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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 6

Psalm 6

The superscription to this Psalm follows the common format we have seen for most of the Davidic compositions (romz+m!). As with Psalm 4, the note here is that it is to be played on stringed instrument(s) (the presumed meaning of hn`yg]n+). There is an additional musical instruction, tyn]ym!V=h^-lu^ (something like “upon the eight[h]”), the meaning of which remains uncertain. Possibly it indicates something akin to a musical key or mode, or perhaps a voice range (i.e. upper/lower, cf. 1 Chron 15:21); either way, it relates to a particular performing tradition. The same direction is given for Psalm 12.

The conceptual structure of the Psalm is as a petition or prayer to YHWH; I would outline it as follows:

    • Initial address/plea to YHWH (vv. 2-4 [1-3])
    • The basis/reason for the Psalmist’s prayer (vv. 5-8 [4-7])
      —Facing death: plea for rescue/deliverance (vv. 5-6)
      —The sign of his suffering: weeping/sorrow (vv. 7-8)
    • Declaration that YHWH has heard his petition (vv. 9-11 [8-10])

The Psalm generally utilizes a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format throughout, though there are a few places where it alters or is inconsistent (mixed meter). As always, there are serious questions as to whether, or to what extent, the text as it has come down to us ought to be emended to achieve greater metrical consistency.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

Here the Psalmist addresses YHWH, with these lines (3 bicola, 6 lines) forming the invocation and essential petition:

YHWH, do not judge me with your nostrils,
and do not punish me with your hot (breath)!
Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble;
even my soul is made to tremble (in fear)!
And you, YHWH—until when (will you help)?

The first and third bicola both have 3-beat (3+3) lines; the dual occurrence of the divine name (hwhy, YHWH) in the second bicolon expands the meter to 4-beat (4+4) lines, which has led some commentators to suggest that either (or both) occurrences of the name perhaps should be omitted as secondary. However, the repeated use of the divine name (including twice in the second bicolon) conveys the desperation and despair of the Psalmist, and serves as an effective poetic device. The first two bicola make use of synonymous parallelism, and expresses two different aspects of the suffering the protagonist faces, apparently in the form of some kind of serious disease. In the first couplet, where the parallelism is precise, the idea is clearly expressed that this suffering is the result of YHWH’s anger, according to the basic ancient worldview (much less common today) that disease, etc, is often brought about by divine displeasure or anger. Transposing the Hebrew word order to match our English (left-to-right):

do not
with your nostril(s)
judge me
do not
with your hot (breath)
punish me

Both the nouns [a^ (lit. “nose, nostril”) and hm*j@ (“heat”) are common figurative ways of expressing the idea of anger. Presumably, the ancient idiom involves the image of a powerful animal (such as a bull) snorting out hot breath. The verbs jk^y` and rs^y`, here translated “judge…punish”, could also be rendered “rebuke…chasten” or “correct…discipline”, giving a much softer sense to the imagery. However, there can be no doubt of the severity involved—YHWH’s rebuke, even if it is meant to discipline or correct the Psalmist, still results in immense suffering.

There is similar parallelism in the second bicolon, the second line of which is picked up in the third bicolon—a kind of step-parallelism that leads to the climactic cry of the final line. The central bicolon of verse 3 [2], with the dual occurrence of the divine name, represents the actual petition of the Psalm, stated clearly, reinforced by synonymous parallelism:

Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble

It is interesting to see how this poetic style allows for the intensity of the thought to build. In the first line, the Psalmist refers to himself generally, with the emphatic use of the pronoun “I” (yn]a*)—”I (am) withering [ll^m=a%]”. The root lma has the basic meaning of “be(come) weak”; the phrase could also be translated “I am exhausted“. The verb lh^B*, in the passive-reflexive, has the sense of “being terrified, frightened”, i.e. trembling with fear/terror. The step parallelism in the overlap of lines 4 and 5 is clear and striking; the Psalmist’s own person (“I”) is now divided into two comprehensive components: (1) his bodily strength (<x#u#, in the plural and usually translated “bones”), and (2) his soul (vp#n#), i.e. the life within his body. So severe is the Psalmist’s suffering that even his soul (his very life) trembles along with his body.

The final despairing question, the outcry of the Psalmist is terse and direct, and is aimed squarely at God: “And you, YHWH—until when [yt*m*-du^]?”. Readable English requires that the line be filled out, i.e. “until when (will you help)”, “how long (must I wait)”, etc.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

As indicated in the outline above, the heart of the Psalm represents an exposition of the petition in verse 3, describing the suffering and despair of the Psalmist—i.e. the reason for his prayer, and the need for YHWH to act—from two points of view. The first involves the idea that the Psalmist, in his suffering (from disease?), is in danger of death. Above all else, death would separate him from the relationship with YHWH, who is the giver and preserver of life. This destruction of the covenant bond (through death) is emphasized in these lines:

Turn (to me), YHWH, take away my soul—
make me safe for the sake of your goodness!
For in death there is no memory of you;
in Sheol who gives out (praise) to you?

When the Psalmist asks YHWH to “take away” (vb. Jl^j*) his soul, this must understood in the sense of “pulling it away” from the point of death, or “snatching it away” from the jaws of death. The verb uv^y` in the Hiphil here expresses the other side of this deliverance—having pulled his soul away from death, YHWH is to “make it safe”, “bring it to safety”, i.e. saving/preserving it. Implicit in the expression “for the sake of your goodness” (;D#s=j^ /u^m^l=) is the idea of covenant loyalty between YHWH and His people, those who have themselves remained faithful to the covenant. In other words, it is a reminder of this bond and the responsibilities of YHWH to protect those loyal to him.

One must be cautious about reading two much into verse 6 regarding Israelite views of an afterlife (or lack thereof). However, generally in the Ancient Near East, the realm of death (i.e. where the dead reside, Job 30:23; Prov 5:5; 7:27, etc) was seen as a dark, shadowy place, and those who dwelt there had only a limited sort of existence. This is the basic idea expressed here in the Psalm. On the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol), which occurs here for the first time in the Psalter, I discuss the significance of it briefly in a supplemental article.

In the remaining two bicola (vv. 7-8), the imagery shifts to the sign of the Psalmist’s suffering, expressed in terms of weeping, crying, groaning, etc. The meter and organization of the Psalm as we have it suggests that the first two words of verse 7 represent a partial line, which, if correct as it stands, likely represents a point of transition from vv. 5-6:

I gasp (weary) with my groaning
in all (the) night my (place) of stretching swims,
with my teardrops I dissolve the frame of my (bed);
my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
it is passing (away) with all (that is) pressing me.

Leaving out the initial two words, vv. 7-8 are a pair of 3+3 bicola, using synonymous parallelism to express the Psalmist’s suffering. The first bicolon makes for a bit of colorful hyperbole—he is weeping so much that his couch/bed is drowning (and dissolving!) in the sea of tears. This idiom, of weeping upon one’s bed, is known both in the Old Testament (Ps. 4:6; Gen 43:30) and Canaanite literature of the period (Kirta I, col. 1:28-30).

The second bicolon describes the effect of this weeping/sorrow on the Psalmist’s eyes (and his entire body) using two verbs, vv^u* and qt^u*, which produce a nice alliterative effect. The former verb has the basic meaning of being worn (or wasting) away; the latter verb the idea of passing away, here in the sense of growing old, approaching death, etc. Most likely there is a conceptual parallel between the prepositional phrases su^K^m! and yr*r=ox-lk*B=. The root suk carries the basic idea of something agitating, disturbing, provoking, etc; the common root rrx similarly of something tight, pressing in, creating stress, etc. Thus the phrases “from (this) agitation” and “with all (the thing)s pressing (on) me” would both refer to the suffering and distress experienced by the Psalmist. However, it should be noted that Dahood, in his commentary (p. 38), reads the second line differently, parsing MT lk as a verbal form (“complete, finish”) and understanding yrrx in the sense of “inner (organ)s” (cf. Akkadian ƒurru, Ugaritic ƒrrt). According to this interpretation, the bicolon would exhibit a different sort of parallelism, something like:

my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
my heart [i.e. inner organ] is made old with wearying.

This reading, however, ignores both the formal parallelism of the line and the foreshadowing that would result between “the (thing)s pressing on me” and the oppressors/opponents mentioned in vv. 9ff.

Verses 9-11 [8-10]

The final 3 bicola form the conclusion to the Psalm, expressing the hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer, and heal/deliver him. The meter is mixed here, but could be made more consistent, to a 3+3 and/or 4+3 format with slight emendation. The sudden reference to “trouble-makers” and “enemies” seems rather out of place in the context of vv. 2-8, but may be an indication that the apparent setting of suffering due to physical disease should not be taken too concretely, but rather as a more general symbol of suffering and distress. There is also the very strong possibility—even likelihood—that the imprecation against the wicked is meant to demonstrate and confirm the Psalmist’s righteous loyalty to YHWH (for more on this, cf. the prior study on Psalm 5).

Turn (away) from me, all (you) making trouble!
for YHWH has heard the voice of my weeping—
YHWH has heard my (plea for His) favor,
YHWH (has) received my petition (to Him).
Let all (those) hostile (to) me find much disgrace and terror,
let them turn (away), finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)!

The language is difficult, and, to some extent, rather obscure. Given the metrical consistency and awkwardness, it is possible that the text is corrupt here at one or more points. In particular, the sense of the final bicolon (v. 11) is a bit unclear. Some commentators would omit the second Wbv)y@ (“let them find disgrace”) as a scribal duplication; however, in spite of the metrical tension, it gives an effective emphasis to the imprecation in these lines. The verb lhb was translated as “tremble (i.e. from fear/terror)” in vv. 3-4; here it seems better to render it in terms of the actual terror that the wicked will experience. It is possible that the verb bWv (“turn”, essentially synonymous with rWs in v. 9) in the final line could be understood as “return”, in the sense of humankind returning to the earth (i.e. the grave), as in Job 1:21; 30:23; 34:15; Eccl 3:20f; 12:7, etc (cf. Dahood, p. 39).

The final word is difficult, and may be intended to close the Psalm on a harsh and discordant note (as appropriate for the fate of the wicked). There are three different ugr roots attested in Hebrew, and the relationship between them is not entirely clear. Here ugr is usually understood as a noun (but with adverbial force) with the basic meaning “(in) a moment”, i.e. “suddenly, at once”. However, there appears to be a traditional association of ugr with death and destruction (e.g., Num 16:21; Job 21:13; 26:12; Psalm 73:19). Dahood (p. 39) goes so far as to see the noun ugr (ug^r#?) here as a synonym for the place of death itself (i.e. Sheol), based on formal parallels with Ps 9:18 [17] and 31:18 [17]:

“Let the wicked turn (away) [WbWvy`] into Sheol” [9:18]
“Let the wicked find disgrace [Wbv)y@], let them … into Sheol” [31:18]

I have tried to capture this close association between ugr and death/Sheol parenthetically in my translation above: “…finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)”.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 4

Psalm 4

This is the second Psalm of the collection designated as a musical composition (romz+m!), and one “belonging to David” (dw]d*l=); cf. the previous study on Psalm 3. The precise meaning of the opening word of the superscription remains uncertain—j^X@n~m=l^, found in the superscriptions of 55 Psalms (also Hab 3:19). The root jxn probably originally had the sense of “shine, [be] bright”, but the verb is rather rare in the Old Testament, occurring (outside of the Psalter) primarily in post-exilic writings (Chronicles, Ezra) in the technical sense of one who serves in a position of prominence or leadership, in a supervisory or overseeing role. This has led most commentators over the years to assume that in the Psalms the participle jxnm refers to the person directing/conducting the performance of the composition—a translation like “(the one) directing” is probably as good as any. Its place in the superscription relates to the musical direction which follows, i.e. how the composition is to be performed; in other words, it would seem to reflect a rudimentary performing tradition. Here the instruction simply indicates “on/with string (instrument)s” [tonyg]n+B!].

Verse 2 [1]

The opening lines mark the Psalm as a prayer, or petition, to God; at least, that is the framing structure (vv. 2, 8-9 [1, 7-8]) of the song. The central section (vv. 3-6 [2-5]) provides the religious (and theological) context for the Psalmist’s petition, the first line of which is:

“In my calling (to you), answer me, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of my justice”

As always, in my translation, “Mighty (One)”/”Mightiest (One)” renders the Hebrew plural <yh!l)a$ used as a Divine title (i.e. Elohim), and typically translated “God”. The construct phrase “Mighty (One) of my justice” is a literal rendering of yq!d=x! yh@l)a$, though the expression “my justice” (yq!d=x!) is a bit ambiguous. In the construct syntax it could mean “my just/righteous God”, where the suffix serves as a possessive for the entire expression. However, much more likely is that it is essentially an object suffix, with the noun qd#x# here having a kind of verbal force—i.e., God as the One “working (out) justice for me”; the English “vindication” has been suggested as an appropriate rendering of qd#x# here (Dahood, p. 23). For a similar occurrence in the opening of a Psalm, see 17:1.

The initial phrase reads “In my calling, answer me”; this is often understood in a temporal sense and translated in English as “When I call…”, but this obscures the parallel with the second line, each line beginning with the preposition B= (“in…”). Let us see the two lines together:

“In my calling (to) you), answer me, Mighty (One) of my justice!
In (my) distress, you (shall) have made room for me:
Show favor (to) me and hear my petition!”

There is a chiastic structure at work here in these lines as well:

    • My calling
      • Answer me
        • (Precatory request): In my distress…
      • Show favor / hear me
    • My petition

In between the two imperatives (“answer…”, “hear…”) the core of the request is expressed by way of a precative perfect—i.e., a wish or request phrased in terms of something which has (already) been done. The verb is T*b=j^r=h!, a hiphil perfect form of bj^r*, “be open, large, wide”, the hiphil being a causative stem, “make large, make wide,” etc. It relates here conceptually to the noun rx^, which has the fundamental meaning of something narrow, tight, etc, which presses in on a person (i.e. “distress”). The expectation is that God will literally “make room” for the Psalmist, relieving and protecting him from the forces and difficulties which press on him. The royal setting suggested by the superscription (associating the Psalm with David) may well provide the (artistic, narrative) context for the conflict faced by the Psalmist, a possibility to be considered further below.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

As noted above, these lines, which form the central core of the Psalm, provide the religious and theological thrust of the work. It functions on two levels:

    1. A contrast between the true God and the (false) idols of pagan (Canaanite) religion
    2. A contrast between the Psalmist who remains loyal to the true God and those who have gone after “idols”, i.e. who do not worship YHWH in the proper manner

Within the structure of the Psalm itself, there are two Selah pauses in this section, creating an interesting division:

    • Challenge (in the form of a question) to those prominent men who do not remain loyal to YHWH (v. 3)
      Selah Pause
    • Exhortation to the people, in two parts:
      (i) Promise that YHWH will honor those who are faithful to him (v. 4)
      (ii) Exhortation to purity and repentance (v. 5)
      Selah Pause
    • Challenge (in terms of religious ritual) for people to remain loyal to YHWH (v. 6)

Let us consider the lines together:

“Sons of man—until what [i.e. how long] is my Honor (to be given) to insult?
(How long) will you love an empty (thing) and seek after a lie? Selah
You should know that YHWH does wonders (for the one) loyal to him—
(indeed) YHWH will hear (me) in my calling to him.
You should be disturbed and not (continue to) err—
Show (this) in your heart upon your lying down, and groan. Selah
Slaughter (sacrifice)s of justice and show trust unto YHWH!”

There are several points in these lines where the Hebrew makes translation difficult; it is almost as though the sense of conflict and challenge comes to be expressed through the wording and poetic syntax itself. Some commentators have suggested emending the Masoretic text in various ways, but, for the most part, that would not seem to be necessary. Let us consider each portion of this section briefly.

Verse 3 [2]. The expression “sons of man” (vya! yn@B=) probably has a dual meaning here: (1) as an echo of the common “son of man” (<d*a* /B#), i.e. mortal human being, in contrast to YHWH; (2) the vya! with the specific sense of a certain (prominent man), i.e. “sons of a (prominent) man”, distinguished or notable persons. Also potentially misleading is the expression yd!obK=, “my honor”. We saw in Psalm 3 how dobK* can be understood as a Divine title, i.e. “Honorable One”; here, however, the parallel is with the expression “my justice” in verse 2 [1] (cf. above). In that earlier expression, the significance was a reference to God as the One who works/establishes justice for the person loyal to Him; the sense is similar here—YHWH as the One bestowing honor/worth to those faithful to Him. In any event, the expression is to be read as a Divine title.

The situation, however, is that certain prominent people in Israel have treated YHWH in a shameful way, with insult (hM*l!K=) rather than honor. And what is the nature of this shameful insult? The words “empty (thing)” (qyr!) and “lie” (bz`K*) are almost certainly intended here as euphemisms for idolatry (non-Israelite ‘pagan’ religion), which, according to the tenets of Israelite monotheism (and Yahwism) can itself serve as a pejorative description of any improper religious practice or behavior. It need not always denote worship of other deities; however, if the background of the Psalm genuinely derives from the kingdom period (or even the time of David), then specific Canaanite beliefs and practices, widespread in the surrounding population, may well be meant.

Verse 4 [3]. The Psalmist sets himself in contrast to these ‘prominent men’, as one who is “good” (dys!j*) to YHWH, the adjective having the sense of being loyal (i.e. the king as a loyal vassal) to God. As a result of this loyalty, YHWH hears and responds to the Psalmist’s prayer. The verb alp (al*p=h!), found in some manuscripts, should be read instead of hlp (hl*p=h!); the reference to God doing wonders (i.e. answering prayer, in a powerful/miraculous fashion) better fits the context, and removes the need for any further emendation in the verse.

Verse 5 [4]. The syntax of these two lines is most difficult, and nearly impossible to render accurately into English. Some commentators advocate emending or re-ordering portions of the verse (e.g. Kraus, p. 144-5), however, I do not know that such a step is at all necessary. Consider, for example, the beautiful symmetry of the (Masoretic) Hebrew as we have it, especially in the second line (v. 5b):

WMd)w+ <k#b=K^v=m! lu <k#b=b^l=b! Wrm=a!

The symmetry is both rhythmic/alliterative and conceptual, as can be seen from the following chiastic outline:

    • Wrm=a! “show/speak” (imperative)
      • <k#b=b^l=b! “in your heart” (location)
        • lu^ “upon” (locative preposition)
      • <k#b=K^v=m! “your (place of) lying down” (location)
    • WMd) “groan/wail/weep” (imperative)

I find the first line (v. 5a) actually to be more difficult. What is the sense of the two verbs in sequence? Actually, there is a similar, though different, sort of symmetry involved in this line:

    • Wzg+r! “be disturbed” (imperative)
      • la^w+ “and (do) not”
    • Waf*j$T# “you will err/sin”

The conjunction and particle of negation connect the two verbs, establishing the relation between them:

    • “You must be disturbed”—that is, troubled in soul/spirit because of their “idolatry”; and, if this mindset is in place, leading to repentance, then:
    • “You will not [will no longer] err”—i.e. will not sin (lit. miss the mark)

The sense of repentance is vividly expressed by the image of weeping/wailing/groaning on one’s bed, an idiom found in both Canaanite (Ugaritic) literature and the Old Testament (Psalm 6:7 [6]; Gen 48:30).

Verse 6 [5]. This short line stands on its own—a 4-beat single colon, instead of the 4+4 bicolon format that characterizes the Psalm. It serves, I think, to summarize the section as a whole, making clear the precise nature of the religious failure of the ‘prominent men’. Their failure is characterized by the two elements in this line: (1) sacrificial offerings that are not right, and (2) failing to trust in YHWH. It is hard to say whether by this is meant sacrifices made to deities other than YHWH; much depends on whether the Psalm (and/or its background) is to be dated to the time of David (or otherwise the early kingdom period). In light of the later messages by the Prophets, the expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of justice” could be understood in terms of the prescribed sacrificial offerings in combination with the correct religious attitude and moral conduct (or lack thereof). In either case, there is definitely a ritual dimension at work—i.e. loyalty to YHWH expressed, in large measure, through sacrificial offerings. This loyalty here is defined in terms of “trust” (vb. jf^B*), probably with the sense of relying upon God as a trustworthy Sovereign, expressing confidence in Him. The language and idiom of vassalage is part of the royal ideological (and cultural) background in many of the Psalms, especially those associated with David; for more examples of this, cf. the previous studies on Psalm 2 and Psalm 3.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

These lines return to the petition framework of the Psalm (v. 2 [1]), and may elucidate the context of the Psalmist’s prayer (or, perhaps, to the historical/ritual background of it). A precise interpretation depends on how one understands the noun bof (“good”) in verse 7. Dahood, in his commentary (pp. 23, 25-26), argues that here the “good” from God refers specifically to the rains, and that the setting of the Psalm is a prayer for rain (possibly in time of drought). For an ancient agricultural (and pastoral) society, one need hardly point out the importance of rain—both the proper amount, and in its proper season. Nearly all of the material “good” in society depended upon the rain. The emphasis on the “increase” in grain and wine in verse 8 would seem to confirm this interpretation, especially in connection with other Scriptural parallels (e.g., Deut 28:12; Jer 7:25 [cp. 3:3; Amos 4:7]; Psalm 85:13). However, I would not simply translate bof as “rain” (as Dahood does), but allow the Psalm to explain itself:

“Many are saying ‘Who will make us see the good?
The light of your face has fled (from) upon us!’ YHWH
You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart
from the time (when) their grain and their wine multiplies.

There are couple of points of difficulty that should be mentioned. The first is the position of hwhy (YHWH)—does it belong to the end of verse 7 or the beginning of v. 8? This is especially important, if, as a number of commentators would argue, the MT hsn in v. 7b should be read as (and/or emended to) a form of either the verb sWn (“flee [from]”) or us^n` (“pull away [from]”); something of the sort would seem to fit the context, whereby the entirety of v. 7 represents the faithless words of the “many”. The mention of YHWH could be part of this (“the light of your face has fled from us, YHWH”); but just as easily it could be part of what follows: “YHWH, you shall give joy (to me) in my heart”. Even more difficult, it seems, is the syntax of verse 8. There are two components to this line, each of which makes fine sense in its own right:

    • “You (shall) give joy/happiness (to me) in my heart”
    • “Their grain and their wine multiplies/multiplied”

But how are these two statements related? The problem lies in the connecting word tu@m@, which, as parsed in the traditional MT, is apparently the noun tu@ (“time”) with the prefixed preposition /m! (“from”). Some would read this as a comparative, continuing the contrast from earlier in the Psalm:

“You give joy (to me) in my heart, more than (in the) time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

At best this seems most awkward. Dahood proposes that the mem (m) prefix actually is an enclitic particle that belongs to the previous word (“my heart”), and that tu represents the related time-adverb hT*u^ written defectively (cf. Psalm 74:6; Ezek 27:24). By parsing the initial verb in verse 8 as a (precative) perfect form, it casts the line in a petitionary form much in keeping with the earlier part of the prayer:

“You (shall) have given joy (to me) in my heart; and now, (let) their grain and wine multiply”

In my translation above, I have attempted to capture something of this same sense, while respecting the traditional form of the Masoretic text:

“You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart from the time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

Verse 9 [8] and Summary

If we take seriously two key elements of the Psalm—(1) the issue of idolatry and (2) the idea of rain as the “good” from God—it may be possible to surmise an underlying historical setting. Through much of Israel’s history, from its settlement in Palestine down through the kingdom period, the influence of Canaanite religious beliefs and practices was prevalent in the culture. Most notable were those related to the god Haddu (better known by his popular epithet “Master”, Ba’al [cf. my earlier article]), representing the power of the storm/rain and dispenser of the life-giving waters from the heavens. It is altogether conceivable, even probable, that worship of Baal-Haddu underlies the references to ‘idolatry’ in the Psalm. For many Israelites, especially in the early kingdom period (i.e. the time of David and Solomon), it would have been most tempting and natural to blend together Baal- and Yahweh-worship in different ways. This would have been entirely in keeping with syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in the Ancient Near East, and, indeed, we see evidence for it at numerous points in the Scriptural record of Israelite history. It is hard to explain the prevalence of Baal-worship elements in Israelite society, over such a long period of time—from at least the time of the Judges until the reforms of Josiah—without the power and appeal of such syncretism. And if, indeed, the background of Psalm 4 involves a prayer for rain (cf. above), in the face of the threat of drought, etc, it is easy enough to image many ‘prominent men’ in Israel turning to the Canaanite god with power over the rains, perhaps including him (along with YHWH?) in the sacrificial offerings.

Whether or not such a reconstruction is accurate, there can be no doubt that the Psalmist feels himself at odds with important segments of society, their ‘idolatry’ (in whatever form it took) being central to the “distress” he experiences. In contrast to their lack of faith/trust in YHWH, the Psalms sees himself as remaining loyal to the true God, and this loyalty is proven by the fact that YHWH answers his prayer. It is possible that we have here a kind of parallel to the famous contest between Elijah and the Israelite ‘priests’ of Baal-Haddu (1 Kings 18): those offering sacrifices to other deities (Baal?) will not receive any answer, but YHWH answers (bringing rain) to the one who remains loyal to Him. If the Psalmist is meant to reflect a royal figure (such as David), then it is likely that his prayer is on behalf of the people as a whole; embedded in the Psalm is the message—the hope and expectation—that they, too, will remain faithful to YHWH.

The promise of God’s blessing and protection extends into the final lines (v. 9), and is similar to the statement of trust expressed in Ps 3:6 [5]. We may translate this bicolon as follows:

“In peace I lie down all (alone) and I sleep,
for you alone [YHWH] make me sit secure.”

The basic idea is clear enough, though the specific wording creates some difficulty. The adverbial particle wD*j=y~ can be tricky to render into English. Essentially it means “as one” or “at one”, sometimes in a comprehensive sense (“all together”) or in a temporal sense indicating suddenness (“at once”, etc). Here it is probably meant as a parallel to dd*B* (as an adverb) in the second line:

    • wD*j=y~ “all (alone)”, referring to the Psalmist
    • dd*b*l= “separately, alone”, i.e. by himself, referring to YHWH

Dahood (p. 27) suggests the possibility that wdjy here derives from the relatively rare Semitic (Canaanite) root µdw/µdy, “see, (be) visible”, and that it is functioning as a substantive for the appearance/manifestation of YHWH, parallel to “light of (his) face” in v. 7. It is an intriguing suggestion, but seemingly hard to square with the text as we have it, unless corruption occurred as the original word (and its meaning) was lost in the process of transmission.

The parallelism in the verse continues:

    • hb*K=v=a# “I (will) lie down”, i.e. to sleep
    • yn]b@yv!oT “you make me sit”, i.e. rest, dwell
      and, further
    • <olv*B= “in peace”
    • jf^b#l* “with trust/security”, i.e. safe, secure

Though hard to preserve in translation, the noun jf^b# is related to the verb jf^b* in v. 6; the root fundamentally means “trust (in), rely (on)”, but its range of meaning includes the idea of safety and security—i.e. the security which God provides is the basis for our trust in Him. We have here a beautiful image of complete trust and reliance on YHWH, a model of covenant loyalty, exemplified by the ruler (and/or the Psalmist) and intended as an exhortation for all the people.

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), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:4-6ff

In the previous Saturday Series study, we looked at the opening verses (vv. 1-3) of Deuteronomy 32 (the “Song of Moses”), in light of the earlier critical analysis, to see how the various areas and aspects of Biblical criticism relate to the overall interpretation of a passage. This week we will proceed to the next section of the poem (vv. 4-18), based on the following outline:

    • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)
      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
    • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

We begin with the first portion (vv. 4-6), which establishes the principal theme of the Creator God (YHWH) as the Father of the people Israel.

Deuteronomy 32:4-6

Here is my translation of this section:

4The Rock—His work(s are) complete,
indeed, all His ways (are with) justice,
a Mighty (One) firm with no deviation—
He (is the One ever) true and straight!
5(Yet) His sons <ruined their loyalty to Him>,
an Age (now) crooked and (all) twisted!
6Would you deal this (way) with YHWH,
(as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?
Is He not your Father who created you?
(Didn’t) He make you and cause you to be?

After the exordium (vv. 1-3), these lines establish the fundamental theme of the poem. However one views the origin and composition of the Song itself, it must be read in the context of its position in the book of Deuteronomy. The entire thrust of the historical narration, presented as a speech (or speeches) by Moses, is as an exhortation (and warning) to the people to follow the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) established by YHWH. In the initial sections of the Epilogue (chapter 31), it is foretold that Israel would, in large measure, violate the covenant (vv. 16-18, 20-22) in the years to come. For critical scholars, who view the book of Deuteronomy as a product of the kingdom period (e.g. the reign of Josiah, and thereafter), the actual historical situation has been retrojected and presented as ex eventu prophecy (i.e. prophecy written after the fact). Many traditional-conservative commentators, of course, accept the book as recording Moses’ actual words, at least in substance, in which case it represents authentic prophecy announced by God. Either way, its purpose (and power) as a warning to Israel, to remain faithful to the covenant and its Torah, comes through loud and clear. We see this especially in verses 26-29:

26Take this account of the Instruction {Torah}, and you shall set it alongside the box of [i.e. containing] the binding (agreement) of YHWH your Mighty (One) {Elohim}, and it shall be there among you for a witness (always). 27For (indeed) I know your defiance and the hard (back of) your neck! see—in my (be)ing yet alive with you th(is) day, you have been (act)ing defiant with YHWH, and so (then) how (much more will you) following my death! 28Gather to me all the elders of your staffs [i.e. tribes] and (the one)s administering (for you), and I will speak these words in their ears, and I will make [i.e. call on] heaven and earth (to) give witness a(gainst) them. 29For I know that, following my death, you will go (completely) to ruin, and you will turn (aside) from the path which I have charged you (to walk), and the evil shall meet you in the days following, (in) that [i.e. because] you did the (thing that is) evil in the eyes of YHWH, and provoked Him with the (thing)s your hands (have) done.”

There is a strong parallelism at work in these verses:

    • Instruction/exhortation as a witness (of the covenant)—written, i.e. the book of Deuteronomy itself as a record of Moses’ words (v. 26)
      • Prophecy of future disobedience: “For I know (that)…” (v. 27)
    • Instruction/exhortation as a witness (of the covenant)—oral, Moses’ words given directly to the leaders of Israel (v. 28)
      • Prophecy of future disobedience: “For I know (that)…” (v. 29)

All of this sets the stage for Moses’ reciting the poem of chap. 32 (the Song) to the entire assembly of the Israelite people (v. 30). Thus, central to the poem is the idea of the binding agreement (b®rî¾, ‘covenant’) God made with Israel, and their need to remain faithful to it. There is a strong echo of the covenant-treaty formula in the opening words of the Song, as discussed previously. Now, in the first main section (vv. 4-18) the basis of the covenant is established and confirmed, through poetic narrative. The relationship between the two parties—YHWH and Israel—begins with YHWH’s position as Creator (of all humankind), and special role as Father of Israel. As such, verses 4-6 are fundamentally theological—presenting and describing the character and attributes of YHWH; and the primary characteristic is the faithfulness and loyalty He possesses, which informs His side of the binding agreement. This is expressed several ways in the first lines (2 bicola) of verse 4 (a-d):

    • V. 4a (1): The word ƒûr (“rock”) as a title (Haƒƒûr, “The Rock”), used repeatedly in the Song (vv. 15, 18, 30-31, 37); a rock by nature is strong and sure, while a hill or cliff is a natural position of refuge and protection; thus, the title indicates the reliability, security, and protection which God provides.
    • V. 4a (2-3): It is further said that His actions (pœ±al pl., root p¹±al) are complete (t¹mîm)—that is, there is nothing lacking or amiss in anything He does; for His part, He is utterly faithful and reliable. The call for the people of Israel, likewise, to be complete (t¹mîm) in 18:13 is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in Matt 5:48: “Then [i.e. if you follow my teachings] you will be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete”.
    • V. 4b: Similarly, it is declared that “all His ways/paths” (k¹l-d®r¹k¹yw) are “justice”. Here, the noun mišp¹‰ may be used in an adjectival sense (“just, right”); however, one can also understand it in a predicate sense—i.e., “all His paths (are in/with) justice”. Everywhere that YHWH walks and acts, there is justice, and nothing that is not just or right; clearly the thought in this half line (colon) is parallel to the one previous.
    • V. 4c: Here His faithfulness and loyalty is stated more directly, with two declarations:
      (i) He is a firm Mighty One (“God”)—that is, He is firm and true in everything He does, using the noun °§mûnâ, parallel to the noun mišp¹‰ (“justice”) in the previous line. He is also the only true Mighty One (°E~l, “God”); all other supposed “Mighty Ones” (whether “gods” or Rulers) are false and unreliable. This lays the groundwork for the contrast between YHWH and the deities of the surrounding nations later in the poem.
      (ii) There is no deviation (or corruption) in what He does; it is specifically stated that “there is no (°ên) deviation (±¹wel)”; moreover, such “deviation” is characteristic of idolatry, and likewise introduces the dualistic theme than runs through the remainder of the poem.
    • V. 4d: YHWH (“He”, hû°) is characterized by two fundamental attributes:
      (i) ƒadîq, often translated “faithful”, but, in the context of the covenant-setting, perhaps better understood as “true”, “loyal”; it is parallel with the noun °§mûnâ in the prior half-line.
      (ii) y¹š¹r, “straight”, clearly parallel with “there is no deviation”.

If YHWH is a completely faithful and reliable partner in the covenant, the same can not be said of the people (Israel). Their lack of faithfulness (to the covenant) is described in vivid, even difficult, terms, reflecting both past (i.e. the Golden Calf incident) and future violations. Despite the harsh language used, it does not necessarily mean that Israel was responsible for flagrant immorality, and the like; any violation of the covenant, however slight, could be described in this manner.

It is just here, in the bicolon of verse 5, that the force of the language used gives way to a significant textual difficulty, as I discussed in a prior study. Many commentators suggest that the text in the first half line, as it has come down to us in the Masoretic text, requires emendation. For the purposes of this study, I have tentatively adopted a reading along the lines of “His sons ruined their loyalty to Him” (see the translation above). The verb š¹µa¾ (“[go to] ruin, destroy, corrupt”) was used earlier in the section preceding the poem (31:29, see above), in Moses’ foretelling the people’s violation of the covenant. This lack of loyalty—to be understood primarily in terms of “idolatry”, as in the Golden Calf episode—characterizes an entire Age or generation (Heb. dôr) of the people. In the second half-line of verse 5, they are characterized as: “an Age crooked and (all) twisted (up)”. This crooked/twisted character of the people is in marked contrast with the “straightness” of YHWH.

In the two lines of verse 6, the contrast—between YHWH and Israel—is developed further, with a pair of questions (each beginning with the interrogative particle h¦-); the question in the first line is:

“Would you deal this (way) with YHWH, (as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?”

In Torah scrolls, the initial h¦- particle is especially large, perhaps to emphasize the enormity of the question, i.e. “Would you really treat YHWH this way?”. The contrast between one who is foolish (n¹»¹l) and wise (µ¹k¹m) is an essential element of Hebrew Wisdom literature, with ancient roots. The second question builds upon the first, and continues the contrast between YHWH and the people:

    • Character of the People:
      “Would you deal this (way) with YHWH, (as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?”
    • Character of YHWH:
      “Is He not your Father who created you? (Didn’t) He make you and cause you to be?”

If the people acts as faithless, defiant sons (v. 4), YHWH, by contrast remains a faithful/loyal Father to them. His role as Father begins with his more primary function as Creator of all things (and of humankind). Three verbs are used which mark YHWH-El as Creator God:

    • q¹nâ—a primitive root with the basic meaning “create”, sometimes confused/conflated with a similar root with the meaning “buy, purchase, acquire”. Its ancient Semitic religious use is attested in the famous formula of Gen 14:19, 22.
    • ±¹´â—a common verb indicating basic action or work, “make, do”.
    • A causative form of a primitive kn root (kûn, k¹nâ, k¹nan), with the basic meaning here of “cause to be” (see the parallel in Psalm 119:73)

This vital contrast in vv. 4-6 prepares the way for the narration in vv. 7-18, in which the contrast in played out through a colorful description of Israel’s early history. I would ask that you read through this section carefully, noting how the contrast is expressed and the various themes or motifs that are introduced within the fabric of the poem. Consider also the specific textual question in verse 8 (discussed in a previous study)—how does the overall sense and thrust of the passage differ depending on which reading is adopted? We will continue moving through this marvelous poem when we meet again here, next Saturday.