Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 11

Psalm 11

After the lengthy acrostic Psalm 9-10, with its many textual difficulties, Psalm 11 is simple and straightforward by comparison. Which is not to say that there are not challenges in interpreting some of the lines. The meter is mixed/inconsistent, and there seem to be a fair number of archaic features present, better preserved perhaps due to the very brevity of the Psalm.

This is also the first in a series of Psalms which simply indicate that it is a composition “belonging to David” (dw]d*l+); there is no other musical direction given in the heading. The general structure of the work is divided into two parts: (1) a lament by the Psalmist (vv. 1-3), and (2) a praise-description of YHWH in heaven as Ruler and Judge (vv. 4-7). It draws upon many of the same themes we have seen previously, including those in Psalm 9-10. The praise in the second half serves as an effective counter to the lament in the first, implying that YHWH will indeed act with justice on behalf of those who are faithful and loyal to Him.

Verse 1

The initial lines pose a metrical problem. It appears to be a bicolon, but with an awkward and extended (4+3?) poetic rhythm:

With YHWH (do) I seek refuge—(yet) how you show to my soul
(that) I must flee like a bird (into the) mountains!

The place of the first two words (yt!ys!j* hw`hyB^, “with YHWH I seek refuge”) is unclear. It seems to stand alone as a sentence, but the poetry of the verse suggests that it relates, conditionally, to the remaining words. Perhaps the first line is meant to establish a contrast: the Psalmist declares that he trusts in YHWH, seeking refuge in Him, yet circumstances force him to flee “like a bird (into) the mountains”. I would read the particle Eya@ (“how”) more as an exclamation than introducing a question. Dahood (p. 69) parses the second line differently, pointing the consonantal text as roPx! omk= rdh)d=n] (“rushing [after me] as a bird”) instead of roPx! <k#r=h^ WdWn (“flee [into the] mountains [as] a bird”).

Verse 2

For see! the wicked (one)s step down on the bow,
they make firm their arrows upon the (cord) stretched down
to shoot (out) in the darkness toward the straight of heart.

The poetry demands that this verse be treated as a tricolon (4+3+3). In the first two lines, the wicked (plural) are shown preparing their bows, stepping down on them to string them, then setting the arrows upon the string stretched across the frame. This tightened/bent cord (rty), with the arrows pointed out from it, serves as contrast (using a bit of wordplay) to the “straight” (rvy) heart of the righteous. The phrase “in the darkness” (lp#a) omB=) refers to the wicked hiding in the darkness to shoot arrows out at the righteous. Arrows are a common image for attacks by the wicked.

Verse 3

That the (thing)s set in place should be broken down–
what work is (the) Just (One) doing (to correct this)?

The force and meaning of this (2+2) couplet depends on how one understands the substantive adjective qyD!x^ (“just/righteous [one]”). It can refer either (a) to righteous human beings, or (b) to YHWH, as a divine title. If the former, then the second line expresses the despair of the just person (“what can the just [person] do [about it]?”); if the latter, then it is a question posed toward God, asking why He is allowing this to happen. The tone of lament in verses 1-3, suggests the latter, which I have adopted in the translation above. The plural noun totv*, “(thing)s set in place”, implies the order established by God, including the law and justice that is meant to regulate society and protect the innocent (from the wicked). This order has broken down (vb sr^h*), as indicated by the wicked shooting arrows out at the righteous from the darkness. The “work” (lu*P*) that God is expected to do, as the Just One, is to establish justice. That is fundamentally the plea of the Psalmist, and, to this end, he brings out the imagery of YHWH on His seat of rule, from which He judges over the world. This praise-description, in the following vv. 4-7, is meant to spur God to act in fulfillment of his role as heavenly Judge.

Verse 4

YHWH (is there) in (the) palace of His holiness;
YHWH (is) in the heavens (on) His covered seat—
His eyes perceive (all things),
His roving (eye)s examine
(all) the sons of man.

Verse 4 is made up of a 3+3 bicolon, followed by a 2+2+2 tricolon. The initial couplet locates YHWH’s place of rule in heaven—first in the holy place of his heavenly Palace (lk^yh@), then on his actual throne (“covered seat”). The two are essentially synonymous—Palace/Heaven, Holy-Place/Throne. The cover or canopy (ask) of his throne is the “holiness” (vdq), or glory/splendor, which surrounds him. The tricolon, with three short dual-beats, emphasizes the all-seeing character of YHWH, from this position high above the heavens.

Verse 5

YHWH (the) Just (One) examines even (the) wicked,
and (the one) loving violence His soul hates.

The force of the conjunction w+ relates back to v. 4b, where it is stated that YHWH’s eyes examine (vb /j^B*) all humankind; now, it is specified that even the wicked are so examined. This is important since the apparent lack of justice in the world might lead one to think that God does not see what is going on (cf. the discussion on Psalm 9-10 in the previous studies). Not only does YHWH see the injustice of the wicked, but he hates what he sees. Here the behavior of the wicked is characterized in its most egregious form, as sm*h*, wrong doing that results in violence. Dahood (p. 70) would treat ovp=n~ (“his soul”) as the object, rather than the subject, with ha*n+c* as an archaic form of the 3rd masculine singular—i.e., “the one loving violence hates his (own) soul”. While this is certainly possible, it distorts the parallelism of the couplet, which is better served by having YHWH (“His soul”) as the subject.

Verse 6

He shall rain down upon the wicked puffs of fire and sulphur,
and (His) burning breath (will be) the portion of their cup.

The word <yj!P^ in the MT of the first line remains quite uncertain. Many commentators would emend it to <j#P^, or perhaps the plural construct form ym@j&P^, i.e. “coals of fire…”. I tentatively relate it to the root jWP, “blow (out), breathe”, as that provides a fitting parallel for the noun j^Wr (“breath/wind”) in the second line. Though the exact morphology here is unclear, there are conceptual parallels, relating to fire, burning, etc, for the root in Exod 9:8ff and Prov 26:21 (cf. also Jer 6:29; Dahood, p. 70). I take the overall imagery here to be that of the anger of YHWH, depicted within the traditional idiom of the burning nostrils, etc, like the angry bull, snorting out hot puffs and breaths. The idiom of the cup from which a person drinks is also traditional, referring to a person’s fate, often in the context of suffering and death. Jesus famously uses this image in the Gethsemane scene in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:36 par). I understand the “portion” (tn`m=) here in light of the idea that YHWH will “rain down” the burning/fiery Judgment, and, like rainwater, it will fill up the cup to a certain measure (count/number, hnm).

Verse 7

For (the) Just (One), YHWH, loves just (action)s,
(and so the) straight (in heart) will perceive His Face.

The reference to YHWH as the “Just (One)” (qyD!x^) parallels a similar use of the divine title in verse 3 (cf. above). The final word of the Psalm remains difficult to decipher. One would expect the form wyn`P*, rather than the MT omyn@P*. However, the archaic suffix om– occurs at least once in this Psalm (v. 2, possibly also in v. 1b), but suffixed to the preposition (omB=), and this may be a similar sort of poetic/enclitic use, perhaps to fill out the meter of the final line. Dahood (pp. 70-1) reads it as a first person plural pronominal suffix, in which case the adjective rv*y` (“straight”) must be a divine title similar to qyD!x^—i.e., “our face will see the Straight [i.e. Upright] One”. This does not seem at all correct to me, as nowhere else in the Psalm is the 1st person plural used. More appropriate to the context of the poem is the idea of the righteous experiencing the manifest blessing of YHWH as he comes to act on their behalf. The “face” of God is an idiom used to describe the divine power and Presence, lit. his turning toward his people (i.e. turning to face them). More to the point, the Psalmist hopes YHWH will turn to act as Judge, establishing justice for those who are just, aiding and protecting the righteous from the hostile and violent attacks of the wicked.

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

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