Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 63 (Part 2)

Psalm 63, continued

I am following a three-part division of this Psalm, working from the repeated mention of “my soul” (yv!p=n~) in vv. 2, 6, and 9. Based on this dividing principle, there would be three stanzas of unequal length (vv. 2-5, 6-8, 9-12), each of which begins with a reference to the Psalmist’s soul desiring/longing for YHWH. There are two main stanzas, juxtaposing the emphasis on prayer for blessing (vv. 2-5, discussed in the previous study) and the call for a curse on the wicked (vv. 9-12). The shorter central stanza (vv. 6-8) is transitional, developing the main theme of the Psalmist’s devotion to YHWH.

Stanza 2: VV. 6-8 [5-7]

Verse 6 [5]

“As with fat and richness (of the land)
may my soul be satisfied,
(and with) my lips ringing out
my mouth shall praise you.”

The meter and syntax of this verse is a bit difficult; taking the MT at face value, I render it as a 3+2+2+2 quatrain, with each building on the one prior. The “fat and richness” of the land is in stark contrast to the dry and waterless land of verse 2 [1] (cf. the previous study). The Psalmist hopes for (and expects) that YHWH will fulfill his longing and satisfy (ub^c*) his soul. The nouns bl#j# and /v#D# each fundamentally denote “fat(ness),” specifically the rich and fatty portion of an animal (covering the meat and intestines, etc). However, the latter, in particular, can be used more figuratively to indicate “richness, prosperity,” etc. Dahood (II, p. 99) would vocalize blj as bl*j* (“milk”); this is possible, but unnecessary for the sense of the verse.

Once the Psalmist’s prayer is answered, and he receives the richness of God’s blessing (and His presence), so as to satisfy his soul, then he announces that he will worship YHWH with a ringing cry (/nr) of praise (vb ll^h* II). The plural of the noun hn`n`r= is rare, occurring only here in the Old Testament; Dahood (II, p. 99) would vocalize it as a verbal noun (feminine plural participle, tn)n+r)) of the root /nr.

Verse 7 [6]

“When I remember you (while laying) on my bed,
in (my night) watches I shall murmur to you.”

The idea here is that even on his bed (lit. the place where he “spreads/lays out”, u^Wxy`) at night, the Psalmist will give praise to YHWH, murmuring (vb hg`h*) to Him. The concluding phrase could also be translated “I shall meditate on you,” (cf. Psalm 1:2; 143:5) but “murmur” is closer to the fundamental meaning of the verb, entailing the uttering of a sound with the mouth (cp. 35:28; 37:30; 71:24; 77:13[12]; 115:7).

Verse 8 [7]

“(Oh,) that you might be (the) help for me,
and in (the) shade of your wings I shall cry out!”

It is not entirely clear whether the perfect tense of the verb rz`u* (“[give] help”) should be understood as a normal past tense form (anticipating an action as something that will have occurred), as a gnomic perfect (reflecting what YHWH regularly/always does), or as a precative perfect (expressing the Psalmist’s wish/hope as something that has already occurred). I have opted for the latter. This gives to the entire stanza a poignant tension that is well expressed by the Psalmist’s fervent night-time praying in v. 7. On the one hand, he fully expects that YHWH will answer his prayer and will bless him (v. 6); but, at the same time, he still is in desperate need of God’s protection. He hopes for this Divine protection—a frequent motif in the Psalms—utilizing the popular image of the “shade/shadow” (lx@) of a bird’s protective wings (cf. Psalm 17:8; 36:8; 57:2; and on the protective shade of God more generally, 91:1; 121:5).

Stanza 3: vv. 9-12 [8-11]

Verse 9 [8]

“My soul sticks close (following) after you,
(while) on me your right hand grabs hold.”

After the fervent scene of prayer in vv. 6-8, the Psalmist responds with confidence in the final stanza, fully expecting the YHWH will answer his prayer. Here in the initial couplet, he expresses his devotion to God, in terms of following after (rja) Him, his soul “sticking (close)” (vb qb^D*). The Psalmist’s faithfulness to the covenant bond with YHWH means that God will respond to that loyalty, with help and blessing. The image of God “grabbing hold” (vb Em^T*) of the Psalmist with His strong right hand, expresses both the promise of protection and an affirmation of the covenant bond that is upheld.

Verse 10 [9]

“But those (who) for destruction seek my soul,
may they go (down) in(to the) depths of the earth!”

Verses 9 and 10, taken together, represent the traditional wisdom theme (so common in the Psalms) of the contrast between the righteous and wicked. The righteous will be protected and blessed by YHWH, but the wicked will be condemned to death. Here the Psalmist calls down a curse upon the wicked, those who are his hostile adversaries. Such imprecatory verses are relatively common in the Psalms, as we have seen, however uncomfortable we may be with such language as Christians today.

The devotion of the Psalmist’s soul to God (v. 9) is here contrasted with the idea of his wicked enemies seeking (vb vq^B*) his soul (for the purpose of destroying it). The expression of their evil purpose is ha*ovl=, “for destruction”. The noun ha*ov basically means something like “devastation, desolation, ruin,” but with a clear sense of violence implied (cf. Dahood, II, p. 100).

Given the imprecatory character of this verse, the imperfect verb form in the second line should be understood as having jussive (volitive/precative) force.

Verse 11 [10]

“May they be hurled down by (the) hand of (the) sword—
(as) a portion for (the) jackals they shall be!”

The verb form at the beginning of the first line is problematic. The vocalized MT, read as a jussive (continuing the imprecation/curse), would be “may they pour/hurl down him” (vb rg~n`). Almost certainly, this should be understood as a passive verb form, while the context suggests that the 3rd person singular suffix (Wh-) expresses a dative of agency; on both points, cf. Dahood, II, p. 100f (for a different explanation, see Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 120). Literally, then, the line would read: “May they be hurled down by him upon (the) hand [i.e., by the edge] of the sword.” For poetic concision, I have abridged this in my translation above. Presumably, YHWH would be the agent acting—it is He who will hurl the wicked down into Sheol (the realm of the dead in the “depths of the earth”).

Verse 12 [11]

“But the king shall rejoice in (the) Mightiest—
he shall shout, every one binding himself by Him,
(while the) mouth of (those) speaking lies shall be shut.”

Some commentators would read the initial line of verse 12 as a secondary addition to the original couplet. To be sure, lines 2 and 3, taking by themselves, would be sufficient for emphasizing again, at the close of the Psalm, the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The one trusting in YHWH, being faithful and loyal to Him, will be able to shout boldly (vb ll^h*, the idea of a “boast” may be intended), while the mouth of the wicked (those “speaking a lie”) will be “shut up” (vb rv^s*).

The loyalty of the righteous is expressed here by the technical use of the verb ub^v* (which apparently denotes doing something “seven times” or “seven-fold”). This technical usage clearly refers to swearing an oath, and may carry the basic meaning of binding oneself [passive/reflexive] sevenfold by an oath. For poetic concision, I have rendered uB*v=N]h^-lK* above simply as “every one binding himself”. However, the contrastive parallel with “speaking lies” probably means that the idea of speaking the (truthful) words of an oath is specifically being emphasized; if so, then it might be better to translate as “every one swearing (an oath)”. The oath, of course, is made by YHWH (“by Him”)—that is, trusting in YHWH as God and Protector of the covenant.

The brings us back to the reference to “the king” in line 1. As I have mentioned repeatedly, many of the Psalms evince a royal background, retaining certain traditional elements—language, imagery, etc—that may reflect both historical traditions and ancient royal theology. This is quite valid, even if one does not accept the attribution of these Psalms to David, etc, in the headings. The Psalmist here may be said to represent both the righteous Israelite and the king (as representative of the people as a whole). The covenant bond is between YHWH and the king (as His vassal), just as it is between God and His people. The Divine blessing and protection has a special place in relation to the king; this is very much part of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, and it is reflected throughout the Psalms at a number of points.

For these reasons, I tend to regard the first line of verse 12 as an integral part of the original Psalm. For further discussion, see Dahood, II, pp. 96, 101 and Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 120-2.

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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