Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 59 (Part 1)

Psalm 59

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (vv. 5-6, 8 [4-5, 7]) 

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar in many respects to those in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ that we have recently studied. The focus on the punishment of the wicked is especially strong.

There are two stanzas to the poem, each of which contains a common refrain (vv. 7-11a, 15-18) following the Selah pause-indicator. The meter is irregular, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominating the first stanza; one is perhaps inclined to modify the second stanza to match the rhythmic pattern, but any attempt would be questionable at best. Unfortunately, the second stanza does not survive in the only Qumran manuscript of this Psalm (11QPsad), which otherwise might have provided help in confirming the Hebrew text.

On the heading, cf. the previous studies on Psalm 57 and 58. On the term <T*k=m! (miktam), cf. the earlier study on Psalm 16. The David tradition alluded to in the superscription is that of 1 Samuel 19:8ff.

The two stanzas of the Psalm are clearly delineated:

    • Stanza 1 (vv. 2-6 [1-5])—A prayer to YHWH for protection and deliverance from the Psalmist’s enemies, with a contrast established between the wicked and the righteous
      • Refrain (vv. 7-11a [6-10a])
    • Stanza 2 (vv. 11b-14 [10b-13])—Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
      • Refrain (vv. 15-18 [14-17])

Stanza 1: VV. 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“Snatch me away from (those) hostile to me, O Mightiest;
from (the one)s standing up against me, set me up high!”

This opening couplet has a loose 3-beat rhythm which establishes both the meter and the tone of the Psalm. The prayer in the first stanza takes the form of a lament. The Psalmist calls out for help against his enemies. The parallelism of the couplet is conceptually precise, though formally presented as a chiasm:

    • “snatch me away” (vb lx^n`)
      • “from those hostile to me” (verbal noun, vb by~a*)
      • “from those standing against me” (verbal noun, vb <Wq)
    • “set me up high” (vb bg~c*)

In terms of the theme of deliverance, the aspect in the first line is rescue, while in the second line it is protection. YHWH protects the Psalmist by bringing him up to a high and inaccessible (and thus secure) place.

Verse 3 [2]

“Snatch me away from (the one)s making trouble,
and from men of blood, make me safe!”

This second couplet matches the form and focus of the first almost precisely. The Psalmist’s enemies here are generalized as the wicked who corrupt society and would persecute the righteous (and harm the innocent). They are characterized verbally in the first line as “(one)s making [i.e. who make] trouble [/w#a*]”. In the second line, they are described as “men of blood [<ym!d*]”. The plural <ym!d* (lit. “bloods”) almost always means “acts of bloodshed,” often understood generally as acts of violence (even when no blood is actually shed). Dahood (II, p. 67) would understand <ym!D* here as “images” (that is, idols), from the root hm*D* (I), “be like, resemble”, as also in Ps 26:9; 55:24 [23] (I, p. 163; II, p. 39). Both interpretations would be valid, since, from the standpoint of the Psalms, violence and idolatry (i.e., worship of other deities) are equally characteristic of the wicked.

The suffixed hiphil imperative of the verb uv^y` could be translated “save me”; however, given the parallel with verse 2 [1], it is better to bring out the aspect of protection (“make me safe”), parallel with the verb bg~c* (cf. above).

Verse 4 [3]

“For, see!—they lie in wait for my soul,
(the) strong (one)s gather against me;
(with) no breaking (of the bond) by me,
and no sin by me, O YHWH.”

The 3-beat (3+3) couplet has been expanded with the addition of another 3-beat line, which here in translation is better represented as a short (irregular) couplet. The added line introduces the important theme of the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The Psalmist wishes to make clear that he his innocent—he has neither broken the bond with YHWH (and his fellow Israelites), nor has he sinned. The verb uv^P* is typically used in the context of the covenant—i.e., breaking the bond or trust between two people (or parties). To say that one has upheld the covenant and has not sinned, means that a person is righteous (and right/just before God). There is thus no reason or cause for attacks against the Psalmist; the attacks come only because of the wickedness of his adversaries.

Here the wicked are called “strong (one)s” (<yz]u*), indicating that they possess worldly power and influence. In terms of the royal background of such Psalms, the Psalmist’s opponents would be princes, nobles, or other vassal kings, people who actually could muster a military force. However, in the Psalms, this aspect has been generalized, often under the influence of Wisdom tradition, so that the motif of strength/power more properly characterizes the oppressive (and violent) might of the wicked.

Verse 5 [4]

“(I am) without crookedness, (yet) they run and stand (against me)—
rouse (yourself) to meet me, and see (for yourself)!”

The first line repeats the sense of verse 4 [3]: the Psalmist’s righteousness/innocence is again expressed in negative (or privative) terms—he is without (yl!B=) any “crookedness” (/ou*). Yet the wicked run to attack him, taking up a position against him (vb /WK, “be fixed/firm,” in something of a military sense).

In the second line, the Psalmist again calls on YHWH to rescue/deliver him. In particular, he asks God to come meet him (vb ar^q*); because of the urgency of the situation, the Psalmist would dare seek to stir God to action (vb rWu [I], “rouse [oneself], awaken”). Once YHWH comes and sees the situation, He cannot but act to rescue and protect His faithful servant.

Verse 6 [5]

“You, YHWH, (commander) of (the heavenly) armies,
(you the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael,
awaken to reckon (judgment on) all (the) nations!
May you not show favor to (those) traitors making trouble!”
Selah

The final two lines of v. 6 form a couplet that builds upon the second line of v. 5 (cf. above). The verb JWq (“wake [up]”) here is generally synonymous with the earlier rWu (I) (“awaken, rouse oneself [from sleep]”), and the basic idea is the same: God is to rouse Himself and come to rescue/deliver the Psalmist. In so doing, YHWH will effectively bring judgment against the wicked. Here the wicked are identified (in traditional religious-cultural terms) with the “nations”; but, more specifically, they are traitors to the covenant with YHWH. The verb dg~B* generally denotes deceptive or treacherous behavior. By making “trouble” (/w#a*, cf. also in v. 3 [2]) for the righteous, the wicked show that they have rejected and betrayed the covenant bond between YHWH and His people.

The root dqp is notoriously difficult to render into English; here, it is probably best understood in the sense of meting out judgment (punishment) on the wicked. Two of the fundamental meanings could apply: (1) “appoint” (i.e., an appointed moment of judgment), or (2) “reckon” (i.e., call to account); I have opted for the latter.

In this Psalm, the hl*s# (Selah) pause-marker serves to indicate the structure of the composition; this is not always the case, but here, in each stanza, the refrain follows directly after the pause.

Refrain: vv. 7-11a [6-10a]
Verse 7 [6]

“They sit until evening,
they howl like a dog
and go around (the) city.”

The refrain begins with a distinct shift in rhythm (aided by the preceding Selah-pause), with verse 7 (= v. 15) taking the form of a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2). These terse, staccato-like lines express the habitual conduct of the wicked in simplistic terms, using the animal-motif of a pack of dogs. The initial verb bWv means “turn, return,” and the line would then be translated “they return at evening”. However, I am inclined to follow Dahood (II, p. 69) in reading bwv here as a byform of bvy (“sit”). This seems to make better sense in context—i.e., the wicked (like dogs) sit and wait until evening; it is only at night that they howl and then come out to wander around the city. This behavior is also appropriate to the treacherous character of the wicked (cf. verse 6 above).

Verse 8 [7]

“See—
they gush out by their mouth,
swords (come out) by their lips:
‘For who is hearing (us)?'”

Verse 8 is essentially another 2-beat tricolon (like v. 7); only the initial interjection hN@h! (“see!”) distorts the rhythmic pattern slightly. Again, the behavior of the wicked is crude and repellent. The verb ub^n` in the first line means “pour/gush out”, but often in the decidedly negative sense of something uncontrolled or foul. Some translations render it here as “belch”, which would be quite appropriate for the context. What comes out of the mouth of the wicked is foul-smelling and extreme, but it also indicates a violent purpose—i.e., the image of “swords” coming from the lips in the second line. The third line, it seems, summarizes the thinking of the wicked. There is no need to curb or restrain their crude and evil speech, for “Who is there hearing it?”

Verse 9 [8]

“But you, YHWH, will laugh at them,
you will mock at all (the) nations!”

Like the stanza itself, the refrain shifts in tone, from describing the behavior of the wicked to an anticipation of the judgment YHWH will bring upon them. Their own mocking taunts will be turned back on them. God will laugh at them and mock them, using the parallel verbs qj^v* (“laugh”) and gu^l* (“mock, deride”). The wicked are identified here with the “nations” (cf. v. 6 [5] above); but this is merely a traditional way of speaking, even when the wicked within Israel are in view.

A shift in rhythm matches the shift in tone, as we have here a 3+2 couplet.

Verses 10-11a [9-10a]

“My Mighty (One is) my strength—
thus shall I be guarded;
for (the) Mightiest (is) my (refuge) up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

The final lines of the refrain are problematic. The parallel in v. 18 [17] rather clearly shows that the verse division here is in error–the first two words of v. 11 belong with v. 10. Again, one very much wishes that these verses were preserved in the Qumran manuscript (11QPsad), and could thus assist us in establishing a secure text, but that is not the case. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 70f) in emending iyla, dividing it into two words yK! yl!a@, and also parsing hrmva as a passive (niphal) form, hr*m@V*a# (“I shall be guarded”). Also the opening word oZu% (“his strength”) should be modified to yZu% (“my strength”), based on the parallel in the second stanza. The first part of verse 10 would then read:

hr*m@V*a# yK! yl!a@ yZ]u%
“My Mighty (One is) my strength,
thus I shall be guarded [i.e. protected]”

Much the same is expressed in the final two lines, in a simple parallel couplet:

“for (the) Mightiest (is) my place up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

In each line the plural title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e. ‘God’), possibly substituted for the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) originally (as is typical in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms). The suffixed nouns yB!G~v=m! and yD!s=j^ are parallel (synonymous) terms. The first noun, bG~v=m!, means “place up high”, referring to high and inaccessible location that serves as a safe, protected place; the related verb bg~c* was used in a similar sense in v. 2 (cf. above). The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness,” but also frequently denotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in relation to the covenant bond; and, indeed, ds#j# typically carries this sense in the Psalms. The suffixed noun here would seem to mean something like “my loyal (protector)”.

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 57

Psalm 57

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar to a number of the Psalms we have studied recently (cf. the previous study on Ps 56). In this instance, the hl*s# (Selah) pause markers seem to provide an indication of the structure of the composition: two stanzas (vv. 5-7, 8-12) preceded by an opening prayer (vv. 2-4). However, the meter could suggest a different structural division, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominating in vv. 2-6 and 11-12, and a 3+2 meter in vv. 7-10.

Psalms 56-60 are each designated as a <T*k=m! (miktam), a term whose meaning remains uncertain (cf. the previous study, as well as the earlier study on Psalm 16). One characteristic of these mitkams is that they seem to be poems without music (words only), which are then sung to an existing melody. This may be compared, for example, with the many Psalms designated as a romz+m! (mizmor), which are musical compositions (words and music). This particular miktam is sung to the melody “Do not destroy” (or “May you not destroy”), tj@v=T^-la^, apparently the name of a well-known lament. The miktams of Psalm 58 and 59 are sung to the same melody. The phrase itself probably is an allusion to Deuteronomy 9:26.

The superscription marks it as another Psalm “belonging to David”, associating its composition with the David tradition(s) narrated in 1 Samuel 22:1ff and 24:1ff.

VERSES 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“Show me favor, Mightiest, show me favor,
for in you does my soul seek refuge,
and in (the) shade of your wings I take refuge,
until (the) falling (calamity) passes over (me).”

These opening couplets show that we are dealing with another prayer-Psalm, with lament characteristics. The Psalmist prays to YHWH (Elohim, “Mightiest”) for protection and deliverance from a “calamity” (hW`h^) that threatens him. This is best understood here in the concrete sense of the root hwh, referring to something falling (down). YHWH provides protection for the righteous from this ‘downfall’, using both the motif of shade/shadow (lx@, i.e. protection from heat, etc) and the protective wings of a bird (on this aspect of the ‘wings’ of YHWH, cf. Deut 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; 36:7; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4, etc). The similar imagery in Psalm 91 suggests that the “calamity” here could refer to disease or plague. The plural toWh^ is perhaps best understood as an intensive plural.

Here the verb used (twice) for seeking/finding protection is hs*j*; elsewhere in the Psalms, the more common verb used to express this idea is jf^B*.

Verses 3-4 [2-3]

“I will call to (the) Mightiest, (the) Highest,
to (the) Mighty (One) completing (the bond) over me;
(the) <Mightiest> will send (help) from heaven,
and will save me (from the) scorn of (those) panting after me!”
Selah

The tone of prayer (a direct plea) in the first two couplets (of v. 2 [1]), shifts to a dramatic description, depicting the Psalmist’s prayer and anticipating YHWH’s answer. Verse 3 [2] describes the prayer, as the Psalmist “calls” (vb ar*q*) to God. The use of the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One],” i.e. ‘God’) is typical of the Elohist Psalms; almost certainly, it replaces the Divine name YHWH (originally in the Psalm) throughout. Retaining the Divine name here would yield much better poetry:

“I will call (out) to YHWH (the) Highest,
to (the) Mighty (One)…”

The participle rm@G), used as a descriptive title of YHWH, must be understood in the context of the covenant. The verb rm^G` fundamentally denotes finishing or completing something; here it is roughly synonymous with the more common root <lv, referring to the completion/fulfillment of one’s covenant obligations, which, in turn, completes the covenant bond. YHWH completes His covenant obligation over (lu^) the righteous by providing protection in time of need.

This covenant loyalty (an important theme in the Psalms) means that the Psalmist can be confident that YHWH will answer his plea, and will provide salvation (vb uv^y`) for him. In v. 2 [1] the specific nature of the “calamity” facing the Psalmist was unclear; I had mentioned how the parallel in Ps 91 suggested disease or plague, but here in v. 4 [3] we are clearly dealing with the familiar motif of attacks by the wicked. The verb [r^j* has a relatively wide range of meaning, but the primary idea is of throwing blame (or scorn, reproach, etc) on a person; slanderous accusations and insults are characteristic of the wicked in the Psalms. The verb [a^v* means “pant (after),” and evokes the image of a ravenous animal chasing after its prey; it was used, in a similar context, in Psalm 56:2-3 [1-2].

In any case, verse 4 [3] describes YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. In order to maintain a consistent 3-beat (3+3) meter, I have emended the first line of v. 4, adding another <yh!l)a$, though there is no real textual support for this. Along these lines, it may well be that the final line of v. 4 in the MT (following the Selah-marker) is essentially a duplication of the first line (possibly an explanatory gloss) that could be omitted; I have done so in the translation of v. 4 above. The line, if it were to be retained, reads:

“(The) Mightiest will send (with) His goodness and His firmness”

Verses 5-7 [4-6]

Verse 5 [4]

“My soul (is trapped) between lions,
I lay (amid those) raging at (the) sons of men;
their teeth (are) spears and arrow-points,
and their tongue a sharpened sword.”

The Psalmist returns to his lament in this stanza, describing the wicked who threaten him as ferocious lions. The participle <yf!h&l) in the second line literally means “blazing”, but perhaps is better rendered here in the more general sense of “raging” (i.e., a raging fire), which would better suit the image of a lion (cf. Dahood, II, p. 52).

Verse 6 [5]

“(Your) height is over the heavens, Mightiest,
your weight over all of the earth!”

The lament is interrupted, curiously, by this declaration of YHWH’s majesty and glory; it is identical with the closing lines of the Psalm (v. 12 [11]), where it makes more sense. The opening word, hm*Wr is typically parsed as an imperative (“be high/exalted…!”), however Dahood (II, p. 53f) makes a reasonably compelling argument for reading it as a substantive (verbal noun), parallel with dobK* (“weight, worth,” i.e., honor), noting the occurrence of hm*Wr as a proper noun (place name) in 2 Kings 23:36. The couplet is a declaration of YHWH’s sovereignty over all of creation (heaven and earth); as Creator and King of the universe, He is certainly able to act as Judge on behalf of the righteous.

Verse 7 [6]

“A net they have set up for my foot-steps,
(and) a noose for my throat;
they have dug a pit before my face—
(that) they would fall in (the) midst of it!”
Selah

The lament returns here in v. 7 [6], the meter now shifting to a 3+2 format, giving the lines a terse and more dramatic feel. The menacing and threatening actions of the wicked are again described, but in terms of crafty human hunters, rather than fierce lions (v. 5 [4]), going after their prey. I follow Dahood (II, p. 53) in explaining the word [pk in light of the Akkadian kippu(m), meaning a curved noose or snare. This provides a fitting parallel with tv#r# (“net”) in line 1; and note the similar conceptual pairing in Job 18:8-9. Occasionally the noun vp#n# (usually translated “soul”) carries the more concrete physical meaning of “throat”; such instances are limited to the poetic idiom, as here, where it does seem to fit the context.

I also follow Dahood in understanding the perfect verb in the final line (“they have fallen”) as a precative perfect—i.e., the Psalmist describing what he wishes to occur as something that has already happened. Here it has imprecatory force, as a kind of curse, calling down the judgment of God on his wicked adversaries. The idea of the wicked falling into the very trap they constructed occurs frequently in the Psalms, and is part of the imprecation.

Verses 8-12 [7-11]

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“Set firm (is) my heart, O Mightiest,
set firm (is) my heart—
I will sing and make music!
Awaken, my <liver>, awaken!
(with) the lyre and harp
I will awaken (the) dawn!”

The lament of the prior stanza now gives way to an expression of praise, anticipating YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. As is fitting for the Psalmist, as a poet and musical composer, this praise relates to his artistic inspiration. These two verses have an off-beat structure, consisting of two 3+2+2 tricolons. The first line of each emphasizes the Psalmist’s inspiration, referring to his inner organ (i.e., the source of thought and feeling/emotion), located specifically in the “heart” (bl@) and “liver” (db@K*, rather than MT dobK*). This inspiration leads to singing and music-making (esp. on the lyre or harp [roNK! / lb#n@]).

Verse 10 [9]

“I will throw you (praise) among the peoples, Lord,
I will make music to you among the nations.”

A more conventional expression of praise by the Psalmist, promising to make public what YHWH has done for him; this also refers to the dissemination of the Psalmist’s work as an artist and musician.

Verse 11 [10]

“For great unto (the) heavens (is) your goodness,
and unto (the) vapors (of heaven) your firmness!”

This couplet marks the beginning of Psalmist’s praise to YHWH. The deliverance which he expects to receive from God (in response to his prayer) is described as being related to the characteristic “goodness” (ds#j#) and “firmness” (tm#a#, i.e., trustworthiness) of YHWH. Both terms must be understood primarily in terms of His faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant. This pairing of nouns also occurred in the third line of v. 4, which probably should be viewed as an explanatory gloss (cf. above).

Verse 12 [11]

“(Your) height is over (the) heavens, O Mightiest,
(and) your weight over all of the earth!”

If the greatness of YHWH’s attributes extends even beyond the heavens (v. 11), this is because He Himself is greater than the heavens. These lines are identical with v. 6 [5] (cf. above), but they make more sense here, and their inclusion at the earlier location could conceivably be the result of a secondary interpolation. In any case, the lines here make for a fitting conclusion to the Psalm, as a declaration of the sovereignty of God over the entire universe.

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 56 (Part 2)

Psalm 56, continued

The second half of the Psalm generally follows the pattern of the first half (vv. 2-7 [1-6], cf. the previous study), with a pair of short stanzas separated by a central refrain. The tone of lament in the first half gives way to the expectation that YHWH will deliver the Psalmist, rescuing him from his wicked adversaries.

VERSES 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“Against trouble make escape for <us>!
In (your) anger (against the) peoples,
bring (them) down, O Mightiest!”

Metrically, this opening verse is somewhat irregular; it can be read, loosely, as an odd 2+4 couplet, but much better as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. However, in that format, the thought of the last two lines is divided; conceptually, a longer 4-beat line would be more appropriate: “In (your) anger, bring down (the) peoples, O Mightiest!”

There are textual difficulties related to the first line. The verb fl^P* of the MT, meaning “(make) escape, deliver,” would seem to require a first-person plural suffix on the preposition l= that follows (rather than the 3rd person plural of the MT). This problem could be solved by emending oml* (“for them”) to Wnl* (“for us”), while Dahood (II, p. 44; cf. also I, p. 173) would read wml (here and in other OT poetic passages) as a first-person form, without emendation. This is the solution I have followed above. Another possibility is to emend the verb, from fl^P* to sl^P* (cf. Kraus, p. 525), with the meaning “weigh, balance,” indicating a context of judgment against the wicked:

“Weigh out (judgment) to them for (the) trouble (they cause)”

It is also possible to preserve the MT as it stands, reading it as a kind of rhetorical question:

“Against (their) trouble can there be escape for them?”

Verse 9 [8]

“My waving may you yourself recount,
set my tears (as record) on your skin.
Are (they) not (there) in your account?”

This tricolon may be viewed as a straightforward 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by an additional short 2-beat line. The question posed in the extra line adds to the tension and dramatic effect of the poetic scene. The basic image is of YHWH writing down an account (rps) of the Psalmist’s suffering. The meaning of the second line, in this regard, is somewhat ambiguous: the image could be of setting (vb <yc!) down his tears on (B=) a piece of parchment (“skin,” dan)), or of setting them in a skin-bottle to preserve a record of them. There is an obvious word-play between dan) (nœ°¼) in the second line and don (nô¼) in the first line; the latter refers to a waving movement, and the parallel with tears suggests a gesture of mourning or lamentation.

The written accounting of the Psalmist’s suffering, and thus also of the actions by the wicked, is essential for YHWH to bring judgment (against the wicked) on his behalf.

Verse 10 [9]

“When (the one)s hostile to me turn back,
(falling) behind on (the) day I call (out),
(by) this I shall know that (you are the) Mightiest for me!”

Metrically, this verse is a tricolon similar to v. 9, but with an extended 3-beat (3+3+3) format. The Psalmist anticipates that YHWH, indeed, will bring judgment on his behalf, rescuing him from his enemies. The initial particle za*, a demonstrative adverb indicating time and place, is best rendered here as “when”. When what the Psalmist describes happens, then by this (hz#) it will truly be confirmed for him (“I shall know”) that YHWH is the Mightiest One (<yh!l)a$, i.e., ‘God’).

The covenant bond between the righteous Israelite (and/or the king as the representative of Israel) is indicated by the statement that YHWH is God “for me” —He is my God, and I am His faithful servant. The image of the  Psalmist’s enemies “turning back” (vb bWv) and falling back (roja*) suggests a military encounter, which would be appropriate to the royal background of this and many other Psalms. However, it tends to be the case that this royal/military setting of the Psalms has become generalized, referring in a more common sense to God delivering His people (the righteous ones) from the forces of wickedness.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“In (the) Mightiest, (in) whose word I boast,
[in YHWH, in whose word I boast,]
in (the) Mightiest I find protection!
I shall not be afraid—
what can man do to me?”

This central refrain is virtually identical to that in the first half of the Psalm (v. 5 [4], cf. the discussion in the previous study). The line in square brackets is a gloss that, almost certainly, preserves the original form of the opening line, where the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) occurs rather than the title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’). This Psalm is part of the ‘Elohist’ Psalter, in which Elohim is consistently substituted for YHWH (cf. above). Verse 12 here also has “man” instead of “flesh” in v. 5, but the meaning is the same.

Verse 13 [12]

“Upon me, Mightiest, (are my) vows to you;
I will complete (them) casting (praise) to you.”

The Psalmist’s “vows” (<yr!d*n+) relate to his deliverance by YHWH; that is, once YHWH has acted to rescue him, he is obligated to fulfill what he has promised—his vows are binding upon (lu^) him. Principally, he is obligated to give praise to God, and that is how the Psalmist will “complete” (vb <l^v*) his obligation. As discussed repeatedly, the root <lv in the Psalms typically is used in a covenant context. The protection YHWH provides to his faithful servants (i.e., the righteous) is part of His covenant obligation.

The suffix ;– on ;yr@d*n+ should be read as an object suffix—i.e., “(my) vows to you,” rather than a possessive (“your vows”).

Verse 14 [13]

“For you (will) snatch my soul from death,
so as (surely) to prevent my feet from falling,
(and thus) to walk before (the) face of (the) Mightiest
in (the) light of the Living (One).”

The perfect verb form T*l=X^h! may be translated in the simple past tense, with the Psalmist describing a condition after the deliverance from YHWH that he anticipates (as an answer to his prayer). However, it is perhaps even better to understand the verb here as a precative perfect—that is, the Psalmist describes what he hopes (and expects) will happen as something that has already occurred. The verb lx^n` is another way of referring to the idea of being delivered or rescued by God; the verb fl^P* in verse 8 [7] (cf. above) denotes making an escape, while lx^n` carries the more vivid and concrete meaning of being “snatched away” from danger.

The negative particle (al)) in the second line, prefixed by the interrogative particle –h&, is a bit unusual (and difficult to translate) in context. Literally, emphasizing the interrogative aspect, the line would read: “will not my feet (be kept) from falling?” But this would be extremely awkward within the poetry of the verse; thus, it is better to understand the prefixed particle as an expression of certainty.

By keeping the Psalmist’s feet from falling (yj!D=), YHWH enables him to walk securely, upright and straight ahead (as befits the righteous). This walk takes place “before (the) face” of God (preserving the concrete sense of <yn]P*, “face”). The plural <yY]j^ (lit. “living [one]s”) in the final line should be understood as an intensive plural, and as a Divine title (“Living [One]”), precisely parallel with <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One]”). The expression “light of the Living (One)” is clearly parallel with “face of the Mightiest (One)”.

This verse is conceptually parallel with v. 7 [6] at the close of the first half of the Psalm, sharing the combined motifs of feet/walking and life. However, verse 7 is part of the Psalmist’s lament, referring to the desire of the wicked to destroy the life (soul) of the righteous. Here, we find quite the opposite, with God protecting the life of the righteous. Moreover, the path before God ultimately leads to the blessed/heavenly afterlife in His presence; as the Living One, YHWH is the source of (eternal) life for those who trust in Him.

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, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 3)

Psalm 55, continued

We conclude our study of this Psalm with an examination of the third and final section:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in Part 1, the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf, was studied last week in Part 2; now we proceed to the final section, in which YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer is anticipated, with the expectation of deliverance.

VERSES 17-24 [16-23]

Verse 17 [16]

“(And) I, to (the) Mightiest I called,
and YHWH saved me.”

This initial couplet has a 3+2 meter, generally returning to the metrical pattern of the first (lament) section. The answer to the Psalmist’s prayer in this section, balances the opening lament. Though Ps 55 is categorized as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the term/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e., God) is used in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH), here both of the ‘names’ are used. The imperfect verb forms are used to express past action, as is often the case in Hebrew poetry.

Verse 18 [17]

“(At) sunset and daybreak and mid-day,
I muttered and I moaned,
and He heard my voice.”

The 3+2 meter continues here in v. 18, though, apparently, the couplet has been expanded into a tricolon (3+2+2) with the inclusion of an extra line. The extended rhythm heightens the tension and provides a dramatic effect.

The extent of the Psalmist’s suffering is summarized by the three periods of the day: the setting of the sun (br#u#, i.e., evening), the breaking through of daylight (rq#b), daybreak, i.e., morning), and a point between the two (halves) of day (dual <y]r^h(x*, i.e., mid-day, noon). All this time (i.e., all day long), he makes his lament and prayer to God. This activity is summarized by the two verbs in line 2, which I translate concisely as “I muttered and I moaned,” in order to capture the rhythm of the line. Both verbs, however, have a relatively wide semantic range and can be difficult to translate. The verb j^yc! generally refers to the act of going over a matter (repeatedly), either in one’s mind or in speech; often an agitated state of mind is implied, and it can specifically connote the act of complaining or even repenting. The second verb (hm*h*) is more intensive, denoting the primal act of moaning, roaring, howling, etc, like an animal.

Verses 19 [18]

“He ransomed my soul in fullness from (the) approach against me,
for with many they were standing (against) me.”

The MT as it stands appears to be an elongated 4+3 couplet. However, some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 519) view the text of vv. 19-20 as corrupt and requiring some measure of emendation. Essentially the verse describes the nature of how YHWH answered (or is expected to answer) the Psalmist’s prayer. God rescues the soul of the Psalmist from his enemies.

This rescue is described using the verb hd*P*, which refers to the making of a payment to achieve the transfer of ownership; it can be used in a more general or figurative sense for the deliverance of someone out of bondage or oppression, etc, and the English “ransom” captures this all fairly well. Based on this ransom/payment idea, there likely are three aspects of meaning for the noun <olv* that are involved here: (1) the soul has been rescued in its fullness (i.e., completely safe/intact), (2) the ransom was paid in full, and (3) the soul is allowed to go free/safe in peace.

There is indeed a military context to the imagery. The Psalmist’s soul is rescued “from (the) approach” (br*Q&m!) of his enemies, and the noun br*q= can specifically refer to a hostile encounter or battle. Moreover, the crowd of “many” (<yB!r^) enemies suggests the image of an attacking army.

Verse 20 [19]

“(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them,
even (He the) Ancient (One) sitting, [Selah]
in that there is no changing for them,
and they do not fear (the) Mightiest.”

The lines of verse 20 are admittedly difficult, and may be corrupt; the situation is complicated by the odd placement of the hl*s# (Selah) marker apparently in the middle of the verse. If the Masoretic text and verse division is correct, then we have a quatrain—a pair of irregular, but conceptually (and syntactically) related, couplets. This may explain the curious placement of the Selah-marker—i.e., the pause is intended to make clear the shift in subject/person between the second and third lines. This, if correct, strongly increases the likelihood that the second line does not refer to the enemies of the Psalmist, but to YHWH.

The meaning of the second line is thoroughly obscure and ambiguous (at least to us). The noun <d#q# could have several different meanings in context here:

    • It could refer to a confrontation, either from the enemies of the Psalmist set against him, or by YHWH against his enemies.
    • It could refer to sitting in the front/first position
    • It could indicate a geographic location, in the east (sitting/dwelling in the east)
    • It could be a temporal designation, i.e., times long before, in old/ancient times.

In my view, the latter is correct, and <d#q# should be read as a divine epithet of El-YHWH, meaning something like “the Ancient (One)”, as in Deut 33:27. Probably the participle bv@y) (“sitting”) should be understood literally, in reference to God sitting in judgment.

If the word-division of the MT in the first line is correct, and if the suffix <– on the second verb is an object suffix (3rd person plural), then this may explain the placement of the Selah-marker. The first line would read “(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them“. After the second line, which further describes God sitting in judgment (by which he ‘answers’ the wicked), the final two lines refer back to “them” (i.e., the wicked). The Psalmist (or a later editor) may have wished to avoid any possible (grammatical) misunderstanding, which could happen if these four lines were read/recited together quickly; the pause helps to clarify the situation being described.

The wicked will not repent or change their ways (“there is no changing for them”), primarily because they have “no fear of God”. They are thus deserving of the severe punishment they face from YHWH in the judgment.

Verse 21 [20]

“He sent out his hands on (the) bonds of peace,
he broke his binding (agreement).”

The shift in subject from YHWH (“He”) to the friend (“he”) who betrayed the Psalmist can be confusing at first glance, and raises the possibility that the the Selah-pause marker was intended to be placed at the end of verse 20 (rather than in the middle, cf. above). A pause at that point would help to clarify the shift in subject. This friend-turned-betrayer was introduced in vv. 13-15 [12-14] (cf. the discussion in Part 2).

The word wym*l)v=B! is almost impossible to translate with precision in English and still preserve any sense of the poetry. As discussed above, the noun <olv* has a wide range of meaning. Fundamentally, it means “fullness, completion”, but it is often used specifically in the context of a covenant bond, and that is certainly the case here, where <olv* is parallel with tyr!B= (“binding [agreement]”, i.e., covenant). Here <lv denotes one who is obligated to fulfill the terms of the agreement, establishing a bond of unity, welfare, and peace between those bound by the same agreement. For lack of a better alternative, I have translated the plural above as “bonds of peace”. By betraying the Psalmist, this person broke the binding agreement between them and violated the ‘bond of peace’.

Metrically, this verse returns to the 3+2 couplet pattern of the section.

Verse 22 [21]

“Smooth from cream were (the words of) his mouth,
but a (hostile) encounter (was in) his heart;
soft (indeed) were his words from oil,
but they (were) open (sword)s.”

My translation distorts somewhat the meter of these lines, which in the Hebrew are a pair of metrically similar 3+2 couplets (following the pattern of this section). The two couplets also exhibit similar antithetical parallelism, contrasting the smooth words (i.e., friendly and alluring) of this person with the hostile and wicked intention of his heart.

Grammatically, the preposition /m! (“from”) is used, in the first line of each couplet, in a comparative sense; in English idiom, the lines would properly read:

“Smoother than cream were (the words of) his mouth

(indeed) softer than oil were his words…”

The same sort of military imagery is used here (including the noun br*q=, “approach, encounter”), as in v. 19 [18] (cf. above). Probably this imagery is figurative, used in a general sense for the ‘attacks’ of the wicked; however, the royal background of many Psalms also allows for the possibility that an actual political-military rebellion is involved (i.e., against the king).

Verse 23 [22]

“Throw upon YHWH that given (to) you,
and He will hold you (up);
He will not give, (even) into (the) distant (future),
(any) shaking for the righteous.”

The sudden inclusion of a proverbial exhortation here in v. 23 may seem peculiar, but it is important to remember that the Psalms have been influenced considerably by Wisdom traditions. Besides this, in a good many Psalms, the closing verses show signs of adaptation to a communal worship setting, a likely indication that an original composition has been adapted for use in public worship.

The two couplets are parallel, with the first line of each playing on the concept of giving—using the different (but conceptually related) roots bhy and /tn. The noun bh*y+ literally means “something given”, but here the implication is that it refers to something placed upon a person as a burden. The exhortation is to “throw” this burden onto YHWH, and he will hold it for you (meaning also that he will hold you up, i.e., sustain/support you, in the process).

This idea of firm support is expressed in the second couplet in a negative sense, as a lack of any shaking (fom, i.e., slipping, faltering). Not only does YHWH support the righteous, but He also will not do (lit. will not give [vb /t^n`]) anything that will cause the righteous to slip and fall.

For a different way of reading these lines in detail, cf. the discussion in Dahood, II, pp. 37-8.

Verse 24 [23]

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
to (the) Pit of destruction,
(these) men of blood and deceit!
They will not reach half their days,
while I find protection in you!”

Verse 23 [22] is best viewed as an parenthetical aside, if not an editorial insertion (cf. above); verse 24 [23] properly continues the thought from v. 22 [21]. The Psalmist expects that, in answering his prayer, YHWH will bring judgment upon his enemies (the wicked), including the friend who betrayed him. This judgment entails an untimely death, as is clear from the directional verb dr^y` (in the Hiphil, “bring down“) and the expression “pit of destruction” (tj^v^ ra@B=, cf. Psalm 7:16; 9:16; 16:10; 30:10; 35:7; 49:10).

This verse has a complex (and dramatic) poetic structure. It begins with a triad (3+2+3 meter), perhaps best viewed as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet expanded with an intervening 2-beat line (for dramatic effect). The intervening line consists of the terse expression “pit of destruction”, qualifying what it means for YHWH to “bring down” the wicked (i.e., where it is that He brings them). The syntax is clear from the surrounding couplet:

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
…..
(these) men of blood and deceit!”

The pairing of blood (i.e., violence) and deceit is a typical characterization of the wicked, and provides a neat summary of their wicked behavior. The plural <ym!d* (lit. “bloods”) is used for acts of violence, even when there is no actual shedding of blood. For the interpretation of <ym!d* here as a reference to images (idols), derived from the root hm*D* I (“be like”), cf. Dahood, II, p. 39 (and I, pp. 31f).

The Psalm concludes with a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet, contrasting the fate of the wicked and the righteous. The wicked will meet with an untimely death, expressed by the idea of reaching only half (vb hx*j*) of their days. This should not be read in an overly concrete sense, as if it were limited to a shortened life-span here on earth; it can also be understood in terms of missing out on a blessed afterlife (with God), doomed simply to dwell in the realm of the dead. By contrast, the righteous finds protection (vb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms) in YHWH, and so has his/her life preserved and kept safe, even into the Age to Come (i.e. the blessed afterlife).

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, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 54

Psalm 54

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 2-3, 5-6 [1, 3-4])

This Psalm, one of the simplest in structure, gives evidence of the royal background we glimpsed in a number of the prayer- and lament-Psalms in the first division of the Psalter. The heading (vv. 1-2) attributes it to David, specifically noting the incident recorded in 1 Sam 23:19. Even if this is not the actual occasion for the composition, it is quite fitting for the royal background of the Psalm, suggesting the king’s suffering at the hands of his enemies and opponents. In making his appeal to God, the king is drawing upon the specific covenant bond between YHWH and the Israelite/Judean king, which requires that YHWH (the Sovereign) provides protection for His faithful/loyal vassal (the king). And, since the king also serves as the people’s representative, the covenant-protection ultimately extends to the people as well. In the Psalm as we have it, and as it would have been sung in the communal worship, much of the specific royal background—the language and imagery, etc—has been generalized to apply to Israel (the righteous ones) as a whole.

The structure of this Psalm is extremely simple, divided into two short strophes separated by a hl*s# (Selah) pause-marker. In the first strophe (vv. 3-5 [1-3]), the Psalmist makes his plea to YHWH for help, while in the second strophe (vv. 6-9 [4-7]), the help provided by YHWH is described (and anticipated).

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3, also 3+2) couplet format. The superscription marks it as another Davidic composition (dw]d*l=), a lyK!c=m^ (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32), with the added musical direction that it is to be performed on stringed instruments (tn)yg]n+B!, cf. the study on Psalm 4).

Verses 3-5 [1-3]

Verses 3-4 [1-2]

“O Mightiest, by your name save me,
by your strength may you defend me;
O Mightiest, hear my petition,
may you give ear to (the) words of my mouth!”

The Psalmist’s plea is fundamentally legal and judicial in nature, based on the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. As noted above, the covenant requires that the Sovereign (YHWH) provides protection for His faithful and loyal vassals (the king and the righteous ones of Israel). He calls on YHWH to act “by/with [B=] His name”. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented and embodied the essence of the person. Thus, to call on the name of God is essentially the same as calling on God Himself.

God’s name (<v@) is parallel with His strength (hr*WbG+) in the second line, emphasizing again how the name is equivalent to the substance of the person. The action requested from YHWH is also expressed in parallel terms: to save (uv^y`, Hiphil stem) and to defend him (vb /yD!). This latter verb has a wide semantic range, the specific connotation of which must be determined by the context. A judicial setting is often implied, as here, referring to a judgment or decision that is made (on someone’s behalf); in this case, the parallel with uv^y` indicates that a more forceful nuance is intended, which I render above as “defend” (the verb in English can be used in both a legal and military context).

The four lines (of these two couplets) are given in reverse order, in relation to the action requested by the Psalmist:

    • Give ear to the words of my mouth (line 4)—i.e., listen to what I am saying
    • Hear my petition (line 3)—respond (fairly/favorably) to my request
    • Defend me (line 2)—i.e., make decision/judgment on my behalf
    • Save me (line 1)—i.e., act according to your decision and give me your protection (rescue me)

Syntactically, in each couplet, an imperative is followed by an imperfect verb form (with imperatival force); this imperative-imperfect sequence is a well-established feature of Canaanite and Hebrew poetry (cf. Dahood, I, pp. 29-31, 65, 261; II, p. 24). Metrically, these couplets follow a 3+2 pattern.

It is also worth noting that, as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, the first occurrence of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) here (if not both instances) has replaced the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) of the original composition.

Verse 5 [3]

“For strangers have stood (up) against me,
and dreadful (one)s have sought my soul—
they have not set (the) Mightiest in front of them.”
Selah

The first two lines of v. 5 give the reason for the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH. Foreign enemies (“strangers”, <yr!z`) have risen up (vb <Wq) against him, which is fully in accord with the royal background of this style of prayer-Psalm (cf. above). They are further described, in the second line, as “dreadful (one)s” (<yx!yr!u*)—that is, foreigners awesome and terrifying in their strength.

The final line, rounding out the verse as a tricolon (3-beat, 3+3+3), adds the important detail that “they have not set the Mightiest in front of them” (for a different way of understanding this line, cf. Dahood, II, p. 24f). Presumably, this refers to other nations and peoples, who worship other deities rather than YHWH. However, there may also be a bit of conceptual wordplay involved:

    • These people have stood up against Israel, having the king in front of them, and yet
    • They cannot succeed, since they do not have the God of Israel in front of them.

Verses 6-9 [4-7]

Verse 6 [4]

“See, (the) Mightiest (is the one) giving help to me,
my Lord, indeed, (the one) upholding my soul.”

The second strophe describes how YHWH answers the Psalmist’s plea (or how He is expected to answer). This description begins with an affirmation of trust in YHWH as his protector, being the one who “gives help (to)” and “upholds” the righteous—using substantive participles of the verbs rz~u* and Em^s*, respectively. The prefixed preposition B= is best understood as an emphatic (i.e., “indeed, truly”) use of the preposition (cf. Dahood, II, p. 25). Again, the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) is an ‘Elohist’ substitution in place of the Divine name (hwhy) that likely was present in the original composition.

Verse 7 [5]

“May the evil turn back to (the one)s hard (against) me!
In your firmness, may you finish them off!”

The imprecation of the first line follows a familiar theme in the Psalms—viz., that the evil intended by the wicked will come back upon them in a similar manner (variation of the lex talionis principle). The verb form bovy` is best understood as a jussive, expressing the Psalmist’s wish for what will happen, and fully expecting that YHWH will act to bring it about. There is a bit of conceptual wordplay between the “firmness” of the Psalmist’s opponents (i.e., those hard [rr^c*] against him) and the “firmness” (tm#a#) of YHWH. His firmness (in loyalty, goodness, and truth) is far superior to the stubborn resolve of the wicked, and so YHWH is certain to “finish them off” (vb tm^x*). There may be an additional bit of alliterative wordplay here between –tm!a& (°¦mit-) and –tym!x= (ƒ®mît-).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2, following the full 3-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 6.

Verse 8 [6]

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name,
YHWH, for (it is) good.”

The person of these lines suddenly shifts, as the Psalmist returns to the framework of his prayer to God. He interrupts the strophe to offer a vow to YHWH that, if as he expects, God will answer his prayer, then (in return) he will offer a sacrifice to Him. The type of offering is indicated by the term hb*d*n+ (from the root bdn, “[be] willing”), sometimes called a freewill offering—that is, an offering made freely by the worshiper (i.e., with a willing heart), apart from the sacrificial offerings required by the Torah. This sacrificial offering will be accompanied by praise to YHWH (lit. “to His name,” cf. above). The praise will acknowledge the goodness [bwf] of YHWH (“that [your name] is good,” i.e., “that you are good”).

The meter of this verse in the MT is irregular; it would be made somewhat more consistent (conforming loosely to a 3-beat couplet) if the Divine name (hwhy) were eliminated from the second line, as a number of commentators propose:

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name, for (it is) good.”

Verse 9 [7]

“For from all distress you have snatched me (away),
and on (the one)s hostile to me my eyes have looked (down).”

In this final (3-beat) couplet, the Psalmist confirms his expectation that YHWH will answer his prayer, expressing God’s action (on his behalf) in the past tense, as though it had already taken place (i.e., use of the precative perfect). The Psalmist trusts that YHWH will rescue him (“snatch away,” vb lx^n`, Hiphil stem) from all the “distress” (hr*x*) he faces from his adversaries, and that the tables will be turned on his enemies (lit. those “hostile” to him, active participle of the vb by~a*). His eye will look (down) on his enemies, implying their defeat and humiliation. While this may take place through the ordinary means of military conflict (keep in mind the royal background of this language and imagery, cf. above), victory is achieved through the strength of YHWH (fighting on Israel’s behalf). Protection against adversaries—for both the king and the Israelite people—is part of what God is required to provide to those who remain faithful/loyal to Him, according to the terms of the covenant.

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 52 (Part 2)

Psalm 52, continued

Verses 8-11 [6-9]

Verse 8 [6]

“(The) just (one)s will see and will fear,
and upon him they will laugh.”

The first part of the Psalm (vv. 3-7 [1-5]) presented a harsh polemic, inspired by both prophetic and Wisdom tradition, against the wicked (cf. the previous week’s study). The specific focus of the polemic was the false and deceitful speech of the wicked—their words may sound good, but they are belied by the action and intention of such people. In particular, their confession of loyalty to YHWH (and His covenant) is false. The section concluded with an imprecatory declaration regarding the fate of the wicked, and it is this fate (death and permanent dwelling in the grave) which is in view as we begin the second part of the Psalm. The suffixed preposition wyl*u* (“upon him,” i.e., at him) refers to the wicked person (and his fate).

There is obvious wordplay in the first line combining the similar sounding verbal phrases “and they will see” (War=y]w+, w®yir°û) with “and they will fear” (War*yy]w+, w®yîr¹°û). Viewing the miserable fate of the wicked brings fear, but also laughter (vb qj^v*). This may seem an inappropriate response for the righteous, to laugh at the punishment and suffering that awaits the wicked; perhaps it should be understood in the sense of rejoicing at the establishment of YHWH’s justice, made manifest through the punishment meted out, deservedly, to the wicked.

The 3+2 meter of this couplet establishes the rhythm of the remainder of the Psalm, which follows a 3+2 meter more consistently than in the first part.

Verse 9 [7]

“See—the strong (one who) would not set
(the) Mightiest (as) his safe place,
but sought protection in (the) abundance of his riches
and would be strong in his downfall!”

This pair of 3+2 couplets represents, apparently, the mocking words of the righteous, and should be associated—however inappropriate it may seem to us—with their laughter at the wicked. Overall, the tone fits the harsh polemic of the first half of the Psalm, and builds on the Wisdom-themed contrast between the righteous and the wicked in the second half. The righteous person trusts in YHWH, while the wicked person trusts instead in their earthly wealth and power. This contrast here is expressed both in negative and positive terms:

    • He would not make YHWH his “safe/secure place” (zoum*), i.e., the place where finds protection, but instead…
    • He “sought protection” (vb jf^B*) in his riches

The verb jf^B* is used frequently in the Psalms, denoting seeking (and finding) protection; implied is the trust one has in that protection. This usage has, as its background and context, the ancient covenant idea—specifically, the protection which YHWH (the Sovereign) is obligated to provide to His faithful servants/vassals, according to the terms of the covenant. Not only are the wicked disloyal to the covenant, they effectively disregard and ignore it, relying instead on their worldly strength and wealth for protection. Note how the false and empty strength of the wicked is contrasted with the true strength of YHWH (as the Mightiest [<yh!l)a$]):

    • the ‘strong’ one (rb#G#h^)
      • the Mightiest (<yh!l)a$)
    • he was ‘strong’ (zu)y`)

There is also a bit of alliterative wordplay between the words oZWum* (“his secure place”) and zu)y` (“he was strong”). The wicked clings to his false strength even in his downfall (hW`h^)—that is, even as he meets his terrible fate. Another bit of wordplay occurs here, since the word hW`h^ can also be read as a byform of hW`a^, referring to a person’s wicked/evil desire—i.e., the wicked remains ‘strong’ in his wickedness, clinging to it even as he perishes.

Verse 10 [8]

“While I (will be) like a fresh green olive-tree
in (the) house of (the) Mightiest—
I find protection in (the) goodness of (the) Mightiest,
(for the) distant (future) and until (the end).”

With this pair of 3+2 couplet, the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist) contrasts his fate with that of the wicked. While no future life awaits for the wicked—only death and the grave—the righteous will experience a blessed afterlife “in the house of God”. His faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant will result in blessing both in this life and in the life to come. Again the use of the verb jf^B* (cf. above) and the noun ds#j# must be understood in the context of the covenant idea—the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people. The “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH refers specifically to His covenant loyalty—i.e., He generously bestows blessings on those who have been loyal to Him. The protection God provides extends even to rescuing the righteous from the final fate of death and the grave. Moreover, dwelling in the house of YHWH is an extension of the covenant-idea of the faithful vassal having a place in the house (and at the table) of his sovereign. The specific motif of the righteous as a fresh and growing (green) tree derives from a separate line of (Wisdom) tradition—cf. Psalm 1:3, etc.

It is worth noting again that Psalm 52 is one of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms, in which, most probably, occurrences of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) were consistently replaced by the name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim). In these verses, however, the use of the title <yh!l)a$ has its own special significance, since its presumed meaning (“[the] Mightiest [One]”) relates to the contrastive theme of strength/might—i.e., the false (worldly) strength of the wicked, and the true strength of YHWH (cf. above).

Verse 11 [9]

“I will throw you (praise), Eternal (One), for you have done (this)—
and I will call on your Name, for (it is) good—
in front of your good (and loyal one)s!”

Many Psalms, at least in the form they have come down to us, conclude with lines that apply the poem to a communal worship setting. That is certainly the case here, as the Psalmist speaks of praising and proclaiming the name of YHWH in front of [dg#n#] the righteous (“good/loyal ones”, <yd!ys!j&). This descriptive title of the righteous, specifically connoting loyalty to YHWH and His covenant, stands in contrast to the false and deceitful devotion of the wicked as a “good (servant) of the Mighty (One)” (in a sarcastic sense, cf. on v. 3 [1] in the previous study).

The expression <l*oul= echoes the use of <l*ou at the end of v. 10 (cf. above), and may be used here in the same temporal sense: “I will through you praise into (the) distant (future) [<l*oul=]”. However, it is also possible that there is a bit of wordplay involved, and that the occurrence of <l*ou here is actually part of the praise of YHWH, referring to Him by the title of <l*ou (requiring a translation something like “Eternal [One]”). In such an instance, the prefixed preposition (l=) would be an example of the vocativel—i.e., “O, Eternal (One)”. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 16f; with some hesitation, I have adopted this interpretation in my translation above.

I also follow tentatively follow Dahood (I, p. 121f; II, p. 17) in deriving the verbal form hW#q^a& here from the root hwq (II), “gather, collect”, in the sense of “call” (cf. the comparable occurrence in Psalm 19:5), and thus similar in meaning to the more common arq. The action of calling (on) the name of YHWH is more suitable to the public/communal worship setting of the verse.

The meter of this final verse is, loosely, 3+3+2.

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 51 (Part 2)

Psalm 51, continued

As previously discussed, this Psalm may be divided into two parts or stanzas: the first (vv. 3-11 [1-9], cf. last week’s study) focuses on forgiveness of sin, while the second (vv. 12-21 [10-19]) emphasizes the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin.

Part 2 (vv. 12-21 [10-19])

Verse 12 [10]

“A clean heart may you create for me, Mightiest,
and a sound spirit make new in my inner (parts).”

The opening couplet of the second stanza has a 4-beat (4+4) meter. It establishes the theme for the second part of the Psalm: the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin. Here we may properly refer to the New Testament (Pauline) idiom of a new creation, since the verbs ar*B* (“create”) and vd^j* (“be new,” Piel “make new”) are used in tandem. There is a formal parallelism at work in the couplet:

    • A heart | clean | may you create
    • A spirit | firm | may you make new

The verbs are imperatives, but when addressing God in this context, they are clearly petitionary: “may you…” The passive (Niphal) participle /okn, used as a verbal adjective, is a bit difficult to translate, since the root /wK has a relatively wide semantic range. The parallel with rohf* in the first line suggests that a purity of spirit is view; however, given the fundamental meaning of the verb /WK, a translation something like “well-founded” would not be far off the mark. For poetic concision, I have rendered it “sound” (= “firm, fixed”) above.

Verse 13 [11]

“May you not throw me out from before your face,
and (the) Spirit of your holiness, do not take it (away) from me!”

The meter in this second couplet is irregular, overweighted as 3+4. In such instances it is often better to treat the verse as a triad, with an initial 3-beat line followed by a short 2-beat couplet; however, here the parallelism of the lines is better served by retaining the longer 3+4 format:

    • Do not throw me out from before (you)
      • your face (i.e., Presence)
      • your holy Spirit
    • do not take away from me

The same basic petition is being made, but from two different directions or perspectives; the negative particle (la^) governs the two-fold petition, giving it a negative formation. The Psalmist asks that it should not happen:

    • that he be removed from God’s presence (His face) /
      that God’s presence (Spirit) be removed from him

The “face” and Spirit of YHWH both refer to His manifest presence and power. The literal expression in the second line is “spirit of holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr), but it corresponds precisely (in our idiom) to “holy spirit”. For more on this verse, in the context of Old Testament teaching and tradition on the Spirit, cf. my earlier study.

Verse 14 [12]

“May you return to me (the) joy of your salvation,
and (with) a willing spirit take hold of me.”

This verse builds upon the previous couplet, focusing on the effect of YHWH’s presence and power upon a person. That it has been missing for the Psalmist is indicated by the use of the verb bWv (“turn [back]”), here in the Hiphil, i.e., “make (something) turn back, make (it) return”. What has been missing, specifically, is the joyful experience of the salvation YHWH provides. The noun uv^y# here could also be rendered “safety” or “security”, referring to the protection provided by YHWH according to the binding agreement (covenant) He has established with those faithful/loyal to Him. Sin disrupts the covenant-bond, and removes the obligation for God to protect and deliver His vassal.

A second effect is that God’s Spirit transforms the spirit of His servant, turning it into a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit—so that the Psalmist might remain faithful to YHWH of his own accord, never again acting rebelliously to break faith with God. Here the Psalmist asks specifically that YHWH would “take hold of” him (vb Em^s*) with His holy Spirit, so that his own spirit might be changed (made new, v. 13 [11]) and strengthened.

This couplet returns to a 3-beat (3+3) meter, as if poetically resolving the tension (expressed metrically) built into the previous couplets.

Verse 15 [13]

“I will teach your ways (to those) breaking (faith),
and (those) sinning might (then) return to you.”

The vow or promise given here alludes back to the idea of a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit in the previous verse, since the nouns hb*yd!n+ and hb*d*n+ can be used in the religious context of a voluntary gift or deed offered to God. Here the promise involves teaching the ways of God (as expressed primarily through the regulations and precepts of the Torah) to other sinners, those who are currently acting rebelliously and breaking faith (vb uv^P*) with YHWH. Following the ways of God means being faithful to the covenant bond (the Torah representing the terms of the covenant).

There is a bit of wordplay here that can be lost in English translation. In the previous verse, the Psalmist asked that God “return” the joy of salvation to him; now he promises that he will respond by causing other sinners to “return” to God—the same verb (bWv, “turn [back]”) being used in both instances.

Verse 16 [14]

“Snatch me away from blood, O Mightiest,
(you) Mighty (One) of my salvation,
(and) my tongue will ring out your justice.”

In this verse, the Psalmist makes yet another promise, framed conditionally—on the condition that YHWH rescue him (lit. snatch him away, vb lx^n`) from “(shedd)ing of blood”. The plural noun <ym!D* (“bloods”) is used in the Old Testament as a specific idiom (difficult to translate into English) referring to the shedding of blood. It can be used for violence (and wickedness) generally, even if no blood is actually shed. Here there are two possibilities: (1) it can refer to sin and wickedness, or (2) it can refer specifically to the guilt (from sin) that leads to death. Probably the latter is in view.

A 3-beat couplet (lines 1 and 3 above) has been expanded into a triad, including a short 2-beat middle line, emphasizing the Psalmist’s praise of God, the very thing that he promises to do if YHWH delivers him from death (“my tongue will cry/ring out [vb /n~r*] your justice”).

According to one line of interpretation, the Psalmist has experienced illness, which he understands as punishment for sin that he has committed. This generally fits the context, though the specific sense of physical suffering (from illness or disease) is not as prominent in this Psalm as it is in other prayer/petitionary Psalms we have studied. If he is praying to be delivered from death (cf. on the use of the word <ym!D* above), this would give some added weight to the idea that the Psalm involves a prayer for deliverance (healing) from sickness.

Verse 17 [15]

“My Lord, may you open (up) my lips,
and my mouth will bring out front a shout (to) you.”

This verse (another 3-beat couplet) builds upon the idea of giving praise to YHWH in v. 16 [14]. If God delivers him (from death), then the Psalmist promises to praise Him; yet, even so, he asks further that YHWH “open up” his lips (i.e., inspire him) so that he will be able to present a proper “shout” (hL*h!T=) of praise. The verb dg~n` (in the Hiphil stem) literally means “put in front, bring out front”. This is one of numerous references or allusions in the Psalms to the idea of musical/poetic inspiration, with the source of the inspiration being God Himself (His Spirit).

Verse 18 [16]

“For you do not delight (at all) in (ritual) slaughter,
and should I give (you) rising (smoke) you would not be pleased.”

The rhythm of this (slightly irregular) 3-beat couplet is a bit difficult to render into English. However the poetic parallelism of thought is clear and direct enough. It repeats some of the prophetic themes we saw expressed in Psalm 50 (cf. Parts 1 and 2 of that study), downplaying the importance of the sacrificial offerings. This message does not necessarily mean that one can (or should) forego the performance of the sacrificial ritual; rather, it emphasizes that the heart and intention of the person making the sacrifice is far more important. Simply fulfilling the ritual duty, while one’s heart remains unfaithful and rebellious, actually makes a mockery of the Torah regulations. This is clearly stated in the next verse.

Verse 19 [17]

“(The) slaughterings of (the) Mightiest (are) a broken spirit—
a heart broken and crushed, Mightiest, you will not despise.”

The powerfully concrete language used in this couplet tends to be lost in conventional English translation. It is important to preserve the fundamental meaning of the noun jb^z#; typically translated “sacrifice,” it literally refers to the slaughter of an animal (in a religious/ritual context). But what the Psalmist states here, most strikingly, is that the kind of slaughtering YHWH truly wants is not the cutting up of an animal, but the breaking apart of one’s spirit. That is to say, one should offer up one’s own spirit—one’s very own life and being—as a sacrificial offering. Two passive participles are used (as verbal adjectives) to express this, from the verbs rb^v* (“break [apart]”) and hk*D* (“crush”).

A broken and crushed spirit (j^Wr = heart [bl@]) refers both to an attitude of repentance and the experience of suffering. YHWH treats the animal sacrifices, in and of themselves, as worth nothing; however, the sacrifice of one’s own heart and spirit—that He does not treat as nothing (vb hz`B*, i.e., belittle, despise). On the contrary, a faithful/loyal heart is of the utmost importance to God, and part of this faithfulness is the willingness to make right the covenant bond when it is broken by sin. The process of making things right involves both repentance and the endurance of punishment (i.e., suffering) at times.

The expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of the Mightiest” means: sacrifices that one should offer to God, that are acceptable to Him.

Verses 20-21 [18-19]

“May you do good, by your pleasure, (to) ‚iyyôn,
(when) you build (the) walls of Yerushalaim;
then you shall delight (in) slaughterings of justice—
(the) rising (smoke) and (the) whole (offering)—
then they shall offer up bulls upon your place of slaughter.”

The Psalm comes to a close, somewhat curiously, with this pair of couplets (the second couplet being expanded into a triad), focusing rather abruptly on the city of Jerusalem. Commentators tend to regard it as an editorial appendix, whereby the original Psalm came to be adapted into a wider communal context. A number of Psalms show similar signs; once these compositions came to be utilized, on a regular basis, in a communal and ritual setting, it is not surprising that such minor additions would develop within the text.

The individual petition has shifted to a petition by the entire community of Jews (or Judeans) longing for a restoration of their holy city and its Temple. This clearly indicates an exilic (and probably post-exilic) setting. While this focus on communal and national restoration is secondary, it is not at all inappropriate from the standpoint of the Old Testament and Israelite religious tradition. Indeed, there is a close connection between individual sin and that of the community, and also between individual and national repentance.

It was, after all, the sins of individuals which led to the guilt and punishment of the entire community (of Judah and Jerusalem), culminating in the Exile and destruction of the Temple. Correspondingly, repentance will lead to the rebuilding of the city and Temple; once that happens, ritual sacrifices can again be offered to YHWH. The expectation is that, after the experience of suffering, the people will come to offer these sacrifices with a new and transformed heart, loyal to the covenant with YHWH, and thus the offerings will be acceptable to Him.

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 50 (Part 2)

Psalm 50, continued

The Oracle, Part 2 (vv. 16-23)

In the second part of the prophetic oracle that forms the core of Psalm 50 (cf. the previous study for discussion of the introduction and Part 1), YHWH turns His address to those among the people who are the cause for Him bringing this accusation and charge against Israel. The principal accusation is that many people perform the requirements of the covenant (as outlined in the Torah), fulfilling the letter of the Law, even though their thoughts and actions are otherwise wicked.

Verse 16

“And to the wicked (the) Mightiest says:
What (use is it) for you to recount my engraved (law)s,
and (that) you take up my agreement upon your mouth?”

The people whom YHWH is addressing are characterized as “wicked” (uv*r*). We do not know what percentage of the population fits this description, and/or to what extent it applies to the Israelite people as a whole. The judicial setting of the Psalm makes clear that YHWH has called the entire people into judgment; at the same time, v. 15 would seem to establish a contrast between righteous and wicked persons. In the Old Testament Scriptures, one often cannot draw a definite line between the individual and the wider community—the action of the individual affects the community as a whole.

The “engraved (law)s” (<yQ!j%) are essentially identical with the regulations and statutes of the Torah, in a comprehensive sense—beginning with the “ten words” (Decalogue) which, according to the traditional narrative, were actually engraved in stone. A person who “recounts” them (vb rp^s*) knows them well enough to quote or recite them, and thus has the terms of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, or ‘covenant’) “upon” (lu^) his mouth. YHWH declares that there is little value in the wicked person knowing the Torah and fulfilling its requirements (esp. in terms of the sacrificial offering)— “what (good is it) for you…?”

Verse 17

“Indeed, you have hated (my) instruction,
and threw down my words behind you!”

The initial w-conjunction, if original, should be understood as emphatic—i.e., “indeed, you have…”. Even though the wicked may recite the Torah, such a person actually hates (vb an@v*) the instruction from YHWH. The verbal noun rs*Wm is used (from the root rs^y`), emphasizing the idea of corrective education and discipline, but is more or less synonymous with hr*oT (Torah, the “Instruction”). In reality, the wicked person “throws down” (or “throws away,” vb El^v*) God’s words in back of him, thus disregarding them completely, even as he may fulfill certain of the requirements accurately enough.

Verse 18

“When you see a thief, even (so) you are pleased with him,
and with (those) committing adultery, you would (have) a part.”

The way in which the wicked “throws away” the words and instruction of YHWH is described here in v. 18. The irregular 4+3 rhythm creates a certain kind of poetic tension that is appropriate to the moment. The wicked person does not necessarily commit the crimes mentioned here (theft, adultery); indeed, the wording in v. 17 suggests that the person may actually avoid such crimes in practice, but in his heart he is pleased by them, indicating that he would perhaps be willing to do the same. There is thus wickedness in one’s heart and intention, even if the regulations of the Torah are being fulfilled.

The opening particle (<a!) is usually translated in a conditional sense, “if…”, but here “when…” is more appropriate to the context.

Verse 19

“You mouth casts (forms) in evil,
and your tongue joins together deceit.”

In addition to the condition of his heart, the wicked person demonstrates his true nature through evil speaking. This couplet (returning to the 3+3 meter) actually builds upon the prior (v. 18), by indicating how through speech (mouth and tongue) a person can give shape to the evil in the heart. The verb jl^v* means “send (out)”, but Dahood (p. 309) notes a separate root, attested (albeit rarely) in Ugaritic, meaning “forge, cast (in metal)”. I have tentatively adopted his suggestion, based on the idea that seems to be expressed here, viz. of giving shape to evil.

The verb in the second line, dm^x* (“join, bind”) fits with this same line of imagery, even to a possible allusion to metal-working (forming a necklace or bracelet, etc). The sense would be that, through speaking, a person “joins (welds?) together” pieces of evil, giving them a distinct and insidious form. The deception (hm*r=m!) brought about by the wicked person could be taken as including the deceptive and hypocritical way that he fulfills the Torah regulations, all the while his heart is full of evil.

Verse 20

“You sit with your brother (and) speak (evil),
with (the) son of your mother you give (out) blame.”

In the first line of the MT (supported by the Qumran MS 4QPsc), there are two verbs: “you sit…(and) speak”. This perhaps captures the sense of deception and hypocrisy of the wicked person, who sits with his neighbor (apparently as a friend) and yet speaks evil to and/or about him. The evil nature of the speaking has to be implied from the context, since the verb is simply rb^D* (“speak”). It has been suggested (e.g., by Kraus, p. 487-8) that MT bvt (bv@T@, “you sit”) is a corruption (through reversal of letters) of original tvb (tv#B), “shame, shameful thing”); this is certainly possible, and, if correct, results in a more precise parallelism for the couplet:

“Shame(fully) with your brother do you speak,
with (the) son of your mother you give (out) blame.”

The parallelism of “brother…son of mother” may be intended to include both one’s neighbor (“brother” in a generic sense) and actual blood-relative.

Verse 21

“These (thing)s you did, and should I keep silent?
You imagine (in your) fallen (way)s (that) I am like you,
but I will prove you (wrong) and lay (it) out before your eyes!”

This tricolon, with loose 3-beat (3+3+3) meter in the MT, is fraught with certain difficulties, though the general meaning is clear enough. The second line, in particular, is problematic, with the odd construction hy#h=a# toyh$ at the center. Possibly it is intended as an instance of the cognate infinitive + imperfect used in an emphatic sense; the meaning would thus be something like:

“(Do) you imagine (that) I am at all like you?”

The use of a construct infinitive to achieve this would be curious. Dahood (p. 310) offers the intriguing suggestion that toyh should be read as toYh^ (rather than MT toyh$), as an orthographic variant of toWh^, plural of hW`h^ (“desire”, a byform of hw`a*), cf. Job 6:2; it would thus mean “(evil) desires”. However, the noun hW`h^ more properly denotes a “falling”, i.e., falling into an evil condition, etc. Perhaps the clearest parallel is in Ps 52:11[9], where the idea of wicked/evil heart is in view; such wicked persons have fallen into evil ways and are on the path to destruction (on hW`h^ in this sense, as characteristic of the wicked, cf. also Prov 10:3; 11:6; Mic 7:3).

In the final line, the judicial setting of the Psalm comes more into focus, as YHWH indicates that He will prove his case against the wicked, laying out (vb Er^u*) all the facts right in front of them (“before your eyes”).

Verse 22

“Discern this, you (who are) forgetting (the) Mightiest,
lest I tear you off (and there) be none snatching (you back)!”

The harshness of this couplet is expressed, in part, by its irregular (and rather awkward) 4+3 meter. The wording/phrasing also is cumbersome, giving to the whole verse a kind of poetic tension that reflects the coming judgment. The implication is that YHWH has now made His case (cf. the last line of v. 21), and the judgment against the people (the wicked, in particular) awaits.

At this moment, the prophetic oracle urges the people to repent, indicating that there is still time to experience a reprieve from the sentence of judgment that is about to be handed down. There is hope that the wicked (“[those] forgetting the Mightiest”) will come to understand (vb /yB!, “discern”) what YHWH Himself has presented to them, and act appropriately, repenting of their evil ways. If they do not repent, then God will “tear them off” (vb [r^f*); possibly the allusion is to being “torn apart” by a wild animal, etc, but I think the primary motif is being ripped out, like a flower or plant plucked out of the ground. There is a bit of conceptual wordplay involved here with the verb lx^n`, which has a similar denotation (“pull out, snatch [away]”), but here (as often) in the sense of “rescue”. If YHWH “tears out” the wicked soul, there will be no one who can then “pull out” the condemned person from His hand. The judgment (and punishment) is irrevocable, and results in the ultimate death/destruction of the soul of the wicked.

Verse 23

“(The one) slaughtering (with) a declaration will be honored by me,
and (the one) <complete> (in the) path I will make him drink
from (the) salvation of (the) Mightiest!”

These concluding lines of the Psalm return to the theme from the first part (discussed in the previous study)—how the performance of the sacrificial offerings is of no value if the ritual is not accompanied by a pure and upright heart. This is a relatively common theme in the Prophets, the most noteworthy example being in Isa 1:12-15, but even more striking as a message of judgment is the harsh polemic in Jeremiah 7 (v. 11 is alluded to by Jesus in the Synoptic version of the Temple ‘cleansing’ scene, Mk 11:17 par).

Here in Part 2 of the oracle the focus was on the Torah regulations in general, but we can fairly assume that observance of the ritual offerings is primarily in view. This is also the emphasis in Jeremiah: the sacrificial offerings will not be accepted by YHWH while the land is full of wickedness and injustice. Even though the wicked will face their own (individual) judgment, their behavior also corrupts (and brings judgment upon) the community as a whole.

In verse 14, YHWH made clear that the kind of sacrifice (lit. “[ritual] slaughter”, vb jb^z`) He truly wants is not the slaughtering of animals in blind observance of the ritual, but rather a declaration (hd*oT) of faith and devotion that comes from the heart. The same wording is repeated here. Only the person who fulfills the Torah obligations with a pure heart (and right intention) has truly been faithful to the covenant and will be accepted by God. I follow Dahood (p. 310) in reading ynndbky as a passive (Pual) verb form: “…will be honored by me”. The faithful and loyal vassal is honored by his Sovereign.

This show of honor includes the traditional imagery of feasting at the Lord’s table. I tentatively follow Dahood also in pointing wnara as a (Hiphil) imperfect from the rare root ary II (= hry), “pour, water” —i.e., WNa#r=a), “I will give (to) drink” (cf. Prov 11:25). The idea of drinking from God’s salvation is quite appropriate given the idiom of the “cup of salvation” in Ps 116:13 (cp. Isa 12:3). The feasting-motif also plays on the concept of the sacrificial offerings as something that God would consume.

There is a two-fold significance to the honor shown by YHWH to his faithful/loyal servants. On the one hand, the covenant blessings apply to this life (cf. Deut 28:1-14, etc), and include fruitfulness and plenty (food and drink, etc); at the same time, feasting at YHWH’s table certainly alludes to the blessed afterlife. The later tradition of the eschatological (and Messianic) banquet simply shifts the focus of the blessed feasting from the afterlife (in heaven) to the end of the current Age.

One final textual note: the first two words in the MT (confirmed by 4QPsc) read Er#D# <c*w+, apparently to be understood as “and (he who) sets (his) path (in order?)”. The wording is rather awkward, and it has been suggested that the text should be emended to Er#D# <t*w+, “and (the one) complete (in the) path” (cf. Kraus, p. 488). This seems preferable, given the Wisdom parallels in Job 4:6; Prov 13:6, etc, with the expression as characteristic of the righteous and denoting those who are faithful to the covenant with YHWH. The term <T* also connotes purity, integrity, and blamelessness, and is used (along with the related verb <m^T*) rather frequently in the Psalms.

By all accounts, the last two words of v. 23 do not fit the metrical pattern. It has been suggested that the final <yh!l)a$ is secondary and should be omitted (cf. Kraus, p. 488). To be sure, the excessive length of the final line would be alleviated if a reading “…my salvation” were adopted in place of “…(the) salvation of (the) Mightiest [i.e. God]”. However, this would still leave an irregular and cumbersome 3+4 couplet. It is perhaps best to treat the final two words as a short (2-beat) supplemental line (to the 3+3 couplet), which, while it disrupts the rhythm of the couplet, serves to punctuate the Psalm, bringing it to a close, with the recognition that all salvation and blessing comes from God (YHWH).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 50 (Part 1)

Psalm 50

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPse (vv. 3-7); 4QPsc (vv. 14-23)

This is the first of 12 Psalms attributed to [s*a* (“Asaph”), the others being Pss 73-83. According to 1 Chron 6:39, Asaph was one of three priestly (Levite) officials who were put in charge of the “service of the song” by David (cf. 25:1; 2 Chron 5:12); he also served as “chief minister” before the Ark in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:4-5; 25:5). He is said to have been a “seer” (hz#j), 2 Chron 29:30), and his sons apparently also functioned as prophets (1 Chron 25:1-2). The musical tradition associated with Asaph (and his descendants) is confirmed by the notices in Ezra 2:41 and Neh 11:22.

The prophetic role of Asaph (and his sons) is noteworthy, given the fact that Psalm 50 is itself a prophetic oracle. Though in Jewish tradition the Psalms were often regarded as inspired prophecy (with David as a prophet, etc), this is one of the only Psalms which has the form and style of a prophetic oracle. Even if Asaph was not the actual author/composer, due to the prophetic character of the Psalm it was natural for it to be attributed to him, and it may reflect his style.

Metrically, the Psalm follows a fairly consistent 3-beat (3+3, occasionally 3+2) couplet or tricolon (3+3+3) format.

The Psalm opens with a dramatic introduction (vv. 1-4), followed by an introductory address (vv. 5-6) that sets the stage for the oracle that makes up the remainder of the composition. It is a judgment oracle, delivered against the people of Israel/Judah as a whole, similar in tone and theme with prophetic passages such as Isa 1:2-20ff. The oracle itself has two parts:

    • Part 1 (vv. 7-15): Diatribe on the uselessness of sacrificial offerings when wickedness is present and prevails among the people.
    • Part 2 (vv. 16-23): The accusation against the wicked ones in Israel

Introduction (vv. 1-4)

Verse 1

“Mighty (One) of the Mighty (one)s (is) YHWH!
He spoke and called (forth the) earth,
from (the) rising of (the) sun unto its going  (down).”

This opening verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The first line reflects the character of this introduction as being in praise of YHWH as Creator and King (and Judge) over all. To say that he “called” (vb ar^q*) the earth alludes to His creation of the universe (“heaven and earth”) through the spoken word (Gen 1:1ff)—i.e., he called it into being. It also refers to his role as King over the universe, exercising control over it each day.

Verse 2

“From ‚iyyôn, (the) completion of (all) beauty,
(the) Mightiest (One), has shined (forth).”

This couplet picks up from the motif of the rising sun in v. 1, describing YHWH as the true Light shining forth. He shines “from Zion”, referring to the symbolic and ritual location of His throne in the Temple sanctuary. YHWH Himself is the “completion of beauty” (yp!y) ll^k=m!), but this expression could also apply to His Temple-dwelling on Zion.

Verse 3

“Our Mighty (One) will come and will not be silent,
a (raging) fire before him devours,
and around him a fierce (storm) is swirling.”

This is another 3-beat tricolon, using the imagery of storm-theophany to describe the approach and (manifest) presence of YHWH. Quite often in Old Testament tradition, including many passages in the Psalms, El-Yahweh is associated with the storm, much as was the case with Baal Haddu in Canaanite religious tradition; there are numerous similarities between YHWH and Baal in this regard, which helps to explain the fierce opposition to syncretistic adoption of Baal-worship among Yahwists in Israel.

The storm-imagery also relates to YHWH speaking (“He will not be silent”), since, in ancient Near Eastern thought, thunder was considered to be the “voice” (loq) of God. Here, however, the focus is on the fire that appears before YHWH, coming from in front of His face, and the devastating winds “swirling/whirling” around Him. The destructive character of these storm-phenomena reflects the judgment that will be brought against the wicked.

Verse 4

“He will call to the heavens from above,
and to the earth, to judge His people.”

This call to the heavens and the earth (i.e., the two main parts of the universe) reflects the “covenant lawsuit” genre, seen most notably in the openings of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and the oracle in Isa 1:2-20ff. It was customary in the ancient Near East to invoke God (or the gods) when establishing a binding agreement (covenant) between two parties, calling on the deities to be a witness to the agreement and to bring judgment/punishment in case the terms of the agreement are violated. In the monotheistic context of Israelite culture, the only Deity to call upon is YHWH, except that, in the case of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, He is one of the parties involved; therefore, “Heaven and Earth” are called upon to be witnesses instead.

The judgment-setting of the oracle here would indicate that heaven and earth, having witnessed the covenant, are being called upon now to give testimony against Israel (“His people”). In any case, they are taking part in the proceedings.

Introductory Address (vv. 5-6)

Verse 5

“Gather His loyal (one)s to Him,
(those) having cut a binding (agreement)
(made) upon a (ritual) slaughter.”

The poetic form is difficult to discern, the lines of these introductory verses (to the oracle) reading more as prosody than poetry. I have rendered v. 5 here as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon.

The y– suffixes should probably be read as reflecting the third person (rather that 1st person) singular (cf. Dahood, p. 307). This is not entirely uncommon in Old Testament poetry, where archaic features in the language are often preserved, causing certain confusion for later copyists.

The adjective dys!j* properly means “good, kind”, but frequently connotes (and denotes) loyalty, when used in the context of the covenant (as here). There may be a certain biting irony to the term; since the setting is an oracle of judgment against Israel, it might seem strange to call the people “loyal”. However, it is presumably used here in the more general sense of those who are bound by the covenant, who have been—and, more importantly, should have been—loyal to it.

The mention of “(ritual) slaughter” (i.e., sacrificial offering) refers primarily to the sacrifices which took place when the covenant was established (and ratified). This scene is described in Exodus 24. In Near Eastern tradition, such a binding agreement was often accompanied by the ritual cutting up of an animal; this is the background (and fundamental meaning) of the expression to “cut” (vb tr^K*) an agreement. At Sinai, the offerings had several specific purposes, including the ritual use of the blood (vv. 6-8), at which point the people affirmed their loyalty to the terms of the covenant, and a ritual meal (v. 11) to mark the ratification of the agreement.

Verse 6

“And (the) heavens shall put His justice out front,
for (the) Mightiest—He (is the) Judge.”
Selah

As noted above, the heavens (and earth) will give testimony in this courtroom-scene against Israel. Since heaven and earth were called on as witnesses to the covenant (cf. the tradition in Deut 32:1, etc), they can testify to how Israel had agreed to the terms, binding themselves to it; having violated the agreement, YHWH is perfectly in His rights to call for judgment/punishment to be brought against Israel. As it happens, YHWH is not only the plaintiff in the case, but is also Himself the Judge (fp@v)). Dahood (p. 307) would read fp^v=m! yh@l)a$ (“Mighty [One] of justice”) instead of fpv) <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One] [is] judge”), dividing and vocalizing the words differently from MT.

The Oracle, Part 1 (vv. 7-15)

Verse 7

“Hear, my people, and I will speak,
Israel, and I will repeat (it) against you,
(for the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One am) I!”

The oracle proper begins here in verse 7; it is now YHWH who is speaking, as the plaintiff in the “covenant lawsuit”, bringing the charge, the accusation, against His people Israel. The wording in the first and third lines frames the case, alluding to the very covenant bond that Israel has broken. By referring to Israel as His people (“my people”), and to Himself as their God, YHWH is affirming the central tenet of the covenant, going back to the time of Abraham and the Patriarchs.

The verb dWu literally means “repeat”, but it can be used in the sense of giving testimony (i.e., repeating what one has seen or heard). Here it has the broader meaning of the case that YHWH is presenting in the courtroom (before Himself as Judge).

Verse 8

“(It is) not over your slaughterings (that) I accuse you,
or your (offering)s going up continually in front of me.”

In verse 5 (cf. above) the sacrifice (lit. “[ritual] slaughter”, jb^z#) which established/ratified the covenant was mentioned. This reference, however, also serves the dual purpose of introducing the theme of sacrificial offerings that dominates the first part of the oracle. Here YHWH states that the problem is not related to any failure on Israel’s part to perform the sacrificial offerings required by the covenant. Indeed, even as they faithfully fulfill this ritual aspect of the binding agreement, they violate it, most egregiously, in other ways.

Verses 9-11

“I would not take from your house a bull,
(nor) goats from your enclosures;
for to me (belongs) every living (thing) of (the) thicket,
(the) beasts (are) on (the) hills of (the) Mighty (One),
and I know every flying (creature) of the mountains,
and every(thing) moving (in the) field (is there) with me.”

In the first couplet, YHWH points out the relative insignificance of the animal sacrifices per se, by declaring that He really has no need for those offerings. The reason is then stated in the final four lines, a pair of couplets with a chiastic conceptual structure:

    • to me belongs
      • every living thing of the forest
        • beasts of the mountains
          • (they belong to the) Mighty One
          • and I know them (all)
        • flying creatures of the mountains
      • every moving thing of the field
    • is with me (i.e. belongs to me)

This reflects, again, the place of YHWH as Creator and King over all the world (cf. the introduction, vv. 1-4, above). Since every animal in the world belongs to Him, clearly He does not need the relatively few animals, from the houses and stalls of the Israelites, that are offered as sacrifices. Moreover, since He already possesses a multitude of living animals, of what real value are those slaughtered animals?

A minor textual note: In the second line of v. 10, the correct reading is almost certainly la@ yr@r=h^B= (“on [the] mountains of [the] Mighty [One, i.e. God]”) rather than MT [l#a* yr@r=h^B= (“on [the] mountains of cattle [?]”); cf. Psalm 36:6. Dahood (p. 307f) would retain the final pe of MT [la and attach it as a prefixed conjunction (P^) to the following verb. Unfortunately, this verse is not preserved in the surviving Qumran manuscripts (cf. at top above).

Verses 12-13

“If I were hungry, I would not say (that) to you,
for (all that the earth) contains and its fullness (belongs) to me!
Would I (then) eat (the) flesh of (your) bulls,
or drink (the) blood of (your) goats?”

This is another way of YHWH stating that He has no actual need for sacrificial offerings. One basic concept in ancient sacrificial ritual was that the offerings provided a kind of nourishment for the deity (or for the spirits of the deceased, etc). In the case of the whole burnt offering, the entire animal was turned into smoke which then rose (lit. went up, hlu) to God in heaven; with such offerings, in particular, God could be seen as consuming (eating) the animal.

However, YHWH states rather bluntly that, even if He were in need of nourishment (“hungered,” vb bu^r*), it would hardly be necessary for Him to tell human beings about it. After all, every thing that the world contains (i.e., the term lb@T@)—all life and produce coming from the earth—belongs to Him, and He can take of its life-essence (for nourishment) anytime He wants.

All of this colorful polemic simply serves to devalue the importance of sacrificial offerings in and of themselves. This is a relatively common theme in the Prophet writings, perhaps the most famous example being found in Isa 1:12-15.

Verse 14

“(Instead) ‘slaughter’ to (the) Mightiest a declaration,
and fulfill for (the) Highest your promises (to Him).”

Much more important than sacrificial offerings are the things which a person declares to God, reflecting one’s personal character/integrity and the intention of one’s heart. The same verb jb^z` (“slaughter”) is used provocatively here; instead of cutting up an animal, it is more important to cut a declaration to God. This is the general significance of the word hd*oT, something which a person declares or confesses—viz., of one’s faith in YHWH, devotion to the Torah, including repentance and confession of sin, etc. The sacrificial offerings are just a small part of this wider portrait of covenant loyalty; without a true declaration, from the heart, fulfilling the letter of the ritual law is of little consequence.

Similarly the word rd#n# refers to something that a person promises (to God). It can involve a specific vow or obligation, but may also be understood in the broader sense of what every Israel promises in terms of being devoted to YHWH and faithful to His covenant. The verb <l^v* (“fulfill, complete”) can be used in the ritual context of the sacrificial offerings, but here its wider meaning is in view: fulfillment of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH.

Verse 15

“And (then) call on me in (the) day of distress,
and I will pull you (out) and you will be honored (by) me.”

If a person does what YHWH commands in v. 14, then the covenant bond will be fulfilled. This means that God will, in turn, fulfill His covenant obligation, which includes providing protection in time of danger (“[the] day of distress”). The faithful vassal can also expect to receive blessing and honor (dbk) from his Sovereign. I follow Dahood (p. 308) in parsing yndbkt as a passive (Pual) verb form, which is much better suited to the context of the line, referring to what YHWH will do for His faithful servant.

The apparent anti-sacrifice polemic in this first part of the oracle, as in prophetic passages such as Isa 1:12-15 (cf. above), may lead one to assume that fulfilling the Torah regulations regarding the sacrificial offerings is unnecessary and can (and perhaps even should) be abandoned. This would, however, almost certainly reflect a misunderstanding of the polemic. The point is, that a person can fulfill the ritual obligation without possessing a heart that is truly devoted to God. Especially for the rich or well-to-do in society, offering up an animal to the priesthood, in fulfillment of the ritual requirement, does not involve any real personal sacrifice. It can be done easily, in a half-hearted manner, or with wicked/impure motives. This is primarily the aspect of the sacrificial ritual that the Prophets are roundly condemning.

We will discuss this further when we examine the second part of the oracle in next week’s study.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 48 (Part 2)

Psalm 48, continued

Verses 10-15 [9-14]

This is the second of the two stanzas of the Psalm, as indicated rather clearly by the overall structure (including the two pause-markers at the end of verses 9 [8] and 15 [14]). Overall, this stanza follows a 3+2 meter, though there are a couple of exceptions (cf. below).

Verse 10 [9]

“Shall we compare your goodness, O Mightiest,
in the midst of your palace?”

The second stanza opens with a 3+2 couplet which I read as a rhetorical question, meant to inspire the praise of the people. It probably has the sense here of “To what shall we compare your goodness…?”, implying that the “Mightiest One” (YHWH) is incomparable. The noun ds#j# is translated according to its fundamental meaning (“goodness, kindness”); however, as I have often noted, the term frequently must be understood in the context of the covenant, denoting (or connoting) faithfulness, loyalty, etc. The first stanza emphasized the protection provided by YHWH, which is a central aspect of His covenant loyalty, whereby God fulfills His obligation to His people (according to the terms of the agreement).

The phrase in the second line, “in the midst of your palace”, again emphasizes Zion (Jerusalem) as the dwelling-place of the King. The “palace” (lk*yh@) of YHWH is, of course, the Temple. Even as the palace of the earthly king resides on Zion, so also does the palace of the heavenly King.

Verse 11abc [10abc]

“Like your name, Mightiest,
so (also) your praise,
(is) unto (the) ends of (the) earth.”

The meter of this verse is slightly irregular, but generally corresponds to a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The idea seems to be that the praise which YHWH deserves corresponds to the greatness of His name. Oddly enough, in this regard, this ‘Elohist’ Psalm here does not use the Divine name (hwhy), but the substitution <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One]”, i.e., “God”). According to the ancient Near Eastern mindset, a person’s name embodies the essential nature and character of the person.

Dahood (p. 292), following the suggestion of earlier commentators, would read imvk as “like your heaven” (;ym#v*K=, spelled defectively):

“Like your heaven, Mightiest,
so (also) your praise,
(reaches) unto (the) ends of (the) earth…”

In some ways, this would be more fitting to the context of the Psalm, continuing the comparison (vb hm*D*) mentioned in v. 10. It would also develop the idea of the parallel between the heavenly and earthly dwelling of YHWH, as well as emphasizing the role of YHWH as Creator and King over the universe. The dome of the heavens extends over the entire surface of the earth; so also does YHWH’s rule, and the praise that is His due (as King).

Verse 11d-12 [10d-11]

“You right hand is full of justice—
let mount ‚iyyôn rejoice,
let (the) daughters of Yehudah twirl,
in response to your judgments!”

Rhythmically, we have here a pair of 3+2 couplets (following the meter established in the opening verse); however, the conceptual parallelism of the quatrain is rather different: the outer lines (1 and 4) forming a pair, along with the inner lines (2 and 3). The inner parallel also relates to the outer parallel:

    • Your right hand…justice
      • Let Mount Zion rejoice
      • / let daughters of Judah twirl (with joy)
    • / …your judgments

Judah and Jerusalem are to rejoice because of (/u^m^l=) the justice and judgments made by YHWH. This emphasizes God’s role as King and Judge over the universe. The noun qd#x# (“justice, right[eous]ness”) here is fundamentally related in meaning to ds#j#—both terms refer to the goodness, faithfulness and (covenant) loyalty of God. YHWH’s judgments, and the exercise of His justice over the world (and to the nations) take the form of goodness/kindness for His people.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Go around ‚iyyôn and circle through her,
(and) count her great (tower)s;
set your heart to (consider) her rampart(s),
(and) examine her (fortified) dwellings—
in order that you may recount it
to the circle [i.e. generation] (that comes) after.”

This verse returns to the theme of the fortifications of Zion—and thus the protection provided by YHWH—from the first stanza (see esp. verse 4 [3]). Again, this is not meant as a literal/physical description of the city’s defenses; rather, it emphasizes two important motifs: (a) the traditional connection between the Temple mount (and the palace-locale of the ‘City of David’) and the ancient Canaanite hilltop fortress site, and (b) the protection that comes from the presence of YHWH within the city. The true nature of the city’s fortifications  lies in the protective presence of YHWH.

Three terms are used for the fortifications of Zion: (1) “great (tower), tall (place)” [lD*g+m!]; (2) “rampart” [hl*yj@]; and (3) “(fortified) dwelling” (i.e. palace, citadel) [/omr=a^].

The verb gs^P* (in the second line of the second couplet) occurs only here in the Old Testament, and its meaning (and derivation) is quite uncertain. The context suggests a meaning something like “examine”.

The two 3+2 couplets are followed by a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet that explains the reason for counting and examining the fortifications of Zion (that is, the protection provided by YHWH’s presence)—so that it all can be declared (“recounted,” same verb rp^s* as in v. 13) for the generations (noun roD, “circle, [life-]cycle”) of people that are to come. This declaration is the essence of the very Psalm and song of praise that is being sung.

Verse 15 [14]

“For this (all belongs to the) Mightiest,
our Mighty (One from the) distant (past) until (the end)
—(so) He will guide us (into the) distant (future).”
Selah

The conclusion of the stanza (and the Psalm itself) takes the form of a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The initial line is best understood as an abbreviated statement: “for this (belongs to the) Mightiest”, i.e., “for this (is) God’s” —that is, the city (Zion/Jerusalem) and everything in it. In particular, the fortifications of Zion belong to YHWH. It is even possible to read the line in a more literal fashion, in this regard: “For this [i.e. the fortifications] (is the) Mightiest” —i.e., the fortifications are the protective presence of YHWH Himself.

I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 293f) in reading twm-lu (MT twm-lu^, “until death”) as toml*u), a feminine plural form of <l*ou (typically referring to the “distant” past or future), understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural (i.e., “[the most] distant [future]”), corresponding to colloquial English “forever (and ever)”. As Dahood notes, the first stanza ends with “until (the) distant (future)” (<l*ou-du^), and it is proper that the second stanza would end in a similar manner (toml*udu^).

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