Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 54

Psalm 54

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 2-3, 5-6 [1, 3-4])

This Psalm, one of the simplest in structure, gives evidence of the royal background we glimpsed in a number of the prayer- and lament-Psalms in the first division of the Psalter. The heading (vv. 1-2) attributes it to David, specifically noting the incident recorded in 1 Sam 23:19. Even if this is not the actual occasion for the composition, it is quite fitting for the royal background of the Psalm, suggesting the king’s suffering at the hands of his enemies and opponents. In making his appeal to God, the king is drawing upon the specific covenant bond between YHWH and the Israelite/Judean king, which requires that YHWH (the Sovereign) provides protection for His faithful/loyal vassal (the king). And, since the king also serves as the people’s representative, the covenant-protection ultimately extends to the people as well. In the Psalm as we have it, and as it would have been sung in the communal worship, much of the specific royal background—the language and imagery, etc—has been generalized to apply to Israel (the righteous ones) as a whole.

The structure of this Psalm is extremely simple, divided into two short strophes separated by a hl*s# (Selah) pause-marker. In the first strophe (vv. 3-5 [1-3]), the Psalmist makes his plea to YHWH for help, while in the second strophe (vv. 6-9 [4-7]), the help provided by YHWH is described (and anticipated).

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3, also 3+2) couplet format. The superscription marks it as another Davidic composition (dw]d*l=), a lyK!c=m^ (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32), with the added musical direction that it is to be performed on stringed instruments (tn)yg]n+B!, cf. the study on Psalm 4).

Verses 3-5 [1-3]

Verses 3-4 [1-2]

“O Mightiest, by your name save me,
by your strength may you defend me;
O Mightiest, hear my petition,
may you give ear to (the) words of my mouth!”

The Psalmist’s plea is fundamentally legal and judicial in nature, based on the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. As noted above, the covenant requires that the Sovereign (YHWH) provides protection for His faithful and loyal vassals (the king and the righteous ones of Israel). He calls on YHWH to act “by/with [B=] His name”. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented and embodied the essence of the person. Thus, to call on the name of God is essentially the same as calling on God Himself.

God’s name (<v@) is parallel with His strength (hr*WbG+) in the second line, emphasizing again how the name is equivalent to the substance of the person. The action requested from YHWH is also expressed in parallel terms: to save (uv^y`, Hiphil stem) and to defend him (vb /yD!). This latter verb has a wide semantic range, the specific connotation of which must be determined by the context. A judicial setting is often implied, as here, referring to a judgment or decision that is made (on someone’s behalf); in this case, the parallel with uv^y` indicates that a more forceful nuance is intended, which I render above as “defend” (the verb in English can be used in both a legal and military context).

The four lines (of these two couplets) are given in reverse order, in relation to the action requested by the Psalmist:

    • Give ear to the words of my mouth (line 4)—i.e., listen to what I am saying
    • Hear my petition (line 3)—respond (fairly/favorably) to my request
    • Defend me (line 2)—i.e., make decision/judgment on my behalf
    • Save me (line 1)—i.e., act according to your decision and give me your protection (rescue me)

Syntactically, in each couplet, an imperative is followed by an imperfect verb form (with imperatival force); this imperative-imperfect sequence is a well-established feature of Canaanite and Hebrew poetry (cf. Dahood, I, pp. 29-31, 65, 261; II, p. 24). Metrically, these couplets follow a 3+2 pattern.

It is also worth noting that, as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, the first occurrence of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) here (if not both instances) has replaced the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) of the original composition.

Verse 5 [3]

“For strangers have stood (up) against me,
and dreadful (one)s have sought my soul—
they have not set (the) Mightiest in front of them.”
Selah

The first two lines of v. 5 give the reason for the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH. Foreign enemies (“strangers”, <yr!z`) have risen up (vb <Wq) against him, which is fully in accord with the royal background of this style of prayer-Psalm (cf. above). They are further described, in the second line, as “dreadful (one)s” (<yx!yr!u*)—that is, foreigners awesome and terrifying in their strength.

The final line, rounding out the verse as a tricolon (3-beat, 3+3+3), adds the important detail that “they have not set the Mightiest in front of them” (for a different way of understanding this line, cf. Dahood, II, p. 24f). Presumably, this refers to other nations and peoples, who worship other deities rather than YHWH. However, there may also be a bit of conceptual wordplay involved:

    • These people have stood up against Israel, having the king in front of them, and yet
    • They cannot succeed, since they do not have the God of Israel in front of them.

Verses 6-9 [4-7]

Verse 6 [4]

“See, (the) Mightiest (is the one) giving help to me,
my Lord, indeed, (the one) upholding my soul.”

The second strophe describes how YHWH answers the Psalmist’s plea (or how He is expected to answer). This description begins with an affirmation of trust in YHWH as his protector, being the one who “gives help (to)” and “upholds” the righteous—using substantive participles of the verbs rz~u* and Em^s*, respectively. The prefixed preposition B= is best understood as an emphatic (i.e., “indeed, truly”) use of the preposition (cf. Dahood, II, p. 25). Again, the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) is an ‘Elohist’ substitution in place of the Divine name (hwhy) that likely was present in the original composition.

Verse 7 [5]

“May the evil turn back to (the one)s hard (against) me!
In your firmness, may you finish them off!”

The imprecation of the first line follows a familiar theme in the Psalms—viz., that the evil intended by the wicked will come back upon them in a similar manner (variation of the lex talionis principle). The verb form bovy` is best understood as a jussive, expressing the Psalmist’s wish for what will happen, and fully expecting that YHWH will act to bring it about. There is a bit of conceptual wordplay between the “firmness” of the Psalmist’s opponents (i.e., those hard [rr^c*] against him) and the “firmness” (tm#a#) of YHWH. His firmness (in loyalty, goodness, and truth) is far superior to the stubborn resolve of the wicked, and so YHWH is certain to “finish them off” (vb tm^x*). There may be an additional bit of alliterative wordplay here between –tm!a& (°¦mit-) and –tym!x= (ƒ®mît-).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2, following the full 3-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 6.

Verse 8 [6]

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name,
YHWH, for (it is) good.”

The person of these lines suddenly shifts, as the Psalmist returns to the framework of his prayer to God. He interrupts the strophe to offer a vow to YHWH that, if as he expects, God will answer his prayer, then (in return) he will offer a sacrifice to Him. The type of offering is indicated by the term hb*d*n+ (from the root bdn, “[be] willing”), sometimes called a freewill offering—that is, an offering made freely by the worshiper (i.e., with a willing heart), apart from the sacrificial offerings required by the Torah. This sacrificial offering will be accompanied by praise to YHWH (lit. “to His name,” cf. above). The praise will acknowledge the goodness [bwf] of YHWH (“that [your name] is good,” i.e., “that you are good”).

The meter of this verse in the MT is irregular; it would be made somewhat more consistent (conforming loosely to a 3-beat couplet) if the Divine name (hwhy) were eliminated from the second line, as a number of commentators propose:

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name, for (it is) good.”

Verse 9 [7]

“For from all distress you have snatched me (away),
and on (the one)s hostile to me my eyes have looked (down).”

In this final (3-beat) couplet, the Psalmist confirms his expectation that YHWH will answer his prayer, expressing God’s action (on his behalf) in the past tense, as though it had already taken place (i.e., use of the precative perfect). The Psalmist trusts that YHWH will rescue him (“snatch away,” vb lx^n`, Hiphil stem) from all the “distress” (hr*x*) he faces from his adversaries, and that the tables will be turned on his enemies (lit. those “hostile” to him, active participle of the vb by~a*). His eye will look (down) on his enemies, implying their defeat and humiliation. While this may take place through the ordinary means of military conflict (keep in mind the royal background of this language and imagery, cf. above), victory is achieved through the strength of YHWH (fighting on Israel’s behalf). Protection against adversaries—for both the king and the Israelite people—is part of what God is required to provide to those who remain faithful/loyal to Him, according to the terms of the covenant.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).