May 7: Psalm 104:29-30; 139:7; 143:10

Psalm 104:29-30; 139:7; 143:10

Before continuing in these notes on the subject of the association between the Spirit of God and prophecy (cf. the previous note), and how it was developed in the Prophetic writings, let us pause to consider briefly today the few references to the Spirit (j^Wr) in the Psalms. We already looked at Ps 51:12-14 [10-12] in an earlier note, where the three-fold use of j^Wr occurred in the context of the ancient tradition and (royal) theology, whereby the legitimacy of rule was based on a (charismatic) gifting by the presence of the spirit of God (discussed in prior notes). However, within the Psalm, this idea has been generalized somewhat, to the point where it could easily be applied the average person or the people of God as a whole. What is most important to note is the way that sin and impurity breaks the covenant bond with YHWH and stands as a barrier to experiencing the presence of His Spirit. This is the significance of the qualitative term “holy” —i.e. “your holy spirit” (lit. “spirit of your holiness”).

There are three other references to the “spirit” of God in the Psalms, and in each of these, the term j^Wr essentially stands for the presence of God, drawing upon the language and imagery of the Creation account (Gen 1:2, etc, cf. the earlier note)—that is, as a breath or wind that extends over the entire universe and gives life to all things.

Psalm 104:29-30

Psalm 104 is among the grandest of the Psalter, a hymn extolling the creative power of YHWH—that is, YHWH as the Creator God (identified with the Semitic ‘El). As many commentators have noted, the Psalm resembles the Egyptian hymn to the Aten (the creative power manifest in the disc/orb of the sun), composed during the Amarna period, in the way that it describes the deity’s life-giving and sustaining power as it touches the different parts of creation. Ultimately, however, this Psalm is a uniquely Israelite composition, adapting and applying the cosmological tenets of ancient Near Eastern thought entirely to El-Yahweh.

In verses 27-30, the focus is on the sustenance YHWH provides, for all living beings on earth, by way of His own life-sustaining power. This extends from the manifestation of His power within the natural order, through the food that is available to creatures (vv. 27-28), to a consideration of His immanent presence in a more general sense (vv. 29-30). This latter aspect is defined in terms of the contrast between life and death—i.e. His presence brings life, while the absence of His presence causes death.

The rhythm and meter of vv. 29-30 is irregular, and may reflect an adaptation of the 3-beat (3+3) couplet format to produce a chiastic structure:

    • The face of God (His presence)
      • Death from the absence of His spirit
        • The dust from which humans were created
      • Life from the presence of His spirit
    • (His presence over) the face of the earth

Within this parallelism, there is a clear correspondence between the “face” of God and His “spirit/breath” (j^Wr). As far as the corresponding idea of the “face” of the earth is concerned, we may recall the imagery from Gen 1:2, where the spirit/breath of God hovers over the “face” of the deep (i.e. the dark mass of the primeval waters). With this structure in mind, here is a translation of the extended pair of couplets, with the additional/central line in italics:

“You hide your face and they are disturbed,
you gather (up your) breath [j^Wr] and they perish
and return to dust;
you send (out) your breath [j^Wr] and they are created,
you make new the face of the ground [hm*d*a&].”

In light of this parallelism, I am inclined to follow Dahood (pp. 46-47) in reading the <-suffixes in v. 29b as enclitics, rather than the 3rd person plural suffix. The Qumran manuscript 11QPsa, which specifically reads “your breath” (as a correction?), confirms that this is the intended meaning. There may well be a bit of dual-meaning wordplay, since, clearly, the removal of God’s breath (spirit) leads to the removal of the human breath/spirit (i.e. their death). The reference to the “ground” (hm*d*a&, i.e. the surface of the earth) also involves some traditional (and longstanding) word-play with <d*a* (“man, humankind”).

Psalm 139:7

In this Psalm, of a type found rather frequently in the collection, the Psalmist affirms his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. The first half (vv. 1-13) is a meditative hymn on the all-encompassing presence and power of God, the heart of which, we may say is the couplet in verse 7, where we find the same parallelism of face / spirit as in 104:29-30 (cf. above). Both the terms “face” (pl. <yn]P*) and “breath/spirit” (j^Wr) fundamentally signify the presence of YHWH. The parallelism of the 3+3 couplet is simple and precise:

“(To) where shall I walk (away) from your spirit,
and (to) where shall I run away from your face?”

In later theological terminology, we would refer to this as part of an overall statement in the Psalm on the omnipresence of God—YHWH is everywhere, His presence extending over the entire “face” of the earth.

Psalm 143:10

Ps 143 may be regarded as a penitential Psalm, similar in tone to Ps 51 (discussed in a prior note), but more properly functioning as prayer to YHWH that justice be done. It consists of two parallel parts (vv. 1-6, 7-12). The word j^Wr (“spirit, breath”) occurs three times, each of which involves parallels or associations already encountered in these notes:

    • Verse 4— “spirit” (j^Wr) is parallel with “heart” (bl@), referring to the inner life-force or essence of a person; in his suffering and distress, the Psalmist feels his life-force emptying.
    • Verse 7—again the idea is of the Psalmist’s life-breath departing (ending, vb hl*K*), only now the association is with God’s own life-sustaining presence (i.e. His “face”) being removed (cp. Ps 51:13 [11]) from him.
    • Verse 10—as in Ps 51:14 [12], the emphasis here is on the Psalmist being renewed/restored by the stimulating and guiding spirit of God. The verse is comprised of a pair of 3+2 couplets, exhibiting synthetic parallelism:
      “Teach me to do your pleasure,
      for you (are) my Mightiest (One);
      may your good spirit [j^Wr] guide me
      into the straight [i.e. level] land.”
      The expression “good spirit” (hb*of j^Wr) is similar in certain respects to “holy spirit” (lit. “spirit of holiness”) and “stimulating spirit” in Ps 51:13-14 [11-12]. The “straight” land has a dual-meaning: (a) its smooth/level surface characterizes the heavenly afterlife for the righteous, and (b) it alludes to the straight (i.e. upright) character of the righteous.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms III: 101-150, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 17A (1970).