Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 16

Psalm 16

The heading to this Psalm simply describes it as a <T*k=m! (miktam) belonging to David. The meaning of <T*k=m! remains uncertain; it has been related to the word <t#K# (“gold”), and to a separate root <tk that only occurs once elsewhere in the Old Testament (Jer 2:22). The Greek Septuagint and Aramaic Targums translate it as referring to an inscription on a stone slab or pillar (Grk sthlografi/a). The meter of the Psalm is mixed/uneven, except for verses 5-9 which consistently have 4+3 beat couplets. There is also some textual uncertainty at several points, especially in verses 3-4. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the portion about which there are textual questions is not preserved in the Dead Sea manuscripts; very little of Psalm 16 survives (a tiny fragment of verse 1, and a fragmentary portion with vv. 7-9). In style, theme, and setting, this Psalm has similarities with Ps 5 (cf. the earlier study), as the protagonist contrasts his loyalty to YHWH with the worship of other deities by people around him. It is almost impossible to recapture the sense of this religious aspect of Israelite society in the early periods. Syncretism of various sorts was common in the ancient Near East, and it would have been quite natural to blend together worship of El-Yahweh with that of other Canaanite religious beliefs and practices. The surviving historical and prophetic writings (in the Old Testament) only give us a partial picture of the conflicts and tensions that existed for those determined to remain faithful to YHWH and worship Him exclusively.

I would divide the Psalm into two parts. The first (vv. 1-4) contrasts loyalty to El-Yahweh with the worship of other (Canaanite) deities. It is comprised of an initial petition (v. 1), followed by a declaration of allegiance and trust in YHWH (v. 2), and a statement whereby the Psalmist disavows any worship of other deities besides YHWH (vv. 3-4). The statement in verses 3-4 establishes a contrast—a pair of 3+3(?) couplets, with an intervening line (v. 4a, in italics below).

Verses 1-4

“Watch over me, Mighty (One), for I seek shelter with you!
I said to YHWH, ‘You are my Lord,
my Good (One)—no (other is) over you!’
For the ‘holy (one)s’ in the earth, they (were so),
and the ‘great (one)s’ of (the land), my delight was in them;
their pains shall increase, (those who now) hurry after another,
but I will not pour out to them (offering)s poured out from (my) hands,
and I will not (even) lift up their names upon my lips!”

In my translation here I have not emended the text, though some commentators feel that it is corrupt. There are several apparent peculiarities of syntax, but much of the confusion stems from the seeming thematic shift from speaking about “holy ones” (<yv!odq=), assumed to be righteous persons, in verse 3, to the discussion of worshiping pagan deities (v. 4). Kraus, for example (pp. 233-4), assumes something is missing between verses 3 and 4. The point might be confirmed, one way or the other, if those verses were preserved in the Dead Sea Psalm manuscripts, but, as noted above, that is unfortunately not the case. A more consistent line of thought is retained if we understand the plural substantive <yv!odq= (“holy ones”) in the sense of “those treated as holy”, “those considered sacred”, “those honored”, etc. The expression “in the earth” (or “in the land”) may be intended to qualify it this way. Certainly the construct plural yr@yD!a^ (“great ones of…”) is meant to be taken parallel with <yv!odq=; I have filled in an implicit link in the construct chain (“…of the land”) for the sake of the translation: “holy ones in the earth…great ones of (the land)”. This, then, allows for two possibilities: (1) the expressions refer to great and honored persons in society, or (2) they are used as epithets for pagan deities. The phrase “my delight was in them” further complicates the situation, as it comes just before “their pains shall increase”. Without assuming a lacuna in the text, the juxtaposition of those phrases clearly is meant to establish a contrast. Following the same two lines of interpretation mentioned above, it might be suggested:

    • (1) The Psalmist once delighted in these great and honored persons, but now they have turned away from faithfulness to YHWH and have “hurried after other (deities)”
    • (2) The protagonist of the Psalm once delighted in the other deities of the land, but now he only follows YHWH, and wishes pain for any who would continue to worship those other gods

The second approach seems to fit the sense of these verses better, but it is not without difficulties. These may be illustrated in the following textual and exegetical notes on verses 1-4:

“Mighty One” (la@)—The noun la@ is the Hebrew reflex of the common Semitic word for deity, literally “mighty (one)”; it also serves as the proper name for the high Creator God (‘El) throughout much of the Semitic world, West (Canaanite) and East (Amorite). ‘El was the name of God in the period of the Patriarchs, and Yahweh (hwhy, YHWH) was identified with ‘El. This is seen precisely here in the Psalm, where la@ and hwhy are used interchangeably as proper names.

“I said” (T=r=m^a*)—The consonantal Trma represents the first person singular form of the verb (yT!r=m^a*) written defectively; compare at Isa 47:10, MT trma with 1QIsaa ytrma. Dahood characterizes this as an example of Phoenician orthography (p. 87).

“my Good” (yt!b*of)—Here the noun bof (“good”) seems to be used as another divine title, probably in the covenantal sense of “one who does/brings good (things) for me”.

“no (other is) over you” (;yl#u*-lB^)—The negative particle lB^ is used here in verse 2, and again in verse 4; it can be used specifically as an adverb of negation, e.g. “it will not be..”, “it can hardly be…”. Here it affirms the superiority and uniqueness of El-Yahweh (the preposition lu^ can also be used in the sense of “next to, alongside”)—there can scarcely be any other deity as great as YHWH. This is not an expression of absolute monotheism; such did not characterize early Israelite religion, but represents a secondary (and later) development. However, already in the kingdom period, and certainly by the time of the seventh-century Prophets, the belief that the deities worshiped by the surrounding peoples did not have any real existence, was being expressed.

“they” (hM*h@)—The word hmh at the end of the first line of verse 3 is, apparently, the third person plural pronoun (hM*h@, “they”) in emphatic position. Assuming that nothing has dropped out, the syntax and sense of the line is problematic. The line could be read, “For they, the holy ones in the earth…”, but it is also possible that the predicate of the clause is implied: “For the holy ones in the earth, they (were…)”. I have opted for the latter; the idea being expressed, I think, is that the other deities in the land are being (or were once) honored and worshiped just as the Psalmist (now) worships YHWH.

“and the great ones of…” (yr@yD!a^w+)—This construct form creates a difficult syntax. In the translation above, I fill it out (“…of the land”) to establish the clear parallel with “holy ones in the earth”. However, syntactically, it is probably better to regard the construct chain as governing the phrase that follows (see GKC §130d; Dahood, p. 88). Literally, this would be: “and the great ones of my delight in them”. In English we would perhaps phrase this as, “and the great ones in whom I have/had delight”. If one supplies a verb to fill out the phrasing, it is not entirely clear whether it should be in the present or past tense. Much depends on which of the two lines of interpretation (cf. the discussion above) is to be preferred.

“they hurry after another” (Wrh*m* rj@a^)—This phrase relates awkwardly to the preceding. Assuming that the Masoretic parsing/pointing is essentially correct (cf. Dahood, p. 88, for a different approach), it would seem that a relative/demonstrative pronoun is required to fill out the sense of the line—i.e., “…those who hurry after another”. The ‘other’ these people follow after is a deity other than YHWH.

“(to them) from (my) hand” (<D*m!)—The Masoretic Text would seem to read “from blood”, i.e. “offerings of blood poured out”, with the motif of blood perhaps emphasizing the wicked character of the offerings to other deities. However, I have here (tentatively) chosen to follow Dahood (p. 88) in reading <dm as representing a contracted form of dy (“hand”) in the dual (regularly Heb <y]d*y~). The juxtaposition of “hands…lips” seems better to preserve the parallelism of the couplet.

Verses 5-11

“YHWH, you have numbered out my portion and my cup,
you (firmly) hold the stone (that is) my (lot);
the boundary (line)s fallen to me (are) in pleasant (place)s—
indeed, (this) possession is (most) beautiful over [i.e. next to] me.
I will kneel to YHWH who counsels me—
indeed, (by) nights His (inner) organs instruct me.
I have set YHWH to (be) stretched long in front of me,
(and) from His right (hand) I will not be shaken (away).
For this my heart rejoices, my heaviest (part) circles (with joy),
indeed, (even) my flesh can dwell in (peaceful) security,
for you will not leave [i.e. give] my soul (over) to Sheol,
you will not give your loyal (one) to see (the place of) ruin.
You will make me (to) know the path of Life,
being satisfied with joys (before) your Face,
(and) lasting pleasures at your right (hand)!

After the syntactical and textual difficulties in verses 3-4, the remainder of the Psalm is relatively straightforward. Verses 5-9 make for a consistent sequence of five 4+3 bicola, followed by a 4+4 bicolon in verse 10. The Psalm concludes with a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

The imagery in the first two couplets (vv. 5-6) derives from the binding agreement (covenant) idea as it would have been realized between a superior (sovereign) and his vassals. God (YHWH) is the good sovereign who bestows benefits upon his loyal vassals. He measures out (vb hn`m*, “number [out], count”, i.e. assign, appoint, etc) the appropriate benefit, viewed as a share (ql#j#) of the good things controlled by the sovereign. This includes the place at the table (“cup”, soK), also used to symbolize generally all that the person will receive—i.e. his “lot” (literally, “stone, pebble” lr*oG, indicating that the person is to receive the benefit). A common socio-political benefit is property—a territory or fief bestowed upon the vassal. The tribal territories of the Promised Land itself was seen as such a covenantal benefit (and promise) for the descendants of Abraham. The parallel wording used here in verse 6 relates to territory: “boundary (line)s” (<yl!b*j&) and “possession” (hl*j&n~), described as “pleasant” (<yu!n`) and “beautiful” (vb rp^v*, be clear/bright). It is given over to the vassal (“fallen to me”) and now belongs to him (“over me”, i.e. alongside, next to me).

In verses 7-9, the covenantal relationship itself (i.e. between sovereign and vassal) is depicted. The couplets in vv. 7-8 express this through two actions by the Psalmist (the loyal vassal):

    • “I will kneel to YHWH” —The verb Er^B* generally denotes giving praise and honor to a person; in the case of a person’s response to God (as the superior) it more properly indicates showing homage. It is acknowledged that there is a close connection between the root and the word Er#B# (“knee”), but it is not entirely clear if the verb is denominative (i.e. giving homage/honor by way of the idea of “bending the knee, kneeling”). My translation assumes this derivation.
    • “I have set YHWH (in front of me)” —Here the verb is hw`v* (“set, place”), the action perhaps best understood in the sense of a person placing his/her attention and focus firmly on God. The context would also suggest that the Psalmist is affirming his covenantal loyalty to YHWH. The word dym!T*, literally meaning something like “(stretch)ed out long”, is used here in an adverbial sense. It may be taken to mean that the Psalmist is continually doing this, or that it is a deep and abiding expression of his loyalty.

In each couplet, the second line describes the effect of this relationship on the Psalmist (the vassal). Even at night (every night) YHWH instructs the Psalmist out of His (i.e. YHWH’s) innermost being. The plural toyl=K! refers to the deep inner organs (i.e. kidneys) of a person, representing the source of deep feelings and emotions, i.e. God’s care and devotion to those who are loyal/faithful to him. If verse 7b emphasizes the inner aspect of the relationship, verse 8b stresses the outer aspect. Instead of the inner organs, we have the prominent outer motif of a person’s right hand. From the standpoint of the covenant, and expressed in terms of royal theology, it means the vassal has a prominent place at the side of the sovereign. Early Christians, of course, applied this royal motif to the position of the exalted Jesus, following the resurrection, at the right hand of God the Father. In both lines, the suffix y– is best read as a third person (rather than first person) singular. The suffixes y– and w– were often interchangeable, especially in poetry, which tended to preserve earlier (NW Semitic, i.e. Phoenician, etc) features otherwise rare in Old Testament Hebrew. On this use of the y– suffix for the third person masculine, cf. Dahood, pp. 10-11 (on Ps 2:6), and 90.

Verse 9 summarizes the preceding lines and anticipates the climactic reference to death and the afterlife in v. 10. The couplet begins with the expression /k@l*, “for this”, i.e. for this reason (LXX dia\ tou=to). The Psalmist can rejoice and be at ease because of the covenantal relationship with YHWH, entailing both benefits and protection. The former was emphasized in vv. 5-6, the latter here in vv. 9-10. The noun dobK*, usually translated as “honor” or “glory”, is better understood in terms of the related word db@K*, i.e. the liver as the “heavy” organ. The root dbk fundamentally refers to heaviness or weight, often in the basic sense of what is of value. The “heavy” organ is parallel here with the “heart”. The security the Psalmist experiences extends to his very life being preserved and protected by YHWH. This is described in terms of being saved/delivered from Sheol, also here called “the (place of) ruin”. On the meaning and background of the term “Sheol” (loav=, Š®°ôl), see my earlier article. It is not entirely clear whether the emphasis here (esp. with the verb bz`u*) is on being left in the grave (i.e. after one has already died), or being given over to death in the first place. The references to Sheol in the Psalms suggest the latter. However, the New Testament use of vv. 9-10 in Acts 2:25-28ff (Peter’s Pentecost speech, cf. also 13:35) indicates the former, as it is applied to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The closing tricolon of verse 11 suggests the imagery of a heavenly/blessed afterlife, with the covenantal relationship now being re-imagined in heavenly/eternal terms, with the Psalmist standing before God’s face and at His right hand. It is little wonder that early Christians would come to interpret these lines in terms of the place of the exalted Jesus with God in heaven (Acts 2:25-28ff).

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, Biblischer Kommentar series (Neuchkirchener Verlag: 1978), translated in English as Psalms 1-59, Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

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