Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 46

Psalm 46

Dead Sea MSS: This Psalm is not preserved in the surviving manuscripts

This Psalm may be characterized as a “song of Zion” —that is, a hymn focusing on Jerusalem and the Temple as the dwelling-place of YHWH. It is to be divided into three parts, or strophes, based on the occurrences of the poetic marker hl*s# (Selah) after verses 4, 8, and 12. Assuming that the first occurrence of hl*s# in the MT is correct (cf. the discussion below), it is possible that the closing refrain of the 2nd and 3rd strophes has dropped out of the text (between vv. 4 and 5) and could be restored.

Based on a three-strophe division, the thematic outline would be as follows:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 2-4 [1-3]): The covenant protection provided by YHWH, through his controlling power
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 5-8 [4-7]): The protection that YHWH gives to His city, Jerusalem (Zion)
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 9-12 [8-11]): The controlling power of YHWH as Creator and King of the universe

As with the previous Psalm 45, this Psalm is a “song” (ryv!)—that is, a poetic text set to an existing melody. This distinguishes it from an original romz+m!, or musical composition, including both words and music. Here the melody is defined by the term toml*u& (cf. also 1 Chron 15:20), which presumably means “(the) young maidens”; conceivably, it could refer to a mode or manner of musical presentation, rather than a specific melody. As with most of the musical directions in the Psalms, the precise meaning has been lost over the centuries.

On 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), though not as thoroughly as in other Psalms (cf. the occurrences of hwhy that have been retained in v. 9 [8] and the refrain at the close of the strophes).

First strophe, vv. 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“(The) Mightiest (is) for us a place of protection and strength,
help in (time)s of distress, found in abundance.”

This first couplet establishes both the theme of the poem and the meter (4-beat bicolon, 4+4). The initial word is an example of the tendency in the ‘Elohist’ Psalter to substitute the plural term/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”), commonly used for deity (i.e., God), in place of the Divine name YHWH. The idea of God as a “place of protection” (hs#j&m^) and a strong ‘fortress’ (“strength,” zu)) is frequent in the Psalms. It is based on the protection YHWH is obligated to provide to his faithful vassals, according to the terms of the covenant.

The plural noun torx* (hr*x*, “pressure, stress, distress”) should be understood as “times of distress” (i.e., moments when one is in distress). The adverbial particle da)m= has intensive force, and is best rendered here as “in abundance,” or something similar. It is not unusual for a poetic line to end with the particle da)m=; however, cf. Dahood, p. 278, for a different reading of dam.

Verse 3 [2]

“Upon this [i.e. for this reason] we will not fear at (the) changing of (the) earth,
even at (the) sliding of (the) mountains in(to the) heart of (the) sea.”

The protection provided by YHWH is fundamental (v. 2 [1]), it extends even to the experience of the most terrifying natural disasters (defined here as “the changing [vb rWm] of the earth”). Such changes can result in catastrophic conditions for human beings, even to the point of wiping out an entire city (or civilization). Here it is illustrated with the image of a mountain (or hill) collapsing with a rock-slide down into the depths (lit. the “heart”) of the sea. God’s people do not need to be afraid of such natural disasters, much less the milder forms of distress we are likely to encounter.

Verse 4 [3] {a}

“(Though) its waters clamor and boil (up),
and (the) mountains shake at its rising.”

This couplet follows v. 3 [2], and belongs with it conceptually. It represents a reverse-image: instead of the mountains collapsing down into the sea, they quake with fear (vb vu^r*) as the waters (of the sea) rise up (verbal noun hw`a&G~). The same basic idea of a earth-shaking natural disaster is in view, and the command not to fear (in v. 3) covers this verse as well.

The meter shifts in this couplet from the 4-beat (4+4) pattern to a shorter 3-beat (3+3) rhythm.

Verse 4 [3] {b}

“<YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!>”

If the marker hl*s# (Selah) following v. 4 [3] is correct (cf. the discussion by Dahood, p. 280), marking the end of the strophe, then it is possible that the recurring refrain (found in the other two strophes) has dropped out and could be restored. Such a restoration, indicated by the angle-brackets, is presented above. The protection/fortress motif continues here with the noun bG`c=m!, which means something like “place (set) high up”, i.e., a safe place in a protected and inaccessible location.

Second Strophe, vv. 5-8 [4-7]

Verse 5 [4]

“(The) river (with) its streams gives joy (to the) city of (the) Mightiest,
(the) Most High makes holy His dwelling-place.”

The mixture of images here is a bit curious (cf. Dahood, p. 280, for a different way of reading and dividing vv. 4-5). Certainly the idea of a river running through Jerusalem (and associated with the Temple) is attested in exilic and post-exilic prophecy (Ezek 47; Zech 14:8). That eschatological imagery probably reflects the original garden-paradise of Eden (Gen 2:6-14), i.e., the Garden of God. Here, almost certainly, such an association with Creation (and God as Creator) is in view (cp. Psalm 65:9). However, the cosmological aspect may go deeper than that, with an allusion to the ancient Near Eastern myth of the ‘Conflict with the Sea’. The turbulence of the sea in vv. 3-4 (cf. above) may allude to this ancient motif of the chaotic primeval waters which were ‘defeated’ and subdued by God, bringing order to the created universe. By subduing the waters, God affirms His control over them. It is thus a fundamental image of the sovereignty of YHWH over the cosmos, of God as both Creator and King.

In the Canaanite Baal Epic, following Baal Haddu’s defeat of the Sea (Yamm, cf. the plural <yM!y~, yammîm, here in v. 3), to mark his position as king and ruler over Creation, Baal is given a magnificent dwelling-place, a palace in the heavens. Something of this same mythological language almost certainly was applied to YHWH in ancient Israel, connecting the Jerusalem Temple with God’s work of Creation and His rule as King over the entire cosmos. Here, the dwelling-place (/K*v=m!) of YHWH is consecrated (lit. “made holy”). With Kraus (p. 459) and other commentators, I read vdq as a Piel verb form, to be vocalized as vD@q! (“make holy”). From a religious and ritual standpoint, the cosmic/heavenly dwelling of God is localized in the Jerusalem Temple sanctuary. Traditionally, in ancient Canaan, the dwelling of the Creator El (as also that of Baal Haddu) was localized on a mountain. The same was true of YHWH (El-Yahweh) among the Israelites and other Semitic peoples (i.e., the sacred site of Mt. Sinai/Horeb). The Jerusalem location of the Temple (Zion) was, in its own way, such a ‘mountain’.

Verse 6 [5]

“(The) Mightiest (is) in her midst, she shall not be shaken,
(for the) Mightiest will help her, at (the) turn of day-break.”

The meter of vv. 5-6 [4-5], as we have them, is irregular, but symmetric: a 4+3 couplet, followed by a corresponding 3+4 couplet. Conceptually, the two verses are also related, as can be seen by the emphatic (three-fold) use of the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, in place of YHWH). The “river” in v. 5 [4] represents the presence of YHWH, and also His creative, life-sustaining power (cp. Psalm 65:9). This is made more explicit here in v. 6, where it is stated that God is “in the midst of” His city (HB*r=q!B=, “in the midst of her”). The Divine presence is the source of protection for Zion (“He will help her”). And the protection is immediate, coming at the very moment of day-break, and lasting all day long.

Verse 7 [6]

“(The) nations clamored (and) kingdoms shook,
He gave (forth) with His voice, (and the) earth melted.”

The 4-beat (4+4) metrical pattern is restored here in this verse. Thematically, this also marks a return to the imagery of vv. 3-4. The “clamor” (vb hm*h*) of the sea and the “shaking” (vb fom) of the mountains are here applied to the nations (and their kingdoms), as they react to the presence and power of YHWH. The manifest presence of God in creation is expressed by the all-encompassing sound of thunder, i.e., as the “voice” of God. This illustrates the extent to which YHWH shares certain characteristics and features with Baal Haddu (as worshiped by the Canaanites). The cosmic kingship of YHWH, like that of Baal Haddu, was expressed through storm theophany—i.e., God as manifest in the storm. It is an altogether natural (and powerful) way of depicted God’s authority over the world (and the nations of the world).

We see how this ties back to the message in the first strophe. God’s people need not be afraid, even in the face of natural disaster, because YHWH is sovereign and has control over all of nature. His word and His voice created the universe, and it can just as easily dissolve the created order again, turning it into a formless mass (“the earth melted”).

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

On this refrain, cf. the discussion on v. 4 [3] above. The divine name (hwhy, YHWH) here is not substituted (by <yh!l)a$), possibly because the traditional title toab*x= hwhy was so well-established that it was not deemed appropriate to alter it in context. The title, which occurs frequently in the Old Testament, probably derived from a sentence-epithet, applied to the Creator (°E~l)—viz., “(the) Mighty (One) [la@], (who) creates (the heavenly) armies”. Once the verbal element hwhy came to stand on its own, as the primary name of God, this epithet was curiously reduced (in syntax) to an awkward contrast form: i.e., “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies”. I have tried to preserve something of the original meaning, with a more expansive gloss: “YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies”.

Third Strophe, vv. 9-12 [8-11]

Verse 9 [8]

“Come, behold (the thing)s done by YHWH,
who has put (away the) horrors on (the) earth.”

The theme of YHWH as Creator and King over the universe is given greater emphasis in the final strophe, making for a dramatic and majestic conclusion to the Psalm. However, the precise wording here in this initial couplet (the second line) is problematic. Literally, the MT would read “…who put horrors in the earth”, or “…who put devastation in the earth”. While this would generally be appropriate to the imagery in v. 7 [6] (cf. above), as well as the violent judgment against the nations expressed in v. 9 [8], it does not seem to fit the overriding theme of YHWH exerting His control and authority over creation. Possibly, the idea is that the devastation (caused by His judgment) leads to order and peace.

Dahood (p. 281) points out the important relationship between this line and the one that follows in v. 9, where the emphasis is on YHWH putting an end to war. He notes the famous refrain that runs through portions of the Canaanite Baal Epic (Tablet III, column iii, lines 14-17, etc):

“Place war (down) in the earth,
set love in the dust;
pour peace amid the earth,
tranquility amid the fields.”

The passionate (and violent) extremes of war and love are to be buried, and replaced by peace and tranquility. Dahood suggests that twmv be read as cognate to Ugaritic šmt (“oil, fatness”), from šmnt (Heb hn`m@v=, cf. Gen 49:20). It is an interesting proposal, but I find it ultimately unconvincing. Perhaps the line can be explained more simply by understanding the common verb <yc! (“set, put”) here in the specific sense of “put (away), set (aside)”. This interpretation would fit precisely with the first line of v. 10 [9]: YHWH puts an end to the devastation caused by humankind, the warfare of the nations.

Verse 10 [9]

“He is making wars cease, to (the) end of (the) earth:
he breaks (the) bow, and he cuts off (the) spear,
(the) wheeled (chariot) he burns with fire.”

This verse builds upon the idea of YHWH as King, exercising his power and authority to put an end to the devastation caused by humankind (the nations) on the earth (v. 9 [8]). Here it is described specifically in terms of destroying the ability of nations/kingdoms to make war. The 4-beat couplet format of the Psalm is expanded in this verse, for dramatic effect, to form a 4+4+3 tricolon. The abolishing of war is complete and universal—it covers the entire earth, from one end (hx#q=) to the other.

Verse 11 [10]

“Let (them) drop and know that I (am the) Mightiest,
(who) stands high o(ver) the nations, high o(ver) the earth!”

The precise meaning of the first imperative (vb hp*r*) is uncertain. The fundamental meaning of the root is “sink, drop, weaken”; here the Hiphil form indicates a definite act (i.e., “let sink, let drop”). In my view, this is best understood in light of the overall theme in this strophe of YHWH putting an ending to warfare. He is essentially telling the nations to “let their weapons drop”, “let their arm (and their warring spirit) sink”. A cessation of violence and hostility is required, in the face of YHWH’s power as King over all the universe. Instead of their warring acts, the nations must stand down and acknowledge (“know”) that YHWH is the Mightiest One (i.e., God over all, the Creator and King). He stands high (vb <Wr) over all the nations—indeed, over the entire earth. The implication, of course, is that the nations must recognize the greatness of YHWH. In the end, confronted by the awesome presence of God Himself, humankind has no choice but to acknowledge Him as Sovereign over all.

Verse 12 [11]

“YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The same refrain from the second strophe (v. 8 [7], and cf. also on the first strophe, v. 4 [3]) is repeated here, making a most suitable conclusion to the Psalm. Given the description in the strophe of YHWH’s sovereign power and control over the entire universe (including all nations and their kingdoms), it only confirms the promise expressed in the refrain. God’s people can trust that He will protect them in the face of danger, as long as they remain faithful to Him.

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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