Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 26

Psalm 26

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (vv. 7-12)

The dramatic setting in Psalm 26 involves an affirmation of the Psalmist’s innocence and faithfulness to YHWH, framed as an appeal to God. The basic setting is thus judicial, with the heavenly court (tribunal) of El-Yahweh in view. Quite possibly, the scenario envisioned for the protagonist of the Psalm may correspond with that described briefly in 1 Kings 8:31-32; if so, then the ‘action’ takes place in the Temple sanctuary, in front of the altar, and verse 6 would seem to confirm this as generally correct (cf. below).

Rhythmically, this Psalms follows a three-beat (3+3) bicolon format, but not without several points of irregularity (cf. on v. 1 below). The superscription simply marks it as “belonging to David”, with no other musical information indicated.

Verse 1

“Judge me, YHWH,
for (indeed) I have walked in my completeness—
and (indeed) in YHWH I have trusted (and) have not wavered.”

The opening verse establishes the Psalmist’s appeal to YHWH (cf. above), and the basis for it. The tension of the moment is reflected in the irregular meter. Essentially, a 3+3 couplet has been expanded, by the addition of the opening (2-beat) line, and also the second line of the couplet is overloaded, primarily by the inclusion of the divine name (“and in YHWH”). I regard the initial w-particle of the second line, and also the yK! particle of the first line, as emphatic—juxtaposing the protagonist (“I”) with God (“YHWH”):

    • “for (indeed) I…” (yn]a& yK!)
    • “and (indeed) in YHWH…” (hw`hyb^W)

The Psalmist requests YHWH to render judgment on his behalf—a familiar theme in the Psalms. The basis for his appeal is reflected in the parallelism of the couplet:

    • “I have walked | in my completeness”
    • “I have trusted | (and) have not wavered”

“Walking” here implies walking in the way of God, according to His instruction (cf. the previous study on Psalm 25); thus, it corresponds with “trusting” in Him. The expression “in my completeness” relates to a person’s integrity and faithfulness to YHWH in all things; it thus is equivalent to the idea of never wavering in trust of God.

Verse 2

“Examine me, YHWH, and test me,
refining my inner organs and my heart.”

This couplet essentially expounds the appeal of the opening line in v. 1 (above)— “Judge me, YHWH”. It uses three verbs that are similar in meaning. In the first line we have /j^B* (“examine, test”) and hs*n`, which also means “test”, but in the sense of testing the quality of something; this leads to the use of [r^x* in the second line, which refers to the refining (i.e. testing/proving) of metal. I take the final h– on the verb form hp*orx= as locative, pointing to where this refining takes place—namely, in the inward parts (inner organs [kidneys, intestines], and heart). This corresponds with the emphasis on a person’s “completeness” in v. 1, meaning the testing extends not only to outward behavior, but to one’s inner attitude and intention.

Verse 3

“For your goodness is t(here) in front of my eyes,
and (surely) I have walked about in your truth.”

If verse 2 expounds the opening line of v. 1, verse 3 here expounds the main couplet that follows (cf. above). A similar parallelism of thought is found here: trust in YHWH / walking in His way. The idea of trust is expressed in terms of the Psalmist keeping the “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH in front of him (right before his eyes); while the idiom of “walking” here makes explicit what is implied in v. 1, that the righteous person walks in the way (or the “truth”) of God. The Psalmist affirms that he has lived and acted in the same righteous manner.

Verse 4

“I have not sat with men of (those things of) emptiness,
and with (the one)s concealing themselves I have not come.”

The thrust of the Psalmist’s appeal shifts from the positive aspect of his trust in YHWH and faithfulness, etc, to the negative aspect—i.e., that he has not been a part of the wicked/faithless ones. The idea of “sitting” with the wicked was expressed, famously, in Psalm 1 (v. 1, cf. the earlier study), and has more or less the same meaning here. Parallel with “sitting” (vb. bv^y`) is the idea of moving about (coming/going, vb. aoB). The wicked themselves are characterized two ways:

    • by the expression “men of emptiness” (aw+v* yt@m=), where the noun aw+v* (“emptiness”) likely functions as a euphemism for false religion and idolatry (i.e. the god/image as a vain/empty thing), as noted by Dahood (p. 162) and other commentators.
    • by the verb <l^u* (“hide, conceal”), niphal (passive/reflexive) participle—i.e., persons who “hide/conceal themselves”, in the religious sense of hiding (to others) their unfaithfulness and disloyalty to YHWH, or that their wickedness is manifest especially while they are hidden.
Verse 5

“I have hated (the) gathering of (those) doing evil,
and with (the) wicked (one)s I have (never) sat.”

The Psalmist reaffirms his avoidance of evil/wicked persons, going so far as to state emphatically that he hates (vb an@v*) their gatherings. The repetition of the idea of sitting among the wicked should also be understood here as most emphatic—i.e., he has never sat with them.

Verses 6-7

“(See,) I wash my palms [i.e. hands] in cleanness,
and I go around your place of (ritual) slaughter, YHWH,
to make (it) heard with (the) voice of a shout (of praise),
and (there) to recount all your wonderful (deed)s.”

This couplet, situated at the heart of the Psalms, seems to allude to a ritual background, perhaps corresponding to the idea expressed in 1 Kings 8:31-32 (as noted above). As part of the process for judging wrongdoing, the accused was allowed to take an oath before the altar of YHWH in the Temple, calling upon God to decide the matter—condemning the guilty or vindicating the righteous (i.e. innocent). The ritual image here involves the washing of hands and circling the altar. However, it should be noted that frequently in the Psalms a ritual setting is used for a more general application to the righteous, i.e. in a religious-ethical sense, often influenced by wisdom traditions. The motif of ritual purity (washing the hands) here likely refers to the overall righteousness and integrity of the Psalmist (cp. Ps 24:4, “clean of hands and pure of heart”). The Temple sanctuary corresponds to the court of YHWH in heaven; even at the ritual level this would have been evident. The appeal is made in the Temple, while God hears and judges in Heaven.

The Temple-setting brings in an additional aspect of communal worship—giving praise to YHWH and recounting all the wonderful things God has done for his people. Whether or not this was ever part of a particular ritual (involving a person accused of wrongdoing), the worship-component certainly is intended to reflect the righteousness and loyal devotion (to YHWH) of the protagonist.

Verse 8

“[YHWH,] I have loved (this) place of abode (in) your house,
and (this) place to stand, (the) dwelling-place of your weight [dobk*].”

The initial occurrence of the divine name in line 1 may be a secondary addition, as it disrupts the 3+3 meter; if so, it is a natural addition. In this couplet, the religious devotion of the Psalmist is expressed by love for the Temple and its sanctuary, as the dwelling-place (/K^v=m!) of God. The corresponding noun /oum= in line 1 has a similar meaning (“place of habitation/abode”), but refers here to a place where the righteous (i.e. the Psalmist) may take up a temporary abode, a place of safety and refuge (where he finds ‘sanctuary’). In particular, the location by the altar is the “place to stand” (<oqm*), where he will be judged (and vindicated) by YHWH. “Weight” is a literal rendering of the noun dobK*, in the specific sense of “worth, value”; when applied to God it often refers to the value He is to be accorded by human beings—i.e., the honor, glory, etc, that is due to Him.

Verses 9-10

“Do not gather up my soul with (the) sinful (one)s,
and my life with (the) men of blood,
in whose hands (there is a wicked) plan,
and their right-hand is full of (evil) ‘gift(s)’.”

The Psalmist’s appeal to YHWH now turns into a prayer, a plea for God to recognize his righteousness/innocence and to judge him accordingly. As he affirmed earlier (vv. 4-5, cf. above), he should not be counted among the “sinful (one)s”, i.e. the wicked. The expression “men of blood” would normally indicate the violent tendencies often associated with the wicked; Dahood (p. 163), however, understands <ym!d* here not as “blood” (in its common plural form), but as a plural noun derived from the root hm*d* (“be like, resemble”), and thus as a reference to idolatrous “images” (cf. above on verse 4). While this is possible (cp. Ps 5:7), the overall orientation of the Psalm appears to be focused on wickedness in a more general sense (as expressed in verse 10). Certainly, however, an emphasis on religious devotion to YHWH would naturally have false religion—i.e., worship of other deities (and their images)—as the main point of contrast.

The actions of the wicked are summarized in verse 10, using the parallelism “hand(s)” / “right-hand”; this is a synonymous parallel, but one in which the second line also builds upon, and intensifies the imagery of, the first. In line 1, it is an evil purpose (or plan, hM*z]) that is in their “hands”, while in line 2, we see how they act on this wicked intention (with their “right hand”), by presenting a ‘gift’ (dj^v)), which is common euphemism for a bribe.

Verse 11

“And I, I will (continue) walk(ing) in my completeness—
ransom me, and show favor to me.”

Here the Psalmist restates his claim from verse 1, which serves as the basis for his appeal to God. Just as he has been completely faithful and devoted to YHWH, so he vows to continue to be so, living with integrity and walking in the way of God. The plea/prayer from verse 9 is also restated here, but in a positive form. He asks YHWH to “ransom” him, which here means being saved from the wicked and their (false) accusations against him. By judging in his favor, God will vindicate the Psalmist and “show favor” to him; in the context of the covenant, this implies a recognition and confirmation by the sovereign (YHWH) that the Psalmist is a faithful and loyal friend.

In the Masoretic text as it stands, this couplet has 3+2 meter; however, the Greek version reflects the presence of the divine name in the second line, which, if original, would yield 3+3, consistent with most of the other couplets. While it is possible that the divine name has dropped out of the MT, it is far more likely that is a secondary addition in the LXX. The only manuscript of Psalm 26 among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QPsr) has a different reading of this line, which also would effectively restore the meter:

“ransom me and preserve my life

Verse 12

“My foot takes its stand on a straight [i.e. level] place,
(and) in (the) places where (they) gather I bless YHWH.”

The juxtaposition of images in this final couplet is awkward and a bit confusing. The imagery in the first line is that of a person taking his stand (vb dm^u*), with firm footing, on level ground. The noun used (rovym!) literally means a “straight place”; however, the idea of “straightness” conveyed by the root rvy often has a religious and ethical connotation—i.e., “straight” = “upright, righteous”. Thus the firmness of the ground where the Psalmist is able to plant his feet (thanks to the favor YHWH has shown him), is also symbolic of the place where the righteous gather together (others take their stand there with him). This inference leads to the imagery in the second line, where the rare noun lh@q=m^ (parallel to rovym!) is used. Morphologically, this noun is presumably derived from the root lhq (“gather, assemble, call to assembly”), and would mean a place of gathering. The only other occurrence in the Old Testament is at Psalm 68:27 [26]. I suggest that the idea expressed here is twofold:

    • It refers to all the places were the righteous gather to worship YHWH
    • It refers to a place were all the righteous gather together—a vast assembly—which likely contains an allusion to the righteous dwelling with God in the blessed afterlife (cf. Psalm 1:6; 5:9, 12; 11:7; 16:11).

References marked “Dahood” above (and throughout these studies) are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 1)

Isaiah 36-39

These Saturday Series studies on the book of Isaiah conclude with an examination of chapters 36-39, the closing portion of the main book (so-called First Isaiah) covering chaps. 2-39. That book is comprised of four divisions, each of which conceivably could have circulated as a separate document, prior to being included as part of chaps. 1-39. There is also evidence, discussed at various points in these studies, that each division has, at its core, authentic Isaian traditions—oracles, poems, and historical-biographical material—from the 8th century B.C. The core Isaian material was developed over the course of time, forming the division-documents as we have them, a process that likely extended into the 6th century.

Even though each of the divisions is a significant literary work in its own right, having undergone a distinctive development, it is noteworthy that, in the overall framework of chapters 1-39, they are arranged in chronological order. That is to say, the authentic Isaian traditions, within each division, appear to be in chronological order, covering the period c. 740-701 B.C. This may be demonstrated as follows:

    • Division 1: Chapters 2-12
      Core Isaian material: 6:1-9:7[6], within the wider setting of chaps. 5-10
      Historical focus: The Syro-Ephramaite conflict, 734-732 B.C., with the Assyrian campaigns into the Northern kingdom (under Tiglath-Pileser III).
    • Division 2: Chapters 13-27
      Core Isaian material: the nation oracles throughout chaps. 14-20ff
      Historical focus: Events during the reign of Sargon II (721-705 B.C.), which would be confirmed particularly if the theory is correct that the “king of Babylon” in chap. 14 is to be identified with Sargon.
    • Division 3: Chapters 28-35
      Core Isaian material: the oracles of warning, judgment, etc, in chaps. 28-33
      Historical focus: Events leading up to the Assyrian invasion of Judah by Sennacherib (704-681) in 701 B.C.
    • Division 4: Chapters 36-39
      Core Isaian material: the historical traditions in these chapters (esp. chaps. 36-37)
      Historical focus: The Assyrian invasion of 701 B.C.

All of this is important for a proper understanding of chapters 36-39 and their place within the overall framework of the book. The invasion of 701 B.C., and the siege of Jerusalem, represents the climactic moment of the book, and anchors the message throughout. This is so even in terms of the apparent application of the Isaian material to the Babylonian period of the late-7th and 6th centuries B.C. (including the exilic period). Just as God saved Jerusalem from conquest and destruction, so he will also save a “remnant” of his people in the future, protecting those who trust in him, and eventually restoring them from their time of exile. Throughout chapters 1-39, this is expressed through the historical message of the prophet Isaiah—to the northern and southern kingdoms both—alternately declaring judgment and salvation for the people. Salvation is focused on Jerusalem, during the reign of Hezekiah; insofar as the king (and people) are faithful, trusting in YHWH, they will be saved from destruction and conquest.

Chapters 36-39 are unique among the divisions of the book in that they are comprised almost entirely of Isaian historical traditions (clearly stemming from the prophet’s own time), with relatively little development. More accurately, one can trace most of the development to a relatively narrow period of time, extending into the mid-7th century, not all that long after the death of Sennacherib (in 681). The main focus of our study is thus historical-critical—that is, the relationship of these traditions to the historical events they purport to record, during the years c. 703-701.

It is also significant that there is a second version of this same material found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37. This has led to various explanations: (a) Isaiah borrowed from Kings, (b) Kings borrowed from the book of Isaiah, or (c) each version is dependent upon a separate source document. In my view, the latter option is more likely; and, if correct, this would provide support for the theory (see above) that the four divisions of Isa 2-39 may have originally circulated as separate written works. This means there is an important source-critical component to any study of chaps. 36-39 (as indeed of the parallel version in Kings). The same historical traditions serve a different purpose, in the context of the books of Isaiah and Kings, respectively.

The parallel versions also are significant from a text-critical perspective. Textual variants between the two, while generally minor, have to be considered, if only to determine what role they play in the distinctive treatment (and/or development) of this material in the book of Isaiah. The two major differences between the Isaian and Kings versions are:

    • Isaiah does not include the notice in 2 Kings 18:14-16 of Hezekiah’s surrender and the tribute paid to Assyria
    • The psalm (attributed to Hezekiah) in Isa 38:9-20 does not occur in 2 Kings.

It makes sense to divide this material between chapters 36-37 and 38-39, and I will be devoting a study to each, over the next two weeks. Even though chaps. 38-39 are presented after chaps. 36-37, it is clear that, at the historical level, the events described in them must have taken place earlier—c. 703 B.C., a couple of years (or more) before the invasion of 701.