Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 25

Psalm 25

This Psalm is an acrostic, in which, for the most part, each verse or couplet begins with a successive letter of the alphabet; on the acrostic format, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 9-10. As a poetic or literary device, the acrostic seems quite artificial, placing constraints on the poem, which, from our standpoint today at least, are altogether arbitrary, and add little to the artistic merit of the work. However, the device does have practical value, as an aid for the memorization of a relatively long poem, such as we have here. Because of the acrostic arrangement, it seemed best to comment on each letter-couplet (or line) individually. I have, however, also divided the Psalm into two parts—verses 1-11 and 12-22; this week’s study will examine the first part.

This Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though with some minor irregularity. The superscription identifies the poem simply as “belonging to David”, perhaps intending to indicate his composition of the words, but not (necessarily) the music; the significance of the lack of the word romz+m! (“musical composition”), or comparable term, in the superscriptions remains uncertain.

The Hebrew letters that make up the acrostic are indicated in the translations below; as far as possible, I have attempted to keep the corresponding English of the first word in the first position of the translation.

Verses 1-11

Verse 1 [a]

“To you [;yl#a@], YHWH, I lift up my soul,
<…. > my Mightiest (One).”

Verse 1, as it stands now, consists of a single line, not a couplet; this, along with the fact that the first word of v. 2 is out of place, disrupting the acrostic, has led some commentators to theorize that the surviving text is corrupt. According to this view, yh^l)a$ (“my Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “my God”) is part of a lost second line, parallel with YHWH in line 1. One can only speculate as to how this line might have read. Unfortunately, no help is to be found from the Dead Sea Scrolls, since verse 1 is not preserved in the surviving Psalms MSS.

Verse 2 [b]

“In you [;B=] I trust—let me not feel shame,
do not let my enemies rejoice because of me.”

As in many other Psalms we have examined thus far, we find here the theme of unknown enemies or adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. The verb jf^B* is also frequent in these Psalms; it has the basic meaning of trusting, but also with the specific connotation of finding safety or security (in someone or something). God Himself is the place of safety for the Psalmist. The imperfect forms with the negative particle la^ have jussive/cohortative force—i.e., “may I not…”, “let me not…”, etc. Victory by his enemies would bring the Psalmist shame (vb vWB)—not only for the defeat itself and the “rejoicing/exultation” (vb Jl^u*) of his enemies, but because it would mean that his trust in YHWH was all in vain.

Verse 3 [g]

“Indeed [<G~] all (those) calling (on) you will not feel shame;
but they will feel shame, (the) disloyal (one)s (making) empty (the bond).”

I follow Dahood (p. 155f) in identifying the basic meaning of the verb hw~q* (II) here as “call (on)”, supported by the context of the occurrences in Psalm 40:2; 52:11, etc. The attested meaning “gather” is doubtless related— “call [i.e. bring] together”, similar to the situation with the roots lh^q* and ar^q*. To “call on” YHWH implies faithfulness to him, and devotion/loyalty to the covenant bond. Such a person will never feel shame; by contrast, those who are disloyal (vb dg~B*) to the covenant, who make the bond void or “empty” (<q*yr@), they will experience shame. The root dg~B* can be used to express unfaithfulness in marriage, which is also a fitting symbol for disloyalty to the covenant with YHWH (i.e. religious unfaithfulness); cf. further below on v. 11.

Less certain is Dahood’s suggestion that the initial word <G~ be understood here in its meaning “with the voice, aloud”, as attested in Canaanite. With very few exceptions (Psalm 137:1?), this word in the Old Testament is used in its weaker sense as a particle of addition or emphasis (“also, even”).

Verse 4 [d]

“Your ways [;yk#r*D=], YHWH, make known to me,
your paths teach me (to travel).”

Faithfulness to YHWH is described with the familiar idiom of traveling (walking) a path. This metaphor was especially popular in Wisdom literature, and, as we have noted on numerous occasions, many Psalms, in the form we have them, were influenced by Wisdom traditions.

Verse 5ab [h]

“Make me walk [yn]k@yr!d=h^] in (the way of) your truth and teach me,
for you (are the) Mighty (One) of my salvation.”

The same imagery continues from v. 4, with the cognate verb Er^D*, “walk/tread the path (or way)”, related to Er#D# (“way”).

Verse 5c [w]

“<And> (on) you [;toa<w+>] do I call all the day (long).”

The place of this single line in the acrostic is uncertain. It does not properly begin with the requisite letter, and the single line raises the possibility that something has dropped out of the text (cf. on verse 1 above). Even if we were to grant that the text is corrupt here, any sort of reliable reconstruction would be virtually impossible at this point. In order to preserve the acrostic, I have emended the first word to begin with the w-conjunction (cf. Kraus, p. 318). The same meaning is given here to the verb hw~q* (II) as in v. 3 (cf. above).

Verse 6 [z]

“Remember [rk)z+] your (act)s of compassion, YHWH,
and your (act)s of kindness, that they (are) from (the) distant (past).”

The covenant loyalty of YHWH is rooted in the distant past, and similarly extends into the distant future—the word <l*ou can connote both aspects. Probably the Psalmist has in mind all that God has done for the ancestors of Israel, His many acts of compassion (<j^r^) and kindness (ds#j#). The latter term, in particular, can signify loyalty in a covenant-context. The appeal to what God has done in the past is meant to spur action on behalf of His people (represented by the Psalmist) in the present. This literary-theological device appears frequently in Old Testament narrative, as well as in the poetry.

Verse 7 [j]

“(The) sins of [twaF)h^] my youth, do not remember (them),
(but) according to your kindness, may you remember me—
in response to you (own) goodness, YHWH.”

There are several formal difficulties in this verse. To begin with, the meter is distended in the first line, and the word yu^v*p=W (“and my [act]s of rebellion”) feels like a (secondary) addition; I have tentatively omitted it in the translation above.  If original, the use of uv*P# would indicate a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to the covenant with YHWH, in the active sense of treacherous disloyalty or outright “rebellion” against God. This would suggest that the Psalmist represents a person who had previously been an adherent of Canaanite religion (and/or its syncretistic Israelite forms), with its ‘idolatry’, but then subsequently converted to Yahwism. Cf. below on verse 11.

As it stands, the verse is a tricolon, unusual within the structure of the Psalm, though there is a legitimate (partial) parallelism between the second and third lines. An interesting explanation (cf. Kraus, p. 318) is that the second line (7b) originally completed the couplet in v. 5, but came to be transferred to the current location during the course of transmission. In any case, the plea for YHWH to ignore the sins of a person’s youth, focusing on one’s current faithfulness, is natural in the context of such a prayer.

Verse 8 [f]

“(Indeed,) good and straight (is) YHWH,
(and the one)s sinning He will instruct in the way.”

The Wisdom language of vv. 4-5 (cf. above) continues here, emphasizing that God instructs His people when they sin. This is not the flagrant sin of rebellion or blatant transgression against the covenant, but follows the idea of “sins of youth” from v. 7, connoting especially unintentional error, the sin of negligence or carelessness. However, the use of uv*P# (“rebellion”) in v. 7, if original, would imply a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to YHWH—which requires special forgiveness (cf. below).

The last word of the first line (/K@-lu^) is seemingly out of place, disrupting the rhythm of the couplet, and may well be a secondary addition and corruption of the original text; I have tentatively omitted in the translation above. If retained, it functions as a join between the two lines, translated literally as “upon this”, in conventional English something like “and so…”.

Verse 9 [y]

“He makes (the) oppressed (one)s walk in the judgment,
and He will teach (the) oppressed (to walk) in His way.”

Again, the Wisdom motif of “walking in the way” is used, along with the verb Er^D* (cf. above). The proper nuance of fP*v=m! (“judgment”) must be understood, as it here connotes God’s justice, such as he establishes for the righteous, as opposed to the punishment that comes upon the wicked. The judgments of God are good and holy, and are synonymous with His “way” (Er#D#).

Verse 10 [k]

“All [lK*] (the) paths of YHWH (are) kindness and truth
for (the one)s guarding His binding (agreement) and His repeated (command)s.”

The context of covenant-loyalty, implicit throughout, is now stated clearly here. Faithfulness and devotion to YHWH is defined in terms of loyalty to the binding agreement (tyr!B=). Such loyalty is expressed specifically as fulfilling the “repeated (instruction)s” by YHWH recorded in the Torah. For the one loyal to YHWH, walking in his paths becomes a blessing, as the person experiences the goodness and truth of God Himself.

Verse 11 [l]

“In response to [/u^m^l=] your (own) name, YHWH,
give pardon for my crookedness, for it (is) great (indeed)!”

Human “crookedness” (/ou*) is in contrast to the “straightness” (rv*y`, v. 8) of God. Even for the faithful ones among God’s people there is a measure of “crookedness”, marked by occasional sinning (vv. 7-8). The prayer here is for YHWH to give pardon (vb jl^s*) for such sin, purely on the basis of God’s own name—that is, His essential nature and character as the Mightiest, the Creator, and the One who is always straight and true. The opening word /u^m^l= is a prepositional particle derived, in part, from the root hnu, meaning to answer or give response. I translate it above, rather literally, as “in response to”. God responds with forgiveness, not because of anything the Psalmist has done (or will do), but simply because God’s name—His identity and His own loyalty to the covenant-bond—prompts it.

The declaration of the Psalmist’s “crookedness” as being great (lit. “much”, br^) may simply be an instance of pious exaggeration, a recognition of human imperfection in comparison with the holiness of God; however, it is also possible that something more is involved. In discussing verse 7 (above), I noted that the inclusion of the noun uv^P# (plur. “[act]s of rebellion”), if original, would imply that the Psalmist, at one point (in his “youth”), was an adherent of Canaanite religion—that is, of ‘idolatry’, presumably in the syncretistic forms that were relatively common and widespread throughout Israel. The idiom “great sin” (hl*d)g+ ha*f*j&) has this connotation, especially in the “Golden Calf” episode in Exodus 32 (vv. 21, 30-31; cf. also Gen 20:9; 2 Kings 17:21). The comparable br* uv^P# (“great rebellion”) would express this idea even more forcefully (Psalm 19:14; cf. Dahood, p. 125). The same idiom in Akkadian and Canaanite is used to denote adultery, which itself serves as a fitting metaphor in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness to YHWH.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 24

Psalm 24

This Psalm has one of the clearest liturgical settings of any in the Psalter, even if the historical situation cannot be reconstructed in detail. The superscription itself merely indicates that it is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, and offers no other information regarding the performance tradition. The structure of the composition is more enlightening, divided as it is into two main strophes, each of which may tell us something about how this Psalm was used in the ancient liturgy. Following an opening pair of couplets (vv. 1-2), the first strophe (of irregular meter) is comprised of vv. 3-6; the second strophe (of 3+3+3 tricola) is in vv. 7-10. A hl*s# (selah) notation comes at the end of each strophe.

VERSES 1-2

“The earth and her fullness (belongs) to YHWH,
(the) productive land, and (the one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] in her;
for He set her firmly upon the seas,
and fixed her upon (the) flowing (water)s.”

This pair of 3+3 couplets establishes YHWH as the Creator and Sovereign Lord of the universe. It is a fundamental statement of Israelite monotheism, identifying YHWH as the one supreme Deity. His position as Creator and Lord makes him worthy of worship and honor.

The “earth” (Jr#a#) is paired with the noun lb@T@, difficult to translate in English, emphasizing what the earth contains and produces (“brings forth”); for lack of a suitable alternative, I have rendered it above as “productive land”. Both terms refer to the flat disc or cylinder of the earth (or land) in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, a geocentric view of the universe. The notice in verse 2, that YHWH set the earth firm and fixed “upon the seas / waters” is an allusion to the the primeval waters that surround the universe (Gen 1:2). This founding/fixing of the earth implies that the chaos of the primeval condition has been ‘subdued’, allowing for order to be established in creation. In ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth, this is often described and depicted in terms of the deity defeating the Sea (and its allies) in battle. While this cosmological myth-aspect is virtually absent from the Genesis Creation account, vestiges of it—i.e., of El-Yahweh’s defeat of the waters—are preserved in the poetry of the Old Testament. For the relevant examples, and the ancient background of this mythic theme, cf. my article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

VERSES 3-6

“Who shall go up on (the) mountain of YHWH,
and who shall stand in (the) standing place of His holiness?
(The one) clean of palms [i.e. hands] and pure of heart,
who has not lifted his soul to the (thing that is) empty,
and has not (bound himself) seven-fold to deceit.” (vv. 3-4)

The expression “mountain of YHWH” in the Old Testament, while also deriving from cosmological myth, typically refers to the city of Jerusalem—in particular, the ancient fortified hill-top site around which the larger city grew. This original location, a Canaanite fort-city captured by David, was known as the “city of David” and also by the name /oYx! (Zion). Like most such Canaanite walled cities of the period, it was comprised largely of the Temple-Palace complex (rather than being a residence for the populace). So it was also with “Mount Zion”, the most ancient part of Jerusalem—it had a special association with the Temple sanctuary as the dwelling place of God.

The Temple mount was thus a holy site, and no one could approach God’s dwelling in the sanctuary if they were not themselves holy. This applied principally to the priests who officiated in the Temple precincts; however, by extension, the principle of holiness and (ritual) purity related to the wider community of Israel as well. Much of the legislation in the Torah involves the preservation of ritual purity, so that sacrificial offerings and other business conducted in the precincts of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple, performed in God’s presence, would not be rendered impure and ineffective.

This purity requirement is described in verse 4, a tricolon with irregular meter (3+4+3). Any one coming into the Temple courts and sanctuary must be both ritually pure (“clean of hands”) on the outside, but also inwardly “pure of heart” (bb*l@ rB^)—that is, one’s mind and intention must be pure. The final two lines function as a couplet with synonymous parallelism, expressing purity in terms of true religion—devotion to YHWH alone. The expression “lift (up) his soul” is parallel to the verb form uB^v=n], a Niphal (reflexive) of the root ub^v*. The precise meaning of this root in the Niphal is uncertain, but is perhaps best understood in its presumed literal sense as “bind oneself seven-fold” (i.e. by an oath or vow). The nouns aw+v* (“emptiness”) and hm*r=m! (“deceit”) are also parallel; while they could simply connote wickedness in a general sense, here, as in other instances in the Psalms, they seem to carry a specific association with the worship/veneration of false deities (i.e., any deity other than YHWH).

“He shall take up blessing from YHWH,
and justice from (the) Mighty (One) of his salvation;
(Yes,) this (is the) circle (that is) seeking Him,
(the one)s searching for (the) face of Ya’aqob. Selah” (vv. 5-6)

The couplet in verse 5 affirms the relationship between YHWH and the one who is righteous; the covenant bond is preserved, and God will provide hk*r*B= (“blessing”) and hd*q*x= to such a person. The latter noun has a semantic range that can be hard to translate consistently; it is usually rendered “righteousness” or “justice”, but in the context of the covenant bond, it can also connote loyalty, generosity, and the like.

The concluding couplet in verse 6 is most difficult, but the (demonstrative) pronoun hz# (“this”) gives the final answer to the question in v. 3: “Who shall go up…?” — “this is who…”. However, the syntax is by no means clear; the first line is alliterative, and reads:

ovr=D) roD hz#
zeh dôr dœršô

The translation would be “this (is the) circle seeking him”, a reference, presumably, to the faithful ones (the priests?) of YHWH, parallel with the initial word of the second line, “(the one)s searching for him” (<yv!q=b^m=). The last two words are the main source of confusion, the Masoretic text apparently being in error (“your face [;yn#P*], Jacob”). Critical commentators are inclined to emend the text here, one of two ways:

    • His face [wyn`P*], Jacob”, following the Targum
    • “(the) face of the Mighty One [i.e. God] of Jacob”, assuming that yhla has dropped out of the text, following some Syriac MSS; for this expression cf. Exod 3:6, 15; Psalm 20:1; 46:7, 11 (and elsewhere in the Psalms), etc.

The latter option is to be preferred; however, it is possible that the expression “face of the God of Jacob” here is preserved by the shorthand “face of Jacob”, the MT suffix ; either being a scribal mistake or representing an emphatic/enclitic particle (yK!) that has been mispointed (cf. Dahood, p. 152). The “face” is the manifest presence of God (Exod 33:14, etc).

Verses 7-10

“Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
and be lifted up, openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH, strong and mighty,
YHWH (the) mighty (one) of battle!

Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
lift up, (you) openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH (Creator) of (the heavenly) armies—
He (is) the King th(at is) worth(y)! Selah

By all accounts this is a very old piece of poetry (10th cent. B.C., cf. Cross, pp. 91ff), perhaps older than the remainder of the Psalm. It certainly retains the ancient ritual/liturgical context much more so than the first strophe. Many commentators would associate it with a ceremonial transport of the golden box (or ark) that served as the symbolic throne and dwelling of YHWH in the Temple. It is theorized that a procession of priests and people led the ark into the Temple complex, and that these verses were recited, perhaps in alternating chorus, as accompaniment. Even if this were correct, the exact occasion remains unknown and can only be guessed at. The reference to the Creation in vv. 1-2 raises the possibility of a New Year ceremony, when YHWH takes his place in his house after his victory in battle over the primeval forces of chaos and darkness. Another possibility is that it involves a ceremony commemorating the building/founding of the Temple itself, or of the moment when the ark of God’s Presence first entered the Temple (cp. the setting of Psalm 132).

The gates/doors of the Temple (and city) are directed to “lift up” their heads in homage to YHWH as he enters. This solemn bit of ritual imagery as always seemed curious, but there is some evidence that the basic portrait is derived, in different ways, from cosmological myth. The identification of the Temple-site with the “mountain of God” confirms the correspondence between God’s dwelling in heaven and his symbolic, manifest dwelling on earth. The Semitic Creator deity °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) was thought to dwell on a great (cosmic) mountain also depicted as a (heavenly) Tent. The same basic imagery was applied to YHWH, otherwise identified with as the Creator °E~l. Any local mountain could serve as a form of the cosmic “mountain of God”, even a modest hill-top site such as Jerusalem/Zion.

The heavenly dwelling of God was itself divine, and could be conceived as living or alive. Moreover, the mountain/palace of °E~l in west Semitic (Canaanite) tradition served as the heavenly court where the gods would assemble for feasts and other important occasions. In the great Canaanite Baal Epic (tablet II, column ii [CAT col. III]), as part of the conflict between Baal-Haddu and the Sea (Yamm), messengers from the Sea appear while the gods are assembled in the mountain/palace of °E~l. The purpose of their appearance is to deliver a threatening message that Baal should be handed over as a slave to the Sea. The deities lower their heads at the sight of these fearful emissaries from the Sea, to which Baal rebukes them with an opening line nearly identical to vv. 7a, 9a of Psalm 24:

š°u °ilm r°aštkm
“Lift up your heads, (you) Mighty (one)s [i.e. gods]!”

The only difference is that in the Psalm personified gates of the heavenly dwelling take the place of the gods residing within. It is hard to imagine that the formula used in the Psalm does not stem from the same basic line of tradition. A significant point is that, in the Baal Epic, following his battle with the Sea, a great heavenly palace is constructed for Baal-Haddu comparable to that of °E~l. It is only natural that the gods would likewise “lift their heads” to greet Baal as he comes into his palace, thus affirming his kingship and rule over the universe (cp. verses 1-2 here); it is easy to see how, in an Israelite monotheistic setting, the circle of deities might be replaced by the surrounding gates of the palace.

The gates are called <l*ou, a term which can mean either the distant past or the distant future; it can connote the idea of “eternity, eternal”, and thus implies that these ‘gates’ are somehow divine, or at least have an ancient and eternal quality. It is the heavenly dwelling itself that greets YHWH on his victorious return from battle. Dahood (p. 153) notes the use of the expression “king of the gate” in the Ugaritic texts, as a title for the Canaanite king; even more so would the Creator deity deserve such a title.

The construct expression dobK*h^ El#m# deserves some comment. Literally, it means “king of the weight”, i.e. “the king of weight”. The noun dobK* has the fundamental meaning “weight”, in the sense of have a certain worth or value. It often connotes the idea of “honor”, especially when applied to God, and in such cases is typically translated as “glory” (i.e., “the king of glory”). However, in my view, the force of the ritual has to due with YHWH’s worthiness to be enthroned in his palace as king—sovereign over the universe. A proper translation of the expression might then be “the king of worth”, which preserves the construct form. Along these lines, I have opted for a rendering which is less accurate syntactically, but which, I think, better captures the sense of the passage: “the King th(at is) worth(y)”. Because of YHWH’s strength and might, demonstrated in battle against the waters of chaos, He is worthy to be recognized as King over all Creation.

It is, indeed, YHWH’s role as a warrior (“mighty [man] of battle”) that is emphasized in vv. 7-10, and the cosmological background of the ritual scene best explains this. That is to say, the primary association is with God’s victory over the primeval waters of chaos (the “Sea”), by which He established the current order of creation. The extent to which this same pattern applied to the “holy war” tradition—i.e. YHWH achieving victory for Israel over her enemies—can be debated. Certainly the expression “YHWH of the armies” (toab*x= hwhy), essentially shorthand for “…creator of the heavenly armies”, relates to God’s role as protector of Israel, who fights (with the forces of heaven) on behalf of His people. Whether the ritual setting of Psalm 24 specifically refers to the “wars of Israel” —Exodus and Conquest, etc—remains uncertain.

How do the verses of the first strophe (vv. 3-6, cf. above) fit into the ritual/liturgical context of the second? Possibly, before the procession with the ark entered the Temple precincts, there was a liturgical affirmation of the holiness and purity of the officiants (priests and people), represented in these verses. There was often a magical quality inherent in such ritual formulae—that is to say, the proper performance of the ritual was essential to its efficacy. Without the ritual affirmation of purity, the effectiveness of the entire ceremony—including the divine blessing and favor that result from it—would be put at risk. The ceremonial aspect, however, was only intended to confirm the reality of the situation—i.e., that the priests, etc, had kept themselves pure, conducting themselves in a holy and righteous manner, in accordance with the regulations of the covenant bond.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 23

Psalm 23

This relatively simple and beautiful Psalm is one of the most famous and beloved passages in all the Scriptures, immortalized for English speakers by the King James Version, in which form it has been treasured (and committed to memory) by millions of children and adults alike. So familiar is it in English translation, that many Christians today may be somewhat surprised by how it actually reads in the original Hebrew.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, with no other musical direction indicated. The meter is straightforward and balanced, but not consistent throughout. It is predominantly in 3+2 couplets, though verse 4 is made up of a pair of 2+2+2 tricola, and the initial line is 4+3. Structurally, it is best to follow this poetic versing, in which case the tricola of verse 4 may be seen as the center point (and central theme or message) of the composition:

    • Stanza 1: Verses 1-3 (3 couplets)
    • Stanza 2: Verse 4 (3 tricola)
    • Stanza 3: Verses 5-6 (4 couplets)

VERSES 1-3

“YHWH (is the One) tending me—I will not lack (anything),
in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along),
(yes, even) my soul He turns back (in rest);
He guides me in (the) tracks of righteousness,
for the purpose of (honoring) His name.”

The imagery is that of the herdsman (shepherd) and his flock—literally, one who tends (vb hu*r*) the flock. The emphasis is thus on the care that the herder shows to the sheep, concerned for their safety and well-being. This is summarized by the statement of the Psalmist “I will not lack (anything)”, using the root rs^j* which generally refers to a need or deficiency, i.e. something that is lacking.

Part of the true beauty of the poetry in these lines is the way that the parallelism is interlocking (and overlapping) within the rhythm of the couplets. Note, for example, the synonymous parallelism of the second line of the first couplet and the first line of the second:

“in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along)”

The imagery could not be more appealing, this charming pastoral scene of the sheep crouching down in the fresh grass, and then moving slowly alongside the gentle waters of a nearby stream.

There is subsequently a different kind of formal parallelism in the second and third couplets (both 3+2 meter). In the first line of these couplets, the emphasis is on the shepherd leading and guiding the sheep, using the similar verbs lh^n` and hj^n`. In the first instance, it is a natural image (sheep led alongside a stream), while in the second it is ethical and religious (people guided in “tracks of righteousness”). There is a comparable dual-imagery in the second line of each couplet, which interprets the motif in the first line (i.e., a kind of synthetic parallelism):

    • Sheep being led alongside a restful stream
      => a person’s soul being given rest (“turned back”, i.e. restored)
    • A person being guided in tracks of righteousness
      => that person living and acting in honor of God’s “name”

Again, there is tremendous beauty and power in the way that these complex ideas are expressed in just a few words (3 or 2 beats) of the poetic line. This sort of compression can also lead to difficulties for the translator which requires great sensitivity to the force and style of the poetic expression. For example, the last line of the third couplet simply reads omv= /u^m^l= (“for the purpose of his name”), which is not entirely clear unless one recognizes that “righteousness” (qd#x#) in the context of Israelite religion entails giving honor to YHWH (and His “name”). The noun qd#x# fundamentally denotes a straight line, and thus is appropriate for the visual motif of sheep being led in a straight path, by a well-established set of tracks (lG`u=m^ plur.) formed in the ground over the course of time.

VERSE 4

“Even when I should walk
in (the) valley of death( ‘s) shadow
I shall not fear (any) evil,
for you (are) along with me—
your staff and your support
they (surely) guide me.”

As noted above, this verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2+2) tricola; I have preserved this rhythmic structure in translation to distinguish it from the surrounding couplets of vv. 1-3, 5-6. This is the central section of the Psalm, which contains the primary message: the care YHWH shows to his people is such that they/we can trust in it, even during times of darkness and danger.

The expression “valley of death( ‘s) shadow” (tw#m*l=x^ ayg@B=) seems a bit overloaded as a construct phrase, but perhaps is intentionally so in order to emphasize the shift from the idyllic scene in vv. 1-3 to one of danger. However, the Greek LXX translates as “in the midst of [e)n me/sw|] (the) shadow of death”, which could mean that the underlying Hebrew word (ayG@, “valley”) was instead read as = wG@ (“back, midst [of]”), cp. Aramaic aW`G~. Dahood (p. 146f) follows this line of interpretation. In my view, however, the imagery in vv. 1-3, of the sheep traveling through a natural landscape (on safe/level ground), makes the contrasting motif of a valley appropriate here.

Presumably, the “staff” (fb#v@) here in v. 4b is the shepherd’s staff, and the paired noun hn`u@v=m! much the same (i.e. a staff for walking, etc). However, the fundamental meaning of the latter noun is a place of support (root /u^v*, i.e. something which gives support), and refers primarily to the support that YHWH provides. It is the staff of YHWH that provides this, in his role as shepherd.

The final line is problematic, as the apparent verbal root <j^n` (usually understood here in the sense of “comfort”) does not fit the imagery of the verse particularly well. Dahood (p. 147) suggests that the –m– in the form ynmjny is an infixed mem-enclitic. If so, its purpose here is presumably to fill out the rhythm of the 2-beat line which begins with the short beat of the pronoun (hM*h@). I tentatively follow this interpretation in my translation above, which reads the word ynmjny as a form of the verb hj*n` (“lead, guide”), as in v. 3a (cf. above). The point of the verse is that YHWH the Shepherd will lead his people even through the dark valley.

VERSES 5-6

“You arrange a table (be)fore my face,
in front of (those) hostile to me;
you fatten [i.e. anoint] my head with oil,
(and) my cup (is) drenched full.
Surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all (the) days of my life,
and I will sit in (the) house of YHWH
for (the full) length of days.”

Following the dark intermezzo of verse 4, the theme of God’s blessed care for his people returns in the couplets of vv. 5-6. Only the pastoral imagery has been replaced by that of the hospitality shown to an honored guest. In verse 5, the motif is specifically that of a guest receiving grand treatment as he dines with his host; three of the four lines express the idea clearly enough:

    • a table is arranged (vb Er^u*), set out in front of the person (lit. “to my face”)
    • the guest’s head is anointed (lit. “made fat”, vb /v@D*) with oil
    • his drinking up is filled (with wine) to the point of overflowing—the main point of the idiom is that the person will be completely satisfied.

The difficulty lies in the second line of the first couplet, which has the parallel of the table arranged before the guest’s face with its being arranged “in front of [dg#n#]” his enemies (those hostile to him). A comparable example of this detail may perhaps be found in the 14th century B.C. Amarna texts (100:33-35), which includes a request to the Pharaoh that “he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on” (Dahood, p. 147f). The shaming of one’s enemies makes the honored treatment all the much more conspicuous (and appealing). While this idea may conflict with our Christian ideals of humility, etc, it is generally in keeping with the ancient mindset and its associated social key values of honor and shame.

The couplets of verse 6 are rather more straightforward, in terms of our own religious vantage point. Even so, we may not fully appreciate the covenant-background of this imagery, and how it relates to the hospitality idiom of v. 5. The loyal and faithful vassal receives an honored place at his lord’s table, and receives blessings and benefits in turn. It this context, the general terms “goodness” (bof) and “kindness” (ds#j#) carry a specific connotation; in particular, ds#j# frequently connotes loyalty (i.e. to the covenant bond), while bof can refer to the benefits that result from the covenant.

Here, the “house” of God should be understood in these same terms, and not necessarily as a concrete reference to the Temple. It simply means the place where God dwells, presumably in the sense of his heavenly abode. The blessed life for God’s people—that is, the righteous, those faithful to the covenant—depicted in vv. 1-3, 5-6, strongly suggests that a heavenly afterlife is at least partly in view (cp. the imagery in Psalm 1:3, 6). The Hebrew of the Old Testament had no way to express the abstract idea of “eternity” or “eternal/everlasting life”; the Scriptures often rely on the more concrete idiom of long life. Living to a ripe old age was rare enough in ancient times that it came to be viewed as an ideal representation of blessing from God. In the final couplet of the Psalm there are two similar expressions:

    • “all (the) days of my life”, which, I think, properly reflects what we would call temporal blessing—blessings experienced during our life on earth, and
    • “for (the) length of days” —that is, the full length of days, both a long life on earth and its completion in the blessed heavenly abode (“in the house of YHWH”)

The Shepherd Motif

The widespread practice of sheep-herding, and the pastoral economy throughout the ancient Near East, made the motif of the shepherd immediately recognizable and appealing as a symbol. The herder was a leader and protector of the flock/herd, and thus served as a fitting symbol for leadership in society—i.e., of kings and other rulers. We need not go any further afield than the Old Testament Scriptures to see how common the image of the shepherd was as a representation of the kings and rulers of the nations—cf. Nah 3:18; Jer 10:21; 22:22; 23:1-4; 25:34-38; 49:19; 50:44; Ezek 34:1-10; Zech 10:3; 11:4-17, and Isa 44:28. This applied to the rulers of Israel and Judah as well (2 Sam 5:2; 7:7, etc), and the tradition of David’s role as a shepherd earlier in his life (1 Sam 16:11; 17:15, 20 etc; Ps 78:70-72) helped to shape the Messianic figure-type of the future Davidic ruler as a “shepherd” (cf. Jer 3:15; 23:4; Ezek 34:23; 37:22,24; Zech 13:7, and the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2; Mic 5:4ff). The idea of the people as “sheep without a shepherd” emphasizes the lack of proper leadership (Num 27:16-17; 1 Kings 22:17; Mark 6:34; Matt 9:36).

Jesus himself made use of this shepherd-imagery, even identifying himself as the “Good Shepherd” (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7; John 10:1-29; cf. also Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17), while the Messianic association is alluded to in Mk 14:27 par. Elders and ministers who served a leading role in the early Christian congregations were similarly called “shepherd” (poimh/n), as in Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet 5:1ff; Eph 4:11 (cp. John 21:15-17), a usage that continues with the title “pastor” today.

It is somewhat less common to refer to God as a shepherd, though it is a natural extension of the use of the motif to represent leadership and kingship. Apart from Psalm 23, the most notable references to YHWH as a shepherd are: Gen 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:15ff; Amos 3:12).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 21

Psalm 21

Thematically, Psalm 20 and 21 belong together, with each having as its background the Israelite/Judean king and his army in time of war. An important aspect of the ancient Near Eastern covenant idea, in terms of political agreements, is that the binding agreement (tyr!B=) involves treaty terms for (military) assistance and protection. In agreements between equal parties, this means mutual protection; however, in the case of suzerain-vassal treaties, the emphasis is on the protection and aid provided by the sovereign, or superior party. From the standpoint of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, the king is a vassal of YHWH, and, insofar as he remains faithful and loyal to the covenant, he receives Divine aid and protection in time of need.

This royal theology underlies many of the Psalms, including these two (20 and 21) in particular, dealing with situations involving the need for military action and warfare. The setting of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study) is a communal prayer to YHWH for assistance that will bring victory for the king and his army. In Psalm 21, this has shifted to a declaration of praise and thanksgiving for the victory provided by YHWH.

The structure of Psalm 21 is similar to that of Psalm 20, and may be divided into two parts:

    • Vv. 3-8—the blessings given to the king by YHWH, reflecting the covenant bond between the two
    • Vv. 9-13—the aid given to the king, specifically, that allows him to be victorious in battle

These stanzas are bracketed by couplets of praise to YHWH (vv. 2, 14). The two parts have a joining transition point in vv. 8-9 which contrasts the faithfulness/loyalty of the king, binding him to YHWH, against the wickedness of his enemies/opponents and their helplessness before God.

The meter in the first half tends to be 4+4, while 3+3 in the second, though there are certain irregularities throughout. The superscription, with minimal musical information and direction, is the same as that of Ps 20 (and many other of the Psalms). Sadly, neither Psalm 20 nor 21 are preserved among the Dead Sea Scroll Psalms manuscripts.

Verse 2 [1]

“YHWH, in your strength the king finds joy,
and in your salvation, how great(ly) he spins (for joy)!”

In this opening (4+4) couplet, praising YHWH for the blessings shown to the king, the nouns zu) (“strength, might”) and hu*Wvy+ (“salvation, protection”) must be understood in terms of the assistance provided by God in time of war (cf. above). YHWH’s “strength” is what ultimately gives the king victory in battle—it is a Divine protection which keeps him safe from death and defeat. Compare this couplet with the closing praise in verse 14 [13] (cf. below).

Verses 3-8 [2-7]

Verses 3-4 [2-3]

“(The) longing of his heart you have given to him,
and (for the) desire of his lips you have held nothing back; Selah
for you put blessings of goodness in front of him,
you set onto his head a circle [i.e. crown/wreath] of pure (gold).”

Throughout these two Psalms the king represents the people as a whole, and the community identifies itself with the anointed ruler as the faithful one(s) of YHWH. Thus the prayer of the people (in Ps 20) blends into the prayer of the king (for victory in battle). This couplet confirms that the prayer—both of king and people—has been answered. The synonymous parallelism is clear, with the second line intensifying the theme of the first. The noun tv#r#a& in line 2 occurs only here in the Old Testament, from an unused root (vr^a*) that is, however, attested in other Semitic languages (such as Ugaritic). Both the context here, and the cognate usage, indicate that the meaning is something like “desire, wish, request”.

The lone occurrence of the musical indicator hl*s# (selah) after this couplet is difficult to explain. Under the basic assumption that it is meant primarily as a pause in singing/reciting the text, it may be intended to preserve the integrity of the couplet, in light of the conjunction (yK!) that begins the next line.

The encircling wreath (tr#f#u&) of gold signifies the honor that comes from victory in battle—a victory won through YHWH’s own strength. There may be an alliterative parallel intended between tr#f#u& (±¦‰ere¾) and the earlier tv#r#a& (°¦reše¾) in verse 3.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“(Year)s of life he asked from you, and you gave to him—
length of days (for the) distant (future and) until (the end);
great (is) his weight (achieved) in [i.e. through] your salvation,
(great the) honor and splendor you have placed upon him!”

These two couplets, with slight irregularities of meter, expound two different aspects of the honor given to king by YHWH:

    • the opportunity to live a long and full life, i.e. saved from death in battle; long life being especially valued as an ideal in ancient times, and here expressed two ways:
      • the plural noun <yY]j^ which signifies a (long) life; spec. the years of a person’s life(time), but perhaps also in an intensive or emphatic sense (i.e. full life)
      • “length of days”, the length(ing) of days being a common Semitic idiom for old age and a long life
    • the value and worth (lit. “weight”, dobK*) of his person is enhanced, marked by an honorific improvement of his appearance, using the alliterative expression rd*h*w+ doh (hô¼ w®h¹¼¹r, roughly “honor and splendor”)
Verse 7-8 [6-7]

“(So it is) that you set blessings for him until (the end),
you have made him look with joy at your face;
(for it is) that the king is (one) trusting in YHWH,
and in (the) kindness of the Highest there is no slipping (away)!”

The blessings of a long life of honor and splendor here climax with the idea of a future blessing that involves a beatific vision of God (i.e. to look upon His “face”). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 133) in reading the verb hd*j* as = hz`j* (“look/gaze at, behold”), which better fits the context of the line; it would be thus explained as a (Canaanite) dialectical form involving the familiar interchange of the consonants d/z (Heb d/z).

The final couplet emphasizes again the (covenant) loyalty of the king, characterizing him as one “trusting” in YHWH, using a participle form of a verb (jf^B*) which can specifically connote the idea of seeking protection. This loyalty is reciprocated by God’s own, showing goodness/kindness (ds#j#) and favor to the faithful vassal. The covenant bond is indicated by the closing phrase, “there is no slipping (away)” (foMy] lB^), reading the Niphal verb form in a reflexive sense—i.e., there is no falling away from the covenant bond with YHWH.

Verses 9-14 [8-13]

As noted above, a 3+3 meter dominates the second part of the Psalm, which describes God’s blessings to the king in terms of the aid/assistance given to him in time of battle.

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“Your hand found (its way) to all your enemies,
your right (hand) found (its way to the one)s hating you;
you set them as a fire-stove at the time your face (appears)—
with His nostril(s) He engulfs them, and (His) fire devours them.”

The mixing of 2nd and 3rd person forms is a bit confusing, but hardly unusual in Old Testament poetry. It is all the more natural here, given the close connection between the king’s military action and the strength of YHWH Himself that fights for the king (cf. above). More difficult is the extended/irregular meter of verse 10, suggesting that there may be one or more (secondary) accretions to the couplet. I tentatively emend the text to read as a 4+4 couplet, by omitting the first of the two occurrences of va@ (“fire”), in line 1, and the divine name hwhy in line 2. The addition of the name may be an explanatory gloss to clarify the identity of the 2nd person markers (i.e., “…your face, YHWH” ). It is perhaps best to understand YHWH as the subject throughout, referring to His actions on the king’s behalf.

The judgment of God on His enemies (= the king/Israel’s enemies) is expressed by the idiom of the face, according to the traditional religious idea that to see YHWH’s face means death for a human being. This fiery destruction from God’s “face” natural blends together with the common idiom for God’s anger—i.e., burning from the nostrils (as of an angry, snorting bull).

Verse 11 [10]

“Their fruit you made to perish from (the) earth,
and their seed from (among the) sons of man.”

This couplet suggests something more than the defeat of a nation or people in battle, though it may allude to the idea of a defeat so total that it would virtually deprive an entire generation of its young men. More likely is the notion that the military defeat of Israel/Judah’s enemies reflects a wider sense of their (ultimate) destruction that has been determined by God. The nouns “fruit” and “seed” of course are used figuratively for the children/offspring of a people.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

“(For it was) that they stretched out evil upon you,
they wove an (evil) plan, (but) were not able (to complete it);
(so it is) that you set them (to the) shoulder,
you fixed your (bow)strings upon their faces.”

There is a clear parallel  between the enemies of God “stretching” out evil strands upon (lu*) Him, and God, in turn, aiming His bowstrings upon (lu*) their faces. It is typical of the thematic imagery found in the Psalms (and other Old Testament poetry) in they way that the evil intent of the wicked is turned back upon them, so that they are essentially destroyed by the very thing they sought to accomplish. We have already encountered a number of examples of this sort in the Psalms we have studied thus far. The precise meaning of the idiom in the first line of v. 13 [12] is not entirely clear; I have rendered it quite literally: “that you set them (to the) shoulder”. It could indicate a person turning his back (to flee), or, perhaps, of bending/falling down in defeat (or submission). In any case, the defeat of God’s enemies—meaning also the defeat of Israel’s enemies—is clear.

VERSE 14 [13]

“May you rise up (high), YHWH, in your strength,
and we shall sing and make music in your might!”

This closing couplet is parallel to the opening couplet of the Psalm (v. 2 [1], cf. above), emphasizing both the strength (zu)) of YHWH that brought victory for the king, and also the praise of the people who rejoice together in that victory. The noun hr*WbG+ (“strength, might, vigor”) in the second line is virtually synonymous with zu) in the first. It alludes to the youthful vigor of warriors, only, for the Israelite/Judean army of the king faithful to YHWH, the normal strength of young men has been enhanced by the divine power of YHWH Himself. This is reflected in verse 8 [7] of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study), with the contrast between those nations who trust in their (ordinary) military strength (of horses and chariots, etc), and those who rely instead on the person and presence (the “Name”) of YHWH the true God. Even for later Israelites, Jews, and Christians, for whom the original military setting of this Psalm has long disappeared, it is a contrast that all faithful believers can still appreciate.

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

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 19 (continued)

Psalm 19, continued

The first portion of this Psalm (vv. 2-7 [1-6], discussed in the previous study) presented the natural world as a manifestation of God’s power and presence as Creator. The very processes and operations within nature bear witness, “speaking” of YHWH, even as God Himself “spoke” it into existence. As a theme we might call this “nature as the word of God”. In the second half of the Psalm, we find a parallel theme: “the Torah as the word of God”. It is not necessary to limit the use of the word hr*oT (tôrâ) here to the Law Code preserved in the Pentateuch, though certainly that would be paramount. Rather, it refers to the “word of God” expressed within the religious and ethical sphere, in contrast to the natural world.

Psalm 19:8-15 [7-14]

Verses 8-10 [7-9]

“(The) hr*oT  of YHWH (is) complete, returning [i.e. restoring] (the) soul;
(the) tWdu@ of YHWH (is) firm, making wise (the) open (mind);
(the) <yd!WQP! of YHWH (are) straight, making glad (the) heart;
(the) hw`x=m! of YHWH (is) clear, enlightening (the) eyes;
(the) <ha*r=m!> of  YHWH (is) pure, standing until (the end);
(the) <yf!P=v=m! of YHWH (are) truth–(all as) one they are just!”

These verses consist of a series of six parallel couplets, each of which follows a basic pattern, with a 3+2 meter. The pattern is set by the first couplet in v. 8a. The initial 3-beat line is a statement regarding the hr*oT (tôrâ) of YHWH; the second (2-beat) line modifies the first, with a participial phrase which states what the hr*oT does—i.e., its effective energy and power, with its effect on the one faithful and loyal to it. The following couplets are strophic variations, using different words and descriptive phrases to expound and elaborate the opening couplet. As the principal nouns are a bit difficult to translate literally, with precision, in a poetic setting like this, I have left them untranslated above; now let us consider them here, each one in turn:

  • hr*oT (tôrâ)—typically translated “law”, this noun is more properly rendered “instruction”, literally something “thrown” across, for the purpose of teaching/training someone. In Israelite and Jewish tradition, it is the primary term for the collection of teaching, recorded in Scripture, that expresses what God requires of His people (i.e. the terms of His covenant with them).
  • tWdu@ (±¢¼û¾)—derived from the root dwu, it refers essentially to something that is repeated, often in the specific sense of giving/bearing witness (i.e. repeating what a person has seen or heard). It may be understood here specifically in terms of the recorded hr*oT as preserving a witness and testimony to what YHWH has said to His people.
  • <yd!Q%P! (piqq¥¼îm)—plural of the noun dWQP!, which, like the root dqp in general, is notoriously difficult to translate. The basic meaning has to do with a person exercising oversight and supervision over a situation, and what he/she might require (others to do) in response. A flat English translation of the plural here might be “requirements” —i.e. the things YHWH requires of His people. Also implicit is the idea of the hr*oT as part of God’s supervision over Israel.
  • hw`x=m! (miƒwâ)—usually translated “command”, though perhaps more accurate is the idea of a charge or duty placed on someone by a superior. Here the singular noun is comprehensive—i.e., all that YHWH requires a person to do.
  • ha*r=m! (mir°â)—the Masoretic text here reads ha*r=y] (“fear”), which seems out of place, and may well represent a textual corruption; unfortunately, there is no help from the Qumran scrolls since this portion of Ps 19 is not preserved in the only surviving MS. I have tentatively followed Dahood  (p. 123f) in emending the text (slightly) to ha*r=m!, on the basis of the Ugaritic root mr° (“command”)—i.e., the command of YHWH (as Lord/Sovereign). Another possibility, based on the parallel in Ps 119:38, would be hr*m=a! (“word, utterance”), with the same general sense (cf. Kraus, p. 268).
  • <yf!P=v=m! (mišp®‰îm)— “judgments”, specifically in the sense of the rulings made by YHWH as King (and supreme Judge).

In the first four couplets, the effect of the Torah, etc, of YHWH, indicated in the second line, is upon a specific part (or aspect) of the human person, symbolizing primarily our consciousness and awareness:

    • vp#n# (“soul”)—that is, the life and being of the person as a whole, which the Torah, itself being complete (<ym!T*), is able to restore (lit. “return”) to completeness.
    • yt!P#, which I render rather literally as “open (mind)”; Dahood (p. 123) would identify it as a rare noun tP) (cf. Isa 3:17), related to Akkadian p¥tu (“forehead, face”). The mind (or face?) that is open (or turned) to God’s Instruction will be embued with the Wisdom of God.
    • bl@ (“heart”), in ancient Near Eastern thought, commonly located as the place of the mind/intellect, where decisions are made; the requirements made by YHWH in the Torah, being right and “straight” are appealing to one’s heart/mind and “make it glad”.
    • <y]n`yu@ (“eyes”)—an association with light (and enlightenment) is natural and obvious; through the eyes one “sees” what is right and true, as it conforms with the requirements (or “commands”) of YHWH in the Torah.

The focus of the last two couplets shifts a bit, from the effect of the Torah on the righteous person to a more general statement regarding its overall character: (1) it endures, lasting (“standing”) forever (“until [the end]”), and (2) they are all true and right/just, together forming a single unified whole (dj^y~).

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“The(se) being delightful (more) than gold,
and (even) much more than pure (gold),
and (also) sweet, (more) than (the) sticky (honey),
even (the) dripping (honey) of the flowing (comb),
(so) also your servant is made to shine by them,
(and) in guarding them (there is) much (from its) heel!”

A pair of short, proverbial 2+2 couplets are followed by a single 3+3 couplet, which brings the entirety of vv. 8-12 to a dramatic climax. The plurals here (“these, them” in translation) refer to all the 6 nouns mentioned in vv. 8-10—hr*oT and its synonyms–the entire Instruction of YHWH, taken together (cf. verse 10b above). The proverbial comparisons in verse 11 are simple: more delightful than gold, sweeter than honey. But more than the enjoyment God’s Torah brings, is the defining effect it has on a person’s entire character and being. This is expressed two different ways:

    • the verb rh^z` (“shine”), continuing the sun/light imagery from earlier in the Psalm; the light of God’s own word and presence illuminates the righteous person, causing him/her to shine. There is almost certainly an intentional bit of wordplay here, since there is similar root rh^z` (II), often used in the passive Niphal stem (as here), which means “teach”. I.e. being taught by God’s Torah = being made to shine.
    • an idiom involving the noun bq#u@, which essentially refers to a “footprint” (lit. a mark by the heel), i.e. something that is imprinted on the surface. The Hebrew idiom signifies something that is left behind, often in the generic sense of an end result. By “guarding” the Torah of YHWH, His word is ‘imprinted’ on the person, and, in turn, there is something ‘left behind’, i.e. the reward/result of the person’s faithful devotion to YHWH.
Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Going astray, who can discern it?
Clear me from (my inclination)s to turn (aside)!
(So) also hold your servant (away) from (the) arrogant (one)s,
(that) they would not rule o(ver) me!
Then shall I be complete,
and will be clear (from so) much rebellion!”

Verse 13[12] is another proverbial 2+2 couplet, reflecting the influence of Wisdom traditions, seen frequently in the Psalms. The wording is a bit difficult, especially the parsing of the verb of the second line. The parallelism suggests a passive-reflexive form of the root rWs (“turn [aside]”), rather than the simple passive of rts (“hide”); however, the idea of “hidden (faults/sins)” would be applicable as well. The structure and meter of v. 14[13] is irregular, the tension indicating a climactic point for the second half of the Psalm—a prayer by the Psalmist that YHWH would help him to remain faithful and loyal, in terms of “guarding” the Instruction (Torah) of God (v. 12b).

The final, uneven couplet intentionally echoes the wording of that earlier line (cf. above), however difficult it may be translate accurately in English. The uP^v=m!, variously rendered “transgression”, “rebellion”, properly refers to the breaking of the (covenant) bond between YHWH and His people. In terms of the royal theology expressed in many Psalms, this idea extends specifically to the bond between YHWH (as Sovereign) and the Israelite/Judean king (as vassal). To break such a bond is fundamentally an act of rebellion.

The context here suggests that the “rebellion” (i.e. breaking of the bond) should be understood strictly in a religious sense—that is, in terms of the ‘idolatry’ (i.e. religious syncretism) present in Israelite/Judean society. The deities of the surrounding (Canaanite) culture are dz@ (literally, “bubbling, boiling”), meaning that they have been given (or give themselves) an inflated sense of worth, compared with the true God of Israel (El-Yahweh); cf. Exodus 18:11 etc. The word can more generally connote “arrogance”, “presumption”, etc, and, as such, can be applied to both the religious and social-ethical sphere—the two aspects being interrelated. As the Torah became more central to the Israelite religious identity, a failure to guard and preserve its teachings was viewed as tantamount to idolatry.

Verse 15 [14]

“May (the) utterances of my mouth be for (your) pleasure,
and (even the) murmurings of my heart (be)fore your face,
YHWH, my Rock and my Redeemer!”

The final verse is a 3+3+3 tricolon that serves as a doxology to the Psalm. It is also an extension of the prayer in vv. 13-14, and relates primarily to the focus on the Torah of God in vv. 8ff. Properly, a line praising YHWH has been added to what otherwise would stand as a unified couplet. The parallelism of this couplet has two interlocking strands:

    • Synonymous:
      “utterances of my mouth” / “murmurings of my heart”
    • Synthetic:
      “for (your) pleasure” => “before your face”

The faithfulness and loyalty of righteous extends from what a person says (vb rm^a*) out loud, to what they ‘say’ (“murmur”, root hg`h*) deep in their heart. That is, even their innermost thoughts conform to the word and will of God. Moreover, the guarding/preservation of YHWH’s teaching, done because it corresponds with what is pleasing to Him, allows the faithful one to come and stand before the very presence of God (i.e. his “face”). The latter line also recognizes the very point made in vv. 2-7 (and in other Psalms): that YHWH’s presence is everywhere, and all that we do in the world takes place “before His face”.

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

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 3

Psalm 18:21-31

Verses 21-31 [20-30], function as a distinct unit within the Psalm. Many commentators would view it as the closing portion of the first half—or the first of the two original poems that make up Ps 18 / 2 Sam 22—and this would seem to be correct (cf. below). It is also possible to view these verses as intermediary, forming a bridge between the poem of deliverance (discussed in Parts 1 and 2) and what follows in verses 32-46, as a hymn giving thanks for (military) victory. The worthiness of the Psalmist is emphasized in vv. 21-31, from two thematic standpoints: (1) a judicial setting, stressing action that is in accord with justice, and (2) the idea of covenant loyalty, i.e. between a vassal and his sovereign. Both of these aspects are frequent in the Psalms, and reflect, to varying degrees, their royal theological (and ritual) background. The royal background is especially strong in the discernibly older poems, including those (such as Psalm 18) which may genuinely go back to the time of David.

Verses 21-25

It is possible again to divide verses 21-31 [20-30] into two parts, with vv. 21-25 [20-24] as they stand forming an inclusio, v. 25 essentially repeating the declaration in v. 21. The middle three couplets (vv. 22-24) most clearly evoke the judicial setting, as the Psalmist demonstrates his claim from verse 21/25.

Verses 21 [20]

“YHWH (has) dealt with me according to my justice,
according to (the) cleanness of my hands he returned (it) to me.”

In the context of the preceding verses, the Psalmist here states the reason why YHWH has heard his cry for help and acted to rescue him. It was because of “my justice” (yq!d=x!), that is, because the Psalmist has acted in a just and upright manner. The parallel in line 2 is the “cleanness [rb)] of my hands”. The basic idea of the root rrb seems to that of a substance (such as metal) that is clean and shining, free from impurities, etc. Clearly it is used here in an ethical sense—i.e., to be free from sin and guilt, with the idiom of “clean hands” being natural (drawn from the idea of ritual purity), and attested variously in the Scriptures, especially within the Wisdom traditions (e.g., Psalm 24:4; 73:13; Job 17:9; 22:30, etc).

Metrically, yq!d=x!K= is to be preferred over yt!q*d=x!K= in 2 Sam 22, which has the more abstract noun hq*d*x= instead of qd#x#. The rhythm of the 3+3 couplet is better preserved here in Ps 18.

Verses 22-24 [21-23]

“For I have guarded the ways of YHWH,
and have not done wrong (against) my Mighty [One];
(in) that all His judgments are th(ere) in front of me,
and His inscribed (decree)s I did not turn (away) from me;
I have been complete(ly straight) with Him,
and guarded myself from (any) crookedness (with) Him.”

In this trio of 3+3 couplets, the Psalmist, as in a judicial setting before YHWH, demonstrates his claim to justice in v. 21. It involves three instances of synonymous parallelism—one in each couplet—by which his loyalty and faithfulness to YHWH is affirmed. Here, we are dealing more properly with the idea of covenant loyalty, and this is expressed three ways, corresponding to the three couplets.

The first couplet generally refers to the “ways of YHWH”, a kind of blanket reference to God as a sovereign exercising authority over a vast domain (the Er#d# can refer fundamentally to a territory). The Psalmist, as a subordinate (vassal), declares his faithfulness with the dual-aspect motif of “guarding” (vb rm^v*, repeated in v. 24b) the covenant bond, along with avoiding the opposite (i.e. doing wrong against his sovereign). The syntax of the second line is a bit uncertain, as the MT reads yh*ýa$m@ yT!u=v^r* aýw+ (“and I have not done wrong from my Mighty [One]”). However, the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) after the verb uv^r* is somewhat awkward and unexpected. Cross and Freedman (p. 27) propose that the text be emended to an original þm ytuvp, reading the verb uv^P* instead of the more general uv^r*. This is an attractive solution, as the verb uv^P*, which can distinctly connote the breaking of a covenant relationship, even to the point of a rebellion/revolt, can also be used with the preposition /m! (cf. 2 Kings 8:20, 22), i.e., “break (away) from”, “rebel from (the authority of)”.

In the second couplet, the focus is on the royal decisions and decrees of YHWH. The noun fP*v=m! (“judgment”), preserves the overall judicial context of the passage, but also refers specifically here to the idea of the sovereign as ultimate lawgiver and adjudicator. The noun hQ*j%, provides the parallel, emphasizing the written (authoritative) decrees of the sovereign. For the people of Israel generally, this refers to the decrees and regulations inscribed in the Torah, the written document(s) that preserve the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. The ruler (and the ruling family/dynasty) has his own related binding agreement, as a vassal king under YHWH, the ultimate sovereign. Here the Psalmist’s conduct has to do with not turning (i.e. setting) aside (vb rWs) the very terms of the covenant that are right there in front (dgn) of him; the implication in the first line is that he has kept God’s decrees in front of him, an indication of his faithfulness. The expression “from me” (yn]M#m!) is parallel to “from my Mighty One [i.e. God]” in the first couplet, and would seem to confirm that the prefixed –m there is indeed the preposition (and correct, contra Dahood, p. 111).

The 3+3 meter in the third couplet is less secure, in the text as it stands (the second line has two beats). The longer form of the initial verb in 2 Sam is more likely to be original (with or without the w-conjunction, cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 28). There is also a difference in the preposition in the first line: ol (“to[ward] him” 2 Sam) vs. oMu! (“with him” Psa). There is presumably little difference in meaning, since both would refer to the covenant bond between the Psalmist and YHWH, but the reading in Ps 18 (oMu!) should perhaps be preferred on metrical grounds. While it is possible that a word has dropped out of the second line, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 112) in reading yn]ou&m@ as preserving an archaic 3rd person singular (object) suffix, “perversion/crookedness [i.e. acting crookedly] (with) Him”. This establishes the parallel with the first line—the Psalmist’s complete (<mt) loyalty and integrity means that he never bends or twists, so as to act crookedly toward his Sovereign.

Verse 25 [24]

“And (so) YHWH has returned to me according to my justice,
according to the cleanness of my hands in front of His eyes.”

This effectively restates the declaration in v. 21, having been proven and affirmed by the evidence presented in vv. 22-24. The Psalmist’s covenant loyalty has been confirmed before God in this judicial setting. The verb in this regard, in both vv. 21 and 25, is bWv (“[re]turn”)—since the Psalmist has proven himself just, YHWH returns justice to him, based on the covenant bond, acting to rescue and protect him in his time of need.

Verses 26-31

The second portion functions as a hymn of praise to YHWH, for His faithfulness and justice. Even the Psalmist declared it on his own behalf in vv. 21-25, now he affirms the same of His Sovereign. It is thus a fitting conclusion to the first half of the Psalm, and prepares the way for the hymn of victory that follows in vv. 32-46.

Verses 26-27 [25-26]

“With (the) loyal, you (yourself) are loyal,
with (the) complete, you (yourself) are complete;
with (the) pure, you (yourself) are pure,
but with (the) crooked, you (yourself) are twisted!”

These two couplets form a gnomic (proverbial) pair, which affirms the covenant faithfulness of YHWH, in terms of the extent to which the other party (i.e. the vassal) has been faithful. This reflects a perfect kind of justice, since God’s response mirrors that of His human vassal (the lex talionis principle). The first three statements are synonymous, with the goodness (loyalty, ds#j#) of the faithful servant expressed by two other characteristics previously mentioned in vv. 21-25 (cf. above)—complete integrity (<mt) and purity (rb), both of intention and conduct. The fourth line indicates the opposite, the other possibility—i.e., disloyalty and lack of integrity—and the initial w-conjunction should be read in an adversative sense (“but…”). The idea of crookedness, of bending away from covenant loyalty, was previously expressed by the noun /ou*, but here by the adjective vQ@u!, indicating something that has been distorted. Here, too, YHWH responds in kind; if the person is crooked, distorting the covenant bond, then He also will be twisted toward him. The verb used is lt^P*, which can connote the twisting that occurs as one grapples/wrestles with another.

Verse 28 [27]

“For you, you save (the) people bent down,
but (the) eyes raised high you bring (down) low!”

This couplet continues the motifs from v. 27, including the image of bending, here expressed in terms of the result of the crookedness/perversion of the disloyal (wicked), who oppress the populace. Built into this is the same contrast from v. 27—God is faithful to the righteous, but opposes the wicked. In each instance, there is a reversal of fortune—the oppressed are raised (saved/rescued), while those with worldly ambition (“eyes raised high”) are humbled. The reading of this verse in Ps 18 more accurately reflects the original (cf. the discussion in Cross and Freedman, p. 28).

Verses 29-30 [28-29]

“For you are my (shining) light, O YHWH,
my Mighty [One] makes bright my darkness;
for with you I run strong of limb,
and with my Mighty [One] I (can) leap a wall.”

These two 3+3 couplets, like that of v. 28 [27], begin with the particle -yK!. The implication seems to be that the promise of salvation for the faithful is here being applied personally by the Psalmist. I.e., what you do for those loyal to you, YHWH, when they are oppressed, may you do (now) for me. This theme of deliverance, so central to the earlier sections of the Psalm (cf. Parts 1 and 2), is here expressed through two different motifs: (1) light to see by, and (2) strength of limb (for battle, etc). The first motif is more general, common to many different religious and wisdom traditions. The reading of Ps 18 in this line appears to be conflate, with the variant readings(?) rn@ and ra) combined (2 Sam has only rn). Both words essentially mean “light”, though rn@ more properly indicates a shining/burning light (or “lamp”). Otherwise, the reading of Ps 18 is to be preferred over 2 Sam.

The motif in the second couplet involves physical strength, which foreshadows the military imagery in vv. 32-46 (to be discussed in the next study). Somewhat difficult is the exact meaning of the word dwdg; I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 114) in relating it to the root dyG, generally denoting strong limbs (i.e. muscles, sinews). Elsewhere, the noun dWdG+, presumably derived from ddg (“cut [through]”), seems to refer to an attacking military force. That may also be the sense here; the parallelism could be: “I rush through an army // I leap over a wall”.

Verse 31 [30]

“The Mighty (One)—His way is complete,
the word of YHWH is (as) pure (metal),
He is protection for the (one)s taking shelter in Him.”

The final verse is a 3+3+3 tricolon, the first line of which echoes early poetic language such as in Deut 32:4, while the latter two lines seem to reflect (later) Wisdom tradition (being very close in wording to Prov 30:5). As I have already mentioned several times in these studies, many Psalms, in their closing portions, appear to have been influenced by Wisdom traditions. This was a natural by-product of the adaptation and use of earlier poems for a wider audience, giving to the ritual and royal-theological setting a wisdom application for the people as a whole. A possible explanation for the tricolon form of v. 31 is that an early couplet was modified in light of Prov 30:5 (or a similar Wisdom tradition), the second line being ‘replaced’ by an additional wisdom-couplet which would close the poem (cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 29). If so, it would confirm that verse 31 marks the end of the first of two poems that eventually came to make up the Psalm, and may have circulated independently for a time, before being joined with the second poem (vv. 32ff).

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

 

 

 

 

Saturday Series: Isaiah 1:2-31

Isaiah 1:2-31

In the Saturday Series studies this March and April, we will be exploring the rich trove of prophetic and historical material in the book of Isaiah. The critical areas, as they relate to the book, were discussed in last week’s introductory study. This week we will begin turning our eye to the text of the book, in practical terms, looking at a number of key passages and portions. Our analysis opens with the opening oracle in chapter 1. As the superscription in 2:1 serves just as well for the introduction to Isaiah (and certainly to chapters 2-39), many commentators feel that chapter 1 was added at a later point in the formation and redaction of the book, serving as a summary of various elements and themes that would be found throughout—both in chapters 2-39, and the so-called “deutero”- and “trito”-Isaian portions (chaps. 40-66). And, just as the book itself is composite, so the introductory chapter has a composite character, apparently including pieces of various genres, and areas of emphasis, with indications of different time-periods (perhaps) being referenced. A careful study of the chapter will bear out this evaluation, to some extent.

Isaiah 1:2-3

“Hear, (you) heavens, and give ear, (you) earth!
for YHWH opens (His mouth) to speak:
Sons have I helped grow (strong) and raised (them high),
and (yet) they have broken (trust) with me!
An ox knows (the one) purchasing [i.e. who purchases] it
and a donkey (knows) the trough of its master,
(but yet) Yisrael does not know—
my people do not recognize (this) themselves!”

The opening call to heaven and earth resembles the beginning of the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 (discussed in earlier studies):

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will open to speak,
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” (v. 1)

Indeed, there would seem to be a number of Deuteronomic themes and points of emphasis here in chapter 1, include several that relate specifically to the Song of Moses and its context. The background involves the idea of the binding agreement (or ‘covenant’, Heb. b®rî¾) in the ancient Near East, the religious setting of which entailed calling on various deities as witnesses to the agreement—and to bring divine judgment if either party violates its terms. Since in Deuteronomy, et al, the binding agreement is between Israel and God (YHWH), there is no need to call on the Deity as a witness; instead, all of creation is called—i.e. heaven and earth, which were often considered to be primary deities in the ancient world.

Generally speaking, chapter 1 functions as a judgment-oracle, declaring the judgment that would come upon Israel—specifically Judah and Jerusalem—for violating the covenant with YHWH. Within the confines of the agreement, the Israelite people are recognized, symbolically, as God’s children (“sons”), His own people. This makes their violation, literally a breaking of trust (vb p¹ša±), a breaking away from God, all the more tragic; it is like a son betraying his own father. This motif, too, is part of the Deuteronomic language expressed in the Song of Moses (vv. 5-6, 11ff, 19-20), and is something of a common-place in the Prophets.

A bit of irony is made use of in verse 3, to emphasize the point. Even an animal (ox or donkey) knows enough to be faithful to the one who owns it (and feeds it), and yet Israel, God’s own children and people, do not seem to know or recognize their relationship to Him!

Isaiah 1:4

“Oh, (you) sinning nation,
people heavy (with) crooked(ness)!
Seed of (those) doing evil,
sons of (those) bringing ruin!
They have abandoned YHWH,
despised the Holy (One) of Yisrael!
They have turned aside, back(ward)!”

Verse 4 is a woe-oracle in miniature, beginning with a striking alliterative declaration, the effect of which is almost impossible to capture in translation:

Hôy gôy µœ‰¢°
“Oh, sinning nation…”

The final line of v. 4 is absent from the old Greek (Septuagint/LXX), but exists in the great Isaiah scroll from Qumran (and other MSS). While perfunctory in context, these two words (n¹zœrû °¹µôr) help to establish the theme of Israel’s wickedness (and corrupt religious practice) as defined in terms of false religion and idolatry—i.e., turning away from God to follow after other deities. In the 8th-7th century Prophets, judgment comes to Israel as a result of their adopting false religious practices; however, the emphasis here in chapter 1, as in many of the later (exilic and post-exilic) Prophetic oracles, is on the corruption of religion because of the wider evils tolerated in society (i.e., injustice, mistreatment of the poor, etc). Thus there is here an interesting juxtaposition of earlier and later themes, very much typical of the book of Isaiah as a whole.

The title “the Holy One of Israel” (q®dôš yi´r¹°¢l) is distinctive to Isaiah, occurring repeatedly throughout the book, though some commentators believe that it tends to belong to a later stage/period of authorship. It may derive from the Temple liturgy (cf. Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:19; and note the context of Isa 6:1ff; Blenkinsopp, p. 183).

Isaiah 1:7-9

“Your land (is) a desolation—
your cities burned (with) fire,
your soil, (there) in front of you,
(those) turning aside are devouring it—
and a desolation like the overthrow of <Sodom>!
And Daughter ‚iyyôn is left (after it)
like a covered (shelter) in a vineyard,
like a lodging-place in a cucumber-patch,
like a city watched (by those surrounding it)!
(If it) were not that YHWH of the Armies (of Heaven)
had left (behind) for us (just) a few survivor(s),
we would have been (just) like Sodom,
(and) bear a resemblance to ‘Amorah!”

This again is an oracle in miniature—a judgment-oracle, declaring the judgment that will come upon Judah (and Jerusalem), in the form of a military attack, along with the devastation that comes in the aftermath of invasion. This aspect touches upon the area of historical criticism. If this is an authentic Isaian oracle (or at least from the late-8th century B.C.), then there are two possibilities for a military invasion of Judah that could fit this prophecy: (1) the invasion by the Northern Israelite kingdom and Aram-Syria (734-733), or (2) the Assyrian attack under Sennacherib (701), in which Jerusalem survived the devastation, but only barely so. The latter option is preferable, and well fits the historical scenario, of Isaiah’s own time, emphasized throughout much of chapters 2-39. Moreover, the imagery in verse 8, of Zion (Jerusalem) completely surrounded, certainly fits the circumstances of the Assyrian siege.

Rhetorically, this Judgment is framed by the ancient tradition of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). Judah/Jerusalem barely avoids the fate of their complete devastation. The use of the noun mahp¢kâ (from the verb h¹pak) in the last line of verse 7, suggests the following word in the Masoretic text (also in the Qumran MSS), z¹rîm (“[those] turning aside”, i.e. foreigners, strangers, passers-by), repeated from the previous line, may be an error. Elsewhere the noun mahp¢kâ is always used in the context of the “overthrow” of Sodom; the motif of Sodom/Gomorrah here raises the strong possibility that the text originally read s§dœm (<d)s=) instead of z¹rîm (<yr!z`). Textual emendation should be done with extreme caution, and as rarely as possible, especially when the manuscript support for it is slight (or otherwise non-existent). However, here I do tentatively emend the final word of verse 7, indicated by the angle brackets in the translation above.

Isaiah 1:10-17

“Hear the speech [i.e. word] of YHWH,
(you) leaders of Sodom!
Give ear to the instruction of our Mightiest [Elohim],
(you) people of ‘Amorah!
For what (purpose) to me (are) your many slaughtered (offering)s?
(So) says YHWH—
I have had (my) fill of (the) rising (smoke) of strong (ram)s,
and (the burning) fat of well-fed (cattle),
and the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats
I take no delight (in them)!
For you come to be seen (by) my Face—
(but) who seeks this from your hand,
(the) trampling of my enclosures?
You must not continue bringing (these) empty offerings
…!”

This exposition of Israel’s sin lies at the heart of the chapter 1 oracle. That it effectively represents the covenant-violation is clearly indicated by the repetition of the call to the divine witness (heaven and earth) in the opening lines of verse 10 (see verse 2 above, and compare Deut 32:1). However, there is no suggestion here of the traditional violation of the covenant, i.e. of abandoning YHWH to worship other (Canaanite) deities, despite the use of this language in verse 4 (see above). Instead, the people continue to worship YHWH dutifully, at least in terms of coming to the Jerusalem Temple and presenting the sacrificial offerings, etc, required by the Torah. However, these offerings have been rendered “empty” (š¹w°) and detestable to God because of the evil and injustice that exists throughout society (vv. 16-17ff). This is a very different sense of the corruption of religion, and one that is more in keeping with the later Prophetic tradition, though it can be found prominently in the 8th-7th century Prophets as well (see, for example, Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

From a form- and genre-critical standpoint, verses 10-17 are in some ways the most consistently poetic of the chapter. Throughout, the section utilizes a 3+2 bicolon format, with synonymous (and synthetic) parallelism, disrupted occasionally by emphatic points of tension. The 3+2 meter (a 3-beat line followed by a 2-beat line) is referred to as the “limping” or qînâ meter, often characteristic of a lament (also in vv. 21-23).

Isaiah 1:18ff

It may worth here considering the structure of the oracle, from a form- and literary-critical standpoint. In verses 10-31, judgment-oracles (vv. 10-17, 21-26) alternate with prophecies of salvation/restoration (vv. 18-20, 27-31) for the people. As a rhetorical (and poetic) device, a judicial setting is indicated in vv. 18-20, tied to the ancient context of adjudicating the binding agreement of the covenant—i.e. whether or not it has been violated. Only here this imagery has been turned into an exhortation for the people, indicating that it is still possible to re-establish their relationship in the binding agreement with God. The basic terms of the covenant are stated clearly in verses 19-20:

“If you are willing, and would hear [i.e. are obedient],
you shall eat (the) good of the land;
but if you refuse and resist/rebel [i.e. be disobedient],
you shall be eaten by the sword!”

In verses 21-23ff, we find another judgment-oracle, this time emphasizing more clearly the injustice in society, a wickedness that turns the once-loyal city of Jerusalem into a prostitute. The closing lines of this oracle (vv. 24b-26), like those earlier (vv. 16-17), leave open the way to avoid the coming Judgment, and from a literary standpoint, function as a transition point into the prophecies of salvation (vv. 27-31 and 18-20). The opening lines of the final section make clear that the city of Jerusalem will be saved in the judgment, but only those in her who repent:

‚iyyôn will be ransomed in (the) judgment,
and (the one)s in her (who) turn back [i.e. repent], in justice;
but destruction together (for those) breaking away and sinning,
and (the one)s abandoning YHWH will be completely (destroy)ed!”

In the closing lines of the chapter, the traditional imagery of abandoning God to follow after other deities, embracing false religious practices, etc, comes back into view. The motif of pagan cultic garden-sites functions as a kind of antithesis to the true religion centered at the Temple sanctuary of Zion, but also, perhaps, to the tradition of the Garden of God accessible to humankind at the beginning of creation. Indeed, the language and symbolism in these verses seems to parallel the final chapters of the book (Trito-Isaiah) with their eschatological emphasis, both in terms of salvation and judgment (e.g. 56:1; 57:1ff; 59:9, 16-17; 61:3, 10-11; 63:1; 65:3, 11-13; 66:3-5, 17, 24).

Thus, we can see rather clearly, I think, how the complexity of the book of Isaiah is reflected in this opening chapter. A wide range of themes, genres, sets of symbols, and literary-rhetorical devices can be discerned, which, in a very real sense, mirrors those of the book as a whole. It is certainly possible that the chapter represents an authentic 8th-7th century oracle; however, it seems more likely that it is an assemblage of different oracle-forms and pieces, which an author (or editor) has combined to form a powerful, though composite, piece of prophetic poetry. In terms of the final book of Isaiah, its primary purpose is literary—introducing the many themes and motifs which will be developed throughout the oracles, etc, that follow.

Next week, we will turn to the second chapter, which may be considered as the beginning of the book proper (esp. of chapters 2-39). This time, we will focus on a shorter passage—verses 1-5—devoting our study to a more detailed exegesis. I hope that you will join me, next Saturday.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 17

Psalm 17

This vivid, passionate Psalm is simply called a “petition” (hL*p!T=) in the heading, and a Davidic composition. Its tone and language are similar to several other of the Psalms we have studied so far, which also had many characteristics of a prayer or appeal to God. The meter of the Psalm is mixed, generally alternating between 4+3, 3+3, and 4+4 couplets. It may roughly be broken into two parts: in vv. 1-5 the Psalmist declares his innocence and loyalty to YHWH, while in vv. 6-15 the prayer turns to a request for protection and for the destruction of the Psalmist’s enemies. As always in these compositions, the ‘enemies’ are a nameless, faceless crowd–not individuals so much as a collective personification of the suffering and affliction felt by the protagonist. It is possible to subdivide vv. 7-15 into at least two tropes or sections (vv. 7-12 and 13-15).

Verses 1-5

Each part of the Psalm begins with a direct appeal to God, giving the work the character of a petition (hL*p!T=), as indicated in the heading. The verse 1 petition is comprised of a pair of 2+2 bicola:

“Hear, YHWH (my plea for) justice,
give attention to my cry (for help);
turn (your) hear to my petition,
(from) lips with no deceit (in them).”

To preserve the meter, with the inclusion of the divine name (YHWH) in the first line, the substance of the request is abbreviated. We might otherwise expect yq!d=x! (“my justice”) instead of simple qd#x# (“justice”), with “my justice” best understood as “my plea for justice”, “my request for justice”, justice being a frequent and constant theme in the Psalms, especially those with lament and prayer features. The parallelism in the first couplet is synonymous, while the second is synthetic. However, Dahood (p. 93) would read the MT aýB= (usually understood as preposition B= + a negative particle, “with no”) as a form of the verb alb (= hlb), “wear out”. This would give to the line the meaning “wear out [i.e. consume/destroy] lips of deceit”; then the parallelism of the couplet would be synonymous (and, in a sense, antithetic), contrasting the Psalmist’s prayer with the words of wicked/deceitful men. While this is possible, the parallel with verse 6, as well as the overall tone of vv. 1-5, suggests that the focus of the petition is entirely on the Psalmist, rather than the wicked.

Verses 2-3ab are comprised of a pair of 3+3 bicola in which the Psalmist declares his own loyalty and adherence to justice, and asks YHWH (as Judge) to test him in this regard:

“May my judgment (shin)e forth from (be)fore your face,
may your eyes look (clearly) at (my) straightness (in all thing)s;
you (may) test my heart, examine me (during the) night,
melt me (in the fire)—you will not find my intention (to be evil)!”

Each couplet contains a kind of synthetic parallelism, the second line building upon the first, increasing the dramatic tension. In the first line of each couplet the Psalmist calls on YHWH to test him, and deliver the judgment (fP*v=m!) which will confirm his just and faithful character. In the second line, he predicts how this test will come out for him. The motif of the first couplet involves the clarity and brightness of God’s judgment, since it comes from His very face which shines forth (vb ax*y`, “go out”) light, and His eyes which penetrate the darkness (of night). The Divine Presence thus sees and reveals all things. The second couplet deals with the idea and imagery of testing (metal, etc) with fire, this comes out clearly in line two with the verb [r^x*, which has to do with the smelting/refining of metal; it makes more concrete the testing (vb /j^B*) and examining (dq^P*) mentioned in line one.

Establishing an accurate division of vv. 3-5 into lines is somewhat difficult, the standard versification is problematic, both metrically and in terms of the parallelism of the lines. Moreover, the sense is not entirely clear regardless of how they are divided. Assuming that the MT preserves the text of the Psalm here more or less intact, it would seem that vv. 3c-5 should be taken together as a pair of (4+4?) couplets. In these lines the Psalmist declares more precisely the just nature of his character and conduct:

“My mouth does not cross over toward the deeds of man,
(but) by the word of your lips (do) I keep (myself);
(from the) paths of destruction my steps stay firmly (away),
(and) my footsteps are not shaken (from) within your tracks.”

In each couplet the Psalmist declares that he keeps away from the world and its wickedness (line 1), while at the same time keeping himself close to the ways of God (line 2). The juxtaposition of words (mouth/lips) and deeds in the first couplet is a bit odd, something of a mixed metaphor; probably here hL*u%P= should be understood in the general sense of “activity, behavior”, which would include how a person speaks. Dahood (pp. 94-5) reads the first line a bit differently, with the verb rb^u* in the sense of transgressing (i.e. crossing a boundary), and MT <da not as the common noun signifying humankind (“man”), but as a rare/archaic dual form of dy` (= da*), “hand”, i.e. God’s hand. The line would then read: “My mouth does not cross over against the works of (your) hands”. I do not find that interpretation particularly convincing; moreover, it distorts the parallelism of the couplets, which fits better if “paths of destruction” is juxtaposed with “deeds of man“.

The imagery in the second couplet is clearer—that of a person walking (steps/footsteps) in certain established paths. In the first line the paths are of destruction (Jyr!P*), i.e. broken down, as the result of violence (implied); the Psalmist keeps away from these (the verb Em^T*, “keep firm”, in the sense of keeping firmly away from something). Instead, his feet are kept securely in the tracks (pl. of lG`u=m^) God has laid down. The root lgu seems to indicate a round or circular track, such as the ditch which encircles a fortified site, which would serve as a suitable contrast to a site that had been broken down and destroyed (vb Jrp).

Verses 6-15

I am inclined to divide this second part into three components: (1) an initial petition (v. 6, parallel to that in v. 1), (2) a call for protection from the wicked/enemies (vv. 7-12), and (3) a renewed call to be rescued from the wicked, along with their punishment (vv. 13-15).

Verse 6

“I call on you, for you will answer me, Mighty (One);
stretch (down) your ear to me (and) hear my speaking [i.e. hear me as I speak].”

This is a single 4+4 bicolon which echoes the petition in verse 1 (cf. above). The request assumes that God will answer the Psalmist, a reflection of the covenant bond shared between El-YHWH and those loyal/faithful to him. Quite often in the Psalms this covenant emphasis blends together with idea of God as Judge, delivering justice for His people. That is certainly the case here.

Verses 7-12

In both verse 7 and 13 there is a call on YHWH to act, i.e. in His primary role as Judge—to protect the righteous and punish the wicked. This call marks the beginning of the two main sections in this part of the Psalm. The meter of verse 7 is apparently 3+3:

“May you set forth your goodness, (you the one) bringing salvation,
stopping with your right hand (the one)s standing up (against me)!”

I am inclined to derive <ys!oj from the root <sj (“stop up, muzzle”), along with Dahood (p. 96); this seems to make better sense of the text than reading it as a plural particple of hsj. The parallelism is synthetic—in the first line the Psalmist calls on YHWH to act (in covenant loyalty) to bring salvation, while in the second this act entails, specifically, the stopping of those hostile to the Psalmist (i.e. the wicked).

Verses 8-9 represent a pair of couplets (with mixed meter, 3+3 and 4+4), emphasizing the Psalmist’s request for protection from his enemies:

“May you guard me as (the) center within your eye,
in the shade of your wings you will keep me hidden,
from (the) face of wicked (one)s (who) would ruin me,
my enemies in (the) soul (who) come round against me.”

The main difficulty in these verses is the syntax of the fourth line with the expression vp#n#B= (“in/with [the] soul”); it is best understood as modifying “my enemies” (yb^y+a)), i.e. those seeking the soul of the Psalmist. In English idiom we might say, “my mortal enemies”. Also uncertain is the word tb in line 1. The MT /y]u*-tB^ literally means “daughter of (the) eye”, but it is possible that tB relates instead to tyB@, construct of the noun meaning “house”, or sometimes the place within a house or room. This might accord better with the context—i.e. the center (pupil) within the eye.

Verse 10 is hard to place, being a single couplet (with an irregular 2+3 meter) that, apparently, functions as an aside, an insulting description of the wicked person’s character:

“They are shut up in their (own) fat,
(and) with a rising up (of) their mouth they speak!”

The motif of being “shut up” or enclosed with fat (bl#j#) relates to the idea that the wicked are unable to hear and understand the word of God; instead, they speak arrogantly, proud of themselves. The uneven meter continues in verses 11-12, couplets alternating 3+4 and 4+3; it shows the hostile and violent action of the wicked:

“They observed me (as prey and) now they surround me,
they set their eyes to pulling (me) down in(to the) earth;
their likeness (is) as a lion longing to tear (its prey) apart,
and as a maned (lion) sitting in the hidden (place)s.”

The text of the first line is likely corrupt; yet all attempts at reconstruction are dubious. The context suggests that the initial verb should be derived from the root rWv II, which can be used for an animal lying in wait observing its prey (Hos 13:7), the very image here in verse 12. On the idea of the wicked as a predator (a lion, etc), cf. the imagery in Psalm 10:9ff.

Verses 13-15

In verse 13, the Psalmist again calls on YHWH to act, this time even more forcefully:

“Stand up, YHWH! May you confront his face (and) bring him down!
May you rescue my soul from (the) wicked (with) your sword!”

It is possible that the final word ibrj is not the noun with suffix (MT “your sword”), but a verbal noun with object suffix (“one using weapons [i.e. making war] on you”, “one attacking you”), ;B#r=j) (cf. Dahood, p. 98). The line would then read “May you rescue my soul from (the) wicked (one) attacking you” —the idea presumably being that, by attacking the people of God the wicked are attacking God Himself.

The deliverance of the righteous here entails the defeat and destruction of the wicked, as described in the two couplets of verse 14:

“Your hand bringing death, YHWH, you bring (them) death
from (the) duration (of their) life, their portion among the living!
And (the one)s (who are) your hidden treasure, you fill their belly;
(the) sons are satisfied and set down the remainder for their children.”

The textual situation in these verses is extremely complicated. There is evidence of corruption throughout, and the Masoretic text as we have it is confusing as well as rhythmically awkward. It is not entirely certain whether both couplets describe the fate of the wicked, or only the first; the latter option seems to be preferable. The Masoretic pointing cannot be relied upon and likely reflects an attempt to make sense of a confusing situation. The versions offer little help in clearing this up, and the fragmentary Qumran MSS 8QPs and 11QPsc are not complete enough to offer a distinct alternative to the MT; in any case, the textual confusion may already have been established by the 1st century B.C./A.D.

To begin with we have the repetition of <yt!m=m! in line 1, which the MT pointing reads as “from (the) men”. This makes little sense in context, and a number of commentators would derive it instead from the root twm (“die, bring/cause death”), which is preferable in terms of the scenario of judgment against the wicked. It is possible to read <ytmm as an intensive plural (<yt!omm=, cp. Jer 16:4; Ezek 28:8; Kraus, p. 244). Dahood (pp. 98-9) would parse it as a causative participle with plural suffix (<t*ym!m=); I tentatively follow this approach above. The repetition may simply be a stylistic device for emphasis. If so, there is a similar sort of repetition in line 2— “from the duration (of their) life” / “their portion among the living” —creating a unique parallelism in the couplet.

The second couplet (v. 14b) is even more problematic, with an extremely awkward rhythm and no obvious way to divide the lines; possibly something has dropped out of the text (or been added) to create this difficulty. The Masoretes already recognized a problem in the first word, identifying it as a verbal form with an object or possessive suffix. Even so, the meaning remains obscure. The root /p^x* signifies something that is hidden, sometimes in the sense of a hidden treasure. If it is the fate of the righteous being described in v. 14, then that is likely the connotation here as well. More awkward is the position of the phrase “(the) sons are satsified” (<yn]b* WuB=c=y]); rhythmically it fits with neither what precedes nor what follows, nor does it work to divide the couplet into smaller lines. However, the basic imagery seems relatively clear, establishing a poetic sequence:

    • YHWH fills their bellies
    • (The) sons are satisfied
    • They lay down the remainder (rt#y#) for their children

Thus, in spite of the textual difficulties, the couplets of vv. 13-14 effectively continue the two-fold theme of the Psalm—the deliverance of the righteous and the defeat/punishment of the wicked. Overall this language and imagery reflects the covenant bond between YHWH and His people, which includes the promise of protection and blessing. In the concluding couplet of v. 15, the Psalmist specifically identifies himself with the righteous/faithful ones of the people of God who are able to receive the covenantal blessings:

“(And) I, in justice, I will look at your face,
in waking I will be satisfied (with) your likeness.”

The physical blessings of v. 14 (i.e. “filling the belly”), we may say, have been transformed into spiritual blessing—understood in terms of a beatific vision of God. Beholding a theophany, i.e. the appearance of God Himself, represented the pinnacle of religious experience for the people of God in Old Testament tradition. Most important in this regard were the traditions involving Moses (cf. especially Exodus 34). In Numbers 12:8 YHWH declares that only Moses is able to behold His hn`WmT= (“likeness, form, shape”), the same noun used here in v. 15b. It seems clear enough that the Judgment scene of the afterlife is in view here, with the parallel between “in justice” (qd#x#B=) and “in waking” (JyQ!h*B=), i.e. waking out of sleep, the ‘sleep’ of death. This is one of the few passages in the Old Testament which indicates belief in a blessed afterlife for the righteous, though allusions to the idea seem to occur rather more frequently than is generally admitted. We have already encountered several instances in the Psalms studied thus far, beginning with the initial Psalm 1. The afterlife Judgment scenario was, in fact, a typical element in ancient Near Eastern Wisdom traditions; as we have seen, such Wisdom traditions are prevalent throughout the Psalms, and played an important role in shaping their outlook.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, Biblischer Kommentar series (Neuchkirchener Verlag: 1978), translated in English as Psalms 1-59, Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).




Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 16

Psalm 16

The heading to this Psalm simply describes it as a <T*k=m! (miktam) belonging to David. The meaning of <T*k=m! remains uncertain; it has been related to the word <t#K# (“gold”), and to a separate root <tk that only occurs once elsewhere in the Old Testament (Jer 2:22). The Greek Septuagint and Aramaic Targums translate it as referring to an inscription on a stone slab or pillar (Grk sthlografi/a). The meter of the Psalm is mixed/uneven, except for verses 5-9 which consistently have 4+3 beat couplets. There is also some textual uncertainty at several points, especially in verses 3-4. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the portion about which there are textual questions is not preserved in the Dead Sea manuscripts; very little of Psalm 16 survives (a tiny fragment of verse 1, and a fragmentary portion with vv. 7-9). In style, theme, and setting, this Psalm has similarities with Ps 5 (cf. the earlier study), as the protagonist contrasts his loyalty to YHWH with the worship of other deities by people around him. It is almost impossible to recapture the sense of this religious aspect of Israelite society in the early periods. Syncretism of various sorts was common in the ancient Near East, and it would have been quite natural to blend together worship of El-Yahweh with that of other Canaanite religious beliefs and practices. The surviving historical and prophetic writings (in the Old Testament) only give us a partial picture of the conflicts and tensions that existed for those determined to remain faithful to YHWH and worship Him exclusively.

I would divide the Psalm into two parts. The first (vv. 1-4) contrasts loyalty to El-Yahweh with the worship of other (Canaanite) deities. It is comprised of an initial petition (v. 1), followed by a declaration of allegiance and trust in YHWH (v. 2), and a statement whereby the Psalmist disavows any worship of other deities besides YHWH (vv. 3-4). The statement in verses 3-4 establishes a contrast—a pair of 3+3(?) couplets, with an intervening line (v. 4a, in italics below).

Verses 1-4

“Watch over me, Mighty (One), for I seek shelter with you!
I said to YHWH, ‘You are my Lord,
my Good (One)—no (other is) over you!’
For the ‘holy (one)s’ in the earth, they (were so),
and the ‘great (one)s’ of (the land), my delight was in them;
their pains shall increase, (those who now) hurry after another,
but I will not pour out to them (offering)s poured out from (my) hands,
and I will not (even) lift up their names upon my lips!”

In my translation here I have not emended the text, though some commentators feel that it is corrupt. There are several apparent peculiarities of syntax, but much of the confusion stems from the seeming thematic shift from speaking about “holy ones” (<yv!odq=), assumed to be righteous persons, in verse 3, to the discussion of worshiping pagan deities (v. 4). Kraus, for example (pp. 233-4), assumes something is missing between verses 3 and 4. The point might be confirmed, one way or the other, if those verses were preserved in the Dead Sea Psalm manuscripts, but, as noted above, that is unfortunately not the case. A more consistent line of thought is retained if we understand the plural substantive <yv!odq= (“holy ones”) in the sense of “those treated as holy”, “those considered sacred”, “those honored”, etc. The expression “in the earth” (or “in the land”) may be intended to qualify it this way. Certainly the construct plural yr@yD!a^ (“great ones of…”) is meant to be taken parallel with <yv!odq=; I have filled in an implicit link in the construct chain (“…of the land”) for the sake of the translation: “holy ones in the earth…great ones of (the land)”. This, then, allows for two possibilities: (1) the expressions refer to great and honored persons in society, or (2) they are used as epithets for pagan deities. The phrase “my delight was in them” further complicates the situation, as it comes just before “their pains shall increase”. Without assuming a lacuna in the text, the juxtaposition of those phrases clearly is meant to establish a contrast. Following the same two lines of interpretation mentioned above, it might be suggested:

    • (1) The Psalmist once delighted in these great and honored persons, but now they have turned away from faithfulness to YHWH and have “hurried after other (deities)”
    • (2) The protagonist of the Psalm once delighted in the other deities of the land, but now he only follows YHWH, and wishes pain for any who would continue to worship those other gods

The second approach seems to fit the sense of these verses better, but it is not without difficulties. These may be illustrated in the following textual and exegetical notes on verses 1-4:

“Mighty One” (la@)—The noun la@ is the Hebrew reflex of the common Semitic word for deity, literally “mighty (one)”; it also serves as the proper name for the high Creator God (‘El) throughout much of the Semitic world, West (Canaanite) and East (Amorite). ‘El was the name of God in the period of the Patriarchs, and Yahweh (hwhy, YHWH) was identified with ‘El. This is seen precisely here in the Psalm, where la@ and hwhy are used interchangeably as proper names.

“I said” (T=r=m^a*)—The consonantal Trma represents the first person singular form of the verb (yT!r=m^a*) written defectively; compare at Isa 47:10, MT trma with 1QIsaa ytrma. Dahood characterizes this as an example of Phoenician orthography (p. 87).

“my Good” (yt!b*of)—Here the noun bof (“good”) seems to be used as another divine title, probably in the covenantal sense of “one who does/brings good (things) for me”.

“no (other is) over you” (;yl#u*-lB^)—The negative particle lB^ is used here in verse 2, and again in verse 4; it can be used specifically as an adverb of negation, e.g. “it will not be..”, “it can hardly be…”. Here it affirms the superiority and uniqueness of El-Yahweh (the preposition lu^ can also be used in the sense of “next to, alongside”)—there can scarcely be any other deity as great as YHWH. This is not an expression of absolute monotheism; such did not characterize early Israelite religion, but represents a secondary (and later) development. However, already in the kingdom period, and certainly by the time of the seventh-century Prophets, the belief that the deities worshiped by the surrounding peoples did not have any real existence, was being expressed.

“they” (hM*h@)—The word hmh at the end of the first line of verse 3 is, apparently, the third person plural pronoun (hM*h@, “they”) in emphatic position. Assuming that nothing has dropped out, the syntax and sense of the line is problematic. The line could be read, “For they, the holy ones in the earth…”, but it is also possible that the predicate of the clause is implied: “For the holy ones in the earth, they (were…)”. I have opted for the latter; the idea being expressed, I think, is that the other deities in the land are being (or were once) honored and worshiped just as the Psalmist (now) worships YHWH.

“and the great ones of…” (yr@yD!a^w+)—This construct form creates a difficult syntax. In the translation above, I fill it out (“…of the land”) to establish the clear parallel with “holy ones in the earth”. However, syntactically, it is probably better to regard the construct chain as governing the phrase that follows (see GKC §130d; Dahood, p. 88). Literally, this would be: “and the great ones of my delight in them”. In English we would perhaps phrase this as, “and the great ones in whom I have/had delight”. If one supplies a verb to fill out the phrasing, it is not entirely clear whether it should be in the present or past tense. Much depends on which of the two lines of interpretation (cf. the discussion above) is to be preferred.

“they hurry after another” (Wrh*m* rj@a^)—This phrase relates awkwardly to the preceding. Assuming that the Masoretic parsing/pointing is essentially correct (cf. Dahood, p. 88, for a different approach), it would seem that a relative/demonstrative pronoun is required to fill out the sense of the line—i.e., “…those who hurry after another”. The ‘other’ these people follow after is a deity other than YHWH.

“(to them) from (my) hand” (<D*m!)—The Masoretic Text would seem to read “from blood”, i.e. “offerings of blood poured out”, with the motif of blood perhaps emphasizing the wicked character of the offerings to other deities. However, I have here (tentatively) chosen to follow Dahood (p. 88) in reading <dm as representing a contracted form of dy (“hand”) in the dual (regularly Heb <y]d*y~). The juxtaposition of “hands…lips” seems better to preserve the parallelism of the couplet.

Verses 5-11

“YHWH, you have numbered out my portion and my cup,
you (firmly) hold the stone (that is) my (lot);
the boundary (line)s fallen to me (are) in pleasant (place)s—
indeed, (this) possession is (most) beautiful over [i.e. next to] me.
I will kneel to YHWH who counsels me—
indeed, (by) nights His (inner) organs instruct me.
I have set YHWH to (be) stretched long in front of me,
(and) from His right (hand) I will not be shaken (away).
For this my heart rejoices, my heaviest (part) circles (with joy),
indeed, (even) my flesh can dwell in (peaceful) security,
for you will not leave [i.e. give] my soul (over) to Sheol,
you will not give your loyal (one) to see (the place of) ruin.
You will make me (to) know the path of Life,
being satisfied with joys (before) your Face,
(and) lasting pleasures at your right (hand)!

After the syntactical and textual difficulties in verses 3-4, the remainder of the Psalm is relatively straightforward. Verses 5-9 make for a consistent sequence of five 4+3 bicola, followed by a 4+4 bicolon in verse 10. The Psalm concludes with a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

The imagery in the first two couplets (vv. 5-6) derives from the binding agreement (covenant) idea as it would have been realized between a superior (sovereign) and his vassals. God (YHWH) is the good sovereign who bestows benefits upon his loyal vassals. He measures out (vb hn`m*, “number [out], count”, i.e. assign, appoint, etc) the appropriate benefit, viewed as a share (ql#j#) of the good things controlled by the sovereign. This includes the place at the table (“cup”, soK), also used to symbolize generally all that the person will receive—i.e. his “lot” (literally, “stone, pebble” lr*oG, indicating that the person is to receive the benefit). A common socio-political benefit is property—a territory or fief bestowed upon the vassal. The tribal territories of the Promised Land itself was seen as such a covenantal benefit (and promise) for the descendants of Abraham. The parallel wording used here in verse 6 relates to territory: “boundary (line)s” (<yl!b*j&) and “possession” (hl*j&n~), described as “pleasant” (<yu!n`) and “beautiful” (vb rp^v*, be clear/bright). It is given over to the vassal (“fallen to me”) and now belongs to him (“over me”, i.e. alongside, next to me).

In verses 7-9, the covenantal relationship itself (i.e. between sovereign and vassal) is depicted. The couplets in vv. 7-8 express this through two actions by the Psalmist (the loyal vassal):

    • “I will kneel to YHWH” —The verb Er^B* generally denotes giving praise and honor to a person; in the case of a person’s response to God (as the superior) it more properly indicates showing homage. It is acknowledged that there is a close connection between the root and the word Er#B# (“knee”), but it is not entirely clear if the verb is denominative (i.e. giving homage/honor by way of the idea of “bending the knee, kneeling”). My translation assumes this derivation.
    • “I have set YHWH (in front of me)” —Here the verb is hw`v* (“set, place”), the action perhaps best understood in the sense of a person placing his/her attention and focus firmly on God. The context would also suggest that the Psalmist is affirming his covenantal loyalty to YHWH. The word dym!T*, literally meaning something like “(stretch)ed out long”, is used here in an adverbial sense. It may be taken to mean that the Psalmist is continually doing this, or that it is a deep and abiding expression of his loyalty.

In each couplet, the second line describes the effect of this relationship on the Psalmist (the vassal). Even at night (every night) YHWH instructs the Psalmist out of His (i.e. YHWH’s) innermost being. The plural toyl=K! refers to the deep inner organs (i.e. kidneys) of a person, representing the source of deep feelings and emotions, i.e. God’s care and devotion to those who are loyal/faithful to him. If verse 7b emphasizes the inner aspect of the relationship, verse 8b stresses the outer aspect. Instead of the inner organs, we have the prominent outer motif of a person’s right hand. From the standpoint of the covenant, and expressed in terms of royal theology, it means the vassal has a prominent place at the side of the sovereign. Early Christians, of course, applied this royal motif to the position of the exalted Jesus, following the resurrection, at the right hand of God the Father. In both lines, the suffix y– is best read as a third person (rather than first person) singular. The suffixes y– and w– were often interchangeable, especially in poetry, which tended to preserve earlier (NW Semitic, i.e. Phoenician, etc) features otherwise rare in Old Testament Hebrew. On this use of the y– suffix for the third person masculine, cf. Dahood, pp. 10-11 (on Ps 2:6), and 90.

Verse 9 summarizes the preceding lines and anticipates the climactic reference to death and the afterlife in v. 10. The couplet begins with the expression /k@l*, “for this”, i.e. for this reason (LXX dia\ tou=to). The Psalmist can rejoice and be at ease because of the covenantal relationship with YHWH, entailing both benefits and protection. The former was emphasized in vv. 5-6, the latter here in vv. 9-10. The noun dobK*, usually translated as “honor” or “glory”, is better understood in terms of the related word db@K*, i.e. the liver as the “heavy” organ. The root dbk fundamentally refers to heaviness or weight, often in the basic sense of what is of value. The “heavy” organ is parallel here with the “heart”. The security the Psalmist experiences extends to his very life being preserved and protected by YHWH. This is described in terms of being saved/delivered from Sheol, also here called “the (place of) ruin”. On the meaning and background of the term “Sheol” (loav=, Š®°ôl), see my earlier article. It is not entirely clear whether the emphasis here (esp. with the verb bz`u*) is on being left in the grave (i.e. after one has already died), or being given over to death in the first place. The references to Sheol in the Psalms suggest the latter. However, the New Testament use of vv. 9-10 in Acts 2:25-28ff (Peter’s Pentecost speech, cf. also 13:35) indicates the former, as it is applied to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The closing tricolon of verse 11 suggests the imagery of a heavenly/blessed afterlife, with the covenantal relationship now being re-imagined in heavenly/eternal terms, with the Psalmist standing before God’s face and at His right hand. It is little wonder that early Christians would come to interpret these lines in terms of the place of the exalted Jesus with God in heaven (Acts 2:25-28ff).

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, Biblischer Kommentar series (Neuchkirchener Verlag: 1978), translated in English as Psalms 1-59, Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7 (cont.)

Psalm 7, continued

Last week’s study on Psalm 7 covered verses 2-10 [1-9]; here again is the structure of the Psalm as I have outlined it:

    • The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • An oath concerning his innocence—vv. 4-6 [3-5]
    • Call for YHWH to make vindication and deliver justice—vv. 7-17 [6-16], in three strophes:
      • vv. 7-10—Call for YHWH to act as Judge
      • vv. 11-14—Precatory description of YHWH in His ancient role as victor/vindicator
      • vv. 15-17—Precatory description of the judgment that comes upon the wicked
    • Closing statement of thanks to YHWH (anticipating his justice)—v. 18 [17]

As indicated above, the main section—the call for YHWH to deliver justice and vindicate the Psalmist—is made up of three strophes, the first of which (vv. 7-10) I examined in the previous study. Here is my translation of these verses, the poetic structure I identified as a pair of tricolons (vv. 7, 8-9a, three lines each [= 6]), along with three bicola (vv. 9b-10, six lines, with 3+2 meter):

7Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!
8-9a(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples!
9b-10Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

It is a powerful portrait of YHWH as Judge of all humankind; what follows in verses 11-17 [10-16] is a precatory description of His Judgment/Justice. By this is meant that the apparent references to past (and present) action by God reflects the wish of the Psalmist for what should happen. In this regard, the perfect-tense forms of verbs in vv. 13ff I would understand to be precative perfects—i.e. the Psalmist’s expressing his hope and expectation of what will happen, in terms of what has (already) happened.

Verses 11-14 [10-13]

There are 4 bicola (8 lines) in this section, with mixed meter—the second and fourth are 3+3, while the third is 4+3; the first bicolon, as we have it, appears to be 2+2. The verbal forms in the first 2 bicola (4 lines, vv. 11-12) are participles, while those in the last 2 bicola (vv. 13-14) are perfect/imperfect forms. This may roughly be understood as expressing:

    • 1 and 2: Actions of YHWH in terms of his (eternal) character—participles
    • 3 and 4: Specific actions by which He delivers Judgment—perfect/imperfect forms

In the initial line we immediately encounter a textual problem. The MT reads:

<yh!ýa$Álu^ yN]g]m*
“My protection is upon the Mightiest”

This seems to make little sense, as the Psalmist is stating that his shield/protection is upon [lu^] God [Elohim]. Therefore, many commentators are inclined to emend the text, perhaps adding an appropriate suffix to the preposition: yl^u*, “upon me”, i.e. “The Mightiest is my shield upon me”. Dahood (pp. 45-46) opts for a different solution, reading the word lu^ as a divine title, from hlu, meaning “(Most) High, Highest”, similar to /oyl=u# (cf. 2 Sam 23:1, etc). In this case, the line would read “My protection is the Mightiest (Most) High”, or “My protection is God (the Most) High”. Another possibility would be to understand the preposition lu^ as indicating proximity—i.e. beside, alongside—whereby the line could then mean something like “My protection (is from) alongside the Mightiest”; this appears to be how the Septuagint understands the Hebrew. When there are such ambiguities (from our vantage point) in the Psalms, often the context of the poetic parallelism may be the surest guide to interpretation. Let us then consider the 2 couplets (4 lines) of vv. 11-12 together:

{line 1 left untranslated}
making safe (the one)s straight of heart;
(the) Mightiest (is the One) judging (the) just,
(and the) Mighty (One) denouncing (the wicked) each day.

The parallel titles <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest”) and la@ (“Mighty [One]”) in lines 3-4 give credence to the idea that there is a corresponding pair of titles in line 1: lu^ (“[Most] High”) and <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest”). This would seem to be the best way of reading the inner parallelism of the components of lines 1-2 as well:

    • my protection (yN]g]m*)
      • (the One who is) Mightiest (Most) High (<yh!ýa$ lu^)
    • making (me) safe (u^yv!om)
      • (the ones who are) straight of heart (bl@ yr@v=y])

The 1st and 3rd components are mem (m)-preformative nouns referring to safety/protection, while the 2nd and 4th components are construct pairs describing the character/attributes of God and the righteous respectively. Thus, am inclined to read line 1 much as Dahood does:

My protection is (the) Mightiest (Most) High,
making safe the (the one)s straight of heart;

The second couplet is rather more straightforward, with a formal parallelism that utilizes a pair of related divine titles (<yh!ýa$ / la@, “Mightiest” / “Mighty [One]”), along with a pair of descriptive participles indicating, it would seem, two different aspects of YHWH’s actions and role as Judge:

    • fp@ov (šô½¢‰), “judging”, in the sense of establishing justice for the righteous/righteous person (qyd!x*)
    • <u@z) (zœ±¢m), which I render “denouncing” above. The precise significance of the verb <u^z` is quite difficult to convey accurately in English; the basic meaning relates to speaking out angrily against someone, in opposition to them, sometimes with the more technical connotation of a denunciation or curse. The judicial context here suggests the denunciation of the wicked and their (false) accusations, etc. Thus, establishing justice for the righteous (i.e. loyal, innocent) person also entails the denunciation of charges (and/or crimes perpetrated) against them.

The third component refers to different aspects of YHWH’s justice again: (a) it is on behalf of the righteous (qyd!x*), and (b) it is constant/consistent, being delivered “on every day” (<oyÁlk*B=). Here are the three components presented in order for both lines:

<yh!ýa$ [“Mightiest”]
(divine title)
fp@ov [“judging”]
(aspect of justice)
qyd!x* [“just”]
(who it is on behalf of)
la@ [“Mighty One”]
(divine title)
<u@z) [“denouncing”]
(aspect of justice)
<oy-lk*B= [“each day”]
(when it is done)

As in the first line of couplet 1 (v. 11), discussed above, the first line of couplet 3 (v. 13) is also problematic, and considered to be corrupt by many commentators. The MT, as the Masoretes have parsed/pointed it, reads:

vofl=y] oBr=j^ bWvy` al)Á<a!
“if he does not turn (then?) he hammers [i.e. sharpens] his sword”

According to this syntax, the subject of the first verb (bWvy`, “he turns”) appears to be a human being (the wicked?), while the subject of the second is YHWH (vofl=y], “he hammers/sharpens”). But this rather depends on reading the <a!-statement as a conditional clause, “if he does not return [i.e. repent], then…”. However, the <a! particle, especially in the context of an oath (cf. my discussion on vv. 4-6 [3-5] last week), can be used to introduce a curse or imprecation formula, with al)Á<a! as an emphatic negative declaration (or wish). In this case, the line would read: “O that He [i.e. YHWH] would not turn (back) His sword (but) would sharpen it!”

Dahood (v. 46) suggests a repointing of al as al@ (l¢°, instead of al) lœ°), reading it as a form of the Semitic root l°y, “be strong”, and thus as a title/epithet for YHWH, i.e., “the Strong (One)”, in the sense of one who prevails or is victorious. The verb bWv would be understood in the sense of “(re)turn, turn (again)”, with the line read something like “O that the Strong/Victorious (One) would turn (again and) sharpen his sword…”. It is an interesting solution, but I do not quite find it convincing.

Given this reading of the line above, couplets 3 and 4 (vv. 13-14) would then be translated as follows:

O that He would not turn (back) His sword (but) would sharpen it,
bend (down) his bow and set it firm (for shooting);
and (O) that He would set firm His ‘tools of death’,
(and) make his arrows (in)to burning (shafts)!

Here YHWH’s justice is described in terms of military imagery, as weapons of attack—sword, bow, arrows, fire. These lines can be interpreted chiastically—

    • Preparing/sharpening weapons (sword)
      • Setting his weapons (bow) firmly [verb /WK] in place
      • Setting firm [same vb /WK] his weapons (“tools of death”)
    • Making his weapons to be fiery/burning (arrows)

as well as according to the clear synonymous parallelism that is present:

    • Not turning (back) his sword, but sharpening it
      • bending (down) his bow, and setting it firmly in place
    • Making firm his (weapons as) “tools of death”
      • making his arrows into “burning (shafts)”

Some would interpret the participle <yql=d) as referring to the wicked, etc, at whom God’s arrows of justice are aimed, i.e. “(in)to the (one)s burning hot after [i.e. persecuting] (the righteous)”. I do not believe this is correct; the imagery of the couplets is more consistent it is taken as referring simply to YHWH preparing his weapons. I also agree fully with commentators who repoint the opening particle of v. 14 as the precative particle Wl (, “O that…!”) rather than ol (, preposition + suffix); the former provides a perfect match with the opening al)-<a! of verse 13.

Verses 15-17 [14-16]

In the final strophe of vv. 7-17, there is a shift from YHWH in his (ancient) character and role as Judge, toward a description of His Judgment, especially as it is directed against the wicked. This was prepared for by the military imagery in vv. 13-14, of God preparing his weapons for use (see above). Overall, these lines in vv. 15-17 are more straightforward and consistent than those previous, with a 3+3 bicolon format throughout.

See—! he twists and is pregnant with trouble,
(he is in) labor, and gives birth to deceit;
he bore a pit and dug (deep) into it,
and (then) fell in(to) the sunken (grave) he made;
his labor turned (back) on his (own) head,
and upon his (very) scalp his malice came down!

This is a marvelous example of parallelism in Hebrew poetry, and how it can be used to build tension and incorporate different sorts of images within this poetic structure. The sudden shift in focus (and subject) is indicated by the opening interjection “see!” (hN@h!); the subject of the verbs in vv. 15-17, though never specifically stated, is clearly now the wicked person, rather than YHWH. The imagery in the first couplet (v. 15) is that of a woman giving birth, indicated by the three verbs used: (1) lb^j*, “twist, turn”, as of a pregnant woman writhing in pain; (2) hr*h* “conceive, be(come) pregnant”; and (3) dl^y`, “give birth (to)”. This image is applied to a person who makes trouble (/w#a*), i.e. trouble-maker; he toils and is in labor (lm*u*) at this, and eventually gives birth to rq#v#, the basic meaning of which is “deceit”, probably in the covenantal sense of “disloyalty”, but also, most certainly, in the legal context of “false” accusations or charges. For an interesting parallel in the New Testament, involving evil and giving birth, cf. James 1:14-15.

The imagery in the second couplet (v. 16) moves to that of a person digging a (deep) pit or hole. This represents a different kind of labor—note that the noun lm*u* is used again down in v. 17. There is likely a bit of alliterative wordplay intended between the verb hr*K* (k¹râ), “dig, bore (a hole)” and hr*h* (h¹râ), “conceive, be(come) pregnant”; I have tried to retain something of this through the ambiguity of the English “bore” above—i.e. “bore a hole”, “bore a child”. The progression of this labor follows a similar progression as that of a person giving birth; note how this builds through the verbs used:

    • hr*K*—in the basic sense of digging a hole into the ground
    • rp^j*—which here connotes a person digging deep down to the point of at least partially going down into it himself, i.e. “dig, delve (down)”; the verb sometimes carries the meaning of “search (into)”.
    • lp^n`—the person quite literally falls into the hole that he/she dug.

This of course reflects a sort of grim irony, expressed elsewhere in the Psalms (cf. on 5:10[9]), etc, whereby the punishment waiting for the wicked matches his/her own character. The imagery of the final couplet (v. 17) carries out this basic idea—of evil (falseness, disloyalty, etc) thrown out (as accusations, etc) by the wicked ending up landing back down on them (like the flight of a boomerang). It is almost comical now the way that the person’s labor (lm*u*), acting treacherously and deceitfully against the righteous, simply lands down on their own head (using the parallel nouns var), “head” and dq)d=q*, “scalp, skull-top, arch, crown [of the head]”). The noun sm*j* often connotes violent action specifically, but here it probably refers more to the person’s hostile intent, which I render above as “malice”. It is a harsh word, and one that reveals the true character and nature of the wicked person—not only deceptive and disloyalty, but genuinely hostile and malicious.

Verse 18 [17]

The final couplet serves as the conclusion of the Psalm, as a statement of thanks to YHWH, and anticipating His justice:

I will hold out (praise) to YHWH according to His justice,
and (indeed) make music to the name of [YHWH] (the Most) High!

I bracket the second occurrence of YHWH, recognizing the possibility, along with a number of textual critics, that the name should be omitted on metrical/rhythmic grounds. Certainly the names hwhy (YHWH) and /oylu# (“Highest, [Most] High”) make a natural parallel; at the same time, it is also possible that the compound /oylu hwhy  (“YHWH [the] Most High”) could also serve as a fitting parallel to <yh!ýa$ lu^ (“[the] Mightiest [i.e. God] Most High”) in verse 11 (cf. above). At any rate, /oylu# would essentially be equivalent to lu^ as a divine title.

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