Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-5)
This short Psalm is made up of two parts: a prayer-lament in verses 1-5, and a concluding section of praise to YHWH (vv. 6-9). The first section is similar in style, tone, and emphasis to a number of lament-Psalms, where the protagonist is threatened by violence, oppression, and death. Sometimes these dangers are expressed in terms of human adversaries (if nameless and faceless ones), but it is not entirely clear whether these should be understood as real or figurative. More often than not, at least in the Psalms as they have come down to us, the enemies/adversaries are primarily figurative.
Many of the Psalms also evince a royal background or setting, though this has typically been displaced as the composition came to be used in a communal worship environment (see on verse 8 below). The closing lines often reflect this shift, sometimes even suggesting a specific worship/ritual context; and this is generally the case with our Psalm here.
As with the prior Psalms 25-27, the superscription simply indicates that it is “belonging to David”. The meter is irregular; it is generally based on a 3+2 couplet format, but this is utilized and adapted in a varied and highly creative way. Attempts to make the meter more consistent throughout are, for the most part, both unnecessary and misguided. Possible instances of textual corruption (in verses 5 and 7) only add to the complexity of the situation.
“To you, YHWH, do I call (out)—
my Rock, do not keep silent from me!
May (it be that) you do not keep quiet from me,
or I will be like (those) going down (to the) Pit!”
The syntax in the second couplet is rather difficult to render clearly in English. The conjunctive particle /P# reflects the wish that something be avoided or kept from happening. Its use at the beginning of a clause is precautionary. Coming as it does after the fervent wish expressed in the second line of the first couplet, it reinforces the Psalmist’s hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer his prayer (and not keep silent). There is a bit of wordplay between the verbs vr^j* and hv*j*, both of which have the similar meaning “be silent, quiet”. The “pit” (roB) of course, refers to death and the grave—i.e., Sheol, the realm of the dead. The “ones going down” to the pit are the wicked, who both literally and figuratively descend into the pit of Death.
“Hear (the) voice of my plea for favor,
in my crying out to you (for help),
in my lifting (up) of my hands,
to (the) deepest part of your Holy Place.”
These two couplets, as we have them, contain an interesting symmetrical structure, a mirrored 3+2 : 2+3 meter. The second line of the first couplet, together with the first line of the second couplet, forms an inner 2+2 pair. This is similar to the situation in verse 1, only here the (synthetic) parallelism is more precise, as the Psalmist’s prayer is described dramatically in terms of “crying out” (vb u^Wv) loudly (with his voice) and “lifting up” (vb ac^n`) his hands. A Temple setting is implied, whether or not the protagonist is envisioned as actually located in the sanctuary itself.
There is an interesting bit of dual-meaning wordplay involving the noun rybD= in the final line. Two separate rbd roots are attested, which, to some extent, seem to have been conflated with each other over the course of time. Root rbd I apparently has the core meaning “be in back, turn back”, while rbd II “give a word, speak, utter”. The parallel in line 1 with the Psalmist’s “voice” suggests the latter root, and the idea of an (oracular) utterance by God that takes place in His sanctuary. At the same time, the directional emphasis of the second couplet indicates that the former root is properly in view—i.e., the back part, the inner shrine of the sanctuary, where God Himself dwells.
In any case, all this imagery and clever poetry serves ultimately to emphasize the intensity of the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH. There may also be a conceptual parallel intended between the “Pit” (the place where Death reigns) and the back (i.e. deepest) part of the sanctuary where YHWH has His throne.
“Do not drag me along with (the) wicked (one)s,
and with (the one)s making trouble,
(the one)s speaking peace with their associates,
and (yet have) evil in their hearts!”
After the creative and irregular rhythmic structure of the couplets in the first two verses, here in v. 3 we find a more typical 3+2 meter, though with an expansive tension built into the lines. The force of the petition relates to the last line of verse 1, with its reference to the wicked—the “ones going down to the Pit”. Here these people are specifically called “wicked ones” (participle of the vb uv^r*). Again, there is a certain parallelism of the inner lines of these two couplets, when taken together. The wicked are further characterized as “ones making trouble” and “speaking peace” (falsely) with those who are supposed to be their close associates. The latter characteristic, presented in the 3-beat line of the second couplet, flows into the concluding line (the 2-beat line of the couplet), expressing a powerful antithetic parallelism that summarizes the wickedness of such people: they speak peace, and yet have evil in their heart (i.e. an evil intent).
Clearly, the Psalmist does not want to be grouped together with the wicked, which would be the implication if God does not answer his fervent prayer in his time of need. To be counted among the wicked means sharing their fate—of being “dragged along” (vb Ev^m*) down into the Pit.
“Give to them (in return) according to their actions,
and according to (the) evil of their deeds;
according to what their hands have made,
<return their treatment (of others back) to them!>”
The Psalmist’s desire to separate himself from the wicked leads to an imprecatory prayer against them. He asks that YHWH judge them (and pay them back) according to their wickedness—the implication being that God should similarly judge the protagonist according to his righteousness and faithful devotion.
It seems quite clear that the last line of the second couplet is corrupt, as it has come down to us. Unfortunately, the only surviving Dead Sea MS is fragmentary at this point, and is of no real help. The best explanation is that two similar phrases have been conflated in the text: “give to them” (<h#l* /T@) and “return to them” (<h#l*…bv@h*). The first of these is likely due to a copyist’s mistake, drawing upon the occurrence of the same phrase in line 1 of the verse. Given this strong likelihood, we may with some confidence emend the text accordingly.
This emendation creates another 3+2 : 2+3 couplet pairing, as in verse 2 (cf. above). Again there is clear (synonymous) parallelism with the inner pair of this structure, characterizing the actions of the wicked. The social aspect of their wickedness is indicated by the use of the noun lWmG+, which refers to how one treats another person. The ethical dimension, naturally enough, blends with the judicial. To mistreat a person will lead to some measure of judgment in response to that action. Here the ancient lex talionis principle is at work—the punishment should be proportionate, and similar in nature, to the crime.
“For they give no discernment
(at all) to (the) actions of YHWH,
and to the working of His hands—
He pulls them down and does not build them!”
The highly creative and varied rhythmic structure of the Psalm continues with a 3+3 couplet pairing. Once again, there is a clear parallelism to the inner lines of these two couplets when taken together: “(the) actions of YHWH” | “(the) working of His hands”. God’s actions are contrasted with those of the wicked (v. 4, above). This is further expressed by the antithetic parallelism of the outer lines (first of couplet 1 + last of couplet 2), involving a bit of alliterative wordplay that is impossible to capture in English translation:
- /yB (bîn), “discernment, understanding” —the wicked to not discern, i.e. they pay no heed to, the work of God
- hn`B* (b¹nâ), “to build” —accordingly, God does not build up the wicked; on the contrary, he pulls/tears them down (vb sr^h*)
“YHWH (is to) be adored!
For He has heard
(the) voice of my plea for favor.”
This verse must be regarded as transitional, leading into the psalm of praise in vv. 7-9. Its meter is ambiguous, and a bit awkward, but should apparently be understood as a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2); the fragmented terseness of this form cannot adequately be rendered literally in English. A closer approximation of the rhythm in translation would be something like:
“Praised be YHWH!
For He has heard
the voice of my prayer.”
The wording echoes that of verse 2 (cf. above). The root irb literally refers to “bending the knee”, specifically as a gesture of homage and devotion. This denotation is difficult to render in English, especially as a passive participle; the basic meaning is someone “for whom the knee is to be bent” —i.e., someone who is to be given homage. I have translated it above as “(to) be adored”, while the more customary rendering is “blessed”.
“YHWH (is) my strength and my protection,
in Him has my heart trusted (for safety).
I was given help, and my heart leaps (for joy),
and (with) my singing I throw (praise to Him).”
The meter of verse 7 is slightly irregular, but generally corresponds to the 3+2 couplet pattern. The irregularity may be due to textual corruption in the second couplet, and the Greek and Syriac versions suggest a differing underlying Hebrew text at this point; however, there is little basis here for any emendation of the text. The verb jf^B* often has the connotation of seeking protection, i.e., trusting in someone or something for safety. It is used frequently with this meaning in the Psalms, and is fitting for the imagery of YHWH himself as a place of protection (/g@m*, i.e. covering, shield, etc).
The worship context, suggested already in the first section of the Psalm (cf. verse 2, above), comes more clearly into view here, with the specific emphasis on singing and giving praise to God.
“YHWH (is) their strength and strong place,
He (is the) salvation of His anointed (one).”
The syntax of verse 8 has led to a certain amount of confusion, both in terms of the specific meaning of the lines and how they are to be divided. It seems best to view it is an expanded 3+3 (~ 4+3) couplet.
Particularly problematic is the suffixed preposition of the first line: oml* (“for them, [belonging] to them”). The lack of a clear referent for the pronominal suffix apparently led to the variant oMu^l= (“for His people”) in the text underlying certain Greek and Syriac manuscripts. Presumably, this inference is correct, and that it refers implicitly to God’s people (Israel) as a whole. Parallel with the people is the king as their representative, who also holds a special king of covenantal relationship to YHWH (“His anointed [one]”). Just as YHWH is the strength and protection of the people , so He is also the salvation of the king (as the anointed one of God). This confirms the royal background of the Psalm (on which, cf. above), and offers a glimpse of how this related to the performance of the composition in an early worship setting.
The noun zoum* (“strong place”, i.e., fortified/protected place) is related to zu) (“strength”), and this repetitive doubling is emphatic. For a comparable statement with similar syntax, cf. Psalm 46:2 . The plural form of the noun hu*Wvy+ (“salvation”) is best understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural—i.e., YHWH provides complete protection and safety for the king who remains faithful/loyal to Him. The pronoun “He” is in the final (emphatic) position of the line, and corresponds to the divine name (YHWH) at the beginning of the couplet.
“Make safe your people
and adore your possession,
give them pasture and carry them
until the distant (future).”
The Psalm concludes with a prayer to YHWH, a terse and pointed address that is expressed using a pair of short 2-beat (2+2) couplets. Each line involves a specific aspect of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people:
- Line 1—the safety and protection God provides
- Line 2—the care and devotion God gives to them
- Line 3—this care expressed through pastoral imagery, i.e., God as a shepherd (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 23)
- Line 4—the bond will last into the distant future
The reference to God’s people in this closing verse makes clear what was implied in the first line of v. 8 (above). The theme of covenant loyalty—applied to both king and people—is to be understood here, and, indeed, throughout the Psalm. Insofar as king and people remain faithful and loyal to YHWH, they will continue to receive His protection and blessing far into the distant future (i.e., for all time).