March 7: Psalm 68:5-7

Strophe 2: Psalm 68:5-7 [4-6]

The first strophe was examined in the previous note; on the structure of Psalm 68, see the introductory study.

Verse 5 [4]

“Sing to (the) Mightiest,
make music (to) His name!
Raise a highway for (the) Rider of (the) Clouds!
<Be glad> in YH(WH)
and leap before His face!”

This verse is comprised of a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets with a longer 3-beat line in between: 2+2+3+2+2. The short couplets emphasize the need for all people—indeed, all of creation—to give praise to YHWH. The two verbs in the first couplet—ryv! (“sing”) and rm^z` (“make music”)—match the terms in the Psalm heading: ryv! (“song”) and romz+m! (denoting a musical composition). It is most appropriate, of course, for the Psalmist to worship God through music and song.

In the second couplet, it seems likely that the Masoretic text is corrupt. The MT of the first line reads omv= Hy`B= (“in/by YH[WH] His name” [?]), which does not make much sense. The reading omv= may have been influenced by the occurrence of the word in the first couplet. I have followed Kraus’ suggestion (p. 46) that wm? could be emended slightly to read Wjm=c! (“be glad, rejoice”); Dahood (II, p. 136) obtains a comparable result, by reading Wmc=, as an imperative of a theorized root <cy (“be pleasant”). In either case, we should assume an imperative form of a verb essentially meaning “rejoice, be glad”. This is both appropriate to the context, and establishes a formal parallelism between the two couplets:

    • Sing | to the Mightiest /
      make music | (to) His name
    • Be glad | in YHWH /
      leap for joy | before His face

The longer middle line provides the setting—and the reason—for giving praise to YHWH: He is “(the One) riding on the rain-clouds”. This descriptive title is known from Canaanite tradition, as an epithet of the storm-deity Baal-Haddu; however, such epithets and imagery are also used of El-YHWH in the Old Testament (cf. Deut 33:26; Psalm 18:10-13). The first term is a participle, bk@r), “(one) riding, rider,” in construct relationship with the plural noun tobr*u& (with prefixed preposition B=). Here Hebrew tbru should be taken as a variant spelling of tpru (“rain-clouds, storm-clouds”), being an example of the interchange of b and p in NW Semitic (cf. Dahood, II, p. 136).

YHWH is here described in the language of storm-theophany, such as we see frequently in early Hebrew poetry. In the ancient Near East, the deity’s control over the waters (and thus the rain) was especially important and was emphasized in religious tradition. That YHWH rides upon the clouds is a way of expressing the idea of His authority and power over the heavens (and the rain it brings). His control over the waters also reflects a cosmological principle—viz., the Creator’s subduing of the primeval waters, so as to bring life-sustaining order to the universe; cf. my earlier article on this subject.

The verb ll^s* specifically denotes raising a mound or a building up a pathway for travel; cf. the famous use of the related noun hL*s!m= in Isa 40:3. The context of YHWH as the heavenly ‘Cloud-Rider’ suggests that the pathway being raised (for God to travel on) is located in heaven (cf. the noun hL*s!m= in Judg 5:20). The underlying mythic-religious tradition surely involves the relationship between YHWH and the divine/heavenly beings under His command. However, the verb ll^s* can also be used in the more general religious sense of “lift up” —that is, to extol or exult God in praise. This is something that all beings—heavenly and human—are called on to do.

Verse 6 [5]

“A Father (for) orphans
and a Judge (for) widows
(is the) Mightiest in His holy dwelling-place.”

Not only does YHWH establish order in the cosmos, bringing beneficent rain from heaven, but He also establishes order (and justice) on earth for human beings. This theme of YHWH as Judge, making judgment on behalf of the righteous—including the poor and oppressed—occurs frequently in the Psalms. He does this from heaven, from the “dwelling-place” (/oum*) of His holiness. The construct phrase “dwelling-place of His holiness” can also be rendered “His holy dwelling-place”, which I have used above for poetic concision.

Verse 7 [6]

“(The) Mightiest settles
(those left) all alone in a house;
He brings out (those) bound in(to) prosperity,
while (the) rebellious (one)s
dwell in a scorched (land).”

The meter of this verse matches that of verse 5 (cf. above)—2+2+3+2+2, with a three-beat line sandwiched between a pair of 2-beat couplets. Again there is a parallelism between the couplets, playing on the idea of a dwelling-place (introduced in the last line of v. 6). The poor and oppressed are settled (vb bv^y`, Hiphil) by God in a comfortable home (lit. house, ty]B^). Here the lowliness and suffering of the righteous is expressed by the adjective dyj!y`, denoting being one, in the sense of being alone. The middle line expands upon this idea of solitary loneliness by introducing the image of people bound (root rsa) in prison; YHWH brings them out (vb ax^y`) of their confinement and isolation into a place/condition of prosperity.

The plural noun torv*oK occurs only here in the Old Testament, and its meaning is difficult to determine. Commentators have related it to cognate roots in Ugaritic (k¾r) and Akkadian (kaš¹ru), with the common meaning apparently being something like “be successful, fortunate, happy” (cf. Kraus, p. 46; Dahood, II, p. 137). The plural form here may have a collective/abstract meaning; I have rendered it loosely as “prosperity”.

By contrast, in the second couplet, the stubborn/rebellious ones (vb rr^s*)—i.e., the wicked—will not live in comfort under the blessing of God; instead, they are doomed to dwell in a “scorched” (hot, dry and parched) land. This may be an allusion to the historical tradition of the Exodus, where the rebellious people were not allowed to enter the land of Promise, but perished in the desert.

The third strophe will be discussed in the next daily note.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 66 (Part 1)

Psalm 66

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 16, 18-20)

This Psalm has certain features in common with the prior Psalm 65 (cf. the previous study), including its designation (in the heading) as a “song” (ryv!). Since virtually every Psalm could be called a “song”, it is not entirely clear if there is anything distinctive in the use of the term ryv!. It has been suggested that it refers to a Psalm that was specifically sung in a ritual worship setting (in the Temple); if so, then the characterization of Psalm 66, e.g., as a religious hymn would be appropriate.

The first part of the Psalm (vv. 1-12) does, indeed, represent a hymn to YHWH, divided into three stanzas. Here the occurrence of the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker can be used as an indicator of the poetic structure. At the beginning of each section (vv. 1, 5, 8), people all throughout the earth are called upon to give praise to YHWH. It is for the greatness of His deeds that God is to be praised (v. 3), as manifest principally through the historical tradition of the event at the Reed Sea during the Exodus (alluded to in stanzas 2 and 3).

The second part of the Psalm (vv. 13-20) is quite different, to the point that some commentators view Psalm 66 as comprised of two originally separate compositions. It is essentially a poetic description of a ritual scene, in which a devout worshiper presents a sacrificial offering (in the Temple) in order to fulfill a vow made to YHWH. The association between praise and fulfilling a vow is found with some frequency in the Psalms, and the ritual fulfillment can be expressed through the very sort of praise which the Psalmist has composed. This featured prominently at the beginning of Psalm 65 (cf. the previous study).

There is considerable metrical variety in this Psalm, though, as often as not, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format is utilized.

Part 1: VERSES 1-12

As noted above, Part 1 comprises the hymn proper, in three stanzas.

Stanza 1: Verses 1-4
Verse 1

“Raise a shout to (the) Mightiest, all the earth!”

Verse 1 functions as the introduction to the hymn, a single 3-beat line, in which the Psalmist literally calls on all creation (“all the earth”) to give praise (vb u^Wr, give a shout/cry) to YHWH.

It may be worth mentioning again how, throughout the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (as here), the divine title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest”, i.e., ‘God’) is used as a substitution for the name hwhy (YHWH).

Verse 2

“Make music (to the) weight of His name,
put (to song the) weight of His praise!”

This simple 3-beat couplet makes clear that the “shout” of praise in v. 1 is to be realized through worship in music. It is from the verb rm^z` (“make/play music”) that the noun romz+m!, used throughout in the Psalm headings, is derived, designating a musical composition. The verb <yc! in the second line, with the general meaning “set, put,” here probably also connotes a composition—with a musical (and poetic) order, structure, and (written) form. For a more nuanced explanation of the use of <yc! here, cf. Dahood, II, p. 119.

The noun dobK* literally means “weight,” often in the sense of “worth, value,” and thus in a more abstract sense as “honor”. Here it refers to God, in His manifest presence and power—that is, the reason for which people everywhere should honor Him with worship and praise. The term may also be understood as an attribute of His name, etc—that it is glorious and to be honored. As I have discussed elsewhere, in ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person, in a quasi-magical way. This is especially true when dealing with the names and titles of God; cf. in this regard my earlier discussion of the divine name YHWH.

Verse 3

“Say to (the) Mightiest:
How (you are) to be feared (by) your deeds,
in (the) abundance of your strength!
(Those) hostile to you shall submit to you.”

The meter of this verse is quite irregular as it stands: 2+2+2+3; it may be regarded (loosely) as a 2-beat quatrain. The concision of the poetry cannot be expressed in a literal glossed translation as I give above. The rhythm is better captured by a freer rendering:

“Say to the Mightiest:
How fearful your deeds,
in your abundant might—
your enemies shall submit to you.”

Also difficult to translate is the Niphal (passive) participle ar*on in the second line. Literally, it means “being feared” or “being fearful/frightening”. It is singular, and so presumably is not intended as an attribute of God’s “deeds”; rather, it should be understood as characterizing YHWH Himself as one worthy of “being feared” (i.e., to be feared). He is to be feared because of His great deeds, done in the abundance (br)) of His strength/power (zu)). Even those hostile to YHWH shall be forced to submit to Him, recognizing His power and authority. The verb vj^K* typically implies an act of deceit/deception, sometimes specifically of an enemy feigning submission or obedience. That could be the sense here; however, more likely the Psalmist is using a bit of irony, suggesting that the enemies who might otherwise pretend to submit to God will now be forced to do so in reality, bowing down to His authority.

Verse 4

“All the earth shall bow down to you
and make music to you,
make music to your name.”

Again the expression “all the earth” is used, as a comprehensive expression for all people everywhere (including those hostile to God). The act of bowing/laying down (vb hj^v*, Hishtaphel [reflexive] stem) indicates both submission and worship (cf. on v. 3 above). The idea of making music (vb rm^z`) to YHWH, and to His name, is repeated from v. 2.

Again the meter of this verse is irregular: 3+2+2.

Stanza 2: Verses 5-7

Verse 5

“Go and see (the) deeds of (the) Mightiest,
to be feared (in His) dealing over (the) sons of men.”

As in verse 1 (cf. above), people are called upon to give praise to YHWH for his wondrous deeds. Here, the call is generalized, with a pair of imperatives (“go/come!” and “see!”); witnessing God’s deeds will cause people to give praise and honor to Him. The noun lu*p=m! is essentially synonymous with hc#u&m^ in verse 3, both referring to something done or made (i.e., deed, action, work). The noun hl*yl!u& has a roughly comparable meaning, though with the specific connotation of exercising power/authority over something (or someone). I have rendered it above generally as “dealing (with)”; the accompanying preposition literally means “over”, but in English idiom we would say “with” —here, “His dealing(s) with the sons of men”, i.e., how God deals with them.

The passive (Niphal) participle ar*on (“being feared,” i.e., to be feared) is also repeated from v. 3; it is an attribute of YHWH, referring to how He is worthy of honor and praise (for his great and awesome deeds).

Metrically, this verse is a longer 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Verse 6

“He turned (the) sea to dry (ground),
in(to) the river they crossed by foot—
come, let us rejoice in Him!”

The first two lines (of this 3-beat tricolon) clearly refer to the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, narrated in Exodus 14, celebrated in the famous ‘Song of Moses’ in Exodus 15, and referenced numerous times elsewhere in Old Testament poetry. Both terms “sea” (my`) and “river” (rh*n`) refer here to the same body of water, reflecting a traditional poetic parallelism. It is, of course, to be noted, that the Exodus event was replicated (and/or re-enacted) at the Jordan river in Joshua 3.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 121; cf. also I, pp. 81, 291), in reading <v at the beginning of the second line as an interjection (i.e., behold!, see!, come…!), cognate with šumma in Amarna Canaanite. This seems more fitting in the context of the imperfect jussive/cohortative verb form that follows, rather than the adverbial particle <v* (“there”). However, if the line here itself reflects a ritual re-enactment of the Exodus event, then it might make sense to say “there let us rejoice in Him!”

Verse 7

“Ruling in His strength (into the) distant (future),
His eyes look down (up)on the nations,
lest the rebellious (one)s rise (up) against Him!”

I understand the noun <l*ou in the first line as referring to the duration of YHWH’s rule over the universe—it lasts far into the distant (<lu) future, i.e., for ever. God rules in His strength (hr*WbG+); and here it becomes clear that the great deeds done by YHWH in Israel’s history reflect the cosmological aspect of His identity as Creator. This is a common theme in the Psalms, and was specifically emphasized in the prior Psalm 65 (vv. 6-8ff, cf. the previous study).

The all-seeing eye(s) of God are a traditional motif as well, expressing His providential governance of the world. One important aspect of this oversight is the administration of justice and maintaining the right order of things. His eye seeks to punish wrongdoing and to curb the stubborn and rebellious (rrs) tendencies in humankind.

The last lines of vv. 6 and 7, respectively, form a contrast between Israel and the nations—more specifically, between the faithful/righteous ones and those who are rebellious/hostile to God.

Stanza 3: Verses 8-12

Verse 8

“Bless, (all you) peoples, our Mighty (One),
and make heard (the) voice of His praise.”

This simple 3-beat couplet essentially reproduces the thought in the opening lines (vv. 1-2) of the first stanza (cf. above). The verbs are different—Er^B* (“bless,” or perhaps more concretely “bend the knee”) and um^v* (Hiphil, “cause to be heard”)—but the basic idea is the same: people everywhere are called on to give praise and worship to YHWH. The expression “voice of His praise” means praising God with all of one’s voice, i.e., with a loud and joyful song.

Verse 9

“The (One) setting our soul among the living,
He does not give our foot to shaking.”

This couplet is descriptive of YHWH as the God (“our Mighty [One]”) who cares for His people—that is, for the righteous and faithful ones among God’s people. He preserves the soul of the righteous, expressed here through the phrase “setting our soul among the living [one]s”, i.e., keeping our soul alive. More than this, He keeps them firm and secure in their daily life and conduct—their “foot” does not waver or slip (fwm), thanks to YHWH’s providential care.

Verse 10

“For you (have) tested us, O Mightiest—
you smelted us, as (the) smelting of silver.”

This couplet is shorter (2-beat, 2+2), its terseness reflecting the sudden shift to the idea of God’s sharp discipline of His people, testing (vb /j^B*) them, and thus purifying them. The motif of YHWH smelting/refining His people, utilizing the familiar imagery from metalworking, is relatively common in Old Testament poetry—all but 5 of the 33 occurrences of the verb [r^x* are found in the Psalms, Proverbs, and the Prophets.

Verse 11

“You brought us in(to) the net,
you set distress (up)on our loins.”

This irregular (2+3) couplet expounds upon the idea of God disciplining His people in the previous verse. The motif of the hunter’s net covers a wide range of possible suffering and affliction which the people might endure, having been brought to it by YHWH. The second line specifically alludes to physical suffering and distress (lit. pressure, hq*u*Wm).

Verse 12

“You made pain ride against our head—
we came in(to) fire and in(to) water,
but you brought us out to fullness.”

This verse is irregular, with a short 2-beat line added to a 3-beat couplet; the final line punctuates the hymn and effectively brings it to a conclusion. I derive vwna (MT vona$) from a separate root meaning “be sick”, which I understand here in an intensive sense, i.e., referring to severe pain and suffering. YHWH has made this pain “ride” against the head of His people. In the second line, this is expressed by another allusion to the Exodus event (crossing through the Sea), but generalized in terms of having to endure suffering. The “fire” relates back to the imagery of the refining of metal in verse 10.

Even as YHWH brought His people into distress (v. 10), so He also brings them out of it again (vb ax^y` Hiphil, “bring out”). He leads them into a place of fullness and abundance. The noun hy`w`r= specifically connotes a well-watered place. While this can be understood in the general sense of the blessing God provides for His people, there is probably a specific reference here to Israel’s entering the Promised Land. If so, then the suffering described in vv. 10-12a would be alluding primarily to the years spent ‘wandering’ in the wilderness.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 65

Psalm 65

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is typically characterized as a hymn to YHWH, emphasizing His role as Creator and providential Overseer of the created order. It is one of a number of Psalms specifically designated as a “song” (ryv!). In a sense, virtually every Psalm could be so designated, being a musical  composition (romz+m!) with lyrics. It may be that the term ryv! is meant to indicate that the Psalm was intended to be sung in a cultic worship setting, in which case, its designation as a religious hymn would be appropriate. The term occurs in the heading of a few dozen other Psalms, including the next three in the canonical collection (66, 67, 68).

I generally follow the division of the Psalm used by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 137), inasmuch as I agree with that three-stanza approach. The first stanza (vv. 2-5) focuses on the relationship between the faithful worshiper and YHWH—beginning with the Psalmist, and widening to encompass all of the righteous ones among God’s people. From a ritual setting of worship (including confession of sin and sacrifice), the scene shifts to the heavenly realm, anticipating a dwelling for the righteous with God in the blessed afterlife.

In the second stanza (vv. 6-9), the Psalmist (representing the righteous) calls on YHWH to answer his/their prayer, displaying the same awesome power by which He created (and now governs) the universe. The third stanza (vv. 10-14) specifically focuses on the fruitfulness that YHWH brings to the earth, through the rain that He provides from heaven. Some commentators would interpret this stanza specifically as a prayer for rain.

Metrically, Psalm 65 is irregular, though, at least through the first two stanzas, a 3+2 couplet format is more common than not. In the final verses (12-14) of the third stanza, a 3-beat (3+3) meter is used.

VERSES 2-7a [1-6a]

Verse 2-3a [1-2a]

“To you one <fashions> praise,
O Mightiest, in ‚iyyôn,
to you shall be fulfilled (the) vow,
(the One) hearing prayer.”

The MT of the first line is problematic, involving the the vocalized word hY`m!d% (“silence”); as it has come down to us, the MT here makes very little sense: “to you silence (is) praise…(?)” The LXX apparently reads a form of the verb hm*D* (I), “be like, resemble,” which can be used in the specific sense of “think, imagine, devise”. This would require a Piel verb form, which matches the verb in the third line. The idea of ‘devising’ praise to YHWH would, of course, be most appropriate for the Psalmist, and provides a fitting parallel to the third line, of fulfilling (vb <l^v*) one’s vow (rd#n#) to God. Both are actions of a faithful and devoted worshiper. More to the point, in prior Psalms, praise and the fulfilling of a vow are closely connected—cf. 22:26[25]; 50:14; 56:13[12], etc. Here the Psalm itself could be understood as the fulfillment of a vow to YHWH.

According to my interpretation, verses 2 and 3a combined form a pair of 3+2 couplets. For God to “hear” (vb um^v*) prayer, of course, means to answer it. The Psalmist made a vow to God contingent upon his prayer being answered; this song (psalm) is a fulfillment of the vow he made.

Verses 3b-4 [2b-3]

“Unto you all flesh shall come (bringing)
words of crooked (deed)s (too) great to count,
our breaking (faith), you shall wipe them (away)!”

As it stands, if the MT is essentially correct, I would regard vv. 3b-4 as an irregular tricolon. The theme of worship in vv. 2-3a expands to include the theme of repentance and confession of sin, in a sacrificial or ritual setting. Here “all flesh”, presumably, refers to the community of the righteous, in a collective and comprehensive sense. Whether one parses the suffixed verb waby as a Hiphil or Qal form, the principal idea is of the people bringing their sins before God, perhaps tied specifically to bringing forward a sacrificial offering. The noun rb*D* (here in a plural construct form), literally means “word”, but can also be understood in the more general sense of “thing, matter, affair”; the rendering “words of crooked (deed)s” preserves the idea of confession of sin. These “crooked deeds” specifically entail acts of breaking the covenant bond with YHWH—this is the fundamental meaning of the root uvp, though the noun (uv^P#) is often translated “rebellion,” or more generally as “transgression”.

Note: I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 110) in reading ynm as a poetic infinitive form of the verb hnm (“count”); also possible is the related noun yn]m= (“number”), i.e., “…great (in) number”. Both are to be preferred over the MT yN]m# (“from/for me”).

Upon coming forward in repentance, confessing one’s sins to God, and fulfilling the necessary sacrificial ritual, the sin is forgiven and “wiped (over/out)” (vb rp^K*, Piel).

Verse 5 [4]

“(How) happy (is the one) you choose and bring near,
(that) he should dwell (in) your courts!
May we be satisfied by (the) good(ness) of your house,
(there in) your holy palace.”

Here again we have a pair of 3+2 couplets, as in vv. 2-3a (cf. above). The wish expressed by the Psalmist is for something more than forgiveness and blessedness in this life; indeed, it is the blessedness of the heavenly afterlife that he has in mind. This raises the possibility that the expression “all flesh” in verse 3b could allude to an afterlife (or eschatological) judgment scene. On such a judgment setting as providing the ancient religious background to the beatitude form, cf. my earlier discussion (as part of a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus). See also, the study on Psalm 1, where the same expression yr@v=a^ begins the opening line (of verse 1). Literally, it means something like “(O the) happiness of…”; for poetic concision above, I have translated “(how) happy (is…)”.

In vv. 3b-4, the faithful worshiper comes near to God, in repentance and with words of confession; now, in turn, God brings righteous one near (vb br^q*) to Him. This act of bringing near (into the blessed heavenly realm) also involves a choice (vb rj^B*) made by YHWH. The righteous person is specially chosen to be admitted to the heavenly palace of YHWH, to dwell in its courts (lit. enclosures). The blessedness of this life is indicated by the traditional motif of feasting on the “good” (bWf) found in the heavenly palace, at the royal table, until one is completely filled and “satisfied” (vb ub^c*).

Verses 6-9 [5-8]

Verse 6 [5]

“(With) fearful (thing)s may you answer us,
O Mighty (One) of our salvation—
(the One) making secure all (the) ends of (the) earth,
and (the) sea(s that are) far off”

In this stanza, the focus of the Psalm has shifted to a communal prayer offered to YHWH, presumably in the context of a prayer for deliverance (from adversity, enemies, etc), of the kind that we find frequently in the Psalms. The request is that YHWH will answer (vb hn`u*) the people’s prayer with great and wondrous (lit. “fearful”) deeds, implying the sort of miraculous actions by God recorded throughout Israelite and Old Testament tradition.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 112) in reading jfbm as a causative participle, setting the pattern for the participial clauses that follow in verses 7-8. The root jfb denotes being safe and secure—that is, under the protection that YHWH provides for those who are faithful/loyal to Him. This is a theme that occurs frequently in the Psalms, and the verb jf^B* is used often (46 times). Here, however, the specific idea of YHWH’s sovereign power and control over all creation is being emphasized.

Again, metrically we have in this verse a pair of 3+2 couplets.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“(the One) establishing the mountains by His strength,
being girded by (His) might;
(the One) calming (the) crashing of the seas,
(the) crashing of their waves,
and (the) cry of the peoples”

The 3+2 couplet pattern continues, except for the addition of a 2-beat line, for dramatic effect, in the second couplet. YHWH, as Creator, has control over the entire universe, governing it and setting it in order. The imagery here relates principally to His original act of creation, establishing the world’s order; it applies also, naturally enough, to His continuing maintenance and governance of creation. On the ancient Near Eastern cosmological tradition of God subduing the primeval waters, cf. my article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”. The motif of the raging sea as a symbol for the violent raging of the nations is also traditional (Isa 17:12; 57:20; Jer 6:23; Ezek 26:3; Zech 10:11; Rev 13:1ff, etc), and the parallel allows for humankind to be included as part of the created order over which YHWH has sovereign control.

Verse 9 [8]

“And they shall fear, (those) dwelling (at the) ends, from your signs;
(the) going forth of dawn and dusk you make cry out!”

The stanza concludes with a dramatic (4-beat) couplet, that essentially matches the thought expressed in the opening line (v. 6a, cf. above). The “signs” (totoa) to be shown by YHWH, reflecting His miraculous power over creation, are parallel to the “fearful things” mentioned in the opening line. People of the nations will rightly be in fear of what God will do, in answer to the prayer of His righteous ones. Here, “ends” is shorthand for “ends of the earth,” as in v. 6b.

This reaction of fear and awe will be all-encompassing, occurring all day long, from the break of dawn until the setting of the sun. This is another way of expressing God’s control over the entirely of creation.

Verses 10-14 [9-13]

Verse 10abc [9abc]

“You oversee the earth and give it abundance,
(with) much (rain) you enrich it—
(the) stream of (the) Mightiest (is) full of water!”

Following the theme of YHWH’s control over creation in the second stanza, the focus narrows here to the specific idea of God making fruitful (for humankind) the surface of the earth. For an agricultural and herding society, this fundamentally entails God bringing down rain from the heavens. In ancient Near Eastern cosmological tradition (cf. above), the ability to bring rain stems from the Deity’s control over the waters that surround the cosmos (heaven-earth); this was achieved during the Creation when God subdued the primeval waters. Those waters, in a dark and chaotic state, preceded the ordered universe that God established, and had to be tamed. It is possible to treat the perfect verb forms in this stanza as precative perfects, and the stanza itself as a prayer for rain (cf. Dahood, II, p. 109).

The roots qwv (cp. qqv) and bbr (I) both denote being/having much, i.e., an abundance. Indeed, the plural noun <ybybr= (in v. 11, cf. below) is used to refer to an abundance of rain(drops), and almost certainly the adjective br^ here has a comparable point of reference (i.e., “much [rain]”). The rain also produces much fruitfulness for the land, indicated here by the verb rv^u* (Hiphil, “enrich”).

Verses 10d-11 [9d-10]

“You prepare (her) grain, for thus you have established her—
saturating her furrows,
(soak)ing down her folds,
with many (shower)s you melt her,
(and) her sprouting you bless.”

Assuming that the MT text is essentially correct, I understand verse 10d and 11 together as a poetic unit—containing an initial four-beat line, followed by a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain. The terse lines of v. 11 produce a staccato effect, giving a series of ‘shapshots’ describing the rains and their effect on the earth. The feminine suffixes refer back to the noun Jr#a# (“earth, land”) in 10a.

The initial line is a bit awkward, with its double-use of the verb /WK (and triple-use of the root /wk). The verb has a relatively wide semantic range, and doubtless two or more nuances are intended. For the first occurrence of the verb, I read it in the sense of “prepare, make ready”; for the second, the idea of “found, establish”. YHWH prepares the grain by bringing down the rains, because this is how he has established things for the earth/land in the order of creation (cf. above). On the form <ngd, I read the final mem (<-) as an enclitic element (cf. Dahood, II, p. 115; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 138); this stylistic device is relatively common in Hebrew poetry, and probably occurs more often than most commentators recognize; it can easily be mistaken for the marker of a plural noun (or a plural suffix).

The first two lines of v. 11 are synonymous, very close in meaning. The verb forms can be read either as infinitives or imperatives, depending on how one treats the stanza as a whole—either as a description of God’s creative work (in bringing the fructifying rain), or as a prayer for rain. I have opted for the former approach, which seems more in keeping with the overall tenor of the Psalm. The noun dWdG+ literally means “cut”, i.e., an inroad, something cut through, being here virtually synonymous with <l#T# (“furrow”); I have rendered the former as “fold” (i.e., a fold, implying a trench and ridge, in the surface of the earth).

Once the copious rains (pl. noun <yb!yb!r=, cf. above) have “melted” (vb gWm) the earth’s surface, watering it down, the ground can then sprout forth its plant-growth, the grain and fruit, etc.

Verse 12 [11]

“You crown the (mountain) peak (with) your goodness,
and your tracks drip (down) fatness (below);”

Each of verses 12-14 focuses on a specific area of the earth’s surface that is made fruitful by the rains YHWH sends. Verse 12 begins with the mountain heights, indicated both by the verb rf^u* (in the specific sense of “crown”) and the noun tnv. I follow Dahood (II, p. 116) in explaining the latter on the basis of the cognate Ugaritic word šnt; cp. also Arabic saniya, “be(come) high, exalted”.

The “goodness” (bof) that comes to the mountain peaks, refers both to the fructifying rain and the effect of it—i.e., the fruitfulness of the land. This is parallel with the “fatness” (/v#D#, i.e., richness, fruitfulness). The “tracks” are the pathways and channels by which the rain (and subsequent fruitfulness) “drips” down from the mountaintops to the areas below. It also alludes to the ‘tracks’ made by herd animals (cattle, etc) going to find pasture.

Verse 13 [12]

“the habitations of (the) outback drip,
and (the) hills surround (themselves with) joy;

As was alluded to in verse 12, here the pasture lands—lit. habitations, homes, dwellings—for the herds (and those tending them) are specifically referenced. They, in turn, “drip” with fruitfulness, just as the mountains do in v. 12. As a result, the surrounding hills twirl/spin with joy (lyg), and, in so doing, “surround” (vb rg~j*) themselves with joy. The joyfulness of the entire earth is implied.

Verse 14 [13]

“(the) rounds are clothed (with) flock(s),
and (the) valleys covered (with) field(s)—
they shout (for joy), indeed, and sing!”

The scene here shifts slightly, though still referring generally, in the first line, to the rich pasture-land. The noun rK* essentially means something round, almost certainly continuing the conceptual word-play from v. 13, involving the roots lyg (“turn/twirl/spin”) and rgj (“surround”). Here, the “rounds” refer to areas of pasture-land, probably also to be understood as valleys (cf. Dahood, II, p. 117) that are covered (lit. “clothed”) with an abundance of herd animals. Other “valleys” are used for farmland, and are similarly “covered” (vb [f^u*) with fields (collective noun rB*) of grain.

The subject “they” of the concluding line encompasses all of the areas of the earth covered in vv. 12-14, but also can be seen as referring to the entirety of creation (including humankind). They all shout for joy (vb u^Wr) and sing praise to God. The latter verb (ryv!, “sing”) is, of course, related to the noun (ryv!, “song”) in the heading of the Psalm.

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

November 9: Colossians 1:17

Transition: Col 1:17-18a

The two couplets of vv. 17-18a sit between the two stanzas of the hymn, and should be treated as a distinct unit. This unit also represents, arguably, the most distinctively Pauline portion of the Christ-hymn. If, as many commentators believe, Paul adapted an existing hymn, it seems likely that these couplets were included as his own addition to the composition. The lines are certainly transitional, with the first couplet (v. 17) continuing the thematic focus of the first stanza (the first creation), and the second (v. 18a) anticipating that of the second stanza (the new creation).

Colossians 1:17

kai\ au)to/$ e)stin pro\ pa/ntwn
kai\ ta\ pa/nta e)n au)tw=| sune/sthken
“and he is before all (thing)s,
and all (thing)s have stood together in him”

The initial conjunction kai/ of the first line marks the transitional character of these couplets, as noted above. The pronoun au)to/$ (“he”) is emphatic, and relates to the relative pronoun (o%$) that begins each stanza of the hymn. Indeed the phrase au)to/$ e)stin (“he is”) is precisely parallel to the opening of each stanza (o%$ e)stin, “who is”). It thus continues the Christological focus of the hymn, as a declaration of who Jesus (the Son) is.

The adjective pa=$ (“all”), as a substantive (collective) plural (i.e., “all [the] things”), was used earlier in v. 16 (cf. also the adjective in v. 15b). It also happens to represent an important part of the Pauline vocabulary, as he frequently uses the substantive adjective in a comprehensive, collective sense, though less commonly in a cosmological context, as here (see esp. 1 Cor 15:24-28). The reference here is to all things (everything) in the universe, with particular emphasis on all intelligent living beings (human beings, etc). The adjective is used in both lines of the couplet, giving double emphasis to the idea of Jesus’ place in relation to all of creation.

This relationship is indicated by two prepositional phrases: “he is before [pro/]” in the first line, and “(is) in him [e)n au)tw=|]” in the second. There is a semantic ambiguity with the first preposition, pro/, “before”, which can be understood in either a temporal or positional-relational sense. A temporal meaning is certainly possible, especially given the repeated use of pro/ in the LXX of Prov 8:22ff, which shares the theme of the pre-existence of divine Wisdom and its role in creation. However, it is worth noting that the preposition does not occur in any of the prominent pre-existence passages of the New Testament (such as the Johannine Prologue; cp. the comparable use of pri/n in Jn 8:58). In 1 Cor 2:7, Paul uses the preposition in a temporal sense, and in a context similar to that of the hymn (cf. also Eph 1:4).

The parallelism with the second couplet strongly suggests that a positional-relational meaning of pro/ is in view, given the parallel with the idea of Jesus as the “head” (kefalh/). That is to say, Jesus holds the chief place, the ruling and governing position, over all creation, and is thus “before” all things in that sense. In point of fact, the hymn emphasizes both the temporal and positional-relational aspects—that is, the pre-existence of Jesus the Son (with his role in creation) and his ruling position over the cosmos.

The verb in the second line is suni/sthmi, “stand together, (trans.) set together”. It is a distinctly Pauline term, as 14 of the 16 occurrences in the New Testament are in Paul’s letters (2 Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, and here in Colossians). Paul tends to use the verb in a general, transitive sense— “set/place together”, i.e., “establish, confirm” (Rom 3:5; 5:8; Gal 2:18); the specialized sense in 2 Corinthians, involving the question of ministers bearing letters of confirmation or recommendation (3:1; 4:2, et al), follows the technical use of the verb in Rom 16:1. Here in the hymn is the only Pauline use of the verb in a cosmological-philosophical sense, akin to the way Philo of Alexandria, for example, uses it (Who Is the Heir of the Divine Things §58), in reference to the Logos (lo/go$) as the governing power of God by which all things in the universe are “held together” (sune/sthke). The Logos is similarly described as a “bond”, the binding force, that holds the cosmos together (Who Is the Heir §23, cf. On Flight and Finding §112, Barth/Blanke, pp. 204-5).

As previously noted, this Logos-theology was influenced by Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom-tradition, associating Wisdom with the creation and existence/sustenance of the world, that stretches back to the famous passage in Prov 8:22-31. In Wisdom 1:7, the Wisdom of God is said to be that which holds all things together (sune/xon ta\ pa/nta); while in Sirach 43:26, it is stated that all things lay (bound) together (su/geitai ta\ pa/nta) in the Word (Lo/go$) of God. The Sirach passage is actually quite close to Col 1:17 with the phrase e)n lo/gw| (“in the Logos”), comparable to e)n au)tw=| (“in him”, i.e. in Christ). The wording in 2 Peter 3:5 is even closer, when it speaks of the heavens and earth “having stood together [sunestw=sa] in the Word of God [e)n tw=| tou= qeou= lo/gw|]”. There can be no doubt that similar concepts and phraseology underlie the wording of v. 17 in the hymn as well.

While the expression “in him” (e)n au)tw=|) may refer primarily to the creation and existence of the cosmos, it carries a deeper meaning as used by Paul, given the importance of the expression “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|, with variations) in his letters, where it occurs dozens of times. The principal concept is of believers being united—with God and with one another—in the person of Jesus Christ. This occurs both symbolically (through the baptism ritual, etc) and essentially, through the presence of the Spirit. Paul may well have expected his readers to make the association, and the transition, readily from the cosmos being bound together in Christ to the idea of believers being bound together in him. In any case, this is precisely the transition that occurs in the hymn, beginning with the second intervening couplet (v. 18a). We will examine this second couplet in our next daily note.

References above marked “Barth/Blanke” are to Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Colossians, transl. by Astrid B. Beck, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 34B (1994).


November 5: Colossians 1:16b

Colossians 1:16B

ei&te qro/noi ei&te kurio/thte$
ei&te arxai\ ei&te e)cousi/ai
ta\ pa/nta di’ au)tou= kai\ ei)$ au)to\n e&ktistai
“…even if (ruling) seats and lordships,
even if chief (ruler)s and authorities,
all the(se thing)s have been founded through him and unto him.”

The first half of the complex clause of verse 16 was discussed in the prior note; if we are to consider the two halves together, including v. 16b (above), the lines would run as follows:

“(for it is) that in him were founded all the (thing)s,
in the heavens and upon the earth,
the (thing)s seeable and (thing)s unseeable
even if (ruling) seats and lordships,
even if chief (ruler)s and authorities,
all the(se thing)s have been founded through him and unto him”

The four central lines expound the expression “all things” as the object (ta/ pa/nta) of God’s creation. The first two lines demarcate the comprehensive cosmos in two different ways:

    • Cosmological— “heaven and earth”, the two parts (halves) of the universe (according to the ancient geocentric cosmology), dualistically juxtaposed as ‘above’ vs. ‘below’
    • Ontological—designating different kinds of being(s), divine/heavenly vs. human/physical, spirit vs. material; the former being ‘invisible’ (i.e. unable to be seen by human beings on earth), the latter being part of the visible world.

In the second two lines (here in 16b), the focus narrows from “all things” (and all beings) to the the beings that rule and govern the cosmos—even they were created by God “in” Christ. The conditional conjunction ei&te (“if also, even if”) expresses this particular point of emphasis. The conjunction is used four times, twice in each line, but it is awkward to translate this consistently, especially in the context of poetry; thus, for clarity I have rendered each pair ei&teei&te as “even if…and”.

The specific interpretation of the four terms, and their relation to each other, continues to be debated by commentators. I feel it is simplest to keep close to the basic meaning of each word; doing so allows for a rather straightforward explanation:

    • Line 1: the place, location, and domain of rule
    • Line 2: the particular beings/entities that rule

In the first line, the words are qro/noi and kurio/thte$; the first means “seats (of rule)”, i.e. thrones, and the second, derived from ku/rio$ (“lord, master”), is a plural of a noun that essentially means “place/position as lord”, i.e., the position where (and by which) rulers exercise governmental power and control. The noun qro/no$ is relatively common in the New Testament (62 times), while kurio/th$ occurs just 4 times (the other three instances being Eph 1:21; 2 Pet 2:10; Jude 8), and is never used in the LXX.

The terms in the second line are a)rxai/, meaning those things (or persons) that are “at the beginning, at the top, first”, i.e., the chief persons or rulers, and e)cousi/ai, plural of a common noun (e)cousi/a) that is notoriously difficult to translate. Basically, e)cousi/a refers to something that comes “out of” (e)c) a person, which a person has the ability to do; this may indicate an ability granted by a superior, or the power that the superior possesses (and gives to another). It is typically translated in English as “power” or “authority”. In this context the plural e)cousi/ai (i.e., “powers, authorities”) could either refer to human rulers (on earth) or those in the divine/heavenly realm. The latter usage reflects the ancient (polytheistic) worldview that the universe is controlled and governed by “powers”, usually understood (and/or personified) as personal beings. Paul uses the word (or the synonymous duna/mei$, “powers”) in this religious-theological sense only rarely, and even then generally, as a traditional expression (Rom 8:38, and cf. Eph 2:2; 3:10; 6:12; cp. 1 Pet 3:22). Even among monotheistic Jews and Christians, the belief was commonly held that divine/heavenly beings (Angels) exercised control over different parts of the natural world. The noun takes on special Christological importance here in Colossians (v. 13; 2:10, 15), and so it is worth taking note of its occurrence in v. 16.

I understand the nouns a)rxai/ and e)cousi/ai as a reference to the specific beings that exercise rule, both in the heavens (Angels, etc) and on earth (human beings); they sit in the seats of rule (qro/noi) and govern from a place/position of lordship (kurio/th$). Ultimately, all such rule and lordship belongs to Jesus the Son of God (and to God the Father).

The final line of verse 16 essentially repeats the statement of the first line, the two line being clearly parallel:

“(for it is) that in him were founded all the (thing)s…
all the(se thing)s have been founded through him and unto him”

The three prepositional expression that govern these lines—e)n au)tw=| (“in him”), di’ au)tou= (“through him”), and ei)$ au)to/n (“unto him”)—were discussed in the previous note. I mentioned the interpretation of the expression with e)n (“in”) as indicating the pattern or model for the creation of the cosmos by God, and noted the parallel in the Johannine Prologue (1:3-4). This interpretation is more likely when one considers the juxtaposition of “in him” and “through him” (di’ au)tou=), which also is to be found in Jn 1:3-4. The use of the preposition dia/ (“through”) is rather easier to explain: Jesus, the pre-existent Son of God, is the means, the instrumentality, by which God the Father creates the world. This Christological belief is attested in three separate lines of tradition in the New Testament—not only here in the Christ hymn and the Johannine Prologue, but also in the (Christological) introduction of Hebrews (1:2).

It is likely that this Christological belief was influenced significantly by the Hellenistic Jewish Logos-theology, best known from the writings of Philo of Alexandria (e.g., On the Special Laws I.81; On the Creation 25; On Dreams 2.45), and shared by the author of the Johannine Prologue (Jn 1:1ff). This theology, in turn, was largely inspired by Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom-tradition, in which Wisdom (Grk sofi/a) was considered to be the image (ei)kw/n) of God (Wisd 7:26), by which the world (and human beings) were created (2:23). This line of tradition goes back, primarily, to the famous passage in Proverbs 8:22-31, in which Wisdom (Heb hm*k=j*), personified as a pre-existent divine being, it is said, acted to bring about God’s work of Creation. The parallels between the Colossians hymn and the Johannine Prologue (cf. above) suggest that a similar Logos/Wisdom theology underlies the Christological portrait of the hymn, in terms of Jesus’ role in creation.

The final prepositional expression, ei)$ au)to/n (“[un]to him”), likely refers to the finished product of creation, insofar as it reflects the pattern. Philo describes the Logos as a stamp, the image of which is imprinted upon the material of the created world. The image is thus both “in” the Logos itself (as the image of God), and its image is stamped “into” the world. Implied also is the goal and purpose of the creation by God, which is for it to be a visible, tangible manifestation of God’s image (as conveyed through the image of the Logos). While the specific term lo/go$ is not used in the Colossians hymn (in contrast to the Johannine Prologue), I would maintain that the basic outline of the Logos-theology is generally present, transferred, of course, to the person of Jesus as the (pre-existent) Son of God. A principal reason why Jesus is to be recognized as Ruler and Lord over the universe is that it bears his image, since it was made “in him”, “through him”, and “unto/into him”.

The same verb (kti/zw) is also repeated from the first line of v. 16, though in a perfect passive (e&ktistai) rather than aorist passive (e)kti/sqh) form. There is an interesting parallel, again, to be found in the Johannine Prologue (v. 3f):

    • “all things came to be [e)ge/neto, aorist] through him”
    • “that which has come to be [ge/gonen, perfect]” + “in him”

While the aorist typically indicates something which occurred at a point of time in the past, the perfect often refers to a past action or condition that continues into the present. The use of the two forms here could conceivably be intended to bring out such a distinction:

    • e)kti/sqh (aorist)—the original creation, the establishment of the created order at the beginning
    • e&ktistai (perfect)—the created order as it has continued to the present time (from the standpoint of the author of the hymn)

This distinction would set the stage admirably for the second stanza of the hymn, which emphasizes God’s new creation brought about through Jesus His Son. The first creation lasts until the time that the new creation begins; and, indeed, with the death and resurrection (exaltation) of Jesus, this new creation has already begun, even if it is currently realized only for believers who are in union with Christ.


November 4: Colossians 1:16a

Colossians 1:16a

o%ti e)n au)tw=| e)kti/sqe ta\ pa/nta
e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$ kai\ e)pi\ th=$ gh=$
ta\ o)rata\ kai\ ta\ a)o/rata

“(for it is) that in him were founded all the (thing)s,
in the heavens and upon the earth,
the (thing)s seeable and (thing)s unseeable…”

The complex clause of verse 16 is subordinate to v. 15, and epexegetical. It further explains what it means to say that Jesus is the “likeness/image of God”, and also the “first-born” of all that has been created; indeed, it gives us the reason why it is right to speak of Jesus this way. The conjunctive particle o%ti, is explicative, with causal force—i.e., “(for it is) that…”.

There is a clear and carefully constructed symmetry to this statement in v. 16, with a framework governed by prepositional expressions which relate back to the initial relative pronoun. These prepositional phrases enclose the remainder of the verse, so that we may outline the structure of vv. 15-16 as follows:

    • “who is [o%$ e)stin]…”
      • “in him [e)n au)tw=|]…”
      • “through him [di’ au)tou=]
        and unto him [ei)$ au)to/n]…”

The three expressions, utilizing three different prepositions, are: “in [e)n] him…through [di/a] him and unto [ei)$] him”. This is similar to triadic formulae with a cosmological-existential orientation in contemporary Greek philosophy (cf. the Areopagus speech by Paul, Acts 17:28). The particular triad here is comparable to that used by certain Stoic philosophers and authors, one of the most notable being Marcus Aurelius, in his Contemplations (4.23). Closer in time and religious background to our hymn is the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher-commentator Philo of Alexandria (cf. On the Cherubim 125). The entire subject has been documented in E. Norden’s classic study Agnostos Theos (1913), esp. pp. 240-50, and cf. also M. Robinson, “A Formal Analysis of Colossians,” 1:15-20, Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 76 (1957), p. 276; R. M. Grant, “Causation and ‘the Ancient World View,'” JBL 83 (1964), p. 35 (Barth/Blanke, p, 197).

Here, the three expressions are not presented as a simple triad; rather, they are divided into two parts, involving two parallel statements:

in him all (thing)s were founded…
all (thing)s have been founded through him and unto him

Both of these statements involve the verb kti/zw, related to the noun kti/si$ in v. 15. The verb has the basic meaning “found, establish, build”, and here clearly refers to the founding (i.e. creation) of the cosmos by God. The passive form of the verb is an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), with God as the implied subject—i.e., “…were founded (by God)”. The initial occurrence here is an aorist form, the second a perfect form; the aorist typically is used for an event or action which occurred in the past, while the perfect often refers to a past action or condition which continues into the present.

As previously noted, Paul uses the noun kti/si$ (and the verb kti/zw) in two ways: (1) in reference to the original creation of the universe (and human beings) by God, and (2) for the new creation, realized (presently) by believers in Christ. The new creation is patterned after the original (first) creation. When looking at the structure of the hymn as a whole, it becomes clear that the two stanzas relate to these two aspects (or stages) of God’s work of creation; moreover, the same dual-aspect is present in the intervening pair of couplets of v. 17. That the first creation is in view here in vv. 15-16 is confirmed by two other factors: (a) the aorist passive e)kti/sqh, as something done by God in the past, and (b) the substantive adjective ta\ pa/nta (“all things”), as a short-hand for the (current) created order.

Paul frequently uses the substantive plural of pa=$ (“all”), in a general and comprehensive sense (“all things”), though less frequently in a cosmological context (cf. 1 Cor 15:28; 2 Cor 5:18). Here the reference is to ‘everything in the cosmos’, especially ‘every living, intelligent being’, as the central phrases of v. 16 make clear. The first two (of the four) central phrases are:

“in the heavens and upon the earth,
the seeable (thing)s and the unseeable (thing)s”

“Heaven and earth” is a conventional shorthand for referring to the cosmos (the world/universe) as a whole, and ultimately relates back to the basic bipartate (geocentric) cosmology of the ancient Near East. Even by the mid-1st century, in the Greco-Roman world, when a somewhat more sophisticated geocentric cosmology had developed, “heaven and earth” still served as a simple shorthand for the universe. The adjective a)o/rato$ was used in v. 15, in reference to God as “unseeable”, unable to be seen by human beings; other divine/heavenly beings (Angels, etc) are similarly understood as ‘invisible’, unable to be seen by humans in ordinary circumstances. The adjective o(rato/$, without the privative prefix a)-, naturally represents the opposite: what is visible and can be seen normally by human beings (with their eyes). Divine/heavenly beings tend to be located in “the heavens”, while human beings are on “the earth”; thus, the two phrases are generally synonymous, and in parallel, for a comprehensive description of the cosmos—esp. the inhabitants of the cosmos.

What does it mean to say that the cosmos and its inhabitants were created “in” Jesus (e)n au)tw=|, “in him”)? The contemporary Roman philosopher Seneca provides an explanation of the (Stoic) existential-cosmological triad (cf. above), and the various prepositions used (Epistle 65.8, cf. Barth/Blanke, p. 197-8). In this context, the preposition e)n (“in”) refers to the pattern or model used (by God) in creation. The closest New Testament parallel is in the Prologue of the Gospel of John (1:4): “in him was life” (e)n au)tw=| zwh\ h@n)—a parallel that would even be closer if the prior two words were included in the phrase, i.e. “that which has come to be in him was life”, but the precise reading (and punctuation) of vv. 3-4 remains in dispute. In any case, the expression “in him” in that passage is clearly related to the creation of the universe (“all things came to be”, “that which has come to be”), just as it is here in Colossians.

This will be discussed further in the next daily note, as we continue the study of v. 16.

References above marked “Barth/Blanke” are to Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Colossians, transl. by Astrid B. Beck, Anchor Bible [AB] 34B (1994).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 33 (Part 2)

Psalm 33, continued

The central core of Psalm 33 is the hymn of vv. 4-17, recognizing God (YHWH) as Creator and Ruler of the universe. It may be divided into two parts, as indicated by the outline below.

    • Vv. 1-3: Call for the righteous to praise YHWH
    • Vv. 4-9: YHWH’s authority over Creation
    • Vv. 10-17: YHWH’s authority over the Nations
    • Vv. 18-22: Exhortation for the righteous to trust in YHWH

Verses 4-9 (discussed in last week’s study) focus on YHWH’s authority over Creation, while vv. 10-17 emphasize his authority over humankind (the Nations).

Verses 10-17

Verse 10

“YHWH makes the purpose of (the) nations crumble,
He causes (the) thoughts of (the) peoples to fail.”

YHWH’s control and power over Creation extends to humankind—the various peoples (<yM!u^) and nations (<y]oG) on earth. He has power even over those things which human beings (and their governments) intend and plan to do. God’s ability to know the thoughts and the “heart” of human beings came to be expressed by the traditional designation “heart-knower” (Greek kardiognw/sth$, Acts 1:24; 15:8), i.e., one who knows the heart (of a person). Here the Hebrew words are hx*u@ (“purpose, plan, counsel, advice”) and hb*v*j&m^ (pl. “thoughts, plans, intentions”), which overlap in their meaning.

Not only does God know the intentions of people, He has the power to frustrate them, causing them to remain unrealized and unfulfilled. The implication is that such intentions and plans are contrary to righteousness and justice of God, and reflect the wickedness of humankind; however, YHWH’s power over humankind is absolute, and He may choose to frustrate the plans of a people, even if they are not wicked per se. A pair of verbs, each in the Hiphil causative stem, is used to express this ability of YHWH: rr^P* (“break, crumble”) and aWn (“refuse, forbid, oppose”). The connotation of the latter verb in the Hiphil here is “make (something) stop working”, i.e. cause it to fail.

There is thus a clear synonymous parallelism in this 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 11

“(The) purpose of YHWH stands (in)to (the) distant (future),
(the) thoughts of His heart (in)to circle and circle (of life).”

In contrast to the plans of human beings (v. 10), what YHWH intends can not be frustrated or made to fail. His purpose is fulfilled, and what He intends comes to pass and stands (unaltered) long into the distant future, after each revolution or “circle” (roD) of time, and with it each generation of human beings, has come and gone.

Quite possibly, this difference between YHWH and human beings is expressed poetically by the difference in meter: a 4-beat (4+4) couplet in verse 11, compared with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet in v. 10.

Verse 12

“Happiness of the nation (for) whom YHWH is its Mighty (One),
the people He has chosen for a possession (belonging) to Him!”

This couplet draws on the religious and cultural tradition of Israel as the people belonging to YHWH, the nation He has chosen (vb rh^B*) as His own. The terminology used in this verse occurs in many other Old Testament passages—see especially the ancient poetic references in Exod 15:7 and Deut 32:9. There is a strong covenant context to this language. On Israel (and the righteous) as God’s “possession” (hl*j&n~), cf. Ps 28:9, and other references in the Psalms (68:10 [9]; 74:2; 78:62, 71; 79:1; 94:5, 14; 106:5, 40). At the same time, the covenant bond also leads to Israel being given a possession by God; and the noun hl*j&n~ is frequently used in this sense as well (Ps 135:11; 136:21-22, etc). On the nations as God’s possession, cf. Psalm 2:8, and note, in particular, the Messianic interpretation of that verse.

For any nation—whether Israel or another—who recognizes YHWH as its God, there is truly blessing and happiness. On the use of the construct plural yr@v=a^ to introduce the beatitude-form, cf. Ps 1:1, and the previous study on Psalm 32 (v. 1). There is a bit of wordplay here between yr@v=a^ (°ašrê) and the relative particle rv#a& (°¦šer).

Verses 13-14

“From (the) heavens YHWH gives a look,
He sees all (the) sons of men;
from (the) fixed place of His sitting, he gazes
at all (the) sitters [i.e. dwellers] of (the) earth.”

This pair of couplets, with synonymous parallelism, expresses, in colorful and picturesque imagery, the authority and rule of YHWH over all humankind. His position of rule is His throne in heaven, on which he sits, and from there He looks down upon all the ones sitting (i.e. dwelling) upon the earth. Clearly, there is a bit of wordplay in the second couplet involving the verb bv^y` (“sit”).

Verse 15

“The (One) fashioning (them) looks on their heart,
the (One) discerning, to all their works.”

This is another couplet with synonymous parallelism; the two substantive participles (with definite article) are descriptive titles for YHWH:

    • rx@Y)h^, “the (One) fashioning”, i.e. forming human beings, like a potter out of clay; a traditional idiom for referring to God as Creator.
    • /yb!M@h^, “the (One) discerning”, i.e. God as one who knows and understands all things, esp. the thoughts and intentions (the “heart”) of human beings (cf. above).

Dahood (p. 202) is almost certainly correct in reading djy as the main verb of the couplet, which has been mispointed by the Masoretes. It is to be derived from the root hd*j* III (= Ugaritic µdy), “see, look, gaze”. This meaning fits perfectly with the context of vv. 13-14, and gives a fine sense to the lines. The couplet thus declares, in more general terms, what was stated in verse 10 (cf. above)—that YHWH sees and knows the “heart” (i.e., the thoughts and intentions) of human beings. Such immediate knowledge and discernment is due to His role as Creator; having created (“fashioned”) human beings, YHWH has full knowledge of their thoughts and impulses.

Verses 16-17

“There is no king being saved by (the) multitude of (armed) force(s),
(and) a mighty (warrior) is not snatched away by an increase of power;
the horse (is) a false (source) for (bringing) help (to him),
and by a multitude of his force(s) he shall not make escape!”

The thoughts and actions of the nations are controlled by YHWH, and this fact is illustrated most dramatically through the idiom of military force (“force, strength”, ly]j*), as representing the pinnacle of the power of the nations (and their kings). Ultimately, even the greatest kings are powerless in the face of YHWH’s overriding authority, which determines the course and outcome of any military action. It is not the strength and skill of a nation’s military that ultimately determines the outcome, but the providential, governing power of God Himself. Even the use of the horse-drawn chariot (and horse-riding cavalry), generally seen as embodying the peak of military technology in the ancient Near East (late Bronze and early Iron Age), will not bring victory if victory has not been determined for that people by YHWH.

Verses 18-22

The final section of the Psalm is an exhortation for the righteous, the people of God (cf. verse 12), for them to continue trusting in YHWH. It is parallel with the opening section (vv. 1-3) and the call for the righteous to praise Him.

Verses 18-19

“See, (the) eye of YHWH (looks) to (those) who fear Him,
to (the one)s waiting (in trust) for His goodness,
(for Him) to snatch away their soul from death,
and to keep them alive in the hunger!”

The watching eye of YHWH is a theme that dominated the hymn in vv. 10-17 (cf. above), in terms of His authority and ruling power over humankind. Now the focus shifts to the righteous, and YHWH’s all-seeing power is especially directed at His people, the ones who fear (vb ar@y`) Him and trust (vb lj^y`) in Him. The latter verb denotes waiting, but often in the sense of waiting with hope, with the confident expectation (and trust) that things will come out for the good.

The trust of the righteous is particularly aimed at being rescued by God from the danger of death. A number of the Psalms we have studied deal with this basic idea, sometimes in the specific context of being healed/delivered from a life-threatening illness. Here, in the final line, it is hunger (bu*r*) that is in view. In the ancient world, life-threatening hunger, as a result of famine, war, and other causes, was a pervasive danger felt by much of the population. In an agricultural society, the failed crop of a single season could put the survival of the population at risk. While the Psalm here may simply refer to the hunger of human beings in this way, it is also possible that there is a dual-meaning, and that the line is also drawing upon the traditional idiom of Death as a being with a ravenous, devouring appetite (i.e., “hunger”).

Verse 20

“Our soul waits for YHWH—
He (is) our help and our protection!”

The exhortation of vv. 18-19 is repeated here, in the form of a declaration–collectively, by the righteous. A different verb (hk*j*) is used to express the idea of waiting for YHWH (lj^y` in v. 18, above), trusting that He will act to bring deliverance. The terms “help” (rz#u@) and “protection” (/g@m*) have a military connotation, and thus relate to the imagery in the closing lines of the hymn (vv. 16-17, cf. above). The contrast between the people of God (the righteous) and the nations, frequent in the Psalms, is very much present here. While the nations (and their kings) trust in military power and technology, the righteous trust in YHWH Himself for protection.

Verse 21

“(And it is) that our heart shall find joy in Him,
for in (the) name of His holiness we sought protection.”

Here the protection YHWH brings is defined in terms of His name, lit. “the name of His holiness” (i.e., His holy name). In ancient Near Eastern thought, the name had a magical, efficacious quality, representing and embodying the nature and character of a person. In a religious context, to know (and call on) a deity’s name enabled a person to have access to the presence and power of the deity. This was very much true in ancient Israelite religion as well, in relation to YHWH and His name. The idea was enhanced by the specific covenant relationship between God and His people—Israel belonged to YHWH, and was under His protection as part of the binding agreement. The righteous seek out that protection, trusting in God; and, in finding it, they also find the joy that comes from being in that place of safety and security. According to the ancient idiom, they are protected by the name of YHWH—meaning, by the presence of YHWH Himself.

Verse 22

“May your goodness, YHWH, come to be upon us,
according to (the way) that we wait (in trust) for you!”

The final couplet of the Psalm takes the form of a prayer, by the righteous (collectively), addressed to YHWH. In it the righteous declare their trust, affirming that they “wait” (lj^y`, cf. verse 18 above) for Him, expecting that He will act on their behalf and deliver them in time of trouble. The prayer expresses the hope that, in response to this trust, God will bless the righteous, bestowing his “goodness” (ds#j#) upon them. As previously noted, the noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, when used in a covenant context, as is frequently the case in the Psalms. The righteous, in their loyalty to YHWH, hope (and expect) that He will give blessings to them in return, according to the principle (and terms) of the binding agreement.