Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 61

Psalm 61

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This short prayer-Psalm differs in many respects from those we have previously examined in the ‘Elohist’ Psalter. The strong lament emphasis of the earlier compositions is not present here. On the other hand, the royal background is more prominent—both in the use of the traditional military imagery, and in the specific reference to the king in vv. 7-8 (on which, cf. below).

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though not consistently so. The Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker effectively serves to divide the short Psalm into two parts (vv. 2-5, 6-9). The division is typical of many Psalms: with the Psalmist’s prayer (his plea/petition) emphasized in the first part, and the expectation of an answer to his prayer in the second part.

The heading also shows that Psalm 61 marks the start of new sequence, moving away from the previous miktam (<T*k=m!) compositions, which appear to have been poems without music, set to existing melodies. This Psalm, on the other hand, is presumably a musical composition (the term romz+m! is not used, but perhaps implied), performed on a stringed instrument. In this regard, the singular hn`yg]n+ is used, rather than the more common plural (Ps 54:1, et al); many commentators would ‘correct’ this, vocalizing the construct tnygn as a plural form (tn)yg]n+). The superscription marks this as another Davidic composition (“belonging to David”).

VERSES 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“Hear, O Mightiest, my ringing cry,
incline (your ear) to my prayer.”

The initial couplet has a shortened 3+2 meter, establishing the Psalmist’s prayer to YHWH. Two nouns are used for this, the first of which (hN`r!) refers to a ringing or piercing cry, like that of a bird; the second (hL`p!T=) is typically translated “prayer,” but should be understood within the legal/judicial context of a petition (i.e., made for a judge). God, as the Judge, is asked to listen (fairly and attentively) to the plea.

Verse 3a [2a]

“From the end of the earth,
to you do I call (out)
in (the) weakening of my heart.”

Both metrically and thematically, it is better to divide vv. 3-4 into two tricola—the first being a terse 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, and the second a ‘regular’ 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The shorter meter of v. 3a reflects the Psalmist’s sense of desperation. The central line contains his plea (“to you I call out [vb ar^q*]”), while the surrounding first and third lines dramatically represent the condition in which he makes this plea. The first line sets a location for the plea—literally, “from the end [hx#q*] of the earth”. Often, in ancient Semitic poetry, the “earth” (Heb Jr#a#) specifically denotes (or connotes) the underworld, i.e., the region under the earth’s surface, being the region of Death (and the dead). It may well be that here the far extremity (end/edge/border) of the earth has a metaphysical meaning, indicating a threat to the Psalmist’s life. On this line of interpretation, cf. Dahood (II, p. 84) and Hossfeld-Zenger (pp. 104-6).

The third line emphasizes this threat to the Psalmist’s existence, by referencing a “weakening” (verbal noun [n)a&) of his heart. A bit of wordplay may be involved here, since the root [nu II means “cover over, envelop,” and so may allude to the danger that threatens to engulf and overwhelm the Psalmist.

Verse 3b-4 [2b-3]

“On a rock higher than I (could reach), lead me.
(O) that you would be a place of shelter for me,
a great place of strength from (the) hostile face.”

This tricolon provides a stark contrast with that of v. 3a, both in terms of meter and imagery. The sharp 2-beat staccato rhythm of v. 3a here gives way to a calmer ‘regular’ 3-beat meter. Similarly, the Psalmist’s distress and sense of despair is answered by the hope that YHWH will provide a place of protection for him. This is a frequent motif in the prayer-Psalms, in which the author/composer prays to God for deliverance. All the typical features of this imagery are present: an inaccessible location high up (line 1), YHWH Himself as a place of safety (line 2), and the idea of protection from hostile opponents (line 3).

In the first line, the motif is of a safe/secure location high upon a rock (rWx). The verb <Wr (“be [raised] high”) followed by the preposition /m! (“from”) is best understood as a comparative idiom (i.e., “higher than me”), in the sense of “higher than I (can reach)”. If the Psalmist himself could not reach such an inaccessibly high location, then neither can his enemies. For a different interpretation of the syntax, but following the same thematic explanation, cf. Dahood, II, p. 85.

In the next two lines (v. 4), this location is further described, using locative nouns (marked by a preformative –m). First, we have hs#j=m^, from the root hsj (“seek/find protection”), meaning “place of protection, place of shelter/refuge”; both the verb and noun occur frequently in the Psalms (cf. 14:6; 46:2, etc). The second noun is lD^g+m!, meaning “a great/tall place,” often referring specifically to a tower. It occurs here in the expression “great place of strength” (zu*-lD^g+m!), which, in context, should be understood as a fortified site with walls and towers. YHWH Himself is this place of protection for the Psalmist.

As I have discussed on previous occasions, this relates to the ancient covenant concept; in terms of the religious covenant between YHWH and His people (as also with the king as His vassal), as long as God’s servants remain faithful, He is obligated to provide protection (from all enemies and dangers, etc). These enemies are referenced at the end of the third line, where it is expected that God will protect the Psalmist “from the face of (the one) hostile (to me)”. Poetic concision would require a translation “from the face of the enemy” (proper syntax), or, as an alternative that perhaps better captures the meaning, “from the hostile face”.

Verse 5 [4]

“I would come to dwell in your Tent of distant (time)s,
I would seek shelter in (the) hiding (place) of your wings.”

The conclusion of the Psalmist’s prayer builds upon the triad of protective imagery in vv. 3b-4. He expresses his wish that he might come to dwell in that place of shelter and protection that YHWH Himself provides. Following Dahood (II, p. 86) and other commentators, I read the imperfect verb forms here as subjunctive (“I would…”), similar to the perfect form in v. 4a (following the emphatic particle –yK!, i.e., “O that you would…”). It is also possible to read these in a cohortative/jussive sense (“Let me…!”).

The verb in the second line is hs*j* (“seek/find protection”), on which, cf. above regarding the related noun hs#j=m^. The first line uses the verb rWG, “turn aside,” usually in the specific context of coming to dwell (as a stranger) in a particular place. Like such a traveler, the Psalmist wishes to dwell in the “tent” of YHWH. This could refer to the Temple, but here it should be understood, more generally, in reference to the very presence of YHWH Himself (whether a heavenly or earthly location is in view). The expressions in the two lines have a formal parallelism:

    • “in your tent of distant (time)s” |
      “in (the) hiding (place) of your wings”

However, viewed thematically or conceptually, the lines form a chiasm:

    • “your tent”
      • “distant (times/places)”
      • “hiding (place)”
    • “your wings”

Clearly, the “tent” and “wings” of YHWH are conceptually parallel, both referring to the protection YHWH provides. The root <lu (from which the noun <l*ou derives) has the fundamental meaning of being distant; the noun is often used in a temporal sense—i.e., of a time either in the distant past or distant future. Both temporal aspects are applied, in a religious/theological sense, to YHWH, whose life and existence extends beyond the most distant time past, and into the most distant future; the English “eternal/eternity” provides a rough equivalent. There is a separate/cognate root <lu which denotes being hidden, which corresponds here with rts (noun rt#s#, “hiding [place]”).

Verses 6-9 [5-8]

Verse 6 [5]

“(O) that you, Mightiest, would listen to my vows,
(you who) give a possession (to those) fearing your name.”

The 3-beat meter of the first part shifts (in vv. 6 and 9) to a 4-beat (4+4) couplet format. This reflects a shift in emphasis, from the Psalmist’s prayer to an expectation that his prayer will be answered. This leads to a certain ambiguity regarding the perfect verb forms here in v. 6: are they ordinary (past-tense) perfects, or should they be read as precative perfects reflecting what the Psalmist wishes (and expects) will happen in the future? I follow Dahood (II, p. 86, cf. also I, pp. 20, 241) and other commentators in reading them as having precative force.

However, I also feel that the second line here is epexegetical, functioning almost as a relative clause, and that the verb /t^n` is meant to describe the conduct of YHWH, i.e., “(you who) give…”. In other words, since YHWH is the One who gives covenant-rewards to His faithful servants (those “fearing His name”), He surely will grant to the Psalmist blessing in response to what he has (faithfully) vowed. The hV`Wry+ (“possession”), in such a covenant-context, often refers to a piece of land given to someone as a hereditary property.

The “vows” (<yr!d*n+) here should be understood in a comprehensive sense, covering the Psalmist’s prayer in vv. 2-5 (cf. above), but also to his faithfulness in praising the name of YHWH on a regular basis (v. 9). That the Psalmist fulfills what He vows to YHWH, serves to demonstrate his faithfulness, and that, as a result, YHWH has a covenant-obligation to provide protection and blessing, etc.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“Days upon (the) days of (the) king may you add,
(and) his years for a cycle and (another) cycle;
may he sit (for) the distant (future) before (the) Mightiest,
goodness and firmness, measured (out), may they guard him!”

The 3-beat couplets of vv. 7-8 interrupt the 4-beat couplets of vv. 6 and 9; moreover, the introduction of a prayer-wish (to God) for the king seems abrupt and jarring to the overall context. Thus, many commentators would regard these lines as a secondary addition (interpolation) to the original composition; cf. the discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 106-7. Dahood (II, pp. 83-4) is among those who argue for the originality of the lines, on the theory that the king is the speaker throughout the Psalm. He cites the example of a 5th century B.C. Phoenician inscription by Yeµawmilk of Byblos, which contain a similar shift from 1st-person to 3rd-person voice. I have previously noted how many of the Psalms envince a royal background, reflecting important themes and motifs (and language) from the kingdom-period, which often were preserved even as the compositions were further shaped by other forces (e.g., Wisdom traditions, an emphasis on communal worship, etc).

Verse 7 is a prayer for long life to the king. In line 1, extra “days” are to be added (vb [s^y`) to the days that would otherwise be alloted to his life-span. The same idea is expressed in the second line, of an extension of his “years” beyond that of a single generation (roD, “age, cycle, circle [of life]”). The expression rodw` roD occurs frequently in the Psalms (at least 16 times, 10:6; 33:11; 45:18; 49:12, etc), as an idiom for long life, sometimes being paired with the noun <l*ou (cf. below). The expression is often translated “(from) generation to generation,” but the sense of perpetual progression is perhaps better captured by the more literal idea of “(this) age and (the next) age”.

In verse 8, the wish is for a long and prosperous reign for the king, in which he will sit (vb bv^y`) on the throne, being safeguarded (vb rx^n`) by YHWH. As noted above, the noun <l*ou is parallel to the expression rodw` roD, with a similar connotation of long life. The specific denotation of <l*ou is for a period of time extending into the distant future. The protection YHWH provides, to the king as His faithful vassal, is here defined through the terms ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) and tm#a# (“firmness”)—both are covenant-terms, connoting faithfulness and loyalty.

Verse 9 [8]

“So (then) will I sing your name until (the end),
for my completing of my vows day (by) day.”

The basic idea here, as we find often in the Psalms, is that once YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, he, in turn, will give praise to YHWH. A public worship setting is often assumed for this act of praise, and the very musical inspiration of the Psalmist (as a poet-composer) is tied to such praise. There is a presumed context, whereby the Psalmist’s petition to YHWH is connected with a religious vow (rd#n#). If God answers the Psalmist’s prayer, then he is obligated to fulfill the vow. Here, the verb <l^v* (“complete, fulfill”), often used in a covenant-context, relates to this obligation.

The expressions du^l* (“until [the end]”) and <oy <oy (“day [by] day”) are conceptually parallel (as time indicators) with <l*ou and rodw` roD in vv. 7-8 (cf. above). <oy <oy represents a microcosm of rodw` roD, but capturing the same sense of perpetuity, while du^l* has much the same meaning as <l*ou, as an indicator of a period of time lasting into the distant future.

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).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

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