Psalm 74, continued
The second half of Psalm 74 is a prayer for YHWH to act on behalf of His people, delivering and restoring them from their desolate condition. The Psalmist begins (vv. 12-17) with an appeal to the power that YHWH demonstrated, as Creator, in primeval times, when He subdued the dark and chaotic waters and brought into being the created order necessary for sustaining human life. In the remainder of the Psalm (vv. 18-23), this cosmological appeal is applied to the condition of Israel/Judah. Following the conquest and exile, the land (including Zion, the locale of the destroyed Temple), has become a dark and desolate wasteland (vv. 20-21), resembling (in a certain sense) conditions at the beginning of God’s creation (Gen 1:2). The restoration of Israel/Judah will be a kind of ‘new creation’, and, to this end, the Psalmist asks YHWH to defeat the wicked enemies of His people, just as He once subdued the dark and chaotic waters.
“O Mightiest, (your are) my King from (times) before,
working salvation in the inner(most) part of (the) earth.”
The context of the Psalmist’s appeal in vv. 12-17 is the beginning of YHWH’s creative acts in the primeval time (cf. above). This is indicated here by the use of the noun <d#q#, which denotes a event that takes place “in front”, with the temporal sense of “the beginning” (cf. Gen 1:1), the ancient time(s) that came before, in the beginning of God’s acts of creating. YHWH’s role as Creator is also implied by the reference to Him as King.
The word hu*Wvy+ (“salvation”) here has a dual significance. In the immediate context, it refers to the created order produced by YHWH, which makes the universe (and the earth) habitable for human beings and able to support life. At the same time, the idiom of cosmological myth that the Psalmist utilizes in vv. 12-17 is frequently applied, in the Old Testament, to the historical situation of Israel. The tradition of YHWH’s defeat of the primeval waters was applied, for example, to the Exodus and the great event at the Reed Sea (cf. Exod 15). Thus, the acts of salvation (plur. touWvy+) which God works for His people are patterned after the Creation. Here it is said that He worked in the “inner part” (br#q#) of the earth, probably with the primeval condition of a dark, watery, formless mass in mind (Gen 1:2).
The meter of this verse, as it stands, is highly irregular (3+4 couplet); cf. Dahood, II, p. 204, for a different way of dividing vv. 12-13 that results in a more consistent meter.
“You—you split apart, by your strength, (the) Sea;
you broke (the) heads of (the) monster on the waters.”
The Psalmist here utilizes ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth to describe YHWH’s work in establishing the ordered cosmos necessary for sustaining human life. This involves the ‘defeat’ of the dark primeval waters that constituted the universe at the beginning of creation (Gen 1:2)—these chaotic waters being depicted as hostile or unruly opponents that need to be subdued in combat. I discuss this cosmological mythic tradition in an earlier article.
YHWH’s control over the ancient, primeval waters is clearly expressed in poetic declarations such as Psalm 29:3 and 93:3-4; He is seated above the flood-waters, signifying His dominion over them (Ps 29:10), and exercises control over them at will (Job 26:5ff; 28:25; Psalm 33:7; 104:3; 136:6; Prov 8:29; 30:4, etc). This cosmological imagery was applied to the episode at the Reed Sea in the Exodus narrative (cf. especially the poetic references in Psalm 77:16ff; 78:13). As far as depicting YHWH’s control in terms of the conflict-myth pattern, there are two main passages where this is preserved: here in Psalm 74:13-14 and Isaiah 27:1; to this may be added Job 26:12-13.
In the Canaanite mythic tradition, the Sea is defeated by the deity Baal Haddu and/or Anat (as described vividly in the Baal Epic, cf. my discussion in the aforementioned article). Along with the defeat of the Sea, mention is made of the defeat of other monstrous creatures which apparently were allies of the Sea. In III.3.38ff, these include a great serpentine Sea-monster (tnn), a similar being called “Twisting Serpent” (b¾n ±qltn), and another referred to as “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm). The last two are also mentioned in V.1.1-3, along with Litan (ltn) also called “Fleeing Serpent” (b¾n brµ). All four of these mythic beings are mentioned in the Old Testament, but in conflict with YHWH, rather than Baal-Haddu (cf. below).
Here in Psalm 74:13-14, two of the above-mentioned names for the Serpentine Sea-monster are used—/yN]T^ (tannîn) and /t*y`w+l! (liwy¹¾¹n). An odd plural form of /yN]T^ is apparently used here, whereas we would expect the singular (cf. Isa 27:1); Dahood explains the y !- postformative element as an archaic genitive ending, while the final <– could be explained as a enclitic <– (frequent in poetry). The reference to crushing the “heads” of the Sea-monster suggests that a seven-headed creature may be in view, corresponding to the “the Ruler with seven heads” (šly‰ d šb±t rašm) in the Baal Epic, and similar ancient traditions (cf. above).
In verse 13, we have the first in a series of couplets beginning with the personal pronoun hT*a^ (“your”) in emphatic position. Dahood (II, p. 205) notes that the pronoun occurs seven times in vv. 13-17, and makes the interesting suggestion that the number may be a poetic allusion corresponding to the seven heads of the Sea-monster.
“You—you crushed (the) heads of Liwyatan,
you gave (him as) food for (the) crowd of desert (beast)s.”
On /t*y`w+l! (liwy¹¾¹n) as an alternate name (with /yN]T^ [tannîn]) for the multi-headed Serpentine Sea-monster, cf. above. The noun also occurs in Job 3:8; 40:25; Ps 104:26, and Isa 27:1. Here the “desert” probably simply means “dry land” (yx! in relation to the root hyx, denoting dryness). The idea of land creatures eating the slain Leviathan possibly derives from observation of what happens to a dead/beached whale. The noun <u*, usually translated “people” is here understood in the more general sense of “group, crowd”.
“You—you split open (the) source of water and torrent;
(and) you (also) dried up (the) ever(flow)ing streams.”
God’s defeat of the primeval Sea means that He has control over all the waters in the cosmos, with the ability to manipulate and dispense them as He sees fit. He is able to open up a source of water (/y`u=m^), causing a torrent to flow where there was no water before; the noun lj^n~ typically refers to a wadi riverbed that is dry until it is filled by a rushing (seasonal) torrent of water. At the same time, YHWH is able to dry up (vb vb@y` in the Hiphil, “make dry”) a regularly-flowing stream. Here, as in v. 13, the idea of “splitting” the water is likely a (secondary) allusion to the Exodus event at the Reed Sea; the “drying” of the water in line 2 may also imply the same reference.
“To you (belongs the) day, (and) also to you (the) night;
you brought into being (both) luminous (moon) and sun.”
From the control of the water (Gen 1:2, 6-10), the Psalmist continues along with the idea of YHWH establishing, as Creator, the rest of the created order. The focus is on the separation of day and night, with the light in the heavens for each (Gen 1:14-18)—i.e., the sun and the moon. The noun roam* literally means “place/source of light”, just as /y`u=m^ in v. 15 denotes a “source of water”; here roam* refers specifically to the luminous body of the moon (implied), paired with the sun.
“You—you set up all (the) boundaries of (the) earth;
dry season and harvest time (alike), you fashioned them.”
YHWH’s control of the waters, and of the life-giving light (from the sun, etc), has allowed Him to create the agricultural seasons and cycles for human kind. The dry/warm season (Jy]q^) of spring/summer is followed by the harvest season ([r#j)) in autumn. These are among the most significant “boundaries” set up by God in the ordered cosmos of His creation.
“Remember this, YHWH, (how) the hostile (one) scorned (you),
and a foolish people has shown contempt for your name!”
The focus of the Psalmist’s prayer shifts from YHWH’s work as Creator, to a plea that He would act (again), with similar sovereign power, on behalf of His people. The idea is that God would defeat Israel’s current enemies, just as He subdued the hostile/unruly waters in primeval times. Presumably, returning to the context of vv. 1-11 (cf. the previous study), the Psalmist has the Babylonian conquerors (who desecrated and destroyed the Temple) in mind.
There is a bit of wordplay, lost in translation, between vv. 17-18, utilizing the different roots [rj I & II, denoting “scorn” and “harvest (time)”, respectively.
“Do not give (over) to a living (beast) (the) soul <confessing> you;
(the) life of your lowly (one)s, do not forget to the end!”
Again the Psalmist engages in wordplay, along with some syntactical punning. In line 1, the noun hY`j^ (“living [thing]”) signifies a living beast (designating the enemies of God’s people), while in line 2 the same noun refers to the living soul of the devout/faithful ones.
With some reluctance, I follow commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 96) who, supported by the LXX, emend MT ;r#oT (“your dove”) to ;d#oT (as a verbal noun), “casting (praise)”, i.e., praising YHWH, and thus confessing one’s devotion to Him. The devout and righteous ones among God’s people are clearly in view, as seen by the use of the adjective yn]u* (“low[ly], oppressed, afflicted”), used regularly in the Psalms as a descriptive term for the righteous. The righteous have particularly been afflicted and brought low by the conquest, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile. The wording echoes the tone of lament from the first half of the Psalm; only now the Psalmist calls on YHWH to act, to bring deliverance and restoration to His people.
“Look to (the) binding (agreement)!
For dark places fill (the) land,
habitations of violence!”
With a sudden, impassioned outburst—marked poetically by an abrupt rhythmic shift to a terse 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon—the Psalmist calls on YHWH to remember His covenant (tyr!B=, lit. “binding [agreement]”) with Israel. As noted above, in the aftermath of the conquest (including the destruction of the Temple), the land has become a dark and chaotic wasteland, resembling the primeval condition of the cosmos at the beginning of creation (Gen 1:2, cf. on vv. 12-17 above). In particular, the wicked enemies of Israel have left “habitations of violence” throughout.
“Do not let (your) crushed (people) sit disgraced;
(but) let (the) oppressed and needy praise your name!”
Currently, God’s people sit (vb bv^y`) disgraced (vb <l^K*), in exile. The are “crushed” (ED^), an adjective parallel and generally synonymous with the more familiar traditional pair “oppressed [yn]u*] and needy [/oyb=a#]” in line 2. The promise and prospect of restoration will cause them to shout (ll^h*) praise to YHWH.
“Stand up, O Mightiest, (and) fight your fight!
Remember (the) scorn toward you
from (the) foolish (one) all the day (long)!”
The Psalmist here urges YHWH even more forcefully to act, asking Him to “stand up” and “fight” (vb byr!). By remembering the constant scorn directed to Him from the “foolish” people, God will be motivated to defeat them, and to restore His people to the land. The root byr can be used in the specific sense of a legal battle or dispute, in which case we should understand YHWH rising in His role as Judge.
“Do not forget the voice of your adversaries!
(The) uproar of (those) standing against you
is going up (toward you) continually.”
This concluding verse to the Psalm builds upon the idea expressed in v. 22; as in vv. 18-19, here in vv. 22-23 the verb rk^z` (“remember”) and jk^v* with the negative particle (“do not forget”) make a synonymous pairing. The wicked enemies of Israel, who are also adversaries of YHWH, are scorning God “all the day (long)”; here in v. 23 this is expressed as an uproar (/oav=) of hostile voices going up toward God continually (dym!T*).
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).