Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 25 (continued)

Psalm 25, continued

(Continued from the previous week’s study)

Verses 12-22

Verse 12 [m]

“Who [ym!] (is) this, the man fearing YHWH?
He shall instruct him in (the) way he will choose.”

The Wisdom-setting of this Psalm continues, and is clearly established in its second part. It asks the rhetorical question regarding who among humankind truly possesses such wisdom, defined in terms of the fear of God. This theme is widespread in Old Testament wisdom literature (including the Psalms); the keynote reference is Proverbs 1:7, and it also serves as the starting point for the great drama of Job (1:1, 8-9). For instances in the Psalms studied thus far, cf. 2:11; 5:7; 15:4; 19:9; 22:23ff. In a religious (or theological) context, “fear” (expressed primarily by the root ary) has to do with the proper honor and reverence a human being ought to show toward God. The one who possesses this “fear” toward God will be instructed by Him, even as Prov 1:7—and the wealth of wisdom traditions—makes clear.

Verse 13 [n]

“His soul [ovp=n~] shall lodge in a good (place),
and his seed shall possess (the good) land.”

The righteous person will not only receive wisdom and instruction from YHWH, he/she will also come to dwell secure and in prosperity. The parallelism of this (3+3) couplet is comprehensive, emphasizing both the individual (“his soul”) and the community (“his seed”, i.e. family and descendants). The blessing received from God is defined here in terms of dwelling. In the first line, the emphasis is on the character of the dwelling—that it is “in good(ness)”, or, perhaps more accurately, “in a good (place)”, the key term being bof (“good[ness]”). A temporary dwelling is indicated by the use of the verb /Wl which denotes spending the night in a particular location; the second line, by contrast, refers to a permanent place of dwelling, where an entire family or community can put down roots. That place is simply called “(the) earth” or “(the) land”, using the common noun Jr#a#; the goodness of the dwelling in line 1 certainly is meant to apply to the “land” in line 2 as well. The motif of “inheriting the earth” was used famously by Jesus in his Beatitudes (Matt. 5:5).

Verse 14 [s]

“(The) initimate (circle) [dos] of YHWH (belongs) to (the one)s fearing Him,
and His binding (agreement) He (surely) makes known to them.”

The simplicity and concision of this 3+2 couplet is almost impossible to render literally, as is indicated by the more expansive translation above. It involves the idea of the covenant (lit. binding [agreement], tyr!B=) between YHWH and his people—i.e. those loyal to him. The noun dos in the first line is parallel to tyr!B= in the second, meaning that it must be understood in the same light. The fundamental meaning of the root dws signifies something being said confidentially, spoken with one whom a person trusts or has a certain intimacy. Such a ‘circle’ of trusted friends “belongs to” (l=) those who fear YHWH (cf. above); it might better be stated that such persons themselves belong to God’s trusted circle. This is the basis for the binding agreement YHWH establishes with those loyal to him, and He himself instructs them in the terms of this agreement (i.e. the “Instruction”, or Torah). There is a bit of dual-use wordplay involving the preposition l=; in the first line, it has the meaning “belong to” (as in the superscription to the Psalm), while, in the second, it is best understood as a having the force of an emphatic particle (emphatic-l, or lamed emphaticum).

Verse 15 [u]

“My eyes [yn~yu@] (are) continually (looking) to(ward) YHWH,
for (it is) He (who) shall bring out my feet from (bein)g caught.”

There is a special kind of synthetic parallelism in this couplet, which is enclosed by its first and last words— “my eyes” and “my feet” —encompassing the entirety of the person’s body. On the one hand, the wise and righteous person looks to YHWH for protection, trusting in Him; and the same time, this trust is rewarded by the help God provides in time of need—rescuing one’s “feet” from the snare of capture (tv#r#). These are the two sides of the covenant bond: the loyalty/trust of the vassal, and the protection provided by the sovereign.

Verse 16 [p]

“Turn [hn@P=] (your face) to me and show me favor,
for (all) alone and oppressed (am) I!”

The statement of the help YHWH provides, in verse 15, is transformed here into a direct prayer and plea to God by the protagonist. The idea of a threat from enemies and adversaries was established earlier in the Psalm (vv. 2-3), even if it has been superseded by the wisdom-themes in the intervening verses; so it is picked up again here. The implication is that the Psalmist is faithful and loyal to YHWH; therefore, according to the covenant bond, God should act on his behalf, to protect and defend him. The protagonist declares that he is “alone” (dyj!y`) and “oppressed” (yn]u*), without any help available to him from other human beings. Only YHWH is able to rescue him from the dangers he faces. The Psalmist’s isolation is emphasized by the explicit use of the personal pronoun (yn]a*, “I”) in the last (emphatic) position of the second line. This also involves some wordplay which is otherwise lost in translation:

yn]a* yn]u*w+
w®±¹nî °¹nî
“and oppressed (am) I”

The sense of isolation is contrasted with the idea, expressed in the petition of the first line, that God would “turn” to face the Psalmist—that is, to come and be present with him, showing favor to him (by His presence).

Verse 17 [x]

“(O, that the) tightness [hr*x*] of my heart would be made wide!
May you bring me out from (these) pressures (on) me!”

The motifs of being rescued from capture (v. 15) and the experience of feeling oppressed (v. 16) are combined here with the more vivid imagery of freeing a person from being trapped in a tight space. This “tightness” is internalized in line 1, being located in the “heart”; while, in line 2, the focus is external, i.e. pressures felt on the person from outside (enemies, attackers, threats, etc). In each case, the prayer of the Psalmist is that God would bring him out of the “tight spot” into a “wide” space of freedom—an idiom for salvation and rescue.

Verses 18-19 [r]

“May you see [ha@r=] my oppression and my weariness,
and may you take (away) for (me) all my sins!
May you see [ha@r=] my enemies–for they are many,
and (with) violent hatred they hate me!”

The two couplets of verses 18-19 share the same acrostic letter (and opening word); this expansion of the format is probably interpretive, intended to clarify the traditional imagery in light of the wisdom themes of the Psalm. That is to say, the Psalmist’s enemies are identified with sin (and sinful tendencies), in a figurative sense, rather than as individual persons.

Indeed, here the idea of salvation (from v. 17) is rendered in religious and ethical terms—i.e., deliverance from sins. The overall wisdom context of the Psalm (cf. above) suggests that the traditional imagery of danger/attack from enemies should be understood primarily (if not entirely) in this figurative sense, as noted above. Even for the faithful and righteous person, sins can weigh one down, threatening to harm and disrupt the covenant bond with God. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to sins committed in the Psalmist’s past (his youth), which may have been of a more serious nature (vv. 7, 11, and cf. below), and that he expresses a concern that these may keep him from receiving help and forgiveness from YHWH.

Verse 20 [v]

“May you guard [hr*m=v*] my soul and snatch me away (from them)!
Do not let me be ashamed, for I would seek protection in you.”

The same thought of vv. 18-19 continues here, expressed in terms of the earlier petition in verse 2. The Psalmist confesses his trust in YHWH, using a verb (hs*j*) similar in meaning to that in vv. 2-3 (jt^B*); both carry the idea of trust, with the specific denotation of seeking protection (in someone or something). The root used here (hsj) perhaps indicates a more immediate or urgent action, which would be in keeping with the request, in the first line, that God “snatch (him) away” (vb lx^n`) from danger.

The idea of feeling shame (vb vWB) is also repeated here from vv. 2-3. The failure of YHWH to rescue the Psalmist would bring shame—i.e., to the Psalmist for trusting God, in vain—and, by implication, would call into question the covenant bond with YHWH. It is essentially an appeal to the duty of the sovereign within that bond. The fear expressed here could also relate to the possibility that the Psalmist’s (past) sins may prevent God from acting on his behalf, which would certainly be to his shame.

Verse 21 [t]

“Completeness [<T)] and straightness—may they guard me,
for (see how) I call on you!”

Once again, we have a terse 3+2 couplet that is difficult to translate with the same concision in English. In particular, the abstract nouns <T) (“completeness”) and rv#y) (“straightness”) are hard to render literally without a certain awkwardness. The prayer that these attributes should serve as (a pair of) guards for the Psalmist, in light of the similar request in v. 20, indicates that they are to be understood specifically as divine attributes. That is to say, he requests that the perfect integrity (“completeness”) of YHWH, and His righteousness (“straightness”), would serve to safeguard the same for the Psalmist himself—i.e., his own integrity and upright character. This reflects a unique ethical-religious sense of the covenant bond; the help God brings protects the loyal vassal, not from physical enemies, but from the danger and threat of sin (cf. above).

Here, at the close of the Psalm, the protagonist again identifies himself as one who “calls on” YHWH (for this sense of the verb hw`q*, cf. the notes on vv. 3, 5 in the previous study). This is a blunt declaration of his faithfulness and loyalty to God, in a particularly religious (and theological) context. That is to say, his loyalty and devotion is to YHWH, and not to any other deities. This raises the possibility, discussed in the previous study (on vv. 7 and 11), that the protagonist of the Psalm represents a person who, at one point, was an adherent of Canaanite religious beliefs, presumably in a syncretistic Israelite form, which blended together worship of YHWH with that of the Canaanite deities Baal-Haddu and Asherah, etc. While it is conceivable that a religious situation of this sort informs the background of the Psalm, the composition as we have it is more firmly rooted in wisdom traditions, where “sin” is better understood in a general religious-ethical sense, rather than the specific polemic context of Yahwism vs. Canaanite-syncretism.

Verse 22

“(O,) Mightiest, may you ransom Yisrael from all his (time)s of distress!”

The concluding verse 22 is a single line, outside of the acrostic couplet-format of the main Psalm. It may well be a secondary addition, but one which would have attached itself early on during the process of transmission. The use of <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “God”), instead of YHWH, marks its character as part of the wisdom-tradition so influential on the Psalm as a whole (cf. above, and the previous study).

Also unique is the way that the protagonist of the Psalm is now identified with the people of Israel. While this individual-community association is implicit in many of the Psalms, only rarely is it made explicit as it is here. The Psalmist, especially insofar as the traditional ascription to David would apply, is often to be understood as a royal figure, and there is typically a strong royal background that can be detected, underlying the original composition of many Psalms. However, in the form that we now have them, and as they came to be used in a communal worship setting, these same Psalms were interpreted so that the Psalmist could stand equally for the righteous person generally, and collectively for Israel as the (righteous) people of God. Just as the protagonist in the Psalms prays to God that he be rescued from his distress (hr*x*, v. 17), so here the prayer is that Israel be similarly saved in their times of distress (pl. torx*).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 25

Psalm 25

This Psalm is an acrostic, in which, for the most part, each verse or couplet begins with a successive letter of the alphabet; on the acrostic format, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 9-10. As a poetic or literary device, the acrostic seems quite artificial, placing constraints on the poem, which, from our standpoint today at least, are altogether arbitrary, and add little to the artistic merit of the work. However, the device does have practical value, as an aid for the memorization of a relatively long poem, such as we have here. Because of the acrostic arrangement, it seemed best to comment on each letter-couplet (or line) individually. I have, however, also divided the Psalm into two parts—verses 1-11 and 12-22; this week’s study will examine the first part.

This Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though with some minor irregularity. The superscription identifies the poem simply as “belonging to David”, perhaps intending to indicate his composition of the words, but not (necessarily) the music; the significance of the lack of the word romz+m! (“musical composition”), or comparable term, in the superscriptions remains uncertain.

The Hebrew letters that make up the acrostic are indicated in the translations below; as far as possible, I have attempted to keep the corresponding English of the first word in the first position of the translation.

Verses 1-11

Verse 1 [a]

“To you [;yl#a@], YHWH, I lift up my soul,
<…. > my Mightiest (One).”

Verse 1, as it stands now, consists of a single line, not a couplet; this, along with the fact that the first word of v. 2 is out of place, disrupting the acrostic, has led some commentators to theorize that the surviving text is corrupt. According to this view, yh^l)a$ (“my Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “my God”) is part of a lost second line, parallel with YHWH in line 1. One can only speculate as to how this line might have read. Unfortunately, no help is to be found from the Dead Sea Scrolls, since verse 1 is not preserved in the surviving Psalms MSS.

Verse 2 [b]

“In you [;B=] I trust—let me not feel shame,
do not let my enemies rejoice because of me.”

As in many other Psalms we have examined thus far, we find here the theme of unknown enemies or adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. The verb jf^B* is also frequent in these Psalms; it has the basic meaning of trusting, but also with the specific connotation of finding safety or security (in someone or something). God Himself is the place of safety for the Psalmist. The imperfect forms with the negative particle la^ have jussive/cohortative force—i.e., “may I not…”, “let me not…”, etc. Victory by his enemies would bring the Psalmist shame (vb vWB)—not only for the defeat itself and the “rejoicing/exultation” (vb Jl^u*) of his enemies, but because it would mean that his trust in YHWH was all in vain.

Verse 3 [g]

“Indeed [<G~] all (those) calling (on) you will not feel shame;
but they will feel shame, (the) disloyal (one)s (making) empty (the bond).”

I follow Dahood (p. 155f) in identifying the basic meaning of the verb hw~q* (II) here as “call (on)”, supported by the context of the occurrences in Psalm 40:2; 52:11, etc. The attested meaning “gather” is doubtless related— “call [i.e. bring] together”, similar to the situation with the roots lh^q* and ar^q*. To “call on” YHWH implies faithfulness to him, and devotion/loyalty to the covenant bond. Such a person will never feel shame; by contrast, those who are disloyal (vb dg~B*) to the covenant, who make the bond void or “empty” (<q*yr@), they will experience shame. The root dg~B* can be used to express unfaithfulness in marriage, which is also a fitting symbol for disloyalty to the covenant with YHWH (i.e. religious unfaithfulness); cf. further below on v. 11.

Less certain is Dahood’s suggestion that the initial word <G~ be understood here in its meaning “with the voice, aloud”, as attested in Canaanite. With very few exceptions (Psalm 137:1?), this word in the Old Testament is used in its weaker sense as a particle of addition or emphasis (“also, even”).

Verse 4 [d]

“Your ways [;yk#r*D=], YHWH, make known to me,
your paths teach me (to travel).”

Faithfulness to YHWH is described with the familiar idiom of traveling (walking) a path. This metaphor was especially popular in Wisdom literature, and, as we have noted on numerous occasions, many Psalms, in the form we have them, were influenced by Wisdom traditions.

Verse 5ab [h]

“Make me walk [yn]k@yr!d=h^] in (the way of) your truth and teach me,
for you (are the) Mighty (One) of my salvation.”

The same imagery continues from v. 4, with the cognate verb Er^D*, “walk/tread the path (or way)”, related to Er#D# (“way”).

Verse 5c [w]

“<And> (on) you [;toa<w+>] do I call all the day (long).”

The place of this single line in the acrostic is uncertain. It does not properly begin with the requisite letter, and the single line raises the possibility that something has dropped out of the text (cf. on verse 1 above). Even if we were to grant that the text is corrupt here, any sort of reliable reconstruction would be virtually impossible at this point. In order to preserve the acrostic, I have emended the first word to begin with the w-conjunction (cf. Kraus, p. 318). The same meaning is given here to the verb hw~q* (II) as in v. 3 (cf. above).

Verse 6 [z]

“Remember [rk)z+] your (act)s of compassion, YHWH,
and your (act)s of kindness, that they (are) from (the) distant (past).”

The covenant loyalty of YHWH is rooted in the distant past, and similarly extends into the distant future—the word <l*ou can connote both aspects. Probably the Psalmist has in mind all that God has done for the ancestors of Israel, His many acts of compassion (<j^r^) and kindness (ds#j#). The latter term, in particular, can signify loyalty in a covenant-context. The appeal to what God has done in the past is meant to spur action on behalf of His people (represented by the Psalmist) in the present. This literary-theological device appears frequently in Old Testament narrative, as well as in the poetry.

Verse 7 [j]

“(The) sins of [twaF)h^] my youth, do not remember (them),
(but) according to your kindness, may you remember me—
in response to you (own) goodness, YHWH.”

There are several formal difficulties in this verse. To begin with, the meter is distended in the first line, and the word yu^v*p=W (“and my [act]s of rebellion”) feels like a (secondary) addition; I have tentatively omitted it in the translation above.  If original, the use of uv*P# would indicate a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to the covenant with YHWH, in the active sense of treacherous disloyalty or outright “rebellion” against God. This would suggest that the Psalmist represents a person who had previously been an adherent of Canaanite religion (and/or its syncretistic Israelite forms), with its ‘idolatry’, but then subsequently converted to Yahwism. Cf. below on verse 11.

As it stands, the verse is a tricolon, unusual within the structure of the Psalm, though there is a legitimate (partial) parallelism between the second and third lines. An interesting explanation (cf. Kraus, p. 318) is that the second line (7b) originally completed the couplet in v. 5, but came to be transferred to the current location during the course of transmission. In any case, the plea for YHWH to ignore the sins of a person’s youth, focusing on one’s current faithfulness, is natural in the context of such a prayer.

Verse 8 [f]

“(Indeed,) good and straight (is) YHWH,
(and the one)s sinning He will instruct in the way.”

The Wisdom language of vv. 4-5 (cf. above) continues here, emphasizing that God instructs His people when they sin. This is not the flagrant sin of rebellion or blatant transgression against the covenant, but follows the idea of “sins of youth” from v. 7, connoting especially unintentional error, the sin of negligence or carelessness. However, the use of uv*P# (“rebellion”) in v. 7, if original, would imply a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to YHWH—which requires special forgiveness (cf. below).

The last word of the first line (/K@-lu^) is seemingly out of place, disrupting the rhythm of the couplet, and may well be a secondary addition and corruption of the original text; I have tentatively omitted in the translation above. If retained, it functions as a join between the two lines, translated literally as “upon this”, in conventional English something like “and so…”.

Verse 9 [y]

“He makes (the) oppressed (one)s walk in the judgment,
and He will teach (the) oppressed (to walk) in His way.”

Again, the Wisdom motif of “walking in the way” is used, along with the verb Er^D* (cf. above). The proper nuance of fP*v=m! (“judgment”) must be understood, as it here connotes God’s justice, such as he establishes for the righteous, as opposed to the punishment that comes upon the wicked. The judgments of God are good and holy, and are synonymous with His “way” (Er#D#).

Verse 10 [k]

“All [lK*] (the) paths of YHWH (are) kindness and truth
for (the one)s guarding His binding (agreement) and His repeated (command)s.”

The context of covenant-loyalty, implicit throughout, is now stated clearly here. Faithfulness and devotion to YHWH is defined in terms of loyalty to the binding agreement (tyr!B=). Such loyalty is expressed specifically as fulfilling the “repeated (instruction)s” by YHWH recorded in the Torah. For the one loyal to YHWH, walking in his paths becomes a blessing, as the person experiences the goodness and truth of God Himself.

Verse 11 [l]

“In response to [/u^m^l=] your (own) name, YHWH,
give pardon for my crookedness, for it (is) great (indeed)!”

Human “crookedness” (/ou*) is in contrast to the “straightness” (rv*y`, v. 8) of God. Even for the faithful ones among God’s people there is a measure of “crookedness”, marked by occasional sinning (vv. 7-8). The prayer here is for YHWH to give pardon (vb jl^s*) for such sin, purely on the basis of God’s own name—that is, His essential nature and character as the Mightiest, the Creator, and the One who is always straight and true. The opening word /u^m^l= is a prepositional particle derived, in part, from the root hnu, meaning to answer or give response. I translate it above, rather literally, as “in response to”. God responds with forgiveness, not because of anything the Psalmist has done (or will do), but simply because God’s name—His identity and His own loyalty to the covenant-bond—prompts it.

The declaration of the Psalmist’s “crookedness” as being great (lit. “much”, br^) may simply be an instance of pious exaggeration, a recognition of human imperfection in comparison with the holiness of God; however, it is also possible that something more is involved. In discussing verse 7 (above), I noted that the inclusion of the noun uv^P# (plur. “[act]s of rebellion”), if original, would imply that the Psalmist, at one point (in his “youth”), was an adherent of Canaanite religion—that is, of ‘idolatry’, presumably in the syncretistic forms that were relatively common and widespread throughout Israel. The idiom “great sin” (hl*d)g+ ha*f*j&) has this connotation, especially in the “Golden Calf” episode in Exodus 32 (vv. 21, 30-31; cf. also Gen 20:9; 2 Kings 17:21). The comparable br* uv^P# (“great rebellion”) would express this idea even more forcefully (Psalm 19:14; cf. Dahood, p. 125). The same idiom in Akkadian and Canaanite is used to denote adultery, which itself serves as a fitting metaphor in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness to YHWH.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 24

Psalm 24

This Psalm has one of the clearest liturgical settings of any in the Psalter, even if the historical situation cannot be reconstructed in detail. The superscription itself merely indicates that it is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, and offers no other information regarding the performance tradition. The structure of the composition is more enlightening, divided as it is into two main strophes, each of which may tell us something about how this Psalm was used in the ancient liturgy. Following an opening pair of couplets (vv. 1-2), the first strophe (of irregular meter) is comprised of vv. 3-6; the second strophe (of 3+3+3 tricola) is in vv. 7-10. A hl*s# (selah) notation comes at the end of each strophe.

VERSES 1-2

“The earth and her fullness (belongs) to YHWH,
(the) productive land, and (the one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] in her;
for He set her firmly upon the seas,
and fixed her upon (the) flowing (water)s.”

This pair of 3+3 couplets establishes YHWH as the Creator and Sovereign Lord of the universe. It is a fundamental statement of Israelite monotheism, identifying YHWH as the one supreme Deity. His position as Creator and Lord makes him worthy of worship and honor.

The “earth” (Jr#a#) is paired with the noun lb@T@, difficult to translate in English, emphasizing what the earth contains and produces (“brings forth”); for lack of a suitable alternative, I have rendered it above as “productive land”. Both terms refer to the flat disc or cylinder of the earth (or land) in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, a geocentric view of the universe. The notice in verse 2, that YHWH set the earth firm and fixed “upon the seas / waters” is an allusion to the the primeval waters that surround the universe (Gen 1:2). This founding/fixing of the earth implies that the chaos of the primeval condition has been ‘subdued’, allowing for order to be established in creation. In ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth, this is often described and depicted in terms of the deity defeating the Sea (and its allies) in battle. While this cosmological myth-aspect is virtually absent from the Genesis Creation account, vestiges of it—i.e., of El-Yahweh’s defeat of the waters—are preserved in the poetry of the Old Testament. For the relevant examples, and the ancient background of this mythic theme, cf. my article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

VERSES 3-6

“Who shall go up on (the) mountain of YHWH,
and who shall stand in (the) standing place of His holiness?
(The one) clean of palms [i.e. hands] and pure of heart,
who has not lifted his soul to the (thing that is) empty,
and has not (bound himself) seven-fold to deceit.” (vv. 3-4)

The expression “mountain of YHWH” in the Old Testament, while also deriving from cosmological myth, typically refers to the city of Jerusalem—in particular, the ancient fortified hill-top site around which the larger city grew. This original location, a Canaanite fort-city captured by David, was known as the “city of David” and also by the name /oYx! (Zion). Like most such Canaanite walled cities of the period, it was comprised largely of the Temple-Palace complex (rather than being a residence for the populace). So it was also with “Mount Zion”, the most ancient part of Jerusalem—it had a special association with the Temple sanctuary as the dwelling place of God.

The Temple mount was thus a holy site, and no one could approach God’s dwelling in the sanctuary if they were not themselves holy. This applied principally to the priests who officiated in the Temple precincts; however, by extension, the principle of holiness and (ritual) purity related to the wider community of Israel as well. Much of the legislation in the Torah involves the preservation of ritual purity, so that sacrificial offerings and other business conducted in the precincts of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple, performed in God’s presence, would not be rendered impure and ineffective.

This purity requirement is described in verse 4, a tricolon with irregular meter (3+4+3). Any one coming into the Temple courts and sanctuary must be both ritually pure (“clean of hands”) on the outside, but also inwardly “pure of heart” (bb*l@ rB^)—that is, one’s mind and intention must be pure. The final two lines function as a couplet with synonymous parallelism, expressing purity in terms of true religion—devotion to YHWH alone. The expression “lift (up) his soul” is parallel to the verb form uB^v=n], a Niphal (reflexive) of the root ub^v*. The precise meaning of this root in the Niphal is uncertain, but is perhaps best understood in its presumed literal sense as “bind oneself seven-fold” (i.e. by an oath or vow). The nouns aw+v* (“emptiness”) and hm*r=m! (“deceit”) are also parallel; while they could simply connote wickedness in a general sense, here, as in other instances in the Psalms, they seem to carry a specific association with the worship/veneration of false deities (i.e., any deity other than YHWH).

“He shall take up blessing from YHWH,
and justice from (the) Mighty (One) of his salvation;
(Yes,) this (is the) circle (that is) seeking Him,
(the one)s searching for (the) face of Ya’aqob. Selah” (vv. 5-6)

The couplet in verse 5 affirms the relationship between YHWH and the one who is righteous; the covenant bond is preserved, and God will provide hk*r*B= (“blessing”) and hd*q*x= to such a person. The latter noun has a semantic range that can be hard to translate consistently; it is usually rendered “righteousness” or “justice”, but in the context of the covenant bond, it can also connote loyalty, generosity, and the like.

The concluding couplet in verse 6 is most difficult, but the (demonstrative) pronoun hz# (“this”) gives the final answer to the question in v. 3: “Who shall go up…?” — “this is who…”. However, the syntax is by no means clear; the first line is alliterative, and reads:

ovr=D) roD hz#
zeh dôr dœršô

The translation would be “this (is the) circle seeking him”, a reference, presumably, to the faithful ones (the priests?) of YHWH, parallel with the initial word of the second line, “(the one)s searching for him” (<yv!q=b^m=). The last two words are the main source of confusion, the Masoretic text apparently being in error (“your face [;yn#P*], Jacob”). Critical commentators are inclined to emend the text here, one of two ways:

    • His face [wyn`P*], Jacob”, following the Targum
    • “(the) face of the Mighty One [i.e. God] of Jacob”, assuming that yhla has dropped out of the text, following some Syriac MSS; for this expression cf. Exod 3:6, 15; Psalm 20:1; 46:7, 11 (and elsewhere in the Psalms), etc.

The latter option is to be preferred; however, it is possible that the expression “face of the God of Jacob” here is preserved by the shorthand “face of Jacob”, the MT suffix ; either being a scribal mistake or representing an emphatic/enclitic particle (yK!) that has been mispointed (cf. Dahood, p. 152). The “face” is the manifest presence of God (Exod 33:14, etc).

Verses 7-10

“Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
and be lifted up, openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH, strong and mighty,
YHWH (the) mighty (one) of battle!

Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
lift up, (you) openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH (Creator) of (the heavenly) armies—
He (is) the King th(at is) worth(y)! Selah

By all accounts this is a very old piece of poetry (10th cent. B.C., cf. Cross, pp. 91ff), perhaps older than the remainder of the Psalm. It certainly retains the ancient ritual/liturgical context much more so than the first strophe. Many commentators would associate it with a ceremonial transport of the golden box (or ark) that served as the symbolic throne and dwelling of YHWH in the Temple. It is theorized that a procession of priests and people led the ark into the Temple complex, and that these verses were recited, perhaps in alternating chorus, as accompaniment. Even if this were correct, the exact occasion remains unknown and can only be guessed at. The reference to the Creation in vv. 1-2 raises the possibility of a New Year ceremony, when YHWH takes his place in his house after his victory in battle over the primeval forces of chaos and darkness. Another possibility is that it involves a ceremony commemorating the building/founding of the Temple itself, or of the moment when the ark of God’s Presence first entered the Temple (cp. the setting of Psalm 132).

The gates/doors of the Temple (and city) are directed to “lift up” their heads in homage to YHWH as he enters. This solemn bit of ritual imagery as always seemed curious, but there is some evidence that the basic portrait is derived, in different ways, from cosmological myth. The identification of the Temple-site with the “mountain of God” confirms the correspondence between God’s dwelling in heaven and his symbolic, manifest dwelling on earth. The Semitic Creator deity °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) was thought to dwell on a great (cosmic) mountain also depicted as a (heavenly) Tent. The same basic imagery was applied to YHWH, otherwise identified with as the Creator °E~l. Any local mountain could serve as a form of the cosmic “mountain of God”, even a modest hill-top site such as Jerusalem/Zion.

The heavenly dwelling of God was itself divine, and could be conceived as living or alive. Moreover, the mountain/palace of °E~l in west Semitic (Canaanite) tradition served as the heavenly court where the gods would assemble for feasts and other important occasions. In the great Canaanite Baal Epic (tablet II, column ii [CAT col. III]), as part of the conflict between Baal-Haddu and the Sea (Yamm), messengers from the Sea appear while the gods are assembled in the mountain/palace of °E~l. The purpose of their appearance is to deliver a threatening message that Baal should be handed over as a slave to the Sea. The deities lower their heads at the sight of these fearful emissaries from the Sea, to which Baal rebukes them with an opening line nearly identical to vv. 7a, 9a of Psalm 24:

š°u °ilm r°aštkm
“Lift up your heads, (you) Mighty (one)s [i.e. gods]!”

The only difference is that in the Psalm personified gates of the heavenly dwelling take the place of the gods residing within. It is hard to imagine that the formula used in the Psalm does not stem from the same basic line of tradition. A significant point is that, in the Baal Epic, following his battle with the Sea, a great heavenly palace is constructed for Baal-Haddu comparable to that of °E~l. It is only natural that the gods would likewise “lift their heads” to greet Baal as he comes into his palace, thus affirming his kingship and rule over the universe (cp. verses 1-2 here); it is easy to see how, in an Israelite monotheistic setting, the circle of deities might be replaced by the surrounding gates of the palace.

The gates are called <l*ou, a term which can mean either the distant past or the distant future; it can connote the idea of “eternity, eternal”, and thus implies that these ‘gates’ are somehow divine, or at least have an ancient and eternal quality. It is the heavenly dwelling itself that greets YHWH on his victorious return from battle. Dahood (p. 153) notes the use of the expression “king of the gate” in the Ugaritic texts, as a title for the Canaanite king; even more so would the Creator deity deserve such a title.

The construct expression dobK*h^ El#m# deserves some comment. Literally, it means “king of the weight”, i.e. “the king of weight”. The noun dobK* has the fundamental meaning “weight”, in the sense of have a certain worth or value. It often connotes the idea of “honor”, especially when applied to God, and in such cases is typically translated as “glory” (i.e., “the king of glory”). However, in my view, the force of the ritual has to due with YHWH’s worthiness to be enthroned in his palace as king—sovereign over the universe. A proper translation of the expression might then be “the king of worth”, which preserves the construct form. Along these lines, I have opted for a rendering which is less accurate syntactically, but which, I think, better captures the sense of the passage: “the King th(at is) worth(y)”. Because of YHWH’s strength and might, demonstrated in battle against the waters of chaos, He is worthy to be recognized as King over all Creation.

It is, indeed, YHWH’s role as a warrior (“mighty [man] of battle”) that is emphasized in vv. 7-10, and the cosmological background of the ritual scene best explains this. That is to say, the primary association is with God’s victory over the primeval waters of chaos (the “Sea”), by which He established the current order of creation. The extent to which this same pattern applied to the “holy war” tradition—i.e. YHWH achieving victory for Israel over her enemies—can be debated. Certainly the expression “YHWH of the armies” (toab*x= hwhy), essentially shorthand for “…creator of the heavenly armies”, relates to God’s role as protector of Israel, who fights (with the forces of heaven) on behalf of His people. Whether the ritual setting of Psalm 24 specifically refers to the “wars of Israel” —Exodus and Conquest, etc—remains uncertain.

How do the verses of the first strophe (vv. 3-6, cf. above) fit into the ritual/liturgical context of the second? Possibly, before the procession with the ark entered the Temple precincts, there was a liturgical affirmation of the holiness and purity of the officiants (priests and people), represented in these verses. There was often a magical quality inherent in such ritual formulae—that is to say, the proper performance of the ritual was essential to its efficacy. Without the ritual affirmation of purity, the effectiveness of the entire ceremony—including the divine blessing and favor that result from it—would be put at risk. The ceremonial aspect, however, was only intended to confirm the reality of the situation—i.e., that the priests, etc, had kept themselves pure, conducting themselves in a holy and righteous manner, in accordance with the regulations of the covenant bond.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 23

Psalm 23

This relatively simple and beautiful Psalm is one of the most famous and beloved passages in all the Scriptures, immortalized for English speakers by the King James Version, in which form it has been treasured (and committed to memory) by millions of children and adults alike. So familiar is it in English translation, that many Christians today may be somewhat surprised by how it actually reads in the original Hebrew.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, with no other musical direction indicated. The meter is straightforward and balanced, but not consistent throughout. It is predominantly in 3+2 couplets, though verse 4 is made up of a pair of 2+2+2 tricola, and the initial line is 4+3. Structurally, it is best to follow this poetic versing, in which case the tricola of verse 4 may be seen as the center point (and central theme or message) of the composition:

    • Stanza 1: Verses 1-3 (3 couplets)
    • Stanza 2: Verse 4 (3 tricola)
    • Stanza 3: Verses 5-6 (4 couplets)

VERSES 1-3

“YHWH (is the One) tending me—I will not lack (anything),
in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along),
(yes, even) my soul He turns back (in rest);
He guides me in (the) tracks of righteousness,
for the purpose of (honoring) His name.”

The imagery is that of the herdsman (shepherd) and his flock—literally, one who tends (vb hu*r*) the flock. The emphasis is thus on the care that the herder shows to the sheep, concerned for their safety and well-being. This is summarized by the statement of the Psalmist “I will not lack (anything)”, using the root rs^j* which generally refers to a need or deficiency, i.e. something that is lacking.

Part of the true beauty of the poetry in these lines is the way that the parallelism is interlocking (and overlapping) within the rhythm of the couplets. Note, for example, the synonymous parallelism of the second line of the first couplet and the first line of the second:

“in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along)”

The imagery could not be more appealing, this charming pastoral scene of the sheep crouching down in the fresh grass, and then moving slowly alongside the gentle waters of a nearby stream.

There is subsequently a different kind of formal parallelism in the second and third couplets (both 3+2 meter). In the first line of these couplets, the emphasis is on the shepherd leading and guiding the sheep, using the similar verbs lh^n` and hj^n`. In the first instance, it is a natural image (sheep led alongside a stream), while in the second it is ethical and religious (people guided in “tracks of righteousness”). There is a comparable dual-imagery in the second line of each couplet, which interprets the motif in the first line (i.e., a kind of synthetic parallelism):

    • Sheep being led alongside a restful stream
      => a person’s soul being given rest (“turned back”, i.e. restored)
    • A person being guided in tracks of righteousness
      => that person living and acting in honor of God’s “name”

Again, there is tremendous beauty and power in the way that these complex ideas are expressed in just a few words (3 or 2 beats) of the poetic line. This sort of compression can also lead to difficulties for the translator which requires great sensitivity to the force and style of the poetic expression. For example, the last line of the third couplet simply reads omv= /u^m^l= (“for the purpose of his name”), which is not entirely clear unless one recognizes that “righteousness” (qd#x#) in the context of Israelite religion entails giving honor to YHWH (and His “name”). The noun qd#x# fundamentally denotes a straight line, and thus is appropriate for the visual motif of sheep being led in a straight path, by a well-established set of tracks (lG`u=m^ plur.) formed in the ground over the course of time.

VERSE 4

“Even when I should walk
in (the) valley of death( ‘s) shadow
I shall not fear (any) evil,
for you (are) along with me—
your staff and your support
they (surely) guide me.”

As noted above, this verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2+2) tricola; I have preserved this rhythmic structure in translation to distinguish it from the surrounding couplets of vv. 1-3, 5-6. This is the central section of the Psalm, which contains the primary message: the care YHWH shows to his people is such that they/we can trust in it, even during times of darkness and danger.

The expression “valley of death( ‘s) shadow” (tw#m*l=x^ ayg@B=) seems a bit overloaded as a construct phrase, but perhaps is intentionally so in order to emphasize the shift from the idyllic scene in vv. 1-3 to one of danger. However, the Greek LXX translates as “in the midst of [e)n me/sw|] (the) shadow of death”, which could mean that the underlying Hebrew word (ayG@, “valley”) was instead read as = wG@ (“back, midst [of]”), cp. Aramaic aW`G~. Dahood (p. 146f) follows this line of interpretation. In my view, however, the imagery in vv. 1-3, of the sheep traveling through a natural landscape (on safe/level ground), makes the contrasting motif of a valley appropriate here.

Presumably, the “staff” (fb#v@) here in v. 4b is the shepherd’s staff, and the paired noun hn`u@v=m! much the same (i.e. a staff for walking, etc). However, the fundamental meaning of the latter noun is a place of support (root /u^v*, i.e. something which gives support), and refers primarily to the support that YHWH provides. It is the staff of YHWH that provides this, in his role as shepherd.

The final line is problematic, as the apparent verbal root <j^n` (usually understood here in the sense of “comfort”) does not fit the imagery of the verse particularly well. Dahood (p. 147) suggests that the –m– in the form ynmjny is an infixed mem-enclitic. If so, its purpose here is presumably to fill out the rhythm of the 2-beat line which begins with the short beat of the pronoun (hM*h@). I tentatively follow this interpretation in my translation above, which reads the word ynmjny as a form of the verb hj*n` (“lead, guide”), as in v. 3a (cf. above). The point of the verse is that YHWH the Shepherd will lead his people even through the dark valley.

VERSES 5-6

“You arrange a table (be)fore my face,
in front of (those) hostile to me;
you fatten [i.e. anoint] my head with oil,
(and) my cup (is) drenched full.
Surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all (the) days of my life,
and I will sit in (the) house of YHWH
for (the full) length of days.”

Following the dark intermezzo of verse 4, the theme of God’s blessed care for his people returns in the couplets of vv. 5-6. Only the pastoral imagery has been replaced by that of the hospitality shown to an honored guest. In verse 5, the motif is specifically that of a guest receiving grand treatment as he dines with his host; three of the four lines express the idea clearly enough:

    • a table is arranged (vb Er^u*), set out in front of the person (lit. “to my face”)
    • the guest’s head is anointed (lit. “made fat”, vb /v@D*) with oil
    • his drinking up is filled (with wine) to the point of overflowing—the main point of the idiom is that the person will be completely satisfied.

The difficulty lies in the second line of the first couplet, which has the parallel of the table arranged before the guest’s face with its being arranged “in front of [dg#n#]” his enemies (those hostile to him). A comparable example of this detail may perhaps be found in the 14th century B.C. Amarna texts (100:33-35), which includes a request to the Pharaoh that “he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on” (Dahood, p. 147f). The shaming of one’s enemies makes the honored treatment all the much more conspicuous (and appealing). While this idea may conflict with our Christian ideals of humility, etc, it is generally in keeping with the ancient mindset and its associated social key values of honor and shame.

The couplets of verse 6 are rather more straightforward, in terms of our own religious vantage point. Even so, we may not fully appreciate the covenant-background of this imagery, and how it relates to the hospitality idiom of v. 5. The loyal and faithful vassal receives an honored place at his lord’s table, and receives blessings and benefits in turn. It this context, the general terms “goodness” (bof) and “kindness” (ds#j#) carry a specific connotation; in particular, ds#j# frequently connotes loyalty (i.e. to the covenant bond), while bof can refer to the benefits that result from the covenant.

Here, the “house” of God should be understood in these same terms, and not necessarily as a concrete reference to the Temple. It simply means the place where God dwells, presumably in the sense of his heavenly abode. The blessed life for God’s people—that is, the righteous, those faithful to the covenant—depicted in vv. 1-3, 5-6, strongly suggests that a heavenly afterlife is at least partly in view (cp. the imagery in Psalm 1:3, 6). The Hebrew of the Old Testament had no way to express the abstract idea of “eternity” or “eternal/everlasting life”; the Scriptures often rely on the more concrete idiom of long life. Living to a ripe old age was rare enough in ancient times that it came to be viewed as an ideal representation of blessing from God. In the final couplet of the Psalm there are two similar expressions:

    • “all (the) days of my life”, which, I think, properly reflects what we would call temporal blessing—blessings experienced during our life on earth, and
    • “for (the) length of days” —that is, the full length of days, both a long life on earth and its completion in the blessed heavenly abode (“in the house of YHWH”)

The Shepherd Motif

The widespread practice of sheep-herding, and the pastoral economy throughout the ancient Near East, made the motif of the shepherd immediately recognizable and appealing as a symbol. The herder was a leader and protector of the flock/herd, and thus served as a fitting symbol for leadership in society—i.e., of kings and other rulers. We need not go any further afield than the Old Testament Scriptures to see how common the image of the shepherd was as a representation of the kings and rulers of the nations—cf. Nah 3:18; Jer 10:21; 22:22; 23:1-4; 25:34-38; 49:19; 50:44; Ezek 34:1-10; Zech 10:3; 11:4-17, and Isa 44:28. This applied to the rulers of Israel and Judah as well (2 Sam 5:2; 7:7, etc), and the tradition of David’s role as a shepherd earlier in his life (1 Sam 16:11; 17:15, 20 etc; Ps 78:70-72) helped to shape the Messianic figure-type of the future Davidic ruler as a “shepherd” (cf. Jer 3:15; 23:4; Ezek 34:23; 37:22,24; Zech 13:7, and the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2; Mic 5:4ff). The idea of the people as “sheep without a shepherd” emphasizes the lack of proper leadership (Num 27:16-17; 1 Kings 22:17; Mark 6:34; Matt 9:36).

Jesus himself made use of this shepherd-imagery, even identifying himself as the “Good Shepherd” (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7; John 10:1-29; cf. also Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17), while the Messianic association is alluded to in Mk 14:27 par. Elders and ministers who served a leading role in the early Christian congregations were similarly called “shepherd” (poimh/n), as in Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet 5:1ff; Eph 4:11 (cp. John 21:15-17), a usage that continues with the title “pastor” today.

It is somewhat less common to refer to God as a shepherd, though it is a natural extension of the use of the motif to represent leadership and kingship. Apart from Psalm 23, the most notable references to YHWH as a shepherd are: Gen 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:15ff; Amos 3:12).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 3

Psalm 22, continued

Verses 24-32 [23-31]

These verses represent the third (and final) section of the Psalm; the emphasis on lament and a plea for help has given way to one of praise and thanksgiving to YHWH, suggesting that God has provided (or is expected to provide) deliverance for the Psalmist. And, since this protagonist, whether or not understood as the king, represents the people as a whole, the individual salvation he experiences similarly represents the salvation God brings collectively for His people. This helps to explain the focus in verses 24-32 on exhortation to praise, and how the Psalmist’s own worship of YHWH blends with that of the “great congregation”. There may be an indication of a ritual or liturgical context for the composition preserved here as well, though one must be cautious in any attempt to reconstruct it.

Verses 24-25 [23-24]

“(You the one)s fearing YHWH, shout praise (to Him),
(you) seed of Ya’aqob, give weight [i.e. honor] to Him,
and (may) you be in awe from Him, all (the) seed of Yisra’el!
For He has not despised,
and did not treat as filthy,
(the) chanting of the oppressed—
(indeed) He has not kept His face hidden from him,
but in his calling to Him for help, He has heard!”

This initial portion begins and ends with a 3+3 bicolon (v. 24ab, 25b); in between there are lines of irregular meter—apparently a single 4-beat line (v. 24c) and a 2+2+2 tricolon (v. 25a), the rhythm of which I have tried to preserve visually above. The interplay of the singular (i.e. deliverance for the Psalmist) and plural (i.e. for the people collectively), noted above, is established in these lines. The case of the Psalmist serves as an example for the rest of Israel—as YHWH has saved him, so will God save all the faithful ones who call to Him for help (vb uwv) in their time of distress.

In the third line of the tricolon in v. 25a, there is a bit of wordplay—MT yn]u* tWnu$ (±§nû¾ ±¹nî), which would be a cognate expression (i.e., “oppressions of the oppressed”, “afflictions of the affliction”). I am inclined, however, to follow Dahood (p. 142) in reading twnu as derived from a separate root hn`u* (“sing, chant”), in which case it should presumably be vocalized as an infinitive, tonu& (or Piel toNu^), cf. Exod 32:18; Psalm 88:1. Dahood also suggests that ryT!s=h! in v. 25b should be understood as a reflexive (infixed-t) form of the verb rWs (“turn [away]”), rather than a form of the root rt^s* (“hide”); this would alter the translation, but not the essential meaning of the line—i.e. God “turning away” his face vs. “hiding” it.

Verse 26 [25]

“From (what) you (have done) (comes) my shout in (the) great assembly,
(and) my vows (to you) I will make good in front of (the one)s fearing Him.”

This 4+4 couplet continues the theme of the Psalmist as an example for the people, as he performs his acts of gratitude and worship (i.e. his “shout” of praise, etc) in the public setting of the assembly (lh*q*). The initial word is problematic, especially with its second person suffix that seems to contradict the third person suffix at the end of the second line. However, the mixing of person in ancient poetry is not all that unusual, and we should not be startled by the sudden shift from addressing God directly, to speaking of Him indirectly, especially since the third person usage in the second line is likely a relic of a fixed expression regarding righteous as “the ones fearing Him”. The MT points the initial word as a prepositional expression—;T=a!m@, “from you”, presumably in the sense of “from [i.e. as a result of] what you have done”. Dahood (p. 142) offers the interesting interpretation of itam as a verbal form, a denominative derived from ha*m@ (“hundred”), in which case in context it would mean something like “my praise is to you a hundred (fold)”. This is an attractive solution, but perhaps rather unlikely, given the lack of any other clear examples of such a denominative in the Old Testament.

Verse 27 [26]

“The oppressed (one)s will eat and be satisfied,
they will shout praise to YHWH, (the one)s seeking Him—
may your heart live for (all time) until (the end)!”

Again there is a shift from the protagonist (i.e. individual salvation) to the congregation (“assembly”) of the people (collective). Clearly, however, it is the righteous and faithful ones who are in view— “the ones seeking [vb vr^D*]” YHWH—and not the entire people in a simple national/ethnic sense. These same righteous Israelites, faithful and loyal to God, are characterized as “oppressed”, using a plural adjective (<yw]n`u&, ±¦n¹wîm) that would take on great importance as a religious self-identification for devout Jews in subsequent generations (including at the time of the New Testament). The promise is that these faithful ones will find salvation in their time of distress, and will enjoy a long and fulfilling life (expressed in the third line as a blessing). The implication throughout is that the oppression that the righteous experience is due, in large measure, to the very fact of their faithfulness to YHWH, which stimulates opposition from the wicked.

Verses 28-29 [27-28]

“They will remember and (re)turn to YHWH,
(from) all (the) ends of (the) earth;
and they will bow (down) before your face,
all (the) offspring of (the) nations—
for the kingdom (belongs) to YHWH,
and (is) ruling o(ver the) nations!”

This sequence of three couplets (with slightly irregular meter, 3+2 and 2+2[?]) has the common theme of YHWH’s position as king and ruler of the entire earth. The salvation He is able to bring for his people, in the face of oppression from the wicked (i.e. of the nations), is ultimately due to this sovereignty and power which He possesses. It is thus natural that the praise and worship of YHWH, in this setting, would turn toward the theme of His sovereignty.

The idea of the nations “remembering” (vb rk^z`) and “turning” (or re-turning, vb rWv) to YHWH can be misleading, if understood in the sense of Christian evangelism, etc. While there may be reflected here a tradition regarding the common worship of the one true God by all humankind (cf. Gen 10:32-11:1ff), the more proper meaning is that of the nations coming to recognize the truth of YHWH’s position as King over the universe, being forced to this point by the exercise of His power. This motif of all the nations coming to worship YHWH is rather more typical of the Prophetic writings in the exilic and post-exilic periods; however, it has its roots in older tradition, and cannot necessarily be used as a reliable means for dating the Psalm. Cf. for example, the similar thought and wording in Ps 59:14 [13].

Verse 30 [29]

“Indeed, to Him will they bow down, all (those) sleeping (in the) earth;
they will bend the knee, all (the one)s going down (into the) dust—
even (though) his soul does not remain alive!”

I understand these lines as a tricolon (with irregular meter), parallel in certain respects to that of verse 27 [26] (cf. above). On that basis, there is a clear contrast between the righteous ones of v. 27 and the rest of humankind here (i.e., the nations, following the thought of vv. 28-29). The righteous have their lives preserved by God, while the rest of humankind simply die off and are buried. This rather confirms that the “bowing down” of the nations to YHWH is compulsory, and not necessarily reflective of a genuine conversion to true worship of God. At the very least, the nations who bow down (vb hj^v* reflexive) and “bend the knee” (vb ur^K*) do not have the same relationship to YHWH as do the righteous/faithful ones of His people. This is entirely in accord with Israelite religion and theology, however much it may conflict with later Christian ideals.

I follow the commentators (such as Dahood, p. 143) who parse the initial word wlka (MT Wlk=a*, “they will eat”) as ol Ea* (“indeed to him”), which better fits the context. The reading Wlk=a* may have arisen due to the parallelism with verse 27, and the opening word there; at the very least, there would seem to be some wordplay involved. Also problematic is the expression Jr#a#-yn@v=D!, which would appear to mean “(the) fat (one)s of the earth”; however, this does not fit the parallelism of the lines particularly well. A more likely parsing, it seems to me, recognizes the participial form yn@v@y=, “(the one)s sleeping” (vb /v@y`); this yields the appropriate parallel (cp. Dan 12:2):

    • “(the one)s sleeping (in the) earth”
    • “(the one)s going down (into the) dust”

The initial D! would then be explained as the old Semitic relative pronoun (yD!), which was preserved in poetry (and continued to be used in Aramaic), but otherwise disappeared from Old Testament Hebrew prose (where the relative particle rv#a& is far more common). Thus, if correct, the derivation  yn@v@y= + yD! = yn@v=D!; through elision/syncope the consonant y drops out (cf. Dahood, p. 143).

The meaning of the third line in verse 30 is also uncertain; however, based on the parallel with the third line of v. 27, it would seem that the contrast is between the life of the righteous being preserved (by God), and the inability of the rest of humankind to save their life (i.e. “soul”, vp#n#) from death and the grave.

Verses 31-32 [30-31]

“(May my) seed (always) serve Him,
(and) give account of the Lord to (each) circle;
they will come and put His justice (out) front, (showing)
to people coming to be born, that He has done (this).”

These final couplets have a highly irregular rhythm; however, they serve as a fitting conclusion to the Psalm, emphasizing how each generation of Israelites has a duty to continue declaring (such as in performance of this Psalm-composition) how YHWH has acted to save His people, even as they themselves remain faithful to the covenant. The noun roD is often translated “generation”, but it literally means “circle, cycle, revolution”, i.e. a life-cycle or Age. The basic sense of “generation”, however, is correct, as the parallel between the 2nd and 4th lines makes clear—i.e., “circle” (roD) = “people coming to be born” (dl*on <u^). The noun hq*d*x= can also be difficult to translate precisely; it denotes “straightness, right(ness), rectitude”, often in the specific sense of “justice” (so translated above) or religious and moral “righteousness”. In a covenantal context, however, it can also connote loyalty—faithfulness and adherence to the binding agreement.

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

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 2

Psalm 22, continued

Verses 12-23 [11-22]

In this portion of the Psalm, the distress and misfortune experienced by the Psalmist (cf. the previous study on vv. 2-11 [1-10]) is defined in terms of attacks by his adversaries and opponents. Often in the Psalms, this line of imagery relates to the royal background and theology of the ancient poems (i.e. referring to opponents of the king and his kingdom). Admittedly, this aspect is less prominent here in Psalm 22, but we must still take it into account. The adversaries of the protagonist are never specified, though they are characterized generally as wicked and faithless/disloyal to the covenant with YHWH.

Verse 12 [11]

“Do not be far away from me,
for distress is near (to me),
for there is no (one) helping (me)!”

The section begins with a 2+2+2 tricolon, in which the Psalmist calls out urgently to God, as he faces “distress” (hr*x*), an abstract term which should be understood in the concrete sense of hostile opponents who are attacking (or who would attack). The substantive participle “(one) helping” (rz@ou) refers to human aid, perhaps in the practical sense of military assistance; since there is no one available, the Psalmist has to turn to YHWH for divine aid.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Many (strong) bulls surround me,
(the) mighty (one)s of Bashan enclose me;
they open their mouths upon me,
tearing and roaring (at me as) a lion!”

The two 3+3 couplets in these verses describe the Psalmist’s enemies in the traditional imagery of fierce and powerful animals (bull / lion). They are compared with bulls (<yr!P*) in the first couplet, the parallelism filled in by the local idiom of cattle-herding in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan (“mighty ones of Bashan”). In the second couplet, the lion (hy@r=u^) is in view, with its deadly mouth that roars and tears at its prey.

Verses 15-16 [14-15]

“Like water, I am poured out,
all my bones are separated;
my heart is (become) like wax,
it melts in the midst of my tissues;
my strength is dried up like (baked) clay,
and my tongue has been stuck to my jaws—
and (all this) has set me toward the dust of death!”

In the face of such danger, the Psalmist can feel himself on the verge of death. The strength of his limbs (and his heart) dissolves, melting all over. This liquid metaphor is replaced (in v. 16 [15]) with the opposite idea of drying—his strength drying up like the tongue in his mouth. The figurative anatomical references give way to a climactic exclamation in the final line, an exclamation, however, which is a bit difficult to interpret. The verb form, yn]t@P=v=T!, appears to be a second person singular imperfect form, suggesting a sudden switch to a direct address to YHWH by the Psalmist, perhaps blaming God for the situation he now faces—i.e., “and (so) to the dust of death you have put me!”. Dahood (p. 140), following the earlier analysis of W. F. Albright, suggests instead that it should be read as a third person feminine (collective), perhaps in the sense that ‘all these things’ (“they”), together, have set me toward the dust of death. I have tentatively followed this interpretation above. The image of “dust” (rp*u*), of course, fits the motif of drying out in v. 16.

Verses 17-19 [16-18]

“For (these) dogs have surrounded me,
a pack of (those) doing evil has gone about me,
digging (into) my hands and my feet—
I count all my bones (that are left)!
They, they give a look,
they take sight at me;
they divide my clothes among them,
and upon my garment they cast a pebble.”

These difficult (and irregular) couplets represent the violence of the attack made upon the Psalmist. Perhaps it is what he envisions happening, rather than something which, whether real or figurative, has actually taken place. In any case, the animal imagery from the prior lines continues, with the adversaries now depicted as a pack of savage dogs. They are characterized as “(one)s doing evil” (<yu!r@m=), and, in keeping with the imagery of the couplet, I have rendered the common noun hd*u@ (“appointed [gathering], assembly”) colloquially as “pack” (cf. Dahood, p. 140).

The second couplet (v. 17b/18a) is particularly difficult, evidenced by the misplaced verse division. With many commentators, I read the initial word yrak as a verbal form (infinitive) from the root hr*K* I (“dig”), with an ‘intrusive’ aleph [a]. It is often translated here as “pierce”, perhaps to give greater relevance to the subsequent (Christian) application to the crucifixion of Jesus (i.e., piercing his hands and feet, cf. Luke 24:39). However, the original context of the Psalm had nothing to do with crucifixion; rather, it would seem, the idea is of dogs digging their sharp teeth into the legs and arms (i.e. ‘hands and feet’) of the protagonist. It is a vicious attack that leaves the victim in a debilitated state; and, it is in this light that I understand the second line of the couplet, as a bit of grim irony—the Psalmist is able to count the few intact bones he has left!

Rhythmically, following this pair of 3+3 couplets, there is a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet in the remainder of verse 18. The sense is not entirely clear, but I believe that the idea involves the attackers pausing to look at the body of their victim. This would seem to be confirmed by what follows in verse 19 (again a 3+3 couplet). Having left their victim dead (or near death), they strip him of his clothing, dividing the garments between them, casting lot to see who will receive the choicest garment (his robe/tunic). This detail, of course, features in the Gospel Passion narrative (Mark 15:24 par), the Psalm being understood as a prophecy of Jesus’ death, as the direct citation in John 19:24 makes clear.

Verses 20-23 [19-22]

“But you, YHWH, do not be far (away) from me!
My strength, you must hurry (here) to help me!
Snatch my soul away from the sword,
my (life) intact from (the) hand of (the) dog!
Save me from the mouth of (the) lion,
and answer (to rescue) me from (the) horns of wild (oxen)!
(Then) will I recount your name to my brothers,
in (the) midst of (the) assembly, I will shout (praise to) you.”

The plea of the Psalmist in verse 20 [19] repeats that of v. 12 [11] at the beginning of the section (cf. above). The depiction of violence in vv. 13-19 is thus best understood as a portent of what could (and may well) happen to him, if YHWH does not come to his aid. God is literally referred to here as the Psalmist’s strength ([tW]ly`a$), in the (military) sense of protection and the ability to fight off attackers. Verses 21-22 [20-21] clearly capture the sense of imminent, impending danger, associating the three savage, attacking animals of the prior verses—dog, lion, and wild bull/ox—with the sword.

The second line of v. 21 is a bit obscure, especially the apparent use of the adjective dyj!y` (signifying being one or united) in a substantive sense (with possessive suffix). The parallel with “soul” (vp#n#) suggests that the meaning may be something like “my only (life)”; I prefer the emphasis on being united, and tentatively translate above “my life (intact)”. Dahood (p. 141) would read blk (MT bl#K#, “dog”) as related to the root [lk (i.e., twplyk, “axe”), comparable to the word ab*l=K% in Aramaic and the cognate pair býK= and [l%K@ in late Hebrew (all meaning “axe”). Even though “axe” makes a suitable pairing with “sword” in the couplet, the earlier specific use of “dog” (bl#K#), and the same triad of animals (bull/ox, lion, dog), renders such a reading less likely.

If YHWH answers the Psalmist’s plea, saving him from danger (and death), then he will be able to recount God’s saving action to others, giving praise to Him and His name (v. 23 [22]). This includes the context of public worship in the “assembly” (lh*q*), and may indicate a specific ritual or liturgical setting for performance of the Psalm. The similar pairing of the verbs uv^y` (“save”) and hn`u* (“answer, respond”) in Psalm 20 (vv. 7, 10 [6, 9], cf. the earlier study), suggests that the royal background of military action (and God’s role in aiding the king, His faithful/loyal vassal) underlies the imagery here in v. 22. In any case, it is an appeal to the honor of YHWH’s name, such as we find frequently in Old Testament poetry. The closing couplet of this section also prepares the way for the next (vv. 24-32 [23-31]), the conclusion to the Psalm, which focuses on the praise that is due to YHWH for His power and goodness—the implication being that God will deliver the Psalmist in his time of need.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 1

Psalm 22

Psalm 22 is a lengthy lament, which I would divide into three main sections:

    • Vv. 2-11 [1-10]—A lament to God by the Psalmist in regard to his suffering and the deplorable situation he faces
    • Vv. 12-23 [11-22]—This situation is described in terms of attacks by his adversaries
    • Vv. 24-32 [23-31]—Praise to YHWH for his power and goodness, anticipating that God will bring deliverance

The meter is irregular, with 3+3 couplets dominating; however, 4+4 couplets are found, especially in the concluding praise section, along with 2 beat tricola (2+2+2). In an ancient poem of this length and complexity, it is not surprising to find many metrical irregularities and inconsistencies; some of these, at least, may be intentional and part of the original composition, without necessarily reflecting textual corruption.

The superscription indicates that this is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David. It also provides the specific musical direction (in the MT) rj^V^h^ tl#Y#a^ lu^, which would mean “upon (the) hind/doe of the dawn”, though there is some uncertainty regarding the form tlya, which the Greek versions (LXX, Symmachus) and Targums apparently understood as tWly`a$ (“strength, help”), as in verse 20 [19]. The expression then could mean something like “strength/help that comes with the dawn”, the implication being that the Psalmist is facing a ‘dark night of the soul’, but that the sunrise of deliverance from YHWH is coming. In the context of the musical direction, it may refer to a particular melody or style, the preposition lu^ (“upon”) indicating that the poem is to be performed according to that musical standard. It may be comparable to the many ‘parody’ works by medieval and Renaissance composers, based on previously existing melodies and compositions.

This Psalm is especially significant for Christians, due to its use in the Passion narrative of the (Synoptic) Gospels, with details from the poem effectively being enacted (fulfilled) in the narrative. In the Synoptic tradition (Mark-Matthew), Jesus quotes the opening line while fastened to the stake (Mk 15:34 par), and it may have been that historical tradition which prompted early believers to turn to the Psalm, where they recognized certain parallels with the events of his death. The Gospel writers clearly were aware of these details, and take care to highlight them, though the Psalm is cited directly only at Jn 19:24. In addition to the words uttered by Jesus, three elements of the Psalm were seen as related to the circumstances of his death:

Section 1: Psalm 22:2-11

Verse 2 [1]

“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me,
(be)ing far removed from my (cry for) help, (the) words of my groaning?”

This opening 4+4 couplet establishes the Psalm as a lament, in which the protagonist cries to God in the midst of his suffering. It is an example of synthetic parallelism, with the second line building upon the first. The verb bz~u* (“leave, [set] loose, abandon”) in line 1 is picked up by qojr* in line 2, which I parse as a verbal noun (from qj^r*, “be far [removed], distant”). Not only does the Psalmist feel that God has left him, but He has gone far away. The parallel suffixed nouns yt!u*Wvy+ (“my [cry for] help”) and yt!g`a&v^ (“my groaning”) in the second line further add to the intensity of the scene. The root ga^v* more properly denotes roaring—i.e., a roaring cry of suffering and distress. On the use of v. 2a in the Passion narrative, cf. above and the special note at the end of this study.

Verse 3 [2]

“My Mightiest (One)—
I call by day and you do not answer (me),
and by night, and (there is) no calm for me.”

The initial address to God (“my Mightiest”, yh^ýa$), if original, rather distorts the meter of the verse, though it does provide a fitting parallel to the opening of v. 2 (“my Mighty [One]”, yl!a@, repeated). To preserve the clarity of the couplet, I have rendered the initial address as a partial line which adds a moment of tension and suspense to the rhythm of the two couplets of vv. 2-3 [1-2] when read together. The parallelism of the couplet here is obvious, being more conceptual than formal. The noun hY`m!Wd can specifically mean “silence”, emphasizing that the Psalmist cries out continually (and is not silent), or it could indicate that there is no calm or stillness for him (i.e. no rest or respite from his suffering); the latter sense is to be preferred.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“And (yet) you are sitting (in the) holy (place),
the shining (splendor) of Yisrael!
In you our Fathers trusted (for safety)—
they trusted, and you made escape (for) them;
to you they cried out and were rescued,
in you they trusted and were not disgraced!”

These three couplets provide a contrast with the Psalmist’s situation. Since YHWH rescued and delivered the people of Israel in times past, why will he not deliver the protagonist now? In some ways, this anticipates the praise section in vv. 24-32, but here the recollection of past action of God on behalf of his people only serves as a bitter irony. There is a hint of rebuke in the opening couplet, contrasting the Psalmist’s deplorable condition on earth with YHWH sitting in splendor on his throne in heaven; it could perhaps be rendered “…and yet, there you are, sitting in the holy place!” The contrast between God and the human condition is further developed, most vividly in the verses that follow.

The threefold use of the verb jf^B* in vv. 5-6 may seem overly repetitive, but effectively makes a theological point: God will deliver those who trust in him. The root jfb often connotes trusting in someone for safety and protection, and is occasionally rendered “seek refuge [in]” —i.e. God as a place of protection. In spite of this threefold affirmation, implying that the Psalmist, too, is trusting in YHWH, there is as yet no deliverance from suffering.

The rhythm of these lines is terser than the couplets of vv. 2-3, the verbal repetition giving a staccato-like quality to the strophe, with a pair of 3+2 bicola followed by a 3+3 couplet (v. 6).

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

“And (here) I (am) a worm, and not a man,
(the) scorn of mankind, and contempt of (all) people!
All (those) seeing me bring derision to(ward) me,
they let out (laughter) with (the) lip and wag (their) head:
‘He circled (with joy) to YHWH, so let Him (now) bring escape!
let Him rescue him, (seeing) that he finds delight in Him!'”

The contrast of the Divine and human condition is a frequent theme in Old Testament poetry, the human side often expressed by the parallel “man…son of man”. Here, however, the contrast is made even more graphically—the Psalmist’s condition is that of a worm, something even less than a man! By this is meant, primarily, the disgrace that he experiences from the rest of humankind (or, so it seems to him). The first couplet, a 3+3 bicolon with rhythmic tension in the second line, provides a synthetic parallelism, where the idea of being a “worm” is defined specifically in terms of the scorn (hP*r=j#) and contempt (hz)B=) he experiences from other people.

Even allowing for poetic exaggeration, to be sure, it is interesting to consider just what it is which brings about such treatment by the people at large. The only evidence provided here is that the protagonist has been struck by severe misfortune, which seems to run contrary to his faithful devotion to YHWH. In other words, if he has been faithful and loyal to YHWH (i.e. trusting in Him, cf. above), then how is it that he is now trapped in such a deplorable situation? This is a natural religious sentiment, felt my many devout persons at various times, and was a frequent theme in the ancient Wisdom literature (indeed, it runs throughout the entire book of Job). His sense of disgrace is only heightened all the more by the mockery he receives from the faithless in society. This is presented most vividly in vv. 8-9 [7-8], including a representative taunt expressed by the populace; this taunt, clearly reflected in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 15:29-32), as noted above, occurs in the climactic couplet of v. 9, with both synonymous and chiastic parallelism:

    • The Psalmist circles (with joy) unto YHWH
      • so let God bring escape for him
      • and let (God) deliver him
    • since he finds delight in (YHWH)

The Masoretic pointing of the first verb (lG)) suggests that it is a form of the root ll^G` (“roll”); equally possible is derivation from lyG] (“circle around”), in which case it should probably be vocalized lG`. The meaning would not change much, though the derivation from lyG], with its connotation of rejoicing (i.e. circling with joy), seems to fit better the parallelism of the couplet.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]

“(Yet it is) that you brought me forth from (her) belly,
making me trust (in safety) upon (the) breasts of my mother;
upon you was I (then) thrown out from (the) loving (womb)—
from (the) belly of my mother you are my Mighty (One)!”

The vulnerability of the human condition is again emphasized here, with the basic image of childbirth. The child is thrust harshly out into the world, away from the loving care (symbolized by the natural motifs of the “breasts” and “womb/bosom”) of its mother. Yet the Psalmist counts himself among those (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones) who, removed from the state of childhood (trusting in the mother), come to trust wholly on God (YHWH) instead. The same verb jf^B* is used here in verse 10, echoing its earlier threefold usage in v. 5-6 (cf. above).

Thus, this section of the Psalm, in spite of its character as a lament, closes with an affirmation of trust in YHWH. It is a trust that remains, despite the suffering and misfortune that may be experienced, at the lowest point of the human condition; this test of faith and trust in God is a golden strand that runs through the Psalm, leading into the final praise-section of vv. 24-32. In this regard, Psalm 22 has a stronger wisdom emphasis that many of the Psalms we have recently studied; the royal theology and covenant-background is less prominent, though it does come more into view in the second section of the Psalm, as we shall see in the next study.

Psalm 22:2[1] in the Synoptic Passion Narrative

As mentioned above, most Christians are familiar with this Psalm through certain details of the Passion narrative in the (Synoptic) Gospels; most notably, in the Markan narrative (followed by Matthew), Jesus quotes the first line (v. 2a) of the Psalm as he is fastened to the stake. The Synoptic tradition preserves this in transliterated form, though with some confusion regarding whether it is a transliteration of the Aramaic or the Hebrew. This confusion runs through the manuscripts, to the point that there is no way of being sure whether, at the historical level, Jesus would have made such an utterance in Aramaic or Hebrew. Typically, however, such (Aramaic) transliterations preserved in the Gospels are seen, on objective grounds, as a mark of historical authenticity.

Generally, it would seem that the transliteration preserves an Aramaic form, with the most common difference involving a modification of the initial address to God to reflect the Hebrew. The Hebrew of Psalm 22:1 (cf. above) reads:

yn]T*b=z~u& hm*l* yl!a@ yl!@a@
°E~lî °E~lî l¹mâ ±¦za»t¹nî
“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me?”

The best form of the Markan reading (in Mk 15:34), as presented in the Nestle-Aland critical text (unaccented), would seem to be:

elwi elwi lema sabaxqani
which transliterates the Aramaic
yn]T^q=b^v= am*l= yh!l*a$ yh!l*a$
°E_lohî °E_lohî l®mâ° š®»aqtanî

In Mark, this is subsequently translated as:

o( qeo/$ mou o( qeo/$ mou ei)$ ti/ e)gkate/pile/$ me;
“My God, my God, unto what [i.e. why] have you left me down in (this place) [i.e. left me behind]?”

The verb form e)gkte/pile$ follows the LXX translation, and is a more or less accurate rendering of the Hebrew verb bz~u* (“leave [behind], abandon”). Matthew’s translation uses the vocative address qee/ mou… (“O my God…”), but otherwise is closer to the LXX. Matthew’s Greek transliteration similarly differs by having the opening address in Hebrew (hli hli = yl!a@ yl!a@), while the rest is Aramaic, making it a composite (bilingual) citation, such as would be fitting for a popular adaption of Scripture among the largely Aramaic-speaking population of the time. Of many such examples of this bilingualism, one need only note the shifting between Hebrew and Aramaic (apparently without any comment) in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Daniel.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 21

Psalm 21

Thematically, Psalm 20 and 21 belong together, with each having as its background the Israelite/Judean king and his army in time of war. An important aspect of the ancient Near Eastern covenant idea, in terms of political agreements, is that the binding agreement (tyr!B=) involves treaty terms for (military) assistance and protection. In agreements between equal parties, this means mutual protection; however, in the case of suzerain-vassal treaties, the emphasis is on the protection and aid provided by the sovereign, or superior party. From the standpoint of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, the king is a vassal of YHWH, and, insofar as he remains faithful and loyal to the covenant, he receives Divine aid and protection in time of need.

This royal theology underlies many of the Psalms, including these two (20 and 21) in particular, dealing with situations involving the need for military action and warfare. The setting of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study) is a communal prayer to YHWH for assistance that will bring victory for the king and his army. In Psalm 21, this has shifted to a declaration of praise and thanksgiving for the victory provided by YHWH.

The structure of Psalm 21 is similar to that of Psalm 20, and may be divided into two parts:

    • Vv. 3-8—the blessings given to the king by YHWH, reflecting the covenant bond between the two
    • Vv. 9-13—the aid given to the king, specifically, that allows him to be victorious in battle

These stanzas are bracketed by couplets of praise to YHWH (vv. 2, 14). The two parts have a joining transition point in vv. 8-9 which contrasts the faithfulness/loyalty of the king, binding him to YHWH, against the wickedness of his enemies/opponents and their helplessness before God.

The meter in the first half tends to be 4+4, while 3+3 in the second, though there are certain irregularities throughout. The superscription, with minimal musical information and direction, is the same as that of Ps 20 (and many other of the Psalms). Sadly, neither Psalm 20 nor 21 are preserved among the Dead Sea Scroll Psalms manuscripts.

Verse 2 [1]

“YHWH, in your strength the king finds joy,
and in your salvation, how great(ly) he spins (for joy)!”

In this opening (4+4) couplet, praising YHWH for the blessings shown to the king, the nouns zu) (“strength, might”) and hu*Wvy+ (“salvation, protection”) must be understood in terms of the assistance provided by God in time of war (cf. above). YHWH’s “strength” is what ultimately gives the king victory in battle—it is a Divine protection which keeps him safe from death and defeat. Compare this couplet with the closing praise in verse 14 [13] (cf. below).

Verses 3-8 [2-7]

Verses 3-4 [2-3]

“(The) longing of his heart you have given to him,
and (for the) desire of his lips you have held nothing back; Selah
for you put blessings of goodness in front of him,
you set onto his head a circle [i.e. crown/wreath] of pure (gold).”

Throughout these two Psalms the king represents the people as a whole, and the community identifies itself with the anointed ruler as the faithful one(s) of YHWH. Thus the prayer of the people (in Ps 20) blends into the prayer of the king (for victory in battle). This couplet confirms that the prayer—both of king and people—has been answered. The synonymous parallelism is clear, with the second line intensifying the theme of the first. The noun tv#r#a& in line 2 occurs only here in the Old Testament, from an unused root (vr^a*) that is, however, attested in other Semitic languages (such as Ugaritic). Both the context here, and the cognate usage, indicate that the meaning is something like “desire, wish, request”.

The lone occurrence of the musical indicator hl*s# (selah) after this couplet is difficult to explain. Under the basic assumption that it is meant primarily as a pause in singing/reciting the text, it may be intended to preserve the integrity of the couplet, in light of the conjunction (yK!) that begins the next line.

The encircling wreath (tr#f#u&) of gold signifies the honor that comes from victory in battle—a victory won through YHWH’s own strength. There may be an alliterative parallel intended between tr#f#u& (±¦‰ere¾) and the earlier tv#r#a& (°¦reše¾) in verse 3.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“(Year)s of life he asked from you, and you gave to him—
length of days (for the) distant (future and) until (the end);
great (is) his weight (achieved) in [i.e. through] your salvation,
(great the) honor and splendor you have placed upon him!”

These two couplets, with slight irregularities of meter, expound two different aspects of the honor given to king by YHWH:

    • the opportunity to live a long and full life, i.e. saved from death in battle; long life being especially valued as an ideal in ancient times, and here expressed two ways:
      • the plural noun <yY]j^ which signifies a (long) life; spec. the years of a person’s life(time), but perhaps also in an intensive or emphatic sense (i.e. full life)
      • “length of days”, the length(ing) of days being a common Semitic idiom for old age and a long life
    • the value and worth (lit. “weight”, dobK*) of his person is enhanced, marked by an honorific improvement of his appearance, using the alliterative expression rd*h*w+ doh (hô¼ w®h¹¼¹r, roughly “honor and splendor”)
Verse 7-8 [6-7]

“(So it is) that you set blessings for him until (the end),
you have made him look with joy at your face;
(for it is) that the king is (one) trusting in YHWH,
and in (the) kindness of the Highest there is no slipping (away)!”

The blessings of a long life of honor and splendor here climax with the idea of a future blessing that involves a beatific vision of God (i.e. to look upon His “face”). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 133) in reading the verb hd*j* as = hz`j* (“look/gaze at, behold”), which better fits the context of the line; it would be thus explained as a (Canaanite) dialectical form involving the familiar interchange of the consonants d/z (Heb d/z).

The final couplet emphasizes again the (covenant) loyalty of the king, characterizing him as one “trusting” in YHWH, using a participle form of a verb (jf^B*) which can specifically connote the idea of seeking protection. This loyalty is reciprocated by God’s own, showing goodness/kindness (ds#j#) and favor to the faithful vassal. The covenant bond is indicated by the closing phrase, “there is no slipping (away)” (foMy] lB^), reading the Niphal verb form in a reflexive sense—i.e., there is no falling away from the covenant bond with YHWH.

Verses 9-14 [8-13]

As noted above, a 3+3 meter dominates the second part of the Psalm, which describes God’s blessings to the king in terms of the aid/assistance given to him in time of battle.

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“Your hand found (its way) to all your enemies,
your right (hand) found (its way to the one)s hating you;
you set them as a fire-stove at the time your face (appears)—
with His nostril(s) He engulfs them, and (His) fire devours them.”

The mixing of 2nd and 3rd person forms is a bit confusing, but hardly unusual in Old Testament poetry. It is all the more natural here, given the close connection between the king’s military action and the strength of YHWH Himself that fights for the king (cf. above). More difficult is the extended/irregular meter of verse 10, suggesting that there may be one or more (secondary) accretions to the couplet. I tentatively emend the text to read as a 4+4 couplet, by omitting the first of the two occurrences of va@ (“fire”), in line 1, and the divine name hwhy in line 2. The addition of the name may be an explanatory gloss to clarify the identity of the 2nd person markers (i.e., “…your face, YHWH” ). It is perhaps best to understand YHWH as the subject throughout, referring to His actions on the king’s behalf.

The judgment of God on His enemies (= the king/Israel’s enemies) is expressed by the idiom of the face, according to the traditional religious idea that to see YHWH’s face means death for a human being. This fiery destruction from God’s “face” natural blends together with the common idiom for God’s anger—i.e., burning from the nostrils (as of an angry, snorting bull).

Verse 11 [10]

“Their fruit you made to perish from (the) earth,
and their seed from (among the) sons of man.”

This couplet suggests something more than the defeat of a nation or people in battle, though it may allude to the idea of a defeat so total that it would virtually deprive an entire generation of its young men. More likely is the notion that the military defeat of Israel/Judah’s enemies reflects a wider sense of their (ultimate) destruction that has been determined by God. The nouns “fruit” and “seed” of course are used figuratively for the children/offspring of a people.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

“(For it was) that they stretched out evil upon you,
they wove an (evil) plan, (but) were not able (to complete it);
(so it is) that you set them (to the) shoulder,
you fixed your (bow)strings upon their faces.”

There is a clear parallel  between the enemies of God “stretching” out evil strands upon (lu*) Him, and God, in turn, aiming His bowstrings upon (lu*) their faces. It is typical of the thematic imagery found in the Psalms (and other Old Testament poetry) in they way that the evil intent of the wicked is turned back upon them, so that they are essentially destroyed by the very thing they sought to accomplish. We have already encountered a number of examples of this sort in the Psalms we have studied thus far. The precise meaning of the idiom in the first line of v. 13 [12] is not entirely clear; I have rendered it quite literally: “that you set them (to the) shoulder”. It could indicate a person turning his back (to flee), or, perhaps, of bending/falling down in defeat (or submission). In any case, the defeat of God’s enemies—meaning also the defeat of Israel’s enemies—is clear.

VERSE 14 [13]

“May you rise up (high), YHWH, in your strength,
and we shall sing and make music in your might!”

This closing couplet is parallel to the opening couplet of the Psalm (v. 2 [1], cf. above), emphasizing both the strength (zu)) of YHWH that brought victory for the king, and also the praise of the people who rejoice together in that victory. The noun hr*WbG+ (“strength, might, vigor”) in the second line is virtually synonymous with zu) in the first. It alludes to the youthful vigor of warriors, only, for the Israelite/Judean army of the king faithful to YHWH, the normal strength of young men has been enhanced by the divine power of YHWH Himself. This is reflected in verse 8 [7] of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study), with the contrast between those nations who trust in their (ordinary) military strength (of horses and chariots, etc), and those who rely instead on the person and presence (the “Name”) of YHWH the true God. Even for later Israelites, Jews, and Christians, for whom the original military setting of this Psalm has long disappeared, it is a contrast that all faithful believers can still appreciate.

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

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 20

Psalm 20

This Psalm (and the one following) have, as its original setting and background, the royal Israelite/Judean army, led by its king, preparing to go to war. I agree with earlier commentators (Gunkel, Dahood, et al) who identified this context, and the wording and imagery throughout the composition would seem to confirm that it is correct. The Psalm functions as a prayer to God for victory in battle, and may well reflect a specific ritual setting, involving sacrificial offerings made prior to going out to battle. It is not necessary, however, to insist that the Psalm was originally composed for performance in such a setting.

The religious and theological dimension of warfare, expressed in this Psalm, will doubtless seem foreign to modern western readers; indeed, many Christians today may find the association rather repellent, in light of our modern view of the medieval Crusades, Islamic jihad, and other forms of “holy war”. However, in the ancient Near East, the divine role in warfare simply reflected an understanding of the control exercised by deities (or the Deity) over all areas of daily life. The success of an army meant that its gods (or God) favored it, with the deities of the victorious nation effectively gaining victory over those of the defeated people. In the context of Israelite Yahwism, a victory in battle for Israel served as proof that their God (YHWH) was superior to those of the other nations.

The language of the Psalm was such that, over time, the concepts of salvation and victory, trust in the name of God, etc, could be given a wider and more general application to the people of Israel. However, like many of the Psalms, the royal background must be kept clearly in view and central to any proper interpretation. The original context is that of the king and his army, as he responds to the various conflicts with his enemies and opponents. While these “enemies” may be treated generically and symbolically at many points in the Psalms, the poems were also composed within the background of real socio-political conflicts and real battles. It was not the classic “holy war” of the earlier Israelite confederacy, but the basic idea remained, filtered through a strong (Judean) royal theology, regarding the king (from the line of David) and his relationship to YHWH.

Structurally, the Psalm divides into two parts:

    • Vv. 2-6—a prayer for God’s help and support, for the king (and his army)
    • Vv. 7-10—a declaration of victory, indicating that the prayer has been (i.e. will be) answered

Rhythmically, a 4-beat meter dominates in the first part (2+2, but 4+4 in the opening couplet), though not without some tension and irregularity, which may be a way of expressing musically the “distress” that the king faces. In the second part, it is a 3+3 meter, again with certain irregular points of tension that build, only to resolve in the final two couplets.

The musical direction in the superscription simply indicates that this Psalm is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David.

Part 1: Verses 2-6

Verse 2 [1]

“May YHWH answer you (to bring victory) in (the) day of distress,
(the) name of the Mightiest (One) of Ya’aqob set you (safe) on high!”

This 4+4 couplet establishes the theme and setting of the Psalm, which, as noted above, would seem to be a time of conflict for the king (and nation), requiring an act of war. In several Old Testament passages, the verb hn`u* connotes the idea of engaging in violent conflict, to force an opponent into submission, etc (e.g., Num 24:24); in such instances, it is root hn`u* III in the Piel stem. Here, apparently, in line 1 the root is hn`u* I (“answer, respond”), implying the hope that YHWH will answer the prayer and respond to king’s need (in battle). The verb bg~c* in the second line, in the Piel stem, refers to putting something (or someone) in a high place, where they will be safe.

The concept of the “name”, especially that of the deity, was extremely complex in ancient Near Eastern thought. A person’s name embodied the character and nature of the person. Thus, to speak of God’s name, was to refer to God Himself–His nature, power, and presence. Moreover, at times, the “name” of God was understood as functioning as a distinct hypostasis, or active manifestation. Here the “name” (<v@) of the Mighty One (“Mightiest”, <yh!l)a$, i.e. God) of Jacob (Israel) protects the people of Israel, and their king. For more on significance of names and naming in the Old Testament, cf. my earlier Christmas series “And you shall call His name…”, especially the articles on the names of God.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

“May He send your help from (His) holy place,
and give you (His) support from ‚iyyôn;
may He remember all your gifts (to Him),
and receive the fat (of) your rising (offering)s. Selah
May He give (to) you according to your heart,
and fulfill (for you) all of your plan(s);
may we shout (for joy) in your salvation,
and in (the) name of our Mightiest display (the banner)!
May YHWH fulfill all your petitions (to Him)!”

After the 4+4 bicolon of verse 2, a series of four 2+2 couplets follow, interrupted by a pause (hl*s#, selah), perhaps to indicate that the four couplets should not be run together, but to function as two distinct strophes. The first strophe establishes the religious context of the prayer, and of the mobilization for war (on this last point, cf. above). The “help” (rz#u@) YHWH will send to the king comes from His “holy place” (vd@q))—that is, the sanctuary of the Temple, in the temple-palace complex on the ancient fortified hill-top locale (Zion) of Jerusalem. Moreover, this response is predicated upon the faithfulness of the king (and his priests and people) in fulfilling the ritual obligations of the covenant: the “gifts” and sacrificial offerings to God. Possibly, a specific sacrificial ritual, prior to going out to war, and overseen by the king, is in view.

The second strophe, or pair of couplets, brings out this relationship of the king and his people (including his army). The first couplet offers a prayer that God will allow the king to fulfill everything that he plans (presumably in terms of conducting the war); and that, as a result, the people will be able to shout together in confidence that victory (salvation) is assured. The verb lg~D* is often used in the technical sense of displaying (i.e. carrying/raising) a banner or (military) standard.

The final couplet serves a climax to the first part of the Psalm, emphasizing again the prayer context. It is framed in terms of the petitions that the king himself will make to God, presumably prior to (and during) the course of the battle.

Part 2: Verses 7-10

Verse 7 [6]

“Now I know that YHWH brings salvation (for) His anointed—
He (has) responded from (the) heavens of His holy (place),
(bring)ing salvation with (the great) strength of His right (hand)!”

The opening of this part of the Psalm parallels the couplet in verse 2 (cf. above), building upon the war-prayer setting. It is a declaration that God has answered the prayer, and will bring victory (“salvation”). The beat of the opening is irregular—almost, but not quite a 3+3 couplet; I have rendered it above as a single line. A proper 3+3 couplet follows, expounding the idea in the opening line. I tentatively regard the plural form torb%g+ (“strengths, mighty [deed]s”) as an intensive plural, perhaps to convey the sense that YHWH’s aid from heaven will function much like the warriors (“mighty ones”, <yr!oBG]) of an earthly army. On the king as the “anointed one” (j^yv!m*) of God, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 2.

Verse 8 [7]

“Th(e)se with the ride [i.e. chariot], and th(o)se with the horses—
(but) we bring to mind (our trust) in the name of our Mightiest!”

The sequence of 3+3 couplets is interrupted by this 4+4 bicolon, the precise sense of which is difficult to determine. It appears to incorporate a proverbial slogan, perhaps reflecting the ancient “holy war” tradition of the Israelite confederacy. The main idea appears to be that the Israelite army does not simply rely upon superior military strength (i.e. chariots and horses) for victory, but upon the support of YHWH their God. It seems likely that the actual name YHWH (the tetragrammaton hwhy) may be a secondary addition; many commentators omit it as disruptive to the rhythm, and its absence is indicated in the A text of the Greek LXX.

More problematic is the final verb form ryK!z+n~, which would be parsed as a Hiphil imperfect of the verb rk^z`, essentially meaning “bring to mind”. According to this, the line would read: “but we bring to mind with/by the name of our Mightiest”. The parallel with Isa 48:1 suggests that the idea here involves an affirmation of Israel’s allegiance to YHWH, making an oath or confession of loyalty by His name. This special sense of invoking God’s name, with its magical-religious attributes, is also indicated in Isa 26:13; 62:6, and Amos 6:10. By contrast, Dahood (p. 129), derives ryK!z+n~ from a separate root, a denominative verb based on rk*z` (“male”), i.e. “to be male”; as such, the form would be parallel to ryB!g+n~ (from rb#G#, “strong/vigorous [young] man”), cf. Psalm 12:5. In context, the meaning would then be “we will be strong/victorious (in battle)”. It is an intriguing interpretation, but the use such a denominative verb rk^z` (II) elsewhere in the Old Testament is extremely slight and uncertain (but see Exod 34:19).

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“They—they bend down and fall,
but we—we rise and take our (stand) again;
YHWH brings salvation (to) him, the king,
He answers us in (the) day we call (to Him).”

The contrast between Israel and the other nations (spec. their opponents) is continued from verse 8 in the first couplet. Those who trust in chariots and horses are bent to the ground and fall (in defeat), while those who rely on YHWH’s strength, invoking His name in allegiance to Him, rise to stand victorious in battle. The specific verb forms in the final couplet are unclear; the Masoretic pointing indicates an imperative, following by a jussive, i.e. “YHWH, (may you) bring salvation…may He answer us…”. However, it may be better (and more consistent) to read the first verb form as = ouyv!oh (“He brings/brought salvation [for] him”, i.e. for the king). Both the prayer setting (with an answer to prayer), and the unified juxtaposition of king and people (army), are integral to the entire sense and structure of the Psalm.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 19 (continued)

Psalm 19, continued

The first portion of this Psalm (vv. 2-7 [1-6], discussed in the previous study) presented the natural world as a manifestation of God’s power and presence as Creator. The very processes and operations within nature bear witness, “speaking” of YHWH, even as God Himself “spoke” it into existence. As a theme we might call this “nature as the word of God”. In the second half of the Psalm, we find a parallel theme: “the Torah as the word of God”. It is not necessary to limit the use of the word hr*oT (tôrâ) here to the Law Code preserved in the Pentateuch, though certainly that would be paramount. Rather, it refers to the “word of God” expressed within the religious and ethical sphere, in contrast to the natural world.

Psalm 19:8-15 [7-14]

Verses 8-10 [7-9]

“(The) hr*oT  of YHWH (is) complete, returning [i.e. restoring] (the) soul;
(the) tWdu@ of YHWH (is) firm, making wise (the) open (mind);
(the) <yd!WQP! of YHWH (are) straight, making glad (the) heart;
(the) hw`x=m! of YHWH (is) clear, enlightening (the) eyes;
(the) <ha*r=m!> of  YHWH (is) pure, standing until (the end);
(the) <yf!P=v=m! of YHWH (are) truth–(all as) one they are just!”

These verses consist of a series of six parallel couplets, each of which follows a basic pattern, with a 3+2 meter. The pattern is set by the first couplet in v. 8a. The initial 3-beat line is a statement regarding the hr*oT (tôrâ) of YHWH; the second (2-beat) line modifies the first, with a participial phrase which states what the hr*oT does—i.e., its effective energy and power, with its effect on the one faithful and loyal to it. The following couplets are strophic variations, using different words and descriptive phrases to expound and elaborate the opening couplet. As the principal nouns are a bit difficult to translate literally, with precision, in a poetic setting like this, I have left them untranslated above; now let us consider them here, each one in turn:

  • hr*oT (tôrâ)—typically translated “law”, this noun is more properly rendered “instruction”, literally something “thrown” across, for the purpose of teaching/training someone. In Israelite and Jewish tradition, it is the primary term for the collection of teaching, recorded in Scripture, that expresses what God requires of His people (i.e. the terms of His covenant with them).
  • tWdu@ (±¢¼û¾)—derived from the root dwu, it refers essentially to something that is repeated, often in the specific sense of giving/bearing witness (i.e. repeating what a person has seen or heard). It may be understood here specifically in terms of the recorded hr*oT as preserving a witness and testimony to what YHWH has said to His people.
  • <yd!Q%P! (piqq¥¼îm)—plural of the noun dWQP!, which, like the root dqp in general, is notoriously difficult to translate. The basic meaning has to do with a person exercising oversight and supervision over a situation, and what he/she might require (others to do) in response. A flat English translation of the plural here might be “requirements” —i.e. the things YHWH requires of His people. Also implicit is the idea of the hr*oT as part of God’s supervision over Israel.
  • hw`x=m! (miƒwâ)—usually translated “command”, though perhaps more accurate is the idea of a charge or duty placed on someone by a superior. Here the singular noun is comprehensive—i.e., all that YHWH requires a person to do.
  • ha*r=m! (mir°â)—the Masoretic text here reads ha*r=y] (“fear”), which seems out of place, and may well represent a textual corruption; unfortunately, there is no help from the Qumran scrolls since this portion of Ps 19 is not preserved in the only surviving MS. I have tentatively followed Dahood  (p. 123f) in emending the text (slightly) to ha*r=m!, on the basis of the Ugaritic root mr° (“command”)—i.e., the command of YHWH (as Lord/Sovereign). Another possibility, based on the parallel in Ps 119:38, would be hr*m=a! (“word, utterance”), with the same general sense (cf. Kraus, p. 268).
  • <yf!P=v=m! (mišp®‰îm)— “judgments”, specifically in the sense of the rulings made by YHWH as King (and supreme Judge).

In the first four couplets, the effect of the Torah, etc, of YHWH, indicated in the second line, is upon a specific part (or aspect) of the human person, symbolizing primarily our consciousness and awareness:

    • vp#n# (“soul”)—that is, the life and being of the person as a whole, which the Torah, itself being complete (<ym!T*), is able to restore (lit. “return”) to completeness.
    • yt!P#, which I render rather literally as “open (mind)”; Dahood (p. 123) would identify it as a rare noun tP) (cf. Isa 3:17), related to Akkadian p¥tu (“forehead, face”). The mind (or face?) that is open (or turned) to God’s Instruction will be embued with the Wisdom of God.
    • bl@ (“heart”), in ancient Near Eastern thought, commonly located as the place of the mind/intellect, where decisions are made; the requirements made by YHWH in the Torah, being right and “straight” are appealing to one’s heart/mind and “make it glad”.
    • <y]n`yu@ (“eyes”)—an association with light (and enlightenment) is natural and obvious; through the eyes one “sees” what is right and true, as it conforms with the requirements (or “commands”) of YHWH in the Torah.

The focus of the last two couplets shifts a bit, from the effect of the Torah on the righteous person to a more general statement regarding its overall character: (1) it endures, lasting (“standing”) forever (“until [the end]”), and (2) they are all true and right/just, together forming a single unified whole (dj^y~).

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“The(se) being delightful (more) than gold,
and (even) much more than pure (gold),
and (also) sweet, (more) than (the) sticky (honey),
even (the) dripping (honey) of the flowing (comb),
(so) also your servant is made to shine by them,
(and) in guarding them (there is) much (from its) heel!”

A pair of short, proverbial 2+2 couplets are followed by a single 3+3 couplet, which brings the entirety of vv. 8-12 to a dramatic climax. The plurals here (“these, them” in translation) refer to all the 6 nouns mentioned in vv. 8-10—hr*oT and its synonyms–the entire Instruction of YHWH, taken together (cf. verse 10b above). The proverbial comparisons in verse 11 are simple: more delightful than gold, sweeter than honey. But more than the enjoyment God’s Torah brings, is the defining effect it has on a person’s entire character and being. This is expressed two different ways:

    • the verb rh^z` (“shine”), continuing the sun/light imagery from earlier in the Psalm; the light of God’s own word and presence illuminates the righteous person, causing him/her to shine. There is almost certainly an intentional bit of wordplay here, since there is similar root rh^z` (II), often used in the passive Niphal stem (as here), which means “teach”. I.e. being taught by God’s Torah = being made to shine.
    • an idiom involving the noun bq#u@, which essentially refers to a “footprint” (lit. a mark by the heel), i.e. something that is imprinted on the surface. The Hebrew idiom signifies something that is left behind, often in the generic sense of an end result. By “guarding” the Torah of YHWH, His word is ‘imprinted’ on the person, and, in turn, there is something ‘left behind’, i.e. the reward/result of the person’s faithful devotion to YHWH.
Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Going astray, who can discern it?
Clear me from (my inclination)s to turn (aside)!
(So) also hold your servant (away) from (the) arrogant (one)s,
(that) they would not rule o(ver) me!
Then shall I be complete,
and will be clear (from so) much rebellion!”

Verse 13[12] is another proverbial 2+2 couplet, reflecting the influence of Wisdom traditions, seen frequently in the Psalms. The wording is a bit difficult, especially the parsing of the verb of the second line. The parallelism suggests a passive-reflexive form of the root rWs (“turn [aside]”), rather than the simple passive of rts (“hide”); however, the idea of “hidden (faults/sins)” would be applicable as well. The structure and meter of v. 14[13] is irregular, the tension indicating a climactic point for the second half of the Psalm—a prayer by the Psalmist that YHWH would help him to remain faithful and loyal, in terms of “guarding” the Instruction (Torah) of God (v. 12b).

The final, uneven couplet intentionally echoes the wording of that earlier line (cf. above), however difficult it may be translate accurately in English. The uP^v=m!, variously rendered “transgression”, “rebellion”, properly refers to the breaking of the (covenant) bond between YHWH and His people. In terms of the royal theology expressed in many Psalms, this idea extends specifically to the bond between YHWH (as Sovereign) and the Israelite/Judean king (as vassal). To break such a bond is fundamentally an act of rebellion.

The context here suggests that the “rebellion” (i.e. breaking of the bond) should be understood strictly in a religious sense—that is, in terms of the ‘idolatry’ (i.e. religious syncretism) present in Israelite/Judean society. The deities of the surrounding (Canaanite) culture are dz@ (literally, “bubbling, boiling”), meaning that they have been given (or give themselves) an inflated sense of worth, compared with the true God of Israel (El-Yahweh); cf. Exodus 18:11 etc. The word can more generally connote “arrogance”, “presumption”, etc, and, as such, can be applied to both the religious and social-ethical sphere—the two aspects being interrelated. As the Torah became more central to the Israelite religious identity, a failure to guard and preserve its teachings was viewed as tantamount to idolatry.

Verse 15 [14]

“May (the) utterances of my mouth be for (your) pleasure,
and (even the) murmurings of my heart (be)fore your face,
YHWH, my Rock and my Redeemer!”

The final verse is a 3+3+3 tricolon that serves as a doxology to the Psalm. It is also an extension of the prayer in vv. 13-14, and relates primarily to the focus on the Torah of God in vv. 8ff. Properly, a line praising YHWH has been added to what otherwise would stand as a unified couplet. The parallelism of this couplet has two interlocking strands:

    • Synonymous:
      “utterances of my mouth” / “murmurings of my heart”
    • Synthetic:
      “for (your) pleasure” => “before your face”

The faithfulness and loyalty of righteous extends from what a person says (vb rm^a*) out loud, to what they ‘say’ (“murmur”, root hg`h*) deep in their heart. That is, even their innermost thoughts conform to the word and will of God. Moreover, the guarding/preservation of YHWH’s teaching, done because it corresponds with what is pleasing to Him, allows the faithful one to come and stand before the very presence of God (i.e. his “face”). The latter line also recognizes the very point made in vv. 2-7 (and in other Psalms): that YHWH’s presence is everywhere, and all that we do in the world takes place “before His face”.

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