Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 103 (Part 1)

Psalm 103

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (v. 1); 4QPsb (vv. 1-6, 9-14, 20-21); 2QPs (vv. 2, 4-6, 8-11)

This Psalm is a carefully structured hymn to YHWH, calling on people to praise and give thanks to God for all that he has done. The focus is both individual and corporate. This is indicated by the parallel call to bless YHWH (using the verb Er^B*) that brackets the Psalm (vv. 1-5, 20-22). The opening blessing comes from the standpoint of the ‘inward parts’ of the individual worshiper (represented by the Psalmist/protagonist). This inward focus is balanced by the cosmic orientation of the concluding blessing—as the Psalmist calls on all created beings everywhere (human and angelic) to praise YHWH.

The main hymn (vv. 6-18) emphasizes the love, compassion and forgiveness of YHWH, and is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 33-34. The division of the hymn into four stanzas (cf. Allen, p. 29f) seems to be most reasonable. The stanzas are each composed of three couplets (vv. 6-8, 9-11, 12-14), with the fourth (concluding) stanza having an expanded form (vv. 15-18). There is a didactic aspect to the hymn, designed to instruct the Community, and to exhort them to remain faithful to the covenant. The Wisdom-elements in the final stanza are part of this emphasis.

The date of the Psalm is difficult to determine. The use of the second person feminine (yk!-) suffix has been thought to indicate Aramaic influence (cf. GKC §91e), and thus to reflect an Exilic (or post-Exilic) date. Similarly, vv. 15-16 have been considered to be dependent upon Isa 40:6-8. Such a time-frame for the Psalm is certainly possible; however, it may be that use of the yk!– suffix is primarily stylistic and poetic, intended for assonance with the imperative yk!r&B* (cf. Allen, p. 26).

Metrically, Psalm 103 consistently follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, with only a few exceptions. The superscription simply attributes the Psalm to David (dw]d*l=, “[belonging] to David”).

The Psalm is relatively well-preserved in two Qumran manuscripts—4QPsb and 2QPs—with only a handful of minor variant readings.

Introduction: Vv. 1-5

Verse 1

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and all my inner parts, His holy name!”

In this opening couplet, the Psalmist calls on everything within him to bless YHWH. The verb Er^B* essentially means “greet with praise/blessing”, usually in a religious (ritual) context, implying a consecrated setting. The precise relationship between this verb and the noun Er#B# (“knee”) is still debated, as kneeling certainly would serve as a gesture (and position) for blessing and worship.

The “middle parts” (i.e., inner parts), <yb!r*q=, are parallel with vp#n#, a noun usually rendered as “soul”, but which specifically denotes the mouth/throat and what passes through it (esp. the breath). This is particularly significant for the Psalmist as a singer; it is naturally that he would begin with the mouth/throat, and his breath, the sound and vibrations which pass through to form music of praise to God. Yet, it is the inward aspect of his life-breath (“soul”) that is being emphasized. His ‘inner parts’ (“all my inner parts”) function as microcosm which will be matched by the macrocosm of all things (outwardly) in creation (vv. 20-22).

The plural form of the noun br#q# occurs only here in the Scriptures; in this context (of a person’s insides or inner-organs), the dual (<y]b^r*q=) is regularly used.

In the second line, the literal expression is “(the) name of His holiness”; for poetic concision, I have translated this conventionally as “His holy name”.

Verse 2

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and do not forget all His dealings—”

The first line of v. 1 is repeated here, and again serves to conclude the Psalm (v. 22c). By the repetition, emphasis is put on the Psalmist speaking to his soul (and inner parts), exhorting and urging himself—and, by extension, all worshipers—to honor YHWH by remembering the things He has done. The act of remembering here is framed in negative terms (viz., as not forgetting, vb jk^v*). As for what God has done, this is expressed by the noun lWmG+, from a root (lmg) with a relatively wide range of meaning. The basic verbal sense is of something being completed, often in the context of an interaction between people, and frequently emphasizing how one treats or deals with another, either in a positive (beneficial) or negative (harmful, punitive) way. Here the sense of the plural noun is “all the ways YHWH has dealt with His people”.

Verse 3

“the (One) forgiving all your deviations,
the (One) healing all your sicknesses,”

A sequence of participial phrases follows in vv. 3-5, the articular verbal noun (participle) in each instance capturing a definitive attribute of YHWH, a regular action that he performs on behalf of His people, reflecting His nature and character as God, and demonstrating His devotion to the covenant-bond. The formulation is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 34:6-7ff, and expresses here much the same thought as in that famous passage. The idea of YHWH forgiving the “crookedness” (/ou*) of the people is similarly found in Exod 34:7, but using the verb ac*n` (“lift/take [away]”), rather than jl^s* (which does occur in v. 9). The noun /ou* implies a bending away from what is right, but also could be understood in terms of a crooked and twisted (i.e., perverse) character.

The healing of sickness/disease is naturally paired  with the forgiving of sin; in the ancient world, particularly, sickness and ailments of various kinds tended to be viewed as the result of sin (and Divine punishment of sin). When YHWH forgives the people’s sins, the healing of illness and disease follows.

The second person feminine suffix (yk!-, “your”) refers back to the feminine noun vp#n# (“soul”).

Verse 4

“the (One) redeeming your life from (the) Pit,
the (One) encircling you (with) devotion and love,”

The verb la^G` (“redeem”) is generally parallel with jl^s* (“pardon, forgive”) in v. 3. Human crookedness and sickness, if not forgiven and healed, naturally leads to death and destruction, which here is represented by the noun tj^v^. This noun properly refers to a hole (or pit) dug for a grave, and thus also connotes the death and decay which belongs to the grave. Like the verb tj^v*, the noun can be understood in this associated or abstract sense of “destruction, ruin”. The root lag refers to the ancient Near Eastern social context of a relative who (through payment) ‘redeems’ his kin (and/or their property) from servitude, etc; it can also encompass the idea of protecting (or rescuing) someone from danger, etc.

Redemption from the Pit (i.e., death/grave) can be understood in two different ways: (i) rescuing a person when the danger of death (and the grave) threatens, or (ii) actually bringing a dead person out of the grave. The latter instance would imply an afterlife setting (cf. Dahood, III, p. 26).

The verb rf^u* properly means “encircle, surround”, though in the Piel (and Hiphil) it tends to have the more specific (denominative) meaning “crown” (from the noun hr*f*u&). Either translation (“encircling” or “crowning”) would be valid, though I prefer the meaning “encircle” here, as it captures the important aspect of being “surrounded” by YHWH’s love and protection.

The noun ds#j#, which occurs frequently in the Psalms, has been much discussed in these studies. It has the basic meaning “goodness, kindness”, but in the context of the covenant-bond between YHWH and His people, it carries the connotation of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. The noun <j^r^ denotes a deep love; the plural here could indicate the many acts (and/or feelings) of love/compassion by YHWH, but it could also be understood as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, i.e. great love/compassion.

Verse 5

“the (One) filling your long (life) with good,
(so that) your youth is renewed like the eagle!”

Having brought the righteous/devoted one’s soul out of the Pit, and then surrounding (or crowning) it with love, YHWH proceeds to give to it long life—but a life that is also perpetually new and youthful, even as it lasts long into the future. This idiomatic language is best understood in an afterlife context, i.e., with God in heaven (see above), though it could conceivably apply to a blessed life on earth as well.

With other commentators (Dahood, III, p. 26; Allen, p. 26), I revocalize (and emend slightly) the MT Ey@d=u# (“your ornament[?]”) to yk!d@u), as suffixed form of the noun dou (du)), meaning “duration”, in the sense of “long life” or “(ever)lasting life”. On the eagle soaring as a motif of the renewal of life and strength (i.e., youthfulness), cf. Isa 40:31.

The Hymn: Verses 6-18

First Stanza: Vv. 6-8
Verse 6

“The (One) making right—(it is) YHWH—
and (true) judgment for (the) oppressed.”

The pattern of substantive participial phrases (vv. 3-5) continues into the hymn, where the Psalmist makes clear again that YHWH is the One doing all these things. The focus in the hymn shifts from the individual soul of the devout/righteous worshiper to the people as a whole. Indeed, the theme of individual salvation (from sin and death) gives way here to a social (corporate) sense of righteousness and justice.

YHWH makes things right, i.e., does what is right (hq*d*x=), for His people—and especially for those who are oppressed. Acting as Judge, he renders right (and beneficial) judgments on their behalf.

Verse 7

“He made known His ways to Moshe,
and to (the) sons of Yisrael His deeds.”

This couplet summarizes what YHWH has done for His people (Israel) during their history, and especially during the formative (Mosaic) period of the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai. The making known of His ways to Moses refers primarily to the revelation (of the Torah) at Sinai, but it also alludes to the subsequent revelation to Moses (associated with the restoration/renewal of the covenant) in Exod 33-34 (see below).

Verse 8

“Loving and showing favor (is) YHWH,
long of nose and abundant in devotion.”

This verse is essentially a quotation of the Divine declaration to Moses in Exod 34:6 (see above). While it declares YHWH’s essential character, it also epitomizes His covenant relationship with His people. Four different (but related) attributes are presented here, two in each line. In the first line we have the adjectives <Wjr^ (“loving, compassionate”) and /WNj^, the latter defining YHWH as one who “grants/bestows favors”.

In the second line, the expression “long of nostrils” (or “long of nose”) is an idiom for being slow to anger, i.e., the opposite of being ‘short-tempered’ (“short of nose”); in certain respects the expression is parallel to the adjective <Wjr^ in line 1. The second expression “abundant of devotion” utilizes the familiar noun ds#j# (on which, see verse 4 above). This also is parallel with the second adjective of line 1—both terms referring principally to YHWH’s loyalty and devotion to the covenant-bond.

There is a subtle bit of alliterative wordplay, between the adjective br^ here in v. 8 and the verb byr! in v. 9.

Second Stanza: Vv. 9-11
Verse 9

“Not to the end shall He contend (with us),
and not for ever shall He keep (angry).”

This second stanza of the hymn illustrates and expounds the principle laid out in verse 8, regarding the devotion and loyalty YHWH shows to His people. When He is angry (because of the people’s lack of faithfulness) and “contends” (vb byr!) with them (i.e., punishes them), His anger does not last forever. Once discipline and punishment has been meted out, anger is replaced by mercy and compassion.

Two common temporal expressions are used, each of which conveys the sense of a duration of time lasting far into the future (i.e., everlasting). The first, jx^n#l*, means something like “to (the) utmost”, properly in the sense of “continuing in force” (or “…with [full] strength”); the simple rendering “to (the) end” is used above. The second expression, <l*oul*, occurring many times in the Psalms, means “(in)to (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here as “for ever”.

Verse 10

“Not according to our sins does he act to(ward) us,
and not according to our deviations does he deal with us.”

Though YHWH may punish sin, He does not deal with His people as their sins deserve. Even in His severe judgment against His people, His actions are tempered by mercy.

Verse 10 represents the first divergence from the regular 3-beat (3+3) meter of the Psalm; the longer lines read 4+4.

Verse 11

“But like (the) height of (the) heavens over the earth,
(so) His devotion is strong over (those) fearing Him.”

Through it all, YHWH’s loyalty and devotion (ds#j#) remains firm, strong and mighty, towering over the faithful ones (“[those] fearing Him”). There is a bit of wordplay here, between the verbal noun H^b)G+ (vb hb^G`, “be high”) and the verb rb^G` (“be strong/mighty”). An allusion to a strong tower is likely (cf. Allen, p. 26). The all-encompassing strength and height/breadth of YHWH’s devotion is like the great arching dome of the heavens over the earth. It is spread out over His people, just as the dome of the heavens spreads over the earth.

The remainder of the Psalm will be discussed next week, in Part 2.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).

March 8: Philippians 2:15

Philippians 2:15

Paul’s letter to the believers in Philippi has a strong exhortational emphasis throughout. In this regard, it differs considerably from his letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans. As a result, the sonship-of-believers theme, as it appears in Philippians, has a similar focus. Paul’s emphasis is not theological or apologetic, but paraenetic—instructing the Philippian Christians on how they should conduct themselves. If there is a central proposition (propositio), it is probably to be found in 1:27-30, particularly the wish expressed by Paul in verse 27:

“Only (this)—you must be a citizen brought up (to the level) of the good message of the Anointed, (so) that…you stand in one spirit, contending together with a single soul in the trust of the good message…”

The main emphasis is on the unity of believers, which Paul repeats in a number of different ways—here by the prepositional (dative) expressions “in one spirit [e)n e(ni\ pneu/mati]” and “with a single soul [mia=| yuxh=|]”. The noun yuxh/ in the latter expression could perhaps be better rendered in English as “mind”, suggesting the idiom “of one mind”, or “single-minded”. The point Paul is making is that the Philippian Christians should conduct themselves in a manner that reflects the unity they hold (together) in Christ. He expresses this two ways in verse 27.

First, at the beginning if the verse, in the main clause, Paul uses the verb politeu/mw (middle/passive politeu/omai), meaning “be a (good) citizen”, i.e., acting according to the laws and standards of the city (po/li$) one inhabits. It can be used, as here, in the more general sense of conducting oneself in a proper manner; the only other occurrence in the New Testament is in Acts 23:1 (Paul speaking). The standard for one’s conduct, in this instance, is the Gospel of Christ (“the good message of the Anointed”); the conduct of believers should be “up to” the level of this standard. The adverb a)ci/w$ derives from the idiom of “bringing up” the scales, so as to reach a certain (proper) level or balance. Reaching the proper measure or weight implies that what is being weighed is of the correct value or worth (thus the conventional translation of a)ci/w$ as “worth[il]y”).

At the end of the verse, Paul employs a pair of verbs, in relation to the dative expressions of unity (see above). The first is sth/kw (“stand [firm]”) + the preposition e)n (“in”)—that is, we must stand firm in our unity as believers, not acting in a way that neglects or departs from this reality. The second verb is the compound sunaqle/w (“contend [a)qle/w] together with [su/n]”)—we, as believers, must actively work (and fight) together, united in mind and purpose. Again, the goal of this cooperative effort is the truth of the Gospel.

Paul expounds his proposition in the following sections, employing a number of different approaches and lines of argument. For example, in 2:5-11, he introduces the famous ‘Christ-hymn’ (vv. 6-11) as a way of illustrating the kind of humility and self-sacrifice that is necessary in order to maintain the unity and single-mindedness that should be characteristic of our identity as believers in Christ.

In the following verses 12-18, Paul appeals to his own legacy, as a missionary. If the Philippian Christians conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, maintaining their unity as believers, then Paul can rest assured that his mission-work has not been “empty” (keno/$, i.e., “in vain”, v. 16). He urges them to continue following his teaching and example (v. 12), assuring them that, as they faithfully “work out” their own salvation, God will be “at work in” them (v. 13).

This is the context for Paul’s sonship-reference in verse 15. In verse 14, he exhorts the Philippians to “do all (thing)s without grumbling (word)s and (unnecessary) debates”; the latter noun denotes “(something) thought through”, “thorough consideration”, but often in the negative or disparaging sense of contentious discussion, etc, sometimes even implying a wicked or harmful intent (plotting/planning, etc). The simplicity, humility, and integrity of believers’ conduct will ensure, according to Paul:

“that you may become [ge/nhsqe] without blame and without ‘horns’, offspring of God [te/kna qeou=] without flaw in the midst of a crooked and thoroughly twisted genea/, among whom you will shine as (the radiant) lights in (the) world” (v. 15)

This current age of “coming-to-be” (genea/) is characterized as “crooked” (skolio/$) and “twisted throughout” (vb diastre/fw). In the midst of this, faithful believers can “come to be” —and show themselves to be—something very different: pure and good in every way, so that they will “shine forth” like the great lights (sun, moon, stars) of the cosmos (cf. Daniel 12:3). In the darkness of the current world, believers will shine with light.

This strong ethical aspect of being the “offspring [te/kna] of God”, utilizing the motif of light (and a light-darkness juxtaposition), was seen earlier in 1 Thessalonians 5:5 (discussed in a prior note), where Paul uses the traditional expression “sons of light” (ui(oi\ fwto/$, cf. Lk 16:8; Jn 12:36) as a descriptive title for believers. It is a title which certainly implies Divine sonship (i.e., being sons of God), since God Himself is frequently described in terms of light—alluding to its life-giving and illuminating character, as well as the characteristic attribute(s) of holiness, purity, and truth. The sons/children of God will be like God, possessing and demonstrating these same characteristics.

The same language, with its ethical emphasis, can be found in the exhortation section 5:1-21 of Ephesians. Many commentators consider Ephesians to be pseudonymous; however, even if one were to grant this premise, the letter is still very much representative of Pauline thought, as nearly all commentators recognize. The sonship-idiom is introduced in verse 1:

“(So) then, you must come to be imitators of God, as (His) (be)loved offspring [tek/na]…”

A dutiful child will follow the example of his/her parent(s); this is part of the natural process of raising a child, and it applies just as well to the relation of believers to God as His offspring. They will follow His instruction, and will learn to act as He does, reflecting the Divine attributes and characteristics (see above). The best way to follow the example of God the Father, is to follow the example of His Son, Jesus (verse 2, cp. Phil 2:5-11, see above). It is a main tenet of Pauline thought, even as it is of the Johannine, that our sonship, as believers, is contingent upon the Sonship of Jesus Christ, and is the result of our union with him.

The darkness of the world is represented by the characteristic immorality outlined in verses 3-6. By contrast, believers should reflect the light of God. As believers, we are not to have any part of the “sons of disobedience” (vv. 6b-7), even if we were once under the power of that darkness; as Paul (or the author) states:

“For sometime (before) you were darkness, but now (you are) light in (the) Lord—(so) walk about as offspring [te/kna] of light” (v. 8)

Comparing verses 1 and 8 shows clearly the identification of “offspring of light” with “offspring of God” —light being regarded as a fundamental attribute and characteristic of God.

In the next daily note, we turn from the Pauline letters to examine the sonship-of-believers theme as it occurs elsewhere in the New Testament. We will look specifically at 1 Peter 1:3-25.


December 22: Psalm 89:14-15

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

Psalm 89:14-15 [13-14]

Verses 14-15 are best treated in the manner of an intermediary refrain, occurring between the second (cf. the previous note) and third strophes of the first division (vv. 6-19) of the Psalm. These lines summarize and reiterate several key themes from the prior sections, and genuinely seem to constitute a distinct poetic unit. See the outline of the suggested structure by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 399f) along with their brief discussion (pp. 406-7).

Verse 14 [13]

“To you (belongs) an arm with might—
strong is your (left) hand,
high is your right (hand).”

This opening verse is an irregular 3+2+2 tricolon, with a governing 3-beat line followed a short two-beat couplet. The power of YHWH—His strength and might—is emphasized, building upon the descriptive imagery in vv. 10-13 (discussed in the previous note), but also developing further the thematic motif of God’s firmness (hn`Wma$), established in the introductory unit (vv. 2-5).

The imagery is that of YHWH as a warrior, referring back to the cosmological tradition of the Creator-deity subduing the primeval waters (v. 11), and, in a similar manner, defeating all human enemies (viz., those of His people). The noun hr*WbG+ (“strength, might”) indeed suggests the strength of a warrior. YHWH’s “arm” —an anthropomorphic way of referring to His power and strength—is filled with this ‘warrior-might’.

The same point is elucidated poetically in the terse couplet that follows, in the second and third lines. YHWH’s “hand” is strong (vb zz~u*), and His “right (hand)” is high (vb <Wr). The term “right (hand)” (/ym!y`) may simply be an intensification of “hand” (dy`), since the right hand particularly designates strength (as well as similar positive aspects of blessing, etc); however, I have adopted the suggestion of Dahood (II, p. 315), that “hand” here implies the left hand, allowing for a left-right pairing in the couplet.

Verse 15 [14]

“Right and justice (are the) firm base of your throne,
(while) loyalty and fidelity stand before your face.”

The motif of YHWH’s throne—symbolizing His sovereignty over the universe (including over the divine beings in the heavens)—was introduced in verse 5. This image was presented in the context of the firmness theme that was established in vv. 2-5. In vv. 2-3, the noun ds#j# was paired with hn`Wma$, while here, in the second line, it is paired with the related noun tm#a#. Both hn`Wma$ and tm#a# essentially mean “firmness”, in the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, and also truthfulness (tm#a# frequently carries this specific nuance of meaning). As I have mentioned, while ds#j# denotes “goodness, kindness”, in the context of the covenant it tends to carry the specific meaning(s) of faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion.

Here the nouns should be understood somewhat more abstractly, as detached attributes which characterize the domain of YHWH’s Kingship; thus I render the pair in this verse as “loyalty [ds#j#] and fidelity [tm#a#]”. They “stand before” (vb <d^q*, possibly, “travel before”) God’s throne, like dutiful servants. Similarly, the pair of attributes, “right(eousness)” (qd#x#) and “justice” (fP*v=m!), in line 1, function as servants to YHWH, supporting His throne. The noun /okm= denotes a firm/fixed place, which I render here as “firm base” (that is, for the throne); the verbal root /wK is very close in meaning to /ma (“be firm”), and thus continues the Psalm’s thematic motif of YHWH’s firmness (hn`Wma$).

YHWH, seated on His throne as King, is surrounded by these four Divine attributes. They also characterize His Kingdom (and His Kingship). The idea of God’s throne being supported by right and justice (as their firm base), means that His rule is based on these same attributes. Similarly, the loyalty and fidelity that stand before Him reflect the way that God handles the affairs of His kingdom. In particular, they allude to His covenant with His people Israel.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the third (and final) strophe (vv. 16-19) of the praise-hymn, where the aspect of YHWH’s faithfulness toward His people is emphasized.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

December 20: Psalm 89:6-9

The daily notes for December will be focused on Psalm 89, as an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus. The Gospel tradition, as presented by the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke, preserves a definite emphasis on Jesus’ identity as the royal (Davidic) Messiah; the Lukan narrative, in particular, features this component rather prominently (1:32-33, 68-69; 2:1-4ff, 10-11ff).

The Psalm was introduced, along with an exposition of the opening prologue-section (vv. 2-5), in the Sunday study. The remainder of the Psalm will be treated in this series of daily notes.

Division 1: Vv. 6-19 [5-18]

Psalm 89:6-9 [5-8]
Verse 6 [5]

“(The) heavens throw (praise for) your wondrous (devotion), YHWH—
yes, (and for) your firmness—in (the) assembly of (the) holy (one)s.”

The praise of YHWH, introduced as a theme in vv. 2-3 (cf. the introductory study), is developed in vv. 6-19. This couplet begins the hymn of praise. The location of the heavens builds upon verse 3, with the emphasis on YHWH as the Creator (and Sovereign) of the universe. God is to be praised (lit. thrown praise, vb hd*y`), in particular, for his faithfulness. In vv. 2-5, this fundamental attribute and characteristic was expressed by the pair of nouns ds#j# and hn`Wma$. The former noun means “goodness, kindness”, often in the sense of “loyalty, devotion”, while the latter means “firmness,” often in the sense of “faithfulness, trustworthiness,” etc.

The noun hn`Wma$ occurs again here, but this time is paired with al#P#, which denotes “something wonderful”. This word often refers to the miraculous/mighty deeds performed by YHWH (on behalf of His people); but here, the context (and pairing with hn`Wma$) suggests rather that His covenant loyalty is being emphasized. Part of YHWH’s covenantal obligation is to provide protection for His people (the faithful ones)—a theme often featured in the Psalms; this protection entails the exercise of power, including His control over the natural forces, and the performance of wondrous deeds. The verb al*P* is used in Lev 22:21; 27:2; Num 15:3, 8, in the context of fulfilling a vow, which certainly would relate to the idea YHWH’s faithfulness to a binding agreement (covenant). In this light, I have translated al#P# above as “wondrous (devotion)”.

The parallel with “heavens” in line 1, clearly shows that “holy (one)s” (<yv!d)q=) refers to heavenly beings. As the Creator, YHWH is the supreme Sovereign over all other divine/heavenly beings. The image here is of the entire assembly (lh*q*) of divine beings surrounding YHWH (presumably on His ‘throne’) and giving praise to Him.

Verse 7 [6]

“For who in (all) the cloud(s) can (be) set next to YHWH,
(who) is like unto YHWH among (the) sons of (the) mighty (one)s?”

This couplet emphasizes YHWH supremacy and incomparability. None of the divine/heavenly beings can be compared to Him. This is expressed by the parallel verbs Er^u* and hm*D*. The first verb means “set in order (or in a row)”, and, more generally, “arrange”; however, this setting/arranging can carry the more figurative meaning of “compare” (i.e., by setting one thing alongside another). The second verb (hm*D*) has the basic meaning “be like, resemble”.

The noun qj^v^ (“cloud, vapor”) in the first line parallels “heavens” in v. 6, while the expression “sons of the mighty (one)s” obviously parallels “holy (one)s”, referring to the divine/heavenly beings (as a group). The plural <yl!a@ (plur. of la@) means “mighty (one)s”, or (more conventionally in English) “gods”, i.e., divine beings. The usual word for “God”, <yh!l)a$ is essentially an extended variant of the same plural; cf. my earlier notes on El and Elohim as names/titles of God.

By all accounts, the early Israelite religion was monotheistic in a qualified sense. That is to say, the emphasis was on YHWH’s superiority to all other divine beings, rather than claiming that no other divine beings existed at all. In the light of the more absolute monotheism of later periods, the expression “sons of God” was understood as referring to heavenly beings (i.e., angels), but not gods or deities per se. For more on this, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 82, as well as my note(s) on Deut 32:8.

Verse 8 [7]

“A Mighty (One) terrifying among (the) council of holy (one)s,
great and fearsome over all (those) surrounding Him!”

Again the superiority (and sovereignty) of YHWH is emphasized, this time in terms of the fear/awe with which even the divine/heavenly beings regard Him. This idea is expressed by another pair of (parallel) verbs—Jr^u* and ar*y`. The Niphal (passive) participle of these verbs, however, is a bit difficult to translate. The first verb, Jr^u* means “be terrified” (or transitively, “cause/bring terror”), while the second, ar*y`, is the common verb meaning “fear, be afraid”. The passive participle forms denote something like “being feared”, probably in the sense of “to be feared”, “to be held in dread”. Rather than emphasizing the response of the heavenly beings, I have chosen to translate the participles as Divine attributes/characteristics (“terrifying”, “fearsome”) which, of course, deserve the proper response of fear and awe.

Verse 9 [8]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies,
who (is) like unto you?
O strong(est) YH,
how your firmness surrounds you!”

Metrically, this verse (which climaxes the strophe-unit of vv. 6-9) diverges from the general (4-beat) couplet pattern of vv. 6-8. I parse it as a pair of shorter couplets (3+2 and 2+2), loosely parallel in form. The first line of each couplet contains a vocative address to YHWH, emphasizing (again) His power/strength. The second line reiterates the unit’s theme of the incomparability of YHWH, and His absolute superiority over all other divine/heavenly beings.

In v. 8, YHWH was referred to by the ancient Semitic term la@, the word for deity, which I understand as more or less meaning “Mighty (One)”, the plural <yl!a@ (“mighty [one]s”) being used in v. 7. Here, in v. 9, the expanded plural <yh!l)a$ (the customary Hebrew word for “God” in the OT) is used; it is best understood, when applied to YHWH in a monotheistic context, as an intensive or comprehensive plural (i.e., “Mightiest [One]”). In the second couplet, the adjective /ys!j& (“mighty, strength”) is used, as a similar (if much more rare) Divine title.

YHWH’s incomparable might/strength is defined in relation to the other divine/heavenly beings (<yl!a@). He is their Creator and absolute Sovereign. This is indicated by the title “YHWH of (the) armies” (toab*x= hwhy), here in the expanded form “YHWH Mightiest (One) of (the) armies” (toab*x= yh@l)a$ hwhy). The “armies” refer to the heavenly beings, conceived of as a vast army of entities. They were created by YHWH and are under His control/command.

This army of heavenly beings (and their domain/power) includes the various forces of nature, especially those located in the skies/heavens—the sun, moon, stars, and, in particular, the wind and rain and all other storm-phenomena. These forces of nature are under God’s control and will ‘fight’, at His command, on behalf of His people. In addition to the famous event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15), one may point to the references in Josh 10:12-14 and Judg 5:4-5, 20-21 as famous examples. Descriptions of YHWH in terms of ancient storm-theophany traditions are relatively common in Hebrew tradition (esp. the older poetry); for the Near Eastern background of this imagery, cf. my article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

In the final line, this emphasis on YHWH’s strength is expressed again in relation to His faithfulness, with the use (again) of the noun hn`Wma$. The fundamental meaning of this word (“firmness”) covers both aspects—strength/power and faithfulness—of God’s nature and character.

In the next note, we will turn to the second strophe-unit (vv. 10-13) of this section.

The People of God: Holiness (Part 1)


This is the third set of articles in the series “The People of God”. The first two dealt with the topics of “Israel as God’s People” (Part 1, 2, 3, 4) and “The Covenant” (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The primary characteristic of the People of God is holiness. This is especially clear from a number of declarations (by YHWH) presented in the Torah, as in Leviticus 11:44-45:

“For I, YHWH, am your Mighty (One) [<yh!l)a$], and (so) you shall make yourselves holy [vb vd^q*], and (so) you shall be holy [<yv!d)q=]—for I am holy [vodq*]…. For I (am) YHWH, the (One) having brought you up from (the) land of Egypt, (in order) to be for you (your) Mighty (One) [<yh!l)a$], and (so) you shall be holy [<yv!d)q=], for I am holy [vodq*].”

This is summarized in the terser, and more famous, directive in Lev 19:2:

“You shall be holy, for I, YHWH, your Mighty (One), am holy.”

Because the People of God are God’s people, they are to share His fundamental (and central) attribute of holiness. In Lev 11:44-45 above, both the verb vd^q* and the related adjective vodq* are used. Thus, we can see that the root vdq represents the principal word-group in the Hebrew Old Testament (and in ancient Israelite thought) used to express the idea of holiness. It is important to begin our study with an examination of this word-group.

The RooT QDŠ

First, it is interesting to note that the root qdš (vdq), both in ancient Hebrew and the other Semitic languages, is used almost exclusively in a sacred or religious context; there is very little evidence for ordinary ‘secular’ usage. This is problematic for scholars who wish to assign it an original meaning of “cut” or “separate”. While vdq can, at times, carry the specific meaning of “set apart” (i.e., separate), this seems to be secondary, as a result of the more primary meaning “(be) clean, pure”. That which is pure, and which must remain pure, is to be set apart for this purpose. This secondary meaning covers the entire realm of the sacred, both from a religious and ritual standpoint (cf. the three aspects of holiness outlined down below) within society. That is to say, certain places, objects, and people are set apart and treated as holy.

As we see from the declarations in Lev 11:44-45 and 19:2 (above), purity or holiness is a fundamental attribute of God. The people are to be pure and holy because YHWH, their God, is pure and holy. This theological point is expressed throughout the Old Testament Scriptures—see, for example, Exod 15:11; Josh 24:19; 1 Sam 2:2; 6:20; Job 6:10; Psalm 22:3; 60:6; 77:13; 99:3, 5, 9; Prov 9:10; Isa 5:16; 6:3. The substantive adjective “Holy (One)” (vodq*), used as a Divine title, is relatively common, and obviously reflects the fundamental Divine attribute of holiness—cf. Job 6:10; Isa 40:25; 43:15; Ezek 39:7; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3. Particularly important is the use of this title in the expression “Holy (One) of Israel”, which occurs frequently in the book of Isaiah (1:4; 5:19; 10:20; 12:6, et al), and is attested throughout the Scriptures—cf. 2 Kings 19:22; Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Jer 50:29; 51:5. Only rarely is the title “holy one” used of lesser heavenly (angelic) beings or a (consecrated) human being (Num 16:7; Psalm 16:10 [in its original context]; 106:16; Dan 4:13, 23; 8:13. There are examples of a cognate divine title (Qudšu) in Canaanite, used to represent a particular female deity (goddess), similarly emphasizing her holiness (cf. Cross, pp. 33-5).

Holiness: The Realm of the Sacred

Obviously, the longer title “Holy (One) of Israel”, noted above, captures the unique relationship between YHWH and Israel—He being their God, and they being His people (i.e. the People of God). The key declarations in the Torah clearly express this. In addition to Leviticus 11:44-45 and 19:2 (cf. above), we may note: Exod 19:5-6; Lev 20:7, 26; Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9. The Deuteronomic treatment of this theme will be discussed at a later point in this set of articles.

If YHWH, as God, is holy, then everything associated with Him is (and must be) holy as well. His name is holy (Lev 20:3, etc; 1 Chron 16:10; 22:19; 29:16; Psalm 30:4, and with some frequency in the Psalms; Isa 29:23; 57:15; Ezek 20:39; 36:20-23; 39:7, etc; Amos 2:7). The place where He dwells is holy—both in heaven (Deut 26:15, etc), and in his symbolic/ritual dwelling-place on earth among human beings (His people). The idea of the holy mountain of His dwelling rests midway between these two concepts—heavenly and earthly dwellings. The Temple locale, on the hilltop site of Zion, fulfills this sacred mountain typology at the local level (cf. Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 44:3, etc). The Temple sanctuary, like that of the earlier Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) is called the vd*q=m! (“holy place”), the –m preformative indicating a location or place (Exod 25:8, et al); the noun vd#q) (“holiness”) can also have a similar locative meaning (“holy place”), Exod 26:33ff; 36:1, etc. The innermost shrine of the sanctuary, where the Golden Chest (Ark) that represented the dwelling-place (and throne) of YHWH resided, was called the “holy (place) of the holy (place)s” (<yv!d*Q(h^ vd#q))—an idiomatic syntax that carries a superlative meaning, i.e., “the holiest place” (Exod 26:33-34, etc).

The maintenance of the symbolic/ritual dwelling of YHWH among His people—that is, in the sanctuary (“holy place”) of the Tent-shrine (and later Temple)—required an ‘apparatus of holiness’ to match that of the holy dwelling-place itself. Everything associated with the shrine had to be set apart and consecrated (i.e., made holy). For this reason, the vdq word-group—verb, adjective and noun(s)—occurs scores of times within the Torah regulations, documented in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Every object and utensil, the altars, the curtains and framework of the building itself—all of it had to be consecrated. Similarly, those who are to serve and work in the shrine—the sacred officials (priests) and related ministers—all had to be consecrated; for the priests, this meant both their person and their garments had to be made holy.

Moreover, it was necessary that this level of holiness be maintained, throughout the operation of the shrine, requiring a related set of purity restrictions and regulations. That which applied to the priests in this regard, however, was simply an extension of the purity regulations that applied to the people as a whole. This principle is expressed at a number of points in the Torah. For example, there is the key declaration in Exodus 19:6, in connection with the establishment of the covenant at Sinai:

“And you shall be for me a kingdom of sacred officials [i.e. priests] and a holy [vodq*] nation”

The entire kingdom and nation is essentially required (by YHWH) to function like priests ministering the “holy things” of God. As we proceed in our study, this requirement of holiness for the People of God will be broken out into three main areas, or aspects:

    • Ritual—the need to maintain ritual purity, particularly in connection with the sacred domain centered around the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (and Temple). Many of the Torah regulations deal directly with this idea of ritual purity.
    • Ethical—i.e., holiness as expressed in socio-religious terms, through proper conduct and behavior.
    • Spiritual—though specific use of the term “spirit” (j^Wr) is generally lacking in the holiness-references, the basic concept has it parallel in the idea of the heart, i.e., the willingness of the people to fulfill the requirements of the covenant, and the obligations associated with living out their identity as God’s people.

In the next study (Part 2), representative passages, primarily from the Torah/Pentateuch, will be examined in relation to all three of these aspects of holiness outlined above.

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).


July 17: 1 John 5:20 (cont.)

1 John 5:20, continued

“And we have seen that the Son of God is here, and (that) he has given to us dia/noia, (so) that we might know the (One who is) true, and (that) we are in the (One who is) true, in His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed—this is the true God and Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life].”

The first two clauses of verse 20 (a) were discussed in the previous note; we now turn to the next two clauses (b).

Verse 20b:
    • “(so) that we might know the (One who is) true,
      and (that) we are in the (One who is) true,”

The i%na-clause, which I believe covers both statements of v. 20b, expresses the purpose (and expected result) of the understanding (dia/noia) that the Son, in his abiding presence (through the Spirit), gives to believers. The i%na conjunction thus is to be rendered “so that…”.

In the first statement here (clause three), the expressed purpose for the dia/noia that the Son gives is so that (i%na)…

“we [i.e. believers] might know [ginw/skwmen] the (One who is) true [to\n a)lhqino/n]”

The substantive adjective (with the article), o( a)lhqino/$, is a title for God the Father. The theme of truth is fundamental for the Johannine writings:

    • the noun a)lh/qeia occurs 25 times in the Gospel and 20 in the Letters (45 out of 109 NT occurrences)
    • the adjective a)lhqh/$ occurs 14 times in the Gospel and 3 times in the Letters (17 out of 26 NT occurrences)
    • the adjective a)lhqino/$ occurs 9 times in the Gospel and 4 in 1 John (13 out of 28 NT occurrences); if we count (as Johannine) the 10 occurrences of a)lhqino/$ in the book of Revelation, then all but five of the NT occurrences are in the Johannine writings, making it very much a distinctive keyword.

Drawing upon Old Testament tradition (e.g., Psalm 18:30; 19:9; 25:5; 43:3; 86:11; 119:142, 160; Prov 30:5; Isa 45:19; 65:16; Jer 10:10, etc), truth is viewed as a fundamental attribute of God—for this use of the adjective a)lhqino/$ (and a)lhqh/$), cf. Jn 3:33; 7:28; 8:26; 17:3 (cf. also 4:23; 5:32). Somewhat more commonly, in the Johannine writings, it is applied to Jesus—as the “true light” (Jn 1:9; 1 Jn 2:8), the “true bread from heaven” (6:32, cp. v. 55), and the “true vine” (15:1); cf. also 7:18; 8:16. It is used of believers (as true worshipers of God) in Jn 4:23 (cp. 18:37).

In addition to being an attribute of God, reflecting His nature and character, the adjective “true” also reflects the Israelite religious tradition of El-YHWH as the (only) true God (e.g., Jer 10:10; 2 Chron 15:3). With regard to this monotheistic orientation (and polemic), as inherited by early Christians, cf. here the author’s closing warning against ‘idols’ in verse 21.

The statement in clause three encapsulates the Johannine theology, expressed more fully in the Gospel (17:3):

“And this is the Life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]: that they would know you, the only true God, and the (one) whom you sent forth, Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

The i%na-clause (in bold above) is virtually identical with the clause here in v. 20.

As noted above, in the Johannine writings, truth is an essential attribute of Jesus, God’s Son. It is expressed by way of essential predication (by Jesus Himself) in Jn 14:6: “I am…the truth” —one of the famous “I am” (e)gw\ ei)mi) declarations by Jesus in the Gospel; cf. also 1:14, 17. However, it is equally associated with the Spirit—including the specific title “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6); cf. also Jn 4:23-24. The idea that the Spirit will lead/guide believers in the way of “all truth” (Jn 16:13), teaching them the truth, is present also in 1 John (2:21, 27), and is reflective of a Johannine spiritualism. In 1:6-8 and 2 Jn 2, 4; 3 Jn 3-4, 12, truth seems to be identified with the abiding presence of the Spirit; similarly, being “of the truth” (belonging to it, and ‘born’ of it), 3:19 (cf. Jn 18:37), is comparable to (and largely synonymous with) the Johannine idea of believers being born “of the Spirit” (Jn 3:5-8). Truth is an essential predicate of the Spirit, just as it is of Jesus:

    • Jesus: “I am…the truth” (Jn 14:6)
    • “the Spirit is the truth” (1 Jn 5:6; cp. with Pilate’s question in Jn 18:38)

This brings us to the fourth clause, which I regard as being governed by the same i%na purpose-clause:

“(so that we might know that) we are in the (One who is) true”

This is another fundamental Johannine theological belief—viz., that believers abide in God the Father, in union with Him. This union takes place through the Son (Jesus), which, in turn, is realized through the presence of the Spirit. This is the idea expressed here, in shorthand form. The presence of the Son (through the Spirit) makes the Father known to us, and allows us to abide/remain in Him. It also gives us the knowledge that we abide in Him (and He in us)—a point expressed more clearly by the author in 3:24

“…and in this we know that He remains in us—out of [i.e. from] the Spirit which He gave to us”

and similarly in 4:13:

“In this we know that we remain in Him, and He in us: (in) that He has given of His Spirit to us.”

In the next daily note, we will examine the last two clauses of verse 20.

May 25: 1 John 1:5-7

1 John 1:5-7

A key point of transition between the 1 John prologue (1:1-4) and the first major section of the work (1:5-2:17) is the noun koinwni/a, which I translate as “common-bond”, and which, as a keyword, reflects the ideal of unity among believers (cf. Acts 2:42). It is used at the close of the opening sentence (in verse 3, cf. the previous note), and occurs again in vv. 6-7. Even though the word does not occur in the Gospel of John, nor anywhere else in the Johannine writings, it may be said to express the underlying idea of unity—and of union—both among believers, and between believers and God, which is so important to the Johannine theology.

In the Gospel, these themes feature most prominently in the Last Discourse and the chapter 17 Prayer-Discourse, and, in this context, relate to the Paraclete-sayings; in other words, this unity/union is realized for believers through the presence of the Spirit. I have discussed the (indirect) allusions to the Spirit in the prologue, and will touch on them also here in vv. 5-7. The role of the Spirit is central to the author’s rhetorical approach in 1 John, being a reflection of a distinctive Johannine spiritualism.

The principal thematic emphasis of 1:5-2:17 is established at the beginning, in verse 5:

“And this is the message which we have heard from him, and (which) we give forth as a message to you: that God is light, and there is not (any) darkness in Him, not one (bit).”

The declaration in v. 5b is presented as a message given to his disciples by Jesus (“from him”). This is another element of continuity with the prologue, both in the emphasis on things Jesus said to his disciples (during his earthly ministry), and with the concept of preserving and transmitting that tradition to future believers, utilizing the verb a)nagge/llw (or its parallel, a)pagge/llw).

We do not have any actual saying by Jesus that corresponds to v. 5b; however, it certainly does reflect the teaching in the Gospel, combining two distinctive Johannine themes:

    • The identification of Jesus as the light (fw=$) of God, which shines in the darkness of the world—1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46; cp. 1 Jn 2:8ff.
    • The idea that Jesus (as the Son) reveals God (the Father) to the world (spec. to believers), including His fundamental characteristics and attributes; this theme is particularly prominent in the Last Discourse and Prayer-Discourse—14:7-11, 20-23; 15:8ff; 16:15, 25ff; 17:2ff, 7ff, 12-14ff, 22ff, 26.

The contrast between light and darkness (skoti/a) is an essential component of the Johannine dualism. It is also a most natural and obvious point of contrast, which can be found utilized in many different religious and philosophical systems. One does not need to look much further than the Old Testament and Jewish tradition to find numerous examples (e.g., Gen 1:4-5; Job 12:22; 29:3; 30:26; Psalm 18:28; 139:11-12; Isa 5:20; 9:2; 42:16; Amos 5:18ff). The light-darkness juxtaposition is as much a part of the dualism in the Qumran texts, as in the Johannine writings; cf. for example, the ‘Two Spirits’ treatise in the Community Rule text (1QS 3:13-4:26).

From the Johannine standpoint, light characterizes God, while darkness characterizes the world (o( ko/smo$); and these are entirely opposite and opposed to each other—in particular, the world is fundamentally opposed to God and His truth. This means that the world is also opposed to God’s Son (Jesus) and to all of His offspring (believers). There is nothing at all (ou)demi/a) of the darkness in God or in His children.

The author expounds this light-darkness message in vv. 6-7, giving to it a practical (and most pointed) emphasis:

“If we say that we hold common-bond [koinwni/a] with Him, and (yet) should walk about in the darkness, (then) we are false and do not do the truth;” (v. 6)

This is the first, negative side of the instruction, and refers to false believers (vb yeu/domai, “be false, act falsely”)—that is, those who say they hold common-bond with God (i.e., as true believers), but yet “walk about” in the darkness. This contrast almost certainly relates to the ‘opponents’ of whom the author speaks in the “antichrist” sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6). This contrast between true and false believers informs the entirety of 1 John as a treatise.

The positive side of the instruction, describing the true believer, comes in verse 7:

“but, if we should walk about in the light, as He is in the light, (then) we hold common-bond [koinwni/a] with each other, and the blood of Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

False believers walk about in darkness, but true believers walk about in the light. This idiom of “walking about” (vb peripate/w) goes back to Old Testament tradition, with the use of the corresponding Hebrew verb El^h* (“walk, go”, esp. in the reflexive Hithpael stem), to describe a person’s habitual behavior (in an ethical-religious sense). Paul famously uses the verb in Galatians 5:16, where walking about “in the Spirit” is more or less equivalent with the Johannine walking “in the light”; cf. also Romans 6:4; 8:4. The Johannine idiom, using the same verb (in the same sense), is found in 8:12; 11:9-10 and 12:35, which are worth citing (in order):

“I am the light of the world; the (one) following me shall not walk about [peripath/sh|] in the darkness, but shall hold the light of life.”

“if one should walk about [peripath=|] in the day, he will not strike (his foot) against (a stone), (in) that [i.e. because] he sees (by) the light of this world; but if one should walk about [peripath=|] in the night, he does strike (his foot) against (a stone), (in) that [i.e. because] the light is not in [i.e. with] him.”

“(For) yet a little time the light is in [i.e. with] you. You must walk about [peripatei=te] as you hold the light, (so) that darkness should not take you down; (for) indeed the (one) walking about [peripatw=n] in the darkness has not seen [i.e. does not know] where he leads (himself).”

The relation of the author’s instruction to these (Johannine) statements by Jesus will be discussed in the next daily note.

October 19: Philippians 2:7a

Philippians 2:7-8

Verses 7-8 follow and are subordinate to v. 6, discussed in the previous notes (on 6a and 6b). There are any number of ways to outline these; my arrangement below illustrates some of the linguistic and conceptual parallels:

a)lla\ e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen  (but he emptied himself)

morfh\n dou/lou labw/n (taking [the] form of a slave)

e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$ (coming to be in [the] likeness of men)

kai\ sxh/mati eu(reqei\$ w($ a&nqrwpo$ (and being found [in] shape/appearance as a man)

e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n (he lowered himself)

geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$ me/xri qana/tou (becoming obedient [lit. hearing/listening] until death)

qana/tou de\ staurou= (—but a death of [i.e. on] [the] stake!)

Each of these clauses and phrases is important for an interpretation of vv. 6-8 (and of the hymn as a whole). It is thus worth devoting an individual note to a careful examination of each of them, and thereby establishing a sound exegesis for the lines of the hymn, taken together. Attention must be paid to both the vocabulary and syntax. We begin with the first phrase of verse 7.

Philippians 2:7a

a)lla\ e(autw\n e)ke/nwsen
“but he emptied himself”

a)lla/ (“but”)—the connection of the adversative particle is a major question: does it tie back to ei@nai i&sa qew=| or to a(rpagmo\n h(ghsato? If the former, then it signifies that Christ forsook equality with God (in some sense); if the latter, that he forsook any desire to seize it (or hold it) through force. The latter phrase provides the more immediate syntactical connection, and point of contrast; on the meaning of that difficult phrase in context, cf. the three lines of interpretation mentioned at the close of the previous note (and to be discussed further).

e(autw/n (“himself”)—this reflexive personal pronoun, referring to Jesus Christ (v. 5), is the predicate, providing the object of the verb that follows. That is, it declares what was “emptied” (by Jesus)—he emptied himself!

e)ke/nwsen (“emptied”)—an aorist active form of the verb keno/w (“[make] empty, empty out”), one of a sequence of aorist verb forms that govern the hymn and guide the syntax of the passage:

    • e)ke/nwsen (“he [Jesus] emptied [himself]”)—his ‘departure’ from heaven and birth/incarnation as a human being
    • e)tapei/nwsen (“he lowered [himself]”)—his suffering and death
    • u(peru/ywsen (“[God] lifted [him] high”)—Jesus’ resurrection and ascension/exaltation
    • e)xari/sato (“[God himself] showed favor [to him]”)—”with the name over every name”, as Lord and (Son of) God in heaven

The verb keno/w can refer to a concrete physical/material emptying, or, in a more figurative and metaphorical sense, to removing/nullifying the significance of something. The four other occurrences in the New Testament, all by Paul in his letters, use the verb in the latter (figurative) sense:

    • Rom 4:14—Paul’s argument in chapter 4 (repeating that of Galatians 3) makes the claim that, if the promise to Abraham is fulfilled through observance of the Torah, then the significance of trust (pi/sti$) in Christ is “made empty”
    • 1 Cor 1:17—Similarly, to rely on ordinary human wisdom and eloquence in preaching (the Gospel), risks “emptying” the central message of the sacrificial death (the cross) of Christ of its meaning and power
    • 1 Cor 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3—In these two passages, the verb is used in connection with the “boast” of Paul (and other Christian ministers), by which he refers to the practical effect of his faithfulness in proclaiming the Gospel—believers coming to trust in Jesus, the establishment of local congregations, their growth in faith, etc. The negative behavior and attitude of some believers (and churches) can effectively “empty” that boast of its meaning and validity.

But what does it mean for a person to “empty himself“? Based on the Pauline usage of the verb, utilizing a figurative sense of keno/w, it would have to mean something like making oneself to be of no significance or importance. Use of the verb this way, of a person, is quite rare; rather more common is the idea of something a person possesses being taken away. And, indeed, many commentators would interpret the phrase here in something like that latter sense—i.e., Jesus gave up (gave away) his divine attributes, or his divine status/position.

To speak of Jesus’ divine “nature” or “attributes” is out of place here in the hymn of Phil 2:6-11. It is understandable, of course, why commentators would feel impelled to read the passage in terms of a later, more developed, Christology; however, this should be avoided, if one wishes to gain a proper understanding of the passage in its original (first century) context. This important point will be discussed further as we proceed through vv. 7-8 (and the remainder of the hymn).

Which is not to say that there is no relationship between Phil 2:6-11 and the orthodox Christology held (and debated) by subsequent generations. Indeed, the passage has been key to Christological discussion and debate, much of it quite fascinating and provocative. An entire Kenotic theology developed, based largely upon this passage, framed by the conceptual matrix of vv. 6-8. The word kenosis, a transliteration of the Greek noun ke/nwsi$ (“emptying”, related to the verb keno/w), came to be used as a technical term for the idea that, in the incarnation, Jesus “emptied” himself, in a metaphysical sense, of the divine attributes which he possessed (as the Son of God) in his eternal existence alongside God the Father. Such “emptying” would explain many aspects of the New Testament portrait of Jesus, though not without resulting in a number of other difficulties that have to be considered.

However, I would maintain that all of this is quite foreign to our passage here. Neither the hymn, nor the way Paul uses it in his letter, indicates any attempt to make a definitive statement regarding the divine or human “nature” of Jesus Christ. The early Christology of the first century A.D. had a very different orientation, working from a different set of theological premises. We can gain a better sense of this through a careful study of each word and phrase, read in light of the theology expressed by Paul in his letters, and of the New Testament witness as a whole. In particular, we must pay close attention to the Christology that prevailed in the period prior to c. 60 A.D. (the time when Philippians was likely written).

The next phrase in verse 7 will be examined in the next daily note.

September 25: Revelation 5:11-14

Revelation 5:1-14 (concluded)

Rev 5:11-13

Following the song sung by the Living Beings and Elders (cf. the previous note on vv. 9-10), a vast multitude, both in heaven and on earth (and below the earth), joins in the singing. First we read of “many Messengers” (i.e. Angels, heavenly beings), almost beyond numbering—indicated by the expression “ten thousands of ten thousands and thousands of thousands (more)”. As they add their voices, it is as though we are hearing a refrain to the song in vv. 9-10, as it follows a similar pattern:

“…a&cio$ [i.e. worthy] is the Lamb th(at) has been slaughtered to receive the power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and esteem and (a) good account!” (v. 12)

Not coincidentally, there are seven attributes listed here, in keeping with the seven horns and eyes possessed by the Lamb, as well as the seven seals on the scroll. In some ways, the sequence of seven is more important than the individual attributes, as it clearly indicates the divine status and character of the Lamb, who is worthy (on a&cio$, cf. the previous note) to receive the same declaration of praise, worship and homage that the heavenly beings would give to God on His throne. This is a fundamental theme of the chap. 4-5 vision, as well as the book of Revelation as a whole. The seven attributes are traditional, and require little comment; I begin with the first four, which properly reflect divine attributes:

    • du/nami$ (“power”)—For God (or Christ) to receive power from others is a reflection of the (ritual) language and imagery of vassalage. The beings around the throne receive their position of rule/power from God, and thus give it back to him, as an indication of their submission and obedience, etc. It is also a natural characteristic of (religious) praise to emphasize the greatness of the Divine. The word du/nami$ indicates not only strength, but also the ability or authority to do something.
    • plou=to$ (“wealth, riches”)—This is a collective noun related to the verb plh/qw (“filling, fullness”). The customary translation “wealth” or “riches” can be somewhat misleading, suggesting a static possession, whereas here it denotes the fullness of God’s presence, power, etc—the source of all life and blessing. To recognize this of God (and Christ) effectively gives “wealth” back to him.
    • sofi/a (“wisdom”)—In its more original (and practical) sense, sofi/a refers to a thorough knowledge or skill in a particular area. Eventually, it came to have a more strongly intellectual denotation. Among early Christians, in particular, the word took on an increasingly spiritual dimension. True knowledge and ability comes from God, through Christ, by way of the presence of the (Holy) Spirit at work in and among believers.
    • i)sxu/$ (“strength, ability”)—Fundamentally, this refers to something which a person holds, or possesses—the ability to do something, in terms of capability. It is tied more directly to a person’s life-force, than is the similar term du/nami$ (above). The declaration here recognizes God (and Christ) as the source of life, and our own (natural) strength and ability which we give back (through worship, service, etc).

The final three words are, in a sense, synonymous, forming a triad which reflects how devout religious persons (believers) view God/Christ:

    • timh/ (“honor”)—This word fundamentally means “value” or “worth”, but is usually translated in the New Testament as “honor”. It refers to the worth we place on God and Jesus, i.e. the extent, or the way in which we value them.
    • do/ca (“esteem”)—Often translated “glory”, the word more properly refers to the way in which we consider or regard someone/something. However, in traditional religious usage, this represents only one side of the equation. How we regard God and Jesus is based on the nature and character which they possess—i.e., they are esteemed because they are worthy of esteem. In Hebrew, the word typically translated as “glory” actually means “weight” (db)K*), i.e. the weight or value which God possesses in His person.
    • eu)logi/a (“good account”)—The word is derived from eu)loge/w, “give a good account”, i.e. “speak/think well (of someone)”. Customarily, eu)logi/a is translated as “blessing”, but that covers up to some extent the concrete sense of the word. Because of their nature and character, and what they have done for us, God and Jesus are deserving of good words (of praise, proclamation of the Gospel [“good message”], etc) from us.

In verse 13, all creatures—in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (cf. verse 3)—join the song, further expanding the vast number of voices. Their refrain serves as a climax to the entire vision of chaps. 4-5, joining God and the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) together as the focus of worship:

“To the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and to the Lamb—(be) the good account and the honor and the esteem and the might [kra/to$] into the Ages of the Ages!”

The three attributes (cf. above), which reflect how created beings (should) view and respond to God and the Lamb (Jesus), are repeated here; and a fourth is added: kra/to$. I am inclined to view this word as a summary of the four divine attributes in v. 13 (cf. above); in which case, the multitude of living creatures here echoes that earlier refrain. The meaning of kra/to$ (often translated “might”) differs somewhat from the words du/nami$ (“power”) and i)sxu/$ (“strength”)—I would define this as signifying the manifest presence of power and strength. As such, it is commonly used in reference to Deity. It is rather rare in the New Testament, occurring just 12 times, but its earlier use in Rev 1:6 is worth noting. Indeed, it may well be that its presence here, following do/ca, is meant as a deliberate echo of the closing words of 1:6. The entire greeting of 1:4-6 has the same two-part structure as chaps. 4-5, and shares many of the same phrases and ideas.

Rev 5:14

This verse serves as a coda to the vision, repeating the gesture of homage by the four Living Beings and twenty-four Elders. In 4:9-10, it was given to God on His throne, while in 5:8, it is directed toward the Lamb; now, here, we must understand it as an act of worship for them both, together. It is a solemn and fitting conclusion to the grand dual-vision in chapters 4-5.

July 28 (1): Romans 3:21

Romans 3:21

Today’s note is on Romans 3:21, and, in particular, the expression “(the) justice/righteousness of God” (dikaiosu/nh qeou=). In the New Testament, this expression is virtually unique to the Pauline letters, with a close parallel in 2 Pet 1:1 (cf. also Matt 6:33, and James 1:20; 1 Jn 3:10). Nor does it appear in the Greek version [LXX] of the Old Testament, though God’s “righteousness” [usually Hebrew qdx/hqdx] is referred to in the Psalms (Ps 35:24; 40:10; 50:6; 71:16, 19; 72:1, also 45:7) and in the Prophets (Isa 46:13; 51:5-8; 56:1; 61:10, also 5:16; 61:11; Zech 8:8, etc), and may be inferred throughout much of the Scriptures. Paul first uses the expression in Rom 1:17, which, because of its close formal and thematic parallel, will be discussed along with 3:21 below.

The genitival relationship in this phrase (“of God”) may be understood in three ways:

    1. As a subjective genitive, i.e., where God is the subject and “justice/righteousness” is an attribute or quality which he possesses, or which characterizes his action, etc.
    2. As a genitive of origin or source—i.e., “justice/righteousness” that comes from God. This is clearly what Paul describes in Phil 3:9, where he uses the preposition e)k: “the justice/righteousness (which is) from [lit. out of] God [e)k qeou=]” (cf. also Phil 1:11).
    3. As an objective genitive—where “justice/righteousness” is a divine quality or power possessed by others (i.e. believers), or realized in them, i.e. as a gift from God. This would seem to be close to the sense of the expression in 2 Cor 5:21, where  it is stated that we (believers) become the “justice/righteousness of God” in Christ.

In addition to Rom 1:17; 3:21, and 2 Cor 5:21 (mentioned above), Paul uses the specific expression only in the 3rd chapter of Romans (Rom 3:5, 22, 25) and again in Rom 10:3. All of these instances in Romans are best understood primarily according to sense #1 above, a quality or characteristic of God’s own person and action. This is indicated both by the immediate context as well as the Old Testament background of the expression. Consider, in particular, the verbs used in Rom 1:17 and 3:21—a)pokalu/ptw (“uncover, reveal”) and fanero/w (“shine forth, [make] manifest”), especially in relation to Rom 1:18-32, which emphasizes the character and nature of God evident in creation. Yet, the parallel in 1:18, the “passion/anger of God” (o)rgh\ qeou=), also suggests action—God is about to judge the world; he has also acted on behalf of human beings in the person and work of Christ.

I have already discussed the background and semantic range of the dikaio- word-group in Greek (see the article “Justification”), and the challenges involved in translation. The verb dikaio/w carries the relatively straightforward meaning “make right”, though it can be difficult to capture the various legal-judicial and religious-ethical nuances, which are perhaps better rendered by the term “just” in English (i.e., make [or declare] just). The situation is even more problematic with regard to the noun dikaiosu/nh, usually translated either as “righteousness” or “justice”—both of these renderings are generally valid, but neither fits entirely. Something like “just-ness” or “right-ness” would be better, but these do not really exist in English; “uprightness” is perhaps closer, but still awkward and archaic sounding, and a bit misleading as well. For Jews and early Christians, the usage was also influenced by the corresponding Hebrew words derived from the root qdx, which, more than the dikaio- word-group in Greek, carries the idea of faithfulness and loyalty—especially in terms of God as one who fulfills his promises and covenant obligations.

The main occurrences of the expression dikaiosu/nh qeou= are in Romans 1:17 and 3:21; it will be helpful to examine these together:

Rom 1:17

“for in it [i.e. the Gospel]

(the) justice/righteousness of God

is (being) uncovered…”

Rom 3:21

“now apart from (the) Law

(the) justice/righteousness of God

has been made manifest [lit. made to shine forth]…”

The parallels are clear and precise; Rom 3:21 is virtually a restatement of 1:17 (part of the main proposition [propositio] of Romans in 1:16-17). There can be no doubt, either, that Rom 3:21ff must also be understood in relation to the theme of God’s judgment in Rom 1:18-3:20; note again the parallel:

Rom 1:18

“the passion/anger of God
[o)rgh/ qeou=]

is (being) uncovered

upon all lack of fear (of God) and injustice/unrighteousness of men…”

Rom 3:21

“the justice/righteousness of God [dikaiosu/nh qeou=]

has been made to shine forth [i.e. made manifest]…

unto all the (one)s trusting (in Christ)… (v. 22)”

According to this comparison, the “justice/righteousness of God” is practically a reversal of the judgment/anger; similarly, the lack of (godly) fear, which leads to injustice/unrighteousness (1:18ff), corresponds to the trust that believers have in God (in Christ).

As indicated, above, dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) is a fairly wide-ranging term; there are a number of relevant aspects which should be considered here:

  • Retributive justice—in the sense that God judges sin and punishes guilt. This very much characterizes the overall theme of judgment on human wickedness in Romans 1:18-3:20 (esp. 1:18-32).
  • Distributive justice—God judges each person (and/or nation) as he/she/it deserves. This is very much the emphasis in Romans 2 (see esp. 2:6-10), that all people (Jews and Gentiles) will be judged by their deeds, according to the Law (of God).
  • Fairness and equanimity (lack of partiality)—stated of God specifically in Rom 2:11; this relates to the principal theme throughout chapters 2-3, that Jews and Gentiles are equal before God.
  • Faithfulness and loyalty—as indicated above, this is more appropriate to qdx/hqdx in Hebrew than the corresponding dikaio- wordgroup in Greek. It characterizes particularly God’s faithfulness in fulfilling his promises and covenant obligations—an important theme in the Scriptural argument (involving the blessing/promise to Abraham) in Rom 4:1-25.
  • Fulfilling the Law—an important part of justice is the correct and proper observance and application (fulfillment) of the Law, by all persons and parties involved. Paul makes a long and challenging argument in Romans (also touched on in Galatians) that true fulfillment of the Law (the Torah and “Law of God”) only takes place in the person and work of Christ; as such, the justice/righteousness of God is ultimately manifest in Christ, as stated decisively in Rom 10:3-4.
  • Freedom and acquittal—this is another aspect of justice/righteousness (“making right”), especially in terms of exercising fairness and mercy on behalf of those charged under the law. This applies primarily to the person judging, as well the legal advocate/representative. It especially relates to God’s work in the death/sacrifice of Christ on behalf of sinners, as described by Paul in Rom 5:1-11, and is a theme throughout chapters 5-7.
  • Reconciliation—the related idea of opposing parties (“enemies”) being reconciled is likewise an important aspect of justice/righteousness (cf. Matt 5:9, 21-26, 38ff), and it is another theme expressed by Paul in Romans 5.
  • Uprightness/rectitude—that is, right or proper moral (and religious) behavior (including the underlying attitude and motivation). This signifies “righteousness” in its traditional, conventional meaning (cf. Jesus’ usage of dikaiosu/nh in Matt 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33); and it may also be said to reflect the “righteousness of God”. Typically, however, God’s righteousness may be defined by what it is not—contrasted with human wickedness and faithlessness, and so forth. See Rom 1:18-32; 2:1-10ff; 3:10-18, etc.
  • Holiness—the justice/righteousness of God ultimately is tied conceptually to his holiness or “wholeness” (i.e. what is perfect, complete), cf. Matt 5:48. Interestingly, Paul makes relatively little mention of (God’s) holiness in Romans (Rom 1:4; 7:12; 11:16; 12:1), as he tends to concentrate it in the presence and work of the Spirit. “Righteousness” for believers is very much realized in Christ, through the power and presence of the Spirit (Rom 14:17; Gal 5:16-26, etc).

The next note will look at Rom 3:21 more closely, within context and structure of vv. 21-26ff.