Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 72 (Part 1)

Psalm 72

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is a prayer for YHWH’s blessing on the king. Many of the Psalms evince a royal background, but this is one of the few that is clearly focused on the Israelite/Judean king. Needless to say, in its original form it must be pre-exilic in date, having been composed during the Kingdom-period. The heading reads hm)l)v=l!, similar to the designation dw]d*l=, etc. In the Davidic references, the prefixed –l preposition presumably indicates authorship (i.e., “[belonging] to David”); however, the context here suggests that the word-phrase should be rendered “for Solomon”, or “(relating) to Solomon”. If the Psalm was composed within Solomon’s royal court, then the prayer-wish of the composition may indeed have been intended for (i.e. on behalf of) Solomon. If it was written somewhat later in the Kingdom-period, then the prosperous and relatively peaceful reign of Solomon would be serving as the ideal for future kings. The Israelite Kingdom reached its pinnacle during Solomon’s reign, and a natural prayer for every subsequent royal court would be that those glory days might return again.

The Psalm may be divided into two parts. In the first part (vv. 1-11), the Psalmist calls on YHWH (unconditionally) to establish a peaceful and prosperous reign for the king; the cosmic dimensions of this idealized vision alludes to the Israelite kingdom at its peak (under Solomon). It is natural that, with the exile and the end of the Judean kingdom, this vision would be given a Messianic and eschatological orientation.

In the second part (vv. 12-19), the prayer is framed in conditional terms. If the king rules with justice, then YHWH will give him a long and prosperous reign, establishing a royal dynasty of rulers among his descendants.

The meter of Psalm 72 is irregular, but tends to be more consistent within the smaller poetic units (cf. below)


The first part of the Psalm can be divided into three smaller units—vv. 1-4, 5-7, and 8-11.

Verse 1

“O Mightiest, give your just (ruling)s to (the) king,
and your right (decision)s to (the) son of (the) king.”

In this opening couplet, the prayer is that YHWH (referred to by the <yh!l)a$ of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms) will give to the king a divinely inspired (or endowed) ability to judge, acting with justice and making decisions with sound judgment. The second person suffix (;-, “your”) on the plural nouns <yf!P*v=m! and toqd=x! shows that the Psalmist is describing Divine attributes, characteristics of YHWH Himself (as King and Judge), which would be given to the Israelite king so that he might rule in a manner that reflects God’s own justice and righteousness. The plural noun forms are a bit difficult to translate. The noun fP*v=m!, “judgment”, refers to a just decision made as part of the governmental (and/or judicial) process. The feminine noun hq*d*x=, usually translated “righteousness”, has a similar meaning; the related noun qd#x# refers to “right(eous)ness” in a more general sense. The plural, unless it is meant comprehensively, should be understood in terms of “right decisions” or “right rulings”.

The prayer extends to the king’s son—that is, to the prince and future ruler. This anticipates the conditional prayer-wish for a royal dynastic line, in the second part of the Psalm (v. 17).

Verse 2

“He shall judge your people with rightness,
and your oppressed (one)s with justice.”

Again, the roots qdx and fpv are paired in this couplet, referring to the action of the king in ruling. The prayer is that he will faithfully exercise the gift (of right/sound judgment) given to him by YHWH (v. 1). Here, the act of judging is expressed by the verb /yD! which is quite close in meaning to fp^v*. I have translated the noun qd#x# in its basic meaning as “rightness”, and fP*v=m! correspondingly as “justice”. The imperfect verb form here (and throughout the first part of the Psalm), could perhaps be translated as jussives, i.e., “may he judge…”; this certainly would reflect the precative prayer-wish tone of the Psalm.

As often in the Psalms, the righteous ones of God’s people are characterized as poor and oppressed, often using the yn]u*. However, here the emphasis is better understood as being on the aspect of social-justice—i.e., that the king would judge/rule rightly, especially (and all the more so) on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

The concision of this couplet (3+2) reflects the directness of the justice by which the king should rule, simply and fairly.

Verse 3

“May (the) mountains lift (up) wholeness to the people,
and (the) hills (rise) with rightness.”

There is a certain parallelism—formal and thematic—between verse 3 and verse 1 (cf. above). It has essentially the same irregular (4+2) meter, which could be parsed as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, except that doing so would disrupt the poetic syntax. It also expresses the idea of the Divine source of justice/right(eous)ness. The mountains/hills, in their majesty and exaltation, are traditional symbols of deity; more specifically, in the Canaanite religious/mythic tradition, shared by ancient Israel, the High Creator God (El-YHWH) dwelt upon a great cosmic mountain. This cosmic mountain could be identified, symbolically and ritually, with any number of local mountains or hills.

In order to match the imperative (“give…!”) in verse 1, I have translated the imperfect verb form here as a jussive (cf. above). The Psalmist’s prayer is that the entire land would be filled with justice and righteousness. The mountains are called upon, as servants of YHWH, to “lift up” <olv* to the people. The noun <olv* is typically translated “peace”, and that would certainly not be inappropriate here. However, the word more properly means “completion, fulfillment,” often in the basic sense of welfare or well-being. I have translated it above as “wholeness”.

Just as the mountains “lift up” peace and well-being, so also the hills ‘rise’ with righteousness (hqd*x=). Assuming that the prefixed –B= on hq*d*x= is correct, i.e., “in/with right(eous)ness,” one should perhaps understand an implicit verb in the second line; I have opted for the idea of the hills rising, which would match the concept of the mountains “lifting up”.

Verse 4

“He shall judge (for the) oppressed of (the) people,
he shall bring safety to (the) sons of (the) needy,
and shall crush (the one) pressing (them).”

Just as verse 3 is parallel to verse 1 (cf. above), so verse 4 is parallel to verse 2; and it allows us to view vv. 1-4 as a poetic unit within the first part of the Psalm. The meter is similar—a 3+2 couplet in v. 2, and a 3+3+2 tricolon in v. 4. Thematically, the verses also express comparable ideas, similar prayer-wishes by the Psalmist. The reference is to the act of judging by the king; here the verb is fp^v*, parallel to /yD! in v. 2. He will provide justice on behalf of the oppressed (adj. yn]u*, as in v. 2).

Frequently, in the Psalms, the adjective yn]u* is paired with /oyb=a# (“needy”), as it is here; cf. 9:19; 12:6; 35:10; 37:14; 40:18; 70:6, etc. The righteous are typically characterized as oppressed and needy, experiencing oppression from the wicked. If the righteous are oppressed, being pressed down (yn]u*), the one doing the pressing is referred to here by the participle qv@ou (vb qv^u*). In establishing justice for the poor and oppressed, the king will “crush” (vb ak*D*) their oppressor.

Verse 5

“May he (live) <long> with (the) sun,
and by (the) turning of (the) moon,
(each) cycle, (for) cycles (to come).”

The rhythmic shift, to a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, indicates that v. 5 marks a new poetic unit in this part of the Psalm. Thematically, also there is a shift to an emphasis on the length of the king’s reign. The first word in the MT is ;War*yy], “they shall fear you” (or “may they fear you”); however, the context strongly favors the reading of the LXX (sumparamenei=, “he shall remain along with”), which would seem to require emending the Hebrew to read ;yr!a&y~w+, “and he shall make long (his days)” (i.e., live long), or perhaps, alternately, Wkyr!a&y~w+, “they [i.e. his days] shall be long”. Many commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 75; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 203) support such an emendation, and it seems to be both warranted and well-founded. The king’s long life (and reign) will follow the sun and the moon (in its turnings), for many cycles (<yr!oD)—that is, for many months and years.

Verse 6

“He shall come down as rain upon (the) cut grass,
as abundant (shower)s dropping (on the) earth.”

The nature-imagery of v. 5 continues here in v. 6. From the length of the king’s reign, the focus shifts to its prosperity. The king shall bring prosperity to the land, just like the rain coming down on the grass, and the many drops of rain falling upon the ground. The noun zG@ refers to grass that is cut, which would indicate land that has been cultivated.

The meaning of [yz]r=z~ in the second line remains rather uncertain. It is usually understood as a verbal noun from the root [rz, which occurs only here in the Old Testament. Comparison with Aramaic and Arabic suggests a meaning of “drip, drop”, and this would seem to be confirmed by the LXX (sta/zousai, “dripping”). However, it is also possible that [rz is a variant form of brz, occurring in Job 6:17, where it refers to the ground drying up in the heat. If that is the sense here, then the second line would describe an abundance of rain upon the hot/dry ground. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 181.

Verse 7

“Righteous(ness) shall sprout forth in his days,
and abundance of wholeness,
until (the) failing of (the) moon.”

The just rule of the king will cause righteousness to sprout (vb jr^P*) from the watered ground (v. 6). The adjective qyd!x* in the Psalms typically characterizes the righteous person; however, the overall context here, as well as the parallel with <olv* in the second line, suggests the more general meaning of righteousness (i.e., that which is right). As in verse 3 (cf. above), qdx is paired with the root <lv; in both instances, I translate the noun <olv* as “wholeness”, in the basic sense of welfare and well-being for the people; the typical translation is “peace,” and that idea is certainly to be included as well.

The prosperity and justice/righteousness of the king’s reign shall last as long as the moon continues to give its light, reprising the imagery from v. 5. Indeed, we should regard vv. 5-7 as a distinct poetic unit within vv. 1-11.

Verse 8

“And may he rule (powerfully) from sea unto sea,
and from the River unto (the) ends of (the) earth.”

In verses 8-11, the third poetic unit of the first part of the Psalm, the emphasis is on the extent of the king’s rule. Whether or not the Psalm refers specifically to Solomon, the geographical extent of Solomon’s reign is certainly in view. However, as would be appropriate in a royal Psalm or hymn, the king’s reign is here extolled in even grander, cosmic terms—with the expressions “from sea to sea” and “unto the ends of the earth”. The active rule of the king is expressed by the verb hd*r*, which can carry the specific idea of stepping/treading upon a territory, so as to claim dominion over it as one’s own.

Again, there is a rhythmic shift at verse 8, to the more common Psalm-format of the 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 9

“Before his face shall bow (the) desert-dwellers,
and (those) hostile to him shall lick the dust.”

All people shall pay homage to the king, bowing (vb ur^K*) before him. This includes rough foreigners from the desert regions. Beyond this, all those who would be hostile to him, enemies of the king, will be forced to abase themselves, licking the dust in acknowledgement of his rule.

Verse 10

“(The) kings of Taršîš and (the) islands
shall return gift(s to him),
(the) kings of Šeba’ and Seba’
shall bring near fine gift(s).”

After the two 3-beat couplets of vv. 8-9, verse 10 consists of a pair of (parallel) 3+2 couplets. The gifts presented to the king are tributary in nature (specialized meanings of both hj*n+m! and rK*v=a#), recognizing the sovereignty (and superior position) of the Israelite kingdom. This certainly would have been the case, in many instances, during the reign of Solomon, where surrounding territories and kingdoms would have had vassal-status in relation to Israel.

Tarshish refers to the commercial/trading power of Phoenicia and the city-state of Tyre, with whom Israel (especially in the reign of Solomon) had strong ties. Similarly, the “islands” represents the commerce and trade that took place throughout the Mediterranean. The names Sheba’ and Saba’ refer to peoples and kingdoms to the (south)east, in Arabia.

Verse 11

“Indeed, all kings shall bow in homage to him,
(and) all nations shall give service to him!”

The grandiose vision of the Israelite king’s prestige, and the superior position of his kingdom, is expressed bluntly in this final couplet.

Again, it should be mentioned that virtually all of the imperfect verb forms in vv. 1-11 can be treated (and translated) as jussives—i.e., “may he…,” “let him…”. I have so translated the first such instance in each unit.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 3)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 2: Verses 14-24 (cont.)

Here is a reminder of the thematic outline of Part 2:

    • Vv. 14-16: Announcement of the Psalmist’s praise of YHWH
    • Vv. 17-21: Description of YHWH’s faithfulness to the Psalmist, with an expression of trust that God will deliver him
    • Vv. 22-24: Concluding declaration of praise to YHWH

For a discussion of verses 14-16, see the previous study.

Verse 17

“Mightiest, you have taught me from my youth,
and until now I have presented your wondrous (deed)s.”

In verses 14-16 (the opening lines of the second division), the Psalmist announces his praise of YHWH, in expectation that God will answer his plea for help. As in vv. 5-9ff, the protagonist affirms his lifelong devotion to YHWH, from his earliest youth (vv. 5-8) until his old age in the present (vv. 9ff). Here in verse 17, the focus is on his youth; the Psalmist’s faithfulness is shown both by the way that he has received God’s instruction (“you have taught [vb dm^l*] me”), and has extended this instruction to others. The latter aspect is described in terms of the Psalmist presenting to people (lit. putting in front of them [vb dg~n`]) an account of the “wonderful (deed)s” performed by YHWH. This verbal noun (al*P* Niphal participle) emphasizes action—i.e., wonderful things done by God. Such things include saving the righteous from their hostile adversaries. For the Psalmist, a presentation of YHWH’s wonders naturally takes the form of a poetic and musical composition.

Verse 18

“And (so) even until (my) old age and white (hair),
may you not abandon me, Mightiest,
until I should present your arm to (the) circle,
(and) your might to every (one who) shall come.”

As in vv. 9ff (cf. above), the focus turns to the Psalmist’s old age, which includes both the present and the years to come. The noun hn`q=z] indicates old age more generally, while hb*yc@ expresses the same through the vivid allusion to a person’s gray (or white) hair. It is in a person’s old age that one might naturally feel that God has abandoned him/her, as one is more prone to physical ailments and suffering, as well as being vulnerable to exploitation and attack from the wicked.

The second couplet follows the second line of v. 17, emphasizing how the Psalmist intends to continue putting an account of YHWH’s mighty deeds in front of people (again the verb dg~n` is used). God’s deeds are described here through a pair of singular nouns—u^orz+ (“arm”) and h*rWbG+ (“strength, might”)—i.e., things done by YHWH’s strong (and outstretched) arm (cf. Exod 15:16 for this ancient poetic idiom).

The noun roD is typically translated “generation”, but has the more fundamental meaning of “a circle”, i.e., a circle of people present in a particular time and place. Dahood (II, p. 175) would explain roD here as a specific reference to the public assembly (of the righteous), the congregation in which the Psalmist declares his praise of YHWH. However, the final line would seem to allude to the idea of a group of people alive at a particular time (i.e., ‘generation’).

Verse 19

“And your righteousness, Mightiest, (is) unto (the) height(s),
(the) great (thing)s which you have done,
(O) Mightiest—who is like you?”

The great deeds of YHWH also reflect His hq*d*x=. This noun has the basic meaning of “rightness”, usually translated “righteousness”; however, in the context of the covenant, it also can connote faithfulness and loyalty, much like the noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”). YHWH’s righteousness (and loyalty) extends to the “high place(s)” (<orm*), which is another way of referring to it specifically as a Divine (and eternal) characteristic. Throughout the Psalms, YHWH’s covenantal protection of the righteous is regularly expressed through the image of secure location situated on a high place.

Verse 20

“Though you made us see (time)s of distress,
(thing)s great and evil (for us),
you return (and) restore our life;
and (so,) from (the) depths of the earth,
you shall return (and) bring me up!”

I treat verse 20 as consisting of a pair of 3+2 couplets, with an additional line in the first couplet (for dramatic effect) producing a 3+2+2 tricolon. The written MT (kethib) has first person plural suffixes on the verbs in the tricolon (i.e., “made us see…”) , but are marked as to be read (qere) as first person singular (i.e., “made me see…”). The singular suffix is probably to be preferred, as being more consistent with the context of v. 20 as a whole; however, the plural is arguably the more difficult reading, and should perhaps be preferred on that basis. The communal worship setting, alluded to in this part of the Psalm, may have influenced a scribal/redactional modification to the plural. On the other hand, the “mighty deeds” of YHWH, declared by the Psalmist, certainly would have included the many things done for Israel throughout the people’s history, thus making a communal reference appropriate in context.

Just as YHWH has rescued His people (the righteous/faithful ones) in times past, so He will also do for the Psalmist now in the present. This is the expectation of the protagonist—viz., that God will answer his prayer and deliver him from his adversaries. The reference to the “depths of the earth” alludes to a life-threatening situation—i.e., that the Psalmist faces the danger of death—though this language could also be used to describe the suffering and danger faced by a person more generally.

Verse 21

“You shall increase my greatness,
you shall surround and comfort me.”

Verse 21 is a rather curious (and short) 2-beat couplet. The idea of God increasing the Psalmist’s “greatness” may relate to the idea that his opponents’ attacks are of an accusatory and slanderous nature (cf. vv. 7, 10-11, 13)—that is, an attack on the protagonist’s reputation. In any case, it is not simply a matter of YHWH rescuing the Psalmist from danger, but of truly restoring him (and his reputation) in a public manner. Once restored, the protagonist will be further surrounded (vb bb^s*) by YHWH’s protection. The root <jn has the basic meaning of “breathing deep(ly)”, often in the sense of a sympathetic reaction to a person’s situation; here it probably has the more general meaning of coming close to a person, watching carefully over his/her condition, so as to bring help, comfort, or encouragement. For poetic concision (in a short 2-beat line), I have translated the verb <j^n` conventionally as “(give) comfort”. The imperfect verb tenses, as a continuation of the Psalmist’s plea/prayer to YHWH, have jussive force.

Dahood (II, p. 177) would vocalize ytldg as yt!l*d*G+, identifying it with Ugaritic gdlt, referring to a (female) head of large cattle. The expectation then is that YHWH will increase the Psalmist’s herd(s), specifically to allow for an increase in the sacrificial offerings that he will be able to present to God. The communal worship context, in this instance, assumes a Temple setting (v. 16).

Verse 22

“(Then) indeed I will throw you (praise) with string-instrument(s),
(praise for) your firmness, My Mightiest,
I will sing to you with (the) plucking (of the) harp,
(O) Holy (One) of Yisrael.”

In the concluding verses 22-24, the Psalmist again declares his intention to praise YHWH with music and song. Loosely, verse 22 consists of a pair of 3+2 couplets, though the poetic syntax is a bit awkward and uneven, and difficult to render literally into English. Overall, however, the meaning is clear and straightforward, as also is the parallelism of the couplets. In the first line of each, the Psalmist says that he will sing praise to God on a stringed-instrument—first, quite literally, on a “instrument of skin [i.e., gut/string]”, and second on a ‘harp’ the strings of which one “plucks”.

God is praised specifically for his “firmness” (tm#a#), meaning, principally, His faithfulness (and truthfulness/trustworthiness) to the binding agreement (covenant) with His people. The covenant also informs the use of the Divine title “Holy One [vodq*] of Israel”.

Verse 23

“My lips shall ring out, indeed, (when) I sing to you,
and (also) my soul, which you redeemed.”

The Psalmist will give full-voiced praise to YHWH; indeed, his lips will “ring out” (vb /n~r*), i.e., with a resounding cry. Such praise will come forth from deep within his soul, from the life which God has (or will have) ransomed (vb hd*P*) out of death and danger. Perhaps also the more concrete meaning of vp#n#, as “throat” (rather than “soul”), is intended here; this would make a fitting parallel with “lips” and would add to the idea of giving full-voiced (i.e., full-throated) praise to God.

Verse 24a

“Indeed, my tongue all the day (long)
shall utter (word of) your righteousness.”

This short couplet continues (and concludes) the Psalmist’s declaration of praise to YHWH. From the specific idea of (full-voiced) singing, in public, the sense shifts to a quieter scene of the protagonist muttering/murmuring (vb hg`h*) praise of God’s righteousness (hq*d*x=, cf. above) all throughout the day, even when by himself in private moments. For the righteous ones, such as the Psalmist, praise of God is a continuous and ongoing activity that is not limited to public times of communal worship.

Verse 24b

“(Oh,) that they may be put to shame,
that they may be humiliated,
(those) seeking evil for me!”

As in the First Part of the Psalm (cf. verse 13), the Second Part concludes with an imprecatory (curse) wish by the Psalmist for his wicked adversaries. He asks (God) that they be put to shame (vb voB) and humiliated (vb rp@j*), very much the same sentiments expressed in v. 13. Both parts end with the same words, referring to the Psalmist’s enemies by the expression “(those) seeking my evil [i.e. evil/harm for me]” (yt!u*r* yv@q=b^m!).

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 71 (Part 2)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 1: Verses 1-13 (cont.)

For a discussion of verses 1-8, see the previous study.

Verses 9

“Do not cast me (away) in (the) time of (my) old age;
at (the) ending of my strength, do not leave me!”

In vv. 5-8, the Psalmist refers to how he has been faithful to YHWH since the time of his youth; now he calls on God to remain faithful to him in his old age (hn`q=z]). The three-beat couplet has a chiastic structure:

    • Do not cast me away [vb El^v*]
      • in the time of (my) old age
      • at the ending of my strength
    • do not leave/forsake me [vb bz~u*]
Verses 10-11

“For (those) hostile to me say (things) about me,
and (those) watching my soul, they plan as one,
‘(The) Mightiest has left him,
let us pursue and seize him,
for there is no (one) rescuing him!'”

The tone of lament from the opening verses returns here; the Psalmist laments his current suffering, and calls upon YHWH to rescue him from his hostile adversaries. These wicked people are characterized here by two substantive verbal nouns:

    • by~a*— “(the one)s being hostile to me” [yb~!y+oa]
    • rm^v*— “(the one)s watching my soul” [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)], that is, with evil/hostile intent

Dahood (II, p. 174) explains the verb rm^a* in line 1 as preserving the archaic meaning “see, watch” (as attested in Ugaritic), rather that the common meaning “say”. While this is possible, it would distort the close synonymous parallelism of the couplet:

    • “the ones hostile to me | speak…”
    • “those watching my soul | plan…(saying)”

Verse 10 is an irregular 4-beat couplet; verse 11 is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though it is perhaps better to separate out the initial word (as I have done above [some commentators would omit it]), and to read the verse as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The terseness of this rhythm reflects the harshness and directness of the opponents’ plotting. They seek to take advantage of the fact that the protagonist, in his old age and suffering, would seem to have lost God’s protection. They can pursue (vb [d^r*) and seize (vb cp^T*) him, because there is no one (else) around to “snatch” (vb lx^n`) him (i.e., rescue him) out of their grasp; the latter verb is used frequently in the Psalms to express the protection and deliverance YHWH provides to those who are (and remain) faithful to him. The opponents think that the Psalmist is no longer under this covenantal protection, but he makes his plea to YHWH on just this basis—that he has remained loyal to God throughout his whole life.

Verse 12

“Mightiest, do not be far away from me!
My Mighty (One), hurry to (give) me help!”

The Psalmist’s plea is expressed here, with a double-address to YHWH; probably the initial <yh!l)a$ should be seen as a substitution for the divine name YHWH (hwhy), such as occurs throughout the ‘Elohist’ Psalms. The negative “do not be far (away) [vb qj^r*]” is parallel with the positive “hurry [vb vWj]”, i.e., come near to give help. In the translation above, I treat yt!r*z+u#l= as a verbal noun (“to [give] me help”), but it might be more accurately rendered as “to (be) my help” —i.e., YHWH Himself is the Psalmist’s help.

Verse 13

“They shall be ashamed, finished,
(the one)s accusing my soul,
shall be wrapped (in) shame and disgrace,
(those) seeking my evil [i.e. harm]”

As it stands, v. 13 is a 2-beat couplet followed by a 3+2 couplet; however, one suspects that a word may be missing from the first line, and that originally there was a pair of 3+2 couplets. In any case, the thought of the verse is clear enough, as is the parallelism of the couplets. Again the wicked are characterized by a pair of substantive verbal nouns:

    • /f^c*— “(the one)s accusing my soul” [yv!p=n~ yn@f=c)]
    • vq^B*— “(the one)s seeking my evil [i.e. harm]” [yt!u*r* yv@q=b^m=]

The imperfect verb forms in lines 1 and 3 (“they shall be…”) have jussive force, and could be translated as an imprecation: “let them be…!” Imprecatory (curse) wishes are frequent in the Psalms, however uncomfortable they may be for us (as Christians) reading them today.

Part 2: Verses 14-24

Verse 14

“But I, continually I will wait, (for you),
and will add (further) upon your praise!”

The Psalmist’s expression of trust here mirrors that in the opening of Part 1 (cf. on verse 1 in the previous study). In spite of his suffering, and the hostile attacks of his opponents, the protagonist continues to trust in YHWH. The verb used here is lj^y`, meaning “wait (for someone/something),” often with a connotation of hopeful expectation. The aspect of continuity is expressed in the first line with the adverb dym!T* (denoting extension); in the second line, the verb ps^y` (“add [to]”) can similarly have the adverbial meaning “continue to do (something)”. The focus of praise is, of course, appropriate as an expression of trust for a musician-composer like the Psalmist.

Verse 15

“My mouth shall recount your righteousness,
all the day (long), your saving (deeds),
though I cannot know (the) count (of them).”

Verse 15 builds upon the thought in v. 14, with a slightly irregular 3-beat tricolon. The final two lines expound the first, while the framing (first and third) lines involve a bit of wordplay on the meaning of the root rps (“count, number”). In line 1, the verb rp^s* (in the Piel) means “give account of” or “recount”, in the sense of declaring something, telling of it (e.g., in poem and song). However, the plural noun torp)s= in line 3 refers more concretely to the count or number of something—best understood in terms of the saving deeds performed by YHWH, represented in line 2 by the [collective] singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”). I follow Dahood (II, p. 174) in understanding the yK! particle in line 3 as having concessive force (i.e., “even though…”). The ironic sense of the wordplay is: the Psalmist will recount the saving deeds of YHWH, even though he is not able to count the sheer number of them.

Verse 16

“I shall come with (your) mighty (deed)s, my Lord [YHWH],
I shall cause your righteousness to be remembered, yours alone.”

The exposition of the Psalmist’s praise continues here, with the declaration “I shall come” (vb aoB). The following prepositional expression, torb%g=B!, is somewhat ambiguous. If, as I propose, the singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”) in v. 15 (cf. above) refers collectively to the “saving deeds” performed by YHWH, then the plural torB%g+ would simply mean the “mighty (deed)s” of YHWH. The Psalmist comes “with” (B=) tales in hand (in poem and song) of these mighty deeds. Plausibly, the scenario is of the protagonist entering the sacred place of assembly (Temple precincts, etc) with praise of these deeds, ready to declare them publicly. Dahood (II, p. 175) would understand the noun hr*WbG+ as referring to the “mighty (house)” (i.e., the Temple) of God, noting the Semitic (Canaanite) tendency of using plural forms for the names of buildings.

There is a certain chiastic structure to verses 15-16, taken together:

    • “I shall recount your righteousness
      • (I shall announce) all day your saving (deeds)
      • I shall come with (praise of your) mighty deeds
    • I shall make (people) remember your righteousness

*    *    *    *    *    *

It is possible to view verse 17 as marking the start of a distinct unit within Part 2 of the Psalm. The reference to the youth and old age of the Psalmist (vv. 17-18) certainly parallels the theme of units vv. 5-8 and 9-13 of Part 1 (cf. above). Thematically, I would divide Part 2 as follows:

    • Vv. 14-16: Announcement of the Psalmist’s praise of YHWH
    • Vv. 17-21: Description of YHWH’s faithfulness to the Psalmist, with an expression of trust that God will deliver him
    • Vv. 22-24: Concluding declaration of praise to YHWH

Verses 17-24 will be discussed in next week’s study.

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 70

Psalm 70

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is essentially identical with Psalm 40:14-18 [13-17], discussed in an earlier study. The points of difference are noted below. The existence of Psalm 70 provides confirmation for scholars who hold that vv. 14-18 of Ps 40 originally constituted a separate Psalm. We are apparently dealing with two versions of the same basic poem. On its own, this poem is a lament, containing a plea/prayer to YHWH for deliverance. The meter is irregular.

The superscription simply marks this as another composition “belonging to David”. The precise meaning of the additional direction ryK!z+h^l= is unclear. If parsed as a Hiphil infinitive (of the verb rk^z`), it would mean “to cause to remember, to bring to remembrance”, but whether this relates to the performing tradition, or to the content (and purpose) of the poem, is uncertain. The same expression occurs in the superscription of Ps 38; and note the use of the verb rk^z` in the opening lines of Pss 132 and 137.

Verse 2 [1]

“(Rush, O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away)!
(O) YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

The Psalmist’s plea for help begins with this single couplet. It is nearly identical with Ps 40:14[13], the two differences being: (1) use of <yh!l)a$ in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) in the first line, and (2) the initial verb (hxr) is missing. The parallel with Ps 40, along with the irregular meter (2+3) of the couplet as it currently stands, strongly suggests that a comparable verb (imperative) has dropped out. In discussing 40:14 (cf. the earlier study), I mentioned that I had followed Dahood (I, p. 247) in vocalizing the initial verb form (hxr) as hx*r% (from the root JWr, “run, rush”), rather than MT hx@r= (from hx*r*, “be pleased [to act]”). The verb JWr makes a more obvious (and fitting) parallel with vwj (“hurry”) in the second line.

If the MT of verse 2 is correct, then it must be regarded as a rhythmically irregular couplet (though with identical numbers of syllables in each line [8+8]); it could be translated as follows:

“(O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away),
YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

Dahood (II, p. 168) would parse yn]l@yX!hl= as a Hiphil imperative form with an emphatic –l; the first line would then read: “(O) Mightiest, snatch me (away)!”. The use of the general title <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm, “Mightiest,” i.e., ‘God’) in place of the Divine name (hwhy) is typical of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms we have been studying.

Verse 3 [2]

“May they feel shame and humiliation,
(those) seeking (after) my soul!
May they be sent backward and be ashamed,
(the one)s (who) delight in my evil!”

Again, this verse is very close to that of Psalm 40 (v. 15 [14]), cf. the earlier study; the second couplet is identical, while there is an extra word at the end of each in the first couplet of Ps 40 (yielding a 3+3 rather than 2+2 couplet):

“May they feel shame and humiliation as one [dj^y~],
(those) seeking my soul to sweep it (away) [Ht*oPs=l!]!”

Here we have familiar motif of wicked assailants who attack the righteous protagonist, seeking to do him harm (and even to kill him)—in this sense, of course, “my evil” means “evil done (or intended) against me”. This is a dramatic paradigm we have encountered in dozens of Psalms. It is a general way of referring to the wicked (in contrast to the righteous), and does not require the presence of specific enemies. However, the poetic idiom could certainly be applied to any number of historical situations or practical circumstances.

The desire that such wicked assailants would be “put to shame”, and have their evil plans thwarted (“turned back”), is also a common prayer-wish in these lament-Psalms. This is expressed through three different verbs which share a similar range of meaning: vWB, rp@j*, and <l^K*. These are used repeatedly throughout the Psalms, and often with similar formulations (35:4 is quite close here).

Verse 4 [3]

“May they be devastated upon (the) heel of their shame,
(the one)s saying (to me), ‘Aha, aha!'”

The second line of Ps 40:16[15] contains an additional word (yl!, “to me”, indicated in parentheses above), but is otherwise identical. The shorter second line of v. 4 here results in a tighter couplet, with a more precise 3-beat rhythm, though metrically there is not much difference between the two versions.

The wish of v. 3 [2] is restated here, but even more intensely, as the Psalmist asks that his adversaries be “devastated” (vb <m@v*) on account of their shame. The expression “upon (the) heel of” (bq#u@ lu^) is a Hebrew idiom that can be rendered blandly in English as “on account of”. The sense of their wickedness is captured here through their accusatory taunting of the righteous (cp. 35:21). For a slightly different explanation of bqu (with a different vocalization), cf. Dahood, II, p. 168.

Verse 5 [4]

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!’
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Ps 40:17[16] is identical, accept for the final noun, which in Ps 40 is hu*WvT= rather than the related hu*Wvy+, the two words essentially being byforms with identical meaning.

Just as the Psalmist prays for the wicked to feel shame and humiliation, so he also wishes (conversely) for the righteous to experience joy. The verb pair cWc and jm^c* expresses this joyfulness, even as the pair vWB and rp@j* in v. 3 [2] expresses the shame/humiliation of the wicked. The contrastive parallel (between the righteous and wicked) is quite precise here. The wicked are the ones “seeking [vb vq^B*]” the soul of the righteous, to do it harm; by contrast, the righteous are the ones “seeking” (same verb) after YHWH, to do His will. The wicked utter accusatory taunts (“Aha, aha!”) against the righteous, while the righteous utter praise in honor of YHWH (“Great is YHWH!”).

Structurally, this verse is best understood as a tricolon that has been expanded with two additional short lines. The tricolon is comprised of lines 1-2 and 5 above, producing a fine characterization of the righteous:

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Within this poetic structure, the additional descriptive element has been added:

“(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!'”

To their heart and intention, a confessional aspect is included, whereby the righteous demonstrate their devotion to YHWH through what they say publicly. It implies a worship setting, but even more importantly, it marks the Psalmist as belonging to the gathering of (all the) the righteous.

Verse 6 [5]

“And (yet) I (am) oppressed and needy,
(O) Mightiest, (come) hurry to me!
You (are) my help and my escaping—
(O) YHWH, do not stay behind!”

Compared with the parallel in Ps 40:18[17], there is a more consistent parallelism in the couplets here, taking the form of an urgent plea to YHWH (matching that of v. 2 at the opening of the Psalm). The points of difference are indicated in italics above, as well as, correspondingly, here for Ps 40:

“And (though) I (am) oppressed and needy,
my Lord has regard for me.
You (are) my help and my escaping—
my Mighty (One), do not stay behind!”

The righteous are frequently characterized as poor/needy (/oyb=a#) and oppressed (yn]a*), and this pairing occurs numerous times in the Psalms—35:10; 37:14; 72:4, 12; 74:21; 86:1; 109:16, 22; 140:13; and cf. also on 69:33-34 (in the previous study). The wicked, by contrast, are rich and powerful (at least by worldly standards), and oppress the righteous. This is expressed from the standpoint of social justice, but as an idiom also carries a deeper religious and theological resonance. The righteous, by their very nature, cannot share the success and strength of the wicked in the world; instead, they must trust in YHWH for sustenance and protection.

The protection provided by YHWH is again the subject of the final two lines, as the Psalmist closes his poem with the plea: “O YHWH, do not stay behind!”. The verb rj^a* literally means “stay behind, keep back”, and expresses a situation that is the opposite of what the Psalmist needs. He needs YHWH to come forward to rescue him, to stand in front of him and give the necessary protection. YHWH is both the help and the “way out”, the escape (vb fl^P*) from all that threatens him.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 1)

Psalm 69

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1-19 [18])

It is generally acknowledged that this Psalm, in comparison with the previous Ps 68, is in much better textual condition. Despite being comparable in size, the MT of Ps 69 presents far fewer textual and interpretive difficulties. Even so, its length and complexity remain challenging for commentators. In particular, there a number of different theories regarding the composition of the work. It seems likely that some measure of development and expansion took place, by which the current Psalm grew into shape, from a simpler/shorter original composition. The three-stage development posited by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 176) is worth citing as a plausible hypothesis:

    • Stage 1: A pre-exilic psalm of lament, consisting of vv. 2-5, 14c-19, 31; the structure of this Psalm follows a familiar pattern of lament-petition-praise.
    • Stage 2: The primary psalm was expanded, according its three structural elements: lament (vv. 6-14b), petition (vv. 20-30), praise vow (vv. 32-34).
    • Stage 3: The call to praise, mentioning the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem (vv. 35-37), was added to the end of the psalm; this last portion certainly comes from an exilic (or post-exilic) setting.

In terms of analyzing the structure of this lengthy Psalm, it seems best to keep things relatively simple, following a broad 3-part division that, I think, can be discerned rather clearly:

    • Part 1: Lament to YHWH (vv. 2-13)
    • Part 2: Prayer to YHWH (vv. 14-30)
    • Part 3: Praise to YHWH (vv. 31-37)

Metrically, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates; however, this is far from consistent. As one might expect, in a poem of such length and complexity, the meter varies considerably. Notable rhythmic departures from the 3+3 pattern will be mentioned in the notes.

The short heading to the Psalm simply marks this as another Davidic composition (“[belonging] to David”). The musical direction indicates that the lyric of the poem should be performed to the melody “Lilies” (<yN]v*ov); the same direction occurs in Psalm 45 (cf. also Ps 60:1; 80:1).

It should be mentioned that a significant portion of this Psalm, though fragmentary, survives in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa, covering vv. 1-19. This includes an interesting number of variant readings, compared with the Masoretic text. Some of these will be touched upon in the next study.

Part 1: Verses 2-13 [1-12]

Verse 2 [1]

“Save me, O Mightiest,
for there have come
waters up to (my) neck!”

The initial verse, which I read as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, presents, in sharp and vivid detail, the danger facing the protagonist of this Psalm. There are a number of instances (always in poetry) where the word vp#n#, usually translated “soul”, should be understood in the concrete physical sense of “neck, throat”; this is certainly one such instance. The image (symbolic of mortal peril) is of the Psalmist in water up to his neck, and the implication is that the waters are still coming. In other words, he is in danger of being submerged, and drowning.

Verse 3 [2]

“I have sunk in mire of (the) deep (sea),
and there is no place to stand;
I have come in(to the) depths of (the) waters,
and (the) swirling (flood) engulfs me!”

This verse expands the imagery in v. 2, expressed through a pair of 3+2 couplets. The first line in each couplet depicts a similar idea:

    • I have sunk in the mire of the deep (sea)
    • I have come in(to) the depths of the waters

Two different words are used to express the idea of deep water, watery depths: hl*Wxm= and qm*u&m^; both words essentially mean “deep place”. The noun /w@y` adds the motif of “mud, mire” to the portrait of the surging and swirling (lbv) waters.

The second line of each couplet is also parallel. The idea of having no “place to stand” (dm*u(m*) is followed by the more dramatic image of the waters “engulfing”(vb [f^v*) the Psalmist.

Verse 4 [3]

“I am exhausted by my crying,
my throat is (all) parched,
(and) my eyes are finished,
from waiting for my Mighty (One).”

Following the idea of being submerged by water, in vv. 2-3, the image now shifts to one of being dried out. The Psalmist’s throat (/orG`, cf. the parallel with vp#n# in v. 2, above) is literally “burned” (vb rr^j*), best understood in the sense of being “parched,” i.e., dry (and scorched) as in the desert. His throat is parched from all his “crying (out)” to God; this constant outcry has exhausted (vb ug~y`) him, and weakened him so that his eyes fail (lit. are finished). The parallelism in these couplets is chiastic:

    • I am exhausted crying out (to God)
      • my throat is burnt
      • my eyes are finished
    • (I have been) waiting for my God

That is, the Psalmist has been waiting for YHWH to answer his cry for help. Dahood (II, p. 156f) would read the prefixed –l on yh*l)al@ as a vocative— “…from waiting, O my Mighty (One)”. This is certainly possible; it would preserve the direct address to God throughout.

Metrically, in this verse we have a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. The terse rhythm captures the urgency of the situation.

Verse 5 [4]

“Many (more) than (the) hairs of my head
(are those) hating me for nothing,
strong (those) putting an end to me,
my enemies (acting with) deceit.
That which I did not strip away,
must I then return (it)?”

Here it becomes clear that the imagery of being engulfed by deadly waters was figurative of the danger facing the Psalmist. In its place is the familiar idiom of the danger posed by hostile enemies and opponents, expressed through the regular verbal nouns (in the plural), “(one)s hating” (vb an@c*) and “(one)s being hostile” (vb by~a*). Their force is characterized by the verbs (in emphatic position) “be many” (bb^r*) and “be strong/mighty” (<x^u*). They are more numerous than the hairs on the Psalmist’s head (note the use of the preposition /m! [“from”] in the comparative sense, “[more] than”). In light of this expression, some commentators would emend the MT of the third line slightly, reading yt!M*x^m! (“from my locks[?]”) instead of yt^ym!x=m^ (“putting an to me”, vb tm^x*). This would create a parallelism with the first line:

    • “they are more numerous than the hairs of my head” /
      “they are more mighty than the locks (of) my (hair)”

For the possible meaning of hM*x^ as “lock(s of hair),” cf. the context of its use in Isa 47:2; Song 4:1, 3; 6:7.

The meter of v. 5 (as it stands) is irregular: a 3+2 couplet, followed by a 2+2 couplet. An additional 2-beat couplet seems to express the nature of the enemies’ action:

“That which I did not strip away
must I then return (it)”

Apparently the protagonist is accused of theft, expressed in terms of violent robbery, using the verb lz~G` (“pluck off, strip away, take [by force]”). The idea of having to return what he did not steal suggests the possibility of a legal action.

Verse 6 [5]

“Mightiest, you (indeed) know of my foolishness,
and my faults, from you they are not concealed.”

After the terse rhythm of vv. 2-5, the meter changes suddenly here, to a longer 4+3 couplet; then, for the remainder of this part of the Psalm, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet pattern becomes regular. The sense of danger and pleading is replaced by a more reasoned petition to YHWH. It expresses the traditional religious idea that a person’s sins and faults are known to God (the All-knowing), and cannot be kept away from Him.

Verse 7 [6]

“May they not be ashamed by me,
(those) looking to you, my Lord,
O YHWH of (the heavenly) armies!
May they not be disgraced by me,
(those) seeking you, Mighty (One)
of Yisrael!”

The repeated prayer by the Psalmist here functions as an affirmation that he would conduct himself in a manner worthy of the righteous/faithful ones. It is an expression of his heart’s desire and intention. He would never willingly do the sort of thing of which his enemies accuse him.

The meter of this verse, as we have it, is truly unusual. It consists of a pair of uneven couplets—2+2 and 2+3; an extra 2-beat line is added to the first couplet, producing a 2-beat tricolon. The couplets are parallel in concept, and could be seen as 2-beat couplets with expanded honorifics applied to YHWH; I have tried to illustrate this with the poetic arrangement of the lines above.

The righteous are characterized as those “looking for” (vb hw`q* I) God and “seeking” (vb vq^B*) Him.

Verse 8 [7]

“For (it is) over you (that) I have carried blame,
(and) humiliation has covered my face.”

The Psalmist expresses here the real reason for the attacks by his wicked adversaries. It is because of (lit. “over”) his righteous devotion to YHWH (“over you”). It is for God’s sake that he is facing blame and disgrace from his accusers.

Verse 9 [8]

“A stranger I have become to my brothers,
and (one) foreign to (the) sons of my mother.”

His righteous conduct and devotion to YHWH has effectively made the Psalmist a stranger to his own people. This idea is expressed through two roots: (1) rWz and (2) rk^n`. I follow Dahood (II, p. 157) in separating the prefixed –m from rzwm, and attaching it (as an enclitic suffix <-) to the last word of the previous verse. This yields a smoother syntax. The first word of v. 9 would then be vocalized rz`w+.

Verse 10 [9]

“Indeed, ardor for your house consumes me,
and (the) scorn of (those) scorning you
has fallen upon me.”

Metrically, this verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though this is a bit difficult to capture in translation. The noun hP*r=j# is the same as in v. 8, where I translated it “blame”; here the same idea is expressed through the harsher rendering “scorn” (with the connotation of insult, mockery, contempt). The plural of the noun would be properly captured in English by “insults”. The related verb [r^j* is used side by side with the noun, for emphasis and dramatic effect.

The noun ha*n+q! in line 1 is also a bit tricky to translate. It essentially denotes a strong attractive emotion; the typical translations, “zeal” and “jealousy” are perhaps too precise, and can be misleading. I have translated it above as “ardor,” implying an intense, faithful devotion to the things of God. The “house” could refer specifically to the Temple, or to the more general idea of God’s ‘household’. I translate the initial yK! here as an emphatic particle (“indeed…”). The line is cited in John 2:17, where the context certainly is the Jerusalem Temple (though given a unique Christological interpretation in that passage).

Verse 11 [10]

“When I poured out my soul with fasting,
it even came to be as scorn toward me.”

The idea seems to be that the Psalmist was mocked and abused for his intense religious devotion, expressed in terms of fervent fasting. Since fasting can effect a person’s mood and physical appearance, it may be this that is the brunt of his enemies’ ridicule.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 158) in repointing hkbaw as hk*B)a#w`, from the verb Eb^n` (= Ep^n`), meaning “pour (forth)”; cf. the noun Eb#n# (“spring [of water]”) in Job 28:11; 38:16. This seems to make better sense of the line.

Verse 12 [11]

“And I gave rough cloth for my garment,
and I became for them as a byword.”

This verse essentially expresses the same idea as v. 11. The Psalmist’s religious devotion, so intense as to verge on an extreme asceticism, was a source of mockery to people. The noun lv*m* has a relatively wide range of meaning, and is not easily translated; there is not really an English equivalent. The basic connotation here is that the Psalmist becomes an example of foolishness, the butt of insulting jokes that are spread around. The translation “byword,” though not common in English, perhaps is closest to the mark; however, one should not exclude the idea of the Psalmist becoming a kind of ‘proverbial’ figure, in the sense of being a (comical or pathetic) example of the foolishness of religious devotion.

Verse 13 [12]

“About me they rehearse, (those) sitting (at the) gate,
even songs strummed (by those) feasting on drink.”

The Psalmist as a source of mockery, as an example of silly religious devotion, extends even to devising catchy ditties and songs sung at drinking feasts. The verb j^yc! here should be understood in the sense of “rehearse” —that is, of going over a little song in one’s head. Probably the idea is that mocking songs devised by people “sitting at the gate” eventually come to be sung by boisterous drinkers at feasts. The noun hn`yg]n+ properly denotes a song (or musical composition) performed on a stringed instrument.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

March 6: Psalm 68:2-4

Strophe 1: Psalm 68:2-4 [1-3]

As discussed in the introduction, Psalm 68 has a three-part structure involving nine distinct strophes (or stanzas); each part contains three strophes. The first strophe is comprised of verses 2-4.

Verse 2 [1]

“(The) Mightiest rises (up),
(those) hostile to Him scatter,
and (those) hating Him flee from His face.”

This initial tricolon reflects the meter/rhythm of the Psalm. Though the meter is irregular, varying throughout, the general pattern is of a 2-beat (2+2) couplet, punctuated (or interwoven) by a longer 3-beat line or couplet. The short 2-beat rhythm gives a terse, dramatic feel to the poetry. Here the parallelism of the couplet is synthetic, with the second line building upon the first; indeed, the action in the second line is caused by the action (of YHWH) in the first line. The parallel is formal, better seen if the couplet is translated according to the Hebrew word order:

    • Rises | (the) Mightiest
      scatter | (those) hostile to Him

The three-beat line that follows expounds line 2:

    • they scatter | (those) hostile to Him
      and they flee | (those) hating Him | from His face

God’s enemies are described using suffixed verbal nouns (participles). The verb by~a* means “be hostile to (someone)”, while an@c* means “to hate”; both verbs essentially connote having enmity (toward someone), and thus being an enemy. The actions are also parallel, expressed first by JWP I (“scatter”), then by sWn (“flee, fly [away]”).

The verb <Wq (“rise, stand [up]”) here is used in a military context; however, the sense is that the enemies flee from YHWH even before He strikes them. The very act of His standing up is enough to scare them off and put them to flight.

Verse 3 [2]

“Like driven smoke, they are driven (away),
like melting wax from (the) face of fire,
(the) wicked (one)s perish
from (the) face of (the) Mightiest.”

Metrically, this verse is comprised of a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet. The first couplet has a formal parallelism that is synonymous—describing what happens to the wicked as YHWH begins to act against them. It thus builds upon the last two lines of v. 2. However, now it is not just that the wicked flee from YHWH before He has a chance to act; rather, God does, in fact, strike at them. This is indicated by the verb [d^n`, which signifies something that is scattered by a driving force—i.e., it drives them away. The verb is used twice (for emphasis) in the first line, and commentators (cf. Kraus, p. 46) are doubtless correct in reading the first form as a Niphal vocalized as [d@N`h!. I follow Dahood (II, p. 135) in reading the second form as a Niphal 3rd-person masculine plural (or singular with collective meaning). The context would seem to require this.

Two different (parallel) images are utilized: (1) smoke (/v*u*) that is driven away (by the wind), and (2) wax (gn~oD) that is melted (vb ss^m*) by the heat of fire. For the latter, the specific expression is “from (before the) face of fire” (va@-yn@P=m!); it is parallel with “from (before the) face of God” (<yh!l)a$ yn@P=m!). It is the powerful presence of YHWH that bring the destructive scattering of the wicked, as is clear from the final couplet.

In both verse 2 and 3, the title <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm) is used in place of the divine name (hwhy/YHWH); this characterizes Psalm 68 as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm. On the significance of this plural noun as applied to God (in a monotheistic context), cf. my earlier article; I translate it as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, “Mightiest (One)”.

Verse 4 [3]

“But (the) righteous (one)s will be glad,
they will leap before (the) face of (the) Mightiest,
and will rejoice (indeed) with gladness!”

This tricolon matches that of verse 2, only with a shift in rhythm—the meter being 2+3+2. The contrast between the righteous (<yq!yD!x^) and the wicked (<yu!v*r=) is a staple of Wisdom literature, and occurs frequently in the Psalms (as we have seen in earlier studies). The fate of the wicked (fear/scattering/destruction) was described in vv. 2-3, and now that of the righteous (gladness/rejoicing) is described here in v. 4. The contrast is focused upon the idea of being in the presence of YHWH—literally His face (<yn]P*). For the wicked, being in God’s presence results in terror and destruction, while the righteous are able to leap for joy, in safety and blessing.

Three different roots are utilized here to express the idea of joy/rejoicing: (1) jmc (used twice), essentially denoting “be glad”; (2) Jlu, signifying a leaping for joy; and (3) cWc, meaning generally to show joy, rejoice.

Strophe 2 will be discussed in the next daily note.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 68

Psalm 68

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (vv. 1-5, 14-18 [1-4, 13-17])

This relatively lengthy and complex Psalm has received much attention and discussion by scholars. Nearly all commentators admit that the text is difficult, with evidence of likely corruption at various points. The age of the poetry has apparently led to considerable misunderstanding by ancient copyists. In this regard, studies in Canaanite literature and NW Semitic philology have helped to elucidate certain passages, though there is far from any scholarly consensus on how best to read and handle the text at these points. Because of M. Dahood’s vigorous engagement with the Canaanite and NW Semitic evidence throughout his 3-volume (Anchor Bible [AB]) commentary, I have consulted his work even more often than I am accustomed to do, in analyzing Psalm 68.

The structure of the Psalm is understandably complex, and may be the result of development—redaction and shaping of the text—over a number of centuries, from the early kingdom period to the exilic (and post-exilic) period. However, in the composition as it has come down to us, we can discern a relatively clear three-part, nine-strophe structure. In each of the three parts (vv. 2-11, 12-24, 25-36), the first two strophes are followed by a ‘refrain’ strophe. This last, third strophe follows a distinct pattern: there is an initial couplet, followed by a Selah pause-marker. This may indicate that the opening couplet functions like the hirmos in a Greek orthodox canonical ode. The hirmos sets the melody and rhythm for the following troparia (verses) in each ode, and it seems to me that originally the opening couplet in the third strophe here in Psalm 68 may have done something similar.

The unusual meter of Psalm 68 would seem to be an indicator of the relative antiquity of the poetry. A short 2-beat (2+2) couplet format tends to be used, often punctuated by a longer 3-beat line or couplet. This is typical of ancient Hebrew poems, such as the famous Song of the Sea (or Song of Moses) in Exodus 15. Quite possibly this Psalm was influenced, both thematically and musically, by that famous Song. Certainly, some of the same themes and points of emphasis are found here.

Psalm 68 can be counted among the ‘Elohist’ Psalms, in which the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) was replaced by the title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, ‘God’). However, at several points in the Psalm, the Divine name was preserved.

The short heading, designating Ps 68 as another Davidic composition (romz+m!), also refers to it specifically as a “song” (ryv!), as in the prior Pss 65-67 (cf. the study on Ps 65).

I had considered discussing this Psalm over three studies (one study for each of the three parts). However, because of the many textual issues that need to be addressed, I have decided to treat Psalm 68 within the daily notes feature on this site (beginning with Strophe 1 [vv. 2-4]). This will allow for a detailed focus on just one or two verses at a time, with space for thorough examination of the textual difficulties.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 67

Psalm 67

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1-2, 4-8 [1, 3-7])

This short Psalm has a simple and appealing structure. A central hymn in verses 3-6 [2-5] is framed by a prayer-lyric at the opening (v. 2 [1]) and closing (vv. 7-8 [6-7]) of the Psalm. The closing lyric is similar, in a number of respects, to the opening, and thus functions in the manner of repeated refrain. The core hymn shares certain ideas and features in common with the prior Psalms 65 and 66. Most notably, the theme of the nations coming to praise the God of Israel, acknowledging His greatness and power, was prominent in Ps 65 (cf. the previous study).

Like the previous two Psalms (cf. also Pss 30, 45-46, 48), this Psalm is designated both a musical composition (romz+m!) and a “song” (ryv!). As I have noted, since virtually every Psalm could be called a “song”, it is not entirely clear precisely what (if anything) is distinctive in the use of the term ryv!. It has been suggested that it refers to a Psalm that was specifically sung in a ritual worship setting (in the Temple); if so, then the characterization of such Psalms as a religious hymns would be appropriate. This Psalm is also directed to be performed on stringed instruments (tonyg]n+), as also in the headings of Pss 4, 6, 54-55, 61 (and 76).

Psalm 67 also has the distinction of being one of the Psalms most completely preserved in the Qumran scrolls. This is due to the brevity of the Psalm, and the happy coincidence that the bulk of it is contained within the surviving fragments of 4QPsa.

Metrically, the Psalm follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, with only a couple of exceptions (noted below).

Verse 2 [1]

“Mightiest, show favor to us and bless us,
make your face to shine (and) come upon us!”

The opening verse is a prayer-couplet, introducing the hymn proper, calling upon God (YHWH) to bless His people—i.e., the Psalmist and the other righteous/faithful ones of Israel. Four verbs are used, two in each line, three jussives along with one (precative) perfect form (cp. on verses 7-8 below):

    • Line 1:
      (a) /n~j* (“show favor”); (b) Er^B* (“bless”)
    • Line 2:
      (a) roa (Hiphil, “make shine); (b) ht*a* (“come”)

I follow Dahood (II, p. 127) in reading wnta as Wnt*a* (“come [upon] us”), rather than MT WnT*a! (“with/to us”). As indicated above, it would then be understood as a perfect form of the verb ht*a* (“come”), cf. Job 3:25; it is read as a precative perfect, to match the three prior jussive forms. The shining of God’s face is parallel to the idea of “showing favor”, while God blessing His people is explained in terms of His presence (and nearness), “coming” upon them.

The use of the term <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest,” Elohim, i.e. ‘God’) in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH), marks this as another ‘Elohist’ Psalm.

Verses 3-4 [2-3]

“For (the) knowing in all (the) earth your path,
(and) in all (the) nations your saving help,
may the peoples throw you (praise), Mightiest,
let the peoples throw you (praise), all of them!”

These two matching couplets, which open the hymn proper, can be viewed grammatically as a single statement. The first couplet (v. 3) describes the nations of the earth coming to know (vb ud^y`) and recognize YHWH, both in terms of His “way” (Er#D#) and the saving help (hu*Wvy+) that He gives to His people. Here the word Er#D# (lit. indicating a trodden path) should be understood in the sense of God’s dominion over the earth. The setting of the foot (of the ruler) on his territory marks it as belonging to him, and under his ruling authority. For the theme of the nations witnessing the great deeds done by YHWH on behalf of His people (Israel), cf. the previous studies on Pss 65 and 66.

The second couplet (v. 4) twice calls upon all the peoples (<yM!u^) to give (lit. throw/cast, hd*y`) praise to YHWH. In the context of the first couplet, it is clear that this praise is in response to a recognition of YHWH’s sovereign power over the world, and of the mighty acts of salvation performed by Him (such as the great Exodus event at the Reed Sea, cf. Ps 66:6).

Verse 5 [4]

“May they be glad and cry (for joy), (the) nations,
for you judge (the) peoples (in) a level (place),
and (the) nations, you shall lead them in(to) the land.”

This verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, thus departing slightly (for dramatic effect) from the metrical pattern. Even in translation, the chiasm of the verse is rather obvious:

    • May…the nations [<yM!a%l=]
      • you judge the peoples [<yM!a^]
    • and the nations [<yM!a%l=]…

It is possible to parse the chiasm even more finely (cf. Dahood, II, p. 128):

    • May be glad and cry (out)
      (the) nations
      • for you shall judge /
      • (the) peoples (in) straightness
    • and (the) nations
      you shall lead into the land

The plural <yM!a%l= is more or less synonymous with <yM!u^ (“peoples”); however, to preserve the distinction here in v. 5 I have rendered the former as “nations” (like <y]oG in v. 3). A more literal translation might be “communities” or “assemblies” (i.e., assembled peoples).

There is likely a bit of wordplay at work in the second and third lines. The noun rovm! can be translated “straightness” (i.e., fairness, with justice), but it literally denotes a “level place”; thus, it could refer to the place where the judgment occurs, where the nations are gathered together—in other words, a depiction of the afterlife (or eschatological) judgment.

In the third line, the juxtaposition of Jr#a*B* (“in the earth/land”) with the verb hj*n` (“lead, guide”) can be understood two ways. First, the idea could be that YHWH, exercising His sovereign control over the world, will guide all of the nations on the earth, in a general way. Alternately, following upon the motif of the great Judgment (cf. above), the specific sense could be that God will lead the nations (the righteous ones) into the ‘land of the living,’ —that is, into the blessed/heavenly afterlife, along with the righteous of Israel.

Verse 6 [5]

“May the peoples throw you (praise), Mightiest,
let the peoples throw you (praise), all of them!”

Verse 6 repeats the couplet in v. 4 (cf. above), like a recurring refrain to the hymn.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“May the land give (forth) her produce,
may (the) Mightiest, our Mighty (One), bless us!
May (the) Mightiest bless us,
and may they fear Him,
all (the) ends of (the) earth!”

Verse 7 essentially matches verse 2, thus forming a frame for the hymn in vv. 3-6. It is a prayer asking YHWH to bless His people (and their land). The idea of material blessing, of output/produce (lWby+) from the land (Jr#a#), certainly is in mind (cp. 65:10-14, with the focus on God providing rain from heaven to make fertile the land). However, the possibility that Jr#a# in verse 5 was alluding to the blessed afterlife (i.e., the ‘land of the living’), could mean that the fertility of the land here should be understood in a similar sense.

In verse 8, a two-beat (2+2+2) tricolon is added to the couplet in v. 7, as a coda that brings the Psalm to a close. The two key themes of the Psalm are brought together: (1) a prayer for God’s blessing (line 1), and (2) the idea that the other nations would come to revere YHWH (as the one true God) along with Israel (lines 2-3). The meaning of Jr#a#, as I have translated it, shifts from the “land” (v. 7) to the cosmic/universal sense of “(the) earth” at the end of v. 8.

It is worth noting that, in the first line of v. 8, the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa has “May they [i.e. the nations] bless you, Mightiest,” rather than MT “May the Mightiest bless us.” The entire closing verse then would refer to the theme in the hymn (vv. 3-6), of the nations coming to worship YHWH:

“May they bless you, Mightiest,
and may they fear you [?],
all (the) ends of (the) earth!”

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 66 (Part 2)

Psalm 66, continued

The first part of this Psalm (vv. 1-12, discussed in the previous study) is a hymn to YHWH, in three stanzas, in which the Psalmist calls upon all people to worship and give praise to God. The emphasis is on the mighty deeds of YHWH, done on behalf of His people—particularly the Exodus event at the Reed Sea (specifically alluded to in stanzas 2 and 3).

The second part (vv. 13-20) is very different. It is divided into two sections, or stanzas; here, again, the Selah [hl*s#] pause-marker is an indicator of the poetic structure. The focus is now on a individual worshiper (note the shift to 1st person singular at v. 13). The first section describes a ritual scene, in which a devout worshiper presents a sacrificial offering (in the Temple) in order to fulfill a vow made to YHWH. The association between praise and fulfilling a vow is found with some frequency in the Psalms, and the ritual fulfillment can be expressed through the very sort of praise which the Psalmist has composed. This featured prominently at the beginning of Psalm 65 (cf. the earlier study).

The ritual setting fades from view in the second section, and the focus is, instead, on offering praise to God. The two aspects—sacrifice and praise—both relate to the idea that YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer—a theme that occurs frequently in the Psalms, which often are framed within the context of prayer to God for deliverance, etc.

As in the first part of the Psalm, the meter tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, which is to be assumed (unless otherwise noted) in the analysis below.

Part 2: VERSES 13-20

Stanza 1: Verses 13-15
Verse 13

“I will go in(to) your house with (offering)s brought up,
(indeed,) I will fulfill to you (all) my vows—”

The setting is clear enough, as outlined above. A devout worshiper declares his/her intention to present sacrificial offerings to YHWH in the Temple (the house of God, “your house”). The noun hl*u), which literally signifies something (or someone) “going up”, usually refers to a (whole) burnt offering. The etymology may relate to the idea of making the offering “go up” (with smoke) to God as it is burnt in the altar-fire, or, possibly, to the more general concept of “bringing up” the offering to the altar (traditionally located at a high/elevated place). Regardless of the word’s etymology, the latter concept seems to be in view here—viz., focusing on the worshiper bringing the offering to God.

The offerings clearly are meant to fulfill (vb <l^v*) a vow (rd#n#) to YHWH. The idea is that a vow was made to God, to the effect that, if He answered the prayer, bringing deliverance in time of trouble, then the person would do such and such. As noted above, the theme of fulfilling a vow is relatively frequent in the Psalms (cf. the prior study on Ps 65, v. 2 [1]); often the vow is fulfilled through giving praise to God and proclaiming his greatness publicly to others (as in the second section, vv. 16-20, cf. below).

The plurals are intensive, as well as iterative; they describe the regular behavior of the righteous (who fulfill their vows), and also emphasize the generosity and lavish worship that the devout and faithful ones offer to God.

Verse 14

“that which my lips opened,
and my mouth spoke,
in the (time of) distress for me.”

Verse 14 follows conceptually (and, to some extent, syntactically) verse 13, continuing the line of thought; it could have been included with the prior verse. The six beats could certainly be treated as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet; however, I feel the poetic rhythm of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon is more proper here. In the time of the Psalmist’s “distress” (rx^), he made a vow to God, that, if YHWH answered his prayer, and delivered him from his trouble, he would bring offerings to the Temple. The vow (rd#n#) designates, quite literally, a “consecrated” action. The Torah regulations regarding vow-offerings are found in Lev 7:16ff; 22:18-22; Num 15:3ff; 29:39; an entire tractate of the Mishnah (Nedarim) was devoted to the subject of vows.

The noun rx^ literally denotes something “tight” or “narrow”, as in the English idiom “in a tight spot,” or “to be in a bind”. Many Psalms are framed as a prayer to YHWH for deliverance from suffering or distress, danger and attacks from enemies, etc.

Verse 15

“(Offering)s of fatlings I will offer up to you,
with (the) rising smoke of rams—
I will offer up bull(s) with goats.”

Here the noun hl*u) (and the related verb hl^u*) seems to have in view the aspect of making the smoke (of the burnt offering) “go up” to God; the parallel noun tr#f)q= specifically denotes the rising of the fragrant smoke. The offerings of fat/plump animals (fatlings), of rams, bulls, and goats, taken collectively, are certainly lavish, and are here comprehensive in describing the kinds of offerings brought forward by the righteous. The generosity of the worshiper is also being described.

Metrically, this verse is an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon.

Stanza 2: Verses 16-20
Verse 16

“Come (and) hear, and I will recount,
(to) all you fearing (the) Mightiest,
that which He has done for my soul.”

The second section returns to the thematic setting of the earlier hymn (vv. 1-12), calling on people to hear of the great deeds of YHWH, and so to give Him the worship and praise that He deserves. In the hymn, the focus was upon what God has done for the Israelite people as whole; here, it is on the individual righteous one (the Psalmist)—that is, what God has done for him (“for my soul”). YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, delivering him in his time of distress. Every one who fears God, utilizing the adjective ar@y` (“fearing”) as a substantive adjective characterizing the righteous—i.e., “(the one)s fearing” God—will respond with praise to the Psalmist’s report (“I will recount [vb rp^s*]…”).

This initial verse is, taken loosely in its meter, a 3-beat tricolon.

Verse 17

“Unto Him (with) my mouth I called (out),
and sounds (of praise were) under my tongue.”

Here, the Psalmist describes his own praise that he gives to YHWH. This praise should be understood as parallel to the sacrificial offerings in section 1—both are offered up to God, as fulfillment of vow, following an answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. For a musician-composer, of course, an offering in music and song is particularly appropriate.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 124) in reading <mr as a plural form (= <ym!or), related to Ugaritic rm (“sound [of music]”). Probably, <mr here is meant as a parallel to the ritual offerings “brought/sent up” in section 1 (vv. 13-15); the root <wr has a comparable denotation “rise/raise (up)”, and can, in a context of religious worship, can refer to exalting/praising God.

Verse 18

“If I had looked (for) trouble with my heart,
my Lord would not have heard (me).”

The context makes clear that God has answered the Psalmist’s prayer. This is an indication of the faithfulness and loyalty of the Psalmist. There may be a dual-meaning to the language in line 1 (involving the verb ha*r* and the preposition B=):

    • “If I had seen trouble in my heart”
      i.e., if there were any wicked or mischievous tendency visible or present in his heart
    • “If I had looked (for) trouble with my heart”
      i.e., if he had carried a wicked intent, meaning that his apparent righteousness would have been a sham

The noun /w#a* fundamentally means “trouble”, often as a characteristic of the wicked—i.e., one who is out to cause/make trouble. There is no such wicked tendency or intent in the heart of the Psalmist, which is a sign that he is faithful/righteous, and so YHWH answers his prayer; if it were otherwise, God would not “hear” him when he prays.

Verse 19

“(But) surely (the) Mightiest has heard me,
He has been attentive to (the) voice of my prayer.”

This verse simply confirms what was implied in v. 18, and what was already confirmed by the context here in the Psalm—namely, the YHWH has heard (and answered) the Psalmist’s prayer. The noun hL*p!T= is a common Hebrew term denoting a prayer or petition made to God; it is relatively common in the Psalms, with nearly half of the Old Testament occurrences (32 of 77) found there.

Verse 20

“Blessed (be the) Mightiest,
who has not turned away my prayer,
nor His goodness (away) from me!”

The meter of this verse is irregular, as a 2+3+2 tricolon, to match the 3+2+3 tricolon in v. 15 at the end of the first sections; such irregular tricola more commonly occur at the close of a poem (or stanza). Because God has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, that means He has not “turned (away)” (vb rWs) from it. The noun ds#j# in the third line means “goodness” (or “kindness”); however, as I have mentioned repeatedly in these studies, it often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, in relation to a covenant bond, such as between YHWH and His people. When YHWH answers the prayer of His loyal servant, providing protection and deliverance, He is fulfilling His covenant obligation, and is thus demonstrating faithfulness/loyalty to the bond. By not turning away the Psalmist’s prayer, God has not turned away that covenant-loyalty; indeed, YHWH is ever faithful to the binding agreement, and so is worthy of blessing and praise.

Dahood (II, p. 125) offers a different reading of the final word ytam (MT yT!a!m@, “from me”), vocalizing it yT!a@m!, as a verbal form denominative of ha*m@ (“hundred”), and thus meaning “do (something) a hundred times”. The final line would then read something like: “and (so) I declare His goodness a hundred times!” Cp. Psalm 22:26 [25], where Dahood finds the same denominative verb, in a similar context.

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 66 (Part 1)

Psalm 66

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 16, 18-20)

This Psalm has certain features in common with the prior Psalm 65 (cf. the previous study), including its designation (in the heading) as a “song” (ryv!). Since virtually every Psalm could be called a “song”, it is not entirely clear if there is anything distinctive in the use of the term ryv!. It has been suggested that it refers to a Psalm that was specifically sung in a ritual worship setting (in the Temple); if so, then the characterization of Psalm 66, e.g., as a religious hymn would be appropriate.

The first part of the Psalm (vv. 1-12) does, indeed, represent a hymn to YHWH, divided into three stanzas. Here the occurrence of the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker can be used as an indicator of the poetic structure. At the beginning of each section (vv. 1, 5, 8), people all throughout the earth are called upon to give praise to YHWH. It is for the greatness of His deeds that God is to be praised (v. 3), as manifest principally through the historical tradition of the event at the Reed Sea during the Exodus (alluded to in stanzas 2 and 3).

The second part of the Psalm (vv. 13-20) is quite different, to the point that some commentators view Psalm 66 as comprised of two originally separate compositions. It is essentially a poetic description of a ritual scene, in which a devout worshiper presents a sacrificial offering (in the Temple) in order to fulfill a vow made to YHWH. The association between praise and fulfilling a vow is found with some frequency in the Psalms, and the ritual fulfillment can be expressed through the very sort of praise which the Psalmist has composed. This featured prominently at the beginning of Psalm 65 (cf. the previous study).

There is considerable metrical variety in this Psalm, though, as often as not, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format is utilized.

Part 1: VERSES 1-12

As noted above, Part 1 comprises the hymn proper, in three stanzas.

Stanza 1: Verses 1-4
Verse 1

“Raise a shout to (the) Mightiest, all the earth!”

Verse 1 functions as the introduction to the hymn, a single 3-beat line, in which the Psalmist literally calls on all creation (“all the earth”) to give praise (vb u^Wr, give a shout/cry) to YHWH.

It may be worth mentioning again how, throughout the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (as here), the divine title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest”, i.e., ‘God’) is used as a substitution for the name hwhy (YHWH).

Verse 2

“Make music (to the) weight of His name,
put (to song the) weight of His praise!”

This simple 3-beat couplet makes clear that the “shout” of praise in v. 1 is to be realized through worship in music. It is from the verb rm^z` (“make/play music”) that the noun romz+m!, used throughout in the Psalm headings, is derived, designating a musical composition. The verb <yc! in the second line, with the general meaning “set, put,” here probably also connotes a composition—with a musical (and poetic) order, structure, and (written) form. For a more nuanced explanation of the use of <yc! here, cf. Dahood, II, p. 119.

The noun dobK* literally means “weight,” often in the sense of “worth, value,” and thus in a more abstract sense as “honor”. Here it refers to God, in His manifest presence and power—that is, the reason for which people everywhere should honor Him with worship and praise. The term may also be understood as an attribute of His name, etc—that it is glorious and to be honored. As I have discussed elsewhere, in ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person, in a quasi-magical way. This is especially true when dealing with the names and titles of God; cf. in this regard my earlier discussion of the divine name YHWH.

Verse 3

“Say to (the) Mightiest:
How (you are) to be feared (by) your deeds,
in (the) abundance of your strength!
(Those) hostile to you shall submit to you.”

The meter of this verse is quite irregular as it stands: 2+2+2+3; it may be regarded (loosely) as a 2-beat quatrain. The concision of the poetry cannot be expressed in a literal glossed translation as I give above. The rhythm is better captured by a freer rendering:

“Say to the Mightiest:
How fearful your deeds,
in your abundant might—
your enemies shall submit to you.”

Also difficult to translate is the Niphal (passive) participle ar*on in the second line. Literally, it means “being feared” or “being fearful/frightening”. It is singular, and so presumably is not intended as an attribute of God’s “deeds”; rather, it should be understood as characterizing YHWH Himself as one worthy of “being feared” (i.e., to be feared). He is to be feared because of His great deeds, done in the abundance (br)) of His strength/power (zu)). Even those hostile to YHWH shall be forced to submit to Him, recognizing His power and authority. The verb vj^K* typically implies an act of deceit/deception, sometimes specifically of an enemy feigning submission or obedience. That could be the sense here; however, more likely the Psalmist is using a bit of irony, suggesting that the enemies who might otherwise pretend to submit to God will now be forced to do so in reality, bowing down to His authority.

Verse 4

“All the earth shall bow down to you
and make music to you,
make music to your name.”

Again the expression “all the earth” is used, as a comprehensive expression for all people everywhere (including those hostile to God). The act of bowing/laying down (vb hj^v*, Hishtaphel [reflexive] stem) indicates both submission and worship (cf. on v. 3 above). The idea of making music (vb rm^z`) to YHWH, and to His name, is repeated from v. 2.

Again the meter of this verse is irregular: 3+2+2.

Stanza 2: Verses 5-7

Verse 5

“Go and see (the) deeds of (the) Mightiest,
to be feared (in His) dealing over (the) sons of men.”

As in verse 1 (cf. above), people are called upon to give praise to YHWH for his wondrous deeds. Here, the call is generalized, with a pair of imperatives (“go/come!” and “see!”); witnessing God’s deeds will cause people to give praise and honor to Him. The noun lu*p=m! is essentially synonymous with hc#u&m^ in verse 3, both referring to something done or made (i.e., deed, action, work). The noun hl*yl!u& has a roughly comparable meaning, though with the specific connotation of exercising power/authority over something (or someone). I have rendered it above generally as “dealing (with)”; the accompanying preposition literally means “over”, but in English idiom we would say “with” —here, “His dealing(s) with the sons of men”, i.e., how God deals with them.

The passive (Niphal) participle ar*on (“being feared,” i.e., to be feared) is also repeated from v. 3; it is an attribute of YHWH, referring to how He is worthy of honor and praise (for his great and awesome deeds).

Metrically, this verse is a longer 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Verse 6

“He turned (the) sea to dry (ground),
in(to) the river they crossed by foot—
come, let us rejoice in Him!”

The first two lines (of this 3-beat tricolon) clearly refer to the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, narrated in Exodus 14, celebrated in the famous ‘Song of Moses’ in Exodus 15, and referenced numerous times elsewhere in Old Testament poetry. Both terms “sea” (my`) and “river” (rh*n`) refer here to the same body of water, reflecting a traditional poetic parallelism. It is, of course, to be noted, that the Exodus event was replicated (and/or re-enacted) at the Jordan river in Joshua 3.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 121; cf. also I, pp. 81, 291), in reading <v at the beginning of the second line as an interjection (i.e., behold!, see!, come…!), cognate with šumma in Amarna Canaanite. This seems more fitting in the context of the imperfect jussive/cohortative verb form that follows, rather than the adverbial particle <v* (“there”). However, if the line here itself reflects a ritual re-enactment of the Exodus event, then it might make sense to say “there let us rejoice in Him!”

Verse 7

“Ruling in His strength (into the) distant (future),
His eyes look down (up)on the nations,
lest the rebellious (one)s rise (up) against Him!”

I understand the noun <l*ou in the first line as referring to the duration of YHWH’s rule over the universe—it lasts far into the distant (<lu) future, i.e., for ever. God rules in His strength (hr*WbG+); and here it becomes clear that the great deeds done by YHWH in Israel’s history reflect the cosmological aspect of His identity as Creator. This is a common theme in the Psalms, and was specifically emphasized in the prior Psalm 65 (vv. 6-8ff, cf. the previous study).

The all-seeing eye(s) of God are a traditional motif as well, expressing His providential governance of the world. One important aspect of this oversight is the administration of justice and maintaining the right order of things. His eye seeks to punish wrongdoing and to curb the stubborn and rebellious (rrs) tendencies in humankind.

The last lines of vv. 6 and 7, respectively, form a contrast between Israel and the nations—more specifically, between the faithful/righteous ones and those who are rebellious/hostile to God.

Stanza 3: Verses 8-12

Verse 8

“Bless, (all you) peoples, our Mighty (One),
and make heard (the) voice of His praise.”

This simple 3-beat couplet essentially reproduces the thought in the opening lines (vv. 1-2) of the first stanza (cf. above). The verbs are different—Er^B* (“bless,” or perhaps more concretely “bend the knee”) and um^v* (Hiphil, “cause to be heard”)—but the basic idea is the same: people everywhere are called on to give praise and worship to YHWH. The expression “voice of His praise” means praising God with all of one’s voice, i.e., with a loud and joyful song.

Verse 9

“The (One) setting our soul among the living,
He does not give our foot to shaking.”

This couplet is descriptive of YHWH as the God (“our Mighty [One]”) who cares for His people—that is, for the righteous and faithful ones among God’s people. He preserves the soul of the righteous, expressed here through the phrase “setting our soul among the living [one]s”, i.e., keeping our soul alive. More than this, He keeps them firm and secure in their daily life and conduct—their “foot” does not waver or slip (fwm), thanks to YHWH’s providential care.

Verse 10

“For you (have) tested us, O Mightiest—
you smelted us, as (the) smelting of silver.”

This couplet is shorter (2-beat, 2+2), its terseness reflecting the sudden shift to the idea of God’s sharp discipline of His people, testing (vb /j^B*) them, and thus purifying them. The motif of YHWH smelting/refining His people, utilizing the familiar imagery from metalworking, is relatively common in Old Testament poetry—all but 5 of the 33 occurrences of the verb [r^x* are found in the Psalms, Proverbs, and the Prophets.

Verse 11

“You brought us in(to) the net,
you set distress (up)on our loins.”

This irregular (2+3) couplet expounds upon the idea of God disciplining His people in the previous verse. The motif of the hunter’s net covers a wide range of possible suffering and affliction which the people might endure, having been brought to it by YHWH. The second line specifically alludes to physical suffering and distress (lit. pressure, hq*u*Wm).

Verse 12

“You made pain ride against our head—
we came in(to) fire and in(to) water,
but you brought us out to fullness.”

This verse is irregular, with a short 2-beat line added to a 3-beat couplet; the final line punctuates the hymn and effectively brings it to a conclusion. I derive vwna (MT vona$) from a separate root meaning “be sick”, which I understand here in an intensive sense, i.e., referring to severe pain and suffering. YHWH has made this pain “ride” against the head of His people. In the second line, this is expressed by another allusion to the Exodus event (crossing through the Sea), but generalized in terms of having to endure suffering. The “fire” relates back to the imagery of the refining of metal in verse 10.

Even as YHWH brought His people into distress (v. 10), so He also brings them out of it again (vb ax^y` Hiphil, “bring out”). He leads them into a place of fullness and abundance. The noun hy`w`r= specifically connotes a well-watered place. While this can be understood in the general sense of the blessing God provides for His people, there is probably a specific reference here to Israel’s entering the Promised Land. If so, then the suffering described in vv. 10-12a would be alluding primarily to the years spent ‘wandering’ in the wilderness.

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).