Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10 (continued)

Psalm 9-10, continued

Last week’s study examined the first part (9:2-17 [1-16]) of the acrostic Psalm 9-10; today we will explore the ‘interlude’ (9:18-21 [17-20]) and second part (Ps 10). In terms of the structure of the composition, it is noteworthy that the musical direction hl*s# (selâ, “Selah”) occurs at the end of verse 17 [16], and again after v. 21 [20]. The precise meaning of this term remains unknown, but it would seem to indicate a pause and/or (musical) transition of some sort. Furthermore, at the end of v. 17, hl*s# is preceded by the word /oyG`h! (higg¹yôn), apparently another musical direction, but only used (as such) here in the Psalms. Elsewhere the word occurs in Ps 19:15 and 92:4 [3] (and also Lam 3:62); it presumably derives from the root hg*h*, which fundamentally signifies a low moaning, growling, etc, sound such as an animal makes, but for humans also a kind of muttering, murmuring, etc, sometimes in the deeper sense of the intention or motivation from inside a person (i.e. utterance from the heart). In Psalm 19:15 the word is used in this latter sense, while in Ps 92:4 it refers specifically to a sound made on a harp (roNK!). This would seem to justify the idea that the word here marks a kind of musical pause (‘meditation’) and interlude in the composition. Along these lines, it is also likely that the second “Selah” marks the end of the interlude, and a transition to the next part of the composition (Psalm 10) with a different tone/style/tempo[?], etc.

The ‘Interlude’: Psalm 9:18-21 [17-20]

I divide these four bicola (8 lines) as follows: (1) two bicola (vv. 18-19 [17-18]) which continue the acrostic pattern (letters y and k), and a second (separate) pair of bicola (vv. 20-21 [19-20]) which specifically call on YHWH to act.

y They shall turn [WbWvy`], (shall the) wicked (one)s, (back) to Sheôl,
the nations (hav)ing forgotten the Mightiest (shall) come to an end.
k For [yK!] (it is) not to (be) lasting (that the) needy are forgotten,
(and) what (the one)s beaten down wait (for) does not perish for (all time) passing.

These two couplets admirably encompass and restate much of what was expressed in the first part (cf. the previous study), here presented as a precise contrast between the fate of the wicked and the hope of the righteous (i.e. those suffering in the present). This will also be the juxtaposition that dominates the thought of the second part (cf. below). Once again, the “wicked” (adj. uv*r*) are identified with the “nations” (<y]oG), and here defined more clearly as those who have “forgotten” (root jkv) God (“the Mightiest”, <yh!ýa$ Elohim), probably in the sense that they are unaware of Him. On the term loav= (Sheol), in the context that it is used here, cf. my earlier article. The verb bWv here echoes its use back in verse 4 [3], with the Psalmist’s expectation that YHWH’s act of judgment would “turn (back)” his enemies; now the idea is expressed more generally, that the wicked would “turn (back), return” to Sheol (the realm of death and the grave). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 58) in emending Masoretic ÁlK* (i.e. “all the nations”) to read the related verb form WLK* (i.e. “the nations [shall] come to an end“), as this perhaps better fits the parallelism of the line. In the second couplet there is some parallel wordplay with the root jkv (“forget”)—while the wicked may have “forgotten” God, He will not “forget” (i.e. abandon) His people. The temporal expressions indicating future permanencejx^n#l* (“for[ever] lasting”) and du^ (“[all time] passing”)—where also used earlier in the first part, but of the fate of the wicked rather than the suffering righteous.

Stand up, YHWH, man(kind) shall not (remain) strong—
(the) nations shall be judged upon [i.e. before] your face;
set, O YHWH, (that) fearfulness on them—
(the) nations shall know (that) they (are only) (hu)man!

This is a powerful theological (and anthropological) declaration, given in parallel couplets. The first line of each mentions the divine name YHWH, calling upon God to demonstrate his authority over humankind, using the collective noun vona$ (“[hu]man[kind]”, also in the closing line). YHWH in his “standing up” (vb. <Wq), i.e. for judgment, has two related effects on human beings: (1) they shall not “be strong” (vb zz~u*) anymore, i.e. they will lose their strength, and (2) fear (reading MT hr*om as ar*om) is placed on them; another possibility for the third line is to read hr*om from the root hr*y` in the sense of something by which people will be directed or controlled (i.e. under the power of YHWH). By contrast, the second line of each couplet mentions the nations (<y]og), specifically who will face judgment in God’s presence (lit. “upon [i.e. before]” God’s face). The wicked, in their brazen and oppressive actions, imagine that they, in their own way, are God-like, possessing great power; however, in the face of YHWH’s terrifying judgment, they will come to realize that they are “only human (vona$)”.

Second Part: Psalm 10

The second part of the acrostic composition (Ps 10), as noted above, takes on more the character of a lament—the Psalmist cries out to YHWH on behalf of the poor and oppressed in society. The structure of this half is relatively straightforward:

    • An initial plea to YHWH, in the form of a question (v. 1)
    • A description of the Wicked, their actions and attitudes, esp. in relation to those they oppress (vv. 2-11)
    • A call for YHWH to act against the Wicked, demonstrating His power and authority (vv. 12-16)
    • A final plea for YHWH to act on behalf of the poor/oppressed (vv. 17-18)

In the context of the Psalm, the initial question raised by the Psalmist gives to the composition the character of theodicy—the longstanding philosophical and theological issue of why God allows evil and suffering in the world, why the wicked apparently flourish without being punished (by God) in the present.

Verse 1

l For what [hm*l*, i.e why], YHWH, should you stand in a far(-off place)
(and) conceal (yourself) from (our) times of (being) in distress?

The final construct phrase is difficult to render in English, with the prefixed preposition B= on the articular noun hr*X*h^ (“the distress”); despite the awkwardness of syntax in translation, I have rendered it quite literally. As it happens, there is a parallelism in the way each line closes, as each word represents a spatial/temporal prepositional phrase with B=, a preposition with an extremely wide range of meaning:

    • qojr*B=, “in a far (off place), at a distance”
    • hr*X*B^, “in the distress”

The parallel is contrastive—when we are in times of distress, how can our God (YHWH) be standing far off, at a distance from our suffering? This certainly is how things seem, at times, for God’s people, who are oppressed and suffer at the hands of the wicked. This striking question, phrased almost as a challenge to YHWH, frames the entire section, and is essentially repeated at the end.

Verses 2-11

The lengthy description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is a dramatic tour de force, at once vivid and colorful, capturing their attitude and mindset, both in terms of their callous disregard of YHWH and their hostile (and even violent) actions against the innocent. The acrostic pattern is almost entirely lost (to be picked up again at verse 12), likely indicating corruption in the text, which would seem to be confirmed by apparent confusion at several points (cf. below). Unfortunately, neither the Septuagint nor the Dead Sea Scrolls offer any real help in clarifying the situation; the only Dead Sea MS containing Psalm 10 (5/6„evPs) is fragmentary, with nothing preserved prior to verse 6.

Verses 2-3:

In the rising of the wicked affliction burns,
they take hold on this purpose they devise;
for the wicked makes a shout upon the desire of his soul,
and cutting off <?> he bends the knee to <…>.

The LXX does not offer much beyond a generalized rendering of what we have in the MT:

“(in) that [i.e. because] the sinner gives praise upon (himself) in the impulses of his soul,
and the unjust (one) gives a good (word) on (his own) account [i.e. blesses himself]”

In Hebrew, the idiom “bend the knee” (vb Er^B*) means to give homage, worship, bless, etc, and is presumably intended to be taken parallel with ll^h*, “shout, praise, boast”. Similarly the participle u^x@b), “cutting off”, is meant to describe the character of the wicked—i.e. one who gains for himself through violence (cutting/breaking [off]).

Verse 4-5a:

n He spurns [Ja@n]] YHWH, (does) the wicked (saying)
‘As (for) the Exalted (One), his (burning) nostril(s) he hardly seeks (to satisfy)!’
(It seems) there is no Mighty (One) (to hinder) all his (evil) purposes—
his paths (of wickedness) remain firm in all time(s).

Again, it is likely that something has dropped out; the text is barely intelligible as it stands, and commentators divide and interpret it in a variety of ways. There would seem to be present an expression of the wicked’s thoughts, but it is by no means certain where the ‘quotation’ begins or how far it extends. I follow Dahood (p. 62) in reading hbg as H^b)G` as a divine title “High/Exalted (One)”, though I am less confident about emending the prefixed preposition K= to the particle yK!. If the Masoretic text and pointing is retained, then it is likely that oPa^ Hb^g)K= refers to the wicked, rather than YHWH:

“The wicked spurns YHWH by the lifting high of his nose (i.e. face)”

The Hebrew/Semitic word [a^, “nose, nostril, face”, is frequently used as an idiom for anger, especially the anger of God (YHWH)—i.e. the burning/flaring of His nostrils, presumably drawing upon animal imagery (of the snorting bull, etc). In this regard, it seems likely that the phrase vr)d=y]-lB^ (“he does not search/seek [out]”) relates back to the anger of God; in other words, the wicked, by their actions and attitudes, have no fear that YHWH will seek to satisfy His anger by punishing them for their wickedness. Above, I treat the end of verse 4 as a summary comment by the Psalmist, further emphasizing the apparent way the wicked person is able to act and behave with impunity. The position of the first line of verse 5 is unclear, but it would seem to belong as part of this description of the apparent success of the wicked in this present life.

Verses 5b-7:

From high (up) your judgments (are far) from in front of him,
(out of) all his inner (recess)es he puffs at them.
He says in his heart, ‘I (can) hardly be moved—
for cycle a(fter) cycle, happiness with no(thing) bad (for me)!’
(With) cursing his mouth is filled, a(lso) deceit and oppression,
(from) under his tongue (comes) trouble and weariness.

This ‘strophe’ expands on the prior (vv. 4-5a), giving a fuller picture of how the wicked “spurns” YHWH; it may be divided into three distinct components, one for each couplet:

    • 5b: The wicked is far removed from the judgments of God which are “from high (up) [<orm*]”; this must be understood at two levels:
      (a) apparent distance from the standpoint of his own attitudes and character, and
      (b) real distance, the lowness of his wicked nature compared to the exalted holiness, righteousness, etc, of God
    • 6: In his own heart, the wicked imagines that he will continue to prosper in his wicked ways
    • 7: As he speaks, expressing his wicked character, thoughts, and intention, all sorts of harmful things come out

In the last line of the first couplet (v. 5b), the word wyr*r=ox is typically translated as “his adversaries, (one)s hostile to him”. However, this does not fit the context or parallelism of the lines, in which the wicked is responding to the judgments of God; therefore, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 63) in deriving it from a separate root rrx, referring to the (narrow) inner organs or spaces within a person. This makes a fitting contrast between the high/wide space of heaven (where God dwells), and the narrow confines inside the wicked. If the description in vv. 5b-7 relates to the thoughts and word of the wicked, that in vv. 8-10 relates to his evil actions.

Verses 8-10:

He sits, lying in wait (among the) settlements,
in the hidden places he slays (those) free (of guilt)—
his eyes conceal (what he intends) for the unfortunate.
He lies waiting in the hidden place, like a lion in (the) thicket,
he lies waiting to catch (one to be) beaten down—
catches (the one) beaten down, by dragging him (off),
(caught) in his possession, and broken, bowed (over),
the unfortunate (one)s fall in(to) his <power>.

The actions of the wicked are represented by a single basic scenario, described using repetitive language, and building by way of an overlapping step-parallel approach. The wicked lies in wait, like a vicious hunter, looking to capture one whom he will “beat down”, the basic meaning of the term yn]u*. This word is often translated “poor”, “oppressed”, but here it does not necessarily mean that he is preying on the poor or weak (though that may be true enough); rather, the emphasis is on the role of the wicked in oppressing and ‘beating down’ his victims. What we do know about these victims is that they are innocent, in the sense of being free of any guilt that would justify a violent attack (for revenge, etc). In a general sense they are righteous—and thus make a precise contrast with the wicked themselves—and all those who are righteous and loyal (to YHWH) will identify with these victims of oppression, as the Psalmist does. The final line is especially difficult, due to the word wym*Wxu&B^, the meaning of which in context is unclear. Literally, the MT as we have it would be “his mighty (one)s”, but this does not fit very well with the image of a wicked predator, unless, collectively, a gang of the wicked is now to be envisioned. Possibly the reference is to the strength of the trap or prison which now holds the oppressed person(s) in the possession (tv#r#, often understood as a hunter’s net, etc) of the wicked. Dahood (p. 63) suggests that it derives from a separate (and rare) root meaning to “dig”, as in a pit, which would generally fit the context, but otherwise rests on extremely slim evidence. I have translated very loosely above as “power”, recognizing the possibility the MT may be corrupt, or that something has dropped out of the text at this point.

Verse 11:

He says in his heart, ‘(The) Mighty (One) forgets,
he hides his face (and) scarcely sees for (the) duration!’

This closing couplet repeats the basic idea expressed in verse 4 (cf. above)—that the wicked acts as though YHWH will not respond to punish his evil and harmful behavior. This underlying attitude would seem to be confirmed by the fact that, in the present, the wicked seem to prosper, often facing no justice or proper punishment for their actions. This, indeed, is at the heart of the Psalmist’s lament, and it leads into the call for YHWH to act, in vv. 12-16.

Verses 12-16

With this section, the acrostic pattern comes back in full, for the remainder of the Psalm—letters q, r, ?, t, each for a clear pair of couplets (bicola).

Verse 12-13 q:

q Stand (up) [hm*Wq], YHWH, Mighty (One), lift your hand,
you must not forget the (one)s (who are) beaten down—
upon what [i.e. why] (should) the wicked spurn the Mightiest,
(and) say in his heart ‘You will not seek (to punish)’?

Some commentators would eliminate la@ (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God) from the first line, but it may well be a relic of Israelite religious expression that is preserved, specifying something long understood—that YHWH is to be identified with the high Deity and Creator °E~l (la@). A summary of vv. 2-11 is provided in verse 13, establishing the attitude and behavior (of the wicked) that the Psalmist wishes YHWH to address and punish. I have translated yn]a* throughout as “(one who is) beaten down”, to capture the concrete idea of what the wicked is doing to their victims. Other common renderings, such as “oppressed”, “afflicted”, etc., are fine and generally capture the idea as well.

Verse 14 r:

r For you (must surely) see [ht*a!r*] (all) the trouble and (what this) provokes,
you will (certainly) look to give (justice) with your hand!
Upon you the unfortunate (one) places (his trust),
(and) the fatherless—you are (his) helper.

The noun su^K^, parallel with lz`u* (“trouble”), is difficult to translate accurately here; it has the basic meaning of provoking to anger, and it may be a subtle way for the Psalmist to stimulate God’s own anger, provoking him to act. The perfect tense in the first line is perhaps to be understood as a precative perfect, with the Hiphil imperfect in line 2 following, to express the wish (and hope/expectation) of the Psalmist. In the second couplet, YHWH is reminded that He is the only one whom the weak and unfortunate in society can go to for help; again the purpose is to sway God to take action by this appeal. There is a bit of alliterative word play between the verbal root bz~u* (II, “place, put, set”) and rz`u* (“help”).

Verses 15-16 ?:

? Shatter [rb)v=] the arm of the wicked and evil (one),
seek (out) his wickedness—you can scarcely (fail to) find (it)!
YHWH (is) King (for) the distant (future) and (all time) passing–
(and so) may the nations perish from the earth!

Here the section concludes with a fierce and lively imprecation, using the familiar ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) idiom of breaking/shattering the bodily limbs of the wicked. In particular, the arm (u^orz+) symbolizes the wicked person’s strength and ability to act—he stretches out his arm to do violence and injustice to others. The second line of this strophe is the most difficult, due to its peculiar syntax and metrical tension; it is made up of two construct phrases:

    • ouv=r!-vorD=T!—”you shall seek his wickedness”
    • ax*m=T!-lb^— “you will scarcely find (it)”

The verb vr^D* (“seek, search”) has a two-fold meaning: (a) the basic sense of seeking to find something, but also (b) the more specific sense of seeking something out so as to address it or deal with it. This latter meaning has been used more than once in the Psalm already, including earlier in v. 13, where the wicked expresses the thought the God will not “seek (out)” his wicked behavior, i.e. to avenge or punish it. The particle lb^ usually indicates negation, but often in the sense of failure, i.e. being unable to do something. Here the nuance of the expression perhaps is “you will scarcely (fail to) find it”, that is to say, there is so much wickedness around, and the wicked person acts so brazenly and repeatedly, that YHWH will have no trouble finding evidence of it.

The final line (v. 16b) again makes the standard identification of the wicked with the nations—i.e. all the surrounding (non-Israelite) nations. For generations, this would be a common way for Israelites and Jews to reference wickedness—immorality, and false/improper religious behavior, etc. Of course, it is predicated on the fundamental idea of the unique covenant bond between YHWH and Israel; any Israelites who violate the covenant and act wickedly, are behaving, not as God’s people, but in the manner of the surrounding nations who are not His people.

Verses 17-18 t

t The wish [tw~a&T^] of the (one)s beaten down, YHWH, you shall hear,
you make firm their heart, you incline your ear,
to judge (for) the fatherless and broken (ones)—
(then the wicked) will no longer continue
to make man(kind) tremble from the earth.

It is possible to read the < of <B*l! as an enclitic (cf. Dahood, pp. 66-7), in which case it refers to YHWH’s heart (“you make firm [your] heart”); however, the parallelism of the couplet suggests rather that it relates to the “wish/desire of the afflicted ones”, representing YHWH’s answer to their plea. The awkward syntax and metrical tension of the final verse opens the possibility that it should be read/divided as a tricolon (3 lines), as I gave generally done above. The referents of this last declaration are not entirely clear, but the basic point is, I believe, that the wicked will scarcely be able to act as they have been doing, once YHWH chooses to act and judge/punish their behavior. The actions of the wicked are described by the verb Jr^u* (“[make] tremble”), which sounds similar to the word Jr#a# (“earth, land”), creating a bit of wordplay in the final line.

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

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