Notes on Prayer: 1 Kings 8:31-32

1 Kings 8:31-40

Verses 31-40 of the Prayer of Solomon in 1 Kings 8 (cf. the previous studies) illustrate the principle of the centralization of worship for Israel/Judah, involving the Jerusalem Temple. The newly-built Temple (in the context of the narrative) clearly is intended to have a central position in the religious and cultural life of the people, continuing the tradition established with the earlier Tent-shrine (vv. 3-4ff). While the Tent-shrine was portable, moving along with the people, the Temple is built at a fixed (permanent) location. This has important implications for the religious experience of the people, and reflects the royal theology of the Kingdom. The people experience and relate to God, in a fundamental way, through the framework of the Temple and its ritual.

1 Kings 8:31-32

While most of the examples in vv. 31-40 emphasize the Temple as the focal point for the people’s prayers, the initial case involves social relations among the people. The ‘vertical’ relationship between the people and God has a corresponding ‘horizontal’ relationship of one person to another. Both need to be maintained, at both a ritual and ethical level, and the Temple plays a central role in this process.

However, with the specific example given in vv. 31-32, it can be a bit difficult to discern the precise situation being described. It is introduced with the substantive particle ta@, followed by the relative particle rv#a&. The particle ta@ often marks a predicate accusative (or direct object), but it can be used for other purposes as well; here it introduces a subject for discussion, and the combination rv#a& ta@ can be translated something like “in a situation where…”, “regarding (times) when…”. The specific situation in vv. 31-32 is summarized simply:

“when a man does wrong to his neighbor…”
ohu@r@l= vya! af*j$y# rv#a& ta@

The verb af*j* means “miss (the mark)”, often in the general sense of “fail to do (something)”, or with the specific ethical-religious nuance of “fail  to do (what is right)”, i.e., “do (something) wrong”. It corresponds to a(marta/nw in Greek, with both verbs being translated (in most instances) as “sin”. The phrase here can be rendered “sins against a neighbor,” but a somewhat more accurate translation is “does wrong to a neighbor”. The noun u^r@ denotes an associate, someone living or working close to another person; “neighbor” captures the general social situation.

The nature of the wrong done to a person is not specified, and it presumably could cover a wide range of offenses. It is serious enough, however, that the person who was wronged wishes to clear himself of any wrong-doing (on his own part) that could have justified such mistreatment by his neighbor. This touches upon a ritual aspect of life in the ancient world that is largely lost and foreign to us today. It involves the swearing of oaths, with the religious-magical force that such binding oaths were thought to possess. A formal action is described here in verse 31:

“and (if) he should impose on him a curse [hl*a*], to make him swear (under force of) the curse [vb hl*a*]…”

The principal verb is av*n`, which is typically used in the context of money-lending, and can refer to the imposition of a debt (and/or the exaction of it). Here the verb would presumably mean that an oath (with a curse) is imposed upon the person (who wronged his neighbor). However, some MSS read the visually similar verb ac*n` instead, which means “lift/take up” —i.e., take up an oath/curse.

The noun hl*a* denotes an imprecation or curse, typically in the specific context of a binding oath, etc. The related verb, in the Hiphil (causative) stem, indicates the forcing of someone to take such an oath—i.e., making them swear, under the force of a curse. The curse is an essential part of the oath, as it is intended to compel truthfulness and the fulfillment of any binding obligation. If a person violates the oath (or swears falsely), then the curse will come about against him/her. This is built into the magical character of the oath-idea: whatever the person utters in the curse-formula will come to pass if the oath is violated (or made falsely). Moreover, the deity thought to witness the oath will ensure that the curse comes about, as a form of divine punishment against the violator. In the context of Israelite monotheism, of course, it is YHWH who brings about the curse-punishment.

Thus, it is necessary that YHWH witnesses the oath (and its curse), and, for this reason, the oath is made, in a ritual (and symbolic) manner, in the presence of YHWH—that is, within the Temple precincts, in His “house”:

“…and he should come (and) utter the curse [vb hl*a*] before your slaughtering-place [i.e. altar] in this house”

The oath, with its curse, is made in front of the altar (lit. the place of [ritual] slaughter, j^B@z+m!) in the Temple courtyard. Based on the other examples given in vv. 33-40, one might suppose that it would be enough for the oath to be made in the direction of the Temple; however, at least in this situation, as it is described, the individuals are present at the Jerusalem Temple itself. The altar is a symbolic point of contact between the people and YHWH, a place where, in a ritual manner, they encounter His presence (the inner sanctuary being off-limits to the general population). By making the oath before God’s altar, the person makes the oath (and utters its curse) before God Himself.

Yet God is not actually present in the Temple, since His true dwelling is in heaven (cf. the discussion in the previous study); still, the request (and expectation) is that YHWH will hear the oath, and will respond accordingly:

“then you will hear (it in) the heavens, and you will act, and you will judge (between) your servants—to declare wrong (the one who is) wrong, (so as) to give (him) his (wicked) way (back) on his head, and to declare right (the one who is) right, (so as) to give to him according to his righteousness” (v. 32)

The prayer is that God will act to make clear who is right and who is wrong, punishing the wicked one and clearing/blessing the righteous. The adjectives uv*r* and qyd!x* are typically translated, in a religious-ethical sense, as “wicked” and “righteous”, respectively; here, however, the legal-judicial aspect of being “wrong” and “right” needs to be emphasized as well. The force of the curse, uttered in the oath, will come down upon the person shown to be wrong, and it is YHWH who will ensure this, as a matter of divine punishment against wickedness (and the false swearing of an oath).

In the ancient world, the swearing of oaths was a natural and normal component of social-relations, and served as an effective means of resolving disputes, securing truthful/honest dealings, and so forth. The magical-religious dimension of binding oaths (and their curse formulas) may be foreign to us today, with only a faint vestige remaining (associated with jury trials and other legal proceedings) in our culture; however, they played an important role in regulating interactions and relationships within society, helping to maintain a level of justice, fairness, and equity throughout. It is only natural that such oaths would be made, symbolically, in God’s presence, at the altar in the Temple. For the different approach to oaths that we (as Christians) are to follow, according to the teaching of Jesus, cf. my earlier article discussing the ‘Antitheses’ in the Sermon on the Mount (spec. the fourth ‘Antithesis’, Matt 5:33-37).

In the next study, we will survey the examples given in vv. 33-40.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 80

Psalm 80

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is another lament-Psalm (cf. the previous study on Ps 79), in which the Psalmist, representing the people (the righteous/faithful ones), prays to YHWH for deliverance. Dahood (II, p. 255) describes this Psalm as belonging “to the last days of the Northern Kingdom,” and this is almost certainly correct. From the opening verses, it is clear that the focus is on the northern territories. They have apparently been ravaged, but not yet completely conquered. The aftermath of the campaigns of Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.) would provide an appropriate setting. Readers of a certain traditional-conservative mindset may find such an historical context troubling, since it would seem to imply that the Psalmist’s prayer was not answered by YHWH—at least as regards the fate of the Northern Kingdom. However, this in no way invalidates the prayer as an expression of faith and hope. The righteous will be protected by YHWH, even in exile, and their descendants will eventually be restored to the Land.

The structure of Psalm 80 is defined by the repeated refrain, calling on YHWH to “return” (vb bWv Hiphil stem) to His people and save them. It seems better to view the refrain as representing the opening call for each stanza. I would divide the Psalm as follows:

    • Vv. 2-3—Invocation to YHWH on behalf of the northern tribes
    • Vv. 4-7—Stanza 1: Lament to YHWH
    • Vv. 8-14—Stanza 2: Illustration of the Vine
    • Vv. 15-19—Stanza 3: Prayer to YHWH
    • Verse 20—Concluding refrain

This is the eighth in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50. The meter of Psalm 80 is irregular, but tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format.

The musical direction in the heading matches that of Psalm 60 (cf. the earlier study), as a poem sung to an existing melody—the melody in this case being <yN]v^ov, “lilies” (cf. also Pss 45 and 69). The poem is also designated as an tWdu@, usually translated “testimony,” but properly referring to words that are to be repeated. In Ps 60, the indication is that there is a didactic purpose to the poem, which is “to be taught” (dM@l^l=), much like the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32; however, such a purpose is not as clear here for Ps 80. Perhaps the idea is that, even after the original historical context of the poem had passed, it was still useful for instruction, as a lesson for the people.

Invocation: Verses 2-3

Verses 2-3a [1-2a]

“O Shepherd of Yisrael, give ear,
(you) leading Yôsep like the flock;
sitting (between) the kerûbs, shine forth
before (the) face of Eprayim, [Binyamin] and Menašše!

These are the first two of the three couplets that open the Psalm, functioning as an invocation to YHWH, with the Psalmist calling on God to hear (lit. “give ear” to it) and answer his prayer. The needed response involves an action on behalf of the Israelite people, to save and protect them; this is described in terms of YHWH “shining (forth)” (vb up^y`, Hiphil stem). The theme of YHWH as a herder, guiding and protecting his people (as a flock/herd), was featured in the three previous Psalms (77:20; 78:52-53, 70-71; 79:13); it is a traditional motif, best known from Psalm 23 (cf. the earlier study). It is through YHWH’s manifest presence among the people, symbolized by his sitting on/above the Golden Chest (Ark) as his ‘throne’ (with its winged kerubs), that He guides Israel.

The northern focus is indicated by the pairing of Israel and “Joseph” = the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. The Psalmist’s prayer represents the northern tribes (i.e., the northern kingdom), pleading to YHWH on their behalf. The ravaging threat of the Assyrian military is presumably in view; as noted above, historical setting of the Psalm may be the aftermath of the campaigns by Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.).

The 3-beat meter would be preserved by omitting “Benjamin” from the final line, which is otherwise too long; this would also provide a cleaner parallel with “Joseph” in the first couplet. As there is no textual basis for omitting “Benjamin”, I have retained it in brackets above.

Verse 3b [2b]

“May you rouse your strength,
and come to (bring) salvation for us!”

This couplet is also irregular (2+3), and provides a more direct plea to YHWH for salvation. The call is for God to “awaken” (vb rWu I), i.e., to rouse Himself from ‘sleep’ (i.e., inaction). The implication is that He should act on behalf of His people, using His great might/strength. This means providing a military defense (and victory) that will save the Northern Kingdom from the Assyrians.

Stanza 1: Verses 4-7 [3-6]

Verse 4 [3]

“O Mightiest, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!

As noted above, this refrain begins each of the three stanzas (see vv. 8, 15), being repeated again in the final verse (v. 20). The wording varies slightly in each instance; thus, one should not be too quick to fill out the first line here (i.e., “Mighty [One] of the armies”), even though this would produce a more consistent 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The 2+3 meter of the verse as it stands (in the MT) matches that of the previous v. 3b.

The call is for YHWH to “return” (vb bWv) to His people. The use of the Hiphil (causative) stem could be understood in the transitive sense of “make us return”, i.e., “restore us”, in which case it would be possible to read the Psalm as post-dating the fall of the Northern Kingdom. In the initial invocation (cf. above), this returning is described through the idiom of YHWH fulfilling His role as Herdsman of His people, guiding and protecting them (from all threats). The idiom of YHWH “shining” forth (here, lit. “giving light”, roa Hiphil) also was introduced in the invocation (vb up^y` Hiphil). The motif of God’s “face” implies His protective presence, but also the manifestation of His anger—viz., against the enemies of His people (who are also His enemies).

Verse 5 [4]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies—
until when will you smoke (in anger)
at the prayer of your people?”

This verse is slightly irregular, and I treat it here as a 3+2+2 tricolon. The full expression “YHWH Mighty (One) of (the) armies” here perhaps explains the shortened form in v. 4 (cf. above), so as to avoid cumbersome repetition. The “armies” (toab*x=) refers to the heavenly/celestial entities, which YHWH created, and which do His bidding. They function as soldiers under His command, who fight on behalf of His people Israel. For references in the tradition of the celestial bodies (and other forces of nature) fighting for Israel, see, e.g., Josh 10:10-11; Judg 5:20-21; the storm-theophany applied to YHWH, has a strong militaristic emphasis, and is part of the same broad tradition (frequently in the Psalms, 18:10-14; 77:17-18; 144:5-6, etc). The more common expression is “YHWH of (the) armies”, which may preserve the original verbal force of the Divine name, i.e., “(the One) causing the (heavenly) armies to be” (i.e., creating them); cf. Cross, pp. 68-71.

In the refrain of v. 4, the implication is that YHWH’s anger (i.e., His “face”) should burn against Israel’s enemies, rather than against His own people. But here in verse 5 it is clear that, at least recently, His anger has been “smoking” (vb /v^u*) against Israel, presumably alluding to attacks by the Assyrians on the Northern Kingdom. Instead of smoking against their prayers, the Psalmist asks that God would answer their prayers (in favor of them), and burn/smoke with anger against Israel’s enemies.

Verse 6 [5]

“You have made them eat (the) bread of tear(s),
and made them drink tears three (times over).”

The suffering of the people is clear from this couplet, utilizing the traditional ancient Near Eastern motif of eating/drinking tears (cf. Psalm 42:4[3]; 102:10[9]) as a expression of extreme sorrow; this motif occurs, for example, in the Canaanite Baal Epic (Tablet VI, col. 1, lines 9-10, “she is sated with weeping, drinks tears like wine”). The final word vyl!v* presumably means “three (times over), threefold” (or possibly “three times [a day]”); however, Dahood (II, p. 257) suggests that the word may be related to Ugaritic ¾l¾, thus referring to a bronze/copper bowl or container (i.e., drinking a bowl full of tears).

Verse 7 [6]

“You have set us as strife for (those) dwelling by us,
and (those who) are hostile to us mock at us.”

The noun /odm* typically denotes some kind of fighting or strife, which fits the parallelism of Israel’s neighbors (“[those] dwelling [near]”) being hostile (vb by~a*); for a different explanation of /wdm, cf. Dahood, II, p. 257. Presumably, the mocking of Israel by her neighbors is a response to the Assyrian attacks, which have ravaged the Northern Kingdom and greatly reduced its status. Those hostile to the Israelites would naturally take advantage of the situation to mock and belittle them still further.

According to the MT, the suffixes in v. 6 are 3rd person plural, while those here in v. 7 are 1st person plural. This shift, it would seem, reflects the Psalmist’s identification with the people, functioning as their representative in prayer to YHWH. Most commentators follow the minority reading of the MSS (along with the LXX), Wnl* (“at us”) rather than the majority text oml* (“at them”).

The remainder of the Psalm (Stanzas 2 and 3) will be discussed in next week’s study.

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 “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).