Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 100

Psalm 100

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsb (vv. 1-2)

This is the final Psalm of the collection Pss 93-100, all of which deal with the central theme of the Kingship of YHWH. Various thematic links from the Psalms of this collection converge in the brief hymn of praise that comprises Psalm 100. These links have been analyzed thoroughly by Howard in his study (pp. 105-65).

There is a simple three-part structure to Psalm 100, being composed of three tricola. The first and third tricola (vv. 1-2, 4) have a common 3-beat (3+3+3) meter, while the second (central) tricolon (v. 3) has an extended/expanded meter (4+4+3). Verse 3 may be considered as a bridge between the two praise strophes of vv. 1-2 and 4. This bridge-verse describes the reason for praising YHWH, emphasizing His relationship (as God) to His people (Israel). The praise strophes deal with two key themes found elsewhere in the collection: (1) the universality of YHWH’s Kingship, which demands that all people everywhere (indeed, even all of creation) worship Him; and (2) the (ritual) praise that is expected of His people, focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. The final couplet (v. 5) serves as a concluding doxology, both for Psalm 100 and the collection as a whole.

As with other Psalms in this collection, a pre-exilic date (in the monarchic period) seems likely, though it is impossible to be any more precise than this. Parallels (in Pss 93-100) to the Deutero-Isaian poems suggest a late pre-exilic time-frame. Both the Temple-setting and the Kingship theme are fully compatible with the Judean royal theology of the monarchic period. The Psalm itself may have been part of ritual worship in the Temple from early times, or, at least, draws upon such traditions.

Psalms 98 and 100 are the only Psalms of the collection which contain a heading, simply designating the work as musical composition (romz+m!). Psalm 100 adds the detail that it is “for confession” (hd*otl=), i.e., a confession of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Verses 1-2

“Make a shout to YHWH, all the earth!
May you serve YHWH with gladness!
Come before His face with a ringing cry!”

The Psalms of this collection (93-100) typically begin with a call to worship, often emphasizing the universality of YHWH’s Kingship. His Rule extends over all the earth, and so all peoples and nations—even all of creation itself—are to give Him praise. See, for example, this theme highlighted in the prior studies on Psalm 98 (vv. 4-6ff) and 99 (vv. 1-2). The call for “all the earth” to shout (vb u^Wr) praise to God closely resembles the call in 98:4 (see also 96:1, 11; 97:1). Within the collection, the verb uWr occurs in 95:1-2 and 98:4, 6. The noun hn`n`r= is quite rare, but the verb /n~r* is quite frequent in the Psalms (e.g., 95:1; 96:12; 98:4, 8) and the later Prophetic poetry. Both verbs uwr and /nr denote the giving of a ringing shout or cry (viz., of praise).

Verse 3

“Know that YHWH, He (is the) Mightiest!
He made us, and (it is) to Him we (belong),
(we) His people and flock of His pasture.”

The central tricolon of the Psalm gives the principal reason for praising YHWH. This is indicated in line 1: He is the Mightiest (One) [<yh!l)a$]—that is, the greatest of all gods (“mighty [one]s”, <yh!l)a$), the Sovereign over all other divine/heavenly beings. This theological declaration refers to the universal aspect of YHWH’s kingship (emphasized in vv. 1-2), alluding to the Prophetic promise that eventually all peoples will recognize and worship YHWH as their God. However, it also relates to the emphasis in the third tricolon (v. 4), focusing on the worship to be given to YHWH by Israel—He is their God (“Mighty [One]”, <yh!l)a$), and they His people.

Indeed, this covenant-emphasis, occurring so frequently in the Psalms, is specified in lines 2 and 3, using traditional language and imagery. The declaration in line 2, that YHWH “made” Israel, alludes to His role as Creator, but also to the way that he formed Israel, as a distinct nation and people, when He brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. This same language occurs, notably, in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:6ff).

The Kethib of the Masoretic Text reads “and not [al)w+] we”, which gives a contrastive emphasis to the line: “He (it is who) made us, and not we (ourselves)”. However, the Qere indicates that, instead of the negative particle al), the text should correctly be read as ol (“to/for him”)—the preposition l= and the third person singular suffix. Along with other commentators (e.g., Howard, p. 92; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 492), I follow the Qere. For a different way of understanding the text, see Dahood II, p. 371f.

The third line builds upon the point made in the second line—namely, that Israel is YHWH’s chosen people (“[we are] His people”), i.e., “we (belong) to Him”. This is central to the covenant-bond that informs the Israelite religious-cultural identity. The pronoun Wnj=n~a& (“we”) could be treated as part of either the second or third line; we may also regard it as doing double-duty, serving as a kind of join between the two lines:

“(belong) to Him we

Wnj=n~a&

we (are) His people”

It is also possible that the pronoun occurred in both lines, as attested, apparently, by the LXX (Codex A). If the pronouns occurred in sequence, at the end of the second line and also the beginning of third, then the loss of one could easily be explained as a scribal error (haplography). Adding to the attractiveness of this hypothesis is the fact that restoring a second pronoun results in a more consistent (4-beat, 4+4+4) meter for the verse. Cf. the discussion in Howard, p. 95.

The motif of YHWH as a shepherd to Israel, with the people thus as His flock of sheep (/ax)), occurs frequently in Old Testament tradition. This includes numerous examples in the Psalms—28:9; 44:12[11], 23[22]; 68:11[10]; 74:1; 77:21[20]; 78:52, 71; 79:13; 80:2[1]; 95:7; 119:176, and the entirety of Psalm 23. This shepherd-motif connotes the care and guidance that YHWH provides for His people; indeed, both of these aspects are embedded in the the image of the tyu!rm!—literally, a place for grazing/feeding the sheep, translated typically (and here, for poetic concision) as “pasture”. The shepherd guides the flock to a place where they may graze, and guiding them to such place demonstrates the shepherd’s concern to nurture and care for his flock.

Verse 4

“Come (into) His gates with praise,
and in His enclosures with joyful song!
Give praise to Him and bless His name!”

The final tricolon, like the first (vv. 1-2, above), has a 3+3+3 meter. Both strophes express a call to praise YHWH; however, while the first strophe had a universal orientation (“all the earth”), the focus in this third strophe is on the worship given to YHWH by His people Israel. As noted above, this shift occurs in the second tricolon (lines 2&3). The call to worship here in verse 4 assumes a ritual setting in the Jerusalem Temple. Both the “gates” (ru^v^, plur.) and the “enclosures” (rx@j*, plur.), i.e., courtyards, are traditional allusions to the Temple precincts and its Jerusalem locale (Zion). This strophe may reflect an actual ritual procession when the Psalm itself would have been sung.

The regular nouns hd*oT (line 1) and hL*h!T= (line 2) have similar meaning—the former refers to a confession (vb hd*y` II), viz., of praise or thanksgiving (to God), while the latter (vb ll^h* II) indicates the giving forth of a bright and joyous song. The same verbal root (hd*y`) from line 1 also occurs in line 3. One is called on both to praise YHWH and to bless (vb Er^B*) Him—indicating two distinct, but related, aspects of worship. To bless the name of God essentially means the same as blessing Him; on the significance of names and naming in ancient Near Eastern thought, see the introduction to my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”. The reference here may allude to the specific tradition of YHWH’s name residing in the Jerusalem Temple; this is most prominent in the Deuteronomic writings (Deut 12:5, 11, 21; 14:23-24, et al.), as, for example, throughout Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8, vv. 16-20, 29, 33, 35, 42-44, 48)—on which, cf. my recent series of notes.

Verse 5

“For good (is) YHWH—
His loyalty to (the) distant (future),
and His firmness unto cycle and cycle!”

The final couplet forms a concluding doxology—both for Psalm 100, and the collection (93-100) as a whole. The 4+3 meter of this couplet is difficult to capture in translation, though it can be approximated somewhat by a more conventional rendering:

“For good (is) YHWH—His loyalty (lasts) forever,
and His firmness to generation and generation!”

The implicit theme of the second half of the Psalm (vv. 3b-4)—namely, the covenant bond between YHWH and His people—is emphasized also here in the final couplet. The terms ds#j# and hn`Wma$ (or the related tm#a#), paired with some frequency in the Psalms (e.g., 36:6[5]; 40:11-12[10-11]; 57:4[3], 11[10]; 69:14[13]; 85:11[10]; 86:15; 88:12[11]; 89:2-3[1-2], 15[14], 29[28], 34[33]; 92:3; 98:3, etc), are part of this covenant-context. The noun ds#j# properly means “goodness, kindness”, but, in such a context as we find here, connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. As for hn`Wma$, it means “firmness”, but often in the sense of “faithfulness”. The adjective bof (“good”) similarly here connotes “faithful, loyal”.

This loyalty of YHWH effectively lasts forever—He Himself will never violate the binding agreement (covenant) with His people. This abiding, durative aspect of YHWH’s faithfulness is expressed by two regular idioms: <l*oul= (“into [the] distant [future]”), and rd)w+ rD)-du^ (“unto cycle and cycle”). The noun <l*ou can refer to either the distant past or the distant future; here it clearly refers to the future. The expression rd)w+ rD) (lit., “circle and circle”, or “cycle and cycle”) indicates both continuity and perpetuity—that is, as each cycle (rD)) of time passes, and, with it, each circle (rD)) of people (i.e., ‘generation’) living during that period. YHWH will remain loyal, over time, to each generation of His people.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).
Those marked “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 99

Psalm 99

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsk (vv. 1-2, 5); 4QPsv (v. 1); 4QPsb (vv. 5-6)

Like other Psalms in the collection Pss 93-100, Psalm 99 praises YHWH as King. The universality of His Kingship is likewise emphasized. Other thematic links and common vocabulary are shared by these Psalms; in the case of Psalm 99, one may note, in particular, the connections with Psalms 97 (see the earlier study) and 98 (previous study). For a relatively detailed examination of these links, see the analysis by Howard, pp. 157-9, 161-2, 164-5.

This Psalm has a strophic structure, comprised of three strophes, each of which concludes with a declaration of YHWH’s holiness (“Holy [is] He!” in strophes 1 and 2). The strophes are similar in form, but are far from consistent in rhythm. Verses 6-7 represent an interlude, drawing upon Israelite history, and establish the thematic transition to the final strophe. The meter is irregular throughout, and it is impossible to say whether the Psalm, in an earlier form, had more consistent rhythm in its strophes.

As with other Psalms in this collection, a pre-exilic date (in the monarchic period) seems likely. As Howard notes (p. 192), the use of zu) as a substantive (Divine) title (“Strong/Mighty [One]”, v. 4) occurs in early poetry (Exod 15:2; cf. Psalm 29:1), which suggests the possibility that Psalm 99 was composed at a relatively earlier point (in the monarchic period) than others in the collection.

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsk includes a heading, which designates the Psalm as a “musical composition” (romz+m!), as in Psalm 98 MT; it also (probably) included the attribution dw]d*l= (“belonging to David”), as the the letter d can be read prior to romzm.

First Strophe: verses 1-3

Verse 1

“YHWH is king—let (the) peoples tremble!
Seated (upon the) kerû»s—let the earth stagger!”

The theme of YHWH’s kingship is established in this initial (4-beat, 4+4) couplet. Again, as in other Psalms of this collection (see above), YHWH is presented as King over all creation—all of the earth and its inhabitants. We find often, as here, a call for the nations to worship YHWH, acknowledging Him as King. There is a clear parallelism between each half-line:

    • “YHWH reigns as King [vb El^m*]”
    • “being seated (on the) kerubs”

The “kerubs” (plur. <yb!WrK=) refer to the winged creatures on the golden chest (ark) of the covenant, which was situated in the Temple sanctuary, functioning as the symbolic/ritual ‘throne’ of YHWH. Thus, even though He is King over the entire universe (ruling from heaven), he is also ‘enthroned’ on earth in the Temple sanctuary.

The response of humankind to YHWH’s Kingship is indicated in the second half-line:

    • “let (the) peoples quake/tremble [vb zg~r*]”
    • “let the earth wobble/stagger [vb fWn]”

All peoples everywhere—and even all of creation itself—should shake and tremble before YHWH as King. There may be an allusion here to the eschatological notion that the nations will come to Jerusalem (and the Temple) to pay homage to YHWH (cf. Micah 4:1-3 [par Isa 2:2-4], etc).

The verb fWn occurs only here in the Old Testament. It is doubtless similar in meaning to Ugaritic n‰‰ (ffn), “wobble, totter”; as Dahood (II, p. 368) notes, weak verbs that share the same two base consonants (in this case, fn) typically have a common/similar meaning.

Verse 2

“(Indeed,) YHWH in ‚iyyôn is great—
raised high (is) He over all (the) peoples!”

This second couplet (3-beat, 3+3) emphasizes the greatness and majesty of YHWH, as he reigns (as King) from His throne in Jerusalem (Zion). The verbs ld^G` (“be great”) and <Wr (“be high”) are used. The implicit idea in verse 1, of YHWH’s reign extending over all the nations (and peoples) of earth, is expressed more clearly here. I treat the initial w-conjunction in the second line as emphatic, and, for poetic concision, I have essentially transferred it to the start of the first line in my translation (above).

Verse 3

“Let them praise your name,
O Great and Fearsome (One)!
Holy (indeed is) He!”

Rhythmically, the initial couplet (v. 1) has four beats, the second (v. 2) three beats, and the third (v. 3) here 2 beats (2+2). The couplets thus increasingly narrow their focus, becoming terser and more direct. Here, the call (for all people) to praise YHWH is essentially repeated from v. 1. Praising the name of YHWH means praising YHWH Himself. However, there may be a specific allusion to the idea that YHWH is present in the Temple sanctuary particularly through His name. This is a key Deuteronomic theme (Deut 12:5ff; 26:2, etc), found extensively, for example, throughout Solomon’s prayer (at the Temple dedication) in 1 Kings 8 (vv. 16-20, 29, 33, 35, 42-44, 48), a passage which I have discussed in a recent series of notes.

The adjectives lodG` (“great”) and ar*on (“fearsome”, or “(to) be feared”) are best understood here as descriptive epithets of YHWH, though they could just as well be applied to His name (cf. Deut 28:58).

The strophe ends with the two-beat refrain, “Holy (is) He!” (aWh vodq*). In context, this declaration could also apply to YHWH’s name (i.e., “Holy it [is]!”).

Second Strophe: Verses 4-5

Verse 4a

“Indeed, (the) Strong (One is) King! He loves justice!
You make (it) firm (with) straight (judgment)s.”

The first couplet of the second strophe has, apparently, an irregular 4+3 meter (cp. 4+4 in strophe 1). The thematic focus is on the judgment rendered by YHWH as King (and thus, also as Judge). By His straight (i.e., fair, even) decisions, He establishes justice throughout. Here, the noun fP*v=m! means both “judgment” and “justice”. The sudden shift from third person (line 1) to second person (line 2) address may seem a bit strange and off-putting, but it is not all that uncommon in the Psalms.

I follow Howard (p. 85f) and other commentators in reading zu) (“strength”) as a Divine title (i.e., “Strong [One]”); the sense could be adverbial, i.e., the One who rules with strength. The initial w-conjunction of the first line, opening the strophe as it does, should be taken as emphatic.

Verse 4b

“Justice and righteousness in Ya’aqob
(indeed) you make (stand)!”

Again, this (second) couplet has irregular meter (3+2, cp. 3+3 in strophe 1). It follows upon the first (v. 4a), expounding the justice which YHWH, as King, “makes firm” on earth. In particular, He establishes justice (and righteousness) in Israel (“Jacob”), among His people. This refers to the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel, and His faithfulness and loyalty to that bond.

It is conceivable that a word has dropped out from the second line of v. 4b, as the short line t*yc!u* hTa^ (“you do/make”) reads somewhat oddly. Unfortunately, the three fragmentary Qumran manuscripts which contain this Psalm do not preserve verse 4, so there is no way to confirm the MT at this point.

Verse 5

“Lift high YHWH our Mighty (One),
and bow before (the) stool of His feet!
Holy (indeed is) He!”

The third strophe is a 3-beat couplet (as in strophe 1), calling on people to give praise and worship to YHWH. Here, the focus is specifically on the people of Israel (cf. verse 4), who are to worship YHWH as their King and God. The motif of the “stool [<d)h&] for His feet” probably alludes to the Ark (as YHWH’s ‘throne’) located in the Temple sanctuary (see v. 1b, above). Thus, a Temple worship setting is implied, and could indicate a ritual (liturgical) setting for the Psalm.

Transitional Verses (6-7)

Verse 6a

“Moše and Aharon (were) among His priests,
and Šemû’el among (those) calling His name.”

These transitional verses refer, in a general and summary way, to Israelite religious history—in particular, to those priestly/prophetic leaders who served YHWH. Moses and Aaron (in the Exodus period) are paired with Samuel (period of the Judges).

Verse 6b

“(They were) calling to YHWH,
and He answered them.”

This short two-beat (2+2) couplet follows the three-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 6a. It summarizes the dynamic relationship between YHWH and the faithful priestly/prophetic leaders: they call to YHWH, and He answers them.

Verse 7

“In a standing (mass) of cloud He spoke to them;
they guarded His repeated (command)s,
and (the) engraved (law) He gave to them.”

This long prosaic couplet (4-beat, 4+4) I have extended in translation as three lines (4+2+2). It again summarizes the dynamic for the faithful ones of God’s people, in their covenantal relationship to YHWH. Moses and Samuel, as leaders, represent the people. Their faithfulness (and covenant loyalty) serve as the ideal pattern and example for the people to follow. YHWH gave His commands (i.e., the Torah regulations) to Moses (and thus to the people) out of the cloud. The faithful ones guarded (vb rm^v*) His commands, and took care to obey them. The noun qj) denotes something engraved or inscribed, usually in the sense of an authoritative, governing rule or statute; the term here alludes the theme of YHWH’s kingship.

I have translated the plural of hd*u@ according to its fundamental meaning of “something repeated”. YHWH’s commands are to be repeated, in terms of obedience to them (their fulfillment, etc), but also in the sense of repeating them (and their importance) for subsequent generations.

Third Strophe: Verses 8-9

Verse 8

“(Yes,) YHWH, our Mighty (One), you answered them—
a Mighty (One) lifting (guilt) you were for them,
and (as the) avenging (Most) High dealt with them.”

The historical setting established in the transitional vv. 6-7 (above) leads into the third (and final) strophe. The structure and rhythm differs from the the first two strophes, reflecting the prosaic (and didactic) tone of the transitional lines. Instead of a pair of couplets, we have here an irregular (4+3+3) tricolon. The first line picks up from verse 7.

The theme of YHWH’s Kingship has been translated into the idiom of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. In this binding agreement, YHWH is the Sovereign, and the people His servants. They are obligated to serve Him faithfully, by following the terms of the agreement (i.e., the Torah precepts and regulations, v. 7). YHWH would respond to them based on whether or not they fulfilled their covenant obligations. If they fulfilled them faithfully, then YHWH would be a merciful and forgiving Sovereign, one who “lifts” (vb ac*n`) away sin and guilt, and who “lifts” His people, carrying them with His (Divine) protection and blessing. This is expressed in line 2.

However, if they were unfaithful and refused to follow the terms of the covenant, then YHWH would become an avenging (vb <q^n`) Ruler, dealing (root llu) with His people as their disobedience deserves. This negative side is the focus of line 3. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 369), in treating lu as a Divine title (“High [One], [Most] High”); this establishes a clear parallel between the lines:

“Mighty [One] lifting…” | “High [One] avenging…”

The final word is problematic. The MT reads “their dealing”; in such a context, the noun hl*yl!a& usually has a decidedly negative connotation, i.e. “evil dealing” —that is, wicked/improper behavior and treatment of others. However, it is probably better to view the suffix here as reflecting a dative of (dis)advantage (cf. Dahood, II, p. 370), and with the noun retaining the verbal force of its root (with YHWH as the subject)—viz., “(His) dealing with them”, meaning God dealt with them harshly, as their disobedience deserved.

Verse 9

“Lift (up) high YHWH our Mighty (One),
and bow before (the) hill of His holiness!”
For Holy (indeed is) YHWH our Mighty (One)!”

The final couplet corresponds with that of the earlier two strophes; it is particularly close to the second strophe (see verse 5, above). Indeed, it is almost identical, only, instead of bowing down before the “stool of His feet”, the people are directed to bow before “the hill of His holiness” (i.e., His holy hill). The Temple ‘mount’ of Zion is certainly intended in both instances, referring to the location of the Temple and its sanctuary, where YHWH is ‘enthroned’ and reigns as King.

The final refrain is given in an expanded form. Instead of “Holy (is) He!”, we have the fuller phrase “Holy (is) YHWH our Mighty (One)!”. The longer phrase, with its honorific expansion, allows the Psalm to end on a dramatic, climactic note.

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 “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 98

Psalm 98

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsm (vv. 4-8); 4QPsb (vv. 4-5)

This Psalm, like others in the collection of Pss 93-100, is a hymn to YHWH, in which His Kingship is praised; for more on this guiding theme, see the previous studies, esp. those on Psalms 93, 95 and 96. There is a thematic and literary interrelation between the Psalms in this collection; in particular, there is a strong relationship between Pss 96 and 98 (see below). For more detail on the common vocabulary and thematic links, see the discussion by Howard, pp. 144-50, 161-4.

Psalm 96 and 98 are quite similar, in terms of their thematic structure. Each begins with the same opening line (“Sing to YHWH a new song…!”), and has a comparable two-part structure, though Ps 98 is lacking the repetitive triad that open each part in Ps 96 (see the prior study). Verses 7-9 correspond to vv. 11-13 of Psalm 96, and the final verse has similar wording in each Psalm.

The two Psalms probably are similar in date as well. It seems more likely that Ps 98 is dependent upon Ps 96, than the other way around. A late pre-exilic or exilic date for Ps 98 is probable.

The meter of the Psalm is irregular; it tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format in the second part, but a 3+2 meter dominates the first part.

Psalm 98 and 100 are the only compositions in the collection (93-100) with a heading. Here, a single word designates the Psalm as a romz+m! (“musical composition”), the common term applied throughout the Psalter. It is not clear if this term, as applied to Ps 98 and 100, is meant to distinguish these two Psalms from the rest of collection, or, if so, in precisely what way. Perhaps the use of the root rmz in Psalm 98 (see below), led to a heading with romz+m!. The LXX adds “…(belonging) to David”.

Part 1: verses 1-3

Verse 1a

“Sing (now) to YHWH a new song,
for wonders He has done!”

As noted above, this Psalm begins with the same first line as Ps 96. The second line seems to summarize the third couplet of the opening triad of Ps 96: “Recount among the nations His weight, / (and) among all the peoples His wonders!”. Here, the call is for people to praise YHWH for the wonders He has done, using the passive plural (Niphal) participle of the verb al*P* (“be marvelous, wonderful”); the participle is being used in a substantive adjectival sense—the verb characterizing the things YHWH has done (as being wonderful/marvelous). For other occurrences in the Psalms, cf. 9:2; 26:7; 40:6[5]; 70:17[16]; 72:18; 75:2[1]; 78:4, 11, 32; 86:10; 105:2, 5, etc. A reference to the historical traditions, regarding the miracles performed by YHWH on Israel’s behalf (such as the event at the Reed Sea) throughout the people’s history, is typically in mind.

The LXX has ku/rio$ in the second line, suggesting that the Hebrew text being translated may have contained the Divine name (hwhy) in both lines.

Verse 1b

“His right hand for Him worked salvation,
indeed, (the) arm of His holiness!”

The “wonders” performed by YHWH were done by His “right hand” and His strong “(right) arm”; this idiom, occurring frequently in the Old Testament, refers to the strength/power of YHWH, particularly as it is manifested on earth (within human history). The occurrences in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:6, 12) especially come to mind; of the many occurrences in the Psalms, see, e.g., 17:7; 18:36[35]; 20:7[6]; 44:4[3]; 77:11[10]ff; 78:54; 79:11; 89:11[10], 14[13]; 136:12. The root uvy denotes giving (or receiving) help and protection, sometimes in the specific sense of saving someone from danger (or keeping them safe); however, it can also refer to gaining/obtaining victory, and that is probably the connotation that is primarily in view here.

The deeds performed by YHWH in His power/strength (i.e., with His “arm”) also reflect His holiness. Dahood (II, p. 365) argues for the basic meaning of vdq here (‘set apart’), and suggests that wvdq be pointed as a Piel verb form. The wonders performed by YHWH effectively set Him apart from all other deities (and from all human beings as well). I read the initial w-conjunction of the second line as emphatic (cf. also Howard, p. 78).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2, which generally follows that of v. 1a.

Verse 2

“YHWH has made known His salvation—
before (the) eyes of the nations,
He uncovered His righteousness.”

The saving deeds and victories which YHWH has achieved (spec. for His people) were performed “before (the) eyes of the nations” —i.e., so that all people can see and know of them; on this theme, going back to the Song the Sea, cf. Exod 15:14-16. The idea that the nations will come to acknowledge and worship YHWH as God, in part, as a result of witnessing His mighty deeds, is found frequently in the Psalms (e.g., 22:28-29 [27-28]; 45:18[17]; 46:11[10]; 67:3[2]ff; 72:11, 17; 86:9). Psalm 98 shares with Ps 96 this universal aspect of YHWH’s Kingship.

This verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, building upon the earlier 3+2 couplet(s).

Verse 3a

“He has kept in mind His loyalty <to Ya’aqob>,
and His firmness to (the) house of Yisrael.”

YHWH’s saving deeds, witnessed by the nations, reflect His loyalty and devotion (ds#j#) to Israel. He has “kept in mind” (vb rk^z`) this covenant-loyalty which He shows to His people; this entails providing protection and keeping them safe (from danger and enemies, etc). The noun hn`Wma$ literally means “firmness”, but is used often in the sense of “faithfulness, loyalty”; it occurs quite frequently in the Psalms (22 times, out of 49 OT occurrences), and is often paired (or in parallel) with ds#j#.

The MT reading of the verb rk^z` (as a perfect form) is to be preferred over Dahood’s suggestion (II, p. 365) of vocalizing it as an imperative (cf. Howard, p. 78f); this is in keeping with the tenses of vv. 1-3. Also the poetic sense (and parallelism) of the couplet is better served by following the LXX (over the MT), and including bquyl (“to Jacob”, par with “to the house of Israel” in the first line). Unfortunately, the surviving portions of the two Qumran manuscripts which preserve the Psalm do not include v. 3.

The verse, as restored, is a 3-beat (3+3) couplet. If one were to follow the MT, the verse would read as another 3+2 couplet, in keeping with the rhythm of this part of the Psalm:

“He kept in mind His loyalty and firmness
to (the) house of Yisrael.”

Verse 3b

“All (the) ends of the earth have seen
(the) salvation of our Mighty (One)!”

The idea of the nations witnessing the mighty saving deeds of YHWH (v. 2) is repeated here, in dramatic fashion, at the close of the first part. The universal aspect of this motif is further emphasized by the expression “all (the) ends of the earth”. YHWH, is, of course, the “Mightiest (One)” (<yh!l)a$), the greatest God and King, and the God (“Mighty [One]”) worshiped by Israel. This part of the Psalm foreshadows the idea that all the nations will come to worship YHWH as King.

Part 2: Verses 4-9

The second part of this Psalm is considerably longer than the first, and can be divided into two distinct sections—vv. 4-6 and 7-9.

Verse 4

“Raise a shout to YHWH, all the earth!
Sparkle, and sing out, and make music!”

Here, at the beginning of the second part, the call to sing praise to YHWH (par verse 1) is addressed to “all the earth”; this matches the reference to “all the ends of the earth” at the end of the first part (v. 3). All of the nations are urged (and expected) to worship YHWH with a joyful “shout” (vb u^Wr). The second line makes clear that this involves bright and joyful music. The chain of three verbs basically expresses a single idea in this regard: “be bright (i.e., gleam/sparkle)” [vb jx^P*] and “ring/sing out” [vb /n~r*], “making music” [vb rm^z`].

The three-beat (3+3) couplet form of this verse indicates a metrical shift in the Psalm, from the 3+2 meter (more or less) in the first part.

Verse 5

“Make music to YHWH on (the) harp,
on a harp and (with) voice of music!”

The basic idea of verse 4 is given more specific expression here in v. 5—people are to “make music” to YHWH, with the harp, and also using the harp (roNK!) to accompany singing with the voice. The roNK! is usually understood to be a lyre (small triangular-shaped harp) or zither.

Verse 6

“With the trumpets and voice of (the) horn,
shout before (the) face of the King, YHWH!”

Verse 6 obviously follows the thought of v. 5, the two verses forming an inclusio. Though obscured by my translation above, the meter of this verse (in the MT) is an irregular 3+4 couplet, suggesting the possibility that either El#M#h^ (“the King”) or the Divine name (hwhy) has been added to what was (originally) a 3+3 couplet. The two Qumran manuscripts containing this verse are fragmentary, but the spacing of the line in 4QPsm suggests that it corresponds to the text of the MT.

The Kingship of YHWH is, as we have seen, the guiding theme of the entire collection (of Pss 93-100).

Verse 7

“Let the sea thunder and (all) its fullness,
(the) land and (all those) dwelling in it!”

As noted above, verses 7-9 mark a distinct unit in the second part of the Psalm, and corresponds to vv. 11-13 in Psalm 96. In both Psalms, the call for the nations to worship YHWH is expanded to cover all of creation. This cosmic orientation is clearer in Psalm 96, which begins with a call to “heaven and earth”, but including, as here, the sea (with its thundering roar/crash). The earth is in focus here in v. 7—both the sea (<y`) and the dry land (lb@T@) where people dwell (vb bv^y`, lit. “sit”). The inhabited earth/land is called to follow the sea’s example in “thundering” (vb <u^r*) its praise to YHWH. As King over the entire universe, such praise is worthy and fitting for Him.

Verse 8

“Let (the) river-streams clap (their) palm(s),
(as) one let (the) mountains ring out (praise)!—”

Again, as in verse 7, there is a juxtaposition of the sea and dry land—here expressed by the specific localization in the “streams” and “hills/mountains”. The imagery here corresponds to that of Psalm 96:12 (cf. Isa 55:12). The entire natural world, all of creation, gives praise to YHWH.

Verse 9

“before (the) face of YHWH, for He is coming!
<For He is coming> to judge the earth!
He shall judge the land with rightness,
and the peoples by His firmness!”

As in Ps 96:11-13, the main reason for the rejoicing of creation is that YHWH is coming to the earth, to bring judgment upon it. As Sovereign (King) over the universe, YHWH also functions as supreme Judge, whose decisions are decisive and binding. There is a clear allusion here (and in Psalm 96) to the Prophetic theme of the (eschatological) judgment of the nations—an extension and development of the “day of YHWH” theme. If a late pre-exilic date for these Psalms is correct, then this would represent an early (and rudimentary) example of the universal “day of YHWH” —viz., a time when God judges all the nations together, collectively. Here, this is expressed more generally, in cosmological terms (“He is coming to judge the earth”); however, in the final two lines, a distinction is made between judging the inhabited land, and judging its inhabitants.

The wording of these lines is quite similar to that of Ps 96:13. The similarity allows one, with some measure of confidence, to restore the doubled ab* yK! (“for He is coming”). Beyond the parallel with Psalm 96, the poetic sense, syntax, and rhythm of the verse seems to require the restoration. Unfortunately, the two Qumran manuscripts do not preserve any of verse 9.

The “right(eous)ness” and “firmness” with which YHWH judges corresponds with the “loyalty” and “firmness” (same noun, hn`Wma$) He shows toward Israel (v. 3a). The terms qd#x# and hn`Wma$, in the judicial context of rendering judgment, connote the ideals of justice, fairness, and equity.

In its restored form the verse is comprised of a 3+3 couplet, followed by a shortened 3+2 couplet.

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 “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 97

Psalm 97

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsm (vv. 6-9)

This Psalm, like others in the collection of Pss 93-100, is a hymn to YHWH, in which His Kingship is praised; for more on this guiding theme, see the previous studies, esp. those on Psalms 93, 95 and 96. There is a thematic and literary interrelation between the Psalms in this collection; in particular, there seems to be a strong relationship between Psalms 97 and 99, as between Pss 96 and 98. For more detail on the common vocabulary and thematic links, see the discussion by Howard, pp. 155-61; cf. also the notice by Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 477.

Nearly all commentators recognize a clear break and structural distinction between vv. 1-9 and 10-12. Verses 1-9 contain the hymn proper, while vv. 10-12 represent an addition to the hymn, an exhortation for the righteous, influenced by Wisdom traditions. As we have seen in prior studies, the closing sections of Psalms often contain such a Wisdom-emphasis, suggesting a certain development. Earlier compositions were likely adapted in various ways for use in communal worship and for a didactic (teaching) purpose.

Doubtless verses 1-6 represent the oldest part of the composition, and may themselves comprise an early hymn to YHWH. These verses utilize the language and imagery of storm-theophany traditions, as applied to YHWH. God is seen as manifest in the storm. The mythic elements are cosmological, relating to YHWH’s role as the Creator. In particular, there are allusions to the cosmological myth of the Deity’s defeat of the primal waters; in subduing the waters, God brings about an ordered cosmos capable of sustaining life. He also exercises control over the waters, resulting in the regulation of the storms and rains which are necessary for agriculture, etc, and the functioning of human society. The archetype of God’s victory over the unruly waters is made to apply to the defeat of human enemies and adversaries as well; the storm-theophany language, as here in this Psalm, can be used to depict YHWH’s exercise of His ruling power over the nations. For more on the background of this mythic imagery, see my article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”. Psalm 29 (cf. the earlier study) is the perhaps prime biblical example of this imagery used in poetry.

The storm-theophany hymn in vv. 1-6 can be divided into two parts: two stanzas (vv. 2-3, 4-5) framed by an introductory (v. 1) and closing (v. 6) couplet. Verses 7-9 build upon the core hymn, introducing a theme that occurs through others in the collection (cf. the previous study on Ps 96)—namely, YHWH’s superiority over the other deities worshiped by the nations. This is part of a broader thematic emphasis on the universal scope of YHWH’s Kingship, which extends to all of the nations on earth. Eventually, YHWH will replace the deities they currently worship, and they all will come to recognize Him as their King and God. There is a certain rudimentary eschatological orientation to this theology, similar to, but not nearly as developed as, that of the Deutero- (and Trito-) Isaian poems (chaps. 40-66), or in the book of Zechariah, for example.

This Psalm, like others in the collection, probably was originally composed in the late pre-exilic period. This applies at least to the core hymn of vv. 1-9, while vv. 2-5 may represent older material. The Psalm, as a whole, may date to the exilic (or even post-exilic) period, as is suggested by the Wisdom-orientation in vv. 10-12.

The meter of Psalm 97 is irregular, but it tends to follow a three-beat (3+3) couplet format, with a few three-beat (3+3+3) tricola as well. Other irregular verses will be noted.

Part 1: verses 1-6

Verse 1

“YHWH is King! Let the earth twirl (in joy)!
Let (the) many coast-lands be glad!”

This 4+3 couplet begins the hymn to YHWH. The thematic emphasis on YHWH’s Kingship is stated explicitly in the initial half-line (cp. the first two words of 93:1). The verb El^m* (“be king, rule/reign [as king]”) carries a relatively wide range of nuance, depending on the context. Based on the cosmological context of the storm-theophany language in vv. 2-5 (see above), the declaration in v. 1 could allude to the establishment of YHWH’s rule over the universe (cp. Psalm 93); cf. the translation by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 468), “YHWH has become King”.

Here the term Jr#a# (“earth, land”) refers properly to the disc/cylinder—i.e., the flat surface of the earth (the lower half of the cosmos) where human beings dwell. In particular, the extent of the dry land which forms the territory for each nation, would seem to be in view. The parallel with the “coastlands” (<yY]a!) in the second line brings out this delimiting scope.

Every territory of the inhabited earth is called upon to rejoice because YHWH rules as King. The verb lyG] (“circle [round]”) denotes a specific motion (spinning, twirling) that expresses joy and celebration. By contrast, the verb jm^c* refers to an attitude of joyfulness (“be glad/happy”).

Verse 2

“Cloud and darkness surround Him—
rightness and judgment (are)
(the) fixed place of His throne!”

The storm-theophany language/imagery is introduced here: YHWH is surrounded by the dark storm-cloud. For this use of lp#r*u&, denoting a heavy darkness in the sky/clouds, cf. Exod 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:22; Psalm 18:10[9] [2 Sam 22:10]; it tends to be paired with /n`u* (“cloud”), as a hendiadys (i.e., dark cloud[s]).

This storm-imagery reflects YHWH’s ruling presence and power as King, as is clear from the following lines. The verse can be read as an irregular 3+4 couplet, but I prefer to parse it as a 3+2+2 tricolon. While the mighty storm-clouds—representing YHWH’s control over the waters (cf. above)—surround Him, the throne upon which He sits (i.e., beneath Him) is founded firmly upon right(eous)ness and sound/fair judgment (i.e., justice). On this motif of the firmness of YHWH’s throne, and thus also of His rule, see Ps 93:2; it is a theme that runs through Psalm 89 (vv. 3[2], 5-8[4-7], 14[13] etc).

An allusion to YHWH’s judgment of the nations is thus introduced here, by this pairing of the storm-theophany language with the idea of the justice by which YHWH rules as King. See verse 3 (below).

Verse 3

“Fire (from) before His face proceeds,
and it blazes, circling Him round about.”

The MT of the second line apparently reads: “and it burns (up) His adversaries round about”. This would be in accord with the Judgment-theme mentioned above (on v. 2). However, Dahood (II, p. 361) makes a strong case for reading wyr*x% (= wyr*Wx), as derived from the root rwx I, “surround, encircle”. He treats it as a noun meaning “back”; but it might be better to regard it as a verbal noun from rWx I. The imagery of a fire surrounding YHWH makes a suitable parallel to the dark cloud that surrounds Him (v. 2, line 1); both are components of the storm-theophany—i.e., lightning coming from the dark storm clouds. For similar parallelism of fire being present both in front and behind, cf. Joel 2:3; a closer parallel to the scene depicted here is found in Psalm 50:3.

Verse 4

“His flashes light up (the whole) world—
(all) the earth sees (it) and writhes!”

As was implied above, the “fire” that surrounds YHWH, coming from the dark storm-clouds, is lightning (lit. “flashes” [of lightning]). These flashes light up the entire inhabited world (lb@T@), and cause the whole earth (and all its inhabitants) rightly to tremble (lit. “twist, writhe”) at the sight of it.

Verse 5

“(The) mountains like wax do melt away,
from before (the) face of YHWH,
before (the) face of (the) Lord of all (the) earth!”

This couplet (lines 1 + 3) has been expanded, for dramatic effect, by the inclusion of a short second line, creating a repetitive effect. Metrically, this yields a 3+2+3 tricolon. All the earth trembles with fear when YHWH manifests Himself (in the storm), as stated in v. 3 (above). Even the great mountains melt or dissolve (vb ss^m*), like mere wax, out of fear, when YHWH comes to be present on earth in this awesome way.

Verse 6

“The heavens put out front His rightness,
and all the peoples can see His weight!”

As in verse 2, at the beginning of the storm-theophany imagery, the cosmic aspect of the storm (with its awesomeness) is blended together with the idea of the justice (and right judgment) of YHWH in His rule as King. The noun qd#x#, (“right[eous]ness”), repeated from verse 2, brings out this aspect of justice. As YHWH manifests Himself in the storm, He also reveals His righteousness and justice—and the impending judgment that He brings upon the earth. This is primarily manifest in the heavens, and thus the heavens effectively “put (this) out front” (vb dg~n`) so that everyone can see and recognize it. Indeed, all the peoples on earth see the “weight” (dobK*), i.e., the awesome presence (splendor/glory), of YHWH, as He appears for Judgment.

Part 2: Verses 7-9

Verse 7

“May all serving a carved image be put to shame,
th(ose) boasting in the powerless (one)s!
(For) all (the) mighty (one)s bow down to Him!”

The storm-theophany reveals YHWH as the Creator and King of the universe. This sets Him apart from all the other divine beings (“mighty [one]s”, ‘gods’) that the peoples/nations worship. These other deities are designated as <yl!yl!a$, a term (lyl!a$) which means “weak, powerless”. And, indeed, the other divine beings are weak and powerless in comparison to YHWH; they are forced to bow down to YHWH, in submission to Him, recognizing His superiority and His Kingship. The adjective lyl!a$ can also carry the more derogatory connotation of “worthless, useless”, and so it came to be used, in this harsher sense, of the pagan gods (worshiped by the nations)—and, in particular, their images (‘idols’). The use of lyl!a$ here, as in the prior Psalm 96 (v. 5), does not yet have the full negative force that the term would carry; even so, the idea of venerating carved images of these “weak” deities is clearly disparaged and condemned.

Even though the plural noun <yh!l)a$ (as a true plural) is typically translated “gods”, its fundamental meaning, as I regularly render it, is something like “mighty (one)s”. Assuming that the Psalmist (and his/her audience) was cognizant of this basic meaning, there is presumably an ironic juxtaposition here between the terms <yl!yl!a$ and <yh!l)a$, which is enhanced by the alliterative effect. The gods thought to be “mighty ones” (°§lœhîm) are actually “weak ones” (°§lîlîm).

Metrically, this verse is a 3+2+3 tricolon, much like verse 5 (see above).

Verse 8

‚iyyôn heard (of it) and was glad,
and (the) daughters of Yehudah twirled,
as a result of your judgments, YHWH.”

Assuming that verse 8 should be understood in the context of v. 7, then the imprecation, against those worshiping carved images of (other) deities, presumably anticipates YHWH’s judgment against the nations. Almost certainly, this judgment entails the submission (and/or conversion) of the nations, so that they will come to worship YHWH, as their God and King, rather than the other weak and powerless deities they previously venerated. This, indeed, would be cause for Jerusalem (Zion) and Judah to rejoice.

The same pair of verbs—jm^c* and lyG!—from verse 1 is used here. The verb forms could similarly be rendered here with precative/jussive force (i.e., “let Zion be glad…”); however, it seems that they are best treated as indicatives. It demonstrates the effect of YHWH’s judgments on the righteous ones of Judah and Jerusalem.

Verse 9

“For you, YHWH, (are the) Most High,
over all the earth, (the) Most (High),
(to be) raised high over all Mighty (one)s!”

The Psalmist, speaking with the voice of the righteous ones (see v. 8), declares what the nations, facing YHWH’s judgment, are only now coming to realize: that YHWH is the Most High, the Ruler over all the cosmos, and greatest (King) over all other divine beings. This was the point made, in a more polemical fashion, in verse 7 (see above); here it is cast in traditional religious and theological terms.

All three lines play on the idea of YHWH as the highest, utilizing, in various ways, the root hlu (“go up, ascend”). First, in line 1, there is the traditional Divine title /oylu# (“Highest [One], Most High”). The same is stated in line 2, using the preposition lu^ (“over, above”), along with the term da)m= (“much, exceedingly”), here apparently as a Divine title or epithet—i.e., “Might[iest]”, “Great [One]”, or perhaps “Most (High)”. Then, in line 3, the preposition lu^ follows a passive (Niphal) form of the verb hl*u*, as a Divine epithet (“[to be] lifted high”), indicating that YHWH is worthy of being exalted with praise and worship.

Part 3: Verses 10-12

Verse 10

“(You, the one)s loving YHWH, shall hate evil!
(He is the One) guarding (the) souls of His devoted,
(and) He snatches them from (the) hand of (the) wicked.”

There is a certain awkwardness to this tricolon, opening the final section of the Psalm, which also makes it somewhat difficult to translate. Many commentators choose to emend the first line, in different ways. However, the line, as it stands in the MT, forms a valid parallel with verse 12: the “righteous ones” (v. 12a) are those who love YHWH (“[one]s loving YHWH”) and are devoted to Him (“His devoted [one]s”). The call (imperative of an@v*) is for the righteous to hate what is evil. Given the context of vv. 7-9 (see above), the “evil” here could refer specifically to idolatry and the worship of deities other than YHWH. The adjective dys!j* (“good”) often connotes devotion and loyalty (that is, loyalty to the covenant with YHWH), and frequently so in the Psalms. Central to the covenant is the idea that the people of Israel are to recognize and worship YHWH alone as their God and King.

The flip side of the covenant bond—YHWH’s devotion to Israel—entails the principle that YHWH, as the Sovereign, is to provide protection for those who are loyal to Him. This theme of Divine protection appears frequently in the Psalms, expressed through a variety of terms, images, and motifs. It is clearly expressed here as well: YHWH will “guard” the souls (i.e., the lives) of those who are devoted to Him, and will “snatch” them out of danger when the “wicked (one)s” threaten or attack. This contrast, between the righteous and wicked, runs throughout many Psalms; it is also central to ancient Israelite Wisdom traditions.

Verse 11

“Light is sown for the righteous (one),
and gladness for (the) straight of heart.”

If protection for the righteous is part of YHWH’s covenant obligation, there is also the promise of blessing and reward. Here the Divine blessing comes in the form of “light” (line 1), as symbolic of life and salvation, truth and knowledge, but also the very presence of YHWH Himself. The latter may be foremost in mind, given the theophany context of the hymn in vv. 1-6, with its imagery of “fire” and “flashes” of lightning, etc.

If the verb ur^z` is original, then the idea may that YHWH ‘scatters’ light to the faithful, dispersing it to them the way that a farmer scatters seed. Many commentators, following the ancient versions, emend the verb to jr^z` (“shine, rise”), making an obvious and natural fit for the subject of light. Retaining the verb ur^z`, it may be that the intended scenario is that of the righteous coming to dwell in a ‘field’ of light, like the Elysian Fields of Greek myth, or the heavenly marshlands of Egyptian myth. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 362, for a different way of reading this line, but in keeping with the idea of a heavenly ‘field’ of blessedness for the righteous.

Obviously, such Divine blessing will produce gladness (hj*m=c!) and joy for the one who receives it.

Verse 12

“Be glad, (you) righteous (one)s, in YHWH,
and give thanks, invoking His holy (name)!”

This section, and the Psalm itself, closes with this couplet calling on the righteous, both to rejoice in their bond with YHWH, and to worship Him, giving praise to Him in a manner worthy of His greatness and holiness. The prepositional expression rk#z@l= is a bit difficult to translate, in a concise and poetic way. The noun rk#z@ denotes the mention that one makes of a person or thing, but particularly, in a religious context, to the utterance (invocation) of a name. Here, it is the name of YHWH, referring to His attributes and deeds both, in a comprehensive sense. Through praise, the righteous call to mind the wonders and saving deeds performed by YHWH, as well as His own righteousness, faithfulness, holiness, power, etc, and all that makes Him worthy of our worship and honor.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).
Those marked “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 94 (Part 2)

Psalm 94, continued

Wisdom Couplets (verses 12-15)

The four Wisdom couplets in vv. 12-15 parallel those in vv. 8-11 (discussed in Part 1). The first set of couplets addressed the wicked (who are fools), while the second addresses the righteous (i.e., the wise).

Verse 12

“(O the) happiness of (the) strong (one) when you discipline him,
O YH(WH), and from your Instruction you teach him.”

This first couplet addressing the wise/righteous takes the form of a beatitude, utilizing the plural construct yr@v=a^ (“[the] happy [thing]s of…”) as an intensive interjection: viz., “O (the) happiness of…!”. It is typically translated “blessed is…” or “blessed be…”. The beatitude formula occurs frequently in the Psalms, most notably in Psalm 1 (see the earlier study). As I discuss in a separate note, the happiness (or blessedness) indicated in the beatitude formula refers to one who obtains the blessed afterlife (with God) in heaven. While the wicked are merely left with the emptiness of their brief life on earth (v. 11), the righteous will experience a blessed life after death.

However, the blessedness begins for the righteous even in this life, as they have the good fortune of being taught by YHWH, from the Divine Instruction (hr*oT) which He has given to His people. The righteous are willing to be taught, even when it involves sometimes painful discipline (vb rs*y`) and correction. The noun rb#G# denotes a strong/mighty person, though sometimes it is used more generally, as referring to an(y) able-bodied male. It is presumably being used here in a generic sense, though one should not ignore the etymological force of rbg; the righteous are made strong, able, and skilled (like a warrior) through the discipline and and instruction provided by YHWH.

Verse 13

“(It is) to give rest for him from (the) days of evil,
while for (the) wicked is dug a (pit of) ruin!”

The Instruction from YHWH, and the blessedness it brings, results in a place quiet and rest (vb fq^v*, Hiphil) from the “days of evil”. Again the blessed afterlife is primarily in view, but the imagery can also apply to happiness and blessedness for the righteous in this life. By contrast, the wicked have only death and the grave to look forward to. The noun tj^v^ literally means “ruin, corruption”, but is often applied more concretely to a grave or “pit” in which a person goes to ruin. There is almost certainly an intentional bit of alliterative wordplay here, between the verb fq^v* (š¹qa‰) and tj^v^ (šaµa¾).

A contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates) is found frequently in the Psalms, the theme drawing heavily in this regard upon Wisdom tradition. It is very much part of the beatitude in Psalm 1, just as it is here.

The meter of this couplet is slightly extended, 4+4. Also, I should note that it is possible (and perhaps preferable) to read verse 13 gramatically as a continuation of v. 12: “…you teach him, (in order) to give rest to him…”.

Verse 14

“For (surely) YHWH does not cast away His people,
and His inheritance does not leave behind.”

The faithfulness of YHWH, to the covenant-bond with His people, is implied here. However, in the Wisdom context of these verses, with the focus on the righteous, we should understand the reference to God’s people in this ethical-religious (rather than an ethno-religious) sense. YHWH will not abandon His people, insofar as they remain faithful to the covenant, and to His Instruction.

The initial yK! particle is emphatic. Metrically, this couplet is slightly irregular (4+3).

Verse 15

“Indeed, the ruling-seat of righteousness returns judgment,
and following after it (are) all (the) straight of heart.”

The interpretation of this closing couplet is difficult. If the word du in the first line is (as most commentators and translators take it) the preposition du^ (“until, unto”), then the line would mean something like: “indeed, unto righteousness (right) judgment returns”. That is to say, for the righteous, as a result of their righteousness, YHWH’s ruling judgment is to their benefit (and blessedness); a reference to the afterlife judgment would fit the contextual background of the beatitude-form (see above).

However, I am inclined to follow Dahood (II, p. 349, also p. 81f) in seeing du here as another (rare) example of a separate root indicating “throne, throne-room, royal pavilion” (HALOT, p. 788; cf. Ps 89:38[37] and the earlier note on this verse). The expression “throne [du] of righteousness” provides a suitable (contrastive) parallel with “throne [aS@K!] of corruption” in verse 20.

Ultimately, it is best to see this verse in parallel with the previous verse 14, referring to YHWH’s role in relation to the righteous. He takes His seat of rule as Sovereign over humankind, and renders judgment. The righteous (“[those] straight of heart”) follow His judgment, even as they have followed His instruction (see above), and it is favorable for them, leading to their blessedness.

Prayer for Deliverance (verses 16-21)

This section corresponds to the lament in vv. 3-11 (see the discussion of these verse, and the chiastic outline for the Psalm, in the previous study [Part 1]). This pairing of lament + prayer for deliverance is typical of many Psalms. Here, it also continues the theme of contrast between the righteous and wicked. The protagonist prays specifically for YHWH to rescue him (i.e., the righteous) from the wicked.

Verse 16

“Who will stand up for me against (those) doing evil?
Who takes his stand for me against (those) making trouble?”

The motif of standing up (vb <Wq) and taking one’s stand (vb bx^y`, Hitpael) here has a dual-meaning. On the one hand, the theme of YHWH as Judge continues from verse 15—i.e., YHWH stands in judgment, on behalf of the righteous, and against the wicked. At the same time, standing against (prep. <u!) an opponent can imply a military action, and such imagery is frequently used in Psalms, in the context of the protagonist’s prayer for deliverance. The Psalmist presents the matter here as a rhetorical question: “who will stand up…?” The implication is that he has no one to stand up for him against the wicked, apart from YHWH.

The wicked are referred to by a pair of common substantive participles (the latter being a participial expression), indicating their characteristic behavior: <yu!r@m= (“[one]s doing evil”) and /w#a* yl@u&P) (“doers/makers of trouble,” “[one]s making trouble”, i.e. trouble-makers).

Verse 17

“If it were not (that) YHWH (was the) help for me,
in a little (while) would dwell my soul in silence.”

Only YHWH can provide help (hr*z+u#) for the Psalmist. If YHWH were not there to help (a condition indicated by the negative particle al@Wl), then it would not be long (fu^m=K!, “in a little [while]”) before the wicked would destroy him, sending his soul to “(the place of) silence” (hm*WD). On this expression as an idiom for death and the grave, cf. Psalm 115:17. Dahood (II, p. 347f) suggests that hm*WD here is better explained in relation to the Akkadian dimtu and Ugartic dmt, “fortress, tower”, which would mean that a different image is being employed—viz., the realm of death as a fortress in which one is imprisoned.
Some commentators explain hmd (hmdk) in Ezek 27:32 as having a similar meaning, i.e., Tyre as a mighty fortress/tower in the midst of the sea; cf. M. Greenberg, Ezekiel 21-37, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 22A (1997), p. 562f.

Verse 18

“If I were to say, ‘My foot is slipping!’
your loyal devotion, YHWH, supports me.”

The Psalmist here expresses his confidence in the help that YHWH provides, that it will come in time, and as needed. The moment he realizes that his foot is slipping (vb fom), YHWH is right there to support him (vb du^s*). This support is an expression of God’s ds#j#—a regular term meaning “goodness, kindness”, which (as I have frequently noted), in the context of the covenant, connotes faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion. It indeed carries this meaning (i.e., covenant loyalty) in most of the Psalms. Another regular theme in the Psalms is of the protection which the faithful/righteous ones can expect from YHWH, as part of His obligation to the covenant bond.

Verse 19

“Among (the) multitude of impassioned (thought)s in my heart,
your comforting (word)s give delight to my soul.”

A different sort of help given by YHWH is expressed here, in this rather more prosaic couplet. The plural noun <yP!u^r=c^ is usually explained as a byform of <yP!u!c= with an inserted (epenthetic?) letter r (cf. also Psalm 139:23). The root [uc denotes the presence of passionate thoughts/feelings (cf. Job 4:13; 20:2). In the first line, the Psalmist describes a situation where there are a multitude of passionate thoughts within him. The noun br#q# denotes something close/near; in such an anthropological context, it refers to the nearest/inmost part of a person, which here, for poetic concision, I have translated as “heart” (“in my heart”).

In the midst of such turbulent passions—thoughts and feelings—YHWH gives comfort to the Psalmist. The plural of the noun <Wmjn+T^ (from the root <jn) is used to express this. The plural form (“comforts”) could indicate comforting words, or actions; I have opted for the former, as a counterbalance to the impassioned thoughts/feelings within the Psalmist. The idea of YHWH speaking also continues the theme of instruction from vv. 12-15 (see above).

Verse 20

“Can a throne of corruption be allied with you,
(or one) fashioning trouble upon an inscribed (decree)?”

The language and imagery of this couplet is rather difficult to decipher. What seems clear is that it continues the contrast of the righteous and wicked. The righteous are aligned with the throne of YHWH (a “royal-seat of righteousness”), being obedient to His instruction and sovereign judgments (see verse 15, above). The wicked, by contrast, are aligned with a separate “throne of corruption”, which cannot be joined or allied with the throne of YHWH’s righteousness. The noun hW`h^ could be read as two different nouns: (I) connoting evil desire, or (II) meaning “destruction, disaster”. The latter is related to cognate words in Syriac and Arabic referring to the “pit” or “abyss” (of death and the nether-realm, etc); this is fitting in light of the wording used in verse 13 (see above). In keeping with this parallel with tj^v^ (in v. 13), I have translated hW`h^ here as “corruption”.

The second line is more difficult to explain. I have retained the MT without emendation or re-vocalizing (cp. Dahood, II, p. 350). Parallelism with the first line suggests the figure of a ruler (on the “throne of corruption”) who inscribes wicked decrees (“upon an inscribed [decree]”). By these evil decrees, the wicked human leaders of this world are fashioning (vb rx^y`) trouble (lm*u*); compare the wording in verse 16 (see above).

Verse 21

“They band together against (the) soul of (the) righteous,
and (the) blood of (one) clear (of guilt) they treat wickedly.”

Though these wicked leaders cannot be aligned with YHWH and His righteousness, there are able to join together, with each other; and, in their wickedness, they end up attacking the righteous. The verb dd^G` II seems to have, as its basic meaning, the idea of people moving together (the cognate Arabic jannada means “mobilize”, cf. HALOT, p. 177). The sense is of people banding together for a hostile purpose (cf. Psalm 56:7[6]; cp. 59:4[3]). The description of evil world-leaders (v. 20) gathering together against the righteous reminds one of the opening lines of Psalm 2.

The righteous person is “clear” (yq!n`) of guilt; that is, he/she has done nothing worthy of being condemned and attacked. The righteous are innocent in this regard, and their “blood” (i.e., their lives) are sacrosanct, and should be protected. The wicked, however, treat the innocent blood of the righteous in a wicked fashion, implying violent action. It is this hostile intent which prompts the Psalmist’s prayer to YHWH, asking for His protection and deliverance.

Conclusion (verses 22-23)

Verse 22

“And (so) may YHWH be for me as my place up high,
even my Mighty (One) as (the) Rock of my refuge!”

The conclusion of the Psalm corresponds with the invocation (in vv. 1-2), where the Psalmist calls on YHWH to stand and render judgment, punishing the the wicked for their evil deeds. The same basic idea prevails here in the concluding lines, but adapted to reflect the themes of the previous sections—most notably the language and imagery in vv. 16-21. The Psalmist expects an answer to his prayer for deliverance, that he will be protected and rescued (by YHWH) from the wicked adversaries who threaten him.

The initial w-consecutive verb form could be rendered as past tense, suggesting that YHWH has already acted on the Psalmist’s behalf. This is a valid way of reading the text; however, I believe it is better to treat this verb as a precative (comparable to a precative perfect form), expressing the Psalmist’s wish (and expectation) in terms of something that has already happened.

The locative nouns bG`c=m! and hs#j&m^ both allude to the protection that YHWH provides for the righteous. The first term denotes a “place set up high”, protected and difficult to access; the second means “protected place” or “place of refuge”. Both terms occur with some frequency in the Psalms, part of the broader theme of Divine protection as a reflection of YHWH’s loyalty to the covenant. This protected place “up high” fits nicely with the motif of YHWH as a “Rock” (rWx); the same image also serves to represent the faithfulness of God.

Verse 23

“And may He return upon them their trouble,
and in their evil may He destroy them,
may He destroy them, YHWH our Mighty (One)!”

The Psalm ends with an imprecation, calling upon YHWH to bring judgment upon the wicked, just as the Psalmist does in the opening invocation (v. 2). This judgment reflects true justice, according to the principle of lex talionis. The Psalmist asks YHWH to “return” upon the wicked the trouble that they have caused (“their trouble”, cf. verses 16 and 20). The idea is that their own actions will come back upon them, being punished for their evil deeds in like measure, and in like manner.

Beyond this, the Psalmist calls on God to “destroy” (vb tm^x*) the wicked, even as they are engaged in their evil conduct (“in their evil”). This double-call for YHWH to destroy the wicked may seem quite harsh and disconcerting to modern readers (esp. Christian readers), but it is altogether typical of ancient imprecatory language and conventions, of which there are many examples in the Psalms (and throughout the Old Testament). The Psalmist expects, and hopes, that judgment will finally come for the wicked. Though they may have prospered during this life (vv. 3-7), God’s justice and judgment ultimately cannot be flaunted or escaped; the wicked will pay the price for their evil conduct, especially for the oppression and violence inflicted upon the righteous—including all manner of injustice against the innocent, poor, and vulnerable members of society.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 92 (Part 1)

Psalm 92

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction: Verses 2-4

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

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

Verse 3 [2]

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

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

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

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

The Hymn: Verses 5-12

Verse 5 [4]

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

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

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

Verse 6 [5]

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

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

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

Verse 7 [6]

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

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

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

Verses 8 [7]

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

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

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

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

Verse 9 [8]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 91 (Part 2)

Psalm 91, continued

Verses 9-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 11-12

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

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

Verse 13

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

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

Verse 14

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

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

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

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

Verse 15

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

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

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

Verse 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing note:

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 90 (Part 2)

Psalm 90, continued

Prayer: Verses 11-16

Verse 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 12

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

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

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

Verse 13

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

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

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

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

Verse 14

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

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

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

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

Verse 15

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

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

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

Verse 16

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

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

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

Benediction: VERSE 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 6: Psalm 89:51-53

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

Psalm 89:50-53, continued

(Verse 50 was discussed in the previous note.)

Verses 51-52 [50-51]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 53 [52]

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

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

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

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

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

Comments for Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 5: Psalm 89:50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments for Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The motif of covenant-loyalty is likewise emphasized:

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

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