Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 48 (Part 1)

Psalm 48

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsj (vv. 1-9 [1-8])

Much like the two prior Psalms, Ps 48 is a hymn on the Kingship of YHWH, with special emphasis on Jerusalem (Mt. Zion) as the King’s city. It continues the theme of YHWH as King over all the earth (and the nations), but who has a special covenant relationship with Israel, with His throne in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. This is an important component of Israelite (and Judean) royal theology. As long as Israel (and its king) remains faithful to the covenant, YHWH will continue to provide protection. The emphasis on Zion as a fortified location (on a hill) is a way of expressing this idea of God’s protection.

This Psalm consists of two stanzas (vv. 2-9 [1-8], 10-15 [9-14]), with a Selah (hl*s#) pause indicator marking the end of the first stanza. The meter is irregular, but the first stanza tends to follow a 2-beat couplet (or quatrain) format, with a brief shift to a 3+2 meter, before returning to a 2-beat quatrain in the closing verse.

The musical direction in the superscription is quite brief, somewhat oddly indicating that this musical composition (romz+m!) is also a “song” (ryv!). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to the study on Psalm 42/43.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“Great (indeed is) YHWH
and very much to be praised,
in (the) city of our Mighty (One),
(on the) mountain of His holiness.”

The second couplet emphasizes the mountain location of Jerusalem, which is somewhat misleading, since the city scarcely is located on a mountain, but rather a more modest hill. However, in Canaanite religious tradition, the Creator El (“[the] Mighty [One]”) resided on a great cosmic mountain. Any local mountain could represent this dwelling of El. The same was true in terms of Israel’s view of the dwelling of El-Yahweh. He could be seen as present upon any local mountain (such as Sinai/Horeb), or even a modest hilltop site such as Zion/Jerusalem.

Indeed, the original fortified hilltop site captured by the Israelites was the location for both the Temple and royal Palace-complex. While the name Zion (/oYx!, ‚iyyôn) could refer to the expanded city of Jerusalem, it properly signifies the smaller fortress-site (the “City of David”) where the Temple and Palace were built.

Verse 3 [2]

“Beautiful (in its) height,
(the) joy of all (the) earth:
Mount ‚iyyôn, (on the) sides of ‚aphôn,
meeting-place of (the) great King!”

The quatrain in this verse is composed of another 2-beat (2+2) couplet followed by a 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The first couplet emphasizes both the beauty of Zion and its elevated location (indicated by the rare noun [on)—so stated in the first line. Both of these attributes are figurative, rather than meant as a realistic description of the city itself. Both its beauty and its elevation are due to the dwelling of YHWH there. Zion thus represents, from a symbolic and ritual standpoint, the cosmic dwelling of El-Yahweh, traditionally understood as a great mountain filling the heavens. As the dwelling-place of God, Zion also brings joy, i.e., is a cause for rejoicing (cocm=), for the entire earth.

The second couplet makes two points. The first point is that Zion is on the “sides” (dual of hk*r@y+) of Zaphon. The noun /opx* in Hebrew commonly means “north”, though it literally refers to something “hidden” or stored away. However, in Canaanite tradition, a local manifestation of El’s cosmic mountain-dwelling (and also that of Baal-Haddu) was Mt. Zaphon, usually identified with Mt. Casius (modern Jebel el-Aqra’). This great mountain was certainly to the ‘far north’ of Jerusalem, and a suitable location for the dwelling of the Great King (El-Yahweh). El’s mountain-dwelling (also envisioned as a great domed tent) was traditionally understood as existing in the ‘far north’, which may explain the origins of the name Zaphon (/opx*). Clearly, Mt. Zion is being identified here with the cosmic dwelling of El, according to Canaanite (and Israelite) religious tradition.

In the final line, the hy`r=q! could be translated flatly as “city” or “town”, parallel with ryu! in v. 2 [1]. However, I have chosen to translate it here in a way that preserves what is likely the original meaning, as a “meeting place”. In this case, it is a place where the people can “meet” the Great King (YHWH), referring to the religious ritual surrounding the Temple and its sanctuary.

Verse 4 [3]

“(The) Mightiest (is) among her forts,
being known as a place set (up) high.”

This is a rather difficult couplet, largely due to the attempt of expressing a relatively complex matrix of ideas within the confines of a short 2-beat couplet. But the basic meaning seems to be that it is the presence of YHWH, dwelling among the fortifications of the city, that gives to Zion (Jerusalem) its secure position and protection. Remember that Zion properly refers to the old Canaanite hilltop fortress-site that was captured by Israel (in the time of David). The ancient fortifications, and elevated position, gave to the city some measure of protection against invaders and hostile peoples. However, Zion was scarcely a high mountain (like Zaphon), and the characteristic here of its being a bG`c=m!, literally a “place set high up”, is something of an exaggeration. Its figurative high elevation (and thus its secure position) is due to the presence of YHWH.

Even though the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) was used earlier in the Psalm, the occurrence of <yh!l)a$ here may be another example of substitution (for YHWH) in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (cf. also the closing line of v. 9 [8] below).

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“For, see! the kings are (gather)ed as appointed,
they passed by (the city) as one;
they saw (it and) thus were astounded,
they were terrified and (fle)d in fear.”

With this verse, there is a metrical shift in the stanza, from a predominantly 2-beat (2+2) couplet format to a 3+2 meter. The idea of kings gathering together, meeting at an appointed time and place, suggests that they have come together for a hostile purpose (cf. Psalm 2:1-2). The emphasis on protection in the previous verses certainly makes a military scenario probable here. The site of the grandeur and elevated position of Zion (Jerusalem) fills the kings with astonishment (vb Hm^T*). This turns to utter fear, causing them to flee in terror (vbs lh^B* and zp^j*). Their reaction, of course, is properly due to the presence of YHWH in the city.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“Trembling seized hold of them (right) there,
writhing like (that of one) giving birth;
(as when) by (the) east wind (they) are shattered,
(the proud) ships of Tarshish.”

The fear and trembling (du^r^) that take hold of the kings is here described with a pair of picturesque illustrations: (1) a woman in writhing pain (ly!j) while giving birth, and (2) trading ships (filled with goods) that are torn apart at sea by a powerful east-wind.

Verse 9 [8]

“Even that which we have heard,
so (now) we have seen (it),
in (the) city of YHWH of (the) armies,
in (the) city of our Mighty (One)!
(The) Mightiest will make her firm
until (the) distant (future)!”

As in the opening verse, so also at the close of the stanza we have a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain, though this meter is skewed slightly by the third line (which may be textually suspect [cf. Kraus, pp. 472-3]). The idea seems to be that the residents of Jerusalem (and Judah) have heard of how YHWH protected His city (and its people) in times past, but now they have witnessed this first hand. There is no way of knowing if any specific historical incident is in view, though the famous attack on the city by Sennacherib during the Assyrian invasion of Judah (701 B.C.) naturally comes to mind.

To preserve the poetic meter, I have translated the title toab*x= hwhy according to its abbreviated form, i.e., “YHWH of (the) armies”. However, the full sense of the expression must be understood according to its likely meaning as a sentence-title that retains the verbal force of hwhy, something like “(the One who) creates the (heavenly) armies”. From the ancient Israelite religious standpoint, once YHWH came to be used as the regular name for the Creator God (El), the expression is perhaps best understood as “YHWH, (commander) of (the heavenly) armies”, emphasizing His control over the heavens (forces of nature, Angelic beings, etc).

The final (3-beat) line is a declaration of praise to YHWH, confirming that He will protect His city, and continue to make it secure, far into the distant future (i.e., for all time). Almost certainly this Psalm well pre-dates the fall of Jerusalem (and the destruction of the Temple) in 587. It is interesting to consider how Israelites and Jews would explain this hymn from the standpoint of the Exile. The obvious theological explanation is that YHWH’s protection is contingent upon Israel/Judah remaining faithful to the covenant. As long as the nation, and its capital city of Jerusalem, remained faithful, God’s protection of her would last forever.

References above marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 47

Psalm 47

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (v. 2 [1])

This Psalm is similar to the previous Ps 46 in its theme of YHWH as King over all the earth (and the nations). However, it is much simpler, both in its message and its presentation. It has a simple hymn-format that would make it quite suitable for public worship. The Selah (hl*s#) pause indicator often serves as a marker for the structure of the poem, and that would seem to be the case here. The Psalm can be rather neatly divided into two short strophes (vv. 2-5 [1-4] and 7-10 [6-9]), with a central (transitional) couplet at v. 6 [5].

The central position of the v. 6 couplet strongly suggests the possibility of a ritual setting, involving a procession of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to the Temple, whereby the ceremonial enthronement of YHWH is celebrated.

The meter of the Psalm is irregular, but appears to be based upon a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. In contrast to the previous Psalms (45 and 46), which were called songs (ryv!), here the typical term romz+m! is used, indicating that the Psalm is a musical composition (i.e., both words and music). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to Psalm 42/43.

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“All peoples, you must clap (your) palm(s together),
(and) give shout to (the) Mightiest with a ringing voice.”

A proper interpretation of the Psalm depends on how one reads <yhlal here in v. 2 [1], along with the parallel use of <yhla in vv. 7-8 [6-7]. It is important to remember that <yh!l)a$ is plural noun, which literally means “mighty (one)s”; when used a common divine title (and word for deity), in the monotheistic context of Israelite religion, it is best understood as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “Mightiest (One)” (= YHWH, i.e. ‘God’). In the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (of which this Psalm may be counted), the title <yh!l)a$ is typically substituted in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH).

If the prefixed l= here is read in its customary sense (as a preposition of direction or purpose), then <yh!l)a$l@ would have to mean “to (the) Mightiest”, since all worship and praise must be directed to God (YHWH). However, Dahood (p. 284) would read the preposition in this instance as a vocative-l, in which case, we are dealing with a true plural, and the couplet would be translated:

“All peoples, you must clap (your) palm(s together),
(and) give shout, (you) mighty (one)s, with a ringing voice.”

This yields a synonymous parallelism (“peoples” | “mighty ones”), where the “mighty ones” could refer either to the chieftains and nobles, etc, among the peoples, or to their gods. However, based on the formal parallel with the first couplet of the second strophe (v. 7 [6], cf. below), the customary reading of <yhlal here is to be preferred.

Verse 3 [2]

“For YHWH (the) Highest (is to) be feared,
(the) great King over all the earth!”

This couplet gives the reason why the peoples of earth must worship YHWH: He is the King, the Sovereign, of the entire universe. The substantive passive participle ar*on is a bit difficult to translate here; literally it means “(one) being feared”, but in this context, the proper meaning is something like “(one) worthy of being feared”, i.e., “(one who is) to be feared”. The praise and worship given to YHWH is a sign of this proper ‘fear’ that is shown to Him. He is both the “Mightiest” and the “Highest” (/oyl=u#), i.e., most Exalted; cf. my earlier article on the title /oyl=u#.

Verse 4 [3]

“He pushed back (the) peoples under us,
and (the) gatherings (of people) under our feet.”

Here the contrast between Israel (the people of God) and the nations (the [other] peoples) is established. Since YHWH is the Creator (and King) of the universe, He is to be worshiped by all people everywhere. Yet Israel maintains its special position as the chosen people of YHWH. The subduing of the nations mentioned here presumably reflects the historical memory of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, but may also refer to the victories of the early kings (Saul, David, Solomon), through which the power of Israel reached its greatest extent, with surrounding nations either absorbed into the Israelite kingdom or made into vassal states.

The verb rbd here is best understood as a separate root (I) from the more common root (II) that denotes “speech/speaking”; the fundamental meaning of rbd (I) is “go back/behind”, which in the Hiphil stem would be something like “push/force back”. Cf. Ps 18:48 for another such instance.

Verse 5 [4]

“He chose our inheritance for Himself,
(the) rising of Ya’aqob, whom He loves.”

The parallelism required of this couplet (“for Himself” | “whom He loves”) prompts me to adopt the suggestion by Dahood (p. 285), that wnl here be understood as an archaic form (WNl^ = Canannite lanh¥) that preserves the longer form of the preposition l (ln). As he notes, when the verb rj^B* (“choose”) is used with YHWH as the subject, it virtually always is in the context of choosing something (or someone) for Himself (e.g., Psalm 135:4, etc); thus WNl^ here = ol.

I have translated /oaG+ quite literally as “rising”, but it here has the honorific connotation of “exaltation” —i.e., YHWH honors (exalts) Jacob (= Israel) by giving him the land of Canaan as his inheritance. This would also tend to confirm that the subduing the nations (under Israel’s feet) in the previous verse refers primarily to the initial Israelite conquest of Canaan. A secondary reference would be to the military victories under Saul, David, and Solomon, which completed the conquest, giving to the Israelite kingdom something close to the traditional borders of the Promised Land.

Central Couplet (v. 6 [5])

“(The) Mightiest has gone up with a ringing cry,
YHWH with (the) voice of (the sounding) horn!”

As noted above, this couplet is transitional between the two strophes of the Psalm, and almost certainly reflects the original ritual/ceremonial setting of the composition. The “going up” (vb hl*u*) of YHWH refers to the modest ascent to the site of the Temple sanctuary (i.e., Mt. Zion). It is quite likely that a ritual procession of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to the Temple was involved, the procession being accompanied by priests and musicians, etc, giving shouts of praise and blowing the ceremonial horn (rp*ov). Once the Ark (symbolically carrying YHWH) arrived in the Temple sanctuary, YHWH would be ceremonially enthroned and worshiped as King. This was a local/ritual realization of the universal Kingship of YHWH.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

Verse 7 [6]

“Make music, (you) mighty (one)s, make music!
Make music to our King, make music!”

The parallelism with the first couplet of the first strophe (v. 2 [1], cf. above) would seem to require that <yh!l)a$ here be translated as a true plural, “mighty ones”, parallel with “[the] peoples” in v. 2 [1]. Possibly, the reference could be specifically to the gods of the nations (their “mighty ones”), who give worship to YHWH as King over all. This is a roundabout way of demonstrating that the nations recognize the absolute superiority of Israel’s God (YHWH) and worship Him.

The customary rendering of this verse treats <yh!l)a$ here as = <yh!l)a$l@ in v. 2 [1]:

“Make music (to the) Mightiest, make music!
Make music to our King, make music!”

Some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 466) would emend the text to this effect.

Verse 8 [7]

“For (He is) King over all the earth—
mighty (one)s, make skillful music (to Him)!”

We have here the same ambiguity involving the use of <yh!l)a$; I read it again as a true plural (“mighty ones”), referring either to the chieftains and nobles of the nations, or to their gods. Again, the customary translation treats <yh!l)a$ as the Divine title (“Mightiest” = ‘God’)—

“For (the) Mightiest (One is) King over all the earth—
make skillful music (to Him)!”

but this yields an unsatisfactory 4+2 meter, and does not seem to be correct; nor have I seen any emendation that is worthy of adopting.

Verse 9 [8]

“(The) Mightiest (One) is King over [lu^] (the) nations,
(the) Mightiest sits on [lu^] (the) throne of His holiness.”

In this verse, unlike in the two prior couplets, <yh!l)a$ is the Divine title (“Mightiest [One]” = ‘God’); this may seem inconsistent, but it simply reflects the dual meaning of the plural term <yh!l)a$. Probably the use of <yh!l)a$ in the first line is an ‘Elohist’ substitution for the Divine name YHWH; in which case, the original form of the couplet would have been:

“YHWH is King over the nations,
(the) Mightiest sits on the throne of His holiness.”

The wordplay and the intentional contrast between YHWH (the Mightiest) and the “mighty ones” in vv. 7-8 strongly suggests that these “mighty ones” refer specifically to the gods of the nations, who are called on to admit the superiority of Israel’s God (YHWH) as King.

Verse 10 [9]

“(You) willing (one)s of (the) peoples, gather (round)
(the) people of (the) Mighty (One) of Abraham;
for to (the) Mightiest belong the protectors of (the) earth,
(and so He is) very much to be lifted up!”

Earlier in the strophe, the “mighty ones” of the nations were addressed, which, I believe, refers to the gods of the nations. The figurative turning of these ‘gods’ to acknowledge the Kingship of YHWH represents how the nations themselves will recognize the absolute superiority of YHWH. Here, however, a different plural term is used—<yb!yd!n+, which literally means “willing (one)s”, but sometimes connotes the nobility of the willing act (or of the person who so acts). It is possible, then, that the term here refers to the leaders (i.e., nobles) of the nations; if they willingly choose to gather around Israel, worshiping YHWH, the people of the nations (as a whole) will follow. There is a clear contrast between Israel (the people [<u^] of God) and the nations (the other peoples [<yMu^]).

The wording of the second couplet is awkward, and, as noted above, it is possible that the text is corrupt. The implication of the first line is that YHWH is King over all the other ‘gods’ of the nations, repeating the key theme of the second strophe. The noun /g@m* is often translated “shield”, but literally means “place of protection” or “place of cover”. It can be used as an honorific term for kings and rulers. Here the meaning is probably two-fold: (a) the royal power/authority of the nations belongs to YHWH (as King of the universe), and (b) YHWH is King over the ‘gods’ of the nations (i.e., the gods as their would-be “protectors”).

Whether the final line is correct as it stands, or has been truncated, the basic message is clear enough. Because YHWH is King over the universe, holding authority over all the nations (and their gods), he should be worshiped—i.e., exalted, “lifted up” (vb hl*u*).

In some ways, this final couplet is parallel to the central couplet of v. 6 [5] (cf. above). The worshipers “lift up” YHWH, presumably through the ritual act of carrying the Ark to the Temple sanctuary, the procession being accompanied by shouts of praise and ceremonial blowing of the horn. Now, at the close of the Psalm, all people everywhere, led by the willing/noble ones of the nations, are called upon to “lift up” YHWH in a similar manner. By “gathering (round)” Israel, the nations may follow the example of God’s chosen people, recognizing the Kingship of YHWH and giving to Him the worship that is His due.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 46

Psalm 46

Dead Sea MSS: This Psalm is not preserved in the surviving manuscripts

This Psalm may be characterized as a “song of Zion” —that is, a hymn focusing on Jerusalem and the Temple as the dwelling-place of YHWH. It is to be divided into three parts, or strophes, based on the occurrences of the poetic marker hl*s# (Selah) after verses 4, 8, and 12. Assuming that the first occurrence of hl*s# in the MT is correct (cf. the discussion below), it is possible that the closing refrain of the 2nd and 3rd strophes has dropped out of the text (between vv. 4 and 5) and could be restored.

Based on a three-strophe division, the thematic outline would be as follows:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 2-4 [1-3]): The covenant protection provided by YHWH, through his controlling power
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 5-8 [4-7]): The protection that YHWH gives to His city, Jerusalem (Zion)
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 9-12 [8-11]): The controlling power of YHWH as Creator and King of the universe

As with the previous Psalm 45, this Psalm is a “song” (ryv!)—that is, a poetic text set to an existing melody. This distinguishes it from an original romz+m!, or musical composition, including both words and music. Here the melody is defined by the term toml*u& (cf. also 1 Chron 15:20), which presumably means “(the) young maidens”; conceivably, it could refer to a mode or manner of musical presentation, rather than a specific melody. As with most of the musical directions in the Psalms, the precise meaning has been lost over the centuries.

On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah,” see the introduction to Psalm 42/43. It is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, using the common plural name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”) in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH), though not as thoroughly as in other Psalms (cf. the occurrences of hwhy that have been retained in v. 9 [8] and the refrain at the close of the strophes).

First strophe, vv. 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“(The) Mightiest (is) for us a place of protection and strength,
help in (time)s of distress, found in abundance.”

This first couplet establishes both the theme of the poem and the meter (4-beat bicolon, 4+4). The initial word is an example of the tendency in the ‘Elohist’ Psalter to substitute the plural term/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”), commonly used for deity (i.e., God), in place of the Divine name YHWH. The idea of God as a “place of protection” (hs#j&m^) and a strong ‘fortress’ (“strength,” zu)) is frequent in the Psalms. It is based on the protection YHWH is obligated to provide to his faithful vassals, according to the terms of the covenant.

The plural noun torx* (hr*x*, “pressure, stress, distress”) should be understood as “times of distress” (i.e., moments when one is in distress). The adverbial particle da)m= has intensive force, and is best rendered here as “in abundance,” or something similar. It is not unusual for a poetic line to end with the particle da)m=; however, cf. Dahood, p. 278, for a different reading of dam.

Verse 3 [2]

“Upon this [i.e. for this reason] we will not fear at (the) changing of (the) earth,
even at (the) sliding of (the) mountains in(to the) heart of (the) sea.”

The protection provided by YHWH is fundamental (v. 2 [1]), it extends even to the experience of the most terrifying natural disasters (defined here as “the changing [vb rWm] of the earth”). Such changes can result in catastrophic conditions for human beings, even to the point of wiping out an entire city (or civilization). Here it is illustrated with the image of a mountain (or hill) collapsing with a rock-slide down into the depths (lit. the “heart”) of the sea. God’s people do not need to be afraid of such natural disasters, much less the milder forms of distress we are likely to encounter.

Verse 4 [3] {a}

“(Though) its waters clamor and boil (up),
and (the) mountains shake at its rising.”

This couplet follows v. 3 [2], and belongs with it conceptually. It represents a reverse-image: instead of the mountains collapsing down into the sea, they quake with fear (vb vu^r*) as the waters (of the sea) rise up (verbal noun hw`a&G~). The same basic idea of a earth-shaking natural disaster is in view, and the command not to fear (in v. 3) covers this verse as well.

The meter shifts in this couplet from the 4-beat (4+4) pattern to a shorter 3-beat (3+3) rhythm.

Verse 4 [3] {b}

“<YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!>”

If the marker hl*s# (Selah) following v. 4 [3] is correct (cf. the discussion by Dahood, p. 280), marking the end of the strophe, then it is possible that the recurring refrain (found in the other two strophes) has dropped out and could be restored. Such a restoration, indicated by the angle-brackets, is presented above. The protection/fortress motif continues here with the noun bG`c=m!, which means something like “place (set) high up”, i.e., a safe place in a protected and inaccessible location.

Second Strophe, vv. 5-8 [4-7]

Verse 5 [4]

“(The) river (with) its streams gives joy (to the) city of (the) Mightiest,
(the) Most High makes holy His dwelling-place.”

The mixture of images here is a bit curious (cf. Dahood, p. 280, for a different way of reading and dividing vv. 4-5). Certainly the idea of a river running through Jerusalem (and associated with the Temple) is attested in exilic and post-exilic prophecy (Ezek 47; Zech 14:8). That eschatological imagery probably reflects the original garden-paradise of Eden (Gen 2:6-14), i.e., the Garden of God. Here, almost certainly, such an association with Creation (and God as Creator) is in view (cp. Psalm 65:9). However, the cosmological aspect may go deeper than that, with an allusion to the ancient Near Eastern myth of the ‘Conflict with the Sea’. The turbulence of the sea in vv. 3-4 (cf. above) may allude to this ancient motif of the chaotic primeval waters which were ‘defeated’ and subdued by God, bringing order to the created universe. By subduing the waters, God affirms His control over them. It is thus a fundamental image of the sovereignty of YHWH over the cosmos, of God as both Creator and King.

In the Canaanite Baal Epic, following Baal Haddu’s defeat of the Sea (Yamm, cf. the plural <yM!y~, yammîm, here in v. 3), to mark his position as king and ruler over Creation, Baal is given a magnificent dwelling-place, a palace in the heavens. Something of this same mythological language almost certainly was applied to YHWH in ancient Israel, connecting the Jerusalem Temple with God’s work of Creation and His rule as King over the entire cosmos. Here, the dwelling-place (/K*v=m!) of YHWH is consecrated (lit. “made holy”). With Kraus (p. 459) and other commentators, I read vdq as a Piel verb form, to be vocalized as vD@q! (“make holy”). From a religious and ritual standpoint, the cosmic/heavenly dwelling of God is localized in the Jerusalem Temple sanctuary. Traditionally, in ancient Canaan, the dwelling of the Creator El (as also that of Baal Haddu) was localized on a mountain. The same was true of YHWH (El-Yahweh) among the Israelites and other Semitic peoples (i.e., the sacred site of Mt. Sinai/Horeb). The Jerusalem location of the Temple (Zion) was, in its own way, such a ‘mountain’.

Verse 6 [5]

“(The) Mightiest (is) in her midst, she shall not be shaken,
(for the) Mightiest will help her, at (the) turn of day-break.”

The meter of vv. 5-6 [4-5], as we have them, is irregular, but symmetric: a 4+3 couplet, followed by a corresponding 3+4 couplet. Conceptually, the two verses are also related, as can be seen by the emphatic (three-fold) use of the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, in place of YHWH). The “river” in v. 5 [4] represents the presence of YHWH, and also His creative, life-sustaining power (cp. Psalm 65:9). This is made more explicit here in v. 6, where it is stated that God is “in the midst of” His city (HB*r=q!B=, “in the midst of her”). The Divine presence is the source of protection for Zion (“He will help her”). And the protection is immediate, coming at the very moment of day-break, and lasting all day long.

Verse 7 [6]

“(The) nations clamored (and) kingdoms shook,
He gave (forth) with His voice, (and the) earth melted.”

The 4-beat (4+4) metrical pattern is restored here in this verse. Thematically, this also marks a return to the imagery of vv. 3-4. The “clamor” (vb hm*h*) of the sea and the “shaking” (vb fom) of the mountains are here applied to the nations (and their kingdoms), as they react to the presence and power of YHWH. The manifest presence of God in creation is expressed by the all-encompassing sound of thunder, i.e., as the “voice” of God. This illustrates the extent to which YHWH shares certain characteristics and features with Baal Haddu (as worshiped by the Canaanites). The cosmic kingship of YHWH, like that of Baal Haddu, was expressed through storm theophany—i.e., God as manifest in the storm. It is an altogether natural (and powerful) way of depicted God’s authority over the world (and the nations of the world).

We see how this ties back to the message in the first strophe. God’s people need not be afraid, even in the face of natural disaster, because YHWH is sovereign and has control over all of nature. His word and His voice created the universe, and it can just as easily dissolve the created order again, turning it into a formless mass (“the earth melted”).

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

On this refrain, cf. the discussion on v. 4 [3] above. The divine name (hwhy, YHWH) here is not substituted (by <yh!l)a$), possibly because the traditional title toab*x= hwhy was so well-established that it was not deemed appropriate to alter it in context. The title, which occurs frequently in the Old Testament, probably derived from a sentence-epithet, applied to the Creator (°E~l)—viz., “(the) Mighty (One) [la@], (who) creates (the heavenly) armies”. Once the verbal element hwhy came to stand on its own, as the primary name of God, this epithet was curiously reduced (in syntax) to an awkward contrast form: i.e., “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies”. I have tried to preserve something of the original meaning, with a more expansive gloss: “YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies”.

Third Strophe, vv. 9-12 [8-11]

Verse 9 [8]

“Come, behold (the thing)s done by YHWH,
who has put (away the) horrors on (the) earth.”

The theme of YHWH as Creator and King over the universe is given greater emphasis in the final strophe, making for a dramatic and majestic conclusion to the Psalm. However, the precise wording here in this initial couplet (the second line) is problematic. Literally, the MT would read “…who put horrors in the earth”, or “…who put devastation in the earth”. While this would generally be appropriate to the imagery in v. 7 [6] (cf. above), as well as the violent judgment against the nations expressed in v. 9 [8], it does not seem to fit the overriding theme of YHWH exerting His control and authority over creation. Possibly, the idea is that the devastation (caused by His judgment) leads to order and peace.

Dahood (p. 281) points out the important relationship between this line and the one that follows in v. 9, where the emphasis is on YHWH putting an end to war. He notes the famous refrain that runs through portions of the Canaanite Baal Epic (Tablet III, column iii, lines 14-17, etc):

“Place war (down) in the earth,
set love in the dust;
pour peace amid the earth,
tranquility amid the fields.”

The passionate (and violent) extremes of war and love are to be buried, and replaced by peace and tranquility. Dahood suggests that twmv be read as cognate to Ugaritic šmt (“oil, fatness”), from šmnt (Heb hn`m@v=, cf. Gen 49:20). It is an interesting proposal, but I find it ultimately unconvincing. Perhaps the line can be explained more simply by understanding the common verb <yc! (“set, put”) here in the specific sense of “put (away), set (aside)”. This interpretation would fit precisely with the first line of v. 10 [9]: YHWH puts an end to the devastation caused by humankind, the warfare of the nations.

Verse 10 [9]

“He is making wars cease, to (the) end of (the) earth:
he breaks (the) bow, and he cuts off (the) spear,
(the) wheeled (chariot) he burns with fire.”

This verse builds upon the idea of YHWH as King, exercising his power and authority to put an end to the devastation caused by humankind (the nations) on the earth (v. 9 [8]). Here it is described specifically in terms of destroying the ability of nations/kingdoms to make war. The 4-beat couplet format of the Psalm is expanded in this verse, for dramatic effect, to form a 4+4+3 tricolon. The abolishing of war is complete and universal—it covers the entire earth, from one end (hx#q=) to the other.

Verse 11 [10]

“Let (them) drop and know that I (am the) Mightiest,
(who) stands high o(ver) the nations, high o(ver) the earth!”

The precise meaning of the first imperative (vb hp*r*) is uncertain. The fundamental meaning of the root is “sink, drop, weaken”; here the Hiphil form indicates a definite act (i.e., “let sink, let drop”). In my view, this is best understood in light of the overall theme in this strophe of YHWH putting an ending to warfare. He is essentially telling the nations to “let their weapons drop”, “let their arm (and their warring spirit) sink”. A cessation of violence and hostility is required, in the face of YHWH’s power as King over all the universe. Instead of their warring acts, the nations must stand down and acknowledge (“know”) that YHWH is the Mightiest One (i.e., God over all, the Creator and King). He stands high (vb <Wr) over all the nations—indeed, over the entire earth. The implication, of course, is that the nations must recognize the greatness of YHWH. In the end, confronted by the awesome presence of God Himself, humankind has no choice but to acknowledge Him as Sovereign over all.

Verse 12 [11]

“YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The same refrain from the second strophe (v. 8 [7], and cf. also on the first strophe, v. 4 [3]) is repeated here, making a most suitable conclusion to the Psalm. Given the description in the strophe of YHWH’s sovereign power and control over the entire universe (including all nations and their kingdoms), it only confirms the promise expressed in the refrain. God’s people can trust that He will protect them in the face of danger, as long as they remain faithful to Him.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 45 (Part 2)

Psalm 45, continued

As noted in the previous study, this Psalm is a love song (td)yd!y+ ryv!, lit. “song of loves”), identified by most commentators as an epithalamium, or wedding song—for the royal wedding between the king and his bride. The first part of the song (vv. 2-10 [1-9]) is addressed to the king, the second part (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) is addressed to the queen.

The meter in this second part tends to follow, quite consistently, a 2-beat couplet (2+2) and/or quatrain (2+2+2+2) format.

Verses 11-18 [10-17]

Verse 11 [10]

“Hear, daughter, and see,
and bend your ear,
and forget your people,
and (the) house of your father.”

This verse is best divided as 2-beat quatrain, containing a pair of 2+2 couplets, much as we find a 2-beat meter in sections of vv. 2-10 [1-9] (cf. the previous study). The “daughter”, i.e., the young bride intended for the king, is called to be obedient (“hear…bend the ear”) to the arranged marriage, willing to leave her family and relatives (“your people…house of your father”). On the traditional principle involved, cf. Gen 2:24 (cited in Mk 10:7 par, etc).

Verse 12-13a [11-12a]

“And he shall desire your beauty,
for [the king] he is your lord,
and you must bow down before him,
with a tB* of Tyre as a gift.”

The 2-beat meter requires that the first line of v. 13 [12] be recognized as part of the unit (a quatrain). Consistency would also require that the word in square brackets (“the king”, El#M#h^) be omitted as a secondary addition (cf. Kraus, p. 452); it may have been added to make clear who “he” (aWh) is.

Dahood (p. 274f) points to 2 Kings 23:7 and Isa 3:20 and would read tb as a noun meaning something like “robe” (i.e., a luxurious woven garment). Tyrian garments had a well-established reputation as luxury items, and would have been appropriate as a wedding gift. The bride is apparently presenting this garment as a gift for the king. The standard translation of rx tb is “daughter of Tyre” (rx)-tB^), in which case the bride would presumably be identified as a Tyrian princess; however, I tentatively follow Dahood’s line of interpretation above.

Verse 13b [12b]

“They shall entreat your face,
the rich ones of the people(s)”

This couplet marks a minor transition in the section. Even as the bride must make homage before the king, so also the nobles and distinguished guests will pay homage to her. The verb hl*j* (II) means something like “seek favor (from), appeal to”. It would seem that gifts are also involved in this process.

Verse 14-15a [13-14a]

“All her splendid (raimant is), inside,
(made with) settings of gold;
(in) her clothing, brightly embroidered,
she is brought along to the king.”

These lines are difficult, and may well be corrupt (cf. Kraus, p. 452, and Dahood, p. 275, for different ways of explaining them). I have chosen to keep to the Masoretic text, with the only emendation being the elimination of “daughter of the king” (ilm-tb), in the first line, as a secondary (explanatory) addition, similar to “the king” in the second line of v. 12 [11] (cf. above). The removal of it yields a consistent 2-beat quatrain.

Even if it is not possible to explain these lines in precise detail, the overriding idea seems clear enough. The bride is honored with gifts of rich and luxurious clothing, which she herself wears as she approaches the king during the wedding ceremony. Her clothing is brocaded with gold on the inside (hm*yn]P=) and with richly colored embroidery on the outside.

Verse 15b-16 [14b-15]

“(The) virgins (following) behind her,
her companions coming before her,
they shall be brought with gladness and joy,
they shall come in(to the) palace of (the) king.”

There would seem to be rhythmic shift in these lines, with a 2-beat couplet (v. 15b) followed by a 3-beat (3+3) colon (v. 16). The bride is surrounded by young maidens in the wedding train. It is not necessary to require that two separate groups (“virgins behind her…companions before her”) are involved; the parallelism in the lines is such that it may represent two ways of referring to the same thing.

In any case, the entire procession is brought along (vb lb^y` in the causative stem, as also in v. 15a) into the royal palace-room where the main wedding ceremony will take place. It is a time of great happiness and joy (lyg], literally denoting a twirling or spinning [with joy]).

Verse 17 [16]

“Under your fathers
shall be your sons,
you shall set them to (be) princes
o(ver) all the earth.”

This verse could be read as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, though it seems better to keep to the 2-beat format that has dominated this part of the Psalm (cf. above). The lines would seem to express a wish for children to be born to the royal couple—sons to continue the dynasty and to serve as princes (<yr!c*) throughout the kingdom.

The preposition tj^T^ literally means “under”, but often denotes “in place of”, which is certainly the sense here. The royal offspring will take the place of their fathers before them, as kings and princes in the dynasty.

Verse 18 [17]

“I will cause your name to be remembered
in every circle and circle (to come);
upon this (the) peoples will throw you (praise)
into (the) distant (future) and until (the end)!”

These closing lines echo the opening lines in v. 2 [1] (on which, cf. the previous study). The poet returns to declare how his art will serve to praise and honor the king on this occasion of the royal wedding. The song that he composes will (a) cause the king’s name to be remembered by future generations (rd)w+ rD), “circle and circle”, from one cycle to the next, i.e. generation to generation, age to age), and (b) cause those future generations to praise him.

Indeed, although we do not know the name of the king for whom the song was composed (assuming it was written for a specific king), the preservation of the Psalm within the Old Testament Scriptures has given the song an enduring legacy. It has continued to be sung or recited (as well as being read) by generations of Israelites, Jews and Christians, for more than 2500 years. And, even though we may no longer have the same appreciation for royalty and kingship today, the symbolism, as it is expressed in the inspired poetry of the Psalms, remains vital for us. This is so, if for no other reason than that the ancient royal imagery (and theology) in the Old Testament exerted a tremendous influence on Messianic thought. This Messianic tradition, in turn, was applied to the person of Jesus, giving us (as believers) a rich trove of images and motifs with which we, like the Psalmist, may give praise and honor to the King.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 45 (Part 1)

Psalm 45

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 8-11 [7-10]); 11QPsd (vv. 6-8 [5-7])

This Psalm is unusual in that it is addressed, not to God (YHWH), but to the king and his queen. It is called a “song of love” (td)yd!y+ ryv!, lit. “song of loves”) in the superscription, and commentators typically identify it as an epithalamium, or wedding song—that is, for the royal wedding between the king and his bride. This may seem to us a peculiar subject for a sacred hymn, considering how kingship has been devalued in the modern age. Even in countries which still maintain the figure of a king (or queen), the honor attached to the office only faintly resembles that of kingship in the ancient world.

It is thus difficult for us to appreciate the religious and theological aspects of ancient Near Eastern kingship. Indeed, a royal theology pervades the Psalms, and is directly relevant to the background and setting of many compositions. The king had a divine status; at the very least, he functioned as God’s representative on earth. The ancient Israelite concept of kingship was tied to the covenant between YHWH and Israel. If the king remained faithful to YHWH, and did not fall into wickedness and false/aberrant religion, then he would receive the Divine blessing and protection. This covenantal relationship was an extension of the binding agreement between YHWH and the people.

The Psalm is rather clearly divided into two parts. The first part (vv. 2-10 [1-9]) is addressed to the king, the second part (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) is addressed to the queen. The meter in the first part is irregular, with 3-beat units alternating with 2-beat units (and even occasional 4-beat units). A triad or tricolon format tends to be followed, though there is considerable confusion and difference of opinion regarding how to divide and delineate the verse-structures. In a few places the text may well be corrupt, but there is no clear guidance for how it may be safely (and accurately) emended. I have, for the most part, followed the Masoretic text, though not always its vocalization and word-division.

On the term lyK!c=m^ and the attribution to the “sons of Qorah,” see the introduction to Psalm 42/43. It is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, using the common plural name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”) in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH). The direction <yN]v^v)-lu^ (“[sung] upon [i.e. according to] ‘Lilies’ [?]”) presumably refers to a particular melody.

Verses 2-10 [1-9]

Verse 2 [1]

“My heart is stirred (to this) good word,
(and) I am speaking my creations, (my) king!
My tongue (is the) pen of a swift recorder.

This is a relatively rare example of the Psalmist describing the creative process of his art. The idea seems to be of a poet-singer at court, making use of an improvisational style of composition. He is inspired (“my heart is stirred”) to this poem, and speaks it (creating it) in the moment. He did not write it out or compose it beforehand; rather, on this occasion (the king’s wedding?), he creates it as he speaks/sings it out loud (in performance).

The verb vj^r* occurs only here in the Old Testament, so its meaning is uncertain. Evidence from later Hebrew suggests a meaning of “stir”, which would be appropriate for a poet’s inspiration. It has been suggested (cf. Dahood, p. 270) that this vjr is a metathetic variant of the root vrj (II), which has the fundamental meaning “engrave,” but which can be used figuratively in the sense of “devise,” i.e., create, compose (cf. Zeph 3:17).

Metrically, this first verse is an extended 4-beat (4+4+4) tricolon.

Verse 3 [2]

“You are most beautiful from (the) sons of men,
favor having been poured on your lips—
upon this has (the) Mightiest blessed you f(rom the) distant (past)!”

The curious doubled form typypy has been parsed as a Pealal verb form, probably to be understood in an intensive (and/or iterative) sense. Assuming its derivation from the root hpy, denoting something that is “bright, beautiful, fair,” etc, here it would mean “the most beautiful,” the one who is truly beautiful. A fine handsome form, setting him apart from other human beings (“from [the] sons of men”), would be a traditional indicator of someone destined for (and worthy of) the role of king (cf. regarding Saul in 1 Sam 9:2; 10:23-24).

Such a man has been favored by YHWH, gifted by God to be king. Not only is he handsome in appearance, but is gifted in speech (“in/on your lips”)—a helpful, if not necessary, attribute of leadership. Both his fine physical appearance and eloquence in speaking are signs that YHWH has blessed him. The expression /K@-lu^ literally means “upon this”, and can be translated in English as “from this (we know that…)”.

The temporal expression <l*oul= can mean “from the distant (past)” or “into the distant (future)”. Both would be valid in context, but I have opted for the first, implying that YHWH has (pre)destined the chosen individual to be king. It could also indicate that the Divine blessing will remain upon him, so long as he remains faithful, for the remainder of his life (and for all time).

It is possible, however, that <l*oul= is a secondary addition to the text, since the final line of the tricolon in the MT seems to be overloaded, leading to an irregular 3+3+4 meter, whereas one would expect a consistent 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 4 [3]

“Gird your sword upon (your) thigh!
Be strong (in) your splendor and honor!”

The blessing of YHWH on the king is marked by the apparel and accoutrements that he wears, symbols of (divine) honor and splendor (the nouns doh and rd^h^, similar in meaning). Chief among the king’s apparel is his sword, representative of his ability to protect his people (and their territory) and to subdue the enemies of Israel. This militaristic aspect is elaborated in the verses that follow.

I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 271) in reading rbg as an imperative (vocalized rb^G+, “be strong…!”), parallel with rogj& (“gird [on]…!”) in the first line. Rhythmically, the verse is a 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 5 [4] ab

“Press through (and) ride upon a word of truth,
and work justice (for the) oppressed”

A most difficult verse. It is quite possible that these lines are corrupt, but any attempt at emendation must be considered tentative at best, especially without any supporting evidence from the Qumran manuscripts (the verse is not among the portions that have been preserved). With some hesitance, I follow commentators such as Kraus  (p. 451) in reading the opening word of v. 5 as a dittography (i.e., repetition from the closing word of v. 4), and have omitted it.

With this adjustment, the first two lines of the verse form a fine 3+2 couplet. Overall, the sense seems clear enough. The king is to act in his role as protector of the people, using the symbols of his majesty (including his military trappings of sword, horse/chariot, bow and arrows, etc) to establish justice  and righteousness. When he “presses through” (vb jl^x*) and “rides” (vb bk^r*) into action, he must do so “upon a word of truth [tm#a#, lit. firmness]”, with special attention being paid to working to bring justice (vb qd^x*) for the oppressed. I follow Dahood here (p. 272) in dividing the consonantal text differently than the MT, reading qdxh wnuw: “and work justice [Hiphil of the verb qd^x*] (for the) oppressed” (comp. Psalm 82:3).

Verse 5c-6a [4c-5a]

“and (the thing)s bringing fear in your right hand will point you,
your arrows (indeed are) sharp!”

As the king rides to bring justice to the land, the weapons (lit. “[the thing]s causing fear”) in his ‘right hand’ point the way for him. There is a play on words here with the idea of “pointing”, as the very arrows he holds—and which he would fire against the wicked and other enemies—are also “pointed” (i.e., sharp, vb /n~v*). Metrically, this is another 3+2 couplet, and probably should be joined together with the prior couplet (in v. 5ab [cf. above]) as a poetic unit.

Verse 6 [5] bc

“(The) peoples under you shall fall,
in heart, (the) hostile (one)s of the king!”

There are also difficulties surrounding this verse, primarily due to the curious (and tantalizingly incomplete) evidence from the Qumran manuscript 11QPsd. Without clearer elucidation, any attempt at emending the text here is questionable, at best. Somewhat reluctantly, I have held to the MT, which provides a reasonably clear (if slightly awkward) couplet. The surrounding peoples, who would set themselves as being hostile to the king of Israel, will fall under him. This suggests a military defeat, with the king benefiting from the power and protection of YHWH (fighting on his side). Even more significant, perhaps, is the further implication that the peoples may submit, falling under his authority “in [their] heart”, without the need of actual battle.

Verse 7 [6]

“(The) Mightiest has enthroned you,
(from the) distant (past) and until (the end),
(and) a staff of straightness
(is the) staff of your kingdom.”

Since the Psalmist has been consistently addressing the king, the apparent shift to addressing God (Elohim = YHWH) in this verse seems out of place. Dahood (p. 273) suggests that the opening word, iask, should be read as a (Piel) denominative verb (with object suffix), from the noun aS@K!, “ruling-seat, throne”. This is an attractive solution, despite the lack of textual evidence, and I have followed his suggestion above.

The king is able to subdue his enemies and establish justice in the kingdom because YHWH (Elohim) has put him on the throne. This implies that God protects the king (so long as he remains faithful), and works/fights on his behalf. The king’s rule is symbolized by his staff (fb#v@), which produces a straight and fair result, leading to righteousness, justice, and equity for the people. This straightness (rovym!) reflects that of YHWH Himself.

Verse 8 [7] ab

“You have loved justice and hated wickedness—
upon this, (the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One) has anointed you”

Metrically, this is a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, but could also be divided as a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain, which yields a cleaner and more attractive result (and follows the same meter as v. 7 [6] above):

“You have loved justice
and have hated wickedness;
upon this He has anointed you,
(the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One).”

The anointing (vb jv^m*) of the king is here equivalent to his enthroning by YHWH (in the prior verse); it is another way of referring to the establishment of his kingdom and rule (by God). The righteous character of this person is indicated by the fact that he “loved justice and hated wickedness”, even before becoming king. Indeed, it was because of (lK@-lu^) this righteous character that YHWH chose to anoint him as king.

The doubling of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”) in the last line is another clear indication of how, in the Elohist Psalms, <yh!l)a$ was substituted for the Divine name YHWH (hwhy). In its original form, the line almost certainly would have read: “…YHWH, your Mighty (One)”.

Verse 8c-9a [7c-8a]

“(The) oil of rejoicing (is on) your robes,
myrrh and aloes and cassia all (on) your garments.”

The meter here returns to a 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The imagery develops the idea of the king’s anointing. The sacred oil of his anointing has permeated all of his garments (and his surroundings). The meaning of iyrbjm is uncertain. The context, and the parallel with ;yt#d)g+B! (“your garments”), suggests that something like “your robes” is intended. The root rbj fundamentally means “join together”, and the use of the nouns tr#b#j) and tr#B#j=m^ in Exod 26:4, 10; 28:27 shows how it can refer to sewn or woven fabrics (drapes, curtains, etc).

Along with the oil, the king’s garments are fragrant with aromatic spices, another indication of the honor and splendor (and sacredness) that was associated with kingship in the ancient Near East.

Verse 9b-10 [8b-9]

“From (your) palaces of (ivory) tooth,
how they make you joyful,
(the) daughters of kings (who)
stand among your precious (one)s,
(and the) queen to your right hand,
in (the) gold of Ophir.”

I read this final portion as a sextet, or trio of 2-beat couplets. The splendor of the king’s surroundings continues here with a scene in the royal palace-rooms, filled with ivory (lit. the “tooth” or tusk of elephants). Further filling this splendid environment are the “precious ones” of the royal court, especially the noble ladies (“daughters of kings”). Among these women stands the queen, clothed in gold (from Ophir). The queen stands at the right hand of the king, and it would seem that the scene has shifted, most subtly and skillfully by the poet, to the moment of the royal wedding.

In any case, the mention of the queen makes for a suitable transition to second part of the Psalm, which is specifically addressed to her.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 3)

Psalm 44, continued

In the first two parts of this Psalm (see the earlier studies on vv. 2-9 [1-8] and 10-17 [9-16]), the Psalmist recounts the great deeds performed by YHWH in protection of His people, and then the suffering and loss that came upon them when He removed that protection. Clearly, the latter involves conquest of the land and exile of the people, even if the precise historical circumstances indicated by the Psalm cannot be determined. At the very least,the conquest/exile of the Northern kingdom would have occurred, and we can fairly assume a time-frame no earlier than the end of the 8th century B.C.

The reason for YHWH removing His protection, and allowing the conquest/exile of the people, is not stated in the Psalm, but would have been known to anyone familiar with Israelite history (especially as it is presented in the Prophetic Scriptures). It was the flagrant (and repeated) sin by the people, the violation(s) of the covenant bond with YHWH, that led to the punishment of conquest/exile. The breach of covenant took the form, primarily, of idolatry—that is, the worship of deities other than YHWH.

While the Psalmist identifies with the people, he does not identify himself with the sin that brought about the exile. This suggests that he may belong to a younger generation, Israelites who had to endure the punishment (the suffering and shame of exile, etc), even though they were not directly responsible for the sin that led to it. Throughout the final section of the Psalm, the protagonist affirms his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH, identifying himself with the righteous ones.

Verses 18-27 [17-26]

Verse 18 [17]

“All this has come (upon) us,
and (yet) we did not forget you,
and have not been false by (the) binding (agreement).”

This opening verse is (loosely) a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, emphasizing, as noted above, that the Psalmist is among those who have remained faithful to the covenant (tyr!B=, lit. “binding [agreement]”) with YHWH, even as he has to endure the suffering and disgrace of life in exile. This faithfulness is expressed by two verbs in the negative: jk^v* (“forget,” i.e., “we did not forget you”) and rq^v* (“be false, act falsely,” i.e., “we were not false regarding the covenant”).

Verse 19 [18]

“Our heart has not moved back behind,
and our footsteps (never) bent from your path.”

Both in their intention (“our heart”) and their daily conduct (“our footsteps”), the righteous have not strayed from the path of faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. This image of walking the path or way of God is a common Wisdom motif, and occurs frequently in the Wisdom writings (including many Psalms). Here the jr^a) signifies a well-worn and traveled road, meaning primarily that the track is well-defined and clear. The allusion is to the commands and regulations of the Instruction (Torah), which represent the terms of the agreement (covenant) with YHWH.

Verse 20 [19]

“For you have crushed us in (the) place of monsters,
and (then) covered over us with (the) shadow of death.”

The emphasis in this couplet shifts back to the idea of the suffering of the righteous (in exile). The first line is uncertain. The Masoretic text has the expression <yN]T^ <oqm=B! (“in the standing-place of monsters”), which could stand as an apt description of the polytheistic heathen environment where the righteous now dwell (in exile, i.e., within the Assyrian/Babylonian empire). However, Dahood (p. 267) suggests that the consonantal text be divided differently, as <y]n~t=m* qomB=, “with decay (in the) loins”. Here the image is of a festering illness/sickness that can lead to death—a familiar motif in the Psalms, as we have seen.

In any case, the life of suffering and shame can be described as living “in the shadow of death [tw#m*l=x^]”; this idiom occurs with some frequency in Old Testament poetry—cf. the famous occurrence in Psalm 23:4; also 107:10, 14, and 10 times in the book of Job (3:5; 10:21-22; 12:22; 16:16; 24:17, etc).

Verses 21-22 [20-21]

“(Yet) if we had forgotten (the) name of our Mighty (One),
and stretched (out) our palms to a strange(r’s) Mighty (One),
would not (the) Mightiest (One) have searched this (out)?
for He (is One) knowing (the) hidden (place)s of (the) heart.”

Verse 21 [20] is related to v. 20 [19] as a confirmation of the Psalmist’s faithfulness. Even though YHWH has “crushed” him (and the other righteous ones now in exile), this was not due to his disloyalty to the covenant. He makes clear that he has not worshiped or recognized any deity besides YHWH. The divine name in the first and third lines is the plural <hy!l)a$ (Elohim), which I translate as “Mightiest (One)”, or, when with a possessive suffix, as “Mighty (One)”. The second occurrence here (in line 3, first line of v. 22 [21]) is likely an Elohist substitution for hwhy (YHWH).

In line 2, “Mighty (One)” translates the related singular noun la@, the common Semitic word for deity, and the title for the High Creator God (El). Here it is used in the general sense of deity (i.e., a[ny] god). The designation rz` means that it is a deity worshiped by the surrounding peoples; literally it refers to people who have “turned aside” to dwell (among the Israelites), but it is often used simply to designate a non-Israelite (i.e., a stranger/foreigner). Thus the connotation here is specifically a non-Israelite deity—that is, a deity other than YHWH.

There is no point in the Psalmist making such a confession if it were not true, that is, if he really had worshiped other gods (and thus would be deserving of punishment). Since YHWH knows the “hidden places” of every person’s heart, He would surely know if there were any inclination to idolatry (i.e., veneration of other deities) in the Psalmist’s heart. Such idolatry in Israel led to the punishment of conquest and exile, but the Psalmist denies that he is guilty of any such sin. This kind of affirmation of loyalty to YHWH is frequent in the Psalms, often featuring as part of an appeal to YHWH (as Judge) by the Psalmist that he is innocent of any violation of the covenant.

Verse 23 [22]

“(But it is) that over you we are being slain all the day (long),
considered as sheep (for the) slaughter.”

The prepositional expression ;yl#u* (“over you”) is emphatic, and can be understood a couple of different ways. It may carry the sense of “for your sake”, that is, because we are your people. Another possibility is that it refers to the purpose and action of YHWH— “because of you”, i.e, because you have done this or willed this. In any case, the current suffering of the Psalmist (and other righteous ones like him) is not because of any disloyalty to YHWH on his part; rather, it is because he belongs to the people that has endured the punishment from YHWH.

This punishment involves some measure of persecution by the nations in which Israel is exiled. Such persecution was described extensively, if in rather general terms, in the second section of the Psalm (cf. the previous study). Here it is described by the motif of slaughter. Two different roots are used for this: the first, gr^h*, is the regular verb for the slaying of a human being; the second, hb^f*, for the slaughtering/butchering of an animal (for food). The idea of sheep being slaughtered is used in a number of Old Testament (Prophetic) passages for the suffering of the people, and, in particular, of the judgment that comes upon them (cf. Isa 53:7; Jer 12:3; 25:34; Zech 11:3).

Probably this should be understood in a general, figurative sense here, rather than specifically to the idea of the people of Israel being killed. However, the experience of persecution may, in fact, involve instances of people being put to death, just as, sadly enough, we find it amply recorded in the long history of anti-Israelite and anti-Jewish violence.

Verse 24 [23]

“Rouse (yourself)! For what [i.e. why] do you sleep, my Lord?
Awaken! May you not reject (us) to (the) end!”

The Psalmist calls on YHWH to act, to end this condition of suffering and disgrace for His people. This is done utilizing the motif of rising/waking from sleep. To suggest that a deity is ‘asleep’ means that there is no obvious evidence that he is acting (on behalf of his adherents), which gives the impression that he is sleeping. This motif is used as part of the anti-Baal polemic in the Elijah narratives (cf. 1 Kings 18:27). As the true God, El-Yahweh cannot be “asleep” in that sense (Psalm 121:4); rather, his ‘sleep’ means that He seems to be inattentive to the prayers of His people (cf. Dahood, pp. 267-8).

Verse 25 [24]

“For what [i.e. why] have you hidden your face,
(so that) you forget our oppression and our distress?”

The apparent lack of response, to the prayers of the righteous for deliverance, can also be described by the image of God hiding (vb rt^s*) His face. Dahood (p. 268), here, and at other points in the Psalms, would read the verb as derived from the root rWs (“turn [aside]”); the meaning is comparable, since God “turns away” His face when He “hides” it. The suffering of the people is described by a pair of nouns with similar meaning: (1) yn]a(, “oppression”, with the fundamental meaning of being bent/pressed down; and (2) Jj^l^, “distress, pressure”, with the basic idea of being squeezed. The first root (hn`a*), in particular, occurs frequently in the Psalms, in reference to the righteous (and their suffering).

Verse 26 [25]

“For our soul is bent down to the dust,
and our belly sticks (hard) to the earth.”

Here the idea of being pressed down, from v. 25 [24], is described vividly, in terms of a person laying down on the ground. The people collectively, in spirit (“our soul”) as much as in body, are forced to bow down (i.e., are bent down, vb hj*v*) to the ground, to the point of crawling/laying down in the dust. The second line extends the image further, to that of a person laying flat on the ground (on his/her belly), a prostrate position that well symbolizes both weakness and humiliation.

Verse 27 [26]

“Stand (up now and) give help to us,
and ransom us as response to your goodness!”

The call in v. 24 [23] (cf. above) is repeated here, though in the more general terms of standing up (i.e. rising) to give help to one who is in need. Along with Dahood (p. 268) and other commentators I read htrzu as a verb (rather than noun) form, “give help”; it probably should be parsed as a precative perfect, parallel in meaning with the prior imperative (hm*Wq, “stand [up]!”).

The call for YHWH to act is based on the binding agreement (covenant). The Psalmist throughout has affirmed his loyalty to the covenant bond, and his faithfulness means that he is deserving of the protection that YHWH is obligated to provide. According to the terms of the covenant, YHWH must keep His loyal vassals safe from danger, rescuing and fighting on their behalf, just as He did for Israel in times past (cf. the study on the first section of the Psalm). As I have previously noted, the noun ds#j#, while having the basic meaning of “goodness, kindness”, is often used in a covenant context, where it connotes faithfulness and loyalty. That is very much its meaning here; the rescue (lit. “ransom,” vb hd*P*) that the Psalmist asks for is based on, and must come as a response to (/u^m^l=), YHWH’s own faithfulness to the covenant.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 2)

Psalm 44, continued

The first part of this Psalm (vv. 2-9 [1-8]), cf. the previous study) emphasized the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Here we are looking at the second part. The meter in this section tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though there are certain exceptions, particularly several 3+2 couplets, which are noted below.

Verses 10-17 [9-16]

Verse 10 [9]

“But you rejected (us) and brought disgrace on us,
and you did not go forth with our armies.”

The opening particle [a^ is adversative, indicating a transition (and point of contrast) with the first section of the Psalm. YHWH’s support for Israel, including fighting battles on her behalf, has changed to rejection (vb jn~z`). He no longer travels with the armies of Israel to provide his Divine power on their behalf. This has led to military defeats, and to humiliation and disgrace (vb <l^K*).

Verse 11 [10]

“You made us turn back from (the) adversary,
and (the one)s hating us took plunder for themsel(ves).”

Here the context of military defeat is made clear; Israel’s defeat in battle reflects YHWH’s withdrawal of His support. As a result, Israel is forced to turn back from her enemies.

Verses 12 [11]

“You have given us, like sheep, (as something) eaten,
and among (the) nations you have scattered us.”

This 3+2 couplet combines herding and agricultural imagery—i.e., sheep raised to be slaughtered for meat, and grain tossed (threshed) about after harvest. Both reflect the idea that the people of Israel, following their military defeats, are overpowered and devoured/consumed by their enemies. The first line alludes to conquest, the second to exile. It is not possible to isolate a specific historical setting for the Psalm, but this reference to exile suggests a time no earlier than the late-8th/early-7th century B.C. (following the Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom and/or the southern conquests during the invasion of Sennacherib).

Verse 13 [12]

“You sold your people with no wealth (coming),
and did not think much by (the) price for them.”

The exile motif of v. 12 [11] continues here with the idea of YHWH selling off (vb rk^m*) His people—that is, like slaves. Not only that, but God sold them at a low price, with “no (real) wealth [/oh]” coming from the sale. Indeed, He did not even bother to set a significant price (ryj!m=, plural) for them, indicating that He did not “think much” (vb hb^r*) of their worth. The harsh and derisive wording here should be seen as rhetorical in nature, a kind of exaggeration to show how far Israel has fallen in God’s eyes.

Verse 14 [13]

“You set us (as) an insult for (those) dwelling (around) us,
(as) mocking and laughter for (those) surrounding us.”

It is possible that this couplet is meant to express life in exile. Certainly there are other people dwelling (vb /k^v*) around Israel, and the verb bb^s* (“[en]circle, surround”) in the second line may suggest that the Israelites are a minority, being surrounded by other nations and peoples. More important is the fact that Israel’s defeats—including conquest and exile—has led to them being an object of ridicule among the nations. Three nouns are used to express this, within the synonymous parallelism of the couplet: hP*r=j# (“insult, cast blame, treat with scorn”), gu^l* (“mocking, derision”), and sl#q# (something of no value, a target of laughter/derision, i.e. ‘laughing-stock’)—the latter two words being close in meaning.

Verse 15 [14]

“You set us (as) an example (of shame) among (the) nations,
(for) shaking of head(s) among (the) peoples.”

Another 3+2 couplet, which follows closely in meaning and tone after v. 14 [13]. Not only has Israel become a target for derision among the nations, they have turned into a veritable example for the shame and disgrace that can befall a people. The noun lv*m*, often translated flatly as “proverb”, fundamentally refers to a likeness, and here it seems to be used in the sense of a pattern or “example” of a people’s shame. The nations can only “shake (their) head” (a literal translation of the idiom var)-dogm=) at what has become of Israel. This is perhaps to be understood in light of the first section of the Psalm, with its references to the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (in the past) on behalf of Israel, things which caused amazement (and fear) among the nations. Now the nations are amazed in a different way: what has happened to this people who had God on their side?

Verse 16 [15]

“All the day (long) my humiliation is in front of me,
and (the) shame of my face has covered me.”

The wording of this couplet would seem to make clear that, in terms of the Psalm-setting, the shame (of exile) experienced by Israel is a present condition. The Psalmist counts himself among the people, shifting from the plural (“us”) to the singular (“me”). He experiences this humiliation and shame (tv#B)) “all the day (long)”. The sense of disgrace is complete and overwhelming, “covering” him. Dahood (p. 266) suggests that the problematic suffixed verb yntsk should be read as a Pual (passive) form, understood in a privative sense—i.e., “the shame of my face is uncovered (before) me.”

Verse 17 [16]

“(It is) from (the) voice of (the one) insulting and reviling,
(and) from (the) face of (the one) hostile and taking vengeance.”

The overwhelming shame and disgrace heaped upon Israel (in exile) is two-pronged: it comes from the voice of the nations (i.e., their speech), and their faces (i.e., their attitudes and how they treat Israel). The abusive speech is characterized by the verbs [r^j* and [d^G` which are similar in meaning (“insult, revile,” etc). While the nations’ attitudes and behavior toward Israel reflects hostility (vb by~a*) and a desire to take revenge (vb <q^n`). All four verbs are participle forms, indicating a situation that is continuous, and that is characteristic of the relationship between the nations and Israel.

This part of the Psalm makes for rather depressing reading, with its litany of suffering and repeated descriptions of the abuse Israel has suffered (from the nations) since YHWH has withdrawn His support. The reason God has ceased to support Israel is not stated, but anyone familiar with the Scriptural account of Israelite history would know that it was due to violation of the covenant bond—acts of wickedness and idolatry that led to YHWH bringing judgment upon His people.

Sadly, the abuse directed at Israel has not been limited to the Exilic period, but has continued, in a variety of ways, during the many centuries since—a long period which can be seen as a continuation of Israel’s exile and ‘dispersion’ among the nations. The “nations” have frequently mistreated the Israelites and Jews who dwelt in their territories, often in harsh and terrible ways. This is to the shame of the “nations” themselves, as much as it is for Israel.

Fortunately, the Psalm does not end here. In the final part (beginning with verse 18 [17]), we find expressed a profound hope for Israel’s restoration, for deliverance from their suffering among the nations. This expectation is tied to a collective affirmation by the people of a renewed loyalty to the covenant with YHWH. We will examine this section of the Psalm in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 1)

Psalm 44

Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsc (vv. 3-9, 23-25 [2-8, 22-24]); 4QPsc (vv. 8-9 [7-8]?)

This Psalm is a lament, written from the standpoint of the people, or nation as a whole. It appears to have an Exilic setting, to judge from the statement in verse 12 [11]; at any rate, the kingdom has met with crushing defeat, and it has led to exile of the population. Possibly the Assyrian conquests are in view, which would indicate a late 8th or 7th century date, but some commentators would place it in a later period; the lack of clear historical references do not allow for a precise dating.

The superscription is essentially the same as that of Psalm 42-43. On the term lyK!c=m^, and the identification of the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the study on that Psalm. This is an ‘Elohist Psalm’, using the general plural term/title <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm, understood as an intensive plural, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “God”) in place of the Divine name hwhy.

I divide this Psalm into three parts, the first of which (vv. 2-9 [1-8]) ends with a Selah pause. It emphasizes the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“Mightiest (One), with our ears we have heard,
our fathers have recounted (it) for us:
the deed(s which) you did in their days,
in (the) days (now gone) before”

The meter of this initial couplet is 3+2, typical of the so-called qina meter often used in poems of lament. The first section opens with a traditional reference to the history of Israel, marked by the great and wondrous deeds done (luP, both noun and verb) by YHWH on the people’s behalf. These deeds are presented as something told in narrative form, as a traditional tale (or tales) passed down from earlier generations (“our fathers…”, “…in days before”). Certainly this would have included the story of the Exodus from Egypt, with the miraculous deliverance at the Reed Sea, as well as accounts of the Conquest of Canaan (under Joshua), and the victories under the Judges and the first kings of Israel (Saul, David). Some of these existed in a poetic form that could be taught and committed to memory (cf. Exod 15:1-21; Judges 5); the great poems also formed the core of the larger historical narratives (in the Pentateuch and Joshua-Kings) that developed by the time of the Exile.

The opening word, <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim), used in place of the Divine name YHWH, marks the ‘Elohist’ character of this Psalm.

Verse 3 [2]

“You, (with) your hand,
dispossessed (the) nations and planted them,
broke apart (the) peoples and sent them (up).”

This verse is to be parsed rhythmically as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet preceded by a 2-beat line. The short initial line serves to build dramatic suspense, emphasizing that it is God (YHWH) who achieved the victories and successes for Israel; He did this with His own Divine power (His “hand”). The nations / peoples are contrasted with “them” —that is, with the people of Israel. This refers primarily to the nations of Canaan who were “dispossessed” (vb vr^y` in the Hiphil stem) of their land and “broken apart” (vb uu^r*) as national and territorial entities. In their place, Israel was “planted” in the land, where God’s people would “send (up)” (jl^v*) their shoots and branches—that is, grow and prosper. This imagery is ancient, and can be seen as early as the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:13-17).

Verse 4 [3]

“For it was not with their sword (that) they possessed the land,
and their arm did not work salvation for them;
(but it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them.”

The meter of this verse is quite irregular: an extended 4+3 couplet, followed by a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The initial couplet plays on the emphatic contrast in v. 3 [2] using the suffix < *– (“them, their”), referring to the people of Israel. In v. 3, the contrast was with the nations, while here it is with YHWH. The contrast emphasizes the point made in the initial line of v. 3—that is was God’s own hand that achieved these successes for Israel. Ultimately, victory and deliverance from enemy forces was not won by Israelite strength and military power (“their sword”), but by the power of God. This is expressed beautifully by the terse tricolon and closes the verse here:

“(it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them”

On the shining “face” (lit. “turning[s]”, <yn]P*) of YHWH as a manifestation of His fiery anger and judgment (against the wicked), cf. 34:16; 80:16, etc. The reverse of this is the motif of God’s face “shining” on the righteous in love and benevolence (4:6; 11:7; 17:15; 31:16; 67:1, etc). When the righteous experience suffering and misfortune, it seems that YHWH has turned away His face or has “hidden” it (10:11; 13:1; 27:9; 30:7, etc).

Verse 5 [4]

“You (are) He, my King (and) my Mighty (One),
commanding (act)s of salvation (for) Ya’aqob.”

The Psalmist, in addressing YHWH, identifies Him as the same one who did these things for Israel (Jacob) in the past: “You (are) He” (aWh-aT*a^). This expression also serves to establish, most emphatically, the declaration “you (are) my King and my God”. Here “Mighty (One)” = “Mightiest (One)” (<hy!l)a$). With Dahood (p. 265) and other commentators, I divide MT hwx <yhla as hwxm yhla (hW#x^m= yh*l)a$, “my Mighty [One], commanding…”).

Verse 6 [5]

“In you we butted (horns against) our adversaries,
in your name we trampled (the one)s standing (against) us.”

With God’s own strength on their side, the Israelite people are able to defeat their enemies. The imagery is that of a powerful animal, like a ram, butting (vb jg~n`) its opponent and trampling (vb sWB) him. The parallel of “in your name” with “in you” illustrates again how, in the ancient Near Eastern mind, the name of a person is a manifestation and embodiment of the person himself. To be protected and strengthened by God’s name means being protecting/strengthened by His very presence and power.

An important grammatical shift takes place in this verse, as the Psalmist now speaks in the first person plural (“we…”), rather than the third person (“they/them/their”). He, and the righteous ones of his generation, identify themselves with the Israel of the past.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“For not with my bow did I seek protection,
and my sword did not bring me salvation,
(but) you have saved us from our adversaries,
and (the one)s hating us you have put to shame.”

These two couplets essentially restate v. 4 [3] (cf. above), but with the Psalmist (and other righteous ones) taking the place of the Israelites of old, and thus speaking in the first person, as in v. 6 [5] (i.e., “our sword” instead of “their sword”). However, the point is the same: it was not our strength and military skill that won the victory, but the power of YHWH working on our behalf.

Verse 9 [8]

“In (the) Mightiest (One) we shout all the day (long),
and (to) your name we throw (praise) into (the) distant (future).” Selah

The first section closes with this declaration of praise and worship for YHWH (the “Mightiest [One]”, Elohim). The righteous ones shout (vb ll^h*) praise “in” YHWH—that is, in His power and presence (cf. above). But they also throw (vb hd*y`) praise to Him—specifically, to His name, which, as noted above, means the same as giving praise to Him.

References marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 3)

Psalms 42-43, continued

Psalm 43:1-5

This is the third and final stanza of the psalm (cf. Parts 1 and 2 for the first and second stanzas).

Verse 1

“Judge (on) my (behalf), Mightiest (One),
struggle (for the sake of) my struggle:
from a nation with no goodness,
(and) from a man of deceit
and injustice, help me escape!”

The opening verse of this stanza consists of five 2-beat lines, and the terse staccato-like rhythm seems to highlight the dramatic situation facing the Psalmist. He makes his plea to God for deliverance, framed as a legal petition, made to YHWH in His role as Judge. As previously noted, in these ‘Elohist’ Psalms, the general title “Mightiest (One)” (<yh!l)a$, Elohim) is regularly used in place of the Divine name hwhy.

At the end of the second stanza (42:10-11 [9-10]), the Psalmist’s suffering was described in terms of attacks and taunts by his adversaries, and this theme is picked up here in verse 1. Now, however, the adversaries are understood as the wicked generally—and this human wickedness is realized both in terms of nations (“a nation with no goodness”) and individuals (“a man of deceit and injustice”). While I have translated the substantive adjective dys!j* and noun hm*r=m! according to their fundamental meaning (“goodness” and “deceit”), both terms have a special meaning in the context of the covenant bond; dys!j* denotes one who is faithful and loyal, while hm*r=m! can specifically indicate treachery or betrayal. The root lw#u* basically signifies a departure or deviation from right conduct, whether in a moral-ethical or legal sense. Since a judicial context in involved, it is appropriate to translation the noun hl*w+u^ as “injustice”.

The judicial setting is clear enough from the first two lines, with the use of the verb fp^v* (“judge, render judgment”) and by byr!. This latter verb means “struggle, grapple”, but regularly in the sense of a legal contest—i.e., for justice, in a court of law. The double-use of the root, with the related noun byr!, emphasizes the idea of a legal fight (by God, on behalf of the Psalmist). This suggests that YHWH is as much a legal advocate for the Psalmist as He is the actual Judge in the case.

Verse 2

“For you are the Mighty (One) of my place of refuge—
(so) for what [i.e. why] do you reject me,
for what [i.e. why] do I walk about (clothe)d in darkness,
in (the) pressure of the (one) hostile to me?”

The imagery in this verse shifts to YHWH (“Mighty [One]” = “Mightiest,” Elohim) as a place of protection for the Psalmist, lit. a “place of refuge” (zoum*). The legal aspect of the covenant with YHWH has been replaced by the socio-political—referring to the protection which the sovereign is obligated to provide for his faithful vassal.

The last two lines echo 42:10 [9] (cf. the previous study on stanza 2), with the image of the Psalmist forced to go about in darkness (i.e., dark in color/dress, like one in mourning) because of the oppression he faces from his enemy. The singular verbal noun by@oa (“[one] being hostile”) can be understood as a human adversary, or the great enemy Death himself (that is, the danger facing the Psalmist is life-threatening). As the second line makes clear, the protagonist feels that God has turned away from him (vb jn~z`, “reject, repel”), leaving him vulnerable to the attacks of his enemies. This is the reason for the appeal to YHWH, calling for both justice and protection, on the basis of the covenant bond.

Metrically, this verse generally follows the pattern of v. 1, with its sequence of 2-beat lines; here it is a quatrain, with the rhythm 3+2+2+2.

Verse 3

“Send (out) your light and your truth,
they shall be my guide (to safety),
they shall bring me to (the) hill of your holiness,
and to (the) places of your dwelling.”

Having established the covenant-basis for his appeal, the Psalmist now requests that God act on his behalf. In spite of the legal/judicial setting of verse 1, the action requested by the Psalmist is one of rescue. This is indicated by the use of the verb fl^P* in v. 1, and also the noun zoum* (“place of refuge”) in v. 2. This place where YHWH will provide protection is further described here in v. 3 as the “mountain of [God’s] holiness” (i.e., His holy mountain), and the locale where He Himself dwells (plur. of /K*v=m!, “dwelling-place”). The idea of El-Yahweh residing on/in a great mountain (shaped like a giant tent) is an ancient Semitic cosmological (and religious) motif. While the mountain is an archetypal symbol, it can be realized at the practical conceptual (and ritual) level in any local mountain or hill-top site. Here the emphasis is on the presence of YHWH—i.e., the place where He dwells.

The fact that the Psalmist specifically calls for YHWH to send His light (roa) and truth (tm#a#, signifying “firmness, certainty”), illustrates that what threatens him is understood primarily in an ethical-religious sense—as wickedness and injustice. The lack of faithfulness and loyalty (dsj) is a primary characteristic of the wicked, but also a tendency to act falsely and with deceit (on both points, cf. verse 1 above). In the second stanza (42:10-11 [9-10]), the attacks by the wicked involve slanderous taunts against the Psalmist. Truth and light serve as the antidote for the poison of such dark slander.

Verse 4

“And I will come to (the) place of slaughter for (the) Mightiest,
to (the) Mighty (One) of my joyous circling,
and (there) I will throw you (praise) on (the) harp,
(O) Mightiest (One), my Mighty (One)!”

In this verse, the “mountain” of God’s dwelling is now realized as the location of the Temple (i.e., the ancient fortified hilltop site of ‘Mount’ Zion). Having been rescued by YHWH, and now dwelling in safety under His protection, the Psalmist will give worship to God in the Temple precincts. The image is of a person circling joyously around the altar (“place of [ritual] slaughter”), giving praise to God. The motif is symbolic, as much as it may be meant to describe an actual scene of worship in the Temple. Whether, or to what extent, the stanzas of this Psalm were part of a specific Temple ritual (procession into the precincts, etc) is difficult to say.

The oddity of the final line, which reads (literally) “(O) Mightiest (One), my Mightiest (One)” (in conventional English, “[O] God, my God”), provides a strong argument in favor of the theory that, in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms, the divine name hwhy (YHWH) had been originally used throughout, but that it was (systematically) replaced by the plural title <yh!l)a$ (for reasons that are far from clear). The final line would thus have originally made more sense: “(O) YHWH, my Mighty (One)”, “(O) YHWH, my God”.

Refrain: Verse 5

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm (for comments, cf. the previous study, on 42:6 [5]). After the declaration of hope, in v. 4, that YHWH will rescue the Psalmist, this refrain takes on a new tone. There is even more reason now for the righteous to wait on the Lord, trusting that He will act to deliver them, and less reason for one’s soul to be sad and downcast in the midst of distress.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 2)

Psalms 42-43, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 7-12 [6-11]

Verse 7 [6]

“My soul upon me is bent down low,
(yet) upon this will I remember you,
from (the) land of (the river) going down,
and the sacred (mountain)s from (the) miƒar hill.”

The initial verse of this section picks up from the refrain in v. 6 [5] (cf. the previous study), emphasizing the suffering and sorrow of the Psalmist’s soul. Both rhythmically, and in terms of its imagery, these lines are difficult. The meter is irregular—a 3+2+2+3 quatrain, or, possibly, a pair of 3+2 couplets (depending on how one divides the last two lines).

The main idea is that the Psalmist’s soul has “bent down low” (vb jj^v*), in his sorrow and suffering. The sense of the second line seems to be that, even in the midst of his suffering, the Psalmist will continue to remember YHWH. He imagines a scenario where he is approaching death, as the imagery in the last two lines strongly suggests. To render /D@r=y~ and /omr=j# as simple geographical terms (i.e., the Jordan river and Mt. Hermon) is to miss the point; it is, rather, a symbolic landscape, which requires a literal translation of the terms (in their fundamental meaning) in order to bring the symbolism across properly.

The /D#r=y~ is literally the “(place of) going down [dry]”, i.e., the river that leads to the underworld, while the <yn]omr=j# means something like “(the) sacred (mountain)s”. The significance of ru*x=m! is uncertain; derived from root ru^x* I, it would mean something like “place of littleness, (the) little place”. It seems to indicate a particular location in the “sacred mountains” (the Hermon range, in Canaanite geography), which, we must assume, also leads to the underworld.

In the ancient Near East, both rivers and mountains were viewed as mythical/spiritual conduits (points of entry) to the otherworld—in this case, it leads down into the watery depths below the earth, from which one reaches the realm of the dead (netherworld). The context here makes this set of associations abundantly clear (cp. Jonah 2:7[6]); on the same line of traditional imagery in Canaanite sources, cf. Dahood, pp. 258-9.

Verse 8 [7]

“Deep to deep is calling,
at (the) voice of your shafts
all your breaking (wave)s and heaps (of water)
pass over upon me.”

Following the line of imagery in v. 7 [6], the Psalmist feels that he is entering the dark watery depths that lead to the netherworld, the realm of the dead (i.e., he is in danger of death). The idea of being threatened by powerful engulfing waves of water is a frequent motif in Old Testament poetry; in addition to the famous poem in Jonah 2:2-10 [1-9], cf. Psalm 32:6; 69:1-2; 88:4-7; 130:1; Job 22:11, etc.

The expression “deep to deep” reflects the ancient bi-partite view of the universe, in which the cosmos can be divided into two halves (hemispheres, generally speaking) that are surrounded by waters above, and waters below, respectively. From the waters above come the rains (and rainstorms); YHWH tends to be associated with the waters above, but He ultimately has control over all the waters. Indeed, his command (and control) reaches from the heavens (the upper waters, and above) all the way down to the watery depths below the earth. On this control over the waters, as expressed through the ancient cosmological myth of the Deity’s ‘defeat’ of the Sea, cf. my earlier article.

The word roNx! (“shaft”), occurring elsewhere only in 2 Sam 5:8, suggests a conduit by which YHWH extends His command (over the waters) to the depths below. Dahood, p. 259, would identify it with the storm (and lighting/thunder bolts) that stirs and roils up the sea. Given that thunder, in the ancient Near Eastern mindset, is typically referred to as the “voice” (loq) of God, this seems most likely.

Verse 9 [8] ab

“By day YHWH commands His goodness,
by night His hry?[?] (is) with me”

This couplet seems to parallel the idea in v. 8 [7] of YHWH commanding the waters—both above and below. While those waters threaten to engulf the Psalmist, and thus reflect a very real danger of death to him, here in v. 9 the emphasis is on God’s goodness. YHWH commands his goodness (ds#j#), which can also connote faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., loyalty to the covenant). Typically in the Psalms, the covenant aspect is in view, whereby the term ds#j# refers specifically to the care and protection that YHWH gives to the righteous (like the Psalmist), i.e., those who are loyal to the covenant.

The parallelism of the lines would require a corresponding term in the second line to match this goodness (ds#j#) of YHWH in the first. The term in the MT here is Hr*yv! (Qere oryv!), “his song”, which makes little sense in context, and many commentators feel that here the text likely is corrupt. It is not at all clear, however, in what way the text can, or should, be emended. The context indicates that the word in this position must signify something sent by YHWH (at His command) to the Psalmist, and which the protagonist now has with him, serving as hope and comfort for him in his time of distress. The reception by the Psalmist (at night) matches the active sending by YHWH (in the daytime).

One very much wishes that the text of this verse had survived among the Qumran Psalm scrolls, as it might well solve the textual problem noted above; but, alas, this is not the case. The LXX translates according to the MT, although the B text here has the verb dhlo/w (“make visible, make manifest, show”), which certainly would form a fitting parallel with Hebrew hw`x* (“command, charge,” Grk e)nte/llomai). Dahood (p. 259), following the suggestion by T. Gaster (Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL], vol. 73 [1954], pp. 237-8), identifies hryv here with Akkadian š£ru and Ugaritic ´rt, “vision” (par. to µlm, “dream”). The sense of v. 9 then, might run as follows:

“By day YHWH sends his goodness (to me) by command,
(and) by night makes it known to me in a vision.”

This is an appealing solution, though not entirely convincing.

Verse 9c-11a [8c-10a]

“My prayer (is) to (the) Mighty (One) of my life:
I will say, ‘(O) Mighty (One), my Rock,
for what [i.e. why] have you forgotten me,
for what should I walk covered in darkness,
in (the) squeeze of (the one) hostile (to me),
with murdering (power) on my limbs?'”

The Psalmist’s prayer, to the effect that YHWH has forgotten him, makes the preceding verse 9ab seem out of place, and tends to confirm the theory that those lines may be corrupt (cf. the discussion above). This prayer is typical of many of the lament-Psalms, and the thought expressed here echoes that found, for example, in the famous opening of Psalm 22. The idea of the Psalmist going about “being covered in darkness” (rd@q)) could be understood in terms of a person clothed in mourning garb, but it also reflects the earlier image of the protagonist being covered over by the dark and tumultuous waters of the deep. In any case, the association with death is very much at the fore.

While enemies are frequently mentioned in the Psalms, they are often indistinct from the suffering experienced by the Psalmist. Here the singular by@oa (“hostile [one],” i.e., enemy) should probably be understood as a personification of Death itself. The “squeeze” (Jj^l^) that this enemy puts on the Psalmist is so deadly that it puts his once-strong limbs (<x#u#, plur.) in a murderous grip (the noun jx^r# indicates an act of killing). Clearly, only YHWH can deliver the Psalmist from this mortal danger; often in the Psalms, this danger is expressed in terms of illness or disease, and this may well be in view here.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The one)s opposed to me cast blame (on) me,
in their saying to me all the day (long):
‘Where (is) your Mighty (One)?'”

The remainder of verse 11 [10] consists of a dramatic tricolon, with the mocking taunts of the wicked being added to the Psalmist’s suffering and distress. Here the plural noun (verbal participle, <yr!r=ox) unquestionably refers to human enemies. The root rrx II is similar in meaning to by~a*, and the participle here (with the 1st person suffix) could likewise be translated “one[s] hostile to me” (i.e., “my enemies, my adversaries”). I have opted to denote rrx with the specific idea of opposition—i.e., “(one)s being opposed to me” —to keep it distinct from bya.

Such taunts by the protagonist’s wicked enemies are a frequent feature in the Psalms, and can be seen in a number of the compositions that we have examined thus far. The motif plays on two important ideas: (1) the hostility of the wicked toward the righteous, and (2) as an expression of the doubt experienced by the righteous, in the face of severe suffering and misfortune, regarding their loyalty to YHWH. The climactic question posed by the wicked in their taunt is pointed: “Where is your Mighty One?” (i.e., God, Elohim, lit. “Mightiest [One]”). In other words, if this “Mightiest One” truly exists, and rewards the righteous for their faithfulness and loyalty to Him, then why are you (a righteous one, presumably) suffering so badly? This is another way of framing the common Wisdom-theme regarding the suffering of the righteous. It is a theme that is quite frequent in the Psalms, as we have seen.

Refrain: Verse 12 [11]

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm (for comments, cf. the previous study, on v. 6 [5]). Given the sense of mortal danger and suffering that pervades this section, the call to wait on YHWH, and to trust in Him for deliverance, is particularly significant—a sign of faith and trust that can encourage the righteous in their own time of distress.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).