Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 23

Psalm 23

This relatively simple and beautiful Psalm is one of the most famous and beloved passages in all the Scriptures, immortalized for English speakers by the King James Version, in which form it has been treasured (and committed to memory) by millions of children and adults alike. So familiar is it in English translation, that many Christians today may be somewhat surprised by how it actually reads in the original Hebrew.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, with no other musical direction indicated. The meter is straightforward and balanced, but not consistent throughout. It is predominantly in 3+2 couplets, though verse 4 is made up of a pair of 2+2+2 tricola, and the initial line is 4+3. Structurally, it is best to follow this poetic versing, in which case the tricola of verse 4 may be seen as the center point (and central theme or message) of the composition:

    • Stanza 1: Verses 1-3 (3 couplets)
    • Stanza 2: Verse 4 (3 tricola)
    • Stanza 3: Verses 5-6 (4 couplets)

VERSES 1-3

“YHWH (is the One) tending me—I will not lack (anything),
in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along),
(yes, even) my soul He turns back (in rest);
He guides me in (the) tracks of righteousness,
for the purpose of (honoring) His name.”

The imagery is that of the herdsman (shepherd) and his flock—literally, one who tends (vb hu*r*) the flock. The emphasis is thus on the care that the herder shows to the sheep, concerned for their safety and well-being. This is summarized by the statement of the Psalmist “I will not lack (anything)”, using the root rs^j* which generally refers to a need or deficiency, i.e. something that is lacking.

Part of the true beauty of the poetry in these lines is the way that the parallelism is interlocking (and overlapping) within the rhythm of the couplets. Note, for example, the synonymous parallelism of the second line of the first couplet and the first line of the second:

“in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along)”

The imagery could not be more appealing, this charming pastoral scene of the sheep crouching down in the fresh grass, and then moving slowly alongside the gentle waters of a nearby stream.

There is subsequently a different kind of formal parallelism in the second and third couplets (both 3+2 meter). In the first line of these couplets, the emphasis is on the shepherd leading and guiding the sheep, using the similar verbs lh^n` and hj^n`. In the first instance, it is a natural image (sheep led alongside a stream), while in the second it is ethical and religious (people guided in “tracks of righteousness”). There is a comparable dual-imagery in the second line of each couplet, which interprets the motif in the first line (i.e., a kind of synthetic parallelism):

    • Sheep being led alongside a restful stream
      => a person’s soul being given rest (“turned back”, i.e. restored)
    • A person being guided in tracks of righteousness
      => that person living and acting in honor of God’s “name”

Again, there is tremendous beauty and power in the way that these complex ideas are expressed in just a few words (3 or 2 beats) of the poetic line. This sort of compression can also lead to difficulties for the translator which requires great sensitivity to the force and style of the poetic expression. For example, the last line of the third couplet simply reads omv= /u^m^l= (“for the purpose of his name”), which is not entirely clear unless one recognizes that “righteousness” (qd#x#) in the context of Israelite religion entails giving honor to YHWH (and His “name”). The noun qd#x# fundamentally denotes a straight line, and thus is appropriate for the visual motif of sheep being led in a straight path, by a well-established set of tracks (lG`u=m^ plur.) formed in the ground over the course of time.

VERSE 4

“Even when I should walk
in (the) valley of death( ‘s) shadow
I shall not fear (any) evil,
for you (are) along with me—
your staff and your support
they (surely) guide me.”

As noted above, this verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2+2) tricola; I have preserved this rhythmic structure in translation to distinguish it from the surrounding couplets of vv. 1-3, 5-6. This is the central section of the Psalm, which contains the primary message: the care YHWH shows to his people is such that they/we can trust in it, even during times of darkness and danger.

The expression “valley of death( ‘s) shadow” (tw#m*l=x^ ayg@B=) seems a bit overloaded as a construct phrase, but perhaps is intentionally so in order to emphasize the shift from the idyllic scene in vv. 1-3 to one of danger. However, the Greek LXX translates as “in the midst of [e)n me/sw|] (the) shadow of death”, which could mean that the underlying Hebrew word (ayG@, “valley”) was instead read as = wG@ (“back, midst [of]”), cp. Aramaic aW`G~. Dahood (p. 146f) follows this line of interpretation. In my view, however, the imagery in vv. 1-3, of the sheep traveling through a natural landscape (on safe/level ground), makes the contrasting motif of a valley appropriate here.

Presumably, the “staff” (fb#v@) here in v. 4b is the shepherd’s staff, and the paired noun hn`u@v=m! much the same (i.e. a staff for walking, etc). However, the fundamental meaning of the latter noun is a place of support (root /u^v*, i.e. something which gives support), and refers primarily to the support that YHWH provides. It is the staff of YHWH that provides this, in his role as shepherd.

The final line is problematic, as the apparent verbal root <j^n` (usually understood here in the sense of “comfort”) does not fit the imagery of the verse particularly well. Dahood (p. 147) suggests that the –m– in the form ynmjny is an infixed mem-enclitic. If so, its purpose here is presumably to fill out the rhythm of the 2-beat line which begins with the short beat of the pronoun (hM*h@). I tentatively follow this interpretation in my translation above, which reads the word ynmjny as a form of the verb hj*n` (“lead, guide”), as in v. 3a (cf. above). The point of the verse is that YHWH the Shepherd will lead his people even through the dark valley.

VERSES 5-6

“You arrange a table (be)fore my face,
in front of (those) hostile to me;
you fatten [i.e. anoint] my head with oil,
(and) my cup (is) drenched full.
Surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all (the) days of my life,
and I will sit in (the) house of YHWH
for (the full) length of days.”

Following the dark intermezzo of verse 4, the theme of God’s blessed care for his people returns in the couplets of vv. 5-6. Only the pastoral imagery has been replaced by that of the hospitality shown to an honored guest. In verse 5, the motif is specifically that of a guest receiving grand treatment as he dines with his host; three of the four lines express the idea clearly enough:

    • a table is arranged (vb Er^u*), set out in front of the person (lit. “to my face”)
    • the guest’s head is anointed (lit. “made fat”, vb /v@D*) with oil
    • his drinking up is filled (with wine) to the point of overflowing—the main point of the idiom is that the person will be completely satisfied.

The difficulty lies in the second line of the first couplet, which has the parallel of the table arranged before the guest’s face with its being arranged “in front of [dg#n#]” his enemies (those hostile to him). A comparable example of this detail may perhaps be found in the 14th century B.C. Amarna texts (100:33-35), which includes a request to the Pharaoh that “he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on” (Dahood, p. 147f). The shaming of one’s enemies makes the honored treatment all the much more conspicuous (and appealing). While this idea may conflict with our Christian ideals of humility, etc, it is generally in keeping with the ancient mindset and its associated social key values of honor and shame.

The couplets of verse 6 are rather more straightforward, in terms of our own religious vantage point. Even so, we may not fully appreciate the covenant-background of this imagery, and how it relates to the hospitality idiom of v. 5. The loyal and faithful vassal receives an honored place at his lord’s table, and receives blessings and benefits in turn. It this context, the general terms “goodness” (bof) and “kindness” (ds#j#) carry a specific connotation; in particular, ds#j# frequently connotes loyalty (i.e. to the covenant bond), while bof can refer to the benefits that result from the covenant.

Here, the “house” of God should be understood in these same terms, and not necessarily as a concrete reference to the Temple. It simply means the place where God dwells, presumably in the sense of his heavenly abode. The blessed life for God’s people—that is, the righteous, those faithful to the covenant—depicted in vv. 1-3, 5-6, strongly suggests that a heavenly afterlife is at least partly in view (cp. the imagery in Psalm 1:3, 6). The Hebrew of the Old Testament had no way to express the abstract idea of “eternity” or “eternal/everlasting life”; the Scriptures often rely on the more concrete idiom of long life. Living to a ripe old age was rare enough in ancient times that it came to be viewed as an ideal representation of blessing from God. In the final couplet of the Psalm there are two similar expressions:

    • “all (the) days of my life”, which, I think, properly reflects what we would call temporal blessing—blessings experienced during our life on earth, and
    • “for (the) length of days” —that is, the full length of days, both a long life on earth and its completion in the blessed heavenly abode (“in the house of YHWH”)

The Shepherd Motif

The widespread practice of sheep-herding, and the pastoral economy throughout the ancient Near East, made the motif of the shepherd immediately recognizable and appealing as a symbol. The herder was a leader and protector of the flock/herd, and thus served as a fitting symbol for leadership in society—i.e., of kings and other rulers. We need not go any further afield than the Old Testament Scriptures to see how common the image of the shepherd was as a representation of the kings and rulers of the nations—cf. Nah 3:18; Jer 10:21; 22:22; 23:1-4; 25:34-38; 49:19; 50:44; Ezek 34:1-10; Zech 10:3; 11:4-17, and Isa 44:28. This applied to the rulers of Israel and Judah as well (2 Sam 5:2; 7:7, etc), and the tradition of David’s role as a shepherd earlier in his life (1 Sam 16:11; 17:15, 20 etc; Ps 78:70-72) helped to shape the Messianic figure-type of the future Davidic ruler as a “shepherd” (cf. Jer 3:15; 23:4; Ezek 34:23; 37:22,24; Zech 13:7, and the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2; Mic 5:4ff). The idea of the people as “sheep without a shepherd” emphasizes the lack of proper leadership (Num 27:16-17; 1 Kings 22:17; Mark 6:34; Matt 9:36).

Jesus himself made use of this shepherd-imagery, even identifying himself as the “Good Shepherd” (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7; John 10:1-29; cf. also Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17), while the Messianic association is alluded to in Mk 14:27 par. Elders and ministers who served a leading role in the early Christian congregations were similarly called “shepherd” (poimh/n), as in Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet 5:1ff; Eph 4:11 (cp. John 21:15-17), a usage that continues with the title “pastor” today.

It is somewhat less common to refer to God as a shepherd, though it is a natural extension of the use of the motif to represent leadership and kingship. Apart from Psalm 23, the most notable references to YHWH as a shepherd are: Gen 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:15ff; Amos 3:12).

 

Saturday Series: Isaiah 24-27 (concluded)

Isaiah 24-27, concluded

As we have seen, chapters 24-27 of the book of Isaiah represent a complex and multifaceted composition. This is indicated by the different ways that commentators have analyzed the structure of this material. While a variety of approaches might be adopted, I believe that a definite structure can be discerned, especially in chapters 25-27. I touched upon this in last week’s study; the basic pattern in 25:1-26:6 is found also in 26:7-27:6, and I would summarize it as follows: an eschatological poem, in several sections, followed by two “day of YHWH” stanzas. These concluding stanzas, which involve the expression “in/on that day” (bayyôm hahû°), emphasize the coming Judgment by God upon the nations of the earth.

Isaiah 26:7-27:6

Here is my outline of this section, according to the pattern established above:

    • Part 1—Contrast between the righteous and the wicked (26:7-11)
      • Exhortation for YHWH to act in judgment (vv. 12-13)
    • Part 2—Contrast between the fate of the righteous and wicked (vv. 14-19)
      • Exhortation for God’s people in the face of the coming judgment (vv. 20-21)
    • Stanza 1 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, 27:1)
    • Stanza 2 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, vv. 2-5)
    • Closing refrain—Israel’s restoration (v. 6)

The main eschatological poem (26:7-21) is divided into two parts, each of which emphasizes a contrast between the righteous (i.e., the faithful ones of Israel) and the wicked (i.e., the faithless and the other nations). The initial couplet of 26:7 establishes this, focusing on the righteous, using the language of Wisdom poetry (and Psalms):

“(The) path for (the) just (person) is (all) straightness,
[Straight (One)], the track of (the) just (person) you make level”

In passing, it is worth noting the text-critical question involving the word in square brackets (y¹š¹r, “straight”). It disrupts the rhythm of the couplet (otherwise 3-beat, 3+3), and is omitted by the Greek Septuagint [LXX] version. If original, it involves a wordplay with the noun “straightness” (mêš¹rîm, an intensive plural); the path of the righteous is straight because the One who is straight (i.e. YHWH) makes it so.

Verses 8-9 describe the character and behavior of the righteous; by contrast, the character of the wicked is described in vv. 10-11. The paradigmatic Wisdom Psalm, contrasting the righteous and wicked, is Psalm 1 (discussed in an earlier article); and this section of the apocalyptic Isaian poem follows the same general wisdom-pattern. If the path of the righteous is “straight”, the wicked “twists” and perverts (vb ±ûl) things, moving away from YHWH (v. 10); such a person is unable to see God’s hand, even as it is raised to deliver judgment (v. 11). The righteous seek after God’s judgments, and, in the New Age, they become the vehicle through which God’s own righteousness is communicated to all people.

This raises an interesting point about the identity of the righteous and wicked. As in chapter 24 (see on vv. 14-16ff in the previous study), the focus seems to be on the righteous and wicked among Israel—the point of the message being that the faithless ones will suffer the same fate/punishment in the Judgment as the other wicked nations. This is how I understand the sense of the final couplet here in verse 11:

“and they will feel shame (at the jealous) zeal of (your) people,
even (as the) fire of your oppressors shall devour them!”

The construct phrases “zeal of (your) people” and “fire of your oppressors” are best understood as object genitives—i.e., the zeal God shows for His people (the faithful ones), and the fire He unleashes on His enemies. This language leads into the exhortation for YHWH to act in judgment, as is appropriate for the righteous (v. 12) and wicked (v. 13), respectively. In verse 13, the sense of the wicked has shifted to the nations (such as the Babylonian empire) who oppress God’s people and are enemies of YHWH.

Part 2 (vv. 14-21) of the poem deals with the contrasting fate of the righteous and wicked, in terms of death and the afterlife. Here the order of treatment is reversed: first the fate of the wicked (“[the one]s being dead shall not live”, v. 14), then that of the righteous (“your dead [one]s shall live”, v. 19). Bracketed within these two statements is a difficult passage (vv. 15-18) in which the people of Israel call out to YHWH, reflecting on their troubled history and suffering as a nation. It is worth considering these verses in a bit more detail; they may be further divided into two portions:

    • Vv. 15-16—Historical summary: The growth of the nation (v. 15) and its subsequent suffering (v. 16)
    • Vv. 17-18—Illustration of a woman in labor: Her pain (v. 17) and apparent miscarriage (v. 18)

The image of a pregnant woman (and her labor pains) came to be a widely-used symbol, in Jewish eschatology and apocalyptic, for the time of distress that marks the end of the current Age and beginning of the Judgment. Early Christian eschatology made effective use of the same motif (Mark 13:8 par; 1 Thess 5:3; Rom 8:22; Rev 12:2ff, etc). Here, however, it is the exile of Israel and Judah that is primarily in view, seen both as a time of distress (ƒar) and a chastening instruction (mûs¹r) by God. The motif of the woman in labor gives to this suffering an even greater sense of apparent hopelessness. The people writhe in pain and cry out to God (in His presence), and yet give birth only to the wind (rûaµ), not to a child; the wording here in verse 18 is significant:

“We were pregnant, we twisted (in pain), (but) as it (was),
we gave birth (to the) wind—
salvation we did not achieve (on) earth,
and (one)s dwelling (in the) inhabited (world) were not made to fall (as newborn children)”

The specific language is difficult, especially in the final line, and was apparently misunderstood by the Greek LXX. The word y®šû±â (“salvation”) is used in an ironic (negative) sense, referring to the failure to secure the lasting success of the people through child-bearing (understood symbolically). There may also be a specific allusion to a failure by Israel to fulfill its role as the people through whom God will bring the light of truth to all other nations (see above, on verses 8-11). Despite this lack of national success and blessing, the situation will change markedly with the restoration of Israel in the New Age. As in the famous prophecy in Ezekiel 37, this restoration-promise is here expressed in terms of new life from the dead (i.e. resurrection). The climactic words in verse 19 make this clear:

“Your dead (one)s will live,
your corps(es) will stand up (again)—
wake (up) and cry (for joy),
(you the one)s sitting in (the) dust!
For your dew (is) a dew of (pure) light,
and (the) earth will make (the) shades fall (as newborn children).”

As in verse 18, the use of the verb n¹¸al in the Hiphil stem (i.e. “cause to fall”) to refer to childbirth (i.e., the falling/dropping of newborn children), has caused confusion for both ancient and modern translators. Otherwise, however, the imagery is straightforward—the dead bodies of the righteous will live again in the New Age. The only real question is whether this resurrection-motif is simply symbolic (as in Ezek 37), or is to be taken literally as a promise of future bodily resurrection (cf. Daniel 12:2f).

Many commentators would question the extent to which Israelites in the Kingdom period believed in life after death, much less in a bodily resurrection; however, there would seem to be more afterlife allusions in the Old Testament than are commonly admitted, even throughout the earlier poetry. Such beliefs were expressed figuratively, primarily through a developed poetic (and mythological) idiom, and so are not stated as clearly as we might like. In any case, by the mid-6th century B.C., the increasing occurrence of resurrection-imagery in the Prophets suggests that the motif is drawing upon older, established traditions.

The poem concludes with an exhortation to the people of Israel (vv. 20-21) to prepare themselves for the coming Judgment. In particular, YHWH will punish the nations for their wickedness, violence and oppression, and the warning for Israel, repeated throughout these chapters, is that those who are unfaithful will share in this punishment. The emphasis on the Judgment leads into the two “day of YHWH” stanzas (27:1, 2-5), followed by a closing refrain (v. 6). I feel it is worth examining these verses in some detail, so I will be devoting several supplemental notes this week to their study, along with a separate note on the final poem of chaps. 24-27 (27:7-13). This will complete our study here on the Isaian Apocalypse, which must be considered only an introductory survey meant to illustrate how the principles and methods of Biblical criticism can help us understand such a challenging text of Prophecy, and to elucidate its message and meaning.

Next week, we will move further ahead in the book of Isaiah, to chapters 36-39, where we will explore how the historical episode of the Assyrian invasion of Judah under Sennacherib (and the siege of Jerusalem) was handled within the Isaian Tradition.