Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 54

Psalm 54

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 2-3, 5-6 [1, 3-4])

This Psalm, one of the simplest in structure, gives evidence of the royal background we glimpsed in a number of the prayer- and lament-Psalms in the first division of the Psalter. The heading (vv. 1-2) attributes it to David, specifically noting the incident recorded in 1 Sam 23:19. Even if this is not the actual occasion for the composition, it is quite fitting for the royal background of the Psalm, suggesting the king’s suffering at the hands of his enemies and opponents. In making his appeal to God, the king is drawing upon the specific covenant bond between YHWH and the Israelite/Judean king, which requires that YHWH (the Sovereign) provides protection for His faithful/loyal vassal (the king). And, since the king also serves as the people’s representative, the covenant-protection ultimately extends to the people as well. In the Psalm as we have it, and as it would have been sung in the communal worship, much of the specific royal background—the language and imagery, etc—has been generalized to apply to Israel (the righteous ones) as a whole.

The structure of this Psalm is extremely simple, divided into two short strophes separated by a hl*s# (Selah) pause-marker. In the first strophe (vv. 3-5 [1-3]), the Psalmist makes his plea to YHWH for help, while in the second strophe (vv. 6-9 [4-7]), the help provided by YHWH is described (and anticipated).

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3, also 3+2) couplet format. The superscription marks it as another Davidic composition (dw]d*l=), a lyK!c=m^ (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32), with the added musical direction that it is to be performed on stringed instruments (tn)yg]n+B!, cf. the study on Psalm 4).

Verses 3-5 [1-3]

Verses 3-4 [1-2]

“O Mightiest, by your name save me,
by your strength may you defend me;
O Mightiest, hear my petition,
may you give ear to (the) words of my mouth!”

The Psalmist’s plea is fundamentally legal and judicial in nature, based on the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. As noted above, the covenant requires that the Sovereign (YHWH) provides protection for His faithful and loyal vassals (the king and the righteous ones of Israel). He calls on YHWH to act “by/with [B=] His name”. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented and embodied the essence of the person. Thus, to call on the name of God is essentially the same as calling on God Himself.

God’s name (<v@) is parallel with His strength (hr*WbG+) in the second line, emphasizing again how the name is equivalent to the substance of the person. The action requested from YHWH is also expressed in parallel terms: to save (uv^y`, Hiphil stem) and to defend him (vb /yD!). This latter verb has a wide semantic range, the specific connotation of which must be determined by the context. A judicial setting is often implied, as here, referring to a judgment or decision that is made (on someone’s behalf); in this case, the parallel with uv^y` indicates that a more forceful nuance is intended, which I render above as “defend” (the verb in English can be used in both a legal and military context).

The four lines (of these two couplets) are given in reverse order, in relation to the action requested by the Psalmist:

    • Give ear to the words of my mouth (line 4)—i.e., listen to what I am saying
    • Hear my petition (line 3)—respond (fairly/favorably) to my request
    • Defend me (line 2)—i.e., make decision/judgment on my behalf
    • Save me (line 1)—i.e., act according to your decision and give me your protection (rescue me)

Syntactically, in each couplet, an imperative is followed by an imperfect verb form (with imperatival force); this imperative-imperfect sequence is a well-established feature of Canaanite and Hebrew poetry (cf. Dahood, I, pp. 29-31, 65, 261; II, p. 24). Metrically, these couplets follow a 3+2 pattern.

It is also worth noting that, as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, the first occurrence of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) here (if not both instances) has replaced the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) of the original composition.

Verse 5 [3]

“For strangers have stood (up) against me,
and dreadful (one)s have sought my soul—
they have not set (the) Mightiest in front of them.”

The first two lines of v. 5 give the reason for the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH. Foreign enemies (“strangers”, <yr!z`) have risen up (vb <Wq) against him, which is fully in accord with the royal background of this style of prayer-Psalm (cf. above). They are further described, in the second line, as “dreadful (one)s” (<yx!yr!u*)—that is, foreigners awesome and terrifying in their strength.

The final line, rounding out the verse as a tricolon (3-beat, 3+3+3), adds the important detail that “they have not set the Mightiest in front of them” (for a different way of understanding this line, cf. Dahood, II, p. 24f). Presumably, this refers to other nations and peoples, who worship other deities rather than YHWH. However, there may also be a bit of conceptual wordplay involved:

    • These people have stood up against Israel, having the king in front of them, and yet
    • They cannot succeed, since they do not have the God of Israel in front of them.

Verses 6-9 [4-7]

Verse 6 [4]

“See, (the) Mightiest (is the one) giving help to me,
my Lord, indeed, (the one) upholding my soul.”

The second strophe describes how YHWH answers the Psalmist’s plea (or how He is expected to answer). This description begins with an affirmation of trust in YHWH as his protector, being the one who “gives help (to)” and “upholds” the righteous—using substantive participles of the verbs rz~u* and Em^s*, respectively. The prefixed preposition B= is best understood as an emphatic (i.e., “indeed, truly”) use of the preposition (cf. Dahood, II, p. 25). Again, the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) is an ‘Elohist’ substitution in place of the Divine name (hwhy) that likely was present in the original composition.

Verse 7 [5]

“May the evil turn back to (the one)s hard (against) me!
In your firmness, may you finish them off!”

The imprecation of the first line follows a familiar theme in the Psalms—viz., that the evil intended by the wicked will come back upon them in a similar manner (variation of the lex talionis principle). The verb form bovy` is best understood as a jussive, expressing the Psalmist’s wish for what will happen, and fully expecting that YHWH will act to bring it about. There is a bit of conceptual wordplay between the “firmness” of the Psalmist’s opponents (i.e., those hard [rr^c*] against him) and the “firmness” (tm#a#) of YHWH. His firmness (in loyalty, goodness, and truth) is far superior to the stubborn resolve of the wicked, and so YHWH is certain to “finish them off” (vb tm^x*). There may be an additional bit of alliterative wordplay here between –tm!a& (°¦mit-) and –tym!x= (ƒ®mît-).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2, following the full 3-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 6.

Verse 8 [6]

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name,
YHWH, for (it is) good.”

The person of these lines suddenly shifts, as the Psalmist returns to the framework of his prayer to God. He interrupts the strophe to offer a vow to YHWH that, if as he expects, God will answer his prayer, then (in return) he will offer a sacrifice to Him. The type of offering is indicated by the term hb*d*n+ (from the root bdn, “[be] willing”), sometimes called a freewill offering—that is, an offering made freely by the worshiper (i.e., with a willing heart), apart from the sacrificial offerings required by the Torah. This sacrificial offering will be accompanied by praise to YHWH (lit. “to His name,” cf. above). The praise will acknowledge the goodness [bwf] of YHWH (“that [your name] is good,” i.e., “that you are good”).

The meter of this verse in the MT is irregular; it would be made somewhat more consistent (conforming loosely to a 3-beat couplet) if the Divine name (hwhy) were eliminated from the second line, as a number of commentators propose:

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name, for (it is) good.”

Verse 9 [7]

“For from all distress you have snatched me (away),
and on (the one)s hostile to me my eyes have looked (down).”

In this final (3-beat) couplet, the Psalmist confirms his expectation that YHWH will answer his prayer, expressing God’s action (on his behalf) in the past tense, as though it had already taken place (i.e., use of the precative perfect). The Psalmist trusts that YHWH will rescue him (“snatch away,” vb lx^n`, Hiphil stem) from all the “distress” (hr*x*) he faces from his adversaries, and that the tables will be turned on his enemies (lit. those “hostile” to him, active participle of the vb by~a*). His eye will look (down) on his enemies, implying their defeat and humiliation. While this may take place through the ordinary means of military conflict (keep in mind the royal background of this language and imagery, cf. above), victory is achieved through the strength of YHWH (fighting on Israel’s behalf). Protection against adversaries—for both the king and the Israelite people—is part of what God is required to provide to those who remain faithful/loyal to Him, according to the terms of the covenant.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 2)

Psalm 52, continued

Verses 8-11 [6-9]

Verse 8 [6]

“(The) just (one)s will see and will fear,
and upon him they will laugh.”

The first part of the Psalm (vv. 3-7 [1-5]) presented a harsh polemic, inspired by both prophetic and Wisdom tradition, against the wicked (cf. the previous week’s study). The specific focus of the polemic was the false and deceitful speech of the wicked—their words may sound good, but they are belied by the action and intention of such people. In particular, their confession of loyalty to YHWH (and His covenant) is false. The section concluded with an imprecatory declaration regarding the fate of the wicked, and it is this fate (death and permanent dwelling in the grave) which is in view as we begin the second part of the Psalm. The suffixed preposition wyl*u* (“upon him,” i.e., at him) refers to the wicked person (and his fate).

There is obvious wordplay in the first line combining the similar sounding verbal phrases “and they will see” (War=y]w+, w®yir°û) with “and they will fear” (War*yy]w+, w®yîr¹°û). Viewing the miserable fate of the wicked brings fear, but also laughter (vb qj^v*). This may seem an inappropriate response for the righteous, to laugh at the punishment and suffering that awaits the wicked; perhaps it should be understood in the sense of rejoicing at the establishment of YHWH’s justice, made manifest through the punishment meted out, deservedly, to the wicked.

The 3+2 meter of this couplet establishes the rhythm of the remainder of the Psalm, which follows a 3+2 meter more consistently than in the first part.

Verse 9 [7]

“See—the strong (one who) would not set
(the) Mightiest (as) his safe place,
but sought protection in (the) abundance of his riches
and would be strong in his downfall!”

This pair of 3+2 couplets represents, apparently, the mocking words of the righteous, and should be associated—however inappropriate it may seem to us—with their laughter at the wicked. Overall, the tone fits the harsh polemic of the first half of the Psalm, and builds on the Wisdom-themed contrast between the righteous and the wicked in the second half. The righteous person trusts in YHWH, while the wicked person trusts instead in their earthly wealth and power. This contrast here is expressed both in negative and positive terms:

    • He would not make YHWH his “safe/secure place” (zoum*), i.e., the place where finds protection, but instead…
    • He “sought protection” (vb jf^B*) in his riches

The verb jf^B* is used frequently in the Psalms, denoting seeking (and finding) protection; implied is the trust one has in that protection. This usage has, as its background and context, the ancient covenant idea—specifically, the protection which YHWH (the Sovereign) is obligated to provide to His faithful servants/vassals, according to the terms of the covenant. Not only are the wicked disloyal to the covenant, they effectively disregard and ignore it, relying instead on their worldly strength and wealth for protection. Note how the false and empty strength of the wicked is contrasted with the true strength of YHWH (as the Mightiest [<yh!l)a$]):

    • the ‘strong’ one (rb#G#h^)
      • the Mightiest (<yh!l)a$)
    • he was ‘strong’ (zu)y`)

There is also a bit of alliterative wordplay between the words oZWum* (“his secure place”) and zu)y` (“he was strong”). The wicked clings to his false strength even in his downfall (hW`h^)—that is, even as he meets his terrible fate. Another bit of wordplay occurs here, since the word hW`h^ can also be read as a byform of hW`a^, referring to a person’s wicked/evil desire—i.e., the wicked remains ‘strong’ in his wickedness, clinging to it even as he perishes.

Verse 10 [8]

“While I (will be) like a fresh green olive-tree
in (the) house of (the) Mightiest—
I find protection in (the) goodness of (the) Mightiest,
(for the) distant (future) and until (the end).”

With this pair of 3+2 couplet, the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist) contrasts his fate with that of the wicked. While no future life awaits for the wicked—only death and the grave—the righteous will experience a blessed afterlife “in the house of God”. His faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant will result in blessing both in this life and in the life to come. Again the use of the verb jf^B* (cf. above) and the noun ds#j# must be understood in the context of the covenant idea—the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people. The “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH refers specifically to His covenant loyalty—i.e., He generously bestows blessings on those who have been loyal to Him. The protection God provides extends even to rescuing the righteous from the final fate of death and the grave. Moreover, dwelling in the house of YHWH is an extension of the covenant-idea of the faithful vassal having a place in the house (and at the table) of his sovereign. The specific motif of the righteous as a fresh and growing (green) tree derives from a separate line of (Wisdom) tradition—cf. Psalm 1:3, etc.

It is worth noting again that Psalm 52 is one of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms, in which, most probably, occurrences of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) were consistently replaced by the name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim). In these verses, however, the use of the title <yh!l)a$ has its own special significance, since its presumed meaning (“[the] Mightiest [One]”) relates to the contrastive theme of strength/might—i.e., the false (worldly) strength of the wicked, and the true strength of YHWH (cf. above).

Verse 11 [9]

“I will throw you (praise), Eternal (One), for you have done (this)—
and I will call on your Name, for (it is) good—
in front of your good (and loyal one)s!”

Many Psalms, at least in the form they have come down to us, conclude with lines that apply the poem to a communal worship setting. That is certainly the case here, as the Psalmist speaks of praising and proclaiming the name of YHWH in front of [dg#n#] the righteous (“good/loyal ones”, <yd!ys!j&). This descriptive title of the righteous, specifically connoting loyalty to YHWH and His covenant, stands in contrast to the false and deceitful devotion of the wicked as a “good (servant) of the Mighty (One)” (in a sarcastic sense, cf. on v. 3 [1] in the previous study).

The expression <l*oul= echoes the use of <l*ou at the end of v. 10 (cf. above), and may be used here in the same temporal sense: “I will through you praise into (the) distant (future) [<l*oul=]”. However, it is also possible that there is a bit of wordplay involved, and that the occurrence of <l*ou here is actually part of the praise of YHWH, referring to Him by the title of <l*ou (requiring a translation something like “Eternal [One]”). In such an instance, the prefixed preposition (l=) would be an example of the vocativel—i.e., “O, Eternal (One)”. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 16f; with some hesitation, I have adopted this interpretation in my translation above.

I also follow tentatively follow Dahood (I, p. 121f; II, p. 17) in deriving the verbal form hW#q^a& here from the root hwq (II), “gather, collect”, in the sense of “call” (cf. the comparable occurrence in Psalm 19:5), and thus similar in meaning to the more common arq. The action of calling (on) the name of YHWH is more suitable to the public/communal worship setting of the verse.

The meter of this final verse is, loosely, 3+3+2.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 48 (Part 2)

Psalm 48, continued

Verses 10-15 [9-14]

This is the second of the two stanzas of the Psalm, as indicated rather clearly by the overall structure (including the two pause-markers at the end of verses 9 [8] and 15 [14]). Overall, this stanza follows a 3+2 meter, though there are a couple of exceptions (cf. below).

Verse 10 [9]

“Shall we compare your goodness, O Mightiest,
in the midst of your palace?”

The second stanza opens with a 3+2 couplet which I read as a rhetorical question, meant to inspire the praise of the people. It probably has the sense here of “To what shall we compare your goodness…?”, implying that the “Mightiest One” (YHWH) is incomparable. The noun ds#j# is translated according to its fundamental meaning (“goodness, kindness”); however, as I have often noted, the term frequently must be understood in the context of the covenant, denoting (or connoting) faithfulness, loyalty, etc. The first stanza emphasized the protection provided by YHWH, which is a central aspect of His covenant loyalty, whereby God fulfills His obligation to His people (according to the terms of the agreement).

The phrase in the second line, “in the midst of your palace”, again emphasizes Zion (Jerusalem) as the dwelling-place of the King. The “palace” (lk*yh@) of YHWH is, of course, the Temple. Even as the palace of the earthly king resides on Zion, so also does the palace of the heavenly King.

Verse 11abc [10abc]

“Like your name, Mightiest,
so (also) your praise,
(is) unto (the) ends of (the) earth.”

The meter of this verse is slightly irregular, but generally corresponds to a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The idea seems to be that the praise which YHWH deserves corresponds to the greatness of His name. Oddly enough, in this regard, this ‘Elohist’ Psalm here does not use the Divine name (hwhy), but the substitution <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One]”, i.e., “God”). According to the ancient Near Eastern mindset, a person’s name embodies the essential nature and character of the person.

Dahood (p. 292), following the suggestion of earlier commentators, would read imvk as “like your heaven” (;ym#v*K=, spelled defectively):

“Like your heaven, Mightiest,
so (also) your praise,
(reaches) unto (the) ends of (the) earth…”

In some ways, this would be more fitting to the context of the Psalm, continuing the comparison (vb hm*D*) mentioned in v. 10. It would also develop the idea of the parallel between the heavenly and earthly dwelling of YHWH, as well as emphasizing the role of YHWH as Creator and King over the universe. The dome of the heavens extends over the entire surface of the earth; so also does YHWH’s rule, and the praise that is His due (as King).

Verse 11d-12 [10d-11]

“You right hand is full of justice—
let mount ‚iyyôn rejoice,
let (the) daughters of Yehudah twirl,
in response to your judgments!”

Rhythmically, we have here a pair of 3+2 couplets (following the meter established in the opening verse); however, the conceptual parallelism of the quatrain is rather different: the outer lines (1 and 4) forming a pair, along with the inner lines (2 and 3). The inner parallel also relates to the outer parallel:

    • Your right hand…justice
      • Let Mount Zion rejoice
      • / let daughters of Judah twirl (with joy)
    • / …your judgments

Judah and Jerusalem are to rejoice because of (/u^m^l=) the justice and judgments made by YHWH. This emphasizes God’s role as King and Judge over the universe. The noun qd#x# (“justice, right[eous]ness”) here is fundamentally related in meaning to ds#j#—both terms refer to the goodness, faithfulness and (covenant) loyalty of God. YHWH’s judgments, and the exercise of His justice over the world (and to the nations) take the form of goodness/kindness for His people.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Go around ‚iyyôn and circle through her,
(and) count her great (tower)s;
set your heart to (consider) her rampart(s),
(and) examine her (fortified) dwellings—
in order that you may recount it
to the circle [i.e. generation] (that comes) after.”

This verse returns to the theme of the fortifications of Zion—and thus the protection provided by YHWH—from the first stanza (see esp. verse 4 [3]). Again, this is not meant as a literal/physical description of the city’s defenses; rather, it emphasizes two important motifs: (a) the traditional connection between the Temple mount (and the palace-locale of the ‘City of David’) and the ancient Canaanite hilltop fortress site, and (b) the protection that comes from the presence of YHWH within the city. The true nature of the city’s fortifications  lies in the protective presence of YHWH.

Three terms are used for the fortifications of Zion: (1) “great (tower), tall (place)” [lD*g+m!]; (2) “rampart” [hl*yj@]; and (3) “(fortified) dwelling” (i.e. palace, citadel) [/omr=a^].

The verb gs^P* (in the second line of the second couplet) occurs only here in the Old Testament, and its meaning (and derivation) is quite uncertain. The context suggests a meaning something like “examine”.

The two 3+2 couplets are followed by a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet that explains the reason for counting and examining the fortifications of Zion (that is, the protection provided by YHWH’s presence)—so that it all can be declared (“recounted,” same verb rp^s* as in v. 13) for the generations (noun roD, “circle, [life-]cycle”) of people that are to come. This declaration is the essence of the very Psalm and song of praise that is being sung.

Verse 15 [14]

“For this (all belongs to the) Mightiest,
our Mighty (One from the) distant (past) until (the end)
—(so) He will guide us (into the) distant (future).”

The conclusion of the stanza (and the Psalm itself) takes the form of a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The initial line is best understood as an abbreviated statement: “for this (belongs to the) Mightiest”, i.e., “for this (is) God’s” —that is, the city (Zion/Jerusalem) and everything in it. In particular, the fortifications of Zion belong to YHWH. It is even possible to read the line in a more literal fashion, in this regard: “For this [i.e. the fortifications] (is the) Mightiest” —i.e., the fortifications are the protective presence of YHWH Himself.

I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 293f) in reading twm-lu (MT twm-lu^, “until death”) as toml*u), a feminine plural form of <l*ou (typically referring to the “distant” past or future), understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural (i.e., “[the most] distant [future]”), corresponding to colloquial English “forever (and ever)”. As Dahood notes, the first stanza ends with “until (the) distant (future)” (<l*ou-du^), and it is proper that the second stanza would end in a similar manner (toml*udu^).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 48 (Part 1)

Psalm 48

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsj (vv. 1-9 [1-8])

Much like the two prior Psalms, Ps 48 is a hymn on the Kingship of YHWH, with special emphasis on Jerusalem (Mt. Zion) as the King’s city. It continues the theme of YHWH as King over all the earth (and the nations), but who has a special covenant relationship with Israel, with His throne in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. This is an important component of Israelite (and Judean) royal theology. As long as Israel (and its king) remains faithful to the covenant, YHWH will continue to provide protection. The emphasis on Zion as a fortified location (on a hill) is a way of expressing this idea of God’s protection.

This Psalm consists of two stanzas (vv. 2-9 [1-8], 10-15 [9-14]), with a Selah (hl*s#) pause indicator marking the end of the first stanza. The meter is irregular, but the first stanza tends to follow a 2-beat couplet (or quatrain) format, with a brief shift to a 3+2 meter, before returning to a 2-beat quatrain in the closing verse.

The musical direction in the superscription is quite brief, somewhat oddly indicating that this musical composition (romz+m!) is also a “song” (ryv!). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to the study on Psalm 42/43.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“Great (indeed is) YHWH
and very much to be praised,
in (the) city of our Mighty (One),
(on the) mountain of His holiness.”

The second couplet emphasizes the mountain location of Jerusalem, which is somewhat misleading, since the city scarcely is located on a mountain, but rather a more modest hill. However, in Canaanite religious tradition, the Creator El (“[the] Mighty [One]”) resided on a great cosmic mountain. Any local mountain could represent this dwelling of El. The same was true in terms of Israel’s view of the dwelling of El-Yahweh. He could be seen as present upon any local mountain (such as Sinai/Horeb), or even a modest hilltop site such as Zion/Jerusalem.

Indeed, the original fortified hilltop site captured by the Israelites was the location for both the Temple and royal Palace-complex. While the name Zion (/oYx!, ‚iyyôn) could refer to the expanded city of Jerusalem, it properly signifies the smaller fortress-site (the “City of David”) where the Temple and Palace were built.

Verse 3 [2]

“Beautiful (in its) height,
(the) joy of all (the) earth:
Mount ‚iyyôn, (on the) sides of ‚aphôn,
meeting-place of (the) great King!”

The quatrain in this verse is composed of another 2-beat (2+2) couplet followed by a 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The first couplet emphasizes both the beauty of Zion and its elevated location (indicated by the rare noun [on)—so stated in the first line. Both of these attributes are figurative, rather than meant as a realistic description of the city itself. Both its beauty and its elevation are due to the dwelling of YHWH there. Zion thus represents, from a symbolic and ritual standpoint, the cosmic dwelling of El-Yahweh, traditionally understood as a great mountain filling the heavens. As the dwelling-place of God, Zion also brings joy, i.e., is a cause for rejoicing (cocm=), for the entire earth.

The second couplet makes two points. The first point is that Zion is on the “sides” (dual of hk*r@y+) of Zaphon. The noun /opx* in Hebrew commonly means “north”, though it literally refers to something “hidden” or stored away. However, in Canaanite tradition, a local manifestation of El’s cosmic mountain-dwelling (and also that of Baal-Haddu) was Mt. Zaphon, usually identified with Mt. Casius (modern Jebel el-Aqra’). This great mountain was certainly to the ‘far north’ of Jerusalem, and a suitable location for the dwelling of the Great King (El-Yahweh). El’s mountain-dwelling (also envisioned as a great domed tent) was traditionally understood as existing in the ‘far north’, which may explain the origins of the name Zaphon (/opx*). Clearly, Mt. Zion is being identified here with the cosmic dwelling of El, according to Canaanite (and Israelite) religious tradition.

In the final line, the hy`r=q! could be translated flatly as “city” or “town”, parallel with ryu! in v. 2 [1]. However, I have chosen to translate it here in a way that preserves what is likely the original meaning, as a “meeting place”. In this case, it is a place where the people can “meet” the Great King (YHWH), referring to the religious ritual surrounding the Temple and its sanctuary.

Verse 4 [3]

“(The) Mightiest (is) among her forts,
being known as a place set (up) high.”

This is a rather difficult couplet, largely due to the attempt of expressing a relatively complex matrix of ideas within the confines of a short 2-beat couplet. But the basic meaning seems to be that it is the presence of YHWH, dwelling among the fortifications of the city, that gives to Zion (Jerusalem) its secure position and protection. Remember that Zion properly refers to the old Canaanite hilltop fortress-site that was captured by Israel (in the time of David). The ancient fortifications, and elevated position, gave to the city some measure of protection against invaders and hostile peoples. However, Zion was scarcely a high mountain (like Zaphon), and the characteristic here of its being a bG`c=m!, literally a “place set high up”, is something of an exaggeration. Its figurative high elevation (and thus its secure position) is due to the presence of YHWH.

Even though the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) was used earlier in the Psalm, the occurrence of <yh!l)a$ here may be another example of substitution (for YHWH) in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (cf. also the closing line of v. 9 [8] below).

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“For, see! the kings are (gather)ed as appointed,
they passed by (the city) as one;
they saw (it and) thus were astounded,
they were terrified and (fle)d in fear.”

With this verse, there is a metrical shift in the stanza, from a predominantly 2-beat (2+2) couplet format to a 3+2 meter. The idea of kings gathering together, meeting at an appointed time and place, suggests that they have come together for a hostile purpose (cf. Psalm 2:1-2). The emphasis on protection in the previous verses certainly makes a military scenario probable here. The site of the grandeur and elevated position of Zion (Jerusalem) fills the kings with astonishment (vb Hm^T*). This turns to utter fear, causing them to flee in terror (vbs lh^B* and zp^j*). Their reaction, of course, is properly due to the presence of YHWH in the city.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“Trembling seized hold of them (right) there,
writhing like (that of one) giving birth;
(as when) by (the) east wind (they) are shattered,
(the proud) ships of Tarshish.”

The fear and trembling (du^r^) that take hold of the kings is here described with a pair of picturesque illustrations: (1) a woman in writhing pain (ly!j) while giving birth, and (2) trading ships (filled with goods) that are torn apart at sea by a powerful east-wind.

Verse 9 [8]

“Even that which we have heard,
so (now) we have seen (it),
in (the) city of YHWH of (the) armies,
in (the) city of our Mighty (One)!
(The) Mightiest will make her firm
until (the) distant (future)!”

As in the opening verse, so also at the close of the stanza we have a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain, though this meter is skewed slightly by the third line (which may be textually suspect [cf. Kraus, pp. 472-3]). The idea seems to be that the residents of Jerusalem (and Judah) have heard of how YHWH protected His city (and its people) in times past, but now they have witnessed this first hand. There is no way of knowing if any specific historical incident is in view, though the famous attack on the city by Sennacherib during the Assyrian invasion of Judah (701 B.C.) naturally comes to mind.

To preserve the poetic meter, I have translated the title toab*x= hwhy according to its abbreviated form, i.e., “YHWH of (the) armies”. However, the full sense of the expression must be understood according to its likely meaning as a sentence-title that retains the verbal force of hwhy, something like “(the One who) creates the (heavenly) armies”. From the ancient Israelite religious standpoint, once YHWH came to be used as the regular name for the Creator God (El), the expression is perhaps best understood as “YHWH, (commander) of (the heavenly) armies”, emphasizing His control over the heavens (forces of nature, Angelic beings, etc).

The final (3-beat) line is a declaration of praise to YHWH, confirming that He will protect His city, and continue to make it secure, far into the distant future (i.e., for all time). Almost certainly this Psalm well pre-dates the fall of Jerusalem (and the destruction of the Temple) in 587. It is interesting to consider how Israelites and Jews would explain this hymn from the standpoint of the Exile. The obvious theological explanation is that YHWH’s protection is contingent upon Israel/Judah remaining faithful to the covenant. As long as the nation, and its capital city of Jerusalem, remained faithful, God’s protection of her would last forever.

References above 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 46

Psalm 46

Dead Sea MSS: This Psalm is not preserved in the surviving manuscripts

This Psalm may be characterized as a “song of Zion” —that is, a hymn focusing on Jerusalem and the Temple as the dwelling-place of YHWH. It is to be divided into three parts, or strophes, based on the occurrences of the poetic marker hl*s# (Selah) after verses 4, 8, and 12. Assuming that the first occurrence of hl*s# in the MT is correct (cf. the discussion below), it is possible that the closing refrain of the 2nd and 3rd strophes has dropped out of the text (between vv. 4 and 5) and could be restored.

Based on a three-strophe division, the thematic outline would be as follows:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 2-4 [1-3]): The covenant protection provided by YHWH, through his controlling power
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 5-8 [4-7]): The protection that YHWH gives to His city, Jerusalem (Zion)
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 9-12 [8-11]): The controlling power of YHWH as Creator and King of the universe

As with the previous Psalm 45, this Psalm is a “song” (ryv!)—that is, a poetic text set to an existing melody. This distinguishes it from an original romz+m!, or musical composition, including both words and music. Here the melody is defined by the term toml*u& (cf. also 1 Chron 15:20), which presumably means “(the) young maidens”; conceivably, it could refer to a mode or manner of musical presentation, rather than a specific melody. As with most of the musical directions in the Psalms, the precise meaning has been lost over the centuries.

On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah,” see the introduction to Psalm 42/43. It is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, using the common plural name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”) in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH), though not as thoroughly as in other Psalms (cf. the occurrences of hwhy that have been retained in v. 9 [8] and the refrain at the close of the strophes).

First strophe, vv. 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“(The) Mightiest (is) for us a place of protection and strength,
help in (time)s of distress, found in abundance.”

This first couplet establishes both the theme of the poem and the meter (4-beat bicolon, 4+4). The initial word is an example of the tendency in the ‘Elohist’ Psalter to substitute the plural term/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”), commonly used for deity (i.e., God), in place of the Divine name YHWH. The idea of God as a “place of protection” (hs#j&m^) and a strong ‘fortress’ (“strength,” zu)) is frequent in the Psalms. It is based on the protection YHWH is obligated to provide to his faithful vassals, according to the terms of the covenant.

The plural noun torx* (hr*x*, “pressure, stress, distress”) should be understood as “times of distress” (i.e., moments when one is in distress). The adverbial particle da)m= has intensive force, and is best rendered here as “in abundance,” or something similar. It is not unusual for a poetic line to end with the particle da)m=; however, cf. Dahood, p. 278, for a different reading of dam.

Verse 3 [2]

“Upon this [i.e. for this reason] we will not fear at (the) changing of (the) earth,
even at (the) sliding of (the) mountains in(to the) heart of (the) sea.”

The protection provided by YHWH is fundamental (v. 2 [1]), it extends even to the experience of the most terrifying natural disasters (defined here as “the changing [vb rWm] of the earth”). Such changes can result in catastrophic conditions for human beings, even to the point of wiping out an entire city (or civilization). Here it is illustrated with the image of a mountain (or hill) collapsing with a rock-slide down into the depths (lit. the “heart”) of the sea. God’s people do not need to be afraid of such natural disasters, much less the milder forms of distress we are likely to encounter.

Verse 4 [3] {a}

“(Though) its waters clamor and boil (up),
and (the) mountains shake at its rising.”

This couplet follows v. 3 [2], and belongs with it conceptually. It represents a reverse-image: instead of the mountains collapsing down into the sea, they quake with fear (vb vu^r*) as the waters (of the sea) rise up (verbal noun hw`a&G~). The same basic idea of a earth-shaking natural disaster is in view, and the command not to fear (in v. 3) covers this verse as well.

The meter shifts in this couplet from the 4-beat (4+4) pattern to a shorter 3-beat (3+3) rhythm.

Verse 4 [3] {b}

“<YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!>”

If the marker hl*s# (Selah) following v. 4 [3] is correct (cf. the discussion by Dahood, p. 280), marking the end of the strophe, then it is possible that the recurring refrain (found in the other two strophes) has dropped out and could be restored. Such a restoration, indicated by the angle-brackets, is presented above. The protection/fortress motif continues here with the noun bG`c=m!, which means something like “place (set) high up”, i.e., a safe place in a protected and inaccessible location.

Second Strophe, vv. 5-8 [4-7]

Verse 5 [4]

“(The) river (with) its streams gives joy (to the) city of (the) Mightiest,
(the) Most High makes holy His dwelling-place.”

The mixture of images here is a bit curious (cf. Dahood, p. 280, for a different way of reading and dividing vv. 4-5). Certainly the idea of a river running through Jerusalem (and associated with the Temple) is attested in exilic and post-exilic prophecy (Ezek 47; Zech 14:8). That eschatological imagery probably reflects the original garden-paradise of Eden (Gen 2:6-14), i.e., the Garden of God. Here, almost certainly, such an association with Creation (and God as Creator) is in view (cp. Psalm 65:9). However, the cosmological aspect may go deeper than that, with an allusion to the ancient Near Eastern myth of the ‘Conflict with the Sea’. The turbulence of the sea in vv. 3-4 (cf. above) may allude to this ancient motif of the chaotic primeval waters which were ‘defeated’ and subdued by God, bringing order to the created universe. By subduing the waters, God affirms His control over them. It is thus a fundamental image of the sovereignty of YHWH over the cosmos, of God as both Creator and King.

In the Canaanite Baal Epic, following Baal Haddu’s defeat of the Sea (Yamm, cf. the plural <yM!y~, yammîm, here in v. 3), to mark his position as king and ruler over Creation, Baal is given a magnificent dwelling-place, a palace in the heavens. Something of this same mythological language almost certainly was applied to YHWH in ancient Israel, connecting the Jerusalem Temple with God’s work of Creation and His rule as King over the entire cosmos. Here, the dwelling-place (/K*v=m!) of YHWH is consecrated (lit. “made holy”). With Kraus (p. 459) and other commentators, I read vdq as a Piel verb form, to be vocalized as vD@q! (“make holy”). From a religious and ritual standpoint, the cosmic/heavenly dwelling of God is localized in the Jerusalem Temple sanctuary. Traditionally, in ancient Canaan, the dwelling of the Creator El (as also that of Baal Haddu) was localized on a mountain. The same was true of YHWH (El-Yahweh) among the Israelites and other Semitic peoples (i.e., the sacred site of Mt. Sinai/Horeb). The Jerusalem location of the Temple (Zion) was, in its own way, such a ‘mountain’.

Verse 6 [5]

“(The) Mightiest (is) in her midst, she shall not be shaken,
(for the) Mightiest will help her, at (the) turn of day-break.”

The meter of vv. 5-6 [4-5], as we have them, is irregular, but symmetric: a 4+3 couplet, followed by a corresponding 3+4 couplet. Conceptually, the two verses are also related, as can be seen by the emphatic (three-fold) use of the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, in place of YHWH). The “river” in v. 5 [4] represents the presence of YHWH, and also His creative, life-sustaining power (cp. Psalm 65:9). This is made more explicit here in v. 6, where it is stated that God is “in the midst of” His city (HB*r=q!B=, “in the midst of her”). The Divine presence is the source of protection for Zion (“He will help her”). And the protection is immediate, coming at the very moment of day-break, and lasting all day long.

Verse 7 [6]

“(The) nations clamored (and) kingdoms shook,
He gave (forth) with His voice, (and the) earth melted.”

The 4-beat (4+4) metrical pattern is restored here in this verse. Thematically, this also marks a return to the imagery of vv. 3-4. The “clamor” (vb hm*h*) of the sea and the “shaking” (vb fom) of the mountains are here applied to the nations (and their kingdoms), as they react to the presence and power of YHWH. The manifest presence of God in creation is expressed by the all-encompassing sound of thunder, i.e., as the “voice” of God. This illustrates the extent to which YHWH shares certain characteristics and features with Baal Haddu (as worshiped by the Canaanites). The cosmic kingship of YHWH, like that of Baal Haddu, was expressed through storm theophany—i.e., God as manifest in the storm. It is an altogether natural (and powerful) way of depicted God’s authority over the world (and the nations of the world).

We see how this ties back to the message in the first strophe. God’s people need not be afraid, even in the face of natural disaster, because YHWH is sovereign and has control over all of nature. His word and His voice created the universe, and it can just as easily dissolve the created order again, turning it into a formless mass (“the earth melted”).

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

On this refrain, cf. the discussion on v. 4 [3] above. The divine name (hwhy, YHWH) here is not substituted (by <yh!l)a$), possibly because the traditional title toab*x= hwhy was so well-established that it was not deemed appropriate to alter it in context. The title, which occurs frequently in the Old Testament, probably derived from a sentence-epithet, applied to the Creator (°E~l)—viz., “(the) Mighty (One) [la@], (who) creates (the heavenly) armies”. Once the verbal element hwhy came to stand on its own, as the primary name of God, this epithet was curiously reduced (in syntax) to an awkward contrast form: i.e., “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies”. I have tried to preserve something of the original meaning, with a more expansive gloss: “YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies”.

Third Strophe, vv. 9-12 [8-11]

Verse 9 [8]

“Come, behold (the thing)s done by YHWH,
who has put (away the) horrors on (the) earth.”

The theme of YHWH as Creator and King over the universe is given greater emphasis in the final strophe, making for a dramatic and majestic conclusion to the Psalm. However, the precise wording here in this initial couplet (the second line) is problematic. Literally, the MT would read “…who put horrors in the earth”, or “…who put devastation in the earth”. While this would generally be appropriate to the imagery in v. 7 [6] (cf. above), as well as the violent judgment against the nations expressed in v. 9 [8], it does not seem to fit the overriding theme of YHWH exerting His control and authority over creation. Possibly, the idea is that the devastation (caused by His judgment) leads to order and peace.

Dahood (p. 281) points out the important relationship between this line and the one that follows in v. 9, where the emphasis is on YHWH putting an end to war. He notes the famous refrain that runs through portions of the Canaanite Baal Epic (Tablet III, column iii, lines 14-17, etc):

“Place war (down) in the earth,
set love in the dust;
pour peace amid the earth,
tranquility amid the fields.”

The passionate (and violent) extremes of war and love are to be buried, and replaced by peace and tranquility. Dahood suggests that twmv be read as cognate to Ugaritic šmt (“oil, fatness”), from šmnt (Heb hn`m@v=, cf. Gen 49:20). It is an interesting proposal, but I find it ultimately unconvincing. Perhaps the line can be explained more simply by understanding the common verb <yc! (“set, put”) here in the specific sense of “put (away), set (aside)”. This interpretation would fit precisely with the first line of v. 10 [9]: YHWH puts an end to the devastation caused by humankind, the warfare of the nations.

Verse 10 [9]

“He is making wars cease, to (the) end of (the) earth:
he breaks (the) bow, and he cuts off (the) spear,
(the) wheeled (chariot) he burns with fire.”

This verse builds upon the idea of YHWH as King, exercising his power and authority to put an end to the devastation caused by humankind (the nations) on the earth (v. 9 [8]). Here it is described specifically in terms of destroying the ability of nations/kingdoms to make war. The 4-beat couplet format of the Psalm is expanded in this verse, for dramatic effect, to form a 4+4+3 tricolon. The abolishing of war is complete and universal—it covers the entire earth, from one end (hx#q=) to the other.

Verse 11 [10]

“Let (them) drop and know that I (am the) Mightiest,
(who) stands high o(ver) the nations, high o(ver) the earth!”

The precise meaning of the first imperative (vb hp*r*) is uncertain. The fundamental meaning of the root is “sink, drop, weaken”; here the Hiphil form indicates a definite act (i.e., “let sink, let drop”). In my view, this is best understood in light of the overall theme in this strophe of YHWH putting an ending to warfare. He is essentially telling the nations to “let their weapons drop”, “let their arm (and their warring spirit) sink”. A cessation of violence and hostility is required, in the face of YHWH’s power as King over all the universe. Instead of their warring acts, the nations must stand down and acknowledge (“know”) that YHWH is the Mightiest One (i.e., God over all, the Creator and King). He stands high (vb <Wr) over all the nations—indeed, over the entire earth. The implication, of course, is that the nations must recognize the greatness of YHWH. In the end, confronted by the awesome presence of God Himself, humankind has no choice but to acknowledge Him as Sovereign over all.

Verse 12 [11]

“YHWH (ruler) of (the heavenly) armies (is) with us,
a place up high for us (is the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The same refrain from the second strophe (v. 8 [7], and cf. also on the first strophe, v. 4 [3]) is repeated here, making a most suitable conclusion to the Psalm. Given the description in the strophe of YHWH’s sovereign power and control over the entire universe (including all nations and their kingdoms), it only confirms the promise expressed in the refrain. God’s people can trust that He will protect them in the face of danger, as long as they remain faithful to Him.

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 37 (Part 3)

Psalm 37, continued

(The previous two studies cover verses 1-11 and 12-22).

Verses 23-29

Verses 23-24

m “From YHWH [hw`hy+m@] (the foot)steps of the strong (one are secure),
He makes him firm (who) delights (in) His path,
(so) that he shall shall (no)t fall nor be hurled down,
for YHWH supports (him with) His hand.”

The theme of this section is established in the initial pair of couplets, continuing the 3+3 meter that dominates the Psalm. After the focus in the previous section on the hostility and evil plans of the wicked, directed against the righteous, here the emphasis shifts to the help and support offered by YHWH in the face of such danger. There is some difficulty of interpretation in these lines, due to the ambiguity of the persons (and associated pronoun suffixes): does “he/his/him” refer to YHWH or to the righteous person? There are also several minor textual difficulties in the second and third lines, which cannot be resolved completely.

The basic image in the first couplet (v. 23) is that of a person walking—a common enough idiom in Old Testament religious and Wisdom tradition, where it refers to a person’s behavior and way of life. Here the noun is du*x=m!, literally a “place of stepping”, i.e., where one’s foot steps. This signifies the action and conduct of the righteous person in his/her regular daily life. The noun in the second line is Er#D#, again indicating a place where a person frequently walks or steps—specifically, a trodden path. The suffix o (i.e., “his path”) could refer to the path that the righteous person takes, but also to the path as set out by YHWH (“His path”). Such a dual meaning is common with this idiom, but I would emphasize here the latter aspect—viz., as a reference to the way of God.

Indeed, YHWH gives help to the righteous in both aspects of this daily walk. He guides the person’s footsteps; there is no verb specified in the first line, but God’s action is indicated by the preposition /m! (“from YHWH…”), implying that He is the source of guidance for the righteous. He also makes this path firm and secure, establishing the righteous person’s footing as he/she walks. The verb wnnwk should perhaps be vocalized as onn+oK (“he makes him firm”). Thanks to YHWH’s support, the righteous person, one who “delights” (vb Jp^j* I) in the way of God, has strength to walk firmly upon the path, and so is characterized as a “strong (one)” (rb#G#).

The apparent reading of the first line of the second couplet (v. 24) is problematic. If YHWH makes the righteous secure, walking with firm footing, how could such a person fall (vb lp^n`)? The typical way this is rendered is, “if he falls, he will not be hurled down”, but this seems incongruous with the idea that the feet of the righteous will not slip at all (v. 31). Dahood (p. 231) suggests that lp^n` here should be understood in the sense of “fall upon” (an enemy), drawing upon the military imagery that occurs so frequently in the Psalms.

I am inclined to retain the ordinary meaning of lp^n`, and to consider the possibility that the negative particle al) here does double duty, effectively governing both verbs in the line: “he shall not fall nor be hurled down”. This rendering seem to fit best the overall sense of vv. 23-24, with the emphasis on the complete support provided by YHWH. The support is described through the anthropomorphic image of “His hand” —i.e., God’s hand that is upon the righteous, preserving and protecting them.

Verses 25-26

n “Young [ru^n~] have I been and am (now) also old,
and (yet) I have not seen the just (person) left (wanting),
and his seed searching (for) bread (to eat)—
(no,) all the day (long) he is showing favor and giving,
and his seed (is destined) for blessing.”

The help and support provided by YHWH is defined here in terms of physical and material need. This plays upon the characterization of the righteous as poor (/oyb=a#, v. 14), seemingly incongruous with the idea of blessing that is being emphasized in these lines. The point is that, though the righteous may be poor, in the sense that they do not possess the wealth of wicked (cf. the prior study on vv. 1-11), God will always supply their needs. The Psalmist regards this as a promise well established and documented through observation, during his own long life experience (“I have been young and now am old…”).

Not only are the basic needs met—i.e., food (“bread”) for himself and his children (“his seed”)—but there is enough so that the righteous (qyd!x^, the “just” person) is able to give help to others in turn. “All the day (long)” he is “showing favor” and joining (vb hw`l*) his material possessions to those of others. The latter verb is often used in the technical sense of lending and borrowing; in v. 21 it referred to the wicked borrowing (but not paying back), while here it is used in the Hiphil causative stem, in the sense of “cause to borrow”, i.e., make it possible for someone to borrow. The tendency to give of one’s resources in this way is characteristic of the righteous, even as it is typical of the wicked to borrow without paying back.

Verses 27-28a

s “Turn aside [rWs] from evil and do (what is) good,
and dwell (secure) into the distant (future);
for YHWH is (One) loving [i.e. who loves] justice,
and He does not leave His loyal (one)s (in need).”

The imperative in the first line is exhortational, urging God’s people to live in an upright manner; though not specified, this entails faithful observance of the Torah regulations, which serve as the terms of the covenant between YHWH and His people. Again, the idea of walking on the path set out by YHWH (cf. on vv. 23-24 above) is in view. In the second line, the imperative follows upon the very behavior that is urged the first line. Translating into English syntax, we might render this as “you must turn aside…and (so) you shall dwell…”. The imperatival sense could also be captured colloquially as “go ahead and dwell secure (since surely that is what you want), by turning aside from evil…”.

This choice between evil and good, characterizing the dualistic Wisdom-contrast between the wicked and the righteous, is encapsulated here by the term “justice” (fP*v=m!). It also refers to the establishment of justice, which takes place through the exercise of right “judgment”. YHWH is said to be one who loves justice—with the participle bh@a) (“loving”) effectively treated as a Divine attribute and characteristic. The righteous share this love for justice, and reflect the character of YHWH by always choosing that which is good.

This upright way of life and devotion to the covenant of YHWH (through observance of the Torah) is the basis for the support and protection that God provides. Only those who are loyal to the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) will receive this support. As I have noted on a number of occasions, the adjective dys!j*, though fundamentally denoting goodness or kindness, is often used in the context of loyalty and devotion (to the covenant).

Verses 28b-29

[u] “<(The) perverse (one)s [<yl!W`u^] will be destroyed> into the distant (future),
and (the) seed of (the) wicked will be cut off;
(while the) just (one)s will possess the earth,
and will dwell (secure) upon it until (the end).”

There is some indication of textual corruption here in the first couplet (v. 28b). To begin with, an acrostic entry for the letter u is missing from the Psalm, suggesting that a word may have dropped out. Such an omission would seem to be confirmed by the irregular rhythm of the text as we have it (2+3 meter in v. 28b). Further, it seems probable that the LXX (aA) preserves such a missing word through the presence of the plural substantive a&nomoi (“lawless [one]s”).

Kraus (p. 403) suggests restoring the corresponding plural <yl!W`u^ (“perverse [one]s”) to the text at this point, and there is much to recommend his proposal. It would restore the acrostic pattern (providing an u-section), and would also fit the LXX translation quite well. Moreover, it is easy to see how this word might have dropped out, by haplography, occurring as it does before the similar <l*oul=. An added advantage for the proposed restoration is that it introduces a fine bit of wordplay to the couplet (between <yl!W`u^ and <l*ou), of a sort that our poet could well have employed.

Restoring <yl!W`u^ would seem to require that the subsequent verb also be emended, slightly, from Wrm*v=n] (“they are guarded”) to Wdm*v=n] (“they are destroyed”)—an emendation that is reasonably plausible, since it involves the alteration of a single (similarly shaped) letter.

If one were to retain the Masoretic text as it stands (with no emendation), the couplet would read as follows:

“they [i.e. the righteous] are guarded into the distant (future),
but (the) seed of (the) wicked (one)s will be cut off”

Clearly, in this instance, v. 28b would have to be included together with the two couplets of vv. 27-28a (cf. above), and vv. 27-28 treated as a three-couplet (six line) unit. Verse 29 then would stand as a single concluding bicolon.

However, I believe a stronger argument is to be made for the division I have followed, requiring as it does the proposed emendation of the text. Thematically, the orientation of the two couplets in vv. 28b-29 as presented above is clear and consistent: the fate of the wicked (28b) contrasted with the fate of the righteous (29). There is an interlocking parallelism, whereby the “perverse ones” are destroyed “into the distant (future)” [line 1] while the righteous are preserved, dwelling secure “until (the end of the Age)” [line 4]. The contrastive parallel of the inner lines (2 & 3) mirrors the closing couplet of the previous section (v. 22): the righteous come to “possess the earth” while the wicked are “cut off” (same verb, tr^K*). Each of the three sections we have examined concludes with a similar promise, to the effect  that the righteous will inherit the earth (cp. Matt 5:5).

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 31 (Part 1)

Psalm 31

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 3-22 [2-21]); 4QPsa (vv. 23-24 [22-23]); 4QPsq (vv. 24-25 [23-24])

This Psalm is similar in certain respects with the prior Ps 30 (discussed in the previous study), in that it involves a prayer for healing/deliverance from illness, incorporating both a lament for the suffering the Psalmist faces, and thanksgiving for the strength and deliverance YHWH shows (or will show) to him. Psalm 31 is considerably more complex in how it handles this traditional material, drawing upon a wider range of imagery and manner of expression. The meter is also highly irregular, with shifting beat and rhythm, including a number of tricola, though a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to prevail.

The overall structure of this relatively lengthy and complex Psalm is not easy to determine. I have chosen to divide it into three parts:

    • Vv. 2-9 [1-8]: An expression of trust in YHWH, that He will deliver the Psalmist from the danger and distress he faces
    • Vv. 10-19 [9-18]: A lament for the illness and affliction which the Psalmist currently endures
    • Vv. 20-25 [19-24]: Praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for His goodness, shown in delivering those faithful to Him (such as the Psalmist) from suffering.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame into (the) distant (future)!
In your justice, help me to escape!”

The metrical irregularity of the Psalm is indicated in this opening verse, which is made up of a triad or tricolon, with a 3+2+2 meter. It is perhaps more properly read as a 2+2 couplet preceded by an initial 3-beat line in which the Psalmist invokes God. However, there is also a kind of parallelism between the first and third lines as well:

    • In you, YHWH
      • I have sought protection
    • In your justice
      • help me to escape

The Greek version contains an additional verbal phrase (kai\ e)celou= me) at the end of the third line, making it a 3-beat line; the wording assumes something like Hebrew yn]l@yX!h^w+ (“and rescue me”), perhaps influenced by the opening of Ps 71:2 (and see in v. 3 [2] below).

In any case, there is a definite parallel between the verb hs*j* in line 1 and fl^P* in line 3. The root hsj denotes the act of seeking or finding shelter (from a rainstorm, etc); here, as often in the Psalms, the context implies the presence of danger, and the Psalmist is turning to YHWH for protection. The root flp signifies, in a similar sense, escaping from danger, which one does by taking refuge in God; the Piel stem here indicates a causative aspect, i.e. causing, or helping, someone escape. The noun hq*d*x= is usually translated “justice, righteousness”, but frequently connotes faithfulness or loyalty, especially when a covenant context is in view, as it frequently is in the Psalms. YHWH’s loyalty and fidelity to the covenant bond–both with the Israelite people and the king himself (as a vassal)–means that he will give protection to his faithful followers who call on him in their time of need.

Dahood (p. 187) would read the noun <l*ou in the second line as a divine title (“Ancient/Eternal [One]”) with the prefixed preposition as a vocative lamed (l=). This would result in a clearer parallel couplet in the first two lines:

“In you, YHWH, I have sought protection—
may I not come to shame, O Ancient (One)!”

I find the suggestion interesting, but not entirely convincing; I translate <lwul above in the more customary manner, as a qualitative temporal phrase: “(in)to (the) distant (future)” (i.e., for ever, eternally).

Verse 3a [2a]

“Stretch (out) your ear to me,
(and) rescue me quickly!”

This short 3+2 couplet follows upon the third line of v. 2 [1], and example of an additional step-parallelism that is woven through the couplets in the first part of the Psalm. The idiom of “stretching/bending” (vb hf*n`) the ear, in this context, means that God will hear (and answer) the Psalmist’s prayer. The use of the adverbial phrase hr*h@m= (“quickly, swiftly, with haste”) indicates that the situation for the protagonist is urgent, or dire.

Verse 3b [2b]

“Be for me (my) Rock, a strong place,
a house place(d) up high, to rescue me!”

The imagery involves the typical setting of a secure (fortified) site on an elevated and difficult to reach location. The summit of a rocky hill or promontory is envisioned as the ideal locale for a protected refuge. The image plays on the idea of YHWH as a Rock of strength and protection; indeed, the noun rWx is used frequently as a divine appellation or title, and it is possible that here the prefixed lamed (l=) has vocative force (cf. Dahood, p. 187). In any event, this couplet (3+3), with its vivid imagery, illustrates the protection which the Psalmist requests from YHWH (see above).

Verse 4 [3]

“For (indeed) you (are) my rock-cliff and place (up) high,
and (in) response to your name
you will guide me and bring me along.”

This would seem to be another 3+2+2 tricolon, metrically similar to verse 2 [1] (cf. above). Again there is an instance of step-parallelism as the first line picks up the imagery from the previous couplet. A different noun is used–ul^s# indicating a sharp or ragged rock-cliff–but the basic imagery is the same. The final two lines make up a short 2-beat couplet that introduces a different image—of guidance, like that of a shepherd for his flock. The motif of protection still applies, as YHWH brings the Psalmist safely through any danger he may face. This protection is predicated upon the Psalmist calling on YHWH, literally appealing to His name (and to Him by name) in the context of the covenant-bond. This particular theological aspect of the covenant has ancient roots, going back to at least the Moses traditions of Exodus 3-4.

Verse 5 [4]

“You will bring me out from (the) snare
that they hid to (catch) me,
for you (are) my place of strength!”

Again there is a certain step parallelism at work, picking up on the idea of God bringing the Psalmist along (vb lh^n`), carrying him through any danger; now the image is more properly of YHWH bringing him out (vb ax^y`) of a specific danger—a “trap” set for him by the wicked. The meter of this tricolon (2+2+2) is clearer and tighter than that of verse 4 [3], with a circular synthetic parallelism, the lines building upon each other and then returning back to the original theme (of YHWH as a place of strength and protection).

Verse 6 [5]

“In your hand I shall give my spirit (its) place,
(may) you (so) ransom me, YHWH Mighty (One)!”

Verse 6 [5] may be read as a 3+3 couplet, by removing the final word to be part of the next couplet (see below), and treating la@ hwhy (“YHWH Mighty [One]”) as a tight construct expression. In point of fact, this is one of the few verses in the Old Testament that preserves the ancient identification of YHWH with the Creator °E~l (la@, lit. “Mighty [One]”). There are a few other instances scattered through the Psalms (e.g., 10:12; 18:3), but only here do we have the precise compound name. In later Hebrew, when the expanded plural form <yh!ýa$ (°E_lœhîm) had replaced the simple la@ (and plural <yl!a@), the expression was changed to <yh!l)a$ hwhy (Gen 2:4b, et al).

The Psalmist entrusts his very life (“my spirit”) to YHWH for protection (“in your hand”); the imagery is more intimate and personal than in the prior verses. The perfect form of the verb hd^P* (“ransom”) is here perhaps best understood as a precative perfect—i.e., a prayer wish expressed in terms of something that has already happened.

The verb dq^P* is notoriously difficult to translate. It often has the basic meaning “appoint”, “set in place”, especially when in the Hiphil causative stem. I have tried to keep to this fundamental causative sense above, though an English rendering like “commit”, “entrust” is smoother and more appealing from a religious standpoint. In any case, the basic idea is of the Psalmist placing his life in God’s hands.

The final word of the verse (MT tm#a$) is problematic, as it disrupts the meter, whether one treats the word as part of the couplet in v. 6 or 7, respectively. Keeping it with v. 6 would yield the expanded line:

“(may) you (so) ransom me, YHWH Mighty (One) of firmness”

The expression “Mighty (One) of firmness” refers to YHWH’s faithfulness and loyalty (to the covenant); as the true God, He is firm and secure (i.e. trustworthy) in all that He does. It is tempting to view tm#a$ here as a secondary accretion to the text, perhaps after the compound name/title la@ hwhy had fallen out of use; in light of the strangeness of the earlier title, it might have seemed necessary to add something to the word la@ (i.e., “God of…”).

Another possibility is to treat the word tm#a$ as part of the following verse; this is the route taken by Dahood (p. 188), though to do so again expands and disrupts the meter of the couplet. In such a context, the word functions as an emphatic adverb or substantive particle (“Surely…”, “truly…”). Dahood cites similar examples in Psalm 132:11; Isa 43:9; Ezek 18:9. For the purposes of this study, I tentatively follow this line of interpretation.

Verse 7 [6]

“Surely do I hate the (one)s guarding vain (thing)s of emptiness,
while I, (it is) to YHWH (alone that) I give (my) trust!”

The contrast here is between those (i.e. the wicked) who devote themselves to ‘idols’ (that is, to deities other than YHWH), and the person who remains faithful to YHWH alone. The verb jf^B* often denotes the idea of trusting in someone or something, but it can also be used in a sense synonymous with that of hs*j* (in verse 2 [1]), “seek refuge/shelter/protection”. Thus its use here may be intended to bring out a slightly different contrast: while the wicked “guard” the empty/vain things (idols), the Psalmist himself is protected (i.e. guarded) by the true God. Gradually, throughout the Old Testament period, the monotheistic outlook of Israelite religion sharpened, to the point that it became close to an absolute monotheism—that is to say, El-YHWH is the only deity who truly exists. This was expressed, rather harshly (and through an intentional distortion), by identifying other deities purely in terms of the images used by their worshipers to represent them. As such, they could be dismissed summarily as “emptiness” (aw+v*) or “empty/vain things” (<yl!b=h^)—both of these words being used together here (for emphasis). This sort of pointed anti-polytheistic polemic occurs in the Psalms, even as it does in the writings of the Prophets.

By stating unequivocally that he hates those who do not remain faithful to YHWH alone, he is affirming ever more forcefully his own faithfulness and loyalty to God. This device occurs relatively frequently in the Psalms, and is rooted in the judicial aspects of the covenant idea; in other words, the Psalmist’s prayer takes the form of an appeal to YHWH, in which he declares his loyalty to God.

Verse 8 [7]

“I will spin and grow bright (with joy) at your goodness,
(in) that you (truly will) have seen my oppression,
(and will) have known of (the thing)s pressing (on) my soul.”

I have translated the verbs ha*r* (“see”) and ud^y` (“know”) in their fundamental sense; however, this idiom of seeing and knowing here implies that God will take care to act on the Psalmist’s behalf. Compare, for example, the same language used in Exodus 3:7ff. The divine protection is understood in terms of the all-seeing, all-knowing character of God. It is possible that the plural torx* should be read as a comprehensive or intensive (rather than numeric) plural, which would make a more precise parallel with yy]n+u*, “my oppression/affliction”, or perhaps “(the one) oppressing me”. If this wording relates directly to what follows in verses 10-11ff, then it may be a general way of referring to a disease that afflicts the Psalmist. In which case, the entire sense of danger expressed in the Psalm to this point–including the specific image of people setting a trap for the Psalmist (v. 5, see above)—likewise refers to the threat of death from illness/disease.

Verse 9 [8]

“And (so) you will not enclose me in (the) hand of (the) hostile (one),
but will make my feet to stand on a wide (open) place.”

Again, the Psalmist’s prayer here expresses trust and belief that YHWH will answer his call, and will deliver him out of danger. It is quite possible that the “(one who) is hostile” (i.e. the enemy) refers to Death itself (cf. Dahood, pp. 188-9), frequently personified in ancient Near Eastern poetry, including a number of instances in the Psalms. Certainly the pressures and oppression felt by the Psalmist (v. 8) are now expressed under a personal figure, a particular “hostile one” —an adversary or enemy. The “wide/open place” (bj*r=m#) where the Psalmist can stand is in contrast with the danger of being “closed up” within the hand of the Enemy; compare Psalm 18:18-20 [17-19].

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