Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 3)

Psalm 37, continued

(The previous two studies cover verses 1-11 and 12-22).

Verses 23-29

Verses 23-24

m “From YHWH [hw`hy+m@] (the foot)steps of the strong (one are secure),
He makes him firm (who) delights (in) His path,
(so) that he shall shall (no)t fall nor be hurled down,
for YHWH supports (him with) His hand.”

The theme of this section is established in the initial pair of couplets, continuing the 3+3 meter that dominates the Psalm. After the focus in the previous section on the hostility and evil plans of the wicked, directed against the righteous, here the emphasis shifts to the help and support offered by YHWH in the face of such danger. There is some difficulty of interpretation in these lines, due to the ambiguity of the persons (and associated pronoun suffixes): does “he/his/him” refer to YHWH or to the righteous person? There are also several minor textual difficulties in the second and third lines, which cannot be resolved completely.

The basic image in the first couplet (v. 23) is that of a person walking—a common enough idiom in Old Testament religious and Wisdom tradition, where it refers to a person’s behavior and way of life. Here the noun is du*x=m!, literally a “place of stepping”, i.e., where one’s foot steps. This signifies the action and conduct of the righteous person in his/her regular daily life. The noun in the second line is Er#D#, again indicating a place where a person frequently walks or steps—specifically, a trodden path. The suffix o (i.e., “his path”) could refer to the path that the righteous person takes, but also to the path as set out by YHWH (“His path”). Such a dual meaning is common with this idiom, but I would emphasize here the latter aspect—viz., as a reference to the way of God.

Indeed, YHWH gives help to the righteous in both aspects of this daily walk. He guides the person’s footsteps; there is no verb specified in the first line, but God’s action is indicated by the preposition /m! (“from YHWH…”), implying that He is the source of guidance for the righteous. He also makes this path firm and secure, establishing the righteous person’s footing as he/she walks. The verb wnnwk should perhaps be vocalized as onn+oK (“he makes him firm”). Thanks to YHWH’s support, the righteous person, one who “delights” (vb Jp^j* I) in the way of God, has strength to walk firmly upon the path, and so is characterized as a “strong (one)” (rb#G#).

The apparent reading of the first line of the second couplet (v. 24) is problematic. If YHWH makes the righteous secure, walking with firm footing, how could such a person fall (vb lp^n`)? The typical way this is rendered is, “if he falls, he will not be hurled down”, but this seems incongruous with the idea that the feet of the righteous will not slip at all (v. 31). Dahood (p. 231) suggests that lp^n` here should be understood in the sense of “fall upon” (an enemy), drawing upon the military imagery that occurs so frequently in the Psalms.

I am inclined to retain the ordinary meaning of lp^n`, and to consider the possibility that the negative particle al) here does double duty, effectively governing both verbs in the line: “he shall not fall nor be hurled down”. This rendering seem to fit best the overall sense of vv. 23-24, with the emphasis on the complete support provided by YHWH. The support is described through the anthropomorphic image of “His hand” —i.e., God’s hand that is upon the righteous, preserving and protecting them.

Verses 25-26

n “Young [ru^n~] have I been and am (now) also old,
and (yet) I have not seen the just (person) left (wanting),
and his seed searching (for) bread (to eat)—
(no,) all the day (long) he is showing favor and giving,
and his seed (is destined) for blessing.”

The help and support provided by YHWH is defined here in terms of physical and material need. This plays upon the characterization of the righteous as poor (/oyb=a#, v. 14), seemingly incongruous with the idea of blessing that is being emphasized in these lines. The point is that, though the righteous may be poor, in the sense that they do not possess the wealth of wicked (cf. the prior study on vv. 1-11), God will always supply their needs. The Psalmist regards this as a promise well established and documented through observation, during his own long life experience (“I have been young and now am old…”).

Not only are the basic needs met—i.e., food (“bread”) for himself and his children (“his seed”)—but there is enough so that the righteous (qyd!x^, the “just” person) is able to give help to others in turn. “All the day (long)” he is “showing favor” and joining (vb hw`l*) his material possessions to those of others. The latter verb is often used in the technical sense of lending and borrowing; in v. 21 it referred to the wicked borrowing (but not paying back), while here it is used in the Hiphil causative stem, in the sense of “cause to borrow”, i.e., make it possible for someone to borrow. The tendency to give of one’s resources in this way is characteristic of the righteous, even as it is typical of the wicked to borrow without paying back.

Verses 27-28a

s “Turn aside [rWs] from evil and do (what is) good,
and dwell (secure) into the distant (future);
for YHWH is (One) loving [i.e. who loves] justice,
and He does not leave His loyal (one)s (in need).”

The imperative in the first line is exhortational, urging God’s people to live in an upright manner; though not specified, this entails faithful observance of the Torah regulations, which serve as the terms of the covenant between YHWH and His people. Again, the idea of walking on the path set out by YHWH (cf. on vv. 23-24 above) is in view. In the second line, the imperative follows upon the very behavior that is urged the first line. Translating into English syntax, we might render this as “you must turn aside…and (so) you shall dwell…”. The imperatival sense could also be captured colloquially as “go ahead and dwell secure (since surely that is what you want), by turning aside from evil…”.

This choice between evil and good, characterizing the dualistic Wisdom-contrast between the wicked and the righteous, is encapsulated here by the term “justice” (fP*v=m!). It also refers to the establishment of justice, which takes place through the exercise of right “judgment”. YHWH is said to be one who loves justice—with the participle bh@a) (“loving”) effectively treated as a Divine attribute and characteristic. The righteous share this love for justice, and reflect the character of YHWH by always choosing that which is good.

This upright way of life and devotion to the covenant of YHWH (through observance of the Torah) is the basis for the support and protection that God provides. Only those who are loyal to the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) will receive this support. As I have noted on a number of occasions, the adjective dys!j*, though fundamentally denoting goodness or kindness, is often used in the context of loyalty and devotion (to the covenant).

Verses 28b-29

[u] “<(The) perverse (one)s [<yl!W`u^] will be destroyed> into the distant (future),
and (the) seed of (the) wicked will be cut off;
(while the) just (one)s will possess the earth,
and will dwell (secure) upon it until (the end).”

There is some indication of textual corruption here in the first couplet (v. 28b). To begin with, an acrostic entry for the letter u is missing from the Psalm, suggesting that a word may have dropped out. Such an omission would seem to be confirmed by the irregular rhythm of the text as we have it (2+3 meter in v. 28b). Further, it seems probable that the LXX (aA) preserves such a missing word through the presence of the plural substantive a&nomoi (“lawless [one]s”).

Kraus (p. 403) suggests restoring the corresponding plural <yl!W`u^ (“perverse [one]s”) to the text at this point, and there is much to recommend his proposal. It would restore the acrostic pattern (providing an u-section), and would also fit the LXX translation quite well. Moreover, it is easy to see how this word might have dropped out, by haplography, occurring as it does before the similar <l*oul=. An added advantage for the proposed restoration is that it introduces a fine bit of wordplay to the couplet (between <yl!W`u^ and <l*ou), of a sort that our poet could well have employed.

Restoring <yl!W`u^ would seem to require that the subsequent verb also be emended, slightly, from Wrm*v=n] (“they are guarded”) to Wdm*v=n] (“they are destroyed”)—an emendation that is reasonably plausible, since it involves the alteration of a single (similarly shaped) letter.

If one were to retain the Masoretic text as it stands (with no emendation), the couplet would read as follows:

“they [i.e. the righteous] are guarded into the distant (future),
but (the) seed of (the) wicked (one)s will be cut off”

Clearly, in this instance, v. 28b would have to be included together with the two couplets of vv. 27-28a (cf. above), and vv. 27-28 treated as a three-couplet (six line) unit. Verse 29 then would stand as a single concluding bicolon.

However, I believe a stronger argument is to be made for the division I have followed, requiring as it does the proposed emendation of the text. Thematically, the orientation of the two couplets in vv. 28b-29 as presented above is clear and consistent: the fate of the wicked (28b) contrasted with the fate of the righteous (29). There is an interlocking parallelism, whereby the “perverse ones” are destroyed “into the distant (future)” [line 1] while the righteous are preserved, dwelling secure “until (the end of the Age)” [line 4]. The contrastive parallel of the inner lines (2 & 3) mirrors the closing couplet of the previous section (v. 22): the righteous come to “possess the earth” while the wicked are “cut off” (same verb, tr^K*). Each of the three sections we have examined concludes with a similar promise, to the effect  that the righteous will inherit the earth (cp. Matt 5:5).

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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