Dead Sea MSS: MasPsa (vv. 1-6 [1-5])
This Psalm has a clear two-part structure: a prayer-petition to YHWH (vv. 2-8), and YHWH’s answer (vv. 9-14) presented in the form of a prophetic oracle. Each part can be further divided into two strophes (vv. 2-4, 5-8; 9-10, 11-14), cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 359, 363. The meter of the composition is relatively consistent, following a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format.
Like the prior Psalms (82-84), Ps 85 is not preserved among the Qumran Psalm manuscripts; however, it does survive in a Dead Sea manuscript from Masada. Though fragmentary and incomplete, the text of this MS is very close to the Masoretic Text, with no variants of note.
Part 1: Verses 2-8 [1-7]
“May you show favor to your land, O YHWH;
may you (bring) back a return for Ya’aqob!”
The perfect verb forms in this opening couplet (also in vv. 3-4) are best read as precative perfects—expressing the Psalmist’s wish for what will come to pass (cf. Dahood, II, p. 286). They have also been explained as prophetic perfects (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 360, 362), declaring what will happen as though it has already occurred. If they were to be read as past-tense perfects, then the Psalm would certainly date from the post-exilic period, referring to Israel’s restoration and return from exile.
The noun tWbv= (Qere tyb!v=) has typically been explained as deriving from the root hb*v*, and thus meaning “captivity”; however, a strong argument has been made for deriving it from bWv (“turn back, return”), in which case it would mean something like a return to how things were before. The close parallel in Job 42:10 would seem to confirm this; cf. also Psalm 14:7; 53:7 ; 126:4. Thus, we have here an early example, probably dating from the exilic or early post-exilic period, of the prophetic theme of the restoration of Israel.
“May you lift (away the) crookedness of your people;
may you cover (over) all their sin!
May you gather up all your fury;
may you turn back (the) burning of your anger!”
These two couplets form a symmetrical poetic unit: a 3+2+2+3 quatrain, with a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker in the middle. The first couplet deals with the sin of the people; in the second line the regular noun denoting wrongdoing (lit. missing the mark, ha*F*j^) is used, while in the first line it is /ou* (“crookedness,” i.e., perversity). The Psalmist asks that such sin be forgiven; the action of YHWH is two-fold in this regard—(a) lifting/carrying it away (vb ac*n`), and (b) covering it over (vb hs*K*).
The second couplet deals with YHWH’s response to the people’s sin, having punished it, the punishment being described in terms of God’s anger. The noun hr*b=u# means something like an overflow (of anger); for poetic concision, I have translated it here as “fury”. The noun [a^ properly denotes the nostrils, but it is often used in the general sense of anger, perhaps abstracted from the more concrete (and colorful) image of burning/flaring nostrils (as a sign of anger). The Psalmist asks that this punishing anger be removed, again using two different actions by YHWH to express this: (a) gather it all up (vb [s^a*), and (b) turn it back (vb bWv, Hiphil).
By forgiving the people’s sin, and removing the punishment for it (as an expression of Divine anger), YHWH will be able to restore the fortunes of His people, returning them to a condition (in the land) as it was prior to the exile.
“Return us, O Mighty (One) of our salvation;
break (off) your (anger), provoked by us!”
The motifs from the first strophe (vv. 2-4) continue here, as the Psalmist calls on YHWH—now using imperatives rather than precative perfects—both to return/restore the people (again using the verb bWv), and to turn away His anger against them. The Psalmist now includes himself (“our/us”) among the people. Dahood (II, p. 287) would read the suffix Wn– on the verb in line 1 as a dative, rather than an accusative object suffix; in this case, the request would be for YHWH to “return to us”. The verb in the second line is presumably rr^P* I (“break”), though Dahood (II, p. 287) identifies it with the cognate Ugaritic prr meaning “flee” —in context, the Hiphil would mean “make your anger flee away from us”. Other commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 173) would instead, following the LXX, read a form of the verb rWs (“turn aside/away”). The noun su^K^ fundamentally means a disturbance or “stirring up” of anger—i.e., a provoking, or provocation.
“Will you be angry with us into (the) distant (future),
drawing your anger (endlessly) for cycle and cycle?”
The first line begins with a prefixed interrogative particle (-h), by which the Psalmist reinforces his petition with an earnest, but rhetorical, question. The question assumes/expects a negative response: surely, God will not be angry with His people forever. The noun <l*ou signifies a (period of) time extending either into the distant past or distant future; here it refers to the future. The noun roD has the basic meaning “circle, cycle”, but is often translated as “generation” —i.e., “for generation and generation”. Even if one renders roD this way here, it is important to realize that the time-frame of a generation is being emphasized, more so than the people in it; the parallel with <l*ou makes this clear. For the specific expression rwdw rwd[l] elsewhere in the Psalms, cf. 10:7 ; 33:11; 45:18 ; 49:12 ; 61:7 ; 72:5; 77:9 ; 79:13; 89:2 , 5 ; 90:1; 100:5; 102:13 ; 106:31; 119:90; 135:13; 146:10.
“Will you not return (and) make us live (again),
so (that) your people may be glad in you?”
The Psalmist asks a second question, this time in the negative, and assuming/expecting a positive response: surely, God will restore his people to life! Again the verb bWv (“return”) is used, with the verb pair bWv / hy`j* probably functioning as a hendiadys: i.e., “return (and) make us live” = “restore us to life”. The restoration of God’s people would naturally lead to their rejoicing and praise of Him.
“Make us to see, O YHWH, your goodness,
and your salvation may you give to us!”
The Piel of hy`j* (in the sense of “make live”) is followed here by the Hiphil (causative) stem of ha*r* (“see,” i.e., “cause to see, make see”). The restoration of God’s people entails blessing. The noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) refers to the blessings that YHWH gives to His people, when they are faithful/loyal to the covenant bond; ds#j#, in this covenantal context, connotes the faithfulness and loyalty (of YHWH). The blessing, and the covenant-obligation of YHWH for His people, also includes providing protection—i.e., giving “salvation”, as the noun uv^y# can also mean “well-being, safety, victory”. This is a frequent theme in the Psalms.
Part 2: Verses 9-14 [8-13]
“I shall make heard what the Mighty (One) speaks,
for YHWH (indeed) does speak fullness
to His people and to His devoted (one)s,
and they shall not return to a false hope!”
With Dahood (II, p. 288), I vocalize humva as a Hiphil imperfect (jussive/cohortative) form, hu*m!v=a^. The Psalmist here functions like a prophet, receiving an oracle from YHWH, which he then reports (makes heard). The oracle represents the answer of YHWH to the prayer of vv. 2-8.
The noun <olv* is typically translated “peace”, but properly denotes “fullness, completion”. It is often used (especially in the Psalms) in the context of the covenant-bond with YHWH. Fulfilling the binding agreement leads to blessing—well-being, security, and peace—from God. The adjective dys!j* (“good, kind”), like the related noun ds#j# (in v. 8), in the context of the covenant, connotes faithfulness and loyalty; I have translated it here as “devoted”. The phrase “to His people and His devoted (one)s” is another example of hendiadys (cf. verse 7 above); it essentially means “to the devoted ones of His people”.
The final line is problematic, and may be corrupt. For lack of any better option (the lone Dead Sea manuscript is not preserved beyond v. 6), I more or less follow the MT, understanding the noun hl*s=K! in the sense of a “false/foolish hope”. The promise is that, with the restoration of the people by YHWH, they will no longer be inclined to return to such folly (trusting in other gods, etc), but will be fully devoted and faithful to YHWH, placing their trust in Him alone.
“Truly, His salvation (is) near for (those) fearing Him—
(and His) weight (is again) to dwell in our land!”
As noted above, the noun uv^y# has a somewhat broader semantic range than the primary denotation of “salvation”; it can also mean “well-being, safety, victory” —referring to the blessings and protection that YHWH provides to His faithful followers, as an obligation of the covenant. The second line is a bit obscure, but it seems to be referring to the promise of YHWH’s presence—expressed here by the noun dobK* (“weight,” i.e., His glory)—among His people. The noun dobK* may also allude to the blessings that stem from His protective and abiding presence in the land.
“Goodness and firmness meet (as one),
rightness and fullness join (together);
firmness sprouts (up) from (the) earth,
and rightness leans down from (the) heavens.”
In the first couplet, four nouns, each of which has a wide semantic range, are used; all four allude to covenant loyalty, and the bond between YHWH and his people:
- ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”)—cf. verse 8 (and the adjective dys!j* in v. 9b); in the context of the covenant, it can specifically connote “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”.
- tm#a# (“firmness”)—i.e., faithfulness, trustworthiness, etc., sometimes in the sense of being truthful (and thus, more abstractly, “truth”).
- qd#x# (“right[ness]”)—or “righteousness,” when a religious-ethical emphasis is intended; also “justice”, in a socio-ethical context; in the context of the covenant, it has a meaning that overlaps with ds#j# (i.e., loyalty).
- <olv* (“fullness, completion”)—sometimes in the specific sense of “well-being, security”, or, more narrowly, “peace”.
These four are divided into two groups: ds#j# / qd#x# and tm#a# / <olv*. The two sides “come/join together”, a meeting or union that is expressed in the first couplet by the verbs vg~P* and qv^n` (the latter verb can specifically mean “kiss”, including the idea of embracing). The meeting can be understood as taking place in a horizontal direction. In the second couplet (v. 12), a vertical direction is indicated—i.e., coming (lit. “sprouting”) up from the earth, and leaning down from the heavens.
These verses express the presence of Divine blessings on the land and its people, in a thorough and comprehensive way. As noted above, the four attribute-nouns all reflect, with slightly different nuances, the idea of faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant. The faithfulness of the people in the time of Israel’s restoration will mirror that of YHWH Himself.
“Indeed, YHWH shall give (forth) the good,
and our land shall give along her produce.”
Here, the blessing from YHWH is described specifically in terms of the fertility of the land. There is a formal parallel here:
- YHWH | gives (vb /t^n`) | the good
- the land | gives (vb /t^n`) | her produce
While the noun bof (“good”) should be understood in a general and comprehensive sense—viz., as the richness and blessing that God provides—the specific expression “the good” (boFh^) likely is allusion to the rain that comes down from heaven (from YHWH) to water and make fertile the land (cf. Dahood, II, p. 290, and elsewhere). For an agricultural and pastoral society, rain certainly would be among the foremost of the good things and blessings that God could provide.
The noun lWby+ is a bit difficult to translate in English. It basically denotes something that is brought/carried along, or refers to the process of such carrying. The fertile land brings forth its produce, bearing it and carrying it along.
“Right(eous)ness shall go before His face,
and shall set (the) path for His steps.”
This concluding couplet is rather ambiguous. Who is the subject and/or what is the precise scenario being so allusively described? If it is the returning of the people that is principally in view here, then it would make sense that YHWH’s right(eousness) (qd#x#) would go before His people and set the path for them on their return. It is also possible that the emphasis is on YHWH returning, to His land and His people, in which case qd#x# would be going before Him. It may be that both points of reference are in view, as in the general parallels one finds, for example, in the book of Isaiah and the deutero-Isaian poems—e.g., 35:8ff; 40:3; 42:16; 43:19ff; 51:10-11.
Here qd#x# stands for all four of the attribute-nouns related to the idea of faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant (cf. on vv. 11-12 above). It represents the overarching characteristic of the New Age of Israel’s restoration—referring to the restored people as the righteous and faithful ones, those fully devoted to YHWH, and who walk in His footsteps, following His example.
References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).