Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 66 (Part 1)

Psalm 66

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 16, 18-20)

This Psalm has certain features in common with the prior Psalm 65 (cf. the previous study), including its designation (in the heading) as a “song” (ryv!). Since virtually every Psalm could be called a “song”, it is not entirely clear if there is anything distinctive in the use of the term ryv!. It has been suggested that it refers to a Psalm that was specifically sung in a ritual worship setting (in the Temple); if so, then the characterization of Psalm 66, e.g., as a religious hymn would be appropriate.

The first part of the Psalm (vv. 1-12) does, indeed, represent a hymn to YHWH, divided into three stanzas. Here the occurrence of the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker can be used as an indicator of the poetic structure. At the beginning of each section (vv. 1, 5, 8), people all throughout the earth are called upon to give praise to YHWH. It is for the greatness of His deeds that God is to be praised (v. 3), as manifest principally through the historical tradition of the event at the Reed Sea during the Exodus (alluded to in stanzas 2 and 3).

The second part of the Psalm (vv. 13-20) is quite different, to the point that some commentators view Psalm 66 as comprised of two originally separate compositions. It is essentially a poetic description of a ritual scene, in which a devout worshiper presents a sacrificial offering (in the Temple) in order to fulfill a vow made to YHWH. The association between praise and fulfilling a vow is found with some frequency in the Psalms, and the ritual fulfillment can be expressed through the very sort of praise which the Psalmist has composed. This featured prominently at the beginning of Psalm 65 (cf. the previous study).

There is considerable metrical variety in this Psalm, though, as often as not, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format is utilized.

Part 1: VERSES 1-12

As noted above, Part 1 comprises the hymn proper, in three stanzas.

Stanza 1: Verses 1-4
Verse 1

“Raise a shout to (the) Mightiest, all the earth!”

Verse 1 functions as the introduction to the hymn, a single 3-beat line, in which the Psalmist literally calls on all creation (“all the earth”) to give praise (vb u^Wr, give a shout/cry) to YHWH.

It may be worth mentioning again how, throughout the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (as here), the divine title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest”, i.e., ‘God’) is used as a substitution for the name hwhy (YHWH).

Verse 2

“Make music (to the) weight of His name,
put (to song the) weight of His praise!”

This simple 3-beat couplet makes clear that the “shout” of praise in v. 1 is to be realized through worship in music. It is from the verb rm^z` (“make/play music”) that the noun romz+m!, used throughout in the Psalm headings, is derived, designating a musical composition. The verb <yc! in the second line, with the general meaning “set, put,” here probably also connotes a composition—with a musical (and poetic) order, structure, and (written) form. For a more nuanced explanation of the use of <yc! here, cf. Dahood, II, p. 119.

The noun dobK* literally means “weight,” often in the sense of “worth, value,” and thus in a more abstract sense as “honor”. Here it refers to God, in His manifest presence and power—that is, the reason for which people everywhere should honor Him with worship and praise. The term may also be understood as an attribute of His name, etc—that it is glorious and to be honored. As I have discussed elsewhere, in ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person, in a quasi-magical way. This is especially true when dealing with the names and titles of God; cf. in this regard my earlier discussion of the divine name YHWH.

Verse 3

“Say to (the) Mightiest:
How (you are) to be feared (by) your deeds,
in (the) abundance of your strength!
(Those) hostile to you shall submit to you.”

The meter of this verse is quite irregular as it stands: 2+2+2+3; it may be regarded (loosely) as a 2-beat quatrain. The concision of the poetry cannot be expressed in a literal glossed translation as I give above. The rhythm is better captured by a freer rendering:

“Say to the Mightiest:
How fearful your deeds,
in your abundant might—
your enemies shall submit to you.”

Also difficult to translate is the Niphal (passive) participle ar*on in the second line. Literally, it means “being feared” or “being fearful/frightening”. It is singular, and so presumably is not intended as an attribute of God’s “deeds”; rather, it should be understood as characterizing YHWH Himself as one worthy of “being feared” (i.e., to be feared). He is to be feared because of His great deeds, done in the abundance (br)) of His strength/power (zu)). Even those hostile to YHWH shall be forced to submit to Him, recognizing His power and authority. The verb vj^K* typically implies an act of deceit/deception, sometimes specifically of an enemy feigning submission or obedience. That could be the sense here; however, more likely the Psalmist is using a bit of irony, suggesting that the enemies who might otherwise pretend to submit to God will now be forced to do so in reality, bowing down to His authority.

Verse 4

“All the earth shall bow down to you
and make music to you,
make music to your name.”

Again the expression “all the earth” is used, as a comprehensive expression for all people everywhere (including those hostile to God). The act of bowing/laying down (vb hj^v*, Hishtaphel [reflexive] stem) indicates both submission and worship (cf. on v. 3 above). The idea of making music (vb rm^z`) to YHWH, and to His name, is repeated from v. 2.

Again the meter of this verse is irregular: 3+2+2.

Stanza 2: Verses 5-7

Verse 5

“Go and see (the) deeds of (the) Mightiest,
to be feared (in His) dealing over (the) sons of men.”

As in verse 1 (cf. above), people are called upon to give praise to YHWH for his wondrous deeds. Here, the call is generalized, with a pair of imperatives (“go/come!” and “see!”); witnessing God’s deeds will cause people to give praise and honor to Him. The noun lu*p=m! is essentially synonymous with hc#u&m^ in verse 3, both referring to something done or made (i.e., deed, action, work). The noun hl*yl!u& has a roughly comparable meaning, though with the specific connotation of exercising power/authority over something (or someone). I have rendered it above generally as “dealing (with)”; the accompanying preposition literally means “over”, but in English idiom we would say “with” —here, “His dealing(s) with the sons of men”, i.e., how God deals with them.

The passive (Niphal) participle ar*on (“being feared,” i.e., to be feared) is also repeated from v. 3; it is an attribute of YHWH, referring to how He is worthy of honor and praise (for his great and awesome deeds).

Metrically, this verse is a longer 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Verse 6

“He turned (the) sea to dry (ground),
in(to) the river they crossed by foot—
come, let us rejoice in Him!”

The first two lines (of this 3-beat tricolon) clearly refer to the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, narrated in Exodus 14, celebrated in the famous ‘Song of Moses’ in Exodus 15, and referenced numerous times elsewhere in Old Testament poetry. Both terms “sea” (my`) and “river” (rh*n`) refer here to the same body of water, reflecting a traditional poetic parallelism. It is, of course, to be noted, that the Exodus event was replicated (and/or re-enacted) at the Jordan river in Joshua 3.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 121; cf. also I, pp. 81, 291), in reading <v at the beginning of the second line as an interjection (i.e., behold!, see!, come…!), cognate with šumma in Amarna Canaanite. This seems more fitting in the context of the imperfect jussive/cohortative verb form that follows, rather than the adverbial particle <v* (“there”). However, if the line here itself reflects a ritual re-enactment of the Exodus event, then it might make sense to say “there let us rejoice in Him!”

Verse 7

“Ruling in His strength (into the) distant (future),
His eyes look down (up)on the nations,
lest the rebellious (one)s rise (up) against Him!”

I understand the noun <l*ou in the first line as referring to the duration of YHWH’s rule over the universe—it lasts far into the distant (<lu) future, i.e., for ever. God rules in His strength (hr*WbG+); and here it becomes clear that the great deeds done by YHWH in Israel’s history reflect the cosmological aspect of His identity as Creator. This is a common theme in the Psalms, and was specifically emphasized in the prior Psalm 65 (vv. 6-8ff, cf. the previous study).

The all-seeing eye(s) of God are a traditional motif as well, expressing His providential governance of the world. One important aspect of this oversight is the administration of justice and maintaining the right order of things. His eye seeks to punish wrongdoing and to curb the stubborn and rebellious (rrs) tendencies in humankind.

The last lines of vv. 6 and 7, respectively, form a contrast between Israel and the nations—more specifically, between the faithful/righteous ones and those who are rebellious/hostile to God.

Stanza 3: Verses 8-12

Verse 8

“Bless, (all you) peoples, our Mighty (One),
and make heard (the) voice of His praise.”

This simple 3-beat couplet essentially reproduces the thought in the opening lines (vv. 1-2) of the first stanza (cf. above). The verbs are different—Er^B* (“bless,” or perhaps more concretely “bend the knee”) and um^v* (Hiphil, “cause to be heard”)—but the basic idea is the same: people everywhere are called on to give praise and worship to YHWH. The expression “voice of His praise” means praising God with all of one’s voice, i.e., with a loud and joyful song.

Verse 9

“The (One) setting our soul among the living,
He does not give our foot to shaking.”

This couplet is descriptive of YHWH as the God (“our Mighty [One]”) who cares for His people—that is, for the righteous and faithful ones among God’s people. He preserves the soul of the righteous, expressed here through the phrase “setting our soul among the living [one]s”, i.e., keeping our soul alive. More than this, He keeps them firm and secure in their daily life and conduct—their “foot” does not waver or slip (fwm), thanks to YHWH’s providential care.

Verse 10

“For you (have) tested us, O Mightiest—
you smelted us, as (the) smelting of silver.”

This couplet is shorter (2-beat, 2+2), its terseness reflecting the sudden shift to the idea of God’s sharp discipline of His people, testing (vb /j^B*) them, and thus purifying them. The motif of YHWH smelting/refining His people, utilizing the familiar imagery from metalworking, is relatively common in Old Testament poetry—all but 5 of the 33 occurrences of the verb [r^x* are found in the Psalms, Proverbs, and the Prophets.

Verse 11

“You brought us in(to) the net,
you set distress (up)on our loins.”

This irregular (2+3) couplet expounds upon the idea of God disciplining His people in the previous verse. The motif of the hunter’s net covers a wide range of possible suffering and affliction which the people might endure, having been brought to it by YHWH. The second line specifically alludes to physical suffering and distress (lit. pressure, hq*u*Wm).

Verse 12

“You made pain ride against our head—
we came in(to) fire and in(to) water,
but you brought us out to fullness.”

This verse is irregular, with a short 2-beat line added to a 3-beat couplet; the final line punctuates the hymn and effectively brings it to a conclusion. I derive vwna (MT vona$) from a separate root meaning “be sick”, which I understand here in an intensive sense, i.e., referring to severe pain and suffering. YHWH has made this pain “ride” against the head of His people. In the second line, this is expressed by another allusion to the Exodus event (crossing through the Sea), but generalized in terms of having to endure suffering. The “fire” relates back to the imagery of the refining of metal in verse 10.

Even as YHWH brought His people into distress (v. 10), so He also brings them out of it again (vb ax^y` Hiphil, “bring out”). He leads them into a place of fullness and abundance. The noun hy`w`r= specifically connotes a well-watered place. While this can be understood in the general sense of the blessing God provides for His people, there is probably a specific reference here to Israel’s entering the Promised Land. If so, then the suffering described in vv. 10-12a would be alluding primarily to the years spent ‘wandering’ in the wilderness.

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).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *