Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 2)

Psalm 55, continued

Here is a reminder of the three-part structure of this Psalm:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in the previous study (Part 1); here we turn to the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf.

There is an interesting dramatic structure to this section. The prayer takes the form of an imprecation, in which the Psalmist would bring a curse down on his enemies. The imprecation frames the section in vv. 10-12, 16; however, in vv. 13-15 the protagonist focuses on a specific enemy, addressing him directly, as a supposed friend who has betrayed him.

VERSES 10-16 [9-15]

Verse 10 [9]

“Confuse (them), my Lord,
bring division to their tongue;
for I have seen (much) violence
and strife in the (great) city.”

The Masoretic text as it stands suggests a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. Each line of the first couplet begins with an imperative, by which the Psalmist calls on YHWH to act. In the second line it is gL^P^, from the root glp (“split, divide”); in which case, the matching imperative uL^B^ in the first line would have to derive from a second root ulb II, meaning “confuse, confound,” rather than ulb I (“swallow”). This second root is similar in meaning to llb, which which it would be related. If the MT is correct, then we would seem to have here a poetic allusion to the Tower of Babel tradition; and the Psalmist’s prayer-curse calls upon YHWH to repeat his action in the Babel episode (Gen 11:7ff).

Dahood (II, p. 33) takes a different approach, reading glp as the noun gl#P# (“split, division”), and as the object of the line (reading the first two lines of the verse as a single 4-beat line):

“Swallow [i.e. destroy], O Lord, (the) split of their tongue [i.e. their forked tongue]”

Kraus (p. 519) finds an even more serious problem with the MT and adopts a more radical emendation of the text. The city motif that is developed in vv. 11-12 tends to support the MT, with its apparent allusion to the Babel scene—Babel (= Babylon) being symbolic of the wicked city, as we see elsewhere in Old Testament tradition (and cf. Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21).

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Day and night they go around her,
upon her walls (are) both trouble and toil;
in (the) midst of her (evil)s befall,
in (the) midst of her it never departs,
in her wide street, oppression and deceit!”

A 3-beat (3+3) couplet is followed by a slightly irregular 2-beat tricolon. These lines pick up from verse 10, and presumably the subject of the first line (“they go around her”) is the pair of “violence [sm*j*] and strife [byr!]” from v. 10. They “go around” (vb bb^s*) the city, functioning as watchmen; and they are joined by the pair of “trouble [/w#a*] and toil [lm*u*]” who stand guard on the walls. Thus the wicked city is governed and patrolled by wickedness.

Adding to this image of the wicked city is the double emphasis that great evils are in the midst of her, and that they never depart (vb vWm). The plural noun toWh^ is derived from the verb hw`h* I, and refers to some evil or calamity that falls upon (befalls) a person; I have translated the plural noun here with intensive verbal force. The expression “her wide/broad (street)” is generally synonymous with “in the midst of her” —we should understand a central square or main street. Both oppression (implying violence) and deceit—two fundamental characteristics of the wicked—are present, and especially active, in the heart of the wicked city.

Verse 13 [12]

“For (it was) not a hostile (one)
(who) brought on me (the) scorn that I bear,
nor (was it one) hating me
(who) brought great (slander) on me,
that I should hide myself from him.”

Both the meter and structure of this verse are difficult and problematic. However, the first four lines clearly form a pair of parallel couplets (with loose/uneven 2-beat meter). This specific opponent of the Psalmist is identified as neither a “hostile (one)” (vb by~a*) nor “(one) hating” (vb an@v*) him—that is to say, he was not obviously or openly an enemy.

The second line of each couplet is rather difficult. In the first couplet, the difficulty is syntactical, with the MT reading “he reproached me and I bore (it)”. However, the relationship with the first line indicates that the phrase should be translated as a relative clause: “…who reproached me and I bore (it)”. The poetic sense of this line is improved if we treat the w-conjunction on the second verb like a relative particle (cf. Dahood, II, p. 34): “…who brought the scorn on me that I bear”.

In the second line of the second couplet, the difficulty lies in the specific meaning of the verb ld^G` (Hiphil stem, “make grow, make great”) in context. Literally, the phrase would be “he made great over me” (or possibly, “he grew over me”). However, as in the first couplet, this second line also should be read as a relative clause, with a wicked act implied (such as slandering someone), i.e. “…who brought great (slander) over me”.

The final line (“that I should hide myself from him”), as a coda to the two couplets, relates to the idea that this person was not an obvious enemy (at first) to the Psalmist, implying that we was a friend of sorts, so that the Psalmist would not have felt the need to protect himself from this person.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“But (it was) you, a man of my (own) order,
my companion and (one) being known by me,
(so) that as one we had sweet intimacy,
in (the) house of (the) Mightiest,
we walked in (the) surging (crowd).”

Verses 14-15 make clear what was implied in v. 13—viz., that this enemy was a man previously considered by the Psalmist to be a friend. He was of the same social rank (lit. “order,” Er#u@) as the Psalmist, both a companion ([WLa^) and someone well-known to him.

The second couplet, expanded into a tricolon, indicates that the Psalmist and this man had some measure of intimacy in their friendship. The noun dos connotes intimate conversation, and the verb qt^m* refers to the fact that the two men had a number of “sweet” moments together. These moments are specifically located in the “house of God”, which suggests the occasion of religious festivals. If the Psalm preserves a royal background, they it could also refer to the king and his court (with his loyal vassals) attending religious festivities in the Temple. The motif in the final line, of walking together in a crowd, certainly suggests a festival and/or ritual occasion.

Verse 16 [15]

“May death take over them,
may they go down (to) Sheol living!
For evils (are) in their dwelling-places.”

Having addressed the friend who betrayed him, the Psalmist returns to the imprecation, asking God to bring a curse (of death) down upon his enemies. This imprecatory language naturally makes Christians and modern readers uncomfortable, but it was very much part of the ancient Near Eastern tradition, and many examples can be found in the Old Testament. This section allows Psalm 55 to be counted among the imprecatory Psalms.

Most commentators (correctly) follow the Qere, parsing the first word of the MT (Kethib) as two words: tw#m* yV!y~. Dahood (II, p. 34) would derive the verb form yV!y~ from the rare root hvy, otherwise attested (only) in the noun hY`v!WT (Job 12:16, etc); the basic denotation would seem to something like “advance, succeed”. The verb used together with the preposition lu^ could fairly be rendered “take over” (overtake): “May death [tw#m*] take over them”. Parallel with death is loav= (Sheol), the realm of the dead. To be taken alive into Sheol would be an especially stunning and miraculous form of death, only to be achieved through the power of God. Here, however, it is probably simply an exaggeration, as befits the curse-formula.

The final line hearkens back to the “wicked city” motif in vv. 10-12 (cf. above). Great evils (plur. tour*), passing through the wicked city, find lodgings in it. They are temporary lodgings—indicated by the noun rWgm*, derived from the root rWg, typically denoting a stranger who comes to live/reside within a population. Evil will only dwell in the city for a short time, since the wicked population will soon face death (viz., the Psalmist’s curse). That the wicked of the city would give lodgings to Evil is altogether proof of their wickedness.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 1)

Psalm 55

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is another prayer-Psalm that includes a lament in the face of suffering and opposition from wicked adversaries, continuing a genre of which we have seen numerous examples among the Psalms studied thus far. Psalm 55 is a particularly complex example of the genre—a relatively long composition, divided into three sections:

The two hl*s# (Selah) markers are curiously placed in the text as it has come down to us (cf. below), and cannot be used as an indication of the structure of the composition.

The Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) meter, varying with the ‘limping’ 3+2 meter that is often used in lament-poems; however, there other irregularities as well.

The superscription indicates that this is another lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32), attributed to David (“belonging to David”, dw]d*l=), to be performed on stringed instruments (toyg]n+B!).

VERSES 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

“Give ear, O Mightiest, to my petition,
and do not hide from my request for favor;
be attentive to me and answer me,
come down in (response to) my prayer.”

These first two couplets establish the Psalmist’s plea, in relation to the lament that follows in vv. 4ff; the meter is 3+2, which often is used in poems of lament. There is a synonymous (and synthetic) parallelism in each couplet, but the four lines also form a chiasm from a conceptual standpoint:

    • Give ear to (i.e., hear) my petition
      • do not hide (i.e., giving no response)…
      • be attentive and answer/respond
    • Come down in response to my prayer

The noun in line 1 is hl*p!T=, while in the line 4 it is j^yc!. Both are terms denoting prayer; the main significance of hl*p!T= refers to a petition/plea that is made to God, while j^yc! implies a burden that is on a person’s heart, about which one speaks to God, going over the matter (repeatedly) in a fervent way. With the inner lines (2 and 3), the Psalmist’s prayer is framed, regarding God’s response, in both negative and positive terms:

    • Negative: “do not hide yourself from my request for favor”
    • Positive: “be attentive to me and answer me”

The verb <l^u* (“hide [away], conceal”) in the reflexive Hithpael stem (“hide oneself”) should perhaps be understood in the sense of ‘pretending not to see/hear’ (cf. Dahood, II, 31). The noun hN`j!T=, formally parallel to hl*p!T= (cf. above), is derived from the root /nj (“show favor”), and so I have translated the noun literally as “request for favor” in order to preserve this etymology.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 31) in reading the verb form dyr!a* as an Aphel (imperative) from the root dry (“go down”); this explanation provides a rather elegant solution that fits the context of these lines.

It should be noted in passing that Psalm 55 is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the Divine name YHWH (hwhy) is typically replaced by the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One],” i.e., ‘God’).

Verse 4 [3]

“I am disturbed from (the) voice of (the one) hating (me),
from (the) faces of oppression (of the) wicked;
for they make trouble to fall upon me,
and with anger show hatred to me.”

These next two couplets give the reason for the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH, and begin the lament proper in this section. As is often the case in the Psalms, the protagonist speaks of suffering and oppression he faces from wicked adversaries (enemies). In most instances, it would be futile to attempt to identify these enemies with any specific persons; rather, these nameless and faceless opponents represent the wicked, who oppose and attack the righteous.

The final word of verse 3 [2] in the MT (hm*yh!a*w+, “I have been disturbed”), according to the standard verse-division, properly belongs at the beginning of verse 4; the initial conjunction (-w+) can be retained from a stylistic standpoint, but typically has no real force when beginning a couplet.

The Psalmist is disturbed by both the “voice” and the “face” (lit. plural, “faces”, i.e. presence) of his wicked enemies. They are enemies in the sense that they hate him (participle by@oa), a point emphasized again in the fourth line, with the use of the verb <f^c* (“show hatred/animosity” toward someone). They give both distress (lit. “pressure,” hq*u*, i.e., oppression) and trouble (/w#a*) to the righteous. This is expressed violently and with vicious intent, done both with anger and by the act causing trouble to fall/slide down (like an avalanche) on the Psalmist.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“My heart is twisting around within me,
and (the) terrors of death
have fallen upon me;
fear and trembling has come (to be) in me,
and shuddering has covered over me!”

The Psalmist’s lament continues here with a pair of 3+2 couplets, the first of which has been expanded with an additional 2-beat line (forming a 3+2+2 tricolon); this irregular meter in verse 5 would seem to be intentional, creating a tension that is appropriate to the context of  the fear of death. In each couplet, the first line refers to what the Psalmist feels inside himself in the face of threatening attacks by the wicked:

    • “My heart is twisting around [vb lWj] within [br#q#B=] me”
    • “Fearful trembling [lit. fear and trembling] has come to be within [B=] me”

The following line(s) of each verse refer to the external threat that faces the Psalmist, and which is the source of his fear:

    • “Terrors of death have fallen [vb lp^n`] upon me”
    • “(Great) shuddering has covered over [vb hs*K*] me”

The idea that the wicked ultimately threatens the righteous with death is expressed frequently in the Psalms.

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

The opening plea (and lament) of this section concludes with a short poem, which may have existed independently of our Psalm (cp. Jeremiah 9:1 [2]).

“And I said:
Who would give to me wing[s] like a dove,
(so) I might take wing and dwell (in safety)?
See, I would go far off, (my wings) flapping,
and would find lodging in the outback. Selah
(That) I might make quick (the) escape for me
from (the) rushing wind (and) wind-storm!”

This wonderful little poem, so vivid and evocative, hardly requires any comment. The Hebrew idiom “Who will give to me…?” is a colorful way of expressing an urgent wish or request—in English idiom, we would probably say, “Oh, if I only had…!” Here, however, the literally rendering of the idiom is especially important, in light of the prayer-context of these lines. The implicit answer to the question “Who will give…?” is that YHWH will give to him the means for escape.

The image is of a bird that could take flight from trouble (down below, on earth), and go far away to find a safe dwelling-place (vb /k^v*); it would be in the outback (or ‘desert,’ rB^d=m!), far away from other people. The wings of the bird, which enables it to fly off, are especially emphasized: the protagonist desires a pair of wings (sing. rb#a@), so that he can “take wing” (take flight, vb [Wu), his wings constantly flapping (dd)n+) as he makes his escape.

Even as he flies, danger would follow, and thus there is a second part to the Psalmist’s wish: that his wings would enable him also to escape from the onrushing wind of the storm (windstorm) that threatens behind 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 54

Psalm 54

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

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

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

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

Verses 3-5 [1-3]

Verses 3-4 [1-2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 5 [3]

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

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

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

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

Verses 6-9 [4-7]

Verse 6 [4]

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

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

Verse 7 [5]

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

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

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

Verse 8 [6]

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

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

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

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

Verse 9 [7]

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 2)

Psalm 52, continued

Verses 8-11 [6-9]

Verse 8 [6]

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

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

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

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

Verse 9 [7]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 10 [8]

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

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

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

Verse 11 [9]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 1)

Psalm 52

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 5-11 [3-9])

This Psalm, like the prior Psalm 51, is part of the so-called ‘Elohist’ Psalter (cf. below), and is also a Davidic Psalm, being attributed in the superscription to David. The historical setting assigned (v. 2) is, however, rather puzzling, referring to events narrated in 1 Samuel 21:8 and 22:6ff. There is little about that narrative background that would apply to the thoughts expressed in the Psalm.

The heading designates Psalm 52 as a lyK!c=m^; the prior Psalms 32, 42, 44, and 45 were similarly described. The precise meaning of this term remains uncertain, but it is presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely.

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3+2 couplet format, though here in the first part a 3-beat (3+3) couplet is actually more common.

In terms of a poetic and thematic structure, I am inclined to divide the composition into two parts. The first part (vv. 3-7 [1-5]) contains a polemic diatribe directed at the wicked with their false and deceitful profession of trust in God; this part concludes, it would seem, with an imprecation against the wicked (see below on v. 7). The second part (vv. 8-11 [6-9]) declares the fate of the wicked, and also presents a familiar contrast between the wicked and the righteous—those who are truly faithful to YHWH. The Psalmist, of course, counts himself among the righteous.

Wisdom themes tend to dominate, centered around the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their fates). There are also prayer elements in the Psalm, related to the covenant appeal setting that we find in many of the compositions. By emphasizing the faithlessness and deceit of the wicked, the Psalmist uses this point of contrast to affirm his own loyalty to YHWH.

An interesting rhetorical aspect to this Psalm is the juxtaposition of the terms la@ and <yh!l)a$ as Divine titles. la@ (°E~l) occurs in the first part of the Psalm, in connection with the wicked, while <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm) occurs in the second part, connected with the righteous. As an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, many commentators believe that the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) was used in the original composition, but was later replaced by the title <yh!l)a$. This would mean that, originally, the Divine names la@ and hwhy were juxtaposed. There are two ways of explaining the specific association of the title la@ with the wicked here:

    • The wicked have, at best, a nominal and superficial faith in ‘God’ (used as a general designation), rather than a true faith in YHWH and covenant loyalty to Him.
    • The false character of the religion of the wicked is indicated by its association with the Creator El (as understood by the Canaanites), in contrast with a true faith in El-YHWH, the God of Israel.

Israelites and Judeans, having become increasingly familiar with Canaanite religion and culture over the centuries, must have been aware of certain clear differences between the Canaanite conception of the Creator El and the Israelite understanding of El-Yahweh. Interestingly, however, there is scarcely a trace of this sense of conflict in the Old Testament. For the most part, YHWH was identified simply with the Creator (El), and the title la@, though relatively rare, almost always refers to the God of Israel. Here, in Psalm 52, we have one of the only instances in the Old Testament where the title is used in a negative context, being contrasted with the name YHWH (here as Elohim).

For readers who might be new to these studies, a brief explanation of the titles El (la@) and Elohim (<yh!l)a$) may be helpful. The word la@ is a fundamental (and primitive) Semitic term for deity. While the precise meaning and derivation is not entirely certain, the basic meaning would seem to be something like “mighty” —as a divine title, “Mighty (One)”. The plural of la@ is <yl!a@, “mighty (one)s”, but this is only rarely used in the Old Testament; much more common is the plural form <yh!l)a$, which is an expanded form to match the triconsonantal pattern of words (i.e., hla instead of la) that is more common in Classical Hebrew. As a divine title, <yh!l)a$ would literally mean “Mighty (One)s”, rendered generally as “Gods” (or “gods”); however, as applied to El-Yahweh, in an Israelite monotheistic context, the plural form is best understood as an intensive (or possibly comprehensive) plural—i.e., “Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier studies on the names El and Elohim.

Verses 3-7 [1-5]

Verse 3 [1]

“(For) what do you give shout with evil, O strong (one),
(you) ‘loyal’ of (the) Mighty (One), all the day planning disasters?”

The polemic begins with a sarcastic tone, describing the wicked person by the descriptive titles “strong (one)” (roBG]) and “good [i.e. loyal] (one) of °E~l.” As indicated above, I translate the name la@ (°E~l) according to its fundamental meaning, “Mighty (One)”, which is loosely parallel in meaning here to roBG] (“strong [one]”). However, la@ refers to God, to the Creator Deity (El-Yahweh). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 13) in vocalizing dsj (MT ds#j#) as dys!j& (spelled defectively). The expression la@ ds!j& means “loyal one of El”, which may have a double-meaning here: (1) it is used in a sarcastic sense for the false religious devotion of the wicked, and/or (2) the loyalty of the wicked corresponds to the corrupt/idolatrous understanding of the Creator God by the Canaanites (El vs. YHWH).

Part of the “shout” (vb ll^h*) given by the wicked likely involves a boast regarding his own religious profession of faith and loyalty to God. The actions of the wicked belie his/her supposed faith and prove it to be false. It is made “with evil” (hu*r*B=), probably best understood as “with evil (intent)”. Whatever the wicked person may say or claim, he/she intends to bring about disastrous things. The noun hW`h^, here in the plural, literally means “(down)fall”. The verb bv^j* reveals the true intention of the wicked, the planning/plotting of evil.

With some reluctance, I have included the first two words of v. 4 [2] as part of the opening couplet (cf. Dahood, p. 12-3), yielding a 4-beat (4+4) bicolon.

Verse 4 [2]

“Your tongue, like a sharpened razor,
is (busy) working treachery.”

With this second couplet, the normative 3-beat (here 3+2) meter of the Psalm begins. The deceitfulness and false religious confession of the wicked person is described more pointedly here, with the image of a tongue that is sharp like a razor (ru^T^). With his speech, the wicked person is working deceit and treachery. The noun hY`m!r= (“deceit”) can carry the stronger meaning of “treachery” —that is, against the covenant, showing disloyalty to YHWH and intending evil against the righteous.

Verse 5 [3]

“You love (what is) evil more than (the) good,
falsehood more than speaking (what is) right.”

This couplet well-summarizes the character of the wicked, and also, implicitly, establishes the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The comparative use of the preposition /m! (“from”) essentially has to be translated in English as “more than”. The noun rq#v# (“[acting] false, falsehood, deceit”) is contrasted with speaking “(what is) right” (qd#x#), a specific manifestation of the more general contrast between “evil” (ur*) and “good” (bof). Again the focus is on the speech of the wicked, with the relation between what is actually spoken (which may seem good) and the underlying intent (which is evil). That is why the deceitfulness of the wicked continues to be emphasized.

Verse 6 [4]

“You love all (those) words devouring (the truth),
(with your) tongue of treachery!”

The deceitfulness and treachery (hm*r=m!) of the wicked person’s speaking is here colorfully summarized as “all words of devouring” (ul^B# yr@b=D!-lK*). The root ul^B* (I) refers to a mouth that opens up and swallows something. This language is often used in Biblical poetry, applied to the ravenous mouth (and appetite) of Death, and this same allusion is probably also intended here. The deceit of the wicked person leads to death—both for his victims, but also, more importantly, for himself. The immediate point of reference, however, is probably to the idea of the wicked person’s mouth/speech ‘devouring’ all truth and rightness.

Verse 7 [5]

“(So) also (the) Mighty (One) will bring you down to the end,
He will take hold of you and tear you away from your tent,
and will (up)root you from (the) land of (the) living.”

This first part of the Psalm concludes with a dramatic declaration, in a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, of the fate of the wicked. The death of the wicked was already alluded to in v. 6 [4] (cf. above), but here it is described clearly and graphically. Such references in Old Testament poetry tend to have a double-meaning: both the ordinary sense of physical death, and the idea of a death that is permanent and final (with no hope of a blessed afterlife).

The initial particle <G~, “(so) also”, allows the Psalmist to express the idea that the fate of the wicked person (in death) will correspond to his/her wicked conduct (in life). Just as, through deceitful words, the wicked would “swallow (down)” what is right, so also, in the end, God will “bring (them) down” (vb Jt^n`) to the realm of Death. The two-fold aspect of death, noted above, is expressed through the final two lines:

    • The ordinary aspect of death—i.e., being torn away from one’s “tent” (home and, figuratively, one’s body)
    • The second/final aspect of death—being torn up (lit. uprooted) from the “land of the living”, from the possibility of any future life.

Gunkel (Die Psalmen [1926], p. 230) claimed that the imperfect verb forms here in v. 7 are not simple declarative statements about what will happen, but are precative—expressing a wish for something to happen (cf. also Dahood, p. 14). There are many such imprecatory sections in the Psalms, which essentially serve as curse-formulas; following this sense, the force of the translation would be: “May (the) Mighty (One) bring you down…[etc].” Such a curse-formula would be fitting to the polemic of the Psalm, and would make for an appropriate conclusion to the first part.

The reference to the “Mighty (One),” °E~l (la@), matches the earlier reference in v. 3 [1] (cf. above), thus framing the first part of the Psalm. The first occurrence of la@ seems to been intended to highlight the false religious confession of the wicked; however, in terms of the judgment rendered against the wicked, here la@ functions in a manner consistent with the true God (YHWH). To be sure, in Israelite religious thought, la@ and hwhy are different names for the same God, though, as noted above, la@ is the more general title, used throughout the Semitic world, and could also apply to a false/distorted view of God (as with the Canaanite conception of the Creator El).

The first part of the Psalm closes with a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker. However, the presence of the marker itself really cannot be used to determine the structure of the Psalm (note the earlier occurrence of the marker after v. 5 [3]). In any case, the precise purpose and significance of these markers remains uncertain, other than that they relate to the performing tradition of the Psalms, and seem to indicate a musical pause or (possibly) a shift in tone or key, etc. They do not appear to have been applied consistently, nor is it particularly likely that they have been consistently preserved in the text as it has come down to us.

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


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 49 (Part 2)

Psalm 49, continued

As noted in last week’s study, this Psalm (following the introduction in vv. 2-5 [1-4]) can be divided into three sections or stanzas:

    • Section 1: The fate of those who trust in riches (vv. 6-10 [5-9])
    • Section 2: The same fate (of death and the grave) awaits for all people (vv. 11-14 [10-13])
    • Bridge—An expression of trust that God will deliver the Psalmist from death (vv. 15-16 [14-15])
    • Section 3: The foolishness of trusting in riches is emphasized (vv. 17-21 [16-20])

We continue this week with sections 2  and 3, which develop the basic message and Wisdom-themes from the first section.

Section/Stanza 2: Vv. 11-14 [10-13]

Verse 11 [10]

“For one sees wise men, (that even) they die,
(then) gaze (at the) fool and brute, (how) they perish,
and leave off their strength for (those) coming after.”

This section begins with an irregular tricolon that is also difficult textually. There is some question, for example, as to the subject of the first two lines. I have translated them in accordance with Wisdom-tradition, as referring to what any person (including the reader/hearer) can observe. However, it is possible to read the line with God (YHWH) as the subject:

“For He looks (at) the wise (and) they die,
He gazes (at) fool and brute (and) they perish”

In my view, the parallelism here is not synonymous, but synthetic, building upon the statement in the first line: viz., if one sees that even the wise die, then realize all the more how the fool perishes! The foolish (lit. thick/dullish) person (lys!K=) is paired with the “brutish” (ru^B^) person, together forming a contrastive parallel with “wise men” (<ym!k*j&); however, for a different understanding of rub here, cf. Dahood, p. 298.

I tentatively follow Dahood in his reading of djy in the second line as an imperfect verbal form (cp. in Prov 27:17) of a (separate) root hd*j* (III), meaning “look (at), gaze”. This forms a suitable parallel with the verb ha*r* in the first line. According to this line of interpretation, there is something of an imperatival or jussive force to the verb here (“look [then]…”).

The main point of the verse is that all people—wise and foolish alike—die, and end up leaving all their wealth and power behind on earth, to be used by others (“[those] coming after”).

Verse 12 [11]

“Burial-plots (are) their houses into (the) distant (future),
their dwelling-places for cycle and cycle (to come),
(though) they called their names over their lands.”

A similar point is being made in v. 12 [11], particularly with regard to those who are wealthy on earth. They invoke their name over their property, indicating that the land belongs to them, but, in the end, only their grave truly belongs to them as their home. With a number of commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 479), I follow the Greek versions in reading <yr!b*q= (“burial-sites, graves”) for MT <B*r=q! (“within them”), which makes relatively little sense in context. Unfortunately, the Qumran manuscript (4QPsc), which might have confirmed this reading, is broken at this point.

Verse 13 [12]

“Indeed, man does not (even) stay the night in a (house of) splendor,
(but) being like (the) beasts, (just) ceases (to exist).”

The same point from the previous verse is made even more forcefully here with this contrastive couplet. The initial w-conjunction should be understood in the sense of “indeed,…”. The noun rq^y+ (“value, [something] valuable, splendor, honor”) here refers specifically to a splendid house, as indicated by the references cited by Dahood (p. 299), where he notes particularly the funerary context of the expression. As in life, the person’s wealth in death (i.e., a splendid funerary monument) is of little worth, since he/she simply “ceases” (vb hm*D* II) to exist on earth, just like all other animals.

The Qumran MS 4QPsc, along with the LXX, reads /yby (“discern, understand”) instead of /yly (“spend the night”), perhaps under the influence of the similar wording in v. 21 [20] (cf. below), where the verb /yB! is used.

Verse 14 [13]

This is the path of (the) foolishness (that waits) for them,
and what follows for th(ose) who delight in their mouth!”

The “path” (Er#D#) those are walking, who foolishly trust in worldly riches, and what waits for them at the end of their life (rj^a^, “[what] follows, [what] comes after”), is simply death and the grave. The final phrase, “(those) who delight in their mouth”, plays on the root meaning of ls#K#, as that which is “thick, fat, plump”, alluding to the richness and good food that is available for those who have wealth, and thus making a clear connection between riches and folly. The trust in riches includes living a life full of comfort and enjoyment of good food, etc.

Bridge: Verses 15-16 [14-15]

“Like a flock (of sheep) they are set for She’ol,
Death will give them pasture;
they go down straight in (his throat) like cattle,
their form being consumed—
She’ol (is the) exalted place for them.
Yet (the) Mightiest will ransom my soul,
from the hand of She’ol He will take me!”

These lines are most difficult, and may well be corrupt at one or more points. The fragmentary nature of the two Qumran manuscripts offers relatively little help, and reconstructions are inherently problematic. For lack of any better solution, I have generally followed the MT. The reading reflected by the translation above yields a fairly clear pair of couplets for v. 15 [14], followed by a single summarizing line, and then climaxing with the couplet in v. 16 [15].

The imagery seems to be that of herd animals (cf. verse 13[12]b), sheep and cattle, being led down into the realm of Death (She’ol). In this regard, Death functions like a shepherd, guiding them to pasture in his realm. The second couplet uses more graphic images, playing on the traditional idea of Death as a being with a ravenous appetite (and a massive mouth/throat) who devours all things. Like cattle descending along the hillside down into the valley, so people go down into the ‘throat’ of She’ol, where they are consumed.

It is just here that the text is most problematic. With Dahood (p. 300), I tentatively read <yr!v*m@B= for MT <yr!v*y+ <B*. It would then be read in an adverbial sense, something like “go down with smoothness (into his throat)” (cp. <yr!v*ym@l= in Song 7:10[9]). Along with this, rqbl would be read rq*b*l= (“like a calf, like cattle”) instead of MT rq#B)l^ (“at the morning”). The short line that follows (assuming nothing has dropped out) is perhaps even more obscure: “their form being consumed[?]”.

The remainder of vv. 15-16, fortunately, is rather more clear. Sheol is is declared to the “exalted place” (lWbz+m!) for human beings, obviously using a bit of grim irony; it is the only ‘house of splendor’ that is left for the wealthy after they are dead. In spite of all this, the Psalmist expresses the hope that YHWH will “ransom” (vb hd*P*) his soul from this fate, snatching him “from the hand” (dY~m!) of Death. In context, this suggests a belief that the soul of the righteous will meet a different fate from all other human beings: while other people simply cease to exist (their bodies being in the grave), the righteous will be taken by God to dwell with Him in a blessed heavenly afterlife.

Section/Stanza 3: Vv. 17-21 [16-20]

Verses 17-18 [16-17]

“You should not fear when a man grows rich,
when the weight of his house increases;
for he shall not take (anything) in his death,
all his weight shall not go down after him.”

The final section returns to a calmer proverbial tone with these couplets, restating the same basic message. Dahood (p. 302), gives a slightly different reading for the first line, reading ar@T@ (from ha*r*, “look, see”) rather than ar*yT! (from ary, “fear, be afraid”). The result is at least as appropriate in context: “You should not look (with envy)…”. The “weight” (dobK*) of a person’s property and possessions refers to both its value and its splendor (as well as the honor it provides within society).

Verses 19-20 [18-19]

“For he blessed his (own) soul in his life,
and (though) they throw you (praise) when you bring good to yourself,
he shall come unto (the) circle of his fathers,
to (the) end, (where) they shall not see light.”

The apparent blessings and honor accorded to the wealthy person, both by society and in his own estimation, are contrasted with the fate of death and the grave. In the end, such a person simply dwells in the darkness of the grave, along with his ancestors (“[the] circle [roD] of his fathers”)—the idea of a family/community burial site is thus implied.

Verse 21 [20]

“Man (is) in (his house of) splendor and does not discern (this),
(but) is like (the) beasts (who) cease (to exist).”

This closing couplet resembles that in v. 13 [12] (above), repeating the idea of man residing in a “(house of) splendor” (rq*y+). In the earlier couplet, the emphasis was on the fact that human beings ultimately have no such splendid house—the only dwelling that truly belongs to them is the grave. In that context, the verb /yl! (/Wl) was used, meaning “spend the night”, though the LXX and at least one Qumran MS had /yB! (“discern, understand”) just as here in v. 21. If the distinction in the MT is correct, however, then there is some wordplay involved, playing on the similarity of sound (and rhythm) between /yl! and /yB!.

The point of emphasis here at the close of the section is different: human beings, during their lifetimes, do indeed dwell in many “splendid houses”, but all the while, in their riches, they are foolish and do not understand the truth of the matter. Death will render all of their wealth to be of little value, compared to the fate of their soul. Only for the righteous, those who, in their wisdom, are faithful and devoted to YHWH (and His Instruction), is there any hope that the soul will live on in a real “house of splendor”. The hope of the righteous was expressed in the bridge verses 15-16 (cf. above)—that YHWH will rescue them out of the grasp of death, to dwell together with Him in a blessed afterlife.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 48 (Part 1)

Psalm 48

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

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

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

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

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

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

Verse 3 [2]

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

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

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

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

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

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

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

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

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

Verse 9 [8]

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

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

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

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

References above marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 47

Psalm 47

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (v. 2 [1])

This Psalm is similar to the previous Ps 46 in its theme of YHWH as King over all the earth (and the nations). However, it is much simpler, both in its message and its presentation. It has a simple hymn-format that would make it quite suitable for public worship. The Selah (hl*s#) pause indicator often serves as a marker for the structure of the poem, and that would seem to be the case here. The Psalm can be rather neatly divided into two short strophes (vv. 2-5 [1-4] and 7-10 [6-9]), with a central (transitional) couplet at v. 6 [5].

The central position of the v. 6 couplet strongly suggests the possibility of a ritual setting, involving a procession of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to the Temple, whereby the ceremonial enthronement of YHWH is celebrated.

The meter of the Psalm is irregular, but appears to be based upon a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. In contrast to the previous Psalms (45 and 46), which were called songs (ryv!), here the typical term romz+m! is used, indicating that the Psalm is a musical composition (i.e., both words and music). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to Psalm 42/43.

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“All peoples, you must clap (your) palm(s together),
(and) give shout to (the) Mightiest with a ringing voice.”

A proper interpretation of the Psalm depends on how one reads <yhlal here in v. 2 [1], along with the parallel use of <yhla in vv. 7-8 [6-7]. It is important to remember that <yh!l)a$ is plural noun, which literally means “mighty (one)s”; when used a common divine title (and word for deity), in the monotheistic context of Israelite religion, it is best understood as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “Mightiest (One)” (= YHWH, i.e. ‘God’). In the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (of which this Psalm may be counted), the title <yh!l)a$ is typically substituted in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH).

If the prefixed l= here is read in its customary sense (as a preposition of direction or purpose), then <yh!l)a$l@ would have to mean “to (the) Mightiest”, since all worship and praise must be directed to God (YHWH). However, Dahood (p. 284) would read the preposition in this instance as a vocative-l, in which case, we are dealing with a true plural, and the couplet would be translated:

“All peoples, you must clap (your) palm(s together),
(and) give shout, (you) mighty (one)s, with a ringing voice.”

This yields a synonymous parallelism (“peoples” | “mighty ones”), where the “mighty ones” could refer either to the chieftains and nobles, etc, among the peoples, or to their gods. However, based on the formal parallel with the first couplet of the second strophe (v. 7 [6], cf. below), the customary reading of <yhlal here is to be preferred.

Verse 3 [2]

“For YHWH (the) Highest (is to) be feared,
(the) great King over all the earth!”

This couplet gives the reason why the peoples of earth must worship YHWH: He is the King, the Sovereign, of the entire universe. The substantive passive participle ar*on is a bit difficult to translate here; literally it means “(one) being feared”, but in this context, the proper meaning is something like “(one) worthy of being feared”, i.e., “(one who is) to be feared”. The praise and worship given to YHWH is a sign of this proper ‘fear’ that is shown to Him. He is both the “Mightiest” and the “Highest” (/oyl=u#), i.e., most Exalted; cf. my earlier article on the title /oyl=u#.

Verse 4 [3]

“He pushed back (the) peoples under us,
and (the) gatherings (of people) under our feet.”

Here the contrast between Israel (the people of God) and the nations (the [other] peoples) is established. Since YHWH is the Creator (and King) of the universe, He is to be worshiped by all people everywhere. Yet Israel maintains its special position as the chosen people of YHWH. The subduing of the nations mentioned here presumably reflects the historical memory of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, but may also refer to the victories of the early kings (Saul, David, Solomon), through which the power of Israel reached its greatest extent, with surrounding nations either absorbed into the Israelite kingdom or made into vassal states.

The verb rbd here is best understood as a separate root (I) from the more common root (II) that denotes “speech/speaking”; the fundamental meaning of rbd (I) is “go back/behind”, which in the Hiphil stem would be something like “push/force back”. Cf. Ps 18:48 for another such instance.

Verse 5 [4]

“He chose our inheritance for Himself,
(the) rising of Ya’aqob, whom He loves.”

The parallelism required of this couplet (“for Himself” | “whom He loves”) prompts me to adopt the suggestion by Dahood (p. 285), that wnl here be understood as an archaic form (WNl^ = Canannite lanh¥) that preserves the longer form of the preposition l (ln). As he notes, when the verb rj^B* (“choose”) is used with YHWH as the subject, it virtually always is in the context of choosing something (or someone) for Himself (e.g., Psalm 135:4, etc); thus WNl^ here = ol.

I have translated /oaG+ quite literally as “rising”, but it here has the honorific connotation of “exaltation” —i.e., YHWH honors (exalts) Jacob (= Israel) by giving him the land of Canaan as his inheritance. This would also tend to confirm that the subduing the nations (under Israel’s feet) in the previous verse refers primarily to the initial Israelite conquest of Canaan. A secondary reference would be to the military victories under Saul, David, and Solomon, which completed the conquest, giving to the Israelite kingdom something close to the traditional borders of the Promised Land.

Central Couplet (v. 6 [5])

“(The) Mightiest has gone up with a ringing cry,
YHWH with (the) voice of (the sounding) horn!”

As noted above, this couplet is transitional between the two strophes of the Psalm, and almost certainly reflects the original ritual/ceremonial setting of the composition. The “going up” (vb hl*u*) of YHWH refers to the modest ascent to the site of the Temple sanctuary (i.e., Mt. Zion). It is quite likely that a ritual procession of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to the Temple was involved, the procession being accompanied by priests and musicians, etc, giving shouts of praise and blowing the ceremonial horn (rp*ov). Once the Ark (symbolically carrying YHWH) arrived in the Temple sanctuary, YHWH would be ceremonially enthroned and worshiped as King. This was a local/ritual realization of the universal Kingship of YHWH.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

Verse 7 [6]

“Make music, (you) mighty (one)s, make music!
Make music to our King, make music!”

The parallelism with the first couplet of the first strophe (v. 2 [1], cf. above) would seem to require that <yh!l)a$ here be translated as a true plural, “mighty ones”, parallel with “[the] peoples” in v. 2 [1]. Possibly, the reference could be specifically to the gods of the nations (their “mighty ones”), who give worship to YHWH as King over all. This is a roundabout way of demonstrating that the nations recognize the absolute superiority of Israel’s God (YHWH) and worship Him.

The customary rendering of this verse treats <yh!l)a$ here as = <yh!l)a$l@ in v. 2 [1]:

“Make music (to the) Mightiest, make music!
Make music to our King, make music!”

Some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 466) would emend the text to this effect.

Verse 8 [7]

“For (He is) King over all the earth—
mighty (one)s, make skillful music (to Him)!”

We have here the same ambiguity involving the use of <yh!l)a$; I read it again as a true plural (“mighty ones”), referring either to the chieftains and nobles of the nations, or to their gods. Again, the customary translation treats <yh!l)a$ as the Divine title (“Mightiest” = ‘God’)—

“For (the) Mightiest (One is) King over all the earth—
make skillful music (to Him)!”

but this yields an unsatisfactory 4+2 meter, and does not seem to be correct; nor have I seen any emendation that is worthy of adopting.

Verse 9 [8]

“(The) Mightiest (One) is King over [lu^] (the) nations,
(the) Mightiest sits on [lu^] (the) throne of His holiness.”

In this verse, unlike in the two prior couplets, <yh!l)a$ is the Divine title (“Mightiest [One]” = ‘God’); this may seem inconsistent, but it simply reflects the dual meaning of the plural term <yh!l)a$. Probably the use of <yh!l)a$ in the first line is an ‘Elohist’ substitution for the Divine name YHWH; in which case, the original form of the couplet would have been:

“YHWH is King over the nations,
(the) Mightiest sits on the throne of His holiness.”

The wordplay and the intentional contrast between YHWH (the Mightiest) and the “mighty ones” in vv. 7-8 strongly suggests that these “mighty ones” refer specifically to the gods of the nations, who are called on to admit the superiority of Israel’s God (YHWH) as King.

Verse 10 [9]

“(You) willing (one)s of (the) peoples, gather (round)
(the) people of (the) Mighty (One) of Abraham;
for to (the) Mightiest belong the protectors of (the) earth,
(and so He is) very much to be lifted up!”

Earlier in the strophe, the “mighty ones” of the nations were addressed, which, I believe, refers to the gods of the nations. The figurative turning of these ‘gods’ to acknowledge the Kingship of YHWH represents how the nations themselves will recognize the absolute superiority of YHWH. Here, however, a different plural term is used—<yb!yd!n+, which literally means “willing (one)s”, but sometimes connotes the nobility of the willing act (or of the person who so acts). It is possible, then, that the term here refers to the leaders (i.e., nobles) of the nations; if they willingly choose to gather around Israel, worshiping YHWH, the people of the nations (as a whole) will follow. There is a clear contrast between Israel (the people [<u^] of God) and the nations (the other peoples [<yMu^]).

The wording of the second couplet is awkward, and, as noted above, it is possible that the text is corrupt. The implication of the first line is that YHWH is King over all the other ‘gods’ of the nations, repeating the key theme of the second strophe. The noun /g@m* is often translated “shield”, but literally means “place of protection” or “place of cover”. It can be used as an honorific term for kings and rulers. Here the meaning is probably two-fold: (a) the royal power/authority of the nations belongs to YHWH (as King of the universe), and (b) YHWH is King over the ‘gods’ of the nations (i.e., the gods as their would-be “protectors”).

Whether the final line is correct as it stands, or has been truncated, the basic message is clear enough. Because YHWH is King over the universe, holding authority over all the nations (and their gods), he should be worshiped—i.e., exalted, “lifted up” (vb hl*u*).

In some ways, this final couplet is parallel to the central couplet of v. 6 [5] (cf. above). The worshipers “lift up” YHWH, presumably through the ritual act of carrying the Ark to the Temple sanctuary, the procession being accompanied by shouts of praise and ceremonial blowing of the horn. Now, at the close of the Psalm, all people everywhere, led by the willing/noble ones of the nations, are called upon to “lift up” YHWH in a similar manner. By “gathering (round)” Israel, the nations may follow the example of God’s chosen people, recognizing the Kingship of YHWH and giving to Him the worship that is His due.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 46

Psalm 46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

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

Verse 3 [2]

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

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

Verse 4 [3] {a}

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3] {b}

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

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

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

Verse 5 [4]

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

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

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

Verse 6 [5]

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

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

Verse 7 [6]

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

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

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

Verse 8 [7]

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

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

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

Verse 9 [8]

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 10 [9]

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

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

Verse 11 [10]

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

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

Verse 12 [11]

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 1)

Psalm 44

Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsc (vv. 3-9, 23-25 [2-8, 22-24]); 4QPsc (vv. 8-9 [7-8]?)

This Psalm is a lament, written from the standpoint of the people, or nation as a whole. It appears to have an Exilic setting, to judge from the statement in verse 12 [11]; at any rate, the kingdom has met with crushing defeat, and it has led to exile of the population. Possibly the Assyrian conquests are in view, which would indicate a late 8th or 7th century date, but some commentators would place it in a later period; the lack of clear historical references do not allow for a precise dating.

The superscription is essentially the same as that of Psalm 42-43. On the term lyK!c=m^, and the identification of the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the study on that Psalm. This is an ‘Elohist Psalm’, using the general plural term/title <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm, understood as an intensive plural, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “God”) in place of the Divine name hwhy.

I divide this Psalm into three parts, the first of which (vv. 2-9 [1-8]) ends with a Selah pause. It emphasizes the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“Mightiest (One), with our ears we have heard,
our fathers have recounted (it) for us:
the deed(s which) you did in their days,
in (the) days (now gone) before”

The meter of this initial couplet is 3+2, typical of the so-called qina meter often used in poems of lament. The first section opens with a traditional reference to the history of Israel, marked by the great and wondrous deeds done (luP, both noun and verb) by YHWH on the people’s behalf. These deeds are presented as something told in narrative form, as a traditional tale (or tales) passed down from earlier generations (“our fathers…”, “…in days before”). Certainly this would have included the story of the Exodus from Egypt, with the miraculous deliverance at the Reed Sea, as well as accounts of the Conquest of Canaan (under Joshua), and the victories under the Judges and the first kings of Israel (Saul, David). Some of these existed in a poetic form that could be taught and committed to memory (cf. Exod 15:1-21; Judges 5); the great poems also formed the core of the larger historical narratives (in the Pentateuch and Joshua-Kings) that developed by the time of the Exile.

The opening word, <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim), used in place of the Divine name YHWH, marks the ‘Elohist’ character of this Psalm.

Verse 3 [2]

“You, (with) your hand,
dispossessed (the) nations and planted them,
broke apart (the) peoples and sent them (up).”

This verse is to be parsed rhythmically as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet preceded by a 2-beat line. The short initial line serves to build dramatic suspense, emphasizing that it is God (YHWH) who achieved the victories and successes for Israel; He did this with His own Divine power (His “hand”). The nations / peoples are contrasted with “them” —that is, with the people of Israel. This refers primarily to the nations of Canaan who were “dispossessed” (vb vr^y` in the Hiphil stem) of their land and “broken apart” (vb uu^r*) as national and territorial entities. In their place, Israel was “planted” in the land, where God’s people would “send (up)” (jl^v*) their shoots and branches—that is, grow and prosper. This imagery is ancient, and can be seen as early as the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:13-17).

Verse 4 [3]

“For it was not with their sword (that) they possessed the land,
and their arm did not work salvation for them;
(but it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them.”

The meter of this verse is quite irregular: an extended 4+3 couplet, followed by a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The initial couplet plays on the emphatic contrast in v. 3 [2] using the suffix < *– (“them, their”), referring to the people of Israel. In v. 3, the contrast was with the nations, while here it is with YHWH. The contrast emphasizes the point made in the initial line of v. 3—that is was God’s own hand that achieved these successes for Israel. Ultimately, victory and deliverance from enemy forces was not won by Israelite strength and military power (“their sword”), but by the power of God. This is expressed beautifully by the terse tricolon and closes the verse here:

“(it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them”

On the shining “face” (lit. “turning[s]”, <yn]P*) of YHWH as a manifestation of His fiery anger and judgment (against the wicked), cf. 34:16; 80:16, etc. The reverse of this is the motif of God’s face “shining” on the righteous in love and benevolence (4:6; 11:7; 17:15; 31:16; 67:1, etc). When the righteous experience suffering and misfortune, it seems that YHWH has turned away His face or has “hidden” it (10:11; 13:1; 27:9; 30:7, etc).

Verse 5 [4]

“You (are) He, my King (and) my Mighty (One),
commanding (act)s of salvation (for) Ya’aqob.”

The Psalmist, in addressing YHWH, identifies Him as the same one who did these things for Israel (Jacob) in the past: “You (are) He” (aWh-aT*a^). This expression also serves to establish, most emphatically, the declaration “you (are) my King and my God”. Here “Mighty (One)” = “Mightiest (One)” (<hy!l)a$). With Dahood (p. 265) and other commentators, I divide MT hwx <yhla as hwxm yhla (hW#x^m= yh*l)a$, “my Mighty [One], commanding…”).

Verse 6 [5]

“In you we butted (horns against) our adversaries,
in your name we trampled (the one)s standing (against) us.”

With God’s own strength on their side, the Israelite people are able to defeat their enemies. The imagery is that of a powerful animal, like a ram, butting (vb jg~n`) its opponent and trampling (vb sWB) him. The parallel of “in your name” with “in you” illustrates again how, in the ancient Near Eastern mind, the name of a person is a manifestation and embodiment of the person himself. To be protected and strengthened by God’s name means being protecting/strengthened by His very presence and power.

An important grammatical shift takes place in this verse, as the Psalmist now speaks in the first person plural (“we…”), rather than the third person (“they/them/their”). He, and the righteous ones of his generation, identify themselves with the Israel of the past.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“For not with my bow did I seek protection,
and my sword did not bring me salvation,
(but) you have saved us from our adversaries,
and (the one)s hating us you have put to shame.”

These two couplets essentially restate v. 4 [3] (cf. above), but with the Psalmist (and other righteous ones) taking the place of the Israelites of old, and thus speaking in the first person, as in v. 6 [5] (i.e., “our sword” instead of “their sword”). However, the point is the same: it was not our strength and military skill that won the victory, but the power of YHWH working on our behalf.

Verse 9 [8]

“In (the) Mightiest (One) we shout all the day (long),
and (to) your name we throw (praise) into (the) distant (future).” Selah

The first section closes with this declaration of praise and worship for YHWH (the “Mightiest [One]”, Elohim). The righteous ones shout (vb ll^h*) praise “in” YHWH—that is, in His power and presence (cf. above). But they also throw (vb hd*y`) praise to Him—specifically, to His name, which, as noted above, means the same as giving praise to Him.

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