Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 2)

Psalms 42-43, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 7-12 [6-11]

Verse 7 [6]

“My soul upon me is bent down low,
(yet) upon this will I remember you,
from (the) land of (the river) going down,
and the sacred (mountain)s from (the) miƒar hill.”

The initial verse of this section picks up from the refrain in v. 6 [5] (cf. the previous study), emphasizing the suffering and sorrow of the Psalmist’s soul. Both rhythmically, and in terms of its imagery, these lines are difficult. The meter is irregular—a 3+2+2+3 quatrain, or, possibly, a pair of 3+2 couplets (depending on how one divides the last two lines).

The main idea is that the Psalmist’s soul has “bent down low” (vb jj^v*), in his sorrow and suffering. The sense of the second line seems to be that, even in the midst of his suffering, the Psalmist will continue to remember YHWH. He imagines a scenario where he is approaching death, as the imagery in the last two lines strongly suggests. To render /D@r=y~ and /omr=j# as simple geographical terms (i.e., the Jordan river and Mt. Hermon) is to miss the point; it is, rather, a symbolic landscape, which requires a literal translation of the terms (in their fundamental meaning) in order to bring the symbolism across properly.

The /D#r=y~ is literally the “(place of) going down [dry]”, i.e., the river that leads to the underworld, while the <yn]omr=j# means something like “(the) sacred (mountain)s”. The significance of ru*x=m! is uncertain; derived from root ru^x* I, it would mean something like “place of littleness, (the) little place”. It seems to indicate a particular location in the “sacred mountains” (the Hermon range, in Canaanite geography), which, we must assume, also leads to the underworld.

In the ancient Near East, both rivers and mountains were viewed as mythical/spiritual conduits (points of entry) to the otherworld—in this case, it leads down into the watery depths below the earth, from which one reaches the realm of the dead (netherworld). The context here makes this set of associations abundantly clear (cp. Jonah 2:7[6]); on the same line of traditional imagery in Canaanite sources, cf. Dahood, pp. 258-9.

Verse 8 [7]

“Deep to deep is calling,
at (the) voice of your shafts
all your breaking (wave)s and heaps (of water)
pass over upon me.”

Following the line of imagery in v. 7 [6], the Psalmist feels that he is entering the dark watery depths that lead to the netherworld, the realm of the dead (i.e., he is in danger of death). The idea of being threatened by powerful engulfing waves of water is a frequent motif in Old Testament poetry; in addition to the famous poem in Jonah 2:2-10 [1-9], cf. Psalm 32:6; 69:1-2; 88:4-7; 130:1; Job 22:11, etc.

The expression “deep to deep” reflects the ancient bi-partite view of the universe, in which the cosmos can be divided into two halves (hemispheres, generally speaking) that are surrounded by waters above, and waters below, respectively. From the waters above come the rains (and rainstorms); YHWH tends to be associated with the waters above, but He ultimately has control over all the waters. Indeed, his command (and control) reaches from the heavens (the upper waters, and above) all the way down to the watery depths below the earth. On this control over the waters, as expressed through the ancient cosmological myth of the Deity’s ‘defeat’ of the Sea, cf. my earlier article.

The word roNx! (“shaft”), occurring elsewhere only in 2 Sam 5:8, suggests a conduit by which YHWH extends His command (over the waters) to the depths below. Dahood, p. 259, would identify it with the storm (and lighting/thunder bolts) that stirs and roils up the sea. Given that thunder, in the ancient Near Eastern mindset, is typically referred to as the “voice” (loq) of God, this seems most likely.

Verse 9 [8] ab

“By day YHWH commands His goodness,
by night His hry?[?] (is) with me”

This couplet seems to parallel the idea in v. 8 [7] of YHWH commanding the waters—both above and below. While those waters threaten to engulf the Psalmist, and thus reflect a very real danger of death to him, here in v. 9 the emphasis is on God’s goodness. YHWH commands his goodness (ds#j#), which can also connote faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., loyalty to the covenant). Typically in the Psalms, the covenant aspect is in view, whereby the term ds#j# refers specifically to the care and protection that YHWH gives to the righteous (like the Psalmist), i.e., those who are loyal to the covenant.

The parallelism of the lines would require a corresponding term in the second line to match this goodness (ds#j#) of YHWH in the first. The term in the MT here is Hr*yv! (Qere oryv!), “his song”, which makes little sense in context, and many commentators feel that here the text likely is corrupt. It is not at all clear, however, in what way the text can, or should, be emended. The context indicates that the word in this position must signify something sent by YHWH (at His command) to the Psalmist, and which the protagonist now has with him, serving as hope and comfort for him in his time of distress. The reception by the Psalmist (at night) matches the active sending by YHWH (in the daytime).

One very much wishes that the text of this verse had survived among the Qumran Psalm scrolls, as it might well solve the textual problem noted above; but, alas, this is not the case. The LXX translates according to the MT, although the B text here has the verb dhlo/w (“make visible, make manifest, show”), which certainly would form a fitting parallel with Hebrew hw`x* (“command, charge,” Grk e)nte/llomai). Dahood (p. 259), following the suggestion by T. Gaster (Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL], vol. 73 [1954], pp. 237-8), identifies hryv here with Akkadian š£ru and Ugaritic ´rt, “vision” (par. to µlm, “dream”). The sense of v. 9 then, might run as follows:

“By day YHWH sends his goodness (to me) by command,
(and) by night makes it known to me in a vision.”

This is an appealing solution, though not entirely convincing.

Verse 9c-11a [8c-10a]

“My prayer (is) to (the) Mighty (One) of my life:
I will say, ‘(O) Mighty (One), my Rock,
for what [i.e. why] have you forgotten me,
for what should I walk covered in darkness,
in (the) squeeze of (the one) hostile (to me),
with murdering (power) on my limbs?'”

The Psalmist’s prayer, to the effect that YHWH has forgotten him, makes the preceding verse 9ab seem out of place, and tends to confirm the theory that those lines may be corrupt (cf. the discussion above). This prayer is typical of many of the lament-Psalms, and the thought expressed here echoes that found, for example, in the famous opening of Psalm 22. The idea of the Psalmist going about “being covered in darkness” (rd@q)) could be understood in terms of a person clothed in mourning garb, but it also reflects the earlier image of the protagonist being covered over by the dark and tumultuous waters of the deep. In any case, the association with death is very much at the fore.

While enemies are frequently mentioned in the Psalms, they are often indistinct from the suffering experienced by the Psalmist. Here the singular by@oa (“hostile [one],” i.e., enemy) should probably be understood as a personification of Death itself. The “squeeze” (Jj^l^) that this enemy puts on the Psalmist is so deadly that it puts his once-strong limbs (<x#u#, plur.) in a murderous grip (the noun jx^r# indicates an act of killing). Clearly, only YHWH can deliver the Psalmist from this mortal danger; often in the Psalms, this danger is expressed in terms of illness or disease, and this may well be in view here.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The one)s opposed to me cast blame (on) me,
in their saying to me all the day (long):
‘Where (is) your Mighty (One)?'”

The remainder of verse 11 [10] consists of a dramatic tricolon, with the mocking taunts of the wicked being added to the Psalmist’s suffering and distress. Here the plural noun (verbal participle, <yr!r=ox) unquestionably refers to human enemies. The root rrx II is similar in meaning to by~a*, and the participle here (with the 1st person suffix) could likewise be translated “one[s] hostile to me” (i.e., “my enemies, my adversaries”). I have opted to denote rrx with the specific idea of opposition—i.e., “(one)s being opposed to me” —to keep it distinct from bya.

Such taunts by the protagonist’s wicked enemies are a frequent feature in the Psalms, and can be seen in a number of the compositions that we have examined thus far. The motif plays on two important ideas: (1) the hostility of the wicked toward the righteous, and (2) as an expression of the doubt experienced by the righteous, in the face of severe suffering and misfortune, regarding their loyalty to YHWH. The climactic question posed by the wicked in their taunt is pointed: “Where is your Mighty One?” (i.e., God, Elohim, lit. “Mightiest [One]”). In other words, if this “Mightiest One” truly exists, and rewards the righteous for their faithfulness and loyalty to Him, then why are you (a righteous one, presumably) suffering so badly? This is another way of framing the common Wisdom-theme regarding the suffering of the righteous. It is a theme that is quite frequent in the Psalms, as we have seen.

Refrain: Verse 12 [11]

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm (for comments, cf. the previous study, on v. 6 [5]). Given the sense of mortal danger and suffering that pervades this section, the call to wait on YHWH, and to trust in Him for deliverance, is particularly significant—a sign of faith and trust that can encourage the righteous in their own time of distress.

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


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