Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 93

Psalm 93

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (vv. 1-3); 4QPsm (vv. 3-5); 4QPsb (v. 5)

This short Psalm is a hymn to YHWH, reflecting the Israelite/Judean royal theology—with an emphasis on the reign (and throne) of God. As YHWH is king in the heavens, so the human king, as His faithful servant, rules here on earth. Indeed, YHWH is king over all of creation, while the Israelite/Judean king functions as YHWH’s representative among His people on earth.

Many commentators have naturally seen Psalm 93 as related to a cultic/ritual setting, in which the enthronement of YHWH (in the Jerusalem Temple) was celebrated. For a summary of this line of interpretation, cf. Kraus, pp. 232-3. While such a ritual ceremony may, indeed, provide the historical setting for this Psalm, the hypothesis remains highly speculative. There is, in fact, precious little in the Psalm itself to support the idea.

Recent criticism has tended to focus instead on the place of Psalm 93 within the Psalter collection, looking at the composition from a literary and canonical standpoint. It has been seen as the first Psalm in a collection of eight (93-100), grouped according to the theme of YHWH’s kingship. Cf. the study by David M. Howard, The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

The simplicity and brevity of this Psalm, with very little indication of development or adaptation of the royal emphasis, suggests a date for the Psalm in the kingdom period—and perhaps relatively early within this period. A 10th century date has been suggested by James D. Shenkel (“An Interpretation of Ps 93, 5”, Biblica 46 [1965], pp. 401-16; cf. Dahood, II, p. 339), and certain features within the Psalm make this a legitimate possibility. The repetitive tricola in vv. 3-4, for example, are reminiscent of late Bronze Age Canaanite (Ugaritic) poetry (cf. the discussion below).

The meter is irregular, but may be used to outline the poetic structure of the Psalm:

    • An initial declaration of YHWH’s kingship (v. 1a)
    • A tricolon (2+2+2) describing YHWH’s royal garb (v. 1bcd)
    • A pair of couplets (3+2) emphasizing the firmness of YHWH’s rule over creation (v. 1ef, 2)
    • A pair of tricola (3+3+3) extolling YHWH’s control over the waters (vv. 3-4)
    • A tricolon (3+3+3) reprising the theme of the firmness of YHWH’s rule (v. 5)

It is a bit unusual that such a short Psalm would be preserved in three different Qumran manuscripts; these few verses could just as easily have been completely lost. The variant readings are quite minor. Of more interest is the fact that 11QPsa contains a very different ordering (and collection) of the Psalms. For example, the surviving portion of Psalm 93 comes after the immediate sequence of: Pss 137 and 138, part of Sirach 51, and a non-canonical poem referred to as “Apostrophe to Zion”; then, after Ps 93, appear Pss 141, 133, and 144.

Verse 1a

“YHWH reigns as King!”
El^m* hwhy

The opening 2-beat line declares the theme of the Psalm, as well as representing the central declaration of praise for the hymn. The Qumran manuscript 11QPsa adds an initial “Praise YH(WH)!” (hywllh)

Verse 1bcd

“(With) majesty He clothes (Himself),
(does) YHWH clothe (Himself),
(with) strength He girds Himself!”

YHWH’s royal garb is praised in this initial unit (a 2=beat tricolon), as He clothes Himself (vb vb^l*) in majesty and power. The first and third lines are in parallel:

    • (with) majesty | He clothes Himself
    • (with) strength | He girds Himself

The noun tWaG@ is an abstract conceptualization of the primary meaning of the root hag (“rise [high]”); the basic meaning would be something like “loftiness”, but in this royal context “exaltation” or “majesty” is more appropriate. Similarly, for the noun zu) (“strength, power, might”) the aspect of royal power is being emphasized.

Verses 1ef & 2

“Truly, is set firm (in place the) earth,
not (at all) can it be shaken;
(also) was set firm your throne from then—
from (the) distant (past) you (are)!”

These lines (a pair of 3+2 couplets) are a bit difficult to translate literally, but the basic idea is clear enough: the establishment of YHWH’s throne corresponds to the establishment of the creation. In each instance the verb /WK is used, denoting “set firm, fix (in place)”. Implicit is the identification of YHWH as the Creator of the universe. The noun lb@T@, though somewhat tricky to translate, refers to the part of the world that is habitable and can sustain (human) life, alluding to the cultivation of the land, etc. In many respects, it is generally comparable to the more common Jr#a# (“earth, land”), and so I render it here. However, the couplet unquestionably uses lb@T@ as a shorthand reference to the entire cosmos, even if the flat surface of the earth itself is primarily in view.

The establishment of YHWH’s throne was “from then” (i.e., from that point). Simply, YHWH can only function as King over the universe when there is a universe to rule over; once it has been created, then He can set up His throne over it. YHWH, however, is Himself more ancient than the creation, as the final line indicates; He exists from the “(most) distant (time past)”, i.e., prior to the creation.

Verse 3

“Have lifted up (the) streams, O YHWH,
have lifted up (the) streams their voice,
have lifted up (the) streams their crash!”

As scholars have noted since at least the time of Albright, this sort of repetitive, asymmetric tricolon has Canaanite origins, with numerous examples found in 14th-13th century Ugaritic poetry (cf. the summary notes by Dahood, II, p. 341 and Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 449). Particularly, notable are instances from the Baal Epic, since the basic thematic context of the Epic is similar to that of Psalm 93. There are, indeed, present the two related themes of: (1) defeat of the primal waters (Sea/River[s]), and (2) establishment of kingship over the universe. In this mythic, cosmological setting, the primeval waters need to be subdued before the ordered cosmos (capable of supporting life) can come into existence. These waters were present at the very beginning (cf. Gen 1:2), but in a dark and chaotic form; light and order were introduced with the ‘defeat’ of the waters by the Creator.

Here, the primal “flood-streams” (torh*n+, “streams, rivers”) are depicted as rebellious entities who must be subdued. Three times it is stated that these waters “lift up” (vb ac*n`), implying an act of rebellion. This rebellion is indicated according to three aspects:

    • It is against YHWH, or is something which YHWH, as King, must attend to [line 1]
    • It involves the raising of a collective “voice” (loq), effectively speaking out against YHWH’s rule [line 2]
    • It involves raising a “crash” (yk!D(), i.e., the crashing of waves, implying violent action [line 3]

This cosmological myth can be applied to the rule on earth of the human king, functioning as YHWH’s representative (and servant)—the rebellious waters symbolizing human enemies, opponents, rebellious vassals, etc. For more on this mythic theme, and its background and use in Old Testament poetry, cf. my article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

Verse 4

“Greater than (the) voices of (the) waters,
mightier than (the) breakers of (the) sea—
mighty in the high places (is) YHWH!”

If the rebellion of the waters is described in verse 3 (cf. above), their defeat is indicated here in v. 4. YHWH’s power and majesty (v. 1bcd, cf. above) is greater than than of the waters. This is indicated by the adjectives br^ (“much, many”) and ryd!a* (“mighty, magnificent”). The two aspects of the waters, emphasized in final two lines of v. 3 (bc), are repeated here in the first two lines of v. 4 (ab):

    • the voice(s) (loq) of the waters (i.e., rebellion in speech)
    • the crashing of its waves (i.e., violent action); the verbal noun rB*v=m! (“breaking, breaker”) corresponds with yk!D( (“crash[ing]”) in v. 3.

Also parallel are the references to YHWH in the first line of v. 3 (a) and the final line of v. 4 (c). The rebellion is effectively directed against YHWH (the King), and is something which YHWH (as King) must address. Reigning as He does in the “high places”, YHWH has the power and might to subdue the waters; indeed, God’s throne is established upon/above the waters (cf. Psalm 29:10). This, again, is an allusion to the cosmological conflict-myth, applied to YHWH in His role as Creator and King over the universe.

Verse 5

“(The place)s of your throne are set most firm,
(and) to your house holiness does bring glory,
O YHWH, for (the) length of (all) days!”

The Psalm concludes with a tricolon (3+3+3) in praise of YHWH’s throne, generally matching that of vv. 1ef-2 (cf. above). The context suggests that the first word of line 1, MT ;yt#d)u@, be derived from the rare du meaning “throne (room)”, rather than from the root dWu (“repeat,” in the sense of giving witness, testifying, noun hdu@). This particular noun du (prob. vocalized du^) is known from the Ugaritic texts, and Dahood (II, p. 81f; cf. also pp. 317-8) cites several other instances (in the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture) where it may be attested; cf. HALOT, p. 788. Its use was discussed in the earlier note on Psalm 89:38[37]. If the form here is to be read (with MT) as a suffixed plural, then it may refer to the royal rooms, in YHWH’s house, which contain a throne-seat. More generally, the idea of “places” where His throne rests could correspond with the “high places” where He resides (v. 4c).

As in v. 1e-2, the emphasis is on YHWH’s throne (and thus His rule) being “set firm”. Here the verb /m^a*, rather than /WK, is used to express this idea. The derived noun hn`Wma$ (“firmness”) is frequently applied to YHWH, connoting His faithfulness, trustworthiness, and loyalty (to the covenant). Along with the faithfulness of YHWH, the attribute of holiness (vd#q)) is emphasized. In connection with the “house” of YHWH, it is natural to understand vd#q) in the sense of a holy place, or sanctuary. It is holy because of God’s presence there, and we are to treat His dwelling (or “house”) with the holiness that it deserves (through worship, etc). The verb ha*n` denotes the beauty and splendor which something possesses (or is given); here the royal splendor of YHWH’s palace is indicated.

The context of the Psalm clearly understands YHWH’s palace (“house”, ty]B^) as being on high, in the heavens. However, any Israelite or Jewish worshiper, singing this Psalm, would naturally associate the terminology also with the Jerusalem Temple (and its sanctuary). Possibly verse 5 here may allude to a worship setting (in the Temple precincts) where the Psalm was performed, or to a ritual ceremony celebrating YHWH’s enthronement in the Temple (cf. the introduction above).

The “length of days” of YHWH’s rule emphasizes its duration into the future, corresponding with His reign stemming from the distant past (even prior to the creation); on this, cf. the note on verse 2 (above). The length of time of YHWH’s rule—both past and future—alludes to His eternal existence and everlasting reign.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 92 (Part 2)

Psalm 92, continued

The Hymn: Verses 5-12 (cont.)

Verses 10-12 comprise the second part of the central hymn; for the first part (vv. 5-9), cf. the previous study. Each part begins with the emphatic particle yK!.

While many Psalms evince a royal background, this aspect is particularly prominent here in vv. 10-12, where the protagonist seems rather clearly to represent the king, and certain aspects of the royal theology are vividly expressed. Given the archaic features in these verses (cf. especially below on v. 10), it seems quite possible that the lines, if not those of the entire hymn, were composed in the kingdom period.

Verse 10 [9]

“For, see, (those) hostile to you, O YHWH,
for, see (those) hostile to you shall perish—
shall be scattered, all (those) making trouble!”

This three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon builds upon the Wisdom-theme in the first part (in vv. 7-8f) alluding to the destruction of the wicked. Here in vv. 10-12, the wicked are presented as hostile enemies of the (royal) protagonist, against whom he calls to YHWH for protection. As a faithful servant of God, and a representative of God’s people, the king’s enemies are also God’s enemies, as this verse clearly expresses.

Scholars have long recognized the similarity of verse 10 to a tricolon from the Ugaritic Baal Epic (Tablet II, column iv, lines 8-9):

ht ibk b±lm
ht ibk tm—s
ht tƒmt ƒrtk

“Now your enemy, O Ba’al,
now your enemy may you strike,
now may you silence your foe!”

The first two lines of each are quite close, following an a+b+c / a+b+d pattern.

Sarna (p. 160ff) cites the parallel in support of his proposal that the hymn draws upon ancient cosmological mythic tradition, whereby the victories of YHWH (over His enemies) refer primarily to those which took place at the time of creation. In bringing forth the ordered universe out of the dark and watery chaos of the primordial time, God is depicted as subduing monstrous adversaries. For more on this ancient mythological tradition, and its application to YHWH in Hebrew poetry, see my earlier article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

In light of this background, it is possible to read the imperfect (yqtl) verb forms as describing past events (cf. Dahood, II, p. 337). However, almost certainly, any cosmological allusions are being applied here to the context of the hymn—namely, the expectation that YHWH will use His great power to protect His people, defeating their adversaries even as He did the primordial opponents. The verb dr^P* in the third line means “separate, divide”; here, in reference to the defeat of enemies, it can mean “scatter, disperse”, or, more cruelly, “take apart” (i.e. dismember).

Verse 11 [10]

“While you lift high my horn like (the) bull,
you make me wet with luxuriant oil.”

The initial w-conjunction establishes a contrast with v. 10: while YHWH’s enemies are defeated (and destroyed), His faithful servant (the king) is exalted. The image of the horn (esp. of a bull or ox) as a symbol of strength and vitality is traditional, as is the specific application of the motif as a reference to royal power and prestige—cf. Psalm 18:2 [2 Sam 22:3]; 74:4-5; 89:17, 24; 112:9; 132:17; 148:14; Jer 48:25; Ezek 29:21; Dan 7:8ff; Mic 4:13; Luke 1:69. The derivation of the noun <a@r= remains uncertain, as does the precise animal intended by the term (wild bull, buffalo, antelope, etc); a bull is most appropriate to the royal context.

The second line probably refers to the anointing of the king, however the use of the verb ll^B* for this is unusual. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, it is used in the context of mixing together oil; however, in Akkadian the cognate verb can mean “moisten”, and this may be the basic sense here—a person made wet by having oil poured (or rubbed) on him. The MT form and/or vocalization is problematic; it should rather be vocalized as a passive form (yT!L)B%,
“I have been made wet”), or, perhaps, emended to read yn]t^L)B^ (“you have made me wet”). I have opted for the latter.

It has also been suggested that the text should be emended to read instead the verb gl^B* (“be bright, glad, cheerful”), so that the line reads something like “I shine with fresh oil”; cf. Thijs Booij, “The Hebrew Text of Psalm XCII 11,” Vetus Testamentum [VT] 38 (1988), pp. 210-4.

While the idea of a royal anointing may be implicit, the immediate context suggests that strength and vitality (and blessing from YHWH) is the primary idea being expressed (cp. Ps 23:5). The adjective /n`u&r^ literally means “green”, but often in the sense of “fresh, luxuriant”. The protagonist is honored by being anointed (or rubbed) with luxuriant oil.

Verse 12 [11]

“My eyes shall look on (those) watching me,
of (those) standing against me my ears shall hear.”

The final verse of the hymn is the most difficult. The irregular and seemingly overloaded lines suggests a corruption—perhaps a gloss has made its way into the text. As it stands, the MT is best parsed as an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon. However, the parallelism is better served by omitting the word <yu!r@m= (“[those] doing evil”) as a gloss, resulting in a cleaner, though still slightly irregular (4+3), couplet. The participles of the verb rWv (“watch” [i.e., with hostile intent]) and <Wq (“stand up” [in opposition]) serve as fitting descriptions of the protagonist’s enemies. According to the royal background of these verses, the verbs may refer specifically to traitors plotting against the king, even to the point of (armed) rebellion against his rule.

Based on vv. 10-11, the implication is that these adversaries have been defeated (or will be so). It is in this condition that the protagonist looks upon them and/or hears reports about them.

Conclusion: Verses 13-16

Verse 13 [12]

“(The) righteous, like (the) palm tree, will sprout,
like a cedar in the white mountains he grows tall.”

The conclusion of the Psalm is comprised of a sequence of couplets that draw heavily upon Wisdom tradition. Taken in relation to vv. 7-8 (cf. the previous study), the familiar theme contrasting the righteous and the wicked—and the correspond fate of each—is expounded. The fate of the wicked was dealt with, however briefly, in vv. 7-8, while here in vv. 13-16 the fate of the righteous is described.

The tree-motif, utilized here, is better known from its use in Psalm 1:3; the context is the same—contrasting the righteous and the wicked (and their fates). The righteous will flourish like a tree planted next to the life-giving waters. Here, the righteous will similarly flourish, sprouting and blossoming like a palm tree, and growing tall (vb hg*c* [ag*c*]) like the cedars of Lebanon (lit. the “white mountain[s]”).

Even though the Wisdom-orientation of these closing verses is quite different from the setting of vv. 10-12 (cf. above), the two sections are related according to the general concept of the exaltation of the righteous (v. 11). The growth of the horn parallels the image of the growth of the tree.

Verse 14 [13]

“Having been planted in (the) house of YHWH,
in (the) enclosures of our Mighty (One) they sprout.”

In verse 14, the location of the “sprouting” (vb jr^P*) of the righteous, like a tree, is given. They will be planted (as shoots) in the dwelling (“house”) of YHWH. The expression “house of YHWH” can, of course, refer to the Temple, but that is not the point of reference here. Rather, it is a reference to the heavenly dwelling of God. The blessed afterlife is being expressed, just as in the beatitude setting of Psalm 1 (cf. the earlier study).

Verse 15 [14]

“Still they will bear fruit (even) in old age—
(full of) fat and luxuriant they will be!—”

The promise of long life has two-fold significance in Israelite and Old Testament tradition. On the one hand, the present life on earth is intended; on the other hand, this sense of duration also extends to the idea of the blessed afterlife (cf. above)—dwelling with God in heaven. In any case, the image is clear enough: the righteous while still be vital and full of life, able to “bear fruit” (vb bWn), even in old age. This vitality is expressed here by the traditional motif of “fatness” (i.e., richness); as the adjective /v@D* can also mean “juicy”, possibly the specific idea of a tree still full of sap is intended. The adjective /n`u&r^ was used earlier in verse 11; as noted, it literally means “green”, but often in the sense of “fresh” or “luxuriant”.

Verse 16 [15]

“(able) to put out front how straight YHWH (is),
my Rock, and (how there is) no deviation in Him!”

The final couplet of the Psalm returns to the worship-context of the introduction (vv. 2-4, cf. the previous study), even repeating the use of the verb dg~n` (Hiphil), “put in front” —that is, show or declare publicly the faithfulness of YHWH (v. 3). Here the characteristic of faithfulness is expressed by the attribute of “straightness” (adj. rv*y`, “straight, level”), which is also a traditional Divine attribute—parallel with qyd!x* (“right[eous]”). Being straight, there is no deviation (lw#u*, hl*w+u^) of any kind in Him. Both rvy and lwu are frequently used in an ethical-religious sense, with rvy connoting personal integrity, honesty, and “upright” conduct; conversely, lwu can connote injustice, sin/iniquity, and (moral) perversion.

The traditional motif of YHWH as a rock (rWx) is another way of expressing the idea of His faithfulness (hn`Wna$, v. 3, lit. “firmness”).

Syntactically, verse 16 should be seen as a continuation of v. 15.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Sarna” are to Nahum M. Sarna, “The Psalm for the Sabbath Day (Psalm 92),” Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 81 (1962), pp. 155-68.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 92 (Part 1)

Psalm 92

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsb (vv. 4-8, 13-15 [3-7, 12-14]); 1QPsa (vv. 12-14 [11-13])

This particular Psalm has a composite character, drawing upon a number of well-established genres and traditional themes.

The central body of the Psalm (verses 5-12) consists of a hymn to YHWH, but one which incorporates two very disparate and distinct lines of tradition. These correspond, more or less, to the two parts of the hymn. The first part (vv. 5-9) is centered on the Wisdom lines in vv. 7-8, drawing upon several key themes from Wisdom literature: the foolishness of humankind, the presence (or lack) of knowledge and understanding, the brevity of human life, the vegetation/sprouting motif, and the contrast between the righteous and wicked. The second part (vv. 10-12) emphasizes the salvation provided by God, in rescuing the protagonist from his hostile (wicked) adversaries. This is a genre-theme found frequently in the Psalms, and reflects the royal background of many Psalms, whereby the protagonist is (or takes on the role of) the king, calling upon YHWH for help in overcoming his opponents and enemies. The king functions as a loyal servant to YHWH, representing the people, in a specific way, within the covenant bond (between YHWH and His people). In protecting and rescuing the king, YHWH confirms his rule over the kingdom.

The hymn is preceded by an introductory section (vv. 2-4) which establishes a worship setting, possibly indicating something of the liturgical setting in which the Psalm itself was performed. These verses form a distinct unit, as is clear from the fact that, syntactically, they comprise a single sentence. Following the hymn, there is also a closing section (vv. 13-16), which again draws heavily upon Wisdom-tradition, developing several themes and motifs from vv. 7-8ff.

The hymn unquestionably contains the oldest layers of the Psalm, and probably, in some form, represented the core composition, to which the opening and closing sections were added. The age of the Psalm, and even of the central hymn, is difficult to determine; however, verses 10-12, with its royal background clearly preserved, may well date from the kingdom period

The heading of the Psalm, in addition to designating it as both a musical composition (romz+m!) and a “song” (ryv!), mentions that it is “for the day of resting [tB*v^, i.e. Sabbath]”. This is the only Psalm with such a designation; indeed, this is the only occurrence of the word tB*v^ in the Psalter. It presumably means that the Psalm was to be performed, or had come to be performed, during the Sabbath service, as part of the liturgy. How ancient this association was is impossible to say. For more on this subject, cf. the article by Nahum M. Sarna, “The Psalm for the Sabbath Day (Psalm 92),” Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 81 (1962), pp. 155-68.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are numerous departures from this meter.

Introduction: Verses 2-4

Verse 2 [1]

“(It is) good to cast (praise) to (you, O) YHWH,
and to make music to your name, Most High—”

As noted above, the opening couplets of the Psalm emphasize the worship of YHWH, and may allude to a liturgical setting for this composition. In this regard, verses 2-4 may have been composed or added later than the main body of the Psalm (vv. 5-12). The pairing of the verbs hd*y` (“throw, cast”, i.e., ‘throw’ someone praise) and rm^z` (“make music”) is natural, and occurs in a number of Psalms (e.g., 33:2). The prefixed –l in the first line can be read as a vocative (“O YHWH…”), or, similarly, a second person address can be understood as implied (“to [you,] YHWH”).

In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person, in a quasi-magical sense. This is no less true in a religious setting, where the name of God is involved—YHWH’s name represents the nature and character (and presence) of YHWH Himself. Thus, to make music to YHWH’s name essentially means the same thing as making music to YHWH. Possibly, a specific reference to the Temple is intended, particularly if the opening lines share the same religious-theological outlook as the Deuteronomic works, where it is particularly the Jerusalem Temple which YHWH has chosen for His name to reside. Cf. the recent series of notes on 1 Kings 8.

Verse 3 [2]

“to put out front in the daybreak your devotion,
and your firmness in the night (watch)es—”

This second couplet builds upon the idea expressed in the first, elaborating the praise (in music) that the Psalmist would give to YHWH. He would “put in front” (vb dg~n`) of everyone (that is, express publicly) the loyalty of YHWH. The familiar pairing of nouns—ds#j# and hn`Wma$—is used to express this idea of YHWH’s covenant loyalty; cf. the frequent use of them in Psalm 89. The noun ds#j# means “goodness, kindness”, but often (and nearly always in the Psalms), it connotes loyalty and faithfulness (i.e., to the covenant); here it is rendered as “devotion”. The parallel noun hn`Wma$ (like the related tm#a#) literally means “firmness,” in the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, etc.

YHWH’s goodness and faithfulness is such that He is worthy of being praised all day long—from the first “break (of day)” (rq#B)) in the morning, and then all through the night. The plural tolyl@ (lit. “nights”) is used, and probably refers to the ‘watches’ of the night (Ps 134:1, cf. Dahood, II, p. 336; I, p. 90).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2. Syntactically, vv. 3-4 represent the continuation of sentence beginning in v. 2. I read verse 3 as parenthetical, between vv. 2 and 4.

Verse 4 [3]

“on (the) ten-strings, even on (the) harp,
on (our) murmuring with (the) lyre!”

As mentioned above, verse 3, despite the centrality of its position, is parenthetical within the opening. Verse 4 properly continues the immediate thought of v. 2, elaborating the music-making that the Psalmist intends. Three different terms for a harp/lyre are used: rocu* (denoting an instrument with ten strings), lb#n`, and roNK!; we should not infer from this poetic variation that three different instruments are specifically meant. The music-making is done with the strings of a harp.

Similarly, the preposition lu^ (in the form yl@u&) occurs three times; it can be rendered “(up)on” —that is, the praise is sung to music played on the harp. The noun /oyG`h! denotes a low sound, such as the growl of an animal, or the “murmuring” of a person talking low/quietly; here it refers to music that is played—a ‘murmuring’ on the strings.

Metrically, verse 4 is best parsed as an extended 4+3 couplet; it could also be divided as an irregular 2+2+3 tricolon, each line consisting of a prepositional phrase (beginning with yl@u&).

The Hymn: Verses 5-12

Verse 5 [4]

“For you have made me glad, YHWH, by your deed,
and by (the) works of your hands I sing out.”

This couplet begins the main body of the Psalm, a hymn of praise to YHWH for the faithfulness which He has shown (v. 3) to His loyal servant. This faithfulness is demonstrated by specific actions. The noun lu*P* in the first line denotes something which YHWH has done, the singular probably intended in a comprehensive sense. The plural of hc#u&m^ (with basically the same meaning as lu*P*) is used in the second line. What YHWH has done on behalf of the protagonist has made him glad (vb jm^c*, Piel), and spurs him to “ring out” (vb /n~r*) praise in music and song.

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb apparently has a third person (passive) form of the verb /nr (/nry), “it rings out”, rather than “I ring out” (MT /N@r^a&). The same manuscript also reads a singular, rather than plural, form of the noun hc#u&m^.

Verse 6 [5]

“How great are your works, O YHWH,
(how) very deep are your thoughts!”

The things done by YHWH correspond to his purposes. There is a formal parallel here between the nouns hc*u&m^ (“work, deed, act”) and hb*v*j&m^ (“thought, purpose, plan”). The things which YHWH plans, and carries out,  are both “great” (ldg, implying height) and “deep” (qmu); the greatness is dynamic, expressed through action—the verbs ld^G` and qm^u* are used.

For a different way of understanding da)m= (“much, very”), at the beginning of the second line, cf. Dahood (II, p. 335), who treats it as a Divine title or epithet.

Verse 7 [6]

“A man (who is) brutish does not know,
and a stupid (person) does not discern this.”

The deep thoughts of God are contrasted with the brutish stupidity of human beings. The Psalmist almost certainly is not referring here only to particularly brute-like (ru^B^) or stupid (lsk) people; rather, this extreme language is used to characterize humankind generally, in comparison with God. Only those faithful ones, who are willing to devote themselves to the Wisdom of God, can truly understand or have any real knowledge. The influence of Wisdom-tradition on vv. 7-8 is clear, as also on the closing verses of the Psalm (13-16).

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb in the first line has a w-conjunction before the negative particle (alw), thus giving a slightly different reading: “the man (who is) brutish and does not know”.

Verses 8 [7]

“With (the) sprouting of (the) wicked like grass,
even (though) all (those) making trouble blossom,
(it is) for them to be destroyed forever!”

The relevance of this Wisdom-verse, within the context of the hymn, is not immediately apparent. It clearly builds upon the thought of v. 7 (cf. above), alluding to the brutishness and lack of knowledge among (most) human beings. Here, the focus shifts to the wicked, a popular emphasis in the Psalms (as in Wisdom literature), whereby the wicked are typically contrasted with the righteous. The apparent success and prosperity of the wicked, undeserved as it may be, is also a common theme in Wisdom literature, and can be found in a number of Psalms. This particular vegetation/sprouting imagery was used, in a similar context, in Psalm 90 (vv. 5-6ff); cf. the earlier study.

The wicked are characterized as people who make trouble and do evil/unjust things, combining the verb lu^P* with the noun /w#a*, a traditional idiom (cf. Psalm 5:6[5]; 14:4; 28:3, etc). Their actions are altogether opposite (and opposed) to what YHWH does (cf. the same root lup used in v. 5); the righteous, who follow God’s example, have their actions similarly contrasted with those of the wicked.

The idea of the destruction of the wicked anticipates the theme in vv. 10-12, while the sprouting/flowering motif is picked up again in vv. 13-16.

Verse 9 [8]

“But you (are the One) on High,
into the distant (future), YHWH!”

This verse, which serves as the climax to the first half of the hymn, is difficult, both in terms of its rhythm and syntax. Returning to the praise expressed in v. 6 (cf. above), it also clearly is meant to contrast with fate of the wicked (emphasized by the Wisdom verses 7-8). While the wicked ‘sprout’ up and flower for a brief time, only to be destroyed “forever”, YHWH remains exalted forever. Two different ways of expressing this idea, of a period of time lasting (indefinitely) into the future, are used in vv. 8 and 9.

First, there is the expression du^-yd@u&, an alliterative doubling of related words from the root hd*u* (“go on, pass [by]”): (1) the preposition du^ (in the form yd@u&), “until, as far as,” etc, and (2) the noun du^, meaning something like “perpetuity” (i.e., continual, lasting time). The doubling can imply a certain circuity, possibly alluding to the sense of futility that attends the brief flourishing of the wicked. Second, in v. 9, is the more common <l*oul=, which literally means “(in)to the distant (future)”, but often in the generalized or abstract sense of “forever”.

The locative noun <orm* (“high place”), probably refers to YHWH’s eternal dwelling in Heaven; however, it could also be viewed as a Divine title, something like “(the One) on High”.

Metrically, the verse can be viewed as a single 4-beat line, or as a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet; I have opted for the latter division.

The remainder of the Psalm, consisting of the second half of the core hymn (vv. 10-12) and the closing section (vv. 13-16), will be discussed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 91 (Part 2)

Psalm 91, continued

Verses 9-10

“Indeed, (if) you (make) YHWH (your) place of refuge,
(if) you set (the) Highest (as your) place of cover,
(then) evil shall not make an approach to you,
and (its) touch shall not come near your tent.”

Verses 9-13 form a companion unit to vv. 3-8 (discussed in the previous study), with both comprising the main body of the Psalm. Each unit begins with the particle yK! followed by a pronoun, with both elements used emphatically— “Indeed, He…”, “Indeed, you…”. It seems best to treat verse 9 as a conditional statement, parallel to the affirmation in v. 3. YHWH will protect the one who trusts in Him; and, conversely, if one trusts in YHWH, seeking refuge in Him, then He will give protection. The speaker of vv. 1-2 makes just such a statement of trust in YHWH, effectively fulfilling the condition established here. For a different way of understanding verse 9, in relation to v. 10, cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 426f.

In the Masoretic Text, vv. 9-10 stand as a pair of 3-beat (3+3) couplets; however, the Qumran manuscript 11QApPs (11QPsApa) has a shorter text, with vv. 9-10 comprising a 3-beat tricolon. The meaning of the single line of v. 9 in this manuscript is unclear, and its text may well be corrupt. The Hebrew of v. 9, partially reconstructed (note the brackets), is wdmjm t[ is]jm ta[rq. The line, apparently, means “You have called (as) your place of refuge His delight [?]”. The locative noun dm^j=m^ means “source of delight”, indicating something desirable and precious, etc. If the text of this manuscript stands as intended, then the tricolon could be rendered:

“If you call on His delight (as) your place of refuge,
(then) you will not see [vb ha*r*] (any) evil,
and a touch (of plague) will not touch your tents.”

The MT of vv. 9-10 is much to be preferred, with the couplet of v. 9 providing parallel lines. The noun hs#j=m^ means “place of refuge” or “place of shelter”, parallel with /oum* (“place of cover, covered place”) in the second line. Both locative nouns refer to YHWH as a source of protection for the righteous. The noun hs#j=m^ occurred earlier in v. 2, and the root verb hs*j* in v. 4; both words occur frequently in the Psalms, in the context of this theme of Divine protection. Dahood’s suggestion (II, p. 333), that the form ysjm represents an archaic spelling (preserving a final y– instead of h-), seems preferable to following the MT vocalization (reading y– as a first person suffix, “my place of refuge”).

Verse 10, again with parallel lines, describes the effect of this protection. For the faithful one, who is under YHWH’s protection, evil (hu*r*) will not come near to him. The verbs hn*a* and br^q* have a similar meaning (“approach, come near”), with the former verb also connoting the idea of something (i.e., some misfortune) happening to a person. The noun hu*r* probably has here a similar general meaning—i.e., something bad that happens to a person. The parallel noun ug^n# denotes something that touches (or strikes) a person, usually in a negative sense (i.e., a harmful blow), and often with the specific meaning of “disease, plague”. Thus, ug^n# here matches the pairing of the nouns rb#D# and bf#q# in verse 6, both being terms for disease. Probably the idea in the second line is that disease will not come near one’s tent; however, the preposition B= prefixed to the noun lh#a) (“tent”) could also mean specifically that the disease will not come into the tent to strike the person.

Verses 11-12

“For He will order His Messengers to you,
to guard you in all (the place)s you tread;
upon their palms they will carry you,
lest you strike your foot on a stone.”

The Divine protection here involves the use (by YHWH) of subordinate Divine/heavenly beings, as “messengers” who carry out His business; typically, this use of the noun Ea*l=m^ is rendered as “angel”. The verb hw`x* (Piel, “command, order, charge”), used with the preposition l= (“to, for”), could mean that YHWH orders His messengers to go to the person under His protection, or, alternatively, He may be ordering them to act on behalf of (i.e., “for”) this individual. The noun Er#D#, denoting a trodden (or well-tread) pathway, often is used to designate a person’s daily life and activity, and frequently with an ethical-religious emphasis. The Divine messengers will guard (vb rm^v*) the protected person in all the pathways and places on which he treads. When needed, they will even lift/carry him, so that he will not harm himself by inadvertently striking his foot against a stone. These verses were famously quoted (by the Devil) in the Synoptic (Q) Temptation episode (Matt 4:6; Lk 4:10-11).

Verse 13

“(Yet) upon lion and poison-snake you may tread,
and can (even) trample (the) young lion and dragon!”

While YHWH’s messengers might act to keep the righteous person from hurting himself by hitting a stone with his foot, yet the Divine protection also means that the person may safely step on a dangerous animal—such as a lion or a snake/serpent—without being harmed. The verb Er^D* (“tread”) is related to the noun Er#D# used in v. 11 (cf. above), and is here parallel with sm^r* (“trample,” a more aggressive, violent action). The nouns lj^v^ and rypK= are parallel terms referring to a lion—the latter specifically designating a powerful young (and hungry) lion. Similarly, /t#P# and /yN]T^ are terms for a snake or serpent—the former denoting a poisonous snake, and the latter suggesting a larger deadly creature (dragon or [sea-]serpent) with allusions to cosmological myth (cf. my earlier article on “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”).

Verse 14

“Because he has joined with me,
so I will rescue him, will set him up high,
because he has known my name!”

In the closing verses 14-16, it is YHWH who speaks; thus the Psalm, at this point, functions as a prophetic oracle. YHWH is here effectively answering the declaration of trust by the protagonist at the opening of the Psalm (vv. 1-2).

Metrically, verse 14 is best viewed as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, with the first and third lines clearly parallel, in a formal way. The idiom “join with me”, utilizing the verb qv^j*, is parallel with “know my name”. Both expressions characterize the person who is faithful and devoted to YHWH, being loyal to the covenant-bond between God and His people. Indeed, the verb qv^j* (“join, attach [to]”) suggests the covenant bond, though the verb is not typically used in such a context.

The central line, consisting of a pair of verb forms, describes YHWH’s action on behalf of His faithful one. Different aspects of the Divine protection are indicated: God will rescue (vb fl^P*, Piel) the individual out of danger, and then will set him up high, in a protected place; this latter action is covered by the verb bg~c* (Piel), which is rather difficult to translate concisely in English. Both of these verbs occur with some frequency in the Psalms—fl^P* 17 times (out of 25 OT occurrences), and bg~c* six other times (out of 20 OT occurrences), cf. 20:2[1]; 59:2[1]; 69:30[29], where the context is comparable.

Verse 15

“He will call to me, and I will answer him;
with him I (will be) in (his) distress—
I will draw him out and give him weight.”

YHWH’s protection is continual, as long as one continues to remain faithful to Him. This verse (another 2-beat tricolon) presents this protective action and response as a promise. Any time the faithful one calls to YHWH for help in time of distress (hr*x*), He will respond. The pair of verbs in the final line are comparable to those in the central line of v. 14 (cf. above). The verb Jl^j* (Piel) means “draw out”, i.e., bring out of danger, similar in meaning to fl^P* (“rescue, provide escape”). The second verb, db^K* (also Piel), fundamentally means “make heavy, give weight [to]”; it implies both an act of strengthening, but also of giving honor to a person (i.e., “weight” in the sense of worth, value, honor). This act of bestowing “weight” compares with the use of the verb bg~c* in v. 14; by placing the person ‘up high’, YHWH puts him in a safe/protected position, but this ‘high place’, next to YHWH Himself, is also a place of great honor.

The terse expression in the middle line, yk!n)a*-oMu! (“with him I [am]”), is reminiscent of the name la@ WnM*u! (“with us [is] God”) in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10 (cf. also 2 Kings 18:7). This parallel may be cited as evidence that the protagonist of the Psalm is a royal figure (cf. the note below).

Verse 16

“(With) length of days I will give him (his) fill,
and I will give him to drink of my salvation.”

This final couplet builds upon the idea of the faithful one being given an honored place ‘up high’. The protection provided by YHWH is related to the goodness and blessing that He gives—both being part of His covenant-obligation (as Sovereign) to those who are loyal and devoted to Him. An honored place at His table is implied, where the faithful one may eat and drink his fill. This blessing includes both the present time (in this life) and the Age to come, with allusions also to the blessed afterlife (with God in heaven). The expression “length of days” (i.e., a long life) is flexible enough to cover all these aspects. If the protagonist is viewed as a royal figure (cf. below), then a long reign may also be implied.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 334; also I, pp. 206, 310f) in relating the verb form Wha@r=a^ here to the root hwr (Hiphil), “give drink, water [fully]” (cf. HALOT, p. 1195f), which provides a more suitable parallel to the verb ub^c* (Hiphil, “fill up, satisfy”) in line 1. The more customary (and straightforward) interpretation is to relate the verb form to ha*r* (“see”), so that the final line reads, “and I will make/let him see my salvation”.

The Qumran manuscript 11QApPs has a shorter text for vv. 14-16 that differs considerably from the MT (as well as the LXX). This shorter text, however, in its fragmentary condition, remains uncertain and requires significant reconstruction to be intelligible. Here is an approximate translation:

“[Because] you have joined with YHWH,
He will rescue you and will set you up high,
and He will make you see His salvation.”

As with vv. 9-10 in this manuscript, which also differ significantly from the MT (cf. above), vv. 14-16 comprise a single tricolon. The first two lines generally match the first two lines of v. 14, except that the address is in the second (rather than third) person. The final line matches the last line of v. 16; in this tricolon, the verb form can be derived quite fittingly from the root har (“see”), as being more appropriate to the context (cf. the discussion above).

Closing note:

In closing, it may be worth mentioning the interpretive approach that views the protagonist of the Psalm as a royal figure (king), and thus treats Ps 91 as one of the royal Psalms (cf. the earlier study on Ps 45, for example). It has been discussed, on repeated occasions, how many Psalms do evince a royal background, suggesting that a good number of the compositions (at least in their original form) date to the kingdom-period. At the same time, various traditions and stylistic conventions, drawing upon this royal background, likely continued to be utilized by later authors, as part of an Israelite (and Jewish) poetic idiom. Many of the major themes in the Psalms, such as we find here in Psalm 91—covenant loyalty, Divine protection, salvation and rescue, the threat of attacking/plotting adversaries, the promise of long life, and so forth—are probably derived, in some measure, from a royal background. Dahood (II, p. 329), drawing upon earlier scholarship, decidedly characterizes Ps 91 as a “royal psalm…composed by a court poet who recites it here before the king”. This seems to be taking the evidence rather too far.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 91 (Part 1)

Psalm 91

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsApa (vv. 1-14, 16); 4QPsb (vv. 5-8, 12-15)

This famous Psalm develops an important theme that is found repeatedly in the Psalms—the protection that YHWH provides, for those who are faithful to Him, and the trust which the faithful/righteous ones may have in this protection. The Psalm is didactic and exhortational, with the Psalmist providing a voice of assurance for the faithful.

In terms of the structure of Psalm 91, there is a two-part division to the main body (vv. 3-8, 9-13), in which the Psalmist provides instruction/exhortation for the faithful, expounding the theme of Divine protection. Each of the two parts is marked by an opening emphatic yK! particle, followed by a pronoun: “Indeed, He…” (v. 3), “Indeed, you…” (v. 9). Cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 426-8.

In the introductory vv. 1-2, the faithful person, the one who seeks (and finds) protection in YHWH, is presented, with a declaration of his trust in YHWH. In the closing vv. 14-16, it is YHWH who speaks, affirming that He will protect the one who trusts in Him.

The text of Psalm 91 deserves a brief comment, in light of the two Qumran manuscripts—4QPsb and 11QPsApa (or 11QApPs)—in which it is extensively preserved. The manuscript 11QApPs (ApPs being short for “Apocryphal Psalms”) is particularly interesting, as it represents a set of four Psalms to be used in exorcism against demons. The first three of these Psalms are otherwise unknown, but the fourth is Psalm 91. While the surviving text of 4QPsb closely matches the MT of Psalm 91, that of 11QApPs contains many differences and variant readings, which will be noted at the relevant points.

The meter of this Psalm is irregular, though a 3-beat couplet (3+3) or tricolon (3+3+3) pattern tends to be followed.

There is no superscription/heading in the Masoretic Text, but 11QApPs has the designation dywdl (“belonging to David”), attributing it to David, as is the case with many other Psalms.

Verses 1-2

“(The one) sitting in (the) hiding (place) of (the) Most High,
in (the) shadow of (the) Mountain will stay the night—
(So) I will say:
‘O YHWH, my place of refuge and my stronghold,
my Mighty (One), in whom I seek protection!'”

The opening verses of the Psalm confront us with a significant textual problem, one which is critical for an interpretation of the overall scenario of the Psalm. For the first word of verse 2, a form of the verb rm^a* (“say”), the MT has a first-person singular imperfect form (rm^a)), “I will say…”. The Qumran manuscript 11QApPs, however, reads instead a participle (with definite article), rmwah, “the (one) saying…”, a reading apparently supported by some manuscripts of the LXX. Overall, the LXX indicates a third-person singular imperfect form (“he will say…”). Dahood (II, p. 330) offers yet another option, by vocalizing rma as an imperative (rm)a=, “say…!”, “let him say…”).

This leaves with four different ways—all viable—of understanding the situation in vv. 1-2. I have tentatively opted for the MT, as the lectio difficilior—i.e., the more difficult reading, and the one which best explains the rise of all the others. The likelihood is that the other readings represent attempts to smooth over the sudden shift in person (third person in v. 1, first person in v. 2). Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 427) also maintains the MT, but translates with a slightly different syntactical emphasis.

It is possible that, in the original text, there was no rma-verb at the beginning of v. 2. Indeed, it would seem to be extraneous to the 3+3 meter of vv. 1-2; I indicate this in the translation above.

The best way of interpreting vv. 1-2 would seem to be that the speaker of v. 2 represents one of the faithful, who is able to make his/her declaration of trust in YHWH, because he/she knows the truth of what is stated in v. 1: viz., the person under YHWH’s protection will be able make it through the night (of danger) safe and secure. There is a clear synonymous parallelism in verse 1, bracketed, in terms of the word order, as a semi-chiasm:

    • “(The one) sitting
      • in (the) hiding (place) of (the) Most High
      • in (the) shadow of (the) Mountain
    • will stay (through) the night.”

The terms rt#s@ (“hiding [place]”) and lx@ (“shadow, shade”) are parallel, both indicating a place of shelter and protection. The Divine titles /oyl=u# and yD^v^ are also parallel, referring to YHWH as a place of shelter/protection. Both are Divine names, used as titles and epithets for YHWH in Israelite and Old Testament tradition. The title /oylu# (±Elyôn) essentially means “Highest” or “Most High”. The meaning and derivation of yD^v^ (Šadday) is more difficult to determine; most likely it is related to Akkadian šadû[m] (“mountain, mountain-range”) and the adjective šadd¹°û (also the substantive šaddû°a), “mountain-dwelling” (or “-dweller”). It would thus mean something like “He of the Mountain” or “(the) Mountainous One”. The emphasis is not so much on a mountain as YHWH’s dwelling, but on He Himself being mountain-like. Cf. the discussion (s.v.) in HALOT, p. 1421.

YHWH provides a secure place ‘up high’ (since He Himself is the “Most High”), such as one might find high in the mountains, for shelter and protection. The faithful one, having sought (and found) such protection in YHWH, is able to make the declaration of trust in v. 2, with its emphasis on God as a place of protection. This is a familiar theme which we have encountered numerous times in the Psalms. Indeed, the verbs hs*j* and jf^B*, both of which denote seeking/finding protection, occur frequently in the Psalms. For example, jf^B* (here in line 2) occurs 46 times in the Psalms (out of 120 OT occurrences); the root hsj occurs here (line 1) in the form of the locative noun hs#j&m^ (“place of refuge”), one of 12 occurrences (out of 20 in the OT) in the Psalms. The noun dWxm* (feminine hd*Wxm=), paired with hsj&m^, more specifically refers to a fortified location (in the mountains). In 11QApPs, the verb form of jf^B* here is preceded by a cognate noun (jtbm) from the same root, further amplifying the idea of YHWH as the righteous one’s source of protection.

Verse 3

“Indeed, He will snatch you
from (the) snare-layer’s trap,
(from the) downfalling sting.”

In the main body of the Psalm, the Psalmist speaks with a voice that gives assurance to the faithful (vv. 1-2). There is thus a certain Wisdom-character to Psalm 91, giving it a didactic orientation—viz., of providing instruction and exhortation for the righteous. There is a rhythmic shift here, moving from the 3-beat couplet format of vv. 1-2 to a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. There are also tricola in verse 4 and 7 (cf. below).

The imagery also changes in v. 3, with the Divine protection now being described in terms of rescuing the faithful from danger. The verb used is lx^n` (Hiphil stem), which means “snatch (away)” (i.e., out of danger). This danger is depicted as metal trap (jP^) used in hunting/fowling to snare (vWq) birds, etc. An animal caught in such a trap experiences the painful sting (rb#D# II) of disaster (lit. “downfall”, hW`h*). There is a bit of foreshadowing wordplay with rb#D# I (“plague”), used later in the Psalm.

Verse 4

“With His feathers He will give cover to you,
and under His wings you will find protection—
a shield and surrounding wall (is) His arm.”

A different image of protection is given here in the longer (3-beat) tricolon of v. 4—that of the feathered wings of a bird that surround its young, giving it protective cover (vb Ek^s*). The verb hs*j* is used for the idea of (the righteous) finding protection in YHWH (cf. on verse 2 above). In 11QApPs, the verb in line 2 is /kv (“dwell”) rather than hs*j*, though the meaning is presumably the same (i.e., dwell secure).

The surrounding wings of lines 1-2 are transformed into the military imagery of shield (hN`x!) and protective wall (hr*j@s)) in line 3. As for the final word, I follow Dahood (II, p. 331) in vocalizing otma as otM*a^, “His arm [hM*a^]”, which makes a much more suitable parallel to the wings of lines 1-2. Interestingly, 11QApPs has a longer text, which suggests that line 3 in the MT is actually part of a couplet:

His devotion [dsj] over you (is) a shield,
and a protective wall his faithfulness [tma].”

If this text is original, then it would confirm that the MT vocalization oTm!a& (“His faithfulness”) is correct.

Verses 5-6

“You need not have fear from (the) terror of night,
(nor) from (the) arrow (that) flies during the day,
from (the) plague (that) walks in the darkness,
(or) from (the) scourge (that) strikes (in the) double-light.”

Because of the protection YHWH provides to the faithful, they do not need to be afraid of any danger that might come near them. The two couplets of vv. 5-6 are parallel in juxtaposing the dangers at night (in the dark) with those during the day (in the bright light of noon-time). The motifs of terror and violence in verse 5 are most obviously associated with warfare, as indicated by the image of arrows flying. However, such imagery can symbolize other kinds of threats, such as the suffering and death that comes from disease. The parallel terms rb#D# and bf#q# in v. 6 both refer to disease or plague; in Deut 32:24, bf#q# is paired with [v#r#, a term similarly meaning ‘plague’, but which can also indicate a demon-spirit that brings disease. See above on the exorcism context of Psalm 91 in the Qumran manuscript 11QApPs.

11QApPs has the lines of v. 6 in reverse order from that of the MT.

Verse 7

“A thousand may fall at your side,
and a multitude at your right hand,
but to you it shall not come near.”

The death that comes, whether from warfare or disease (vv. 5-6), will not “come near” (vb vg^n`) the righteous one who is under YHWH’s protection; 11QApPs has the verb ugn (“touch”, used frequently in the context of disease) rather than vgn. This irregular (3+2+3) tricolon is perhaps the most beautiful and memorable of the Psalm.

Verse 8

“Yet with your eyes you will look at (it),
and will see (the) completion of the wicked!”

The initial qr^ of line 1 in the MT, if correct, is apparently meant to draw a contrast with the situation in v. 7. That is, the righteous will not be touched by the death that afflicts the rest of the population, yet they will be able to look at and witness it. In so doing, they will see the punishment that comes to the wicked. The root <lv (“be full, complete”), in this context, can connote the idea of retribution, or of a person receiving the proper punishment ‘paid back’, in compensation for one’s (wicked) deeds. The idea of ‘paying back’ is a development of the basic meaning of the verb <l^v* in the transitive, “complete, fulfill”. The noun hm*L%v!, used here, also captures this idea of “payback”.

Dahood (II, p. 332f) would divide the text of the first two words differently from MT, reading ;yn#yu@ bq*r* instead of ;n#yu@B= qr^. This would yield, for the first line: “(With) your eyes you will see decay [bq*r*]”.

The remainder of Psalm 91 will be discussed in next week’s study (Part 2).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 90 (Part 2)

Psalm 90, continued

Prayer: Verses 11-16

Verse 11

“Who knows (the) might of your (burning) anger,
and <who> sees (the) center of your boiling (rage)?

The second part of the Psalm (vv. 11-16) constitutes a prayer, following the lament in the first part (vv. 3-10, discussed in the previous study). The Wisdom orientation of the lament continues in this initial unit (vv. 11-12), which can be viewed as transitional to the prayer proper (in vv. 13-16).

The MT of this verse is problematic. The meter is irregular (3+2), and the first word of the second line creates an awkward reading and syntax— “and according to your fear your boiling (rage)”. A parallelism of the lines would indicate that “and according to your fear” (;t=a*r=y]k=W) should match “who (is the one) knowing (the) might of…?” (zu) u^d@oy ym!) in the first line. It has been suggested (cf. Kraus, p. 214, following Gunkel; HALOT, p. 1730) that the MT should be emended slightly—from itaryk to itarym—and redivided and vocalized as Et) ha#r) ym!. This emendation finds support in the LXX, which translates beginning with a)po (“from…”), assuming a preposition /m! (prefixed –m).

While the LXX translator may have understood a prefixed preposition (-m), it is more likely that an interrogative particle (ym!) was present in the original, being repeated from the first line to create a double rhetorical question. The parallelism would then be formal:

    • Who (is) | knowing | (the) might of | your anger?
    • Who (is) | seeing | (the) center of | your rage?

The verb ha*r* (“see”) in this case would have the sense of “perceive, recognize, understand”, bringing out the parallel with ud^y` (“know”). The word ET) (defective for EoT) is understood as the substantive (meaning “midst, middle, inside”) derived from the root Ew#T*; for concision, I translate it above as “center,” though “heart” would make a better poetic rendering. As a parallel with zu), (“strength, might, power”), the sense is probably something like “substance, essence, force”. The noun hr*b=u# denotes something “crossing over”; when used of the anger of YHWH (as earlier in v. 9), the sense is of an ‘overflowing’ rage that bursts forth (or, in the idiom I am using here, “boils over”).

Verse 12

“(How) to number our days, so may you help us know,
that we might bring (in) a heart of wisdom.”

The implication of the double question in v. 11 is that no human being is able to understand fully the reasons for God’s anger—and, in particular, why it should last as long as it does. The length of YHWH’s anger is tied to the related theme of the shortness of human life; this was a key Wisdom-theme in the lament (cf. the exegesis in Part 1), and it continues here. The wise person knows how to “number” (vb hn`m*) his/her days; the point is not simply to know the length of one’s life, but to make the most of it. This is achieved through YHWH’s instruction (vb ud^y` Hiphil, “make know, bring knowledge”); the person who knows (v. 11) receives the teaching provided by God.

The corresponding Hiphil of the verb aoB in line 2, “make come” (i.e., “bring”), should be understood in the sense of “bring in”, with the contextual connotation of acquiring something and bringing it into one’s possession. In this instance, the possession to be desired is a “heart of wisdom” (i.e., a wise heart).

Verse 13

“Turn back, O YHWH—until when?—
and ease (your anger) over your servants!”

As noted above, the prayer properly begins here in verse 13. The Psalmist pleads for YHWH to “turn back” from His anger (v. 11, and in vv. 7-9). The verb bWv (“turn back”) can also be understood here in the sense of YHWH returning to His people, so as to give them blessing and protection once again. However, the idea of God refraining from His punishing anger would seem to be the dominant aspect of meaning. The verb <j^n` in the second line can be difficult to translate; when used in the Niphal (passive-reflexive) stem, as it is here, it typically refers to a person finding relief, with the easing of strong emotions (such as anger or grief). Here, the verb, as applied to YHWH, clearly refers to an easing of His anger, to the point where it eventually subsides.

The expression “your servants”, as it is used here in the Psalms (and elsewhere in Scripture), specifically designates the faithful ones among God’s people. Even though they have been loyal to YHWH (and to the covenant), they still have endured, along with the rest of the people, the punishing anger of God. The Psalmist typically identifies himself with these faithful/loyal ones.

The temporal expression yt*m*-du^, “until when…?” (i.e., “how long…?”), echoes the tone of lament from Part 1 (vv. 3-10). It occurs with some frequency in the Psalms, and can be used in the context of both a personal and national lament—cf. 6:4 [3]; 74:10; 80:5 [4]; 94:3; for the comparable expressions hm*-du^ and hn`a*-du^, cf. 13:1; 74:9; 79:5; 89:47[46]; note also 35:17.

Verse 14

“May you fill us in the break (of day) (with) your goodness,
that we may sing out and be glad in all our days!”

The Psalmist here draws upon the language from the lament, utilizing the day-motif (also in v. 12, cf. above)—both in the temporal sense of the passing of a day (and the “days” of a person’s life), and in the symbolic sense of the daylight that marks the end of the darkness of night. On the interplay of these two aspects of meaning, cf. the notes on vv. 4-9 in Part 1. The noun rq#B) specifically denotes the “break (of day), daybreak”, and was used in vv. 4-5. Here, it represents the moment when the ‘night-time’ of YHWH’s anger against His people comes to an end, the darkness being dispelled by rays of light—symbolizing the blessing and favor that God once again shows to His people.

This idea of blessing/favor is expressed two ways in the first line: (a) by the verb ub^c* which generally means “be filled (up)”, to the point of abundance, overflowing, etc; and (b) by the familiar noun ds#j#, meaning “goodness, kindness”, though often in the covenantal sense of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. With regard to ds#j#, here the idea of YHWH’s loyalty to the covenant is certainly present, however it is the primary aspect of goodness (i.e., blessing and favor) that is being emphasized.

The blessing that comes at daybreak will allow the righteous to rejoice (singing/ringing out, vb /n~r*) and to be glad (vb jm^c*) all of their days.

Verse 15

“Let us be glad, according to (the number of) days you pressed us,
(according to the) years (that) we have seen evil.”

The Psalmist asks that he (and the other faithful ones of his people) be allowed to experience gladness (vb jm^c*, repeated from v. 14) for a length of time commensurate with their experience of suffering. This suffering occurred when the people were “pressed down” (vb hn`u*) by YHWH, afflicted by His punishing anger. The period of this punishment seems to have been quite long, indicated by the mention here of “years”, as well as the temporal expression yt*m*-du^ (“until when…?”) in verse 13. This suggests that the Exile is in view, with a corresponding exilic (or post-exilic) dating for the Psalm; however, the reference here is brief and general enough that other periods in Israel’s history could also provide the relevant background.

The feminine plural form tomy+ (“days”), rather than the masculine <ym!y`, is a bit odd, and may simply be used for poetic assonance with the following tonv= (“years”). The same pair of word-forms occurs in Deut 32:7, and it is likely that there is an intentional allusion to that verse here; cf. Dahood, II, p. 326.

Verse 16

“Let your act be visible to your servants,
and your (very) splendor upon their sons!”

The Psalmist’s short prayer (vv. 13-16) concludes with this request a manifestation of YHWH’s presence among His people. The implication is that God, in His anger, has turned away from His people; but now, according the Psalmist’s petition (v. 13), it is hoped that He will return. The Niphal (passive) of the verb ha*r* (“see”) means “be seen”, i.e., be visible, be manifest/apparent. YHWH’s action (lu^P)), that which He does (and will do) on behalf of His people, will be seen. This probably is an allusion to the historical traditions of the mighty deeds performed by YHWH in the past, which, in their miraculous nature, would be looked upon with wonder by all people.

In manifesting Himself, His very splendor (rd*j*) will be revealed to future generations, even as it was to those in the past. There may be a veiled reference here to Moses’ request to see YHWH’s glory (Exod 33:18), though the noun rd*h* (relatively common in the Psalms) is used instead of dobK*. More broadly, the various theophanies of the Moses/Exodus traditions (e.g., Exod 19-20, 24, 33-34f, 40) are likely in view, being alluded to by the Psalmist in his prayer.

Benediction: VERSE 17

“And let (the) favor of our Lord (the) Mightiest be upon us,
and may He make firm (the) work of our hands for us,
and (also) make firm for Him (the) work of our hands!”

The Psalm concludes with this benediction, an irregular tricolon that is rather awkward in both rhythm and phrasing. It may have been added subsequently by an editor; the repeated use of the verb (/WK, “make firm”) reminds one of the “firmness” theme that runs throughout the prior Psalm 89.

I have translated the noun <u^n) in the first line as “favor”. This noun has a relatively wide semantic range (“loveliness, pleasantness, beauty, kindness”), but it is best understood here in connection with the idea of blessing and favor from YHWH returning to His people. In this context, <u^n) would carry the primary sense of “kindness”, being close in meaning to ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”), used in v. 14. The favor shown by YHWH reflects His loyal devotion to the covenant; He will show favor to those who are faithful to Him.

The final two lines of this tricolon each express the same basic wish—viz., that YHWH would “make firm” (vb /WK, Polel) the “work” of His people’s hands. However, this is stated oddly, with slight variation in each of the two lines. In the first line, the prepositional expression Wnyl@u* (“upon us”) is added. Since this same word occurs at the end of the first line, it is possible that it was repeated here by scribal error, and should perhaps, then, be omitted. Eliminating it has the advantage of producing a clean 3-beat (3+3) meter for the two lines. If Wnyl@u* is original, then it would seem to be specifying that the “making firm” of the people’s work is for their benefit; in this case, the prepositional expression (“upon us”, “over us”) could be rendered, more simply, “for us”.

In the final line, the MT apparently includes, for the imperative, a third person singular suffix (Wh-). One is inclined to alter this to match the suffix on the verb in the prior line (paragogic h-). If this were done, along with eliminating the prepositional expression at the end of line 2 (in the MT), then the two closing lines would be identical, each reading:

hn`n+oK Wnyd@y` hc@u&m^W
“and (the) work of our hands may you make firm”

If the MT is correct, then the third person suffix on the verb in the final line may be intended as a datival suffix (a dative of advantage), as Dahood (II, p. 327) suggests. It would then serve a purpose comparable to the prepositional expression in the prior line. That is to say, it expresses who the action (i.e., the making firm) benefits; in line 2, the action is done for the people (“over us,” i.e., for us), while in line 3 it is done for God’s own sake (his honor, etc).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 90 (Part 1)

Psalm 90

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This vigorous and highly creative Psalm contains a lament, but also a prayer to YHWH for deliverance (indeed, it is designated a hL*p!T=). On this basis, it may be divided into two main parts—the lament (vv. 3-10), and the prayer (vv. 11-16). The lament is preceded by a hymnic invocation to YHWH (vv. 1-2), and the prayer is concluded by a benediction (v. 17).

The lament draws heavily upon Wisdom tradition, dealing particularly with theme of the shortness of human life, a theme that continues into the beginning (vv. 11-12) of the prayer section. In this regard, Psalm 90 resembles the lament portion of the prior Psalm 89 (vv. 39-52), with its strong Wisdom-emphasis in vv. 47-49 (see the earlier note on these verses).

For a discussion of the possible dating of this Psalm, and its relation to the formation of the Psalter (and the fourth book), cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 418-21. Dahood (II, p. 322), noting the parallels with Deuteronomy 32, and certain archaic aspects of the language, suggests a much older dating for this composition, possibly in the 9th century.

Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses in the superscription: “A prayer of Moshe, the man of (the) Mightiest [i.e. man of God]”. This attribution is likely due to certain allusions to the Song of Moses (Deut 32), and also the Blessing of Moses (Deut 33), found in the Psalm. These will be noted at relevant points in the exegesis. The Psalm is called a hL*p!T=, that is a prayer—emphasizing its aspect as plea or supplication made to YHWH. This properly characterizes verses 13-16, but can apply to the entire composition. The same term designates Pss 17, 86, and 102.

The meter of this Psalm is irregular, but it tends (more often than not) to follow a 3+3 couplet format.

Invocation: Verses 1b-2

Verse 1b

“My Lord, a source of help
you have been for us,
(even) from cycle to cycle!”

The meter of this initial verse is problematic, parsed as an irregular 2+3+2 tricolon. One might be inclined to eliminate the pronoun hT*a^ (“you”) in the second line, and thus obtain a cleaner 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. In any case, the verse functions as an invocation to YHWH (“my Lord”, yn`d)a&) by the Psalmist. YHWH is declared to have been a /oum*, a locative noun which most translators and commentators derive from /Wu, “cover”, i.e., a place of cover, where one dwells protected. This would certainly fit the traditional motif of YHWH as a “place of refuge” (hs#j&m^), occurring frequently in the Psalms. However, the thematic emphasis seems to favor deriving /oum* from a separate root /wu denoting “(give) help”, cognate with Arabic ±wn; /oum* would then mean “source of help” (or, generally, “help, assistance”), and would correspond to Arabic ma±¥nat. Cf. HALOT, pp. 610, 799; Dahood, II, p. 322.

YHWH has been a source of help for His people “in cycle and cycle”, better expressed in English as “from cycle to cycle”. The noun roD has the basic meaning “circle”, usually in the temporal sense of a cycle of time, but sometimes also in specific reference to the people living turning a particular period (i.e., a “generation”). In English idiom, we would say, “from age to age”, or “from generation to generation”. The reference is primarily to the periods/generations of Israel’s history.

Overall, the language of this verse seems to echo Deut 33:27; cf. also (possibly) 32:7a, with the use of the expression rodw` roD.

Verse 2

“Before (the) mountains were given birth,
and you writhed (bearing) earth and land,
even from distant (past) unto distant (future),
you (are the) Mighty (One)!”

This second part of the invocation has a hymnic quality. The focus has shifted from Israel’s history to the entire cosmos, and YHWH’s role as Creator of the universe. In the first couplet, God’s act of creation is described in female terms—viz., of giving birth. The passive form of dl^y` (“give birth”) is used in the first line, while a Polal (MT Polel) form of the verb lWj (lyj!) is used in the second line, in the familiar sense of  (a woman) “writhing” (in labor). It is somewhat unusual to apply such imagery to YHWH, but the same pair of verbs occurs in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:18), a verse that is almost certainly being echoed here (cf. above).

At first, it is the “mountains” that are mentioned, as a dramatic point of reference for YHWH’s act of creation—i.e., before even the mighty and enduring mountains were produced. In the second line, the pair of terms Jr#a# and lb@T@ are used, widening the scope of the creation. The noun Jr#a# (“earth”) refers to the lower half of the cosmos (containing the flat earth-disc and all that is below), while lb@T refers to the productive land that is cultivated and inhabited by humans.

YHWH’s pre-existence (i.e. prior to creation) is implied in the first couplet; however, in the second couplet, His eternal existence is declared, with the temporal expression <l*ou-du^ <l*oum@, “from (the) distant (past) unto (the) distant (future)”. This expression is parallel with rd)w` rd)B= in verse 1 (cf. above). Here, we are not dealing with the cycles (or periods) of time, but of the entire scope and extent of time itself. The final line could alternately be translated “you, (the) Mighty (One), are!”, further emphasizing YHWH’s eternal existence.

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

Lament: Verses 3-10

Verse 3

“You make humanity return unto powder,
and say, ‘Return, O sons of mankind!'”

The two aspects of the invocation—YHWH’s relation to His people (v. 1b) and to all Creation (v. 2)—are here combined in the Wisdom-lament of vv. 3-10. All human beings (including Israelites) ultimately die and “return” (vb bWv) to the dust of the earth, a process that is controlled by the sovereign authority of YHWH (as Creator).

This statement introduces the familiar wisdom-theme of the brevity of human life, and of lamenting that fact. The idea of human beings ‘returning to the dust’ is, of course, ancient and traditional (Gen 3:19; Psalm 104:29), and is found in the Wisdom literature (Job 10:9; 34:15; Eccl 3:20); however, here the rare noun aK*D^ (“powder”) is used, rather than rp*u* (“dust”). Since aK*D^ denotes something that is “crushed” (i.e., pulverized), the emphasis would seem to be on YHWH’s creative act (by the spoken word, Gen 1:3ff) that reduces human beings to powder.

Verse 4

“For a thousand years, in your eyes,
like a day, yesterday, so they pass by,
even (as) a watch in the night.”

The blending of the human and cosmic aspects of creation continue here, as the brevity of human life (v. 3) is related to the brevity even of the vast life-cycles of the cosmos, when compared with YHWH’s eternal existence. As YHWH looks on (“in your eyes”), as Creator and Sovereign of the universe, a thousand years “pass by” (vb rb^u*) like they were merely a single day. The thought expressed in this verse was utilized, famously, in 2 Peter 3:8.

Verse 5

“You put a stop to them (in) sleep—
they come to be, with the break (of day),
like (the) grass (that) moves along.”

The thoughts expressed in vv. 3-4 are condensed here, with a new image in verse 5. The death of human beings is framed in the context of a day that “passes by”. Death is described by the traditional idiom of “sleep” (hn`v#), which also entails wordplay with the noun “year” (hn#v*) in v. 4. The first line is ambiguous: it could mean that death comes ‘like sleep’, or that it comes during the night while a person is asleep; probably both aspects of meaning are intended. The verb <r^z` I take as deriving from a root (meaning “halt, stop”, cf. Arabic zarama, zarima) separate from <rz II (denoting “storm, thunder, pour rain”).

The end of the short human life comes like sleep (or in/with sleep), after which, at daybreak (rq#B)), the person’s life/existence simply “moves along” (vb [l^j*), i.e., “passes away”. It is compared with the grass (ryx!j*), an image that continues into the next verse.

Verse 6

“With the break (of day), it flowers and moves along,
(then) at the evening it is withered and dries up.”

The imagery from verse 5 continues here, but with a slight shift of emphasis. Instead of death coming during the night, putting an end to a person’s life, here the span of person’s life seems to identified with the brief time of morning (during the day)—i.e., it “flowers” (vb Jyx!) briefly, and then “moves along” (same verb, [l^j*, as in v. 5). By the evening, the dead (cut?) grass has withered (vb ll^m* I) and become dried up (vb vb^y`).

Verse 7

“So we are finished (off) by your anger,
and (how) your burning horrifies us!”

Death can be seen as a natural product (and result) of God’s judgment and anger. Here, the emphasis of the lament shifts from the language of Wisdom tradition (vv. 3-6) to the judgment idiom that is so common in both Scriptural narrative and poetry (including in the Psalms). The noun [a^ denotes the nostril(s), but frequently is used to express the idea of anger more abstractly, this sense presumably being derived from the colorful image of an angry, snorting bull, etc. Another frequent idiom for anger is that of something hot and burning (hm*j@). God’s anger is so powerful as to completely “finish off” (vb hl*K*) a mere human being. Humans should rightly be “horrified” (vb lh^B*, Niphal) by such a fate.

Verse 8

“You set our crooked (deed)s right in front of you,
our hidden (sin) before (the) light of your face.”

YHWH’s anger and judgment are the result of sin and “crooked (deed)s” (/ou*, plural). As Creator and Sovereign of the universe, YHWH also functions as all-seeing Judge (cf. an allusion to this motif in v. 4, “in your eyes”). The sin of all human beings is right there “in front of” (dg#n#) God, both the blatant misdeeds and other less obvious (“hidden”, <lu) sin. Even that which hidden is exposed before the light of God’s face.

Verse 9

“So have all our days turned, in your crossing (rage),
(and) we finish (up) our years like a moan.”

This tricky couplet is rife with wordplay, echoing the wording in several of the prior verses. To begin with, there is a continuation of the “day” (<oy) motif from vv. 4-6 (cf. above), but here it is further informed by the immediate reference to light in v. 8b. The “days” of a human being have turned (vb hn`P*, playing on the related <yn]P*, “face”, at the end of v. 8); this could mean “turned away” (i.e. passed [away]), or “turned dark (i.e. to night)”, the latter being somewhat more likely, given the night-motifs in vv. 4-5 and the reference to light in v. 8.

The noun hr*b=u# here is difficult to translate. Literally, it means a “crossing (or passing) over”; but often it is used in the sense of a ‘boiling over’ of anger, i.e., an outburst or ‘overflowing’ rage, especially in the context of the anger of YHWH. Here it reflects the thought expressed in verse 7 (cf. above), but there is also a wordplay-echo from the verb rb^u* in verse 4—referring to the years that “pass by” so quickly (like a single day) in God’s eyes. This obviously relates to the theme of human death (and brevity of life) that comes as the result of YHWH’s all-seeing judgment.

The phrase “we finish [vb hl*K*] our years” similarly echoes the wording from earlier verses (vv. 4f, 7). The end comes “like a moan [hg#h#]”, capturing a sense of suffering, frustration, and emptiness.

Verse 10

“(The) days of our years—
in them (are) seventy year(s),
and if in (full) strength, eighty year(s),
yet (the) pride of them (is) toil and trouble—
how quickly it is cut off, and we fly away!”

The lament closes with a more prosaic (and practical) assessment of the brevity of a human life (“[the] days of our years”). At most it will last seventy years; on rare occasions, a person in the fullness of strength (hr*WbG=, intensive plural) may live eighty years, but almost never any longer. Regardless of how many years a person lives, the “pride” (bh^r)) of them—i.e., even the prime years of a person’s life—consist largely of toil (lm*u*, i.e. wearisome labor) and trouble (/w#a*), the latter term often connoting pain, sorrow, grief, etc.

I take the initial yK! particle of the final line to be emphatic, marking an exclamatory declaration (“How…!”). The rather bitter sounding, yet poignant exclamation makes a fitting end to the lament, dominated as it is by the Wisdom-theme of the shortness of human life.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

January 6: Psalm 89:51-53

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:50-53, continued

(Verse 50 was discussed in the previous note.)

Verses 51-52 [50-51]

“Remember, my Lord, (the) scorn of your servants!
I bear in my bosom all (the) shots of (the) peoples,
(by) which your hostile (one)s cast scorn, O YHWH,
(by) which they scorn (the) heel-steps of your anointed!”

In addition to calling on YHWH to remember His binding agreement (covenant), and the sacred oath by which He made it (v. 50), the Psalmist now appeals to the shameful treatment which God’s people have received from the surrounding nations. Such taunting and disgraceful insults, toward God’s people, ultimately reflect on God Himself. By insulting YHWH’s people (“your servants”), the nations are also insulting YHWH.

The term used to express this shameful treatment is hP*r=j# (“scorn”), referring to a taunting insult, often in the sense of casting blame on someone. The word is frequently used in the Psalms, in the context of attacks on the protagonist (by his wicked adversaries), or of the suffering of the righteous generally. Part of the taunt doubtlessly involves rebuking Israel for its trust in YHWH, since the people have endured defeat and destruction, exile and disgrace, in spite of their trust.

The related verb [r^j* (“cast blame/scorn”) is used twice in verse 52, emphasizing two specific points which are intended (by the Psalmist) to prompt YHWH to take action: (1) those who are casting scorn on His people are His enemies (“your hostile ones,” those hostile to you), and (2) they cast scorn on the one whom He has anointed as His chosen servant. The last point presumably refers to mockery that is specifically leveled at the Davidic king, who, in the person of Jehoiachin, was led off in exile to Babylon; the expression “(the) heel-steps (or heel-prints) of your anointed” may refer, somewhat literally, to the king’s tracks as he is taken off to Babylon. It would be natural for the enemies of Israel/Judah to mock the defeated and exiled monarch.

The Psalmist personalizes this suffering, in the second line of verse 51, by declaring that he bears the pain (in his own “bosom”) of such taunts. The author-protagonist of the Psalms frequently functions as a figure representing the people as a whole (particularly the righteous ones of the people). As such, he feels the suffering of his people; and, indeed, throughout history, many Israelites and Jews have been so inclined to personalize the communal and corporate suffering of the people.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 320) in reading MT <yB!r^ as a form of br^ III, denoting a projectile, something “shot/cast” (vb bb^r* II), such as an arrow. The vocalization would then be yB@r^, with the <– explained as an enclitic suffix—easily to be confused with the sufformative <– (<y-) that marks the plural. The Psalmist feels the arrows (of scorn) cast by the nations/peoples, as they have penetrated (figuratively) into his bosom.

Verse 53 [52]

“Blessed (be) YHWH into (the) distant (future)!
/m@a*w+ /m@a*!”

The Psalm concludes with a benediction, giving blessing to YHWH. The simple traditional form, however, is more significant thematically than it might at first seem. Two points of vocabulary find an echo throughout the Psalm.

First is the temporal expression <l*oul=, “into/unto (the) distant (future)”, which was used to express the enduring character of the Davidic kingship (vv. 5, 29, 37-38), even as the heavens themselves endure (v. 2-3). The enduring character of the heavens is due to the firmness/faithfulness of YHWH Himself, and this is also true of the promise(s) to David.

Second, we have the final word, /m@a* (°¹m¢n), repeated as a couplet (/m@a*w+ /m@a*). The term defies easy translation, and so is often simply transliterated in English— “Amen and amen!”. However, this obscures the derivation of /m@a* from the root /ma (“be/make firm”), and its relation to the noun hn`Wma$. The noun hn`Wma$ (“firmness”) is the central keyword of the Psalm, occurring 7 times (vv. 2-3, 6, 9, 25, 34, 50), while the verb /m^a* occurs twice (vv. 29, 38), and the related noun tm#a# (also with the basic meaning “firmness”) once (v. 15).

The rhetorical purpose of this repeated use of the /ma word-group relates to the context of the Psalmist’s prayer to YHWH. He hopes to see reaffirmed God’s covenant-promise to David, regarding the kingship (and thus also the kingdom for Israel). In terms of the exilic (and/or post-exilic) setting of the Psalm (in its final form), this is another way of referring to the restoration of Israel, presented in an early Messianic framework. The final words of the Psalm thus represent one last prayer-wish: that YHWH would act to bring about the restoration for His people. As an exclamatory declaration, the adjective /m@a* (“firm,” i.e., reliable, trustworthy) allows the hearer to affirm the validity of a statement (or agreement, etc). There is no good way to translate such an exclamation precisely; rough approximations would be “surely!”, “certainly!”, and the like, while, as an imprecation, something like “may it be so!” or “let it truly be (so)!” captures the basic sense.

Comments for Christmas

Essential to the Messianic expectation of Israelites and Jews in the first century B.C./A.D. was the idea that God’s people would be delivered from the oppression of those who are hostile to them—especially by the wicked and godless ones among the nations who have been dominate over them for centuries. The Gospel Infancy narratives reflect this aspect of the Messianic hope in various ways. The hostility toward God’s people is expressed vividly as an integral part of the narrative in Matthew 2. The specific idea of hostility toward God’s anointed (m¹šîaµ, v. 52b) is certainly a key element in the narrative, as Herod seeks to eliminate the promised Davidic Messiah by killing all of the infants born in and around Bethlehem.

Closer to the thought and expression of the Psalm are certain verses in the Lukan hymns—the Magnificat and Benedictus—such as we looked at briefly in the previous note. The theme of deliverance for God’s people from their enemies is clearly present in the first section of the Benedictus (vv. 68-75), being part of the salvation and redemption (vv. 68-69) which God is bringing about through the promised Davidic Messiah (“in the house of David His child”). The thought is made explicit in verse 71:

“…salvation out of our enemies, and out of (the) hand of all (those) hating us”

The syntax of the poem clearly ties this deliverance to the person of the Davidic Messiah, connecting verse 71 with v. 69 (v. 70 being parenthetical):

“And He (has) raised a horn of salvation for us, in the house of David His child…
salvation out of [i.e. from] our enemies…”

The thought is repeated in verse 74, this time with the deliverance being connected to the covenant made by YHWH (and made binding by an oath):

“…to remember His holy agreement,
(the) oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
(and thus) to give us (to be) without fear,
(hav)ing been rescued out of (the) hand of our enemies…” (vv. 72-74)

Finally, the closing benediction of the Psalm (v. 53) also finds a parallel in the Benedictus, in its opening lines (v. 68):

“Blessed [eu)loghto/$] (is the) Lord, the God of Yisrael,
(in) that He (has) looked upon and (has) made a loosing from (bondage) for His people”

The term lu/trwsi$ (“loosing from [bondage]”) has Messianic significance, referring to the restoration of Israel, as can be seen by its use in Lk 2:38 (with the parallel in v. 25). In the person of Jesus, this deliverance of God’s people from their/our adversaries will be realized, even if not in quite the way that many Israelites and Jews (and even some early Christians) had expected.

All of the hymns, rather naturally, contain a blessing or praise of God, though expressed in different terms, such at the beginning of the Magnificat (vv. 46-47)—

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit leaps (for joy) upon God my Savior!”

or the famous lines of the Angels’ Song (“Gloria in excelsis”):

“Glory to God in the highest (place)s,
and on earth peace among men of (His) good will!”

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

January 5: Psalm 89:50

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:50-53 [49-52]
Verse 50 [49]

“Where (are) your former (act)s of devotion, my Lord,
which you confirmed sevenfold to David by your firmness?”

The closing vv. 50-52 form a strophe-unit parallel with that of vv. 47-49 (discussed in the previous note), the two units being separated by a Selah pause-marker. The Wisdom-emphasis of vv. 48-49 has disappeared, and the unit picks up from the lament-question in verse 47 (“Until when [i.e. how long], O YHWH…?”). Again a painful question is posed to God by the Psalmist: “Where are your former acts of devotion?” This question presents another variation on the firmness theme of the Psalm, utilizing the same pair of terms—ds#j# and hn`Wma$—established in the opening (vv. 2-3).

The noun ds#j# (“loyalty, devotion”) is the focus of the first line, with the plural form <yd!s*j& best understood in the sense of “acts of loyal devotion” —that is, by YHWH toward His people, based on the binding agreement (covenant) between them. Such acts, performed by YHWH in times past, reflect His fundamental attribute and character of ds#j#. Yet, where are such acts—giving Divine blessing and protection to His people—now, in the time of Israel’s exile (and/or post-exilic suffering)? The Psalmist emphasizes this disjunction by using the adjective /ovar! (“first [place], beginning”), in the temporal sense of former—i.e., having been done before, but not (it is implied) now.

The second term, hn`Wma$, is featured in the second line. As has been discussed, the noun literally means “firmness”, primarily in the sense of “faithfulness, trustworthiness”, giving it a meaning comparable with that of ds#j# (i.e., faithfulness, loyalty). Throughout the Psalm, it is the covenant with David that is the focus of YHWH’s faithfulness, and it is again emphasized here in these lines.

The loss of the kingdom and end of the kingship would seem to indicate that YHWH has renounced this covenant, and His promises to David, in spite of what is affirmed throughout vv. 29-38. This apparent contradiction is the main theme of the lament in vv. 39-46—how can YHWH have abandoned His covenant-promise to David (regarding the kingship)? This question is all the more pointed because of the fact that the promise was confirmed by a sacred oath, which makes it (and the covenant) binding.

The oath-theme was emphasized earlier in vv. 35-36, including use of the verb ub^v*. The verb is apparently denominative from ub*v# (“seven”), i.e., “do (something) seven times (or seven-fold)”. On this idiom, cf. the earlier note on v. 36. YHWH’s promise is binding, having been confirmed (sevenfold) by oath; how, then, can God have abandoned it? The thrust of the Psalmist’s question is seen in the following vv. 51-52, as he urges YHWH to act to fulfill the covenant-promise, and thus restore the kingship for David (and the kingdom to Israel). This will be discussed in the next daily note, as we conclude our study on the Psalm.

Comments for Christmas

The longing to see restored the mighty acts of salvation, by God for His people, performed in times past, but now seemingly absent, is characteristic of Jewish Messianic expectation in the first centuries B.C./A.D. It is also expressed in the Gospel Infancy narratives, especially in the hymns of the Lukan narrative.

This certainly can be seen in the Magnificat (1:46-55), where recollection of the past acts by YHWH blend into the present moment, with the hope and expectation that they will be realized now, even as they were in ages past. The protagonist of the hymn (Mary is the [probable] speaker in the narrative) affirms this timeless quality of God’s “acts of devotion” (to use the term from v. 50a of the Psalm):

“the Mighty (One) has done for me great (thing)s,
and Holy (is) His name,
and His mercy (is) unto generation and generation,
for (the one)s fearing Him” (vv. 49-50)

The Greek noun e&leo$ (“mercy”) is frequently used to translate ds#j# (cf. above) in the LXX, and so should be understood in that sense here—viz., of the kindness and loving care shown by God, reflecting His covenant loyalty toward His people. The present expectation will see a reprisal (and restoration) of the great acts performed by God in the past:

“He took hold of Yisrael His child (to help him),
remembering (His) mercy [e&leo$]” (v. 54)

The Benedictus (vv. 68-79) contains similar kinds of traditional language, framing the present fulfillment of the (Messianic) expectation in terms of the past:

“…He (has) looked on (them), and made a loosing from (bondage) for His people,
and (has) raised a horn of salvation for us in (the) house of David His child” (vv. 68-69)

The motif of covenant-loyalty is likewise emphasized:

“…to act (in) mercy [e&leo$] with our fathers,
(and) to remember His holy agreement,
(the) oath which he swore…” (v. 72f)

In this regard, the Messianic fulfillment (in the person of Jesus) of the Davidic covenant can be seen as an answer to the Psalmist’s request in vv. 51-52—a point that will be discussed in our final note on the Psalm.

 

 

January 4: Psalm 89:47-49

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:47-49 [46-48]
Verse 47 [46]

“Until when, YHWH, will you hide yourself?
Will it burn to the (very) end,
like fire, your hot (anger)?”

It is proper to view vv. 47-49 as a distinct poetic unit within the division vv. 39-52. The Selah (hl*s#) pause-markers, after vv. 46 and 49, confirm this point. These verses follow the main strophe of vv. 39-46 (discussed in the previous two notes), and are parallel with the subsequent vv. 50-52. Indeed, one may treat vv. 47-49 and 50-52 as two short strophes, or as two units within a single strophe.

The distinctiveness of this unit is indicated by the metrical shift at v. 47. I parse this verse as an irregular (3+2+2) tricolon. It functions as a response to the situation described in vv. 39-46, where YHWH has (apparently) renounced His covenant with David, allowing the kingship (and the kingdom) to come to a destructive and shameful end. Clearly, the conquest of Judah is in view, and the Psalm (certainly the third division of it) is written from the standpoint of the Exile (or the post-Exilic period), when the kingdom (and thus also the Davidic line of kings) has ceased.

The Psalmist asks the plaintive question hm*-du^ (“Until when…?”, i.e., “How long [will this last]?”), which also occurs, equally painfully, in Ps 79:5 (cf. also 74:9). He describes the current situation of exile (and/or post-exilic poverty), which apparently has lasted now for a considerable time, in traditional terms—viz., of YHWH “hiding Himself” (vb rt^s*, Niphal stem) from His people. Dahood (II, p. 320) would parse the verb form as deriving from the root rWs (“turn aside/away”), but the meaning is much the same, in either case. For similar usage of rt^s* in the Psalms, cf. 13:1; 27:9; 44:24; the motif of God hiding His face signifies a situation where He is seemingly not responding to prayer (e.g., 55:1; 69:17; 88:14; 102:2; 143:7), and thus not giving help to His people in their time of distress.

In the second and third lines, the present suffering of God’s people is expressed in the traditional judgment-language of the “burning” (hm*j@, vb ru^B*) of His anger. As long as YHWH’s hot anger burns, the shame and ruin of the current situation will continue.

Verse 48 [47]

“Remember my trouble, (and) how short (is) life!
For what emptiness did you create (the) sons of man?”

This couplet, clearly drawing upon Wisdom tradition, seems to have been inspired by the reference in verse 46 (cf. the previous note), to the king’s “days of youth” having been “cut short”. The focus now shifts to the individual circumstances of the author-protagonist, much as we see in the majority of the lament-Psalms. The first line highlights two points frequently emphasized in the Wisdom texts—viz., (1) that a person’s life is (often) all too brief, and (2) is typically filled with toil and trouble.

I follow the suggestion of Dahood (II, p. 320) that MT yn]a* (“I”) in the first line should be revocalized as yn]a) (= yn]oa, “my trouble,” or “my sorrow”). The noun dl#j# is difficult to translate, though the basic meaning, as it is used here, seems clear enough—viz., a reference to the short/fleeting duration of a person’s life (Ps 39:6; cf. also 17:14; 49:2; Job 11:17; Isa 38:11). The “emptiness” (aw+v*) of life, particularly in terms of human pursuits and ambition, is also a frequent theme in Wisdom literature, though not typically expressed by the noun aw+v* which tends to have the more harshly negative connotation of wicked falsehood, deceit, idolatry, etc (but see its use in Job 7:3).

Verse 49 [48]

“Who (is the) strong (one who) lives
and does not see death?
Can he (truly) rescue his soul
from (the) hand of Še’ôl?”
Selah

Metrically, I parse this verse as a pair of short 2+2 couplets, patterned after the second and third lines of v. 47 (cf. above). It continues the Wisdom-orientation of v. 48, with the emphasis on the shortness of human life, in its mortality, and the inevitability of death as the common fate. Is there any human being, in the strength and vigor (rbg) of his youth, who can somehow avoid (“does not see”) death? The answer to this rhetorical question is an obvious “no”. No human being is able to rescue his soul—that is, enable it (somehow) to escape (vb fl^m*, Piel)—from the power (“hand”) of Death.

On loav= as a poetic term for death (and the realm of death), cf. my earlier note.

Comments for Christmas

The Wisdom-emphasis of these verses is generally absent from the Gospel Infancy Narratives; however, the idea of human mortality is present, to some extent. I would note two passages, in particular. The first is the narrative arc in Matthew 2, in which Herod, troubled by the prospect of losing his kingship (a theme relevant to vv. 39-46 of the Psalm), seeks to kill off the true king, the Messiah, born in Bethlehem. The Gospel’s poignant treatment of the death of the infants (vv. 16-18), with its citation of Jer 31:15, provides a powerful illustration of the brevity of human life (the infants truly had “the days of their youth cut short”, v. 46 of the Psalm).

The second passage to mention is the episode involving Simeon in Luke 2:25-35. The aged Simeon was keenly aware that his life was reaching its end, but the time of his death was related to his seeing the Messiah—the one who will fulfill the promise of the Davidic covenant, and thus bring about the restoration for God’s people (vv. 25-26). The encounter, with the aged Simeon holding the infant Jesus, is one of the most beautiful of the portraits in the Lukan Gospel, graced as it is by the canticle (“Nunc dimittis”) in vv. 29-32, which begins with a memorable statement regarding the acceptance of death (and human mortality) by a faithful believer:

“Now, may you loose your slave from (his service), O Master, according to your word, in peace…”

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).