Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 3)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 2: Verses 14-24 (cont.)

Here is a reminder of the thematic outline of Part 2:

    • Vv. 14-16: Announcement of the Psalmist’s praise of YHWH
    • Vv. 17-21: Description of YHWH’s faithfulness to the Psalmist, with an expression of trust that God will deliver him
    • Vv. 22-24: Concluding declaration of praise to YHWH

For a discussion of verses 14-16, see the previous study.

Verse 17

“Mightiest, you have taught me from my youth,
and until now I have presented your wondrous (deed)s.”

In verses 14-16 (the opening lines of the second division), the Psalmist announces his praise of YHWH, in expectation that God will answer his plea for help. As in vv. 5-9ff, the protagonist affirms his lifelong devotion to YHWH, from his earliest youth (vv. 5-8) until his old age in the present (vv. 9ff). Here in verse 17, the focus is on his youth; the Psalmist’s faithfulness is shown both by the way that he has received God’s instruction (“you have taught [vb dm^l*] me”), and has extended this instruction to others. The latter aspect is described in terms of the Psalmist presenting to people (lit. putting in front of them [vb dg~n`]) an account of the “wonderful (deed)s” performed by YHWH. This verbal noun (al*P* Niphal participle) emphasizes action—i.e., wonderful things done by God. Such things include saving the righteous from their hostile adversaries. For the Psalmist, a presentation of YHWH’s wonders naturally takes the form of a poetic and musical composition.

Verse 18

“And (so) even until (my) old age and white (hair),
may you not abandon me, Mightiest,
until I should present your arm to (the) circle,
(and) your might to every (one who) shall come.”

As in vv. 9ff (cf. above), the focus turns to the Psalmist’s old age, which includes both the present and the years to come. The noun hn`q=z] indicates old age more generally, while hb*yc@ expresses the same through the vivid allusion to a person’s gray (or white) hair. It is in a person’s old age that one might naturally feel that God has abandoned him/her, as one is more prone to physical ailments and suffering, as well as being vulnerable to exploitation and attack from the wicked.

The second couplet follows the second line of v. 17, emphasizing how the Psalmist intends to continue putting an account of YHWH’s mighty deeds in front of people (again the verb dg~n` is used). God’s deeds are described here through a pair of singular nouns—u^orz+ (“arm”) and h*rWbG+ (“strength, might”)—i.e., things done by YHWH’s strong (and outstretched) arm (cf. Exod 15:16 for this ancient poetic idiom).

The noun roD is typically translated “generation”, but has the more fundamental meaning of “a circle”, i.e., a circle of people present in a particular time and place. Dahood (II, p. 175) would explain roD here as a specific reference to the public assembly (of the righteous), the congregation in which the Psalmist declares his praise of YHWH. However, the final line would seem to allude to the idea of a group of people alive at a particular time (i.e., ‘generation’).

Verse 19

“And your righteousness, Mightiest, (is) unto (the) height(s),
(the) great (thing)s which you have done,
(O) Mightiest—who is like you?”

The great deeds of YHWH also reflect His hq*d*x=. This noun has the basic meaning of “rightness”, usually translated “righteousness”; however, in the context of the covenant, it also can connote faithfulness and loyalty, much like the noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”). YHWH’s righteousness (and loyalty) extends to the “high place(s)” (<orm*), which is another way of referring to it specifically as a Divine (and eternal) characteristic. Throughout the Psalms, YHWH’s covenantal protection of the righteous is regularly expressed through the image of secure location situated on a high place.

Verse 20

“Though you made us see (time)s of distress,
(thing)s great and evil (for us),
you return (and) restore our life;
and (so,) from (the) depths of the earth,
you shall return (and) bring me up!”

I treat verse 20 as consisting of a pair of 3+2 couplets, with an additional line in the first couplet (for dramatic effect) producing a 3+2+2 tricolon. The written MT (kethib) has first person plural suffixes on the verbs in the tricolon (i.e., “made us see…”) , but are marked as to be read (qere) as first person singular (i.e., “made me see…”). The singular suffix is probably to be preferred, as being more consistent with the context of v. 20 as a whole; however, the plural is arguably the more difficult reading, and should perhaps be preferred on that basis. The communal worship setting, alluded to in this part of the Psalm, may have influenced a scribal/redactional modification to the plural. On the other hand, the “mighty deeds” of YHWH, declared by the Psalmist, certainly would have included the many things done for Israel throughout the people’s history, thus making a communal reference appropriate in context.

Just as YHWH has rescued His people (the righteous/faithful ones) in times past, so He will also do for the Psalmist now in the present. This is the expectation of the protagonist—viz., that God will answer his prayer and deliver him from his adversaries. The reference to the “depths of the earth” alludes to a life-threatening situation—i.e., that the Psalmist faces the danger of death—though this language could also be used to describe the suffering and danger faced by a person more generally.

Verse 21

“You shall increase my greatness,
you shall surround and comfort me.”

Verse 21 is a rather curious (and short) 2-beat couplet. The idea of God increasing the Psalmist’s “greatness” may relate to the idea that his opponents’ attacks are of an accusatory and slanderous nature (cf. vv. 7, 10-11, 13)—that is, an attack on the protagonist’s reputation. In any case, it is not simply a matter of YHWH rescuing the Psalmist from danger, but of truly restoring him (and his reputation) in a public manner. Once restored, the protagonist will be further surrounded (vb bb^s*) by YHWH’s protection. The root <jn has the basic meaning of “breathing deep(ly)”, often in the sense of a sympathetic reaction to a person’s situation; here it probably has the more general meaning of coming close to a person, watching carefully over his/her condition, so as to bring help, comfort, or encouragement. For poetic concision (in a short 2-beat line), I have translated the verb <j^n` conventionally as “(give) comfort”. The imperfect verb tenses, as a continuation of the Psalmist’s plea/prayer to YHWH, have jussive force.

Dahood (II, p. 177) would vocalize ytldg as yt!l*d*G+, identifying it with Ugaritic gdlt, referring to a (female) head of large cattle. The expectation then is that YHWH will increase the Psalmist’s herd(s), specifically to allow for an increase in the sacrificial offerings that he will be able to present to God. The communal worship context, in this instance, assumes a Temple setting (v. 16).

Verse 22

“(Then) indeed I will throw you (praise) with string-instrument(s),
(praise for) your firmness, My Mightiest,
I will sing to you with (the) plucking (of the) harp,
(O) Holy (One) of Yisrael.”

In the concluding verses 22-24, the Psalmist again declares his intention to praise YHWH with music and song. Loosely, verse 22 consists of a pair of 3+2 couplets, though the poetic syntax is a bit awkward and uneven, and difficult to render literally into English. Overall, however, the meaning is clear and straightforward, as also is the parallelism of the couplets. In the first line of each, the Psalmist says that he will sing praise to God on a stringed-instrument—first, quite literally, on a “instrument of skin [i.e., gut/string]”, and second on a ‘harp’ the strings of which one “plucks”.

God is praised specifically for his “firmness” (tm#a#), meaning, principally, His faithfulness (and truthfulness/trustworthiness) to the binding agreement (covenant) with His people. The covenant also informs the use of the Divine title “Holy One [vodq*] of Israel”.

Verse 23

“My lips shall ring out, indeed, (when) I sing to you,
and (also) my soul, which you redeemed.”

The Psalmist will give full-voiced praise to YHWH; indeed, his lips will “ring out” (vb /n~r*), i.e., with a resounding cry. Such praise will come forth from deep within his soul, from the life which God has (or will have) ransomed (vb hd*P*) out of death and danger. Perhaps also the more concrete meaning of vp#n#, as “throat” (rather than “soul”), is intended here; this would make a fitting parallel with “lips” and would add to the idea of giving full-voiced (i.e., full-throated) praise to God.

Verse 24a

“Indeed, my tongue all the day (long)
shall utter (word of) your righteousness.”

This short couplet continues (and concludes) the Psalmist’s declaration of praise to YHWH. From the specific idea of (full-voiced) singing, in public, the sense shifts to a quieter scene of the protagonist muttering/murmuring (vb hg`h*) praise of God’s righteousness (hq*d*x=, cf. above) all throughout the day, even when by himself in private moments. For the righteous ones, such as the Psalmist, praise of God is a continuous and ongoing activity that is not limited to public times of communal worship.

Verse 24b

“(Oh,) that they may be put to shame,
that they may be humiliated,
(those) seeking evil for me!”

As in the First Part of the Psalm (cf. verse 13), the Second Part concludes with an imprecatory (curse) wish by the Psalmist for his wicked adversaries. He asks (God) that they be put to shame (vb voB) and humiliated (vb rp@j*), very much the same sentiments expressed in v. 13. Both parts end with the same words, referring to the Psalmist’s enemies by the expression “(those) seeking my evil [i.e. evil/harm for me]” (yt!u*r* yv@q=b^m!).

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 71 (Part 1)

Psalm 71

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1-14)

This relatively lengthy composition has, on the whole, the character of a psalm of lament, in which the Psalmist (or the protagonist) prays/pleads to YHWH for deliverance from his adversaries. As such, it has numerous features in common with many of the Psalms we have studied thus far.

This Psalm is irregular, both in terms of its meter, and its thematic structure. It has been characterized as a pastiche, or collage, of traditional Psalm and hymnic elements. Indeed, verses 1-3 are quite similar to the opening lines of Psalm 31 (vv. 2-4a), and may be an indication of an existing source poem that was incorporated into the present composition.

The length, irregularity, and composite character of this Psalm all suggest a relatively late date; many commentators (e.g., Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 194) would assign it to the (early) post-exilic period. There is no heading for this Psalm at all in the Masoretic text; however, the LXX contains a superscription indicating that it is a Davidic composition, written “for the sons of Yonadab and the first (one)s having been led away at spearpoint [i.e. taken captive]”. Apart from the anachronistic reference to David, this heading does, indeed, suggest an exilic (or post-exilic) setting.

I would divide Psalm 71 broadly into two parts: vv. 1-13 and 14-24. There is a certain parallelism to this structure, as each part begins with an expression of hope/trust in YHWH (vv. 1, 14), and concludes with an imprecatory prayer-wish that the Psalmist’s adversaries would end in humiliation and disgrace (vv. 13, 24). Other smaller structural units, such as may plausibly be discerned, will be discussed along the way.

Much of this Psalm survives, largely intact, in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa, and contains several significant variant readings, which will be mentioned in the notes. Interestingly, in this manuscript Psalm 71 follows Ps 38, rather than Ps 70.

Part 1: Verses 1-13

Verses 1-2

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame into (the) distant (future)!
In your justice, rescue me and help me escape,
stretch out your ear to me and save me!”

The opening couplet (v. 1) is identical with the first two lines of Psalm 31:2 [1] (on which, cf. the earlier study), while the second couplet (v. 2) is very close to 31:3 [2] + the first three words of v. 4 [3]. Metrically, we have a 3+2 couplet followed by a longer 3-beat (3+3) couplet. This differs slightly from the meter and structure of Ps 31.

There is parallelism between the couplets, particularly in first and third lines:

    • In you, YHWH
      • I have sought protection
    • In your justice
      • …help me to escape

The verb hs*j* in line 1 denotes the act of seeking or finding shelter (from a rainstorm, etc), and occurs often in the Psalms. The context implies the presence of danger, and the Psalmist is turning to YHWH for protection. The root flp signifies, in a similar sense, escaping from danger, which one does by taking refuge in God; the Piel stem here indicates a causative aspect, i.e. causing, or helping, someone escape. The preceding verb, lx^n`, in the Hiphil stem, has much the same meaning (“snatch out [of danger]”). The noun hq*d*x= is usually translated “justice, righteousness”, but frequently connotes faithfulness or loyalty, especially when a covenant context is in view, as it frequently is in the Psalms. YHWH’s loyalty and fidelity to the covenant bond means that He will give protection to His faithful followers who call on Him in their time of need.

Dahood (II, p. 172; I, p. 187) would read the noun <l*ou in the second line as a divine title (“Ancient/Eternal [One]”) with the prefixed preposition as a vocative lamed (l=). This would result in a clearer parallel couplet in the first two lines:

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame, O Ancient (One)!”

I find the suggestion interesting, but not entirely convincing; I translate <lwul above in the more customary manner, as a qualitative temporal phrase: “(in)to (the) distant (future)” (i.e., for ever, eternally).

In Ps 31, the corresponding final line of v. 2 here is presented instead as a short 3+2 couplet:

“Stretch (out) your ear to me,
(and) rescue me quickly!”

It has the form yn]l@yX!h^ (“snatch me away,” i.e., “rescue me”), as in 71:2a (cf. above), instead of yn]u@yv!oh (“save me,” “keep me safe”). The Qumran MS 4QPsa of 71:2b follows Ps 31 in reading ynlyxh at this point. Also, in v. 2a, 4QPsa differs from the MT in that it has two imperatives, rather than an imperfect (with imperative force) + imperative.

Verse 3

“Be for me (my) Rock, a dwelling-place,
for coming (in) always,
as you ordered, to keep me safe,
for you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high.”

These lines correspond to Ps 31:4-5a (the first three lines of a pair of couplets):

“Be for me (my) Rock, a strong place,
a house place(d) up high, to rescue me!
For (indeed) you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high,

The first line, in each Psalm, is essentially identical, differing only between the noun zoum* (Ps 32) and /oum* (Ps 71). The noun zoum* literally means “place of strength, strong place”, while /oum* refers to a dwelling-place (usu. for animals in the wild). However, Dahood (II, p. 172) would derive /wum here from a separate root /wu, cognate to Arabic ±¹na (“to aid, give help”). I am tempted to follow this suggestion, as it would very much fit the imagery in context, referring to YHWH as a place of safety and protection.

The MT of 71:3, as it stands, is awkward, both syntactically and rhythmically, and it is possible that the text is corrupt. It is an irregular 3+4+3 tricolon; however, in my translation above, I have chosen to parse it as a 3+2+2+3 quatrain. There is a clear parallelism to the framing lines (1 & 4):

“Be for me (my) Rock, a (safe) dwelling-place,
for you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high.”

The imagery involves the typical setting of a secure (fortified) site on an elevated and difficult to reach location. The summit of a rocky hill or promontory is envisioned as the ideal locale for a protected refuge. The image plays on the idea of YHWH as a Rock of strength and protection; indeed, the noun rWx is used frequently as a divine appellation or title, and it is possible that here the prefixed lamed (l=) has vocative force (cf. Dahood, p. 187). In any event, this couplet (3+3), with its vivid imagery, illustrates the protection which the Psalmist requests from YHWH (see above).

The idea that the text of v. 3 is corrupt may find confirmation in the Qumran MS 4QPsa. The framing lines are intact and match the MT; however, the middle line(s) are broken (with a gap in the text) and seemingly unintelligible.

Verse 4

“My Mighty (One), help me escape from (the) hand of (the) wicked,
from (the) palm of (the one) being crooked and violent.”

Here in verse 4, the Psalmist’s request for God’s protection relates specifically to the danger posed by wicked and violent people. The same verb fl^P* (“escape”) was used in v. 2 (cf. above); the sense of the Piel is “help/allow to escape”. The second line expands the meaning of the first, particularly with regard to the parallel expressions:

    • “(the) hand of the wicked
    • “(the) palm of the crooked and violent

The wicked (uv*r*) person is characterized as “being crooked” (vb lw~u*) and “being violent” (vb sm^j*).

Verse 5

“For you (are) my hope, my Lord,
YHWH, my protection from my youth.”

Again, the Psalmist refers to YHWH as a place of protection (jf*b=m!), following the thought and imagery from the previous verses. The root jfb occurs frequently in the Psalms; however, the noun jf*b=m! is relatively rare (40:5; 65:6). The claim that the Psalmist has trusted in YHWH from his youth implicitly characterizes him as righteous, with longstanding devotion and covenant-loyalty to God.

Verse 6

“Upon you I have leaned (even) from (the) belly,
from (the) cords of my mother you severed me—
with you (is) my praise continually!”

The idea that the Psalmist has trusted in YHWH since his youth is developed here, going back to the very time of his birth. He claims to have leaned upon God even from the moment he emerged from his mother’s belly; the Niphal of Em^s* (“lean [upon]”) should be understood in a reflexive sense—i.e., prop up oneself, support oneself.

There is a textual issue in the second line, even though the basic meaning is clear enough: coming from his mother’s intestines (plur. of hu#m@) is parallel to coming from her belly (/f#B#). However, the verbal noun yz]oG (“cutting [off]”) in the MT is problematic, for two reasons: (1) the Qumran MS 4QPsa has the similar sounding yZ]Wu (“my strength”), and (2) Ps 22:10 [9], in a similar context, has yj!oG (“bringing forth”). It almost seems like yz]oG is a conflation of the two readings. Yet, either yjoG or yz]oG is plausible enough in context; God either “brought forth” the Psalmist from his mother’s insides, or He “severed” him from those ‘cords’ (i.e., cutting the umbilical cord, etc).

Verse 7

“As a target I have been for many (people),
but you (remain) my shelter of strength.”

The focus here shifts again to the danger posed by the Psalmist’s wicked adversaries (“many [people]”). The noun tp@om refers to something that stands out or is conspicuous; my translation “target” is based on Job 17:6, where the word tp#T) occurs, in a context suggesting that a person is the target of mocking and the ‘butt’ of jokes. There is good reason to think that the two words are byforms, and essentially synonymous (cf. Dahood, II, p. 173). The Psalmist is the target of accusations and slanderous attacks by his enemies.

The noun hs#j&m^ essentially has the same meaning as jf*b=m! in v. 5: both mean “place of shelter/protection. The roots hs*j* and jf^B* both occur frequently in the Psalms, related to the important theme of YHWH as a source of protection for the righteous.

Verse 8

“My mouth is filled (with) praising you,
(and) adorning you all the day (long).”

The couplet builds upon the theme of praise introduced in the third line of v. 6 (cf. above), and expresses much the same idea: “with you (is) my praise continually”. Here the Psalmist states that his mouth is filled with praise of God, and that he glorifies Him “all the day (long)”. The parallel forms ;t#L*h!T= and ;T#r=a^p=T! are suffixed nouns, but in my translation I have focused on the verbal aspect of the roots llh and rap. The verb ra^P*, in the Piel stem, means “beautify, adorn” —that is, in a religious context, of adorning (exalting and glorifying) God with praise.

The sudden shifts to a praise motif—here and in v. 6—are good examples of how the traditional Psalm elements are blended together in this composition. Typically, the lament, prayer/petition, and praise portions of Psalms are emphasized in specific and distinct sections. This is not so much the case here in Ps 71.

It is possible to delineate vv. 1-3 and 4-8 as units within the first part of the Psalm (vv. 1-13). Treating vv. 1-3 as a distinct unit is supported by the parallel version of these lines in Ps 31 (cf. the discussion above). As for vv. 4-8, they may be seen as parallel with the following vv. 9-13, reflecting two periods of the Psalmist’s life, in terms of his devotion to YHWH:

    • He has trusted in YHWH from his youth (to the present)—vv. 4-8
    • and now asks that God not abandon him in his old age—vv. 9-13

Verses 9-13 will be discussed in the next study.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 4)

Psalm 69, continued

Part 3: Verses 31-37 [30-36]

Verses 31 [30]

“(Then) I will praise (the) name of (the) Mightiest with song,
and ascribe greatness to Him with thanksgiving.”

The focus shifts from lament and prayer to praise in this final part of the Psalm, a pattern that can be found in many of the Psalms we have studied thus far. The implication is that the Psalmist expects YHWH to answer his prayer, and promises to give praise to Him—formally and publicly. In some Psalms, this is framed specifically in terms of a vow.

On the significance of the name of God in ancient Near Eastern thought, cf. the discussion in my earlier series “And you shall call His Name…” The name embodies the essence of the person; thus, to praise the name of YHWH is essentially the same as praising Him. As is appropriate for a musician-composer, praise and thanksgiving takes musical form (a “song” [ryv!]).

The meter in this opening couplet is 3+2, which marks a shift from the 3-beat (3+3) meter that dominates the Psalm.

Verse 32 [31]

“Indeed this will be good to YHWH more than an ox,
or a bull having horns and having split hooves.”

This is a strange couplet, in terms of the poetry, though the meaning is clear enough. The principle, that praise to YHWH (from the righteous) is more important than fulfilling the ritual sacrificial offerings, can be found in a number of Psalms (e.g., 40:6; 50:8-15, 23; 51:16-19). Such offerings (<ym!l*v= offerings) would be made to YHWH in response to God answering the protagonist’s prayer, and delivering him from his distress. Praise and worship takes the place of the sacrificial ritual.

The prefixed /m! preposition (-m) in the first line is an example of the comparative /m!, which requires, in context, a translation like “more than” instead of the literal “from”. The rather banal description in the second line may be intended to emphasize the relative uselessness of sacrificial offerings. There is also a bit of wordplay in the first line that is lost in translation, between rov (šôr, “ox”) and ryv! (šîr, “song”) in v. 31 (cf. above).

Here in this couplet the meter returns to 3+3 (from 3+2 in v. 31).

Verse 33 [32]

“See, (you) oppressed (one)s,
be glad, (you) seekers of (the) Mightiest,
and let there be life for your heart!”

This verse is best treated as a 2-beat tricolon, though the meter is slightly irregular (properly, 2+3+2). The rhythmic shift fits the sudden shift in focus, as the Psalmist calls on the righteous, characterized as “(those) seeking [vb vr^D*] the Mightiest” (i.e., “seekers of God”), that they might find encouragement in the way that YHWH answers his prayer and delivers him in his time of distress. Typically, the righteous are characterized as “oppressed” (adjective wn`u*), as in v. 30 (yn]u*). This way of referring to the righteous is common in the Psalms, where the suffering of the righteous (at the hands of the wicked) is a frequent theme.

With many commentators (e.g., Dahood, II, p. 165) I read the verbs in lines 1-2 as plural imperatives; the imperfect verb form in line 3 correspondingly has jussive force.

Verse 34 [33]

“For YHWH is listening to (His) needy (one)s,
and (those) bound to Him He does not despise.”

The adjectival noun /oyb=a# (“needy”) is another term that is characteristic of the righteous, forming a regular parallel with yn`u* (“oppressed”)—cf. 9:19; 12:6; 35:10; 37:14; 40:18, etc. The participle u^m@v) (“hearing, listening [to]”) denotes the regular (and characteristic) activity of YHWH: He hears the prayer of the righteous ones who are faithful/loyal to Him. This covenantal emphasis, so frequent in the Psalms, is indicated here in the second line, where the root rsa (“bind”) is best understood as referring to the covenant-bond. Admittedly, rsa often is used in reference to prisoners who are bound, but here the idea of a binding obligation is to be preferred. Cf. the note by Dahood, II, p. 165f.

The 3-beat couplet pattern is maintained here, but only loosely so.

Verse 35 [34]

“Let (the) heavens and the earth praise Him,
(the) seas, and everything teeming in them!”

From his exhortation to the righteous, the Psalmist now calls on all of creation to give praise to YHWH. Such an idea is not uncommon in the Psalm, though typically the call to the earth refers specifically to all people and nations on earth, e.g., 66:1ff; 96:1ff. Conceivably, the teeming waters could be meant as an allusion to the nations; however, the basic sentiment, that every living creature should praise God, is expressed clearly enough in the climactic lines of Pss 145 and 150.

The invocation of “heaven and earth” is more in keeping with the ancient covenant treaty-form, and especially the so-called ‘covenant lawsuit’, when judgment needs to be made regarding violations of the covenant—cf. 50:4; Deut 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:1; Isa 1:2. Here, the context is quite different, even though the covenant-bond with YHWH is clearly in view (cf. above on v. 34).

Verses 36 [35]

“For (the) Mightiest is keeping ‚iyyôn safe,
and He will build (the) cities of Yehudah,
and they shall settle there, even (those) dispossessed (from) her,”

The dual-thought expressed in the first two lines—that of God keeping Zion (Jerusalem) safe and (re)building the (other) cities of Judah—suggests the historical circumstances of Hezekiah’s reign, in the aftermath of Sennacherib’s invasion. However, the setting could just as easily be that of the exilic (or the post-exilic) period. In any case, the ‘Zion theology’ found here in vv. 36-37 can be seen, similarly expressed, in other Psalms—most notably, in 51:20 [18] and 102:14-23 [13-22], and overall in 4648 and 97-100. The timeframe of this theology has been associated with the final composition/redaction of the book of Isaiah; cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 176, 183.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 166), though without necessarily following his re-vocalization of the MT, in reading the verb vr^y` (“take possession, possess”) in the specific (privative) sense of being dispossessed—that is, of the people having been expelled/exiled from the land. With the rebuilding of the Judean cities (presumably after the exile), the people will be able to return and settle (vb bv^y`) there again.

Verse 37 [36]

“and (so the) seed of His servants will inherit her,
and (the one)s loving His name shall dwell in her.”

Both conceptually and syntactically, these lines continue the thought from v. 36. The faithful ones of God’s people (“His servants”), those loyal to Him (“loving His name”), will once again inherit the land (of Judah) and dwell in the cities. Jerusalem (Zion) with the Temple-sanctuary of YHWH will be the center of this restored Judean kingdom. That this will be fulfilled by the “seed” of the faithful ones, suggests that a relatively long process of restoration is involved, one that spans more than a single generation. At the same time, the focus on the “seed” of the people can imply an inheritance and settlement that will last far into the future.

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


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 66 (Part 2)

Psalm 66, continued

The first part of this Psalm (vv. 1-12, discussed in the previous study) is a hymn to YHWH, in three stanzas, in which the Psalmist calls upon all people to worship and give praise to God. The emphasis is on the mighty deeds of YHWH, done on behalf of His people—particularly the Exodus event at the Reed Sea (specifically alluded to in stanzas 2 and 3).

The second part (vv. 13-20) is very different. It is divided into two sections, or stanzas; here, again, the Selah [hl*s#] pause-marker is an indicator of the poetic structure. The focus is now on a individual worshiper (note the shift to 1st person singular at v. 13). The first section describes a ritual scene, in which a devout worshiper presents a sacrificial offering (in the Temple) in order to fulfill a vow made to YHWH. The association between praise and fulfilling a vow is found with some frequency in the Psalms, and the ritual fulfillment can be expressed through the very sort of praise which the Psalmist has composed. This featured prominently at the beginning of Psalm 65 (cf. the earlier study).

The ritual setting fades from view in the second section, and the focus is, instead, on offering praise to God. The two aspects—sacrifice and praise—both relate to the idea that YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer—a theme that occurs frequently in the Psalms, which often are framed within the context of prayer to God for deliverance, etc.

As in the first part of the Psalm, the meter tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, which is to be assumed (unless otherwise noted) in the analysis below.

Part 2: VERSES 13-20

Stanza 1: Verses 13-15
Verse 13

“I will go in(to) your house with (offering)s brought up,
(indeed,) I will fulfill to you (all) my vows—”

The setting is clear enough, as outlined above. A devout worshiper declares his/her intention to present sacrificial offerings to YHWH in the Temple (the house of God, “your house”). The noun hl*u), which literally signifies something (or someone) “going up”, usually refers to a (whole) burnt offering. The etymology may relate to the idea of making the offering “go up” (with smoke) to God as it is burnt in the altar-fire, or, possibly, to the more general concept of “bringing up” the offering to the altar (traditionally located at a high/elevated place). Regardless of the word’s etymology, the latter concept seems to be in view here—viz., focusing on the worshiper bringing the offering to God.

The offerings clearly are meant to fulfill (vb <l^v*) a vow (rd#n#) to YHWH. The idea is that a vow was made to God, to the effect that, if He answered the prayer, bringing deliverance in time of trouble, then the person would do such and such. As noted above, the theme of fulfilling a vow is relatively frequent in the Psalms (cf. the prior study on Ps 65, v. 2 [1]); often the vow is fulfilled through giving praise to God and proclaiming his greatness publicly to others (as in the second section, vv. 16-20, cf. below).

The plurals are intensive, as well as iterative; they describe the regular behavior of the righteous (who fulfill their vows), and also emphasize the generosity and lavish worship that the devout and faithful ones offer to God.

Verse 14

“that which my lips opened,
and my mouth spoke,
in the (time of) distress for me.”

Verse 14 follows conceptually (and, to some extent, syntactically) verse 13, continuing the line of thought; it could have been included with the prior verse. The six beats could certainly be treated as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet; however, I feel the poetic rhythm of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon is more proper here. In the time of the Psalmist’s “distress” (rx^), he made a vow to God, that, if YHWH answered his prayer, and delivered him from his trouble, he would bring offerings to the Temple. The vow (rd#n#) designates, quite literally, a “consecrated” action. The Torah regulations regarding vow-offerings are found in Lev 7:16ff; 22:18-22; Num 15:3ff; 29:39; an entire tractate of the Mishnah (Nedarim) was devoted to the subject of vows.

The noun rx^ literally denotes something “tight” or “narrow”, as in the English idiom “in a tight spot,” or “to be in a bind”. Many Psalms are framed as a prayer to YHWH for deliverance from suffering or distress, danger and attacks from enemies, etc.

Verse 15

“(Offering)s of fatlings I will offer up to you,
with (the) rising smoke of rams—
I will offer up bull(s) with goats.”

Here the noun hl*u) (and the related verb hl^u*) seems to have in view the aspect of making the smoke (of the burnt offering) “go up” to God; the parallel noun tr#f)q= specifically denotes the rising of the fragrant smoke. The offerings of fat/plump animals (fatlings), of rams, bulls, and goats, taken collectively, are certainly lavish, and are here comprehensive in describing the kinds of offerings brought forward by the righteous. The generosity of the worshiper is also being described.

Metrically, this verse is an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon.

Stanza 2: Verses 16-20
Verse 16

“Come (and) hear, and I will recount,
(to) all you fearing (the) Mightiest,
that which He has done for my soul.”

The second section returns to the thematic setting of the earlier hymn (vv. 1-12), calling on people to hear of the great deeds of YHWH, and so to give Him the worship and praise that He deserves. In the hymn, the focus was upon what God has done for the Israelite people as whole; here, it is on the individual righteous one (the Psalmist)—that is, what God has done for him (“for my soul”). YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, delivering him in his time of distress. Every one who fears God, utilizing the adjective ar@y` (“fearing”) as a substantive adjective characterizing the righteous—i.e., “(the one)s fearing” God—will respond with praise to the Psalmist’s report (“I will recount [vb rp^s*]…”).

This initial verse is, taken loosely in its meter, a 3-beat tricolon.

Verse 17

“Unto Him (with) my mouth I called (out),
and sounds (of praise were) under my tongue.”

Here, the Psalmist describes his own praise that he gives to YHWH. This praise should be understood as parallel to the sacrificial offerings in section 1—both are offered up to God, as fulfillment of vow, following an answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. For a musician-composer, of course, an offering in music and song is particularly appropriate.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 124) in reading <mr as a plural form (= <ym!or), related to Ugaritic rm (“sound [of music]”). Probably, <mr here is meant as a parallel to the ritual offerings “brought/sent up” in section 1 (vv. 13-15); the root <wr has a comparable denotation “rise/raise (up)”, and can, in a context of religious worship, can refer to exalting/praising God.

Verse 18

“If I had looked (for) trouble with my heart,
my Lord would not have heard (me).”

The context makes clear that God has answered the Psalmist’s prayer. This is an indication of the faithfulness and loyalty of the Psalmist. There may be a dual-meaning to the language in line 1 (involving the verb ha*r* and the preposition B=):

    • “If I had seen trouble in my heart”
      i.e., if there were any wicked or mischievous tendency visible or present in his heart
    • “If I had looked (for) trouble with my heart”
      i.e., if he had carried a wicked intent, meaning that his apparent righteousness would have been a sham

The noun /w#a* fundamentally means “trouble”, often as a characteristic of the wicked—i.e., one who is out to cause/make trouble. There is no such wicked tendency or intent in the heart of the Psalmist, which is a sign that he is faithful/righteous, and so YHWH answers his prayer; if it were otherwise, God would not “hear” him when he prays.

Verse 19

“(But) surely (the) Mightiest has heard me,
He has been attentive to (the) voice of my prayer.”

This verse simply confirms what was implied in v. 18, and what was already confirmed by the context here in the Psalm—namely, the YHWH has heard (and answered) the Psalmist’s prayer. The noun hL*p!T= is a common Hebrew term denoting a prayer or petition made to God; it is relatively common in the Psalms, with nearly half of the Old Testament occurrences (32 of 77) found there.

Verse 20

“Blessed (be the) Mightiest,
who has not turned away my prayer,
nor His goodness (away) from me!”

The meter of this verse is irregular, as a 2+3+2 tricolon, to match the 3+2+3 tricolon in v. 15 at the end of the first sections; such irregular tricola more commonly occur at the close of a poem (or stanza). Because God has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, that means He has not “turned (away)” (vb rWs) from it. The noun ds#j# in the third line means “goodness” (or “kindness”); however, as I have mentioned repeatedly in these studies, it often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, in relation to a covenant bond, such as between YHWH and His people. When YHWH answers the prayer of His loyal servant, providing protection and deliverance, He is fulfilling His covenant obligation, and is thus demonstrating faithfulness/loyalty to the bond. By not turning away the Psalmist’s prayer, God has not turned away that covenant-loyalty; indeed, YHWH is ever faithful to the binding agreement, and so is worthy of blessing and praise.

Dahood (II, p. 125) offers a different reading of the final word ytam (MT yT!a!m@, “from me”), vocalizing it yT!a@m!, as a verbal form denominative of ha*m@ (“hundred”), and thus meaning “do (something) a hundred times”. The final line would then read something like: “and (so) I declare His goodness a hundred times!” Cp. Psalm 22:26 [25], where Dahood finds the same denominative verb, in a similar context.

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 63 (Part 2)

Psalm 63, continued

I am following a three-part division of this Psalm, working from the repeated mention of “my soul” (yv!p=n~) in vv. 2, 6, and 9. Based on this dividing principle, there would be three stanzas of unequal length (vv. 2-5, 6-8, 9-12), each of which begins with a reference to the Psalmist’s soul desiring/longing for YHWH. There are two main stanzas, juxtaposing the emphasis on prayer for blessing (vv. 2-5, discussed in the previous study) and the call for a curse on the wicked (vv. 9-12). The shorter central stanza (vv. 6-8) is transitional, developing the main theme of the Psalmist’s devotion to YHWH.

Stanza 2: VV. 6-8 [5-7]

Verse 6 [5]

“As with fat and richness (of the land)
may my soul be satisfied,
(and with) my lips ringing out
my mouth shall praise you.”

The meter and syntax of this verse is a bit difficult; taking the MT at face value, I render it as a 3+2+2+2 quatrain, with each building on the one prior. The “fat and richness” of the land is in stark contrast to the dry and waterless land of verse 2 [1] (cf. the previous study). The Psalmist hopes for (and expects) that YHWH will fulfill his longing and satisfy (ub^c*) his soul. The nouns bl#j# and /v#D# each fundamentally denote “fat(ness),” specifically the rich and fatty portion of an animal (covering the meat and intestines, etc). However, the latter, in particular, can be used more figuratively to indicate “richness, prosperity,” etc. Dahood (II, p. 99) would vocalize blj as bl*j* (“milk”); this is possible, but unnecessary for the sense of the verse.

Once the Psalmist’s prayer is answered, and he receives the richness of God’s blessing (and His presence), so as to satisfy his soul, then he announces that he will worship YHWH with a ringing cry (/nr) of praise (vb ll^h* II). The plural of the noun hn`n`r= is rare, occurring only here in the Old Testament; Dahood (II, p. 99) would vocalize it as a verbal noun (feminine plural participle, tn)n+r)) of the root /nr.

Verse 7 [6]

“When I remember you (while laying) on my bed,
in (my night) watches I shall murmur to you.”

The idea here is that even on his bed (lit. the place where he “spreads/lays out”, u^Wxy`) at night, the Psalmist will give praise to YHWH, murmuring (vb hg`h*) to Him. The concluding phrase could also be translated “I shall meditate on you,” (cf. Psalm 1:2; 143:5) but “murmur” is closer to the fundamental meaning of the verb, entailing the uttering of a sound with the mouth (cp. 35:28; 37:30; 71:24; 77:13[12]; 115:7).

Verse 8 [7]

“(Oh,) that you might be (the) help for me,
and in (the) shade of your wings I shall cry out!”

It is not entirely clear whether the perfect tense of the verb rz`u* (“[give] help”) should be understood as a normal past tense form (anticipating an action as something that will have occurred), as a gnomic perfect (reflecting what YHWH regularly/always does), or as a precative perfect (expressing the Psalmist’s wish/hope as something that has already occurred). I have opted for the latter. This gives to the entire stanza a poignant tension that is well expressed by the Psalmist’s fervent night-time praying in v. 7. On the one hand, he fully expects that YHWH will answer his prayer and will bless him (v. 6); but, at the same time, he still is in desperate need of God’s protection. He hopes for this Divine protection—a frequent motif in the Psalms—utilizing the popular image of the “shade/shadow” (lx@) of a bird’s protective wings (cf. Psalm 17:8; 36:8; 57:2; and on the protective shade of God more generally, 91:1; 121:5).

Stanza 3: vv. 9-12 [8-11]

Verse 9 [8]

“My soul sticks close (following) after you,
(while) on me your right hand grabs hold.”

After the fervent scene of prayer in vv. 6-8, the Psalmist responds with confidence in the final stanza, fully expecting the YHWH will answer his prayer. Here in the initial couplet, he expresses his devotion to God, in terms of following after (rja) Him, his soul “sticking (close)” (vb qb^D*). The Psalmist’s faithfulness to the covenant bond with YHWH means that God will respond to that loyalty, with help and blessing. The image of God “grabbing hold” (vb Em^T*) of the Psalmist with His strong right hand, expresses both the promise of protection and an affirmation of the covenant bond that is upheld.

Verse 10 [9]

“But those (who) for destruction seek my soul,
may they go (down) in(to the) depths of the earth!”

Verses 9 and 10, taken together, represent the traditional wisdom theme (so common in the Psalms) of the contrast between the righteous and wicked. The righteous will be protected and blessed by YHWH, but the wicked will be condemned to death. Here the Psalmist calls down a curse upon the wicked, those who are his hostile adversaries. Such imprecatory verses are relatively common in the Psalms, as we have seen, however uncomfortable we may be with such language as Christians today.

The devotion of the Psalmist’s soul to God (v. 9) is here contrasted with the idea of his wicked enemies seeking (vb vq^B*) his soul (for the purpose of destroying it). The expression of their evil purpose is ha*ovl=, “for destruction”. The noun ha*ov basically means something like “devastation, desolation, ruin,” but with a clear sense of violence implied (cf. Dahood, II, p. 100).

Given the imprecatory character of this verse, the imperfect verb form in the second line should be understood as having jussive (volitive/precative) force.

Verse 11 [10]

“May they be hurled down by (the) hand of (the) sword—
(as) a portion for (the) jackals they shall be!”

The verb form at the beginning of the first line is problematic. The vocalized MT, read as a jussive (continuing the imprecation/curse), would be “may they pour/hurl down him” (vb rg~n`). Almost certainly, this should be understood as a passive verb form, while the context suggests that the 3rd person singular suffix (Wh-) expresses a dative of agency; on both points, cf. Dahood, II, p. 100f (for a different explanation, see Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 120). Literally, then, the line would read: “May they be hurled down by him upon (the) hand [i.e., by the edge] of the sword.” For poetic concision, I have abridged this in my translation above. Presumably, YHWH would be the agent acting—it is He who will hurl the wicked down into Sheol (the realm of the dead in the “depths of the earth”).

Verse 12 [11]

“But the king shall rejoice in (the) Mightiest—
he shall shout, every one binding himself by Him,
(while the) mouth of (those) speaking lies shall be shut.”

Some commentators would read the initial line of verse 12 as a secondary addition to the original couplet. To be sure, lines 2 and 3, taking by themselves, would be sufficient for emphasizing again, at the close of the Psalm, the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The one trusting in YHWH, being faithful and loyal to Him, will be able to shout boldly (vb ll^h*, the idea of a “boast” may be intended), while the mouth of the wicked (those “speaking a lie”) will be “shut up” (vb rv^s*).

The loyalty of the righteous is expressed here by the technical use of the verb ub^v* (which apparently denotes doing something “seven times” or “seven-fold”). This technical usage clearly refers to swearing an oath, and may carry the basic meaning of binding oneself [passive/reflexive] sevenfold by an oath. For poetic concision, I have rendered uB*v=N]h^-lK* above simply as “every one binding himself”. However, the contrastive parallel with “speaking lies” probably means that the idea of speaking the (truthful) words of an oath is specifically being emphasized; if so, then it might be better to translate as “every one swearing (an oath)”. The oath, of course, is made by YHWH (“by Him”)—that is, trusting in YHWH as God and Protector of the covenant.

The brings us back to the reference to “the king” in line 1. As I have mentioned repeatedly, many of the Psalms evince a royal background, retaining certain traditional elements—language, imagery, etc—that may reflect both historical traditions and ancient royal theology. This is quite valid, even if one does not accept the attribution of these Psalms to David, etc, in the headings. The Psalmist here may be said to represent both the righteous Israelite and the king (as representative of the people as a whole). The covenant bond is between YHWH and the king (as His vassal), just as it is between God and His people. The Divine blessing and protection has a special place in relation to the king; this is very much part of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, and it is reflected throughout the Psalms at a number of points.

For these reasons, I tend to regard the first line of verse 12 as an integral part of the original Psalm. For further discussion, see Dahood, II, pp. 96, 101 and Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 120-2.

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).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 63 (Part 1)

Psalm 63

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

We have here a prayer-Psalm with certain lament features, such are to be found in a number of the Psalms we have studied thus far. From the standpoint of the thematic structure, it is possible to divide the Psalm two ways. First, one many isolate a main section (vv. 4-9), in which the Psalmist affirms his devotion to YHWH. This is preceded by a plea for blessing, for an experience of the Divine Presence (vv. 2-3); and it is followed by an imprecatory petition, calling down a curse upon the wicked (vv. 10-12).

Another possibility is a three-part structure, working from the repeated mention of “my soul” (yv!p=n~) in vv. 2, 6, and 9. Based on this dividing principle, there would be three stanzas of unequal length (vv. 2-5, 6-8, 9-12), each of which begins with a reference to the Psalmist’s soul desiring/longing for YHWH. It may be possible to combine this division with the thematic structuring mentioned above. We may thus speak of two main stanzas, juxtaposing the emphasis on prayer for blessing (vv. 2-5) and the call for a curse on the wicked (vv. 9-12). The shorter central stanza (vv. 6-8) is transitional, developing the main theme of the Psalmist’s devotion to YHWH.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet pattern, though not consistently so; places where the poetic rhythm differs or is irregular will be noted.

The heading marks this as yet another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. The additional contextual information, “in his [i.e. David’s] being in (the) outback [i.e. ‘wilderness’] of Yehudah,” alludes to the David tradition(s) narrated in 1 Samuel 22, 23.

Stanza 1: VV. 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“Mightiest, you my Mighty (One), I seek you at dawn;
(indeed,) my soul thirsts for you,
my flesh faints (with longing) for you,
like a dry land exhausted by no water.”

The initial <yh!l)a$ marks this as another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the plural title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e. ‘God’) has been substituted for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH).

In the MT as we have it, a long 4-beat couplet in the opening line is followed by a 3-beat triad (3+3+3). For a slightly different approach to the division of these lines, cf. Dahood (II, p. 96f). In the first line, the verb rj^v* is denominative (from rj^v^, “dawn”) and refers to doing something at dawn (or early in the morning). The sense of longing conveyed in the following lines makes it appropriate to fill in the act of seeking—i.e., “I seek you at dawn”. This establishes the setting for the first stanza.

The first two lines of the triad that follows form a synonymous couplet: “my soul thirsts for you / my flesh faints for you”, with the verbal parallel of am^x* (“thirst”) and Hm^K* (“[be] faint”); the latter verb occurs only here in the Old Testament, and its meaning must be determined from the context, and by possible cognates in other Semitic languages (Syriac, Arabic). The juxtaposition of soul and “flesh” (i.e., body) is comprehensive, indicating how the Psalmist’s entire person, his whole being, longs for YHWH’s presence.

I take the initial preposition (B=) in the fourth line to have comparative force (cf. Dahood, II, p. 97); in other words, the Psalmist is comparing his longing to that of a dry desert land longing for water. The association with the David tradition indicated in the heading (cf. above) may have been due to reading B= here in its common locative sense—i.e., “in a dry land”. I also tentatively follow Dahood in revocalizing MT [y@u* (a masculine adjective which does not agree with the feminine noun Jr#a#) as an infinitive ([y)u*), “(being) exhausted”. The land is exhausted because of its lack of water, indicated here by the privative adverbial particle yl!B=

Verses 3-5 [2-4]

“So in (the) holy (place) I (would) gaze on you,
to see your strength and your weight—
for good is your kindness (more) than (my) life,
(and the) lips (that) praise you—
so will I bless you in (all) my life,
in your name I will lift my palms.”

The complex poetic syntax of vv. 3-5 demands that they be treated as a unit. Again, my translation does not adequately capture the meter, which requires some explanation. Verses 3 and 5 are essentially parallel couplets, each with a 3-beat (3+3) meter, and each beginning with the emphatic particle /K@ (“thus, so”). These couplets frame an idealized scene of worship:

    • so [/K@] in the holy place I (would) gaze on you,
      to see your strength and your weight…
    • so [/K@] will I bless you in (all) my life,
      in your name I will lift (up) my palms

The Psalmist responds to a vision of YHWH in the (Temple) sanctuary, much like the prophet Isaiah in the famous visionary scene of Isa 6. I understand the perfect verb form ;yt!yz]j& (lit. “I have gazed [on] you”), as a precative perfect, reflecting the Psalmist’s wish for the future expressed as something that has already occurred.

The grandeur and glory of the Divine presence is described using the standard terms of zu) (“strength”) and dobK*—this latter word itself is often translated “glory,” but literally means “weight”, typically in the sense of “worth” (i.e., the value of something); the two terms together refer to the overwhelming greatness of YHWH.

Indeed, so overpowering is the experience of YHWH’s presence, that the Psalmist must give worship (vb Er^B*) with all of his being. The preposition B= in the expression “in my life” (yY`j^B=) could mean either “during my life” or “with (all) my life”. The fundamental meaning of the verb Er^B* suggests a gesture of worship (i.e., bowing, bending the knee), but can also refer to speech (i.e., “blessing” with the mouth). The parallel of lifting up of one’s palms would seem to confirm an act or gesture; in any case, we are dealing with a comprehensive state of worship that encompasses the whole person, and continues throughout his/her life. Such a thorough sense of devotion to YHWH is a characteristic of the righteous, and identifies the Psalmist as one of the righteous.

The middle couplet (v. 4) lies at the heart of this worship scene. It is distinct both in its irregular (3+2) rhythm and in its peculiar syntax. The first line establishes a comparison, between YHWH and the Psalmist. The comparison is made through the preposition /m! (“from”), used in a comparative sense; this usage is difficult to translate, requiring in English something like “(more) than”. The specific comparison is between the ds#j# (“kindness, goodness”) of YHWH and the entirety of the Psalmist’s person. Again the plural noun <yY]j^ (“life, living”) is used, referring to the Psalmist’s life (just as in v. 5). The noun ds#j# often is used in a covenantal context, connoting faithfulness and loyalty; it is typically used this way in the Psalms, as an attribute of YHWH—viz., His loyalty to the covenant.

Not only is God’s loyalty and goodness, etc, greater than the Psalmist’s own life, but it far surpasses his ability to find words fitting enough to express praise for it (vb jb^v*). As a minor grammatical note, even though the suffixed noun yt^p*c= (“my lips”) is feminine (a dual form), the corresponding verb is a masculine plural (WjB=v^y+, “they shall praise”); this, however, is by no means unusual (cf. Prov 5:2; 10:8, etc).

There is an interesting poetic symmetry in verse 5 that is worth commenting on (cf. also Dahood, II, p. 98); there is a certain chiastic structure to the lines:

    • I will bless you
      • in my life/living
      • in your name
    • I will lift my hands

The implication is that the Psalmist’s life (yj^) is to be realized in the presence of YHWH Himself. Here, God’s manifest presence, in relation to His people, his expressed through His name (<v@). This is typical of Old Testament and Israelite religious theology, and is tied to the ancient Near Eastern understanding of the significance of names and naming; for more on this, see my earlier discussion in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”. It is quite possible that the idea of the blessed life in heaven is in view here, and that the vision in the “holy place” may refer, not so much to a ritual setting in the Temple, but to the heavenly dwelling of YHWH.

(The remainder of this Psalm [Stanzas 2 and 3]  will be discussed in next week’s study.)

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


January 1: Isaiah 8:11-22

Isaiah 8:11-22

There are three pieces to this section, which bring the oracles of chapters 7-8 to a close. They seem to be only loosely connected, though thematically they all relate, we may assume, to the 8th century Assyrian crisis. The pieces may be outlined as follows:

    • Vv. 11-15—A message of warning from YHWH to the prophet, emphasizing the need to trust in Him alone
    • Vv. 16-18—A biographical notice, referring to the sealing of Isaiah’s oracle(s)
    • Vv. 19-22—A message of warning to people (Isaiah’s audience) against relying on other religious means (rather than trusting solely in YHWH’s word) in time of crisis.
Verses 11-15

The first unit begins with an introductory notice of a powerful inspired (prophetic) state that grips Isaiah:

“For thus said YHWH to me, as (with) a firm grasp (of the) hand, and disciplined me (away) from walking in (the) way of this people, saying…” (v. 11)

The central verb in the MT is rs^y` (“discipline, correct, rebuke”), yn]r@S=y]w+ (“and He disciplined me”), which fits the forceful image of God taking firm hold (qzj) of Isaiah with the hand. The idea would be of a parent forcefully disciplining a child. However, the Qumran Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) has yn]r@ys!y+ (“He turned me [aside]”), a Hiphil form of rWs (“turn [aside]”). This would fit the motif that follows, of walking on a certain path (or avoiding it). Thus, both verbs would fit the context, and it is difficult to decide between them; unfortunately, the other Qumran fragments do not contain this portion of v. 11, so there is no additional help to be found there (cf. Roberts, p. 136). I think that the context slightly favors rsy, with the overriding sense that YHWH is giving a stern warning to Isaiah.

He is to avoid “the way of this people”, where the expression “this people” should be understood in light of the earlier occurrence in v. 6 (cf. the discussion in the prior note). Assuming that we are still dealing with the historical context of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis, Isaiah was caught in the middle of this situation. Some of “the people” supported the anti-Assyrian coalition, while others would have preferred to ally themselves with Assyria. There is some indication that king Ahaz of Judah vacillated between these two positions. The prophetic message of Isaiah ran contrary to both of these practical political/military approaches, and here YHWH is warning him against falling into such worldly ways of thinking.

A key word in this message is the noun rv#q#, from the root rvq, which fundamentally means “bind [together]”. In the context, it refers to a political (and/or military) alliance, such as the anti-Assyrian coalition, formed by Aram-Damascus and Israel, which sought to force Judah (through military pressure) to join it. The prophet is directed not to think or speak in such terms, and he is also exhorted not to be afraid, nor to fear the kinds of things people fear during such times of crisis (v. 12). Rather than turning to political solutions, Isaiah and his supporters are to place their trust in YHWH alone (vv. 13ff).

The root vdq, denoting holiness and separation/ consecration, provides a contrast with rvq, and there is even a kind of alliterative wordplay between the two. It connotes the covenant bond between YHWH and His people, along with the protection that He provides for those who are faithful and trust in Him. For the faithful ones, God serves as a holy place of protection (vD*q=m!), but for others, He is a stone that trips them up and causes them to fall.

One is reminded of the use of vv. 14-15 (along with Psalm 118:22) as applied to the person of Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Luke 20:18 par; cf. also the declaration in 2:34 of the Infancy narrative). Here the  warning of judgment is equally comprehensive, addressed to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah alike—and, indeed, both would experience considerable destruction and suffering at the hands of Assyria. None of their political machinations would help them to avoid this fate, and only a remnant—including the city of Jerusalem (where YHWH’s holy sanctuary [vD*q=m!] resides)—would survive.

Verses 16-18

The inclusion of this biographical notice is curious, and originally it was probably part of the tradition in vv. 1-4 (cf. the prior note). There is certainly a continuation of the themes from that earlier passage, namely: (1) a notarized written record of Isaiah’s prophecy, and (2) the association of the oracle with Isaiah’s child. In this particular scene, there is a further juxtaposition between the presence of Isaiah’s disciples (<yd!WMl!, v. 16) and his children (<yd!l*y+, v. 18)—presumably the two children, with the symbolic names, connected with the oracles in 7:3-9 and 8:1-4. The disciples are associated with the binding (vb rWx, i.e., securing) and sealing (vb <t^j*) of the prophecy—i.e., a written record of one or more of Isaiah’s oracles, which doubtless served as a primary source for the document of 6:1-9:6 as a whole.

The children, by contrast, are associated with the message of the oracle(s), as the symbolic names and connected signs indicate. This is specified in verse 18, referring to the children as those “…whom YHWH gave to me for signs [tota)] and for portents [<yt!p=om] in Yisrael”. The oracles, and the accompanying child-signs, relate specifically to the judgment coming upon the kingdom of Israel (along with Aram-Damascus), which was fulfilled by the Assyrian conquests of 734-732 B.C.

The central statement of the episode (in v. 17), emphasizes the prophet’s trust in YHWH, contrasted with the general faithlessness of the Israelite kingdom:

“I will wait [vb hk*j*] for YHWH, the (One) hiding His face from (the) house of Ya’aqob; indeed I will wait [vb hw`q*] for Him.”

The prophet’s two declarations that he will wait for YHWH, using two different verbs, bracket the statement alluding to God’s judgment against Israel (“…hiding His face from the house of Jacob”). The ‘hiding’ (turning away) of God’s face essentially refers to the removal of His covenant-protection from the people, thus allowing for their conquest by the Assyrians.

Verses 19-22

In the first unit, the focus is on how people respond (out of fear) in a time of crisis, turning to political/military alliances as their source of hope and protection. Another way of responding is to seek out (vb vr^D*) other religious sources, apart from simply trusting in the prophetic word of God. That is the focus here in the third unit, which matches the first as a message of warning against following in the path of the people at large. The first message was addressed to Isaiah himself; the second, here, is presented as an oracle, by Isaiah, to an audience: “And (it is) that they will/may say to you…”.

The implied “they”, as the subject of the verb, are the people at large (and their leaders). In time of crisis, people will often seek out various superstitious practices to gain answers and find a sense of hope and security. Among these can be included various forms of divination—most of which are specifically prohibited in the Torah. The one mentioned here in vv. 19-22 is necromancy—attempts to obtain information and guidance from the spirits of the dead. Such things were outlawed by the Torah (e.g., Lev 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deut 18:11), but they continued to be practiced throughout Israel’s history (cf. 19:3; 26:13-19; 28:14-22; 29:4; Blenkinsopp, p. 245). The most famous Old Testament example is the episode at En-Dor in 1 Samuel 28.

The message of warning concludes on a dark and chilling note (v. 22), promising that those who resort to necromancy, looking down into the darkness of the underworld, will themselves be thrust down into deep darkness.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 62 (Part 2)

Psalm 62, continued

The first two stanzas of Psalm 62 were discussed in the previous study. Those stanzas are roughly similar in structure, with opening lines that are very close. The third section, however, is quite different, and functions as a coda in relation to the first two sections. It is didactic, containing proverbial material; there had been wisdom-elements in the first stanza (verses 4-5, cp. vv. 8-9), but they are much more prominent in the final stanza. In our studies, we have seen how Wisdom-traditions shaped many of the Psalms, giving a new (communal) framework to the ancient royal/covenant themes. Often this wisdom-influence features notably in the closing section of a Psalm, and this is very much the case in Psalm 62.

The wisdom-elements in vv. 4-5 introduce the familiar theme of the contrast between the righteous and wicked. There is also an implied contrast established, in the first two stanzas, between the person who is without YHWH’s protection (vv. 4-5), who is thus vulnerable to attacks by the wicked, and the righteous/faithful one who is under God’s protection (vv. 8-9).

Stanza 3: VV. 10-13 [9-12]

Verse 10 [9]

“Indeed an empty (wind) (are the) sons of men,
(and) a deception, the sons of a (great) man;
(as) weight in the balances, they are to go up,
all together, (light)er than an empty (vapor).”

The Wisdom-theme of the final stanza is indicated here by the use of the noun lb#h# in the first two couplets. Denoting something that is empty (spec. a wind or breath), lb#h# is a keyword in Old Testament Wisdom literature, occurring 4 times in Job, 3 times in Proverbs, and 38 times in Ecclesiastes; the 9 occurrences in the Psalms (cf. earlier in 31:7; 39:6-7, 12) attest to the influence of Wisdom traditions on the Psalter. As a wisdom term, lb#h# signifies how insubstantial and fleeting human existence is, emphasizing, at the same time, the foolishness and vanity of many people in the world (esp. the wicked).

The expressions <d*a*-yn@B= and vya!-yn@B= are essentially equivalent, both meaning “sons of man” (i.e., human beings); however, if a distinction is intended, the singular vya! could imply a noteworthy person (i.e., great/prominent men), compared with the ‘ordinary’ human beings of the collective <d*a*.

The third line, as it reads in the MT, is a bit awkward. Dahood (II, p. 93) would explain twlul as a plural form of the noun hl#u* (“leaf,” i.e., “leaves”), with the prefixed preposition l used in a comparative sense (i.e., “[light]er than leaves”), comparable to comparative /m! in the next line; the couplet would then be:

“(a weight) in (the) balances (light)er than leaves,
all together (light)er than an empty (vapor).”

The first couplet has a synonymous parallelism, while in the second couplet the parallelism is synthetic. It is also possible to view the thematic structure of the verse as a chiasm:

    • Human beings are an empty wind [lb#h#]
      • They are a deception, characterized by deceit [bz`K*]
      • They are proven false when weighed in the scales (of God’s Judgment)
    • All human beings are an empty vapor [lb#h#]
Verse 11 [10]

“Do not trust in oppression and tearing away,
do not (rely) on the emptiness of strength—
that it should bear fruit, do not set your heart (on it)!”

The verb jf^B* in line 1 appeared earlier in v. 9, and occurs frequently in the Psalms, in the context of the protection YHWH provides. The righteous trust in that protection, seeking it from God. By contrast, the wicked trust in their own power and wealth—both of which are summarized by the noun ly]j^ (“strength”). It is implied here (in line 1) that the wealth of the wicked is obtained through oppression and robbery. The first of these (noun qv#u)) can also connote the use violence (or threats of it) and deceitful practices, and may be rendered “extortion”. The second (noun lz@G`) typically refers to tearing or stripping away, usually in the context of violent robbery or plunder. Even if such actions seem to lead to success and prosperity for the wicked, even if a person’s worldly power and wealth seems to prevail (vb bWn, lit. “bear fruit”), it is still only a deceptive vanity, and should not be relied upon (“do not set your heart [on it]”).

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

“Once (the) Mightiest has spoken,
(and) this twice I have heard:
that strength (belongs) to (the) Mightiest,
and to you, my Lord, goodness,
that you make complete (the judgment)
for a man, according to his deed(s).”

In contrast to the strength (ly]j^) of human beings (v. 11), the righteous trust in the strength (zu)) of YHWH. Unlike human beings, whose power is often obtained through wickedness, God’s power is joined to His attribute of goodness (ds#j#)—which, as I have noted often in these studies, is typically used in the Psalms in the context of the covenant-bond, connoting faithfulness and loyalty.

YHWH can also be trusted because He is the Sovereign and Judge over all the universe. The setting of the great Judgment was alluded to in verse 10 (cf. above), and is referenced again here, at the end of the Psalm, in the final couplet. The verb <l^v* (“complete, fulfill”) also tends to be used in the Psalms in relation to the covenant. God is faithful and will fulfill His part of the binding agreement (with His people); the only question is whether humankind will complete their side of the agreement. This is the crux of the Wisdom-contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous are faithful to the covenant, while the wicked are not. And YHWH, as the supreme Ruler and Judge, will respond as is appropriate, completing the agreement by paying back what is due to each person—good or bad, reward or punishment—according to what they have done (verbal noun hc#u&m^).

The opening couplet makes use of the so-called ‘numeric ladder’ device, using a numerical sequence x / x+1, which is a poetic device that occurs frequently in both Canaanite and Hebrew poetry, and features in Wisdom literature (see esp. its use in the book of Proverbs). Here the sequence is “once / twice,” or “one thing / two things” (tj^a^ / dual <y]T^v=). Cf. Dahood, II, p. 94.

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 61

Psalm 61

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This short prayer-Psalm differs in many respects from those we have previously examined in the ‘Elohist’ Psalter. The strong lament emphasis of the earlier compositions is not present here. On the other hand, the royal background is more prominent—both in the use of the traditional military imagery, and in the specific reference to the king in vv. 7-8 (on which, cf. below).

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though not consistently so. The Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker effectively serves to divide the short Psalm into two parts (vv. 2-5, 6-9). The division is typical of many Psalms: with the Psalmist’s prayer (his plea/petition) emphasized in the first part, and the expectation of an answer to his prayer in the second part.

The heading also shows that Psalm 61 marks the start of new sequence, moving away from the previous miktam (<T*k=m!) compositions, which appear to have been poems without music, set to existing melodies. This Psalm, on the other hand, is presumably a musical composition (the term romz+m! is not used, but perhaps implied), performed on a stringed instrument. In this regard, the singular hn`yg]n+ is used, rather than the more common plural (Ps 54:1, et al); many commentators would ‘correct’ this, vocalizing the construct tnygn as a plural form (tn)yg]n+). The superscription marks this as another Davidic composition (“belonging to David”).

VERSES 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“Hear, O Mightiest, my ringing cry,
incline (your ear) to my prayer.”

The initial couplet has a shortened 3+2 meter, establishing the Psalmist’s prayer to YHWH. Two nouns are used for this, the first of which (hN`r!) refers to a ringing or piercing cry, like that of a bird; the second (hL`p!T=) is typically translated “prayer,” but should be understood within the legal/judicial context of a petition (i.e., made for a judge). God, as the Judge, is asked to listen (fairly and attentively) to the plea.

Verse 3a [2a]

“From the end of the earth,
to you do I call (out)
in (the) weakening of my heart.”

Both metrically and thematically, it is better to divide vv. 3-4 into two tricola—the first being a terse 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, and the second a ‘regular’ 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The shorter meter of v. 3a reflects the Psalmist’s sense of desperation. The central line contains his plea (“to you I call out [vb ar^q*]”), while the surrounding first and third lines dramatically represent the condition in which he makes this plea. The first line sets a location for the plea—literally, “from the end [hx#q*] of the earth”. Often, in ancient Semitic poetry, the “earth” (Heb Jr#a#) specifically denotes (or connotes) the underworld, i.e., the region under the earth’s surface, being the region of Death (and the dead). It may well be that here the far extremity (end/edge/border) of the earth has a metaphysical meaning, indicating a threat to the Psalmist’s life. On this line of interpretation, cf. Dahood (II, p. 84) and Hossfeld-Zenger (pp. 104-6).

The third line emphasizes this threat to the Psalmist’s existence, by referencing a “weakening” (verbal noun [n)a&) of his heart. A bit of wordplay may be involved here, since the root [nu II means “cover over, envelop,” and so may allude to the danger that threatens to engulf and overwhelm the Psalmist.

Verse 3b-4 [2b-3]

“On a rock higher than I (could reach), lead me.
(O) that you would be a place of shelter for me,
a great place of strength from (the) hostile face.”

This tricolon provides a stark contrast with that of v. 3a, both in terms of meter and imagery. The sharp 2-beat staccato rhythm of v. 3a here gives way to a calmer ‘regular’ 3-beat meter. Similarly, the Psalmist’s distress and sense of despair is answered by the hope that YHWH will provide a place of protection for him. This is a frequent motif in the prayer-Psalms, in which the author/composer prays to God for deliverance. All the typical features of this imagery are present: an inaccessible location high up (line 1), YHWH Himself as a place of safety (line 2), and the idea of protection from hostile opponents (line 3).

In the first line, the motif is of a safe/secure location high upon a rock (rWx). The verb <Wr (“be [raised] high”) followed by the preposition /m! (“from”) is best understood as a comparative idiom (i.e., “higher than me”), in the sense of “higher than I (can reach)”. If the Psalmist himself could not reach such an inaccessibly high location, then neither can his enemies. For a different interpretation of the syntax, but following the same thematic explanation, cf. Dahood, II, p. 85.

In the next two lines (v. 4), this location is further described, using locative nouns (marked by a preformative –m). First, we have hs#j=m^, from the root hsj (“seek/find protection”), meaning “place of protection, place of shelter/refuge”; both the verb and noun occur frequently in the Psalms (cf. 14:6; 46:2, etc). The second noun is lD^g+m!, meaning “a great/tall place,” often referring specifically to a tower. It occurs here in the expression “great place of strength” (zu*-lD^g+m!), which, in context, should be understood as a fortified site with walls and towers. YHWH Himself is this place of protection for the Psalmist.

As I have discussed on previous occasions, this relates to the ancient covenant concept; in terms of the religious covenant between YHWH and His people (as also with the king as His vassal), as long as God’s servants remain faithful, He is obligated to provide protection (from all enemies and dangers, etc). These enemies are referenced at the end of the third line, where it is expected that God will protect the Psalmist “from the face of (the one) hostile (to me)”. Poetic concision would require a translation “from the face of the enemy” (proper syntax), or, as an alternative that perhaps better captures the meaning, “from the hostile face”.

Verse 5 [4]

“I would come to dwell in your Tent of distant (time)s,
I would seek shelter in (the) hiding (place) of your wings.”

The conclusion of the Psalmist’s prayer builds upon the triad of protective imagery in vv. 3b-4. He expresses his wish that he might come to dwell in that place of shelter and protection that YHWH Himself provides. Following Dahood (II, p. 86) and other commentators, I read the imperfect verb forms here as subjunctive (“I would…”), similar to the perfect form in v. 4a (following the emphatic particle –yK!, i.e., “O that you would…”). It is also possible to read these in a cohortative/jussive sense (“Let me…!”).

The verb in the second line is hs*j* (“seek/find protection”), on which, cf. above regarding the related noun hs#j=m^. The first line uses the verb rWG, “turn aside,” usually in the specific context of coming to dwell (as a stranger) in a particular place. Like such a traveler, the Psalmist wishes to dwell in the “tent” of YHWH. This could refer to the Temple, but here it should be understood, more generally, in reference to the very presence of YHWH Himself (whether a heavenly or earthly location is in view). The expressions in the two lines have a formal parallelism:

    • “in your tent of distant (time)s” |
      “in (the) hiding (place) of your wings”

However, viewed thematically or conceptually, the lines form a chiasm:

    • “your tent”
      • “distant (times/places)”
      • “hiding (place)”
    • “your wings”

Clearly, the “tent” and “wings” of YHWH are conceptually parallel, both referring to the protection YHWH provides. The root <lu (from which the noun <l*ou derives) has the fundamental meaning of being distant; the noun is often used in a temporal sense—i.e., of a time either in the distant past or distant future. Both temporal aspects are applied, in a religious/theological sense, to YHWH, whose life and existence extends beyond the most distant time past, and into the most distant future; the English “eternal/eternity” provides a rough equivalent. There is a separate/cognate root <lu which denotes being hidden, which corresponds here with rts (noun rt#s#, “hiding [place]”).

Verses 6-9 [5-8]

Verse 6 [5]

“(O) that you, Mightiest, would listen to my vows,
(you who) give a possession (to those) fearing your name.”

The 3-beat meter of the first part shifts (in vv. 6 and 9) to a 4-beat (4+4) couplet format. This reflects a shift in emphasis, from the Psalmist’s prayer to an expectation that his prayer will be answered. This leads to a certain ambiguity regarding the perfect verb forms here in v. 6: are they ordinary (past-tense) perfects, or should they be read as precative perfects reflecting what the Psalmist wishes (and expects) will happen in the future? I follow Dahood (II, p. 86, cf. also I, pp. 20, 241) and other commentators in reading them as having precative force.

However, I also feel that the second line here is epexegetical, functioning almost as a relative clause, and that the verb /t^n` is meant to describe the conduct of YHWH, i.e., “(you who) give…”. In other words, since YHWH is the One who gives covenant-rewards to His faithful servants (those “fearing His name”), He surely will grant to the Psalmist blessing in response to what he has (faithfully) vowed. The hV`Wry+ (“possession”), in such a covenant-context, often refers to a piece of land given to someone as a hereditary property.

The “vows” (<yr!d*n+) here should be understood in a comprehensive sense, covering the Psalmist’s prayer in vv. 2-5 (cf. above), but also to his faithfulness in praising the name of YHWH on a regular basis (v. 9). That the Psalmist fulfills what He vows to YHWH, serves to demonstrate his faithfulness, and that, as a result, YHWH has a covenant-obligation to provide protection and blessing, etc.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“Days upon (the) days of (the) king may you add,
(and) his years for a cycle and (another) cycle;
may he sit (for) the distant (future) before (the) Mightiest,
goodness and firmness, measured (out), may they guard him!”

The 3-beat couplets of vv. 7-8 interrupt the 4-beat couplets of vv. 6 and 9; moreover, the introduction of a prayer-wish (to God) for the king seems abrupt and jarring to the overall context. Thus, many commentators would regard these lines as a secondary addition (interpolation) to the original composition; cf. the discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 106-7. Dahood (II, pp. 83-4) is among those who argue for the originality of the lines, on the theory that the king is the speaker throughout the Psalm. He cites the example of a 5th century B.C. Phoenician inscription by Yeµawmilk of Byblos, which contain a similar shift from 1st-person to 3rd-person voice. I have previously noted how many of the Psalms envince a royal background, reflecting important themes and motifs (and language) from the kingdom-period, which often were preserved even as the compositions were further shaped by other forces (e.g., Wisdom traditions, an emphasis on communal worship, etc).

Verse 7 is a prayer for long life to the king. In line 1, extra “days” are to be added (vb [s^y`) to the days that would otherwise be alloted to his life-span. The same idea is expressed in the second line, of an extension of his “years” beyond that of a single generation (roD, “age, cycle, circle [of life]”). The expression rodw` roD occurs frequently in the Psalms (at least 16 times, 10:6; 33:11; 45:18; 49:12, etc), as an idiom for long life, sometimes being paired with the noun <l*ou (cf. below). The expression is often translated “(from) generation to generation,” but the sense of perpetual progression is perhaps better captured by the more literal idea of “(this) age and (the next) age”.

In verse 8, the wish is for a long and prosperous reign for the king, in which he will sit (vb bv^y`) on the throne, being safeguarded (vb rx^n`) by YHWH. As noted above, the noun <l*ou is parallel to the expression rodw` roD, with a similar connotation of long life. The specific denotation of <l*ou is for a period of time extending into the distant future. The protection YHWH provides, to the king as His faithful vassal, is here defined through the terms ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) and tm#a# (“firmness”)—both are covenant-terms, connoting faithfulness and loyalty.

Verse 9 [8]

“So (then) will I sing your name until (the end),
for my completing of my vows day (by) day.”

The basic idea here, as we find often in the Psalms, is that once YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, he, in turn, will give praise to YHWH. A public worship setting is often assumed for this act of praise, and the very musical inspiration of the Psalmist (as a poet-composer) is tied to such praise. There is a presumed context, whereby the Psalmist’s petition to YHWH is connected with a religious vow (rd#n#). If God answers the Psalmist’s prayer, then he is obligated to fulfill the vow. Here, the verb <l^v* (“complete, fulfill”), often used in a covenant-context, relates to this obligation.

The expressions du^l* (“until [the end]”) and <oy <oy (“day [by] day”) are conceptually parallel (as time indicators) with <l*ou and rodw` roD in vv. 7-8 (cf. above). <oy <oy represents a microcosm of rodw` roD, but capturing the same sense of perpetuity, while du^l* has much the same meaning as <l*ou, as an indicator of a period of time lasting into the distant future.

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

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!”

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]

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).