Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 35 (Part 1)

Psalm 35

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 2, 13-18, 20, 26-27); 4QPsq (vv. 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14-15, 17, 19-20); 4QPsc (vv. 27-28)

This is another prayer-Psalm, similar to a number that we have studied thus far, in which the Psalmist cries out to YHWH, lamenting his current distress and asking God to act on his behalf. As in many such Psalms, the trouble facing the protagonist, and his prayer for deliverance, are framed in military terms. What is distinctive about Psalm 35 is the extent and elaboration of this imagery, which runs all the way through this lengthy Psalm. In the royal background of the Psalms, and in the ancient covenant-setting, this sense of conflict could be very real; the king might well pray to God for protection against his political enemies—including treacherous/rebellious vassals—where the situation may involve concrete military action. However, in most instances, the military motifs in the Psalms are figurative, having been developed artistically to apply to a wide range of personal, social, religious, and ethical situations.

Given the length and complexity of this Psalm, it is not surprising that the meter is irregular, though likely rooted in a 3-beat (or 3+2) couplet format. A clear poetic and thematic structure is also difficult to determine for the composition. I would divide it loosely into two main stanzas (vv. 1-10 and 22-28), with a two-part developmental section in between (vv. 11-15 / 16-21) that describes in more detail the adversaries/opponents who threaten the Psalmist.

Overall, Psalm 35 is reasonably well-preserved in two Dead Sea MSS—4QPsa and 4QPsq—enough to allow for significant textual criticism. The variants are slight, but several are worth noting.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another composition “belonging to David”.

Verses 1-10

Verses 1-3b

“Contend, YHWH, with (the one)s contending (with) me,
do battle with (the one)s doing battle (with) me!
Take firm hold of protective cover and shield,
and stand up (to) help me in (time of) war;
Draw out (the) spear and pointed staff
to meet (in battle) the (one)s pursuing me!”

The military imagery could not be clearer than it is in these opening couplets. In verse 1, it is simply a call to battle—specifically, that YHWH should act on the Psalmist’s behalf, fighting those who would fight against him. This is central to the ancient covenant concept, the binding agreement or treaty; in this case, the context is a suzerain-vassal treaty, in which the superior (sovereign) promises protection (including military aid) for a loyal subordinate (vassal). The Israelite king is a subordinate to the great Sovereign YHWH, though here the imagery has almost certainly been generalized to apply to the righteous Israelite who is faithful and loyal to God.

In verse 2, the call is to take up the “protective (cover)” (/g@M*) and large shield (hN*x!), though the two terms are actually a hendiadys for the single concept of a protective shield. There is a similar hendiadys in verse 3[ab], with a pair of terms that denote a hand-held weapon. I follow Dahood (pp. 210-11) in understanding rgs (vocalized rg#s#?) as a pointed-staff or javelin (cf. the Qumran War Scroll [1QM] 5:7), while tyn!j& is the more common term for a pointed spear; but the two terms have a comparable meaning, and are joined here for emphasis. Thus YHWH Himself would be like a fighting force armed with both shield and spear.

Verse 3c

“Say to my soul: ‘I (am) your salvation’.”

This single line follows the preceding couplets and summarizes them. In calling on YHWH to fight for him, the Psalmist is asking God to save and protect him. It is YHWH alone who will save him; in military terms, all of the warriors armed with spear and shield, who would fight against the Psalmist’s enemies, are embodied in the person of God Himself. There is a longstanding tradition in Israelite (and NW Semitic) tradition, depicting El-Yahweh as a great warrior who fights on behalf of His people. References and allusions to this tradition can be found throughout the Old Testament, including numerous passages in the Psalms. YHWH can be described as fighting directly, with His own “arm”, or through the heavenly powers and forces of nature (sun, stars, storm, etc) doing battle at His command. Vv. 5-6 indicate that it is the “Messenger of YHWH” who engages in battle.

Verses 4-6

“May they feel shame and be humiliated,
(the one)s seeking after my soul;
let them be turned back and find disgrace,
(those) contriving evil for me!
May they be like dust in face of (the) wind,
(with the) Messenger of YHWH driving (it);
let their path be darkness and sliding (to doom),
(with the) Messenger of YHWH pursuing them!”

Verses 4-6 are comprised of four shorter couplets, two pairs, which show either 2-beat, 3-beat or mixed (3+2) meter. The terseness and staccato-like repetition give to these lines a harsh edge that may be intended, poetically, to capture the sound of battle. Again, we see examples of hendiadys, where pairs of terms are used to convey a single action or concept. Here a kind of curse is expressed, through an imprecation, a wish that the Psalmist’s enemies will suffer defeat and disgrace through the action of YHWH. In verse 4a, the verbs are vWB and <l^K*, both of which convey the idea of experiencing shame and disgrace, along with a sense of confusion; similarly in the 4b couplet, we have the verb pair gWs and rp@j*, which express much the same, but even more intensely, connoting a shameful defeat in battle.

The Psalmist’s enemies are clearly identified with the wicked, thus giving to the socio-political military imagery a strong religious and ethical aspect. As noted above, such imagery in the Psalms tends to be figurative, rather than a reference to real political adversaries or concrete battles. The wicked person is frequently described as plotting evil for the righteous, while the idiom of “seeking after the soul” carries a wide range of meaning; it can mean an actual attempt to cause death, or can refer more generally to bringing harm to another.

The couplets in vv. 5 and 6 describe the conflict, between YHWH and the wicked, in colorful terms, alluding to God’s control over the forces of nature—specifically that of the storm. The two main characteristics are wind (j^Wr, v. 5) and darkness (Ev#j), v. 6). For more on the Storm-theophany, as a manifestation of YHWH, cf. the earlier studies on Psalm 18 and Psalm 29. The term parallel with Ev#j) (“darkness”) in v. 6 is the unusual doubled noun hQ*l^q=l^j&, the precise meaning and derivation of which is unclear, but which seems to have been coined to convey the idea of a treacherous place where one may fall to death (i.e., into a deep pit, cf. below). The root ql^j* in Hebrew can signify something that is smooth or slippery, while Canaanite —lq specifically connotes “perish, be destroyed”.

It is the “messenger” (Ea^l=m^) of YHWH who acts to destroy the wicked. The Messenger of YHWH idea, which occurs frequently in Old Testament narrative, is complex and cannot be summarized here. At times the expression seems to refer to a distinct (and separate) divine/heavenly being (an Angel, etc), while in other passages it seems to be used as a way of describing the action of YHWH Himself. It is extremely rare in the Psalms, but does also occur in 34:8 (cf. the previous study), and in a similar context—referring to the protection YHWH provides for His people.

Verses 7-8

“For to no purpose have they hid destruction for me,
to no purpose have they dug their trap for my soul;
may desolation come to him without knowing (it),
and his trap that he hid, let it catch him (unaware)—
in (that very) desolation let him fall in(to) it!”

The use of <N`j! in verse 7 is problematic, at least in terms of the standard derivation from the root /n`j* (“show favor”). The adverb <N*j!, which signifies doing something “as a favor”, i.e. for nothing (free), apparently takes on a negative connotation (“for no purpose”) in certain contexts. That is the way <N*j! is read here; however, while acting “to no (good) purpose” certainly could characterize the wicked, it makes an uneasy fit in this context. The usage here, as also in Prov 1:11, 17, suggests that there may be at least one other root /nj, separate in meaning from /nj I. Job 19:17 does indicate another /nj (II); its precise meaning is not certain, but the context is clearly negative, indicating something that is repellent or loathsome. As it happens, there is also a root —nn (separate from µnn) in Ugaritic, but it is only rarely attested, and its meaning remains obscure. Dahood (pp. 211-12) suggests that <N*j! here derives from a root (/nj II or III), signifying someone who is stealthy or sneaky, as would be appropriate for someone setting a trap or laying ambush. There is no certain basis for positing such a root, other than the context of Prov 1:11, 17 and our verse here.

With some reluctance, and lacking any satisfactory alternative, I have retained the customary rendering of <N*j! above, in the specialized (negative) sense of the adverb “for nothing”, i.e. “for no purpose, in vain”. There may be a play on the idea of “for nothing” with the negative expression ud*y@ al) (“not knowing”); i.e., the wicked act for no good purpose, without really knowing what they are doing, and so their punishment comes on them in turn, without knowing what is happening to them. Admittedly, this parallelism is a bit obscure, but it provides at least a possible avenue for interpretation.

In any case, the idea is clear enough that, without realizing it, the wicked, by their action, are fashioning their own punishment. The “pit” of destruction (tj^v^) and the trap (“net”, tv#r#) that they lay will result in their own ruin (ha*ov)—the trap will “fall” (vb lp^n`) on them, and they will “fall” into the pit themselves. The verse involves a mixed metaphor (pit/net), which causes some confusion in the verse, but the overall message is relatively straightforward.

Verses 9-10

“And (so) my soul shall spin (for joy) in YHWH,
it shall rejoice in its salvation;
all (the) strength of my (limb)s shall say,
‘YHWH, who (is) like you,
snatching (the) oppressed from (those too) strong for him,
and (the) needy from (the one) tearing at him?'”

I treat these verses as a refrain to the first stanza, with the Psalmist effectively declaring his praise to YHWH, in anticipation of the salvation that God will bring (i.e., that the prayer will be answered). The Psalmist’s whole being rejoices; this is indicated in verse 9 by the “soul” (vp#n#), and in 10 by the plural tomx=u^, which I translate (in its literal sense) as “strength (in the limb)s”. The noun <x#u# often refers, specifically, to a person’s bones, in the sense that the bones provide the inner strength and support for the entire body.

We should understand the declaration that concludes verse 10 as represented what both the soul and ‘bones’ of the Psalmist say, in praise to God. The word of praise reflects the very salvation that the protagonist expects (and hopes for) in his prayer of vv. 1-8. Indeed, the word that the soul speaks here echoes the message that the Psalmist asks YHWH to speak to his soul in v. 3c (cf. above).

As is frequently the case in the Psalms, the righteous are specifically characterized as the “oppressed” (yn]u*), here with the added attribute of being “poor, in need” (/oyb=a#). I tentatively follow commentators such as Kraus (p. 391) in omitting the second (repeated) yn]u* from the final line; however, Dahood (p. 212) makes an argument in favor of preserving the duplication, on poetic (and metrical) grounds, that should be given serious consideration.

As noted above, the second stanza of the Psalm occurs in verses 22-28, while the intervening section (vv. 11-21) provides the development in the poem, enhancing the sense of conflict by giving a vivid description of the wicked and their behavior. This middle section will be analyzed in next week’s study.

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


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