composition, in spite of the fact that the term romz+m! is also used (cp. the heading of Ps 46). Here, the melody is that of tj@v=T^-la^ (“Do not destroy”, or “May you not destroy”), apparently the name of a well-known lament. The miktams Pss 57-59 are sung to the same melody; cf. the study on Ps 57.

The meter of Psalm 75 is irregular, but tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The poetic and thematic structure of the composition will be discussed in the notes below.

Verse 2 [1]

“We cast (praise) to you, O Mightiest;
we cast (praise), <calling on> your name,
recounting your wonderful (deed)s!”

A three-beat couplet is followed by an additional 2-beat line, added for dramatic effect, producing a tricolon. The first-person plural verb indicates a communal worship setting, such as that in which the Psalm might be performed.

As Kraus (p. 103) and other commentators have noted, the LXX reads kai\ e)pikaleso/meqa to\ o&noma/ sou (“and we call upon your name”) in the second line, suggesting that the underlying Hebrew was imvb arq rather than MT imv bwrq. In which case, arq should perhaps be read as an infinitive (ar*q=). I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 210) in reading wrps as an infinitive in the third line; if his suggestion, that the W– postformative element represents an archaic ending for the infinitive, is correct, then perhaps the infinitive in the second line originally had a similar form (warq), which could have been reduced to wrq. If that were so, then the MT would not need to be emended at all, only redivided: imvb wrq.

On the idea of declaring the “wonderful deeds” of YHWH, see Ps 9:2[1]; 26:7; 73:28; cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 253.

Verses 3 [2]

“When I take (the) appointed place,
I will judge (with all) straightness.”

In verses 3-4, it is apparently YHWH who is speaking, meaning that the verses represent a Divine oracle and mark the prophetic character of the Psalm (on which, cf. above). As is fitting for a judgment-oracle, YHWH announces His intention to take His place as Judge. The noun du@om means “appointed place” —here, the place appointed for the Judgment. Probably a great level place is envisioned, where the assembled people will stand before Him. This levelness corresponds with the “straightness” (rv*ym@) with which God Himself judges—i.e., fairly, with justice and equity. The plural form <yr!v*ym@ should probably be understood as an intensive/emphatic or comprehensive plural  (with “all straightness,” i.e.,  total justice and fairness).

Verse 4 [3]

“(The) earth trembles and (those) sitting on her,
(while) I measure (out) her standing (post)s.”

YHWH is still the speaker in v. 4, continuing to announce the coming Judgment. The earth and its inhabitants are made to tremble (vb gWm Niphal), as God “measures” the columns/pillars (lit. “standing [post]s”). There is a dual meaning to the imagery in the second line. On the one hand, YHWH measures the pillars of the earth, alluding to His power and activity as Creator; at the same time, He is now busy preparing the place for His coming activity as Judge, where He will “measure out” the judgment for the earth (and its people). There is some syntactical wordplay that is almost impossible to translate fully in English; note the parallelism of the suffixed participles in each line:

    • h*yb#v=y) “(those) sitting (on) her”, i.e., those dwelling on her, the earth’s inhabitants
    • h*yd#Wmu^ “(those) standing (on) her,” i.e., her standing pillars/columns

The precise meaning of the verb gWm is not entirely certain. The Arabic root m¹³a (“surge, shake, totter”) is probably related, suggesting that the basic meaning is something like “shake, tremble”.

The Selah (hl*s#) pause marker at the end of v. 4 probably serves to demarcate the shift in speaker—from YHWH to the Psalmist. Since the first line of v. 5 begins (“I say/said…”), the pause helps the listener to realize that a different “I” is now speaking.

Verse 5 [4]

“I say to the (one)s boasting: ‘Do not boast!’
and to the wicked: ‘Do not lift high (your) horn!'”

The Psalmist, filling the role of prophet, gives a warning to the boastful (vb ll^h* II) and wicked people on earth. For poetic concision, I have translated the imperfect (jussive) verb forms as imperatives.

Verse 6 [5]

“Do not lift up your horn to the place on high,
(nor) speak against (the) ancient Rock!”

In my opinion, there is some clever wordplay in this couplet that resists simple translation. To begin with, in the first line, which otherwise repeats v. 5b, the word <orM*h^ (lit. “the place on high”) connotes “the One dwelling on high”. This results in a double meaning: (a) lifting up one’s “horn” to the place up high (i.e. where YHWH dwells); and (b) lifting it up against YHWH Himself, as an arrogant challenge to His sole authority over the nations.

In the third line, the adjective qt*u* has the basic meaning “old, ancient”, but can also be used in combination with the verb rb^D* (“speak”) as an idiom indicating bold and arrogant speech, characteristic of the wicked (cf. for example, 1 Sam 2:3; Psalm 31:19[18]; 94:4). The preceding word in the MT is raW`x^b= (“with [the] neck”), but the LXX has “against God”, which suggests that the Hebrew is rWxb= (“against [the] Rock”), with rWx (“rock”) as the familiar Divine title. Whether the MT or LXX more properly reflects the original, it seems likely that the Psalmist is intentionally giving a double meaning to the line:

    • “do not speak with a stiff neck”
      (i.e. arrogantly) /
      “do not speak against the ancient Rock [i.e. against YHWH]”
Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“Indeed, not from (the) going forth and darkening (of the sun),
nor from (the) out back (to the) mountains,
(is there any) but (the) Mightiest judging,
the (One) who brings low,
and the (One) who lifts high.”

Verse 7 of the MT, as it stands, is obscure. Dahood (II, p. 212f) would vocalize al as al@, rather than MT al) (negative particle), reading it as a verbal adjective or noun (participle) of the root yal meaning “prevail”. It thus designates YHWH as the “one prevailing”. This is an intriguing suggestion, but with relatively little evidence to support it.

It seems better to take vv. 7-8 together, as comprising a single syntactical statement. The basic message is that there is no one in the entire world besides YHWH who is capable of serving as Judge. The first line of v. 7 establishes the full scope of the earth from east to west—lit. from the “going forth” of the sun to its sinking (“darkening”). The second line does the same, moving from the “place out back” (outback, i.e., ‘wilderness, desert’) to the “mountains” (<yr!h*). The word <yr!h* could be taken as a verbal noun (Hiphil infinitive) of the root <Wr (“be high”), parallel with the imperfect form <yr!y` at the end of v. 8. In my view, this not correct, though the Psalmist likely is utilizing some wordplay again here, playing on the two possible meanings of <yr!h* (“mountains” / “lifting high”).

As the Sovereign Judge of all Creation, YHWH is the one who “brings low” (vb lp^v* Hiphil) and “lifts high” (vb <Wr Hiphil); thus, no human being should dare to lift one’s self up high (vv. 5-6, cf. above), acting in the place of God.

Verse 9 [8]

“For (there is) a cup in (the) hand of YHWH,
and wine foaming, full of mixed (spices),
and He pours out from this—
how He shall squeeze out its dregs!—
(and) all (the) wicked of (the) earth shall drink.”

This verse is rather complex in its structure: a three beat tricolon (lines 1-2, 5) is expanded into a quintet, with the addition of a pair of 2-beat lines (3-4) that builds suspense and heightens the dramatic effect. The Psalmist, functioning as a prophet delivering a judgment-oracle against the nations (i.e., the wicked), indicates that the great Judgment is about to take place. The cup of judgment is in God’s hand, and he is about to pour it out, upon the earth.

This image of judgment as a cup of wine that is poured out can be found in the Prophets (Isa 51:17ff; Jer 25:17ff; 51:7ff; Ezek 23:31-33; Hab 2:16; Zech 12:2, etc). It was adapted most vividly in the book of Revelation (14:10; 16:19; cf. 17:4; 18:6). The association between red wine and blood is obvious, and serves as a natural image for destructive/violent judgment (e.g., Joel 3:13ff; Rev 14:15-20).

Verse 10 [9]

“But I—I will put forth (praise) to (the) Eternal (One),
I will make music to (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob.”

The Psalmist’s declaration of his intent to give praise to YHWH matches the opening announcement in v. 2 (cf. above). I follow Dahood (II, p. 215f) in reading <l*ou here as a Divine title. Properly, the noun refers to either the distant past or the distant future, often connoting the sense of “etern(al)ity” when applied to God. The expression <l*oul= certainly could be taken here to mean “(in)to the distant (future)” (i.e., forever), as it often does in the Old Testament. However, the parallel with the expression “the Mighty One of Jacob” in line 2 strongly suggests that we are dealing with another Divine title here.

The verb dg~n` (in the Hiphil) literally means “put in front (of someone)” (in this case, in front of God); for poetic concision, I have translated the verb here as “put forth”.

Verse 11 [10]

“Indeed, all (the) horns of (the) wicked I will cut down,
but (the) horns of (the) righteous (one) shall be lifted high!”

The Psalm ends with another Divine oracle, announcing the coming Judgment. It thus functions in tandem with the oracle in vv. 3-4 (cf. above), framing the judgment-oracle of the Psalm as a whole. The contrasting fates of the wicked and righteous are clearly described, using the same motif of the animal’s horn (/r#q#), along with contrastive idiom of bringing low / lifting high, found throughout the Psalm. On the horn of the bull or wild ox as a symbol of honor and strength (especially for a king or human leader), cf. Ps 18:3[2] [par 1 Sam 22:3]; 89:18[17], 25[24]; 92:11[10]; 132:17; 148:14; Jer 48:25; Ezek 29:21; Dan 7:8ff; 8:5ff; Lk 1:69.

The parallelism of “horns of the wicked” vs. “horns of the righteous” is precise, but the syntax differs slightly:

    • “two horns [i.e. horn-pair, dual] of the wicked [plural]”
    • “horns [plural] of the righteous [singular]”

The judgment comes on the wicked collectively, as a group; they each have a pair of horns (like the bull/ox). By contrast, the blessing/exaltation of the righteous comes to each one individually, with the implication that a great single horn will be raised up for each, resulting a multitude of horns (indicating honor) for the righteous as a whole. On the other hand, it may be that the plural tonr=q^ is meant as a comprehensive or intensive plural, alluding to the greatness of the honor (“horn”) for each righteous person.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 73 (Part 2)

Psalm 73, continued

The first section of the Psalm (vv. 1-12) was discussed in the prior study.

VERSES 13-17

Verse 13

“Truly, in vain have I cleansed my heart,
and washed with clear (water) my palms.”

Like the first section of the Psalm (cf. the previous study), this second section begins with the affirmative particle Ea^ (“surely, truly…”). The initial couplet here establishes the protagonist’s struggle with the wisdom-question—viz., as to why God allows injustice to prevail in the world, and the wicked to prosper. He feels that he has devoted himself to righteousness “in vain”; if the wicked can flourish in this life, then what is the value of living in an upright and devout manner? The Psalmist’s active righteousness is described by the parallel idiom of cleansing/washing (vb hk*z` / Jj^r*) one’s heart and hands (lit. “palms”). The idiom draws upon the idea of ritual purity, but is also used in a figurative (ethical-religious) sense—cf. 18:20, 24; 24:4; 26:6; 51:2, 7; Prov 20:9; Isa 1:16; Jer 4:14, etc.

There is also a bit of conceptual wordplay in these lines, as both the root qyr (noun qyr!) and hqn (noun /oyQ*n]) denote the idea of emptying. Here the noun qyr! refers to “emptiness” in the negative sense of worthlessness or vanity (“in vain”); while /oyQ*n] captures the idea of something made clear through “pouring out”, specifically here of being made clean/pure through the pouring of water. I have preserved the scope of this imagery by translating /oyQ*n] above as “clear [i.e. pure/purifying] water.”

Verse 14

“For I have been touched all the day (long),
and (then) endure rebuke in the morning.”

Here we have a clear allusion to the suffering of the righteous, which forms the flip-side to the wisdom-problem of the prosperity of the wicked. The Psalmist has been “touched” (vb ug~n`) by misfortune (from YHWH), perhaps in the form of a physical ailment or disease (a frequent motif in the Psalms). After enduring this “all the day (long),” he then has to face accusation and rebuke in the morning. This rebuke (vb jk^y`) can be understood as either coming from God, or from the Psalmist’s wicked adversaries; the latter is a regular theme in the Psalms. On the parsing of ytjkwt as a verb form, cf. Dahood, II, p. 191.

Verse 15

“If I had said ‘I will give account thus,’ see!
I would have betrayed (the) circle of your sons.”

To give voice to his doubts in public (vb rp^s*, “give account, recount”) would be an act of treachery (vb dg~B*) against the covenant bond uniting the children of Israel (as YHWH’s ‘sons’, “your sons”). The root dgb denotes acting in a deceitful or unfaithful manner, sometimes in the harsher or dramatic sense of “treachery” or “betrayal”. The noun roD is typically translated “generation”, but properly means “circle”; here, as often in the Psalms, the assembly of the righteous—whether envisioned literally (in corporate worship) or in a figurative/symbolic sense—is intended. The righteous are God’s faithful children (“sons”).

Verse 16

“And (yet when) I gave thought to know this,
it (seemed like) hard labor in my eyes,”

Rather than express his own doubts publicly, the Psalmist seeks to understand (vb ud^y`, “know”) the matter better. Yet as he began to ponder it (vb bv^j*), it seemed like hard and wearisome labor (lm*u*), suggesting the intractable difficulty of the wisdom-question he faces. Indeed, it is a question (of theodicy) that has long provoked (and perplexed) wise and learned persons throughout the centuries, providing a thematic staple of ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature.

Verse 17

“until I came to (the) holy place of (the) Mighty (One),
(and) discerned (the thing)s following for them.”

These lines continue the thought from v. 16. It is only when he comes to the “holy place” of God—i.e., the Temple precincts in Jerusalem—that the protagonist is able to find an answer to the wisdom-question that has plagued him. The plural <yv!D*q=m! (lit. “holy places”) may refer to the Temple precincts as a whole, or may indicate a single sanctuary; cf. Dahood, II, pp. 111, 192, on the Canaanite practice of using plural forms for buildings and dwelling-places.

The “holy place” of El-YHWH ultimately refers to His cosmic/heavenly dwelling, after which the local mountain on earth (including the Temple locale on mount Zion) is patterned, serving as its symbolic and ritual representation. There is likely an allusion here to God’s abode in Heaven (cf. Dahood, II, p. 192), which introduces the afterlife Judgment idea that is featured in the final section of the Psalm (cf. below).

The suffix <t*– (“them”) of the final word refers to the wicked. The Psalmist comes to understand (vb /yB!) the things that await (lit. “follow”) for the wicked.

Verses 18-28

Verse 18

“Truly, in the (land of) ruin you set (a place) for them,
you make them fall into (the) place of destruction.”

The parallel plural nouns toql*j& and toaWVm^ are rightly understood as intensive plurals. The first word is typically rendered “smooth [i.e. slippery] place(s)”, i.e., on which the wicked slip and slide down to destruction. However, Dahood (II, p. 192; cf. also I, pp. 35, 207, 211) makes a convincing argument that toqlj here is to be derived from a separate root qlj (III), related to Ugaritic —lq—a root with a relatively wide semantic range (“perish, disappear, be[come] ruined, wear out”). I have thus translated toql*j& here as “(place of) ruin”, which makes a proper parallel with toaWVm^ (“place of destruction”) in the second line. Clearly, the dual-reference is to death (and the grave) as the ultimate fate for the wicked.

As in the first two sections of the Psalm, this final section begins with the affirmative particle Ea^ (“surely, truly”).

Verse 19

“How they are (brought) to ruin in a moment,
swept away and finished by (the) terrors!

The noun hM*v^ (“desolation, ruin”) is more or less synonymous with the two earlier nouns in v. 18 (cf. above); they all refer to the realm of death and the grave. The exclamation Eya@ (“how…!”) reflects a certain wonderment by the Psalmist, as he realizes the terrible fate that awaits the wicked. It is not merely the fact of death, something which every human being faces, but an experience accompanied by frightening “terrors” (tohL*B^); the terrors of death overwhelm them as they perish. The verb pair WMt^ Wps* “(they are) swept away (and are) finished” can also be read as a hendiadys—i.e., “they are completely swept away”. The verb [Ws can mean, generally, “come to an end”, being thus synonymous with <m^T* (“[be] finish[ed]”); however, given the meaning of the related noun hp*Ws (“storm-wind, whirlwind”, cf. Isa 5:28; Hos 8:7), it is proper to translate [Ws here as “(be) swept away”.

Verse 20

“Like a dream from (which) one awakes, O Lord,
in (the) rousing (from it) you despise their shadow.”

The couplet is somewhat awkward, and there have been different attempts re-parsing/vocalizing the second line (cf. Dahood, II, p. 193; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 223). Conceptually, however, it seems possible to retain the MT without emendation. The “shadow” (<l#x#) of the wicked is compared to a dream from which one awakes. YHWH, in being “roused” (i.e. from sleep), casts off the shadow of the wicked, now deceased, as an insubstantial and lifeless ‘dream’. The implication is that there is no real afterlife for the wicked; they exist only as shadows in the realm of the dead.

Verses 21-22

“Then (when) my heart had become sour,
and my kidneys were hit by sharp (pain),
(so) also I (was) brutish and did not know,
(like) a dumb animal was I with you.”

The wisdom and insight gained by the Psalmist in the previous verses, suddenly disappears as he is struck (again) by a physical ailment (i.e., sharp pain inside), which also has emotional and psychological effects (“my heart became sour [vb Jm@j*]”). Cf. verse 14 (above) for an earlier allusion to physical (and emotional) suffering by the protagonist. His understanding is gone and the Psalmist feels like a dumb animal now in the presence of YHWH (“with you”). Apparently, as is often the case for mortal human beings, physical distress overpowers insight and rational thought.

Verse 23

“And (yet) I (am) continually with you,
you grab hold of me by my right hand.”

The Psalmist, in his distress, may feel like a mere animal in God’s presence, but he is still in God’s presence. And the first line is a declaration of faith and trust in YHWH’s abiding presence; the righteous can say: “I am continually [dym!t*] with you”. YHWH gives help and support to the righteous, through the motif of grabbing hold of his (right) hand. The idea of Divine protection and deliverance for the righteous, a frequent theme in the Psalms, is implied.

Verse 24

“With your counsel may you guide me,
and then with honor take me to (you).”

I follow Dahood (II, p. 195) in reading the imperfect verb form in each line as having the force of an imperative. The Psalmist is requesting YHWH to guide him in the remainder of his life (even as death nears), and then to bring him into His presence, in the blessed heavenly afterlife. The noun dobK* literally means “weight,” often in the sense of “worth, value”; when applied to God, it regularly connotes “honor, splendor, glory,” much as I translate it here; the heavenly afterlife context makes the translation “honor” particularly fitting. YHWH will receive the righteous/faithful one with honor, taking him to Himself. This fate for the righteous clearly contrasts with that of the wicked; the righteous-wicked contrast is a common element in Wisdom-tradition, and features notably in many Psalms (famously in Psalm 1, etc).

Verse 25

“Who (else is there) for me in the heavens?
Even with you I desire no(thing else) on earth.

The syntax of this couplet is somewhat cryptic, but the basic idea seems to be that YHWH Himself is the Psalmist’s ultimate delight and desire, in heaven, just as it has been on earth. The blessedness of the afterlife, for the righteous, rests in being continually in the presence of God; this builds upon the earlier thought in vv. 22-23 (cf. above), with the repeated use of the expression ;M=u! (“with you”).

Verse 26

“My flesh and my heart may cease, O Rock,
(but) my heart and my portion, Mightiest, (is) forever.”

This difficult verse makes most sense when divided as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet. By this division, rWx (“rock”) is to be taken as the familiar Divine epithet (“[my] Rock”), parallel here with <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest,” Elohim, ‘God’); cf. Dahood, II, p. 195f). The syntactic structure of the couplet is clear, but complex:

    • “shall cease/end
      • my flesh and my heart
        • O Rock
      • (but) my heart and my portion
        • O Mightiest
    • (shall be) for ever”

The expression <l*oul=, which I here translate (for poetic concision) as “forever”, properly means “for/into (the) distant (future),” i.e., lasting into the distant future. The dual-positioning of the word bb*l@ (“heart”) indicates that here the heart represents the point of contact between the earthly and the heavenly, the mortal (human) and the Divine. The heart paired with “flesh” signifies human life and existence on earth, while heart paired with ql#j@ (“portion”) signifies that which is allotted to the righteous as their heavenly inheritance (in the blessed afterlife).

Verse 27

“For, see! (those who are) far from you shall perish;
you destroy every (one) having intercourse (away) from you!”

The fate of the wicked is reiterated here, in simpler and less colorful terms. They are fundamentally “far away” (qj@r*) from YHWH, in contrast to the righteous who are “with” (<u!) Him (vv. 22-23, 25). The verb hn`z` basically denotes illicit sexual intercourse, for which there is no good English equivalent. Here the verb signifies in what sense the wicked ones have ‘gone away’ from God—viz., off in pursuit of wicked (i.e., immoral) and idolatrous ways (hnz frequently connotes idolatry and/or worship of any deity other than YHWH).

Verse 28

“But I, (the) nearness of (the) Mightiest (is) good for me;
I have set my Lord YHWH (as) my place of refuge,
(so as) to give account of all your works.”

The Psalm concludes with a four-beat (4+4) couplet, in which the Psalmist again expresses his trust and devotion to YHWH. As in verse 25 (cf. above), he declares that being in the presence of God is his greatest (and only real) delight. Here he defines what he considers as the greatest good (bof) for him: “the nearness [hb*r*q=] of God”. The righteous trust in YHWH as their protection and “place of refuge” (hs#j&m^); this is a frequent theme in the Psalms, with the verb hs*j* (and the related noun hs#j&m^) used frequently to express it; the locative noun occurs 12 times in the Psalms, more than half of all OT occurrences (20).

The short final line, with its sudden shift back to second person address, could be viewed as a secondary addition. It is typical of many Psalms that they close with a reference to giving praise to YHWH, declaring the greatness of His deeds, etc, in a public/corporate worship setting. For other examples of a similar shift from third person to second person (direct) address in the same verse, cf. 22:26; 102:16[15] (Dahood, II, p. 197).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 73 (Part 1)

Psalm 73

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is a Wisdom-Psalm—that is, a Psalm in which wisdom-elements and theology dominate the composition. We have seen throughout these studies how many Psalms have been strongly influenced by wisdom-tradition; by all accounts, this influence is relatively late, with evidence that wisdom-tradition helped to shape the redaction of certain poems, as those Psalms were edited for use in the Community worship. The particularly heavy Wisdom-emphasis in this Psalm likewise suggests a relatively late date, perhaps in the 5th century. Linguistic and thematic similarities with the book of Job have been noted (cf. the article by J. Luyten, “Psalm 73 and Wisdom,” in Maurice Gilbert, ed., La Sagesse de l’Ancient Testament, Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium 51 [Peeters: 1979], pp. 58-91). Cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 225-6.

Another possible indication of a relatively late date is the highly regular meter, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The few exceptions to this consistent rhythm will be noted.

This is the first of a series of eleven Psalms (7383) associated with the figure of Asaph ([s*a*). According to 1 Chron 6:39, Asaph was one of three priestly (Levite) officials who were put in charge of the “service of the song” by David (cf. 25:1; 2 Chron 5:12); he also served as “chief minister” before the Ark in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:4-5; 25:5). He is said to have been a “seer” (hz#j), 2 Chron 29:30), and his sons apparently also functioned as prophets (1 Chron 25:1-2). The musical tradition associated with Asaph (and his descendants) is confirmed by the notices in Ezra 2:41 and Neh 11:22. On the association of Asaph with prophecy, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50.

Structurally, Psalm 73 is best seen as comprised of three sections, each of which begins with the affirmative particle Ea^, usually rendered as “surely” or “truly”. In the first section (vv. 1-12), the Psalmist’s initial expression of trust in the goodness and faithfulness of YHWH is put to the test by his recognition of the injustice that seems to prevail in the world. This reflects a perennial Wisdom-question: how can a righteous Creator God allow injustice to flourish in His creation? Here, in particular, the Psalmist focuses on how the wicked seem to enjoy success and prosperity, in spite of their wickedness. The flip-side of this theme involves the affliction and suffering of the righteous, as it occurs often at the hands of the wicked. The suffering of the righteous is not specifically emphasized, but the idea is surely implicit throughout. This is part of the righteous-wicked contrast, a fundamental Wisdom-element that occurs frequently in the Psalms. The wicked, flourishing in their injustice, are vividly described in these verses.

In the second section (vv. 13-17), the Psalmist shows how he struggles to make sense of this basic contradiction, regarding the prevailing presence of injustice in the world and the prosperity of the wicked. The answer is given in the final section (vv. 18-28), focusing on the ultimate Judgment (in the afterlife and/or the end-time), when YHWH will finally make right what He had left undone during the lifetime of the wicked (and the righteous).


Verse 1

“(See) Truly, (how) He is good to Yisrael,
(the) Mightiest, to (the) pure of heart.”

Commentators have long suggested emending MT la@r*c=y]l= (“to Israel”) to la@ rv*Y`l^ (“El to the upright”); this would yield the following (admittedly appealing) parallelism:

“Truly, (the) Mighty (One) is good to the upright,
(the) Mightiest to (the) pure of heart.”

However, the ancient versions follow the MT, which argues strongly in its favor. Dahood (II, p. 188) reads the prefixed –l as a vocativel (i.e., “O, Israel”), which would certainly be fitting to the opening line of the Psalm, with its communal setting. By retaining the MT, the couplet establishes the dual-aspect for God’s people—i.e., the people Israel, but specifically the holy/righteous ones of the people, designated here by the expression “pure of heart” (bb*l@ yr@B*). If rv*y` (“straight, upright”) is read in the first line (cf.  above), then the religious-ethical emphasis would be even more clear.

Verse 2

“Yet (as for) me, but a little did my feet turn aside,
with no (strength), they poured out (in my) steps.”

The precise syntax of this couplet is problematic, mainly due to the verb forms in each line, for which there are Masoretic (kethib/qere’) variants. It is also one of the few metrically irregular verses (4+3 couplet) in the Psalm, expressing, in poetic terms, the near stumbling of the protagonist.

With the initial pronoun (yn]a&, “I”), the Psalmist identifies himself as being among the righteous Israelites, those who are “pure of heart”. And yet, something has very nearly (“according to a little [bit],” fu^m=K!) caused his feet to bend/turn (vb hf*n`) from the path. The negative/privative particle /y]a^ (with the prefixed preposition K=) at the start of the second line should probably be understood in the sense of “as with no (strength)” —i.e., his legs/feet were suddenly without any firmness or strength as he stepped. His legs “poured out” (vb Ep^v*) like water under him in his steps (rV%a^ plur.). Dahood (II, p. 188) suggests that the h– ending of the verb form hk*P=v% (kethib) represents the archaic third person feminine dual/plural ending, which would correspond to the the plural yr*v%a& (“my steps”).

Walking straight, with feet firmly planted on the ground, is a basic religious-ethical idiom for upright behavior and conduct. What was it that nearly caused the Psalmist to stumble and stray from the path? He describes this in verses 3ff that follow.

Verse 3

“For I was (made) jealous by the boasting (one)s,
(when the) well-being of (the) wicked I saw,”

The particle yK! here has explanatory force, describing the reason why the Psalmist nearly stumbled from the right path (cf. above). He became jealous (vb an`q*) of those “boasting”. The verb ll^h* II literally means “shout,” in a negative (arrogant or boastful) sense. The participle indicates regular behavior that characterizes such people (i.e., boasting/boastful ones); here it is a characteristic of the wicked, cf. also 5:6[5]; 10:3; 49:7[6], 14[13]; 52:3[1], etc.

The Psalmist is particularly provoked to jealousy and envy when he sees the well-being of the wicked. In spite of their wicked ways, they seem to have considerable prosperity and success, happiness, etc, in this life. The noun <olv* properly means “fullness, completeness”; in English idiom, we would perhaps translate it here as “a full/complete life”; for poetic concision, I have rendered it more generally as “well-being”. Quite possibly, the wicked are boasting specifically of their prosperity and well-being.

Verse 4

“that there are no struggles for them—
full and fat, (indeed, is) their strength!”

I view verse 4 as a continuation of the thought in v. 3; the initial particle yK! thus has a slightly different emphasis than in v. 3. The well-being (<olv*) of the wicked is manifested by their lack of any struggles. The exact derivation and meaning of noun hB*x%r=j^ is uncertain; the only other occurrence is in Isa 58:6 where it is used parallel to the idea of a heavy burden, and of the yoke that is placed on a beast of burden. Dahood (II, p. 189) would relate it to Ugaritic —ƒb (“slay”, or, more generally, “fight”); cp. Hebrew bx@j*, “cut, hew, dig”. In any case, the basic idea seems to be that the wicked, in their prosperity, are free from burdensome labors, which I have generalized in my translation (following Dahood) as “struggles”.

Most commentators are in agreement that MT <t*oml= (“in their death” [?]) needs to be separated and revocalized as <T* oml* (“for them / complete”). The adjective <T* (“complete”) relates conceptually to the noun <olv* (“fullness, completeness”) in v. 3. Because they are free from burdensome labor, their physical strength (lWa), and their earthly life as a whole, is “full” (<T*) and “fat” (ayr!B*).

Verse 5

“Nothing of the toil of humankind is there (for) them,
and with mankind(‘s trouble) they are not touched.”

The syntax of this couplet is a bit awkward (I have tried to capture something of this in my translation), but it clearly gets across the idea, from v. 4 (cf. above), that the wicked, in their prosperity, are relatively free from the toil and trouble that burdens other (less fortunate) people—that is to say, most of humankind. The noun lm*u* (“hard work, labor, toil”) in the first line should be read as implicit in the second line as well.

Verse 6

“Thus (an evil) exaltation adorns their neck,
(and) a covering of violence is set for them.”

In their prosperous strength, the wicked are spurred on to (further) wickedness and acts of injustice (against others). A prideful exaltation (hw`a&G~) adorns their neck (denom. verb qn~u*, from qn`u&, “neck[lace]”), and a garment of violence (sm*j*) covers their body. The syntax of the second line is rather difficult to translate; literally it would read: “a setting of violence is a cover(ing) for them”. I have reworded this slightly, so as better to capture the idea of a garment of violence being put (root tyv) around their body. Here the idea of wickedness is clearly connected with the image of worldly wealth and luxury (expressed through clothing and jewelry, etc).

Verse 7

“Their eyes (stand)ing out (whit)er than milk,
(the) images of (their) heart go (yet) beyond.”

For the first line, I tentatively adopt the vocalization of the MT proposed by Dahood (II, p. 189), reading the infinitive ax)y` (“going out”), and vocalizing bljm as bl*j*m@ (“from milk”), with the preposition /m! in the comparative sense of “(more) than”; as a comparison of beauty, cf. Gen 49:12; Lam 4:7. The brightness/whiteness of the eyes of the wicked can perhaps be understood as expressing two aspects of meaning: (a) a vibrancy of physical health and beauty, and (b) eyes wide open alluding to a covetous desire for riches and the things of this world. The latter aspect is suggested by the second line, describing how the heart of the wicked, within them, imagines still more things; the verb rb^u* literally means “go/cross over”, perhaps in the sense of going further—i.e., in one’s desire for wealth and luxury, etc.

Some commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld-Zenger) would emend omn@yu@ (“their eyes”) to omn`ou& (“their guilt”). However, this is inappropriate; body parts are emphasized throughout vv. 6-9, and thus it is fitting to focus on the eyes of the wicked, especially as a parallel with the ‘inner’ vision of the “heart”.

Verse 8

“They bring mocking and speak with evil (tongue);
(indeed,) oppression from on high they speak.”

The impulse and desires of the heart (v. 7) leads the wicked to speak evil (ur^). The verb rb^D* (“speak”) is used twice, once in each line, for double-emphasis. They begin with mocking (vb qWm) and end with more serious abuse against others, bringing oppression (qv#u)) from their lofty position (“on high,” <orm*).

Verse 9

“They (even) set their mouth against the heavens,
and their tongue goes against the (whole) earth.”

The motif of the high/exalted position of the wicked in v. 8 leads to the idea that they even speak (“set their mouth”) against the heavens. The motifs of daring to exalt oneself to heaven, and of speaking against God Himself, are features of the “wicked tyrant” motif in Old Testament and Jewish tradition; for more on this, cf. Part 1 of my study on “The Antichrist Tradition”.

Here the preposition B= has the specific sense of “against”; however, it is not as clear that this is intended in the second line (i.e., “against the earth”) as well. Possibly, the idea of “going about in (i.e. throughout) the whole earth” is intended, just as it is said of the Satan in Job 1:7; 2:2 (“going about in it”). However, I think the overriding theme of the wicked acting in an abusive and oppressive manner favors the sense of speaking “against” in both lines.

Verse 10

“So (the) people turn back this way (to) them,
and waters of (the) full (sea) are brought to them.”

This is a difficult couplet; the first line, in particular, is problematic, and may be corrupt. Dahood (II, p. 190) would emend MT oMu^ byv!y` (“his people return” [?]) to Wub=c=y] (“they filled/satisfied [themselves”) + enclitic <– suffix. This would certainly fit the theme in v. 9, of the mouth/tongue of the wicked extending out to encompass the heavens and the earth.

If the MT is at all correct, then presumably the first line relates to the oppressive character of the wicked. Through their power and position, they are able, acting unjustly, to compel people to behave a certain way. As a result, people “turn back” to the wicked, providing a measure of service to them on their behalf. One is reminded of the influence the evil Sea Creature (and his servant the Earth Creature) has on the peoples of earth in the book of Revelation (chap. 13). The image of  the “waters of the full (sea) [?]” is likely intended as a general (and comprehensive) metaphor for the worldly wealth that has come to the wicked.

Verse 11

“And they say, ‘How can (the) Mighty (One) know?’
and ‘Is there (any) knowledge in the Most High?'”

The exalted position and arrogant thinking of the wicked even leads them to question the knowledge of God. Probably this question should be understood, at another level, in terms of the principal Wisdom-question posed by the Psalm: viz., how can the righteous Creator allow injustice to prevail on earth, and allow the wicked to prosper? Does God even realize what the wicked are doing? The idea that the wicked might think their deeds are hidden from God is expressed relatively often in the Old Testament; for examples of this motif elsewhere in the Psalms, cf. 10:11; 94:7. Yet, again, the Wisdom-focus of the Psalm also raises the question, even for the righteous, of whether YHWH sees (and knows) what the wicked are doing; if He does see, then why does He not punish the wicked?

Verse 12

“See, these (are the) wicked (one)s;
forever at rest, they increase (in) strength.”

The Psalmist ends his description of the wicked with this declaration: “these (are the) wicked (one)s”. The problematic Wisdom-question addressed by the Psalm is summarized in the final line. The adjective wa@v* means “at rest,” and thus the wicked are characterized by those who are “at rest” (vv. 4-5, cf. above). The noun <olu* presumably is used in the typical sense of the “distant (future)”; to avoid cluttering the translation at this climactic point, I have rendered it in the more figurative (and dramatic) sense of “forever”. However, the alternate interpretation of Dahood (II, p. 191) merits consideration. He understands wa@v* (and the root hl*v* I, “be at rest”) in the negative of sense of being careless/heedless; when used in combination with <olu* as a Divine title (i.e., Eternal One), the line would read:

“heedless of the Eternal (One), they increase (their) strength”

This reading certainly accentuates the Wisdom-question of the Psalm. How can the wicked ignore/neglect YHWH, and yet still prosper, increasing in wealth and worldly power? In the second and third parts of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study), the author begins to provide an answer to this question.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 2)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 1: Verses 1-13 (cont.)

For a discussion of verses 1-8, see the previous study.

Verses 9

“Do not cast me (away) in (the) time of (my) old age;
at (the) ending of my strength, do not leave me!”

In vv. 5-8, the Psalmist refers to how he has been faithful to YHWH since the time of his youth; now he calls on God to remain faithful to him in his old age (hn`q=z]). The three-beat couplet has a chiastic structure:

    • Do not cast me away [vb El^v*]
      • in the time of (my) old age
      • at the ending of my strength
    • do not leave/forsake me [vb bz~u*]
Verses 10-11

“For (those) hostile to me say (things) about me,
and (those) watching my soul, they plan as one,
‘(The) Mightiest has left him,
let us pursue and seize him,
for there is no (one) rescuing him!'”

The tone of lament from the opening verses returns here; the Psalmist laments his current suffering, and calls upon YHWH to rescue him from his hostile adversaries. These wicked people are characterized here by two substantive verbal nouns:

    • by~a*— “(the one)s being hostile to me” [yb~!y+oa]
    • rm^v*— “(the one)s watching my soul” [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)], that is, with evil/hostile intent

Dahood (II, p. 174) explains the verb rm^a* in line 1 as preserving the archaic meaning “see, watch” (as attested in Ugaritic), rather that the common meaning “say”. While this is possible, it would distort the close synonymous parallelism of the couplet:

    • “the ones hostile to me | speak…”
    • “those watching my soul | plan…(saying)”

Verse 10 is an irregular 4-beat couplet; verse 11 is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though it is perhaps better to separate out the initial word (as I have done above [some commentators would omit it]), and to read the verse as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The terseness of this rhythm reflects the harshness and directness of the opponents’ plotting. They seek to take advantage of the fact that the protagonist, in his old age and suffering, would seem to have lost God’s protection. They can pursue (vb [d^r*) and seize (vb cp^T*) him, because there is no one (else) around to “snatch” (vb lx^n`) him (i.e., rescue him) out of their grasp; the latter verb is used frequently in the Psalms to express the protection and deliverance YHWH provides to those who are (and remain) faithful to him. The opponents think that the Psalmist is no longer under this covenantal protection, but he makes his plea to YHWH on just this basis—that he has remained loyal to God throughout his whole life.

Verse 12

“Mightiest, do not be far away from me!
My Mighty (One), hurry to (give) me help!”

The Psalmist’s plea is expressed here, with a double-address to YHWH; probably the initial <yh!l)a$ should be seen as a substitution for the divine name YHWH (hwhy), such as occurs throughout the ‘Elohist’ Psalms. The negative “do not be far (away) [vb qj^r*]” is parallel with the positive “hurry [vb vWj]”, i.e., come near to give help. In the translation above, I treat yt!r*z+u#l= as a verbal noun (“to [give] me help”), but it might be more accurately rendered as “to (be) my help” —i.e., YHWH Himself is the Psalmist’s help.

Verse 13

“They shall be ashamed, finished,
(the one)s accusing my soul,
shall be wrapped (in) shame and disgrace,
(those) seeking my evil [i.e. harm]”

As it stands, v. 13 is a 2-beat couplet followed by a 3+2 couplet; however, one suspects that a word may be missing from the first line, and that originally there was a pair of 3+2 couplets. In any case, the thought of the verse is clear enough, as is the parallelism of the couplets. Again the wicked are characterized by a pair of substantive verbal nouns:

    • /f^c*— “(the one)s accusing my soul” [yv!p=n~ yn@f=c)]
    • vq^B*— “(the one)s seeking my evil [i.e. harm]” [yt!u*r* yv@q=b^m=]

The imperfect verb forms in lines 1 and 3 (“they shall be…”) have jussive force, and could be translated as an imprecation: “let them be…!” Imprecatory (curse) wishes are frequent in the Psalms, however uncomfortable they may be for us (as Christians) reading them today.

Part 2: Verses 14-24

Verse 14

“But I, continually I will wait, (for you),
and will add (further) upon your praise!”

The Psalmist’s expression of trust here mirrors that in the opening of Part 1 (cf. on verse 1 in the previous study). In spite of his suffering, and the hostile attacks of his opponents, the protagonist continues to trust in YHWH. The verb used here is lj^y`, meaning “wait (for someone/something),” often with a connotation of hopeful expectation. The aspect of continuity is expressed in the first line with the adverb dym!T* (denoting extension); in the second line, the verb ps^y` (“add [to]”) can similarly have the adverbial meaning “continue to do (something)”. The focus of praise is, of course, appropriate as an expression of trust for a musician-composer like the Psalmist.

Verse 15

“My mouth shall recount your righteousness,
all the day (long), your saving (deeds),
though I cannot know (the) count (of them).”

Verse 15 builds upon the thought in v. 14, with a slightly irregular 3-beat tricolon. The final two lines expound the first, while the framing (first and third) lines involve a bit of wordplay on the meaning of the root rps (“count, number”). In line 1, the verb rp^s* (in the Piel) means “give account of” or “recount”, in the sense of declaring something, telling of it (e.g., in poem and song). However, the plural noun torp)s= in line 3 refers more concretely to the count or number of something—best understood in terms of the saving deeds performed by YHWH, represented in line 2 by the [collective] singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”). I follow Dahood (II, p. 174) in understanding the yK! particle in line 3 as having concessive force (i.e., “even though…”). The ironic sense of the wordplay is: the Psalmist will recount the saving deeds of YHWH, even though he is not able to count the sheer number of them.

Verse 16

“I shall come with (your) mighty (deed)s, my Lord [YHWH],
I shall cause your righteousness to be remembered, yours alone.”

The exposition of the Psalmist’s praise continues here, with the declaration “I shall come” (vb aoB). The following prepositional expression, torb%g=B!, is somewhat ambiguous. If, as I propose, the singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”) in v. 15 (cf. above) refers collectively to the “saving deeds” performed by YHWH, then the plural torB%g+ would simply mean the “mighty (deed)s” of YHWH. The Psalmist comes “with” (B=) tales in hand (in poem and song) of these mighty deeds. Plausibly, the scenario is of the protagonist entering the sacred place of assembly (Temple precincts, etc) with praise of these deeds, ready to declare them publicly. Dahood (II, p. 175) would understand the noun hr*WbG+ as referring to the “mighty (house)” (i.e., the Temple) of God, noting the Semitic (Canaanite) tendency of using plural forms for the names of buildings.

There is a certain chiastic structure to verses 15-16, taken together:

    • “I shall recount your righteousness
      • (I shall announce) all day your saving (deeds)
      • I shall come with (praise of your) mighty deeds
    • I shall make (people) remember your righteousness

*    *    *    *    *    *

It is possible to view verse 17 as marking the start of a distinct unit within Part 2 of the Psalm. The reference to the youth and old age of the Psalmist (vv. 17-18) certainly parallels the theme of units vv. 5-8 and 9-13 of Part 1 (cf. above). Thematically, I would divide Part 2 as follows:

    • Vv. 14-16: Announcement of the Psalmist’s praise of YHWH
    • Vv. 17-21: Description of YHWH’s faithfulness to the Psalmist, with an expression of trust that God will deliver him
    • Vv. 22-24: Concluding declaration of praise to YHWH

Verses 17-24 will be discussed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 70

Psalm 70

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is essentially identical with Psalm 40:14-18 [13-17], discussed in an earlier study. The points of difference are noted below. The existence of Psalm 70 provides confirmation for scholars who hold that vv. 14-18 of Ps 40 originally constituted a separate Psalm. We are apparently dealing with two versions of the same basic poem. On its own, this poem is a lament, containing a plea/prayer to YHWH for deliverance. The meter is irregular.

The superscription simply marks this as another composition “belonging to David”. The precise meaning of the additional direction ryK!z+h^l= is unclear. If parsed as a Hiphil infinitive (of the verb rk^z`), it would mean “to cause to remember, to bring to remembrance”, but whether this relates to the performing tradition, or to the content (and purpose) of the poem, is uncertain. The same expression occurs in the superscription of Ps 38; and note the use of the verb rk^z` in the opening lines of Pss 132 and 137.

Verse 2 [1]

“(Rush, O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away)!
(O) YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

The Psalmist’s plea for help begins with this single couplet. It is nearly identical with Ps 40:14[13], the two differences being: (1) use of <yh!l)a$ in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) in the first line, and (2) the initial verb (hxr) is missing. The parallel with Ps 40, along with the irregular meter (2+3) of the couplet as it currently stands, strongly suggests that a comparable verb (imperative) has dropped out. In discussing 40:14 (cf. the earlier study), I mentioned that I had followed Dahood (I, p. 247) in vocalizing the initial verb form (hxr) as hx*r% (from the root JWr, “run, rush”), rather than MT hx@r= (from hx*r*, “be pleased [to act]”). The verb JWr makes a more obvious (and fitting) parallel with vwj (“hurry”) in the second line.

If the MT of verse 2 is correct, then it must be regarded as a rhythmically irregular couplet (though with identical numbers of syllables in each line [8+8]); it could be translated as follows:

“(O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away),
YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

Dahood (II, p. 168) would parse yn]l@yX!hl= as a Hiphil imperative form with an emphatic –l; the first line would then read: “(O) Mightiest, snatch me (away)!”. The use of the general title <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm, “Mightiest,” i.e., ‘God’) in place of the Divine name (hwhy) is typical of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms we have been studying.

Verse 3 [2]

“May they feel shame and humiliation,
(those) seeking (after) my soul!
May they be sent backward and be ashamed,
(the one)s (who) delight in my evil!”

Again, this verse is very close to that of Psalm 40 (v. 15 [14]), cf. the earlier study; the second couplet is identical, while there is an extra word at the end of each in the first couplet of Ps 40 (yielding a 3+3 rather than 2+2 couplet):

“May they feel shame and humiliation as one [dj^y~],
(those) seeking my soul to sweep it (away) [Ht*oPs=l!]!”

Here we have familiar motif of wicked assailants who attack the righteous protagonist, seeking to do him harm (and even to kill him)—in this sense, of course, “my evil” means “evil done (or intended) against me”. This is a dramatic paradigm we have encountered in dozens of Psalms. It is a general way of referring to the wicked (in contrast to the righteous), and does not require the presence of specific enemies. However, the poetic idiom could certainly be applied to any number of historical situations or practical circumstances.

The desire that such wicked assailants would be “put to shame”, and have their evil plans thwarted (“turned back”), is also a common prayer-wish in these lament-Psalms. This is expressed through three different verbs which share a similar range of meaning: vWB, rp@j*, and <l^K*. These are used repeatedly throughout the Psalms, and often with similar formulations (35:4 is quite close here).

Verse 4 [3]

“May they be devastated upon (the) heel of their shame,
(the one)s saying (to me), ‘Aha, aha!'”

The second line of Ps 40:16[15] contains an additional word (yl!, “to me”, indicated in parentheses above), but is otherwise identical. The shorter second line of v. 4 here results in a tighter couplet, with a more precise 3-beat rhythm, though metrically there is not much difference between the two versions.

The wish of v. 3 [2] is restated here, but even more intensely, as the Psalmist asks that his adversaries be “devastated” (vb <m@v*) on account of their shame. The expression “upon (the) heel of” (bq#u@ lu^) is a Hebrew idiom that can be rendered blandly in English as “on account of”. The sense of their wickedness is captured here through their accusatory taunting of the righteous (cp. 35:21). For a slightly different explanation of bqu (with a different vocalization), cf. Dahood, II, p. 168.

Verse 5 [4]

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!’
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Ps 40:17[16] is identical, accept for the final noun, which in Ps 40 is hu*WvT= rather than the related hu*Wvy+, the two words essentially being byforms with identical meaning.

Just as the Psalmist prays for the wicked to feel shame and humiliation, so he also wishes (conversely) for the righteous to experience joy. The verb pair cWc and jm^c* expresses this joyfulness, even as the pair vWB and rp@j* in v. 3 [2] expresses the shame/humiliation of the wicked. The contrastive parallel (between the righteous and wicked) is quite precise here. The wicked are the ones “seeking [vb vq^B*]” the soul of the righteous, to do it harm; by contrast, the righteous are the ones “seeking” (same verb) after YHWH, to do His will. The wicked utter accusatory taunts (“Aha, aha!”) against the righteous, while the righteous utter praise in honor of YHWH (“Great is YHWH!”).

Structurally, this verse is best understood as a tricolon that has been expanded with two additional short lines. The tricolon is comprised of lines 1-2 and 5 above, producing a fine characterization of the righteous:

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Within this poetic structure, the additional descriptive element has been added:

“(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!'”

To their heart and intention, a confessional aspect is included, whereby the righteous demonstrate their devotion to YHWH through what they say publicly. It implies a worship setting, but even more importantly, it marks the Psalmist as belonging to the gathering of (all the) the righteous.

Verse 6 [5]

“And (yet) I (am) oppressed and needy,
(O) Mightiest, (come) hurry to me!
You (are) my help and my escaping—
(O) YHWH, do not stay behind!”

Compared with the parallel in Ps 40:18[17], there is a more consistent parallelism in the couplets here, taking the form of an urgent plea to YHWH (matching that of v. 2 at the opening of the Psalm). The points of difference are indicated in italics above, as well as, correspondingly, here for Ps 40:

“And (though) I (am) oppressed and needy,
my Lord has regard for me.
You (are) my help and my escaping—
my Mighty (One), do not stay behind!”

The righteous are frequently characterized as poor/needy (/oyb=a#) and oppressed (yn]a*), and this pairing occurs numerous times in the Psalms—35:10; 37:14; 72:4, 12; 74:21; 86:1; 109:16, 22; 140:13; and cf. also on 69:33-34 (in the previous study). The wicked, by contrast, are rich and powerful (at least by worldly standards), and oppress the righteous. This is expressed from the standpoint of social justice, but as an idiom also carries a deeper religious and theological resonance. The righteous, by their very nature, cannot share the success and strength of the wicked in the world; instead, they must trust in YHWH for sustenance and protection.

The protection provided by YHWH is again the subject of the final two lines, as the Psalmist closes his poem with the plea: “O YHWH, do not stay behind!”. The verb rj^a* literally means “stay behind, keep back”, and expresses a situation that is the opposite of what the Psalmist needs. He needs YHWH to come forward to rescue him, to stand in front of him and give the necessary protection. YHWH is both the help and the “way out”, the escape (vb fl^P*) from all that threatens him.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 3)

Psalm 69, continued

Part 2: Verses 14-30 [13-29]

(Verses 14-19 [13-18] were discussed in the previous study)

Verses 20-21 [19-20]

“You, (indeed) you know my scorn—
my shame and disgrace are before you—
(the) scorn (from) all my oppressors,
it has broken my heart  and I am sick.
I looked for but a nod, and there was none,
and for (those) sighing, but I did not find (one).”

In verses 14-19, the Psalmist makes his prayer, his petition, to YHWH for deliverance from his adversaries. Here, the tone of lament from the first part of the Psalm (cf. the prior study) is repeated. The protagonist details his suffering to God, defined primarily in terms of the verbal abuse and taunting from those oppressing him (vb rr^x* II). The primary word here is hP*r=j#, “scorn, reproach,” capturing the sense of verbal abuse, and often connoting the casting of blame upon someone. This abuse leads to the protagonist experiencing shame and disgrace—the nouns tv#B) and hM*l!K= being quite similar in meaning.

The standard verse division (between vv. 20 and 21) is problematic, both metrically and syntactically. Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 172) proposes transferring the words yt!M*l!k=W yT!v=b*W (“[and] my shame and my disgrace”) from line 2 in v. 20 down into v. 21. In my view, the simplest solution is to include the first word of v. 21 (hP*r=j#, “scorn”) as part of the final line of v. 22. This allows (more or less) the three-beat rhythm of the lines to be maintained throughout vv. 21-22. It also heightens the thematic emphasis on abuse/scorn in v. 21, making it clear that this abuse comes from the Psalmist’s adversaries.

YHWH is aware of all this, as the Psalmist points out in his petition— “my shame and my disgrace are in front of [dg#n#] you,” i.e., are right before God’s eyes. It is also known to God what the effect of this abuse has been: it has “broken” (vb rb^v*) the Psalmist’s heart and made him sick (vb vWn), a most vivid way of referring to suffering—both emotional and physical. Beyond this, he has no one to help or give comfort to him in his time of distress. The verb dWn denotes waving/shaking or nodding one’s head, here as a sign of sympathy for the psalmist’s suffering; similarly the verb <j^n` means “breathe (deep),” i.e., “sigh” on behalf of someone.

Verse 22 [21]

“They gave in my food (the bitter) head,
and for my thirst they made me drink sour (wine).”

It is possible that the initial –w conjunction is meant to contrast with the people (the Psalmist’s friends and neighbors) who should have been sympathetic toward him in his time of suffering. In this case, the translation would be: “Instead, they gave…poison…”. On the other hand, these lines may simply be amplifying the description of the abuse given by the Psalmist’s adversaries.

The noun var) literally means “head,” and presumably refers to the ‘head’ of a (particular) plant which is bitter and/or poisonous to the taste. The Psalmist’s adversaries (or would-be friends) further mock and abuse him by putting something harsh and bitter tasting (possibly even poisonous) in his food. The parallel is of giving him sour wine (Jm#j)) to drink. Probably this imagery is meant to be figurative, indicating the cruelty and treachery of the Psalmist’s opponents (or false friends).

Early Christians, quite naturally, came to interpret verse 22 (especially the second line) in terms of the events of Jesus’ Passion—of the sour wine given to him (to drink) while he was dying on the cross (Matt 27:34, 48 par).

Verse 23 [22]

“May their table be before them as a trap,
even for (those) of (their) bond, as a snare!”

The Psalmist’s lamenting plea suddenly turns into an imprecatory outburst, calling on God to visit the opponents’ own wicked intentions back upon them (in judgment). They will be caught in the very sort of treacherous trap they seek to lay for the righteous. The nouns jP^ and vq#om are parallel in meaning—the first word refers to a metal trap, and the second to a noose or snare made of rope/cord.

The plural noun <ym!olv= here is difficult to translate. My interpretation follows the use of <wlv in Psalm 41:11 [10] (cf. the earlier study), with the assumption that it refers to people in covenant-bond with one another, who have close/intimate fellowship at table. In such an environment, one should be able to trust in those at the table, but, based on the Psalmist’s curse-request, even a meeting of supposed friends sharing a common bond will turn into a “trap” for the wicked.

Verse 24 [23]

“Let their eyes be (made) dark from seeing,
and their thighs continually may (they) shake!”

The lex talionis imprecation continues from v. 23. Just as the Psalmist was made sick (to the point of suffering physically) by the opponents’ abuse, so they will be made to suffer in a similar way. Their eyes (i.e. sight) will become dark (vb Ev^j*); the expression “from seeing” (toarm@) is privative—i.e., their eyes will grow dark (i.e. blind) so that they are unable to see.

Verse 25 [24]

“May you pour out upon them your anger,
and may (the) burning of your nostril(s) take them!”

The imprecation by the Psalmist here turns into a direct call on YHWH to bring destructive judgment upon his adversaries. This is expressed in traditional terms, referring the burning anger of God. The noun <u^z~ refers to this anger simply, while, in the second line, the more colorful idiom of God’s burning nostrils (lit. “burning of your nostril[s]”) is used, presumably drawing upon the idea of an angry bull, etc, snorting out a hot wind. The idiom was so common that the noun [a^ came to signify “anger” generally, derived from the more concrete image of burning/flaring nostrils (or the burning anger visible in one’s face).

Verse 26 [25]

“Let their row (of dwellings) be (made) desolate,
(and) in their tents let there not be (anyone) sitting!”

Because of God’s judgment on the wicked, there will literally be no one “sitting” (i.e., dwelling) in the tents; the entire encampment (lit. row [of tents]) will be made desolate (vb <m@v*).

Verse 27 [26]

“For the one whom you struck they have pursued,
and tell about (the) anguish of (he) whom you wounded.”

This is a difficult couplet, in terms of its syntax. The basic sense, however, seems clear enough. The Psalmist’s adversaries are deserving of punishment because they persecuted and mocked (or slandered) a righteous individual who was suffering. Here, the suffering is best understood as a physical illness, brought about by God. The Psalmist acknowledges that it was YHWH who “struck” him with this suffering, ‘piercing’ him (figuratively speaking). This suggests that the reproach (“scorn,” hP*r=j#) by the adversaries (cf. above) may have involved casting blame upon the Psalmist, to the effect that he was deserving of suffering because he committed certain kinds of sins or crimes. Such a focus on the wicked slandering the righteous would be in keeping with descriptions we have seen in earlier Psalms. In this regard, the verb rp^s* (“give account, recount”) here should probably be understood in the negative/pejorative sense of “telling tales” about someone.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 163) in vocalizing hta as ht)a) (direct object marker with 3ms suffix) instead of MT hTa^ (2ms pronoun); the combination rv#a& hta thus means “he who” or “the one who”. The parallelism of the lines would require that ;yl#l*j& involve a similar expression; this is achieved (again following Dahood) by reading a genitive form with an instrumental suffix (i.e., “by you”), viz. “(he) of your piercing”, i.e. “he whom you pierced”.

Verse 28 [27]

“Give crookedness upon their crookedness,
and (so) may they not come in(to) your righteousness.”

Here the Psalmist’s imprecation (beginning in v. 23, cf. above) reaches its harshest point. The first line is a bit difficult to translate. The noun /ou* literally means “crookedness,” indicating a state of being crooked, twisted, perverse, often specifically in an ethical-religious sense. The Psalmist asks God to put (lit. give) further “crookedness” upon the wicked who are already “crooked”. The second line makes clear that this is to be understood in the literal sense of taking a twisted path. The wicked already walk in a twisted/crooked way, but the Psalmist, by his request, wants to ensure that they are unable to find their way into God’s “righteousness”. By this, probably, is meant the way into His righteous dwelling-place (i.e., His blessed abode in Heaven). If verse 26 implies the death of the wicked, here we seem to have the idea of a more permanent perishing, with the wicked unable to have any life after death. This is confirmed by what follows in verse 29.

Verse 29 [28]

“May they be rubbed (out) from (the) account of (the) living,
and with (the) righteous let them not be written!”

The idiom of a “(written) account” (i.e. book or scroll) of the “living” is traditional, referring to an account that God keeps, specifically recording those who are righteous, and thus have a deserving place in the blessed afterlife (cf. Exod 32:32-33; Psalm 56:8; 139:16; Dan 12:1; Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5, etc). The Psalmist asks that his wicked adversaries be “rubbed (out)” (vb hj*m*) from this book. Christians today doubtless will find this sort of imprecatory language and thinking disturbing, but it is very much a part of the ancient Near Eastern worldview.

Possibly there is a bit of wordplay here between the noun rp#s@ (“account”) and the related verb rp^s* in v. 27 (cf. above). By ‘telling tales” and giving slanderous accounts of the Psalmist’s suffering, the wicked will end up being blotted out of the account (i.e. book) of life.

Verse 30 [29]

“But I (am) oppressed and in anguish—
may your salvation, Mightiest, set me (up) high!”

The imprecation reached its climax in verse 29, and now the Psalmist returns to the main line of his prayer and petition, again lamenting his current condition. He is apparently experiencing genuine physical and emotional suffering, which has been exacerbated by the abuse of his opponents. The pronoun yn]a& (“I”) with the prefixed conjunction is emphatic and could be translated “But as for me, (I am)…”

Two terms are used to describe the protagonist’s condition. The first is the adjective yn]u* (“oppressed”), an adjective that occurs frequently in the Psalms (29 times, out of 73 OT occurrences). It characterizes the righteous—as people who tend to be poor and oppressed (spec. by the wicked). The second term is a verbal noun (participle), ba@oK, denoting a state of “being in anguish”; the use of a participle suggests that it refers to a present and continuing condition.

In the final line, the Psalmist closes his prayer with an expression of trust in YHWH, using the traditional motif, frequent in the Psalms, of God as a place of safety and protection for the righteous. This is the fundamental significance of the word hu*Wvy+ (“salvation”) here. The protagonist expects that God will answer his prayer, and will deliver him from his suffering, and, at the same time, will rescue him from the threats and abuse of his wicked adversaries. It is expected that YHWH will take him to a safe and protected place “up high” —that is the basic meaning of bg~c*, a relatively rare verb which occurs with some frequency in the Psalms (7 out of 20 OT occurrences).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 1)

Psalm 69

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1-19 [18])

It is generally acknowledged that this Psalm, in comparison with the previous Ps 68, is in much better textual condition. Despite being comparable in size, the MT of Ps 69 presents far fewer textual and interpretive difficulties. Even so, its length and complexity remain challenging for commentators. In particular, there a number of different theories regarding the composition of the work. It seems likely that some measure of development and expansion took place, by which the current Psalm grew into shape, from a simpler/shorter original composition. The three-stage development posited by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 176) is worth citing as a plausible hypothesis:

    • Stage 1: A pre-exilic psalm of lament, consisting of vv. 2-5, 14c-19, 31; the structure of this Psalm follows a familiar pattern of lament-petition-praise.
    • Stage 2: The primary psalm was expanded, according its three structural elements: lament (vv. 6-14b), petition (vv. 20-30), praise vow (vv. 32-34).
    • Stage 3: The call to praise, mentioning the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem (vv. 35-37), was added to the end of the psalm; this last portion certainly comes from an exilic (or post-exilic) setting.

In terms of analyzing the structure of this lengthy Psalm, it seems best to keep things relatively simple, following a broad 3-part division that, I think, can be discerned rather clearly:

    • Part 1: Lament to YHWH (vv. 2-13)
    • Part 2: Prayer to YHWH (vv. 14-30)
    • Part 3: Praise to YHWH (vv. 31-37)

Metrically, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates; however, this is far from consistent. As one might expect, in a poem of such length and complexity, the meter varies considerably. Notable rhythmic departures from the 3+3 pattern will be mentioned in the notes.

The short heading to the Psalm simply marks this as another Davidic composition (“[belonging] to David”). The musical direction indicates that the lyric of the poem should be performed to the melody “Lilies” (<yN]v*ov); the same direction occurs in Psalm 45 (cf. also Ps 60:1; 80:1).

It should be mentioned that a significant portion of this Psalm, though fragmentary, survives in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa, covering vv. 1-19. This includes an interesting number of variant readings, compared with the Masoretic text. Some of these will be touched upon in the next study.

Part 1: Verses 2-13 [1-12]

Verse 2 [1]

“Save me, O Mightiest,
for there have come
waters up to (my) neck!”

The initial verse, which I read as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, presents, in sharp and vivid detail, the danger facing the protagonist of this Psalm. There are a number of instances (always in poetry) where the word vp#n#, usually translated “soul”, should be understood in the concrete physical sense of “neck, throat”; this is certainly one such instance. The image (symbolic of mortal peril) is of the Psalmist in water up to his neck, and the implication is that the waters are still coming. In other words, he is in danger of being submerged, and drowning.

Verse 3 [2]

“I have sunk in mire of (the) deep (sea),
and there is no place to stand;
I have come in(to the) depths of (the) waters,
and (the) swirling (flood) engulfs me!”

This verse expands the imagery in v. 2, expressed through a pair of 3+2 couplets. The first line in each couplet depicts a similar idea:

    • I have sunk in the mire of the deep (sea)
    • I have come in(to) the depths of the waters

Two different words are used to express the idea of deep water, watery depths: hl*Wxm= and qm*u&m^; both words essentially mean “deep place”. The noun /w@y` adds the motif of “mud, mire” to the portrait of the surging and swirling (lbv) waters.

The second line of each couplet is also parallel. The idea of having no “place to stand” (dm*u(m*) is followed by the more dramatic image of the waters “engulfing”(vb [f^v*) the Psalmist.

Verse 4 [3]

“I am exhausted by my crying,
my throat is (all) parched,
(and) my eyes are finished,
from waiting for my Mighty (One).”

Following the idea of being submerged by water, in vv. 2-3, the image now shifts to one of being dried out. The Psalmist’s throat (/orG`, cf. the parallel with vp#n# in v. 2, above) is literally “burned” (vb rr^j*), best understood in the sense of being “parched,” i.e., dry (and scorched) as in the desert. His throat is parched from all his “crying (out)” to God; this constant outcry has exhausted (vb ug~y`) him, and weakened him so that his eyes fail (lit. are finished). The parallelism in these couplets is chiastic:

    • I am exhausted crying out (to God)
      • my throat is burnt
      • my eyes are finished
    • (I have been) waiting for my God

That is, the Psalmist has been waiting for YHWH to answer his cry for help. Dahood (II, p. 156f) would read the prefixed –l on yh*l)al@ as a vocative— “…from waiting, O my Mighty (One)”. This is certainly possible; it would preserve the direct address to God throughout.

Metrically, in this verse we have a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. The terse rhythm captures the urgency of the situation.

Verse 5 [4]

“Many (more) than (the) hairs of my head
(are those) hating me for nothing,
strong (those) putting an end to me,
my enemies (acting with) deceit.
That which I did not strip away,
must I then return (it)?”

Here it becomes clear that the imagery of being engulfed by deadly waters was figurative of the danger facing the Psalmist. In its place is the familiar idiom of the danger posed by hostile enemies and opponents, expressed through the regular verbal nouns (in the plural), “(one)s hating” (vb an@c*) and “(one)s being hostile” (vb by~a*). Their force is characterized by the verbs (in emphatic position) “be many” (bb^r*) and “be strong/mighty” (<x^u*). They are more numerous than the hairs on the Psalmist’s head (note the use of the preposition /m! [“from”] in the comparative sense, “[more] than”). In light of this expression, some commentators would emend the MT of the third line slightly, reading yt!M*x^m! (“from my locks[?]”) instead of yt^ym!x=m^ (“putting an to me”, vb tm^x*). This would create a parallelism with the first line:

    • “they are more numerous than the hairs of my head” /
      “they are more mighty than the locks (of) my (hair)”

For the possible meaning of hM*x^ as “lock(s of hair),” cf. the context of its use in Isa 47:2; Song 4:1, 3; 6:7.

The meter of v. 5 (as it stands) is irregular: a 3+2 couplet, followed by a 2+2 couplet. An additional 2-beat couplet seems to express the nature of the enemies’ action:

“That which I did not strip away
must I then return (it)”

Apparently the protagonist is accused of theft, expressed in terms of violent robbery, using the verb lz~G` (“pluck off, strip away, take [by force]”). The idea of having to return what he did not steal suggests the possibility of a legal action.

Verse 6 [5]

“Mightiest, you (indeed) know of my foolishness,
and my faults, from you they are not concealed.”

After the terse rhythm of vv. 2-5, the meter changes suddenly here, to a longer 4+3 couplet; then, for the remainder of this part of the Psalm, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet pattern becomes regular. The sense of danger and pleading is replaced by a more reasoned petition to YHWH. It expresses the traditional religious idea that a person’s sins and faults are known to God (the All-knowing), and cannot be kept away from Him.

Verse 7 [6]

“May they not be ashamed by me,
(those) looking to you, my Lord,
O YHWH of (the heavenly) armies!
May they not be disgraced by me,
(those) seeking you, Mighty (One)
of Yisrael!”

The repeated prayer by the Psalmist here functions as an affirmation that he would conduct himself in a manner worthy of the righteous/faithful ones. It is an expression of his heart’s desire and intention. He would never willingly do the sort of thing of which his enemies accuse him.

The meter of this verse, as we have it, is truly unusual. It consists of a pair of uneven couplets—2+2 and 2+3; an extra 2-beat line is added to the first couplet, producing a 2-beat tricolon. The couplets are parallel in concept, and could be seen as 2-beat couplets with expanded honorifics applied to YHWH; I have tried to illustrate this with the poetic arrangement of the lines above.

The righteous are characterized as those “looking for” (vb hw`q* I) God and “seeking” (vb vq^B*) Him.

Verse 8 [7]

“For (it is) over you (that) I have carried blame,
(and) humiliation has covered my face.”

The Psalmist expresses here the real reason for the attacks by his wicked adversaries. It is because of (lit. “over”) his righteous devotion to YHWH (“over you”). It is for God’s sake that he is facing blame and disgrace from his accusers.

Verse 9 [8]

“A stranger I have become to my brothers,
and (one) foreign to (the) sons of my mother.”

His righteous conduct and devotion to YHWH has effectively made the Psalmist a stranger to his own people. This idea is expressed through two roots: (1) rWz and (2) rk^n`. I follow Dahood (II, p. 157) in separating the prefixed –m from rzwm, and attaching it (as an enclitic suffix <-) to the last word of the previous verse. This yields a smoother syntax. The first word of v. 9 would then be vocalized rz`w+.

Verse 10 [9]

“Indeed, ardor for your house consumes me,
and (the) scorn of (those) scorning you
has fallen upon me.”

Metrically, this verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though this is a bit difficult to capture in translation. The noun hP*r=j# is the same as in v. 8, where I translated it “blame”; here the same idea is expressed through the harsher rendering “scorn” (with the connotation of insult, mockery, contempt). The plural of the noun would be properly captured in English by “insults”. The related verb [r^j* is used side by side with the noun, for emphasis and dramatic effect.

The noun ha*n+q! in line 1 is also a bit tricky to translate. It essentially denotes a strong attractive emotion; the typical translations, “zeal” and “jealousy” are perhaps too precise, and can be misleading. I have translated it above as “ardor,” implying an intense, faithful devotion to the things of God. The “house” could refer specifically to the Temple, or to the more general idea of God’s ‘household’. I translate the initial yK! here as an emphatic particle (“indeed…”). The line is cited in John 2:17, where the context certainly is the Jerusalem Temple (though given a unique Christological interpretation in that passage).

Verse 11 [10]

“When I poured out my soul with fasting,
it even came to be as scorn toward me.”

The idea seems to be that the Psalmist was mocked and abused for his intense religious devotion, expressed in terms of fervent fasting. Since fasting can effect a person’s mood and physical appearance, it may be this that is the brunt of his enemies’ ridicule.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 158) in repointing hkbaw as hk*B)a#w`, from the verb Eb^n` (= Ep^n`), meaning “pour (forth)”; cf. the noun Eb#n# (“spring [of water]”) in Job 28:11; 38:16. This seems to make better sense of the line.

Verse 12 [11]

“And I gave rough cloth for my garment,
and I became for them as a byword.”

This verse essentially expresses the same idea as v. 11. The Psalmist’s religious devotion, so intense as to verge on an extreme asceticism, was a source of mockery to people. The noun lv*m* has a relatively wide range of meaning, and is not easily translated; there is not really an English equivalent. The basic connotation here is that the Psalmist becomes an example of foolishness, the butt of insulting jokes that are spread around. The translation “byword,” though not common in English, perhaps is closest to the mark; however, one should not exclude the idea of the Psalmist becoming a kind of ‘proverbial’ figure, in the sense of being a (comical or pathetic) example of the foolishness of religious devotion.

Verse 13 [12]

“About me they rehearse, (those) sitting (at the) gate,
even songs strummed (by those) feasting on drink.”

The Psalmist as a source of mockery, as an example of silly religious devotion, extends even to devising catchy ditties and songs sung at drinking feasts. The verb j^yc! here should be understood in the sense of “rehearse” —that is, of going over a little song in one’s head. Probably the idea is that mocking songs devised by people “sitting at the gate” eventually come to be sung by boisterous drinkers at feasts. The noun hn`yg]n+ properly denotes a song (or musical composition) performed on a stringed instrument.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).