Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 3

Psalm 3

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

Verse 1

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

Verses 2-3 (ET 1b-2)

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 4-5 (ET 3-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 6-7 (ET 5-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 8-9 (ET 7-8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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