Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 32

Psalm 32

Dead Sea MSS: (Psalm 32 is not preserved among the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts).

This Psalm is akin to the prior Pss 30 and 31, blending the setting of prayer for deliverance (from illness, etc) with praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for having rescued his faithful follower. Psalm 32 is simpler in structure and more streamlined in its thought. The idea of repentance and forgiveness (from sin) also features more prominently, to the point that Ps 32 came to be counted as one of the seven “Penitential Psalms” in Catholic ritual and liturgical tradition.

The musical direction of the superscription indicates that this composition is a lyK!c=m^, a term of uncertain meaning, but presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely. Like most of the Psalms we have studied thus far, the superscription marks it as “belonging to David”.

As noted above, this Psalm is not present in the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts; there is no way to be certain whether this means the Psalm was unknown by the Qumran Community, or that its absence is simply an accident of survival.

I would divide the Psalm as follows:

    • Verses 1-2: Beatitude regarding forgiveness of sin
    • Verses 3-7: Prayer for healing/deliverance that includes confession of sin to YHWH
    • Verses 8-9: Response of YHWH instructing/exhorting the Psalmist
    • Verses 10-11: Closing exhortation to the righteous

The outer portions (vv. 1-2, 10-11) reflect the strong influence of Wisdom tradition on the Psalms (a point made numerous times in these studies). The inner portions (vv. 3-7, 8-9) form the dramatic heart of the composition, presenting the prayer for deliverance, along with God’s answer.

Verses 1-2

“Happiness of (he whose) violation (is) being lifted,
(whose) sin (is) being covered (over)!
Happiness of (the) man (when)
YHWH does not determine for him (any) perversion,
and (indeed) there is no deceit in his spirit!”

This section is comprised of a pair of beatitudes, the second of which is longer and more difficult (poetically) than the first. For this particular wisdom-form, with ancient roots in religious ritual and concepts of the afterlife, cf. the study on Psalm 1, as well as my earlier article (on the background of the beatitude form) in the series on the Beatitudes of Jesus. As in Psalm 1:1, these beatitudes begin with the plural construct form yr@v=a^; literally, this would mean something like “happy [thing]s of…”, but the plural actually should be understood in an intensive or superlative sense, with the force of an exclamation: “(O, the) happiness of…”, “How happy (is)…!”.

The first beatitude (v. 1) is a tight 3+2 couplet, though it is difficult to capture this meter in a literal translation, which requires glossing (cf. above). The parallelism of the couplet is precise, enhanced by its use of terse rhythm and rhyme:

uv^P# yWcn+
ha*f*j& yWsK+
n®´ûy peša±
k®sûy µ¦‰¹°â
“being lifted (the) violation,
“being covered (the) sin”

The noun ha*f*j& (“sin, error”) in the second line is set parallel with uv^P# in the first line, a term which, in the covenant setting, refers to a breach or violation of the binding agreement. In a more extreme connotation, uv^P# can even refer to the revolt or rebellion of a vassal against his sovereign. Given the religious dimension of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, any sin or transgression (whether from a ritual or ethical standpoint) constitutes a violation of the covenant. That person is truly blessed (i.e. “happy”) when God forgives such a violation—forgiveness here signified by the verbs ac^n` (“lift, carry [away]”) and hs*K* (“cover”).

The second beatitude (v. 2) is more complex, with an irregular meter. Here a specific individual is in view (“Happiness of [the] man…”), with the noun <d*a* used in this sense (rare in the Psalms). The short introductory line leads into the couplet proper, which defines the forgiveness of sin as an action performed specifically by God (YHWH). In point of fact, there are two aspects to the idea of forgiveness in this couplet:

    • What God determines (vb bv^j*) regarding the person—that he/she is not ‘crooked’ or perverse (/ou*); there is a judicial connotation here
    • What is truly in the person’s spirit—that there is no deceit (hY`m!r=), implying no intention toward perversion; the noun can also connote treachery or betrayal (in a covenant context).

Ultimately, what YHWH determines regarding a person reflects that person’s true nature and character (what is “in the spirit”); God simply makes a (judicial) determination to this effect. Even so, the divine decree of forgiveness is a cause for great happiness among the righteous.

Verses 3-7

Verse 3

“For I keep quiet, (yet) my substance is worn out,
in my roaring (that still occurs) all the day.”

The verb form yT!v#r^j#h# in the MT is problematic. It would seem to be derived from the root vrj II (“be silent, quiet), which occurs regularly in the Hiphil stem; but, if so, the sense of the parallelism in the couplet becomes difficult to determine. Perhaps, it reflects a sort of grim irony–even though the protagonist keeps quiet (i.e. says no words), the suffering he experiences in his body produces “roaring” that goes on all day long. Dahood (p. 194) suggests that the verb here should be taken as deriving from crj (“scrape, scratch, cut”), more or less identical in meaning with vrj I. The noun cr#j# refers to a shard of pottery, etc, used for scraping, and the noun occurs in Psalm 22:16 in an idiomatic context quite similar to what we find here: the Psalmist feels his “strength dried up like a shard (of pottery) [cr#j#]”. If this line of interpretation is correct, then the verse would need to be translated as a tricolon, something like:

“For I became a scraping(-shard),
my substance was worn out
by my roaring all the day.”

In both renderings, I have translated the plural of <x#u# in an abstract or collective sense that preserves the fundamental meaning of “strength, substance”; however, it also frequently alludes specifically to a person’s bones (as the strength/substance within the body).

Verse 4

“For day and night your hand was heavy upon me,
my <tongue> was turned up by (the) dry (heat) of summer.

As most commentators would point out, yD!v^l= of the MT in the second line is unintelligible, and would seem to require emendation. I tentatively follow the suggestion of Olshausen, adopted by other commentators (cf. Kraus, p. 367), of reading yn]v^l= (“my tongue”) instead. It entails the small correction of a single letter, and fits the imagery of the line (along with that of v. 3, above): that of the harsh heat of summer drying out a person’s tongue. The use of the verb Ep^h* (“turn over, turn about”) here may refer to the motion of the parched tongue in one’s mouth desperately seeking moisture. This oppressive heat is symbolic of the Psalmist’s suffering, recognized as coming from the “hand” of God. Most likely, this suffering is to be understood as stemming from an illness or disease of some kind (cf. the setting of Pss 30-31, discussed in the most recent studies).

Verse 4 concludes with the musical-poetic indicator hl*s# (Selah). The meaning and significance of this term remains one of the most persistently puzzling, if minor, elements of Psalm Studies. The term, as it occurs in the texts that have come done to us, often does not appear to be applied in a clear or consistent manner. Almost certainly it relates to some aspect of the performance tradition of the Psalms, presumably indicating a pause of some kind—marking a change or shift of tone, tempo, etc, perhaps even something like a musical key change. In any case, here the term occurs three times in close succession, and may carry a definite structural and thematic significance for the composition; note:

    • Vv. 3-4: The suffering of the Psalmist—Selah
      • V. 5: His confession of sin and forgiveness—Selah
    • Vv. 6-7a: The safety and protection for the Psalmist—Selah

The confession of sin (and forgiveness by YHWH) in verse 5 is central to this structure, providing the transition between suffering (in violation of the covenant, vv. 3-4) and security (back under the covenant protection provided by YHWH, vv. 6-7).

Verse 5

“My sin I made known to you,
and my perversion I did not cover;
I said, ‘I will throw (out) over me
my violation toward YHWH!’
and you lifted (away from me)
(the) perversion of my sin.”

There is a similar three-part structure to this central verse, involving each of the three pairs of couplets:

    • Repentance/recognition of sin (violation of the covenant) [5a]
    • Formal confession of sin, as being directed toward YHWH [5b]
    • Forgiveness of sin (restoration of the covenant bond) [5c]

The syntax of the middle couplet is a bit difficult; in particular, the expression hwhyl (“to YHWH”) is ambiguous, and may carry a double meaning: (a) he makes his confession “to YHWH”, but also (b) admits that his is sin is a violation directed “toward YHWH” (that is, in violation of the binding agreement with YHWH). Dahood (p. 195) suggests that the lamed (l=) here is vocative (“O, YHWH”), and this also is possible.

Note that the idiom of “covering” (vb hs*K*) sin here has the exact opposite meaning as it does in v. 1 (cf. above). When the sinful human being “covers” sin, he/she tries to hide it; when God “covers” that person’s sin, he removes it from consideration, wiping it away.

Verse 6

“Upon this shall he pray,
every loyal (one), to you—
for (in the) time of outpouring reaching,
through a flood of many waters,
they will not touch him (at all)!”

This is a most difficult verse, both metrically and syntactically. A two beat (2+2) bicolon is followed by three beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The overall idea is clear enough: the faithful/loyal (dys!j*) follower of YHWH will pray to Him in the manner described in v. 5, repenting and confessing any sin, and the covenant bond will be restored. At that point, the faithful one comes back under the covenant protection provided by YHWH, and he will then be kept safe from any danger or trouble that he might encounter (symbolized as a flood of “many waters”). The manner of expressing this matrix of ideas, in terms of the syntax of the verse, however, is quite difficult, at least in the text as it has come down to us. The main problem lies in the third line (the first of the tricolon), which in the Hebrew MT reads:

qr^ ax)m= tu@l=

The word qr^, as vocalized, would normally be understood as an adjective meaning “thin, weak”, which is often used (in prose) as a more generic adverb (with restrictive force), i.e., “only”. However, here qr more likely derives from the root qyr! (“pour out, draw out, empty”). This would fit the idea of an outpouring of water, as well as the violent/military aspect of the verb—i.e., drawing out the sword, an armed force pouring out (Gen 14:14), etc. This does not eliminate all of the syntactical difficulties (note the awkwardness in English of the literal translation above), but it at least provides a plausible framework for the verse as a whole.

Verse 7

“You are (the) covering for me,
from oppression you shall guard me,
(with) cries of deliverance you surround me!”

Here the protection provided by YHWH is more clearly emphasized. He serves as a “covering” (rt#s@), a “guard” (vb rx^n`), and one who “surrounds” (vb bb^s*) the righteous.

The precise meaning of the last line is a bit obscure. The verb /n`r* means “shout, cry”, i.e., making a piercing, ringing cry, like that of a bird. The use of the verb in Psalm 63:8 [7] suggests a similar connotation of protection that is otherwise not clearly attested elsewhere in the Old Testament. The allusion here may be precisely that of Ps 63:8—viz., the cry of bird protecting its young, surrounded by the parent’s wings. Also possible are the metaphorical “cries” of attackers against the shields (?) that surround and protect the righteous, or even the cries of soldiers holding the protective shields. The same verb is used, in a somewhat different sense, in the closing lines of verse 11 (cf. below).

Verses 8-9

Verse 8

“I will make you understand and give you direction in (the) way that you shall walk,
I will give you counsel, my eye (ever) upon you.”

With verse 8, the remaining lines of the Psalm become longer—here a 4+3 couplet. In vv. 8-9 YHWH responds to the Psalmist’s prayer. Even though God had already given answer by healing/delivering him, now He provides a direct (formal) response. It comes in the form of a promise to give understanding and direction to His faithful follower; we can see rather clearly here the influence of Wisdom-tradition, which is found quite frequently in the Psalms (especially the closing portions). The verbs are in the Hiphil (causative) stem, indicating what YHWH will make happen for the Psalmist:

    • “I will make you understand” (vb lk^c*), i.e., give knowledge, wisdom; see the note on the term lyK!c=m^ in the superscription, above.
    • “I will give you direction” (vb hr*y`), lit. “I will cast (the arrow) for you”, pointing the way, giving direction; this use of hry is often summarized as “instruct[ion]”, the proper translation of the derived noun hr*oT (Torah).

The main verb in the second line would appear to be Ju^y` (“counsel, advise, guide”), keeping with the same line of imagery. However, Dahood (p. 196) offers the intriguing suggestion that the form hx*u&ya! should be parsed as the verb hx*u* (“close, shut”, cf. Prov 16:30) preceded by the negative particle ya!, otherwise clearly attested in the Old Testament only at Job 22:30. I am very nearly persuaded by this analysis, which, if correct, would mean that the second line should be translated as “my eye upon you is not (ever) closed”.

Verse 9

“You must not be like a horse (or) like a mule, without understanding,
with muzzle and harness (needed) to curb its surging (nature)—
otherwise (there is) no coming near to you!”

This verse, an extended and irregular (4+4+3) tricolon, continues the address of YHWH to the Psalmist, following the Wisdom-aspect of this section with a colorful bit of proverbial instruction. There is some difficulty in the second line, particularly the meaning of MT oyd=u#. I tentatively follow Dahood here (p. 197), deriving it from a root ddu, rare in the Old Testament (cf. Job 10:17), but attested in Ugaritic as the cognate ²dd, with the meaning “swell (up), expand”. The illustration of the horse that needs a muzzle and harness to control it suggests a comparable meaning for wydu here—viz., a wild and untamed nature, that swells and surges and is difficult to control.

There is also some difficulty in determining the precise meaning of the third line. We would expect the third person singular, rather than the second person suffix of ;yl#a@ (“to you”); but this may simply indicate a sudden shift applying the proverb directly to the Psalmist. In this respect, the shorter third line functions as a warning: if you act in a reckless and heedless manner, ignoring the sound instruction and wisdom (from God), no one will want to come near you! Perhaps, the idea in view is that YHWH Himself will not wish to come near such a person.

Verses 10-11

In this brief final section, the Wisdom instruction is broadened, directed to the people of God, the righteous ones, as a whole. This is typical of the closing lines of many Psalms, as has been previously noted.

Verse 10

“Many (are the) afflictions (belonging) to (the) wicked,
but (the one) seeking protection in YHWH will have goodness surrounding him!”

Ultimately, the wicked will have “afflictions” (pl. of the noun boak=m^), or “pains”; the root bak can also connote sadness and sorrow. Probably this refers to the final fate of the wicked, the punishment which God has in store for (l=) them. By contrast, the righteous will continue to be surrounded vb bb^s*, used above in v. 7) by the covenant protection and blessing provided by YHWH. The loyal and faithful one both seeks the protection of God, and also finds it; this is the fundamental meaning of the verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, and, quite naturally, it also connotes the trust one places in YHWH. The common noun ds#j# means “goodness”, but often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, in the context of the covenant; here it signifies the blessing that comes to those who are loyal to YHWH. The contrast between the righteous and the wicked is a staple of Wisdom literature, and features in many of the Psalms (cf. especially in Psalm 1).

Verse 11

“Rejoice in YHWH, and spin round (with joy), (you) righteous (one)s,
and give a (ringing) cry all (you the one)s straight of heart!”

The final couplet is an exhortation for the righteous to praise God. The joyous twirling (spinning/dancing in a circle) of the righteous parallels the motif of the righteous being surrounded (vb bb^s*) by His protection (v. 7). The same verb /n`r* was also used in v. 7, referring to a ringing cry. There it seems to allude to the piercing cry of a bird protecting its young (cf. also Ps 63:8 [7], noted above). Here it is the protected ones (i.e. the righteous) who cry out, in joy. Those faithful and loyal to YHWH (and to the covenant with Him) are characterized in traditional terms as “just, right[eous]” ones (<yqyD!x^); like dsj, the root qdx can also connote faithfulness and loyalty. Another traditional expression is “straight of heart” (here bl@ yr@v=y]), which implies the faithfulness of one’s intention, which goes deeper than a practical observance of the covenant (i.e., the Torah).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 31 (Part 3)

Psalm 31, continued

Following my three-part outline of this Psalm, the first two parts were treated in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior); we now conclude with the third and final part:

    • Vv. 2-9 [1-8]: An expression of trust in YHWH, that He will deliver the Psalmist from the danger and distress he faces
    • Vv. 10-19 [9-18]: A lament for the illness and affliction which the Psalmist currently endures
    • Vv. 20-25 [19-24]: Praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for His goodness, shown in delivering those faithful to Him (such as the Psalmist) from suffering.

Verses 20-25 [19-24]

Verse 20 [19]

“How much (indeed) is your (treasure of) good
that you have hidden away for (those) fearing you,
(that) you worked for (the one)s seeking protection in you,
(made visible right) in front of (the) sons of men!”

This verse consists of a pair of 3+3 couplets, essentially joined to form a quatrain. As noted in the outline above, the emphasis in the Psalm now shifts to praise of YHWH for His goodness that he demonstrates by delivering those faithful to Him. Such deliverance, as previously noted, is part of the covenant responsibility of YHWH, to provide protection for his faithful vassals. Indeed, the faithful ones seek and request such protection from YHWH, indicated here by the verb hs*j* in the third line; we have seen this verb used frequently in the Psalms we have studied thus far, in a similar covenant-context (2:12; 5:12; 7:2; 11:1; 16:1; 17:7; 18:3, 31; 25:20, and earlier in this Psalm in v. 2). The idiom of “seeking protection” in YHWH is parallel here with “fearing” YHWH, in line 2 (root ary). There is a similar parallelism between the verb /p^x* in line 2 and lu^P* in line 3; the first verb means “hide (away)”, in the sense of storing away treasure, while the second (lu^P*) literally means “work”, here presumably connoting the work performed by YHWH in storing up His treasure. This ‘treasure’ is defined as the “good” (bWf), i.e. the good things belonging to YHWH, which He distributes to His loyal followers; again the covenant imagery is in view here.

The meaning of the last line is a bit obscure: “in front of the sons of men”. Dahood (p. 191) suggests that the idea is, by showing favor to the righteous in front of the rest of humanity (i.e. the wicked), it will put them to shame (or perhaps, provoke them to envy); cp. the idiom in Psalm 23:5.

Verse 21 [20]

“You cover them in the cover of your face,
away from the ties of man;
you hide them in (the) thick (cover)ing,
away from combat by (the) tongue!”

This is another quatrain, but with irregular meter—a 3-beat line followed by three 2-beat lines. The meaning of the expression vya! ys@k=r% in the second line is uncertain, especially as the word skr occurs only here in the Old Testament. Cognate parallels in Akkadian and Ugaritic indicate a basic meaning of tying or binding something together (cf. Dahood, p. 191). Here in the Psalm the expression is parallel with “combat by the tongue(s)” in the fourth line; this suggests an attempt to bind a person through evil speech, perhaps in the sense of a curse, etc. It may simply refer to the general idea of evil speaking—including slander, false accusation, etc.  In any event, part of the protection YHWH provides to the faithful ones is to keep them away from such evil, and its harmful effects. Even if one must endure it for a time, ultimately God will deliver the person who trusts in Him. Three different terms play on this idea of protection in terms of hiding/concealing:

    • Line 1: The verb rt^s* (with the related noun rt#s@)—to hide something by covering it
    • Line 3: The verb /p^x*, “hide away”, used earlier in v. 20 (cf. above)
      and also: the noun hK*s% denoting a thick covering, e.g. of branches or woven material.

In verse 20, the image was of the treasures of YHWH being hidden away for the righteous; now the idea has shifted to the righteous themselves being hidden away from the wicked.

Verse 22 [21]

“Honor be (to) YHWH—
for He does wonders to me (in) His goodness,
(from) within (the) enclosed place of the city!”

This irregular tricolon builds upon the idea of protection and deliverance (provided by YHWH), depicted in vv. 20-21. Through our praise, the righteous/faithful ones show honor to YHWH; the verb used is Er^B*, which is often translated “bless”, but fundamentally denotes an act or gesture by which one does homage or shows honor to someone (by kneeling, etc). As noted repeatedly in prior studies, the noun ds#j# (“kindness, goodness”) frequently connotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in a covenant-context. The meaning of the last line is not entirely clear. Possibly the sense is that God brings the person into the secure place of protection (depicted by the image of a strong city enclosed by fortifications); or, alternatively, God acts from within that place (i.e. His heavenly dwelling) to bring deliverance for His loyal ones. The latter meaning seems better suited to the line of thought here in the Psalm.

Verse 23 [22]

“Indeed I said, in my sudden (fear):
‘I am cut off from in front of your eyes!’
(but yet) you surely heard
(the) voice of my calls for favor,
in my (cry)ing to you for help!”

In this verse we have a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon followed by a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, which I have combined as a single poetic unit. It summarizes the essence and setting of the entire Psalm—in which the protagonist cries out to YHWH for help, in the midst of his suffering, and God answers him. Even at the pinnacle of the Psalmist’s despair (in which he thinks/says to himself “I am cut off…!”), still YHWH hears (and answers) the prayer of His faithful one.

The verbal expression yz]p=j*b= in line 1 is actually rather difficult to translate. The verb zp^j* itself would seem fundamentally to denote acting in fear or fright, sometimes with the specific response of fleeing, etc; the context here indicates a sudden or abrupt sense of despair, perhaps a very real feeling by the Psalmist that he is in danger of perishing, of his life slipping away without any rescue by God.

Verse 24 [23]

“You shall love YHWH, all (you) His loyal (one)s!
YHWH is guarding (the one)s firm (in loyalty),
and is completing upon (what is) left over
(for the one) acting (with the) height (of pride)!”

This highly irregular quatrain encapsulates a concluding exhortation of praise to YHWH. As is often the case in these Psalms, in the closing portion, the focus shifts from the individual protagonist to God’s people (the faithful/righteous ones) as a whole. As I have noted, this reflects a strong Wisdom-tradition emphasis that has shaped many of the Psalms, at least in the form that they have come down to us. It is possible that this communal component represents a secondary development, as earlier poems were adapted for use in a public worship setting. In any event, the emphasis is clear enough in verse 24, beginning with the call for God’s people to respond to Him with love and devotion (vb bh^a*). The remaining lines establish the familiar contrast between the righteous and the wicked. This dualistic contrast is fundamental to the Wisdom-aspect of the Psalms, as epitomized most famously in Psalm 1 (cf. the earlier study). The righteous are characterized on the one hand as “(the one)s firm” (adj. /m^a*, i.e., firm in faith and loyalty), while on the other hand the wicked are those “acting (with) highness [hw`a&g~]”. That is to say, rather than trusting in God, the wicked act according to their sense of their own strength, position, status, etc; we might say that they act “with the height of pride”.

There is a similar contrast between God’s response to the righteous and wicked, respectively. He guards (vb rx^n`) the faithful ones, bringing them into the protection of His very presence (i.e. the “covering of His face”, v. 21). This continues the covenant-motif of the protection which YHWH provides, as an obligation of the binding agreement, to those who remain loyal to Him. The same covenant imagery is made to apply to the wicked, but in a grimly ironic way, according to the ancient lex talionis principle. What the wicked do, through their own sinful pride, comes back upon them, by way of punishment, in like kind. This is indicated by the use of the verb <l^v*, followed by the preposition lu^ (“upon”). The root <lv has a relatively wide semantic range, but basically denotes making something complete, including the fulfillment of an agreement, and so forth. Here the sense is of God fulfilling what is due to the wicked (on account of their faithlessness and disloyalty), making good on the situation by punishing them as they deserve, according to the evil they have done. Since God does not always punish the wicked fully in their lifetime (or at least so it seems), the “remainder” (rt#y#) of the punishment that is to come upon them is not made complete until the moment of death. Thus, while the righteous (like the Psalmist) are saved from death, the wicked ultimately receive death as their punishment.

Verse 25 [24]

“You must hold firm and let your [pl.] heart be strong,
all of (you), the (one)s waiting for YHWH!”

The closing couplet is a final exhortation addressed to the people of God as a whole (cf. above on v. 24). It is an exhortation to continued faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. The idea of “waiting” on YHWH is essentially synonymous with that of “calling” on YHWH (cf. the discussion on the verb hw`q* in the earlier study on Psalm 25:3). Here the verb is lj^y`, which occurs relatively frequently in the Psalms (19 times); it tends to connote the idea of waiting with trust or hope, i.e. in God, that He will answer. Such faithful waiting reflects the covenant loyalty of the one who stands by in devotion to YHWH, ready to act on his Lord’s behalf.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 31 (Part 2)

Psalm 31, continued

Following my three-part outline of this Psalm, we examined the first part (vv. 2-9 [1-8]) in the previous study; and now we continue with the second part this week:

    • Vv. 2-9 [1-8]: An expression of trust in YHWH, that He will deliver the Psalmist from the danger and distress he faces
    • Vv. 10-19 [9-18]: A lament for the illness and affliction which the Psalmist currently endures
    • Vv. 20-25 [19-24]: Praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for His goodness, shown in delivering those faithful to Him (such as the Psalmist) from suffering.

Verses 10-19 [9-18]

Verse 10a [9a]

“Show favor to me, YHWH,
for distress (belongs) to me!”

The meter of verse 10 [9] is a bit difficult; I suggest reading an opening 2-beat (2+2) couplet, followed by a 3+2 couplet that begins the stanza proper. The terse opening couplet serves as an invocation to God, whereby the Psalmist cries to YHWH for relief from his suffering (lit. “distress”, rx^), which is best understood as stemming from an illness or disease. In more forceful English idiom, we might translate the second line as “for distress is mine!”.

Verse 10b [9b]

“My eye wastes (away) with (its) stirring,
(yes) my throat and my belly (too)!”

The Psalmist’s entire being—physical and emotional—is consumed by the pain and suffering he endures. The idiom of his eye “wasting away” (vb vv@u*) presumably refers to his weeping, etc, being “provoked” by his condition. The noun su^K^ here is a bit awkward to translate so as to preserve a clean poetic line. Literally, su^k^B= would mean something like “with provocation”, “with agitation”; I have rendered this as “with (its) stirring”, i.e., his eyes are stirred to tears. The second 2-beat line seems almost perfunctory, and some commentators (cf. Kraus, p. 360) are inclined to eliminate it. The validity of the 3+2 meter in the text as we have it would seem to be confirmed by the metrical pattern that prevails in the following lines of the stanza (3+2 in v. 11 [10]).

Most likely, the second line is meant to extend the idea expressed in the first line, of the Psalmist’s eyes being worn out with grief from his suffering; by adding his “throat” and “belly”, he well conveys how this condition is wearing out his entire body. The noun vp#n# often has a meaning comparable to “soul” in English, but occasionally preserves an older (more concrete) denotation of a person’s throat (inside); there are only a handful of such instances in the Old Testament, all of which occur in the Psalms and other early poems. The juxtaposition of throat / belly may indicate a loss of appetite.

Verse 11 [10]

“For my life is completed with anguish,
and my years with gasping;
my strength staggers with my affliction,
and my substance wastes away!”

Following the metrical pattern of v. 10b, these 3+2 couplets build upon the idea expressed in that initial bicolon, making use of a vivid and poignant parallelism. Any one who has endured for long a painful or debilitating illness will surely relate to the lament the Psalmist expresses in these lines. The final word (verb vv@u*), repeated from v. 10b, brings us full circle back to the initial lament, as though itself a poetic depiction of the idea that the Psalmist’s life is coming round to its end (v. 11a). His very strength (j^K) and substance (<x#u#) is failing and fading away; by this is meant specifically physical health, and the noun <x#u# can refer, in a concrete sense, to the strength in a person’s bones. With Dahood (p. 189) and other commentators, I read yn][w]u) (“my affliction”) for MT yn]ou& (“my perversion”, i.e. my sin/guilt).

Verse 12 [11]

“From (the one)s pressing close to me I was (something) to be scorned,
and for (the one)s dwelling (near) me a misfortune,
and a (source of) fear for (the one)s with knowledge of me;
(the one)s seeing me in (the street) outside fly away from me!”

This verse is most difficult, from a metrical and structural standpoint. I parse it as an irregular 4+2+2+4 quatrain, though this is very hard to capture in English translation. There is, I believe, a genuine chiastic structure to the lines; note, for example, how they begin and ends with the preposition /m! (“from”). The ‘outer’ 4-beat lines express the basic drama: that people who come in contact with him are repulsed and horrified by his appearance. As a substantive participle, the verb rr^x* often refers to someone who is oppressing another; however, here I think it is better to understand the verb in the more general (and neutral) sense of a person who presses close (i.e. comes in close contact) with another. By contrast, in the fourth line, even someone who catches a glimpse at him (from a distance away) is horrified and flees at the sight.

The ‘inner’ 2-beat lines express the same dynamic more simply, and in a relational sense. I have rendered the lines (including their word order) quite precisely. The MT of the second line presents a difficulty, as it apparently contains the intensive (adverbial) particle da)m=, which normally means something like “very (much)”, but seems to make little sense here: “and for (the one)s dwelling (near) me, very (much so)” [?]. A number of emendations have been proposed (cf. Kraus, p. 360). For lack of a better option, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 189) in parsing dam as a mem-enclitic (<-, attached to the prior word) followed by the noun d[y]a@ (“misfortune, ruin”). Some support for this is to be found in the parallelism of dya@ with dj^P^ (“[source of] fear”, something to be feared) elsewhere, in Job 31:23 and Prov 1:26.

The exaggerated response to the Psalmist’s appearance is doubtless to be regarded as a bit of poetic hyperbole, though it conceivably could reflect response to an actual illness or visible condition. The description here brings to mind the traditional reaction to leprosy, for example, in ancient times.

Verse 13 [12]

“I am withered like a dead (man), (put out) from (the) heart—
I am (indeed) like (an earthen) vessel gone to ruin!”

After the expansive quatrain in v. 12, here we find a tighter, symmetric 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The Psalmist compares himself with a withered (vb jk^v*) dead body and a (clay) vessel that is going to ruin (vb db^a*). The prepositional phrase bL@m! is difficult; literally it means “from (the) heart”, or “from (the) mind”, but the precise sense and force of the idiom here is uncertain. If one were to understand the verb jk^v* in the customary sense of “forget”, then the line would presumably mean “I am forgotten like a dead man, (put) out of mind”. However, the context suggests that the root jkv is better understood with the meaning “wither”, attested by the cognate ¾kµ in Ugaritic, but somewhat rare in Hebrew (cf. Dahood, p. 190). Perhaps the expression “from (the) heart/mind” here simply reflects the idea of a loss of sense and feeling by the Psalmist.

Verse 14 [13]

“For I hear (the evil) whisper(s) of many,
terror from all around (me),
in their setting down as one against me,
(and) plot(ting) to take (away) my soul!”

The pair of irregular couplets here shifts the imagery to the familiar motif in the Psalms, of those nameless/faceless adversaries (the wicked) who threaten the Psalmist’s life. As previously noted on a number of occasions, these references are more likely to refer to the forces of evil and wickedness in general, than to actual/specific human opponents. If we are to keep here with the symbolism of (physical) illness and suffering, it may well be that the ‘adversary’ is Death itself, and those plotting against the Psalmist are Death’s minions, including the evil spirits personified and manifest in the very illness and disease afflicting him (according to the ancient worldview).

Verse 15-16 [14-15]

“And (yet still) I trust on you (for protection), YHWH!
I said, ‘You (are) my Mighty (One),
(the) stages of my (life are) in your hand, snatch me (away)
from (the) Hand of (those) hostile to me, (the one)s pursuing me!'”

Again, much as in v. 12 [11] (cf. above) we are dealing here with a complex and irregular quatrain–apparently 4+3+3+3, though if the divine name (YHWH) were omitted as secondary, it would yield a more consistent 3-beat quatrain (or pair of 3+3 couplets). The breaking of the thought here between lines 3 and 4 is unusual in Hebrew poetry, though not entirely unprecedented. In spite of the bitter lament in vv. 10-14, the Psalmist still expresses a profound trust in YHWH, and this sense of trust (and hope) pervades the remaining lines of this section. The verb jf^B* is relatively frequent in the Psalms, occurring 14 times in just the Psalms (1-31) we have studied thus far. As previously noted, the fundamental idea is of seeking protection, though this carries with it the connotation of placing one’s trust in someone or something. There is a strong covenant-context to its usage in the Psalms—i.e., a subordinate (vassal) seeks/find protection under his superior (sovereign), according to the terms of the binding agreement. Here the sense is generalized, applicable to protection (by God) from anything that might endanger or threaten the Psalmist’s life (including illness/disease). This threat is again expressed figuratively, in terms of hostile opponents or adversaries (cf. above on v. 14).

Verse 17 [16]

“May your face bring light upon your servant,
bring salvation to me in your (loyal) kindness!”

The covenant-idiom continues in this couplet, with the specific designation “servant” (db#u#) and the noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”), which frequently connotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in a covenant context. The light-giving face (of God) is a common theological motif, but the idiom specifically connotes a sovereign showing favor to his loyal vassal (servant). In this case, the favor comes in the form of healing and deliverance from illness.

Verse 18 [17]

“YHWH, may I not come to shame when I call on you,
(but) may (the) wicked (one)s be shamed, thrown (down) to Sheol!”

Here we have the fundamental thought at work: the wicked/faithless ones deserve to die, sent down to Sheol, realm of Death and the grave; the righteous/faithful ones, by contrast, trust that they will receive the favor and protection of YHWH. This is central to the covenant idea in ancient Israel (cf. above), and the conceptual language pervades many of the Psalms throughout. Here the particle yK! carries the conditional sense of “when”, though it could also be understood as the basis of the Psalmist’s hope for deliverance, i.e. “for (it is) that I (have) called on you” (I am faithful/loyal to you). I follow Dahood (p. 190) and other commentators in reading the verb form WmD=y] (MT) as derived from the root hd*n` (“throw [down]”), appropriate enough for the imagery here of being thrown “into Sheol” (loavl!).

Verse 19 [18]

“May (all) deceitful lips be bound,
th(ose) speaking against the Just (One),
hard with highness and contempt!”

The precise form and meaning of the verse remains uncertain; the sense of the final line, in particular, is unclear. Metrically, it would appear to be (roughly) a 3-beat tricolon. That it functions as an imprecation, and (perhaps more importantly) as a solemn declaration (asseveration), is clear. The point that the Psalmist wishes to declare before God is that he has nothing whatever in common with the wicked, and so should not meet their fate (through a violent or untimely death). The adjective qyD!x^ (“just, right[eous]”) in the second line is ambiguous; it could refer to the righteous human being, or to God as the Just/Righteous One. I have opted for the latter, though the overall thrust of the verse would not change much in either case, since to speak against the righteous ones (those loyal to YHWH) is tantamount to speaking against YHWH Himself.

We can see rather clearly here, I think, the purpose of the imagery of wicked opponents/adversaries that runs through many of the Psalms. They function on a religious and judicial level, as figures against whom the Psalmist sets himself in contrast, demonstrating (before God) what he is not like. The righteous, indeed, are not like the wicked—the salient contrastive point of Wisdom in the first Psalm, especially. Part of the very proof of this point is the formal confession that the righteous gives in God’s presence; the fact that he can make such a confession shows that he is among the righteous ones (and not the wicked).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 31 (Part 1)

Psalm 31

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 3-22 [2-21]); 4QPsa (vv. 23-24 [22-23]); 4QPsq (vv. 24-25 [23-24])

This Psalm is similar in certain respects with the prior Ps 30 (discussed in the previous study), in that it involves a prayer for healing/deliverance from illness, incorporating both a lament for the suffering the Psalmist faces, and thanksgiving for the strength and deliverance YHWH shows (or will show) to him. Psalm 31 is considerably more complex in how it handles this traditional material, drawing upon a wider range of imagery and manner of expression. The meter is also highly irregular, with shifting beat and rhythm, including a number of tricola, though a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to prevail.

The overall structure of this relatively lengthy and complex Psalm is not easy to determine. I have chosen to divide it into three parts:

    • Vv. 2-9 [1-8]: An expression of trust in YHWH, that He will deliver the Psalmist from the danger and distress he faces
    • Vv. 10-19 [9-18]: A lament for the illness and affliction which the Psalmist currently endures
    • Vv. 20-25 [19-24]: Praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for His goodness, shown in delivering those faithful to Him (such as the Psalmist) from suffering.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame into (the) distant (future)!
In your justice, help me to escape!”

The metrical irregularity of the Psalm is indicated in this opening verse, which is made up of a triad or tricolon, with a 3+2+2 meter. It is perhaps more properly read as a 2+2 couplet preceded by an initial 3-beat line in which the Psalmist invokes God. However, there is also a kind of parallelism between the first and third lines as well:

    • In you, YHWH
      • I have sought protection
    • In your justice
      • help me to escape

The Greek version contains an additional verbal phrase (kai\ e)celou= me) at the end of the third line, making it a 3-beat line; the wording assumes something like Hebrew yn]l@yX!h^w+ (“and rescue me”), perhaps influenced by the opening of Ps 71:2 (and see in v. 3 [2] below).

In any case, there is a definite parallel between the verb hs*j* in line 1 and fl^P* in line 3. The root hsj denotes the act of seeking or finding shelter (from a rainstorm, etc); here, as often in the Psalms, the context implies the presence of danger, and the Psalmist is turning to YHWH for protection. The root flp signifies, in a similar sense, escaping from danger, which one does by taking refuge in God; the Piel stem here indicates a causative aspect, i.e. causing, or helping, someone escape. The noun hq*d*x= is usually translated “justice, righteousness”, but frequently connotes faithfulness or loyalty, especially when a covenant context is in view, as it frequently is in the Psalms. YHWH’s loyalty and fidelity to the covenant bond–both with the Israelite people and the king himself (as a vassal)–means that he will give protection to his faithful followers who call on him in their time of need.

Dahood (p. 187) would read the noun <l*ou in the second line as a divine title (“Ancient/Eternal [One]”) with the prefixed preposition as a vocative lamed (l=). This would result in a clearer parallel couplet in the first two lines:

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame, O Ancient (One)!”

I find the suggestion interesting, but not entirely convincing; I translate <lwul above in the more customary manner, as a qualitative temporal phrase: “(in)to (the) distant (future)” (i.e., for ever, eternally).

Verse 3a [2a]

“Stretch (out) your ear to me,
(and) rescue me quickly!”

This short 3+2 couplet follows upon the third line of v. 2 [1], and example of an additional step-parallelism that is woven through the couplets in the first part of the Psalm. The idiom of “stretching/bending” (vb hf*n`) the ear, in this context, means that God will hear (and answer) the Psalmist’s prayer. The use of the adverbial phrase hr*h@m= (“quickly, swiftly, with haste”) indicates that the situation for the protagonist is urgent, or dire.

Verse 3b [2b]

“Be for me (my) Rock, a strong place,
a house place(d) up high, to rescue me!”

The imagery involves the typical setting of a secure (fortified) site on an elevated and difficult to reach location. The summit of a rocky hill or promontory is envisioned as the ideal locale for a protected refuge. The image plays on the idea of YHWH as a Rock of strength and protection; indeed, the noun rWx is used frequently as a divine appellation or title, and it is possible that here the prefixed lamed (l=) has vocative force (cf. Dahood, p. 187). In any event, this couplet (3+3), with its vivid imagery, illustrates the protection which the Psalmist requests from YHWH (see above).

Verse 4 [3]

“For (indeed) you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high,
and (in) response to your name
you will guide me and bring me along.”

This would seem to be another 3+2+2 tricolon, metrically similar to verse 2 [1] (cf. above). Again there is an instance of step-parallelism as the first line picks up the imagery from the previous couplet. A different noun is used–ul^s# indicating a sharp or ragged rock-cliff–but the basic imagery is the same. The final two lines make up a short 2-beat couplet that introduces a different image—of guidance, like that of a shepherd for his flock. The motif of protection still applies, as YHWH brings the Psalmist safely through any danger he may face. This protection is predicated upon the Psalmist calling on YHWH, literally appealing to His name (and to Him by name) in the context of the covenant-bond. This particular theological aspect of the covenant has ancient roots, going back to at least the Moses traditions of Exodus 3-4.

Verse 5 [4]

“You will bring me out from (the) snare
that they hid to (catch) me,
for you (are) my place of strength!”

Again there is a certain step parallelism at work, picking up on the idea of God bringing the Psalmist along (vb lh^n`), carrying him through any danger; now the image is more properly of YHWH bringing him out (vb ax^y`) of a specific danger—a “trap” set for him by the wicked. The meter of this tricolon (2+2+2) is clearer and tighter than that of verse 4 [3], with a circular synthetic parallelism, the lines building upon each other and then returning back to the original theme (of YHWH as a place of strength and protection).

Verse 6 [5]

“In your hand I shall give my spirit (its) place,
(may) you (so) ransom me, YHWH Mighty (One)!”

Verse 6 [5] may be read as a 3+3 couplet, by removing the final word to be part of the next couplet (see below), and treating la@ hwhy (“YHWH Mighty [One]”) as a tight construct expression. In point of fact, this is one of the few verses in the Old Testament that preserves the ancient identification of YHWH with the Creator °E~l (la@, lit. “Mighty [One]”). There are a few other instances scattered through the Psalms (e.g., 10:12; 18:3), but only here do we have the precise compound name. In later Hebrew, when the expanded plural form <yh!ýa$ (°E_lœhîm) had replaced the simple la@ (and plural <yl!a@), the expression was changed to <yh!l)a$ hwhy (Gen 2:4b, et al).

The Psalmist entrusts his very life (“my spirit”) to YHWH for protection (“in your hand”); the imagery is more intimate and personal than in the prior verses. The perfect form of the verb hd^P* (“ransom”) is here perhaps best understood as a precative perfect—i.e., a prayer wish expressed in terms of something that has already happened.

The verb dq^P* is notoriously difficult to translate. It often has the basic meaning “appoint”, “set in place”, especially when in the Hiphil causative stem. I have tried to keep to this fundamental causative sense above, though an English rendering like “commit”, “entrust” is smoother and more appealing from a religious standpoint. In any case, the basic idea is of the Psalmist placing his life in God’s hands.

The final word of the verse (MT tm#a$) is problematic, as it disrupts the meter, whether one treats the word as part of the couplet in v. 6 or 7, respectively. Keeping it with v. 6 would yield the expanded line:

“(may) you (so) ransom me, YHWH Mighty (One) of firmness”

The expression “Mighty (One) of firmness” refers to YHWH’s faithfulness and loyalty (to the covenant); as the true God, He is firm and secure (i.e. trustworthy) in all that He does. It is tempting to view tm#a$ here as a secondary accretion to the text, perhaps after the compound name/title la@ hwhy had fallen out of use; in light of the strangeness of the earlier title, it might have seemed necessary to add something to the word la@ (i.e., “God of…”).

Another possibility is to treat the word tm#a$ as part of the following verse; this is the route taken by Dahood (p. 188), though to do so again expands and disrupts the meter of the couplet. In such a context, the word functions as an emphatic adverb or substantive particle (“Surely…”, “truly…”). Dahood cites similar examples in Psalm 132:11; Isa 43:9; Ezek 18:9. For the purposes of this study, I tentatively follow this line of interpretation.

Verse 7 [6]

“Surely do I hate the (one)s guarding vain (thing)s of emptiness,
while I, (it is) to YHWH (alone that) I give (my) trust!”

The contrast here is between those (i.e. the wicked) who devote themselves to ‘idols’ (that is, to deities other than YHWH), and the person who remains faithful to YHWH alone. The verb jf^B* often denotes the idea of trusting in someone or something, but it can also be used in a sense synonymous with that of hs*j* (in verse 2 [1]), “seek refuge/shelter/protection”. Thus its use here may be intended to bring out a slightly different contrast: while the wicked “guard” the empty/vain things (idols), the Psalmist himself is protected (i.e. guarded) by the true God. Gradually, throughout the Old Testament period, the monotheistic outlook of Israelite religion sharpened, to the point that it became close to an absolute monotheism—that is to say, El-YHWH is the only deity who truly exists. This was expressed, rather harshly (and through an intentional distortion), by identifying other deities purely in terms of the images used by their worshipers to represent them. As such, they could be dismissed summarily as “emptiness” (aw+v*) or “empty/vain things” (<yl!b=h^)—both of these words being used together here (for emphasis). This sort of pointed anti-polytheistic polemic occurs in the Psalms, even as it does in the writings of the Prophets.

By stating unequivocally that he hates those who do not remain faithful to YHWH alone, he is affirming ever more forcefully his own faithfulness and loyalty to God. This device occurs relatively frequently in the Psalms, and is rooted in the judicial aspects of the covenant idea; in other words, the Psalmist’s prayer takes the form of an appeal to YHWH, in which he declares his loyalty to God.

Verse 8 [7]

“I will spin and grow bright (with joy) at your goodness,
(in) that you (truly will) have seen my oppression,
(and will) have known of (the thing)s pressing (on) my soul.”

I have translated the verbs ha*r* (“see”) and ud^y` (“know”) in their fundamental sense; however, this idiom of seeing and knowing here implies that God will take care to act on the Psalmist’s behalf. Compare, for example, the same language used in Exodus 3:7ff. The divine protection is understood in terms of the all-seeing, all-knowing character of God. It is possible that the plural torx* should be read as a comprehensive or intensive (rather than numeric) plural, which would make a more precise parallel with yy]n+u*, “my oppression/affliction”, or perhaps “(the one) oppressing me”. If this wording relates directly to what follows in verses 10-11ff, then it may be a general way of referring to a disease that afflicts the Psalmist. In which case, the entire sense of danger expressed in the Psalm to this point–including the specific image of people setting a trap for the Psalmist (v. 5, see above)—likewise refers to the threat of death from illness/disease.

Verse 9 [8]

“And (so) you will not enclose me in (the) hand of (the) hostile (one),
but will make my feet to stand on a wide (open) place.”

Again, the Psalmist’s prayer here expresses trust and belief that YHWH will answer his call, and will deliver him out of danger. It is quite possible that the “(one who) is hostile” (i.e. the enemy) refers to Death itself (cf. Dahood, pp. 188-9), frequently personified in ancient Near Eastern poetry, including a number of instances in the Psalms. Certainly the pressures and oppression felt by the Psalmist (v. 8) are now expressed under a personal figure, a particular “hostile one” —an adversary or enemy. The “wide/open place” (bj*r=m#) where the Psalmist can stand is in contrast with the danger of being “closed up” within the hand of the Enemy; compare Psalm 18:18-20 [17-19].

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 30

Psalm 30

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (vv. 9-13 [8-12])

This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from death (possibly due to an illness), and thus has a setting similar to several other Psalms we have examined thus far (e.g., the opening portion of Ps 28, and see especially the earlier study on Ps 6). The poetry of this composition has been particularly admired by commentators. Its meter is irregular, with a 4-beat (4+4) couplet tending to dominate; there are also 4+3 and 3+3 couplets, and at least one 2-beat tricolon. The lines thus tend to be ‘heavier’ (longer) allowing for more detailed imagery and a richer mode of expression.

The superscription marks this Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. It also adds the detail that it is (to be) used for the “dedication of the house” (ty]B^h^ tK^n%j&)—that is, the celebration of the rededication (or consecration) of the Temple, better known as the festival of Hanukkah (transliteration of the noun hK*n%j&). This may be an indication of the relative date of the superscriptions (i.e. after 165 B.C.), long after most of the Psalms themselves had been composed. The reason why this particular Psalm would have been applied to the occasion of the Temple-dedication festival is not at all clear.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

In the opening stanzas, the Psalmist sings out to God in praise for his deliverance.

Verse 2 [1]

“I will raise you (high), YHWH, for you drew me out,
and did not (let) my enemies take delight from me.”

There is a parallel built into the opening line that is easily obscured in translation. The Psalmist says that he will “raise” God up high (through his praise); this is in response to YHWH lifting him up. The latter verb (hl*D*) specifically refers to drawing up water, lifting it up out of a (deep) well; it is a proper symbol for God delivering the Psalmist out of the “pit” of suffering and death.

As is often the case in these Psalms, the attitude of the Psalmist’s enemies and adversaries plays a role in how and why the protagonist prays to God as he does. It is not always clear whether these nameless enemies are to be taken as real or imagined, actual persons or literary and proverbial figures. Generally, those Psalms which evince a stronger royal background are more likely to refer to actual adversaries; on the whole, they appear to be generalized figures, representing the wicked in contrast to the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist). The Psalmist’s enemies naturally would take delight in his suffering, even as the wicked may do, in various ways, toward the righteous.

Verse 3 [2]

“YHWH, my Mighty (One),
I called to you for help
and you have healed me.”

The meter of this verse can be discerned roughly as 2+2+2, or a 2-beat tricolon (compared with the 4+3 couplet of verse 2 [1]). It summarizes the situation of the Psalm:

    • Line 1: He calls out (in praise) to YHWH, his God (lit. “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”)
    • Line 2: In his suffering he had previously called to God for help (vb uw~v*)
    • Line 3: God responded to that prayer and healed him (vb ap^r*), making him whole again
Verse 4 [3]

“YHWH, you made my soul come up from She’ol,
you gave me life (in) my going down (to the) Pit!”

The meter of this couplet (4+3) generally matches that of verse 2 [1] (above). It builds upon the idea expressed in the last line of the tricolon in verse 3 [2]—of how God responded to the Psalmist’s prayer and healed him, presumably from an illness that had left him at the point of death. His soul was on its way down to the realm of death (and the dead), called here by the noun loav= (š®°ôl, cf. the earlier note on the meaning and background of “Sheol”) as well as roB (“pit”). The “pit” is equivalent to the deep place from which the Psalmist was lifted up, like water from a well (in the first line of v. 2 [1], cf. above).

The preformative mem [m] of the Masoretic yd!r=Y`m! (qere yd@r=oYm!) is problematic. Dahood (p. 182) suggests that it should be regarded as an enclitic mem [<] and attached to the previous word. Along these lines, it may be that the MT kethib yd!r=y` is correct, read as a form of the singular participle, i.e. “(in) my going down”. The sense of the line is that YHWH gave life to the Psalmist as he was going down to the Pit.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

The next section of the Psalm addresses the power YHWH has over life and death. It is right and proper to trust that He will act to bring (and restore) life to those who are faithful to Him.

Verse 5 [4]

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His good (and loyal one)s,
and throw (praise) to (the) remembrance of His holiness!”

This 3-beat  (3+3) couplet is somewhat difficult to translate literally in English; a certain awkwardness is the result, with the rhythm of the lines better captured as follows:

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His loyal (one)s,
and throw (praise), remembering His holiness!”

The adjective dys!j* (related to the noun ds#j#) has the fundamental meaning “good, kind”, but in the context of the covenant-bond often connotes faithfulness and loyalty. Those who are faithful/loyal to YHWH will praise Him for His own goodness and faithfulness. Beyond this, there is the religious context of recognizing what sets YHWH apart from all others, as Israel’s God and the true Creator and Deity over all. This is expressed by the idiom “remember(ing) His holiness [vd#q)]”, which we might paraphrase as “recognizing that He is the Holy One”.

Verse 6 [5]

“For (there is) violence in His anger, (but) life in His pleasure;
at (the) setting (sun) weeping lodges, but at (day)break a cry (of joy).”

This is the first of several long 4-beat (4+4) couplets, tense and full of rich imagery. The contrast is between God’s harsh/violent anger and the grace/mercy he shows to the faithful ones. Even those loyal to YHWH may experience something of His anger—like the protagonist of the Psalm in his suffering and illness—but this does not affect the life that ultimately comes to them in the end.

The parallelism of the first line requires that the noun ug^r# is to be related to <yY]j^ (“life, living”). The problem is that there appear to be several different roots ugr; the noun ug^r# is typically thought to denote a short space of time, something which happens quickly (the sense of ugr I being “act quickly”). However, in a passage such as Job 26:12, ug^r* clearly refers to a violent act, something which is both harsh and decisive, and this appears to be the connotation of ugr here (whether or not ug^r# is the correct vocalization). The noun [a^ literally means “nose, nostril(s)” but is a regular Semitic idiom for anger, presumably drawn from the image of an angry, snorting bull, etc. I have translated it above in the more abstract sense of “anger” so as better to highlight the parallel with God’s /oxr* (“delight, pleasure, favor”).

The comparative contrast between sunset/sunrise and weeping/crying-with-joy is both natural and poignant. It expresses a message of hope and trust that is virtually universal to religious experience among human beings. Even if one has to endure a “night” of suffering, there will be a time of deliverance and release in the “morning”.

Verses 7 [6]

“And I said, in my tranqil (security),
‘I shall not slide for (the) distant (future)!'”

The sense of this couplet is not entirely clear. Presumably, it expresses the idea that the Psalmist’s trust in his own security (given to him by God) was misplaced. That is to say, just because he lived in faithfulness to YHWH, with the security and protection that brings, it did not mean that he would never experience suffering. This issue of the ‘suffering of the righteous’ has a long history in religious thought, being found frequently in ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature; it is, of course, the subject of the great discourse-drama in the book of Job. The Niphal (passive/reflexive) form of the verb fom connotes being “made to slip/slide”; the (misplaced) confidence expressed by the Psalmist can be accurately paraphrased as “nothing will ever make me slip” (i.e. slip from this peaceful and secure life).

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH, by your pleasure you made me stand for [i.e. like] a strong mountain;
(but) you hid your face (from me), and I was (suddenly) disturbed.”

The illness experienced by the Psalmist is presented as something that came upon him suddenly and quite unexpectedly. Yet now he realizes (and acknowledges) it is a simple fact of the sovereign power of YHWH; all He has to do is turn away His “face”, even for a moment (and for whatever reason or purpose), and suffering is the result. This may happen even to the righteous. As long as the protagonist experiences the pleasure and favor of God, he stands firm and strong like a mountain. The prefixed l= preposition is correctly read here as a lamed of comparison (lamed comparativum, Dahood, p. 183). Dahood also suggests that the verb form T*r=T^s=h! is of a t-infixed (i.e. Hishtaphel) stem of the root rWs (“turn [away]”), rather than a Hiphil form of the root rt^s* (“hide”). The basic meaning would not be too different in either case.

Verses 9-13 [8-12]

In the third (and final) section of the Psalm, the focus reverts to that of the first section (cf. above). Now, instead of addressing YHWH with praise and thanksgiving, the Psalmist prays for future deliverance—that is, to be delivered from any similar (life-threatening) illness and suffering in the future.

Verse 9 [8]

“(It is) to you, YHWH, (that) I call,
and to (you), my Lord, do I ask for favor.”

Here the prayer (vb ar^q*, “call [to]”) is petitionary, with a request that God show favor (lj@) to him (by answering the petition); the verb /n~j* here has the sense of “ask for favor”.

Verse 10 [9]

“What (is) bit off by my tears, in my going down (to) destruction?
Shall (the) dust throw (praise), shall it put your firmness up front?”

This is another instance of a long (4+4) couplet that is packed tight with imagery. In the first line, the idea is that nothing is to be gained by the sorrow and suffering of the Psalmist (i.e. the righteous) if it ends in death. The root ugb denotes “cut off, cut out”, but it can be used figuratively for unjust (or ill-gotten) gain; a comparable idiom in English might be “bite off”, “take a bite”. I follow Dahood (p. 183) in reading ym!D* as derived from <md II (“weep”), rather than the noun <D^ (“blood”). The idea of weeping (i.e. “tears”) better fits the context here (cp. Psalm 4:5). The rhetorical question of lament in the second line is similar to that in Psalm 6:6 [5], to the effect that the dead are no longer able to give praise to God. The noun tm#a# is best understood in the fundamental sense of “firmness” (i.e. faithfulness); to put the faithfulness of YHWH “up front” or “out front” (the basic sense of dgn) means to declare or make it known to others.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Hear (me), YHWH, and show me favor!
YHWH, may you be (One) giving help to me!
(May) you turn my wailing over to whirling for me,
open my loose (garment) and bind me (with clothes) of joy!”

The initial 3+3 couplet, expressing again the Psalmist’s desire to experience God’s favor in the future (by keeping from another bout of severe illness and suffering). The second couplet is yet another long 4-beat (4+4) bicolon, the imagery of which can be difficult to render clearly in English. To begin with, we have the perfect forms of the principal verbs. As the context involves a prayer for future deliverance, it is perhaps best to read these as precative perfects—expressing a wish for what will (or should) happen as though it is something that has already occurred. Unfortunately, this is rather difficult to convey in English syntax, i.e. “O, that you would have turned…”, which is admittedly awkward. The simple translation as a wish, “(May) you turn…”, etc, is perhaps the best solution.
Note: the Qumran manuscript 4QPsr reads the verb forms in verse 11 [10] also as (precative) perfects.

The contrast in the second couplet is between mourning and joyful celebration. The idea of mourning is obviously conveyed by the verbal noun dP@s=m! (“wailing”), but also by the loose/coarse garment (qc^, i.e. ‘sackcloth’) which is worn as a sign of mourning. By contrast, the prayer is that God would turn “wailing” into “whirling” (a similar verbal noun lojm*),  that is, dancing around joyously. In a comparable way, the loose mourning garments are to be replaced by tight-fitting clothes of joy.

Verse 13 [12]

“In response, my inner (parts) will make music to you,
and will not be silent, YHWH, my Mighty (One)—
into (the) distant (future) I will throw (praise) to you!”

The Psalm closes with a tricolon of irregular meter, in which a dual promise of (future) praise to YHWH (lines 1 and 3) bracket a central declaration regarding YHWH as the Psalmist’s God (“Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”). Such a theological confession may seem obvious, but it was central to the ancient covenant-bond established between YHWH and Israel as His people. YHWH is identified as the true “Mighty One” (indeed, “the Mightiest”), the Creator of heaven and earth. The verb in the central line, <m^D*, is somewhat ambiguous, as both of the main roots (denoting “be silent” and “weep”, respectively) are applicable to the context. The contrast between mourning and joy in the prior couplets (cf. above) would tend to support the latter, but the force of the promise (to praise YHWH) here favors the former—i.e., the Psalmist declares that he will praise God continually, and will not be silent. Perhaps a bit of dual-meaning wordplay is at work.

The two verbs for expressing praise to God are rm^z` (“make music”) and hd*y`, the latter literally meaning “throw” but often used in the sense of throwing/casting praise toward someone. The Masoretes have almost certainly mispointed dbk as dobk* (“weight, worth”, i.e. honor, glory), whereas db@K* is doubtless correct, referring to the liver, i.e., in a figurative sense as the location of deep feeling and emotion (equivalent to the “heart” in English). Some would derive it from the root dbk in the sense of the “heavy” (i.e. large/thick or deep) organ, but this is far from certain. In any case, “liver” sounds most strange in context here, as rendered in English translation; I have opted for the more generic “inner (parts)”, i.e. “inner (organ[s])”, which conveys something of the Hebrew term when used in this way.

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




Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 29

Psalm 29

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 1-2)

The antiquity of this Psalm is admitted by nearly all critical commentators, who recognize it (on objective grounds) as one of the oldest surviving Psalms (no later than the 10th century B.C.). Its relative age is marked by the many details and features reflective of Canaanite poetry of the period. Some would go so far as to claim that Psalm 29 represents a Canaanite Baal-hymn that has been adapted for worship of Yahweh (cf. the earlier studies by H. L. Ginsberg, T. Gaster, F. M. Cross, and M. Dahood).

The meter of the Psalm will be mentioned in the notes below. The superscription marks it as a musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. The admitted age of the poem makes it one of the few Psalms where it is possible to date it to a time close to that of David himself.

Verses 1-2

“Give to YHWH, sons of (the) Mighty (One),
give to YHWH weight and strength!
Give to YHWH (the) weight of His name,
bow to YHWH at (the) appearance of (His) holiness!”

These are best presented as 4-beat (4+4) couplets; however, it may be more in keeping with ancient Canaanite style to view them as a series of short 2-beat (2+2) couplets. The repetitive parallelism of these short lines is typical of the Canaanite poetic style, as attested in the Ugaritic texts of the 14th-13th century. The repeated imperative Wbh* is of the verbal root bhy, “give”, in the transferred sense of offering to a great personage (i.e. God as king/ruler) a ‘gift’ of praise. The noun dobK* is translated in its fundamental meaning of “weight”, i.e. worth, value, and the honor that is to be accorded to something based on its worth.

The expression “sons of the Mighty (One)” in the opening line uses the ancient Semitic name and title la@ (°¢l), literally something like “mighty” —that is, the “Mighty (One)”, usually rendered “God” in English. The form <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) would normally be understood as a plural (“Mighty [One]s”, ‘gods’), comparable to the later expanded form <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm). However, Cross (p. 45-46) and other commentators prefer to view it as the singular (la@) with an enclitic <. Psalm 89:7 is another such example, as well as what likely is the original reading of Deut 32:8 (according to the Qumran MS ). The only definite instance of <la as a true plural would seem to be in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:11, cf. the recent daily note). In Canaanite polytheism, the “sons of °E~l” simply means the gods/deities in general, who are regarded as the offspring of the Creator (°E~l) and those divine beings who assemble in the court of His heavenly dwelling. Under the influence of Israelite monotheism, the “sons of God” are reduced to lesser heavenly beings who function as servants and messengers (i.e. Angels) of Yahweh (cf. Job 1:6; 2:1, etc). These beings appear to have been closely connected with the stars (Job 38:7) of heaven. Use of both singular la@ and plural <yl!a@ largely disappeared in Hebrew, being replaced by the expanded plural form <yh!ýa$; the older forms are preserved almost exclusively in poetry.

The noun hr*d*h& in the fourth line, usually translated “beauty”, is better understood in the fundamental sense of “adornment” —that is, of adorning one’s appearance to make it more attractive. The emphasis is on the splendor and majestic of YHWH’s appearance (i.e. as he appears). Given the storm-motif that is central here to this Psalm (cf. below), it is fair to assume that a theophany (manifestation of God on earth) is intended.

Verse 3

“(The) voice of YHWH (is) upon the waters,
(the) Mighty (One) of the weight brings thunder,
YHWH (is firmly) upon (the) many waters!

This is the first of a series of short stanzas dealing with the voice (loq) of YHWH, which is an ancient idiom for thunder—i.e., thunder conceived of as the “voice” of God. It is part of a wider stormtheophany—that is, of God manifest in the storm. Such storm-imagery was especially associated with the deity Haddu (called “Lord/Master”, or Baal) in Canaanite religious tradition, but was also connected with the Creator °E~l, and so similarly applied to Yahweh by the Israelites. The conflict between a strict worship of Yahweh and a (syncretistic) worship of Baal-Haddu in ancient Israel was based, in part, on these similarities.

The Sinai theophany, which was central to ancient Israelite religious thought and tradition, is described in terms of storm-theophany (Exodus 19:16-20; 20:18-21). The imagery is found in a number of Psalms and early poems as well, most notably in Psalm 18 (= 2 Sam 22), vv. 8-16, discussed in an earlier study; cf. also 89:6-19; 97:1-6; 77:16-18; 104:2-7; 144:5-6; Deut 33:26-29, and other examples. The power of the storm—both in its life-giving and destructive aspects—indicates control over the ancient waters.

In cosmological myth, this is often described in terms of the deity defeating and subduing the primeval waters (the Sea). There are likewise allusions to this conflict with the Sea in Old Testament poetry, and it is a component of the storm-theophany, as applied to YHWH. When the Psalm states that the voice of YHWH was “upon” (lu^) the waters it emphasizes God’s control over them; the preposition could also be understood in the sense of “against”, which would then contain an allusion to the cosmological conflict-motif. The context of creation may also entail a parallel with the traditional account in Genesis, where God’s presence (His breath/spirit) is “upon” the dark waters at the beginning of creation (1:2). The parallel between God’s breath and voice is obvious; in the Genesis account, the order of creation is established when He speaks (1:3ff).

The “weight” (dobK*) of YHWH—indicating His greatness and power, and the honor that is to be given to Him—is manifest especially through His presence in the storm. To ancient peoples, the storm, both through its terrifying power and life-sustaining rainfall, was held in awe and wonder. The religious focus shifts to the deity who is manifest in the storm, and has control over it.

Verses 4-6

“(The) voice of YHWH (is manifest) in power,
(the) voice of YHWH (is splendid) in appearance;
(the) voice of YHWH is breaking up (the) cedar trees,
YHWH breaks up (the) cedars of the white (mountains)—
He makes (the) white (mountains) jump like a bull-calf,
and the snow-peak(s) like (the) son of a wild bull!”

The use of repetitive parallelism is especially strong here, as the lines emphasize the grandeur and power of God’s “voice”. This power is manifest especially in the way that the storm (with its wind and lightning bolts) causes even the great cedar trees of the “white-capped” (/onb*l=) mountains (i.e., the Lebanon range) to burst/break apart (vb rb^v*). The parallel term /oyr=c! indicates the snow-capped (i.e. white) peaks of the mountains. The storm is depicted as affecting not only the trees, but the great mountain range as a whole.

Verses 7-9a

“(The) voice of YHWH is cutting through (with) flames of fire,
(the) voice of YHWH makes (the) hinterland [i.e. desert/wilderness] whirl,
YHWH makes whirl (the) hinterland of (the desert) sanctuary [Q¹¼¢š];
(the) voice of YHWH makes (the) deer twist (in anguish),
and makes bare (the) thicket (of the forest)!”

These verses continue the description of the thunder-storm’s effect on the land. If the focus in vv. 5-6 was on the mountains, in vv. 7-8 it is on the desert steppe (the “hinterland”, rB^d=m!, usually translated in English as “desert” or “wilderness”). Just as YHWH, through the power of the storm, can make the mountains “jump” (vb dq^r*), so he is able to make the desert steppe “whirl” (vb lWj). The reach of this power extends to the forest thickets in the flatland, where the deer and other animals dwell. As the land twirls, so also the deer “twist” (vb ll^j*) in anguish; this verb can refer specifically to the writhing of a woman in labor, so there may be here an allusion to the storm in its life-producing power. The destructive strength of the storm is also part of the fertility it brings to the land.

The mixing of imagery in verse 9 is further complicated by the incomplete/irregular meter, notably the two-beat line “and he makes bare the thicket”, which seems rather out of place. This, along with other factors, have led commentators to make various attempts at emending and/or rearranging the lines throughout verses 6-9 (e.g., Cross, pp. 154-155; Dahood, pp. 174-5). As there is no solution which, in my view, is remotely satisfactory or convincing, I make no attempt to do anything of the sort in my translation above. Instead, I work from the traditional Masoretic text as we have it, recognizing that the text, in verse 9 at least, is likely corrupt or incomplete. Unfortunately, there is no help from the Dead Sea texts, since the one surviving manuscript of Psalm 29 contains only the first two verses.

Verses 9b-10

“In all His palace (His) weight [i.e. glory] is shown—
YHWH sits against [i.e. over] (the) flood (waters),
and (so) YHWH sits (as) king into (the) distant (future)!”

Verse 9b is also problematic (cf. on 9a above), both rhythmically and in terms of the syntax. The line is awkward, due mainly to the presence of oLK% (“all of it” [?]), which Cross (p. 154) would omit as evidence of a scribal mistake (dittography). As it stands, the line is consistent with the 4-beat (or double 2-beat) meter that dominates throughout the poem, and many commentators would try to make sense of the text without modifying it. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 179) in understanding the term as modifying “his palace”. Literally, this would yield “in His palace, all of it”, which is exceedingly awkward in English; I have simplified this for the sake of poetic style, while preserving the presumed sense of the line—i.e., “in all His palace”.

The second line clearly alludes to the cosmological myth-tradition of God defeating/subduing the primeval waters. In Near Eastern thought, the regular flooding that occurs—often catastrophic in effect, but also necessary to make the land fertile—represents a temporary return to the primeval condition, when the cosmos was comprised of a dark mass of water (Gen 1:2). By ‘subduing’ this water, the Creator deity brings order and structure to the universe. This work of creation marks God as Sovereign over the universe.

Verse 11

“YHWH will give strength to His people,
YHWH will bless His people with peace.”

Like many Psalms, the closing lines here apply the message of the poem to the people of Israel collectively, and assume a definite worship setting. The power of YHWH manifest in the storm, and which subdued the waters at the beginning of creation, will likewise act on behalf of His people. This may allude to the ancient concept of El-Yahweh as the fashioner of the heavenly “armies” —the forces of nature, of the sun and moon, sky and storm, etc.—which fight against the enemies of God at His command. For more on this idea, cf. the current daily notes on the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-12ff).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 28

Psalm 28

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-5)

This short Psalm is made up of two parts: a prayer-lament in verses 1-5, and a concluding section of praise to YHWH (vv. 6-9). The first section is similar in style, tone, and emphasis to a number of lament-Psalms, where the protagonist is threatened by violence, oppression, and death. Sometimes these dangers are expressed in terms of human adversaries (if nameless and faceless ones), but it is not entirely clear whether these should be understood as real or figurative. More often than not, at least in the Psalms as they have come down to us, the enemies/adversaries are primarily figurative.

Many of the Psalms also evince a royal background or setting, though this has typically been displaced as the composition came to be used in a communal worship environment (see on verse 8 below). The closing lines often reflect this shift, sometimes even suggesting a specific worship/ritual context; and this is generally the case with our Psalm here.

As with the prior Psalms 25-27, the superscription simply indicates that it is “belonging to David”. The meter is irregular; it is generally based on a 3+2 couplet format, but this is utilized and adapted in a varied and highly creative way. Attempts to make the meter more consistent throughout are, for the most part, both unnecessary and misguided. Possible instances of textual corruption (in verses 5 and 7) only add to the complexity of the situation.

Verses 1-5

Verse 1

“To you, YHWH, do I call (out)—
my Rock, do not keep silent from me!
May (it be that) you do not keep quiet from me,
or I will be like (those) going down (to the) Pit!”

The syntax in the second couplet is rather difficult to render clearly in English. The conjunctive particle /P# reflects the wish that something be avoided or kept from happening. Its use at the beginning of a clause is precautionary. Coming as it does after the fervent wish expressed in the second line of the first couplet, it reinforces the Psalmist’s hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer his prayer (and not keep silent). There is a bit of wordplay between the verbs vr^j* and hv*j*, both of which have the similar meaning “be silent, quiet”. The “pit” (roB) of course, refers to death and the grave—i.e., Sheol, the realm of the dead. The “ones going down” to the pit are the wicked, who both literally and figuratively descend into the pit of Death.

Verse 2

“Hear (the) voice of my plea for favor,
in my crying out to you (for help),
in my lifting (up) of my hands,
to (the) deepest part of your Holy Place.”

These two couplets, as we have them, contain an interesting symmetrical structure, a mirrored 3+2 : 2+3 meter. The second line of the first couplet, together with the first line of the second couplet, forms an inner 2+2 pair. This is similar to the situation in verse 1, only here the (synthetic) parallelism is more precise, as the Psalmist’s prayer is described dramatically in terms of “crying out” (vb u^Wv) loudly (with his voice) and “lifting up” (vb ac^n`) his hands. A Temple setting is implied, whether or not the protagonist is envisioned as actually located in the sanctuary itself.

There is an interesting bit of dual-meaning wordplay involving the noun rybD= in the final line. Two separate rbd roots are attested, which, to some extent, seem to have been conflated with each other over the course of time. Root rbd I apparently has the core meaning “be in back, turn back”, while rbd II “give a word, speak, utter”. The parallel in line 1 with the Psalmist’s “voice” suggests the latter root, and the idea of an (oracular) utterance by God that takes place in His sanctuary. At the same time, the directional emphasis of the second couplet indicates that the former root is properly in view—i.e., the back part, the inner shrine of the sanctuary, where God Himself dwells.

In any case, all this imagery and clever poetry serves ultimately to emphasize the intensity of the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH. There may also be a conceptual parallel intended between the “Pit” (the place where Death reigns) and the back (i.e. deepest) part of the sanctuary where YHWH has His throne.

Verse 3

“Do not drag me along with (the) wicked (one)s,
and with (the one)s making trouble,
(the one)s speaking peace with their associates,
and (yet have) evil in their hearts!”

After the creative and irregular rhythmic structure of the couplets in the first two verses, here in v. 3 we find a more typical 3+2 meter, though with an expansive tension built into the lines. The force of the petition relates to the last line of verse 1, with its reference to the wicked—the “ones going down to the Pit”. Here these people are specifically called “wicked ones” (participle of the vb uv^r*). Again, there is a certain parallelism of the inner lines of these two couplets, when taken together. The wicked are further characterized as “ones making trouble” and “speaking peace” (falsely) with those who are supposed to be their close associates. The latter characteristic, presented in the 3-beat line of the second couplet, flows into the concluding line (the 2-beat line of the couplet), expressing a powerful antithetic parallelism that summarizes the wickedness of such people: they speak peace, and yet have evil in their heart (i.e. an evil intent).

Clearly, the Psalmist does not want to be grouped together with the wicked, which would be the implication if God does not answer his fervent prayer in his time of need. To be counted among the wicked means sharing their fate—of being “dragged along” (vb Ev^m*) down into the Pit.

Verse 4

“Give to them (in return) according to their actions,
and according to (the) evil of their deeds;
according to what their hands have made,
<return their treatment (of others back) to them!>”

The Psalmist’s desire to separate himself from the wicked leads to an imprecatory prayer against them. He asks that YHWH judge them (and pay them back) according to their wickedness—the implication being that God should similarly judge the protagonist according to his righteousness and faithful devotion.

It seems quite clear that the last line of the second couplet is corrupt, as it has come down to us. Unfortunately, the only surviving Dead Sea MS is fragmentary at this point, and is of no real help. The best explanation is that two similar phrases have been conflated in the text: “give to them” (<h#l* /T@) and “return to them” (<h#l*bv@h*). The first of these is likely due to a copyist’s mistake, drawing upon the occurrence of the same phrase in line 1 of the verse. Given this strong likelihood, we may with some confidence emend the text accordingly.

This emendation creates another 3+2 : 2+3 couplet pairing, as in verse 2 (cf. above). Again there is clear (synonymous) parallelism with the inner pair of this structure, characterizing the actions of the wicked. The social aspect of their wickedness is indicated by the use of the noun lWmG+, which refers to how one treats another person. The ethical dimension, naturally enough, blends with the judicial. To mistreat a person will lead to some measure of judgment in response to that action. Here the ancient lex talionis principle is at work—the punishment should be proportionate, and similar in nature, to the crime.

Verse 5

“For they give no discernment
(at all) to (the) actions of YHWH,
and to the working of His hands—
He pulls them down and does not build them!”

The highly creative and varied rhythmic structure of the Psalm continues with a 3+3 couplet pairing. Once again, there is a clear parallelism to the inner lines of these two couplets when taken together: “(the) actions of YHWH” | “(the) working of His hands”. God’s actions are contrasted with those of the wicked (v. 4, above). This is further expressed by the antithetic parallelism of the outer lines (first of couplet 1 + last of couplet 2), involving a bit of alliterative wordplay that is impossible to capture in English translation:

    • /yB (bîn), “discernment, understanding” —the wicked to not discern, i.e. they pay no heed to, the work of God
    • hn`B* (b¹nâ), “to build” —accordingly, God does not build up the wicked; on the contrary, he pulls/tears them down (vb sr^h*)

Verses 6-9

Verse 6

“YHWH (is to) be adored!
For He has heard
(the) voice of my plea for favor.”

This verse must be regarded as transitional, leading into the psalm of praise in vv. 7-9. Its meter is ambiguous, and a bit awkward, but should apparently be understood as a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2); the fragmented terseness of this form cannot adequately be rendered literally in English. A closer approximation of the rhythm in translation would be something like:

“Praised be YHWH!
For He has heard
the voice of my prayer.”

The wording echoes that of verse 2 (cf. above). The root irb literally refers to “bending the knee”, specifically as a gesture of homage and devotion. This denotation is difficult to render in English, especially as a passive participle; the basic meaning is someone “for whom the knee is to be bent” —i.e., someone who is to be given homage. I have translated it above as “(to) be adored”, while the more customary rendering is “blessed”.

Verse 7

“YHWH (is) my strength and my protection,
in Him has my heart trusted (for safety).
I was given help, and my heart leaps (for joy),
and (with) my singing I throw (praise to Him).”

The meter of verse 7 is slightly irregular, but generally corresponds to the 3+2 couplet pattern. The irregularity may be due to textual corruption in the second couplet, and the Greek and Syriac versions suggest a differing underlying Hebrew text at this point; however, there is little basis here for any emendation of the text. The verb jf^B* often has the connotation of seeking protection, i.e., trusting in someone or something for safety. It is used frequently with this meaning in the Psalms, and is fitting for the imagery of YHWH himself as a place of protection (/g@m*, i.e. covering, shield, etc).

The worship context, suggested already in the first section of the Psalm (cf. verse 2, above), comes more clearly into view here, with the specific emphasis on singing and giving praise to God.

Verse 8

“YHWH (is) their strength and strong place,
He (is the) salvation of His anointed (one).”

The syntax of verse 8 has led to a certain amount of confusion, both in terms of the specific meaning of the lines and how they are to be divided. It seems best to view it is an expanded 3+3 (~ 4+3) couplet.

Particularly problematic is the suffixed preposition of the first line: oml* (“for them, [belonging] to them”). The lack of a clear referent for the pronominal suffix apparently led to the variant oMu^l= (“for His people”) in the text underlying certain Greek and Syriac manuscripts. Presumably, this inference is correct, and that it refers implicitly to God’s people (Israel) as a whole. Parallel with the people is the king as their representative, who also holds a special king of covenantal relationship to YHWH (“His anointed [one]”). Just as YHWH is the strength and protection of the people , so He is also the salvation of the king (as the anointed one of God). This confirms the royal background of the Psalm (on which, cf. above), and offers a glimpse of how this related to the performance of the composition in an early worship setting.

The noun zoum* (“strong place”, i.e., fortified/protected place) is related to zu) (“strength”), and this repetitive doubling is emphatic. For a comparable statement with similar syntax, cf. Psalm 46:2 [1]. The plural form of the noun hu*Wvy+ (“salvation”) is best understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural—i.e., YHWH provides complete protection and safety for the king who remains faithful/loyal to Him. The pronoun “He” is in the final (emphatic) position of the line, and corresponds to the divine name (YHWH) at the beginning of the couplet.

Verse 9

“Make safe your people
and adore your possession,
give them pasture and carry them
until the distant (future).”

The Psalm concludes with a prayer to YHWH, a terse and pointed address that is expressed using a pair of short 2-beat (2+2) couplets. Each line involves a specific aspect of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people:

    • Line 1—the safety and protection God provides
    • Line 2—the care and devotion God gives to them
    • Line 3—this care expressed through pastoral imagery, i.e., God as a shepherd (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 23)
    • Line 4—the bond will last into the distant future

The reference to God’s people in this closing verse makes clear what was implied in the first line of v. 8 (above). The theme of covenant loyalty—applied to both king and people—is to be understood here, and, indeed, throughout the Psalm. Insofar as king and people remain faithful and loyal to YHWH, they will continue to receive His protection and blessing far into the distant future (i.e., for all time).



Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 27

Psalm 27

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (v. 1); 4QPsc (vv. 12-14)

This Psalm is often considered to be a lament, and its character as such would tend to be confirmed by the 3+2 meter that dominates throughout. Certainly, the repeated references to the enemies and adversaries that threaten the Psalmist are typical in this regard. The first half of the Psalm (vv. 1-6) however expresses a clear trust and confidence in God, and in many ways is more characteristic of a song of praise. The second half (vv. 7-14) is more properly a prayer to God for deliverance. A number of themes we have encountered thus far in the Psalms occur here as well. The composition (the words, if not the music) is marked again as simply “belonging to David”, with no further musical direction indicated.

Verses 1-6

Verse 1

“YHWH (is) my light and my salvation—
from whom shall I be afraid?
YHWH (is the) place of safety for my life—
from whom shall I be alarmed?”

This pair of formally similar couplets emphasize YHWH as the source of the Psalmist’s safety and security—from darkness, evil, and all who might do him harm. The implicit threat from enemies/adversaries is present here, introducing a theme that will run through the Psalm.

Verse 2

“In (their) coming near upon me, (the one)s causing evil,
(it is) to devour my (very) flesh;
my adversaries, and (all the one)s hostile to me,
(see!) they stumble and they fall.”

The protection provided by YHWH is illustrated by way that attacks from the Psalmist’s enemies are thwarted. This imagery of nameless and faceless adversaries surrounding and threatening the protagonist is a common feature in many Psalms. It may be rooted in the royal background, involving actual socio-political conflict during the reign of the king (such as David); if so, by the time the Psalms were composed and came into regular use, such a setting had been generalized and given wider application, under the influence of Wisdom traditions (and other factors). The ‘enemies’ are largely symbolic of the various forces of sin and wickedness at work in the world. Here, in the first couplet, they are summarized broadly as “(one)s causing evil” (participle <yu!r@m=), while in the second couplet the common word pair “adversaries” and “enemies” is used—the latter through a verbal noun (participle), “(one)s being hostile”.

On the idiom of “eating flesh”, Dahood (p. 166) notes the Phoenician Kilamuwa text (lines 6-7). It expresses the idea of being reduced to the last point of life, and could be realized (quite literally) during the horrifying experience of siege warfare (Jer 19:19, etc). It is used figuratively in Mic 3:3; Isa 49:26.

Verse 3

“If an encampment should put down camp upon me,
my heart shall not be afraid;
(and) if battle (itself) should stand up [i.e. rise] upon me,
(even) in this shall I trust (His protection).”

Here in these couplets, the Psalmist’s adversaries are described in terms of a military force—something which might have been understood quite literally, from the standpoint of the royal background of the Psalms (i.e., battle between the king and rebellious vassals, etc). In the first couplet, the image is that of a military encampment, utilizing a root that fundamentally refers to stretching out and putting down a tent—that is, the army has its tents pitched and is ready for battle. The battle itself (hm*j*l=m!) is referenced in the second couplet. The Psalmist may remain secure, and confident in YHWH’s protection, even in the face of a powerful military threat.

Verse 4

“One (thing) have I asked from YHWH,
(and) it (alone) do I seek—
(that) I should sit [i.e. dwell] in (the) house of YHWH
all (the) days of my life,
(and) to gaze on (the) delightfulness of YHWH,
and to break through (each morning) in His palace.”

There is a certain rhythmic irregularity (and tension) in these three couplets, due to the climactic nature of the imagery, expressing the Psalmist’s desire to dwell with God in the blessed life to come. Here the “house of YHWH” refers to God’s heavenly dwelling, of which the Temple sanctuary on earth is a reflection. In speaking of the “days of my life”, the Psalmist utilizes a common Hebrew idiom for the eternal, divine life—expressing it in terms of a long and full life. The phrase “all the days of my life” is parallel with the idea of waking each morning. The actual vocabulary in this last line is difficult to render accurately in English. The verb rq^B* literally means “break through”, and can refer to the morning light ‘breaking through’ the darkness; this seems to be the sense here—the Psalms wishes to wake each morning of his life in the palace of YHWH. He will gaze with wonder at the beauty (<u^n), lit. “delightfulness, pleasantness”) of God just as one might the morning sunrise.

Verse 5

“For (so) He will store me in [i.e. under] His cover
when (the) day of evil (comes);
he will keep me hidden in (the) hidden (place) of His tent,
plac(ing) me high on a rock.”

Here it becomes clear that the dwelling of God is, in a real sense, simply an extension of His presence. It is understood especially in terms of the divine protection that will be given to His faithful ones (i.e., the motif of covenant loyalty). The apparent mixing of metaphors in the second couplet (tent vs. rock) is due to the fact that in ancient Semitic (Canaanite) cosmological myth the dwelling of the Creator °E~l was envisioned as both a mountain and a great domed tent. In Israelite religious thought, El-Yahweh shared many of the attributes and characteristics of the high Creator °E~l, including the concept of his dwelling-place. As with the temple sanctuary, any specified local mountain could serve as a reflection of the cosmic mountain of his dwelling. Even the modest hilltop site where the Temple was located could be thought of as the “mountain of God” (i.e., Mount Zion). The use of the term rWx specifically refers to a sharp cliff which might contain any number of safe hiding places within it; beyond this, the rock itself is set up high (root <Wr), a natural place of safety and protection.

By protecting the Psalmist from danger during his life, God ensures that he will be able to live the fullness of life with Him in the blessed time to come.

Verse 6

“And (even) now my head is raised (up) high
upon [i.e. over] (the) hostile (one)s surrounding me,
and I will slaughter in His tent
slaughterings (with) a shout (of joy),
I will sing and will make music to YHWH!”

The rhythm of the lines that bring the first half of the Psalm to a close is complex. As the text stands, we have a 3+3 couplet, followed by a short 2+2 couplet, and ending with a single 3-beat line. Again we are dealing with mixed metaphors, involving the same two lines of imagery from the prior verses: (1) the protective cover God gives the Psalmist (from his enemies), and (2) the sacred house of God where the Psalmist finds his ultimate dwelling. These are two aspects of the same core idea of God’s dwelling, which, in reality, means His very presence. Two kinds of “slaughter” are also associated with God’s protective dwelling: (a) victory by the Psalmist in battle over his enemies (implied in the first couplet), and (b) sacrificial offerings (i.e. ritual slaughter, jbz) made in the Temple complex. The context may imply the offerings that are made, in thanks to God, following victory in battle (cp. the royal background/setting of Psalms 20-21).

Verses 7-14

Verse 7

“Hear, YHWH, my voice (as) I call (to you),
and show favor to me and answer me.”

The tone of the Psalm shifts from one of confidence and praise, to that of prayer and petition. Some commentators have theorized that two separate poems have been combined (cf. Kraus, p. 332). In any case, there is a definite transition here between the closing line of v. 6 and the first line of the couplet in v. 7. In each instance the Psalmist is crying out (with his voice) to God; in verse 6 it is a shout/song of praise, while in v. 7 he calls to God in prayer.

Verse 8

“‘Go,’ my heart said (to me),
‘(and) seek His face!’
Your face, YHWH, will I seek.”

The Psalmist’s heart impels him to seek God (in prayer), part of the wider religious idea of seeking the “face” (hn#P*) of God. This idiom relates to one’s faithfulness and devotion to YHWH, and also to the blessedness of the life to come (i.e. the beatific vision when we will “see” God’s face); the latter is the result, and the natural outcome, of the former.

I tend to agree with Dahood (p. 168) here in reading il as an imperative form of the verb El^h* (El@, “go!”), and also in understanding the y– of yn`P* as preserving an archaic 3rd person suffix (i.e., “his face”).

Verse 9

“Do not hide your face (away) from me!
Do not spread (out) your servant with your nostril(s),
(you who) should be my help!
Do not leave me (outstretched) and do not abandon me,
O Mightiest (One) of my salvation!”

A pair of 3+2 couplets is preceded by a single line of exclamation, following upon the idea in verse 8 of seeking the face of God. The fear lies in the possibility that YHWH might turn away and “hide” his face. This may be due to a situation of moral or ritual impurity, of which the protagonist is not fully aware, but which could spark the anger of God. I have rendered this anger-idiom quite literally above as “with (the) nostril(s) [[a^]”, i.e., the burning/flaring of the nostrils to express anger, like the snorting of an angry bull. The verb (hf*n`) in this regard is a bit difficult to translate in English. It has the fundamental meaning “stretch (out)”, and in the Hiphil stem has the rare sense of causing something to be spread out (i.e. pushed away). A related verb, vf^n`, is used (in a similar sense) in the second couplet, expressing the idea of something being left spread out or outstretched. We might consider the image of a person laying stretched out in prayer, with no answer being given to him by God. It is just such an abandonment that the Psalmist fears, and wishes to prevent through his fervent prayer and devotion.

Verse 10

“For (even if) my father and my mother should abandon me,
(surely) YHWH will gather me (to Himself).”

The faithfulness and loyalty of YHWH is greater than even one’s own parents. This of course plays on the traditional (covenantal) image of YHWH as the father of Israel, and of the people of Israel as His children. In Wisdom tradition, this was generalized and given a specific ethical-religious sense—i.e., God as the father of the righteous. Both aspects—the covenantal and the ethical-religious—are present here in the Psalm. It is an expression of YHWH’s own loyalty to the covenant, and effectively serves as an appeal for God to answer the prayer of one who is faithful and devoted to Him.

Verse 11

“Instruct me, YHWH, (in) your way,
and guide me in (the) path of straightness,
in response to (the one)s watching me (in evil).”

This metrically irregular verse reads as a 3+3+2 tricolon, a rhythmic structure most difficult to reproduce in English translation. A clearer sense of the short third line would be produced by treating the noun rr@v) (“one watching, watcher”) as synonymous with “adversary / enemy” (by@oa / rx^)—i.e., “in response to my enemies”. However, the fundamental meaning of the root rrv ought to be preserved here as well, viz. “(one)s watching me (with evil intent)”. There may also be a bit of alliterative wordplay between “straight place” (rovym!, mîšôr) and the noun rr@ov (šôr¢r).

The “path of straightness” here has two levels of significance: (1) it refers to “way of God”, the divine instruction that the faithful one must follow, and (2) it leads to the wide and level place where the righteous will dwell together with God. Cf. the previous study on Psalm 26.

Verse 12

“Do not give me (over) in(to the) throat of my adversaries,
for repeaters of false (accusation) have stood a(gainst) me,
and (those) giving witness (with) violence.”

The rhythmic tension and irregularity of this tricolon(?) is altogether fitting for the situation it conveys–namely, the wicked and deceitful actions of the Psalmist’s adversaries. The prayer is that God should not abandon (vv. 9-10) him to his adversaries, but should instead protect and rescue him.

The use of vp#n# here in line 1 provides a rather clear example where commentators such as Dahood (p. 169) are justified in understanding the term in the sense of “throat”, a meaning attested occasionally in Akkadian and Ugaritic, but extremely rare in the Old Testament (and only in poetry). It does, however, demonstrate the relatively wide semantic range of vp#n# (usually translated “soul”); other possible renderings here are “appetite” and “desire” (in a negative sense). The image of the throat is quite appropriate, both to the idea of being devoured by the wicked (cf. on verse 2 above) and also to the evil speaking being done here by the Psalmist’s adversaries. Indeed, the sense of the final two lines is that of witnesses (in a religious-judicial setting) who bring a false accusation against him. The expression rq#v#-yd@u@ literally means something like “repeaters of falsehood”, that is, they repeat false or deceitful claims about the protagonist. Many of the Psalms include this theme of the righteous person (loyal/faithful to YHWH) defending himself against any disloyalty and faithlessness on his part.

The short final line of v. 12 is difficult to interpret (and translate). As Dahood notes (p. 169), the word ypµ in Ugaritic refers to a witness, and this meaning obviously fits the context and parallelism of the verse. The noun sm*j* (“violence”) can be understood broadly as any extreme form of wickedness or corruption.

Verse 13

“If it were not so (that I) had remained firm,
(how could I hope) to look on (the) goodness of YHWH
in (the) land of (the) living!”

The syntax of this tricolon is most difficult, apparently beginning as it does with the conditional particle al@Wl (“if [I had] not…”), but with no apodosis following the conditional statement. Such a conditional clause (without apodosis) can effectively be read as a positive statement of certainty (cf. GKC §159dd; Kraus, p. 332). I am inclined to view it as having the force of a solemn declaration or asseveration, in response to the ‘false accusations’ being made against the Psalmist (v. 12). Whether or not an actual judicial setting is envisioned, the motif serves the purpose of providing an opportunity for the protagonist to declare his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. If he had not remained firm in his trust and devotion, he could not expect to experience the beatific vision of God in heaven (the “land of the living”, cf. above). Here in verse 13, the Psalmist affirms his loyalty, and, along with it, his hope to dwell with YHWH in His heavenly palace, gazing upon Him “all the days of his life”.

Verse 14

“Look (forward) to (seeing) YHWH!
Be strong and make solid your heart—
and look (forward) to (seeing) YHWH!”

The Psalm concludes with a tricolon that is rhythmically similar to that of verse 13. The initial exhortation of the first line is repeated in the third. It involves the root hwq I (Piel stem), which has the basic meaning of looking with expectation, i.e. hoping for something to occur. In accordance with the theme of the blessed future life that runs through this Psalm—of the promise of “seeing” God in His heavenly dwelling—it is best to recognize this same theme here as well. Clearly, the emphasis in these closing lines has shifted from the protagonist of the Psalm to the people/audience as a whole. We have seen how the final verses of many Psalms contain a more general application (for the righteous), largely through the influence of wisdom traditions, and as a response to the increasing use of the composition in a communal worship setting.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 26

Psalm 26

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (vv. 7-12)

The dramatic setting in Psalm 26 involves an affirmation of the Psalmist’s innocence and faithfulness to YHWH, framed as an appeal to God. The basic setting is thus judicial, with the heavenly court (tribunal) of El-Yahweh in view. Quite possibly, the scenario envisioned for the protagonist of the Psalm may correspond with that described briefly in 1 Kings 8:31-32; if so, then the ‘action’ takes place in the Temple sanctuary, in front of the altar, and verse 6 would seem to confirm this as generally correct (cf. below).

Rhythmically, this Psalms follows a three-beat (3+3) bicolon format, but not without several points of irregularity (cf. on v. 1 below). The superscription simply marks it as “belonging to David”, with no other musical information indicated.

Verse 1

“Judge me, YHWH,
for (indeed) I have walked in my completeness—
and (indeed) in YHWH I have trusted (and) have not wavered.”

The opening verse establishes the Psalmist’s appeal to YHWH (cf. above), and the basis for it. The tension of the moment is reflected in the irregular meter. Essentially, a 3+3 couplet has been expanded, by the addition of the opening (2-beat) line, and also the second line of the couplet is overloaded, primarily by the inclusion of the divine name (“and in YHWH”). I regard the initial w-particle of the second line, and also the yK! particle of the first line, as emphatic—juxtaposing the protagonist (“I”) with God (“YHWH”):

    • “for (indeed) I…” (yn]a& yK!)
    • “and (indeed) in YHWH…” (hw`hyb^W)

The Psalmist requests YHWH to render judgment on his behalf—a familiar theme in the Psalms. The basis for his appeal is reflected in the parallelism of the couplet:

    • “I have walked | in my completeness”
    • “I have trusted | (and) have not wavered”

“Walking” here implies walking in the way of God, according to His instruction (cf. the previous study on Psalm 25); thus, it corresponds with “trusting” in Him. The expression “in my completeness” relates to a person’s integrity and faithfulness to YHWH in all things; it thus is equivalent to the idea of never wavering in trust of God.

Verse 2

“Examine me, YHWH, and test me,
refining my inner organs and my heart.”

This couplet essentially expounds the appeal of the opening line in v. 1 (above)— “Judge me, YHWH”. It uses three verbs that are similar in meaning. In the first line we have /j^B* (“examine, test”) and hs*n`, which also means “test”, but in the sense of testing the quality of something; this leads to the use of [r^x* in the second line, which refers to the refining (i.e. testing/proving) of metal. I take the final h– on the verb form hp*orx= as locative, pointing to where this refining takes place—namely, in the inward parts (inner organs [kidneys, intestines], and heart). This corresponds with the emphasis on a person’s “completeness” in v. 1, meaning the testing extends not only to outward behavior, but to one’s inner attitude and intention.

Verse 3

“For your goodness is t(here) in front of my eyes,
and (surely) I have walked about in your truth.”

If verse 2 expounds the opening line of v. 1, verse 3 here expounds the main couplet that follows (cf. above). A similar parallelism of thought is found here: trust in YHWH / walking in His way. The idea of trust is expressed in terms of the Psalmist keeping the “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH in front of him (right before his eyes); while the idiom of “walking” here makes explicit what is implied in v. 1, that the righteous person walks in the way (or the “truth”) of God. The Psalmist affirms that he has lived and acted in the same righteous manner.

Verse 4

“I have not sat with men of (those things of) emptiness,
and with (the one)s concealing themselves I have not come.”

The thrust of the Psalmist’s appeal shifts from the positive aspect of his trust in YHWH and faithfulness, etc, to the negative aspect—i.e., that he has not been a part of the wicked/faithless ones. The idea of “sitting” with the wicked was expressed, famously, in Psalm 1 (v. 1, cf. the earlier study), and has more or less the same meaning here. Parallel with “sitting” (vb. bv^y`) is the idea of moving about (coming/going, vb. aoB). The wicked themselves are characterized two ways:

    • by the expression “men of emptiness” (aw+v* yt@m=), where the noun aw+v* (“emptiness”) likely functions as a euphemism for false religion and idolatry (i.e. the god/image as a vain/empty thing), as noted by Dahood (p. 162) and other commentators.
    • by the verb <l^u* (“hide, conceal”), niphal (passive/reflexive) participle—i.e., persons who “hide/conceal themselves”, in the religious sense of hiding (to others) their unfaithfulness and disloyalty to YHWH, or that their wickedness is manifest especially while they are hidden.
Verse 5

“I have hated (the) gathering of (those) doing evil,
and with (the) wicked (one)s I have (never) sat.”

The Psalmist reaffirms his avoidance of evil/wicked persons, going so far as to state emphatically that he hates (vb an@v*) their gatherings. The repetition of the idea of sitting among the wicked should also be understood here as most emphatic—i.e., he has never sat with them.

Verses 6-7

“(See,) I wash my palms [i.e. hands] in cleanness,
and I go around your place of (ritual) slaughter, YHWH,
to make (it) heard with (the) voice of a shout (of praise),
and (there) to recount all your wonderful (deed)s.”

This couplet, situated at the heart of the Psalms, seems to allude to a ritual background, perhaps corresponding to the idea expressed in 1 Kings 8:31-32 (as noted above). As part of the process for judging wrongdoing, the accused was allowed to take an oath before the altar of YHWH in the Temple, calling upon God to decide the matter—condemning the guilty or vindicating the righteous (i.e. innocent). The ritual image here involves the washing of hands and circling the altar. However, it should be noted that frequently in the Psalms a ritual setting is used for a more general application to the righteous, i.e. in a religious-ethical sense, often influenced by wisdom traditions. The motif of ritual purity (washing the hands) here likely refers to the overall righteousness and integrity of the Psalmist (cp. Ps 24:4, “clean of hands and pure of heart”). The Temple sanctuary corresponds to the court of YHWH in heaven; even at the ritual level this would have been evident. The appeal is made in the Temple, while God hears and judges in Heaven.

The Temple-setting brings in an additional aspect of communal worship—giving praise to YHWH and recounting all the wonderful things God has done for his people. Whether or not this was ever part of a particular ritual (involving a person accused of wrongdoing), the worship-component certainly is intended to reflect the righteousness and loyal devotion (to YHWH) of the protagonist.

Verse 8

“[YHWH,] I have loved (this) place of abode (in) your house,
and (this) place to stand, (the) dwelling-place of your weight [dobk*].”

The initial occurrence of the divine name in line 1 may be a secondary addition, as it disrupts the 3+3 meter; if so, it is a natural addition. In this couplet, the religious devotion of the Psalmist is expressed by love for the Temple and its sanctuary, as the dwelling-place (/K^v=m!) of God. The corresponding noun /oum= in line 1 has a similar meaning (“place of habitation/abode”), but refers here to a place where the righteous (i.e. the Psalmist) may take up a temporary abode, a place of safety and refuge (where he finds ‘sanctuary’). In particular, the location by the altar is the “place to stand” (<oqm*), where he will be judged (and vindicated) by YHWH. “Weight” is a literal rendering of the noun dobK*, in the specific sense of “worth, value”; when applied to God it often refers to the value He is to be accorded by human beings—i.e., the honor, glory, etc, that is due to Him.

Verses 9-10

“Do not gather up my soul with (the) sinful (one)s,
and my life with (the) men of blood,
in whose hands (there is a wicked) plan,
and their right-hand is full of (evil) ‘gift(s)’.”

The Psalmist’s appeal to YHWH now turns into a prayer, a plea for God to recognize his righteousness/innocence and to judge him accordingly. As he affirmed earlier (vv. 4-5, cf. above), he should not be counted among the “sinful (one)s”, i.e. the wicked. The expression “men of blood” would normally indicate the violent tendencies often associated with the wicked; Dahood (p. 163), however, understands <ym!d* here not as “blood” (in its common plural form), but as a plural noun derived from the root hm*d* (“be like, resemble”), and thus as a reference to idolatrous “images” (cf. above on verse 4). While this is possible (cp. Ps 5:7), the overall orientation of the Psalm appears to be focused on wickedness in a more general sense (as expressed in verse 10). Certainly, however, an emphasis on religious devotion to YHWH would naturally have false religion—i.e., worship of other deities (and their images)—as the main point of contrast.

The actions of the wicked are summarized in verse 10, using the parallelism “hand(s)” / “right-hand”; this is a synonymous parallel, but one in which the second line also builds upon, and intensifies the imagery of, the first. In line 1, it is an evil purpose (or plan, hM*z]) that is in their “hands”, while in line 2, we see how they act on this wicked intention (with their “right hand”), by presenting a ‘gift’ (dj^v)), which is common euphemism for a bribe.

Verse 11

“And I, I will (continue) walk(ing) in my completeness—
ransom me, and show favor to me.”

Here the Psalmist restates his claim from verse 1, which serves as the basis for his appeal to God. Just as he has been completely faithful and devoted to YHWH, so he vows to continue to be so, living with integrity and walking in the way of God. The plea/prayer from verse 9 is also restated here, but in a positive form. He asks YHWH to “ransom” him, which here means being saved from the wicked and their (false) accusations against him. By judging in his favor, God will vindicate the Psalmist and “show favor” to him; in the context of the covenant, this implies a recognition and confirmation by the sovereign (YHWH) that the Psalmist is a faithful and loyal friend.

In the Masoretic text as it stands, this couplet has 3+2 meter; however, the Greek version reflects the presence of the divine name in the second line, which, if original, would yield 3+3, consistent with most of the other couplets. While it is possible that the divine name has dropped out of the MT, it is far more likely that is a secondary addition in the LXX. The only manuscript of Psalm 26 among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QPsr) has a different reading of this line, which also would effectively restore the meter:

“ransom me and preserve my life

Verse 12

“My foot takes its stand on a straight [i.e. level] place,
(and) in (the) places where (they) gather I bless YHWH.”

The juxtaposition of images in this final couplet is awkward and a bit confusing. The imagery in the first line is that of a person taking his stand (vb dm^u*), with firm footing, on level ground. The noun used (rovym!) literally means a “straight place”; however, the idea of “straightness” conveyed by the root rvy often has a religious and ethical connotation—i.e., “straight” = “upright, righteous”. Thus the firmness of the ground where the Psalmist is able to plant his feet (thanks to the favor YHWH has shown him), is also symbolic of the place where the righteous gather together (others take their stand there with him). This inference leads to the imagery in the second line, where the rare noun lh@q=m^ (parallel to rovym!) is used. Morphologically, this noun is presumably derived from the root lhq (“gather, assemble, call to assembly”), and would mean a place of gathering. The only other occurrence in the Old Testament is at Psalm 68:27 [26]. I suggest that the idea expressed here is twofold:

    • It refers to all the places were the righteous gather to worship YHWH
    • It refers to a place were all the righteous gather together—a vast assembly—which likely contains an allusion to the righteous dwelling with God in the blessed afterlife (cf. Psalm 1:6; 5:9, 12; 11:7; 16:11).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 25 (continued)

Psalm 25, continued

(Continued from the previous week’s study)

Verses 12-22

Verse 12 [m]

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

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

Verse 13 [n]

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

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

Verse 14 [s]

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

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

Verse 15 [u]

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

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

Verse 16 [p]

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

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

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

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

Verse 17 [x]

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

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

Verses 18-19 [r]

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

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

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

Verse 20 [v]

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

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

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

Verse 21 [t]

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

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

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

Verse 22

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

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

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