May 5: Psalm 51:10-13

Psalm 51:10-13

In the previous note, in this series exploring the references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God in the Old Testament, we examined the tradition of the Saul-David conflict as narrated in 1 Samuel, and how it is expressed in terms of the spirit of God. As I have discussed, there was a strong principle of charismatic leadership in early Israel—that is to say, the qualified leader of the people was marked by possession of a divine spirit, their giftedness a product of being specially touched by the spirit of God. This entailed the possession of wisdom and understanding (to guide the people), but also the (physical) strength and skill needed to lead the people in times of battle. From Moses to his successor Joshua, through the Judges and the first kings (Saul and David), this principle of divinely-inspired leadership was maintained. Only with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy did the principle gradually fade; even then, the king was seen as holding a special relationship with YHWH, reflected in the repeated phrase that “YHWH was with him (i.e. with the king)”. Rooted in the ancient concept of covenant loyalty, it came to be a central component of the (Judean) royal theology, focused on the Davidic line—beginning with David (1 Sam 16:18; 18:14; 2 Sam 5:10; cf. also 1 Chron 11:9; 2 Chron 1:1) it was emphasized especially with Hezekiah at the time of the Assyrian crisis (2 Kings 18:7), and underlies the significance of the Immanuel title in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10.

We saw how, when David was chosen (and anointed) to be the next king, the spirit of YHWH “rushed” to him (1 Sam 16:13); correspondingly, the same spirit that had been upon Saul departed from him (16:14ff), and, in that vacuum, an evil spirit from YHWH came to afflict Saul in its place. This same sort of idea is expressed in Psalm 51, which, according to the superscription, was composed by David after his condemnation by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12:1-15) for his role in the Bathsheba/Uriah affair (chap. 11). Certainly it is a penitential Psalm, in which the Psalmist asks for forgiveness from YHWH, vowing to repent and amend his ways, making right the wrongs he may have done.

The motif of the spirit (j^Wr) is introduced in verse 10 [12], at the climax of the Psalmist’s plea to be forgiven:

“Create for me a clean heart, O Mightiest,
and make new (the) firm spirit in my inner (part)s”

Here a clean (rohf*) heart is parallel with a firm/fixed (/okn`) spirit. The passive participle /okn` (from the root /WK) denotes the idea of something being firm, sound, secure (i.e. healthy and whole). If the motif in the first line is that of cleansing, in the second line it is healing and renewal. It may be better to translate j^Wr here in the more fundamental sense of “breath” (i.e. life-breath), but the same use of the word in vv. 11-12 [13-14] clearly indicates that a broader meaning is in view as well.

To the extent that the Psalm genuine comes from David—or at least reflects the Israelite/Judean royal theology—there may well be an allusion here to the tradition of charismatic leadership noted above, whereby the king is touched/possessed by a divine spirit. If so, then the king is praying that he would not share in Saul’s fate, when the divine spirit departed from him. Certainly, the language of verse 11 [13] may be rooted in this idea, at least in part:

“Do not throw me out (away) from your face,
and your holy spirit—do not take (it away) from me!”

The sense of the ancient tradition appears to have been generalized, set in a broader religious and ethical context. The relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH is in danger of being broken, expressed here from both sides: (a) being removed from God’s presence (line 1), and (b) God’s presence being removed from him (line 2). This is one of the only occurrences in the Old Testament of the expression “holy spirit”; it must not be understood here from the later Jewish or Christian standpoint, but simply as reflecting a specific quality or aspect of God’s spirit—namely holiness and purity. Literally the expression is “spirit of your holiness” (;v=d=q* j^Wr), the holiness (vd#q), from the root vdq) of El-Yahweh being a key attribute and central tenet of Israelite religion. The regular/frequent impurity of human beings was fundamentally incompatible with the purity of YHWH; this was realized both in the ritual and ethical sphere of Israelite religious culture, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The Psalmist’s sin threatened the removal of God’s holy presence (and his removal from that presence).

The thoughts expressed in the two couplets of vv. 10-11 [12-13] are combined together, in summary form, within the third (v. 12 [14]), and it brings the Psalmist’s petition to a close:

“Return to me a rejoicing (in) your salvation,
and may you lay hold of me (with) a stimulating spirit!”

The term uv^y#, typically translated “salvation”, in the royal theological context of the Psalms often reflects the idea of the covenant bond between the ruler (as vassal) and YHWH (as Sovereign). This bond means that YHWH is obliged to bring help and assistance to the ruler in his time of need, unless the terms of the agreement have been violated. While such language could easily be broadened to apply to God’s people in a more general sense, the royal/Davidic background in such Psalms needs to be recognized. The breaking of the bond results in the Psalmist being unable to rejoice in the salvation that YHWH, his Sovereign, can provide; he prays that this would be “returned” to him.

The precise meaning of the final line is difficult to determine. The verb Em^s* has the basic meaning “lay (upon)” or “lean (upon)”, often in the specific (ritual) context of the laying on of hands. The prayer is that YHWH will again lay His ‘hands’ upon the Psalmist, by way of a blessing that will restore the covenant bond. Here the place of the noun j^Wr (“spirit”) is ambiguous—is it a spirit from God that comes upon the Psalmist by this “laying on” (par with v. 11), or does it refer to the effect of this in/on the spirit within the Psalmist (par with v. 10)? The word hb*yd!n+ is a bit difficult to translate (it can be a noun or adjective), the root bdn fundamentally indicating an impulse—i.e., something that prompts a person to act, etc. What is being described? There are two possibilities:

    • The spirit of YHWH stimulates the Psalmist to repentance and a newfound loyalty, etc
    • By laying hold of him, YHWH stimulates the Psalmist’s spirit so that, from now on, he will be inclined to act in faithful/loyal manner

Both are valid ways of reading the line, but probably the emphasis is more on the action of God’s spirit.

In the concluding notes of this series, we will explore further the expression “holy spirit” as it came to be used subsequently in Jewish literature and tradition. However, it is first necessary to continue our Old Testament study with a survey of additional references to the j^Wr of God in the Psalms and Prophets. A key aspect of this will focus again on the specific association between the Spirit and prophetic inspiration, and how this developed over time.

May 4: 1 Samuel 16:13-15 etc (continued)

1 Samuel 16:13-15

In the previous note, we considered the role of the spirit (j^Wr) of God in determining and guiding political leadership in ancient Israel. In the case of the Judges, this involved primarily military leadership in times of warfare and national crisis. Previously this was also true of Joshua, though the Scriptures also mention the wisdom he possessed due to the presence/activity of the divine spirit. With the Judges, as also Saul and David in the book of Samuel, the spirit of God is said to “rush” (vb jl^x*) upon them, indicating a rather violent sort of experience. This was fitting for the inspiration of prophetic ecstasy as well as for the strength and aggression needed for military action.

Overall, these traditions suggest a concept of charismatic leadership, understood as being the product of possession by a divine spirit. In the ancient world, gifted individuals were seen as possessing such a spirit; the word genius in English preserves a vestige of this original meaning. The signs of such giftedness could be superficial, drawing on certain aspects of personal appearance, as well as based on the obvious markers of natural ability and skill, physical strength, etc. For example, Saul possessed these natural signs (1 Sam 9:2), making him a clear candidate for leadership. David in his own way had these same attributes (of beauty, strength, skill, etc)—cf. 16:18; 17:1-18:8—though the narrative in Samuel also makes certain efforts to downplay this, as a way of emphasizing the unique choice of David by YHWH (16:6-7, etc). An important detail in the narrative is David’s musical ability, in addition to all the other factors (16:16-18, 23), which serves as a clear contrast to Saul’s deteriorating condition.

Once God’s spirit “rushes” to David (16:13), it is clear that Saul can no longer serve in this role as leader, according to the ancient principles of charismatic leadership. In the very next verse we read:

“And (the) spirit of YHWH turned (away) from (being) with Ša’ûl, and an evil [hu*r*] spirit from YHWH terrorized him.” (v. 14)

While God’s rejection of Saul is explained, to some extent, in chapter 15, according to the prophetic viewpoint of the author, it scarcely suffices as an explanation for the phenomenon narrated here. It is difficult for modern-day readers to understand the ancient worldview, with regard to the cause-and-effect of certain psychological and physiological conditions. To begin with, the idea of an “evil spirit” (hu*r* j^Wr) does not necessarily imply the kind of malevolent personal power we often associate with the term. Rather, it is “evil” (ur^) in the sense that it is the cause of something bad—such as illness, incapacity, or any manner of misfortune. In the ancient Near East, virtually any physical or mental illness was seen as caused by the activity/influence of a deity or spirit. This same worldview existed among the Israelites, and is clearly reflected in numerous passages throughout the Old Testament. However, from the standpoint of Israelite monotheism, all such divine activity was under YHWH’s control, and the spirits causing disease and death were sent by Him. That is why the text can state that the evil spirit comes from YHWH—just as He sends out a lying/deceitful spirit in 1 Kings 22:22-23. It is only much later that a more dualistic worldview developed, whereby the the spirits/powers causing evil were seen as operated separately from God (and opposed to him).

It is clear from the narrative that Saul is struck by a certain kind of illness—we would probably refer to it as a mental or psychological disorder (such as schizophrenia)—marked by paranoia, outbursts of anger and violence, etc. This serves as the basis for the conflict that arises between Saul and David. At first, the king is soothed and helped by David, through his musical ability (16:16, 23). This is described, from the ancient viewpoint, in terms of the evil spirit “turning away” (rWs, the same verb used in v. 14) and leaving Saul:

“And it was (that), in (the) (evil) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mightiest coming [i.e. when it came] to Ša’ûl, and Dawîd took the harp and made music (on it) with his hand, (then) there was spirit/breath [jw~r*] (again) for Ša’ûl, and (all was) good with him, and (the) evil spirit turned (away) from (being) upon him.” (v. 23)

The relationship between the noun j^Wr (“breath, spirit”) and the related verb jw~r* (“breathe”) here is hard to convey in English translation. It is a reminder that the fundamental meaning of the root jwr is not “spirit”, but “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing).

1 Samuel 18:10-11; 19:9-10

This same scenario is described again in 19:9-10, but this time David’s playing, apparently, is not enough to ease Saul’s illness. Things had deteriorated for Saul, and the king lashes out at David with violence:

“And the evil spirit of YHWH came to be to [i.e. upon] Ša’ûl, and he was sitting in his house and his spear (was) in his hand, and Dawîd was making music (on the harp) with his hand. And Ša’ûl sought to strike at Dawîd with the spear [and in(to) the wall], but Dawîd got through (away) from (the) face [i.e. presence] of Ša’ûl, and the spear struck in(to) the wall, and Dawîd fled and made (his) escape on that night.”

There is a doublet (a second version) of this tradition in 18:10-11, part of the complex situation surrounding the composition of these narratives, and how the various historical traditions were preserved and included. There are several details which strongly indicate that 18:10-11 genuinely represents a second (separate) preserved version of the historical tradition:

    • When the evil spirit comes upon Saul, he “acts like a ayb!n`” (vb ab*n` in the reflexive hithpael stem), that is, like an ecstatic inspired prophet; the spirit also “rushes” (vb jl^x*) on Saul, as it does upon the prophets and charismatic leaders (cf. above). Here, this is probably meant to convey several things:
      • The violent character of the spirit’s influence, resulting in unusual and aggressive behavior
      • That Saul was “raving”, seemingly out of his mind, uttering strange words
      • That he was truly possessed by a divine spirit, as the ecstatic prophets were—only this time it was an evil spirit of God (i.e. sent by God), which results in more negative and destructive conduct.
    • Saul’s intent to harm David is expressed: “I will strike Dawîd…”
    • It is said that David evaded his attack twice (an allusion to the second version of the tradition in 19:9-10?)

It is interesting that, in the overall course of the narrative, after this episode Saul again is struck by the ecstatic prophetic spirit (19:18-24). This largely repeats his earlier experience narrated in 10:5-12; it contains the same elements—the role of Samuel, a group of ecstatic prophets gathered together, a sacred “high place” site, etc. However, this time Saul arrives with the evil intent of arresting David, and the onrush of the (prophetic) spirit serves to waylay these efforts, disabling Saul for a full day and night. These two parallel scenes frame the period of Saul’s role as divinely-inspired leader. The first precedes the coming of God’s spirit on him (11:6), and the second follows the departure of that spirit (16:14ff). It is a vivid reminder of how closely connected the prophetic spirit was to the tradition of charismatic leadership in the ancient world.

In light of this theme of God’s spirit departing from a person, it is worth considering the famous expression of this idea in Psalm 51; this we will do in the next daily note.

 

May 3: 1 Samuel 16:13-15, etc

1 Samuel 16:13-15, etc

In the previous note, mention was made of the tradition in 18:10 of the evil spirit from God that came upon Saul. This is part of a wider line of tradition in the book of Samuel, involving the conflict between Saul and David. The folkloric elements and style of these David narratives can make it difficult to discern clearly the shape of the underlying historical tradition. To this must be added certain text-critical difficulties, especially in instances where a basic tradition is narrated or explained two different ways in the text.

1 Samuel 16:13-15

The Saul-David conflict is introduced in 16:14ff, but within the overall narrative the theological basis for it was presented earlier, in chapter 15—a traditional narrative intended to explain, from the prophetic standpoint of the author, why Saul was rejected (by God) and David chosen in his place. The choice of David follows in 16:1-13, and ends with the climactic statement:

“And the spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH rushed [jl^x=T!] to Dawîd, from that day and upward [i.e. beyond]” (v. 13)

We saw how this same verb jl^x* (“rush [ahead], push [forward]”) was used of the spirit (j^Wr) of God in 10:6, 11, where it referred to the affect of God’s spirit on those gifted to be prophets (<ya!yb!n+)—manifest specifically in ecstatic experience (and the strange/unusual behavior that accompanied it). Saul came to experience this same ecstatic onrush of God’s spirit, and it was some time after this that the spirit of God rushed upon him (again), enabling/inspiring him to act (as leader) on behalf of his people (11:6).

The two primary aspects of the Spirit’s influence that we have so far studied in these passages—(1) wisdom/discernment, and (2) violent possession of an individual—are combined together, equally we might say, in the gifted leader. We saw this role of the Spirit, in more general  terms, in the case of Moses as spokesperson (ayb!n`) and guide of the people. Though there is no apparent evidence in the Pentateuch for Moses undergoing ecstatic prophetic experience, it seems to have occurred among the 70 elders who partook in the prophetic spirit (of God) that was upon him (cf. the prior note on Num 11:13-30). It is not surprising that Moses’ successor, Joshua, as leader (and spokesperson for God) over the people, would also have the spirit of God present in/on him (Num 27:18). While Joshua was gifted with wisdom (aspect #1 above, cf. Deut 34:9), we may say that the divine spirit was manifest in him more properly in terms of his military leadership, since he oversaw the military campaigns involved in the initial Israelite settlement of the land.

The violence/aggression brought about through the presence of God’s spirit, was especially well-suited for military action, and it is no real surprise that the Spirit features in the narratives of the Judges—persons gifted by God to serve as (military) leaders in times of crisis. The military aspect of these rulers was prominent, the people being otherwise, in normal circumstances, governed by a representative federation of the tribes and clans. The author of the book of Judges makes no attempt whatever to whitewash or explain away the negative (even destructive) characteristics of these leaders, demonstrating that their gifting was, indeed, largely military in nature, and, on the whole, they scarcely would be held up as paragons of religious devotion or morality.

Let us here briefly survey the relevant references in Judges:

    • 3:10 (of Othniel): “And the spirit of YHWH came to be upon him, and he judged Yisrael and went forth to do battle
    • 6:34 (Gideon): “And the spirit of YHWH wrapped (itself around) Gideon {lit. Hacker}…” (and he sounded the horn, i.e. assembling the people for battle)
    • 11:29 (Jephthah): “And the spirit of YHWH came to be upon Yiphtah, and he crossed over…”
    • 13:25 (Samson): “And the spirit of YHWH began to ‘step’ (on) him [i.e. Samson, as a youth]…”
    • Three times in the Samson narratives the spirit “rushes” on him, using the same verb jl^x* noted above; the result is a burst of unusual physical power and aggression, including being directed against Israel’s enemy the Philistines—14:6, 19; 15:14.

In the next daily note, we will return to the Saul-David narrative in 1 Samuel, to explore a bit further how the presence and activity of God’s spirit relates to the (political) conflict between the two men. This will be instructive in terms of how the work of the Spirit was understood within the early strands of Israelite religion and tradition.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 4

Psalm 18:32-51

Psalm 18:32-46 [31-45]

Verses 32-46 [31-45] mark a clear section of the Psalm, and, according to many critical commentators, represent the bulk of an original poem that was combined (with vv. 1-31) to comprise the current work as we have it (in Ps 18 and 2 Sam 22). The theme throughout is that of the military victory that YHWH brings to the faithful ruler. Certainly this the line of imagery is rooted in the ancient Israelite/Judean royal theology, though we must cautious about reading specific historical circumstances into the text. The military/victory theme provides a suitable complement to the deliverance theme in the first half of the Psalm (esp. verses 4-20).

Verse 32 [31]

“For who (is the) Mighty (One) apart from YHWH?
Who (is the) Rock apart from our Mightiest (One)?”

The initial couplet extols YHWH as the Mighty One (la@, i.e. ‘God’). It is not a statement of absolute monotheism, but confirms that the only true (and proper) God for the people of Israel is El-Yahweh—that is, YHWH identified as the “Mighty One”, the ancient Semitic Creator Deity (‘El). On this qualified monotheism in the Israelite religion of the late-2nd and early-1st millennium, see, for example, the Song of Moses (Deut 32:3, 8-12, 15, 17-18, 30-31, 36ff). Cf. especially Deut 32:31, where the same divine appellative “Rock” (rWx) is used precisely to make this distinction that (only) YHWH is Israel’s God, greater and mightier than all others. A literal rendering here of la@ and <yh!ýa$ as “Mighty” and “Mightiest” is especially useful in preparing the way for the strength/victory motifs that follow.

Verse 33 [32]

“The Mighty (One is) my place of security,
and the (One) giving strength (of arms)—
(the) path of His (power is) complete!”

Verse 33 [32], in the text as we have it, would seem to be a 2+2+2 tricolon. Given the parallels between vv. 33-35 and Habakkuk 3:19, it is possible that a traditional 3-beat tricolon has been expanded (cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 30). In the first line, Ps reads yn]r@Z+a^m=h^ (“the one girding me”), while 2 Sam has yZ]Wum* (“my place of security”); the latter is more concise and a more suitable parallel for the second line. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 114, along with Freedman) in reading the MT /T@y] (“he gives”) as = participle /t@y) (“[the] one giving”); 2 Sam mistakenly reads the verb rty for /ty. I also understand yK!R=d^ in line 3 as preserving a y– 3rd person masculine suffix (“His way”); cp. the standard 3rd person o– suffix (oKr=d^) in 2 Sam. The royal theological background here also supports the connotation “domain, dominion” for ird, which I render above as “path (of power)”.  The corresponding line in Hab 3:19a is: “YHWH my Lord (is) my strength” (yl!yj@ yn`d)a& hwhy).

Verses 34-35 [33-34]

“Making my feet like (those of) a deer,
He lets me stand upon His high places;
teaching my hand(s) for battle,
He brings down (the) bronze bow (in) my arms.”

Following the relative difficulties in v. 33, verses 34-35 have a clearer sense, a pair of 3+3 couplets that expound the strength that YHWH gives to the Psalmist. The rhythm and idiom is a bit awkward, due to a mixing of motifs; the main difficulty is in the last line, where the precise sense of the image is unclear. Overall, the imagery relates to physical strength and prowess, used to represent military ability and leadership in battle. In the first couplet, the focus is on the feet—in terms of speed and leaping ability (the deer [lY`a^] makes for a natural comparison). The second couplet has the parallel idea of the hands (or arms)—there is no corresponding motif from nature, but a clear interpretation in terms of military skill. As the second line of the first couplet contains the idea of ascent, it seems likely that the verb tj^n` in the parallel line of the second couplet specifically denotes descent. The image seems to be that of a divinely-touched bow (tv#q#) descending (from heaven) into the Psalmist’s arms. The word hv*Wjn+ presumably means “bronze” (cp. Job 20:24); however, there are several distinct roots vjn in Hebrew, and Dahood (p. 115) would derive hvjn here from the root signifying enchantment (i.e. divination, etc)—i.e., an enchanted bow. Perhaps some such wordplay is involved, as there is also between vjn and tjn. In any case, the divinely-touched bow symbolizes military skill that is inspired/guided by YHWH.

The corresponding couplet in Hab 3:19b-c is:

“He sets my feet (to be) like a deer,
He makes me tread upon His high places”

As in the Psalm, it is best to read the y– of yt^omB* as preserving the 3rd person suffix (“His high places”), frequent in older poetry and easily confused with the standard 1st-person suffix (i.e., “my high places”).

Verses 36-37 [35-36]

“You have given to me (the) protection [i.e. shield] of your salvation,
[your right hand holds me up]
and your conquering (power) has increased m(y ability);
you have made wide my steps beneath me,
and (so) my ankles did not slip (out from under).”

Ps 18 has an additional line in the first couplet (in square brackets above), and the irregular meter also indicates likely corruption in the text; the shorter reading in 2 Sam is probably to be preferred. The imagery of military strength and prowess is continued from the prior couplets, only here the idea of victory and success (in battle) is included. The ‘shield’ of YHWH’s protection saves the Psalmist, and his own ability to conquer (root wnu/hnu) similarly comes from YHWH, bringing an increase (vb hbr) in his skill/strength. Similarly, God gives to him secure footing and strong support on the ground.

Verses 38-39 [37-38]

“I pursued my enemies and reached them,
and I did not return until I finished them;
I struck them and they were not able to rise,
they fell (dead there) under my feet!”

Here the Psalmist’s victory in battle is described, with a pair of 3+3 couplets that exhibit a more dramatic synthetic parallelism (the second line building upon the first). In both couplets, the text of Ps 18 is to be preferred over 2 Sam 22, which reads “I destroyed them” instead of “I reached them” and “I finished them” (repeating the same verb from the end of the first couplet) instead of “I struck them”.

Verses 40-41 [39-40]

“You girded me (with) strength for (the) battle,
you bent (the one)s rising on me (to be) beneath me;
you gave my enemies to me (by the) neck,
the (one)s hating me—and I put and end to them!”

The slightly irregular rhythm of these couplets may be intentional, for dramatic effect, bringing a climax to the idea of the Psalmist’s victory over his enemies. The second couplet seems to build on the imagery of the first—the victorious warrior standing on the neck of his defeated enemy. I follow the reading of 2 Sam in the position of the w-conjunction in the last line, occurring before the final verb; again this adds to the dramatic effect.

Verses 42-43 [41-42]

“They called for help, and there was no (one) saving (them),
(even) upon YHWH, and He did not answer them;
I pulverized them like (the) dust of (the dirt) path,
(and) like the mud outside I stamped them (down)!”

The defeat of the Psalmist’s enemies is complete in these two couplets, the second of which shows signs of corruption in both Ps 18 and 2 Sam. The Qumran Samuel manuscript 4QSama seems to preserve something close to the original reading of v. 43 [42]; in any case, it allows us to reconstruct it. As indicated above, the first line is:

I pulverized them like (the) dust of (the dirt) path [jr^a)]

In Ps 18, jra seems to have been confused with jwr (“wind”), with the word yn@P= (“face of”) perhaps added to fill out the idiom (i.e. dust strewn about in the face of the wind). By contrast, in 2 Sam, jra was apparently misread as Jra (“earth”). The final verb of the second line in 2 Sam is <q@yr!a& (“I poured them out”), which appears to be a misreading of <u@q*r=a# (“I pounded/stamped them”), found also in Ps 18 but conflated with the synonymous <Q@d!a& (“I crushed them”).

Verses 44-46 [43-45]

“You delivered me from (the) arrows of (the) people,
and set me as (the) head of nations;
people I have not known shall serve me,
at (the) hearing of (their) ear they are made to hear me;
sons of an alien (people) submit themselves before me,
and are restrained by (the bond)s enclosing their (necks)!”

These closing lines of the poem of victory are most difficult, both textually and metrically, and in terms of sense. The precise imagery, for example, in the first couplet is hard to determine. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 117) in reading MT yb@yr! (“strivings/conflicts[?] of”) as = yB@r^ (“arrows [of]”), from the root bbr II; another possibility is oBr! (“multitudes”) from bbr I. Either of those two options seems better to fit the military imagery of the poem. Equally problematic is the second line of the couplet, where Ps has the verb <yc! (“you set me to [be] head”), while 2 Sam has rm^v* (“you guarded me as[?] head”). Dahood suggests that rm^v* is original, and that var) is not “head”, but a separate word (var)) meaning “poison”; this would yield a synonymous parallel:

“You delivered me from (the) arrows[?] of (the) people,
and guarded me against (the) poison of (the) nations”

However, it seems that a synthetic parallelism is more appropriate to these verses—i.e., God delivers the Psalmist, and so sets him as head over nations, that is, as a victorious sovereign over vassal kings. This would be fully in keeping with the underlying royal theology of the Psalm.

The textual difficulties in the last two couplets are even more acute. I follow McCarter (pp. 461-2), in reconstructing vv. 45-46 primarily on the basis of the shorter text in 4QSama. On this basis, it would seem that both Ps 18 and 2 Sam (MT) contain an extra (conflate) line: “sons of an alien (people) shrink [before me]” = “sons of an alien (people) cringe (?) before me”. The latter is preferred as the reading of v. 46a, though the exact meaning of the verb sj^k* is a bit difficult to determine. As this verb is used in the Old Testament, it seems to have the basic meaning “fail, fall short”, though on a few occasions it (or a separate root sjk) is used in the context of a defeated enemy, much as it is here (cf. Deut 33:29, also Ps 66:3; 81:15). Perhaps the idea in these instances is of a person showing weakness, either in the sense of submitting to the victorious party or cringing, etc, before them; both options are attested in the translations.

The final line, punctuating the poem, has its own complications. The verb rg~j* fundamentally means “surround”, sometimes in the sense of “restrain”, which almost certainly is the meaning here; Ps 18 incorrectly reads gr^j* (“tremble”) instead of rg~j*. The last word, a suffixed plural form of tr#G#s=m! (from rg~s*, “shut [up], close”), refers to something that encloses a person, possibly meant here in terms of a neck-collar that binds the prisoners of war (cf. verse 41 for the emphasis on the enemy’s neck). This is how I have chosen to render the line above (cf. McCarter, p. 472).

Psalm 18:47-51 [46-50]

The final portion of the Psalm is a brief hymn of thanksgiving to YHWH, similar in some respects to the concluding section of the first half (vv. 21-31), emphasizing the justice, etc, of YHWH.

Verses 47-49 [46-48]

“(By the) life of YHWH—blessed (be) my Rock,
and lifted high (the) Mightiest (One) of my salvation,
the Mighty (One), the (one) giving vengeance for me,
and (the one) bringing down peoples under me,
bringing me out from my enemies, and from (the one)s rising (against) me—
you lift me high up from (such a) man,
you snatch me (away) from (the) violent (one)s!”

After two couplets praising YHWH, the third opens up into a tricolon punctuated (in v. 49b) by a pair of two-beat lines extolling the deliverance and victory that God gives to the Psalmist. This again is part of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, focused specifically on the Davidic line (cf. below). The rendering of uv*y# and hm*q*n+ by “salvation” and “vengeance”, respectively, can be rather misleading; here they need to be construed more narrowly in terms of military victory, and the vindication of the king’s rule, rather than in the more general moral and religious sense. However, the message certainly could be (and was) applied to the people of God more generally, especially as the Psalm came to circulate and be used in a worship setting. The emphasis on deliverance in v. 49 returns to the main theme in the first half of the Psalm.

Verses 50-51 [49-50]

“Upon this [i.e. for this reason] will I throw you (praise), O YHWH,
and make music to your name among the nations,
(the One who) makes salvation great (for) His king,
and acts (with) loyalty to His Anointed,
to Dawîd and his seed unto (the) distant (future)!”

The final two couplets form a doxology, bringing the Psalm to a close. Whatever we me say about the date or composition of the main portions (poems) of the Psalm, almost certainly this doxology was added when they were brought together into a single poetic work. The last line, with its reference to David, confirms the Davidic association of the Psalm (cf. the superscription and the location in 1-2 Samuel), and, most likely, the early Judean milieu, during which time the complete poem could be copied and transmitted (along with certain scribal errors and adaptations), before its inclusion within Samuel and the Psalter, respectively.

The noun ds#j# (“goodness”) is the key term for the idea of covenant loyalty throughout the Psalm—i.e., as the Psalmist is faithful/loyal to YHWH (as his Sovereign), so God will respond in kind, rescuing him in his time of distress and giving him victory over his enemies.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965). “McCarter” refers to P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 9 (1984).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

 

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 1

Psalm 18

The 18th Psalm is one of the longest compositions in the Psalter. Its many archaic features, including ancient Canaanite elements, make any critical study of it challenging, as does the fact that the poem has been preserved separately as 2 Samuel 22, and the two versions must be compared. For this reason, it is necessary to divide our study into several parts, to be spread out over different Sundays. The first part will begin with an overview of the composition, and a comparative analysis of the opening verses.

Overview

Psalm 18 is unique in that a second form of it has been preserved independently, at the end of the David narratives in the books of Samuel (2 Sam 22). It would seem that Psalm 18 is closer to the original form of the poem, but this can only be established through a detailed textual comparison. This study will make use of both versions, examining each couplet and strophe in parallel, noting any key differences.

It is sometimes thought that more than one composition is involved, and that different poems were combined; most common is a two-part division into poems vv. 2-31 [1-30] and 32-51 [31-50]. Questions regarding the integrity of such a long and complex Psalm are natural enough, though ultimately speculative. As we consider each section, within the overall contours of the poem, the possibility of its composite character will be discussed.

The meter of the Psalm tends to be 3+3, utilizing the three-beat bicolon format; however, there are exceptions, including the use of 3+3+3 tricola, for example, in vv. 8-9 and 14. Attempts to emend or reconstruct points of difficulty on the basis of supposed metrical consistency are highly questionable, yet certain critical emendations are more plausible than others, and will be discussed.

The extended heading (superscription) is curious, both in form and content. After the initial address to the musical director (presumably, Heb. j^X@n~m=), it reads:

“(belonging) to (the) servant of YHWH, to Dawid, who uttered to YHWH the words of this song, in (the) day (that) YHWH pulled him away from (the) palm(s) of all his enemies and from (the) hand of lwav.”

This is nearly identical to the introduction in 2 Sam 22:1, which begins, appropriately in the context of the narrative, “And Dawid uttered to YHWH the words of this song…”. Otherwise, the only difference is a repeated use of “from the palm(s) of” instead of “from the hand of”. In Samuel, the poem serves to close the cycle of David narratives; thus its association with David is especially strong, perhaps more so than any other composition in the Psalter. The Canaanite elements in the poem certainly suggest an early date that could, on entirely objective grounds, support Davidic authorship. These details will be discussed at the appropriate points throughout our study.

The closing word of the heading, lwav, is pointed by the Masoretes as lWav*, i.e. the proper name (Saul), which could perhaps be translated literally as an abbreviated form of the phrase-name “requested (of God)”, cp. la@yT!l=a^v=. While this would allude to the famous episodes in the David narratives (1 Samuel 18-24), there is serious question as to whether lWav* is the correct pointing of the text. For example, it is odd to juxtapose Saul with “all of his enemies”, since Saul would have been counted as one of those enemies; possibly the w-conjunction has the force of “and even from the hand of Saul”, or “and especially from the hand of Saul”, but this is questionable. More to the point is the fact that the poem itself mentions not lWav* (Saul), but loav= (Sheol), and this makes a more appropriate pairing with “all of his enemies”:

“…in the day (that) YHWH pulled him away from the palm(s) of all his enemies and from the hand of Sheol [i.e. death, the grave].”

Conceivably, there is an intentional play on words (lWav*/loav=), introduced by the author of the heading.

First Part (Poem 1): Verses 2-31 [1-30]

Verses 2-4

The relationship between the two versions in these verses is complex. Vv. 2-4 form an introductory stanza of praise to YHWH. Let us compare them as they stand, beginning with Psalm 18:

“And he said:
I love you, YHWH, my strength!
YHWH (is) my rock-cleft and hill-top (site),
and my (only) means of escape,
my Mighty (One), my rock,
in which I find protection,
my shield and (the) horn of my salvation,
my place of high (walls), being (worthy) of praise!
I called to YHWH,
and from my enemies I was saved.”

Here is the same relative portion of the 2 Samuel version:

“And he said:
YHWH (is) my rock-cleft and hill-top (site),
and (the) means of escape for me,
my Mighty (One), my rock,
in which I find protection,
my shield and (the) horn of my salvation,
my place of high (walls) and my place to flee—
the (One) bringing salvation (to) me,
from violence you (have) saved me!
Being (worthy) of praise, I call to YHWH,
and (so) I am saved from my enemies.”

In their landmark study on this Psalm, F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman present the interesting theory that verses 2-4, in both Ps 18 and 2 Sam 22, are a conflation of two different earlier forms of the introduction (see pp. 21-22 of their study). In each reconstructed form, there are six lines, with a 3+3 bicolon followed by a pair of 2+2 bicola:

Different images and motifs of protection are present in these lines. The primary emphasis is on a protective place (location) high up in the cliffs, blending with the standard ancient Near Eastern idea of the fortified hilltop site. From this wider military application, the imagery moves to the narrower focus of personal protection, over the body, etc, of the one whom YHWH delivers from danger.

Verses 5-7

A different aspect of salvation is described in this stanza, utilizing the ancient mythic-cosmic image of Death (and chaos/destruction) as a great opponent of YHWH, even as death and disorder are the opposite of life and order. I have discussed the meaning and background of the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol) in prior studies as well as a supplemental article; the similar term lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al, Belial) was also examined briefly in an earlier article. This emphasis provides a strong argument that lwav in the superscription ought to be read as Sheol (loav=) rather than Saul (lWav*), cf. above.

“The breaking (wave)s of Death surrounded me,
the torrents of Beliyya’al (engulf)ed me (with) terror;
the twisted (cord)s of She’ol turned around me,
the snares of Death came (right) in front of me.
In th(is) tight (spot) for me, I called to YHWH,
unto my Mightiest [Elohim] I (cri)ed for help;
He heard my voice from His palace,
and my cry for help came in(to) His ears.”

Apart from some minor orthographic differences, we may note the following more substantial textual/versional points:

    • 2 Sam v. 4 begins with the particle yK! (“for”) which probably should be omitted as secondary.
    • The first line of Psa v. 4 has “twisted (cord)s” (yl@b=j#, plural construct), as in line 3, whereas 2 Sam reads “breaking (wave)s” (yr@B=v=m!), which much better suits the imagery of the couplet and is to be preferred.
    • Most commentators agree that the last line in Psa v. 7 is a conflation of two different phrases “came to(ward) His face [i.e. before Him]” and “came in(to) His ears”; the latter is the reading of 2 Sam, and probably is to be preferred. In any case, it would seem that only one of the two would have been present originally.

The remainder of the first part of the Psalm will be examined in next week’s study.

The aforementioned study by Cross and Freedman (“A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”) was originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.



Birth of the Messiah: Micah 5:2

Micah 5:1 [2]:
The Messianic Bethlehem Tradition

The strongest passage in the New Testament regarding the birth of the Messiah is the treatment of the Bethlehem tradition in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-12)—in particular, the citation of Micah 5:1 [2] within the narrative (vv. 4-6). The tradition regarding Jesus‘ birth in Bethlehem is quite strong, on objective grounds; it is one of the few elements of the Infancy narrative shared by Matthew and Luke (though presented quite differently). Only Matthew relates it to the prophecy in Micah 5:1 [2], and in such a way as to indicate that it was regarded as a Messianic prophecy prior to its application to Jesus. Here is how the Gospel writer frames the citation:

And (hav)ing brought together all the chief sacred officials and (expert)s on the writings [i.e. scribes] of the people, he [i.e. Herod] inquired (from) alongside of them where the Anointed (One) comes to be (born). And th(ey) said to him, “In Beth-Lehem of Yehudah—for so it has been written through the Foreteller: ‘And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah, not even one (bit the) least are you among the leaders of Yehudah; (for) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader who will shepherd my people Yisra’el'”.

The Matthean Infancy narrative in chapter 2 may be divided into two halves—the second having a tri-partite structure:

    1. The visit of the Magi (vv. 1-12)
    2. The Flight to Egypt—a triad with a Scripture citation in each part:
      • The Dream of Joseph, warning of Herod, and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
        “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1)
        • Herod’s killing of the infants in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
          “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jeremiah 31:15)
      • The Dream of  Joseph speaking/warning of Herod, and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
        [“He shall be called a Nazarene” (citation uncertain)]

It is also possible to separate it into two halves, each with a bi-partite structure (containing a main and secondary Scripture passage):

    • The visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem, in the threatening shadow of Herod (vv. 1-12)
      “And you O Bethlehem…” (Micah 5:2)
      • The Dream of Joseph and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
        “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1)
    • Herod, ‘tricked’ by the Magi, slaughters the children in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
      “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jer 31:15)
      • The Dream of Joseph and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
        [“He shall be called a Nazarene”]

One might also add 1:18-25 to create three-part structure for the entire Infancy Narrative, each with a central Scripture passage and dream ‘visitation’:

The Scripture citations are central to the narrative, as also to the identification of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Savior of Israel. Unlike the other citations (1:22-23; 2:15, 17-28, 23), here the Scripture is quoted by a character (priests and scribes together) in the narrative, rather than as an aside by the author. Critical scholars would still view this as a Matthean citation, little different from the others in the Gospel; however, if we are to accept the narrative at face value, along with the underlying historical tradition, then Micah 5:1 [2] would have been understood as having Messianic significance at the time of the events recorded (end of the 1st century B.C.), prior to being applied by early Christians to Jesus decades later. To be sure, the original context of the passage (cf. below) is much closer to having an actual ‘Messianic’ connotation than the other Scriptures cited by Matthew (Isa 7:14; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15; and those underlying Matt 2:23). Even so, there is (as yet) no direct evidence for a Messianic interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2] in the first centuries B.C./A.D., outside of the New Testament itself.

If one looks honestly at the original historical context of Isa 7:14 [see the previous note and earlier articles on this passage]; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15, etc., it must be admitted that they have little to do with a future Messiah-figure. It is conceivable that Isa 7:14 could have been understood in this way, but there is no real evidence for it in Jewish literature contemporaneous or prior to the New Testament. The case may be somewhat different for Micah 5:1 [2], based on the following factors:

    • Unlike the oracles of Isaiah 7:10-17 and 9:1-7, which are presented in a relatively precise historical context (the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, the Syro-Ephraimitic crisis and impending invasion by Assyria, c. 740-701 [esp. 735-732] B.C.), Micah 5:1-6 [MT 4:14-5:5] has a rather more general setting of coming judgment (military attack implied) followed by restoration. The themes (as well as language and style) of the these oracles in Micah are quite similar to those of Isaiah, but without some of the accompanying historical detail.
    • Assyrian invasion is mentioned in 5:5[4], and is presumably the source of judgment to hit Judah and the Northern kingdom (there is no clear indication Samaria has yet fallen, 722-721 B.C.); however, there is nothing like the precise (imminent) timing found in the predictions of Isa 7:15-17; 8:4. The implication of Micah 5:5-6 would seem to be that the Davidic ruler of 5:2 will lead (Judah’s) troops against the Assyrian invasion, which will lead to the gathering in of the remnant of Jacob (the Northern kingdom?). There is thus a closer parallel to the oracle in Isa 9:1-7, which is also more plausibly ‘Messianic’ (in its original context) than Isa 7:10-17.
    • The reference in Micah 5:3 [2] that God will give Israel/Judah up to judgment “until the one giving birth has given birth” is far more general (and symbolic, cf. the reference in 4:10) than that of the virgin/woman of Isaiah 7:14 (or Isa 8:3); this fact, in and of itself, makes application of the passage to an archetypal or future ruler much more natural.
    • The reference to Bethlehem (in Judah), while possibly intended (originally) to refer to a specific coming ruler in Micah’s own time, also makes likely an archetypal reference to the Davidic line (cf. also references to the “house of David” and “throne of David”, Isa 7:13; 9:7, etc).
    • While one can consider the language in 5:2b as similar to the exalted honorific titles given to ancient Near Eastern rulers (see my notes on Isaiah 9:6-7 in this regard), there is a dynamic, almost ‘mythological’ quality to the phrasing, which, when removed from the immediate context, would certainly suggest divine origin. Once the specific ritual sense of king as God’s “son” (cf. Psalm 2) has ceased to be relevant in Israelite history, the way is paved for the idea of a future/Messianic ruler as “son of God”.

Matthew’s citation of Micah 5:2 differs in several respects from both the Hebrew (MT) and Septuagint (LXX) versions:

Hebrew (MT) [5:1]

And you, House-of-Lµm {Bethlehem} of Ephrath,
Small to be (counted) with the ‘thousands’ [i.e. clans] of Yehudah {Judah},
From you shall come forth for/to me
(One) to be ruling/ruler in Yisra°el {Israel},
And his coming forth is from ‘before’ [<d#q#]
—from (the) days of ‘long-ago’ [<l*ou]

LXX

And you, Beth-lehem, house of Ephrathah
Are little to be in/among the thousands of Yehudah;
(Yet) out of [i.e. from] you will come out for/to me
The (one) to be unto (a) chief [a)rxwn] in Yisra’el,
And his ways out are from (the) beginning [a)rxh]
—out of [i.e. from] (the) days of (the) Age

Matthew 2:6

And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah,
Not even one (bit the) least are you in/among the leaders of Yehudah;
(For) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader
Who will shepherd my people Yisra’el

There are three major differences (and one minor) between Matthew’s citation and that of the LXX and Hebrew MT:

      • Instead of the reference to Ephrath(ah), Matthew specifies “land of Judah”; this may be an intentional alteration to avoid mention of an unfamiliar clan name (though the place name Ramah is retained in the citation of Jer 31:15 [Matt 2:18]).
      • Instead of calling Bethlehem small/little [LXX o)ligosto$], Matthew uses the expression “not even one (bit the) least” [ou)damw$ e)laxisth, i.e. ‘not at all’, ‘by no means’]—in other words, Bethlehem is actually great. Is this a variant reading (from a lost Hebrew or Greek version), or an intentional alteration (by the Gospel writer)?
      • Instead of the ‘thousands’ [or clans] of Judah, Matthew reads “leaders [h(gemwn]” of Judah. This is a relative minor difference, and may conceivably reflect a different reading of the consonantal Hebrew text; or it may be an attempt to emphasize rule (rather than the constitution) of Judah.
      • Matthew has omitted the final bicolon (“and his coming forth…”), inserting at the end of the prior line (replacing “of Israel”): “who will shepherd my people Israel”. This appears to be a quotation from 2 Samuel 5:2 (LXX): “you will shepherd my people Israel”, joined to Mic 5:2. The inclusion of this Scripture would strengthen the citation as a reference to the Davidic ruler figure-type.

Messianic Interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2]

The historical tradition in Matt 2:4-6 evinces a belief, or expectation, by Jews of the time, that the Anointed One (that is, the Davidic Messiah) would be born in Bethlehem. There can be little doubt that this underlies the core Gospel traditions in the Infancy narratives. Both the Matthean and Lukan narratives emphasize the association with David, though this is stronger and more pervasive in Luke (cf. Matt 1:1ff, 17, 20; Lk 1:27, 32-33, 69ff; 2:4, 8ff, 11). The historical detail of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is part of this Davidic Messianic tradition. The fact that the Bethlehem tradition is presented so differently within the two narratives demonstrates that it pre-dates both of them.

Indeed, there is evidence that the Bethlehem tradition (and also Micah 5:1 [2]) had been independently applied to the Messiah, in Judea, prior to the writing of the Gospels. This can be inferred fairly from John 7:41-42:

“Others said [i.e. regarding Jesus], ‘This is the Anointed (One)’, and (yet) others said, ‘No, for the Anointed (One) does (not) come out of the Galîl {Galilee}, (does he)? (Has) not the Writing said that out of the seed of Dawid and from Beth-Lehem the Anointed (One) comes?'”

The historical context in John at this point is ambiguous enough to virtually guarantee that we are dealing with a Jewish (rather than early Christian) tradition. It could be derived simply from the historical details surrounding David’s life, but more than likely the reference in Micah 5:2 is assumed as well. The tradition of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem is established in the subsequent Rabbinic literature—most notably, Jerusalem Talmud Berakot 5a [2:4], and the Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations §51 (on Lam 1:16). However, these passages are considerably later than the first century, and evidence from the first centuries B.C./A.D. is scant indeed. Sadly, the surviving fragments of the Qumran Commentary (Pesher) on Micah (1Q14) do not cover the relevant portion of the book (4:14-5:5 [5:1-6]). A separate text, 4Q168, with two small fragments, may be a similar Micah pesher (the surviving portion deals with 4:8-12), but too little is preserved to provide much by way of interpretation.

According to Origen, in his work Against Celsus (1.51), Jewish scholars in his time (and prior) had removed or suppressed the Bethlehem tradition—i.e., the expectation that the (Davidic) Messiah would be born in Bethlehem—to avoid giving support for the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah. However accurate this bit of apologetic may (or may not) be, it could be seen as providing independent confirmation of the Bethlehem tradition by perhaps the mid-2nd century A.D. Around the same time may be dated the Aramaic Targum (Jonathan) on the Prophets, which glosses/paraphrases Micah 5:1 [2] to say specifically that the Messiah comes out of Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the Jewish evidence cannot be dated, reliably at least, any earlier than this. Even within the later Rabbinic writings, the Bethlehem tradition is not very widespread; there is, for example, no reference to Bethlehem in the Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 52a where the Messiah’s birth is alluded to. This may be partly because of the complex character of the Messianic figure-types, alternating between ordinary human and supernatural/heavenly figures, sometimes even suggesting a (re)incarnation of David or Elijah himself. In the New Testament we actually have more detail regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah than we typically find elsewhere in Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7

Psalm 7

This composition in the Psalter is unique in the use of the word /oyG`v! (šigg¹yôn) in the heading to describe it, a musical (or poetic) term whose meaning is unknown to us. It may be related to a primitive root gv (ggv, hgv) which has the basic meaning “stray, go astray”; others would connect it with ugv (Akkad. šegû) which refers to a kind of howling like that of animals, and could possibly indicate some sort of lament. Also uncertain is the significance of the notice “upon the words of Kûš the ‘son of the right-hand’ [i.e. Benjaminite]”; possibly this refers to an accusation made against David (cf. on vv. 4-6 [3-5] below), relating to a tradition otherwise unknown to us.

This Psalm is the longest and most complex of those we have encountered thus far. Not surprisingly, it has a mixed meter with a number of apparent half-lines (cola) which make coordinating the meter and structure difficult; the closing section (vv. 14-18) is more consistent with a strict 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format. Most of the metrical difficulties are in the first half of the Psalm (vv. 2-9). Tentatively, I offer the following outline:

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

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

The Psalmist’s opening petition—the Psalm itself functioning largely as a prayer—is delivered with a pair of bicola (i.e. 4 lines) that generally utilizes the common 3+3 metrical format, though the first bicolon is actually 4+3 (ever so slightly), due perhaps to the inclusion of the divine name YHWH in the initial line. The presence of the divine name often creates metrical tension in ancient Hebrew poetry, and could, at times, be a sign of secondary adaptation. Here are the lines:

YHWH, my Mighty One, with you I have sought protection—
save me from all (the one)s pursuing me and rescue me,
lest he rip (at) my soul like a lion,
tearing (it) apart (with) no one (to) rescue!

Each bicolon ends with a form of the verb lx^n` (“take/snatch away”) in the Hiphil, emphasizing the need for deliverance, for YHWH to rescue the Psalmist in his time of trouble (a frequent motif in the Psalms, as we have seen). The second occurrence is verbal noun (participle) form which I have rendered like an infinitive in an attempt to preserve the rhythmic sense of the line. The shift from plural (“the ones pursuing”) to singular (“lest he rip…”) is not all that uncommon, especially when dealing with opponents of the protagonist in the Psalms; they can be described as many or as one, collectively or individually—the description can be quite fluid. In part, I think, this is meant to reflect the lack of firmness and integrity in the wicked, in contrast to the Psalmist, who remains firm (and unified) in his loyalty to YHWH.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

The petition gives way to an oath in these lines, drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. The force of such binding agreements was magical-religious, and involved an oath. First, the parties of the agreement would call upon God (or the gods) as witness; second, this meant that, by way of certain ritual formula, divine judgment would be brought down upon one who violated the agreement. The idea of the covenant between YHWH and the people Israel was unique in this regard, since God was not a witness, but a participant in the agreement—as the superior (suzerain) to whom Israel and its rulers were the subordinate (vassal). In agreeing to the terms of the covenant, Israel took an oath to uphold it, including the curse/punishment which would come upon them if/when it was ever violated. Here the oath is more generalized, in terms of common morality and the normal functioning of society, but it still reflects the righteousness and covenant loyalty of the Psalmist.

He approaches YHWH, his sovereign, confirming his innocence by way of an oath. It begins as a 4+3 bicolon precisely parallel to the opening of the petition (v. 2): “YHWH, my Mighty One…”. He has sought protection (vb hs^j*) with YHWH as his Lord and protector (under the covenant); the oath is taken in this very context. According to the text as we have it, the first line reads: “YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this [taz)]”. It is not clear what “this” is, which has led some commentators to emend the text. Dahood (p. 42) suggests that here taz) is a substantive meaning something like “insult”, but whose etymology “is not immediately evident”; he cites other such examples in Ps 44:18[17]; 74:18[17], and Job 2:11. While this is a convenient solution, the basis for it seems extremely slight. Some would relate “this” to the “words of Kuš” in the superscription, i.e. presumably as an accusation made against the Psalmist (David), of which we do not know the precise content, though it may be implied in the lines that follow. Indeed, more properly the pronoun (“this”) refers to the following two “if”-statements. This conditional statement (protasis, “if…”) of the oath, taken together, in vv. 4-5 is:

YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this,
if there really is guilt in my palm(s),
if I have dealt (in) evil (with) my sound (ally),
and pulled away (in) empty (word)s (to make him) my foe,

The last line is difficult to translate, but there is a clear contrast (and formal parallel) between ym!l=ov and yr!r=ox, as also between ur* and <q*yr@. The words in the first pair are themselves difficult to translate, though the sense is clear enough. Both are verbal noun (participle) forms with a first person singular suffix (“my…”). The first verb is <l^v* from the root <lv and denominative of the noun <olv* in the sense of a (covenant) agreement that establishes peace, security, and friendship between two parties. The second verb, rr^x* indicates just the opposite—hostility, rivalry, opposition. By acting with evil (ur*) toward one who was supposed to be a firm ally, it would render their bond as merely “empty [words]” (<q*yr@), creating hostility when there should have been peace. This would seem to be the substance of the accusation against the Psalmist—an act of treachery and disloyalty. Verse 6 provides the result for the condition (apodosis, “…then”) of the oath—it is a three-fold declaration, comprised of three lines (tricolon):

(then) let (the) enemy pursue and reach my soul,
and let him trample my life to (the) earth,
and make my (very) weight dwell in (the) dust!

Three comprehensive terms are used to represent the (whole) person of the Psalmist in its deepest sense:

    • vp#n#—refers to the life-breath or essence of the person, usually rendered as “soul” (here yv!p=n~, “my soul”)
    • <yY]j^—a plural noun referring to the physical life, span of life, etc., of a person (here yY`j^, “my life”)
    • dobK*—”weight”, often in the basic sense of “worth, value”, figuratively as “honor”, etc (here yd!obk=, “my weight/worth”)
      [some commentators read ydbk here as yd!b@k=, “my liver”, in the sense of “my inner(most) organ(s)”]

The purpose of this oath is to confirm—by magical-ritual means—the Psalmist’s innocence; from the religious standpoint of the Psalm, it is meant to demonstrate his loyalty to YHWH. He declares, indeed, that he has remained loyal, and would not have acted in such a disloyal way as he is accused of doing. That he is willing to take on the curse of the oath is an implicit proof that he is innocent. This oath section ends with a hl*s# (Selah) mark, frequent in the Psalms, and the exact significance of which remains uncertain. Here it can be used a structural indicator, marking a break before the next major section.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

As indicated in the outline above, verses 7-17 are to be divided into three sections, or strophes. They make up a call to YHWH, for him to act as judge and declare justice for the Psalmist, vindicating him in the accusation against him. The call proper is contained in vv. 7-10, structurally (metrically) one of the most difficult portions of the Psalm. It is a challenge to divide this portion accurately into lines and couplets. As with verse 6, it seems most natural to view vv. 7-9a as utilizing a tricolon (three-line) format. The first tricolon (v. 7) is:

Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!

The three imperatives are intended to stir YHWH to action, which is the emphasis of these lines. The last verb (hwx, perfect form t*yW]x!) is a bit difficult to render; I take it as a precative perfect, reflecting the expectation of the Psalmist, in the sense that YHWH has the power to command (i.e. make) judgment and deliver justice. In the second tricolon (vv. 8-9a), He is seen as acting, and the imagery shifts to the assembling of the tribunal:

(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes [<yM!a%] surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples [<yM!u^]!

This triad marvelously moves from the congregation of Israel (line 1) to an image of all the peoples [of the world] (line 3); in between is the comprehensive, unifying motif of YHWH seated high above on His throne (line 2). The verb form hb*Wv in the second line is best understood as deriving from bvy (“sit, dwell”) rather than bwv (“turn, return”). In the following lines, vv. 9b-10, this triadic structure expands to include a set of three bicola (6 lines), it seems, following a 3+2 meter. With the tribunal in place, the Psalmist now asks YHWH to make judgment on his behalf:

Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

The initial verb (fp^v*, “judge”) is different from that in the prior line (/yD!, “[act as] judge”), and connotes the establishment of justice in the case at hand. The root qdx plays an important role in these lines, with the noun qd#x# in v. 9b (line 1), and the adjective qyd!x* twice in v. 10 (parallel lines 4 and 6). This key root is central to the idea of the covenant, and, as a consequence, to Israelite religious thought and theology as a whole. It has a relatively wide semantic range, but fundamentally refers to something that is right, straight, and according to a standard (measure). The noun qd#x# is often translated “righteousness” or “justice”, much as the similar noun dikaiosu/nh in Greek (indeed, the diakaio- word-group is close in meaning to Hebrew qdx); perhaps “right-ness” or “just-ness” would capture the meaning better, but there is no such corresponding word in English. In the context of the ancient binding agreement (covenant), it also denotes faithfulness and loyalty. In a judicial setting, the idea certainly is that of determining justice, making things right—and, of course, whether a person (and his/her behavior, cause, etc) is just and right. The loyal servant of YHWH possesses a “right-ness/just-ness” that mirrors that of God Himself (note the clear parallel in lines 4 & 6).

The last word in line 2 (MT yl*u*) has caused some difficulty, leading commentators occasionally to emend (or repoint) the text. Dahood (p. 45) suggests that it should be read as yl!u@, as a divine name, i.e. “(YHWH the) Most High”. However, the parallelism in the bicolon is perhaps better preserved by the (Masoretic) pointing—as the preposition lu^ with first person singular suffix—marking an absent, but implied, verb. Note:

    • judge me [yn]f@p=v*]
      • according to my right-ness [yq!d=x!K=], and
      • according to my completeness [yM!t%K=]
    • (decide) over me [yl*u*]

The parallelism in the second bicolon is antithetic, marking the precise contrast—between righteous and wicked, loyal and disloyal—that lies at the heart of the judgment scene. God is able to make a proper determination, since he is the one “examining [vb /j^B*] hearts and kidneys”—both of these inner organs were use to represent (and locate) the mind (thoughts, intention, desire, etc) of a person; in our idiom we would say “examining hearts and minds”. The significance of the characterization of YHWH as “just” (qyd!x*, cf. above) is two-fold: (a) it means that he is able to establish true and proper justice, and (b) it marks the “just” person as one who is, and remains, loyal to YHWH.

[The remainder of the Psalm (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) will be discussed in the next study.]

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 4

Psalm 4

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

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

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

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

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

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

Let us consider the lines together:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 9 [8] and Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The parallelism in the verse continues:

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 3

Psalm 3

This is the first entry in the Psalter (following the customary order) which begins with a superscription, which for the Psalms typically contain an indication of subject/author and a musical instruction. According to the Hebrew verse numbering, the superscription counts as the first verse, while in most English versions it is regarded as part of the verse. In such instances, I will be utilizing the Hebrew numbering, but with the English numbering in parentheses.

Verse 1

The superscription marks this work as romz+m! (mizmôr) which simply means a musical composition, often specifically one that is sung. It is also said to be dw]d*l= (l®d¹wid), which would be “(belonging) to David”, either in the sense of being written/composed by him or, that he is considered to be the subject of the work. This setting of the song (according to the superscription) is David’s flight during the rebellion by his son Absalom (cf. 2 Samuel 15-18). The historical reliability of these traditional notices is disputed by commentators; generally, it does seem that they reflect attempts to place a particular Psalm into the context of a specific Scriptural narrative, one which fits the overall mood and tone of the work. Critical scholars regard the superscriptions as traditional, but quite secondary to the Psalms themselves; even among traditional-conservative commentators, few would treat the superscriptions as part of the original (inspired) text.

Verses 2-3 (ET 1b-2)

The tone of lament, which, of course, would suit the situation of David indicated in the superscription, comes through clearly in the opening lines, in which the root bbr (“to be many”) appears three times. This sets the lone Psalmist against his “many” opponents and enemies; whether this reflects an historical reality or poetic hyperbole is impossible to say. In any case, it is to God (YHWH) that the Psalmist raises his lament to ask for deliverance:

“YHWH, how many they are [WBr^], the (one)s hostile to me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s standing up against me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s showing (hostility) to my soul!
—There (seems to be) no help for him with the Mightiest [i.e. God]!”

The sense of these lines is straightforward, with one notable exception which affects the specific meaning (and translation) of the passage. In the third line, we have the participle <yr!m=a), from the verb rm^a*, which is typically translated “say, speak”. Following this standard interpretation, the fourth line reflects what the “many” say to the Psalmist (to “his soul”), as a taunt: “There is no help for him with God!”. However, the original, fundamental meaning of the Semitic root rma had more to do with making something visible (“shine, show”), from which came the idea of making something known through speaking. Admittedly, this earlier meaning of rma is not attested much in the Hebrew of the Old Testament; however, poetry often preserves older/archaic usage, and that may be the case in a number of Psalms. Dahood (p. 16) cites examples where he feels rma has the meaning of “see, look (at)” rather than “say”; perhaps the most relevant example is from Ps 71:10, where rma is set parallel to rmv (“watch”) in a construction very close to that here in Ps 3:

“My enemies say/show [Wrm=a*] to me, and the (one)s watching my soul [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)] take counsel as one [i.e. together]”

This suggests that, in these instances, rma may indeed have the sense of looking at someone (with hostile intent). I have tried to capture both possibilities by rendering the participle <yr!m=a) as “(one)s showing (hostility)”. According to this interpretation, the fourth line would not necessarily record the words of the “many”, but could simply reflect the apparent hopelessness of the situation.

Verses 4-5 (ET 3-4)

In these lines, the Psalmist’s hope is restored by reflecting on the character of YHWH—as a Ruler who has proven that he will protect and reward his loyal vassals. It begins with an address to YHWH (v. 4 [3], continuing from vv. 2-3 [1b-2]), then shifts to an objective declaration of His character:

“And (yet) you, YHWH, are (my) Protection (round) about me,
my Honorable [lit. Weighty] (One), and (the one) lifting my head (up) high.
(When) I should call out with my voice to YHWH,
(then) indeed he answers me from (the) mountain of his Holiness.
Selah

Verse 4 (3) utilizes three idioms related to the language of royalty and suzerain-vassal relations:

    • /g@m*, a noun derived from the root /ng (“surround, protect”); it is often translated “shield”, but is better rendered according to its basic meaning (“protection”), perhaps as an honorific attribute of the ruler (i.e. Protector, Defender)
    • dobK*, a noun derived from db^K*, fundamentally referring to something with weight, i.e. value, worth, etc. It refers to the honor (and honorable/noble character) of the ruler, including the authority he possesses to bestow honor on others (cf. Psalm 84:12 [11]). The specific epithet “(my) honorable (one)” as a Divine title, is found in Pss 4:3 [2]; 62:8 [7]; 66:2 (Dahood, p. 18).
    • yv!ar) <yr!m@ (“[the] one lifting/raising my head high”)—to “lift the head” or “lift the face” is an ancient Near Eastern idiom, referring to one in a position of authority who shows favor to a subordinate.

If the Psalmist affirms YHWH’s status as a trustworthy and honorable Ruler in verse 4, he publicly affirms His faithfulness again in v. 5. I would agree with commentators who take this as a conditional sentence, one which demonstrates YHWH’s faithfulness. When a person calls out to YHWH (as the Psalmist is doing), He will answer, responding to the request. We ought to read here the same Ruler-Vassal language of v. 4 and understand the condition as referring to the request of a loyal vassal (e.g. David, in the purported setting of the Psalm). Moreover, the wording “call out with my voice” is presumably meant to indicate the intensity of the situation—the earnestness of the Psalmist, as well as his desperation. The sacred-mountain locale of the Deity is common, especially in the Semitic world where the Creator God °El/Ilu was typically seen as dwelling on (or in) a great Mountain-Tent. The Canaanite sky/storm deity Haddu (i.e. “Baal”) also had a mountain dwelling. Typically, a specific mountain which came to be associated with the deity was based on actual geographic circumstances—but any mountain could fill this role, even a modest hill such as that of Zion/Jerusalem. The mountain was foremost the dwelling place of God (El/YHWH).

This is the first Psalm (in the standard Psalter) with the musical notation Selah (hl*s#). Both the etymology and technical meaning of this term remain uncertain; presumably in the Psalms it refers to some kind of musical refrain, either instrumental or choral.

Verses 6-7 (ET 5-6)

The assurance of the Psalmist in verse 5 [4] receives even greater expression in these lines, with the answer/response of YHWH cast in more personal terms, according to the needs of the Ruler’s loyal vassal (the Psalmist/David):

“(When) I should lie down and sleep, (then) I wake (again), for YHWH rests (his hand on) me.
I will not fear from the multitudes of people placed around against me.”

Verse 6 [5] is probably best read as another conditional sentence, on the pattern of v. 5 [4]; it shows that YHWH’s protection extends even to the times when his vassal is asleep. We should assume here a setting of sleeping/waking in the midst of being surrounded by enemies, a situation which is made clear again in the following line. The verb Em^s* (“lay/lean [on], hold, support”) here is a bit tricky to translate; probably the sense is twofold: (a) of God laying his hand down on the sleeping Psalmist (as protection); and (b) as support under and around him. The idea of full protection all around is implied; indeed, this is the reason why the Psalmist does not fear the enemies surrounding him. The noun hb*b*r= (“multitude”) is related to the same root bbr used in vv. 2-3 (cf. above). However, there is a separate roor bbr which means “shoot (arrows)”, and it is possible that here the expression <u* tobb=r!m@ means something like “(groups of) arrows of the people” which surround the Psalmist. We see this idiom elsewhere in Scripture, most notably in Job 16:13, but there may also be two occurrences in the Psalms. In Psalm 89:51 [50], we read:

“Remember, my Lord, the scorn of your servants,
I carry (with)in my chest the <yB!r^ of the peoples”

Here <yB!r^ as “arrows” (i.e. things shot at him) makes much more sense than “many/multitudes”. Also worth noting is Ps 18:44 [43]:

“You have brought me out (away) from the <yb!yr! of the people”

Here, in the Masoretic text, the noun in question appears to be derived from the root byr! (“strive, contend, dispute”), with the expression <u* yb@yr!m@ meaning something like “from the strife/disputes of the people”. However, again the reading “from the ‘arrows’ of the people”—i.e., the scorn/taunts as something “shot” like arrows by the people—would make equally good sense, and would only require a general repointing of the consonental text. Cf. Dahood, p. 19.

Verses 8-9 (ET 7-8)

Verse 8 [7] the Psalmist returns to the immediacy of his dire situation, calling out to YHWH to act on his behalf:

“Stand up, YHWH, save me, my Mighty (One) [i.e. God]!
That you (would) have struck all my enemies (on the) jaw,
(and would) have broken the teeth of (the) wicked (one)s!”

The verbs in the first line are imperative forms, urging YHWH to take action. The verbs in the next two lines are perfect forms, and are almost certainly to be understood as precative perfects—i.e. what the Psalmist would have God do as though it already has been accomplished. The request is made in graphic, almost gruesome terms—breaking the jaws of the enemies and shattering their teeth—symbolic of a humiliating defeat at YHWH’s hands. According to Israelite (royal) theology, even if the defeat occurs through military action, it is still seen as God’s own work on behalf of his people, and his loyal vassal the king (David). The closing line of the Psalm serves as a final refrain, calling on God (YHWH) to save his people:

“Salvation, O YHWH!—Your blessing be upon your people.”

The prefixed preposition (l) may serve as a vocative marker (hw`hyl^, “O YHWH”), and that is how I have translated it here; otherwise the phrase would mean “Salvation (belongs) to YHWH”. It seems more likely that here it is a general call to YHWH for salvation/deliverance. Actually the petition is two-fold:

    • bring salvation (to the Psalmist) in his time of need, and
    • bring blessing (hk*r*B=) to the people as a whole

This second line, especially, forms a doxology to the Psalm which is quite similar to that of Psalm 2 (cf. the previous study):

“(The) happiness of all (the one)s taking refuge in Him [i.e. in YHWH]”

The general pattern which this establishes between the first two Psalms (2 and 3) is instructive. In each instance, we have a poem/song which draws upon Israelite royal tradition and theology. The first (Psalm 2) is rooted in the tradition of the coronation/enthronement of the new king; the second (Psalm 3) purports to come from a setting in the life of David (as king). However, each utilizes royal language and imagery which expresses the idea of the king as the faithful vassal of YHWH, ruling under His favor and protection. By the time these Psalms took on definite written form, and certainly by the time the Psalter was put together, the royal traditions had been re-interpreted and applied to the Israelite/Judean people as a whole. Most likely this took place under the influence of Wisdom traditions, such as those expressed in the opening Psalm 1 (cf. the initial study). Long after the monarchy effectively ceased to exist, Israelite and Jews—collectively and individually—could identify with the Psalmist. All of the themes and motifs from the earlier royal theology take on new meaning—trust in YHWH, the favor and protection he provides, deliverance from surrounding enemies, etc.—these all now apply more directly to the people‘s relationship with God. We will see this dynamic repeated numerous times as we proceed through these studies.

Interestingly, despite the royal/Davidic setting, there is no real evidence that Psalm 3 was ever interpreted or applied in a Messianic sense; this differs markedly from Psalm 2, as we saw.

Also, for those interested, I made no mention above of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the simple reason that Psalm 3 is not preserved among the surviving manuscripts of the Psalter. This is unfortunate, as it may have elucidated one or two textual points discussed above.

Yeshua the Anointed, Part 8: The Son of David

In Parts 6 and 7 of this series, I explored the background of the Messianic figure-type of King/Ruler from the line of David, examining the belief from the standpoint of Jewish writings in the 1st-centuries B.C./A.D., as well as the New Testament. In this part, I will be looking in more detail at the specific identification of Jesus as an Anointed Ruler from the line of David. This article will be divided into three areas of study:

    • The Gospel tradition—the Passion narratives and use of the expression “Son of David”
    • The association with David in early Christian Tradition (elsewhere in the New Testament)
    • The Infancy Narratives (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2)

The Gospel Tradition

For a survey and initial examination of the relevant and essential references, see the previous article. Here I will focus on: (1) The expression “Son of David”, (2) The question regarding the Messiah and the Son of David in Mark 12:35-37 par, and (3) The scene of the Triumphal Entry.

“Son of David”

Prior to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem (according to the Synoptic narrative), and apart from the Infancy narratives and genealogy of Jesus (cf. below), the expression “Son of David” occurs 9 times—six of which are from the single Synoptic episode of Jesus’ encounter with the blind beggar on the way from Jericho (Mark 10:46-52, par Lk 18:35-43; Matt 20:29-34). In Mark’s account, this beggar (identified by name as Bartimaios, “Son of Timay” [Matthew refers to two beggars]), when he hears that Jesus is passing by, cries out: “Yeshua, (you) Son of David, show mercy (to) me!” (Mk 10:47, repeated in v. 48). The double-declaration, emphasizing the title “Son of David”, is more than just an historical circumstance; it reflects an important Gospel identification of Jesus, which will appear again in the Triumphal Entry scene and on through the Passion narrative. At the historical level, the beggar may simply have used the expression as an honorific title in addressing Jesus and does not necessarily indicate any particular Messianic belief (cf. verse 51 where he addresses Jesus as Rabbouni [on this title, cf. Part 4]).

Matthew records a similar (doublet) episode in Matt 9:27-31, where again two beggars cry out “show mercy to us, Son of David!” (v. 27); and similarly in Matthew’s version of Jesus healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman (Matt 15:22ff par). There thus appears, at least in Matthew’s Gospel, to be a connection between Jesus’ healing miracles and the address as “Son of David”. This is confirmed by the introductory narrative in Matt 12:22-23, where Jesus is said to have healed a demon-afflicted man who was blind (and mute); the reaction by the crowd is narrated as follows (v. 23):

“And all the throngs (of people) stood out of (themselves) [i.e. were amazed] and said, ‘This (man) is not the Son of David(, is he)?'”

The implication is that Jesus’ miracles lead the people to think that he might be the “Son of David”, almost certainly a reference to the Messianic figure of the Ruler (from the line of David) who is expected to appear at the end-time. Interestingly, however, there is little evidence, in Jewish writings of the period, for such an Anointed Ruler as a worker of (healing) miracles. As demonstrated previously (cf. Parts 6 and 7), the role of the Davidic Messiah was expressed in terms of the Scriptural motifs from Gen 49:10; Num 24:17ff; Psalm 2; Isa 11:1-4, etc—he who will judge and subdue/destroy the wicked nations and establish a Kingdom of peace and security for the people of God. Miracles, on the other hand, were more directly associated with the Prophet-figures of Elijah and Moses, and, especially, with the Anointed Prophet/herald of Isaiah 61:1ff (cf. Parts 2 & 3)—Jesus expressly identifies himself with this latter Messianic figure-type in Luke 4:18-20ff and 7:18-23 par. There is a loose parallel to Matt 12:23 in John 7:40-43, where people debate whether Jesus might be “the Prophet” or “the Anointed One”. In verse 42, some in the crowd declare: “Does not the Writing [i.e. Scripture] say that the Anointed (One) comes out of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem the town of David?” (for a list of the relevant Scriptures in this regard, cf. in Part 6). In Jn 7:41-42, the crowd is reacting to Jesus’ words (teaching), rather than his miracles.

Mark 12:35-37 / Matt 22:41-46 / Luke 20:41-44

In this Synoptic episode (set during Passion week in Jerusalem), Jesus himself raises a question regarding the relationship between the “Anointed (One)” and the “Son of David”, based on an exposition of Psalm 110:1. The precise meaning and intent of Jesus’ argument continues to be debated by commentators. Only traces survive of the historical setting—it appears to be part of a scholarly discussion between Jesus and certain authorities on Scripture (Scribes/Pharisees), a context that is best preserved in Matthew’s account (Matt 22:41-43ff) which records at least part of an exchange. In Mark and Luke, this is framed as a pair of (rhetorical) questions by Jesus:

    • Question 1: How do they count/consider the Anointed (One) to be the son of David? (Lk 20:41)
    • Question 2: (But) David calls him “Lord” and how is he (then) his son? (Lk 20:44)

The second question is based on the common-place idea that the son would call his father “Lord” (“Master, Sir”), not the other way around. The first question assumes that the “Anointed (One)”—here the future Anointed King/Ruler—would be a descendant of David, which is attested in Jewish writings of the period, as well as in the New Testament (cf. the previous two articles). The identification is derived from Scriptures such as 2 Sam 7:11-16; Psalm 132:10-12, etc. It is in this context that Jesus cites another Scripture—Psalm 110:1 (Lk 20:42-43 par), and the way he uses it would indicate that it was commonly understood in a Messianic sense; however, there does not appear to be any other surviving evidence for such an interpretation in Judaism at the time of Jesus (see the supplemental note).

In my view, Jesus uses Psalm 110:1 as a clever way to shift the meaning of “the Anointed (One)” from the Davidic King figure-type over to a different reference point—that of a coming Divine/Heavenly figure, generally referred to elsewhere by Jesus as “the Son of Man” (from Daniel 7:13). This particular Messianic figure will be discussed in detail in an upcoming article in this series.

The Triumphal Entry (Mark 11:1-11 / Matt 21:1-11 / Luke 19:28-40ff / John 12:12-19)

In the episode of Jesus’ (“Triumphal”) Entry into Jerusalem, recorded in all four Gospels—the Synoptic tradition and John—there are four distinctive Messianic elements to the narrative, the last three of which specifically relate to the idea of an Anointed (Davidic) King:

  • Malachi 3:1ff—the Messenger of the Lord coming to Jerusalem (and the Temple) at the time of Judgment (the Day of YHWH). I have argued that originally, this referred to a Divine/Heavenly being (Messenger of YHWH) who would appear as the personal representative (or embodiment) of YHWH himself. Eventually in the Gospels, by way of Mal 4:5-6 and subsequent Jewish tradition, the “Messenger” was interpreted as John the Baptist (“Elijah”) who prepares the way for the Lord (Jesus) to come into Jerusalem (and the Temple). In the Synoptic narrative, the disciples take over this role of “preparing the way” for Jesus (Mark 11:1-6 par, cf. also Lk 9:52; 10:1).
  • Zechariah 9:9ff—a future/eschatological King who will come to Jerusalem and establish a new reign of peace for Israel (Ephraim/Judah). The imagery in the Triumphal entry scene is a clear allusion to this passage, cited explicitly in Matt 21:4-7 and John 12:14-15. If we accept the historicity of Mark 11:2-6 par, then there is a strong likelihood that Jesus intentionally identified himself with the King of Zech 9:9-16. In any event, early Christians certainly made the connection.
  • The use of Psalm 118:26—In all four versions, the crowd recites Ps 118:26a: “Blessed is the (one) coming in the name of the Lord” (Mk 11:9/Matt 21:9/Lk 19:38/Jn 12:13). The original context and background of the Psalm had to do with the return of the (victorious) king to Jerusalem following battle (vv. 10ff), but early on it was used in a ritual/festal setting (vv. 26-27), and was recited as one of the ‘Hallel’ Psalms on the great feasts such as Passover and Sukkoth (Tabernacles). Jesus identified himself as the “one coming” in Luke 13:35 (par Matt 23:39), and there is very likely also a reference to this in Lk 19:41-44 (immediately following the Entry), blending, it would seem, the ancient traditions underlying Mal 3:1 and Psalm 118:26. Cf. also the use of Psalm 118:22f in Mark 12:10-11 par and elsewhere in early Christian tradition (Acts 4:11; 1 Pet 2:4-7; Eph 2:20).
  • The Exclamation of the crowds—In addition to the use of Psalm 118:26, in all four Gospels, the crowds, in greeting Jesus, variously include references to David, King, or Kingdom:
    • Mark 11:10: “…blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
    • Matt 21:9: “Hosanna to the to the son of David…!”
    • Luke 19:38: “Blessed is the (One) coming, the King…[or, the coming King]”
    • John 12:13 “…[and] the King of Israel!”

We might also note the detail, unique to John’s account, of the use of palm branches by the crowds (Jn 12:13a), which could have a royal connotation (cf. 1 Maccabees 13:51; Testament of Naphtali 5:4). For a similar example of the crowds greeting an approaching sovereign, see Josephus, Wars of the Jews 7.100-103.

Early Christian Tradition (in the New Testament)

In the early Christian preaching (kerygma) as recorded in the first half of the book of Acts, Jesus is associated with David in several ways: (1) David prophesied in the Psalms regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection, (2) specific Psalms given a Messianic interpretation are applied to Jesus, and (3) Jesus is seen as fulfilling the covenant and promise to David. The most notable references are:

  • Acts 2:25-36, which cites Psalm 16:8-11 in the context of Jesus death and resurrection (vv. 25-28), and Psalm 110:1 in terms of Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand God in Heaven (vv. 34-35). In verse 30, Jesus is seen as the descendant of David who would sit on the throne as King (cf. Ps 132:10-11 and 2 Sam 7:11-16 etc), and is specifically said to be the “Anointed (One)” of God in the concluding verse 36.
  • Acts 4:25-27, where Psalm 2:1-2 is cited and applied to the Passion of Jesus; again he is identified with the “Anointed (One)” of God.
  • Acts 13:22ff, 33-37—again Psalm 2 and 16 are cited (Ps 2:7; 16:10), as well as Isaiah 55:3, indicating that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise/covenant with David.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, there are several references to Jesus as a descendant of David:

    • Romans 1:3—”…about His Son, the (one) coming to be out of the seed of David according to (the) flesh”
    • 2 Timothy 2:8—”Remember Yeshua (the) Anointed (One), having been raised out of the dead, (and) out of the seed of David…”
    • Revelation 22:16—(Jesus speaking) “I am the root and the ge/no$ of David…” (cf. also Rev 5:5, and note 3:7)

In Rev 22:16, ge/no$ is literally the coming to be (cf. gi/nomai in Rom 1:3), in the sense of something which grows or comes forth (from the ground, womb, etc), i.e. “offspring”, but given the use of “root” (r(i/za) something like “sprout” or “branch” may be intended. Jesus declares that he is both the root of David and the branch/sprout coming out of the root. For the Messianic significance of such images (from Isa 11:1ff etc), see the discussion in Part 7.

While the Anointed Ruler in Messianic expectation was thought to be a fulfillment of the covenant with David, and a continuation/restoration of that line, it is not always clear that this was understood in a concrete, biological sense. However, many early Christians certainly believed that Jesus was born from the line of David, and this is reflected in Romans 1:3. It was a central aspect of the Infancy narratives in the Gospels, as well as the associated genealogies of Jesus; and it is these passages which we will look at next.

The Infancy Narratives (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2)

I am treating these famous portions of the Gospels (of Matthew and Luke) separately, since they seem to reflect a somewhat later, and more developed, Christological understanding than that found elsewhere in the Synoptic tradition. This does not mean that the events recorded are not historical or factual, but rather that they appear to have been carefully shaped by a layer of interpretation within the composition of the narrative. To judge from the book of Acts and the NT letters, Jesus’ birth appears to have played little or no role in early Christian preaching and teaching; indeed, outside of the Infancy narratives, it is scarcely mentioned at all in the New Testament. Even the belief in Jesus as a descendant of David (cf. above) does not play an especially prominent role in early Christian tradition. The matter is rather different in the Infancy narratives—Jesus’ birth, and his identification as the Anointed Ruler (from the line of David), are set within a dense matrix of Old Testament Scriptural parallels and allusions (on this, cf. the Christmas season series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus“). In just four relatively short chapters, we find dozens of references, the most relevant of which are outlined here:

  • Both Infancy narratives are connected with (separate) genealogies of Jesus (Matt 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38), which show him to be a descendant of David (Matt 1:6, 17; Lk 3:31-32). Matthew begins his genealogy (and the Gospel)  with the title: “The paper-roll [i.e. book] of the coming-to-be [ge/nesi$] of Yeshua (the) Anointed, son of David, son of Abraham” (1:1).
  • There are additional references to Joseph (Jesus’ earthly, legal father) as “son of David” (in the Angel’s address to him, Matt 1:20), as being from the “house of David” (Lk 1:27) and from the “house and paternal descent of David” (Lk 2:4). Some traditional-conservative commentators, as a way of harmonizing the apparent (and rather blatant) discrepancies between the genealogies in Matthew of Luke, have claimed that they actually reflect the lines of Joseph and Mary, respectively. This is flatly contradicted by the text itself—both genealogies belong to Joseph (Matt 1:16; Lk 3:23). However, the belief that Mary was from the line of David, and that Jesus was thus a true biological descendant of David, came to be relatively widespread in the early Church; Paul himself may have held this view (cp. Rom 1:3 and Gal 4:4).
  • Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, attested by separate (and independent) lines of tradition, is recorded in Matthew 2:1ff and Lk 2:1-20 (cf. also John 7:41-42). Bethlehem is specifically called “the city of David” in Luke 2:4-11, and connected with the (Messianic) prophecy of Micah 5:2 in Matthew 2:5ff (and cf. Jn 7:42).
  • The expectation of a future/coming Davidic Ruler (“King of the Jews”) called “the Anointed (One)” is clearly attested in Matthew 2:1-8, with the citation (and Messianic interpretation) of Micah 5:2.
  • The Angelic announcement in Luke 2:10-12 links David (“the city of David”) with “(the) Anointed (One)” and “(the) Lord”, reinforcing the royal and Messianic implications of Jesus’ birth. For the parallel between the “good news” of Jesus’ birth and the birth of Augustus in the Roman world (contemporary with Jesus), cf. my earlier Christmas season note.
  • The shepherd motif in Lk 2:8ff etc, may contain an allusion to passages such as Micah 4:8; 5:4 (cf. Matt 2:6) and Ezekiel 34:11ff (vv. 23-24)—passages both connected to David and influential on Messianic thought.
  • In the hymn or canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus), the first strophe (Lk 1:68-69) reads:
    “He has come (to) look upon and make (a) loosing (from bondage) for his people,
    and he raised a horn of salvation for us in the house of David his child”
    This latter expression and image is derived from Scriptures such as 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalm 18:2; 132:17 and Ezekiel 29:21.
  • There are a number of other Scripture references or allusions in the Lukan hymns which should be noted—
    1 Sam 2:1-2; Psalm 35:9 (Lk 1:46-47)
    Psalm 89:10 (Lk 1:51-52)
    2 Sam 22:51 (Lk 1:55)
    1 Kings 1:48 (Lk 1:68a)
    Psalm 18:17 (Lk 1:71, 74)
    Psalm 89:3 (Lk 1:72-73)
    1 Kings 9:4-5 (Lk 1:74-75)
    {Num 24:17} (Lk 1:78)
    [On these and other references, cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library (ABRL 1977, 1993), pp. 358-60, 386-9, 456-9]

Most significant of all is the Angelic annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:30-37, especially the pronouncement or prophecy in vv. 32-33:

“This one [i.e. Jesus] will be great and will be called ‘Son of the Highest’, and the Lord God will give to him the seat (of power) [i.e. throne] of David his father, and he will be king upon the house of Jacob into the Age, and there will be no completion [i.e. end] of his kingdom

(and, also in v. 35b:)

“…therefore the (child) coming to be (born) will be called holy, (the) son of God

There is no clearer instance in all the New Testament of Jesus being identified as the coming/future Ruler from the line of David. As I have noted on several occasions, there is a remarkably close parallel, in the combination of these titles and expressions, in the Aramaic text 4Q246 from Qumran (see italicized phrases above):

    • “he will be great over the earth” [column i, line 7]
    • “he will be called son of God” [column ii, line 1a]
    • “and they will call him son of the Most High” [column ii, line 1b]
    • “his kingdom will be an eternal kingdom” [column ii, line 5]
    • “his rule will be an eternal rule” [column ii, line 9]