Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 93

Psalm 93

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 1a

“YHWH reigns as King!”
El^m* hwhy

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

Verse 1bcd

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

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

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

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

Verses 1ef & 2

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

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

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

Verse 3

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 4

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

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

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

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

Verse 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 26: Psalm 89:25-26

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 89:20-26, continued

(For verses 22-24, see the previous note)

Verse 25 [24]

“My firmness and my devotion (are) with him,
and in my name his horn shall (be) lifted high.”

The keyword of this Psalm is hn`Wna$, emphasizing the firmness of YHWH. That term combines both the idea of God’s strength and His faithfulness. The former has been the focus in verses 18-24, as also in the prior vv. 10-14; however, it is the latter that is emphasized by the pairing of hn`Wma$ and ds#j#. These same two nouns were paired at the opening of the Psalm, in vv. 2-3, and also in v. 15 (with the related tm#a# in place of hn`Wma$). Though hn`Wma$ has the basic meaning “firmness”, it frequently carries a meaning of “faithfulness, trustworthiness”; similarly, ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) often has the meaning “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. These are fundamental attributes of YHWH, relating particularly to the covenant loyalty that he shows to His people.

Here, in line 1, it is declared (and promised) that these attributes are with (<u!) the king—that is, the Davidic ruler, chosen by God, and expected to be a loyal servant to Him. The same preposition was used in v. 22 (cf. the previous note), where it was stated that YHWH’s strong and supporting hand/arm is “with him” (oMu!). This may allude to the statements regarding David in 1 Sam 18:12, 14; 2 Sam 5:10:

    • “And Ša’ûl was afraid from before (the) face of David, because YHWH was with him [oMu!]” (v. 12)
    • “And in all his ways David was having success, for YHWH (was) with him [oMu!]” (v. 14)
    • “And David kept on, going on and becoming great, for YHWH (the) Mighty (One) of (the) armies (was) with him [oMu!]” (2 Sam 5:10)

Much the same was said of the Judean king Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:7:

“For he clung on(to) YHWH; (and) he did not turn aside from following Him, but guarded His commands, (those) which YHWH had commanded Moshe. And YHWH was with him [oMu!], so (that), in whichever (way) he went forth, he had success…” (vv. 6-7)

The thought expressed in v. 7a, regarding Hezekiah, may well relate to the name la@ WnM*u! in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10 (cf. below).

The wording of the second line is similar to that in vv. 17-18, both with the idea of being/acting “in the name” of God, along with the specific idiom of one’s “horn” (/r#q#) being “raised/lifted high” (vb <Wr in the Hiphil stem). The horn-motif applies particularly to a ruler or king, and was applied specifically to the Davidic ruler in Ps 132:17; cf. also 148:14; a Messianic interpretation of the idiom is suggested by Ezek 29:21, and certainly in Luke 1:69 (cf. below). Being “in the name” of YHWH implies that the king is faithful and loyal to God, able to participate in the Divine blessing and protection that He provides.

Verse 26 [25]

“And I will set his hand on the sea,
and his right (hand) on the rivers.”

This couplet alludes to the imagery from vv. 10-11 (cf. the discussion in the earlier note), describing YHWH’s sovereignty over the universe in the terminology of cosmological myth—viz., His subduing of the primeval waters at the time of Creation. The Davidic king, drawing upon the strength of YHWH Himself, similarly has authority over the waters—described by the pair of terms <y` (“sea”) and torh*n+ (“streams, rivers”). An allusion to the cosmological myth of the Creator’s victory over the primeval waters seems all the more likely, given how, in the Canaanite Baal Epic, the foe defeated by Baal-Haddu is both called Sea (ym = <y) and River (nhr = rhn, “judge River”, ¾p‰ nhr); cf. Dahood, II, p. 317. For more on this subject, see my article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

In verse 11, the dark and unruly waters (a) are compared with hostile human adversaries (b), and the “waters” here in v. 26 almost certainly have the same significance. Through God’s strength, the king has protection from all enemies, and is able to achieve victory over them; thus his rule is allowed to extend over the surrounding nations. Historically, this may allude to the Israelite conquests under David, which allowed the kingdom to reach its zenith during the reign of Solomon.

Metrically, verse 25 follows the three-beat (3+3) couplet format that dominates this division of the Psalm; however, verse 26 has a shorted 3+2 meter.

Textually, it is interesting to note that, in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsx, verse 26 appears between vv. 22 and 23, and that vv. 24-25 appear to be missing.

Comments for Christmas

Verse 25b, repeating as it does the horn-motif from v. 18, can be understood in a Messianic sense. This motif was applied to Jesus in Luke 1:69, as mentioned in the prior note. The added promise in v. 25a, that YHWH’s strength and devotion will be with the Davidic king (“with him,” oMu!), naturally reminds one of the name la@ WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) in Isa 7:14; 8:8 (cf. also 8:10), and the identification of Jesus with the promised child of 7:14 (on which, cf. my earlier study and notes). This identification features prominently in the Matthean Infancy narrative (1:22-23), with Isa 7:14 representing the first of the Gospel’s Scripture citations. There is likely a similar use of the “God-with-us” motif in Luke 1:28, which clearly occurs in a Messianic context, identifying Jesus with the promised Davidic Messiah (vv. 27, 32f).

As for the extent of the Davidic ruler’s kingdom, and of his reign over the nations (symbolized by the waters), this is indicated in Luke 1:33. The worldwide scope of the Messiah’s rule, which the Lukan author compares (implicitly) with that of Augustus (and the Roman Empire), is established in 2:1ff, 10ff, and then is further interpreted in 2:30-32 as a foreshadowing of the early Christian mission. For more on the parallels between Jesus and Augustus, in the context of 2:1ff, 10ff, cf. my earlier note on the subject.

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).

December 21: Psalm 89:10-13

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 89:10-13 [9-12]
Verse 10 [9]

“You are ruling over (the) rising up of the Sea;
at (the) lifting of its billows, you still them.”

In this second strophe of the hymn in vv. 6-19 (cf. the previous note on vv. 6-9), the focus on YHWH’s incomparable power over the universe (as Creator and King) shifts from the heavens to the cosmos as a whole. Here it is particularly the Sea (<y`) that is in view—and, not simply the waters of the earth (seas, lakes, rivers, etc), but also (and especially) the primeval cosmic waters that surround the world. According to the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, at the beginning of Creation, there was a great mass of dark waters (Gen 1:2), in the midst of which the universe took shape, as a spherical (or hemispherical) form, like a bubble within the waters. These primeval waters continue to surround the cosmos, being held above the disc/cylinder-shaped earth by the hemispheric shell of the ‘firmament’ (Gen 1:6-8); similar waters surround the world below the earth.

In His act of creating the world, the Creator gave both light and order to the dark and chaotic waters (Gen 1:4ff). In cosmological myth, this is often described in terms of God subduing the unruly waters, defeating them like a warrior in combat. Because of their dark and chaotic aspect, the primeval waters tend to be depicted as a great monster (aided by monstrous allies) which needs to be defeated by the Divine hero, in order to bring about a universe capable of sustaining life. I discuss this subject in the article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

Not infrequently, ancient Hebrew poetry draws upon this line of cosmological myth, applying to YHWH (the Creator) the militaristic imagery of a hero-warrior who defeats/subdues the primeval waters. This imagery is very much being referenced here in vv. 10-11; I mention a number of similar Old Testament poetic passages in the aforementioned article.

YHWH’s subduing of the Sea means that He has control over the waters that surround the earth, including all the waters present on/in the earth—the rain from above, the floods/springs below, and all the seas, etc, on the surface. As expressed here in verse 10, He rules (vb lv^m*) over them; and, since the waters continue to possess something of their primeval chaotic unruliness, YHWH frequently has need or occasion to tame them when they get out of line. The lifting and swelling of the sea’s great waves, so powerful and awesome to behold, are governed by God’s authority, and are “stilled” (vb jb^v*) when necessary.

There is some alliterative assonance here in v. 10, which cannot be captured in translation but can be demonstrated in transliteration:

°¹ttâ môš¢l b®g¢°û¾ hayy¹m
b®´ô° gall¹yw °attâ ¾®šabµ¢m

Verse 11 [10]

“You crushed Rahab like (one who is) slain;
with (the) arm of your strength you scattered your foes!”

YHWH’s control over the waters (v. 10) is due to his ‘defeat’ of the primeval Sea, drawing upon ancient cosmological myth (as noted above). “Rahab” (bh^r*) is one of the names in the tradition for the great Sea-monster of myth, also occurring in Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa 51:9. The same line of mythic tradition probably underlies its application to Egypt (Ps 87:4; Isa 30:7), blending with the naturalistic image of the mighty creatures (i.e., crocodile, hippopotamus) of the Nile to symbolize Egypt’s ancient power and prestige.

Indeed the ‘subduing of the Sea’ motif can be applied to the defeat of human enemies (i.e., enemies of Israel) by YHWH. The event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15) is a good example of this, where God uses his power over the waters to defeat the Egyptians (cf. especially the poetic account in the Song of chap. 15). The primeval Sea (and its monstrous allies) had to be “scattered” in order to create the cosmos, and also to provide the individual bodies of water on earth (and also the rain from above, etc); similarly, human enemies are scattered (vb rz~P*) when they are defeated by God.

The suffixed plural participle ;yb#y+oa means “your hostile (one)s” or “(those) hostile to you”; here, for poetic concision, it has been translated “your foes”.

Verse 12 [11]

“To you (belongs the) heavens, (and) also to you (the) earth;
(the) thriving (world) and its fullness, you have founded them.”

The first line of this next couplet states concisely what has been established in vv. 6-9 and 10-11—namely, that YHWH is Creator and Sovereign over both the heavens and the earth. The conjunctive particle [a^ (“also, indeed”) emphasizes that the earth (and its inhabitants) belong to YHWH, and is under His authority, just as much as the heavens are.

The universe as a whole (as understood within the ancient Near Eastern cosmology) is defined by the pairing “the heavens [upper half] and the earth [lower half]”; however, the inhabitable world, supportive of life, is signified here by the term lb@T@. This noun is extremely difficult to translate, as there is really no English word (or phrase) that corresponds to it. The noun lb@T@, in context, refers to the living and productive aspect of the world—the movement of things (and creatures) from one place to another, entailing growth and activity of all sorts. I have rendered this above as “thriving (world)”. YHWH’s founding (vb ds^y`) of this world, and all that is in it (“its fullness”), refers to His work as Creator (Gen 1:6-31).

Verse 13 [12]

‚a¸ôn and Yamîn, you have created them;
Tabôr and „ermôn, at your name they ring out!”

The final couplet of this strophe, emphasizing YHWH’s sovereignty over all the universe, seems to be utilizing some wordplay that cannot be captured in translation. The terms /opx* and /ymy` in line 1, in particular, likely carry a double-meaning. The noun /opx* denotes something “hidden”, but came to be used specifically, in a directional or geographic sense, for the north. In this, Hebrew tradition (and its poetry) is drawing upon Canaanite religious myth, which located the dwelling of the gods in the north, on the ‘hidden’ peak of a cosmic mountain, which had a local/symbolic manifestation in the mountain called by the name ƒpn or ƒpwn (= Heb ƒ¹¸ôn), modern Jebel el-Aqra. Thus /opx* can refer either to the north, or to a great mountain in the north.

Similarly, /ym!y` (y¹mîn) can refer to the south (lit. right-hand side); but Dahood (II, p. 314) may well be correct that here /my (ymn) also serves as a byform of /ma (°mn), referring to the Amanus mountain(s)—that is, the Alma Dag or Nur mountains. This would allow for the terms /opx* and /ym!y` to refer, alternately, to the directions of north and south, or to the great northern mountain locales of Zaphon and Amanus.

The mountain sites of Tabor and Hermon in the second line add support to the view that there are also mountain references in line 1. Tabor and Hermon are mountains in Israel—located in the northern Esdraelon plain of Galilee, and further north in the anti-Lebanon range, respectively. By contrast, Zaphon and Amanus are located in the ‘far north’, in northern Syria and southern Turkey.

However the first line is to be understood, the emphasis is (again) on YHWH as Creator. His creation of the entirety of the cosmos may be implied by the comprehensive juxtaposition of north/south. On the other hand, creation of the mountains Zaphon and Amanus, with their associations with Semitic/Canaanite mythic tradition, would fit in well with the theme from the first strophe (vv. 6-9, cf. the previous note)—of YHWH’s superiority over all other divine beings. The second line plays on this same theme, by reiterating that even the great mountains, like the heavens (and the heavenly beings), give praise and worship to YHWH. Here, the specific idiom is “ring out [vb /n~r*] (praise)” to God’s name.

In the next note, we will turn to verses 14-15, which, it seems, function as something like a refrain between the second (vv. 10-13) and third (vv. 16-19) strophes.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 77 (Part 2)

Psalm 77, continued

PART 2: Verses 12-21 [11-20]

Strophe 4: Verses 11-13
Verse 11 [10]

“And I said ‘My sickness—(is) it (due to)
(the) changing right hand of (the) Highest?'”

Thematically, verse 11 [10] belongs to the first half of the Psalm (on which, cf. the previous study); however, poetically, according to the five-strophe arrangement (proposed by B. Weber, and followed by Hossfeld-Zenger [pp. 273-6]), it can be counted as the first couplet of the fourth strophe (vv. 11-13).

It is possible to treat verse 11 as either another question (continuing those of the previous strophe), or as a declarative statement by the Psalmist. The context (though not necessarily the syntax) suggests another fearful question, and that is how I translate it above.

The root hlj (I) denotes being weak or sick. The Psalmist describes how he became worn-out physically during his night-time vigil (strophe 2, vv. 5-7), during which time he has meditated and prayed fervently to God—with apparently no answer given (strophe 3, vv. 8-10). The moment is also characterized as a “day of distress” (v. 3) for the Psalmist; this can refer to individual suffering, but it is likely that the protagonist also is meant to represent the people as a whole. Thus, the “sickness” he feels also refers to the condition of the people (of Israel/Judah), perhaps alluding to an Exilic setting.

The “right hand” (/ym!y`) is an idiom for strength and power—and, particularly, the ability to act. When applied to YHWH, it typically connotes His ability to save His people from danger and distress; cf. especially in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:6, 12), and similarly in Deut 33:2; note the usage in the Psalms (17:7; 18:36[35]; 20:7[6]; 44:4[3]; 60:7[5]; 78:54, etc. Probably the event at the Reed Sea is being alluded to specifically (cf. below on vv. 17-20).

The Psalmist’s fear is that YHWH’s strong right hand has “changed” (verbal noun from the root hn`v* I). This verb can sometimes connote “growing old”, with the associated attributes of weakness and withering, etc. If God has chosen (for some reason) not to act, that is one thing, but what if He is now unable to deliver His people? This is the unspoken question among the people, spurred by fear, frustration, and despair.

Verse 12 [11]

“I call to mind (the) dealings of YH(WH);
indeed, I bring to mind your wonders from before.”

The Psalmist responds to the question of fear in v. 11—which, again, thematically marks the climax of the first part of the Psalm—with a hymn of praise to YHWH. The shift from speaking of YHWH (line 1), to addressing Him directly (line 2), is transitional, and makes somewhat more sense when v. 11 is read as the beginning of a strophe. The repetition of the verb rk^z` (“bring to mind, remember”) serves this transition; the verb occurred earlier in vv. 4, 7 (cf. the previous study), being something of keyword for the Psalm. The Kethib has a Hiphil (causative) form in line 1, while the Qere ‘corrects’ this as a Qal imperfect (to match the form in line 1); the Kethib reading is to be preferred as the more difficult, and thus more likely to have been modified by scribes. The Hiphil stem is appropriate for the Psalmist, who, through his composition, will cause YHWH’s deeds to be remembered; however, it also fits the dramatic scene, as the composer wishes to spur God to action by making Him remember what He has done for His people in the past.

The noun ll*u&m^ (from the root llu I), denotes a person’s dealing (i.e., how he deals) with another; specifically it refers here to how YHWH has dealt with His people (and their adversaries) in the past. In particular, the Psalmist has in mind the wonderful deeds (“wonder[s]”, collectively al#P#) God has performed—i.e., miracles, such as the event at the Reed Sea, by which He rescued and brought victory for His people. The word Hy` here is typically understood as the shorthand for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH, i.e., YH or Yah); however, Dahood (II, p. 229) would read it as a superlative (suffixed) element, Hy`-, attached to the noun (i.e., “[your] magnificent deeds”).

The expression <d#Q#m!, as in verse 6, indicates that the Psalmist is referring to things YHWH has done in the past—lit., “from (times) before”.

Verse 13 [12]

“So will I make mention of all your deeds,
and will compose on all your dealings.”

I treat the initial w-conjunction as emphatic (“so, indeed”), building upon the prior couplet. The verb hg`h* properly means something like “mutter”, even though it can be understood specifically as uttering something internally, within one’s heart/mind (i.e., “meditate”). The line is often translated that way here (“I meditate on your deeds”); however, the context suggests that the Psalmist is about to speak. I have rendered the verb loosely as “make mention”, building upon the idea of the Psalmist bringing God’s actions to mind (vb rk^z`) in the prior couplet.

The verb j^yc! in the second line can similarly be used both of audible communication and of something that one goes over in the heart/mind. The latter is probably more common, but here I think that audible communication is intended. In any case, the meaning of “going over” a set of words or facts is primary, and would also be appropriate for the Psalmist’s act of composing; I have translated the verb loosely above as “compose”. I.e., the Psalmist expresses here his intention (fulfilled in vv. 17-20) to compose a poem on YHWH’s mighty deeds from times past.

The supplemental character of this couplet is indicated by its shortened meter (3+2, or 2+2).

Strophe 5: Verses 14-16
Verse 14 [13]

“O Mightiest, your path (is) in the holy (place)—
who (is) a mighty (one) great like (the) Mightiest?”

Dahood (II, p. 230) is probably correct in understanding the noun Er#D# (“path[way]”) in the sense of “domain, dominion” (cp. in Ps 1:1 [I, p. 2])—i.e., the territory where the sovereign treads (ird) as representing his domain. YHWH’s domain (as King) is in the “holy (place)”, that is, the heavens high above; the noun vd#q) specifically refers to God’s dwelling—i.e., His holy palace, represented on earth by the Temple-shrine and its sanctuary. In Near Eastern cosmological tradition (cf. below), the Creator/Sovereign dwells on a great mountain that reaches up into the highest heaven.

The second line demonstrates the basic problem with translating both la@ (E~l) and <yh!ýa$ (E_lœhîm) equally (and flatly) as “God”. Here it results in a translation (“Who [is] a god great like God?”) that Dahood (II, p. 230) rightly calls “insipid”. This all changes, however, when one properly retains the distinction between the old singular form la@ (“Mighty [one]”) and the plural <yh!ýa$ (“Mighty [ones]”), treating the latter as an intensive/superlative (or comprehensive) plural (“Mightiest [One]”). Now, the character of the line as a confession of Israelite (Yahwistic) monotheism becomes clear: “Who (is) a mighty (one) [i.e. a god] (who is great) like (the) Mightiest [i.e., our God El-Yahweh]?”

Verse 15 [14]

“You, the Mighty (One) doing wonder(s),
you make known your strength among the peoples!”

Indeed, YHWH is the only true God (Mighty [One], la@), Creator and Sovereign of the universe, unsurpassed in greatness and strength. For poetic concision, I have translated the perfect verb form in the second line “you make known,” but it should properly be rendered “you have made known”. By the wonders YHWH has performed on behalf of His people (in the past), he has made known His strength (zu)) among all the surrounding peoples. The use of a participle (hc@u), “doing”) in the first line indicates that the performance of “wonders” is part of YHWH’s character; He is able to do such things on a regular basis, so there is no reason why He cannot can act again, now, and perform wonders once more on behalf of His people.

Verse 16 [15]

“You redeemed, with your arm, your people,
(the) sons of Ya’aqob and Yôsep.”
Selah

The wondrous deeds performed by YHWH in the past served to redeem (vb la^G`) the Israelite people, freeing them from servitude to a foreign nation (e.g., Egypt). Indeed, the Exodus from Egypt is primarily in view, with the specific mention of the “sons of Jacob and Joseph” —i.e., the Israelites who came out of Egypt. This reference sets the stage for the poem in vv. 17-20, with its echoes of the Song of the Sea (Exod 15), alluding to the event at the Reed Sea.

Cosmological Poem: Verses 17-20

This brief poem (or portion of a poem) has been inserted into the fabric of the Psalm. It is presented as the work of the Psalmist, but it may represent an older poem, with similarities in theme and structure to the ancient Song of the Sea (or Song of Moses, Exod 15); cf. also Habakkuk 3:10ff. Of course, the Psalmist could simply have written a poem in an archaic style, imitating older poems (like the Song of the Sea or Psalm 18, 29, etc).

This poem has a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon format, while the rest of the Psalm tends to follow a bicolon (couplet) pattern. The poem’s emphasis is cosmological, referring to the subduing of the primeval waters by YHWH (on which, cf. my article in the Ancient Parallels feature on this site). As in the Song of the Sea, this cosmological motif is applied to the history of Israel—esp. to the Exodus and the event at the Reed Sea. YHWH demonstrates his control over the waters, by separating the waters of the Sea, and allowing His people to cross over and escape from Egypt.

Verse 17 [16]

“The waters saw you, O Mightiest,
the waters saw you and swirled—
even (the) depths shook (with fear)!”

These lines allude to YHWH’s subduing of the primeval waters at the beginning of Creation (Gen 1:2); on this cosmological mythic theme, applied to El-Yawheh in ancient Hebrew poetry, cf. my aforementioned article (“Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”). The primary reference here, however, is to the control and power YHWH has over the waters. The waters themselves recognize this power, and acknowledge YHWH as their Lord, responding with fear at the sight of Him. The verb lWj in the second line has a double meaning; fundamentally, it means that the waters “swirled”, but the verb can also connote “twisting” or “writhing” (i.e., in anguish, etc), which would be more fitting to the theme of the waters showing fear. Cf. Psalm 114:3 and Hab 3:10.

Verse 18 [17]

“(The) dark clouds poured forth waters,
(the) fine clouds gave (forth your) voice—
and your arrows went back and forth.”

The theme of YHWH’s control over the waters continues here, shifting the focus to the rain that comes down out of the clouds, accompanied by the phenomena of the storm: thunder (line 2) and lightning (line 3). The Near Eastern storm-theophany is applied to El-YHWH with some frequency in ancient Hebrew poetry (including a number of Psalms, e.g. 18); the similarities with Canaanite Baal-Haddu in this regard helps to explain the fierce ‘rivalry’ between YHWH and Baal, at the religious level, in early Israelite history.

Thunder is frequently denoted by the word loq (“voice”)—i.e., as the “voice” of God; similarly, bolts of lightning are depicted as God’s “arrows” being shot back and forth. The ancient storm-theophany typically has a militaristic context, and especially so when applied to El-YHWH in the Old Testament. To some extent, as noted above, this motif of God as a warrior reflects the cosmological myth of the Creator defeating (subduing) the chaotic primeval waters, and thus allowing an ordered universe (capable of sustaining life) to be established.

The third line of this tricolon, like that of v. 17, begins with the particle [a^, a primitive adverbial/conjunctive particle with emphatic force (“[so] also, even”); it is typically used in poetry, or in comparable poetic/ritual forms.

Verse 19 [18]

“(The) voice of your thunder in the rolling (cloud)s,
(your) lightning-flashes light up (the) world,
(and so) the earth shakes and quakes!”

The power of the storm, and thus of the storm theophany (as applied to YHWH), is vividly expressed in this third tricolon. Here the “voice” (loq) of YHWH (v. 18) is explicitly identified as thunder (<u^r^). Earlier, it was stated that the waters shook in fear at the sight of YHWH; now the entire earth below shakes/quakes in fear at the awesome power of YHWH that is expressed through the rainstorm.

Verse 20 [19]

“On the sea, <Mightiest,> (is) your path,
and your passage-ways on mighty waters,
and (yet) your heel(print)s are not seen!”

The expression of YHWH’s power/control over the waters culminates here with the idea of his treading upon (B=) the waters. The preposition B= could also be rendered “in”, and this meaning is probably intended, at least secondarily, as an allusion to the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, when God led His people “through” (i.e., in) the waters of the Sea. However, it would seem that the principal reference here is to YHWH’s dominion over the waters, illustrated by the path(way)s he walks over/upon them. Yet, in spite of this anthropomorphic imagery, God leaves no “heel-marks” (i.e., footprints) in the surface of the water. His presence is invisible; we can only see the effects of His powerful presence and the control he has over the universe (esp. the rain and storm).

The first line (of the MT) has only two words/beats, in utter contrast to the rest of the poem. It thus seems relatively certain that something has dropped out, and a word is missing. The simplest solution is to propose that an occurrence of <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” i.e., God) has somehow been omitted.

For more on the use of the noun Er#D# (“path[way]”), in the sense of “domain, dominion”, see the note on verse 14 above.

Conclusion: Verse 21 [20]

“May you lead, like the flock, your people,
by (the) hand of Moshe and Aharon!”

The Psalm concludes with this 3+3 couplet, returning to the regular meter of the composition. In a sense, the couplet follows upon verse 16, resuming the line of thought from strophe 5 (cf. above), after the intervening poem of vv. 17-20. If the verb form is read as a typical indicative perfect, then the couplet simply concludes the recitation of YHWH’s past action on behalf of His people—i.e., “You led your people like a flock…”. However, given the prayer-lament emphasis of the Psalm as a whole, a precative perfect seems more fitting as a conclusion (as Dahood, II, p. 233, suggests). That is, the Psalmist states his heartfelt wish for what YHWH will do, expressing it in terms of something that has already happened. A more literal (but very cumbersome) translation would thus be: “(O, that) you (would) have led your people (again) like a flock…!”.

The wish is that YHWH will lead his people out of bondage/distress, just as He did in the time of the Exodus (“by the hand of Moses and Aaron”). This suggests an Exilic setting for the Psalm—viz., God will lead His people out of the (Assyrian/Babylonian) Exile, essentially repeating what He did in the Exodus from Egypt. This is an important theme, for example, in the Deutero-Isaian poems, where the idea of a new Moses also seems to be implied. This Moses-symbolism, accompanied by an application of the prophecy in Deut 18:15-19, helped shaped the eschatological expectation of the “Prophet-like-Moses” who is to come. For more on the Messianic Prophet figure-types, cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

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).

March 11: Psalm 68:20-24

Strophe 6: Psalm 68:20-24 [19-23]

Strophe 5 was discussed in the previous note; on the overall structure of Psalm 68, see the introductory study.

Verse 20 [19]

“Blessed (be the) Lord
day (after) day,
He lifts the burden for us,
the Mighty (One) (is) our salvation!”
Selah

As previously noted, in the third strophe for each part of this Psalm, a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker occurs after the first verse. The reason for this is not at all clear. It may be that the opening verse in the final strophe functions as a refrain, setting the musical pattern, in some fashion, for the lines that follow.

Here, the opening verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets, very much according to the overall metrical pattern of the Psalm. The familiar theme of salvation (hu*Wvy+) is established in this strophe; we may assume that the earlier thematic elements, involving the historical tradition of the Exodus/Conquest, and of YHWH’s cosmological role as a warrior, who fights on behalf of His people, are continued here.

The verb sm^u* denotes carrying a load or burden, but here the idea is surely that of God relieving His people of their burden; Dahood (II, p. 143f) would parse smu in this verse as a Piel privative form, specifically emphasizing the removal of a burden. The Exodus motif of Israel’s deliverance (by God) from bondage and hard labor in Egypt is likely in view. The definite article on la@ (la@h*) in the final line is presumably emphatic, perhaps emphasizing that YHWH (the Mighty [One]) Himself is the source of Israel’s salvation.

Verse 21 [20]

“The Mighty (One) (is indeed) for us
(the) Mighty (One) for (our) salvation,
and to YHWH (our) Lord (we owe)
(our) going forth from death.”

The first couplet of v. 21 essentially repeats the message of v. 20, the repetition itself having an emphatic function. Again the definite article on the first occurrence of la@ is emphatic—i.e., “the Mighty One is indeed for us…”. There is a subtle bit of wordplay, virtually imperceptible to us, in the double use of la@. I have translated the word the same way in both lines; however, it is worth noting that in the first line la@ functions as a proper name (“Mighty [One]”), while in the second line it is a more general term (“[the] mighty [one]”). This is practically identical to the way that we use the word “God” in English; to capture the distinction, we might translate the lines as:

El (is indeed) for us
the God for (our) salvation”

For ancient Israelites, of course, YHWH was identified with the Creator God (la@, El), and the Divine name is used here in the second couplet. This Yahwistic emphasis was an important aspect of Israelite religion that is sometimes overlooked by modern readers of the Old Testament. It is more prominent in the older layers (including the poetry) of the Old Testament Scriptures.

The plural noun toax*oT (“goings forth”) is probably being used in a comprehensive (or intensive) sense, with the reference being primarily to the Exodus. It could also encompass other episodes in Israelite history when YHWH worked salvation for His people. The preposition l= occasionally is used with a meaning similar to /m! (“from”), which would be required by the context here.

Verse 22 [21]

“Indeed, (the) Mightiest struck
(the) head of His enemies,
(the) crown He split (open)
(of him) walking about in his sins.”

Salvation for God’s people means defeat for His enemies, lit. “(those) hostile to Him”. Almost certainly an ordinary military action is implied, though this may be accompanied by supernatural events, such as we see recorded in the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, and in the defeat of Jabin/Sisera (Judges 4-5); the miraculous side of the enemies’ defeat is particularly emphasized in the poetic accounts (Song of the Sea, Song of Deborah).

The defeat is described by the action of YHWH striking (vb Jj^m*) their heads. I follow Dahood (II, p. 144f), in reading MT ru*c@ (“hair”) as a form of the verb ru^v* I (“split [open]”); this root is attested primarily by the noun ru^v^ (“opening, gate[way]”), but cognate occurrences of the verb are known in Ugaritic (¾²r) and Arabic (¾a²ara). This preserves a proper parallelism between the middle lines: “He struck | (their) head / (their) crown | He split”.

The final line, following the ordinary interpretation of the MT, is problematic:

“(of the one [?]) waking about in his sins”

While this rather banal description would certainly characterize the “enemies” of YHWH (i.e., the wicked), it seems awkward and slightly out of place at this point in the strophe. I am tempted to adopt the interpretation of Dahood (II, p. 145), who explains the aleph (a) in wym*v*a&B^ as a prosthetic aleph, and thus reads the word as a form of <y]m^v* (“heaven[s]”), rather than <v*a* (“sin, guilt”). The participle EL@h^t=m! (“walking about”) then would refer to YHWH, not the wicked person (cf. verse 25). Dahood would read the line as follows—

“going (forth) from His heavens”

which would continue the theme from the earlier strophes, emphasizing YHWH’s march alongside His people to the Promised Land, fighting their enemies (who are also His enemies) along the way, making war on their behalf.

Verse 23 [22]

“(The) Lord said:
‘From /v*B* I make (them) return,
return from (the) depths of (the) sea.'”

This verse, as it stands, is even more difficult and enigmatic than v. 22. To begin with, there is no object specified for the Hiphil (causative) verb byv!a*, used twice, in lines 2 and 3. The verb bWv means “turn (back)”, and the Hiphil form here thus means “I make turn (back), I make return”. Presumably the people Israel, God’s people, are the implied object. Moreover, the act of making them ‘return’ must be related in some way to the salvation He works on their behalf, defeating their enemies, etc.

The use of the idiom of “the depths [tolx%m=] of the sea” suggests a general reference to the rescue of His people out of grave danger. In view of this, it is unlikely that /v*B* in the prior line is another reference to Bashan (cf. verse 16). One suspects that a bit of wordplay is involved, which certainly would be typical of the Psalmist’s style. An answer is at hand, by explaining /vb (bšn) here as cognate to Ugaritic b¾n (cf. also Akkadian bašmu), a reference to the great mythic-cosmic Serpent (or Dragon) associated with the Sea (and the primeval waters). In ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth, the Creator God subdues the (dark and chaotic) primeval waters, an act often depicted in terms of defeated a great Serpent-monster. I discuss this mythic tradition in an earlier article. There are a number of references and allusions to this tradition in Old Testament poetry, including several in the Psalms; perhaps the most explicit reference is in Isa 27:1, where the cosmological event is given an eschatological interpretation (cp. in the book of Revelation).

It is significant that, in several passages, the defeat of the sea-monster is tied to the Exodus event (at the Reed Sea), and to the deliverance of the Israelite people from Egypt; cf. Isa 51:9-10; and note the parallel in Ezek 29:3ff. In Psalm 74:12-14, the cosmological tradition of God subduing the Sea-monster is clearly applied, in a general sense, to the idea of His “working salvation in the midst of the earth”. Thus, the idiom could be understood here either in a general sense, or in the specific context of the Exodus. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 145.

Verse 24 [23]

“‘So then you may <wash>
your feet in (the) blood,
(and for the) tongue of your dogs
(your) enemies (shall be) their portion!'”

The final two couplets of this difficult strophe are vivid in their imagery, but rather awkward in terms of the clarity of the poetic syntax. The twisted character of these forceful lines could well be intentional, as if meant to convey, in poetic terms, the harshness of the enemies’ fate. The words of YHWH continue from the previous verse.

There is no doubt that, in accordance with the idea expressed throughout this strophe, YHWH works salvation for His people by defeating their enemies. A military defeat (in battle) is implied, as with the earlier imagery of crushing heads and splitting skulls (v. 22). Here the dominant image is of a bloodbath; i.e., so much blood has been spilled that the victorious Israelites will be able to wash their feet in it. Most commentators are in agreement that the verb Jj^m* (“strike”) in the first line of the MT should be emended to the verb Jj^r* (“wash”), cf. Ps 58:12 [11]; the error presumably was introduced under the influence of the occurrence of Jj^m* in v. 22 (cf. above).

The imagery is extended, in a cruder and more grotesque manner, in the final couplet, as it is announced that the dogs of the Israelite people will have the corpses as their “portion” (hn*m*), able to lick up the blood and feed on the flesh of the bodies (cf. 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23-24, 38, etc).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 46

Psalm 46

Dead Sea MSS: This Psalm is not preserved in the surviving manuscripts

This Psalm may be characterized as a “song of Zion” —that is, a hymn focusing on Jerusalem and the Temple as the dwelling-place of YHWH. It is to be divided into three parts, or strophes, based on the occurrences of the poetic marker hl*s# (Selah) after verses 4, 8, and 12. Assuming that the first occurrence of hl*s# in the MT is correct (cf. the discussion below), it is possible that the closing refrain of the 2nd and 3rd strophes has dropped out of the text (between vv. 4 and 5) and could be restored.

Based on a three-strophe division, the thematic outline would be as follows:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 2-4 [1-3]): The covenant protection provided by YHWH, through his controlling power
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 5-8 [4-7]): The protection that YHWH gives to His city, Jerusalem (Zion)
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 9-12 [8-11]): The controlling power of YHWH as Creator and King of the universe

As with the previous Psalm 45, this Psalm is a “song” (ryv!)—that is, a poetic text set to an existing melody. This distinguishes it from an original romz+m!, or musical composition, including both words and music. Here the melody is defined by the term toml*u& (cf. also 1 Chron 15:20), which presumably means “(the) young maidens”; conceivably, it could refer to a mode or manner of musical presentation, rather than a specific melody. As with most of the musical directions in the Psalms, the precise meaning has been lost over the centuries.

On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah,” see the introduction to Psalm 42/43. It is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, using the common plural name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”) in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH), though not as thoroughly as in other Psalms (cf. the occurrences of hwhy that have been retained in v. 9 [8] and the refrain at the close of the strophes).

First strophe, vv. 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“(The) Mightiest (is) for us a place of protection and strength,
help in (time)s of distress, found in abundance.”

This first couplet establishes both the theme of the poem and the meter (4-beat bicolon, 4+4). The initial word is an example of the tendency in the ‘Elohist’ Psalter to substitute the plural term/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”), commonly used for deity (i.e., God), in place of the Divine name YHWH. The idea of God as a “place of protection” (hs#j&m^) and a strong ‘fortress’ (“strength,” zu)) is frequent in the Psalms. It is based on the protection YHWH is obligated to provide to his faithful vassals, according to the terms of the covenant.

The plural noun torx* (hr*x*, “pressure, stress, distress”) should be understood as “times of distress” (i.e., moments when one is in distress). The adverbial particle da)m= has intensive force, and is best rendered here as “in abundance,” or something similar. It is not unusual for a poetic line to end with the particle da)m=; however, cf. Dahood, p. 278, for a different reading of dam.

Verse 3 [2]

“Upon this [i.e. for this reason] we will not fear at (the) changing of (the) earth,
even at (the) sliding of (the) mountains in(to the) heart of (the) sea.”

The protection provided by YHWH is fundamental (v. 2 [1]), it extends even to the experience of the most terrifying natural disasters (defined here as “the changing [vb rWm] of the earth”). Such changes can result in catastrophic conditions for human beings, even to the point of wiping out an entire city (or civilization). Here it is illustrated with the image of a mountain (or hill) collapsing with a rock-slide down into the depths (lit. the “heart”) of the sea. God’s people do not need to be afraid of such natural disasters, much less the milder forms of distress we are likely to encounter.

Verse 4 [3] {a}

“(Though) its waters clamor and boil (up),
and (the) mountains shake at its rising.”

This couplet follows v. 3 [2], and belongs with it conceptually. It represents a reverse-image: instead of the mountains collapsing down into the sea, they quake with fear (vb vu^r*) as the waters (of the sea) rise up (verbal noun hw`a&G~). The same basic idea of a earth-shaking natural disaster is in view, and the command not to fear (in v. 3) covers this verse as well.

The meter shifts in this couplet from the 4-beat (4+4) pattern to a shorter 3-beat (3+3) rhythm.

Verse 4 [3] {b}

“<YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!>”
Selah

If the marker hl*s# (Selah) following v. 4 [3] is correct (cf. the discussion by Dahood, p. 280), marking the end of the strophe, then it is possible that the recurring refrain (found in the other two strophes) has dropped out and could be restored. Such a restoration, indicated by the angle-brackets, is presented above. The protection/fortress motif continues here with the noun bG`c=m!, which means something like “place (set) high up”, i.e., a safe place in a protected and inaccessible location.

Second Strophe, vv. 5-8 [4-7]

Verse 5 [4]

“(The) river (with) its streams gives joy (to the) city of (the) Mightiest,
(the) Most High makes holy His dwelling-place.”

The mixture of images here is a bit curious (cf. Dahood, p. 280, for a different way of reading and dividing vv. 4-5). Certainly the idea of a river running through Jerusalem (and associated with the Temple) is attested in exilic and post-exilic prophecy (Ezek 47; Zech 14:8). That eschatological imagery probably reflects the original garden-paradise of Eden (Gen 2:6-14), i.e., the Garden of God. Here, almost certainly, such an association with Creation (and God as Creator) is in view (cp. Psalm 65:9). However, the cosmological aspect may go deeper than that, with an allusion to the ancient Near Eastern myth of the ‘Conflict with the Sea’. The turbulence of the sea in vv. 3-4 (cf. above) may allude to this ancient motif of the chaotic primeval waters which were ‘defeated’ and subdued by God, bringing order to the created universe. By subduing the waters, God affirms His control over them. It is thus a fundamental image of the sovereignty of YHWH over the cosmos, of God as both Creator and King.

In the Canaanite Baal Epic, following Baal Haddu’s defeat of the Sea (Yamm, cf. the plural <yM!y~, yammîm, here in v. 3), to mark his position as king and ruler over Creation, Baal is given a magnificent dwelling-place, a palace in the heavens. Something of this same mythological language almost certainly was applied to YHWH in ancient Israel, connecting the Jerusalem Temple with God’s work of Creation and His rule as King over the entire cosmos. Here, the dwelling-place (/K*v=m!) of YHWH is consecrated (lit. “made holy”). With Kraus (p. 459) and other commentators, I read vdq as a Piel verb form, to be vocalized as vD@q! (“make holy”). From a religious and ritual standpoint, the cosmic/heavenly dwelling of God is localized in the Jerusalem Temple sanctuary. Traditionally, in ancient Canaan, the dwelling of the Creator El (as also that of Baal Haddu) was localized on a mountain. The same was true of YHWH (El-Yahweh) among the Israelites and other Semitic peoples (i.e., the sacred site of Mt. Sinai/Horeb). The Jerusalem location of the Temple (Zion) was, in its own way, such a ‘mountain’.

Verse 6 [5]

“(The) Mightiest (is) in her midst, she shall not be shaken,
(for the) Mightiest will help her, at (the) turn of day-break.”

The meter of vv. 5-6 [4-5], as we have them, is irregular, but symmetric: a 4+3 couplet, followed by a corresponding 3+4 couplet. Conceptually, the two verses are also related, as can be seen by the emphatic (three-fold) use of the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, in place of YHWH). The “river” in v. 5 [4] represents the presence of YHWH, and also His creative, life-sustaining power (cp. Psalm 65:9). This is made more explicit here in v. 6, where it is stated that God is “in the midst of” His city (HB*r=q!B=, “in the midst of her”). The Divine presence is the source of protection for Zion (“He will help her”). And the protection is immediate, coming at the very moment of day-break, and lasting all day long.

Verse 7 [6]

“(The) nations clamored (and) kingdoms shook,
He gave (forth) with His voice, (and the) earth melted.”

The 4-beat (4+4) metrical pattern is restored here in this verse. Thematically, this also marks a return to the imagery of vv. 3-4. The “clamor” (vb hm*h*) of the sea and the “shaking” (vb fom) of the mountains are here applied to the nations (and their kingdoms), as they react to the presence and power of YHWH. The manifest presence of God in creation is expressed by the all-encompassing sound of thunder, i.e., as the “voice” of God. This illustrates the extent to which YHWH shares certain characteristics and features with Baal Haddu (as worshiped by the Canaanites). The cosmic kingship of YHWH, like that of Baal Haddu, was expressed through storm theophany—i.e., God as manifest in the storm. It is an altogether natural (and powerful) way of depicted God’s authority over the world (and the nations of the world).

We see how this ties back to the message in the first strophe. God’s people need not be afraid, even in the face of natural disaster, because YHWH is sovereign and has control over all of nature. His word and His voice created the universe, and it can just as easily dissolve the created order again, turning it into a formless mass (“the earth melted”).

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”
Selah

On this refrain, cf. the discussion on v. 4 [3] above. The divine name (hwhy, YHWH) here is not substituted (by <yh!l)a$), possibly because the traditional title toab*x= hwhy was so well-established that it was not deemed appropriate to alter it in context. The title, which occurs frequently in the Old Testament, probably derived from a sentence-epithet, applied to the Creator (°E~l)—viz., “(the) Mighty (One) [la@], (who) creates (the heavenly) armies”. Once the verbal element hwhy came to stand on its own, as the primary name of God, this epithet was curiously reduced (in syntax) to an awkward contrast form: i.e., “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies”. I have tried to preserve something of the original meaning, with a more expansive gloss: “YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies”.

Third Strophe, vv. 9-12 [8-11]

Verse 9 [8]

“Come, behold (the thing)s done by YHWH,
who has put (away the) horrors on (the) earth.”

The theme of YHWH as Creator and King over the universe is given greater emphasis in the final strophe, making for a dramatic and majestic conclusion to the Psalm. However, the precise wording here in this initial couplet (the second line) is problematic. Literally, the MT would read “…who put horrors in the earth”, or “…who put devastation in the earth”. While this would generally be appropriate to the imagery in v. 7 [6] (cf. above), as well as the violent judgment against the nations expressed in v. 9 [8], it does not seem to fit the overriding theme of YHWH exerting His control and authority over creation. Possibly, the idea is that the devastation (caused by His judgment) leads to order and peace.

Dahood (p. 281) points out the important relationship between this line and the one that follows in v. 9, where the emphasis is on YHWH putting an end to war. He notes the famous refrain that runs through portions of the Canaanite Baal Epic (Tablet III, column iii, lines 14-17, etc):

“Place war (down) in the earth,
set love in the dust;
pour peace amid the earth,
tranquility amid the fields.”

The passionate (and violent) extremes of war and love are to be buried, and replaced by peace and tranquility. Dahood suggests that twmv be read as cognate to Ugaritic šmt (“oil, fatness”), from šmnt (Heb hn`m@v=, cf. Gen 49:20). It is an interesting proposal, but I find it ultimately unconvincing. Perhaps the line can be explained more simply by understanding the common verb <yc! (“set, put”) here in the specific sense of “put (away), set (aside)”. This interpretation would fit precisely with the first line of v. 10 [9]: YHWH puts an end to the devastation caused by humankind, the warfare of the nations.

Verse 10 [9]

“He is making wars cease, to (the) end of (the) earth:
he breaks (the) bow, and he cuts off (the) spear,
(the) wheeled (chariot) he burns with fire.”

This verse builds upon the idea of YHWH as King, exercising his power and authority to put an end to the devastation caused by humankind (the nations) on the earth (v. 9 [8]). Here it is described specifically in terms of destroying the ability of nations/kingdoms to make war. The 4-beat couplet format of the Psalm is expanded in this verse, for dramatic effect, to form a 4+4+3 tricolon. The abolishing of war is complete and universal—it covers the entire earth, from one end (hx#q=) to the other.

Verse 11 [10]

“Let (them) drop and know that I (am the) Mightiest,
(who) stands high o(ver) the nations, high o(ver) the earth!”

The precise meaning of the first imperative (vb hp*r*) is uncertain. The fundamental meaning of the root is “sink, drop, weaken”; here the Hiphil form indicates a definite act (i.e., “let sink, let drop”). In my view, this is best understood in light of the overall theme in this strophe of YHWH putting an ending to warfare. He is essentially telling the nations to “let their weapons drop”, “let their arm (and their warring spirit) sink”. A cessation of violence and hostility is required, in the face of YHWH’s power as King over all the universe. Instead of their warring acts, the nations must stand down and acknowledge (“know”) that YHWH is the Mightiest One (i.e., God over all, the Creator and King). He stands high (vb <Wr) over all the nations—indeed, over the entire earth. The implication, of course, is that the nations must recognize the greatness of YHWH. In the end, confronted by the awesome presence of God Himself, humankind has no choice but to acknowledge Him as Sovereign over all.

Verse 12 [11]

“YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”
Selah

The same refrain from the second strophe (v. 8 [7], and cf. also on the first strophe, v. 4 [3]) is repeated here, making a most suitable conclusion to the Psalm. Given the description in the strophe of YHWH’s sovereign power and control over the entire universe (including all nations and their kingdoms), it only confirms the promise expressed in the refrain. God’s people can trust that He will protect them in the face of danger, as long as they remain faithful to Him.

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

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).