Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 13

Psalm 13

This Psalm is among the shortest and simplest of the collection, though still not without certain textual difficulties. It is comprised of two strophes, which seem to follow a general metrical pattern. The first strophe clearly is that of a personal lament. Most of the Psalms we have thus studied have characteristics of a lament, effectively functioning as a prayer to YHWH for deliverance. These can either reflect the vantage point of the Psalmist (or protagonist of the poem), or that of the people generally. Here it is almost exclusively a personal, private lament. Many of these such Psalms were associated with a particular historical situation; here however there is no mention of any traditional setting in the superscription. Nor is there any musical direction, other than the standard indicator that it is a composition “belonging to David”.

The two strophes have an interesting structure: a 4+4 bicolon, followed by a 4+3 bicolon, and concluding with a single 4-beat line. The second strophe includes an additional 3+3 couplet before the final line.

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Until what point, YHWH, will you forget me? (To the) last?
Until what point will you (continue to) hide your face from me?
Until what point shall I lay (up) thoughts (of despair) in my soul
(and there be) pain in my heart daily?
Until what point shall my enemy lift (himself) high over me?”

Four of the five lines begin with the compound particle hn`a*-du^, “until where”, i.e. “until what point”, usually understood in a temporal sense: “until when”, “how long”. The three components to the strophe—4+4 bicolon, 4+3 bicolon, and single 4-beat line—each ask the question from a different vantage point. The first is addressed to YHWH, the second refers to the Psalmist himself, and the third to the Psalmist’s ‘enemy’.

The plea to YHWH in the first couplet brings out two emphases: (1) impatience that the suffering has lasted so long (line 1), and (2) the Psalmist’s feeling that YHWH has turned away from him (line 2). The substantive noun jx^n@ that ends the first line fundamentally refers to something that is strong, enduring, lasting, sometimes also denoting that which is clear or complete. I render it above as an emphatic follow-up to the Psalmist’s question. The phrase “will you hide your face” (;yn@P*-ta# tyT!s=T^) is usually understood to involve the verb rt^s* (“hide”); but it is also possible that it preserves older usage of the reflexive infixed-t stem, in which case the verb would be rWs (= rWc), “turn [away/aside]” (cf. Dahood, pp. 64, 76). The phrase would then be “will you turn (away) your face”, which also corresponds to the LXX translation. The sense of the line is roughly the same either way.

The word toxu@ in the first line of the second couplet creates considerable difficulty. It is usually read as a plural of hx*u@ (“plan, purpose, counsel”), but this ill suits the context, where the parallelism of the couplet indicates that toxu@ should be comparable in meaning to /ogu* (“pain, suffering”). Dahood (p. 77) suggests that it may be cognate to Ugaritic n²ƒ (“shake, tremble”), corresponding to a Hebrew root Ju^n` (n¹±aƒ), otherwise unattested. Kraus (p. 212), on the other hand, suggests that the Hebrew hx*u@ may occasionally have the nuance of “sorrow(s)”, citing the context of Prov 27:9. Other commentators would emend the text to read tobX*u^ (“pains”). I have tentatively translated toxu@ as “thoughts (of despair)”, in an attempt to preserve the conceptual parallel at work in the line.

The “enemy” (by@a)) or adversary of the Psalmist is otherwise unidentified. Generally the ‘adversaries’ in the Psalms are figurative for the wicked and/or forces of evil and suffering present in the world. This sense of conflict is central to the emotional rhetoric and imagery of the Psalms, and scarcely needs to be related to any concrete historical situation. Some poems which evince a strong royal theology and background, likely do draw upon certain kinds of political events and patterns (cf. on the second strophe below).

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“Look at (me and) answer me, YHWH my Mighty One!
Give light to my eyes so that I should (not) sleep the (sleep of) death,
(and) so that my enemy should (not) say ‘I had power (over) him’,
(and) my adversaries go round (happy) that I am shaken.
And I (do still) trust in your kindness (to me)—
may my heart go round (for joy) in your salvation!
I will sing to YHWH, that He has dealt (out benefits) over me.”

As in the first strophe, the focus in the lines moves from an address to YHWH, to the situation of the Psalmist himself, and then to the vantage point of his enemy. The plea in the first strophe is turned into a more direct petition here in line 1. The Psalmist feels that YHWH has forgotten him, and the sequence of verbs is meant to get God’s attention. What he prays for specifically is stated in the second line: “give light to my eyes”. The context suggests an illness of some sort that has left the protagonist at the point of death (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 6). Twice here he uses the particle /P#, presumably related to the verb hn`P* (“turn”), which signifies the wish to avert (i.e. turn away) something from happening. The cleanest translation of this particle in English is “lest”, but that is seldom used, and normal English usage today would require a construction with a negative particle (“that [it] should not…”, etc).

The first thing he hopes to avert is his own death, with the expression “sleep the death”, probably meaning “the sleep of death”, i.e. to ‘sleep’ and never wake up, with sleep as an idiom for death. The second thing he wishes to avert is expressed in the second bicolon (v. 5); that his enemies/adversaries would not rejoice and boast following his illness (and death). Instead of them “going around” (vb lyG]) happy, the Psalmist hopes that it will be his own heart “going around” (same verb). The language of the covenant and royal theology appears, however faintly, in this strophe, with the Psalmist (David, according to the superscription) approaching God as the sovereign Benefactor who demonstrates loyalty through acts of kindness (ds#j#) and bestowing rewards/benefits (vb lm^G`) on His faithful vassal (i.e. David/the king). Thus the conflict in this Psalm is not, as in the prior Pss 9-12, the wicked generally, but rather personal adversaries. They blend almost imperceptibly with the grave illness of the Psalmist, as if personifying his physical and emotional suffering. It would perhaps not be too far off the mark to identify the symbolism as related to the realm of Death, a common enough idea in the ancient world, ruled by a sovereign (a rival to YHWH and His king), with other personified (demon-type) figures manifest in various diseases, etc. The vague and shadowy adversaries are a suitable reflection of the conflict experienced in human suffering. Here they function as a corollary to the nameless/faceless wicked ones in society who oppress the righteous and the weak/poor, etc (see esp. Ps 9-10, and the earlier study on it).

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

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