Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 103 (Part 2)

Psalm 103, continued

For the Introduction (vv. 1-5) of the Psalm, and the first two stanzas (vv. 6-8, 9-11) of the central hymn, see Part 1 of this study.

The Hymn: Verses 6-18 (cont.)

Third Stanza: Vv. 12-14
Verse 12

“Like (the) distance of (the sun’s) rising from (its) setting,
(so) He has made distant from us our breaches (of faith).”

The theme of this stanza picks up from that of the previous (vv. 9-11, cf. the discussion in Part 1)—viz., YHWH’s mercy and compassion in forgiving the sins of His people. In particular, this first couplet builds upon the prior couplet (v. 11), comparing the greatness of YHWH’s loving devotion (ds#j#) with the distance (height) between heaven and earth. Similarly here, the motif of distance (using the root qjr) is employed to express the greatness of God’s forgiveness. Instead of a vertical distance (heaven-earth), a horizontal (east-west) distance is used.

The verb qj^r* means “be far/distant” and occurs in both lines, to express the comparison. In the first line, a stative infinitive is used, for the (fixed) distance between the rising (jr*z+m!) and setting/darkening (br*u&m^) of the sun, i.e., between east and west. In the second line, there is a Hiphil (causative) perfect form, indicating how YHWH puts far away His people’s sins. He removes them from us, virtually to the ‘other side of the world’.

The noun uv^P# essentially refers to a breach of trust, sundering the bond of relationship between two persons or parties. Implicit in the use of the term is the idea of a violation of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH, whereby His people break faith/trust, viz., by failing to live up to the terms of the covenant—the Torah precepts and regulations. In this respect, the sins that YHWH removes/forgives are defined in terms of violations of the Torah.

Verse 13

“Like (the) deep love of a father over (his) sons,
(so) YHWH has love over (those) fearing Him.”

The comparison in this second couplet is formed according to the pattern of the first (v. 12). The greatness of YHWH’s compassion and devotion, expressed in vv. 11-12 by the motif of distance (see above), is here captured through the verb <j^r* (note the alliterative wordplay with qj^r* [v. 12]). This verb essentially conveys the idea of a deep love that one person has toward another; the strong connotation is that of caring for a person, treating them with compassion, etc. The example given in line 1 is of the love that a father has for (lit. over, lu^) his sons; this example, can, of course, be rendered more inclusively, as the love a parent has for his/her children.

YHWH has similar love toward His people. The motif of Israel as YHWH’s sons/children, and He as their Father, occurs with some frequency in the Scriptures (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Hos 2:1 [1:10]; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 63:7[8]; Jer 31:9). Here the relationship is limited to, or defined in terms of, the devout/faithful ones of Israel (“[those] fearing Him”). YHWH is particularly a loving Father to those who are faithful to Him (and to the covenant).

Verse 14

“For He (indeed) knows our (very) form,
(and is) mindful that we (are but) dust.”

Here the idiom of YHWH as Father shifts to that of Creator. The two idioms are closely related, as, in ancient Near Eastern religious tradition, the Creator is often referred to as “Father”. See, in particular, Deuteronomy 32:6b for the pairing of these ideas. The noun rx#y@ (“form”) alludes to the traditional mythological image of God as an artisan who forms/fashions a vessel (or image) out of raw material—such as a potter who shapes his work out of the clay. As Creator, YHWH knows the form of each human being; in particular, He knows the form/shape of His people, including their innermost parts (cf. vv. 1ff), and so is able to create them.

The final line anticipates the Wisdom theme in the fourth stanza, emphasizing the limited and transient nature of a created human being. The reference to human beings as “dust” is traditional (Gen 2:7; 3:19, etc); the noun rp*u* can also be used for dirt in a broader sense—including the specific consistency of “mud” or “clay”, which would well fit the artisan/potter allusion here in the verse (cf. Dahood, III, p. 28).

The verb form rWkz` is a bit unusual; as a (passive) participle, or, possibly, an infinitive (cf. Dahood, III, p. 28), it functions here as a verbal adjective. The verb rk^z` is typically translated “remember”, but properly it means “have in mind” or “bring to mind”. Here the verbal adjective carries the meaning “mindful of”, emphasizing again YHWH’s care and concern for His people (cf. on the verb <j^r* in v. 13, above).

Fourth Stanza: Vv. 15-18
Verse 15

“Humanity—like (the) grass (are) its days;
like a blossom of the field, so it blossoms.”

The Wisdom-theme introduced in verse 14, continues here in vv. 15-16, emphasizing the transitory nature of human life on earth. We have seen such an emphasis in previous Psalms, including the comparison of humankind with the grass and flower of the field, that flourishes only briefly—cf. Psalm 37:2; 72:16; 90:5; 102:5[4], 12[11]; cp. Job 8:12; 14:2; Isa 40:6-8.

The noun vona$, rather more so than the parallel vya!, can refer to humankind collectively (or generally), and should be read this way here.

Verse 16

“Then (the) wind passes over him, and he is no more;
even his standing place will not recognize him any longer.”

The brief ‘blossoming’ of a human being on earth (v. 15) is contrasted with his/her vanishing. When the grass or flower has withered (and died), the wind “passes over” it, blowing it away. This aspect of the example is then applied to a human being, to illustrate how he/she ceases to exist (“he is no more”, using the negative particle of absence [or non-existence], /ya@). Even the place where that ‘flower’ stood (“his standing place”) soon will no longer recognize (vb rk^n`) him—there will be no acknowledgment that he was ever there.

Verse 17

“But (the) devotion of YHWH (is), from distant (ages past),
and until (the) distant (future), over (those) fearing Him,
and His loyalty (remains) for (the) sons of sons—”

The transitory nature of human beings (vv. 15-16) is contrasted with the lasting permanence of YHWH. In particular, His devotion and loyalty toward His people—viz. those who are faithful to the covenant (“[those] fearing Him”)—extends from the distant past all the way into the distant future. These two temporal aspects of the noun <l*ou are here combined, so as to express emphatically the idea of “forever”.

The verse has an extended 3+3+3 (tricolon) format, as is fitting for this climactic moment at the close of the hymn. A third line has been added for emphasis (and dramatic effect). It is not simply that YHWH’s devotion lasts for all time, throughout the Ages—it also applies to all the people living during that time, generation after generation (“sons of sons”).

The frequently used nouns ds#j# and hq*d*x=, due to their relatively wide range of meaning, defy easy or consistent translation. The noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”), as I have repeated noted, carries the meaning of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion” when used in the context of the covenant-bond; throughout this Psalm, I have translated it as “devotion”. The noun hq*d*x= basically means “rightness” (i.e., what is right), but the precise meaning can fluctuate depending on the specific context. Here, in light of the parallel with ds#j#, it should be understood in terms of YHWH’s loyalty toward His people (and the covenant). With regard to the covenant-bond, YHWH will always do what is right.

Verse 18

“for (those) guarding His binding (agreement),
and for (those) mindful to do His charges.”

This awkward, irregular couplet reads like a gloss on the final line of v. 17, and may represent a secondary addition to the original hymn. It effectively clarifies that YHWH’s covenant loyalty to the future generations of Israel (“sons of sons”) applies only to those who are similarly loyal to the covenant (tyr!B=, “binding agreement”). This means, of course, fulfilling the requirements and precepts of the Torah.

The suffixed noun wyd*Q%P! is virtually impossible to translate with any sort of poetic concision. The range of meaning of the root dqp, as it is used in the Scriptures, is notorious, and has long vexed translators. In this context, the plural noun <yd!Q%P! means something like “(thing)s (we are required to) attend to”, or “(thing)s (we must) take care of”. It refers to the requirements (regulations and precepts, etc) of the Torah. For lack of any better option, I have followed Allen (p. 25) in translating it as “charges” (i.e., things we are charged with doing).

Conclusion: Verses 19-22

Verse 19

“YHWH in the heavens has set firm His throne,
and (in His) Kingship He rules over all!”

This couplet is transitional, between the Hymn and the conclusion of the Psalm (vv. 20-22). The call to bless YHWH is based upon his Sovereignty over all of creation. The throne of YHWH’s Kingship is in the heavens (viz., the upper half/dome of the cosmos) which arches over the earth below, covering it completely. Thus, YHWH’s Kingship extends over all the earth (and over all humankind).

It is preferable to understand YHWH Himself (rather than “His kingdom/kingship”) as the subject of the verb lv^m* (“rule [over]”). On this point, see Dahood (III, p. 28f), who explains the apparent feminine singular form (which would agree with the noun tWkl=m^) as an archaic masculine form (qatala pattern). He adds that this form was likely used for poetic-stylistic reasons, to lengthen the syllabic count of the second line. The suggestion is intriguing, and I have tentatively followed it.

Verse 20

“Bless YHWH, (you) His Messengers,
mighty of power (and) doers of His word,
(ready) to hear at (the) voice of His word!”

The conclusion of the Psalm properly begins here with verse 20, a call to bless YHWH (using the verb Er^B*) parallel to that of vv. 1-5 (see the exegesis in Part 1). The focus in that first call was on the inward microcosm of the Psalmist’s soul. Here, the focus is on the outward macrocosm of the entire universe (viz., all of creation). He begins with the heavenly “messengers” of YHWH, the mighty (divine) beings who carry out the Creator’s wishes at His command (“word”). The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb has the plural “words” (<yr!b*D=) rather than the singular; the emphasis would then be on the individual commands, rather than a collective reference.

Metrically, the verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 21

“Bless YHWH, all (you) His armed warriors,
(those) attending to Him (and) doing His pleasure!”

A second group of divine/heavenly beings is addressed. Like the “messengers”, these beings also attend to YHWH, responding with obedience to His word, ready to carry it out. Here, the word (and will) of YHWH is expressed in terms of what delights or pleases Him (“His pleasure”).

They are specifically referred to as “armed warriors”, i.e., soldiers. This derives from an ancient militaristic tradition which viewed the heavenly beings—especially those related to the celestial and atmospheric phenomena of the natural world (e.g., sun, moon, stars, winds, rain)—as soldiers who fight at YHWH’s command (and on behalf of His people). This line of tradition was preserved in the title “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies” (toab*x= hwhy). Here the masculine plural <ya!b*x= (“armed warriors”) is used, rather than the feminine plural toab*x= (“armed forces, armies”).

Verse 22

“Bless YHWH, all (you who are) His works,
in all standing-places under His rule!
*          *         *           *         *         *
May you bless, O my soul, YHWH!”

It is possible that this final couplet, like vv. 20-21, also refers to the divine/heavenly beings. However, it would seem that the scope of the call has widened to include all creation—all created beings. As created beings, they are YHWH’s “works”. In every place where one might stand under YHWH’s rule—which is to say, everywhere on earth and in all of creation—the beings created by Him should bless YHWH, giving praise and honor to Him. The blessing is to be an acknowledgment of YHWH’s Kingship and His ruling presence and power in the universe.

The closing couplet is expanded into a tricolon (to match the initial tricolon of v. 20) by repeating the initial line of the Psalm (v. 1). Thus, in the call to worship YHWH, the macrocosm of the entire universe is joined to the microcosm of the individual worshiper’s soul.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 98

Psalm 98

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsm (vv. 4-8); 4QPsb (vv. 4-5)

This Psalm, like others in the collection of Pss 93-100, is a hymn to YHWH, in which His Kingship is praised; for more on this guiding theme, see the previous studies, esp. those on Psalms 93, 95 and 96. There is a thematic and literary interrelation between the Psalms in this collection; in particular, there is a strong relationship between Pss 96 and 98 (see below). For more detail on the common vocabulary and thematic links, see the discussion by Howard, pp. 144-50, 161-4.

Psalm 96 and 98 are quite similar, in terms of their thematic structure. Each begins with the same opening line (“Sing to YHWH a new song…!”), and has a comparable two-part structure, though Ps 98 is lacking the repetitive triad that open each part in Ps 96 (see the prior study). Verses 7-9 correspond to vv. 11-13 of Psalm 96, and the final verse has similar wording in each Psalm.

The two Psalms probably are similar in date as well. It seems more likely that Ps 98 is dependent upon Ps 96, than the other way around. A late pre-exilic or exilic date for Ps 98 is probable.

The meter of the Psalm is irregular; it tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format in the second part, but a 3+2 meter dominates the first part.

Psalm 98 and 100 are the only compositions in the collection (93-100) with a heading. Here, a single word designates the Psalm as a romz+m! (“musical composition”), the common term applied throughout the Psalter. It is not clear if this term, as applied to Ps 98 and 100, is meant to distinguish these two Psalms from the rest of collection, or, if so, in precisely what way. Perhaps the use of the root rmz in Psalm 98 (see below), led to a heading with romz+m!. The LXX adds “…(belonging) to David”.

Part 1: verses 1-3

Verse 1a

“Sing (now) to YHWH a new song,
for wonders He has done!”

As noted above, this Psalm begins with the same first line as Ps 96. The second line seems to summarize the third couplet of the opening triad of Ps 96: “Recount among the nations His weight, / (and) among all the peoples His wonders!”. Here, the call is for people to praise YHWH for the wonders He has done, using the passive plural (Niphal) participle of the verb al*P* (“be marvelous, wonderful”); the participle is being used in a substantive adjectival sense—the verb characterizing the things YHWH has done (as being wonderful/marvelous). For other occurrences in the Psalms, cf. 9:2; 26:7; 40:6[5]; 70:17[16]; 72:18; 75:2[1]; 78:4, 11, 32; 86:10; 105:2, 5, etc. A reference to the historical traditions, regarding the miracles performed by YHWH on Israel’s behalf (such as the event at the Reed Sea) throughout the people’s history, is typically in mind.

The LXX has ku/rio$ in the second line, suggesting that the Hebrew text being translated may have contained the Divine name (hwhy) in both lines.

Verse 1b

“His right hand for Him worked salvation,
indeed, (the) arm of His holiness!”

The “wonders” performed by YHWH were done by His “right hand” and His strong “(right) arm”; this idiom, occurring frequently in the Old Testament, refers to the strength/power of YHWH, particularly as it is manifested on earth (within human history). The occurrences in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:6, 12) especially come to mind; of the many occurrences in the Psalms, see, e.g., 17:7; 18:36[35]; 20:7[6]; 44:4[3]; 77:11[10]ff; 78:54; 79:11; 89:11[10], 14[13]; 136:12. The root uvy denotes giving (or receiving) help and protection, sometimes in the specific sense of saving someone from danger (or keeping them safe); however, it can also refer to gaining/obtaining victory, and that is probably the connotation that is primarily in view here.

The deeds performed by YHWH in His power/strength (i.e., with His “arm”) also reflect His holiness. Dahood (II, p. 365) argues for the basic meaning of vdq here (‘set apart’), and suggests that wvdq be pointed as a Piel verb form. The wonders performed by YHWH effectively set Him apart from all other deities (and from all human beings as well). I read the initial w-conjunction of the second line as emphatic (cf. also Howard, p. 78).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2, which generally follows that of v. 1a.

Verse 2

“YHWH has made known His salvation—
before (the) eyes of the nations,
He uncovered His righteousness.”

The saving deeds and victories which YHWH has achieved (spec. for His people) were performed “before (the) eyes of the nations” —i.e., so that all people can see and know of them; on this theme, going back to the Song the Sea, cf. Exod 15:14-16. The idea that the nations will come to acknowledge and worship YHWH as God, in part, as a result of witnessing His mighty deeds, is found frequently in the Psalms (e.g., 22:28-29 [27-28]; 45:18[17]; 46:11[10]; 67:3[2]ff; 72:11, 17; 86:9). Psalm 98 shares with Ps 96 this universal aspect of YHWH’s Kingship.

This verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, building upon the earlier 3+2 couplet(s).

Verse 3a

“He has kept in mind His loyalty <to Ya’aqob>,
and His firmness to (the) house of Yisrael.”

YHWH’s saving deeds, witnessed by the nations, reflect His loyalty and devotion (ds#j#) to Israel. He has “kept in mind” (vb rk^z`) this covenant-loyalty which He shows to His people; this entails providing protection and keeping them safe (from danger and enemies, etc). The noun hn`Wma$ literally means “firmness”, but is used often in the sense of “faithfulness, loyalty”; it occurs quite frequently in the Psalms (22 times, out of 49 OT occurrences), and is often paired (or in parallel) with ds#j#.

The MT reading of the verb rk^z` (as a perfect form) is to be preferred over Dahood’s suggestion (II, p. 365) of vocalizing it as an imperative (cf. Howard, p. 78f); this is in keeping with the tenses of vv. 1-3. Also the poetic sense (and parallelism) of the couplet is better served by following the LXX (over the MT), and including bquyl (“to Jacob”, par with “to the house of Israel” in the first line). Unfortunately, the surviving portions of the two Qumran manuscripts which preserve the Psalm do not include v. 3.

The verse, as restored, is a 3-beat (3+3) couplet. If one were to follow the MT, the verse would read as another 3+2 couplet, in keeping with the rhythm of this part of the Psalm:

“He kept in mind His loyalty and firmness
to (the) house of Yisrael.”

Verse 3b

“All (the) ends of the earth have seen
(the) salvation of our Mighty (One)!”

The idea of the nations witnessing the mighty saving deeds of YHWH (v. 2) is repeated here, in dramatic fashion, at the close of the first part. The universal aspect of this motif is further emphasized by the expression “all (the) ends of the earth”. YHWH, is, of course, the “Mightiest (One)” (<yh!l)a$), the greatest God and King, and the God (“Mighty [One]”) worshiped by Israel. This part of the Psalm foreshadows the idea that all the nations will come to worship YHWH as King.

Part 2: Verses 4-9

The second part of this Psalm is considerably longer than the first, and can be divided into two distinct sections—vv. 4-6 and 7-9.

Verse 4

“Raise a shout to YHWH, all the earth!
Sparkle, and sing out, and make music!”

Here, at the beginning of the second part, the call to sing praise to YHWH (par verse 1) is addressed to “all the earth”; this matches the reference to “all the ends of the earth” at the end of the first part (v. 3). All of the nations are urged (and expected) to worship YHWH with a joyful “shout” (vb u^Wr). The second line makes clear that this involves bright and joyful music. The chain of three verbs basically expresses a single idea in this regard: “be bright (i.e., gleam/sparkle)” [vb jx^P*] and “ring/sing out” [vb /n~r*], “making music” [vb rm^z`].

The three-beat (3+3) couplet form of this verse indicates a metrical shift in the Psalm, from the 3+2 meter (more or less) in the first part.

Verse 5

“Make music to YHWH on (the) harp,
on a harp and (with) voice of music!”

The basic idea of verse 4 is given more specific expression here in v. 5—people are to “make music” to YHWH, with the harp, and also using the harp (roNK!) to accompany singing with the voice. The roNK! is usually understood to be a lyre (small triangular-shaped harp) or zither.

Verse 6

“With the trumpets and voice of (the) horn,
shout before (the) face of the King, YHWH!”

Verse 6 obviously follows the thought of v. 5, the two verses forming an inclusio. Though obscured by my translation above, the meter of this verse (in the MT) is an irregular 3+4 couplet, suggesting the possibility that either El#M#h^ (“the King”) or the Divine name (hwhy) has been added to what was (originally) a 3+3 couplet. The two Qumran manuscripts containing this verse are fragmentary, but the spacing of the line in 4QPsm suggests that it corresponds to the text of the MT.

The Kingship of YHWH is, as we have seen, the guiding theme of the entire collection (of Pss 93-100).

Verse 7

“Let the sea thunder and (all) its fullness,
(the) land and (all those) dwelling in it!”

As noted above, verses 7-9 mark a distinct unit in the second part of the Psalm, and corresponds to vv. 11-13 in Psalm 96. In both Psalms, the call for the nations to worship YHWH is expanded to cover all of creation. This cosmic orientation is clearer in Psalm 96, which begins with a call to “heaven and earth”, but including, as here, the sea (with its thundering roar/crash). The earth is in focus here in v. 7—both the sea (<y`) and the dry land (lb@T@) where people dwell (vb bv^y`, lit. “sit”). The inhabited earth/land is called to follow the sea’s example in “thundering” (vb <u^r*) its praise to YHWH. As King over the entire universe, such praise is worthy and fitting for Him.

Verse 8

“Let (the) river-streams clap (their) palm(s),
(as) one let (the) mountains ring out (praise)!—”

Again, as in verse 7, there is a juxtaposition of the sea and dry land—here expressed by the specific localization in the “streams” and “hills/mountains”. The imagery here corresponds to that of Psalm 96:12 (cf. Isa 55:12). The entire natural world, all of creation, gives praise to YHWH.

Verse 9

“before (the) face of YHWH, for He is coming!
<For He is coming> to judge the earth!
He shall judge the land with rightness,
and the peoples by His firmness!”

As in Ps 96:11-13, the main reason for the rejoicing of creation is that YHWH is coming to the earth, to bring judgment upon it. As Sovereign (King) over the universe, YHWH also functions as supreme Judge, whose decisions are decisive and binding. There is a clear allusion here (and in Psalm 96) to the Prophetic theme of the (eschatological) judgment of the nations—an extension and development of the “day of YHWH” theme. If a late pre-exilic date for these Psalms is correct, then this would represent an early (and rudimentary) example of the universal “day of YHWH” —viz., a time when God judges all the nations together, collectively. Here, this is expressed more generally, in cosmological terms (“He is coming to judge the earth”); however, in the final two lines, a distinction is made between judging the inhabited land, and judging its inhabitants.

The wording of these lines is quite similar to that of Ps 96:13. The similarity allows one, with some measure of confidence, to restore the doubled ab* yK! (“for He is coming”). Beyond the parallel with Psalm 96, the poetic sense, syntax, and rhythm of the verse seems to require the restoration. Unfortunately, the two Qumran manuscripts do not preserve any of verse 9.

The “right(eous)ness” and “firmness” with which YHWH judges corresponds with the “loyalty” and “firmness” (same noun, hn`Wma$) He shows toward Israel (v. 3a). The terms qd#x# and hn`Wma$, in the judicial context of rendering judgment, connote the ideals of justice, fairness, and equity.

In its restored form the verse is comprised of a 3+3 couplet, followed by a shortened 3+2 couplet.

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 “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 97

Psalm 97

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsm (vv. 6-9)

This Psalm, like others in the collection of Pss 93-100, is a hymn to YHWH, in which His Kingship is praised; for more on this guiding theme, see the previous studies, esp. those on Psalms 93, 95 and 96. There is a thematic and literary interrelation between the Psalms in this collection; in particular, there seems to be a strong relationship between Psalms 97 and 99, as between Pss 96 and 98. For more detail on the common vocabulary and thematic links, see the discussion by Howard, pp. 155-61; cf. also the notice by Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 477.

Nearly all commentators recognize a clear break and structural distinction between vv. 1-9 and 10-12. Verses 1-9 contain the hymn proper, while vv. 10-12 represent an addition to the hymn, an exhortation for the righteous, influenced by Wisdom traditions. As we have seen in prior studies, the closing sections of Psalms often contain such a Wisdom-emphasis, suggesting a certain development. Earlier compositions were likely adapted in various ways for use in communal worship and for a didactic (teaching) purpose.

Doubtless verses 1-6 represent the oldest part of the composition, and may themselves comprise an early hymn to YHWH. These verses utilize the language and imagery of storm-theophany traditions, as applied to YHWH. God is seen as manifest in the storm. The mythic elements are cosmological, relating to YHWH’s role as the Creator. In particular, there are allusions to the cosmological myth of the Deity’s defeat of the primal waters; in subduing the waters, God brings about an ordered cosmos capable of sustaining life. He also exercises control over the waters, resulting in the regulation of the storms and rains which are necessary for agriculture, etc, and the functioning of human society. The archetype of God’s victory over the unruly waters is made to apply to the defeat of human enemies and adversaries as well; the storm-theophany language, as here in this Psalm, can be used to depict YHWH’s exercise of His ruling power over the nations. For more on the background of this mythic imagery, see my article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”. Psalm 29 (cf. the earlier study) is the perhaps prime biblical example of this imagery used in poetry.

The storm-theophany hymn in vv. 1-6 can be divided into two parts: two stanzas (vv. 2-3, 4-5) framed by an introductory (v. 1) and closing (v. 6) couplet. Verses 7-9 build upon the core hymn, introducing a theme that occurs through others in the collection (cf. the previous study on Ps 96)—namely, YHWH’s superiority over the other deities worshiped by the nations. This is part of a broader thematic emphasis on the universal scope of YHWH’s Kingship, which extends to all of the nations on earth. Eventually, YHWH will replace the deities they currently worship, and they all will come to recognize Him as their King and God. There is a certain rudimentary eschatological orientation to this theology, similar to, but not nearly as developed as, that of the Deutero- (and Trito-) Isaian poems (chaps. 40-66), or in the book of Zechariah, for example.

This Psalm, like others in the collection, probably was originally composed in the late pre-exilic period. This applies at least to the core hymn of vv. 1-9, while vv. 2-5 may represent older material. The Psalm, as a whole, may date to the exilic (or even post-exilic) period, as is suggested by the Wisdom-orientation in vv. 10-12.

The meter of Psalm 97 is irregular, but it tends to follow a three-beat (3+3) couplet format, with a few three-beat (3+3+3) tricola as well. Other irregular verses will be noted.

Part 1: verses 1-6

Verse 1

“YHWH is King! Let the earth twirl (in joy)!
Let (the) many coast-lands be glad!”

This 4+3 couplet begins the hymn to YHWH. The thematic emphasis on YHWH’s Kingship is stated explicitly in the initial half-line (cp. the first two words of 93:1). The verb El^m* (“be king, rule/reign [as king]”) carries a relatively wide range of nuance, depending on the context. Based on the cosmological context of the storm-theophany language in vv. 2-5 (see above), the declaration in v. 1 could allude to the establishment of YHWH’s rule over the universe (cp. Psalm 93); cf. the translation by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 468), “YHWH has become King”.

Here the term Jr#a# (“earth, land”) refers properly to the disc/cylinder—i.e., the flat surface of the earth (the lower half of the cosmos) where human beings dwell. In particular, the extent of the dry land which forms the territory for each nation, would seem to be in view. The parallel with the “coastlands” (<yY]a!) in the second line brings out this delimiting scope.

Every territory of the inhabited earth is called upon to rejoice because YHWH rules as King. The verb lyG] (“circle [round]”) denotes a specific motion (spinning, twirling) that expresses joy and celebration. By contrast, the verb jm^c* refers to an attitude of joyfulness (“be glad/happy”).

Verse 2

“Cloud and darkness surround Him—
rightness and judgment (are)
(the) fixed place of His throne!”

The storm-theophany language/imagery is introduced here: YHWH is surrounded by the dark storm-cloud. For this use of lp#r*u&, denoting a heavy darkness in the sky/clouds, cf. Exod 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:22; Psalm 18:10[9] [2 Sam 22:10]; it tends to be paired with /n`u* (“cloud”), as a hendiadys (i.e., dark cloud[s]).

This storm-imagery reflects YHWH’s ruling presence and power as King, as is clear from the following lines. The verse can be read as an irregular 3+4 couplet, but I prefer to parse it as a 3+2+2 tricolon. While the mighty storm-clouds—representing YHWH’s control over the waters (cf. above)—surround Him, the throne upon which He sits (i.e., beneath Him) is founded firmly upon right(eous)ness and sound/fair judgment (i.e., justice). On this motif of the firmness of YHWH’s throne, and thus also of His rule, see Ps 93:2; it is a theme that runs through Psalm 89 (vv. 3[2], 5-8[4-7], 14[13] etc).

An allusion to YHWH’s judgment of the nations is thus introduced here, by this pairing of the storm-theophany language with the idea of the justice by which YHWH rules as King. See verse 3 (below).

Verse 3

“Fire (from) before His face proceeds,
and it blazes, circling Him round about.”

The MT of the second line apparently reads: “and it burns (up) His adversaries round about”. This would be in accord with the Judgment-theme mentioned above (on v. 2). However, Dahood (II, p. 361) makes a strong case for reading wyr*x% (= wyr*Wx), as derived from the root rwx I, “surround, encircle”. He treats it as a noun meaning “back”; but it might be better to regard it as a verbal noun from rWx I. The imagery of a fire surrounding YHWH makes a suitable parallel to the dark cloud that surrounds Him (v. 2, line 1); both are components of the storm-theophany—i.e., lightning coming from the dark storm clouds. For similar parallelism of fire being present both in front and behind, cf. Joel 2:3; a closer parallel to the scene depicted here is found in Psalm 50:3.

Verse 4

“His flashes light up (the whole) world—
(all) the earth sees (it) and writhes!”

As was implied above, the “fire” that surrounds YHWH, coming from the dark storm-clouds, is lightning (lit. “flashes” [of lightning]). These flashes light up the entire inhabited world (lb@T@), and cause the whole earth (and all its inhabitants) rightly to tremble (lit. “twist, writhe”) at the sight of it.

Verse 5

“(The) mountains like wax do melt away,
from before (the) face of YHWH,
before (the) face of (the) Lord of all (the) earth!”

This couplet (lines 1 + 3) has been expanded, for dramatic effect, by the inclusion of a short second line, creating a repetitive effect. Metrically, this yields a 3+2+3 tricolon. All the earth trembles with fear when YHWH manifests Himself (in the storm), as stated in v. 3 (above). Even the great mountains melt or dissolve (vb ss^m*), like mere wax, out of fear, when YHWH comes to be present on earth in this awesome way.

Verse 6

“The heavens put out front His rightness,
and all the peoples can see His weight!”

As in verse 2, at the beginning of the storm-theophany imagery, the cosmic aspect of the storm (with its awesomeness) is blended together with the idea of the justice (and right judgment) of YHWH in His rule as King. The noun qd#x#, (“right[eous]ness”), repeated from verse 2, brings out this aspect of justice. As YHWH manifests Himself in the storm, He also reveals His righteousness and justice—and the impending judgment that He brings upon the earth. This is primarily manifest in the heavens, and thus the heavens effectively “put (this) out front” (vb dg~n`) so that everyone can see and recognize it. Indeed, all the peoples on earth see the “weight” (dobK*), i.e., the awesome presence (splendor/glory), of YHWH, as He appears for Judgment.

Part 2: Verses 7-9

Verse 7

“May all serving a carved image be put to shame,
th(ose) boasting in the powerless (one)s!
(For) all (the) mighty (one)s bow down to Him!”

The storm-theophany reveals YHWH as the Creator and King of the universe. This sets Him apart from all the other divine beings (“mighty [one]s”, ‘gods’) that the peoples/nations worship. These other deities are designated as <yl!yl!a$, a term (lyl!a$) which means “weak, powerless”. And, indeed, the other divine beings are weak and powerless in comparison to YHWH; they are forced to bow down to YHWH, in submission to Him, recognizing His superiority and His Kingship. The adjective lyl!a$ can also carry the more derogatory connotation of “worthless, useless”, and so it came to be used, in this harsher sense, of the pagan gods (worshiped by the nations)—and, in particular, their images (‘idols’). The use of lyl!a$ here, as in the prior Psalm 96 (v. 5), does not yet have the full negative force that the term would carry; even so, the idea of venerating carved images of these “weak” deities is clearly disparaged and condemned.

Even though the plural noun <yh!l)a$ (as a true plural) is typically translated “gods”, its fundamental meaning, as I regularly render it, is something like “mighty (one)s”. Assuming that the Psalmist (and his/her audience) was cognizant of this basic meaning, there is presumably an ironic juxtaposition here between the terms <yl!yl!a$ and <yh!l)a$, which is enhanced by the alliterative effect. The gods thought to be “mighty ones” (°§lœhîm) are actually “weak ones” (°§lîlîm).

Metrically, this verse is a 3+2+3 tricolon, much like verse 5 (see above).

Verse 8

‚iyyôn heard (of it) and was glad,
and (the) daughters of Yehudah twirled,
as a result of your judgments, YHWH.”

Assuming that verse 8 should be understood in the context of v. 7, then the imprecation, against those worshiping carved images of (other) deities, presumably anticipates YHWH’s judgment against the nations. Almost certainly, this judgment entails the submission (and/or conversion) of the nations, so that they will come to worship YHWH, as their God and King, rather than the other weak and powerless deities they previously venerated. This, indeed, would be cause for Jerusalem (Zion) and Judah to rejoice.

The same pair of verbs—jm^c* and lyG!—from verse 1 is used here. The verb forms could similarly be rendered here with precative/jussive force (i.e., “let Zion be glad…”); however, it seems that they are best treated as indicatives. It demonstrates the effect of YHWH’s judgments on the righteous ones of Judah and Jerusalem.

Verse 9

“For you, YHWH, (are the) Most High,
over all the earth, (the) Most (High),
(to be) raised high over all Mighty (one)s!”

The Psalmist, speaking with the voice of the righteous ones (see v. 8), declares what the nations, facing YHWH’s judgment, are only now coming to realize: that YHWH is the Most High, the Ruler over all the cosmos, and greatest (King) over all other divine beings. This was the point made, in a more polemical fashion, in verse 7 (see above); here it is cast in traditional religious and theological terms.

All three lines play on the idea of YHWH as the highest, utilizing, in various ways, the root hlu (“go up, ascend”). First, in line 1, there is the traditional Divine title /oylu# (“Highest [One], Most High”). The same is stated in line 2, using the preposition lu^ (“over, above”), along with the term da)m= (“much, exceedingly”), here apparently as a Divine title or epithet—i.e., “Might[iest]”, “Great [One]”, or perhaps “Most (High)”. Then, in line 3, the preposition lu^ follows a passive (Niphal) form of the verb hl*u*, as a Divine epithet (“[to be] lifted high”), indicating that YHWH is worthy of being exalted with praise and worship.

Part 3: Verses 10-12

Verse 10

“(You, the one)s loving YHWH, shall hate evil!
(He is the One) guarding (the) souls of His devoted,
(and) He snatches them from (the) hand of (the) wicked.”

There is a certain awkwardness to this tricolon, opening the final section of the Psalm, which also makes it somewhat difficult to translate. Many commentators choose to emend the first line, in different ways. However, the line, as it stands in the MT, forms a valid parallel with verse 12: the “righteous ones” (v. 12a) are those who love YHWH (“[one]s loving YHWH”) and are devoted to Him (“His devoted [one]s”). The call (imperative of an@v*) is for the righteous to hate what is evil. Given the context of vv. 7-9 (see above), the “evil” here could refer specifically to idolatry and the worship of deities other than YHWH. The adjective dys!j* (“good”) often connotes devotion and loyalty (that is, loyalty to the covenant with YHWH), and frequently so in the Psalms. Central to the covenant is the idea that the people of Israel are to recognize and worship YHWH alone as their God and King.

The flip side of the covenant bond—YHWH’s devotion to Israel—entails the principle that YHWH, as the Sovereign, is to provide protection for those who are loyal to Him. This theme of Divine protection appears frequently in the Psalms, expressed through a variety of terms, images, and motifs. It is clearly expressed here as well: YHWH will “guard” the souls (i.e., the lives) of those who are devoted to Him, and will “snatch” them out of danger when the “wicked (one)s” threaten or attack. This contrast, between the righteous and wicked, runs throughout many Psalms; it is also central to ancient Israelite Wisdom traditions.

Verse 11

“Light is sown for the righteous (one),
and gladness for (the) straight of heart.”

If protection for the righteous is part of YHWH’s covenant obligation, there is also the promise of blessing and reward. Here the Divine blessing comes in the form of “light” (line 1), as symbolic of life and salvation, truth and knowledge, but also the very presence of YHWH Himself. The latter may be foremost in mind, given the theophany context of the hymn in vv. 1-6, with its imagery of “fire” and “flashes” of lightning, etc.

If the verb ur^z` is original, then the idea may that YHWH ‘scatters’ light to the faithful, dispersing it to them the way that a farmer scatters seed. Many commentators, following the ancient versions, emend the verb to jr^z` (“shine, rise”), making an obvious and natural fit for the subject of light. Retaining the verb ur^z`, it may be that the intended scenario is that of the righteous coming to dwell in a ‘field’ of light, like the Elysian Fields of Greek myth, or the heavenly marshlands of Egyptian myth. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 362, for a different way of reading this line, but in keeping with the idea of a heavenly ‘field’ of blessedness for the righteous.

Obviously, such Divine blessing will produce gladness (hj*m=c!) and joy for the one who receives it.

Verse 12

“Be glad, (you) righteous (one)s, in YHWH,
and give thanks, invoking His holy (name)!”

This section, and the Psalm itself, closes with this couplet calling on the righteous, both to rejoice in their bond with YHWH, and to worship Him, giving praise to Him in a manner worthy of His greatness and holiness. The prepositional expression rk#z@l= is a bit difficult to translate, in a concise and poetic way. The noun rk#z@ denotes the mention that one makes of a person or thing, but particularly, in a religious context, to the utterance (invocation) of a name. Here, it is the name of YHWH, referring to His attributes and deeds both, in a comprehensive sense. Through praise, the righteous call to mind the wonders and saving deeds performed by YHWH, as well as His own righteousness, faithfulness, holiness, power, etc, and all that makes Him worthy of our worship and honor.

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).
Those marked “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 96

Psalm 96

Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsa (vv. 1-2); 4QPsb (v. 2)

This Psalm, like the previous Ps 95 (esp. in its first half, see the prior study), is a hymn to YHWH, in which His Kingship is praised. This, indeed, is the guiding theme of the entire collection of Pss 93-100. For analysis of the similarities between Psalm 96 and the following Pss 97-100, examining common vocabulary and thematic connections, see the study by Howard, pp. 141-55. There seems to be a particularly strong relationship between Psalm 96 and 98.

Psalm 96 has a clear strophic structure, being one of the most consistently strophic of all the Psalms. There are two parallel strophes, which are quite similar (but not identical) in structure and meter. Each strophe is comprised of two sections—(1) a call to worship (vv. 1-3, 7-9), followed by (2) a verse-section describing and extolling the Kingship of YHWH (vv. 4-6, 11-13). Each call to worship begins with a parallelistic tricolon invoking praise for YHWH. The verse-sections are different in tone but similar in theme. However the second section is longer, more dramatic, and is preceded by an additional verse (v. 10) emphasizing YHWH’s Kingship over the entire cosmos.

As for the date of this Psalm, there are no definite indicators, other than the fact that it was known by the author(s) of the Chronicles, since it is quoted (in part) in 1 Chron 16:23-33. Comparison with Psalm 95, and others in the collection (93-100), suggest a pre-exilic date, though perhaps at a relatively later point in the monarchic period. Thematic comparisons have been made with the Deutero-Isaian poems, but they are, it would seem, too general to be decisive. The parallelistic tricola in vv. 1-2a and 7-8a, which remind one of 93:3-4, reflect a poetic technique and style with ancient roots in Canaanite poetry (cf. the earlier note on 93:3-4).

Interestingly, the LXX sets the Psalm in the post-exilic (Second Temple) period. Though there is no heading or superscription for Psalm 96 in the Hebrew, the LXX (Ps 95) contains a heading which reads: “When the house [i.e. the Temple] was built after the captivity. A song belonging to David”. The Davidic attribution is obviously anachronistic for the time indicated; perhaps it was meant as “a song for David”, or “…dedicated to David”.

Metrically, the Psalm is comprised almost entirely of tricola—4-beat (4+4+4), 3-beat (3+3+3), and a few with mixed/irregular meter. The meter is not entirely consistent, in spite of the strong strophic structure of the composition.

First Strophe: verses 1-6

Verses 1-3

The first section in each strophe represents a call to worship, calling on people to give praise and honor to YHWH, the King of the universe. The section is comprised of a pair of tricola.

Verse 1-2a

“Sing to YHWH a new song!
Sing to YHWH, all the earth!
Sing to YHWH, bless His name!”

Each line of this tricolon consists of four short beats. This is one of the few instances where a literal translation (in English) of a Psalm verse generally matches the rhythm of the Hebrew. Each line begins hwhyl^ Wryv!, “Sing to YHWH…!” The Psalmist calls on all people (“all the land/earth”)—and certainly all the Israelite/Judean people—to give praise to YHWH. This praise includes giving honor (and homage) to YHWH as King: “bless His name”, with the allusion to bending the knee that is implicit in the verb Er^B*.

The “new song” is probably to be understood as this Psalm itself, as Dahood notes (II, p. 357). The wording also appears in Isa 42:10, in a comparable context, emphasizing the universal reign and Sovereignty of YHWH, and calling on all people, everywhere, to worship Him. The aspect of newness may, in accordance with the theme of the Psalm as a whole, reflect the idea that YHWH is now exercising His Kingship over all the nations, and not just over His people Israel. In this regard, note the strong Judgment emphasis in the second strophe (vv. 11-13).

Verse 2b-3

“Announce from day to day His salvation,
recount among the nations His weight,
(and) among all the peoples His wonders!”

This second tricolon has 3-beat lines, though it is difficult to bring this across in English, compared with the rendering of the 4-beat lines in verse 1-2a (above). Also, it lacks the repetitive parallelism of the first tricolon; though it retains a synonymous parallelism—between lines 1 and 2, and again between lines 2 and 3. After the initial call to worship, this tricolon gives more information as to what this worship should entail. Three different things are to be extolled:

    • “His salvation” —that is, YHWH’s saving and protective acts, on behalf of His people (i.e., those who are faithful to Him)
    • “His weight [dobK*]” —i.e., His power, splendor, and glory, all that makes YHWH worthy to be praised; His actions, on behalf of His people, etc, demonstrate His “weight”.
    • “His wonders” —lit. “wondrous (deed)s”, “wonderful (thing)s”, utilizing the Niphal (passive) participle of the verb (al*P*).

These things are to be praised among all the nations and peoples (lines 2 & 3). Dahood (II, p. 357a) suggests that the Hebrew in the first line should be read as “from sea [<y`] to sea”, rather than “from day [<oy] to day”. This would, indeed, better suit the parallelism of the tricolon, since “from sea to sea” is geographically comparable to “among (all) the nations/peoples”. His explanation of how the MT reading came about, is intriguing. However, I would hesitate to adopt his proposal, particularly since the MT phrase (“from day to day”), as it stands, provides a fitting parallel to the motif of a new song, in the first line of the first tricolon.

Verses 4-6

The verse-section of the first strophe expounds the reason that YHWH is to be worshiped, beyond what was already stated in v. 2b-3 (see above). He is to be praised because He is the King of all the universe, and the greatest of all Divine beings. On this theme, cf. the previous study on Ps 95:1-7c (esp. verse 3).

Verse 4-5a

“For great (is) YHWH, and much (to) be praised;
(to) be feared (is) He, over all (the) Mighty (one)s,
for all Mighty (one)s of the peoples (are) weak!”

This first tricolon (4-beat) generally matches that of the first section (v. 1-2a, cf. above). Thematically, however, it builds upon the preceding v. 2b-3, alluding to the universal scope of YHWH’s Kingship—i.e., over all the nations and peoples on earth. In extending His Kingship over all the nations, YHWH is displacing those deities which the nations previously worshiped (as their sovereign[s]).

Continuing from v. 2b-3, YHWH’s greatness is again extolled, as making Him both worthy to be praised by all people, and to be feared by them. Passive participles (Pual and Niphal) of the verbs ll^h* (“show/give praise”) and ar*y` (“fear”) are used to reflect this characteristic of YHWH—viz., of being worthy of praise and fear. In particular, YHWH is to be feared more than all other “mighty (one)s” (gods/deities), since He is the greatest and King over them all. This point was stated most clearly in 95:3 (see the previous study).

The final line is perhaps prone to misunderstanding, and here it is best to keep to a literal rendering. The Psalmist declares that all of the deities (“Mighty [one]s”) worshiped by the nations are <yl!yl!a$. The substantive (adjectival) noun lyl!a$ basically means someone (or something) that is “weak, powerless” (cp. Akkadian ul¹lu). The term can be used in a more derogatory sense, as “useless, worthless”; and, indeed, in this way the plural <yl!yl!a$ came to designate the pagan deities as “worthless” idols. Probably the full force of this derogatory usage is not intended here by the Psalmist; rather, more likely, he is simply declaring that the other deities (of the nations) are weak and impotent in comparison with YHWH.

Verse 5b-6

“But (indeed) YHWH, He made (the) heavens;
might and splendor (are) before His face,
strength and beauty (are) in His holy place!”

The second tricolon as a shorter 3-beat meter, comparable to the second tricolon of the opening section (v. 2b-3, see above). The contrast, between YHWH and the other deities (v. 4-5a), continues here. YHWH is the Creator—He it is who made the heavens, and all of the heavenly beings as well. It is because of His role as Creator, primarily, that YHWH has Sovereign rule over all the universe.

The final two lines are parallel, and could be taken as a couplet in their own right. The noun pair “might and splendor” (alliterative rd*h*w+ doh) is parallel with “strength and beauty”, both being similar in meaning. All power and splendor belong to YHWH, in His greatness. This may allude to the fact that all other Divine/heavenly beings must come before YHWH, in homage and submission to Him. They stand before Him (as King) in His “holy place” —i.e., His heavenly throne (room) and sanctuary.

Second Strophe: Verses 7-13

Verses 7-9

The first section of the second strophe is a call to worship, matching that of the first strophe (cf. above).

Verse 7-8a

“Give to YHWH, (you) clans of the peoples,
give to YHWH (all) weight and strength,
give to YHWH (the) weight (due) His name!”

The repetitive parallelism of this 4-beat tricolon, matches that of v. 1-2a (see above). Instead of the imperative Wryv! (“sing…!”), here it is Wbh* (from the verb bh^y`, “give”), in the specific context of giving praise and honor to YHWH—a gift that is worthy of His Kingship. Again, it is all the peoples on earth who are called to worship YHWH; specifically, all the “families” (or “clans”) of the different peoples are called. Again, the noun dobK* (“weight”) is used, in the sense of the worth of YHWH—i.e., that which makes Him worthy of being praised, His strength and splendor, etc. The honor and worship that the peoples give to YHWH must be worthy of His name—that is, worthy of He Himself, who He is, as Creator and King of the universe, greatest of all Divine/heavenly beings.

Verse 8b-9

“Carry a gift and come (in)to His enclosures!
Bow to YHWH at the splendor of His holiness,
writhe from (before) His face, all the earth!”

This second tricolon continues the call to worship, and generally matches that of the first strope (v. 2b-3). The theme of giving honor (vb bh^y`) to YHWH, from the first tricolon, is picked up here, with the concrete image of people bearing a gift (hj*n+m!) and coming into the “enclosures” of YHWH’s palace. In verse 6, the heavenly sanctuary (“holy place”) of YHWH was referenced; here, it would seem that the earthly sanctuary (of the Jerusalem Temple) is in view. Moreover the noun hj*n+m! is frequently used in the specific cultic sense of a sacrificial offering. The imagery thus suggests that the nations are giving worship to YHWH much the same way that the people of Israel/Judah do, with sacrificial offerings presented in the Temple precincts. On the prophetic (and eschatological) theme of the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship YHWH, see my earlier article in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Like the Divine/heavenly beings who appear before YHWH in His heavenly sanctuary, the representatives of the nations pay homage to Him in His earthly temple. They bow down before him in fear and reverence, recognizing His Sovereignty. The fear is palpable, as all people on earth are called to tremble (lit. “twist, writhe”) in His presence. Most likely there is an allusion here to the theme of vv. 11-13—YHWH’s appearance upon the earth, bringing the Judgment.

Verse 10

“Say among the nations, ‘YHWH rules as King!’
Surely the world is fixed, it cannot be shaken—
He judges (the) peoples with straightness!”

I regard verse 10 as supplemental to the poetic structure of the Psalm, and as transitional between the two parts of the second strophe (cf. Howard, p. 65f). Its inclusion adds suspense and dramatic effect to the strophe, building toward the Judgment-scene depicted in vv. 11-13. Here, the Psalmist is directly addressing the Israelite people, urging them to take a part in calling on the nations to worship YHWH. They are to declare YHWH’s Kingship (“YHWH rules as King [vb El^m*]!”), and His role as Judge over all people. Just as He fixed the earth (here lb@T@ for the inhabited surface), setting it firmly in place within the cosmos (‘heaven and earth’), so He renders judgment in a firm and fair manner, lit. “with straightness”. The plural of the noun rv*ym@ (“straightness”) could mean specifically “straight [i.e. fair/just] judgments”, though it is perhaps best to read it as a comprehensive or intensive plural, i.e., “with complete fairness”. Cf. Psalm 93:1 for similar language and imagery to what we have here in v. 10.

Metrically, verse 10 is an irregular (4+4+3) tricolon.

Verses 11-13
Verses 11-12a

“Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar and (all) its fullness,
let (the) field clamor, and all that is in it!”

YHWH’s greatness over the other Divine/heavenly beings was emphasized in the first tricolon of the verse-section of the first strophe (vv. 4-5a, cf. above); here, His authority over the cosmos itself (“heaven and earth”) is in view. The call to worship YHWH (from vv. 7-9f) is extended to all of creation. Specifically, world of nature is called to rejoice, expressed by four different verbs in the three lines. In the first line, the basic verb jm^c* (“be glad/happy”) is used, along with lyG] (“spin/circle [joyously]”), which, for poetic concision, I have translated above simply as “rejoice”. The sea is then asked to “roar” (or “crash”, <u^r*) joyously, while, similarly, the “field” (i.e., dry land) to make a joyful noise (or clamor, vb zl^u*).

The meter of this tricolon is slightly irregular (4+3+4).

Verse 12b-13b

“Then shall ring out all (the) trees of (the) thicket,
before (the) face of YHWH—for He comes!
For He comes to render Judgment (on) the earth!”

In this second tricolon, the theme of the rejoicing of nature (from the first tricolon, v. 11-12a) blends into an announcement of the coming of YHWH to judge the earth. This explains, belatedly, why all of nature is asked to rejoice—it is in anticipation of the coming Judgment. The initial adverbial particle za* indicates the specific moment (“then, at that time”) when YHWH appears. This would seem to be an early example of the theme, found throughout the later (exilic and post-exilic) Prophets, in which the “day of YHWH” motif—the time when God judges (and punishes) a specific people—is expanded to cover an (eschatological) judgment of all the nations, collectively. The motif of the trees rejoicing is found elsewhere, famously, in Isaiah 55:12.

Verse 13cd

“He shall judge (the) world with righteousness,
and (the) peoples with His firmness!”

I regard this final (3+2) couplet—the only couplet which I identify as such in this Psalm—as supplemental, used to bring the strophe, and the Psalm itself, to a conclusion. It builds upon the Judgment-theme in vv. 12b-13b, emphasizing YHWH’s action in rendering Judgment (vb fp^v*) upon all the world. It is specifically the inhabited earth (lb@T@), with all its people, that is judged.

The “straightness” (i.e., fairness) of YHWH in bringing judgment (see v. 10, above) is again mentioned here—i.e., that He judges with justice and equity. This aspect of YHWH’s role as Judge is expressed with traditional religious terminology, using the pair of nouns qd#x# and hn`Wma$. The former noun means “right(eous)ness”, but sometimes with the social-legal connotation of “justice”; it can also connote the idea of faithfulness and loyalty. The latter noun (hn`Wma$) properly means “firmness”, which is a suitable parallel for the “straightness” (rv*ym@) of YHWH in rendering judgment. The noun is often used in the covenantal context of God’s faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., to the covenant bond), and frequently so in the Psalms.

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 “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 95

Psalm 95

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsm (vv. 3-7); 1QPsa (v. 11)

This Psalm has a clear two-part structure: (1) a hymn to YHWH extolling His Kingship (vv. 1-7c), and (2) a prophetic oracle (vv. 7d-11) exhorting the Israelite people to faithfulness. There are a number of Psalms in which YHWH is the speaker, in a certain section, implying that the Psalmist is functioning in the manner of a prophet. Note, for example, Psalm 50 and 81, which Hossfeld-Zenger (pp. 459-60) compare with Ps 95. Parallels with the Deuteronomic ‘Song of Moses’ (Deut 32) have also been noted (cf. Howard, pp. 60-1); indeed, the two poems share the emphases on YHWH’s Kingship and on the need for the people to learn from the example of the earlier Wilderness-generation. The didactic and exhortational orientation of the Psalm, in light of its second part, seems clear.

A pre-exilic date for the Psalm seems likely, particularly if verses 2 and 6 allude to a ritual setting for the Psalm in connection with the Temple. The Kingship-theme would, of course, also be most suitable to the monarchic period. This Kingship-theme tends to characterize the collection of Pss 93-100 as a whole; on the thematic and vocabulary links between Psalm 95 and the following Pss 96-99, in particular, see the discussion by Howard (pp. 131-41).

Structurally, verses 6-7c belong to the hymn in the first part; however, they can also be seen as transitional to the oracle that follows. The call to worship in v. 6 is formally parallel to the opening call of v. 1, while the tricolon of v. 7a-c anticipates the theme of the Israelite people as a flock of sheep in the wilderness, who refused to be guided by YHWH (v. 10).

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a three-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are exceptions (which are noted below).

Part 1 (Hymn): Verses 1-7c

Verse 1

“Come, let us (all) ring out (praise) to YHWH,
let us raise a shout to (the) Rock of our salvation!”

This opening couplet represents a call to worship, which could indicate a specific ritual setting. The invocation in verse 6 is parallel in form, and effectively serves to frame the hymn to YHWH (vv. 2-5). The verbs /n~r* (“ring out”) and u^Wr (“shout”) are parallel and similar in meaning; in this worship context, they refer to praising God in music, song, and/or chant. The use of the noun rWx (“rock”) as a epithet and title for YHWH is one of several points of similarity between this Psalm and the Song of Moses (Deut 32, vv. 4, 15, 18, 30-31, 37; see the discussion above), though the title also occurs with some frequency throughout the Psalms (of those most recently studied, cf. 78:35; 89:27[26]; 92:16[15]; 94:22). On the expression “the Rock of my/our salvation”, see Deut 32:15; Psalm 18:46 [2 Sam 22:47]; 89:27[26]; cf. also 62:3[2], 7-8[6-7]; Isaiah 17:10. In the use of the term “rock” (rWx) there may also be an allusion to the wilderness narratives (Exod 17:1-7; Num 20:1-13), anticipating the oracle in vv. 8-11 (cf. Howard, p. 54).

Verse 2

“Let us come before His face with a (cry of) praise,
with (joyful) music let us raise a shout to Him.”

The verb <d^q* denotes “go/come before”; here it refers to the idea of coming before the ‘face’ of YHWH, but it could also allude to a scene of musicians, etc, leading a procession of worshipers. The “face” of YHWH, implying His presence (i.e., in the Temple sanctuary), could indicate a ritual setting in association with the Temple; perhaps a festival occasion is in view.

The noun hd*oT denotes a confession, presumably based on the fundamental meaning of the root hd*y` (“cast, shoot”), i.e., words cast forth, in the (religious) context of words directed to God—in praise and thanksgiving to Him. I have translated it above as “a (cry of) praise”, maintaining the parallel with the verb u^Wr (“shout”). The noun rym!z*, denoting music-making, is in the plural, and could be rendered here as “songs”.

Verse 3

“For (the) great Mighty (One) (is) YHWH,
and (the) great King over all Mighty (one)s!”

The main reason for praising YHWH is that He is the greatest of all Divine beings, the King over all of them. The noun la@, “mighty (one)”, denotes a Divine being (i.e., “G/god”), and is the fundamental Semitic term for deity. The extended plural <yh!l)a$ (= <yl!a@), though it can be applied to YHWH as an intensive/comprehensive plural (“Mightiest [One]”), is here used as a normal plural (“mighty [one]s”, i.e., gods). Like the Song of Moses (vv. 8, 43), and other Scriptural texts (e.g., Ps 82), the Psalm seems to allow for the existence of other deities (besides YHWH), but, if so, then YHWH is the greatest and King over all of them. This qualified monotheism seems to have been typical of Israelite religion in the earlier periods. The adjective lodG` is used to twice to express this idea of greatness.

The meter of verse 3 is slightly irregular, and could be read as 3+4.

Verse 4

“In whose hand (are the) deep places of the earth—
and (also the) peaks of (the) mountains (belong) to Him.”

The first line of both verse 4 and 5 begins with a relative particle, tying each verse back to the reference to YHWH in v. 3. He is “the One who…”; English syntax requires that the combination of a relative particle, followed by a noun with a possessive suffix, be translated “whose…”. If YHWH is King over all gods, then He is also Ruler over all of creation. Indeed, YHWH as King of the universe is a common theme in the Psalms—one that will be continued and developed in the following Pss 96-99. This Kingship is based upon His identity as Creator of the universe; there may also be an allusion (in v. 3, see above) to the identification of YHWH with the Creator °E~l (la@) of Semitic and Canaanite religious tradition.

YHWH’s greatness—as Creator and King—is depicted here by the way that He is able to hold in His hand both the depths and heights of the earth; in other words, the entire cosmos is encompassed by His controlling presence. The noun rq*j=m# is rather difficult to translate, especially in this poetic context; it means “place searched out, explored place”, but here (in the plural) probably connotes something like “(un)explored depths” (i.e., the deepest recesses of the earth). It is matched in the second line by the plural topu&oT—another difficult term (cp. its usage in Num 23:22; 24:8; Job 22:25), but which clearly refers here to the ‘grand peaks’ of the mountains.

Like verse 3, the meter of v. 4 is irregular (4+3).

Verse 5

“To Him (belongs) the sea—indeed, He made it,
and (also the) dry land His hands formed.”

If YHWH is King over the heights and depths of the earth, He is also Sovereign over the sea and dry land alike. This can refer to the earth proper—i.e., the flat cylinder/disc—or to the cosmos as a whole. In the former case, the “sea” refers to the waters on the surface of the earth (and below it); however, “sea” can also allude to the waters surrounding the cosmos (heaven & earth). In either case, YHWH is the Ruler over it all. He created and fashioned both the sea(s) and the dry land.
The Qumran manuscript 4QPsm reads the more common hv*B*y~, instead of MT tv#B#y~, for “dry land”; it is a very minor difference.

The meter of this verse (4+3) matches or approximates that of v. 4.

Verse 6

“Come, let us bow down and bend the knee,
let us kneel before (the) face of YHWH our Maker!”

As noted above, this call to worship, which closes the hymn, matches the initial call in verse 1. The opening imperative of each verse has been translated “Come…!”, yet different verbs are employed: in verse 1, it is El^h* (“go, walk”), while here in v. 6 it is aoB (“come”). The focus in verse 1 was on giving praise to YHWH (in music/song), while here it is the act of “prostrating” oneself, bowing down before YHWH in homage (to His Kingship). The verbs ur^K* and Er^B* each mean “kneel (down)”, being derived from different terms referring to a person’s knee (or leg).

YHWH is acknowledged again as Creator, but here specifically as Creator of human beings (“our Maker”); the phrase may also refer to YHWH being the One who made Israel as His people, bringing them out of Egypt and forming a covenant with them. This certainly would fit the context of the oracle that follows in vv. 7d-11. Note the similar language in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:6). Cf. also Psalm 100:3, and the theme as expressed in Isa 29:23; 60:21; 64:6 (Howard, p. 56).

Verse 7abc

“For He (is) our Mighty (One),
and we (the) people of His pasture,
and (the) flock of His hand.”

YHWH is the God—the only God—for Israel. Here the plural <yh!l)a$ is used, rather than the singular la@ (v. 3). He is the “Mightiest (One)”, and the only “Mighty (One)” for Israel. This refers to the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel—He is their God, and they are His people.

The idea of YHWH as a Shepherd, with the corresponding image of Israel as His flock, is widespread throughout the Scriptures. Noteworthy examples elsewhere in the Psalms are: 28:9; 74:1; 78:52, 71-72; 79:13; 80:1; 100:3, and, of course, the entirety of the famous Psalm 23. The wording here is particularly close to 79:13 and 100:3.

Dahood (II, p. 354) argues that the noun dy` (“hand”) here properly means “portion (of land)”, noting the use of Ugaritic yd in such a context (in the Kirta epic, Tablet I, column V, line 35). He identifies other Scriptural instances where a portion of pasture-land is indicated (Job 1:14; Jer 6:3; 23:1), this being a more specific application of dy` in the sense of “part, portion” (e.g., 2 Sam 19:44; 2 Kings 11:7).

Metrically, verse 7abc is an irregular (3+3+2) tricolon. It holds a transitional position in the Psalm, closing the hymn of the first part and leading into the prophetic oracle of the second.

Part 2 (Oracle): verses 7d-11

Verse 7d

“Th(is) day, if (only) you would hear His voice!”

The oracle is introduced by this single line, indicating the exhortational character of the poem that follows. There is is a strong revelatory aspect to the idiom of “hearing the voice” of YHWH (Deut 4:36, etc). To “hear” (vb um^v*) in such a context entails both listening and responding with obedience. As in the Song of Moses (Deut 32, see above), the poem, with its warning not to follow the example the disobedient Israelites of the Wilderness-generation, is meant to instruction the current people toward obedience.

Verses 8-9

“Do not harden your heart, as (at) Strife-place,
as on (the) day of Testing in the outback,
when your fathers (dared) put me to the test,
tested me, even (though) they had seen my act.”

The locative (verbal) nouns hb*yr!m= (“place of strife”) and hS*m^ (“place of testing”) refer to a famous episode (or episodes), from the Exodus narratives, which took place during the journey through the Wilderness (rB*d=m!, “place out back”)—Exodus 17:1-7; Num 20:1-13 (cf. Deut 6:16; 9:22; 32:51)—where the people were disobedient and put God to the test.

In the second line of verse 9, the verb /j^B* has a similar meaning to hs*n` (“test”), but with the specific emphasis on examining something (or someone) to see (i.e. test, prove) whether it is valid. Such testing demonstrated the faithlessness of the people; since they had already seen the great deeds (lu*P*, sing.) performed by YHWH (at the Reed Sea, etc), they should not have needed proof that He would be able to act to deliver them again.

Verse 10

“Forty years I was disgusted with (that) circle,
and I said: ‘A people straying of heart (are) they!
Indeed, they have not known my ways!'”

YHWH declared, regarding that circle (roD) of people (i.e., the Wilderness generation) that they were “straying” (vb hu*T*) in their heart. This alludes back to verse 7, and the idea of Israel as a flock of sheep; having rejected the guiding hand of their Shepherd, they went astray (in their hearts). They did not follow in the paths (“my ways”) by which YHWH led them.

Metrically, this verse is a prosaic, irregular tricolon (4+4+3). I read the w-conjunction of the third line as emphatic.

Verse 11

“(So) then I swore an oath in my anger:
‘(See) if they will come to my place of rest!'”

For the reference to such an oath by YHWH, in the context of the Meribah/Massah episode(s), cf. Num 14:23, 28, 30; Deut 1:35. The etymology of the verb ub^v*, though disputed, would seem to be connected with the number seven (ub^v#), perhaps in the sense of binding oneself by seven (or sevenfold) through the oath. To avoid cluttering the line here, I have omitted reference to this aspect of meaning, rendering the verb in the conventional sense of “swear (an oath)”. The use of the particle <a! (“if”) in such a truncated oath formula, takes on a negative emphasis, which I render above as “(see) if {it will be so}…!” —i.e., “surely it will not be so!”. The paragogic /– suffix on the verb Wab)y+ (“they will come”) only enhances this emphatic aspect of the clause (cf. GKC §47m; Howard, p. 57).

The Promised Land is here referred to as “my place of rest”; for this usage elsewhere, see Deut 12:9. It implies resting from the long forty years of journeying, but also alludes to the Land, given by YHWH, as a hereditary possession for the people—a place where they can establish a permanent home for generations to come. The Wilderness-generation missed out on this opportunity, and their example serves as a warning to the current generation: do not act in disobedience to YHWH’s instruction, as that earlier generation did.

Hebrews 3:11-4:13 famously cites vv. 7d-11, applying the Psalmist’s prophetic exhortation to the situation of believers in Christ. The Sabbath rest that yet remains for the people of God (i.e., believers) is the heavenly blessedness which we will inherit if we remain faithful to the Gospel of Christ.

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).
Those marked “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 93

Psalm 93

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (vv. 1-3); 4QPsm (vv. 3-5); 4QPsb (v. 5)

This short Psalm is a hymn to YHWH, reflecting the Israelite/Judean royal theology—with an emphasis on the reign (and throne) of God. As YHWH is king in the heavens, so the human king, as His faithful servant, rules here on earth. Indeed, YHWH is king over all of creation, while the Israelite/Judean king functions as YHWH’s representative among His people on earth.

Many commentators have naturally seen Psalm 93 as related to a cultic/ritual setting, in which the enthronement of YHWH (in the Jerusalem Temple) was celebrated. For a summary of this line of interpretation, cf. Kraus, pp. 232-3. While such a ritual ceremony may, indeed, provide the historical setting for this Psalm, the hypothesis remains highly speculative. There is, in fact, precious little in the Psalm itself to support the idea.

Recent criticism has tended to focus instead on the place of Psalm 93 within the Psalter collection, looking at the composition from a literary and canonical standpoint. It has been seen as the first Psalm in a collection of eight (93-100), grouped according to the theme of YHWH’s kingship. Cf. the study by David M. Howard, The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

The simplicity and brevity of this Psalm, with very little indication of development or adaptation of the royal emphasis, suggests a date for the Psalm in the kingdom period—and perhaps relatively early within this period. A 10th century date has been suggested by James D. Shenkel (“An Interpretation of Ps 93, 5”, Biblica 46 [1965], pp. 401-16; cf. Dahood, II, p. 339), and certain features within the Psalm make this a legitimate possibility. The repetitive tricola in vv. 3-4, for example, are reminiscent of late Bronze Age Canaanite (Ugaritic) poetry (cf. the discussion below).

The meter is irregular, but may be used to outline the poetic structure of the Psalm:

    • An initial declaration of YHWH’s kingship (v. 1a)
    • A tricolon (2+2+2) describing YHWH’s royal garb (v. 1bcd)
    • A pair of couplets (3+2) emphasizing the firmness of YHWH’s rule over creation (v. 1ef, 2)
    • A pair of tricola (3+3+3) extolling YHWH’s control over the waters (vv. 3-4)
    • A tricolon (3+3+3) reprising the theme of the firmness of YHWH’s rule (v. 5)

It is a bit unusual that such a short Psalm would be preserved in three different Qumran manuscripts; these few verses could just as easily have been completely lost. The variant readings are quite minor. Of more interest is the fact that 11QPsa contains a very different ordering (and collection) of the Psalms. For example, the surviving portion of Psalm 93 comes after the immediate sequence of: Pss 137 and 138, part of Sirach 51, and a non-canonical poem referred to as “Apostrophe to Zion”; then, after Ps 93, appear Pss 141, 133, and 144.

Verse 1a

“YHWH reigns as King!”
El^m* hwhy

The opening 2-beat line declares the theme of the Psalm, as well as representing the central declaration of praise for the hymn. The Qumran manuscript 11QPsa adds an initial “Praise YH(WH)!” (hywllh)

Verse 1bcd

“(With) majesty He clothes (Himself),
(does) YHWH clothe (Himself),
(with) strength He girds Himself!”

YHWH’s royal garb is praised in this initial unit (a 2=beat tricolon), as He clothes Himself (vb vb^l*) in majesty and power. The first and third lines are in parallel:

    • (with) majesty | He clothes Himself
    • (with) strength | He girds Himself

The noun tWaG@ is an abstract conceptualization of the primary meaning of the root hag (“rise [high]”); the basic meaning would be something like “loftiness”, but in this royal context “exaltation” or “majesty” is more appropriate. Similarly, for the noun zu) (“strength, power, might”) the aspect of royal power is being emphasized.

Verses 1ef & 2

“Truly, is set firm (in place the) earth,
not (at all) can it be shaken;
(also) was set firm your throne from then—
from (the) distant (past) you (are)!”

These lines (a pair of 3+2 couplets) are a bit difficult to translate literally, but the basic idea is clear enough: the establishment of YHWH’s throne corresponds to the establishment of the creation. In each instance the verb /WK is used, denoting “set firm, fix (in place)”. Implicit is the identification of YHWH as the Creator of the universe. The noun lb@T@, though somewhat tricky to translate, refers to the part of the world that is habitable and can sustain (human) life, alluding to the cultivation of the land, etc. In many respects, it is generally comparable to the more common Jr#a# (“earth, land”), and so I render it here. However, the couplet unquestionably uses lb@T@ as a shorthand reference to the entire cosmos, even if the flat surface of the earth itself is primarily in view.

The establishment of YHWH’s throne was “from then” (i.e., from that point). Simply, YHWH can only function as King over the universe when there is a universe to rule over; once it has been created, then He can set up His throne over it. YHWH, however, is Himself more ancient than the creation, as the final line indicates; He exists from the “(most) distant (time past)”, i.e., prior to the creation.

Verse 3

“Have lifted up (the) streams, O YHWH,
have lifted up (the) streams their voice,
have lifted up (the) streams their crash!”

As scholars have noted since at least the time of Albright, this sort of repetitive, asymmetric tricolon has Canaanite origins, with numerous examples found in 14th-13th century Ugaritic poetry (cf. the summary notes by Dahood, II, p. 341 and Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 449). Particularly, notable are instances from the Baal Epic, since the basic thematic context of the Epic is similar to that of Psalm 93. There are, indeed, present the two related themes of: (1) defeat of the primal waters (Sea/River[s]), and (2) establishment of kingship over the universe. In this mythic, cosmological setting, the primeval waters need to be subdued before the ordered cosmos (capable of supporting life) can come into existence. These waters were present at the very beginning (cf. Gen 1:2), but in a dark and chaotic form; light and order were introduced with the ‘defeat’ of the waters by the Creator.

Here, the primal “flood-streams” (torh*n+, “streams, rivers”) are depicted as rebellious entities who must be subdued. Three times it is stated that these waters “lift up” (vb ac*n`), implying an act of rebellion. This rebellion is indicated according to three aspects:

    • It is against YHWH, or is something which YHWH, as King, must attend to [line 1]
    • It involves the raising of a collective “voice” (loq), effectively speaking out against YHWH’s rule [line 2]
    • It involves raising a “crash” (yk!D(), i.e., the crashing of waves, implying violent action [line 3]

This cosmological myth can be applied to the rule on earth of the human king, functioning as YHWH’s representative (and servant)—the rebellious waters symbolizing human enemies, opponents, rebellious vassals, etc. For more on this mythic theme, and its background and use in Old Testament poetry, cf. my article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

Verse 4

“Greater than (the) voices of (the) waters,
mightier than (the) breakers of (the) sea—
mighty in the high places (is) YHWH!”

If the rebellion of the waters is described in verse 3 (cf. above), their defeat is indicated here in v. 4. YHWH’s power and majesty (v. 1bcd, cf. above) is greater than than of the waters. This is indicated by the adjectives br^ (“much, many”) and ryd!a* (“mighty, magnificent”). The two aspects of the waters, emphasized in final two lines of v. 3 (bc), are repeated here in the first two lines of v. 4 (ab):

    • the voice(s) (loq) of the waters (i.e., rebellion in speech)
    • the crashing of its waves (i.e., violent action); the verbal noun rB*v=m! (“breaking, breaker”) corresponds with yk!D( (“crash[ing]”) in v. 3.

Also parallel are the references to YHWH in the first line of v. 3 (a) and the final line of v. 4 (c). The rebellion is effectively directed against YHWH (the King), and is something which YHWH (as King) must address. Reigning as He does in the “high places”, YHWH has the power and might to subdue the waters; indeed, God’s throne is established upon/above the waters (cf. Psalm 29:10). This, again, is an allusion to the cosmological conflict-myth, applied to YHWH in His role as Creator and King over the universe.

Verse 5

“(The place)s of your throne are set most firm,
(and) to your house holiness does bring glory,
O YHWH, for (the) length of (all) days!”

The Psalm concludes with a tricolon (3+3+3) in praise of YHWH’s throne, generally matching that of vv. 1ef-2 (cf. above). The context suggests that the first word of line 1, MT ;yt#d)u@, be derived from the rare du meaning “throne (room)”, rather than from the root dWu (“repeat,” in the sense of giving witness, testifying, noun hdu@). This particular noun du (prob. vocalized du^) is known from the Ugaritic texts, and Dahood (II, p. 81f; cf. also pp. 317-8) cites several other instances (in the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture) where it may be attested; cf. HALOT, p. 788. Its use was discussed in the earlier note on Psalm 89:38[37]. If the form here is to be read (with MT) as a suffixed plural, then it may refer to the royal rooms, in YHWH’s house, which contain a throne-seat. More generally, the idea of “places” where His throne rests could correspond with the “high places” where He resides (v. 4c).

As in v. 1e-2, the emphasis is on YHWH’s throne (and thus His rule) being “set firm”. Here the verb /m^a*, rather than /WK, is used to express this idea. The derived noun hn`Wma$ (“firmness”) is frequently applied to YHWH, connoting His faithfulness, trustworthiness, and loyalty (to the covenant). Along with the faithfulness of YHWH, the attribute of holiness (vd#q)) is emphasized. In connection with the “house” of YHWH, it is natural to understand vd#q) in the sense of a holy place, or sanctuary. It is holy because of God’s presence there, and we are to treat His dwelling (or “house”) with the holiness that it deserves (through worship, etc). The verb ha*n` denotes the beauty and splendor which something possesses (or is given); here the royal splendor of YHWH’s palace is indicated.

The context of the Psalm clearly understands YHWH’s palace (“house”, ty]B^) as being on high, in the heavens. However, any Israelite or Jewish worshiper, singing this Psalm, would naturally associate the terminology also with the Jerusalem Temple (and its sanctuary). Possibly verse 5 here may allude to a worship setting (in the Temple precincts) where the Psalm was performed, or to a ritual ceremony celebrating YHWH’s enthronement in the Temple (cf. the introduction above).

The “length of days” of YHWH’s rule emphasizes its duration into the future, corresponding with His reign stemming from the distant past (even prior to the creation); on this, cf. the note on verse 2 (above). The length of time of YHWH’s rule—both past and future—alludes to His eternal existence and everlasting reign.

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).
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).

Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

December 21: Psalm 89:10-13

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:10-13 [9-12]
Verse 10 [9]

“You are ruling over (the) rising up of the Sea;
at (the) lifting of its billows, you still them.”

In this second strophe of the hymn in vv. 6-19 (cf. the previous note on vv. 6-9), the focus on YHWH’s incomparable power over the universe (as Creator and King) shifts from the heavens to the cosmos as a whole. Here it is particularly the Sea (<y`) that is in view—and, not simply the waters of the earth (seas, lakes, rivers, etc), but also (and especially) the primeval cosmic waters that surround the world. According to the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, at the beginning of Creation, there was a great mass of dark waters (Gen 1:2), in the midst of which the universe took shape, as a spherical (or hemispherical) form, like a bubble within the waters. These primeval waters continue to surround the cosmos, being held above the disc/cylinder-shaped earth by the hemispheric shell of the ‘firmament’ (Gen 1:6-8); similar waters surround the world below the earth.

In His act of creating the world, the Creator gave both light and order to the dark and chaotic waters (Gen 1:4ff). In cosmological myth, this is often described in terms of God subduing the unruly waters, defeating them like a warrior in combat. Because of their dark and chaotic aspect, the primeval waters tend to be depicted as a great monster (aided by monstrous allies) which needs to be defeated by the Divine hero, in order to bring about a universe capable of sustaining life. I discuss this subject in the article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

Not infrequently, ancient Hebrew poetry draws upon this line of cosmological myth, applying to YHWH (the Creator) the militaristic imagery of a hero-warrior who defeats/subdues the primeval waters. This imagery is very much being referenced here in vv. 10-11; I mention a number of similar Old Testament poetic passages in the aforementioned article.

YHWH’s subduing of the Sea means that He has control over the waters that surround the earth, including all the waters present on/in the earth—the rain from above, the floods/springs below, and all the seas, etc, on the surface. As expressed here in verse 10, He rules (vb lv^m*) over them; and, since the waters continue to possess something of their primeval chaotic unruliness, YHWH frequently has need or occasion to tame them when they get out of line. The lifting and swelling of the sea’s great waves, so powerful and awesome to behold, are governed by God’s authority, and are “stilled” (vb jb^v*) when necessary.

There is some alliterative assonance here in v. 10, which cannot be captured in translation but can be demonstrated in transliteration:

°¹ttâ môš¢l b®g¢°û¾ hayy¹m
b®´ô° gall¹yw °attâ ¾®šabµ¢m

Verse 11 [10]

“You crushed Rahab like (one who is) slain;
with (the) arm of your strength you scattered your foes!”

YHWH’s control over the waters (v. 10) is due to his ‘defeat’ of the primeval Sea, drawing upon ancient cosmological myth (as noted above). “Rahab” (bh^r*) is one of the names in the tradition for the great Sea-monster of myth, also occurring in Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa 51:9. The same line of mythic tradition probably underlies its application to Egypt (Ps 87:4; Isa 30:7), blending with the naturalistic image of the mighty creatures (i.e., crocodile, hippopotamus) of the Nile to symbolize Egypt’s ancient power and prestige.

Indeed the ‘subduing of the Sea’ motif can be applied to the defeat of human enemies (i.e., enemies of Israel) by YHWH. The event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15) is a good example of this, where God uses his power over the waters to defeat the Egyptians (cf. especially the poetic account in the Song of chap. 15). The primeval Sea (and its monstrous allies) had to be “scattered” in order to create the cosmos, and also to provide the individual bodies of water on earth (and also the rain from above, etc); similarly, human enemies are scattered (vb rz~P*) when they are defeated by God.

The suffixed plural participle ;yb#y+oa means “your hostile (one)s” or “(those) hostile to you”; here, for poetic concision, it has been translated “your foes”.

Verse 12 [11]

“To you (belongs the) heavens, (and) also to you (the) earth;
(the) thriving (world) and its fullness, you have founded them.”

The first line of this next couplet states concisely what has been established in vv. 6-9 and 10-11—namely, that YHWH is Creator and Sovereign over both the heavens and the earth. The conjunctive particle [a^ (“also, indeed”) emphasizes that the earth (and its inhabitants) belong to YHWH, and is under His authority, just as much as the heavens are.

The universe as a whole (as understood within the ancient Near Eastern cosmology) is defined by the pairing “the heavens [upper half] and the earth [lower half]”; however, the inhabitable world, supportive of life, is signified here by the term lb@T@. This noun is extremely difficult to translate, as there is really no English word (or phrase) that corresponds to it. The noun lb@T@, in context, refers to the living and productive aspect of the world—the movement of things (and creatures) from one place to another, entailing growth and activity of all sorts. I have rendered this above as “thriving (world)”. YHWH’s founding (vb ds^y`) of this world, and all that is in it (“its fullness”), refers to His work as Creator (Gen 1:6-31).

Verse 13 [12]

‚a¸ôn and Yamîn, you have created them;
Tabôr and „ermôn, at your name they ring out!”

The final couplet of this strophe, emphasizing YHWH’s sovereignty over all the universe, seems to be utilizing some wordplay that cannot be captured in translation. The terms /opx* and /ymy` in line 1, in particular, likely carry a double-meaning. The noun /opx* denotes something “hidden”, but came to be used specifically, in a directional or geographic sense, for the north. In this, Hebrew tradition (and its poetry) is drawing upon Canaanite religious myth, which located the dwelling of the gods in the north, on the ‘hidden’ peak of a cosmic mountain, which had a local/symbolic manifestation in the mountain called by the name ƒpn or ƒpwn (= Heb ƒ¹¸ôn), modern Jebel el-Aqra. Thus /opx* can refer either to the north, or to a great mountain in the north.

Similarly, /ym!y` (y¹mîn) can refer to the south (lit. right-hand side); but Dahood (II, p. 314) may well be correct that here /my (ymn) also serves as a byform of /ma (°mn), referring to the Amanus mountain(s)—that is, the Alma Dag or Nur mountains. This would allow for the terms /opx* and /ym!y` to refer, alternately, to the directions of north and south, or to the great northern mountain locales of Zaphon and Amanus.

The mountain sites of Tabor and Hermon in the second line add support to the view that there are also mountain references in line 1. Tabor and Hermon are mountains in Israel—located in the northern Esdraelon plain of Galilee, and further north in the anti-Lebanon range, respectively. By contrast, Zaphon and Amanus are located in the ‘far north’, in northern Syria and southern Turkey.

However the first line is to be understood, the emphasis is (again) on YHWH as Creator. His creation of the entirety of the cosmos may be implied by the comprehensive juxtaposition of north/south. On the other hand, creation of the mountains Zaphon and Amanus, with their associations with Semitic/Canaanite mythic tradition, would fit in well with the theme from the first strophe (vv. 6-9, cf. the previous note)—of YHWH’s superiority over all other divine beings. The second line plays on this same theme, by reiterating that even the great mountains, like the heavens (and the heavenly beings), give praise and worship to YHWH. Here, the specific idiom is “ring out [vb /n~r*] (praise)” to God’s name.

In the next note, we will turn to verses 14-15, which, it seems, function as something like a refrain between the second (vv. 10-13) and third (vv. 16-19) strophes.

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 89

Psalm 89

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsx (vv. 20-22, 26, 23, 27-28, 31 [19-21, 25, 22, 26-27, 30]); 4QPse (vv. 44-48, 50-53 [43-47, 49-52])

Psalm 89 is one of the very longest and most complex in the Psalter. This length, along with the relative lack of difficulties and disruptions in the text, suggests a rather late time-frame for composition. The lament portion (vv. 39-52) makes clear that the promise regarding the Davidic kingship was not being realized in the present, at the time when the Psalm was written. This indicates an exilic, or (more likely) post-exilic, date for the composition of the Psalm, as it has come down to us. However, almost certainly, the Psalm also draws upon older traditions—language, style, and motifs—from the kingdom-period itself. In particular, the hymn of praise to YHWH in vv. 6-19 seems to preserve a number of older/archaic elements.

The arrangement of the Psalm is unusual, in the way that a praise-section occurs at the beginning, and a lament section at the end. This reverses the normal arrangement of lament-Psalms.

In both the superscription, and with regard to certain features of the composition, Ps 89 has points of affinity with the Korahite Psalms, attributed to the “sons of Qorah”. It follows immediately the collection comprised of Pss 84-85, 87-88 (cf. also the earlier collection 42-49). Like Ps 88, this Psalm is designated a lyk!c=m^, and is attributed to author (Ethan, /t*ya@) identified as an yj!r*z+a#; on this particular term (and the term lyk!c=m^), cf. the introduction to the study on Ps 88. The attribution probably refers to the Ethan mentioned in 1 Kings 5:11 [4:31], a sage of great wisdom, associated with Heman (the name of the person to whom Ps 88 is attributed). There was also a Levitical singer-musician named Ethan who served, during David’s reign, as an overseer of the music performed in the Temple (1 Chron 6:29 [44]).

As mentioned above, there is a three-part division to this Psalm, the first division being preceded by a proemic introduction (vv. 2-5). The tripartate structure is as follows:

    • Hymn in praise of YHWH (vv. 6-19)
    • A “Messianic” Discourse, regarding God’s covenant with David and the Kingdom of Israel (vv. 20-38)
    • A Lament, over how YHWH seems to have renounced the Davidic covenant (and its promise of kingship) (vv. 39-52)

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow either a 4-beat (4+4) or 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. With a composition of this length, it is to be expected that there would various rhythmic and metrical irregularities. These will be pointed out in the notes.

Introduction: Vv. 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“(Of your faithful) devotion, O YHWH, (into) distant (ages) will I sing;
for cycle and cycle, will I make known your firmness with my mouth.”

Many Psalms end with the author-protagonist offering to fulfill a vow of praise to YHWH, promising to sing of His greatness, etc. That is essentially how our composition begins here, as the Psalmist promises to sing (vb ryv!) of God’s faithfulness. Two familiar terms are used, in parallel, to express this:

    • ds#j#—This word means “goodness, kindness”; however, as I have noted repeatedly, in the context of a covenant it regularly connotes faithfulness and loyalty. This is frequently the meaning of ds#j# in the Psalms, and certainly here at the beginning of Ps 89 (given the emphasis on YHWH’s covenant with David).
    • hn`Wma$—Literally, the noun means “firmness,” but often in the sense of “faithfulness, trustworthiness,” etc.

The plural of ds#j# in line 1 may refer to individual acts/deeds of faithful devotion; however, it is probably better to treat the plural in a collection or comprehensive sense (or even as an intensive plural, i.e., “your great loyalty”). For the construct form of the plural, we should assume an implied second person suffix, in parallel with “your firmness” in the second line (cf. Dahood, II, p. 311); however, it is not necessary to emend the text to make explicit the suffix.

The noun <l*ou typically denotes a time-frame (lasting) into either the distant future or the distant past. The meaning of the line is “I will sing of your faithful devotion into the distant future”. It is customary to set <l*ou[l] in parallel with rd)w rd)[l]—cf. Ps 33:11; 45:18[17]; 49:12[11]; 79:13, etc. The noun roD (rD)) is often translated “(a) generation”, but it fundamentally means “circle”, often in the temporal sense of a cycle of time; when it refers particularly to the people living in a particular time, it can be said to have the meaning “generation”. Possibly, the sense of the line could be that the Psalmist will sing of God’s faithfulness for each successive generation (of Israelites), but the parallel with <l*ou suggests that the emphasis is, rather, on the singing of it continually, into the distant future.

Metrically, verse 2 is a slightly irregular 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Verse 3 [2]

“Indeed, I have said, O Distant (One),
(that by your) devotion was built (the) heavens,
(and) you have fixed your firmness in them.”

The Psalmist builds upon the theme of v. 2, declaring that it was by the faithfulness of YHWH that the heavens were created, and that they reflect the character of His faithfulness. The same two terms from v. 2, ds#j# and hn`Wma$ are set in parallel. This establishes the theme of the first division of the Psalm (vv. 6-19), focusing on YHWH’s role as Creator (and thus also King) of the universe. Here, the term <y]m^v* (“heavens”) refers primarily to the hemispherical ‘shell’ that bounds the upper half of the cosmos, covering over the disc-shaped (or cylindrical) earth. In the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, this hemispheric surface was depicted as gleaming metal that had been ‘hammered’ into shape (Gen 1:6-7). It is thus firm (i.e. ‘firmament’), in a way that resembles the firmness of the Creator (YHWH) Himself. His firmness is fixed firmly within this firmament; the conceptual wordplay utilizes a different verbal root (/WK) for the idea of fixing something firmly in place.

I treat this verse as a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, and I follow Dahood (II, p. 312) in reading the <l*ou in the first line here as a Divine title (i.e., “Eternal [One]”); in order to preserve the wordplay with verse 2, I have translated this “Distant (One)”, understood in the sense of “Ancient (One)”, but certainly the Divine characteristic of Eternal/Everlasting is also intended.

The verb rm^a* (“say”) in the first line (“I have said…”) probably should be understood as “I have acknowledged…” or “I have recognized…”. The Psalmist, in his praise, admits and confesses his faith regarding YHWH as the Eternal Creator and Sovereign of the universe.

Verse 4 [3]

“I have cut a binding agreement for my chosen (one),
(and) have confirmed (it) sevenfold for David my servant:”

There is an abrupt shift in speaker between vv. 2-3 and 4-5; now it is YHWH speaking. The relationship between these two portions of the introduction are not entirely clear. It may simply be that the two units are meant to summarize the first two divisions of the Psalm—with vv. 2-3 corresponding to vv. 6-19, and vv. 4-5 corresponding to vv. 20-38. However, within the overall context of vv. 2-5, we may perhaps envision a mini-dialogue, in which YHWH responds to the Psalmist’s declaration of praise. There is, indeed, a certain formal parallelism between the openings of v. 3 and v. 4: “I have said…” / “I have cut…”. By this line of interpretation, YHWH is affirming His promise regarding the Israelite kingdom (and of David as Israel’s king), guaranteeing its fulfillment for the faithful ones of His people.

It is also possible to view vv. 4-5 as a kind of quotation, representative of the account of Israel’s history. Just as YHWH demonstrates His faithfulness in the Creation (vv. 2-3, 6-19), so He also does for His people throughout their history. In this regard, the covenant with David reflects the wider covenant that He established (lit. “cut”) with His people. This all the more appropriate since the king (and especially David) represents the people, serving as a mediating figure for their collective identity as God’s people. The idea of God’s promise for David (and his line) as a “binding agreement” (tyr!B=, i.e., covenant) is mentioned in 2 Sam 23:5; 2 Chron 13:5; 21:7; cf. also Ezek 34:25; 37:26. It is very much implied in other passages as well; note, for example, the context of 1 Kings 8:15-21. As for the promise itself, see, primarily, the account in 2 Samuel 7:8-16.

The promise was confirmed, and the covenant established, through a binding oath. That is the idea expressed in the second line, using the denominative verb ub^v*, which would seem to have the meaning “do (something) seven (times), or sevenfold”. It is used in the specific context of swearing an oath, related to an agreement, etc, presumably in the sense of binding it sevenfold (or seven times over); however, the precise background and significance of this idiom remains uncertain.

Metrically, verses 4 and 5 are both 3-beat (3+3) couplets.

Verse 5 [4]

“Unto (the) distant (future) will I set firm your seed,
and for cycle and cycle will I build your throne.”
Selah

The wording of YHWH’s promise to David, as expressed in v. 5, clearly echoes the Psalmist’s praise in vv. 2-3 (cf. above), with the parallelism of rd)w` rd)l= / <l*ou (v. 2), and that of the verbs hn`B* [“build”] and /WK [“fix, set firm”] (v. 3). The parallels are intentional and have theological significance. Just as YHWH’s faithfulness is manifest in Creation, so also it is in the promise to David. This is of great importance, given the fact that the promise regarding the Israelite/Davidic kingdom seems to have been broken (assuming an exilic/post-exilic provenance for the Psalm). If God’s faithfulness cannot be removed from Creation, then neither can it ever truly be removed from the promise to David—the covenant with David regarding the kingship will, eventually, be realized. The Messianic implications of this line of thought—both for Israelites/Jews of the time and in later generations, and also for early Christians (for whom the Messianic promise was seen as being fulfilled in the person of  Jesus)—are clear.

These two thematic strands are developed and expounded further in the corresponding divisions of the Psalm (vv. 6-19, 20-38). They provide the backdrop for the final lament-section of vv. 39-52. If God’s faithfulness cannot be renounced, being fixed (as it is) firmly within Creation, then His promise to David (and to His people) also cannot be renounced, and this means that it will, eventually, be fulfilled.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Due to the length of this Psalm, the remainder of it will be discussed over a series of daily notes, for Christmas season, during the rest of December. Given the Messianic focus of the composition, it seemed appropriate to connect the study of it with our celebration (as Christians) of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. The identity of Jesus as the royal (Davidic) Messiah, and of his birth as representing the fulfillment of Messianic hopes, is a key element in the Gospel Infancy narratives—the Lukan narrative, in particular emphasizes it (1:32-33, 68-69; 2:1-4ff, 10-11ff).

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).