March 11: Psalm 68:20-24

Strophe 6: Psalm 68:20-24 [19-23]

Strophe 5 was discussed in the previous note; on the overall structure of Psalm 68, see the introductory study.

Verse 20 [19]

“Blessed (be the) Lord
day (after) day,
He lifts the burden for us,
the Mighty (One) (is) our salvation!”
Selah

As previously noted, in the third strophe for each part of this Psalm, a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker occurs after the first verse. The reason for this is not at all clear. It may be that the opening verse in the final strophe functions as a refrain, setting the musical pattern, in some fashion, for the lines that follow.

Here, the opening verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets, very much according to the overall metrical pattern of the Psalm. The familiar theme of salvation (hu*Wvy+) is established in this strophe; we may assume that the earlier thematic elements, involving the historical tradition of the Exodus/Conquest, and of YHWH’s cosmological role as a warrior, who fights on behalf of His people, are continued here.

The verb sm^u* denotes carrying a load or burden, but here the idea is surely that of God relieving His people of their burden; Dahood (II, p. 143f) would parse smu in this verse as a Piel privative form, specifically emphasizing the removal of a burden. The Exodus motif of Israel’s deliverance (by God) from bondage and hard labor in Egypt is likely in view. The definite article on la@ (la@h*) in the final line is presumably emphatic, perhaps emphasizing that YHWH (the Mighty [One]) Himself is the source of Israel’s salvation.

Verse 21 [20]

“The Mighty (One) (is indeed) for us
(the) Mighty (One) for (our) salvation,
and to YHWH (our) Lord (we owe)
(our) going forth from death.”

The first couplet of v. 21 essentially repeats the message of v. 20, the repetition itself having an emphatic function. Again the definite article on the first occurrence of la@ is emphatic—i.e., “the Mighty One is indeed for us…”. There is a subtle bit of wordplay, virtually imperceptible to us, in the double use of la@. I have translated the word the same way in both lines; however, it is worth noting that in the first line la@ functions as a proper name (“Mighty [One]”), while in the second line it is a more general term (“[the] mighty [one]”). This is practically identical to the way that we use the word “God” in English; to capture the distinction, we might translate the lines as:

El (is indeed) for us
the God for (our) salvation”

For ancient Israelites, of course, YHWH was identified with the Creator God (la@, El), and the Divine name is used here in the second couplet. This Yahwistic emphasis was an important aspect of Israelite religion that is sometimes overlooked by modern readers of the Old Testament. It is more prominent in the older layers (including the poetry) of the Old Testament Scriptures.

The plural noun toax*oT (“goings forth”) is probably being used in a comprehensive (or intensive) sense, with the reference being primarily to the Exodus. It could also encompass other episodes in Israelite history when YHWH worked salvation for His people. The preposition l= occasionally is used with a meaning similar to /m! (“from”), which would be required by the context here.

Verse 22 [21]

“Indeed, (the) Mightiest struck
(the) head of His enemies,
(the) crown He split (open)
(of him) walking about in his sins.”

Salvation for God’s people means defeat for His enemies, lit. “(those) hostile to Him”. Almost certainly an ordinary military action is implied, though this may be accompanied by supernatural events, such as we see recorded in the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, and in the defeat of Jabin/Sisera (Judges 4-5); the miraculous side of the enemies’ defeat is particularly emphasized in the poetic accounts (Song of the Sea, Song of Deborah).

The defeat is described by the action of YHWH striking (vb Jj^m*) their heads. I follow Dahood (II, p. 144f), in reading MT ru*c@ (“hair”) as a form of the verb ru^v* I (“split [open]”); this root is attested primarily by the noun ru^v^ (“opening, gate[way]”), but cognate occurrences of the verb are known in Ugaritic (¾²r) and Arabic (¾a²ara). This preserves a proper parallelism between the middle lines: “He struck | (their) head / (their) crown | He split”.

The final line, following the ordinary interpretation of the MT, is problematic:

“(of the one [?]) waking about in his sins”

While this rather banal description would certainly characterize the “enemies” of YHWH (i.e., the wicked), it seems awkward and slightly out of place at this point in the strophe. I am tempted to adopt the interpretation of Dahood (II, p. 145), who explains the aleph (a) in wym*v*a&B^ as a prosthetic aleph, and thus reads the word as a form of <y]m^v* (“heaven[s]”), rather than <v*a* (“sin, guilt”). The participle EL@h^t=m! (“walking about”) then would refer to YHWH, not the wicked person (cf. verse 25). Dahood would read the line as follows—

“going (forth) from His heavens”

which would continue the theme from the earlier strophes, emphasizing YHWH’s march alongside His people to the Promised Land, fighting their enemies (who are also His enemies) along the way, making war on their behalf.

Verse 23 [22]

“(The) Lord said:
‘From /v*B* I make (them) return,
return from (the) depths of (the) sea.'”

This verse, as it stands, is even more difficult and enigmatic than v. 22. To begin with, there is no object specified for the Hiphil (causative) verb byv!a*, used twice, in lines 2 and 3. The verb bWv means “turn (back)”, and the Hiphil form here thus means “I make turn (back), I make return”. Presumably the people Israel, God’s people, are the implied object. Moreover, the act of making them ‘return’ must be related in some way to the salvation He works on their behalf, defeating their enemies, etc.

The use of the idiom of “the depths [tolx%m=] of the sea” suggests a general reference to the rescue of His people out of grave danger. In view of this, it is unlikely that /v*B* in the prior line is another reference to Bashan (cf. verse 16). One suspects that a bit of wordplay is involved, which certainly would be typical of the Psalmist’s style. An answer is at hand, by explaining /vb (bšn) here as cognate to Ugaritic b¾n (cf. also Akkadian bašmu), a reference to the great mythic-cosmic Serpent (or Dragon) associated with the Sea (and the primeval waters). In ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth, the Creator God subdues the (dark and chaotic) primeval waters, an act often depicted in terms of defeated a great Serpent-monster. I discuss this mythic tradition in an earlier article. There are a number of references and allusions to this tradition in Old Testament poetry, including several in the Psalms; perhaps the most explicit reference is in Isa 27:1, where the cosmological event is given an eschatological interpretation (cp. in the book of Revelation).

It is significant that, in several passages, the defeat of the sea-monster is tied to the Exodus event (at the Reed Sea), and to the deliverance of the Israelite people from Egypt; cf. Isa 51:9-10; and note the parallel in Ezek 29:3ff. In Psalm 74:12-14, the cosmological tradition of God subduing the Sea-monster is clearly applied, in a general sense, to the idea of His “working salvation in the midst of the earth”. Thus, the idiom could be understood here either in a general sense, or in the specific context of the Exodus. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 145.

Verse 24 [23]

“‘So then you may <wash>
your feet in (the) blood,
(and for the) tongue of your dogs
(your) enemies (shall be) their portion!'”

The final two couplets of this difficult strophe are vivid in their imagery, but rather awkward in terms of the clarity of the poetic syntax. The twisted character of these forceful lines could well be intentional, as if meant to convey, in poetic terms, the harshness of the enemies’ fate. The words of YHWH continue from the previous verse.

There is no doubt that, in accordance with the idea expressed throughout this strophe, YHWH works salvation for His people by defeating their enemies. A military defeat (in battle) is implied, as with the earlier imagery of crushing heads and splitting skulls (v. 22). Here the dominant image is of a bloodbath; i.e., so much blood has been spilled that the victorious Israelites will be able to wash their feet in it. Most commentators are in agreement that the verb Jj^m* (“strike”) in the first line of the MT should be emended to the verb Jj^r* (“wash”), cf. Ps 58:12 [11]; the error presumably was introduced under the influence of the occurrence of Jj^m* in v. 22 (cf. above).

The imagery is extended, in a cruder and more grotesque manner, in the final couplet, as it is announced that the dogs of the Israelite people will have the corpses as their “portion” (hn*m*), able to lick up the blood and feed on the flesh of the bodies (cf. 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23-24, 38, etc).

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

January 4: Isaiah 9:3-4

Isaiah 9:3-4 [4-5]
Verse 3 [4]

“For (the) yoke of his carrying,
and (the) pole of his shoulder—
(the) rod of (the one) pressing on him—
you have broken, as (on the) day of Midyan!”

Again we have a pair of 3+3 couplets (cf. the previous note on vv. 1-2 [2-3]), though the rhythm is, in actuality, slightly irregular. The first three lines involve construct phrases, the first two of which are in synonymous parallelism:

    • “the yoke of his carrying” (olB=s% lu))
      “the pole of his shoulder” (omk=c! hF#m^)

The image is the same: that of a yoked animal serving as a beast of burden. The lu) (used also in 10:27; cf. 14:25) denotes the thrusting of the (animal’s) head into the yoke, while the hF@m^ (also in 10:24) refers to the extended pole, or bar, that rests upon the neck and shoulder. The root lbs denotes the carrying or dragging of a weight (i.e., load or burden). Human beings are being forced to act like beasts of burden, referring to a harsh and wearisome condition of servile labor. The construct phrase in the third line builds upon (and further expounds) this image:

    • “the rod of the one pressing [on him]” (cg@N)h^ fb#v@)

The rod or staff (fb#v@, also in 10:24) represents both the ruling (superior) position of the oppressor and the instrument used to oppress the slave. The verb cg~n` essentially refers to the pressing/driving of someone to do work; it can be used in the concrete sense (as here) of forcefully driving an animal (or human slave), or with the more generic meaning of making demands on someone.

The final like declares the dramatic reversal of this situation:

“…you have broken, as (on the) day of Midian!”

The allusion is presumably to the historical traditions narrated in Judges 6-7, and, if so, then the idea would doubtless be of an unexpected victory over a superior force, made possible through the power of YHWH. Indeed, God will have “broken” (tt^j*, Hiphil causative stem) the foreign oppression over Israel, as He did in the Exodus, and as described in the accounts of deliverance in the book of Judges.

The perfect tense here, as throughout verses 1-4, is an example of the prophetic perfect—i.e., events that will occur in the future (being prophesied) referred to as things that have already happened.

Verse 4 [5]

“For every shoe stomping with a quake,
and (every) garment rolled with blood,
indeed shall be for burning,
(for) being eaten up by fire.”

A 3-beat couplet is followed by a short/terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet. The overall imagery alludes to a military victory over Israel’s foreign oppressor.

In the first two lines, the reference is to the foot-gear and clothing of soldiers. Both parts of the cognate noun-verb pair (/oas=, and participle /a@s)) occur only here in the Old Testament, and likely are Assyrian (or Babylonian) loanwords (Akkadian š¢nu, “shoe, sandal”). This may well be intentional, given the context of the Assyrian conquest of the Israelite Northern Kingdom (cf. the prior note on 8:23 [9:1]). It is almost impossible to translate literally the cognate relationship between noun and verb; the verb is denominative from the noun (“shoe”), and thus would mean something like “use the shoe” or “shoe along” (i.e., step, stomp, tread). Since the feet of the soldiers are ‘stomping’ on the ground enough to make the ground “quake” (noun vu^r^), a large military force is implied.

That this force has been (i.e., will be) defeated, is indicated by the second line, with the image of clothing (singular [collective] noun, hl*m=c!) that is “rolled” (vb ll^G`) in blood. The plural form <ym!D* (lit. “bloods”) almost always refers to acts of bloodshed—that is, killing or violent action taken against someone. With the army of the foreign oppressor defeated, and (presumably) many of the soldiers dead, their shoes and garments will be used as fuel for the fire—which is the image in the final two lines.

We can see that the joy that will come to the oppressed Israelite people (vv. 1-2) will be, in large measure, due to the military defeat of their oppressors, which will thus result in deliverance for the people. The defeat of the oppressing nation could come from the action of another foreign nation; however, what follows in vv. 5-6 strongly indicates that it will be the Judean kingdom, led by God’s chosen ruler, which brings about the deliverance and restoration of Israel. This will be discussed in the next note.

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 56 (Part 2)

Psalm 56, continued

The second half of the Psalm generally follows the pattern of the first half (vv. 2-7 [1-6], cf. the previous study), with a pair of short stanzas separated by a central refrain. The tone of lament in the first half gives way to the expectation that YHWH will deliver the Psalmist, rescuing him from his wicked adversaries.

VERSES 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“Against trouble make escape for <us>!
In (your) anger (against the) peoples,
bring (them) down, O Mightiest!”

Metrically, this opening verse is somewhat irregular; it can be read, loosely, as an odd 2+4 couplet, but much better as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. However, in that format, the thought of the last two lines is divided; conceptually, a longer 4-beat line would be more appropriate: “In (your) anger, bring down (the) peoples, O Mightiest!”

There are textual difficulties related to the first line. The verb fl^P* of the MT, meaning “(make) escape, deliver,” would seem to require a first-person plural suffix on the preposition l= that follows (rather than the 3rd person plural of the MT). This problem could be solved by emending oml* (“for them”) to Wnl* (“for us”), while Dahood (II, p. 44; cf. also I, p. 173) would read wml (here and in other OT poetic passages) as a first-person form, without emendation. This is the solution I have followed above. Another possibility is to emend the verb, from fl^P* to sl^P* (cf. Kraus, p. 525), with the meaning “weigh, balance,” indicating a context of judgment against the wicked:

“Weigh out (judgment) to them for (the) trouble (they cause)”

It is also possible to preserve the MT as it stands, reading it as a kind of rhetorical question:

“Against (their) trouble can there be escape for them?”

Verse 9 [8]

“My waving may you yourself recount,
set my tears (as record) on your skin.
Are (they) not (there) in your account?”

This tricolon may be viewed as a straightforward 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by an additional short 2-beat line. The question posed in the extra line adds to the tension and dramatic effect of the poetic scene. The basic image is of YHWH writing down an account (rps) of the Psalmist’s suffering. The meaning of the second line, in this regard, is somewhat ambiguous: the image could be of setting (vb <yc!) down his tears on (B=) a piece of parchment (“skin,” dan)), or of setting them in a skin-bottle to preserve a record of them. There is an obvious word-play between dan) (nœ°¼) in the second line and don (nô¼) in the first line; the latter refers to a waving movement, and the parallel with tears suggests a gesture of mourning or lamentation.

The written accounting of the Psalmist’s suffering, and thus also of the actions by the wicked, is essential for YHWH to bring judgment (against the wicked) on his behalf.

Verse 10 [9]

“When (the one)s hostile to me turn back,
(falling) behind on (the) day I call (out),
(by) this I shall know that (you are the) Mightiest for me!”

Metrically, this verse is a tricolon similar to v. 9, but with an extended 3-beat (3+3+3) format. The Psalmist anticipates that YHWH, indeed, will bring judgment on his behalf, rescuing him from his enemies. The initial particle za*, a demonstrative adverb indicating time and place, is best rendered here as “when”. When what the Psalmist describes happens, then by this (hz#) it will truly be confirmed for him (“I shall know”) that YHWH is the Mightiest One (<yh!l)a$, i.e., ‘God’).

The covenant bond between the righteous Israelite (and/or the king as the representative of Israel) is indicated by the statement that YHWH is God “for me” —He is my God, and I am His faithful servant. The image of the  Psalmist’s enemies “turning back” (vb bWv) and falling back (roja*) suggests a military encounter, which would be appropriate to the royal background of this and many other Psalms. However, it tends to be the case that this royal/military setting of the Psalms has become generalized, referring in a more common sense to God delivering His people (the righteous ones) from the forces of wickedness.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“In (the) Mightiest, (in) whose word I boast,
[in YHWH, in whose word I boast,]
in (the) Mightiest I find protection!
I shall not be afraid—
what can man do to me?”

This central refrain is virtually identical to that in the first half of the Psalm (v. 5 [4], cf. the discussion in the previous study). The line in square brackets is a gloss that, almost certainly, preserves the original form of the opening line, where the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) occurs rather than the title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’). This Psalm is part of the ‘Elohist’ Psalter, in which Elohim is consistently substituted for YHWH (cf. above). Verse 12 here also has “man” instead of “flesh” in v. 5, but the meaning is the same.

Verse 13 [12]

“Upon me, Mightiest, (are my) vows to you;
I will complete (them) casting (praise) to you.”

The Psalmist’s “vows” (<yr!d*n+) relate to his deliverance by YHWH; that is, once YHWH has acted to rescue him, he is obligated to fulfill what he has promised—his vows are binding upon (lu^) him. Principally, he is obligated to give praise to God, and that is how the Psalmist will “complete” (vb <l^v*) his obligation. As discussed repeatedly, the root <lv in the Psalms typically is used in a covenant context. The protection YHWH provides to his faithful servants (i.e., the righteous) is part of His covenant obligation.

The suffix ;– on ;yr@d*n+ should be read as an object suffix—i.e., “(my) vows to you,” rather than a possessive (“your vows”).

Verse 14 [13]

“For you (will) snatch my soul from death,
so as (surely) to prevent my feet from falling,
(and thus) to walk before (the) face of (the) Mightiest
in (the) light of the Living (One).”

The perfect verb form T*l=X^h! may be translated in the simple past tense, with the Psalmist describing a condition after the deliverance from YHWH that he anticipates (as an answer to his prayer). However, it is perhaps even better to understand the verb here as a precative perfect—that is, the Psalmist describes what he hopes (and expects) will happen as something that has already occurred. The verb lx^n` is another way of referring to the idea of being delivered or rescued by God; the verb fl^P* in verse 8 [7] (cf. above) denotes making an escape, while lx^n` carries the more vivid and concrete meaning of being “snatched away” from danger.

The negative particle (al)) in the second line, prefixed by the interrogative particle –h&, is a bit unusual (and difficult to translate) in context. Literally, emphasizing the interrogative aspect, the line would read: “will not my feet (be kept) from falling?” But this would be extremely awkward within the poetry of the verse; thus, it is better to understand the prefixed particle as an expression of certainty.

By keeping the Psalmist’s feet from falling (yj!D=), YHWH enables him to walk securely, upright and straight ahead (as befits the righteous). This walk takes place “before (the) face” of God (preserving the concrete sense of <yn]P*, “face”). The plural <yY]j^ (lit. “living [one]s”) in the final line should be understood as an intensive plural, and as a Divine title (“Living [One]”), precisely parallel with <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One]”). The expression “light of the Living (One)” is clearly parallel with “face of the Mightiest (One)”.

This verse is conceptually parallel with v. 7 [6] at the close of the first half of the Psalm, sharing the combined motifs of feet/walking and life. However, verse 7 is part of the Psalmist’s lament, referring to the desire of the wicked to destroy the life (soul) of the righteous. Here, we find quite the opposite, with God protecting the life of the righteous. Moreover, the path before God ultimately leads to the blessed/heavenly afterlife in His presence; as the Living One, YHWH is the source of (eternal) life for those who trust in Him.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 41 (Part 1)

Psalm 41

Dead Sea MSS: Nothing of Ps 41 has been preserved among the surviving Psalms MSS

This Psalm may be divided loosely into two parts. The first (vv. 2-5 [1-4]) is a prayer to YHWH with strong Wisdom features. It focuses on the righteous, and climaxes with a personal plea (by the Psalmist) for healing and deliverance.  The second part (vv. 6-13 [5-12]) deals with the attacks by the wicked against the righteous, retaining the central theme-setting of the first part: the experience of illness by the righteous. As in several other Psalms we have studied thus far, the wicked respond with malice (slanderous taunts) to the suffering of the righteous. The prayer that concludes this second part (vv. 11-13 [10-12]) focuses on deliverance from these attacks by the wicked. A short verse of praise (v. 14 [13]) to YHWH brings the Psalm to a close.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 4+4 bicolon (couplet) format; however, there many irregularities as well, some of which may be evidence of textual corruption. Sadly, as noted above, there is no help available from the Dead Sea manuscripts, since Psalm 41 is not to be found among the surviving Psalms MSS.

The superscription gives the common direction, designating the work as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) lowly <and needy>,
in (the) day of evil, YHWH will cause him to slip away [i.e. escape].”

There is a fundamental difficulty in the first line of this couplet. The meter of the couplet as it stands is 3+4, rather than the expected 4+4, suggesting that a word may have dropped out. Secondly, we have the word lD*: does it mean “lowly (one)” (from ll^D*), or “door” (from hl*D*)? The former is the more common lD* in the Psalms, where it is paired with the noun /oyb+a# (“needy, poor”), i.e., “the lowly and needy” (72:13; 82:3-4; 113:7). Many commentators thus would add here /oyb=a#w+, a reading which the LXX seems to assume. In this case, the first line would be:

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) lowly <and needy>”

However, another possibility is raised by a comparison with Psalm 141:3, where we find the idea of keeping watch over “the door [lD*] of (one’s) lips” (i.e., guarding one’s speech).

Making the situation more difficult is the fact that the verb lk^c* only rarely takes a direct object or governs a prepositional phrase; such occurrences are even rarer when the verb form is a participle, such as the Hiphil form here /yk!c=m^, where it tends to be used as a substantive (“[one] giving consideration”, i.e., who is wise/prudent/understanding). The only such instances of the participle in the Psalms are 14:2 and 53:3 [2], while it is rather more common in the Proverbs. It is also in the Proverbs where we find the closest parallels to the usage here:

    • Prov 16:20: “(the one) giving consideration upon a word” (rb*D*-lu^ lyK!c=m^)
    • Prov 16:23: “(the) heart of a wise (man) gives consideration (to) his mouth, and upon his lips he continues receiving (instruction)”
    • Prov 21:11: “in (his) giving consideration to (the) wise he receives knowledge”
    • Prov 21:12: “(the) righteous (one) is giving consideration to (the) house of the wicked”

Prov 16:23 favors lD* as “door (of)” in Ps 41:2 [1], with an emended reading such as: “(the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his lips >” (cf. Dahood, p. 249). On the other hand, Prov 21:11-13 favors an emended text that follows the LXX (cf. above), with the idea of paying attention to the lowly (lD*) and needy. The evidence, as I see it, is equally divided. It is unfortunate that nothing of Psalm 41 is preserved in the Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts; if verse 2 [1] were present, it might well resolve the textual question.

Another factor is the beatitude context. This formulation (opening with yr@v=a^, “happiness of”, “how happy is…”) is frequently applied to the righteous, in terms of those who walk according to the path of YHWH, following the commands and precepts of the Torah, etc. As such, it seems that it might relate better to the idea of guarding one’s lips (and heart), as in Psalm 141:3-4. All things considered, I am inclined to adopt a reading that is comparable in meaning to Psalm 141:3:

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his lips>”
or, conceivably,
“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his heart>”

However, with no textual support for such an emendation, it is probably safer, for the time being, to follow the LXX, in the manner indicated above.

Verse 3 [2]

“YHWH shall guard him and keep him alive,
He shall make (him) happy in the land,
and shall not give him in(to the) throat of his enemies!”

Metrically, this verse is difficult and may possibly be corrupt; if so, there is, unfortunately, no reliable way to modify or emend the text. As it is stands, the verse reads as an irregular (3+2+3) tricolon. Conceptually, the lines are straightforward enough, following the promise of deliverance for the righteous in the second line of verse 2 [1] (cf. above). The protection provided by YHWH, guarding the life of the righteous, relates to the idea of rescuing him “in the day of evil”.

The second line here is a bit awkward, and it may be preferable (along with Dahood, p. 249) to vocalize rvay as an active (Piel) form, rV@a^y+ (“he will make happy”), rather than the passive (Pual) of the MT, rV^a%y+ (“he will be made happy”). Clearly, the verb rv^a* relates to the beatitude formula the opens the Psalm (cf. above), and reflects the blessing that YHWH gives to the righteous. Those whom YHWH delivers in the time of evil, under his protection they will be safe and will prosper in the land (i.e., their life on earth).

In the final line, it is best to understand vp#n# in the concrete sense of “throat”, which is how the word is used occasionally in the Psalms (and other early poems). Another possible translation is “appetite”, which would conform more closely to the regular rendering of vp#n# as “soul” (cf. below). The enemies (lit. “hostile [one]s”) of the righteous seek to devour them, which can include the idea of causing their death. It is also possible that the wording here reflects the traditional image of Death personified as an all-consuming, ravenous entity, with a massive mouth/throat that seeks to swallow (devour) all things.

Verse 4 [3]

“YHWH shall support him upon (the) couch of (his) sickness,
every place of his lying down shall you turn over in his illness.”

This couplet gives some confirmation that the “enemies” of verse 3 [2] (as a collective or intensive plural) refer to death itself. We have encountered many Psalms where a life-threatening illness is involved, and that is clearly the focus here. The “day of evil” can take many forms, whereby the righteous are threatened and may be in danger of death; and, in the ancient world with its high rate of mortality, disease and illness frequently led to death. The promise here, continued from the opening verse, is that YHWH’s protection for the righteous will extend to help and healing in time of illness.

The shift from 3rd person to 2nd person may seem peculiar, but it is not at all uncommon in Near Eastern poetry. Here, we may view the shift as transitional to the Psalmist’s address to YHWH in verse 5 [4]. The verb Ep^h* often means “overturn”, but here it is perhaps better to keep to the fundamental meaning of “turn”, in the sense of turning (i.e. changing) the “couch of sickness” into something else—namely, a place of health and wholeness. Every place where the righteous lies down, there will be healing and life, rather than sickness and the threat of death.

Verse 5 [4]

“I said, ‘YHWH, show favor to me!
May you heal my soul,
for I have sinned against you!'”

This initial portion of the Psalm concludes with a plea to YHWH by the Psalmist. As is often the case, the Psalmist represents the righteous, and here the general Wisdom-sentiment of vv. 2-4 (i.e., instruction for the righteous) gives way to a personal appeal by a protagonist who personifies and embodies the righteous. Whether the author of the Psalm actually experienced such illness and suffering is beside the point; it is a topos that occurs repeatedly in the Psalms, and reflects an experience that would have been familiar to many faithful Israelites. As such, it relates to the common Wisdom-theme of the suffering of the righteous.

While illness could be viewed as an attack by a malevolent adversary, the monotheistic faith of the devout Israelite ultimately viewed YHWH Himself as the source of sickness and disease. Typically, it was thought as coming about as the result of sin—the disease being the punishment (by God) for such sin. Here the Psalmist admits that he has sinned against YHWH, recognizing that the illness that has struck him must be the result of his sin. It is a confession that is meant to demonstrate his faithfulness and devotion to YHWH, hoping (and expecting) that God will deliver him and remove the illness. He specifically prays that YHWH will heal (vb ap*r*) his soul (vp#n#, i.e., his life), but this concept of healing can have a deeper level of meaning as well, tied to the idea of repentance. In repenting of his sin, the Psalmist effectively asks that his life be made whole again, so that he can follow the path of God faithfully, avoiding any sinful ways that might turn him from the path.

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

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 40 (Part 1)

Psalm 40

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (verse 1 [only part of the superscription survives])

This Psalm is clearly comprised of two parts: (1) a hymn of thanksgiving to YHWH for deliverance (vv. 2-11 [1-10]), and (2) a lament in which the Psalmist describes his suffering/oppression and makes a plea to YHWH for help (vv. 12-18 [11-17]). The very different character of these two portions has led commentators to regard the Psalm as a combination of two prior (and originally separate) poems. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that vv. 12-18 [11-17] closely resemble Psalm 70. Still, the order of the compositions here is curious; we might rather have expected the thanksgiving to follow the lament (instead of the other way around).

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon (couplet) format. The superscription is common, designating the work as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Verse 2 [1]

“Gathering, I gathered YHWH (with my voice),
and He stretched (down) to me,
and He heard my cry for help!”

The initial verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, essentially an expanded form of a 3+2 bicolon with a doubling of the second line. The last two lines are in a kind of synthetic parallelism, in which the second line builds upon the thought in the line prior.

I follow Dahood (pp. 121-2, 245) in understanding the verb in the first line to be a form of hw`q* II (“gather, collect”) rather than the more common hw`q* I (“wait [for], hope, expect”). The Psalmist “gathers” YHWH in the sense that he calls Him with his voice (cp. Ps 19:5 [4]). The doubling of the verb—an infinitive followed by a perfect form—represents a bit of Hebrew syntax that is difficult to translate in English. I have rendered it here quite literally (“Gathering, I gathered…” = “Calling, I have called…”); but often it is used in an intensive sense–viz, “surely I have called…”, “I called repeatedly,” etc.

The Psalmist’s call “gathers” YHWH to him, and God “stretches” (or bends, vb hf*n`) down to him in response. Indeed, He has heard the urgent (and/or repeated) cry for help.

Verse 3 [2]

“And He brought me up from (the) pit of ruin,
and (up) from (the) muck of the mire;
and He made my feet stand upon (the) rock-cliff,
He fixed my steps (to walk) straight.”

This pair of 3+2 couplets continues the thought in verse 2 [1], describing YHWH’s response to the Psalmist—bringing deliverance/salvation for him, using the vivid imagery of a rescue out of a muddy bog. This “pit of ruin” (/oav* roB) is a traditional idiom for Death (and the realm of the dead). This indicates that the protagonist of the Psalm had been in danger of death when YHWH rescued him. Stuck in the mire, he was like a man trapped in quicksand, or in the midst of a deep and treacherous bog, threatening to engulf him. The nouns fyf! and /w#y` are more or less synonymous (each referring to mud/mire), and are joined together here for dramatic emphasis.

From this deep and muddy “pit”, the Psalmist is lifted out and placed on a high rock-cliff (ul^s#) with firm footing. The extreme contrast is intentional and meant to convey how completely YHWH has delivered him. There could not be a greater difference in location—i.e., deep muddy pit vs. high rock-cliff. The verb /WK (here in the Polel stem) refers to something that is established or fixed in place. It expands on the idea of the Psalmist’s feet being firmly planted on the rock-cliff: the dual yl^g+r^ (“my [two] feet”) is parallel with the plural yr*v%a& (“my walking/going [straight]”). The root rva denotes going straight toward something.

Verse 4 [3]

“And He gave [i.e. put] in my mouth a new song,
a shout (of praise) to our Mighty (One);
many shall see (this) and be afraid,
and shall seek protection in YHWH.”

The two couplets in this verse continue the course of action, describing the response by people to YHWH’s saving deed. For the Psalmist himself (lines 1-2), it leads him to utter a song (ryv!) and shout (hL*h!T=) of praise to YHWH; indeed, we may understand vv. 2-11 of the Psalm as this very song. For others who see (or come to know) what God has done on the Psalmist’s behalf, it will cause them to fear YHWH, and to seek His protection. The verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, denotes seeking (or finding) protection in someone or something; it also can refer specifically to the trust one has in that protection. It is often used in the context of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people—that is, to the protection that He is obligated to provide (so long as the people remain faithful).

Verse 5 [4]

“(The) happiness of the strong (one) who makes YHWH his place of protection,
and does not turn to (the) proud (one)s,
and (to the one)s swerving (to) lie(s)!”

This irregular tricolon contains (in its first line) a beatitude (on the use of yr@v=a^, “happy [thing]s of,” “[the] happiness of”, cf. the study on Psalm 1). It clearly draws upon the language of the previous verse, with the noun jf*b=m! (lit. “place of protection, protected place”) derived from the root jfb (“seek/find protection,” cf. above).

As in Psalm 1, the beatitude-form here is part of a Wisdom-contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous trust in YHWH, while the wicked turn to false deities (or to comparable unethical/immoral behavior). In the second line, the wicked are characterized as those who “turn to (the) proud (one)s”; in the third line, the expression is “(one)s swerving (toward) lie(s)”.

Both of these phrases can be understood in a religious and an ethical sense. The term bz`K* (“lie”) is often used in reference to idolatry and the worship of false deities, while the verb fWc, though extremely rare (cf. Ps 101:3), seems to have the sense of “turning away” (i.e., swerving, veering). At the same time, these expressions can also refer to the moral/ethical conduct of the wicked, with their tendency toward arrogance and pride (bh*r*) and toward speaking/believing lies.

Verse 6 [5]

“Many (are they that) you have done, YHWH,
your marvelous (deed)s, my Mighty (One),
and your thoughts to(ward) us—
there is none compared to you!
(If) I should put (them) up front and speak (them),
they would be great beyond numbering!”

This verse is comprised of three couplets, but the awkwardness and lack of a clear poetic flow suggests the possibility of textual corruption. However, there is (as yet) no satisfactory approach for emending or navigating these difficulties. For lack of any better option, I have retained the Masoretic text throughout.

The emphasis in the first couplet is on the wonderful/marvelous deeds that God has done. They are described as “many” (toBr^), but the same adjective can also indicate “greatness”. The Psalmist has included his own experience within the wider experience of God’s people. YHWH has done many great deeds (including miracles) during Israel’s history, and His deliverance of the Psalmist is one more such deed.

The second couplet is a bit obscure in meaning, but the focus is on thought, rather than action. It also creates a transition between what YHWH thinks of us (His people), and what we think of Him (our God). His thoughts toward us are loving and caring, expressed through the “marvelous deeds” He has chosen to do on our behalf. Conversely, our thoughts toward Him recognize that, because of such deeds, etc, YHWH is truly the “Mightiest (One)”, the true God, and there is no one like him. The actual wording here is “there is none compared to you”. The verb Er^u* literally refers to arranging things in a row—in this case, so that they can be compared one to another.

The final couplet turns again to the great deeds of YHWH, as the Psalmist recognizes that they are so many (<x#u#, lit. “strength, abundance”) that they are beyond being numbered—i.e., beyond anyone’s ability to count them all (cp. John 21:25).

Verse 7 [6]

“(Ritual) slaughter and gift you did not desire,
(instead) you cut (open the) ears for me,
rising (smoke) and (offering for) sin you did not request.”

This is a curious and difficult verse, again giving the impression that something may be missing here in the text. The basic sense is clear enough, reflecting a Wisdom-message, found frequently in the Prophets, to the effect that obedience to God is more important than the ritual duty of performing sacrificial offerings (summarized in lines 1 and 3). The wording in the middle line is difficult; literally it reads (apparently) “ears you cut (open) for me”. Possibly the cutting (vb trk) of the ears is meant as a contrast with the ‘cutting’ (i.e. ritual slaughter) of the sacrificial offerings. In this case, the action is taken by YHWH, rather than the Psalmist: He has opened the Psalmist’s ears, so that he can hear and understand, responding in obedience to God’s Word. Conceivably, there may also be an allusion to the idea of having one’s ears ‘circumcised’ (i.e., as an idiom for obedience, cf. Jer 6:10).

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“Then I said: ‘See, I come!
In (the) roll of (the) account it is inscribed upon me:
to do your pleasure, my Mighty (One), (so do) I delight,
and your Instruction (is) in the middle of my (in)ner parts!'”

Again, the poetic style and rhythm in this verse feels rather forced and awkward. Metrically, we have a pair of 3+3 couplets (but only loosely so); conceptually, it might be better to view the verse as a 3-beat quatrain (3+3+3+3). The poetry is subservient to the religious message, which can be summarized as a confessional statement that characterizes the righteous.

The first two lines are preliminary to this statement, and their precise meaning is not entirely clear. The idea seems to be that the righteous person (the Psalmist) is committed to acting/behaving in accordance with his identity (as a righteous/ faithful one). Another possibility is that the afterlife is in view—that is, the promise of blessed life in heaven (with God) for the righteous. In this latter context, the declaration “See, I come” could refer to the Psalmist’s readiness to enter the blessed afterlife. The beatitude context of verse 5 [4] would tend to confirm this interpretation. In any case, the “roll of the account” refers to the accounting (or ‘book’) of a person’s deeds, etc, recorded by God in heaven, which will be used in the afterlife judgment-scene. At the same time, it reflects the ultimate destiny of the person (cf. Job 13:26, etc); for the righteous, this is equivalent to being written down in the ‘book of life’ (cf. Exod 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; 139:16; Mal 3:16; Jubilees 30:19ff; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 21:27).

The last two lines record the confessional statement that defines the righteous. The destiny and purpose of the righteous is to do what pleases YHWH (or what He favors). The term /oxr* fundamentally refers to something that is received favorably, implying that a person finds pleasure in it and desires it, etc. In a religious and ethical context, it is used to express the will of God (i.e., what He desires that should be done). The delight (vb Jp@j*) of the righteous is to do God’s will, to do what pleases Him. And, what it is that pleases YHWH is stated clearly enough in the final line: it is to observe faithfully all of the precepts and regulations, etc, in the Instruction (hr*oT, Torah) that God has given to His people. Observance of the Torah is so much a part of the righteous person’s character and way of life that it resides deep within him (lit. “in the middle of my inner parts”).

Verse 10 [9]

“I have given the news of (your) justice in (the) assembly,
see! my lips have not refrained—
YHWH, you know (this)!”

The song and shout of praise that the Psalmist gives to YHWH (cf. verse 4 [3] above), recounting God’s great act(s) of deliverance (v. 6 [5]), is done publicly, in the assembly (lh*q*), the gathering of faithful ones. This refers to actual gatherings, but even more as a symbolic reference to the righteous (as a collective group). A characteristic of the righteous is that they “do not refrain” from confessing all that God has done (and continues to do). As noted above, the Psalmist includes his individual experience of deliverance as part of the wider experience of God’s people.

Verse 11 [10]

“Your justice I have not kept hidden in (the) midst of my heart,
your firmness and your saving (power) I have declared—
I have not kept back your goodness and truth from the great assembly.”

This portion of the Psalm concludes with yet another irregular tricolon, with the poetic style and rhythm stretched to fit the religious message. It continues the thought from verse 10 [9], emphasizing how the Psalmist makes known the greatness of YHWH in the (public) assembly of the righteous. The context of corporate worship is very much in view—the sort of setting in which a Psalm like 40:2-11 would be sung.

The themes of the prior verses are drawn together, combining the inward and outward aspects of righteousness. What is true within the heart of the righteous, is also proclaimed publicly. Here, the terms bl@ (“heart”) and hu#m@ (= inner organs, inner parts, v. 9 [8]) are synonymous. By declaring the marvelous deeds of YHWH one also exclaims His character and attributes. These include his “right[eous]ness” and “justice” (qd#x# / hq*d*x=), and also his “goodness” (ds#j#). Both of these terms are often used in a covenantal context—i.e., referring to faithfulness and loyalty to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people.

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 39 (Part 2)

Psalm 39, continued

Verses 7-11 [6-12]

Verse 7 [6]

“Indeed, a man walks about in a shadow,
indeed, (in) emptiness he roars,
he heaps up, but does not know who will gather.”

This tricolon (3+2+3) continues the Wisdom-theme from verses 5-6 [4-5] (cf. the discussion in the previous study), emphasizing the brevity and transitory nature of human existence. Especially when compared to YHWH, human beings are nothing, a mere emptiness (lb#h#). The point being made here in v. 7 [6] has to do with all the activity and work a person performs during his/her life. Implicit in this is the idea of human ambition and earthly prestige, and how vain they are in the long run. This is a common theme in Wisdom literature, and it is emphasized here in the Psalm.

Human beings “walk about” (vb El^h* in the reflexive Hitpael stem) and are “in an uproar” (vb hm^h*, lit. “roar, cry out [loud]”), toiling, struggling, and fighting for earthly goods and gain. This is done “in a shadow” (<l#x#B=) and is characterized as “emptiness” (lb#h#). It is possible to read the initial preposition B= of <l#x#B= in an emphatic sense, i.e., “truly (as) a shadow”, emphasizing how a human being (especially with respect to human ambition and pride) exists only as a mere ‘shadow.’

The third line gives more clarity to the idea that humankind only works in vain to pile up earthly goods and riches. One’s lifespan is so short and uncertain that a person may “heap up” (vb rb^x*) wealth without really thinking about what will become of it when he/she dies—who will “gather” it (vb [s^a*) in the end. The final mem (<-) is usually read as a plural suffix (“will gather them [i.e., the heaped up riches]”), but it may simply be an enclitic particle (to fill out the rhythm of the line). Dahood (p. 241) also suggests the possibility that the MT has mispointed a participle (spelled defectively), <p!s=a).

Verse 8 [7]

“And now, what do I expect, my Lord?
My waiting—it is for you!”

Admitting as he does the shortness and transitory nature of human life, the Psalmist declares to YHWH that his focus is not on earthly goods or prestige, but on God Himself. There is possibly a play on words in the first line with the verb hw`q*. The most common root hwq means “wait [for], expect, hope”, but there is a separate root hwq with the fundamental meaning “gather, collect”, which would fit the context of v. 7 [6]. While many human beings are focused on gathering riches, etc, the Psalmist is only interested in gathering the things of God.

At the same time, hwq with the meaning “wait [for], expect” is clearly related in sense to the root ljy in the second line, which is synonymous in meaning (“wait, expect, hope”). The ultimate hope and expectation of the Psalmist is objectified by the noun tl#j#oT (“waiting”). His declaration to YHWH is that “my waiting is for you.”

Verse 9 [8]

“From all (those) breaking (against) me, snatch me away,
do not set me (as) a disgrace (before a) fool!”

The MT points yuvp as yu^v*P=, which suggests that it is the Psalmist’s sins that are in view. In this context, however, it is unlikely that the root uvp is being used in that sense, since its fundamental meaning relates to “breaking” a bond of faith (or of friendship, loyalty, the covenant with YHWH, etc). This more properly characterizes the wicked, than the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist). I tentatively follow Kraus (p. 416) in repointing yuvp as a verbal noun (participle) with 1st person object suffix—i.e., yu^v=P), which serves as a shorthand for the expression yl^u* <yu!v=P), or something similar (cf. GKC §116i).

The Psalmist’s prayer thus echoes that of 38:12-17 [11-16], in which the wicked oppress and taunt the ailing protagonist; a similar scenario is alluded to in v. 2 [1] of the current Psalm as well. The wicked person is characterized as a “fool” (lb*n`), as we find frequently in Wisdom tradition. The folly of such a person is indicated here in verse 7 [6] (cf. above).

Verse 10 [9]

“I was bound, (and) did not open my mouth—
(Oh) that you would (now) do (this for me)!”

The Psalmist reiterates how he has remained silent, even in the face of taunts from the wicked. This also reflects his humility before God, and his willingness to accept responsibility for any wrong-doing (and to repent of it). This, he hopes, would demonstrate to YHWH his faithfulness and loyalty, and that God would act in response, by delivering him from his illness and suffering. I believe that this is the best way to understand the somewhat obscure second line “that you did” or “that you have done”. It could be an admission that YHWH is the one who has struck him (with illness); however, a precative perfect better fits the context, in line with the interpretation stated above.

Verse 11 [10]

“Turn from upon me your blow (that has) struck (me),
from the force of your hand, (or) I am finished!”

Again, the Psalmist clearly admits that it is YHWH who has struck him (root ugn) with illness. God is the ultimate cause, and this suffering has come from His “hand”. The meaning of hr*g+T! here would seem to be something like “force, pressure”, which causes affliction and suffering. The Psalmist pleads for deliverance, and confesses that, if YHWH does not soon rescue him, he will be finished (vb hl*K*)— “I am finished!”

Verse 12 [11]

“With your decisions against crookedness, you discipline a man,
and you dissolve his splendid (form) like a moth—
yes (indeed), every man (is merely) emptiness!”
Selah

This second strophe of the Psalm concludes with a striking tricolon (with irregular meter, 4+3+3) that echoes again the Wisdom theme established in vv. 5-6 [4-5] ff (cf. above on v. 7 [6]). YHWH disciplines (punishes) human beings for their “crookedness” (/ou*)—in this case, by inflicting suffering through illness, etc. Such punishment wears down a person’s physical health and beauty. Indeed, YHWH’s power is such that, if he wished, he could completely dissolve a person’s entire bodily form, like that of a moth consumed by the flame. It reiterates that, ultimately, human beings are merely “emptiness” (lb#h#) in the face of God’s sovereign power—to both give life and to take it away. YHWH is the Sovereign and Judge, and the punishment he inflicts reflects a legal decision (hj*k@oT, root jky) made against human sin.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

Verse 13 [12]

“Hear my plea (to you), YHWH,
give ear to my cry for help,
do not be deaf to my tears,
for I am (one who) lives with you,
(who) sits (with you), like all my fathers!”

The Psalm concludes with a prayer and plea to YHWH for deliverance. Verse 13 [12] is comprised of a tricolon (3+2+2) followed by a slightly irregular 3-beat couplet (loosely 3+3). The emphasis is on YHWH hearing the Psalmist’s prayer, expressed three ways: by the verb um^v* (“hear”), the more concrete /z~a* (“give/turn [one’s] ear”, Hiphil stem), and verb vr^j* (II) with the negative particle (“do not be deaf,” “do not be silent”).

His petition is squarely centered upon the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel. This binding agreement requires that YHWH act to protect and deliver his people, as long as they remain faithful to the agreement. The Psalmist places himself among the Israelite people, as one who journeys and lives together with YHWH. This is the basic meaning of the noun rG@. It is often used in the context of those people from other tribes and ethnic groups who live/travel with Israel; but here Israel is placed in the same role, in relationship to YHWH. God dwells with His people, and they with Him. The root bv^y` properly means “sit”, but is frequently used in the more permanent sense of “dwell, reside”. The faithful Israelite essentially “sits” together with YHWH, at His ‘table’ and in His Presence. Here the noun bv*oT (“one who sits/dwells”) is more or less synonymous with rG@.

Verse 14 [13]

“Turn your gaze from me, and I will brighten (again),
before I walk (off) and am no more.”

From the motif of YHWH hearing (v. 13 [12]), the focus shifts here to His seeing, but in a rather different sense. The Psalmist wants God to turn His ear toward him, but now he pleads that YHWH turn his gaze away from him. This draws upon the traditional idiom of judgment and punishment coming from the “face” of YHWH. His face burns with anger at disloyalty, sin, and wickedness. Moreover, this imagery reflects the idea of the all-seeing ‘eye’ of God, the Sovereign and Judge over all Creation. YHWH sees the wickedness of human beings, and renders judgment, punishing them accordingly. Since the Psalmist’s suffering, he admits, comes from God, as a form of discipline and punishment for sin (cf. above), deliverance can only be affected by God “turning away” this punishment. The turning away of His gaze thus means deliverance and healing for the Psalmist, and he will “brighten” once again.

The final line plays on two different, but related, Wisdom themes that have been expressed in the Psalm. The first has to do with the shortness of a person’s life; the second emphasizes how human beings are “emptiness”, having no abiding existence apart from God, whose sovereign power both gives life and takes it away. The Psalmist’s closing statement reflects both of these aspects. On the one hand, he is asking for healing, so that he can live bright and cheerful again for the relatively short time that remains in his life-span (until he “is no longer” alive). On the other hand, it is an effective admission that a human being is ultimately nothing. In terms of one’s earthly existence, when a person dies, he/she simply “is no more.”

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 38 (Part 2)

Psalm 38, continued

In the first part of this Psalm (vv. 2-11 [1-10], cf. the previous study), the protagonist at length laments the illness that afflicts him, recognizing that it may indicate that YHWH is angry with him because of sin that he has committed.

The second part of the composition (vv. 12-17 [11-16]) expands the scope of the Psalmist’s suffering, to including the response/reaction by the people around him. In the final lines of the Psalm (vv. 18-23 [17-22]), all of these themes are summarized and reiterated, and the protagonist offers a final plea to YHWH for deliverance.

Verses 12-17 [11-16]

Verse 12 [11]

“(Those) loving me and my companions (stay away) from what has struck me,
and (those) near to me (now) stand from far off.”

The Masoretic text of the first line is problematic and is likely corrupt. The line is too long, there is a repeated verb (dmu from line 2), and, more to the point, the reading in the Qumran manuscript (4QPsa) is quite different (and the LXX differs as well). I suspect that the Qumran text is rather closer to the original, which in translation might be rendered as follows:

“I have been struck in front of my loved (one)s and companions”

In any case, the main idea is that the Psalmist’s illness, and the effects of it, are conspicuous, taking place “in front of” (dg#n#) his friends and relatives. That it causes fear and revulsion in them is clear enough, especially in context of the second line: “(those) near to me (now) stand far away”. The ‘nearness’ may imply friendship (line 1), or simply proximity (i.e., neighbors).

Verse 13 [12]

“And they would hit (me), (the one)s seeking my soul,
and (the one)s searching evil (for) me say ruinous (thing)s,
and murmur deceitful (thing)s all the day (long).”

If verse 12 gives us the response of those close to the Psalmist, verse 13 describes the reaction of those who are already hostile to him. The ponderous and awkward rhythm of this verse (a rare 4+4+3 tricolon) may be intended to convey poetically the grim burden faced by the Psalmist—with the abuse from his enemies added to the experience of having his friends withdraw from him (v. 12).

The intent of these wicked adversaries is clear by the parallel expressions “seeking my soul” / “searching evil [i.e. harm] for me”. As is often the case in the Psalms, the wicked are depicted as intending violence toward the righteous. However, the main idea in this verse is not physical violence, but verbal abuse. They look to “bring down” the Psalmist, striking him as a hunter does a bird (this is the fundamental meaning of the verbal root vq^n`). They would do this by “speaking ruinous things” and “murmuring/muttering deceitful things” against him. And they are inspired in their wickedness to do this constantly, relentlessly, “all the day (long)”.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“But I am like a deaf (man who) <does> not hear,
and like a mute (who) opens not his mouth;
and (indeed) I have become like a man who (has) no hearing,
and there are no arguments in my mouth.”

There is a play on words and imagery in these two couplets, giving a double-sense to the idea of being deaf and mute. In the first couplet, the Psalmist describes himself as being like a deaf and mute person. By this is meant that he does not respond to the verbal abuse of his attackers, trying to ignore them as best he can. However, we should not necessarily understand this silence as an example of virtuous forbearance. The fact is, as the Psalmist ruefully admits in the second couplet, he is silent because there is nothing he can offer in his own defense.

The wording here implies a legal, judicial context. To say that he “has no hearing”, in this context, means that he has nothing that deserves a hearing. Similarly, he has no arguments (plur. of hj*k@oT) that he can speak to answer his opponents. Why is this? We must assume that the substance of their abusive claims is that the Psalmist’s suffering (from God) is deserved because of his sin. Against this he can give no argument, since he has already admitted his sin as the likely reason for his illness (vv. 5-7 [4-6], cf. the discussion in the previous study).

Verses 16-17 [15-16]

“(It is) that I wait (patiently) for you, YHWH,
you will answer (me), Lord, my Mighty (One),
when I say, ‘Take away the(ir) rejoic(ing) over me,
in (the) slipping of my foot, (when) they make great (taunts) against me!'”

This portion of the Psalm, dealing with people’s response to his illness, concludes with a dense and complex pair of couplets, that is extremely difficult to translate into English.

Though the Psalmist has no arguments to offer against his accusers, he continues to trust in YHWH. It is only to God that he makes his address, humbly and with a plea for help. He hopes and expects that YHWH will answer him, though he may need to wait patiently (vb lj^y`) for this help to come. The essence of his request is stated in the second couplet: he asks that God will take away (remove) the mocking abuse of his opponents. Since this can only really occur if his illness is removed, it is a roundabout way of making a request for healing. It is also effectively an appeal to YHWH’s own honor, which is indirectly attacked when one of His devout followers (the Psalmist) is assaulted with taunting and condemnation by the wicked. The protagonist admits his sin(fulness), by way of the phrase “in (the) slipping of my foot”, but he asks that the punishment not be so severe that it gives the wicked reason to “rejoice” and mock at his suffering.

The verb in the final phrase, ld^G`, in the Hiphil stem, normally has the general meaning “make great, cause to grow”, and certainly can be used in the negative sense of exalting oneself over another. Dahood (p. 236) would understand the root here in its more rudimentary, concrete sense of “twist” —i.e., the wicked twist lies or weave accusations against him (cp. Ps 12:4)

Verses 18-23 [17-22]

Verses 18-19 [17-18]

“For my trouble is (ever) fixed at (the) side,
and my sorrow is in front of me continually;
(so it is) that I put my crookedness out front,
(for) I am fearful from [i.e. because of] my sin.”

I follow Dahood (p. 236f) in parsing MT yn]a& (1st person pronoun) as the noun /w#a* (“trouble, toil”) with a pronoun suffix; the vocalization would then be yn]a), defective for the full yn]oa (“my trouble”). There are two possibilities for the second prefixed word ulxl: the first involves the root ulx I, from which the noun ul*x@ (“rib, side”) is presumably derived, while second involves the root ulx II (“limp”, noun ul^x# [“limping”]). The parallel with “in front of me” in the second line, argues in favor of the former, i.e. “at the side.

The verb in the first line of the second couplet, dg~n`, “be/stand in front” (Hiphil “put in front”), is related to the preposition dg#n# (“in front of”) in the prior line. There is thus a bit of wordplay involved, of the kind that is typically lost in translation. By putting his crookedness “out in front”, the Psalmist admits and confesses it to God. He is forced to this by his constant pain and suffering, and by his fearfulness over how YHWH has, and may yet further, punish him for his sin. Even so, this attitude of contrition and repentance ultimately reflects the righteous character of the protagonist, and of his devotion to the covenant bond with YHWH.

Verses 20-21 [19-20]

“And (the one)s hostile (to) me have living strength,
and (those) hating me (with) lies are many (indeed);
and (they are) fulfilling evil under [i.e. in exchange for] good,
(the one)s accusing me under my pursuing (the) good.”

As noted above, these two couplets summarize the section (vv. 12-17, cf. above) dealing with the reaction of people to the Psalmist’s illness. Specifically, the focus is on the response by his enemies and opponents (i.e., the wicked). Effectively, this is part of the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH (begun in vv. 18-19), and here he emphasizes the strength and number of his enemies. Again, it is primarily through verbal abuse (including lies/slander, rq#v#) that they attack him.

The idiom of the verb <l^v* followed by the preposition tj^T^ is difficult to translate in English. The idea is of an exchange, of a person making payment (i.e., fulfilling or completing an obligation, which is the basic meaning of the root <lv). The point of the exchange (or payment) is indicated by the preposition tj^T^ (literally, “under, beneath”)—i.e., one thing under [in exchange for] another. Here, the wicked (the Psalmist’s opponents) are paying him evil (ur^) instead of good (bof). This could be taken to mean that the protagonist only wants good for these people, and yet they still attack him. However, more likely is the general idea, expressed as a key theme throughout many of the Psalms, that the wicked are hostile to the righteous specifically because of their righteousness and loyalty/devotion to YHWH. The final line would seem to confirm this: it is the Psalmist’s “pursuing the good” that provokes his opponents to vilify him.

Verses 22-23 [21-22]

“Do not leave me, YHWH, my Mighty (One),
do not keep far away from me!
Hurry to help me, Lord, (for) my salvation!”

The Psalm closes with this final plea, terse and direct, to God for deliverance—that is, of healing from the illness that has plagued the Psalmist. A shortened 3+2 couplet is followed by a single 4-beat line. While he may be waiting patiently for YHWH to answer him, this does not keep the protagonist from calling out for immediate deliverance (“Hurry…!”). The sense may be that the Psalmist, who, as the context of the poem indicates, has been suffering for some time, is at the end of his rope. He does not see how he can go on much longer in this condition, if God does not help him. It is an experience with which many people can clearly relate, anyone who who has undergone a serious illness or debilitating ailment. As such, it is understandable why it would also feature so frequently as a theme in the Psalms, and elsewhere in ancient poetry and Wisdom literature (cf. the book of Job).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 35 (Part 1)

Psalm 35

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 2, 13-18, 20, 26-27); 4QPsq (vv. 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14-15, 17, 19-20); 4QPsc (vv. 27-28)

This is another prayer-Psalm, similar to a number that we have studied thus far, in which the Psalmist cries out to YHWH, lamenting his current distress and asking God to act on his behalf. As in many such Psalms, the trouble facing the protagonist, and his prayer for deliverance, are framed in military terms. What is distinctive about Psalm 35 is the extent and elaboration of this imagery, which runs all the way through this lengthy Psalm. In the royal background of the Psalms, and in the ancient covenant-setting, this sense of conflict could be very real; the king might well pray to God for protection against his political enemies—including treacherous/rebellious vassals—where the situation may involve concrete military action. However, in most instances, the military motifs in the Psalms are figurative, having been developed artistically to apply to a wide range of personal, social, religious, and ethical situations.

Given the length and complexity of this Psalm, it is not surprising that the meter is irregular, though likely rooted in a 3-beat (or 3+2) couplet format. A clear poetic and thematic structure is also difficult to determine for the composition. I would divide it loosely into two main stanzas (vv. 1-10 and 22-28), with a two-part developmental section in between (vv. 11-15 / 16-21) that describes in more detail the adversaries/opponents who threaten the Psalmist.

Overall, Psalm 35 is reasonably well-preserved in two Dead Sea MSS—4QPsa and 4QPsq—enough to allow for significant textual criticism. The variants are slight, but several are worth noting.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another composition “belonging to David”.

Verses 1-10

Verses 1-3b

“Contend, YHWH, with (the one)s contending (with) me,
do battle with (the one)s doing battle (with) me!
Take firm hold of protective cover and shield,
and stand up (to) help me in (time of) war;
Draw out (the) spear and pointed staff
to meet (in battle) the (one)s pursuing me!”

The military imagery could not be clearer than it is in these opening couplets. In verse 1, it is simply a call to battle—specifically, that YHWH should act on the Psalmist’s behalf, fighting those who would fight against him. This is central to the ancient covenant concept, the binding agreement or treaty; in this case, the context is a suzerain-vassal treaty, in which the superior (sovereign) promises protection (including military aid) for a loyal subordinate (vassal). The Israelite king is a subordinate to the great Sovereign YHWH, though here the imagery has almost certainly been generalized to apply to the righteous Israelite who is faithful and loyal to God.

In verse 2, the call is to take up the “protective (cover)” (/g@M*) and large shield (hN*x!), though the two terms are actually a hendiadys for the single concept of a protective shield. There is a similar hendiadys in verse 3[ab], with a pair of terms that denote a hand-held weapon. I follow Dahood (pp. 210-11) in understanding rgs (vocalized rg#s#?) as a pointed-staff or javelin (cf. the Qumran War Scroll [1QM] 5:7), while tyn!j& is the more common term for a pointed spear; but the two terms have a comparable meaning, and are joined here for emphasis. Thus YHWH Himself would be like a fighting force armed with both shield and spear.

Verse 3c

“Say to my soul: ‘I (am) your salvation’.”

This single line follows the preceding couplets and summarizes them. In calling on YHWH to fight for him, the Psalmist is asking God to save and protect him. It is YHWH alone who will save him; in military terms, all of the warriors armed with spear and shield, who would fight against the Psalmist’s enemies, are embodied in the person of God Himself. There is a longstanding tradition in Israelite (and NW Semitic) tradition, depicting El-Yahweh as a great warrior who fights on behalf of His people. References and allusions to this tradition can be found throughout the Old Testament, including numerous passages in the Psalms. YHWH can be described as fighting directly, with His own “arm”, or through the heavenly powers and forces of nature (sun, stars, storm, etc) doing battle at His command. Vv. 5-6 indicate that it is the “Messenger of YHWH” who engages in battle.

Verses 4-6

“May they feel shame and be humiliated,
(the one)s seeking after my soul;
let them be turned back and find disgrace,
(those) contriving evil for me!
May they be like dust in face of (the) wind,
(with the) Messenger of YHWH driving (it);
let their path be darkness and sliding (to doom),
(with the) Messenger of YHWH pursuing them!”

Verses 4-6 are comprised of four shorter couplets, two pairs, which show either 2-beat, 3-beat or mixed (3+2) meter. The terseness and staccato-like repetition give to these lines a harsh edge that may be intended, poetically, to capture the sound of battle. Again, we see examples of hendiadys, where pairs of terms are used to convey a single action or concept. Here a kind of curse is expressed, through an imprecation, a wish that the Psalmist’s enemies will suffer defeat and disgrace through the action of YHWH. In verse 4a, the verbs are vWB and <l^K*, both of which convey the idea of experiencing shame and disgrace, along with a sense of confusion; similarly in the 4b couplet, we have the verb pair gWs and rp@j*, which express much the same, but even more intensely, connoting a shameful defeat in battle.

The Psalmist’s enemies are clearly identified with the wicked, thus giving to the socio-political military imagery a strong religious and ethical aspect. As noted above, such imagery in the Psalms tends to be figurative, rather than a reference to real political adversaries or concrete battles. The wicked person is frequently described as plotting evil for the righteous, while the idiom of “seeking after the soul” carries a wide range of meaning; it can mean an actual attempt to cause death, or can refer more generally to bringing harm to another.

The couplets in vv. 5 and 6 describe the conflict, between YHWH and the wicked, in colorful terms, alluding to God’s control over the forces of nature—specifically that of the storm. The two main characteristics are wind (j^Wr, v. 5) and darkness (Ev#j), v. 6). For more on the Storm-theophany, as a manifestation of YHWH, cf. the earlier studies on Psalm 18 and Psalm 29. The term parallel with Ev#j) (“darkness”) in v. 6 is the unusual doubled noun hQ*l^q=l^j&, the precise meaning and derivation of which is unclear, but which seems to have been coined to convey the idea of a treacherous place where one may fall to death (i.e., into a deep pit, cf. below). The root ql^j* in Hebrew can signify something that is smooth or slippery, while Canaanite —lq specifically connotes “perish, be destroyed”.

It is the “messenger” (Ea^l=m^) of YHWH who acts to destroy the wicked. The Messenger of YHWH idea, which occurs frequently in Old Testament narrative, is complex and cannot be summarized here. At times the expression seems to refer to a distinct (and separate) divine/heavenly being (an Angel, etc), while in other passages it seems to be used as a way of describing the action of YHWH Himself. It is extremely rare in the Psalms, but does also occur in 34:8 (cf. the previous study), and in a similar context—referring to the protection YHWH provides for His people.

Verses 7-8

“For to no purpose have they hid destruction for me,
to no purpose have they dug their trap for my soul;
may desolation come to him without knowing (it),
and his trap that he hid, let it catch him (unaware)—
in (that very) desolation let him fall in(to) it!”

The use of <N`j! in verse 7 is problematic, at least in terms of the standard derivation from the root /n`j* (“show favor”). The adverb <N*j!, which signifies doing something “as a favor”, i.e. for nothing (free), apparently takes on a negative connotation (“for no purpose”) in certain contexts. That is the way <N*j! is read here; however, while acting “to no (good) purpose” certainly could characterize the wicked, it makes an uneasy fit in this context. The usage here, as also in Prov 1:11, 17, suggests that there may be at least one other root /nj, separate in meaning from /nj I. Job 19:17 does indicate another /nj (II); its precise meaning is not certain, but the context is clearly negative, indicating something that is repellent or loathsome. As it happens, there is also a root —nn (separate from µnn) in Ugaritic, but it is only rarely attested, and its meaning remains obscure. Dahood (pp. 211-12) suggests that <N*j! here derives from a root (/nj II or III), signifying someone who is stealthy or sneaky, as would be appropriate for someone setting a trap or laying ambush. There is no certain basis for positing such a root, other than the context of Prov 1:11, 17 and our verse here.

With some reluctance, and lacking any satisfactory alternative, I have retained the customary rendering of <N*j! above, in the specialized (negative) sense of the adverb “for nothing”, i.e. “for no purpose, in vain”. There may be a play on the idea of “for nothing” with the negative expression ud*y@ al) (“not knowing”); i.e., the wicked act for no good purpose, without really knowing what they are doing, and so their punishment comes on them in turn, without knowing what is happening to them. Admittedly, this parallelism is a bit obscure, but it provides at least a possible avenue for interpretation.

In any case, the idea is clear enough that, without realizing it, the wicked, by their action, are fashioning their own punishment. The “pit” of destruction (tj^v^) and the trap (“net”, tv#r#) that they lay will result in their own ruin (ha*ov)—the trap will “fall” (vb lp^n`) on them, and they will “fall” into the pit themselves. The verse involves a mixed metaphor (pit/net), which causes some confusion in the verse, but the overall message is relatively straightforward.

Verses 9-10

“And (so) my soul shall spin (for joy) in YHWH,
it shall rejoice in its salvation;
all (the) strength of my (limb)s shall say,
‘YHWH, who (is) like you,
snatching (the) oppressed from (those too) strong for him,
and (the) needy from (the one) tearing at him?'”

I treat these verses as a refrain to the first stanza, with the Psalmist effectively declaring his praise to YHWH, in anticipation of the salvation that God will bring (i.e., that the prayer will be answered). The Psalmist’s whole being rejoices; this is indicated in verse 9 by the “soul” (vp#n#), and in 10 by the plural tomx=u^, which I translate (in its literal sense) as “strength (in the limb)s”. The noun <x#u# often refers, specifically, to a person’s bones, in the sense that the bones provide the inner strength and support for the entire body.

We should understand the declaration that concludes verse 10 as represented what both the soul and ‘bones’ of the Psalmist say, in praise to God. The word of praise reflects the very salvation that the protagonist expects (and hopes for) in his prayer of vv. 1-8. Indeed, the word that the soul speaks here echoes the message that the Psalmist asks YHWH to speak to his soul in v. 3c (cf. above).

As is frequently the case in the Psalms, the righteous are specifically characterized as the “oppressed” (yn]u*), here with the added attribute of being “poor, in need” (/oyb=a#). I tentatively follow commentators such as Kraus (p. 391) in omitting the second (repeated) yn]u* from the final line; however, Dahood (p. 212) makes an argument in favor of preserving the duplication, on poetic (and metrical) grounds, that should be given serious consideration.

As noted above, the second stanza of the Psalm occurs in verses 22-28, while the intervening section (vv. 11-21) provides the development in the poem, enhancing the sense of conflict by giving a vivid description of the wicked and their behavior. This middle section will be analyzed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 34 (Part 2)

Psalm 34, continued

In the first half of the Psalm (vv. 2-9, cf. the previous study) the focus is on YHWH’s faithfulness in answering prayer, thus providing a reason for the righteous to continue trusting in him; the second half, vv. 10-22, containing a strong wisdom-orientation, represents an exhortation for the righteous themselves to remain faithful/loyal to YHWH.

Remember that Psalm 34 is an acrostic poem, with the opening letters indicated for each couplet below.

Verses 10-22 [9-21]

Verse 10 [9]

y “You must fear [Wary+] YHWH, (you) His holy (one)s,
for there is no(thing) lacking to (those) fearing Him.”

The second half of the Psalm begins with the exhortation for the righteous to fear YHWH (vb ar@y`). This theme was introduced in verse 8 [7], and is an antithetic parallel to the idea of being saved (by God) from everything that might cause fear (vv. 5-7 [4-6]). There is no need to fear the wicked, nor anything on earth, since the righteous are under YHWH’s protection; it is only YHWH Himself who is to be feared.

At the close of the first half of the Psalm (v. 9 [8]), the covenantal protection provided by YHWH was described in terms of the blessed bounty that the faithful will receive at their Lord’s table. This motif is echoed here in v. 10, with the assurance that those who fear YHWH (i.e., His faithful servants) will not have anything lacking (rosj=m^)  for them. According to the binding agreement (covenant), the superior (YHWH) provides for his vassals, so they will never be in need. Here the material sense of poverty (and hunger) is primarily in view, as the next couplet makes clear.

Verse 11 [10]

k “(The one)s with abundance [<yr!yB!K=] may be poor and hunger,
but (the one)s seeking YHWH will not lack any good (thing).”

The Masoretic text has the plural noun <yr!yp!K= (“[young] lions”), while the Greek version reads plou/sioi (“rich [one]s”), suggesting that the underlying Hebrew may be <yr!yB!K= (“[one]s with [an] abundance”). The difference between the two readings is a single letter; unfortunately, the Dead Sea Psalms MSS offer no help in deciding, since almost nothing of this Psalm survives. I have opted for the latter reading (following the LXX); however, <yr!yp!K= could still be correct, since strong/vigorous animals are frequently used in the ancient Near East as honorific titles for powerful men, nobles, and rulers. The basic point of contrast in the couplet is that while it is possible for the rich and powerful in society to end up in poverty, as the result of a change in circumstances, this cannot happen for the one who truly relies upon the protection and provision of YHWH.

Verse 12 [11]

l “Walk [Wkl=] (here, my) sons and listen to me,
(the) fear of YHWH I will teach you.”

While there is a strong Wisdom-aspect running through the entire Psalm, nowhere is it expressed so clearly or directly as in this couplet, along with the series of Wisdom sayings and maxims that are introduced here. The fear (ha*r=y!) of YHWH is virtually synonymous with wisdom, as a number of sayings in the Wisdom tradition state precisely, to the effect, in particular, that true wisdom begins with the fear (i.e., honor, reverence, obedience) of God—Prov 1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Psalm 111:10; Job 28:28; cf. also Mic 6:9; Isa 11:2; 33:6.

Verse 13 [12]

m “Who [ym!] (is) the man th(at) desires life,
loving (those) days (in which) to see good?”

This sort of rhetorical question is typical of Wisdom instruction, and so follows the call for the righteous to receive instruction in v. 12 [11]. Here the verb bh^a* (“love”) more properly connotes the longing that the lover feels. The word-play of the Hebrew in these lines is almost impossible to reproduce, with the formal parallelism of <yY]j^ and <ym!y`. They are both plural nouns, but the first of which is almost always translated as a collective singular (“life”); the parallel would better be expressed by rendering the plural as “times of life” or “moments of living”. The implication of the rhetorical question, of course, is that everyone desires the blessing of the good life, but that only the wise person, the one fearing YHWH, will truly find it.

Verse 14 [13]

n “Guard [rx)n+] your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking deceit.”

This is one of the few instances where the concise rhythm of a simple 3-beat (3+3) couplet can be captured naturally in a literal translation. It is the sort of maxim common in Wisdom literature—e.g., Job 27:4; Psalm 39:1; 50:19; 120:2; Prov 10:31; 12:19; 15:2; 21:23; 26:28.

Verse 15 [14]

s “Turn [rWs] from evil and do (the) good,
search (for) wholeness and pursue it.”

Again the 3-beat couplet can easily be translated (literally) into correspondingly concise lines in English. The noun <olv* is typically translated as “peace”, but it should probably be understood here in its broader, more fundamental sense of “wholeness, completion, fulfillment”, encompassing not just the idea of peace, but of health and prosperity, etc. Ultimately, this “wholeness” is defined in terms of the moral (and religious) contrast of doing “good” (bof) instead of “evil” (ur^).

Verse 16 [15]

u “(The) eyes of [yn@yu@] YHWH (look) to (the) righteous (one)s,
and His ears (listen) to their cry for help.”

Here there is a shift from the simple Wisdom-saying back to language more in keeping with the thought-world and style of the Psalms, emphasizing the idea of the righteous calling on YHWH in their time of trouble. The promise is that God will indeed answer the righteous when they call, since He is already focused on them as a result of the faithfulness that they have demonstrated. As noted previously, the adjective qyD!x^ (“just, right[eous]”) often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in a covenant context.

Verse 17 [16]

p “(The) face of [yn@P=] YHWH is (set) on (those) doing evil,
to cut off from (the) earth (all) memory of them.”

This couplet forms an obvious contrast with that of v. 16 [15]. If the eyes of YHWH are focused on the righteous, in a positive and protective sense, His face is directed at the wicked (“[the one]s doing evil”), in a negative and destructive sense. Actually, both eyes and face have a benevolent aspect in relationship to the righteous, and a destructive aspect in relation to the wicked. On the “face” as a euphemism for the punishing anger of God, cf. Psalm 21:10 [9]; 80:17 [16]; Lam 4:16, etc.

Verse 18 [17]

x “They cry out [Wqu&x*] and YHWH hears (them),
and from their distress He snatches them (away).”

The subject of the Wqu&x* (“they cry out”) is unspecified; the context makes clear that it refers back to the righteous ones of v. 16 [15]. This couplet repeats the promises of vv. 5-8; on this, and the use of the verb lx^n` (“snatch out/away”) to express this promise of deliverance from YHWH, cf. the discussion in the previous study.

Verse 19 [18]

q “Near [borq*] (comes) YHWH to (the one)s broken of heart,
and (for the one)s crushed of spirit He makes (them) safe.”

This couplet expands on the promise of v. 18 [17], that YHWH will hear the cry of the righteous in their time of need, and will act to rescue them. The adjective borq* (“near”) can be understood either in the sense of God being near or coming near (the verbal action being unspecified); both aspects are valid, but the latter sense better fits the promise of deliverance—i.e., YHWH comes to rescue them. The verbal form u^yv!oy can be translated simply as “he saves”, or in a more exalted way as “he brings salvation”; I have opted for a straightforward rendering of the verb in its fundamental meaning (in the Hiphil causative stem): “make safe”, i.e., “He makes (them) safe”.

There is a precise parallel between the construct expressions “ones broken of heart” and “ones crushed of spirit”; it is a beautiful example of synonymous parallelism, but one that is not always preserved properly in translation. The expressions emphasize that the righteous may frequently experience hardship and suffering from the forces of evil and wickedness in the world; this point is stressed further in the next couplet.

Verse 20 [19]

r “Many [toBr^] (are the) evils (facing the) righteous,
and from all of them YHWH will snatch him away!”

A literal translation of the first line would read “many (are the) evils of (the) righteous”, but this could give the misleading impression that the “evils” are things the righteous do, or which are characteristic of the righteous. The context clearly indicates that these are evils facing the righteous person, which are experienced at times during his/her life on earth. The promise of deliverance, stated in the prior verses (and earlier in vv. 5-8), is repeated here, most emphatically: “from all of them…”. The verb used to express the action of YHWH in delivering His faithful ones is again lx^n` (“snatch away”, cf. above).

Verse 21 [20]

? “He (is) watching [rm@v)] (over) all (the) strength of his (limb)s,
(even) one (bone) from them will not be broken!”

Here again, the protection provided by YHWH is described in terms of seeing, as in v. 16 [15] (“the eyes of YHWH…”). God keeps close watch over the life of the righteous, specifically seeing that no (physical) harm comes to the body. The noun <x#u# literally refers to the strength of substance of something, but often is used specifically for the strength/substance of a human body, viz. the bones which give it firmness and strength. That is clearly the meaning here, with the added promise that not even one bone will be broken from the evils faced by the righteous. On this motif in the context of the Passion narrative (the crucifixion of Jesus), in light of the Passover tradition regarding the bones of the Paschal lamb (Exod 12:46; Num 9:12), cf. John 19:31-36.

Verse 22 [21]

t “It will put to death [tt@omT=] (the) wicked, (will) evil,
and (those) hating (the) righteous will face (their) guilt.”

The rhythm of this relatively concise 3-beat couplet is difficult to reproduce in a literal translation. This is in part because of the wide semantic range of the roots ur and <va, respectively. In particular, there is no good English equivalent for the verb <v^a*, which centers primarily around the idea of guilt; it can refer to the act which brings guilt, or to the punishment of that guilt, as well as to an entire range of related concepts. Here the context indicates that the wicked will face the true consequences of their guilt—guilt that stems from their own evil actions, which are defined in terms of hating (and mistreating) the righteous. As often in the Psalms, we find both a strong contrast between the righteous and the wicked, as well as a contrastive fate for the wicked that is framed in terms of the ancient lex talionis principle. The punishment for the wicked will match their crime, and will come in a similar form and manner—i.e., the kinds of evil things that the wicked did will be turned back upon them, to strike them in turn.

That seems to be the basic sense of the couplet. The very sort of evil done by the wicked, with the intention of harming the righteous, will result in putting the wicked themselves to death.

VERSE 23 [22]

“YHWH (is the One) ransoming (the) soul of His servants,
and all (the one)s seeking protection in Him will not face guilt.”

The Psalm closes with a longer 4-beat (4+4) couplet that affirms, once again, the promise that YHWH will protect and rescue all those who remain faithful to Him. Here the ancient covenant context comes more firmly into view, whereby the righteous/faithful ones are referred to as His “servants” (i.e., vassals). The verbs hd*P* and hs*j* also very much reflect this covenant-context. The primary significance of hd*P* is of making payment to secure the release of a person held captive. No trustworthy sovereign would let a vassal remain a prisoner or captive, but would act to secure their release—whether by payment or other means. Even closer to the context of the binding agreement (covenant) is the protection which such agreements and treaties entail, either of mutual protection or of that provided by a superior for his subordinate. The verb hs*j* denotes the act of seeking (and/or finding) protection.

While the language of real-life binding agreements is used throughout the Psalms, it often takes on a deeper symbolic and religious sense. Here, for example, the idea of protection and release from human adversaries has been transferred and applied to Death as the great enemy. By rescuing the righteous from the threat of death, as in the case of a life-threatening illness, YHWH acts in a manner similar to the sovereign who delivers his vassals from a human enemy. Moreover, the idea is clearly expressed that the righteous are not to meet such a fate (i.e., death) in a manner reserved for the wicked—that is, as a punishment for their guilt (vb <v^a*, cf. above). This is a theme found frequently in the Psalms: that the righteous person is not at all like the wicked, and so, according to the terms of the covenant (with YHWH), should not suffer the fate of the wicked.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 34 (Part 1)

Psalm 34

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 21-22 [20-21])

This is a thanksgiving-Psalm, written from the standpoint of someone who experienced deliverance from affliction, his prayer to YHWH having been answered. It thus contains and repeats many of the themes encountered in the Psalms we have studied thus far.

Structurally, the most important point to note is that this is an acrostic poem (cf. the earlier study on Ps 9-10), though not consistently so throughout, which may (or may not) indicate textual corruption. Unfortunately, virtually nothing survives of this particular Psalm in the Dead Sea manuscripts, so no help is available from that source. Metrically, the composition tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon pattern, though with a few irregularities.

The superscription marks the composition again as “belonging to David”, and adds the historical notice alluding to the episode in David’s life narrated in 1 Sam 21:11-16. However, in that narrative, the king at Gath is identified as Akhish, rather than Abimelech. This may represent an historical error/inaccuracy (on the part of an editor), though the tradition in Gen 26:1ff suggests that Abimelech could have been a common name/title used by the Philistine rulers. In any case, the reference makes a curious setting for the Psalm; certainly there is nothing in the composition itself to suggest such an association with that Davidic episode.

Following the acrostic pattern, I would divide the Psalm loosely into two parts: vv. 2-9 [1-8] and 10-22 [9-21], with the final couplet (v. 23 [22]) as a concluding declaration (in a separate meter [4+4]). These two parts have somewhat different thematic emphases. In vv. 2-9, the focus is on YHWH’s faithfulness in answering prayer, thus providing a reason for the righteous to continue trusting in him; the second half, vv. 10-22, containing a strong wisdom-orientation, represents an exhortation for the righteous themselves to remain faithful/loyal to YHWH.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

a “I will give honor [hk*r&b*a&] (to) YHWH in every moment,
a shout (of praise to) Him (will be) continually in my mouth.”

The synonymous parallelism of this opening couplet is straightforward, establishing the emphasis on praise and thanksgiving in the first half of the Psalm.

Verse 3 [2]

b “In YHWH [hw`hyB^] my soul will make its shout,
the (one)s oppressed shall hear (it) and be glad.”

The motif of praise continues in the second couplet, where it is said that the soul (of the Psalmist) will make a shout (of praise); this verb (ll^h* II) is the root of the noun hL*h!T= in v. 2 (cf. above), though the relationship is not always preserved in translation. The parallelism of this couplet is synthetic, rather than synonymous—i.e., the second line builds upon, and results from, what is stated in the first line. The communal aspect of the Psalm is introduced already in the opening lines, establishing a Wisdom-orientation at an earlier point than is typical in the Psalms. The righteous are identified as the “oppressed ones” (<yw]n`u&)—that is, those who are afflicted (by the wicked, etc), and yet who remain humble, devout, and loyal to YHWH in the face of their affliction.

The noun vp#n# in the first line has the common meaning “soul”, but sometimes, especially in the older/archaic poetry, it carries the more concrete denotation of “throat”, which here would make a suitable pairing with “mouth” in v. 2. In any case, it indicates a deeper location for the praise uttered by the Psalmist, coming not only from his mouth, but from deeper within him as well.

Verse 4 [3]

g “Declare (the) greatness [WlD=G~] belonging to YHWH with me,
and we shall raise high His name together (as) one!”

Here the Psalmist calls on the righteous to give honor and praise to YHWH together with him. This communal aspect in the Psalms tends to be reserved for the closing portion of the composition, but here it plays an important role from the outset. It draws upon Wisdom-tradition, as a line of tradition which has heavily influenced the shaping and development of the Psalms. It also reflects the corporate worship setting in which the poems came to be used. The parallelism in this couplet is synonymous, as can be seen by the use of the largely synonymous verbs ld^G` and <Wr in a transitive/causative sense—i.e., “make great” and “make high”, respectively. The sense of the verb in the first line, with the preposition l=, is best understood as “declare (i.e. through praise) the greatness belonging to” YHWH. The imperfect verb form in the second line, like those in the prior couplet (v. 3), has jussive/cohortative force (i.e., “let us…”), and should be read in light of the imperative in line 1.

On the significance of the name of God, cf. the previous study (on Ps 33:21). In the thought-world of the ancient Near East, a person’s name represented and embodied the nature and character of the person. Thus, to exalt the name of YHWH was the same as exalting YHWH Himself.

Verse 5 [4]

d “I searched [yT!v=r^D*] (after) YHWH, and He answered (me),
and from all (thing)s frightening me, He snatched me away.”

The idiom of seeking/searching after YHWH, expressed by the verb vr^D*, is a reference to prayer—i.e., the person makes a request of God, seeking for a response. In this case, YHWH has answered him, responding (positively) to his request. In a number of the Psalms we have studied, the context of such a prayer for deliverance would seem to involve a (life-threatening) illness, but there is little indication of that here. More appropriate to the setting in this Psalm, with the righteous described as “oppressed” (v. 3, cf. above), is some kind of affliction at the hands of the wicked. The noun hr*ogm=, denoting something frightening or fearful, is often used in reference to a human being with superior position or power. In any case, the idea of deliverance (from such fearful things) is expressed by the verb lx^n` (“snatch away”), occurring frequently in the Psalms (12 times in the prior Pss 7, 18, 22, 25, 31, and 33).

Verse 6 [5]

h “(So then) look [WfyB!h!] to Him and shine (brightly),
and <your> faces shall not (then) feel ashamed.”

The Masoretic text, as we have it (and as it is pointed), has 3rd person plural forms in the first line: “they looked to Him and shined (brightly)”. While this may be correct, and though such grammatical shifts in person are not uncommon in ancient Near Eastern poetry (or in the Psalms), the Versions (LXX, Aquila, Syriac, Latin Vulgate) indicate underlying Hebrew imperatives. Unfortunately, as noted above, the Dead Sea MSS can provide no help in deciding the matter; however, the overall thrust of the Psalm in these lines would seem to favor reading the verbs as imperatives.  This, in and of itself, would require no real emendation, and only a slight alteration of the MT in the second line (also supported by the Versions): <k#yn@P= (“your faces”) instead of <h#yn@P= (“their faces”).

The main point in the couplet is clear enough, and reflects an important principle that is expressed throughout many Psalms: the person who trusts in YHWH will not be put to shame as a result.

Verse 7 [6]

z “This [hz#] oppressed (one) called and YHWH heard,
and from all (the thing)s distressing him, He saved him.”

This couplet has an extended/irregular meter (4+3), which may be intended as a poetic expression of the tension, the “distress” (hr*x*) experienced by the protagonist. Again the idea of the righteous as “oppressed” (yn]u*) is present here (cf. verse 3, above), and the plural torx* (i.e., the things causing distress) should probably be understood in a personal sense (i.e. oppressors), as also for the plural torWgm= in v. 5 (cf. above). The prayer to God for deliverance is expressed by the verb ar*q* (“call [out]”); again, it is indicated that YHWH heard the Psalmist’s prayer and saved him—and the righteous can trust that He will do the same for them in their times of trouble.

Verse 8 [7]

j “He lays [hn#j)] (down His) tent, (the) Messenger of YHWH,
round about (the one)s fearing Him, and pulls them out.”

This couplet narrates the deliverance YHWH brings for the righteous, using the imagery of military assistance and protection. YHWH acts through His ‘Messenger’ (Ea*l=m^), a personal (or personified) divine being who functions as God’s representative among humans. This is a complex religious concept which cannot be addressed adequately in the short space allotted here. The “Messenger of YHWH” is not simply reduceable to an ‘Angel’; in many passages, it appears that YHWH Himself is acting, and that the expression is a kind of pious circumlocution to avoid depicting YHWH directly in personal, anthropomorphic terms. In any case, the important point to remember here is that the ‘Messenger’ of YHWH acts in place of YHWH Himself, as His representative. Through this Messenger, God “lays down” his tent—that is, his military encampment—in a manner that protects the righteous from the enemy forces. Perhaps it is better to see the encampment as part of a military offensive, surrounding the wicked ‘army’ that is attacking the righteous, and “pulling out” (vb Jl^j*, i.e., rescuing) the righteous from their grasp.

The righteous are specifically identified as those who fear YHWH (vb ar@y`), who show Him the proper honor and reverence, obeying Him faithfully as their sovereign. This is a typical characteristic attributed to the righteous ones, but it is especially prominent in Wisdom tradition. The “fear of God” is a motif that features significantly in the second half of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study).

Verse 9 [8]

f “Taste [Wmu&f^] and see how good YHWH (is)!
Happy the warrior (who) finds protection in Him!”

This irregular (4+3) couplet brings the first half of the Psalm to a close. It involves a mixing of metaphors, but the combination makes sense when one understands the covenant context at work here (and generally so throughout the Psalms). The faithful and loyal vassal is able to sit at the table of his sovereign, eating with him and sharing his blessing and bounty. The same vassal, by the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) with the sovereign, is under his Lord’s protection. The “goodness” (bof) of YHWH here must be understood in this covenantal sense.

The closing line is a beatitude, opening with the construct plural yr@v=a^, as in Psalm 1:1 and 32:1-2. This plural form, which literally would mean something like, “(the) happy (thing)s of”, is best understood in an intensive (and exclamatory) sense: “Oh, the happiness of..”, i.e. “how happy (he) is…!”. The noun rb#G#, while sometimes translated simply as “man”, more properly signifies one who is strong, mighty, vital, valiant, etc; here the connotation of a warrior is fitting to the context. The righteous person is a “warrior” who serves as a faithful and loyal vassal of YHWH (i.e., under the covenant bond), and who is under YHWH’s personal protection (cf. above).

With regard to the first line of the couplet, Dahood (p. 206) makes a reasonably compelling argument that the imperative War= should be derived from the root ar*y`, which he would define as “be fat, satisfied, drink (deep)” (cognate with hw`r*), rather than from ha*r* (“see”). He would distinguish this root (ar*y` II) from ar*y` I, a byform of hr*y`. As evidence, he cites Prov 23:31 and Psalm 91:16, in addition to Prov 11:25, as well as Psalm 51:23; Job 10:15, and Isa 53:11. If this interpretation were correct, then the two imperatives at the start of the line would be translated “taste and be satisfied”, or “taste and drink (deep)”, which would certainly fit the context of dining at the bounteous table of YHWH. Ultimately, I find his suggestion intriguing, but not entirely convincing.