Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 31 (Part 2)

Psalm 31, continued

Following my three-part outline of this Psalm, we examined the first part (vv. 2-9 [1-8]) in the previous study; and now we continue with the second part this week:

    • Vv. 2-9 [1-8]: An expression of trust in YHWH, that He will deliver the Psalmist from the danger and distress he faces
    • Vv. 10-19 [9-18]: A lament for the illness and affliction which the Psalmist currently endures
    • Vv. 20-25 [19-24]: Praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for His goodness, shown in delivering those faithful to Him (such as the Psalmist) from suffering.

Verses 10-19 [9-18]

Verse 10a [9a]

“Show favor to me, YHWH,
for distress (belongs) to me!”

The meter of verse 10 [9] is a bit difficult; I suggest reading an opening 2-beat (2+2) couplet, followed by a 3+2 couplet that begins the stanza proper. The terse opening couplet serves as an invocation to God, whereby the Psalmist cries to YHWH for relief from his suffering (lit. “distress”, rx^), which is best understood as stemming from an illness or disease. In more forceful English idiom, we might translate the second line as “for distress is mine!”.

Verse 10b [9b]

“My eye wastes (away) with (its) stirring,
(yes) my throat and my belly (too)!”

The Psalmist’s entire being—physical and emotional—is consumed by the pain and suffering he endures. The idiom of his eye “wasting away” (vb vv@u*) presumably refers to his weeping, etc, being “provoked” by his condition. The noun su^K^ here is a bit awkward to translate so as to preserve a clean poetic line. Literally, su^k^B= would mean something like “with provocation”, “with agitation”; I have rendered this as “with (its) stirring”, i.e., his eyes are stirred to tears. The second 2-beat line seems almost perfunctory, and some commentators (cf. Kraus, p. 360) are inclined to eliminate it. The validity of the 3+2 meter in the text as we have it would seem to be confirmed by the metrical pattern that prevails in the following lines of the stanza (3+2 in v. 11 [10]).

Most likely, the second line is meant to extend the idea expressed in the first line, of the Psalmist’s eyes being worn out with grief from his suffering; by adding his “throat” and “belly”, he well conveys how this condition is wearing out his entire body. The noun vp#n# often has a meaning comparable to “soul” in English, but occasionally preserves an older (more concrete) denotation of a person’s throat (inside); there are only a handful of such instances in the Old Testament, all of which occur in the Psalms and other early poems. The juxtaposition of throat / belly may indicate a loss of appetite.

Verse 11 [10]

“For my life is completed with anguish,
and my years with gasping;
my strength staggers with my affliction,
and my substance wastes away!”

Following the metrical pattern of v. 10b, these 3+2 couplets build upon the idea expressed in that initial bicolon, making use of a vivid and poignant parallelism. Any one who has endured for long a painful or debilitating illness will surely relate to the lament the Psalmist expresses in these lines. The final word (verb vv@u*), repeated from v. 10b, brings us full circle back to the initial lament, as though itself a poetic depiction of the idea that the Psalmist’s life is coming round to its end (v. 11a). His very strength (j^K) and substance (<x#u#) is failing and fading away; by this is meant specifically physical health, and the noun <x#u# can refer, in a concrete sense, to the strength in a person’s bones. With Dahood (p. 189) and other commentators, I read yn][w]u) (“my affliction”) for MT yn]ou& (“my perversion”, i.e. my sin/guilt).

Verse 12 [11]

“From (the one)s pressing close to me I was (something) to be scorned,
and for (the one)s dwelling (near) me a misfortune,
and a (source of) fear for (the one)s with knowledge of me;
(the one)s seeing me in (the street) outside fly away from me!”

This verse is most difficult, from a metrical and structural standpoint. I parse it as an irregular 4+2+2+4 quatrain, though this is very hard to capture in English translation. There is, I believe, a genuine chiastic structure to the lines; note, for example, how they begin and ends with the preposition /m! (“from”). The ‘outer’ 4-beat lines express the basic drama: that people who come in contact with him are repulsed and horrified by his appearance. As a substantive participle, the verb rr^x* often refers to someone who is oppressing another; however, here I think it is better to understand the verb in the more general (and neutral) sense of a person who presses close (i.e. comes in close contact) with another. By contrast, in the fourth line, even someone who catches a glimpse at him (from a distance away) is horrified and flees at the sight.

The ‘inner’ 2-beat lines express the same dynamic more simply, and in a relational sense. I have rendered the lines (including their word order) quite precisely. The MT of the second line presents a difficulty, as it apparently contains the intensive (adverbial) particle da)m=, which normally means something like “very (much)”, but seems to make little sense here: “and for (the one)s dwelling (near) me, very (much so)” [?]. A number of emendations have been proposed (cf. Kraus, p. 360). For lack of a better option, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 189) in parsing dam as a mem-enclitic (<-, attached to the prior word) followed by the noun d[y]a@ (“misfortune, ruin”). Some support for this is to be found in the parallelism of dya@ with dj^P^ (“[source of] fear”, something to be feared) elsewhere, in Job 31:23 and Prov 1:26.

The exaggerated response to the Psalmist’s appearance is doubtless to be regarded as a bit of poetic hyperbole, though it conceivably could reflect response to an actual illness or visible condition. The description here brings to mind the traditional reaction to leprosy, for example, in ancient times.

Verse 13 [12]

“I am withered like a dead (man), (put out) from (the) heart—
I am (indeed) like (an earthen) vessel gone to ruin!”

After the expansive quatrain in v. 12, here we find a tighter, symmetric 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The Psalmist compares himself with a withered (vb jk^v*) dead body and a (clay) vessel that is going to ruin (vb db^a*). The prepositional phrase bL@m! is difficult; literally it means “from (the) heart”, or “from (the) mind”, but the precise sense and force of the idiom here is uncertain. If one were to understand the verb jk^v* in the customary sense of “forget”, then the line would presumably mean “I am forgotten like a dead man, (put) out of mind”. However, the context suggests that the root jkv is better understood with the meaning “wither”, attested by the cognate ¾kµ in Ugaritic, but somewhat rare in Hebrew (cf. Dahood, p. 190). Perhaps the expression “from (the) heart/mind” here simply reflects the idea of a loss of sense and feeling by the Psalmist.

Verse 14 [13]

“For I hear (the evil) whisper(s) of many,
terror from all around (me),
in their setting down as one against me,
(and) plot(ting) to take (away) my soul!”

The pair of irregular couplets here shifts the imagery to the familiar motif in the Psalms, of those nameless/faceless adversaries (the wicked) who threaten the Psalmist’s life. As previously noted on a number of occasions, these references are more likely to refer to the forces of evil and wickedness in general, than to actual/specific human opponents. If we are to keep here with the symbolism of (physical) illness and suffering, it may well be that the ‘adversary’ is Death itself, and those plotting against the Psalmist are Death’s minions, including the evil spirits personified and manifest in the very illness and disease afflicting him (according to the ancient worldview).

Verse 15-16 [14-15]

“And (yet still) I trust on you (for protection), YHWH!
I said, ‘You (are) my Mighty (One),
(the) stages of my (life are) in your hand, snatch me (away)
from (the) Hand of (those) hostile to me, (the one)s pursuing me!'”

Again, much as in v. 12 [11] (cf. above) we are dealing here with a complex and irregular quatrain–apparently 4+3+3+3, though if the divine name (YHWH) were omitted as secondary, it would yield a more consistent 3-beat quatrain (or pair of 3+3 couplets). The breaking of the thought here between lines 3 and 4 is unusual in Hebrew poetry, though not entirely unprecedented. In spite of the bitter lament in vv. 10-14, the Psalmist still expresses a profound trust in YHWH, and this sense of trust (and hope) pervades the remaining lines of this section. The verb jf^B* is relatively frequent in the Psalms, occurring 14 times in just the Psalms (1-31) we have studied thus far. As previously noted, the fundamental idea is of seeking protection, though this carries with it the connotation of placing one’s trust in someone or something. There is a strong covenant-context to its usage in the Psalms—i.e., a subordinate (vassal) seeks/find protection under his superior (sovereign), according to the terms of the binding agreement. Here the sense is generalized, applicable to protection (by God) from anything that might endanger or threaten the Psalmist’s life (including illness/disease). This threat is again expressed figuratively, in terms of hostile opponents or adversaries (cf. above on v. 14).

Verse 17 [16]

“May your face bring light upon your servant,
bring salvation to me in your (loyal) kindness!”

The covenant-idiom continues in this couplet, with the specific designation “servant” (db#u#) and the noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”), which frequently connotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in a covenant context. The light-giving face (of God) is a common theological motif, but the idiom specifically connotes a sovereign showing favor to his loyal vassal (servant). In this case, the favor comes in the form of healing and deliverance from illness.

Verse 18 [17]

“YHWH, may I not come to shame when I call on you,
(but) may (the) wicked (one)s be shamed, thrown (down) to Sheol!”

Here we have the fundamental thought at work: the wicked/faithless ones deserve to die, sent down to Sheol, realm of Death and the grave; the righteous/faithful ones, by contrast, trust that they will receive the favor and protection of YHWH. This is central to the covenant idea in ancient Israel (cf. above), and the conceptual language pervades many of the Psalms throughout. Here the particle yK! carries the conditional sense of “when”, though it could also be understood as the basis of the Psalmist’s hope for deliverance, i.e. “for (it is) that I (have) called on you” (I am faithful/loyal to you). I follow Dahood (p. 190) and other commentators in reading the verb form WmD=y] (MT) as derived from the root hd*n` (“throw [down]”), appropriate enough for the imagery here of being thrown “into Sheol” (loavl!).

Verse 19 [18]

“May (all) deceitful lips be bound,
th(ose) speaking against the Just (One),
hard with highness and contempt!”

The precise form and meaning of the verse remains uncertain; the sense of the final line, in particular, is unclear. Metrically, it would appear to be (roughly) a 3-beat tricolon. That it functions as an imprecation, and (perhaps more importantly) as a solemn declaration (asseveration), is clear. The point that the Psalmist wishes to declare before God is that he has nothing whatever in common with the wicked, and so should not meet their fate (through a violent or untimely death). The adjective qyD!x^ (“just, right[eous]”) in the second line is ambiguous; it could refer to the righteous human being, or to God as the Just/Righteous One. I have opted for the latter, though the overall thrust of the verse would not change much in either case, since to speak against the righteous ones (those loyal to YHWH) is tantamount to speaking against YHWH Himself.

We can see rather clearly here, I think, the purpose of the imagery of wicked opponents/adversaries that runs through many of the Psalms. They function on a religious and judicial level, as figures against whom the Psalmist sets himself in contrast, demonstrating (before God) what he is not like. The righteous, indeed, are not like the wicked—the salient contrastive point of Wisdom in the first Psalm, especially. Part of the very proof of this point is the formal confession that the righteous gives in God’s presence; the fact that he can make such a confession shows that he is among the righteous ones (and not the wicked).

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, I. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed. Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); in English translation as Psalms 1-59. A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

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