Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 79

Psalm 79

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is a lament-Psalm, similar in tone to Ps 74 (on which, cf. the earlier study). The setting is the Exilic period, as is clear from the reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in v. 1. Verses 2-3 are apparently quoted in 1 Maccabees 7:17, being applied to the context of an event that took place during the Maccabean wars; however, the Babylonian conquest of the late-7th/early-6th century almost certainly provides the original setting for the Psalm. One might propose a date in the first half (or first quarter) of the 6th century, when the destruction of Jerusalem was still fresh in memory.

There would seem to be three-part structure for this Psalm (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 302f):

    • Vv. 1-4—A lament over the fate of Jerusalem, focusing on the wicked acts of destruction by the “nations”
    • Vv. 5-9—A plea to YHWH, calling on God to act, helping His people and bringing judgment against the nations
    • Vv. 6-10—A imprecatory request for the destruction of the nations that attacked Israel/Judah, along with the restoration of God’s people—reversing the situation described in section 1.

This is the seventh in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50.

The meter of Psalm 79 is quite irregular; mention will be made of the meter for each verse below.

Part 1: Verses 1-4

Verse 1

“(The) nations have come within your inheritance!
They have defiled (the) palace of your holiness,
(and) they have set Yerušalaim to ruins!”

The Psalm opens with a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon that well expresses the reason for the Psalmist’s lament. The “nations” presumably is a comprehensive way of referring to the invading Babylonians (and their allies). The noun hl*j&n~ refers to an inherited property or allotment of territory; here the reference is to the land of Israel—specifically the Judean territory and the city of Jerusalem—as YHWH’s own possession (cf. the recent note on Psalm 78:68-69). By describing the land this way, the Psalmist no doubt wishes to spur YHWH to action—so as to defend His property.

The invaders have destroyed the city of Jerusalem (lit. set it to ruins [<yY]u!]) and have destroyed the Temple (lit. palace of [YHWH’s] holiness) in the process; in so doing, they have defiled (vb am*f*) the Temple, desecrating its holiness. Compare the description in Ps 74:2-3ff.

Verse 2

“They gave (the) withered bodies of your servants
(as) food for (the) flying (birds) of the heavens,
(the) flesh of your devoted (one)s for (the) beasts of (the) earth.”

The slaughter of the people of the city is described in this verse. The specific reference is to the faithful ones among the people, whose death, in particular, should move YHWH and prompt Him to take action. Their loyalty is indicated by the adjective dys!j* (“good,” spec. in the sense of faithful/loyal), by which is meant that they are YHWH’s good servants—i.e., they are faithful to the covenant and to the Torah regulations (the terms of the covenant). The dead bodies are left as carrion for the birds and wild animals to feed on.

This verse, like v. 1, is a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 3

“They poured forth their blood like the(y would) water,
all around Yerušalaim,
and with no (one) burying (them)!”

The death of the people (spec. YHWH’s faithful servants among them) was bloody, with the blood pouring (and spraying) out like water all over the city. The final line repeats the idea expressed in v. 2—viz., that the bodies of the dead were left unburied, as food for the birds and beasts. For the dead to be treated this way, without proper burial, was a sign of abject dishonor.

This verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon (cp. vv. 1-2), with the shorter second and third lines producing a sharp rhythmic shift. It expresses, in poetic terms, the violence and disgrace being described by the Psalmist in this verse.

Verse 4

“We have become an object of scorn for (those) dwelling near us,
(of) derision and mocking for (those) round about us!”

The opening (lament) section of the Psalm closes with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet; following the tricola of vv. 1-3, the rhythmic shift has a dramatic, climactic feel, which fits the sense of the verse. The Psalmist is no longer talking about events of the past, but of the condition of YHWH’s faithful servants in the present. As noted above, this almost certainly relates to the setting of the Psalm in the period of the Exile (in the 6th century).

The surrounding nations now have reason to mock and taunt God’s people; the implication is that their trust in YHWH is foolish and misplaced—i.e., look what has happened to these people! The Psalmist uses three nouns with overlapping meaning for this idea of scornful, derisive taunting: hP*r=j#, gu^l^, and sl#q#, which I translate above as “scorn,” “derision,” and “mocking,” respectively.

Part 2: Verses 5-9

Verse 5

“Until when, O YHWH?
Will you be angry to the end?
Shall your jealous (rage) burn like fire?”

The dual-particle expression hm*-du^ typically functions as an interrogative, as it does here; it means “until what..?”, i.e. “until what (time/moment)…?”, which, for poetic concision, is best rendered in English as “until when…?”. The same despairing question is essentially asked at the beginning of Psalm 74 (v. 1), which has the same historical context for its lament—viz., the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The question is intended to spur God to action: how long will He let His city (and holy Temple) remain destroyed, defiled, and unavenged?

The destruction of Jerusalem was naturally seen as a sign of YHWH’s anger against the people (for their sin and unfaithfulness); the burning of the city serves as a graphic demonstration of God’s burning anger/rage. In the ancient Near East, military conquest was viewed as a means by which the deity would act out his/her rage, bringing judgment upon a people and their land. Even though the Babylonians, on one level, functioned as YHWH’s servants in this regard, enacting the judgment against Judah/Jerusalem, they are themselves to be judged for their wicked and brutal acts of violence and desecration (cf. above, and beginning with v. 6 below). YHWH’s anger is described as a jealous rage, with His jealousy (ha*n+q!) for His people (and His covenant-bond with them) featuring as a regular theme in the Scriptures, most frequently in the Prophets (ha*n+q! occurs relatively often in Isaiah and Ezekiel).

The meter of this verse is that of an irregular (2+2+3) tricolon. The terseness of the opening lines fits the sense of despairing impatience expressed by the Psalmist.

Verse 6

“Pour out your burning (anger)
onto the nations
that do not know you,
and upon (the) kingdoms
that do not call on your name!”

Metrically, this verse is highly irregular; it is perhaps best divided into five short lines, the first four of which have two beats. The obvious parallelism—

    • onto the nations
      | that do not know you
    • upon the kingdoms
      | that do not call on your name

argues strongly against Dahood’s suggestion (II, p. 251) that la should be read as la@ (“Mighty [One],” i.e., God) vocative, rather than the preposition la# as vocalized by the MT (“[un]to,” or here “onto”).

The Psalmist asks that the anger which has burned against God’s own people should now be turned against the nations—specifically those which attacked Israel/Judah, and took advantage of the people’s misfortune. These nations are not God’s people—they neither know Him nor call on His name, worshiping other (false) deities instead. And yet these are the ones who invaded Jerusalem and desecrated YHWH’s holy temple!

Verse 7

“For they have devoured Ya’aqob
and devastated his abode!”

This irregular (3+2) couplet further explains the reasons why the nations (spec. the Babylonian conquerors and their allies/supporters) should now face the brunt of YHWH’s anger: it is because of their cruelty in “devouring” (lit. eating [up]) God’s people (called Jacob [= Israel]) and destroying the land (lit. their habitation/abode [hw#n`]).

Verse 8

“Do not keep in mind against us
(the) crooked deeds of (those) before;
O swift (One), let your mercy come before us,
for we have been brought so very low!”

The basic idea in lines 1 & 3 is that of God keeping a record of the people’s sins/crimes. That is the connotation here of the verb rk^z` (“remember, keep in mind, bring to mind”). Dahood (II, p. 252) is doubtless correct in explaining rhm (which he vocalizes rh!m* [= ryh!m*] instead of MT rh@m*) as a shorthand for the expression ryh!m* rp@os in Ps 45:2[1]. YHWH is functioning as a recording scribe whose ‘pen’ (i.e. ability) is “swift” (that is, skillful). Dahood mentions an Egyptian papyrus (Anastasi I, 18:4), where mahir, apparently as a Semitic loanword, clearly designates the activity of a scribe. It is possible to retain this association and imagery, even if the MT rh@m* (“swiftly”) is followed; the third line would then read:

“let your mercy swiftly come before us”

In any case, the Psalmist’s request is that the faithful/loyal ones today should not continue to be punished for the sins of those who came before (<yn]v)ar!). This has been taken as an indicator that the Psalm was written a good many years after the Babylonian conquest (and Exile) took place, putting the date of composition more properly in the post-Exilic period. The people of the Psalmist’s generation have been brought low (vb ll^D*) by the judgment that occurred in the past, and he asks that this situation not be allowed to continue. His request thus hints at the restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to the land.

Verse 9

“Give us help, O Mighty (One) of our salvation,
over (the) word of weight of your name,
and snatch us (up) and wipe over our sins,
for (the) sake of your (great) name!”

The second part of the Psalm concludes with a pair of 3+2 couplets (slightly irregular in rhythm), in which the Psalmist fully calls on YHWH to deliver His people from their current situation (in exile). In the first couplet (line 1), the request is for God to “give help” (vb rz`u*); in the second couplet (line 1), two verbs are used in tandem:

    • lx^n` (Hiphil stem), which literally means “snatch away”; when YHWH is the subject, and His people (spec. the righteous ones) the object, this verb is used in the positive sense of snatching someone out of danger; here the context suggests that YHWH would snatch His people away from the nations where they are currently dispersed (and often under threat, cf. v. 11 below).
    • rp^K* (Piel stem), with preposition lu^, meaning “wipe/rub over”, i.e. erase; it is specifically the people’s sins that are to be wiped away; in light of verse 8a (cf. above), this could be a reference to YHWH no longer holding the sins of a prior generation against His faithful/loyal ones today.

The Psalmist appeals specifically to the name of YHWH, and to its honor (lit. “weight,” dobK*)—that is, to YHWH’s own honor, which is imperiled the longer His faithful/righteous ones continue to live in their lowly state, in exile among the nations. YHWH’s honor requires that His people be restored and raised to an exalted position once more. Cf. the thought expressed in the following verses 10ff.

Part 3: Verses 10-13

Verse 10

“For what (reason) should the nations say,
‘Where (is) their Mighty (One)?’
Let it be known among the nations before our eyes,
an avenging of (the) blood of your servants th(at) they poured out!”

The initial couplet essentially summarizes the mocking taunts by the nations, mentioned in verse 4 (cf. above), and points again to the need for YHWH to act in defense of His honor. Only by avenging (<qn) the cruel violence and desecration wrought by the conquerors can the situation be rectified. Indeed, the Psalmist calls for a reversal of the situation described in Part 1: destructive judgment should come upon the nations, instead of upon God’s people; now it is their blood that will be poured out! (cf. on verse 3, above).

Metrically, this verse is comprised of a 3+2 couplet followed by a 3+3 couplet.

Verse 11

“Let come before your face
(the) cry of (the one) bound;
according to (the) greatness of your arm,
let remain (alive the) sons of death.”

The motif in this verse is that of people in bondage (lit. “bound” rys!a*), particularly prisoners who are sentenced to die. The idiom “sons of death” uses the noun /B# (“son”) in the abstract sense of belonging to a group (or category)—here, e.g., those condemned to die. The imagery may be representative of life in exile, which also can entail the specific condition(s) of bondage/slavery, imprisonment, and the prospect of being put to death. Certainly, a sense of oppression against God’s people (spec. the righteous) by the nations is in view.

The verb rt^y` has the basic meaning “be left over, remain”; in the Hiphil stem, the sense is “cause to remain”, which in context clearly refers to remaining alive.

The meter of this verse is irregular; I treat it as a quatrain (2+2+2+3).

Verse 12

“And return to (those) dwelling near us seven-fold into their lap
(for) their scorn, (with) which they scorned you, my Lord!”

The rather more complex syntax of this verse justifies treating it as a longer-lined (4+4) couplet. The Psalmist’s prayer here turns into an imprecation, along the lines indicated above—i.e., a reversal of the situation described in Part 1 (vv. 1-4, cf. above). The scorn heaped on God’s people (and thus on YHWH Himself) by the surrounding nations (v. 4, cf. also v. 10a above) will come back (vb bWv, “turn back, return”) upon them. The Psalmist asks that this judgment should literally fall “into their lap” (<q*yj@-la#). On the motif of a seven-fold revenge, cf. the famous line in the song by Lamech (Gen 4:24).

Verse 13

“But we, your people, and (the) flock of your pasture,
shall throw (praise) to you into (the) distant (future)—
unto circle and circle we shall recount your praise.”

The fate of the nations (according to the Psalmist’s imprecation, v. 12) is here contrasted with that of God’s people. On the shepherding motif—with God as herder, and the people as His flock/herd—cf. the recent notes on Ps 78:52-53ff and 70-72. The promise given to YHWH is that the Psalmist, representing all the faithful/loyal ones of the people, will continually give (lit. throw/cast) praise to God, and will also recount (vb rp^s*) for future generations the reasons for this praise. I translate roD according to its fundamental meaning (“circle, cycle”), though it is typically understood as referring to the people living during a particular circle/cycle of time (i.e., a ‘generation’).

Many Psalms deal with the theme of fulfilling a vow made to YHWH, in response to His (expected) answer to prayer. Given the context of Psalmist as a poet-composer, it is not surprising that this vow-fulfillment is often described in terms of making music and giving praise to God. That is essentially the idea we see here at the close of Psalm 79 as well.

The meter of this final verse is again irregular: a 4+3+4 tricolon.

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).

August 22: Psalm 78:65-72

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 56-64; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:65-72

Verse 65

“Then (the) Lord awoke like (one who was) asleep,
like a mighty (warrior) shouting from (the) wine.”

This section is parallel with vv. 52-55, in the way that it describes YHWH acting on behalf of His people, utilizing the motif of a shepherd who guides/leads his flock. The initial w-conjunction here indicates a new development (i.e., “and then…”). While vv. 56-64 (like the earlier vv. 40-51) emphasized the people’s disobedience, which led to God’s judgment against them, here the focus shifts to His action on their behalf. The apparent “sleeping” of YHWH reflects His lack of support, over a period of time, as part of the judgment. Now, in his return to action for His people, He ‘awakes’ with a great shout.

Verse 66

“And He struck His adversaries (on the) behind—
disgrace into (the) distant (future) He gave to them!”

YHWH’s action on behalf of His people is described in military terms, and His role in an actual Israelite military victory may be in view. He strikes the enemies of His people, who are also His enemies, in such a way as to give them lasting disgrace (hP*r=j#). The humiliating nature of the enemies’ defeat is indicated by the use of the noun roja* (“rear, [area] behind”); probably a blow on their behind(s) is intended (cf. Dahood, II, p. 247), which certainly would entail a sense of disgrace. It may also refer more generally to a military defeat that sent the enemies going back in a rout. In any case, their defeat, thanks to YHWH’s power fighting on Israel’s behalf, is to be understood as devastating.

Verse 67

“But He (also) rejected (the) tent of Yôsep,
and (the) staff of Eprayim He did not choose.”

As in the opening couplet of v. 9, this verse refers to YHWH’s rejection of the northern tribes (and the northern Kingdom), in favor of the south (i.e., Judah). This implies that the rejection preceded the revolt of the northern tribes; however, more likely, the revolt is being anticipated here, as a literary device in the Psalm. With foreknowledge, YHWH chooses the tribe of Judah (and the city of Jerusalem) to have the leading and favored position. As mentioned in the earlier note (on v. 9), Ephraim often represents the northern tribes as a whole (being the most prominent of them); here “Joseph” is included as a parallel reference.

The rejection of the northern tribes/kingdom is connected with the defeat of the enemies of YHWH; the implication is that the northern tribes, in their faithlessness and rebellion, acted in manner similar to the surrounding nations.

Verse 68

“And (instead) He chose (the) staff of Yehûdah,
(and the) mount of ‚iyyôn which He loves.”

The implication here is that Judah was chosen primarily because of the location of the fortified hilltop site of ancient Jerusalem (i.e., ‘mount’ Zion), where the Temple would be built. At the same time, apparently, the southern tribes remained faithful in a way that the norther tribes did not, at least so as not to be disqualified as YHWH’s favored choice.

Verse 69

“And He built like (the) heights (of heaven) His holy place,
and like (the) earth which He founded for (the) distant (future).”

Like the cosmos itself, YHWH established His holy dwelling place (lit. “holy place”, vD*q=m!) to last for the ages. The upper half of the cosmos contains the heavenly “heights”, while the “earth” surface (and all that is below it) makes up the lower half. This description alludes to the cosmic dwelling of the Creator El-YHWH; in ancient Semitic tradition, this dwelling was viewed as a great mountain, reflecting the cosmological-mythic idea of the primeval universe itself as a mountain (“heaven-earth,” Sumerian an-ki). Any local geographic mountain could serve, ritually and symbolically, for the cosmic mountain of the Creator. This is certainly true of mount Sinai/Horeb for YHWH, and the same symbolic association applied to the much more modest mount of Zion. The Temple, of course, built on this ‘mountain’, is patterned conceptually after the heavenly dwelling-place of YHWH.

The second line literally reads: “and like the earth, He founded her…” (using a femine suffix); however, this makes for very awkward English, and it is customary to replace this syntax with the use of a relative pronoun (i.e., “…which He founded”).

Verse 70

“And He (also) made choice of Dawid, His servant,
and took him from (the) holding pens of (the) flock.”

The building of the Temple (v. 69) is mentioned prior to the choice of David as king, even though historically the two events occurred in reverse order. The priority of the Temple, as YHWH’s holy dwelling place, takes priority over the human kingship of Israel/Judah. The choice of David, and his origins as a sheep-herding youth, are narrated in 1 Samuel 16.

Verse 71

“From following (the) suckling (ewe)s, He brought him
to feed (as sheep) Ya’aqob, His people,
and Yisrael, His inheritance.”

David’s origins as a shepherd are played on here, drawing upon the tradition motif of the king as a shepherd over the people. This symbolism was widespread throughout the ancient Near East; on references in the Old Testament, cf. Num 27:17; 2 Sam 7:7; 1 Kings 22:17; Isa 44:28; Jer 3:15; 23:1ff; Ezek 34:2ff, etc. The specific application of this motif to David is first referenced in 2 Samuel 5:2, and, through this association, the Shepherd-motif came to take on Messianic significance (cf. Mic 5:4-5; Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Elsewhere in the Scriptures, God Himself is referred to as the Shepherd of His people (e.g., Gen 49:24; Psalm 23:1ff; 80:1; Isa 40:11). In Psalm 77:20, God’s shepherding of Israel is done through the intermediary of Moses and Aaron (as leaders); here, similarly, it is through David as Israel’s king.

The verb hu*r*, here and in v. 72, denotes the feeding of animals, often specifically in the context of herding—i.e., leading animals to pasture where they can graze.

Verse 72

“And (so) he fed them, according to (the) completeness of his heart,
and with (the) skillfulness of his hands he guided them.”

The idea of David’s heart being “complete” (<t) may contain an allusion to the original tradition in 1 Samuel (cf. 13:14; 16:7). The faithfulness and integrity of David’s heart toward YHWH (and the covenant) was traditional, being referenced repeatedly in the book of Kings (1 Ki 9:4, etc) as an example for the other rulers of Israel and Judah.

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).

Notes on Prayer: 1 Kings 8:27-30

The Monday Notes on Prayer feature for the remainder of Summer (in August & September) is focusing on the Prayer of Solomon in 1 Kings 8. Verses 22-26 were discussed in the previous study.

1 Kings 8:27-30

With verse 27, the focus of the Prayer shifts to the role and purpose of the Temple. This is significant, since the purpose indicated in the Prayer differs noticeably from the emphasis earlier in vv. 10-13. The shift in emphasis began already in vv. 16-17ff, with the statement that the “house” (i.e., the Temple) was built specifically for the name (<v@) of YHWH. The distinction is between a dwelling for YHWH Himself and a dwelling for His name.

In vv. 10-13 (cf. the earlier study), the clear implication is that YHWH personally comes to dwell in the “house”, being present through the theophanous cloud. This reflects an older line of religious (and theological) tradition, drawing upon anthropomorphic and cosmological-mythic concepts—i.e., the Deity is personally present and manifest in the theophanous cloud, with the Temple building (esp. the sanctuary) serving as His dwelling-place on earth.

While this line of tradition is acknowledged in vv. 10-13, it disappears completely from the remainder of the narrative. Indeed, within the Prayer proper, there is no mention at all of YHWH Himself dwelling in the Temple, but only His name. This is especially clear here in verse 27:

“But (is it) that (the) Mightiest can truly sit [i.e. dwell] upon the earth? See, the heavens—even (the) heavens of the heavens—can not contain you, (and) even (less) that this house which I have built (could do so)!”

The theological point is that the Creator El-YHWH cannot truly, in a metaphysical sense, dwell in a building on earth. His true dwelling is in heaven—and yet, even the heavens cannot actually contain him. The verb lWK has the concrete meaning “contain” (as in a vessel), implying that a physical/material substance is involved. This is one of the clearest statements in the Old Testament Scriptures regarding the transcendence of God, expressed in terms of size. YHWH is simply too great and vast to be contained in any physical space.

The expression “heavens of the heavens” (<y]m^V*h^ ym@v=) is idiomatic; it follows a pattern—e.g., “holy of holies”, “king of kings”, “song of songs” —in Hebrew (and other Semitic languages), using this particular mode of construct expression as a superlative. The particular meaning of the expression here is “the greatest heaven,” “the highest heaven”, etc.

The ancient Near Eastern cosmology was geocentric, with the surface of the earth dividing a cosmos that tended to be seen as spherical in shape, the upper half certainly being hemispheric. There were layers—commonly three layers (i.e., three ‘heavens’)—to the upper hemisphere. Eventually the concept of a concentric spherical cosmos, with seven layers/heavens, came to be adopted on a widespread scale throughout the ancient world. According to this traditional cosmology, YHWH would be seen as dwelling in the ‘highest’ heaven.

Clearly, if YHWH cannot be contained in the vastness of the heavens, he certainly cannot be contained in a single building (built by human beings) on earth. In spite of this, Solomon continues:

“Yet may you turn to (the) prayer of your servant, and to his request for favor, O YHWH my Mighty (One), to listen to (the) cry and to (the) prayer which your servant prays before you th(is) day, (and for) your eyes to be opened to(ward) this house, night and day, to(ward) this standing place of which you said ‘My name shall be there’, (and) to listen to (the) prayer which your servant shall pray to(ward) this standing place.” (vv. 28-29)

The basic request, at the heart of the entire prayer, is that YHWH would pay attention to prayers made in the direction of (la#, “toward”) the Temple. As becomes clear in the remainder of the prayer, the Jerusalem Temple is to become the focal point of Israelite worship—in particular, for the prayers made by the people. Solomon (as king) represents the people in this regard. At the beginning of the request (in v. 28), Solomon refers to himself as YHWH’s loyal servant (“your servant”); but, at the close of the request (in v. 29), the same expression “your servant” stands for any faithful Israelite who prays to YHWH (as is clear from v. 30, cf. below).

There is a symbolic and ritual aspect to prayer, in relation to the Temple building. The location of the Temple (lit. its “standing place,” <oqm*, i.e., the place where it stands) has a unifying role for the people, and as a religious expression of their faith and devotion to YHWH. By praying in the direction of the Temple, the place where YHWH’s name dwells, this demonstrates that a person’s heart is directed toward God. Such prayer can be made at any time (“night and day”); according to Solomon’s request, YHWH’s eyes will constantly be open, attentive to any such prayer, and listening to (lit. hearing, vb um^v*) it. In the traditional religious idiom, for God to “hear” a prayer means that He will answer it.

The root llp is used several times in vv. 28-29, both the verb (ll^P*) and the related noun hL*p!T=; it is the basic Hebrew root denoting prayer to God. Prayer here is also defined specifically as a request made to God that He would show favor—i.e., respond favorably, giving help and bestowing blessing or benefits, etc. The noun signifying such a request is hN`j!T= (from the root /nj), which is formally parallel to hL*p!T=. Another word used is hN`r!, which means a ringing cry or shout; it can connote either a desperate plea (i.e., cry for help), a joyful expression of praise, or a confident shout (of triumph, etc).

From a theological standpoint, it is most significant that it is YHWH’s name, specifically, which “dwells” in the Temple. While YHWH Himself dwells in the heavens, His name dwells on earth among His people. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented and embodied (in a quasi-magical way) the essence and nature of the person. This was equally true in a religious context, when applied to a deity; to know a deity’s name meant knowing the deity. This name-theology represented a more abstract and rational/intellectual way for a person to relate to a deity. In this regard, it is particularly meaningful that YHWH’s name is related to the act of prayer. This is the aspect of the Temple’s purpose that is being emphasized here, rather than its role in the sacrificial ritual, for example.

The name of YHWH was important in Israelite religious tradition from the earliest times, but the name-theology took on special prominence in the book of Deuteronomy (and the subsequent Deuteronomic History, of which 1-2 Kings is a part). Beginning in chapter 12 (vv. 5, 11, 21), and then throughout the book of Deuteronomy, the implicit location of Jerusalem (and the Temple site) is repeatedly referenced as the place chosen by YHWH to set His name. The names of the Canaanite deities are to be removed from the land (Deut 12:3), replaced entirely by the name of YHWH, the one true Creator God, with whom Israel is joined in a special covenant-bond. His name is thus closely connected with the covenant, as is clear implicitly from the references here in vv. 9, 21. The people belong to Him, and this is symbolized by the Temple which bears His name, indicating a sign of ownership, etc. God’s faithful vassals (“servants”) will pray in the direction of the Temple—that is, toward His name—as a sign of covenant loyalty and devotion to their Sovereign.

The people, collectively, as YHWH’s servant(s), are emphasized in verse 30:

“May you indeed listen to (the) request of your servant for favor, and of your people Yisrael, when they shall pray to(ward) this standing place; you shall listen at (the) place of your sitting [i.e. dwelling] (in) the heavens, and (when) you listen you shall forgive.”

As noted above, the expression “your servant” refers not only to the king, but to the people as a whole; this point is made quite clear here in v. 30. Solomon’s request is that whenever the people pray toward the Temple, YHWH will respond favorably to them, answering their prayers, even to the point of forgiving (vb jl^s*) their sins.

The preposition la# has a dual-meaning in this verse; on the one hand, the directional aspect of praying “to(ward)” the Temple is in view (continued from vv. 28-29), but in the second half of the verse it also is used in the locative sense of YHWH’s dwelling in the heavens. This dual-use may be intentional, as a subtle way of juxtaposing the dwelling-place of YHWH’s name (i.e., the Temple) with the place where He Himself dwells (in heaven). For more on this, see the discussion above.

In the verses that follow (vv. 33-44), a number of examples are given of circumstances under which the people might pray to God, using the Temple as their religious focal-point. In the next study, we will begin examining these.

August 21: Psalm 78:56-64

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 52-55; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:56-64

Verse 56

“Yet (again) they tested and defied (the) Mightiest,
(the) Highest, and His witnesses they did not guard;”

As with vv. 17, 32, 40, this next section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience. Again the verbs hs*n` (“test, try”) and hr*m* (“be disobedient, defy, rebel [against]”) are used, as in vv. 17-18, 40-41. The basis of this disobedience, as recorded in Israel’s history (esp. with the generation of the Exodus), is stated in v. 7: it involves (a) forgetting about the wondrous things YHWH did on their behalf, and (b) failing to keep/guard the regulations and precepts of the Torah. The Torah represents the terms of the covenant between YHWH and Israel; failing to obey the Torah regulations means violating the covenant-bond.

The term hd*u@, denoting something which is (to be) repeated, encompasses both aspects (a-b) noted above. It refers to the witnessing record of all the wonders, etc, that YHWH has done, and it also includes the regulations and precepts of the Torah. The people of Israel are obligated to “guard” (vb rm^v*) both of these. The encompassing term (plur. todu@) is typically translated “testimonies” in English; the idea of guarding the “testimonies” of YHWH is fundamental to Israelite religious teaching and tradition—cf. Deut 6:17; Psalm 25:10; 99:7; 132:12, and the repeated references in Psalm 119 (vv. 2, 22, 24, et al).

Verse 57

“but they turned back and broke faith, like their fathers,
they turned themselves about like a bow of treachery!”

The context vv. 52-55 (cf. the previous note) indicates that the narration here refers to the period when Israel was settled in the Promised Land. They “turned back” (vb gWs) from obedience to YHWH and were unfaithful/disloyal to the covenant-bond. The verb dg~B* is a bit difficult to translate, but it basically to refers to someone who breaks or betrays an agreement (i.e., breaking faith with someone). The expression “like their fathers” means that the people behaved like the earlier generation of the Exodus.

The second line reflects the earlier phrase in v. 9 (cf. the prior discussion on that verse). The idea of a “treacherous bow” (lit. “bow of treachery”) is that it is turned against the cause, with archers/soldiers betraying the cause of their sovereign (and the people). The Niphal stem of the verb Ep^h* should probably be understood in a reflexive sense—i.e., “they turned themselves about”.

Verse 58

“Indeed, they provoked Him with their high (place)s,
and with their carved images made Him jealous!”

The people violated the covenant with YHWH, by deviating from proper religious worship in two ways: (1) they continued to use different local shrines and altars (on various “high [place]s”, tomB*), and (2) they utilized and venerated “carved images” (<yl!ys!P=). With regard to the latter, the images could be Yawhistic, meant to depict El-YHWH, but more commonly the term lys!P= refers to images (i.e., ‘idols’) of other deities (Deut 7:5, 25; 12:3, etc). Of the many references to the people’s persistent worship of false/lesser deities (spec. through their images), see the summary statement in 2 Kings 17:41.

The injunction against worshiping at “high (place)s” is more problematic, since it can apply even to faithful worship of YHWH (as the true God). It involves the centralization of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and there is very little direct reference to the issue of aberrant “high places” in the Torah regulations. The implication in Lev 26:30 and Num 33:52 is that such “high places” represented earlier Canaanite sites (where polytheistic/idolatrous worship occurred) which the people of Israel continued to use. Almost certainly it is this association with idolatry that informs the injunction against “high places”. The continued use of the local shrines and altars is repeatedly mentioned as a persistent problem (and sin) throughout the book of Kings. There are similar, but relatively infrequent, condemnatory references in the Prophets (e.g., Hos 10:8; Amos 7:9), but here in v. 58 is the only such reference in the Psalms.

Verse 59

“(The) Mightiest heard and (boil)ed over (with rage),
and He came to despise Yisrael greatly.”

The verb um^v* (“hear”), in this instance, probably should be understood in the looser sense of “being aware” of something. The reflexive (Hitpa’el) stem of the verb rb^u* (“pass/cross over”) is relatively rare, but tends to be used in the specific context of a person becoming angry or enraged. I have adopted the English idiom of “boiling/bubbling over” (i.e., with rage). YHWH’s anger at Israel’s flagrant violation of the covenant through false/idolatrous worship (violating the fundamental prohibition of the Decalogue, Exod 20:3-4), caused Him to despise/reject (vb sa^m*) His people.

Verses 60-61

“And He left behind His dwelling-place (at) Šilow,
(the) Tent (in which) He (had) dwelt among men,
and He gave (over) His strength to captivity,
and His beauty in(to the) hand of (the) foe.”

The historical reference in these verses is the loss of the Golden Chest (Ark), the symbolic throne and seat of YHWH’s presence, after Israel’s defeat by the Philistines in the battle of Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4). This episode represents the climax of the narrative in chaps. 1-4 detailing the corruption of the priesthood at the Shiloh Tent-shrine. The strength (zu)) and beauty/splendor (hr*a*p=T!) of YHWH’s presence among the people was manifested in the sacred locus of the Ark; this helps to explain the seemingly harsh and impious-sounding expressions in v. 61, which generally reflect the statement in 1 Sam 4:21f. It also indicates how closely the manifest presence of YHWH was connected with the Ark in early Israelite religious tradition. The loss of the Ark was catastrophic in its religious significance, and represented a severe judgment. However, the Samuel narrative does not tie this loss to polytheistic idolatry among the people, in the way that this is implied here in the Psalm.

Verse 62

“He also closed up His people to (the) sword—
indeed He (boil)ed over against His inheritance!”

Beyond the departure of YHWH’s manifest presence, He went further, shutting up (vb rg~s*) His people to the judgment of the sword—i.e., death in battle and destruction through military conquest. This may continue with the immediate context of the battle of Ebenezer (1 Sam 4:2, 10; cf. on vv. 60-61 above), but likely it is also meant to encompass a range of Israelite military defeats and disasters, stretching into the Kingdom period. The defeat at Ebenezer serves as a type pattern for all such future disasters. In this way, YHWH truly “(boil)ed over” with anger against His people, as the couplet repeats the idiom (using the verb rb^u*, Hitpa’el stem) from v. 59 (cf. above).

Verse 63

“Fire devoured their choice (young men),
and their young maidens were not praised.”

This couplet, though a bit difficult to translate, quite clearly (and cleverly) expresses the devastating impact of military defeat (and conquest) on the population. The fire (from war/conquest) kills off (lit. eats/devours) the choice young men, which means that the young girls (of marriageable age) have no one to wed; as a result, the maidens are never to be praised (as brides) at their wedding.

Verse 64

“Their sacred officials fell by the sword,
and their widows could not (fully) weep.”

This couplet follows the formal thematic pattern of v. 63. Just as the chosen ones in the secular sphere (i.e., strong young men of military age) were killed off, so also those in the sacred sphere (the men officiating as priests, <yn]h&K)) were slain. Both groups met with death as the result of military defeat and conquest (by fire and sword, respectively). In each instance, the man’s wife (or perspective bride) has her expected life upended and shattered. Here, the slain priest’s widow has no opportunity to weep (i.e., mourn and lament) in a proper and fitting way; possibly a planned ceremony (comparable to the wedding ceremony implied in v. 63) with formal dirges and the like is in mind.

August 20: Psalm 78:52-55

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 49-51; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:52-55

Verse 52

“And (thus) He made His people set out like the flock,
and He guided them like the herd in the outback.”

The Judgment-plagues on Egypt (cf. the previous notes on vv. 43-48 and vv. 49-51) led to the exodus of God’s people from Egypt. The verb us^n` (I) in line 1 denotes pulling up the pegs of a tent in order to take down the tent-structure, which is necessary to do before traveling; the verb is often used in the more general sense of setting out (on a journey, etc). The Hiphil stem indicates that YHWH caused this to happen.

The second line alludes, in a summary fashion, to YHWH’s guidance of His people, all throughout the years of journeying that followed the Exodus. The verb gh^n` (I, “lead, guide”) is typically used in the context of herding animals, sometimes in the sense of forcibly driving them on. The image of YHWH as a herder of His people occurs frequently in the Scriptures, most notably in the famous Psalm 23 (cf. the earlier study). The motif was used in the prior Psalm 77 (v. 20), where Moses and Aaron are specifically mentioned as the intermediaries by which God led/guided the people (like a flock).

This motif in the ancient Exodus tradition is expressed primarily by the first line of the famous couplet in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:13), where the verb hj*n` is used (see below).

Verse 53

“And He led them (on) to safety, and they did not fear;
indeed, (those) hostile to them the Sea covered over!”

The verb hj*n` in line 1 is more or less synonymous with gh^n` in v. 52b, having the comparably meaning “lead”; it is the verb used in Exod 15:13a, which has certainly influenced the wording here. The prepositional expression jf^b#l* indicates the goal and purpose (and result) of YHWH’s leading—it is to (l=) a place of safety (jf^B#). The root jfb, with the basic meaning of seeking/finding protection, occurs frequently in the Psalms, and often in the specific context of YHWH’s covenant-obligation to provide protection to those faithful/loyal to Him.

As the second line makes clear, the principal reference is to the event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15), particularly the dramatic moment (in the tradition) when the waters fell back down and covered the Egyptian soldiers, drowning them (14:28; 15:5ff). The statement that the Israelites “did not fear” does not quite square with the historical narrative (14:10ff); it is surely to be understood in the sense that they had no reason or cause to be afraid, since God Himself was protecting them (cf. Moses’ declaration in v. 13).

Verse 54

“And He brought them to (the) boundary of His holiness,
(the) mountain which His right hand acquired.”

The initial journey brought the people to mount Sinai (Exodus 19), understood (according to the Moses traditions, see esp. Exod 3) as the holy dwelling-place of YHWH. In ancient Semitic (Canaanite) religious tradition, any local mountain could serve as the ritual/symbolic manifestation of the Creator El’s cosmic mountain dwelling.

Of course, later Israelite/Judean tradition identified this location principally with the fortified hilltop site of the Jerusalem Temple (i.e., Zion). The reference to YHWH’s vd#q) alludes to this. The noun vd#q) can denote the abstract quality of “holiness”, but also the more concrete idea of something that is holy (spec. a holy place). The Song of the Sea (Exod 15) has the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan principally in view (vv. 13-17). There the Promised Land is referred to as the abode (hw#n`) of YHWH’s holiness (v. 13b), and, already in the ancient Song, the settlement of the Promised Land is closely tied to the symbolic mountain dwelling of YHWH (v. 17). The establishment of a Temple-shrine on Zion is seen as the culmination (and final goal) of the Exodus and settlement of the land. For this same idea in the Deuteronomic tradition, cf. Deut 12:9-11, and also the climactic statement in 1 Kings 8:53 (in the context of the consecration of the Temple).

Again, the wording in this couplet was almost certainly influenced by the Song of the Sea (esp. vv. 13, 17). Interestingly, however, in the Song, it was the people whom YHWH acquired (vb hn`q*) for His own (v. 16), not the mountain; the people were planted on the mountain. The reference to YHWH’s “right hand” alludes to the exercise of His power in enabling the Israelites to defeat their enemies and conquer/settle the land; cf. the context of Exod 15:16-17, and below on v. 55 of the Psalm.

As a side note, the noun lWbG+ (in the first line) means “border, boundary”, and so I have translated it above; however, doubtless the primary reference is to the idea of a mountain as a boundary-marker (cp. the cognate jabal/jebel in Arabic).

Verse 55

“And He drove out nations from (before) their face;
indeed, He made them fall in (the) line(s) of inheritance,
and caused to dwell in their tents
(the) staffs of Yisrael.”

The idea of “driving out” (vb vr^G`) the nations of Canaan from before the “face” of Israel is basic to the ancient tradition (cf. Exod 23:28-31; 33:2; 34:11; Josh 24:12; Judg 2:3; 6:9, etc). It is a general reference to the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan. As indicated in v. 54b (cf. above), it was YHWH’s power that caused the nations to “fall”, allowing Israel to defeat them. The expression hl*j&n~ lb#j# literally means “cord/rope of inheritance”, signifying the boundary (measured/marked out with a rope) of an inherited piece of land. The idea is that the nations were defeated within the boundaries of the land that Israel would inherit; there may also be an allusion to the idea that the measuring out of the territory necessarily involved the defeat of the nations who were being dispossessed.

Once the Canaanite peoples were “driven out”, the tribes of Israel would dwell in their abandoned tents. Here “tents” is a euphemism for the inhabited territory as a whole, referring to the land of Canaan as the territory of the twelve tribes (lit. “staffs,” i.e., staffs of tribal/confederate rule)—that is, the traditional territorial allotments, by which the land would be divided.

August 19: Psalm 78:49-51

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 40-48; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:40-51 (cont.)

Verse 49-50a

“He sent (out) on them (the) burning of His anger—
an outburst even (of) indignation and distress,
a sending (out) of messengers of evil (thing)s—
(so) He leveled out a pathway for His anger!”

The Judgment-plagues on Egypt (cf. on vv. 43-48 in the previous note) are explained here as an expression of YHWH’s anger. This abstract meaning of [a^, reflecting the emotion of anger, was discussed in the earlier note on v. 21 (cf. also vv. 31, 38). The noun [a^, and the idea of YHWH sending out His anger, serves to frame these two couplets, and indicates that the customary verse-division here is incorrect; the first line of v. 50 belongs with v. 49, resulting in a fine symmetric pair of couplets. The “sending” (vb jl^v*) of YHWH’s anger, in a general sense, in the first line, is matched by the specific image of laying out a smooth/level pathway (i.e., for the anger to travel to Egypt).

The inner lines (2-3) follow this same contrast, between a more generic sense of YHWH’s expressions of anger (line 2), and the specific imagery of messengers being sent out on a mission (line 3)—the messengers understood as embodying the angry outbursts (and their effect), or as the means by which the anger is manifest (and the judgment carried out) among human beings. The underlying religious concept is the idea that evils experienced by humans are the result of actions taken by deities (in their anger). However, it is worth noting that in the narrative of the plagues on Egypt (Exod 7-12), there is no mention of a “messenger” (‘angel’) taking part, though an allusion to this is generally assumed in 12:23 with the expression “the (one) destroying”.

There is a sense of progression in the second line, which can be seen as parallel to the traveling of the messengers (in line 3). As YHWH’s anger begins to ‘burn’ (root hrj), the following results:

    • there is an outburst or boiling over (hr*b=u#) of the anger =>
      • an indignant rage (<u^z~) directed against the people =>
        • a time of intense distress (hr*x*) and suffering experienced by the people
Verse 50bc

“He did not hold back their soul from death,
but their life to the pestilence He closed up.”

This couplet alludes rather more clearly to the final plague on Egypt, involving the death of all the firstborn males (Exod 11 & 12). YHWH “closed up” (vb rg~s*) the people to death, implying the giving over of someone into prison, etc. Here, death is explained is being the result of “pestilence” (rb#D#, i.e., disease), though this is not clearly indicated in the Exodus narrative; indeed, the term rb#D# is only used (twice) in reference to the fifth and seventh plagues (9:3, 15). However, throughout the Old Testament, when God’s judgment on humankind leads to death, the spread of disease is often indicated (or implied). In the ancient world, disease was typically understood as the result of an angry deity’s act (of judgment).

Verse 51

“And (so) He struck all (the) firstborn in Egypt,
(the) foremost of their strength in (the) tents of Ham!”

In this concluding couplet, which brings the summary of the Egyptian plagues to a climax (cf. the previous note), a reference to the final plague (death of the firstborn) is at last made explicit. There is a slight difficulty in the second line, as to whether the correct reading is <n`oa (“their vigor”) or the plural form (<yn]oa) of the MT. The LXX (and other ancient versions) translate according to the former, which also tends to be confirmed by the parallel expression in Genesis 49:3, where “my vigor” (yn]oa) occurs. The noun /oa denotes physical strength, but often in the specific sense of vital creative (i.e., sexual) power; thus the translation “vigor” is a decent fit in English. The noun tyv!ar@ literally means “first”; it can indicate the first/foremost place or position, as well as to being first in time, and also can be understood qualitatively as the “best, finest,” etc. All of these aspects of meaning apply to the parallel with rokB= (“firstborn,” in a collective sense)

According to the ancient Israelite genealogies (and ethno-geographic tradition), Egypt (eponymous for the Egyptian people) was a descendant of Ham (Gen 10:6ff). Outside of the genealogies related to the Noachic tradition (including 1 Chron 1:4ff, also 4:40), Ham is mentioned in only three other passages; in all three instances (here and in Ps 105:23, 27; 106:22), the specific association is with the land of Egypt.

August 18: Psalm 78:40-48

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 32-39; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:40-51

Verse 40

“(See) in what (manner) they defied Him in the outback,
(and) caused Him pain in (the) desolate land!”

As in verse 17 and 32, this next section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience against YHWH, using the same verb (hr*m*) as in vv. 8 and 17. The verb denotes an act of disobedience or defiance; it can even carry the more forceful meaning of rebelling against a superior. The verb in the second line is bx^u* I, which in the causative stem means “cause pain” to someone; the pain can either be physical or emotional, in which case the specific connotation may be that of bringing sorrow or grief to another.

In vv. 15/17, the parallel was between the rB*d=m! (“place out back, outback”) and hY`x! (“dry/parched [land]”); here, it is between rB*d=m! and /omyv!y+ (“desolate [land]”). In each case the parallel terms describe the same geographic conditions, i.e., of a harsh desert wilderness. It is a summary reference, of course, to the years of Israel’s journeying (‘wandering’) through the Sinai peninsula, following the Exodus.

Verse 41

“Indeed, they turned back and tested (the) Mighty (One),
and (to the) Holy (One) of Yisrael they gave pain.”

In verse 34, the verb bWv (“turn back, return”) indicated a return to faithfulness by the people; however, this proved to be only temporary, and the people once again returned to faithlessness. This lack of faith/trust in YHWH is expressed by the idea of testing God; the verb hs*n` is used frequently in this context in the Old Testament historical narrative, but occurs only rarely in poetry (it is used elsewhere in the this Psalm, vv. 18, 56; cf. also 95:9; 106:14). For the key references in the historical tradition, cf. Exod 17:2, 7; Num 14:22; Deut 6:16; 33:8. The same verb can be used, in the more positive (and reverse) sense of God testing His people (Exod 16:4; 20:20; Deut 8:2, 16; cp. Psalm 26:2). The rare verb hw`T* (II), occurring only here in the Old Testament, seems to have a meaning comparable to bx^u* in v. 40 (i.e., “give/cause pain”).

On the title “Holy One of Israel” (2 Kings 9:22), which occurs frequently in the book of Isaiah, it also is used in Psalm 71:22; 89:18. For more on the substantive adjective “holy (one)” (vodq*) as Divine title, cf. the recent note on John 6:69.

Verses 42-43

“They did not remember (the power of) His hand,
(the) day when He ransomed them from (the) adversary,
when He set (forth) His signs in Egypt,
and His marvels in (the) plain(s) of ‚o’an.”

Trust in YHWH is secured by remembering (vb rk^z`) the things He has done for His people (vv. 35, 39), particularly with regard to the wonders He performed in freeing them from their servitude in Egypt (vb hd*P*, “ransom”, cp. the use of laG` in v. 35). Those Exodus traditions (narrated in chaps. 7-12) will themselves be ‘remembered’ in the verses that follow. A lack of faith/trust is only possible when the people forget (v. 11)—that is, fail to remember or keep in mind—the wondrous things (“signs” and “marvels”) done by YHWH (i.e., by the power of “His hand”).

On the parallelism of Egypt/Zoan, and the latter as a designation for the Nile Delta, cf. the prior note (on v. 12).

Verse 44

“(For) indeed, He turned their channels to blood,
so (that) their flowing (streams) none could drink.”

The couplet refers to the first ‘plague’ in Egypt (Exod 7:14-25); it emphasizes specifically that even the water of the canals (“channels, shafts”, <yr!a)y+) dug out from the Nile was turned to blood (v. 19).

Verse 45

“He sent (forth) among them a swarm (of flies),
and it ate them, and (also) frogs which ruined them.”

The syntax here fits awkwardly into the meter of the 3-beat (3+3) couplet; grammatically, a 4+2 couplet would be more appropriate. In any case, the verse is a summary reference to the third-fourth and second ‘plagues’ (Exod 8).

Verse 46

“And He gave (over) their produce to the consuming (hopper),
and their labor to the multiplying (locust).”

The terms lys!j* and hB#r=a^ presumably both refer to the locust, perhaps at different stages of its development (cf. 1 Kings 18:37; Joel 1:4; 2:25). However, in Ugaritic the distinction is between the grasshopper and the locust (cf. Dahood, II, p. 244). In any case, the reference here is to the eighth ‘plague’ (Exod 10:1-20).

Verse 47

“He killed (off) their vine(s) with the hail,
and their sycamores with the sleet.”

The first line refers to the seventh ‘plague’ (Exod 9:13-35); however, the second line is rather obscure in this context, particularly since the precise meaning of the noun lm^n`j& (occurring only here) is quite uncertain, though most commentators follow the ancient versions in translating it as “frost” or “sleet”.

Verse 48

“He also shut up their beast(s) to the hail,
and their possessions to the bolts.”

This couplet is parallel to that of v. 47 in referring to the plague of hail. The reference to “(fiery) bolts” (i.e., lightning bolts in the second line here suggests, based on the parallelism, that meaning of the obscure lm^n`j& in v. 47 should be comparable (“[fiery] sleet”?). The translation “possessions” is a literal rendering of hn#q=m! (plur.), referring to the people’s herds of livestock; it is parallel to “beasts” (collective) in the first line, a more general designation for herd animals.

The meter for each of vv. 46-48 is shortened (3+2 couplets).

The remainder of this section will be discussed in the next note.

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).


August 17: Psalm 78:32-39

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 23-31; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:32-39

Verse 32

“(But even) with all this, they sinned yet (more),
and did not set (their hearts) firm by His wonders.”

As in verse 17, the section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience and sinning (vb af*j*) against YHWH. The thematic refrain allows the Psalmist to progress through different stages of his survey of the history of Israel (in the Exodus period). The “wonders” performed by YHWH include the miraculous ‘raining down’ of bread and meat from heaven (cf. the previous note on vv. 23-31). Yet, even upon witnessing these further miracles, the people did not set their hearts firm (vb /m^a*, Hiphil stem) to trust in YHWH and to follow His Instruction.

Verse 33

“And (so) He made their days end in emptiness,
and their years in (ghostly) fright.”

This couplet summarizes the fate of the generation of the Exodus, nearly all of whom perished in the wilderness without ever entering the Promised Land (Num 14:29, 35; 26:64-65, etc). The parallelism is of their “days” ending in “emptiness” (lb#h#) and their “years” ending in “fright/terror” (hl*h*B#); there is a bit of alliterative wordplay between the nouns lb#h# (he»el) and hl*h*B# (beh¹lâ) that cannot be conveyed in translation. Both terms refer to the prospect of death (and the realm of the dead), as being both frightening and empty (especially for the wicked).

Verse 34

“When He slew them, then they searched (for) Him;
then they returned and sought early (the) Mighty (One).”

Only after enduring fierce judgment from YHWH, did the people repent and return to follow the way of God, at least for a time. This is expressed by the idiom of “searching” (vb vr^D*) after God, being especially common (also with the similar vb rq^B*) in the Psalms, Wisdom literature, and the Prophets. The idea of repentance, indicated here by the used of the verb bWv (“return”), is especially prominent in the Prophetic oracles, calling on the people to “return” to YHWH their God. The diligence of their “searching” is conveyed by the denominative verb rj^v*, which refers to rising early (in the morning) to do something.

Verse 35

“And they remembered that (the) Mightiest (was) their Rock,
and (the) Mighty (One), (the) Highest, their Redeemer.”

The term rWx (“rock”), as a Divine title, refers to El-YHWH as a source of protection for His people. It often alludes to the idea of a place of refuge, located at a secure position high upon a rock. The verbal noun la@G) (“redeeming”) refers to YHWH acting as one who sets His people free from servitude or bondage, like a family member who “redeems” (vb la^G`) his relative by paying the price necessary to secure freedom. In the historical context of the narration here, this salvation-motif certainly refers to the Exodus from Egypt—and the “wonders” performed by YHWH to bring it about.

Verses 36-37

“But (while) they opened to Him their mouth,
they also lied to Him with their tongue;
for their heart was not standing firm with Him,
nor were they fixed on His binding (agreement).”

By these lines it is clear that the people’s return to faithfulness (vv. 34-35, cf. above) was not entirely genuine; they may have been faithful outwardly, saying the right things with their mouth, etc, but inwardly their heart was not right with God. Again the verbs /WK and /m^a* are used to express this idea of faithfulness through the idiom of having one’s heart set firm (cf. vv. 8, 20, 22, 32), i.e., fixed in faith/trust and obedience to God. As in the opening section of the Psalm (cf. the introductory study), and in verse 10, faithfulness to YHWH is defined primarily in terms of fulfilling the binding agreement (tyr!B=, i.e., covenant) established between God and His people Israel.

Verse 38

“But he, (the) Compassionate (One),
wiped away (their) crookedness
and did not destroy (them);
indeed, many (times) He acted to turn away His anger,
and did not rouse all of His burning (rage).”

This is a summary of YHWH’s dealings with His people throughout their history, but particularly during the years of wandering in the Exodus period. He would punish them when they sinned, but ultimately forgave (vb rp^K*, wipe over/away) their perverse heart (lit. “crookedness,” /ou*), so as not to unleash upon them His full anger (and thus destroy them completely).

Metrically, this verse is comprised of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, followed by a 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 39

“For He remembered that they (are) flesh—
a wind going (away)
that does not return.”

This section closes, poignantly, with a Wisdom-statement, in the form of a 3+2+2 tricolon. The sentiment expressed here is found frequently in the Psalms and Wisdom literature, emphasizing the fleeting nature of human life and existence, in its mortality. The Wisdom texts often include a call for people to remember this point—e.g., Job 7:6-7; 10:9; Ps 39:4-5f; 89:47; 103:15f; Eccl 11:8; 12:1. For the comparison of human life with the wind, in its ephemeral nature, as it passes quickly and is then gone, cf. Ps 103:16, and the repeated refrain in Ecclesiastes (1:14, 17, et al); the comparison is particularly appropriate as applied to the life and aspirations of the wicked (Job 21:18; 27:21; Ps 1:4; 35:5; 83:3; Prov 11:29; 21:6).

The use of the term rc*B* (“flesh”) echoes the previous section (cf. the previous note on vv. 23-31), with the motif of the “flesh” (i.e., meat) sent down from heaven for the people to eat. Their request was made out of real human need (for food), and thus was based upon the limitations of their mortal human nature (as “flesh”); but it also reflected a faithlessness and lack of trust in God. As pointed out above, for the wicked, in particular, their brief life, after it has passed (like the wind), ends in emptiness (cf. above on v. 33).

August 16: Psalm 78:23-31

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 17-22; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:17-31 (cont.)

Verse 23

“And (yet) He commanded (the) clouds from above,
and (the) doors of (the) heavens opened (up).”

This couplet follows the angry reaction by YHWH (v. 21) to the people’s faithless response regarding their predicament (i.e., lack of food to eat in the desert), vv. 19-20, 22. The initial w-conjunction could indicate that God’s opening of the heavens is an expression of His anger (“and so…”), or that He fulfilled the people’s request in spite of it (“and yet…”); the latter would seem to be a better fit.

The noun qj^v^, which almost always occurs in the plural, refers to clouds of dust or other fine particles; it could be rendered “vapors” here. The idiom “doors/gates [yt@l=D^] of the heavens” is a bit unusual; somewhat more common is the idea of windows in the heavens (cf. Gen 7:11), through which the rain comes down. Again, YHWH’s control over the waters is alluded to here, even though the motif of rain is figurative in this instance—as God ‘rains down’ bread and meat, instead of water, from heaven (v. 24; Exod 16:4).

Verse 24

“And He rained down upon them man(na) to eat,
even grain of (the) heavens He gave to them.”

This couplet essentially paraphrases Exod 16:4, and the following description in vv. 13ff. In Exodus, the expression is “bread [<j#l#] from the heavens”, while here it is “grain [/g`D*] of (the) heavens” (however <j#l# [‘bread”] is used in v. 25). The use of <j#l# is more in keeping with the tradition (Ps 105:40; Neh 9:15), followed in the Johannine Bread of Life Discourse by Jesus (Jn 6:31ff).

Verse 25

“Bread of (the) mighty (one)s did man eat—
He sent to them provision to (the) full!”

Since this bread came down from heaven, it has a heavenly nature and origin; the implication here is that it is food that the heavenly beings would eat. The plural substantive adjective <yr!yB!a^ is more or less synonymous with <yh!ýa$—both have the basic meaning “mighty ones”, and refer to Divine/heavenly beings. The singular ryb!a* is used as a Divine title for El-YHWH in Gen 49:24; Psalm 132:2, 5; Isa 1:24; 49:26; 60:16. In other passages, the plural adjective refers to powerful animals (bulls, oxen), or to human leaders/warriors by way of an animal-epithet. The idea that this heavenly food conveys life to Divine beings is certainly of significance for the use of the tradition in the Bread of Life Discourse (cf. above). This surely was a special privilege—for human beings to eat the food of the gods (or angels)!

Not surprisingly, the heavenly source of this food meant that it gave nourishment and provision (hd*yx@) in a way that was completely and fully satisfying (cf. below on v. 29).

Verse 26

“He made the front-wind set out in the heavens,
and drove forth (the) right-hand wind by His power.”

YHWH’s activity in causing the bread and meat to ‘rain down’ emphasizes still further His control over the skies and all related atmospheric phenomena (wind, etc). On the role of the wind in bringing forth the meat from heaven—i.e., driving the quail down to earth—see Num 11:31. The term <yd!q*, denoting a front or forward position, directionally refers to the east; thus the “front wind” is the east-wind. Similarly, the “right-hand” (/m*yT@) wind is the south-wind.

Dahood (II, p. 242, and elsewhere) notes that the wide semantic-range of the preposition B= includes “from”, especially in poetry where the archaic usage tends to follow that of the Canaanite (Ugaritic) poetic style. Thus <y]m*V*B^ could be translated “from the heavens”, as befits the context.

Verse 27

“And He rained down upon them meat like dust,
and feathered wing(s) like (the) seas’ whirling (sand)!”

The meat (“flesh,” ra@v=) that God “rained down” on the people was in the form of birds—spec. quail (according to Exod16:13ff; Num 11:31ff); here the visual image is of the flurry of feathers ([ou) and wings ([n`K*). A mass of birds comes down like a great dust-cloud, or like the swirling sands of the seashore; the motif of sand, in particular, is used to indicate a vast number (Gen 22:17, etc).

Metrically, this is a longer (4-beat, 4+4) couplet, prompted some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 122) to emend the text for rhythmic consistency.

Verse 28

“And He made (it) fall in the midst of (the) camp-circle,
(and) surrounding (all) their dwellings.”

The visual image here is two-fold: (a) the birds fall within the bounds of the Israelite encampment (hn#j&m^), traditionally assumed to be in an arc or circle (derivation from the root hn`j*); and (b) within the camp they fall all around the individual tents. Thus the ground of the entire camp is practically covered with birds.

The meter of this couplet, too, is slightly irregular (3+2).

Verse 29

“And (so) they ate, and were filled up (full)y;
even their (very) desire He made come to them!”

On the satisfying abundance of the bread and meat that came down, cf. Exod 16:13ff; Num 11:32ff. The very abundance ultimately served as a kind of punishment for the faithlessness of the people, cf. Num 11:4, 19-20, 34.

Verse 30

“(Yet) they were not estranged from their desire,
(even while) their food (was) still in their mouths.”

From these lines, it is clear that the noun hw`a&T^ (“longing, desire”) has a negative connotation that goes beyond the natural longing for food; it alludes also to the pervasive faithlessness of the people. Moreover, the sense is of fleshly orientation that values satisfying one’s appetite, through greedy consumption, rather than obedience to God. On the basis for this idea in the tradition, cf. Num 11:33, where it is indicated that Divine judgment (in the form of disease/plague) struck the people while the meat was still in their mouth.

Verse 31

“And the anger of (the) Mightiest came up against them,
and He slew (many) of (their) fattest—
indeed, (the) choice (one)s of Yisrael He cut down!”

The motif of YHWH’s rising anger ([a^), introduced in v. 21 (cf. the previous note), is completed here; on the judgment that kills off (with disease) many of the people, cf. Num 11:33ff. Here, the emphasis on the people’s sinful craving continues, by identifying the slain as among the “fattest” ones—i.e., sturdiest and most vigorous. The implication is that chief among the slain are those most well-fed and with the largest appetite. Clearly, the tradition is being interpreted here from a moralistic standpoint, which is in keeping with the didactic purpose and wisdom-orientation of the Psalm.

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 “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).


August 15: Psalm 78:17-22

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 9-16; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:17-31

Verse 17

“And (yet) they continued still to sin against Him,
to defy (the) Most High (there) in the dry land.”

The theme of the people’s faithless disobedience, betraying the covenant with YHWH, was introduced in verse 8, and then becomes a key refrain in each of the main sections of the Psalm, emphasizing a repeated and continual pattern of disobedience. This is particularly indicated by the combination of the verb [s^y` (“add [to something]”, often in the sense of “repeat, do again”) with the adverb dou (indicating a repetition or return to something).

The people’s lack of trust, and breaking of the covenant bond with YHWH, is expressed here through two different idioms: (1) sinning (vb af*j*) against YHWH, and (2) stubbornly defying (vb hr*m*) Him. The verb hr*m* can carry the more forceful (and dramatic) connotation of rebelling against someone, provoking an intense anger.

In verse 15, the locative noun rB*d=m! was used; it is typically translated “wilderness” or “desert”, but properly means something like “place out back” (i.e., “outback”). Here, the specific idea of a desert region is intended, through the use of hY`x! (“dry/parched [land]”).

Verse 18

“And they tested (the) Mighty (One) in their heart,
(so as) to request something to eat for their throat.”

This couplet, which expounds the statement in v. 17, refers in a comprehensive way to the various traditions regarding the people’s grumbling over the lack of food and water in the desert (e.g., Exod 16:3; Num 11:4; 20:3; 21:5). On the motif of the people “testing” (vb hs*n`) God in their heart, cf. Psalm 106:14; also 95:9; Deut 6:16; and the reference by Paul in 1 Cor 10:9. This “testing” reflects a lack of faith and trust in YHWH.

The noun vp#n# is difficult to translate in the second line. Usually rendered “soul”, which makes a fine parallel here with “heart”, it can sometimes refer to a person’s desire or appetite (i.e., longing of the soul). On other rare occasions (and always in poetry), vp#n# has the more concrete (and physiological) meaning of “throat”. Here the specific juxtaposition of “heart” (one’s inward intent and desire) and “throat” (i.e., the physical longing of the body for something to eat) seems most appropriate.

Verse 19

“And they spoke out
against (the) Mightiest and said:
‘Is the Mighty (One) able
to arrange a table-spread
(here) in the outback?'”

The meter and structure of this verse is irregular and uneven, prompting Kraus (p. 121) to recommend eliminating the initial two words; admittedly, this would instantly produce a proper 3-beat (3+3) couplet, consistent with the metrical pattern of the Psalm:

“And they said: ‘Is (the) Mighty (One) able
to arrange a table-spread in the outback?'”

However, this also eliminates the clever bit of wordplay that frames the verse, by which the Psalmist may be playing on the different meanings of the two rbd roots—one meaning “speak”, and the other denoting “be in back”. As noted above, the locative noun rB*d=m!, though typically translated “wilderness” (or “desert”), properly means something like “place out back”. I have tried to capture this wordplay in English: i.e., the people “spoke out” (against God) regarding their being “in the outback”.

Verse 20

“‘See, He did strike (the) rock,
and (the) waters flowed,
and torrents poured down;
but is He also able to give bread,
or provide meat for His people?'”

The people’s expression of faithless questioning continues here from v. 19. It indicates that they saw the dramatic scene of copious water-streams pouring out of the rock, and understood its significance (as a miraculous act by YHWH); yet they could still doubt whether God was also (<g~) able to provide bread and meat for them to eat.

Verse 21

“So then—
(when) YHWH heard this, He boiled over,
and fire blazed (up) against Ya’aqob,
yes, even His anger came up against Yisrael;”

Structurally, this verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, to which is added an initial beat for dramatic effect. YHWH’s initial reaction to hearing the people’s skeptical questioning was to “boil over” (or cross over, be overcome, vb rb^u*) with anger. This causes a “fire” to ignite and ‘blaze’ (vb qc^n`) within Him; the fire (va@) is specifically identified emotionally with His anger, rising up (vb hl*u*) against His people. The noun [a^ typically heightens this sort of anthropomorphic imagery, by including the concrete (and vivid) motif of a person’s nostrils burning or flaring (i.e., like the snorting of an angry bull). More abstractly, the sense can be of the burning of a person’s face (as a sign of his anger). Here, however, it is the specific emotion of anger, expressed by YHWH, that best reflects the meaning of [a^.

For the corresponding reference in the tradition to this reaction by YHWH, cf. Numbers 11:1ff, where it seems that a real (physical) fire breaks out in the camp—i.e., the internal fire (of YHWH’s anger) is expressed naturalistically through an actual, destructive fire.

Verse 22

“because they did not set (their heart) firmly on (the) Mightiest,
and did not put (their) trust in His saving (power)!”

The parallel verbs /m^a* (Hiphil stem) and jf^b* both express the idea of having faith/trust in someone. The latter specifically refers to seeking refuge or protection, and is used frequently in the Psalms (46 out of 120 OT occurrences). The former verb (/m^a*) in the Hiphil (causative) stem denotes making something firm, or causing it to stand firm, etc; it is often used in the more abstract religious-ethical sense of having faith or trust—indicating that one’s heart is firm.

The remainder of this section (vv. 23-31) will be discussed in the next note.

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 “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).