Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 45 (Part 1)

Psalm 45

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 8-11 [7-10]); 11QPsd (vv. 6-8 [5-7])

This Psalm is unusual in that it is addressed, not to God (YHWH), but to the king and his queen. It is called a “song of love” (td)yd!y+ ryv!, lit. “song of loves”) in the superscription, and commentators typically identify it as an epithalamium, or wedding song—that is, for the royal wedding between the king and his bride. This may seem to us a peculiar subject for a sacred hymn, considering how kingship has been devalued in the modern age. Even in countries which still maintain the figure of a king (or queen), the honor attached to the office only faintly resembles that of kingship in the ancient world.

It is thus difficult for us to appreciate the religious and theological aspects of ancient Near Eastern kingship. Indeed, a royal theology pervades the Psalms, and is directly relevant to the background and setting of many compositions. The king had a divine status; at the very least, he functioned as God’s representative on earth. The ancient Israelite concept of kingship was tied to the covenant between YHWH and Israel. If the king remained faithful to YHWH, and did not fall into wickedness and false/aberrant religion, then he would receive the Divine blessing and protection. This covenantal relationship was an extension of the binding agreement between YHWH and the people.

The Psalm is rather clearly divided into two parts. The first part (vv. 2-10 [1-9]) is addressed to the king, the second part (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) is addressed to the queen. The meter in the first part is irregular, with 3-beat units alternating with 2-beat units (and even occasional 4-beat units). A triad or tricolon format tends to be followed, though there is considerable confusion and difference of opinion regarding how to divide and delineate the verse-structures. In a few places the text may well be corrupt, but there is no clear guidance for how it may be safely (and accurately) emended. I have, for the most part, followed the Masoretic text, though not always its vocalization and word-division.

On the term lyK!c=m^ and the attribution to the “sons of Qorah,” see the introduction to Psalm 42/43. It is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, using the common plural name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”) in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH). The direction <yN]v^v)-lu^ (“[sung] upon [i.e. according to] ‘Lilies’ [?]”) presumably refers to a particular melody.

Verses 2-10 [1-9]

Verse 2 [1]

“My heart is stirred (to this) good word,
(and) I am speaking my creations, (my) king!
My tongue (is the) pen of a swift recorder.

This is a relatively rare example of the Psalmist describing the creative process of his art. The idea seems to be of a poet-singer at court, making use of an improvisational style of composition. He is inspired (“my heart is stirred”) to this poem, and speaks it (creating it) in the moment. He did not write it out or compose it beforehand; rather, on this occasion (the king’s wedding?), he creates it as he speaks/sings it out loud (in performance).

The verb vj^r* occurs only here in the Old Testament, so its meaning is uncertain. Evidence from later Hebrew suggests a meaning of “stir”, which would be appropriate for a poet’s inspiration. It has been suggested (cf. Dahood, p. 270) that this vjr is a metathetic variant of the root vrj (II), which has the fundamental meaning “engrave,” but which can be used figuratively in the sense of “devise,” i.e., create, compose (cf. Zeph 3:17).

Metrically, this first verse is an extended 4-beat (4+4+4) tricolon.

Verse 3 [2]

“You are most beautiful from (the) sons of men,
favor having been poured on your lips—
upon this has (the) Mightiest blessed you f(rom the) distant (past)!”

The curious doubled form typypy has been parsed as a Pealal verb form, probably to be understood in an intensive (and/or iterative) sense. Assuming its derivation from the root hpy, denoting something that is “bright, beautiful, fair,” etc, here it would mean “the most beautiful,” the one who is truly beautiful. A fine handsome form, setting him apart from other human beings (“from [the] sons of men”), would be a traditional indicator of someone destined for (and worthy of) the role of king (cf. regarding Saul in 1 Sam 9:2; 10:23-24).

Such a man has been favored by YHWH, gifted by God to be king. Not only is he handsome in appearance, but is gifted in speech (“in/on your lips”)—a helpful, if not necessary, attribute of leadership. Both his fine physical appearance and eloquence in speaking are signs that YHWH has blessed him. The expression /K@-lu^ literally means “upon this”, and can be translated in English as “from this (we know that…)”.

The temporal expression <l*oul= can mean “from the distant (past)” or “into the distant (future)”. Both would be valid in context, but I have opted for the first, implying that YHWH has (pre)destined the chosen individual to be king. It could also indicate that the Divine blessing will remain upon him, so long as he remains faithful, for the remainder of his life (and for all time).

It is possible, however, that <l*oul= is a secondary addition to the text, since the final line of the tricolon in the MT seems to be overloaded, leading to an irregular 3+3+4 meter, whereas one would expect a consistent 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 4 [3]

“Gird your sword upon (your) thigh!
Be strong (in) your splendor and honor!”

The blessing of YHWH on the king is marked by the apparel and accoutrements that he wears, symbols of (divine) honor and splendor (the nouns doh and rd^h^, similar in meaning). Chief among the king’s apparel is his sword, representative of his ability to protect his people (and their territory) and to subdue the enemies of Israel. This militaristic aspect is elaborated in the verses that follow.

I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 271) in reading rbg as an imperative (vocalized rb^G+, “be strong…!”), parallel with rogj& (“gird [on]…!”) in the first line. Rhythmically, the verse is a 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 5 [4] ab

“Press through (and) ride upon a word of truth,
and work justice (for the) oppressed”

A most difficult verse. It is quite possible that these lines are corrupt, but any attempt at emendation must be considered tentative at best, especially without any supporting evidence from the Qumran manuscripts (the verse is not among the portions that have been preserved). With some hesitance, I follow commentators such as Kraus  (p. 451) in reading the opening word of v. 5 as a dittography (i.e., repetition from the closing word of v. 4), and have omitted it.

With this adjustment, the first two lines of the verse form a fine 3+2 couplet. Overall, the sense seems clear enough. The king is to act in his role as protector of the people, using the symbols of his majesty (including his military trappings of sword, horse/chariot, bow and arrows, etc) to establish justice  and righteousness. When he “presses through” (vb jl^x*) and “rides” (vb bk^r*) into action, he must do so “upon a word of truth [tm#a#, lit. firmness]”, with special attention being paid to working to bring justice (vb qd^x*) for the oppressed. I follow Dahood here (p. 272) in dividing the consonantal text differently than the MT, reading qdxh wnuw: “and work justice [Hiphil of the verb qd^x*] (for the) oppressed” (comp. Psalm 82:3).

Verse 5c-6a [4c-5a]

“and (the thing)s bringing fear in your right hand will point you,
your arrows (indeed are) sharp!”

As the king rides to bring justice to the land, the weapons (lit. “[the thing]s causing fear”) in his ‘right hand’ point the way for him. There is a play on words here with the idea of “pointing”, as the very arrows he holds—and which he would fire against the wicked and other enemies—are also “pointed” (i.e., sharp, vb /n~v*). Metrically, this is another 3+2 couplet, and probably should be joined together with the prior couplet (in v. 5ab [cf. above]) as a poetic unit.

Verse 6 [5] bc

“(The) peoples under you shall fall,
in heart, (the) hostile (one)s of the king!”

There are also difficulties surrounding this verse, primarily due to the curious (and tantalizingly incomplete) evidence from the Qumran manuscript 11QPsd. Without clearer elucidation, any attempt at emending the text here is questionable, at best. Somewhat reluctantly, I have held to the MT, which provides a reasonably clear (if slightly awkward) couplet. The surrounding peoples, who would set themselves as being hostile to the king of Israel, will fall under him. This suggests a military defeat, with the king benefiting from the power and protection of YHWH (fighting on his side). Even more significant, perhaps, is the further implication that the peoples may submit, falling under his authority “in [their] heart”, without the need of actual battle.

Verse 7 [6]

“(The) Mightiest has enthroned you,
(from the) distant (past) and until (the end),
(and) a staff of straightness
(is the) staff of your kingdom.”

Since the Psalmist has been consistently addressing the king, the apparent shift to addressing God (Elohim = YHWH) in this verse seems out of place. Dahood (p. 273) suggests that the opening word, iask, should be read as a (Piel) denominative verb (with object suffix), from the noun aS@K!, “ruling-seat, throne”. This is an attractive solution, despite the lack of textual evidence, and I have followed his suggestion above.

The king is able to subdue his enemies and establish justice in the kingdom because YHWH (Elohim) has put him on the throne. This implies that God protects the king (so long as he remains faithful), and works/fights on his behalf. The king’s rule is symbolized by his staff (fb#v@), which produces a straight and fair result, leading to righteousness, justice, and equity for the people. This straightness (rovym!) reflects that of YHWH Himself.

Verse 8 [7] ab

“You have loved justice and hated wickedness—
upon this, (the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One) has anointed you”

Metrically, this is a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, but could also be divided as a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain, which yields a cleaner and more attractive result (and follows the same meter as v. 7 [6] above):

“You have loved justice
and have hated wickedness;
upon this He has anointed you,
(the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One).”

The anointing (vb jv^m*) of the king is here equivalent to his enthroning by YHWH (in the prior verse); it is another way of referring to the establishment of his kingdom and rule (by God). The righteous character of this person is indicated by the fact that he “loved justice and hated wickedness”, even before becoming king. Indeed, it was because of (lK@-lu^) this righteous character that YHWH chose to anoint him as king.

The doubling of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”) in the last line is another clear indication of how, in the Elohist Psalms, <yh!l)a$ was substituted for the Divine name YHWH (hwhy). In its original form, the line almost certainly would have read: “…YHWH, your Mighty (One)”.

Verse 8c-9a [7c-8a]

“(The) oil of rejoicing (is on) your robes,
myrrh and aloes and cassia all (on) your garments.”

The meter here returns to a 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The imagery develops the idea of the king’s anointing. The sacred oil of his anointing has permeated all of his garments (and his surroundings). The meaning of iyrbjm is uncertain. The context, and the parallel with ;yt#d)g+B! (“your garments”), suggests that something like “your robes” is intended. The root rbj fundamentally means “join together”, and the use of the nouns tr#b#j) and tr#B#j=m^ in Exod 26:4, 10; 28:27 shows how it can refer to sewn or woven fabrics (drapes, curtains, etc).

Along with the oil, the king’s garments are fragrant with aromatic spices, another indication of the honor and splendor (and sacredness) that was associated with kingship in the ancient Near East.

Verse 9b-10 [8b-9]

“From (your) palaces of (ivory) tooth,
how they make you joyful,
(the) daughters of kings (who)
stand among your precious (one)s,
(and the) queen to your right hand,
in (the) gold of Ophir.”

I read this final portion as a sextet, or trio of 2-beat couplets. The splendor of the king’s surroundings continues here with a scene in the royal palace-rooms, filled with ivory (lit. the “tooth” or tusk of elephants). Further filling this splendid environment are the “precious ones” of the royal court, especially the noble ladies (“daughters of kings”). Among these women stands the queen, clothed in gold (from Ophir). The queen stands at the right hand of the king, and it would seem that the scene has shifted, most subtly and skillfully by the poet, to the moment of the royal wedding.

In any case, the mention of the queen makes for a suitable transition to second part of the Psalm, which is specifically addressed to her.

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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