Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 83 (Part 1)

Psalm 83

Dead Sea MSS: MasPsa (vv. 1-19)

This Psalm is the last of the Asaph-collection, Pss 73-83); on Asaph, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50. It generally follows the pattern of many Psalms of lament. The first part contains a lament to YHWH, referring to the threats and oppression posed by hostile/wicked enemies, while the second part shifts to a prayer for deliverance, including a call for God to bring judgment upon the Psalmist’s enemies. In many of the Psalms, the author/protagonist essentially represents the people as a whole (esp. the righteous among them); here in Psalm 83, however, the people of Israel, collectively, are more clearly in view. The Psalm is, in fact, a national lament and prayer for deliverance.

There is a clear two-part structure to this Psalm, and here the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker serves as a structural indicator. In the first part (vv. 2-9), the threat posed to Israel by the nations is laid out, including a list of the many surrounding nations, presented as though they were all engaged in a coalition to attack Israel. As Dahood notes (II, p. 273), this likely does not refer to any specific historical episode or situation; rather, the list of nations represents those peoples and kingdoms which have shown themselves hostile to Israel throughout its history (this historical sweep is indicated in the second part, vv. 10, 12). The list climaxes with Assyria, which suggests a pre-exilic date for the Psalm (its original composition), presumably sometime in the 8th century (or late 9th century)

In the second part (vv. 10-19), the Psalmist calls on YHWH to bring judgment upon the nations. If a pre-exilic 8th century date for the Psalm is correct (cf. above), then this would make Ps 83 an early example of (or precursor to) the Prophetic oracles and poems which have as their theme the collective judgment on the nations. These passages represent a development of the nation-oracle genre in the Prophets, in which judgment is announced on a specific nation in each oracle. Isaiah 13-23 is the most notable collection of such nation/judgment-oracles, and the collection concludes with the Isaian ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27, where the judgment theme is extended, with an eschatological emphasis, to cover the entire earth (and all the nations). Psalm 83 is not too far removed, both in time and spirit, from these Isaian oracles.

With only a couple of exceptions, this Psalm follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The heading refers to the Psalm as both a musical composition (the regular term romz+m!) and a song (ryv!). Since a poem set to music is, by definition, a “song”, it is not entirely clear why only some of the Psalms have this specific designation, or whether the term is meant to make a particular distinction. Two other Asaph-Psalms (75, 76) are marked the same way, as also are Pss 45-46, 48, 65-68, and a number of others.

Like the prior Psalm (82), Ps 83 is not preserved among the Qumran Psalm manuscripts; however, it does survive, virtually complete in a Dead Sea manuscript from Masada. The text of this MS is very close to the Masoretic Text, there being only a handful of minor variants attested.

Part 1: Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“O Mightiest, (may there) not (be) ceasing for you—
do not be silent, and do not keep still, Mighty (One)!”

The translation of the first line of this opening couplet follows the MT, but the peculiarity of the syntax raises the possibility that the LXX (and other ancient versions) preserve an underlying Hebrew text that is closer to the original, and that the MT ought to be emended slightly. Dahood (II, p. 273) makes a strong case for redividing and repointing the text (D), as follows:

    • MT: El* ym!D( la^ <yh!l)a$
      D: El* ym@D) la@ ym! yh@l)a$

The first line then becomes a question (comparable to that in Ps 77:14[13]):

“My Mighty (One), who is a mighty (one) like unto you?”

The LXX seems to reflect a similar Hebrew text here: o( qeo/$ ti/$ o(moiwqh/setai/ soi (“My God, who shall be likened to you?”).

Instead of the proposed participle ym@D) (“being like”), from the verb hm*D* I, the MT reads the noun ym!D( from the root hmD II (“cease, cut off”). This noun is rare, occurring elsewhere in just two places (in Isaiah, 38:10; 62:6-7). In the first Isaiah reference, the context is the cutting short of one’s life; literally, the phrase is “in the cutting off [ym!D(] of my days”. The dual reference in Isa 62:6-7 appears to be close in sense to the MT of verse 2a here; the fundamental meaning of ym!D( (“ceasing”) is understood in terms of ceasing from activity (and speech), i.e., being quiet. The syntax in Isa 62:6 is almost identical with Ps 83:2a, with the phrase being:

“…(let there) not (be) ceasing [i.e. rest/quiet] for you”
<k#l* ym!D( la^

However one parses the first line of the couplet, the second line makes clear the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH, with parallel jussives (translated as imperatives), using the verbs vr^j* II (“be silent”) and fq^v* (“be quiet”). The Psalmist is asking God not to be silent/quiet—in other words, to answer his prayer.

Verse 3 [2]

“For, see, (those) hostile to you make a clamor,
and (the one)s hating you lift up (their) head!”

The contrast is between YHWH keeping silent and the enemies of YHWH making a loud noise (vb hm*h*); the implication is that it is only because of God’s apparent silence and inactivity on behalf of His people, that their enemies are able to act with such violent boldness and aggression. The Psalmist refers to the enemies of Israel as God’s own enemies; the theological basis for this identification has to do with the specific covenant bond between YHWH and His people, but also with the fact that the other nations reject YHWH and worship other deities instead.

There is clear synonymous parallelism in this couplet. Participles of the verbs by~a* (“be hostile”) and an`c* (“hate”) are used to characterize the nations as hostile adversaries who hate Israel (and thus also hate YHWH, Israel’s God). Their specific actions are also parallel: hm`h* (“make a [loud] noise, clamor”) and the expression “lift [the] head” (with the verb ac*n`). The latter expression indicates the boldness of the opponents.

Verse 4 [3]

“Against your people they act cunningly (in) concert,
and take counsel against your treasured (one)s.”

The combination of motifs in vv. 3-4, with the hostile nations first making a loud clamor, and then the people taking counsel with one another against God, is reminiscent of the famous lines in Psalm 2:1-2 (cf. the earlier study). In that earlier Psalm, the nations’ hostility is directly equally against God and His “anointed one” (i.e., the king); here it is against God and His people as a whole. The verb Ju^y` (“advise, plan, [take] counsel”) in the second line is parallel with the expression “act cunningly (in) concert” in the first. The verb <r^u* (I) denotes being careful, shrewd, etc; the word “cunning” captures the characteristic of a crafty adversary.

The verb /p^x* means “hide”, sometimes in the sense of hiding treasure, and thus can also mean (more abstractly), “to treasure”. Here the passive participle of the verb (lit. “hidden [one]s”) should probably be understood as “treasured [one]s” —i.e., God’s people as His treasure (cp. Exod 19:5; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Psalm 135:4; Mal 3:17, etc). Dahood (II, p. 274), following some of the ancient versions, vocalizes iynwpx as a singular noun, ;yn]Wpx=, “your treasure”.

Verse 5 [4]

“They say, ‘Come and let us make them cease from (being) a nation,
and (then the) name of Yisrael shall not be remembered any more!'”

The intention of the hostile nations, as they plan and conspire together, is expressed here. Their desire, as the Psalmist puts it, clearly is to wipe out Israel as a nation.*

* There is a tragic modern expression of this same sentiment at work, even as I am writing these notes, with the attacks on the state of Israel (and its people) by surrounding hostile nations and groups—Oct 7-8, 2023.

The basic meaning of verb dj^K* is something like “make disappear”, i.e., disappear from being a nation; I have translated this somewhat conventionally as “make them cease from (being) a nation”, in order to utilize a bit of conceptual wordplay with verse 2 (cf. above). YHWH has “ceased” from acting on behalf of His people, and so they are in danger of “ceasing” from being a nation any longer. This reflects the urgency of the Psalmist’s prayer: YHWH needs to respond, so as to help and protect His people in their moment of existential need.

Verse 6 [5]

“Indeed, they take counsel together (with) one heart,
(and) against you they cut a binding agreement:”

The second line of this couplet has the prepositional expression “against you” (;yl#u*) in first (emphatic) position. I take the Psalmist to be expounding the enemies’ words from the previous verse: i.e., “in saying this, they are actually taking counsel against you”. In this regard, the particle yK! at the beginning of the first line should also be understood as emphatic (translated “indeed…”). The second point of development is that the nations’ agreement with their heart (i.e., intention, purpose, desire) to act against Israel (and against YHWH) is given formal expression through a binding agreement (tyr!B=) that they have “cut” (vb tr^K*) with one another. This wicked ‘covenant’ between the nations is, of course, meant to be contrasted with the binding agreement (tyrB=) that was cut between YHWH and His people Israel.

I punctuate the end of verse 6 with a colon, taking the Psalmist to be indicating that the binding agreement made against Israel (and YHWH) includes the nations listed in vv. 7-9. All of these nations, at various points in Israel’s history, have been hostile adversaries.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“(The) tents of ‘Edôm and (the) Yišma’eli,
Mo’ab and (the) Hagri’i,
Gebal and ‘Ammôn and ‘Amalek,
(the) Pelešet with (the) settlers of ‚ôr.”

This list includes many of the nations/peoples surrounding the kingdom of Israel; they all were enemies, at different times, during the pre-exilic period. It is not necessary to assume that there was ever an actual agreement between all of these nations, at the same time, against Israel. The motif is poetic, and also prophetic, in that it anticipates the (later) prophetic theme of the day of YHWH’s judgment against all the nations (collectively). Here, these nations are listed together because they all have in common the characteristic of being (during their history) hostile opponents of Israel.

By scribal error (metathesis), the Dead Sea manuscript MasPsa reads “gods of [yhla] Edom” instead of “tents of [ylha] Edom”. The people of Edom and the Ishmaelites are neighbors to the south (and southeast) of Israel, while the people of Moab and the Hagrites, as well as the people of Ammon, populated the Transjordan regions to the east. The association of Amalek with Ammon (and the Transjordan) may reflect the historical tradition of the alliance of Ammon and Amalek with Moab (king Eglon) to attack Israel (Judges 3:12-14); the Amalekites also seem to have had a presence further north and to the west, at times serving as raiders and mercenaries against Israel. The Philistines (Pelešet) and the city-state of Tyr (‚ôr) represent the western and northern boundaries of the Israelite kingdom.

Of the nations and peoples in this list, only “Gebal” (lb*G+) is problematic. Its position here, being included with the Transjordan nations, makes it unlikely that the reference is to the Phoenician Gbl (Byblos). A more probable identification is with the region Gibal/Jebal SE of the Dead Sea, located in the hilly Edomite territory of Seir; Josephus (Antiquities 2.6) refers to Gobolitis as forming part of Idumea.

Verse 9 [8]

“Also ‘Aššûr has become joined with them,
and is (the strong) arm of (the) sons of Lôt.”
Selah

The list of hostile nations, and the first part of the Psalm, concludes with this mention of Assyria (‘Aššûr), connecting it specifically with the nations of Moab and Ammon (the “sons of Lot”, cf. the tradition in Gen 19:36-38; Deut 2:9). The implication is that Assyria is only involved in conflict with Israel through Moab and Ammon as proxies. Perhaps the allusion is to Moab’s status as an Assyrian vassal state following the conquests by Tiglath-Pileser III (mid-late 8th century). In any case, within the dramatic scenario portrayed in the Psalm, Assyrian military might provides Moab/Ammon with a strong “arm” with which to attack Israel.

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 82

Psalm 82

Dead Sea MSS: MasPsa (vv. 1-8)

This relatively short Psalm is among the most intriguing and provocative in the entire collection. The main source of intrigue is the setting established in verse 1, where YHWH is standing as Ruler (and Judge) “in the midst of” the gathering of the gods. This juxtaposition between YHWH and the gods (of the nations) is striking, particularly with the double-use of the plural <yh!l)a$, but it can be problematic for Jews and Christians who are accustomed to reading the Old Testament Scriptures from the standpoint of an absolute monotheism. But such a monotheism is the end-product of a long process of religious and theological development—a process of which this Psalm is very much a part. In actuality, the relationship between the YHWH and the deities worshiped by the other nations, as expressed in ancient Israelite thought and writing, was quite complex.

Opinions of commentators regarding the date of this Psalm vary widely. It may be necessary to distinguish between the poem in its original form and its inclusion (with redaction) as part of the Elohistic Psalter (and Asaph-collection, Pss 73-83). As far as the content and thought-world of the original composition, there are certain similarities with the Song of Moses (Deut 32), which might suggest a very old (and perhaps even pre-monarchic) date (cf. Dahood, II, p. 269).

The brevity of this Psalm allows us to treat it essentially as a singular unit. However, it can also be rather neatly divided into two parts, vv. 1-4 and 5-8, which I would outline in a loose chiastic form, framed by the opening and closing verses:

    • YHWH’s position as Ruler and Judge in the heavenly council (v. 1)
      • YHWH’s pronouncement of Judgment (vv. 2-4)
      • A prophetic announcement of Judgment (vv. 5-7)
    • Call for YHWH to act as Ruler and Judge over the nations on earth (v. 8)

There is a certain prophetic quality to this Psalm, which it has in common with others in the Asaph-collection; on the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50. The Psalmist functions as a prophet, effectively seeing a vision of YHWH in the heavenly council, rather like the vision by Micaiah in 1 Kings 22 (cf. vv. 19ff). The vision is narrated in the first part (vv. 1-4); then, in the second part (vv. 5-8), the Psalmist responds to the vision, essentially delivering a short prophetic message based upon it.

The occurrence of a Selah (hl*s#) pause marker following verse 2 is curious. In this case, it does not seem to be any kind of structural indicator; a pause may simply be intended to make a clear distinction between the rhetorical question in verse 2 and the declaration that follows.

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format—strictly so in the first part, and more loosely in the second.

Psalm 82 is not preserved among the Qumran Psalm manuscripts; however, it does survive, virtually complete in a Dead Sea manuscript from Masada. The text of this MS is more or less identical with the Masoretic Text.

Verse 1

“(The) Mightiest is standing in the appointed (place) for (the) Mighty,
in (the) midst of (the) Mighty (one)s he holds judgment.”

On the one hand, this opening couplet is quite straightforward; but, on the other hand, it is rather tricky to translate. This is, in part, because of the repeated use of the terms la@ / <yh!l)a$, with different nuances of meaning. The noun la@ (°¢l) represents the common (and ancient) Semitic term for deity. I take its fundamental meaning to be something like “mighty (one)”. The plural of la@ is <yl!a@ (°¢lîm, “mighty [one]s”), but this form is quite rare in the Old Testament; far more common is the expanded plural <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm), which, in a monotheistic Israelite context, typically refers to the one deity, the Creator El-YHWH. I understand the plural form, in this context, to represent an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “(the) Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier articles on the titles El and Elohim.

The interplay in verse 1, utilizing these terms, is striking. The first plural <yh!l)a$ (in line 1) clearly refers to YHWH (“Mightiest [One]”), while the second (in line 2) just as clearly refers to other divine beings, and thus is a regular (numeric) plural, i.e., “Mighty (one)s”. Meanwhile, the singular la@, in between, appears to refer to (all) the gods, in a collective (or general) sense “(the) Mighty (ones)”.

The noun hd*u@ denotes an appointed time/place; here it indicates the appointed place where the deities gather, and where YHWH serves as Ruler/Judge, holding judgment. The noun br#q# suggests spatially that YHWH is standing in the midst/middle of the gathering of gods.

The implication is that these “mighty (one)s” (gods) are the deities recognized and worshiped by the other nations. One could describe them more loosely as divine/heavenly beings, without considering them to be “gods” per se; this would certainly be more in keeping with the absolute monotheism of later Israelites, Jews and Christians, but it would also gravely distort the theological and polemic message of the Psalm. All throughout the ancient Near East, there are variations of the heavenly/Divine council motif, where the supreme Creator/Ruler presides over the assembly of the gods; for the application of this motif in ancient Israel, and various ancient/poetic allusions to it, see, e.g., Psalm 29:1-2, 9-10; 89:6-7; Job 1-2; 1 Kings 22:19.

Verse 2

“Until when will you judge with corruption,
and (the) faces of (the) wicked lift up?”
Selah

In vv. 2-4, YHWH pronounces the judgment (in His role as Judge). He is, it would seem, addressing the other gods (“mighty [one]s”) in the assembly. The judgment begins with an accusing question, in the prophetic style. YHWH asks the gods how long (“until when…?”) they will continue to judge with “corruption”. The basic meaning of the noun lw#u* in context is perversion (of justice), i.e., injustice. The perversion of justice is glossed with the specific idiom of “lifting the face” of a person, which, in a judicial setting, refers to inappropriately showing partiality to someone, rather than based on the application of equitable and fair justice.

The underlying theological worldview here is probably reflected in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (on which, cf. my earlier study). The other deities were assigned (by El-YHWH) to have rule and authority over the various nations. According to the poetic narrative of the Psalms, the gods have abused this authority, by ruling/judging in a corrupt and unjust manner. The same essential charge can be leveled against the human rulers/leaders of the nations; for more on this, cf. below.

Verse 3

“Judge (rightly) for (the) weak and (the) orphan,
make (things) right for (the) afflicted and destitute!”

The imperatives in this next couplet reflect how the “mighty (one)s” (gods) of the nations should have ruled, with justice and right judgment. In particular, the rule of the nations should have protected those in society who are most vulnerable and in need. The pairing of the “afflicted” (yn]u*) and “needy” (/oyb=a#) is frequent in the Psalms; here the verbal noun vWr, denoting the condition of “being poor/destitute” is used in place of the latter (cf. v. 4 below). The vulnerability of orphaned children, and the like, is expressed by the adjective lD^ (“weak”). A failure to treat justly/rightly the poor and needy, and to protect them, is particularly emphasized in Prophetic judgments against the nations (and their leaders). As noted above, this Psalm (like many of the Asaph-Psalms) has definite prophetic characteristics.

Verse 4

“Give escape for (the) weak and needy,
snatch (them) from (the) hand of (the) wicked!”

Here the theme of protecting the weak and needy is given more forceful emphasis, extending the concept to include the idea of rescuing them from the oppressive power of wicked persons. The rule of law and justice in a nation should oppose wickedness, protecting people from those who are wicked; instead, as indicated in verse 2 (cf. above), the “mighty (one)s” have shown favor and partiality to the wicked. The implication is that this favor has helped the wicked to achieve the kind of power in society that enables them to oppress the poor.

This couplet concludes the heavenly judgment scene of the first part, and, in particular, the pronouncement of judgment by YHWH in vv. 2-4. It must be pointed out again that, within this scenario, YHWH is addressing the other gods (“mighty [one]s”) in the assembly—that is, we may assume, the deities who (according to earlier lines of tradition) were given authority over the nations (cf. on Deut 32:8-9, above).

Verse 5

“They do not know and do not understand;
in the darkness they walk about,
and (the) foundations of (the) earth are shaken.”

Following the prophetic vision of the first part, with YHWH as the speaker (vv. 2-4), here the Psalmist speaks in the second part, delivering a prophetic message that builds upon the earlier vision. The subject “they” must still refer to the gods (of the nations) from the first part (cf. above); however, as becomes increasingly clear, these “mighty (one)s” also, in their own way, stand for the human rulers and leaders of the nations. Thus, while on the literary/poetic level, the Psalmist is addressing the nations’ gods, he is also effectively addressing the nations themselves.

The meter of this verse differs markedly from the regular 3-beat (3+3) couplets of the first part; it is an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon, the unevenness of which may be meant as a rhythmic-poetic expression of the content—especially the idea in the central line, viz., of the “mighty (one)s” wandering about in the darkness. The ignorance/blindness of the gods brings chaos and disorder to the nations, causing the “foundations of the earth” to be shaken (vb fom). This may also allude to the judgment that has come (or is coming) upon them. In Psalm 75:3-4 [2-3], there is a comparable reference to the earth’s foundations (pillars) shaking (note the similar judgment context); it is only through the right and equitable rule of YHWH that things are kept firm and steady.

Verses 6-7

“And I say: ‘Mighty (one)s you (are),
and sons of (the) Highest, all of you,
but (yet just) like men you shall die,
and like one of the(ir) rulers shall fall!'”

The precise thrust of these two couplets is not entirely clear. As I interpret it, the Psalmist is delivering a prophetic oracle that corresponds to the earlier pronouncement of judgment by YHWH (in vv. 2-4). The actual sentence of judgment is delivered here: which is, that the “mighty (one)s” (i.e., the gods of the nations) shall fall and die like any ordinary human ruler (rc*).

In the mythic-poetic context of the Psalm, this is a sentence of the death for the gods. From a rhetorical-polemical standpoint, it functions in several different ways. First, it can be interpreted as a dramatic description of the gods’ fall from power, so that they no longer hold the position (of rule over the nations) indicated in the older lines of tradition (as in Deut 32:8-9, cf. above). Their corrupt rule has led to their being removed from divine status, thus paving the way (conceptually) for the absolute monotheism of later times—where YHWH is the only existing Deity, with direct control over all the nations (cf. on verse 8 below).

Secondly, the judgment of the nations’ gods parallels (and foreshadows) their own judgment. This is all the more pertinent since the same charges of injustice and corrupt rule could just as well be leveled by YHWH against the human rulers of the nations. And, if a sentence of death could be delivered against their gods, how much more could such a punishment come to them!

Finally, along the same lines, this dramatic presentation of Divine judgment against the nations (and their gods) has an exhortational purpose, just as with many of the nation-oracles in the Prophetic writings. The people (of Israel) must learn from this example. Instead of being like the nations, who, following the pattern of their corrupt deities, rule in an wicked and unjust manner, the Israelites (and their leaders) need to follow in the way of YHWH. His manner of judgment is totally unlike that of the nations’ gods; He rules and judges with righteousness and equity, protecting the poor and needy, and opposing the wicked. Israelite society should be conformed to this Divine pattern—according to the rule of YHWH, the one true and holy God.

There is no verb in the declaration of the first line, and would have to be supplied in translation. It could be rendered in the present tense (“You are Mighty [one]s”) or the past tense (“You were Mighty [one]s”); the latter would convey more clearly the idea of a loss of divine status—i.e., that they are no longer gods, but will die like ordinary men. In either case, there is a strong contrast intended by the adversative particle (/k@a*) at the beginning of verse 7.

Verse 8

“Stand (up), Mightiest, (and) judge the earth;
take possession (yourself) over all the nations!”

This closing couplet, in a longer (4+4) meter, functions on two different levels. First, the call (by the Psalmist) is for YHWH to take over from the deposed gods all of the authority that had been given to them. No longer will they exercise rule over the nations that had been allotted to them (cf. again on Deut 32:8-9 above); instead, YHWH (as the one true God) will act as the sole Ruler over all the nations. Previously, it is was only Israel that YHWH held as His possession, having chosen them (for His own) from all the other nations; now the call is for YHWH to take possession (vb lj^n`) over all the nations of the earth. As noted above, this represents a strong step, theologically, in the direction of an absolute monotheism, depicted in dramatic-mythic terms as a fall (and deposition) of the (other) gods from power.

On a second level, this closing couplet clearly parallels the opening couplet of verse 1 (cf. above). There YHWH was standing (lit. taking [His] stand, vb bx~n`) in heaven, as Ruler and Judge over the gods of the nations; now He is called on to stand up (vb <Wq) and assume the same position of rule on earth over the nations themselves. I indicated this parallelism in the outline of Psalm above, where the two prophetic pronouncements of judgment (vv. 2-4, 5-7) are framed by these references to YHWH’s position as Ruler and Judge over the universe.

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 81 (Part 1)

Psalm 81

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (vv. 2-3 [1-2]); 11QPsd (vv. 5-11 [4-10]; MasPsa (vv. 2-17 [1-16])

This Psalm has a curious hybrid character: part hymn, part prophetic oracle, and a composition that may have had a place in the Israelite liturgy for the celebration of the festivals (esp. Passover, cf. the discussion below). Like other of the Asaph Psalms that we have recently examined, Ps 81 appears to have a northern provenance (indicated by the Israel/Joseph pairing in vv. 5-6).

There is a definite two-part structure to this Psalm, and here the Selah (hl*s#) pause marker serves as a legitimate structural indicator. The first part (vv. 2-8) is a hymn to YHWH, functioning as a call to worship. Within this framework, the historical tradition of the Exodus provides the setting for the prophetic oracle that follows in the second part (vv. 9-17). The words of YHWH begin at v. 6b, and this fact has led commentators, incorrectly I believe, to treat vv. 6b-17 as a coherent division of the Psalm; it is the Selah marker the provides the correct structural point of division, as noted above.

Metrically, this Psalm follows the typical 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are a few exceptions (which will be noted). The heading gives the musical direction tyT!G]h^-lu^, as in Pss 8 and 84; the term tyT!G] could refer to a type of instrument (perhaps a harp), or to a particular melody (or mode).

Psalm 81 is one of the best attested Psalms among the Dead Sea manuscripts, including a MS from Masada where it fully represented. All of the manuscripts are quite fragmentary, however it is perhaps worth noting that there are no variant readings of substance in the portions of the text that are preserved.

As with all of Pss 7383, this composition is attributed to (and/or associated with) Asaph. The second half of this Psalm is presented as a prophetic oracle, and, as we have seen, a number of the Asaph-Psalms have certain prophetic features; for more on Asaph, and the tradition that he and his descendants were prophets, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50).

PART 1: Verses 2-8 [1-7]

Verse 2 [1]

“Ring out (praise) to (the) Mightiest, our Strength,
give a shout to (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The opening couplet is a call to worship, calling on the people to sing/shout praise to YHWH. The basic religious and theological principle is that YHWH is the God (Mighty One) of Israel (Jacob); as a result, He is considered as the ultimate source of their strength (zou) and protection. The suffixed word “our strength” is a bit unusual, and it is possible that here the noun zou connotes “stronghold”. Dahood (II, p. 263) reads parallel construct expressions in both lines (i.e., “Mighty [One] of…”) and treats the final <– of <yh!l)a$ as an interposed enclitic <-; in such a case the expressions would, indeed, be parallel: “Mighty (One) of our strong(hold) / Mighty (One) of Jacob”.

Verse 3 [2]

“Lift up music and give (it on the) tambor(ine),
(on the) sweet lyre (together) with (the) harp.”

The call to worship continues with this direction for the people to take up their instruments, in order to sing out praise to YHWH (as directed in v. 2). They are to “lift up” their music (hr*m=z]); curiously, the regular term (romz+m!) designating the Psalm as a musical composition is absent from the heading of Ps 81. The adjective <yu!n` means “sweet, pleasant”, here referring to the sweet sounds that can be produced on the lyre and harp.

Verse 4 [3]

“Blow (the) horn on the (day of the) new (moon),
on the full (moon), for (the) day of our festival.”

The call to worship continues, with the praise being located at the time of a public festival. The term gj^ came to designate the great pilgrimage festivals, such as Passover and Sukkot. Here the timing of the festival coincides with the beginning of the month—the expressions “new (moon)” (vd#j)) and “full (moon)” (hs#K@) are obviously parallel, marking the transition from one month to the next. The Exodus context of vv. 6-11 suggests that the festival in question is Passover.

Verse 5 [4]

“For this (is) an engraved (decree), O Yisrael,
an edict from (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob.”

This couplet refers specifically to celebration the festival (gj^) mentioned in v. 4. If the context is the celebration of the Passover, then the solemn declaration here would be particularly appropriate (cf. the instructions and tradition regarding Passover in Exodus 12). The order to celebrate the festival is here treated as an edict or decree sent down by a king (YHWH), using the terms qj) (denoting something engraved or written) and fP*v=m! (a decision given down by a ruling figure which has the force of law).

This verse demonstrates the wide range of meaning that attaches to the simple prepositions l= and B=. Here, the first prefixed –l is best treated a vocativel (“O Israel”), though most translators render it flatly as “for Israel”; the vocative better fits the context of a call to the Israelite people to praise YHWH and celebrate the festival. The second –l clearly refers to the decree as coming from YHWH, though it also possible to translate the preposition in this instance as “belonging to”.

Verse 6ab [5ab]

“(As a duty to be) repeated He set it on Yôsep,
in his going out (from) upon (the) land of Egypt.”

The term tWdu@ is parallel with qj) and fP*v=m! in v. 5, referring to the command by YHWH to celebrate the festival; the context here would seem to require that Passover is the festival in view. According to the tradition(s) recorded in Exodus 12, the directions for celebration of Passover were given at the time of Israel “going out from the land of Egypt”.

The noun tWdu@ fundamentally refers to something which is repeated; I take it to be used here with this basic emphasis, referring to the regular/repeated celebration of the Passover festival.

The use of the preposition lu^, in the context of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, is peculiar; one would rather expect /m! as in many other such references (e.g., here in v. 11 of this Psalm). As noted above, many of the Hebrew prepositions have a wide semantic range, and lu^ can occasionally carry a meaning something like “from” in English (cf. Dahood, II, p. 264). Other commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld-Zenger) translate it here as “against”, but this does not seem appropriate (or correct). I have slanted my translation slightly, to capture the idea of the Israelite people going out from the place where they had been—viz., living upon (or spread over) the land of Egypt.

Verse 6c-7 [5c-6]

“(The) lip of (one) I did not know I heard,
(and) I turned aside his shoulder from (the) load,
and his hands passed over from (the) basket.”

There is an abrupt change of speaker at the third line of verse 6, and it immediately becomes clear that YHWH is now speaking; thus the Psalm shifts to become an oracle, with the Psalmist functioning as a prophet. The setting of the Exodus, introduced in 6b, provides the impetus for this brief but dramatic recounting of YHWH’s role in the Exodus events.

It is, I think, best to treat v. 6c together with v. 7 as a tricolon. It presents a clear narrative progression:

    • God hears Israel’s cry for help =>
      • He responds and takes away the burden =>
        • The people become free from their service/labor

It may seem strange that YHWH would refer to Israel as “(one) I did not know”. This could be an allusion to the sequence in Exodus 2:23-25: the people cry for help in their bondage, and the cry comes up to God, who hears it; the cry prompts Him to remember the covenant He established with Israel’s ancestors (Abraham/Isaac/Jacob). Then in v. 25 we read: “And (the) Mightiest saw (the) sons of Yisrael, and the Mightiest knew (them).” This was the moment when God truly knew Israel as His people.

Verse 8 [7]

“In the (time of) distress you called and I pulled you out;
I answered you (from with)in (the) hiding (place) of thunder,
(and yet) I was tested by you at (the) waters of strife.”
Selah

The oracle continues with a second tricolon that further summarizes the events of the Exodus (cf. vv. 6-7 above). The first two lines here may simply be repeating the general idea of Israel’s cry for help and YHWH’s answer; however, I think it probable that the scene has shifted to the more specific setting of the episode at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15), where the people cried out to God (14:10), and He answered them, through the hand of Moses (vv. 13-14ff). The reference to “the hiding (place) of thunder” is an allusion to the storm-theophany, applied to YHWH as Creator and heavenly Ruler, with his control over the waters; for more on this ancient cosmological imagery, expressed with some frequency in the Psalms, cf. my earlier article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”. His power over the Sea allowed Israel to escape from Egypt. The thunder-motif, with the theophanous cloud as a ‘hiding place,’ also alludes to the scene at mount Sinai (Exodus 19ff).

The implied reference to the waters of the Reed Sea is paralleled by the reference, in the final line, to the episode at the “waters of strife/Merîbah [hb*yr!m=]” (cf. Exod 17:1-7; Num 20:10-13). Dahood (II, p. 265) is almost certainly correct in his assessment that injba needs to parsed as a passive (Niphal) form with dative suffix (of agency)—i.e., “I was tested by you”. This act of faithlessness by the people is meant as a stark contrast with the faithfulness of YHWH in answering them and rescuing them from their bondage in Egypt (lines 1-2). My translation above brings out this contrastive emphasis: “…(yet) I was tested by you at (the) waters of strife”.

This ending of the Psalm’s first half, on a negative note highlighting the people’s lack of trust in God, sets the stage for the second half (vv. 9-17), in which YHWH, in another prophetic oracle, brings forth a complaint (in the tradition of the ‘covenant lawsuit’) against His people for their lack of loyalty and trust.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 80

Psalm 80

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is another lament-Psalm (cf. the previous study on Ps 79), in which the Psalmist, representing the people (the righteous/faithful ones), prays to YHWH for deliverance. Dahood (II, p. 255) describes this Psalm as belonging “to the last days of the Northern Kingdom,” and this is almost certainly correct. From the opening verses, it is clear that the focus is on the northern territories. They have apparently been ravaged, but not yet completely conquered. The aftermath of the campaigns of Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.) would provide an appropriate setting. Readers of a certain traditional-conservative mindset may find such an historical context troubling, since it would seem to imply that the Psalmist’s prayer was not answered by YHWH—at least as regards the fate of the Northern Kingdom. However, this in no way invalidates the prayer as an expression of faith and hope. The righteous will be protected by YHWH, even in exile, and their descendants will eventually be restored to the Land.

The structure of Psalm 80 is defined by the repeated refrain, calling on YHWH to “return” (vb bWv Hiphil stem) to His people and save them. It seems better to view the refrain as representing the opening call for each stanza. I would divide the Psalm as follows:

    • Vv. 2-3—Invocation to YHWH on behalf of the northern tribes
    • Vv. 4-7—Stanza 1: Lament to YHWH
    • Vv. 8-14—Stanza 2: Illustration of the Vine
    • Vv. 15-19—Stanza 3: Prayer to YHWH
    • Verse 20—Concluding refrain

This is the eighth in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50. The meter of Psalm 80 is irregular, but tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format.

The musical direction in the heading matches that of Psalm 60 (cf. the earlier study), as a poem sung to an existing melody—the melody in this case being <yN]v^ov, “lilies” (cf. also Pss 45 and 69). The poem is also designated as an tWdu@, usually translated “testimony,” but properly referring to words that are to be repeated. In Ps 60, the indication is that there is a didactic purpose to the poem, which is “to be taught” (dM@l^l=), much like the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32; however, such a purpose is not as clear here for Ps 80. Perhaps the idea is that, even after the original historical context of the poem had passed, it was still useful for instruction, as a lesson for the people.

Invocation: Verses 2-3

Verses 2-3a [1-2a]

“O Shepherd of Yisrael, give ear,
(you) leading Yôsep like the flock;
sitting (between) the kerûbs, shine forth
before (the) face of Eprayim, [Binyamin] and Menašše!

These are the first two of the three couplets that open the Psalm, functioning as an invocation to YHWH, with the Psalmist calling on God to hear (lit. “give ear” to it) and answer his prayer. The needed response involves an action on behalf of the Israelite people, to save and protect them; this is described in terms of YHWH “shining (forth)” (vb up^y`, Hiphil stem). The theme of YHWH as a herder, guiding and protecting his people (as a flock/herd), was featured in the three previous Psalms (77:20; 78:52-53, 70-71; 79:13); it is a traditional motif, best known from Psalm 23 (cf. the earlier study). It is through YHWH’s manifest presence among the people, symbolized by his sitting on/above the Golden Chest (Ark) as his ‘throne’ (with its winged kerubs), that He guides Israel.

The northern focus is indicated by the pairing of Israel and “Joseph” = the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. The Psalmist’s prayer represents the northern tribes (i.e., the northern kingdom), pleading to YHWH on their behalf. The ravaging threat of the Assyrian military is presumably in view; as noted above, historical setting of the Psalm may be the aftermath of the campaigns by Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.).

The 3-beat meter would be preserved by omitting “Benjamin” from the final line, which is otherwise too long; this would also provide a cleaner parallel with “Joseph” in the first couplet. As there is no textual basis for omitting “Benjamin”, I have retained it in brackets above.

Verse 3b [2b]

“May you rouse your strength,
and come to (bring) salvation for us!”

This couplet is also irregular (2+3), and provides a more direct plea to YHWH for salvation. The call is for God to “awaken” (vb rWu I), i.e., to rouse Himself from ‘sleep’ (i.e., inaction). The implication is that He should act on behalf of His people, using His great might/strength. This means providing a military defense (and victory) that will save the Northern Kingdom from the Assyrians.

Stanza 1: Verses 4-7 [3-6]

Verse 4 [3]

“O Mightiest, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!

As noted above, this refrain begins each of the three stanzas (see vv. 8, 15), being repeated again in the final verse (v. 20). The wording varies slightly in each instance; thus, one should not be too quick to fill out the first line here (i.e., “Mighty [One] of the armies”), even though this would produce a more consistent 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The 2+3 meter of the verse as it stands (in the MT) matches that of the previous v. 3b.

The call is for YHWH to “return” (vb bWv) to His people. The use of the Hiphil (causative) stem could be understood in the transitive sense of “make us return”, i.e., “restore us”, in which case it would be possible to read the Psalm as post-dating the fall of the Northern Kingdom. In the initial invocation (cf. above), this returning is described through the idiom of YHWH fulfilling His role as Herdsman of His people, guiding and protecting them (from all threats). The idiom of YHWH “shining” forth (here, lit. “giving light”, roa Hiphil) also was introduced in the invocation (vb up^y` Hiphil). The motif of God’s “face” implies His protective presence, but also the manifestation of His anger—viz., against the enemies of His people (who are also His enemies).

Verse 5 [4]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies—
until when will you smoke (in anger)
at the prayer of your people?”

This verse is slightly irregular, and I treat it here as a 3+2+2 tricolon. The full expression “YHWH Mighty (One) of (the) armies” here perhaps explains the shortened form in v. 4 (cf. above), so as to avoid cumbersome repetition. The “armies” (toab*x=) refers to the heavenly/celestial entities, which YHWH created, and which do His bidding. They function as soldiers under His command, who fight on behalf of His people Israel. For references in the tradition of the celestial bodies (and other forces of nature) fighting for Israel, see, e.g., Josh 10:10-11; Judg 5:20-21; the storm-theophany applied to YHWH, has a strong militaristic emphasis, and is part of the same broad tradition (frequently in the Psalms, 18:10-14; 77:17-18; 144:5-6, etc). The more common expression is “YHWH of (the) armies”, which may preserve the original verbal force of the Divine name, i.e., “(the One) causing the (heavenly) armies to be” (i.e., creating them); cf. Cross, pp. 68-71.

In the refrain of v. 4, the implication is that YHWH’s anger (i.e., His “face”) should burn against Israel’s enemies, rather than against His own people. But here in verse 5 it is clear that, at least recently, His anger has been “smoking” (vb /v^u*) against Israel, presumably alluding to attacks by the Assyrians on the Northern Kingdom. Instead of smoking against their prayers, the Psalmist asks that God would answer their prayers (in favor of them), and burn/smoke with anger against Israel’s enemies.

Verse 6 [5]

“You have made them eat (the) bread of tear(s),
and made them drink tears three (times over).”

The suffering of the people is clear from this couplet, utilizing the traditional ancient Near Eastern motif of eating/drinking tears (cf. Psalm 42:4[3]; 102:10[9]) as a expression of extreme sorrow; this motif occurs, for example, in the Canaanite Baal Epic (Tablet VI, col. 1, lines 9-10, “she is sated with weeping, drinks tears like wine”). The final word vyl!v* presumably means “three (times over), threefold” (or possibly “three times [a day]”); however, Dahood (II, p. 257) suggests that the word may be related to Ugaritic ¾l¾, thus referring to a bronze/copper bowl or container (i.e., drinking a bowl full of tears).

Verse 7 [6]

“You have set us as strife for (those) dwelling by us,
and (those who) are hostile to us mock at us.”

The noun /odm* typically denotes some kind of fighting or strife, which fits the parallelism of Israel’s neighbors (“[those] dwelling [near]”) being hostile (vb by~a*); for a different explanation of /wdm, cf. Dahood, II, p. 257. Presumably, the mocking of Israel by her neighbors is a response to the Assyrian attacks, which have ravaged the Northern Kingdom and greatly reduced its status. Those hostile to the Israelites would naturally take advantage of the situation to mock and belittle them still further.

According to the MT, the suffixes in v. 6 are 3rd person plural, while those here in v. 7 are 1st person plural. This shift, it would seem, reflects the Psalmist’s identification with the people, functioning as their representative in prayer to YHWH. Most commentators follow the minority reading of the MSS (along with the LXX), Wnl* (“at us”) rather than the majority text oml* (“at them”).

The remainder of the Psalm (Stanzas 2 and 3) will be discussed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 78

Psalm 78

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsb (v. 1); 11QPsd (vv. 5-12); 4QPse (vv. 6-7, 31-33); pap6QPs (vv. 36-37)

This lengthy Psalm (the second longest of the Psalter) is a didactic poem based on Israel’s history—focusing primarily on the Exodus and the wilderness journey. In this regard, it is similar to Pss 105106 and 136, which also present an extensive historical summary in poetic form. However, the stated purpose of Ps 78, with its call to obedience, and for the use of the poem in teaching the generations to come, this Psalm resembles the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy (chap. 32)—though that poem is, by all accounts, a much older composition. The narrative description in Deut 31:19-22, regarding the purpose of the “Song Moses”, corresponds broadly to vv. 1-8 of the Psalm (discussed below).

The contrast between Ephraim (i.e., the Northern Kingdom) and Judah that frames the poem (vv. 9ff, 68ff) suggests a dating for the Psalm (at least in its original form) in the period between 922-721 B.C. The lack of any obvious reference to the Exile, even for the Northern Kingdom, would seem to indicate a time of composition prior to 721 B.C.; however, many commentators would assign a much later date to the Psalm (cf. the discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 290-3). The importance of this Psalm (cf. below), as well as its length, increases the likelihood that it was subjected to a substantial process of edition/redaction, perhaps over a number of centuries. Some possible points of editing will be discussed in the notes.

The relative importance of Psalm 78 is indicated by its central position among the Asaph-Psalms (7383), as well as in the Psalter as a whole. A Masoretic marginal note at v. 36 marks that verse as the midpoint of the entire Psalter (its 2,524 verses); a variant tradition in the Talmud (b. Qid. 30a) makes the same claim for v. 38 (counting 2,527 verses); cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 285. There are numerous points of similarity in theme and vocabulary among the Asaph-Psalms, which are particularly notable in relation to Ps 78 (because of its length). For a fine survey of these points, including the similarities between Pss 78 and 77 (cf. the prior studies), see Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 293-4. On the figure of Asaph, see the earlier studies on Pss 50 and 73.

Psalm 78, in spite of its extreme length, is one of the simplest in its poetry, relatively easy to read, and generally lacking in textual or poetic difficulties. It is one of the most prosodic of all the Psalms, due primarily, it would seem, to the historical content—rooted so firmly to the narrative traditions of Israel—and its didactic purpose. Its simple poetic language and style makes it well-suited for teaching to children and the general population. The Psalm follows a standard three-beat (3+3) couplet format throughout, with but few exceptions.

There is no clear defining structure for Ps 78—either thematic or poetic—apart from the opening section (vv. 1-8) that declares the poem’s purpose. One way of dividing the Psalm uses the repeated references to the people’s disobedience—in vv. 17, 32, 40, 56—as structural markers. This yields five strophes, the last two of which conclude with short sections referring specifically to YHWH’s guiding/leading His people like a shepherd (vv. 52-55, 70-72). For a slightly different division, building upon the work of earlier scholars, cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 282-5, 290-2.

The heading refers to this Psalm as a lyK!c=m^; on the possible meaning and significance of this term (used also in the Asaph Psalm 74), cf. the earlier study on Ps 32.

Verses 1-8

Verse 1

“Give ear, O my people, to my instruction;
extend your ear to (the) sayings of my mouth.”

The opening lines are reminiscent of the opening of the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1)—an ancient poem with a similar expressed purpose (in its Deuteronomic context, 31:19-22) to that of Ps 78. The Psalmist functions here as a prophet, speaking as YHWH’s representative in addressing the people. On the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, and on the prophetic character and features of certain of the Asaph-Psalms, cf. the earlier studies on Ps 50 and 7377.

Verse 2

“I will open up my mouth with a parable,
(and) will pour out riddles from (times) before.”

The Psalmist states that he will begin his discourse (“open my mouth”) with a lv*m*. The term refers to a saying or story, etc, that describes one thing as being like (lvm) another—i.e., a similitude or parable. Beginning with this parable, his mouth will “pour out” todyj!. The noun hd*yj!, in its basic meaning, covers a wide range of enigmatic sayings or questions; often the term seems to denote a “riddle” or a “puzzle”. In what sense does the Psalm proper (beginning with verse 9) constitute a parable or set of riddles? Presumably, the main idea is that the people should learn from the example of an earlier generation, understanding their own situation as being in the likeness of that which took place in times before (cf. on verse 8, below). The enigmatic sayings (todyj!) then refer to the individual couplets of the Psalm, which spin out, in poetic form, the parabolic narrative from times past.

Verses 3-4a

“(That) which we have heard and known,
and (which) our fathers recounted to us,
we will not hide (it) from their sons,
recounting (it) to the circle following:”

It is possible to read verse 3 syntactically as part of v. 2—i.e., “…riddles from (times) before, which we have heard and known…”. However, it is just as likely that the relative pronoun at the beginning of v. 3 looks ahead, referring to the traditional content, described in vv. 3-4, specifically, that has been passed down from one generation to the next. Verses 2 and 3 are related conceptually, if not syntactically; the Psalmist is giving creative poetic expression (parable/riddles) to the traditional accounts of the Exodus (and other events in Israel’s history). The noun “sons” (<yn]B*) in v. 4 (line 1) means children—or, properly, descendants—in a more general sense; the second line makes clear that this refers to the circle/cycle (roD) of people that comes after (i.e. the next generation[s]). Verse 4 expresses the people’s intention (collectively) to be faithful in teaching their children the lessons of the past.

Verse 4b

“(the) praise(worthy deed)s of YHWH and His strength;
and (the) wonderful (thing)s that He has done.”

Verse 4b makes clear what it is that the faithful ones (represented collectively by the Psalmist) will recount (rps) to their children. The narrative is not simply the mundane history of Israel, but an account of the wondrous deeds performed by YHWH. The noun hL*h!T= in line 1 properly refers to a shout (of praise, etc); the things YHWH has done for His people in the past are, quite literally, “something to shout about,” being praise-worthy deeds. These deeds, mighty and miraculous, demonstrate His power and strength (zWzu$). The miracles surrounding the Exodus are particularly in mind.

Verse 5

“For He made stand a witness in Ya’aqob,
and instruction He set (with it) in Yisrael,
which He commanded our fathers
to make them known to their sons.”

The “witness” (tWdu@) is a traditional record and recounting of what YHWH has done—an account which can be repeated for each generation. Along with this witness, God provided “instruction” (hr*oT, torah) for His people. Both of these He commanded to the people (“our fathers”) that they should make them (both) known to their children.

Verse 6

“For (this) reason:
(that) the circle (coming) after would know,
(that) sons (who) are born would stand up
and recount (it) to their (own) sons.”

The purpose of the witness and the accompanying Instruction (Torah) is so that each generation would be taught, and the people thus would remain faithful to YHWH from one generation to the next. The meter and structure of this verse is irregular, and does not fit the pattern of the Psalm particularly well. The secondary and redactional character of v. 6 has been suggested (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 287). Again, I translate roD literally as “circle” (or “cycle”), though the word typically refers to the people alive during a particular cycle (of time)—i.e., a “generation”, in our common parlance; that is certainly the meaning here.

Verse 7

“And (so) they might set their hope on (the) Mightiest,
and not forget (the) deeds of (the) Mighty (One),
and (also) keep watch (over) His commands.”

The meter of this verse is also irregular—a 3+3+2 tricolon. Lines 2 and 3 refer again to the witness (of YHWH’s deeds) and the accompanying Instruction (“His commands”), respectively. The noun ls#K# in line 1 has a peculiar range of meaning; based on the cognate root in Arabic, the fundamental denotation seems to involve being “thick”, from which are derived both the negative meaning of “dullness” (i.e., stupid, foolish) and positive meaning of having “firmness” of trust or hope. Here the positive meaning of ls#K# is in view (i.e., trust in God), though it is also possible that the negative sense of the word is being anticipated as well—viz., the repeated theme of the people’s foolish disobedience, which begins in v. 9.

Verse 8

“And (then) they would not be like their fathers,
a circle being obstinate and rebellious,
a circle (that) has not set firm its heart,
(for) its spirit was not firm with (the) Mighty (One).

The theme of the people’s disobedience, developed throughout the poetic narrative of the Psalm, is introduced here, at the conclusion of the opening section. The idea of the Psalm as a lv*m* (“likeness”, v. 1, cf. above) is somewhat explained here: the example-narrative from Israel’s past is provided so that the current generation (roD) might not end up being like (K=) those who rebelled against YHWH in times before (the generation of the Exodus, etc). The concept of faithfulness toward God is expressed, in the second couplet, through the motif of “firmness”, utilizing two roots:

    • /WK (line 1)—verb in the Hiphil stem, meaning “set firm, fix (firmly) in place”; here it refers to the heart (bl@) of the people, i.e., they did not set their heart firmly in place, so as to remain faithful to YHWH.
    • /m^a* (line 2)—verb in the passive Niphal stem, referring to the nature/character of the people in their spirit (j^Wr); they did not set their heart firmly toward obeying God, because they were not firmly devoted to Him in their underlying spirit; i.e., their faithlessness was intrinsic to their character and identity (as a wicked and faithless generation).

*    *    *    *    *    *

Due to the length of Psalm 78, the remainder of its verses (vv. 9-72) will be discussed over a series of daily notes.

References above marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 77 (Part 1)

Psalm 77

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (v. 1); 11QPsb (vv. 18-21 [17-20])

This Psalm has a definite two-part structure. The first half (vv. 2-11) is a lament, in which the Psalmist makes his suffering and distress known to YHWH. In the second half (vv. 12-21), the author/protagonist shifts to praise of God, focusing on the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (on behalf of His people) in times past. This emphasis, found in a fair number of Psalms, has two functions, at the literary level: (1) it is intended to spur God to act in a similar way in the present, and (2) it provides comfort and encouragement to the people, so that they might trust that once again YHWH will exercise His power on their behalf.

It is possible to outline a more detailed structure to the composition. See, in particular, the analysis by Beat Weber (Psalm 77 und sein Umfeld: Eine poetologische Studie [1995]), followed by Hossfeld-Zenger (pp. 273-6), which divides the Psalm into five strophes, with vv. 17-20 representing an older/archaic (cosmological) poem that has been included within the final strophe. I will be noting these divisions below. The turning point of the structure, in any case, is the difficult and ambiguous verse 11.

Metrically, the Psalm follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, which two exceptions: (a) the irregular meter at the beginning (vv. 2-3), and (b) the tricolon format of the cosmological poem in vv. 17-20.

As with all of Pss 7383, this musical composition (romz+m!) is attributed to (and/or associated with) Asaph (cf. the earlier study on Ps 50). The term /Wtydy+ (or /WtWdy+), which also occurs in the heading to Pss 39 and 62 (cf. the earlier study), is apparently associated with the figure of Yedutun, a priestly (Levitical) musician who served in the Tent/Temple during the reigns of David and Solomon. His descendants continued the line of tradition, and the term here may designate a specific musical style.

PART 1: Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Strophe 1: Verses 2-4
Verse 2 [1]

“My voice to (the) Mightiest—so I cry out;
my voice to (the) Mightiest—so may He give ear to me.”

The lament portion of the Psalm begins with an irregular (3+4) couplet, that may express, poetically, the burden felt by the protagonist. Many commentators and translators would add a verb to fill out the initial phrase in each line—i.e., “my voice (goes out) to the Mightiest”; however, I feel a precise literal rendering (“my voice to the Mightiest”) helps convey a sense of the urgency that the Psalmist feels. My translation treats the w-conjunction as emphatic, giving dramatic effect to each line. The Psalmist’s focus in his prayer (and plea) to YHWH is that God will hear (and answer) him.

Verse 3 [2]

“In (the) day of my distress, I search (for) my Lord;
my hand poured forth in the night,
and did not grow numb,
(yet) my soul refuses to be comforted.”

The meter of this verse is highly irregular; an initial 4-beat line is (apparently) followed by a 3+2+3 tricolon. Kraus (p. 113) suggests that the word hl*y+l^ (“at night”) should be eliminated, as overloading the line; this would lead to a more consistent (4+4+3 tricolon) structure for the verse. However, the day/night contrast is fitting, even though “in the day (of)” here has the more general sense of “in the time when…”. Lines 2-4 expound the Psalmist’s statement from line 1—i.e., how he “searches for” God in the time of his distress. This searching (vb vr^D*) extends all through the night. The idiom of the Psalmist’s hand (“my hand”) being “poured out” (vb rg~D*) may seem a bit odd; probably here “hand” (dy`) simply connotes “strength” —that is, the Psalmist pours out his plea to YHWH with all of the strength he has at his disposal (i.e., in his “hand”). He keeps this up all through the night, and does not slacken (lit. “grow numb,” vb gWP); even so, his soul gains no comfort from his effort.

For a very different way of explaining these lines, cf. Dahood, II, p. 225-6.

Verse 4 [3]

“I set my mind to (the) Mightiest, and I groan;
I go over it (in my mind), and my spirit grows weak.”
Selah

This 3-beat (3+3) couplet establishes the metrical pattern for the remainder of the Psalm (vv. 4-16, 21). It develops the idea of the Psalmist “pouring out” all the strength he has in him. He purposely “sets his mind” on YHWH, praying intently to Him. The verb rk^z` is usually translated “remember”, but should properly be understood in its broader meaning of mental activity, i.e., putting one’s mind to something. The verb j^yc! has a comparable meaning, but with the more intensive (and iterative) sense of “going over” something in one’s mind (repeatedly). The idea of the Psalmist’s soul finding no comfort is here paralleled by his spirit becoming weak (vb [f^u* III). For all of his devotion to God, the protagonist feels no ease or help coming from YHWH in his time of distress.

The Selah-pause marker after verse 4 supports the view that vv. 2-4 represent a distinct strophe, or unit, within the Psalm (cf. the introduction above).

Strophe 2: Verses 5-7
Verse 5 [4]

“Watching takes hold of my eyes;
I am thrust (about) and cannot speak.”

The theme from vv. 3-4 (cf. above) of the Psalmist’s restless night continues here. The MT vocalizes the initial word tzja as a second person verbal form (T*z+j^a*, “you take hold [of]”), which, while appropriate to the thematic context of the Psalmist praying to God, is out of place here in the first half of the Psalm. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 227) in reading it as a passive participle, referring to the “watching” (plur.) that “takes hold” of the Psalmist’s eyes. This is probably a roundabout of saying that he cannot sleep; but the root rmv also can indicate an intentional night-time vigil (i.e., “keeping watch”). The feminine noun hr*m%v= occurs only here in the OT, and is typically translated (somewhat dubiously) as “eyelid”.

The verb <u^P* may be denominative from the noun <u^P^ (“foot, step,” cf. Dahood, II, 227). In all the other occurrences (Gen 41:8; Judg 13:25; Dan 2:1, 3), it is used in reference to a person’s “spirit” (j^Wr) being troubled or disturbed; in the Daniel references, the person is unable to sleep, which is presumably the same situation being alluded to here. In this light, Dahood would understand the verb rbd as deriving from the root denoting being back/behind, rather than the one denoting “speak”. He notes the cognate tadabara in Ethiopic (“to lie on one’s  back”), and understands the same meaning here—viz., “I cannot lie down”.

Verse 6 [5]

“I think on (the) days from (times) before,
(the) years of distant (time)s I bring to mind.”

The parallelism of the couplet, along with metrical concerns, would seem to require that the first word of MT verse 7 (hr*K=z+a#, “I bring to mind”) be included with v. 6. The same verb occurred in v. 4 (cf. above). The protagonist is specifically putting his mind on the “days before” and the “distant years” past; this establishes the context that will dominate the second half of the Psalm—viz., the mighty deeds performed by YHWH, on behalf of His people, in times past.

Verse 7 [6]

“(I play) my strings in the night with my heart;
I go over (it), and my spirit searches (it) through.”

By including the first word of MT verse 7 as part of v. 6 (cf. above), both verses now yield consistent 3-beat couplets. Again, the theme of the Psalmist’s restless night-time vigil, from vv. 3-4, is continued here, utilizing some of the same basic imagery, including the verb j^yc! (denoting going over something in one’s mind), and the verb cp^j* (parallel with vr^D*, meaning “search out”). As is fitting for the Psalmist, his meditation takes on a musical form—playing a song on the harp or lyre with his heart. The MT reads a suffixed noun (“my string[s]”, or “my stringed-music”); Dahood would parse this as a form of the related verb (“play/pluck [on strings]”), but the meaning is essentially the same, in either case.

There is no Selah-pause marker in the MT at the end of this strophe, to match those following vv. 4 and 10.

Strophe 3: Verses 8-10
Verse 8 [7]

“Will my Lord reject (us) into (the) distant (future),
and not continue to show (us) favor any more?”

Here, the context established in verse 6, alluding to the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (on behalf of His people) in times past, comes to a point with this pained and almost despairing question. Compare the opening of Psalm 74 (cf. the earlier study). This parallel may indicate an exilic setting here for Psalm 77 as well. In any case, the Psalmist’s personal distress is representative of the suffering of the people (collectively). It may even indicate that the fervent prayer and meditation of his night-time vigil is focused on the deliverance of God’s people as a whole. This is certainly the focus that dominates the second half of the Psalm.

The verb jn~z` (“reject, repel”) occurs relatively frequently in the Psalms (10 of the 20 OT occurrences), e.g., 43:2; 44:10, 24; 60:3, 12; 74:1, being a natural part of the vocabulary in the Psalms of lament. Here it is contrasted with the verb hx*r* (“be pleased [with], show favor [to]”).

Verse 9 [8]

“Has His kindness gone away to (the) end?
Has (the) showing (of it) ceased for cycle and cycle?”

The meter of this couplet is slightly irregular (3+4), as in verse 2 (cf. above), and may be an expression, in poetic terms, of the burden felt by the Psalmist. The noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) is a fundamental term, used frequently in the Psalms, where it almost always connotes the idea of faithfulness and loyalty (to the covenant).

In the second line, I treat the noun rm#a) in relation to the rudimentary meaning of the root rma (“show”), rather the more common and conventional meaning “say”, though the latter is certainly possible here—i.e., referring to YHWH’s communication (speaking) with His people. Yet, I do think that the principal idea here is how YHWH shows His goodness/loyalty to His people through mighty and wondrous acts.

I typically render the noun roD according to the fundamental meaning “circle, cycle”; though here it could be understood in its more conventional sense of an “age” (i.e. cycle of time) or “generation” (the people living in a particular age/cycle). Here the temporal aspect (cycle of time) is primary.

Verse 10 [9]

“Has (the) Mighty (One) forgotten (how) to show favor,
or has He gathered up all His love in (His) anger?”
Selah

In the concluding question to this strophe, the Psalmist raises two possibilities: (a) God has forgotten how to show favor (/n~j*, parallel to hx*r* in v. 8), or (b) He has simply gathered together all of his love (toward His people) and anger has taken its place. The noun <j^r^ refers to a deep-seated feeling of love toward another, manifested by caring compassion (like that of a mother for her child). The plural is comprehensive of this loving care and compassion. It is contrasted with the noun [a^, in the general sense of “anger” (i.e. the emotion), rather the more concrete physical idiom of the smoking/flaring of nostrils or the burning of one’s face.

Thematically, verse 11 [10] belongs to the first half of the Psalm; however, poetically, according to the proposed strophic structure, it can be counted as the first couplet of the fourth strophe (vv. 11-13), which I will discuss in the next study (Part 2).

It is possible to treat verse 11 as either another question (continuing those of the previous strophe), or as a declarative statement by the Psalmist. The context (though not necessarily the syntax) suggests another fearful question:

“And I said ‘My sickness—(is) it (due to)
(the) changing right hand of (the) Highest?'”

This will be discussed further in the notes to Strophe 4, in the next study.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 74 (Part 1)

Psalm 74

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

Psalm 74 is a lament-Psalm, written from the standpoint of the Israelite (Judean) people and nation as a whole. The first half of the composition (vv. 1-11) is a lament over the destruction of the Temple, and thus is likely to have been written in the 6th century B.C., sometime after the Temple’s destruction (in 586), though it would have been applicable as a hymnic prayer all throughout the Exile and into the post-Exilic period. The second half of the Psalm (vv. 12-23) consists of an appeal to YHWH to redeem and deliver His people.

This is the second of a series of eleven Psalms (7383) associated with the figure of Asaph ([s*a*)—on whom, cf. the previous studies on Pss 25 and 73. The composition is designated as a lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl), a term used also in the headings of Pss 32, 42, 44-45, 52-55, 78, 88-89, 142. For a discussion of the possible meaning and significance of this term, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32.

The meter of this Psalm is irregular, but tends to follow a 4-beat (4+4) couplet format.

VERSES 1-11

Verse 1

“For what, O Mightiest, should you be indignant to the end,
(and) your nostril(s) smoke against (the) sheep of your pasture?”

The lament begins, appropriately, with the interrogative expression hm*l*, “for what (reason)…?”, i.e., “why…?” The conquest of Jerusalem, with the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the population, makes it seem that YHWH has rejected His people (Israel/Judah) completely (lit. “to the end,” jx^n#l*). The verb jn~z` has the basic meaning of being repelled or disgusted by something, which a person then casts aside. I have rendered it above as “be indignant (toward something)”, which well suits the burning/fire motif in the second line.

The noun [a^, often translated flatly as “anger,” should be understood here in the concrete anthropomorphic (and zoomorphic) sense of “nostril(s)”. The smoke (vb /v^u*) coming from YHWH’s nostrils is a vivid sign of his anger; it also evokes the burning destruction of the city (and Temple). Often the specific image is of nostrils burning or ‘flaring’, like the snorting of an angry bull.

Frequently, YHWH is depicted as a shepherd, with His people as the sheep, or flock (/ax)). The shepherd-motif connotes the care, protection, and guidance which God gives to His people (cf. especially the famous Psalm 23).

Verse 2

“Remember your assembled (flock) (that) you acquired (long) before;
may you redeem (with the) staff your inheritance, mount ‚iyyôn,
this (mountain) on which you have dwelt.”

To the relatively regular 4-beat (4+4) couplet format (established in v. 1), an additional 3-beat line has been included here in v. 2, forming a tricolon. The shepherd/sheep motif should be understood as continuing in v. 2; thus the general noun hd*u@ (“crowd, assembly, congregation”) reflects the people as an assembled flock. The religious-cultic connotation of hd*u@, however, should not be missed—viz., the Temple precincts as the principal location where the nation gathers (to worship).

The Psalmist calls on YHWH to remember His people, whom He acquired (vb hn`q*, cf. Exod 15:16; Deut 32:6; the verb can also mean “create” [Gen 14:19, 22]) as His own, long before (<d#q#), in the past. It is thus proper that God should redeem (vb la^G`) His people from their servitude (in exile); I follow Dahood (II, p. 200) in reading the perfect form of the verb as a precative perfect, in parallel with the imperative in the first line. God redeems His people, delivering them out of danger, and leading them (back to pasture) with his shepherd’s staff (fb#v@, cf. Ps 23:4).

The redemption of His people entails restoring and re-establishing Jerusalem (spec. the Temple-Palace locale of Zion) as the “mountain” on which He will once again dwell, with the people, as He did in the past.

Verse 3

“Lift high your (foot)steps, to (the) desolate places far off,
all the evil (the) hostile (one) has done in your Holy (Place).”

The theme of Zion as YHWH’s mountain-dwelling—the local (ritual) representation of His cosmic Mountain—introduced at the end of v. 2, continues here, with the call for God to “bring/lift up high” (vb <Wr, Hiphil) His footsteps (i.e. to mount Zion). The noun <u^P^ refers to the beat of footsteps, probably intended to evoke the military imagery of an army of soldiers on the march. Dahood’s quite different explanation of iymup (II, p. 201) is intriguing, but not entirely convincing.

The Temple precincts, as well as the entire locale of the Zion hilltop-site, has been turned into “places of desolation” (toaV%m^) by the conquering forces (i.e. the Babylonian military) that “did evil” (vb uu^r* Hiphil) in the “Holy (Place)”. The use of vd#q) makes clear that the destruction of the Temple is primarily in mind. The noun jx^n#, denoting an end goal (cf. the expression jx^n#l*, “to the end”, in v. 1), should probably be understood here as something seen from a distance, from far off; as YHWH marches to Jerusalem, to redeem the Zion, the “desolate places” of the destroyed city can be seen on His approach.

Verse 4

“(Those) hostile to you roared in the midst of your place of assembly,
setting (up) their signs (as evil) signs.”

Here the participle rr@x) (plur.) is essentially synonymous with by@oa in v. 3 (cf. above); both mean “one being hostile”. The conquering Babylonians are “hostile” to YHWH in two respects: (1) they were hostile to YHWH’s people (and His holy city), attacking it; and (2) they are idolatrous worshipers of other deities. The “place of assembly”, i.e., where the people assemble (to worship God), refers to the “holy (place)” in v. 3—the Temple and its precincts.

The redundancy in the second line, repeating the plural noun tota) (“signs”), have led to commentators toward various emendations of the text (cf. Dahood’s slight emendation that redivides the MT, II, p. 201f). However, it may be that the Psalmist is simply utilizing a bit of wordplay involving the word toa, which, like the corresponding “sign” in English, can refer to an actual physical/material marker, as well as (conceptually) to the significance of something. I take the meaning of the line to be that the conquering army set up their signs (i.e., banners, etc), which served as signs (indicators) of the evil they were doing.

Verses 5-6

“(This) was made known like (those) bringing up
axes in the thicket of (the) wood;
and (so) {they cut down} (all) her doors at once,
with hatchets and hammers they broke (them) down.”

These lines are highly problematic, as virtually all commentators recognize. The verses are likely corrupt, to some extent, especially in the first line of v. 6. As every proposed emendation is both speculative and far from convincing, the best approach is probably to keep as close as possible, however tentatively, to the MT as it has come down to us. Sadly, the Psalm is not preserved among the Qumran manuscripts, so there is no help to be found from that front.

The basic image seems clear enough: the conquering army broke down the Temple building (its doors, etc) like men who cut down trees (with the axe) in a thick forest. I follow the Greek versions (LXX, Symmachus; cf. Dahood, II, p. 202) in vocalizing hyjwtp as h*yj#t*P= (“her openings”, i.e. her doors) instead of MT h*yj#WTP! (“her carvings”). The many doors and wooden parts of the Temple were “cut down” (?) and “broken down” (vb <l^h*) with hatchets and hammers, etc.

Verse 7

“They cast your Holy Place in the fire, (burning it) to the earth,
(and so) they profaned (the) dwelling-place of your name.”

After the cutting down of the doors, etc, of the Temple building, the conquering army burnt it to the ground “in the fire”; cf. the allusion to this fiery destruction with the reference in v. 1 to the “smoke” coming from YHWH’s nostrils. The use of the verb ll^j* (II) in the second line echoes the earlier expressed idea of the conquerors as “doing evil” in the Temple sanctuary, and also of their being “hostile” to YHWH. The root llj (II) generally seems to denote a violation of what is sacred—in this instance, desecrating and profaning the holy dwelling-place (/K^v=m!) of God. On the Temple sanctuary as specifically the dwelling-place for YHWH’s name, cf. 2 Sam 7:13; 1 Kings 5:5; 8:16ff, 43ff; 9:3, 7; 2 Kings 23:27; Jer 7:10ff, 30, etc.; on the Deuteronomic origins of this theme, cf. Deut 12:5ff; 14:23-24; 16:2, 6, 11.

Verse 8

“They said in their heart, ‘Let us subdue them as one,
let all (the) assembles of (the) Mighty (One) in the land be burned!'”

This is another difficult couplet, largely due to the difficulty in parsing MT <n`yn] in the first line, and also the form of the verb [r^c* (“burn”) in the second line. They idea seems to be that conquering army has the desire to completely subdue the entire nation, and to destroy every sacred site where people worship (lit. “places of assembly”). This reflects, again, the theme of the Babylonians’ hostility toward both YHWH and His people.

The MT <n`yn] is probably best understood as reflecting a first person plural imperfect (cohortative) form of the verb hn`y` (“oppress”); but cf. Dahood, II, p. 202 for a different approach. I do follow Dahood in vocalizing wprc as a passive form (Wpr*c%), with jussive/precative force, “let them be burned”.

Verse 9

“Signs (among) us we no (longer) see,
there is not any more a spokesman (of YHWH),
and not (among) us (anyone) knowing ‘until wh(en)…'”

There are no longer any great wonders or portents (“signs,” cf. on v. 4b above) among the people, nor is there any ayb!n` (inspired spokesperson or ‘prophet’), i.e., one who speaks as YHWH’s representative, communicating His word and will to the people. There is thus no one who can assure the people how long the exile will last—i.e., when it will end (“until wh[en]”, hm*-du^). All of these things are indications that God is no longer present and active among His (exiled) people, at least not in the way that He once was. It is a restoration of the old way that the Psalmist has in mind when he speaks of YHWH redeeming (v. 2) His people; the restoration entails a return of the people to the land, and a re-establishment of Zion/Jerusalem as the holy city of God.

Verse 10

“Until when, O Mightiest, shall (the) adversary scorn (you)?
Shall (the) hostile (one) despise your name to the end?”

The implicit question (“until wh[en]…?” hm*-du^) at the end of v. 9 is picked up at the beginning of v. 10, more precisely as yt^m*-du^ (“until when…?”). The wicked adversary, the “hostile one” (rx* / by@oa, cf. the same parallel terminology in vv. 3-4), has shown open scorn (vb [r^j*) to YHWH, despising (vb Ja^n`) His name (cf. above on v. 7), particularly in the way that they desecrated and destroyed the Temple. Yet the conquest and destruction was so total, leaving the land desolate, with the people exiled, that one might truly wonder if this situation might indeed last “to the end” (jx^n#l*, cf. verse 1). “Until when (i.e. how long)” will this continue? The very question anticipates the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH in vv. 12-23.

Verse 11

“For what do you turn back (from us) your hand,
(and) your right hand from near your bosom <withold>?”

The lament of vv. 1-11 concludes just as it began (cf. on v. 1 above), with the interrogative hm*l*, “for what (reason)…?” (i.e., “why…?”). The Psalmist asks why YHWH does not give help to his people, acting on their behalf, to restore/redeem them from out of their exile. The dual-image here reflects this idea vividly:

    • God turning back (vb bWv) His hand
    • and of holding back (vb al*K*) His right hand

The parallelism is quite clear, and would seem to require reading the verb al*K*, instead of hl*K* (MT hL@K^) in the second line; this slight emendation of the MT seems justified, and is supported by commentators such as Kraus (p. 96). To this idea of YHWH withholding His hand is added the picturesque detail of keeping it back near His own bosom; we might depict it as keeping His hands folded on His lap.

In the plea that follows in vv. 12-17ff, to be discussed in the next study, the Psalmist hopes to spur God to action on behalf of His people.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 73 (Part 1)

Psalm 73

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is a Wisdom-Psalm—that is, a Psalm in which wisdom-elements and theology dominate the composition. We have seen throughout these studies how many Psalms have been strongly influenced by wisdom-tradition; by all accounts, this influence is relatively late, with evidence that wisdom-tradition helped to shape the redaction of certain poems, as those Psalms were edited for use in the Community worship. The particularly heavy Wisdom-emphasis in this Psalm likewise suggests a relatively late date, perhaps in the 5th century. Linguistic and thematic similarities with the book of Job have been noted (cf. the article by J. Luyten, “Psalm 73 and Wisdom,” in Maurice Gilbert, ed., La Sagesse de l’Ancient Testament, Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium 51 [Peeters: 1979], pp. 58-91). Cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 225-6.

Another possible indication of a relatively late date is the highly regular meter, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The few exceptions to this consistent rhythm will be noted.

This is the first of a series of eleven Psalms (7383) associated with the figure of Asaph ([s*a*). According to 1 Chron 6:39, Asaph was one of three priestly (Levite) officials who were put in charge of the “service of the song” by David (cf. 25:1; 2 Chron 5:12); he also served as “chief minister” before the Ark in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:4-5; 25:5). He is said to have been a “seer” (hz#j), 2 Chron 29:30), and his sons apparently also functioned as prophets (1 Chron 25:1-2). The musical tradition associated with Asaph (and his descendants) is confirmed by the notices in Ezra 2:41 and Neh 11:22. On the association of Asaph with prophecy, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50.

Structurally, Psalm 73 is best seen as comprised of three sections, each of which begins with the affirmative particle Ea^, usually rendered as “surely” or “truly”. In the first section (vv. 1-12), the Psalmist’s initial expression of trust in the goodness and faithfulness of YHWH is put to the test by his recognition of the injustice that seems to prevail in the world. This reflects a perennial Wisdom-question: how can a righteous Creator God allow injustice to flourish in His creation? Here, in particular, the Psalmist focuses on how the wicked seem to enjoy success and prosperity, in spite of their wickedness. The flip-side of this theme involves the affliction and suffering of the righteous, as it occurs often at the hands of the wicked. The suffering of the righteous is not specifically emphasized, but the idea is surely implicit throughout. This is part of the righteous-wicked contrast, a fundamental Wisdom-element that occurs frequently in the Psalms. The wicked, flourishing in their injustice, are vividly described in these verses.

In the second section (vv. 13-17), the Psalmist shows how he struggles to make sense of this basic contradiction, regarding the prevailing presence of injustice in the world and the prosperity of the wicked. The answer is given in the final section (vv. 18-28), focusing on the ultimate Judgment (in the afterlife and/or the end-time), when YHWH will finally make right what He had left undone during the lifetime of the wicked (and the righteous).

VERSES 1-12

Verse 1

“(See) Truly, (how) He is good to Yisrael,
(the) Mightiest, to (the) pure of heart.”

Commentators have long suggested emending MT la@r*c=y]l= (“to Israel”) to la@ rv*Y`l^ (“El to the upright”); this would yield the following (admittedly appealing) parallelism:

“Truly, (the) Mighty (One) is good to the upright,
(the) Mightiest to (the) pure of heart.”

However, the ancient versions follow the MT, which argues strongly in its favor. Dahood (II, p. 188) reads the prefixed –l as a vocativel (i.e., “O, Israel”), which would certainly be fitting to the opening line of the Psalm, with its communal setting. By retaining the MT, the couplet establishes the dual-aspect for God’s people—i.e., the people Israel, but specifically the holy/righteous ones of the people, designated here by the expression “pure of heart” (bb*l@ yr@B*). If rv*y` (“straight, upright”) is read in the first line (cf.  above), then the religious-ethical emphasis would be even more clear.

Verse 2

“Yet (as for) me, but a little did my feet turn aside,
with no (strength), they poured out (in my) steps.”

The precise syntax of this couplet is problematic, mainly due to the verb forms in each line, for which there are Masoretic (kethib/qere’) variants. It is also one of the few metrically irregular verses (4+3 couplet) in the Psalm, expressing, in poetic terms, the near stumbling of the protagonist.

With the initial pronoun (yn]a&, “I”), the Psalmist identifies himself as being among the righteous Israelites, those who are “pure of heart”. And yet, something has very nearly (“according to a little [bit],” fu^m=K!) caused his feet to bend/turn (vb hf*n`) from the path. The negative/privative particle /y]a^ (with the prefixed preposition K=) at the start of the second line should probably be understood in the sense of “as with no (strength)” —i.e., his legs/feet were suddenly without any firmness or strength as he stepped. His legs “poured out” (vb Ep^v*) like water under him in his steps (rV%a^ plur.). Dahood (II, p. 188) suggests that the h– ending of the verb form hk*P=v% (kethib) represents the archaic third person feminine dual/plural ending, which would correspond to the the plural yr*v%a& (“my steps”).

Walking straight, with feet firmly planted on the ground, is a basic religious-ethical idiom for upright behavior and conduct. What was it that nearly caused the Psalmist to stumble and stray from the path? He describes this in verses 3ff that follow.

Verse 3

“For I was (made) jealous by the boasting (one)s,
(when the) well-being of (the) wicked I saw,”

The particle yK! here has explanatory force, describing the reason why the Psalmist nearly stumbled from the right path (cf. above). He became jealous (vb an`q*) of those “boasting”. The verb ll^h* II literally means “shout,” in a negative (arrogant or boastful) sense. The participle indicates regular behavior that characterizes such people (i.e., boasting/boastful ones); here it is a characteristic of the wicked, cf. also 5:6[5]; 10:3; 49:7[6], 14[13]; 52:3[1], etc.

The Psalmist is particularly provoked to jealousy and envy when he sees the well-being of the wicked. In spite of their wicked ways, they seem to have considerable prosperity and success, happiness, etc, in this life. The noun <olv* properly means “fullness, completeness”; in English idiom, we would perhaps translate it here as “a full/complete life”; for poetic concision, I have rendered it more generally as “well-being”. Quite possibly, the wicked are boasting specifically of their prosperity and well-being.

Verse 4

“that there are no struggles for them—
full and fat, (indeed, is) their strength!”

I view verse 4 as a continuation of the thought in v. 3; the initial particle yK! thus has a slightly different emphasis than in v. 3. The well-being (<olv*) of the wicked is manifested by their lack of any struggles. The exact derivation and meaning of noun hB*x%r=j^ is uncertain; the only other occurrence is in Isa 58:6 where it is used parallel to the idea of a heavy burden, and of the yoke that is placed on a beast of burden. Dahood (II, p. 189) would relate it to Ugaritic —ƒb (“slay”, or, more generally, “fight”); cp. Hebrew bx@j*, “cut, hew, dig”. In any case, the basic idea seems to be that the wicked, in their prosperity, are free from burdensome labors, which I have generalized in my translation (following Dahood) as “struggles”.

Most commentators are in agreement that MT <t*oml= (“in their death” [?]) needs to be separated and revocalized as <T* oml* (“for them / complete”). The adjective <T* (“complete”) relates conceptually to the noun <olv* (“fullness, completeness”) in v. 3. Because they are free from burdensome labor, their physical strength (lWa), and their earthly life as a whole, is “full” (<T*) and “fat” (ayr!B*).

Verse 5

“Nothing of the toil of humankind is there (for) them,
and with mankind(‘s trouble) they are not touched.”

The syntax of this couplet is a bit awkward (I have tried to capture something of this in my translation), but it clearly gets across the idea, from v. 4 (cf. above), that the wicked, in their prosperity, are relatively free from the toil and trouble that burdens other (less fortunate) people—that is to say, most of humankind. The noun lm*u* (“hard work, labor, toil”) in the first line should be read as implicit in the second line as well.

Verse 6

“Thus (an evil) exaltation adorns their neck,
(and) a covering of violence is set for them.”

In their prosperous strength, the wicked are spurred on to (further) wickedness and acts of injustice (against others). A prideful exaltation (hw`a&G~) adorns their neck (denom. verb qn~u*, from qn`u&, “neck[lace]”), and a garment of violence (sm*j*) covers their body. The syntax of the second line is rather difficult to translate; literally it would read: “a setting of violence is a cover(ing) for them”. I have reworded this slightly, so as better to capture the idea of a garment of violence being put (root tyv) around their body. Here the idea of wickedness is clearly connected with the image of worldly wealth and luxury (expressed through clothing and jewelry, etc).

Verse 7

“Their eyes (stand)ing out (whit)er than milk,
(the) images of (their) heart go (yet) beyond.”

For the first line, I tentatively adopt the vocalization of the MT proposed by Dahood (II, p. 189), reading the infinitive ax)y` (“going out”), and vocalizing bljm as bl*j*m@ (“from milk”), with the preposition /m! in the comparative sense of “(more) than”; as a comparison of beauty, cf. Gen 49:12; Lam 4:7. The brightness/whiteness of the eyes of the wicked can perhaps be understood as expressing two aspects of meaning: (a) a vibrancy of physical health and beauty, and (b) eyes wide open alluding to a covetous desire for riches and the things of this world. The latter aspect is suggested by the second line, describing how the heart of the wicked, within them, imagines still more things; the verb rb^u* literally means “go/cross over”, perhaps in the sense of going further—i.e., in one’s desire for wealth and luxury, etc.

Some commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld-Zenger) would emend omn@yu@ (“their eyes”) to omn`ou& (“their guilt”). However, this is inappropriate; body parts are emphasized throughout vv. 6-9, and thus it is fitting to focus on the eyes of the wicked, especially as a parallel with the ‘inner’ vision of the “heart”.

Verse 8

“They bring mocking and speak with evil (tongue);
(indeed,) oppression from on high they speak.”

The impulse and desires of the heart (v. 7) leads the wicked to speak evil (ur^). The verb rb^D* (“speak”) is used twice, once in each line, for double-emphasis. They begin with mocking (vb qWm) and end with more serious abuse against others, bringing oppression (qv#u)) from their lofty position (“on high,” <orm*).

Verse 9

“They (even) set their mouth against the heavens,
and their tongue goes against the (whole) earth.”

The motif of the high/exalted position of the wicked in v. 8 leads to the idea that they even speak (“set their mouth”) against the heavens. The motifs of daring to exalt oneself to heaven, and of speaking against God Himself, are features of the “wicked tyrant” motif in Old Testament and Jewish tradition; for more on this, cf. Part 1 of my study on “The Antichrist Tradition”.

Here the preposition B= has the specific sense of “against”; however, it is not as clear that this is intended in the second line (i.e., “against the earth”) as well. Possibly, the idea of “going about in (i.e. throughout) the whole earth” is intended, just as it is said of the Satan in Job 1:7; 2:2 (“going about in it”). However, I think the overriding theme of the wicked acting in an abusive and oppressive manner favors the sense of speaking “against” in both lines.

Verse 10

“So (the) people turn back this way (to) them,
and waters of (the) full (sea) are brought to them.”

This is a difficult couplet; the first line, in particular, is problematic, and may be corrupt. Dahood (II, p. 190) would emend MT oMu^ byv!y` (“his people return” [?]) to Wub=c=y] (“they filled/satisfied [themselves”) + enclitic <– suffix. This would certainly fit the theme in v. 9, of the mouth/tongue of the wicked extending out to encompass the heavens and the earth.

If the MT is at all correct, then presumably the first line relates to the oppressive character of the wicked. Through their power and position, they are able, acting unjustly, to compel people to behave a certain way. As a result, people “turn back” to the wicked, providing a measure of service to them on their behalf. One is reminded of the influence the evil Sea Creature (and his servant the Earth Creature) has on the peoples of earth in the book of Revelation (chap. 13). The image of  the “waters of the full (sea) [?]” is likely intended as a general (and comprehensive) metaphor for the worldly wealth that has come to the wicked.

Verse 11

“And they say, ‘How can (the) Mighty (One) know?’
and ‘Is there (any) knowledge in the Most High?'”

The exalted position and arrogant thinking of the wicked even leads them to question the knowledge of God. Probably this question should be understood, at another level, in terms of the principal Wisdom-question posed by the Psalm: viz., how can the righteous Creator allow injustice to prevail on earth, and allow the wicked to prosper? Does God even realize what the wicked are doing? The idea that the wicked might think their deeds are hidden from God is expressed relatively often in the Old Testament; for examples of this motif elsewhere in the Psalms, cf. 10:11; 94:7. Yet, again, the Wisdom-focus of the Psalm also raises the question, even for the righteous, of whether YHWH sees (and knows) what the wicked are doing; if He does see, then why does He not punish the wicked?

Verse 12

“See, these (are the) wicked (one)s;
forever at rest, they increase (in) strength.”

The Psalmist ends his description of the wicked with this declaration: “these (are the) wicked (one)s”. The problematic Wisdom-question addressed by the Psalm is summarized in the final line. The adjective wa@v* means “at rest,” and thus the wicked are characterized by those who are “at rest” (vv. 4-5, cf. above). The noun <olu* presumably is used in the typical sense of the “distant (future)”; to avoid cluttering the translation at this climactic point, I have rendered it in the more figurative (and dramatic) sense of “forever”. However, the alternate interpretation of Dahood (II, p. 191) merits consideration. He understands wa@v* (and the root hl*v* I, “be at rest”) in the negative of sense of being careless/heedless; when used in combination with <olu* as a Divine title (i.e., Eternal One), the line would read:

“heedless of the Eternal (One), they increase (their) strength”

This reading certainly accentuates the Wisdom-question of the Psalm. How can the wicked ignore/neglect YHWH, and yet still prosper, increasing in wealth and worldly power? In the second and third parts of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study), the author begins to provide an answer to this question.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 72 (Part 1)

Psalm 72

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

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

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

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

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

VERSES 1-11

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

Verse 1

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

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

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

Verse 2

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

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

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

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

Verse 3

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

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

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

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

Verse 4

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

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

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

Verse 5

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

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

Verse 6

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

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

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

Verse 7

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

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

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

Verse 8

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

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

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

Verse 9

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

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

Verse 10

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

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

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

Verse 11

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 3)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 2: Verses 14-24 (cont.)

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

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

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

Verse 17

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

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

Verse 18

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

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

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

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

Verse 19

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

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

Verse 20

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

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

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

Verse 21

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

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

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

Verse 22

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

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

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

Verse 23

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

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

Verse 24a

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

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

Verse 24b

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

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

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