Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 31 (Part 3)

Psalm 31, continued

Following my three-part outline of this Psalm, the first two parts were treated in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior); we now conclude with the third and final part:

    • 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 20-25 [19-24]

Verse 20 [19]

“How much (indeed) is your (treasure of) good
that you have hidden away for (those) fearing you,
(that) you worked for (the one)s seeking protection in you,
(made visible right) in front of (the) sons of men!”

This verse consists of a pair of 3+3 couplets, essentially joined to form a quatrain. As noted in the outline above, the emphasis in the Psalm now shifts to praise of YHWH for His goodness that he demonstrates by delivering those faithful to Him. Such deliverance, as previously noted, is part of the covenant responsibility of YHWH, to provide protection for his faithful vassals. Indeed, the faithful ones seek and request such protection from YHWH, indicated here by the verb hs*j* in the third line; we have seen this verb used frequently in the Psalms we have studied thus far, in a similar covenant-context (2:12; 5:12; 7:2; 11:1; 16:1; 17:7; 18:3, 31; 25:20, and earlier in this Psalm in v. 2). The idiom of “seeking protection” in YHWH is parallel here with “fearing” YHWH, in line 2 (root ary). There is a similar parallelism between the verb /p^x* in line 2 and lu^P* in line 3; the first verb means “hide (away)”, in the sense of storing away treasure, while the second (lu^P*) literally means “work”, here presumably connoting the work performed by YHWH in storing up His treasure. This ‘treasure’ is defined as the “good” (bWf), i.e. the good things belonging to YHWH, which He distributes to His loyal followers; again the covenant imagery is in view here.

The meaning of the last line is a bit obscure: “in front of the sons of men”. Dahood (p. 191) suggests that the idea is, by showing favor to the righteous in front of the rest of humanity (i.e. the wicked), it will put them to shame (or perhaps, provoke them to envy); cp. the idiom in Psalm 23:5.

Verse 21 [20]

“You cover them in the cover of your face,
away from the ties of man;
you hide them in (the) thick (cover)ing,
away from combat by (the) tongue!”

This is another quatrain, but with irregular meter—a 3-beat line followed by three 2-beat lines. The meaning of the expression vya! ys@k=r% in the second line is uncertain, especially as the word skr occurs only here in the Old Testament. Cognate parallels in Akkadian and Ugaritic indicate a basic meaning of tying or binding something together (cf. Dahood, p. 191). Here in the Psalm the expression is parallel with “combat by the tongue(s)” in the fourth line; this suggests an attempt to bind a person through evil speech, perhaps in the sense of a curse, etc. It may simply refer to the general idea of evil speaking—including slander, false accusation, etc.  In any event, part of the protection YHWH provides to the faithful ones is to keep them away from such evil, and its harmful effects. Even if one must endure it for a time, ultimately God will deliver the person who trusts in Him. Three different terms play on this idea of protection in terms of hiding/concealing:

    • Line 1: The verb rt^s* (with the related noun rt#s@)—to hide something by covering it
    • Line 3: The verb /p^x*, “hide away”, used earlier in v. 20 (cf. above)
      and also: the noun hK*s% denoting a thick covering, e.g. of branches or woven material.

In verse 20, the image was of the treasures of YHWH being hidden away for the righteous; now the idea has shifted to the righteous themselves being hidden away from the wicked.

Verse 22 [21]

“Honor be (to) YHWH—
for He does wonders to me (in) His goodness,
(from) within (the) enclosed place of the city!”

This irregular tricolon builds upon the idea of protection and deliverance (provided by YHWH), depicted in vv. 20-21. Through our praise, the righteous/faithful ones show honor to YHWH; the verb used is Er^B*, which is often translated “bless”, but fundamentally denotes an act or gesture by which one does homage or shows honor to someone (by kneeling, etc). As noted repeatedly in prior studies, the noun ds#j# (“kindness, goodness”) frequently connotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in a covenant-context. The meaning of the last line is not entirely clear. Possibly the sense is that God brings the person into the secure place of protection (depicted by the image of a strong city enclosed by fortifications); or, alternatively, God acts from within that place (i.e. His heavenly dwelling) to bring deliverance for His loyal ones. The latter meaning seems better suited to the line of thought here in the Psalm.

Verse 23 [22]

“Indeed I said, in my sudden (fear):
‘I am cut off from in front of your eyes!’
(but yet) you surely heard
(the) voice of my calls for favor,
in my (cry)ing to you for help!”

In this verse we have a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon followed by a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, which I have combined as a single poetic unit. It summarizes the essence and setting of the entire Psalm—in which the protagonist cries out to YHWH for help, in the midst of his suffering, and God answers him. Even at the pinnacle of the Psalmist’s despair (in which he thinks/says to himself “I am cut off…!”), still YHWH hears (and answers) the prayer of His faithful one.

The verbal expression yz]p=j*b= in line 1 is actually rather difficult to translate. The verb zp^j* itself would seem fundamentally to denote acting in fear or fright, sometimes with the specific response of fleeing, etc; the context here indicates a sudden or abrupt sense of despair, perhaps a very real feeling by the Psalmist that he is in danger of perishing, of his life slipping away without any rescue by God.

Verse 24 [23]

“You shall love YHWH, all (you) His loyal (one)s!
YHWH is guarding (the one)s firm (in loyalty),
and is completing upon (what is) left over
(for the one) acting (with the) height (of pride)!”

This highly irregular quatrain encapsulates a concluding exhortation of praise to YHWH. As is often the case in these Psalms, in the closing portion, the focus shifts from the individual protagonist to God’s people (the faithful/righteous ones) as a whole. As I have noted, this reflects a strong Wisdom-tradition emphasis that has shaped many of the Psalms, at least in the form that they have come down to us. It is possible that this communal component represents a secondary development, as earlier poems were adapted for use in a public worship setting. In any event, the emphasis is clear enough in verse 24, beginning with the call for God’s people to respond to Him with love and devotion (vb bh^a*). The remaining lines establish the familiar contrast between the righteous and the wicked. This dualistic contrast is fundamental to the Wisdom-aspect of the Psalms, as epitomized most famously in Psalm 1 (cf. the earlier study). The righteous are characterized on the one hand as “(the one)s firm” (adj. /m^a*, i.e., firm in faith and loyalty), while on the other hand the wicked are those “acting (with) highness [hw`a&g~]”. That is to say, rather than trusting in God, the wicked act according to their sense of their own strength, position, status, etc; we might say that they act “with the height of pride”.

There is a similar contrast between God’s response to the righteous and wicked, respectively. He guards (vb rx^n`) the faithful ones, bringing them into the protection of His very presence (i.e. the “covering of His face”, v. 21). This continues the covenant-motif of the protection which YHWH provides, as an obligation of the binding agreement, to those who remain loyal to Him. The same covenant imagery is made to apply to the wicked, but in a grimly ironic way, according to the ancient lex talionis principle. What the wicked do, through their own sinful pride, comes back upon them, by way of punishment, in like kind. This is indicated by the use of the verb <l^v*, followed by the preposition lu^ (“upon”). The root <lv has a relatively wide semantic range, but basically denotes making something complete, including the fulfillment of an agreement, and so forth. Here the sense is of God fulfilling what is due to the wicked (on account of their faithlessness and disloyalty), making good on the situation by punishing them as they deserve, according to the evil they have done. Since God does not always punish the wicked fully in their lifetime (or at least so it seems), the “remainder” (rt#y#) of the punishment that is to come upon them is not made complete until the moment of death. Thus, while the righteous (like the Psalmist) are saved from death, the wicked ultimately receive death as their punishment.

Verse 25 [24]

“You must hold firm and let your [pl.] heart be strong,
all of (you), the (one)s waiting for YHWH!”

The closing couplet is a final exhortation addressed to the people of God as a whole (cf. above on v. 24). It is an exhortation to continued faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. The idea of “waiting” on YHWH is essentially synonymous with that of “calling” on YHWH (cf. the discussion on the verb hw`q* in the earlier study on Psalm 25:3). Here the verb is lj^y`, which occurs relatively frequently in the Psalms (19 times); it tends to connote the idea of waiting with trust or hope, i.e. in God, that He will answer. Such faithful waiting reflects the covenant loyalty of the one who stands by in devotion to YHWH, ready to act on his Lord’s behalf.

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