Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 1

Psalm 18

The 18th Psalm is one of the longest compositions in the Psalter. Its many archaic features, including ancient Canaanite elements, make any critical study of it challenging, as does the fact that the poem has been preserved separately as 2 Samuel 22, and the two versions must be compared. For this reason, it is necessary to divide our study into several parts, to be spread out over different Sundays. The first part will begin with an overview of the composition, and a comparative analysis of the opening verses.


Psalm 18 is unique in that a second form of it has been preserved independently, at the end of the David narratives in the books of Samuel (2 Sam 22). It would seem that Psalm 18 is closer to the original form of the poem, but this can only be established through a detailed textual comparison. This study will make use of both versions, examining each couplet and strophe in parallel, noting any key differences.

It is sometimes thought that more than one composition is involved, and that different poems were combined; most common is a two-part division into poems vv. 2-31 [1-30] and 32-51 [31-50]. Questions regarding the integrity of such a long and complex Psalm are natural enough, though ultimately speculative. As we consider each section, within the overall contours of the poem, the possibility of its composite character will be discussed.

The meter of the Psalm tends to be 3+3, utilizing the three-beat bicolon format; however, there are exceptions, including the use of 3+3+3 tricola, for example, in vv. 8-9 and 14. Attempts to emend or reconstruct points of difficulty on the basis of supposed metrical consistency are highly questionable, yet certain critical emendations are more plausible than others, and will be discussed.

The extended heading (superscription) is curious, both in form and content. After the initial address to the musical director (presumably, Heb. j^X@n~m=), it reads:

“(belonging) to (the) servant of YHWH, to Dawid, who uttered to YHWH the words of this song, in (the) day (that) YHWH pulled him away from (the) palm(s) of all his enemies and from (the) hand of lwav.”

This is nearly identical to the introduction in 2 Sam 22:1, which begins, appropriately in the context of the narrative, “And Dawid uttered to YHWH the words of this song…”. Otherwise, the only difference is a repeated use of “from the palm(s) of” instead of “from the hand of”. In Samuel, the poem serves to close the cycle of David narratives; thus its association with David is especially strong, perhaps more so than any other composition in the Psalter. The Canaanite elements in the poem certainly suggest an early date that could, on entirely objective grounds, support Davidic authorship. These details will be discussed at the appropriate points throughout our study.

The closing word of the heading, lwav, is pointed by the Masoretes as lWav*, i.e. the proper name (Saul), which could perhaps be translated literally as an abbreviated form of the phrase-name “requested (of God)”, cp. la@yT!l=a^v=. While this would allude to the famous episodes in the David narratives (1 Samuel 18-24), there is serious question as to whether lWav* is the correct pointing of the text. For example, it is odd to juxtapose Saul with “all of his enemies”, since Saul would have been counted as one of those enemies; possibly the w-conjunction has the force of “and even from the hand of Saul”, or “and especially from the hand of Saul”, but this is questionable. More to the point is the fact that the poem itself mentions not lWav* (Saul), but loav= (Sheol), and this makes a more appropriate pairing with “all of his enemies”:

“…in the day (that) YHWH pulled him away from the palm(s) of all his enemies and from the hand of Sheol [i.e. death, the grave].”

Conceivably, there is an intentional play on words (lWav*/loav=), introduced by the author of the heading.

First Part (Poem 1): Verses 2-31 [1-30]

Verses 2-4

The relationship between the two versions in these verses is complex. Vv. 2-4 form an introductory stanza of praise to YHWH. Let us compare them as they stand, beginning with Psalm 18:

“And he said:
I love you, YHWH, my strength!
YHWH (is) my rock-cleft and hill-top (site),
and my (only) means of escape,
my Mighty (One), my rock,
in which I find protection,
my shield and (the) horn of my salvation,
my place of high (walls), being (worthy) of praise!
I called to YHWH,
and from my enemies I was saved.”

Here is the same relative portion of the 2 Samuel version:

“And he said:
YHWH (is) my rock-cleft and hill-top (site),
and (the) means of escape for me,
my Mighty (One), my rock,
in which I find protection,
my shield and (the) horn of my salvation,
my place of high (walls) and my place to flee—
the (One) bringing salvation (to) me,
from violence you (have) saved me!
Being (worthy) of praise, I call to YHWH,
and (so) I am saved from my enemies.”

In their landmark study on this Psalm, F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman present the interesting theory that verses 2-4, in both Ps 18 and 2 Sam 22, are a conflation of two different earlier forms of the introduction (see pp. 21-22 of their study). In each reconstructed form, there are six lines, with a 3+3 bicolon followed by a pair of 2+2 bicola:

Different images and motifs of protection are present in these lines. The primary emphasis is on a protective place (location) high up in the cliffs, blending with the standard ancient Near Eastern idea of the fortified hilltop site. From this wider military application, the imagery moves to the narrower focus of personal protection, over the body, etc, of the one whom YHWH delivers from danger.

Verses 5-7

A different aspect of salvation is described in this stanza, utilizing the ancient mythic-cosmic image of Death (and chaos/destruction) as a great opponent of YHWH, even as death and disorder are the opposite of life and order. I have discussed the meaning and background of the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol) in prior studies as well as a supplemental article; the similar term lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al, Belial) was also examined briefly in an earlier article. This emphasis provides a strong argument that lwav in the superscription ought to be read as Sheol (loav=) rather than Saul (lWav*), cf. above.

“The breaking (wave)s of Death surrounded me,
the torrents of Beliyya’al (engulf)ed me (with) terror;
the twisted (cord)s of She’ol turned around me,
the snares of Death came (right) in front of me.
In th(is) tight (spot) for me, I called to YHWH,
unto my Mightiest [Elohim] I (cri)ed for help;
He heard my voice from His palace,
and my cry for help came in(to) His ears.”

Apart from some minor orthographic differences, we may note the following more substantial textual/versional points:

    • 2 Sam v. 4 begins with the particle yK! (“for”) which probably should be omitted as secondary.
    • The first line of Psa v. 4 has “twisted (cord)s” (yl@b=j#, plural construct), as in line 3, whereas 2 Sam reads “breaking (wave)s” (yr@B=v=m!), which much better suits the imagery of the couplet and is to be preferred.
    • Most commentators agree that the last line in Psa v. 7 is a conflation of two different phrases “came to(ward) His face [i.e. before Him]” and “came in(to) His ears”; the latter is the reading of 2 Sam, and probably is to be preferred. In any case, it would seem that only one of the two would have been present originally.

The remainder of the first part of the Psalm will be examined in next week’s study.

The aforementioned study by Cross and Freedman (“A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”) was originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

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