Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 38 (Part 2)

Psalm 38, continued

In the first part of this Psalm (vv. 2-11 [1-10], cf. the previous study), the protagonist at length laments the illness that afflicts him, recognizing that it may indicate that YHWH is angry with him because of sin that he has committed.

The second part of the composition (vv. 12-17 [11-16]) expands the scope of the Psalmist’s suffering, to including the response/reaction by the people around him. In the final lines of the Psalm (vv. 18-23 [17-22]), all of these themes are summarized and reiterated, and the protagonist offers a final plea to YHWH for deliverance.

Verses 12-17 [11-16]

Verse 12 [11]

“(Those) loving me and my companions (stay away) from what has struck me,
and (those) near to me (now) stand from far off.”

The Masoretic text of the first line is problematic and is likely corrupt. The line is too long, there is a repeated verb (dmu from line 2), and, more to the point, the reading in the Qumran manuscript (4QPsa) is quite different (and the LXX differs as well). I suspect that the Qumran text is rather closer to the original, which in translation might be rendered as follows:

“I have been struck in front of my loved (one)s and companions”

In any case, the main idea is that the Psalmist’s illness, and the effects of it, are conspicuous, taking place “in front of” (dg#n#) his friends and relatives. That it causes fear and revulsion in them is clear enough, especially in context of the second line: “(those) near to me (now) stand far away”. The ‘nearness’ may imply friendship (line 1), or simply proximity (i.e., neighbors).

Verse 13 [12]

“And they would hit (me), (the one)s seeking my soul,
and (the one)s searching evil (for) me say ruinous (thing)s,
and murmur deceitful (thing)s all the day (long).”

If verse 12 gives us the response of those close to the Psalmist, verse 13 describes the reaction of those who are already hostile to him. The ponderous and awkward rhythm of this verse (a rare 4+4+3 tricolon) may be intended to convey poetically the grim burden faced by the Psalmist—with the abuse from his enemies added to the experience of having his friends withdraw from him (v. 12).

The intent of these wicked adversaries is clear by the parallel expressions “seeking my soul” / “searching evil [i.e. harm] for me”. As is often the case in the Psalms, the wicked are depicted as intending violence toward the righteous. However, the main idea in this verse is not physical violence, but verbal abuse. They look to “bring down” the Psalmist, striking him as a hunter does a bird (this is the fundamental meaning of the verbal root vq^n`). They would do this by “speaking ruinous things” and “murmuring/muttering deceitful things” against him. And they are inspired in their wickedness to do this constantly, relentlessly, “all the day (long)”.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“But I am like a deaf (man who) <does> not hear,
and like a mute (who) opens not his mouth;
and (indeed) I have become like a man who (has) no hearing,
and there are no arguments in my mouth.”

There is a play on words and imagery in these two couplets, giving a double-sense to the idea of being deaf and mute. In the first couplet, the Psalmist describes himself as being like a deaf and mute person. By this is meant that he does not respond to the verbal abuse of his attackers, trying to ignore them as best he can. However, we should not necessarily understand this silence as an example of virtuous forbearance. The fact is, as the Psalmist ruefully admits in the second couplet, he is silent because there is nothing he can offer in his own defense.

The wording here implies a legal, judicial context. To say that he “has no hearing”, in this context, means that he has nothing that deserves a hearing. Similarly, he has no arguments (plur. of hj*k@oT) that he can speak to answer his opponents. Why is this? We must assume that the substance of their abusive claims is that the Psalmist’s suffering (from God) is deserved because of his sin. Against this he can give no argument, since he has already admitted his sin as the likely reason for his illness (vv. 5-7 [4-6], cf. the discussion in the previous study).

Verses 16-17 [15-16]

“(It is) that I wait (patiently) for you, YHWH,
you will answer (me), Lord, my Mighty (One),
when I say, ‘Take away the(ir) rejoic(ing) over me,
in (the) slipping of my foot, (when) they make great (taunts) against me!'”

This portion of the Psalm, dealing with people’s response to his illness, concludes with a dense and complex pair of couplets, that is extremely difficult to translate into English.

Though the Psalmist has no arguments to offer against his accusers, he continues to trust in YHWH. It is only to God that he makes his address, humbly and with a plea for help. He hopes and expects that YHWH will answer him, though he may need to wait patiently (vb lj^y`) for this help to come. The essence of his request is stated in the second couplet: he asks that God will take away (remove) the mocking abuse of his opponents. Since this can only really occur if his illness is removed, it is a roundabout way of making a request for healing. It is also effectively an appeal to YHWH’s own honor, which is indirectly attacked when one of His devout followers (the Psalmist) is assaulted with taunting and condemnation by the wicked. The protagonist admits his sin(fulness), by way of the phrase “in (the) slipping of my foot”, but he asks that the punishment not be so severe that it gives the wicked reason to “rejoice” and mock at his suffering.

The verb in the final phrase, ld^G`, in the Hiphil stem, normally has the general meaning “make great, cause to grow”, and certainly can be used in the negative sense of exalting oneself over another. Dahood (p. 236) would understand the root here in its more rudimentary, concrete sense of “twist” —i.e., the wicked twist lies or weave accusations against him (cp. Ps 12:4)

Verses 18-23 [17-22]

Verses 18-19 [17-18]

“For my trouble is (ever) fixed at (the) side,
and my sorrow is in front of me continually;
(so it is) that I put my crookedness out front,
(for) I am fearful from [i.e. because of] my sin.”

I follow Dahood (p. 236f) in parsing MT yn]a& (1st person pronoun) as the noun /w#a* (“trouble, toil”) with a pronoun suffix; the vocalization would then be yn]a), defective for the full yn]oa (“my trouble”). There are two possibilities for the second prefixed word ulxl: the first involves the root ulx I, from which the noun ul*x@ (“rib, side”) is presumably derived, while second involves the root ulx II (“limp”, noun ul^x# [“limping”]). The parallel with “in front of me” in the second line, argues in favor of the former, i.e. “at the side.

The verb in the first line of the second couplet, dg~n`, “be/stand in front” (Hiphil “put in front”), is related to the preposition dg#n# (“in front of”) in the prior line. There is thus a bit of wordplay involved, of the kind that is typically lost in translation. By putting his crookedness “out in front”, the Psalmist admits and confesses it to God. He is forced to this by his constant pain and suffering, and by his fearfulness over how YHWH has, and may yet further, punish him for his sin. Even so, this attitude of contrition and repentance ultimately reflects the righteous character of the protagonist, and of his devotion to the covenant bond with YHWH.

Verses 20-21 [19-20]

“And (the one)s hostile (to) me have living strength,
and (those) hating me (with) lies are many (indeed);
and (they are) fulfilling evil under [i.e. in exchange for] good,
(the one)s accusing me under my pursuing (the) good.”

As noted above, these two couplets summarize the section (vv. 12-17, cf. above) dealing with the reaction of people to the Psalmist’s illness. Specifically, the focus is on the response by his enemies and opponents (i.e., the wicked). Effectively, this is part of the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH (begun in vv. 18-19), and here he emphasizes the strength and number of his enemies. Again, it is primarily through verbal abuse (including lies/slander, rq#v#) that they attack him.

The idiom of the verb <l^v* followed by the preposition tj^T^ is difficult to translate in English. The idea is of an exchange, of a person making payment (i.e., fulfilling or completing an obligation, which is the basic meaning of the root <lv). The point of the exchange (or payment) is indicated by the preposition tj^T^ (literally, “under, beneath”)—i.e., one thing under [in exchange for] another. Here, the wicked (the Psalmist’s opponents) are paying him evil (ur^) instead of good (bof). This could be taken to mean that the protagonist only wants good for these people, and yet they still attack him. However, more likely is the general idea, expressed as a key theme throughout many of the Psalms, that the wicked are hostile to the righteous specifically because of their righteousness and loyalty/devotion to YHWH. The final line would seem to confirm this: it is the Psalmist’s “pursuing the good” that provokes his opponents to vilify him.

Verses 22-23 [21-22]

“Do not leave me, YHWH, my Mighty (One),
do not keep far away from me!
Hurry to help me, Lord, (for) my salvation!”

The Psalm closes with this final plea, terse and direct, to God for deliverance—that is, of healing from the illness that has plagued the Psalmist. A shortened 3+2 couplet is followed by a single 4-beat line. While he may be waiting patiently for YHWH to answer him, this does not keep the protagonist from calling out for immediate deliverance (“Hurry…!”). The sense may be that the Psalmist, who, as the context of the poem indicates, has been suffering for some time, is at the end of his rope. He does not see how he can go on much longer in this condition, if God does not help him. It is an experience with which many people can clearly relate, anyone who who has undergone a serious illness or debilitating ailment. As such, it is understandable why it would also feature so frequently as a theme in the Psalms, and elsewhere in ancient poetry and Wisdom literature (cf. the book of Job).

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

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