Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 36

Psalm 36

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1, 3, 5-7, 9 [1-2, 4-6, 8]); 11QPsd (v. 13 [12])

This Psalm contains many of the themes we have encountered in these studies, deftly blending Wisdom-elements (esp. in the opening verses, vv. 2-5) with those of a prayer-Psalm, mixing praise and lament—thanksgiving to YHWH for deliverance, and a plea made to God by the Psalmist in the face of danger from the wicked. Thematically, the Psalm may be outlined as follows:

Clearly the hymn section in vv. 6-11 makes up the core of the Psalm, with the wisdom sections in vv. 2-5, 12-13 functioning as a prologue and epilogue, respectively, to the hymn. Those sections emphasize the conduct (and fate) of the wicked, contrasted, implicitly, with that of the righteous.

The meter of the Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, with a few irregularities. The superscription marks the Psalm, in typical fashion, as a composition “belonging to David”. The added phrase “to/for (the) servant of YHWH” is presumably intended as an epithet of David; why it is included for this particular composition is not clear (cp. Ps 18:1).

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“An utterance of rebellion (comes) to (the) wicked
in the midst of his heart;
(and) there is no fear of (the) Mightiest
at the front of his eyes!”

The opening verse is comprised of a pair of 3+2 couplets; it establishes the wisdom-theme of contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The contrast is implicit, with only the behavior of the wicked being described here in vv. 2-5. It is a powerful statement regarding the condition of the wicked person’s heart (bl@), how it is inspired to commit rebellion (uv^P#) against YHWH. By this is meant violation of the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel. The noun <a%n+ (“utterance”) is often used in a prophetic context, and would seem here to allude to a kind of evil inspiration. The suffixed noun yB!l! should be read as preserving the older y– 3rd person singular suffix—i.e., “his heart,” rather than “my heart”.

The parallelism in the couplets is:

    • evil inspiration of rebellion | in his heart
    • no fear of God (“the Mightiest”) | in front of his eyes

Rebellion against YHWH is thus related to the lack of proper fear (honor, respect, etc) that the vassal should show to his sovereign, who, in this instance, happens to be the Creator and Ruler of the universe.

Verse 3 [2]

“He makes (it seem) smooth for him in his eyes,
yet his crookedness is found to be hateful.”

The contrast in this couplet is between the crookedness (/ou*) of the wicked person’s behavior, and the smoothness (vb ql^j* II) with which he regards it. A kind of self-deception (or self-delusion) is involved, no doubt a result of the evil ‘inspiration’ (<a%n+) that has taken hold in his heart and mind (v. 2). There is a bit of alliterative wordplay here between /y]u^ (±ayin,”eye”) and /ou* (±¹wœn, “crookedness”).

Verse 4 [3]

“The words of his mouth (bring) trouble and deceit,
he refuses to act sensibly, to do (what is) good.”

This is a fine wisdom couplet, juxtaposing the words of the wicked person and his actions. The parallel may be summarized as follows:

    • his words (lit. “…of his mouth”) lead to
      • “trouble” (/w#a*) and “deceit” (hm*r=m!)
    • his actions (implied by the hiphil verbs in the line) are brought about by his refusing to
      • “act sensibly” and “do (what is) good”

The verb ld^j* (I) has the basic meaning of “stop (doing something)”; it can be used in the relatively soft sense of “fail, be lacking”, or in the harsher sense of “neglect, forsake, refuse (to do something)”. The latter connotation is more appropriate as a characterization of the wicked. Dahood (p. 219) points to the separate root ld^j* (II), meaning “be fat, plump, thick”; fatness can function as an idiom for being unintelligent, dull, etc; in English we might say that person is “too thick to realize” something.

Verse 5 [4]

“He plans trouble upon his place of laying (down),
he takes (his) stand upon a path of no good,
(the way of) evil he does not reject!”

This opening section of the Psalm concludes with a slightly irregular 3-beat tricolon. The first two lines exhibit an interlocking synonymous parallelism with contrasting images—i.e., “laying down” | “standing”, “place of laying” | “(place of) stepping” (i.e., path). The synonymous aspect is brought in the negative character of the wicked person’s behavior: “plans trouble” | “path of no good”. An additional (synonymous and synthetic) parallelism is created between the second and third lines:

    • he stands on a path of no good
    • he does not reject (the way of) evil

Verses 6-11 [5-10]

Verses 6-7 [5-6]

“YHWH, in the heavens (is) your goodness,
your firmness (is) unto (the) clouds;
your justice (is) like (the) mighty mountains,
your judgments (like the) great deep!
Man and beast (alike) you keep safe!”

I have isolated vv. 6-7 as a unit, comprised of two parallel (3-beat) couplets, followed by a climactic line that emphasizes YHWH’s providential care over creation. Each of the first four lines exalts a particular attribute of YHWH, relating it to a geographic/cosmic point of reference. The first two attributes emphasize God’s faithfulness and loyalty; the last two His justice.

The first two corresponding geographical points refer to the heavens (that is, the expanse of the sky) above; the last two points represent the furthest limits/boundaries of the earth below—the high mountains and the depths of the sea. The expression la@ yr@r=h^ literally means “mountains of (the) mighty”, and could be rendered as “mountains of God [i.e., the Mighty One]”; however, in this case, “mighty mountains” better fits the geographic context, as well as the parallel with “great deep”.

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH, how precious (is) your goodness!
(The) mighty (one)s and sons of men (alike),
they find shelter in the shade of your wings.”

These three lines follow the five lines of vv. 6-7, and are similar in focus. Once again the “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH is extolled, praising his faithfulness and loyalty, and alluding to his providential care over creation. The adjective rq*y` denotes something of great worth and value, indicating especially that it is deemed precious by others.

I follow commentators such as Dahood (p. 221) who take the divine name YHWH (hwhy) as belonging to the start of v. 8, rather than to the end of v. 7 (above). This division is much to be preferred, both in terms of the rhythm and thematic integrity of the lines. Similarly, I would assign the plural noun <yh!l)a$ to the start of the second line, paired with the construct plural <d*a* yn@B= (“sons of man”). In this case, it would seem that <yh!l)a$ should be read as a true plural (“mighty [one]s”), and not as the intensive plural used as a title for YHWH (“Mightiest [One]”, i.e., “God”). In verse 7, the parallel was “man and beast” (i.e., humans and animals); now, in v. 8, we have a comparable parallel, “mighty ones and sons of men”, which could mean either (a) “chieftains/leaders and the people at large”, or (b) “heavenly/divine beings [i.e. Angels] and human beings”. The latter, I think, is more likely, and is in keeping with the typical meaning of the Semitic root la.

There are a number of passages in ancient Hebrew poetry where El-Yahweh is described as a bird. While originally this imagery came from a general association of God with the expanse of the sky (i.e., a bird in flight with outstretched wings), and, secondarily, with the deity’s control over the sky (esp. the storm/rains), the Old Testament passages tend to focus on the protective aspect of a (parent) bird, guarding its young and keeping them safe in the protection of its wings. That is very much the idea expressed here (cf. also Exod 19:4; Deut 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; 57:1; 61:4; 91:4, etc). The reference from the Song of Moses (Deut 32:11) is interesting in that it shares with verse 8 here the context of a juxtaposition between heavenly and human beings (Deut 32:8-9 LXX and 4QDeutj).

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“They are watered from (the) fat of your house,
and (the) stream of your delights you make them drink;
for with you is (the) fountain of life,
(and) in your light we shall see (the) light.”

The righteous enjoy the blessings and reward of drinking from the table of their Sovereign, YHWH, in His house. This motif draws upon the covenant idea, but also incorporates agricultural and nature-imagery, of plants and animals drinking (i.e. being watered) from the rainfall and rivers. This same combination of images can be seen in Psalm 23:2-3, 5. The richness that God provides in his house is referred to here as “fat” (/v#D#), though the English term does not quite convey the proper (positive) sense of the Hebrew word. This richness means that the righteous (along with the heavenly/divine beings) who ‘eat and drink’ in God’s house are fully satisfied; the verb hw`r* denotes being saturated with liquid.

The first line of the couplet in v. 10 continues this motif of drinking from the house of God, adding the expression, familiar from Wisdom literature, of a “fountain of life” (Prov 10:11; 13:14; 14:27; 16:22). While the expression in those passages refers to wisdom, the basic image of a life-giving fountain came to be used in an eschatological sense in the later Prophetic writings (Joel 3:18; Zech 13:1). Jesus draws upon this line of Old Testament and Jewish tradition in John 4:13; 7:37-38, and the eschatological aspect is featured prominently in the closing vision of the book of Revelation (22:1-2).

The final line is more difficult to fit in the context of vv. 9-10, with it sudden shift to a light-motif. However, both water and light imagery are used frequently in Wisdom literature, and in the Psalms, and they are natural representations of the life-giving power of God, and are characteristic of the divine/heavenly realm. In all likelihood, the sudden emphasis on light and seeing reflects the strong influence of Wisdom-tradition on the Psalms.

Verse 11 [10]

“Draw out your goodness for (the one)s knowing you,
and your justice for (the one)s straight of heart!”

This couplet concludes the central section of the Psalm with a dramatic request for YHWH to extend (“draw out,” vb Ev^m*, i.e., continue to demonstrate) his goodness and faithfulness to the righteous. The righteous are described here in traditional terms as the “ones who know” YHWH, and as the “straight of heart”. The first expression emphasizes religious adherence to the covenant-bond, while the second emphasizes the ethical/moral aspect. The Psalmist, of course, would identify himself with the righteous ones, those who are faithful and loyal to YHWH.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

Verse 12 [11]

“May (the) foot of (the) high (and mighty) not come (upon) me,
and (the) hand of (the) wicked (one)s, let it not shake me!”

The wicked (<yu!v*r=) are often characterized as being (or thinking of themselves as) “high” (root ha*G`), meant in a decidedly negative or pejorative sense; in English we might use the expression “high and mighty”. The noun hw`a&G~ can specifically connote arrogance and pride (i.e., ‘haughtiness’). The Psalmist’s prayer here relates to the protection that YHWH provides for those who are faithful/loyal to him (cf. on vv. 7-8 above).

Verse 13 [12]

“See! (the one)s making trouble (shall) fall—
being thrown down, they will not be able to rise!”

The final couplet should be seen as an imprecation, continuing the theme (in the opening and closing sections, vv. 2-5, 12-13) of the wicked, in contrast to the righteous, both their conduct and their ultimate fate. Here the expected fate of the wicked is clear enough: they will fall (vb lp^n`) thrown down (vb hj*D*) by God (into the Pit), from whence they will not be able to rise again. The perfect verb form (of lpn) in the first line probably should be read as a precative perfect—that is, what the Psalmist expects (or hopes/wishes) will happen, in terms of something that has already occurred.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

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