Psalm 77, continued
PART 2: Verses 12-21 [11-20]
Strophe 4: Verses 11-13
“And I said ‘My sickness—(is) it (due to)
(the) changing right hand of (the) Highest?'”
Thematically, verse 11  belongs to the first half of the Psalm (on which, cf. the previous study); however, poetically, according to the five-strophe arrangement (proposed by B. Weber, and followed by Hossfeld-Zenger [pp. 273-6]), it can be counted as the first couplet of the fourth strophe (vv. 11-13).
It is possible to treat verse 11 as either another question (continuing those of the previous strophe), or as a declarative statement by the Psalmist. The context (though not necessarily the syntax) suggests another fearful question, and that is how I translate it above.
The root hlj (I) denotes being weak or sick. The Psalmist describes how he became worn-out physically during his night-time vigil (strophe 2, vv. 5-7), during which time he has meditated and prayed fervently to God—with apparently no answer given (strophe 3, vv. 8-10). The moment is also characterized as a “day of distress” (v. 3) for the Psalmist; this can refer to individual suffering, but it is likely that the protagonist also is meant to represent the people as a whole. Thus, the “sickness” he feels also refers to the condition of the people (of Israel/Judah), perhaps alluding to an Exilic setting.
The “right hand” (/ym!y`) is an idiom for strength and power—and, particularly, the ability to act. When applied to YHWH, it typically connotes His ability to save His people from danger and distress; cf. especially in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:6, 12), and similarly in Deut 33:2; note the usage in the Psalms (17:7; 18:36; 20:7; 44:4; 60:7; 78:54, etc. Probably the event at the Reed Sea is being alluded to specifically (cf. below on vv. 17-20).
The Psalmist’s fear is that YHWH’s strong right hand has “changed” (verbal noun from the root hn`v* I). This verb can sometimes connote “growing old”, with the associated attributes of weakness and withering, etc. If God has chosen (for some reason) not to act, that is one thing, but what if He is now unable to deliver His people? This is the unspoken question among the people, spurred by fear, frustration, and despair.
“I call to mind (the) dealings of YH(WH);
indeed, I bring to mind your wonders from before.”
The Psalmist responds to the question of fear in v. 11—which, again, thematically marks the climax of the first part of the Psalm—with a hymn of praise to YHWH. The shift from speaking of YHWH (line 1), to addressing Him directly (line 2), is transitional, and makes somewhat more sense when v. 11 is read as the beginning of a strophe. The repetition of the verb rk^z` (“bring to mind, remember”) serves this transition; the verb occurred earlier in vv. 4, 7 (cf. the previous study), being something of keyword for the Psalm. The Kethib has a Hiphil (causative) form in line 1, while the Qere ‘corrects’ this as a Qal imperfect (to match the form in line 1); the Kethib reading is to be preferred as the more difficult, and thus more likely to have been modified by scribes. The Hiphil stem is appropriate for the Psalmist, who, through his composition, will cause YHWH’s deeds to be remembered; however, it also fits the dramatic scene, as the composer wishes to spur God to action by making Him remember what He has done for His people in the past.
The noun ll*u&m^ (from the root llu I), denotes a person’s dealing (i.e., how he deals) with another; specifically it refers here to how YHWH has dealt with His people (and their adversaries) in the past. In particular, the Psalmist has in mind the wonderful deeds (“wonder[s]”, collectively al#P#) God has performed—i.e., miracles, such as the event at the Reed Sea, by which He rescued and brought victory for His people. The word Hy` here is typically understood as the shorthand for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH, i.e., YH or Yah); however, Dahood (II, p. 229) would read it as a superlative (suffixed) element, Hy`-, attached to the noun (i.e., “[your] magnificent deeds”).
The expression <d#Q#m!, as in verse 6, indicates that the Psalmist is referring to things YHWH has done in the past—lit., “from (times) before”.
“So will I make mention of all your deeds,
and will compose on all your dealings.”
I treat the initial w-conjunction as emphatic (“so, indeed”), building upon the prior couplet. The verb hg`h* properly means something like “mutter”, even though it can be understood specifically as uttering something internally, within one’s heart/mind (i.e., “meditate”). The line is often translated that way here (“I meditate on your deeds”); however, the context suggests that the Psalmist is about to speak. I have rendered the verb loosely as “make mention”, building upon the idea of the Psalmist bringing God’s actions to mind (vb rk^z`) in the prior couplet.
The verb j^yc! in the second line can similarly be used both of audible communication and of something that one goes over in the heart/mind. The latter is probably more common, but here I think that audible communication is intended. In any case, the meaning of “going over” a set of words or facts is primary, and would also be appropriate for the Psalmist’s act of composing; I have translated the verb loosely above as “compose”. I.e., the Psalmist expresses here his intention (fulfilled in vv. 17-20) to compose a poem on YHWH’s mighty deeds from times past.
The supplemental character of this couplet is indicated by its shortened meter (3+2, or 2+2).
Strophe 5: Verses 14-16
“O Mightiest, your path (is) in the holy (place)—
who (is) a mighty (one) great like (the) Mightiest?”
Dahood (II, p. 230) is probably correct in understanding the noun Er#D# (“path[way]”) in the sense of “domain, dominion” (cp. in Ps 1:1 [I, p. 2])—i.e., the territory where the sovereign treads (ird) as representing his domain. YHWH’s domain (as King) is in the “holy (place)”, that is, the heavens high above; the noun vd#q) specifically refers to God’s dwelling—i.e., His holy palace, represented on earth by the Temple-shrine and its sanctuary. In Near Eastern cosmological tradition (cf. below), the Creator/Sovereign dwells on a great mountain that reaches up into the highest heaven.
The second line demonstrates the basic problem with translating both la@ (E~l) and <yh!ýa$ (E_lœhîm) equally (and flatly) as “God”. Here it results in a translation (“Who [is] a god great like God?”) that Dahood (II, p. 230) rightly calls “insipid”. This all changes, however, when one properly retains the distinction between the old singular form la@ (“Mighty [one]”) and the plural <yh!ýa$ (“Mighty [ones]”), treating the latter as an intensive/superlative (or comprehensive) plural (“Mightiest [One]”). Now, the character of the line as a confession of Israelite (Yahwistic) monotheism becomes clear: “Who (is) a mighty (one) [i.e. a god] (who is great) like (the) Mightiest [i.e., our God El-Yahweh]?”
“You, the Mighty (One) doing wonder(s),
you make known your strength among the peoples!”
Indeed, YHWH is the only true God (Mighty [One], la@), Creator and Sovereign of the universe, unsurpassed in greatness and strength. For poetic concision, I have translated the perfect verb form in the second line “you make known,” but it should properly be rendered “you have made known”. By the wonders YHWH has performed on behalf of His people (in the past), he has made known His strength (zu)) among all the surrounding peoples. The use of a participle (hc@u), “doing”) in the first line indicates that the performance of “wonders” is part of YHWH’s character; He is able to do such things on a regular basis, so there is no reason why He cannot can act again, now, and perform wonders once more on behalf of His people.
“You redeemed, with your arm, your people,
(the) sons of Ya’aqob and Yôsep.”
The wondrous deeds performed by YHWH in the past served to redeem (vb la^G`) the Israelite people, freeing them from servitude to a foreign nation (e.g., Egypt). Indeed, the Exodus from Egypt is primarily in view, with the specific mention of the “sons of Jacob and Joseph” —i.e., the Israelites who came out of Egypt. This reference sets the stage for the poem in vv. 17-20, with its echoes of the Song of the Sea (Exod 15), alluding to the event at the Reed Sea.
Cosmological Poem: Verses 17-20
This brief poem (or portion of a poem) has been inserted into the fabric of the Psalm. It is presented as the work of the Psalmist, but it may represent an older poem, with similarities in theme and structure to the ancient Song of the Sea (or Song of Moses, Exod 15); cf. also Habakkuk 3:10ff. Of course, the Psalmist could simply have written a poem in an archaic style, imitating older poems (like the Song of the Sea or Psalm 18, 29, etc).
This poem has a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon format, while the rest of the Psalm tends to follow a bicolon (couplet) pattern. The poem’s emphasis is cosmological, referring to the subduing of the primeval waters by YHWH (on which, cf. my article in the Ancient Parallels feature on this site). As in the Song of the Sea, this cosmological motif is applied to the history of Israel—esp. to the Exodus and the event at the Reed Sea. YHWH demonstrates his control over the waters, by separating the waters of the Sea, and allowing His people to cross over and escape from Egypt.
“The waters saw you, O Mightiest,
the waters saw you and swirled—
even (the) depths shook (with fear)!”
These lines allude to YHWH’s subduing of the primeval waters at the beginning of Creation (Gen 1:2); on this cosmological mythic theme, applied to El-Yawheh in ancient Hebrew poetry, cf. my aforementioned article (“Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”). The primary reference here, however, is to the control and power YHWH has over the waters. The waters themselves recognize this power, and acknowledge YHWH as their Lord, responding with fear at the sight of Him. The verb lWj in the second line has a double meaning; fundamentally, it means that the waters “swirled”, but the verb can also connote “twisting” or “writhing” (i.e., in anguish, etc), which would be more fitting to the theme of the waters showing fear. Cf. Psalm 114:3 and Hab 3:10.
“(The) dark clouds poured forth waters,
(the) fine clouds gave (forth your) voice—
and your arrows went back and forth.”
The theme of YHWH’s control over the waters continues here, shifting the focus to the rain that comes down out of the clouds, accompanied by the phenomena of the storm: thunder (line 2) and lightning (line 3). The Near Eastern storm-theophany is applied to El-YHWH with some frequency in ancient Hebrew poetry (including a number of Psalms, e.g. 18); the similarities with Canaanite Baal-Haddu in this regard helps to explain the fierce ‘rivalry’ between YHWH and Baal, at the religious level, in early Israelite history.
Thunder is frequently denoted by the word loq (“voice”)—i.e., as the “voice” of God; similarly, bolts of lightning are depicted as God’s “arrows” being shot back and forth. The ancient storm-theophany typically has a militaristic context, and especially so when applied to El-YHWH in the Old Testament. To some extent, as noted above, this motif of God as a warrior reflects the cosmological myth of the Creator defeating (subduing) the chaotic primeval waters, and thus allowing an ordered universe (capable of sustaining life) to be established.
The third line of this tricolon, like that of v. 17, begins with the particle [a^, a primitive adverbial/conjunctive particle with emphatic force (“[so] also, even”); it is typically used in poetry, or in comparable poetic/ritual forms.
“(The) voice of your thunder in the rolling (cloud)s,
(your) lightning-flashes light up (the) world,
(and so) the earth shakes and quakes!”
The power of the storm, and thus of the storm theophany (as applied to YHWH), is vividly expressed in this third tricolon. Here the “voice” (loq) of YHWH (v. 18) is explicitly identified as thunder (<u^r^). Earlier, it was stated that the waters shook in fear at the sight of YHWH; now the entire earth below shakes/quakes in fear at the awesome power of YHWH that is expressed through the rainstorm.
“On the sea, <Mightiest,> (is) your path,
and your passage-ways on mighty waters,
and (yet) your heel(print)s are not seen!”
The expression of YHWH’s power/control over the waters culminates here with the idea of his treading upon (B=) the waters. The preposition B= could also be rendered “in”, and this meaning is probably intended, at least secondarily, as an allusion to the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, when God led His people “through” (i.e., in) the waters of the Sea. However, it would seem that the principal reference here is to YHWH’s dominion over the waters, illustrated by the path(way)s he walks over/upon them. Yet, in spite of this anthropomorphic imagery, God leaves no “heel-marks” (i.e., footprints) in the surface of the water. His presence is invisible; we can only see the effects of His powerful presence and the control he has over the universe (esp. the rain and storm).
The first line (of the MT) has only two words/beats, in utter contrast to the rest of the poem. It thus seems relatively certain that something has dropped out, and a word is missing. The simplest solution is to propose that an occurrence of <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” i.e., God) has somehow been omitted.
For more on the use of the noun Er#D# (“path[way]”), in the sense of “domain, dominion”, see the note on verse 14 above.
Conclusion: Verse 21 
“May you lead, like the flock, your people,
by (the) hand of Moshe and Aharon!”
The Psalm concludes with this 3+3 couplet, returning to the regular meter of the composition. In a sense, the couplet follows upon verse 16, resuming the line of thought from strophe 5 (cf. above), after the intervening poem of vv. 17-20. If the verb form is read as a typical indicative perfect, then the couplet simply concludes the recitation of YHWH’s past action on behalf of His people—i.e., “You led your people like a flock…”. However, given the prayer-lament emphasis of the Psalm as a whole, a precative perfect seems more fitting as a conclusion (as Dahood, II, p. 233, suggests). That is, the Psalmist states his heartfelt wish for what YHWH will do, expressing it in terms of something that has already happened. A more literal (but very cumbersome) translation would thus be: “(O, that) you (would) have led your people (again) like a flock…!”.
The wish is that YHWH will lead his people out of bondage/distress, just as He did in the time of the Exodus (“by the hand of Moses and Aaron”). This suggests an Exilic setting for the Psalm—viz., God will lead His people out of the (Assyrian/Babylonian) Exile, essentially repeating what He did in the Exodus from Egypt. This is an important theme, for example, in the Deutero-Isaian poems, where the idea of a new Moses also seems to be implied. This Moses-symbolism, accompanied by an application of the prophecy in Deut 18:15-19, helped shaped the eschatological expectation of the “Prophet-like-Moses” who is to come. For more on the Messianic Prophet figure-types, cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
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).