Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 2

Psalm 22, continued

Verses 12-23 [11-22]

In this portion of the Psalm, the distress and misfortune experienced by the Psalmist (cf. the previous study on vv. 2-11 [1-10]) is defined in terms of attacks by his adversaries and opponents. Often in the Psalms, this line of imagery relates to the royal background and theology of the ancient poems (i.e. referring to opponents of the king and his kingdom). Admittedly, this aspect is less prominent here in Psalm 22, but we must still take it into account. The adversaries of the protagonist are never specified, though they are characterized generally as wicked and faithless/disloyal to the covenant with YHWH.

Verse 12 [11]

“Do not be far away from me,
for distress is near (to me),
for there is no (one) helping (me)!”

The section begins with a 2+2+2 tricolon, in which the Psalmist calls out urgently to God, as he faces “distress” (hr*x*), an abstract term which should be understood in the concrete sense of hostile opponents who are attacking (or who would attack). The substantive participle “(one) helping” (rz@ou) refers to human aid, perhaps in the practical sense of military assistance; since there is no one available, the Psalmist has to turn to YHWH for divine aid.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Many (strong) bulls surround me,
(the) mighty (one)s of Bashan enclose me;
they open their mouths upon me,
tearing and roaring (at me as) a lion!”

The two 3+3 couplets in these verses describe the Psalmist’s enemies in the traditional imagery of fierce and powerful animals (bull / lion). They are compared with bulls (<yr!P*) in the first couplet, the parallelism filled in by the local idiom of cattle-herding in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan (“mighty ones of Bashan”). In the second couplet, the lion (hy@r=u^) is in view, with its deadly mouth that roars and tears at its prey.

Verses 15-16 [14-15]

“Like water, I am poured out,
all my bones are separated;
my heart is (become) like wax,
it melts in the midst of my tissues;
my strength is dried up like (baked) clay,
and my tongue has been stuck to my jaws—
and (all this) has set me toward the dust of death!”

In the face of such danger, the Psalmist can feel himself on the verge of death. The strength of his limbs (and his heart) dissolves, melting all over. This liquid metaphor is replaced (in v. 16 [15]) with the opposite idea of drying—his strength drying up like the tongue in his mouth. The figurative anatomical references give way to a climactic exclamation in the final line, an exclamation, however, which is a bit difficult to interpret. The verb form, yn]t@P=v=T!, appears to be a second person singular imperfect form, suggesting a sudden switch to a direct address to YHWH by the Psalmist, perhaps blaming God for the situation he now faces—i.e., “and (so) to the dust of death you have put me!”. Dahood (p. 140), following the earlier analysis of W. F. Albright, suggests instead that it should be read as a third person feminine (collective), perhaps in the sense that ‘all these things’ (“they”), together, have set me toward the dust of death. I have tentatively followed this interpretation above. The image of “dust” (rp*u*), of course, fits the motif of drying out in v. 16.

Verses 17-19 [16-18]

“For (these) dogs have surrounded me,
a pack of (those) doing evil has gone about me,
digging (into) my hands and my feet—
I count all my bones (that are left)!
They, they give a look,
they take sight at me;
they divide my clothes among them,
and upon my garment they cast a pebble.”

These difficult (and irregular) couplets represent the violence of the attack made upon the Psalmist. Perhaps it is what he envisions happening, rather than something which, whether real or figurative, has actually taken place. In any case, the animal imagery from the prior lines continues, with the adversaries now depicted as a pack of savage dogs. They are characterized as “(one)s doing evil” (<yu!r@m=), and, in keeping with the imagery of the couplet, I have rendered the common noun hd*u@ (“appointed [gathering], assembly”) colloquially as “pack” (cf. Dahood, p. 140).

The second couplet (v. 17b/18a) is particularly difficult, evidenced by the misplaced verse division. With many commentators, I read the initial word yrak as a verbal form (infinitive) from the root hr*K* I (“dig”), with an ‘intrusive’ aleph [a]. It is often translated here as “pierce”, perhaps to give greater relevance to the subsequent (Christian) application to the crucifixion of Jesus (i.e., piercing his hands and feet, cf. Luke 24:39). However, the original context of the Psalm had nothing to do with crucifixion; rather, it would seem, the idea is of dogs digging their sharp teeth into the legs and arms (i.e. ‘hands and feet’) of the protagonist. It is a vicious attack that leaves the victim in a debilitated state; and, it is in this light that I understand the second line of the couplet, as a bit of grim irony—the Psalmist is able to count the few intact bones he has left!

Rhythmically, following this pair of 3+3 couplets, there is a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet in the remainder of verse 18. The sense is not entirely clear, but I believe that the idea involves the attackers pausing to look at the body of their victim. This would seem to be confirmed by what follows in verse 19 (again a 3+3 couplet). Having left their victim dead (or near death), they strip him of his clothing, dividing the garments between them, casting lot to see who will receive the choicest garment (his robe/tunic). This detail, of course, features in the Gospel Passion narrative (Mark 15:24 par), the Psalm being understood as a prophecy of Jesus’ death, as the direct citation in John 19:24 makes clear.

Verses 20-23 [19-22]

“But you, YHWH, do not be far (away) from me!
My strength, you must hurry (here) to help me!
Snatch my soul away from the sword,
my (life) intact from (the) hand of (the) dog!
Save me from the mouth of (the) lion,
and answer (to rescue) me from (the) horns of wild (oxen)!
(Then) will I recount your name to my brothers,
in (the) midst of (the) assembly, I will shout (praise to) you.”

The plea of the Psalmist in verse 20 [19] repeats that of v. 12 [11] at the beginning of the section (cf. above). The depiction of violence in vv. 13-19 is thus best understood as a portent of what could (and may well) happen to him, if YHWH does not come to his aid. God is literally referred to here as the Psalmist’s strength ([tW]ly`a$), in the (military) sense of protection and the ability to fight off attackers. Verses 21-22 [20-21] clearly capture the sense of imminent, impending danger, associating the three savage, attacking animals of the prior verses—dog, lion, and wild bull/ox—with the sword.

The second line of v. 21 is a bit obscure, especially the apparent use of the adjective dyj!y` (signifying being one or united) in a substantive sense (with possessive suffix). The parallel with “soul” (vp#n#) suggests that the meaning may be something like “my only (life)”; I prefer the emphasis on being united, and tentatively translate above “my life (intact)”. Dahood (p. 141) would read blk (MT bl#K#, “dog”) as related to the root [lk (i.e., twplyk, “axe”), comparable to the word ab*l=K% in Aramaic and the cognate pair býK= and [l%K@ in late Hebrew (all meaning “axe”). Even though “axe” makes a suitable pairing with “sword” in the couplet, the earlier specific use of “dog” (bl#K#), and the same triad of animals (bull/ox, lion, dog), renders such a reading less likely.

If YHWH answers the Psalmist’s plea, saving him from danger (and death), then he will be able to recount God’s saving action to others, giving praise to Him and His name (v. 23 [22]). This includes the context of public worship in the “assembly” (lh*q*), and may indicate a specific ritual or liturgical setting for performance of the Psalm. The similar pairing of the verbs uv^y` (“save”) and hn`u* (“answer, respond”) in Psalm 20 (vv. 7, 10 [6, 9], cf. the earlier study), suggests that the royal background of military action (and God’s role in aiding the king, His faithful/loyal vassal) underlies the imagery here in v. 22. In any case, it is an appeal to the honor of YHWH’s name, such as we find frequently in Old Testament poetry. The closing couplet of this section also prepares the way for the next (vv. 24-32 [23-31]), the conclusion to the Psalm, which focuses on the praise that is due to YHWH for His power and goodness—the implication being that God will deliver the Psalmist in his time of need.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 2

Verses 8-20

The core of the first half of Psalm 18, the first poem (vv. 2-31), is the description in verses 8-20 of YHWH’s action, in response to the Psalmist’s cry for help (vv. 5-7, cf. Part 1 of this study). It is the description of a storm-theophany—that is, of God manifesting Himself in the storm. Many deities (or conceptions of deity) in the ancient world are manifest in atmospheric natural phenomena, whether or not they involve the actual personification of the storm itself. Most notable, among the Canaanites, the storm-theophany was associated with the deity Haddu, known commonly by the honorific title “Lord [Ba’al] Haddu”. For the Israelites, of course, this theophany belonged to YHWH, and the similarities with Baal Haddu help to explain the fierce anti-Baal polemic among devoted Yahwists, found in the Old Testament Prophetic traditions. Canaanite Baal was effectively a religious competitor to El-Yahweh in Israel, throughout the late 2nd and early 1st millennium B.C. Psalm 18:8-20 is one of the clearest instances of the ancient storm-theophany applied to El-Yahweh.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“And it shook and trembled, (did) the earth,
and (the) firm (foundation)s of (the) hills quivered,
and shook themselves, that (such) burning came f(rom) Him.
Smoke went up with [i.e. from] His nostril(s),
and fire from his mouth devoured (all things),
glowing (fire)s blazing (forth) from Him!”

This first strophe, made up of a pair of (3+3+3) tricola, describes the disruption of the natural order of things as YHWH approaches, so that even the strongest parts of the earth (the mountains/hills), from their deepest foundations, are shaken and tremble with fear. Three different verbs, indicating shaking/trembling/quivering, are used—vu^G`, vu^r*, and zg~r*—all with a similar sound; this assonance and alliteration is almost impossible to capture in translation. The anger of God, which causes nature to shake with fear, is depicted with the traditional imagery of a burning fire; the smoke and glowing bursts (sparks, burning embers, etc) may also allude to the natural phenomena of fires caused by lightning. The smoke/fire in the nostrils, drawing upon the motif of the angry animal (bull, etc), is a common Old Testament image for the anger of El-YHWH.

The main difference in 2 Samuel 22 here is the expression “firm (foundation)s of the heavens [<y]m^V*h^]” instead of “…of (the) hills [<yr!h*]”.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]

“And He spread (apart the) heavens and came down,
and (the) storm-cloud (was) under His feet;
and He rode upon (the) kerub and took flight,
and swooped (riding) upon wings of (the) wind.”

This next strophe is a pair of 3+3 couplets, depicting the phenomenon of the dark storm-cloud (lp#r*u&, Ugaritic ²rpl) itself. The image is an inclusio, with the first and fourth lines describing the cloud as it moves through the sky and approaches (descends). The spreading apart (vb hf*n`) of the skies is parallel with the outstretched “wings” of the sky. The Masoretic text in the fourth line reads “wings of the wind [j^Wr]”, but Dahood (p. 107) suggests that the consonantal text jwr should be vocalized instead jw~r#, meaning a “wide space” (as in Gen 32:17; Est 4:14). The basic imagery would not differ that much; the emphasis would be on the spreading of the sky rather than the atmosphere (skies/wind) itself. The correct verb in line 4 is ad#Y@w~ (“and He swooped”), but the MT of 2 Sam 22:11b reads ar*Y@w~ (“and He was seen”), reflecting a scribal mistake of the letter r for d.

In the second and third (inner) lines, YHWH is shown standing/riding upon the storm-cloud, itself personified as a great winged being, a bWrK= (kerub). The derivation of this term remains uncertain, but it clearly is meant to depict a winged being, of divine/heavenly nature, best known from the iconography of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple (esp. the golden box [ark] which served as the ‘throne’ for YHWH). Depiction of the storm as a bird is relatively common in ancient mythology, one of the best examples being the imagery associated with Ninurta in Sumerian religious/cosmological myth. Baal Haddu is similarly depicted as a great bird on a number of occasions, and so also YHWH in the older (poetic) strata of Old Testament tradition (e.g., Deut 32:11; Hab 3:3-4).

In terms of ancient cosmological-mythic conceptions, the idea of the deity riding (or standing) upon the natural phenomenon emphasizes his control over it. This reflects a development in religious thought, going beyond the idea of the deity as represented by the phenomenon itself (or as a personification of it). Clearly, in Israelite religion, YHWH was not simply manifest in the storm, but transcended it, coming down from heaven to ride upon the storm-cloud.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

The rhythm and meter in the MT of vv. 12-13 is irregular and awkward; comparison with 2 Sam 22 suggests that the text is corrupt, in terms of the original poem. Cross and Freedman (p. 25f) provide an interesting reconstruction. Let us consider the first couplet in verse 12, beginning with the MT of the Psalm:

“He set darkness (as) His covering round about Him,
His covered (lair) (the) darkness of waters, clouds of vapors

It is an awkward 4+4 couplet, and the italicized portions are suspect. For one thing, in 2 Sam 22, the first line has only 3 beats, and is more likely to be correct in that regard:

“And He set darkness round about Him” (2 Sam)
wyt*b)yb!s= Ev#j) tv#Y`w~
“He set darkness (as) His covering round about Him” (Ps)
wyt*obyb!s= [ort=s!] Ev#j) tv#y`

The word in brackets (ort=s!, “his covering”) is likely an accretion; however, the initial w-conjunction in 2 Sam is probably secondary as well. Taking this into account, the putative first line of the original would be:

“He set darkness round about Him”

There are several difficulties in the second line. Ps and 2 Sam are largely identical, except that the Ps reads “darkness of water” (<y]m^-tk^v=h#) while 2 Sam has “collection of water” (<y]m^-tr^v=j^). The latter reading is to be preferred, with the noun hr*v=j^ meaning something like a container or “sieve” for gathering water. The final words “clouds of vapors” do not fit the meter of the couplet; in all likelihood, the words belong with the subsequent line, but this creates additional problems that have to be addressed. However, if correct, the original (or close to it) of verse 12 would read:

“He set darkness round about Him,
His cover (is) a collection of water”

This is a streamlined 3+3 couplet, with the noun hK*s% properly indicating the “covering” of YHWH; it can refer to a thatched (woven) structure, or to a more lavish sort of canopy (like a royal pavilion). The main idea is that the dark rain clouds are all around Him.

It is more difficult to make sense of significant differences between Ps and 2 Sam in verse 13, especially if the last words of v. 12 properly belong to that couplet. Here is my attempt at isolating a possible original:

“Clouds of vapors (go) in front of Him,
hail-stone(s) and flashes of fire”
oDg=n# <yq!j*v= yb@u*
va@-yl@j&g~w+ dr*B*

The word Hg~N)m! (“from brightness”) in both Ps and 2 Sam would be explained as a scribal mistake (haplography), while the addition of Wrb=u* wyb*u* may represent a gloss that made its way into the text. In 2 Sam, somehow the word dr*B* (“hail”) came to be mistaken for wru&B*, perhaps under the influence of v. 9. Here then, is how the two couplets might have read originally, taken together:

“He set darkness round about Him,
His cover (is) a collection of water;
clouds of vapors (go) in front of Him,
hail-stone(s) and flashes of fire.”

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“YHWH thundered in the heavens,
the Highest (One) gave (out) His voice;
He sent (out) His arrows and scattered them,
multiplied lightning flashes and set them in motion.”

After the description of the approaching storm cloud, we have depicted the phenomena associated with the storm itself—thunder (v. 14 [13]) and lightning (v. 15 [14]). In the ancient world, the sound of thunder (vb <u^r*, indicating a crashing/rumbling sound) was conceived as the “voice” (loq) of the deity (here El-YHWH). When YHWH “gives” (vb /t^n`) out his voice, there is a terrifying sound of thunder, as in the famous theophany at Sinai (Exod 19:16, 19; 20:18). In verse 15 [14], the related phenomenon of lightning is described—first, figuratively as “arrows” (<yX!j!), and second, more realistically as bright flashes (<yq!r*B=) in the sky. The arrow-motif emphasizes the military aspect of this imagery—the storm being a means (whether literally or figuratively) by which God strikes enemies and evil-doers.

The wording of the last line is a bit difficult, and could be read several ways. The final verb (<m^h*) is typically understood in the sense of causing a disturbance or commotion, but I have rendered it above in the more fundamental sense of setting something in motion. Possibly a bit of wordplay is intended—as YHWH sets his lightning bolts in motion, He causes a commotion among His enemies, setting them in motion (they flee/scatter). This same wordplay would involve the third person suffixes on the verbs JWP and <m^h* (“He scattered them”, “He set them in motion”)—they properly refer to YHWH’s lightning bolts, but secondarily they can also allude to the enemies of YHWH who are scattered, etc.

Verse 16 [15]

“And (the) channels of (the) sea were seen,
and the foundations of (the) lb@T@ were uncovered,
from your (powerful) rebuke, YHWH,
from (the) burst of wind of your nostrils.”

The text of 2 Sam seems to confirm the reading “channels of the sea” (<y` yq@yp!a&), and that <ym (“waters”) in the MT of Ps 18 perhaps misreads an enclitic mem (<) at the end of the verb form. The noun lb@T@ in line 2 is difficult to render here; typically it is translated “world”, but literally it refers to something being carried or transported—i.e. the space (of the earth) that ‘carries’ the sea and its channels. The noun qyp!a* in line 1 similarly refers to a container, and the parallelism of the couplet is best seen as a synonymous (and/or synthetic) step-parallelism

    • the channels whereby the sea (and its waves, currents, etc) moves are revealed,
      • then the deeper parts (to the bottom) are uncovered.

On the idea of the “foundations” of the deep being uncovered, and the general idiom, cf. Job 36:30, and the Canaanite Aqhat text VI.48, etc. This sort of imagery was depicted in the traditional scene of the crossing of the reed-sea, in which the storm-winds of YHWH uncovered the bottom of the sea, allowing the Israelites to cross over on solid ground (Exod 14:21-22, etc).

Keeping in mind the military imagery of the storm-theophany (cf. above), we must remember the ancient Near Eastern cosmological tradition of the conquest of the Sea by the (Storm) deity. This traditional imagery was certainly applied to YHWH, though only traces of the association survive, in certain Psalms and archaic poetry of the Old Testament. Cf. my recent article on the subject.

The subjugation of the Sea indicates YHWH’s power and control over the natural forces in the universe. It is described here, in the second couplet of v. 16 [15], dramatically as a great roar (of thunder) and a powerful storm-wind. I read this as a slightly irregular (slanted) 2+2 couplet, again with synonymous parallelism:

    • your roar/rebuke | YHWH
    • the burst/blast (of the) | wind of your nostrils

Like a powerful animal, YHWH roars, and this terrifying cry “rebukes” the Sea. This would seem to involve a play on the root ru^g` which can carry both meanings (roar/rebuke, for the Canaanite evidence cf. Dahood, p. 110). On the depiction of the anger of El-YHWH by the motif of the nostrils of a (snorting) bull, etc, see above on verse 9. There, the image was of a burning fire from the nostrils, here it is a powerful blast of wind.

Verses 17-18 [16-17]

“He sent (down) from (the) high places and took me,
He pulled me (out) from (the) many waters;
He snatched me (away) from my powerful enemy,
and from (the one)s hating me, for they were strong(er) than me!”

Verses 17-18 [16-17] are comprised of a regular pair of 3+3 couplets, though this rhythm is hard to convey in a literal translation. Especially awkward to render is the last line. Based on the theory that lwav in the superscription refers to Sheol (i.e. Death and the grave), rather than “Saul”, supported by the context in vv. 5-6 [4-5], then the “powerful enemy” of the Psalmist is the death (personified) that threatens him, being manifest (literally or figuratively) in his various (human?) enemies (“the ones hating me”). In the first couplet, these “enemies” are represented as “waters”, i.e. a manifestation of the turbulent and chaotic Sea. Thus, in spite of the traditional historical setting of the superscription (as customarily read), we should be cautious about attributing the Psalm to any specific historical event.

What is especially emphasized is the power (zu) and strength (vb Jm^a*) of the Psalmist’s enem(ies), which requires intervention from YHWH in order to rescue him. The military imagery from the earlier couplets is continued here, rendered through the mythological idiom of the storm-theophany (cf. above).

Verses 19-20 [18-19]

“He came near to me in (the) day of my distress,
and YHWH was a place of support [i.e. protection] for me,
and He brought me out (in)to the broad place—
He pulled me (out), for He has delight in me.”

I follow Dahood (p. 110f) in reading the first verb of line 1 as a Piel singular, rather than plural, form (i.e. “He came near to me”). The consonantal text of 2 Sam (ynmdqy) supports this, and it better expresses the overall sense and imagery of these two couplets in context. YHWH comes near to the Psalmist; the verb <dq also can specifically connote the idea of coming in front of someone, i.e. to offer protection, as here. God Himself becomes a place of safety and support, in which (and by which) the Psalmist is brought out into “the broad/wide place” (bj*r=m#). This wide, open space is in direct contrast to the “distress” the Psalmist experienced—i.e. being in a tight space, surrounded by “many waters” that force and press him down. I have to disagree with Dahood (p. 111) who understands bj*r=m# as a poetic term for the ‘nether world’ (i.e. of Death). While there is some support for such a view (cf. Job 38:16-18), it seems to contradict the overall emphasis in vv. 19-20 on the theme of salvation/deliverance—i.e. the place to which God delivers the Psalmist, rather than the place from which he is rescued.

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

 

 

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 13

Psalm 13

This Psalm is among the shortest and simplest of the collection, though still not without certain textual difficulties. It is comprised of two strophes, which seem to follow a general metrical pattern. The first strophe clearly is that of a personal lament. Most of the Psalms we have thus studied have characteristics of a lament, effectively functioning as a prayer to YHWH for deliverance. These can either reflect the vantage point of the Psalmist (or protagonist of the poem), or that of the people generally. Here it is almost exclusively a personal, private lament. Many of these such Psalms were associated with a particular historical situation; here however there is no mention of any traditional setting in the superscription. Nor is there any musical direction, other than the standard indicator that it is a composition “belonging to David”.

The two strophes have an interesting structure: a 4+4 bicolon, followed by a 4+3 bicolon, and concluding with a single 4-beat line. The second strophe includes an additional 3+3 couplet before the final line.

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Until what point, YHWH, will you forget me? (To the) last?
Until what point will you (continue to) hide your face from me?
Until what point shall I lay (up) thoughts (of despair) in my soul
(and there be) pain in my heart daily?
Until what point shall my enemy lift (himself) high over me?”

Four of the five lines begin with the compound particle hn`a*-du^, “until where”, i.e. “until what point”, usually understood in a temporal sense: “until when”, “how long”. The three components to the strophe—4+4 bicolon, 4+3 bicolon, and single 4-beat line—each ask the question from a different vantage point. The first is addressed to YHWH, the second refers to the Psalmist himself, and the third to the Psalmist’s ‘enemy’.

The plea to YHWH in the first couplet brings out two emphases: (1) impatience that the suffering has lasted so long (line 1), and (2) the Psalmist’s feeling that YHWH has turned away from him (line 2). The substantive noun jx^n@ that ends the first line fundamentally refers to something that is strong, enduring, lasting, sometimes also denoting that which is clear or complete. I render it above as an emphatic follow-up to the Psalmist’s question. The phrase “will you hide your face” (;yn@P*-ta# tyT!s=T^) is usually understood to involve the verb rt^s* (“hide”); but it is also possible that it preserves older usage of the reflexive infixed-t stem, in which case the verb would be rWs (= rWc), “turn [away/aside]” (cf. Dahood, pp. 64, 76). The phrase would then be “will you turn (away) your face”, which also corresponds to the LXX translation. The sense of the line is roughly the same either way.

The word toxu@ in the first line of the second couplet creates considerable difficulty. It is usually read as a plural of hx*u@ (“plan, purpose, counsel”), but this ill suits the context, where the parallelism of the couplet indicates that toxu@ should be comparable in meaning to /ogu* (“pain, suffering”). Dahood (p. 77) suggests that it may be cognate to Ugaritic n²ƒ (“shake, tremble”), corresponding to a Hebrew root Ju^n` (n¹±aƒ), otherwise unattested. Kraus (p. 212), on the other hand, suggests that the Hebrew hx*u@ may occasionally have the nuance of “sorrow(s)”, citing the context of Prov 27:9. Other commentators would emend the text to read tobX*u^ (“pains”). I have tentatively translated toxu@ as “thoughts (of despair)”, in an attempt to preserve the conceptual parallel at work in the line.

The “enemy” (by@a)) or adversary of the Psalmist is otherwise unidentified. Generally the ‘adversaries’ in the Psalms are figurative for the wicked and/or forces of evil and suffering present in the world. This sense of conflict is central to the emotional rhetoric and imagery of the Psalms, and scarcely needs to be related to any concrete historical situation. Some poems which evince a strong royal theology and background, likely do draw upon certain kinds of political events and patterns (cf. on the second strophe below).

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“Look at (me and) answer me, YHWH my Mighty One!
Give light to my eyes so that I should (not) sleep the (sleep of) death,
(and) so that my enemy should (not) say ‘I had power (over) him’,
(and) my adversaries go round (happy) that I am shaken.
And I (do still) trust in your kindness (to me)—
may my heart go round (for joy) in your salvation!
I will sing to YHWH, that He has dealt (out benefits) over me.”

As in the first strophe, the focus in the lines moves from an address to YHWH, to the situation of the Psalmist himself, and then to the vantage point of his enemy. The plea in the first strophe is turned into a more direct petition here in line 1. The Psalmist feels that YHWH has forgotten him, and the sequence of verbs is meant to get God’s attention. What he prays for specifically is stated in the second line: “give light to my eyes”. The context suggests an illness of some sort that has left the protagonist at the point of death (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 6). Twice here he uses the particle /P#, presumably related to the verb hn`P* (“turn”), which signifies the wish to avert (i.e. turn away) something from happening. The cleanest translation of this particle in English is “lest”, but that is seldom used, and normal English usage today would require a construction with a negative particle (“that [it] should not…”, etc).

The first thing he hopes to avert is his own death, with the expression “sleep the death”, probably meaning “the sleep of death”, i.e. to ‘sleep’ and never wake up, with sleep as an idiom for death. The second thing he wishes to avert is expressed in the second bicolon (v. 5); that his enemies/adversaries would not rejoice and boast following his illness (and death). Instead of them “going around” (vb lyG]) happy, the Psalmist hopes that it will be his own heart “going around” (same verb). The language of the covenant and royal theology appears, however faintly, in this strophe, with the Psalmist (David, according to the superscription) approaching God as the sovereign Benefactor who demonstrates loyalty through acts of kindness (ds#j#) and bestowing rewards/benefits (vb lm^G`) on His faithful vassal (i.e. David/the king). Thus the conflict in this Psalm is not, as in the prior Pss 9-12, the wicked generally, but rather personal adversaries. They blend almost imperceptibly with the grave illness of the Psalmist, as if personifying his physical and emotional suffering. It would perhaps not be too far off the mark to identify the symbolism as related to the realm of Death, a common enough idea in the ancient world, ruled by a sovereign (a rival to YHWH and His king), with other personified (demon-type) figures manifest in various diseases, etc. The vague and shadowy adversaries are a suitable reflection of the conflict experienced in human suffering. Here they function as a corollary to the nameless/faceless wicked ones in society who oppress the righteous and the weak/poor, etc (see esp. Ps 9-10, and the earlier study on it).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 6

Psalm 6

The superscription to this Psalm follows the common format we have seen for most of the Davidic compositions (romz+m!). As with Psalm 4, the note here is that it is to be played on stringed instrument(s) (the presumed meaning of hn`yg]n+). There is an additional musical instruction, tyn]ym!V=h^-lu^ (something like “upon the eight[h]”), the meaning of which remains uncertain. Possibly it indicates something akin to a musical key or mode, or perhaps a voice range (i.e. upper/lower, cf. 1 Chron 15:21); either way, it relates to a particular performing tradition. The same direction is given for Psalm 12.

The conceptual structure of the Psalm is as a petition or prayer to YHWH; I would outline it as follows:

    • Initial address/plea to YHWH (vv. 2-4 [1-3])
    • The basis/reason for the Psalmist’s prayer (vv. 5-8 [4-7])
      —Facing death: plea for rescue/deliverance (vv. 5-6)
      —The sign of his suffering: weeping/sorrow (vv. 7-8)
    • Declaration that YHWH has heard his petition (vv. 9-11 [8-10])

The Psalm generally utilizes a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format throughout, though there are a few places where it alters or is inconsistent (mixed meter). As always, there are serious questions as to whether, or to what extent, the text as it has come down to us ought to be emended to achieve greater metrical consistency.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

Here the Psalmist addresses YHWH, with these lines (3 bicola, 6 lines) forming the invocation and essential petition:

YHWH, do not judge me with your nostrils,
and do not punish me with your hot (breath)!
Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble;
even my soul is made to tremble (in fear)!
And you, YHWH—until when (will you help)?

The first and third bicola both have 3-beat (3+3) lines; the dual occurrence of the divine name (hwhy, YHWH) in the second bicolon expands the meter to 4-beat (4+4) lines, which has led some commentators to suggest that either (or both) occurrences of the name perhaps should be omitted as secondary. However, the repeated use of the divine name (including twice in the second bicolon) conveys the desperation and despair of the Psalmist, and serves as an effective poetic device. The first two bicola make use of synonymous parallelism, and expresses two different aspects of the suffering the protagonist faces, apparently in the form of some kind of serious disease. In the first couplet, where the parallelism is precise, the idea is clearly expressed that this suffering is the result of YHWH’s anger, according to the basic ancient worldview (much less common today) that disease, etc, is often brought about by divine displeasure or anger. Transposing the Hebrew word order to match our English (left-to-right):

-la^
do not
;P=a^B=
with your nostril(s)
yn]j@yk!ot
judge me
-la^
do not
;t=m*j&B^
with your hot (breath)
yn]r@S=y~t=
punish me

Both the nouns [a^ (lit. “nose, nostril”) and hm*j@ (“heat”) are common figurative ways of expressing the idea of anger. Presumably, the ancient idiom involves the image of a powerful animal (such as a bull) snorting out hot breath. The verbs jk^y` and rs^y`, here translated “judge…punish”, could also be rendered “rebuke…chasten” or “correct…discipline”, giving a much softer sense to the imagery. However, there can be no doubt of the severity involved—YHWH’s rebuke, even if it is meant to discipline or correct the Psalmist, still results in immense suffering.

There is similar parallelism in the second bicolon, the second line of which is picked up in the third bicolon—a kind of step-parallelism that leads to the climactic cry of the final line. The central bicolon of verse 3 [2], with the dual occurrence of the divine name, represents the actual petition of the Psalm, stated clearly, reinforced by synonymous parallelism:

Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble

It is interesting to see how this poetic style allows for the intensity of the thought to build. In the first line, the Psalmist refers to himself generally, with the emphatic use of the pronoun “I” (yn]a*)—”I (am) withering [ll^m=a%]”. The root lma has the basic meaning of “be(come) weak”; the phrase could also be translated “I am exhausted“. The verb lh^B*, in the passive-reflexive, has the sense of “being terrified, frightened”, i.e. trembling with fear/terror. The step parallelism in the overlap of lines 4 and 5 is clear and striking; the Psalmist’s own person (“I”) is now divided into two comprehensive components: (1) his bodily strength (<x#u#, in the plural and usually translated “bones”), and (2) his soul (vp#n#), i.e. the life within his body. So severe is the Psalmist’s suffering that even his soul (his very life) trembles along with his body.

The final despairing question, the outcry of the Psalmist is terse and direct, and is aimed squarely at God: “And you, YHWH—until when [yt*m*-du^]?”. Readable English requires that the line be filled out, i.e. “until when (will you help)”, “how long (must I wait)”, etc.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

As indicated in the outline above, the heart of the Psalm represents an exposition of the petition in verse 3, describing the suffering and despair of the Psalmist—i.e. the reason for his prayer, and the need for YHWH to act—from two points of view. The first involves the idea that the Psalmist, in his suffering (from disease?), is in danger of death. Above all else, death would separate him from the relationship with YHWH, who is the giver and preserver of life. This destruction of the covenant bond (through death) is emphasized in these lines:

Turn (to me), YHWH, take away my soul—
make me safe for the sake of your goodness!
For in death there is no memory of you;
in Sheol who gives out (praise) to you?

When the Psalmist asks YHWH to “take away” (vb. Jl^j*) his soul, this must understood in the sense of “pulling it away” from the point of death, or “snatching it away” from the jaws of death. The verb uv^y` in the Hiphil here expresses the other side of this deliverance—having pulled his soul away from death, YHWH is to “make it safe”, “bring it to safety”, i.e. saving/preserving it. Implicit in the expression “for the sake of your goodness” (;D#s=j^ /u^m^l=) is the idea of covenant loyalty between YHWH and His people, those who have themselves remained faithful to the covenant. In other words, it is a reminder of this bond and the responsibilities of YHWH to protect those loyal to him.

One must be cautious about reading two much into verse 6 regarding Israelite views of an afterlife (or lack thereof). However, generally in the Ancient Near East, the realm of death (i.e. where the dead reside, Job 30:23; Prov 5:5; 7:27, etc) was seen as a dark, shadowy place, and those who dwelt there had only a limited sort of existence. This is the basic idea expressed here in the Psalm. On the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol), which occurs here for the first time in the Psalter, I discuss the significance of it briefly in a supplemental article.

In the remaining two bicola (vv. 7-8), the imagery shifts to the sign of the Psalmist’s suffering, expressed in terms of weeping, crying, groaning, etc. The meter and organization of the Psalm as we have it suggests that the first two words of verse 7 represent a partial line, which, if correct as it stands, likely represents a point of transition from vv. 5-6:

I gasp (weary) with my groaning
in all (the) night my (place) of stretching swims,
with my teardrops I dissolve the frame of my (bed);
my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
it is passing (away) with all (that is) pressing me.

Leaving out the initial two words, vv. 7-8 are a pair of 3+3 bicola, using synonymous parallelism to express the Psalmist’s suffering. The first bicolon makes for a bit of colorful hyperbole—he is weeping so much that his couch/bed is drowning (and dissolving!) in the sea of tears. This idiom, of weeping upon one’s bed, is known both in the Old Testament (Ps. 4:6; Gen 43:30) and Canaanite literature of the period (Kirta I, col. 1:28-30).

The second bicolon describes the effect of this weeping/sorrow on the Psalmist’s eyes (and his entire body) using two verbs, vv^u* and qt^u*, which produce a nice alliterative effect. The former verb has the basic meaning of being worn (or wasting) away; the latter verb the idea of passing away, here in the sense of growing old, approaching death, etc. Most likely there is a conceptual parallel between the prepositional phrases su^K^m! and yr*r=ox-lk*B=. The root suk carries the basic idea of something agitating, disturbing, provoking, etc; the common root rrx similarly of something tight, pressing in, creating stress, etc. Thus the phrases “from (this) agitation” and “with all (the thing)s pressing (on) me” would both refer to the suffering and distress experienced by the Psalmist. However, it should be noted that Dahood, in his commentary (p. 38), reads the second line differently, parsing MT lk as a verbal form (“complete, finish”) and understanding yrrx in the sense of “inner (organ)s” (cf. Akkadian ƒurru, Ugaritic ƒrrt). According to this interpretation, the bicolon would exhibit a different sort of parallelism, something like:

my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
my heart [i.e. inner organ] is made old with wearying.

This reading, however, ignores both the formal parallelism of the line and the foreshadowing that would result between “the (thing)s pressing on me” and the oppressors/opponents mentioned in vv. 9ff.

Verses 9-11 [8-10]

The final 3 bicola form the conclusion to the Psalm, expressing the hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer, and heal/deliver him. The meter is mixed here, but could be made more consistent, to a 3+3 and/or 4+3 format with slight emendation. The sudden reference to “trouble-makers” and “enemies” seems rather out of place in the context of vv. 2-8, but may be an indication that the apparent setting of suffering due to physical disease should not be taken too concretely, but rather as a more general symbol of suffering and distress. There is also the very strong possibility—even likelihood—that the imprecation against the wicked is meant to demonstrate and confirm the Psalmist’s righteous loyalty to YHWH (for more on this, cf. the prior study on Psalm 5).

Turn (away) from me, all (you) making trouble!
for YHWH has heard the voice of my weeping—
YHWH has heard my (plea for His) favor,
YHWH (has) received my petition (to Him).
Let all (those) hostile (to) me find much disgrace and terror,
let them turn (away), finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)!

The language is difficult, and, to some extent, rather obscure. Given the metrical consistency and awkwardness, it is possible that the text is corrupt here at one or more points. In particular, the sense of the final bicolon (v. 11) is a bit unclear. Some commentators would omit the second Wbv)y@ (“let them find disgrace”) as a scribal duplication; however, in spite of the metrical tension, it gives an effective emphasis to the imprecation in these lines. The verb lhb was translated as “tremble (i.e. from fear/terror)” in vv. 3-4; here it seems better to render it in terms of the actual terror that the wicked will experience. It is possible that the verb bWv (“turn”, essentially synonymous with rWs in v. 9) in the final line could be understood as “return”, in the sense of humankind returning to the earth (i.e. the grave), as in Job 1:21; 30:23; 34:15; Eccl 3:20f; 12:7, etc (cf. Dahood, p. 39).

The final word is difficult, and may be intended to close the Psalm on a harsh and discordant note (as appropriate for the fate of the wicked). There are three different ugr roots attested in Hebrew, and the relationship between them is not entirely clear. Here ugr is usually understood as a noun (but with adverbial force) with the basic meaning “(in) a moment”, i.e. “suddenly, at once”. However, there appears to be a traditional association of ugr with death and destruction (e.g., Num 16:21; Job 21:13; 26:12; Psalm 73:19). Dahood (p. 39) goes so far as to see the noun ugr (ug^r#?) here as a synonym for the place of death itself (i.e. Sheol), based on formal parallels with Ps 9:18 [17] and 31:18 [17]:

“Let the wicked turn (away) [WbWvy`] into Sheol” [9:18]
“Let the wicked find disgrace [Wbv)y@], let them … into Sheol” [31:18]

I have tried to capture this close association between ugr and death/Sheol parenthetically in my translation above: “…finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)”.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 3

Psalm 3

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

Verse 1

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

Verses 2-3 (ET 1b-2)

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 4-5 (ET 3-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 6-7 (ET 5-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 8-9 (ET 7-8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 16: Matthew 6:13b (continued)

(This Monday Note on Prayer continues the current series of daily notes on the Lord’s Prayer.)

Matthew 6:13b, continued

In the previous note, I discussed the adjective ponhro/$ (“evil”) and how it is used in the Gospel of Matthew, and, especially, in the Sermon on the Mount. This helps us to understand better its significance here in the Prayer. I laid out five possible lines of interpretation, each of which requires that we take full account of the contrastive parallel between peirasmo/$ (ei)$ peirasmo/n, “into testing”) and ponhro/$ (a)po\ tou= ponhrou=, “from the evil”). These lines of interpretation encompass three basic semantic domains for the word ponhro/$ in the context of the Prayer (and the Sermon):

    • The evil we (i.e. Jesus’ disciples) experience generally, in various ways, during our daily life; this includes sin, misfortune, mistreatment, and persecution (on account of our faith).
    • Specifically the sin and wickedness to which we are tempted by “the Evil One”.
    • The evil which dominates the current Age, manifest especially in the coming suffering and distress (for Jesus’ disciples) at the end-time.

Arguments can be made for all three spheres of meaning:

    • The use of ponhro/$ in the Sermon favors the first option, as it tends to characterize the evil of humankind generally, and the wicked/evil things they do.
    • The common sense of peirasmo/$ as “temptation” (i.e. to sin) would favor the second option, along with the translation of o( ponhro/$ here as “the Evil (One)”, supported by 13:19, 38, and (possibly) 5:37 in the Sermon.
    • In a prior note (on v. 13a), I argued that peirasmo/$ here is best understood in terms of the (eschatological) suffering and distress which Jesus’ disciples will (or may) have to endure. The Synoptic parallels with Jesus’ words in the garden during his Passion strongly point in this direction, as do the eschatological aspects of the Prayer (discussed previously).

Is it possible that ponhro/$ here has a broad significance encompassing all three ranges (or areas) of meaning? While such a possibility ought to be considered, I would still tend to favor the third option above, for a number of reasons:

    1. The eschatological aspect, or dimension, of the Prayer is preserved
    2. It makes better sense of the idea of God bringing believers “into testing”, especially in light of the parallels with Jesus’ words in Mk 14:36, 38 par
    3. It also provides a better context for the idea of God rescuing believers and very much corresponds with the New Testament (esp. Pauline) use of the verb r(u/omai (cf. below)
    4. Its climactic position in the Prayer requires something which matches the Kingdom of God the Father, etc, in the opening petitions.

This line of interpretation is, I believe, clinched by an examination of the verb r(u/omai used in the phrase. While often translated “deliver”, it more properly means “protect”, sometimes in the more active (and dramatic) sense of rescuing one from harm or danger. Unfortunately, it hardly occurs at all in the Gospels; indeed, it is only found here in the sayings and teachings of Jesus. The only other Gospel occurrences are in Luke 1:74 (the Hymn of Zechariah) and in Matthew 27:43. That latter reference, being from the Gospel of Matthew (and the only other occurrence in Matthew), is significant and must be given serious consideration. It is part of the taunts directed at Jesus (by the priests and elders, etc) while he is on the cross:

“He trusted upon God, (so) let Him rescue [r(usa/sqw] him now if He wishes—for he said that ‘I am (the) Son of God’!”

The context clearly is the same as that of Jesus’ Passion prayer in the garden (Mk 14:36ff par), and the idea is that God might rescue Jesus from his moment of suffering (and death). The reference in Luke 1:74 touches upon the more concrete idea of being rescued from the control of one’s enemies. While this differs from the immediate situation in Matthew, it fits the language and imagery used by Paul in his letters, where the majority of occurrences of the verb are to be found—12 instances, including several in letters sometimes considered pseudonymous by critical commentators (Colossians, 2 Timothy). The verb is used two primary ways in the Pauline letters:

  1. References to Paul (and his fellow missionaries) being rescued (by God) from his enemies and opponents, persecution, dangers and perils on the way, etc—Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 1:10 [3 times]; 2 Thess 3:2; also 2 Tim 3:11; 4:17f.
  2. In a soteriological sense—i.e. of God rescuing believers from the power of evil that is at work in the world; this is expressed several ways, with different points of emphasis:
    (a) Rom 7:24: From the power of sin that currently dominates humankind, residing in the flesh—”who will rescue [r(u/setai] me out of this body of death?”
    (b) Rom 11:26: From the wickedness and ungodliness in the world, which currently envelops Israelites along with the rest of humanity (citation of Isa 59:20f): “the (one) rescuing [r(uo/meno$] will arrive out of Zion…”
    (c) 1 Thess 1:10: From the coming (end-time) Judgment by God upon the world (in its wickedness): “…Yeshua, the (one) rescuing [r(uo/meno$] us out of [i.e. from] the coming anger (of God)”.

The last two references have a strong eschatological and Messianic emphasis, shared by both early Christians and many Jews of the period: that the Anointed One (Messiah, according to several figure-types) will appear at the time of Judgment to rescue the faithful of God’s people from both the wickedness in the world and God’s Judgment upon it (see also 2 Pet 2:7, 9). Paul had a very unique way of expressing this idea, which he develops in Galatians and (more fully) in Romans (cf. especially chapters 5-8). Through the person and work of Jesus, God has rescued humankind (believers) from the power of sin (and evil) which currently dominates the world. Two additional passages, reflecting this outlook, are especially relevant to the wording in the Lord’s Prayer:

1. In Col 1:13, Paul refers to God the Father as the One

“who rescued [e)rru/sato] us out of the authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness and set us over into the Kingdom of his (be)loved Son”

The identification of evil with “darkness”, as a kind of kingdom in opposition to the Kingdom of God, matches the language and thought of both the Lord’s Prayer and the garden scene of Jesus’ Passion (cf. the previous note). In the Lukan parallel of the garden scene, Jesus’ declares the situation surrounding his Passion (and impending death) in exactly these terms: “…this is your hour and the authority of darkness” (Lk 22:53). According to the earliest Christian thought, the death and ultimate departure of Jesus ushers in an (eschatological) period of suffering and distress, which precedes the coming Judgment. It will be a time of significant suffering and persecution for Jesus’ followers (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc).

2. In 2 Tim 4:17-18, the idea of Paul (and other missionaries) being rescued from wicked people and opponents (v. 17, and cf. above) is broadened to include the end-time deliverance in general, expressed in v. 18 as follows:

“The Lord will rescue [r(u/setai] me from every evil work and will save [i.e. preserve] me into His Kingdom upon [i.e. above] (the) heaven(s).”

The italicized words are very close to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer:

    • “(may you) rescue us from the evil [a)po\ tou= ponhrou=]”
    • “(he will) rescue me from every evil work [a)po\ panto\$ e&rgou ponhrou=]”

There is one other passage in the New Testament which may shed some light on Matt 6:13—namely, John 17:15, where we find another prayer by Jesus to God the Father. This time it is a petition to the Father on behalf of Jesus’ disciples; it is also set prior to Jesus’ Passion (on this context, see above and the previous note). He prays for his disciples as follows:

“I do not ask that you should take them out of the world, but that you should guard them out of [i.e. from] the evil [tou= ponhrou=].”

The genitive substantive (tou= ponhrou=) is the same as we have in the Lord’s Prayer; here, too, it is often translated “the Evil (One)”, but this does not seem correct to me. More appropriate in context would be “the evil (that is in the world)”, since the contrast is with “the world” or “world-order” (ko/smo$). Believers are not to be taken out of the world itself, but protected from the evil that is in it.

In summary, I would argue that it is best not to translate the substantive ponhro/$ in the Lord’s Prayer as “the Evil (One)”, but to adhere to the more literal rendering “the evil”. The reference, in my view, is primarily to the evil that dominates the current Age, the experience of which is to intensify as the end-time Judgment comes near. This idea of evil certainly includes the figure of the Satan/Devil/Belial, as the world-ruler who exercises dominion over the current wicked Age. This worldview, and its eschatological/Messianic dimension, is expressed in dozens of texts from Qumran (where the Prince/Spirit of Darkness is called “Belial”), and was more or less shared by Christians in the first century A.D. The prayer for protection/rescue from the power of evil in the world unquestionably means protection from the Evil One who is the effective world-ruler of the current Age of darkness. Much of this worldview, admittedly, is lost for Christians today; this does not change the fact that it governed much Jewish and early Christian thought at the time, and needs to be recognized in any serious study of the New Testament today. How it relates to current/modern views of eschatology is a separate issue, but one which also is vital as a point of discussion.

This study of the Lord’s Prayer will be concluded in the next daily note.

March 15: Matthew 6:13b

Matthew 6:13b

The final petition in the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer, while present in the majority of manuscripts of Luke, is absent a diverse range of witness, including some of the earliest and best manuscripts (Ë75 a*2 B L f1 700 pc vg, and segments of the Syriac and Coptic tradition). As with the other parts of the Prayer where a shorter Lukan version is attested, the longer form is almost certainly secondary, representing a scribal harmonization (to Matthew), of the sort we see frequently in the manuscript tradition. Here the text-critical axiom lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is preferable”) holds good. This (final) petition in Matthew (followed by the Didache) reads:

a)lla\ r(u=sai h(ma=$ a)po\ tou= ponhrou/
alla rhusai h¢mas apo tou pon¢rou
“but may you rescue us from the evil”

An Aramaic original, insofar as it valid to reconstruct, might be something like:

av*ya!B= /m! an`l=X#a^ <r^B=
b§ram °aƒƒéln¹° min b§°îš¹°
(cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901)

From the standpoint of the Matthean structure of the Prayer, it is better to consider this line as part of the previous petition (cf. the prior note). This is indicated by the contrastive/adversative particle a)lla/ (“but, rather”), establishing a contrast with the previous request, which had been negative (i.e., what God should not do); here is the corresponding positive request:

    • “May you not bring us into testing
      • but (rather) may you (instead) rescue us from the evil”

The main interpretive difficulty involves the precise meaning of the word ponhro/$ (“evil”). There are three question which must be addressed:

    1. Whether the article here is masculine or neuter
    2. The force of the definite article, and
    3. The nature of the “evil” referred to in the context of the Prayer

Each of these will be dealt with in turn. First, it is worth noting that the adjective ponhro/$ is much more frequent in Matthew than in the other Gospels. Mark has it (twice) in just one tradition (7:22-23), while it occurs just three times in John (3:19; 7:7; 17:5). It is a bit more common in Luke (12 times), with another 8 occurrences in Acts. By comparison it appears 25 times in Matthew, including 8 in the Sermon on the Mount; 5 of the 12 Lukan occurrences are in the parallel “Sermon on the Plain”. Overall, the adjective appears to be distinctive of the sayings of Jesus in the so-called “Q” material—sayings and traditions found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

1. The word with definite article is a substantive adjective (i.e. functioning as a noun), but the particular genitive form tou= ponhrou= is ambiguous in terms of gender: it can either be masculine or neuter. It is helpful to consider first the other 7 occurrences of the adjective in the Sermon on the Mount. It modifies masculine nouns in 5:45; 6:23; 7:11, 17-18—”man” (a&nqrwpo$ [implied]), “eye” (o)fqalmo/$), and “fruit” (karpo/$). In all these instances the adjective is used to describe the character of human beings, their attitude and actions. The same is probably the case in 5:39, where the substantive use (with the definite article) most likely refers to the person doing evil, rather than the evil itself. In 5:37 the substantive genitive tou= ponhrou= has the same ambiguity we see in here in the Prayer. The only certain occurrence of the neuter is in 5:11, where it refers to evil that is spoken against Jesus’ disciples. This neuter usage is similar to the plural substantive in Mark 7:23 (“these evil [thing]s”). Thus, it would appear that it is more common in the Sermon to use the adjective as characteristic of a person, rather than a reference to evil itself.

2. An interesting question is whether the definite article simply reflects a substantive use of the adjective (as a noun) generally, or whether it refers to evil in a specific sense. This will be discussed further under point #3 below. However, it is worth keeping in mind the parallel with the noun peirasmo/$ (“testing”); the rhythm and structure of the petition is aided by the inclusion of the definite article—peirasmo/$/o( ponhro/$—creating two nouns at the center of the contrast: “into testing” vs. “(away) from the evil”. But perhaps true definiteness is intended here as well, and meant to be emphasized, i.e. “the evil”. If so, then there are several possible meanings:

    • The evil which we experience or which comes upon us, specifically as sin, in the course of our life on earth
    • The (power of) evil which dominates the current Age, or, in an eschatological sense, is coming upon the world
    • The Evil One—the personification of evil, or the person most characterized by evil and responsible for it, i.e. the figure known as the Satan (/f*c*[h^]), dia/bolo$ (‘Devil’), or Belial (cf. 2 Cor 6:15 and the Qumran texts).

If we look at other occurrences in Matthew where the adjective is used with a definite article, we see that it is used two ways: (1) for specific person(s) who are evil, and (2) for the specific evil things a person says and does. There are actually two sections where these references occur: the teaching in 12:33-37 (cp. 7:15-20 and Mk 7:21-23), and the Kingdom parables in chapter 13. An examination of these is instructive.

  • Matt 12:35 presents a contrast between the person who is good and the one who is evil:
    “The good man casts out good (thing)s out of the good treasure (of his heart), and the evil man [o( ponhro/$ a&nqrwpo$] casts out evil (thing)s [ponhra/] out of the evil treasure [e)k tou= ponhrou= qhsaurou=] (of his heart).”
    This wording echoes that of 5:37 in the Sermon and may provide the context for the more ambiguous expression there:
    “And (so) your account must be “Yes, yes” (and) “no, no”, and the thing over (beyond) these (words) is [i.e. comes] out of the evil [e)k tou= ponhrou=].”
    It is often assumed that “the evil” that brings about the oath here is “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Devil; however, the parallel in 12:35 suggests that it may actually refer to the evil (treasure) that is in a person’s heart.
  • By contrast, twice in chapter 13, in Jesus’ explanation of both the parable of the Sower and of the Weeds (vv. 19, 38), the expression o( ponhro/$ (“the evil”) almost certainly does refer to “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Satan. The evil human beings (“the evil [one]s”) who are separated from the good at the Last Judgment (v. 49) reflect the character of the Evil One himself, even as Jesus’ faithful disciples reflect the character of God Himself (cf. 5:48, etc).

3. Now let us consider further the use of o( ponhro/$ (or to\ ponhro/n) in the context of both the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount. As documented above, the adjective serves the dualistic contrast present in Jesus’ teaching—that is, as a way of characterizing persons who do not follow his teaching, and who act and think in a way that does not reflect God the Father in Heaven. This continues the dualism we noted in earlier parts of the Prayer, especially in the opening petitions which emphasize God the Father as the One in the heavens. Jesus’ true disciples are those who, by following his teaching and example, actually do the will of God here on earth, even as it is done in heaven. The opposite of God’s will on earth is the presence and manifestation of wickedness and evil, which characterizes much (if not the majority) of humankind (cf. 7:11). Most people act and think in an earthly manner, seeking after earthly (and not heavenly) things. This is a fundamental principle that runs through the Sermon and establishes the contrast for how Jesus disciples are supposed to conduct themselves in their daily life (on earth). At the same time, there is an eschatological dimension, to both the Sermon and the Prayer, which emphasizes the coming Judgment and also the suffering and persecution Jesus’ followers will face on earth from the wicked and the forces of evil.

With all of this in mind, it is time to set forth several lines of interpretation for the phrase a)po\ tou= ponhrou= (“from the evil”) in this petition of the Prayer; bear in mind that each interpretation must also take into account the parallel expression “into testing” (ei)$ peirasmo/n):

  1. The evil we experience, in terms of sin and the temptation to commit sin (understanding peirasmo/$ here as “temptation”).
  2. The evil we experience (from others), and to which we must respond and endure–understood generally as mistreatment and persecution; here the “testing” involves our response to such mistreatment, following Jesus’ own instruction in the Sermon.
  3. The “testing” is temptation (which God allows), and “the Evil One” (i.e. Satan/Devil/Belial) is the one who tempts us to follow the way of evil along with the rest of humankind.
  4. The “testing” is the suffering and distress which Jesus’ followers experience on earth, and the evil is that which dominates the current Age (under the control of the Evil One).
  5. A variation of (d) gives greater emphasis to the eschatological context of the Prayer—i.e. the suffering/distress which is coming upon the world, and especially upon Jesus’ followers in the form of persecution and the danger of being deceived, falling from faith, etc.

In the next note I will discuss these options further, along with what it means to be “rescued” by God from this evil.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.