Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 33 (Part 2)

Psalm 33, continued

The central core of Psalm 33 is the hymn of vv. 4-17, recognizing God (YHWH) as Creator and Ruler of the universe. It may be divided into two parts, as indicated by the outline below.

    • Vv. 1-3: Call for the righteous to praise YHWH
    • Vv. 4-9: YHWH’s authority over Creation
    • Vv. 10-17: YHWH’s authority over the Nations
    • Vv. 18-22: Exhortation for the righteous to trust in YHWH

Verses 4-9 (discussed in last week’s study) focus on YHWH’s authority over Creation, while vv. 10-17 emphasize his authority over humankind (the Nations).

Verses 10-17

Verse 10

“YHWH makes the purpose of (the) nations crumble,
He causes (the) thoughts of (the) peoples to fail.”

YHWH’s control and power over Creation extends to humankind—the various peoples (<yM!u^) and nations (<y]oG) on earth. He has power even over those things which human beings (and their governments) intend and plan to do. God’s ability to know the thoughts and the “heart” of human beings came to be expressed by the traditional designation “heart-knower” (Greek kardiognw/sth$, Acts 1:24; 15:8), i.e., one who knows the heart (of a person). Here the Hebrew words are hx*u@ (“purpose, plan, counsel, advice”) and hb*v*j&m^ (pl. “thoughts, plans, intentions”), which overlap in their meaning.

Not only does God know the intentions of people, He has the power to frustrate them, causing them to remain unrealized and unfulfilled. The implication is that such intentions and plans are contrary to righteousness and justice of God, and reflect the wickedness of humankind; however, YHWH’s power over humankind is absolute, and He may choose to frustrate the plans of a people, even if they are not wicked per se. A pair of verbs, each in the Hiphil causative stem, is used to express this ability of YHWH: rr^P* (“break, crumble”) and aWn (“refuse, forbid, oppose”). The connotation of the latter verb in the Hiphil here is “make (something) stop working”, i.e. cause it to fail.

There is thus a clear synonymous parallelism in this 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 11

“(The) purpose of YHWH stands (in)to (the) distant (future),
(the) thoughts of His heart (in)to circle and circle (of life).”

In contrast to the plans of human beings (v. 10), what YHWH intends can not be frustrated or made to fail. His purpose is fulfilled, and what He intends comes to pass and stands (unaltered) long into the distant future, after each revolution or “circle” (roD) of time, and with it each generation of human beings, has come and gone.

Quite possibly, this difference between YHWH and human beings is expressed poetically by the difference in meter: a 4-beat (4+4) couplet in verse 11, compared with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet in v. 10.

Verse 12

“Happiness of the nation (for) whom YHWH is its Mighty (One),
the people He has chosen for a possession (belonging) to Him!”

This couplet draws on the religious and cultural tradition of Israel as the people belonging to YHWH, the nation He has chosen (vb rh^B*) as His own. The terminology used in this verse occurs in many other Old Testament passages—see especially the ancient poetic references in Exod 15:7 and Deut 32:9. There is a strong covenant context to this language. On Israel (and the righteous) as God’s “possession” (hl*j&n~), cf. Ps 28:9, and other references in the Psalms (68:10 [9]; 74:2; 78:62, 71; 79:1; 94:5, 14; 106:5, 40). At the same time, the covenant bond also leads to Israel being given a possession by God; and the noun hl*j&n~ is frequently used in this sense as well (Ps 135:11; 136:21-22, etc). On the nations as God’s possession, cf. Psalm 2:8, and note, in particular, the Messianic interpretation of that verse.

For any nation—whether Israel or another—who recognizes YHWH as its God, there is truly blessing and happiness. On the use of the construct plural yr@v=a^ to introduce the beatitude-form, cf. Ps 1:1, and the previous study on Psalm 32 (v. 1). There is a bit of wordplay here between yr@v=a^ (°ašrê) and the relative particle rv#a& (°¦šer).

Verses 13-14

“From (the) heavens YHWH gives a look,
He sees all (the) sons of men;
from (the) fixed place of His sitting, he gazes
at all (the) sitters [i.e. dwellers] of (the) earth.”

This pair of couplets, with synonymous parallelism, expresses, in colorful and picturesque imagery, the authority and rule of YHWH over all humankind. His position of rule is His throne in heaven, on which he sits, and from there He looks down upon all the ones sitting (i.e. dwelling) upon the earth. Clearly, there is a bit of wordplay in the second couplet involving the verb bv^y` (“sit”).

Verse 15

“The (One) fashioning (them) looks on their heart,
the (One) discerning, to all their works.”

This is another couplet with synonymous parallelism; the two substantive participles (with definite article) are descriptive titles for YHWH:

    • rx@Y)h^, “the (One) fashioning”, i.e. forming human beings, like a potter out of clay; a traditional idiom for referring to God as Creator.
    • /yb!M@h^, “the (One) discerning”, i.e. God as one who knows and understands all things, esp. the thoughts and intentions (the “heart”) of human beings (cf. above).

Dahood (p. 202) is almost certainly correct in reading djy as the main verb of the couplet, which has been mispointed by the Masoretes. It is to be derived from the root hd*j* III (= Ugaritic µdy), “see, look, gaze”. This meaning fits perfectly with the context of vv. 13-14, and gives a fine sense to the lines. The couplet thus declares, in more general terms, what was stated in verse 10 (cf. above)—that YHWH sees and knows the “heart” (i.e., the thoughts and intentions) of human beings. Such immediate knowledge and discernment is due to His role as Creator; having created (“fashioned”) human beings, YHWH has full knowledge of their thoughts and impulses.

Verses 16-17

“There is no king being saved by (the) multitude of (armed) force(s),
(and) a mighty (warrior) is not snatched away by an increase of power;
the horse (is) a false (source) for (bringing) help (to him),
and by a multitude of his force(s) he shall not make escape!”

The thoughts and actions of the nations are controlled by YHWH, and this fact is illustrated most dramatically through the idiom of military force (“force, strength”, ly]j*), as representing the pinnacle of the power of the nations (and their kings). Ultimately, even the greatest kings are powerless in the face of YHWH’s overriding authority, which determines the course and outcome of any military action. It is not the strength and skill of a nation’s military that ultimately determines the outcome, but the providential, governing power of God Himself. Even the use of the horse-drawn chariot (and horse-riding cavalry), generally seen as embodying the peak of military technology in the ancient Near East (late Bronze and early Iron Age), will not bring victory if victory has not been determined for that people by YHWH.

Verses 18-22

The final section of the Psalm is an exhortation for the righteous, the people of God (cf. verse 12), for them to continue trusting in YHWH. It is parallel with the opening section (vv. 1-3) and the call for the righteous to praise Him.

Verses 18-19

“See, (the) eye of YHWH (looks) to (those) who fear Him,
to (the one)s waiting (in trust) for His goodness,
(for Him) to snatch away their soul from death,
and to keep them alive in the hunger!”

The watching eye of YHWH is a theme that dominated the hymn in vv. 10-17 (cf. above), in terms of His authority and ruling power over humankind. Now the focus shifts to the righteous, and YHWH’s all-seeing power is especially directed at His people, the ones who fear (vb ar@y`) Him and trust (vb lj^y`) in Him. The latter verb denotes waiting, but often in the sense of waiting with hope, with the confident expectation (and trust) that things will come out for the good.

The trust of the righteous is particularly aimed at being rescued by God from the danger of death. A number of the Psalms we have studied deal with this basic idea, sometimes in the specific context of being healed/delivered from a life-threatening illness. Here, in the final line, it is hunger (bu*r*) that is in view. In the ancient world, life-threatening hunger, as a result of famine, war, and other causes, was a pervasive danger felt by much of the population. In an agricultural society, the failed crop of a single season could put the survival of the population at risk. While the Psalm here may simply refer to the hunger of human beings in this way, it is also possible that there is a dual-meaning, and that the line is also drawing upon the traditional idiom of Death as a being with a ravenous, devouring appetite (i.e., “hunger”).

Verse 20

“Our soul waits for YHWH—
He (is) our help and our protection!”

The exhortation of vv. 18-19 is repeated here, in the form of a declaration–collectively, by the righteous. A different verb (hk*j*) is used to express the idea of waiting for YHWH (lj^y` in v. 18, above), trusting that He will act to bring deliverance. The terms “help” (rz#u@) and “protection” (/g@m*) have a military connotation, and thus relate to the imagery in the closing lines of the hymn (vv. 16-17, cf. above). The contrast between the people of God (the righteous) and the nations, frequent in the Psalms, is very much present here. While the nations (and their kings) trust in military power and technology, the righteous trust in YHWH Himself for protection.

Verse 21

“(And it is) that our heart shall find joy in Him,
for in (the) name of His holiness we sought protection.”

Here the protection YHWH brings is defined in terms of His name, lit. “the name of His holiness” (i.e., His holy name). In ancient Near Eastern thought, the name had a magical, efficacious quality, representing and embodying the nature and character of a person. In a religious context, to know (and call on) a deity’s name enabled a person to have access to the presence and power of the deity. This was very much true in ancient Israelite religion as well, in relation to YHWH and His name. The idea was enhanced by the specific covenant relationship between God and His people—Israel belonged to YHWH, and was under His protection as part of the binding agreement. The righteous seek out that protection, trusting in God; and, in finding it, they also find the joy that comes from being in that place of safety and security. According to the ancient idiom, they are protected by the name of YHWH—meaning, by the presence of YHWH Himself.

Verse 22

“May your goodness, YHWH, come to be upon us,
according to (the way) that we wait (in trust) for you!”

The final couplet of the Psalm takes the form of a prayer, by the righteous (collectively), addressed to YHWH. In it the righteous declare their trust, affirming that they “wait” (lj^y`, cf. verse 18 above) for Him, expecting that He will act on their behalf and deliver them in time of trouble. The prayer expresses the hope that, in response to this trust, God will bless the righteous, bestowing his “goodness” (ds#j#) upon them. As previously noted, the noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, when used in a covenant context, as is frequently the case in the Psalms. The righteous, in their loyalty to YHWH, hope (and expect) that He will give blessings to them in return, according to the principle (and terms) of the binding agreement.

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