Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 40 (Part 1)

Psalm 40

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (verse 1 [only part of the superscription survives])

This Psalm is clearly comprised of two parts: (1) a hymn of thanksgiving to YHWH for deliverance (vv. 2-11 [1-10]), and (2) a lament in which the Psalmist describes his suffering/oppression and makes a plea to YHWH for help (vv. 12-18 [11-17]). The very different character of these two portions has led commentators to regard the Psalm as a combination of two prior (and originally separate) poems. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that vv. 12-18 [11-17] closely resemble Psalm 70. Still, the order of the compositions here is curious; we might rather have expected the thanksgiving to follow the lament (instead of the other way around).

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon (couplet) format. The superscription is common, designating the work as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Verse 2 [1]

“Gathering, I gathered YHWH (with my voice),
and He stretched (down) to me,
and He heard my cry for help!”

The initial verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, essentially an expanded form of a 3+2 bicolon with a doubling of the second line. The last two lines are in a kind of synthetic parallelism, in which the second line builds upon the thought in the line prior.

I follow Dahood (pp. 121-2, 245) in understanding the verb in the first line to be a form of hw`q* II (“gather, collect”) rather than the more common hw`q* I (“wait [for], hope, expect”). The Psalmist “gathers” YHWH in the sense that he calls Him with his voice (cp. Ps 19:5 [4]). The doubling of the verb—an infinitive followed by a perfect form—represents a bit of Hebrew syntax that is difficult to translate in English. I have rendered it here quite literally (“Gathering, I gathered…” = “Calling, I have called…”); but often it is used in an intensive sense–viz, “surely I have called…”, “I called repeatedly,” etc.

The Psalmist’s call “gathers” YHWH to him, and God “stretches” (or bends, vb hf*n`) down to him in response. Indeed, He has heard the urgent (and/or repeated) cry for help.

Verse 3 [2]

“And He brought me up from (the) pit of ruin,
and (up) from (the) muck of the mire;
and He made my feet stand upon (the) rock-cliff,
He fixed my steps (to walk) straight.”

This pair of 3+2 couplets continues the thought in verse 2 [1], describing YHWH’s response to the Psalmist—bringing deliverance/salvation for him, using the vivid imagery of a rescue out of a muddy bog. This “pit of ruin” (/oav* roB) is a traditional idiom for Death (and the realm of the dead). This indicates that the protagonist of the Psalm had been in danger of death when YHWH rescued him. Stuck in the mire, he was like a man trapped in quicksand, or in the midst of a deep and treacherous bog, threatening to engulf him. The nouns fyf! and /w#y` are more or less synonymous (each referring to mud/mire), and are joined together here for dramatic emphasis.

From this deep and muddy “pit”, the Psalmist is lifted out and placed on a high rock-cliff (ul^s#) with firm footing. The extreme contrast is intentional and meant to convey how completely YHWH has delivered him. There could not be a greater difference in location—i.e., deep muddy pit vs. high rock-cliff. The verb /WK (here in the Polel stem) refers to something that is established or fixed in place. It expands on the idea of the Psalmist’s feet being firmly planted on the rock-cliff: the dual yl^g+r^ (“my [two] feet”) is parallel with the plural yr*v%a& (“my walking/going [straight]”). The root rva denotes going straight toward something.

Verse 4 [3]

“And He gave [i.e. put] in my mouth a new song,
a shout (of praise) to our Mighty (One);
many shall see (this) and be afraid,
and shall seek protection in YHWH.”

The two couplets in this verse continue the course of action, describing the response by people to YHWH’s saving deed. For the Psalmist himself (lines 1-2), it leads him to utter a song (ryv!) and shout (hL*h!T=) of praise to YHWH; indeed, we may understand vv. 2-11 of the Psalm as this very song. For others who see (or come to know) what God has done on the Psalmist’s behalf, it will cause them to fear YHWH, and to seek His protection. The verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, denotes seeking (or finding) protection in someone or something; it also can refer specifically to the trust one has in that protection. It is often used in the context of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people—that is, to the protection that He is obligated to provide (so long as the people remain faithful).

Verse 5 [4]

“(The) happiness of the strong (one) who makes YHWH his place of protection,
and does not turn to (the) proud (one)s,
and (to the one)s swerving (to) lie(s)!”

This irregular tricolon contains (in its first line) a beatitude (on the use of yr@v=a^, “happy [thing]s of,” “[the] happiness of”, cf. the study on Psalm 1). It clearly draws upon the language of the previous verse, with the noun jf*b=m! (lit. “place of protection, protected place”) derived from the root jfb (“seek/find protection,” cf. above).

As in Psalm 1, the beatitude-form here is part of a Wisdom-contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous trust in YHWH, while the wicked turn to false deities (or to comparable unethical/immoral behavior). In the second line, the wicked are characterized as those who “turn to (the) proud (one)s”; in the third line, the expression is “(one)s swerving (toward) lie(s)”.

Both of these phrases can be understood in a religious and an ethical sense. The term bz`K* (“lie”) is often used in reference to idolatry and the worship of false deities, while the verb fWc, though extremely rare (cf. Ps 101:3), seems to have the sense of “turning away” (i.e., swerving, veering). At the same time, these expressions can also refer to the moral/ethical conduct of the wicked, with their tendency toward arrogance and pride (bh*r*) and toward speaking/believing lies.

Verse 6 [5]

“Many (are they that) you have done, YHWH,
your marvelous (deed)s, my Mighty (One),
and your thoughts to(ward) us—
there is none compared to you!
(If) I should put (them) up front and speak (them),
they would be great beyond numbering!”

This verse is comprised of three couplets, but the awkwardness and lack of a clear poetic flow suggests the possibility of textual corruption. However, there is (as yet) no satisfactory approach for emending or navigating these difficulties. For lack of any better option, I have retained the Masoretic text throughout.

The emphasis in the first couplet is on the wonderful/marvelous deeds that God has done. They are described as “many” (toBr^), but the same adjective can also indicate “greatness”. The Psalmist has included his own experience within the wider experience of God’s people. YHWH has done many great deeds (including miracles) during Israel’s history, and His deliverance of the Psalmist is one more such deed.

The second couplet is a bit obscure in meaning, but the focus is on thought, rather than action. It also creates a transition between what YHWH thinks of us (His people), and what we think of Him (our God). His thoughts toward us are loving and caring, expressed through the “marvelous deeds” He has chosen to do on our behalf. Conversely, our thoughts toward Him recognize that, because of such deeds, etc, YHWH is truly the “Mightiest (One)”, the true God, and there is no one like him. The actual wording here is “there is none compared to you”. The verb Er^u* literally refers to arranging things in a row—in this case, so that they can be compared one to another.

The final couplet turns again to the great deeds of YHWH, as the Psalmist recognizes that they are so many (<x#u#, lit. “strength, abundance”) that they are beyond being numbered—i.e., beyond anyone’s ability to count them all (cp. John 21:25).

Verse 7 [6]

“(Ritual) slaughter and gift you did not desire,
(instead) you cut (open the) ears for me,
rising (smoke) and (offering for) sin you did not request.”

This is a curious and difficult verse, again giving the impression that something may be missing here in the text. The basic sense is clear enough, reflecting a Wisdom-message, found frequently in the Prophets, to the effect that obedience to God is more important than the ritual duty of performing sacrificial offerings (summarized in lines 1 and 3). The wording in the middle line is difficult; literally it reads (apparently) “ears you cut (open) for me”. Possibly the cutting (vb trk) of the ears is meant as a contrast with the ‘cutting’ (i.e. ritual slaughter) of the sacrificial offerings. In this case, the action is taken by YHWH, rather than the Psalmist: He has opened the Psalmist’s ears, so that he can hear and understand, responding in obedience to God’s Word. Conceivably, there may also be an allusion to the idea of having one’s ears ‘circumcised’ (i.e., as an idiom for obedience, cf. Jer 6:10).

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“Then I said: ‘See, I come!
In (the) roll of (the) account it is inscribed upon me:
to do your pleasure, my Mighty (One), (so do) I delight,
and your Instruction (is) in the middle of my (in)ner parts!'”

Again, the poetic style and rhythm in this verse feels rather forced and awkward. Metrically, we have a pair of 3+3 couplets (but only loosely so); conceptually, it might be better to view the verse as a 3-beat quatrain (3+3+3+3). The poetry is subservient to the religious message, which can be summarized as a confessional statement that characterizes the righteous.

The first two lines are preliminary to this statement, and their precise meaning is not entirely clear. The idea seems to be that the righteous person (the Psalmist) is committed to acting/behaving in accordance with his identity (as a righteous/ faithful one). Another possibility is that the afterlife is in view—that is, the promise of blessed life in heaven (with God) for the righteous. In this latter context, the declaration “See, I come” could refer to the Psalmist’s readiness to enter the blessed afterlife. The beatitude context of verse 5 [4] would tend to confirm this interpretation. In any case, the “roll of the account” refers to the accounting (or ‘book’) of a person’s deeds, etc, recorded by God in heaven, which will be used in the afterlife judgment-scene. At the same time, it reflects the ultimate destiny of the person (cf. Job 13:26, etc); for the righteous, this is equivalent to being written down in the ‘book of life’ (cf. Exod 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; 139:16; Mal 3:16; Jubilees 30:19ff; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 21:27).

The last two lines record the confessional statement that defines the righteous. The destiny and purpose of the righteous is to do what pleases YHWH (or what He favors). The term /oxr* fundamentally refers to something that is received favorably, implying that a person finds pleasure in it and desires it, etc. In a religious and ethical context, it is used to express the will of God (i.e., what He desires that should be done). The delight (vb Jp@j*) of the righteous is to do God’s will, to do what pleases Him. And, what it is that pleases YHWH is stated clearly enough in the final line: it is to observe faithfully all of the precepts and regulations, etc, in the Instruction (hr*oT, Torah) that God has given to His people. Observance of the Torah is so much a part of the righteous person’s character and way of life that it resides deep within him (lit. “in the middle of my inner parts”).

Verse 10 [9]

“I have given the news of (your) justice in (the) assembly,
see! my lips have not refrained—
YHWH, you know (this)!”

The song and shout of praise that the Psalmist gives to YHWH (cf. verse 4 [3] above), recounting God’s great act(s) of deliverance (v. 6 [5]), is done publicly, in the assembly (lh*q*), the gathering of faithful ones. This refers to actual gatherings, but even more as a symbolic reference to the righteous (as a collective group). A characteristic of the righteous is that they “do not refrain” from confessing all that God has done (and continues to do). As noted above, the Psalmist includes his individual experience of deliverance as part of the wider experience of God’s people.

Verse 11 [10]

“Your justice I have not kept hidden in (the) midst of my heart,
your firmness and your saving (power) I have declared—
I have not kept back your goodness and truth from the great assembly.”

This portion of the Psalm concludes with yet another irregular tricolon, with the poetic style and rhythm stretched to fit the religious message. It continues the thought from verse 10 [9], emphasizing how the Psalmist makes known the greatness of YHWH in the (public) assembly of the righteous. The context of corporate worship is very much in view—the sort of setting in which a Psalm like 40:2-11 would be sung.

The themes of the prior verses are drawn together, combining the inward and outward aspects of righteousness. What is true within the heart of the righteous, is also proclaimed publicly. Here, the terms bl@ (“heart”) and hu#m@ (= inner organs, inner parts, v. 9 [8]) are synonymous. By declaring the marvelous deeds of YHWH one also exclaims His character and attributes. These include his “right[eous]ness” and “justice” (qd#x# / hq*d*x=), and also his “goodness” (ds#j#). Both of these terms are often used in a covenantal context—i.e., referring to faithfulness and loyalty to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people.


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