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.”

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 (Part 2)

Psalm 80, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

Each of the stanzas of Psalm 80 begin with a similar refrain; here in verse 8 we have a slight expansion of the refrain in verse 4 (cf. the previous study). Some commentators would emend v. 4 to read “Mighty [One] of the armies”, as here in v. 8. For the expression “YHWH of the armies”(toab*x= hwhy), see the note on v. 5 in the previous study. As Creator, YHWH has command of the armies of heaven—the divine beings and the heavenly/celestial phenomena they inhabit/control; these armies fight on behalf of His people Israel, when God so wills it.

Verse 9 [8]

“A vine you did pull out from Egypt;
you drove out (the) nations and planted her.”

This second stanza summarizes the chief event(s) of the formative Israelite history—the Exodus and the conquest/settlement of the Promised Land of Canaan. This is done via the illustration of a vine to represent the nation of Israela proverbial motif that came to be well-established in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:22; Judg 9:12-13; Isa 5:1-7; 27:2ff; Hos 10:1; Joel 1:7; Jer 2:21; 12:10; Ezek 15:1ff; 17; 19:10-14). The Exodus is clearly referenced here within the illustration: YHWH pulls the vine out (vb us^n`) of the ground in Egypt, uprooting it, and planting it in a new land. In order to plant the vine in this land (of Canaan), the peoples (nations) living there were driven out (vb uf^n`). There is both conceptual and alliterative (assonance) wordplay between the verbs us^n` (n¹sa±, “pull out”) and uf^n` (n¹‰a±, “plant [in]”). The idiom of YHWH planting Israel in the land of Promise can be found already in the Song of Sea (Exod 15:17).

I translate literally the feminine morphology and suffixes connected with the vine (/p#G#), treated in the Psalm as a grammatically feminine noun.

Verse 10 [9]

“You (work)ed (its) face before her face,
and made her roots take (deep) root,
and she filled (the entire) land.”

This verse breaks from the general 3+3 metrical pattern, reading as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The settlement of Israel in the Promised Land is described here in terms of the vine-motif. The ground is turned (vb hn`P*), i.e., tilled, prepared for the planting. I have translated this as working the “face” of the land (i.e. the ground, soil), so as to preserve the etymological wordplay between the verb hn`P* (“turn, face”) and the prepositional expression h*yn#p*l= (“before her face”). There is comparable wordplay in the second line, between the verb vr^v* (“[take] root”) and the suffixed noun h*yv#r*v* (“her roots”). Once the vine took root, it began to grow abundantly (as grape-vines tend to do), spreading out and filling the land. This refers to the continual conquest and settlement of the land by the Israelite people, and to their flourishing there. Eventually, of course the confederate nation would grow into a great kingdom (and regional empire), reaching its peak during the reign of Solomon.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The) hills were covered by her shade,
and (by) her branches (the) mighty cedars.”

This verse (returning to a 3+3 meter), expounds the final line of v. 10, and the idea that the vine spread out to fill the land. The vine grew so tall and great that its “branches” (tendrils) covered and cast shade over even the cedar trees on the hills. The construct expression “cedars of might” (la@ yz@r=a^) simply means “mighty cedars”. Conceivably, the reference to the “hills” here may allude to Israelite settlement of the hill-country.

Verse 12 [11]

“She sent forth her tendrils unto (the) Sea,
and to (the) River her (many) young shoots.”

The extent of the vine is here described a different way, clearly alluding to the boundaries of the Israelite kingdom at its greatest extent (under Solomon), reaching from the (Mediterranean) Sea in the west to the (Euphrates) River in the east. Like [n`u* in verse 11, the noun ryx!q* means “branch”; however, the extent of the vine’s spread should probably be understood in terms of the fresh grape-bearing tendrils at the end of the branches, parallel with tq#n#oy (“suckling”, i.e., [young] shoot) in the second line. The vine’s growth is so prodigious that there is an abundance of fresh tendrils spreading out in every direction.

Verse 13 [12]

“For what (reason then) did you burst her hedges,
(so) that all (those) passing by (the) way may pluck her?”

The motif of the vine’s great size and growth has here shifted to the idea of it being protected behind “hedges” (<yr!d@G+). It is not clear whether this refers to the Divine protection provided by YHWH, or to the nation’s own kingdom structures and defenses. In either case, YHWH has allowed the hedges to be “burst/broken through” (vb Jr^P*); the specific action-reference may be to YHWH breaking down the protective hedges. The destruction of the hedges allows anyone passing by to “pluck” the fruit from the vine. This use of the verb hr*a*, along with the feminine aspect of the vine-language (i.e., “pluck her [fruit]”), is suggestive of aggressive/violent sexual activity. Indeed, the implication is that the passers-by are acting with hostility and violence toward the vine (Israel). The conquests (by the Assyrians, etc) are being foreshadowed through this language.

Verse 14 [13]

“(The) boar from (the) forest cuts her to pieces,
and (the) moving (things) of (the) field feed on her!”

The idea of military conquest is more clearly alluded to in this climactic couplet. The “wild boar” from the “forest” could refer to any foreign invader; but probably the Assyrian conquests (of the northern territories) in the second half of the 8th century are specifically in view (cf. the discussion on the historical setting of the Psalm, in the previous study). The odd verb form hN`m*s=r=k^y+ probably should be related to the root <sk (“cut/tear off, shear”, cp. Akkadian kas¹mu, “cut to pieces”), as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 259). Once the vine has been torn down and cut apart, everything that moves (zyz]), i.e., every living creature, in the field can come and feed on it.

The Masoretes drew special attention to the word ru^Y`m! (“from [the] forest”) by writing the letters ru above the line (the so-called littera suspensa). The precise significance of this is not certain; several possibilities are mentioned in the note by Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 309.

Stanza 3: Verses 15-19 [14-18]

Verse 15a [14a]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, please return!”

A shortened version of the refrain begins the third stanza (cf. the note on v. 8 above). Instead of the request “return to us”, the terser “please return”, with the particle of entreaty (an`), is used.

Verse 15b-16 [14b-15]

“Look down from (the) heavens and see—
and may you attend to this (your) vine,
and (so) secure what your right hand planted,
and (watch) over (the) son you yourself made strong.”

The call is for YHWH to pay attention to the condition of His ravaged vine—the nation/kingdom of Israel (esp. the northern territories, v. 2)—and so to respond with help and protection in its time of need. The wide-ranging verb dq^P* probably should be understood here in the basic sense of “attending to” something, exercising oversight, etc.

The couplet in verse 16 expounds what YHWH’s care for His vine entails. The initial word should be understood as a form of the verb /n~K* I, related to /WK, meaning “be firm”, parsed as an imperative with a paragogic (energic) h– suffix. The wish is that YHWH would keep His vine secure, preserving it, in the midst of further (and continuing) threats. The reference to a “son” in the second line seems a bit odd, the Psalmist appearing to mix his metaphors. The reference could be to the people of Israel (collectively) as YHWH’s “son”, or to the king as their representative; cf. on verse 18 below.

Verse 17 [16]

“They (who) have burnt her with such a scouring fire,
from (the) rebuke of your face may they perish!”

The Psalmist’s prayer in this verse takes the form of an imprecation against the hostile enemies of Israel, those who threaten to continue ravaging her. As noted above, it is presumably the Assyrian threat against the northern kingdom that is in view. The first stanza made clear that Israel had experienced great suffering and hardship, with military conquest being alluded to here in vv. 13-14 (cf. above). Such action is now made explicit, with mention of the enemy having burnt the vine (i.e. Israel) with fire.

The first word in the MT needs to be repointed as a plural form with an accusative h– feminine suffix (h*p%r*c=, “they have burnt her”, cf. Hossfeld Zenger, p. 310); Dahood (II, p. 260) suggests a plural participle, h*p#r=s). The final word of the first line, in the MT, hj*WsK= is also problematic. It is perhaps best explained as an emphatic –k preformative (= yK!) attached to a verbal noun from the root hj*s* (cp. jWs), meaning “scouring”; here it would refer to a fiery blaze that sweeps things away.

This fire of judgment is expressed in the second line in terms of the burning anger that comes from YHWH’s face. It is a “rebuke” that will destroy the enemies of Israel.

Verse 18 [17]

“May your hand be over (the) man of your right (hand),
over (the) son of (the) man you yourself made strong.”

This verse expounds upon the statement in the second line of verse 16 (cf. above). The Israelite king may well be in view, as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 260). YHWH’s “hand” refers to the protection He provides, as part of His covenant obligation.

Verse 19 [18]

“For (see,) we shall not (ever) turn back from you:
(so) restore us to life, that we may call on your name!”

Here the Psalmist identifies himself with the righteous/faithful ones of Israel—and identification which, in large part, serves as the basis of his prayer to God for help. Based on the covenant bond, YHWH is obligated to give help and protection to those who remain loyal to Him. The protagonist in the Psalms frequently makes his petition with this idea of covenant loyalty in mind. The imperfect verb form in the first line can be translated a number of ways: (1) as a past tense (“we have not turned away”), (2) as a future tense (“we will not turn away”), or (3) as an emphatic jussive (“we shall not [ever] turn away”). I have opted for the latter, with the initial –w conjunction also as an emphatic, heightening the emphasis.

The verb form of hy`j* (“live,” Piel stem) in the second line also can be understood different ways—i.e., “keep us alive”, “preserve our life”, “restore us to life”. I have chosen the last of these (cf. also Dahood, II, p. 261).

Conclusion: VERSE 20 [19]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

The introductory refrain found in each stanza (vv. 4, 8, 15) is repeated here, in its fullest form, at the conclusion of the Psalm. It serves as a final call, and prayer to God, for salvation.

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

August 20: Psalm 78:52-55

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 49-51; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:52-55

Verse 52

“And (thus) He made His people set out like the flock,
and He guided them like the herd in the outback.”

The Judgment-plagues on Egypt (cf. the previous notes on vv. 43-48 and vv. 49-51) led to the exodus of God’s people from Egypt. The verb us^n` (I) in line 1 denotes pulling up the pegs of a tent in order to take down the tent-structure, which is necessary to do before traveling; the verb is often used in the more general sense of setting out (on a journey, etc). The Hiphil stem indicates that YHWH caused this to happen.

The second line alludes, in a summary fashion, to YHWH’s guidance of His people, all throughout the years of journeying that followed the Exodus. The verb gh^n` (I, “lead, guide”) is typically used in the context of herding animals, sometimes in the sense of forcibly driving them on. The image of YHWH as a herder of His people occurs frequently in the Scriptures, most notably in the famous Psalm 23 (cf. the earlier study). The motif was used in the prior Psalm 77 (v. 20), where Moses and Aaron are specifically mentioned as the intermediaries by which God led/guided the people (like a flock).

This motif in the ancient Exodus tradition is expressed primarily by the first line of the famous couplet in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:13), where the verb hj*n` is used (see below).

Verse 53

“And He led them (on) to safety, and they did not fear;
indeed, (those) hostile to them the Sea covered over!”

The verb hj*n` in line 1 is more or less synonymous with gh^n` in v. 52b, having the comparably meaning “lead”; it is the verb used in Exod 15:13a, which has certainly influenced the wording here. The prepositional expression jf^b#l* indicates the goal and purpose (and result) of YHWH’s leading—it is to (l=) a place of safety (jf^B#). The root jfb, with the basic meaning of seeking/finding protection, occurs frequently in the Psalms, and often in the specific context of YHWH’s covenant-obligation to provide protection to those faithful/loyal to Him.

As the second line makes clear, the principal reference is to the event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15), particularly the dramatic moment (in the tradition) when the waters fell back down and covered the Egyptian soldiers, drowning them (14:28; 15:5ff). The statement that the Israelites “did not fear” does not quite square with the historical narrative (14:10ff); it is surely to be understood in the sense that they had no reason or cause to be afraid, since God Himself was protecting them (cf. Moses’ declaration in v. 13).

Verse 54

“And He brought them to (the) boundary of His holiness,
(the) mountain which His right hand acquired.”

The initial journey brought the people to mount Sinai (Exodus 19), understood (according to the Moses traditions, see esp. Exod 3) as the holy dwelling-place of YHWH. In ancient Semitic (Canaanite) religious tradition, any local mountain could serve as the ritual/symbolic manifestation of the Creator El’s cosmic mountain dwelling.

Of course, later Israelite/Judean tradition identified this location principally with the fortified hilltop site of the Jerusalem Temple (i.e., Zion). The reference to YHWH’s vd#q) alludes to this. The noun vd#q) can denote the abstract quality of “holiness”, but also the more concrete idea of something that is holy (spec. a holy place). The Song of the Sea (Exod 15) has the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan principally in view (vv. 13-17). There the Promised Land is referred to as the abode (hw#n`) of YHWH’s holiness (v. 13b), and, already in the ancient Song, the settlement of the Promised Land is closely tied to the symbolic mountain dwelling of YHWH (v. 17). The establishment of a Temple-shrine on Zion is seen as the culmination (and final goal) of the Exodus and settlement of the land. For this same idea in the Deuteronomic tradition, cf. Deut 12:9-11, and also the climactic statement in 1 Kings 8:53 (in the context of the consecration of the Temple).

Again, the wording in this couplet was almost certainly influenced by the Song of the Sea (esp. vv. 13, 17). Interestingly, however, in the Song, it was the people whom YHWH acquired (vb hn`q*) for His own (v. 16), not the mountain; the people were planted on the mountain. The reference to YHWH’s “right hand” alludes to the exercise of His power in enabling the Israelites to defeat their enemies and conquer/settle the land; cf. the context of Exod 15:16-17, and below on v. 55 of the Psalm.

As a side note, the noun lWbG+ (in the first line) means “border, boundary”, and so I have translated it above; however, doubtless the primary reference is to the idea of a mountain as a boundary-marker (cp. the cognate jabal/jebel in Arabic).

Verse 55

“And He drove out nations from (before) their face;
indeed, He made them fall in (the) line(s) of inheritance,
and caused to dwell in their tents
(the) staffs of Yisrael.”

The idea of “driving out” (vb vr^G`) the nations of Canaan from before the “face” of Israel is basic to the ancient tradition (cf. Exod 23:28-31; 33:2; 34:11; Josh 24:12; Judg 2:3; 6:9, etc). It is a general reference to the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan. As indicated in v. 54b (cf. above), it was YHWH’s power that caused the nations to “fall”, allowing Israel to defeat them. The expression hl*j&n~ lb#j# literally means “cord/rope of inheritance”, signifying the boundary (measured/marked out with a rope) of an inherited piece of land. The idea is that the nations were defeated within the boundaries of the land that Israel would inherit; there may also be an allusion to the idea that the measuring out of the territory necessarily involved the defeat of the nations who were being dispossessed.

Once the Canaanite peoples were “driven out”, the tribes of Israel would dwell in their abandoned tents. Here “tents” is a euphemism for the inhabited territory as a whole, referring to the land of Canaan as the territory of the twelve tribes (lit. “staffs,” i.e., staffs of tribal/confederate rule)—that is, the traditional territorial allotments, by which the land would be divided.

August 19: Psalm 78:49-51

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 40-48; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:40-51 (cont.)

Verse 49-50a

“He sent (out) on them (the) burning of His anger—
an outburst even (of) indignation and distress,
a sending (out) of messengers of evil (thing)s—
(so) He leveled out a pathway for His anger!”

The Judgment-plagues on Egypt (cf. on vv. 43-48 in the previous note) are explained here as an expression of YHWH’s anger. This abstract meaning of [a^, reflecting the emotion of anger, was discussed in the earlier note on v. 21 (cf. also vv. 31, 38). The noun [a^, and the idea of YHWH sending out His anger, serves to frame these two couplets, and indicates that the customary verse-division here is incorrect; the first line of v. 50 belongs with v. 49, resulting in a fine symmetric pair of couplets. The “sending” (vb jl^v*) of YHWH’s anger, in a general sense, in the first line, is matched by the specific image of laying out a smooth/level pathway (i.e., for the anger to travel to Egypt).

The inner lines (2-3) follow this same contrast, between a more generic sense of YHWH’s expressions of anger (line 2), and the specific imagery of messengers being sent out on a mission (line 3)—the messengers understood as embodying the angry outbursts (and their effect), or as the means by which the anger is manifest (and the judgment carried out) among human beings. The underlying religious concept is the idea that evils experienced by humans are the result of actions taken by deities (in their anger). However, it is worth noting that in the narrative of the plagues on Egypt (Exod 7-12), there is no mention of a “messenger” (‘angel’) taking part, though an allusion to this is generally assumed in 12:23 with the expression “the (one) destroying”.

There is a sense of progression in the second line, which can be seen as parallel to the traveling of the messengers (in line 3). As YHWH’s anger begins to ‘burn’ (root hrj), the following results:

    • there is an outburst or boiling over (hr*b=u#) of the anger =>
      • an indignant rage (<u^z~) directed against the people =>
        • a time of intense distress (hr*x*) and suffering experienced by the people
Verse 50bc

“He did not hold back their soul from death,
but their life to the pestilence He closed up.”

This couplet alludes rather more clearly to the final plague on Egypt, involving the death of all the firstborn males (Exod 11 & 12). YHWH “closed up” (vb rg~s*) the people to death, implying the giving over of someone into prison, etc. Here, death is explained is being the result of “pestilence” (rb#D#, i.e., disease), though this is not clearly indicated in the Exodus narrative; indeed, the term rb#D# is only used (twice) in reference to the fifth and seventh plagues (9:3, 15). However, throughout the Old Testament, when God’s judgment on humankind leads to death, the spread of disease is often indicated (or implied). In the ancient world, disease was typically understood as the result of an angry deity’s act (of judgment).

Verse 51

“And (so) He struck all (the) firstborn in Egypt,
(the) foremost of their strength in (the) tents of Ham!”

In this concluding couplet, which brings the summary of the Egyptian plagues to a climax (cf. the previous note), a reference to the final plague (death of the firstborn) is at last made explicit. There is a slight difficulty in the second line, as to whether the correct reading is <n`oa (“their vigor”) or the plural form (<yn]oa) of the MT. The LXX (and other ancient versions) translate according to the former, which also tends to be confirmed by the parallel expression in Genesis 49:3, where “my vigor” (yn]oa) occurs. The noun /oa denotes physical strength, but often in the specific sense of vital creative (i.e., sexual) power; thus the translation “vigor” is a decent fit in English. The noun tyv!ar@ literally means “first”; it can indicate the first/foremost place or position, as well as to being first in time, and also can be understood qualitatively as the “best, finest,” etc. All of these aspects of meaning apply to the parallel with rokB= (“firstborn,” in a collective sense)

According to the ancient Israelite genealogies (and ethno-geographic tradition), Egypt (eponymous for the Egyptian people) was a descendant of Ham (Gen 10:6ff). Outside of the genealogies related to the Noachic tradition (including 1 Chron 1:4ff, also 4:40), Ham is mentioned in only three other passages; in all three instances (here and in Ps 105:23, 27; 106:22), the specific association is with the land of Egypt.

August 18: Psalm 78:40-48

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 32-39; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:40-51

Verse 40

“(See) in what (manner) they defied Him in the outback,
(and) caused Him pain in (the) desolate land!”

As in verse 17 and 32, this next section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience against YHWH, using the same verb (hr*m*) as in vv. 8 and 17. The verb denotes an act of disobedience or defiance; it can even carry the more forceful meaning of rebelling against a superior. The verb in the second line is bx^u* I, which in the causative stem means “cause pain” to someone; the pain can either be physical or emotional, in which case the specific connotation may be that of bringing sorrow or grief to another.

In vv. 15/17, the parallel was between the rB*d=m! (“place out back, outback”) and hY`x! (“dry/parched [land]”); here, it is between rB*d=m! and /omyv!y+ (“desolate [land]”). In each case the parallel terms describe the same geographic conditions, i.e., of a harsh desert wilderness. It is a summary reference, of course, to the years of Israel’s journeying (‘wandering’) through the Sinai peninsula, following the Exodus.

Verse 41

“Indeed, they turned back and tested (the) Mighty (One),
and (to the) Holy (One) of Yisrael they gave pain.”

In verse 34, the verb bWv (“turn back, return”) indicated a return to faithfulness by the people; however, this proved to be only temporary, and the people once again returned to faithlessness. This lack of faith/trust in YHWH is expressed by the idea of testing God; the verb hs*n` is used frequently in this context in the Old Testament historical narrative, but occurs only rarely in poetry (it is used elsewhere in the this Psalm, vv. 18, 56; cf. also 95:9; 106:14). For the key references in the historical tradition, cf. Exod 17:2, 7; Num 14:22; Deut 6:16; 33:8. The same verb can be used, in the more positive (and reverse) sense of God testing His people (Exod 16:4; 20:20; Deut 8:2, 16; cp. Psalm 26:2). The rare verb hw`T* (II), occurring only here in the Old Testament, seems to have a meaning comparable to bx^u* in v. 40 (i.e., “give/cause pain”).

On the title “Holy One of Israel” (2 Kings 9:22), which occurs frequently in the book of Isaiah, it also is used in Psalm 71:22; 89:18. For more on the substantive adjective “holy (one)” (vodq*) as Divine title, cf. the recent note on John 6:69.

Verses 42-43

“They did not remember (the power of) His hand,
(the) day when He ransomed them from (the) adversary,
when He set (forth) His signs in Egypt,
and His marvels in (the) plain(s) of ‚o’an.”

Trust in YHWH is secured by remembering (vb rk^z`) the things He has done for His people (vv. 35, 39), particularly with regard to the wonders He performed in freeing them from their servitude in Egypt (vb hd*P*, “ransom”, cp. the use of laG` in v. 35). Those Exodus traditions (narrated in chaps. 7-12) will themselves be ‘remembered’ in the verses that follow. A lack of faith/trust is only possible when the people forget (v. 11)—that is, fail to remember or keep in mind—the wondrous things (“signs” and “marvels”) done by YHWH (i.e., by the power of “His hand”).

On the parallelism of Egypt/Zoan, and the latter as a designation for the Nile Delta, cf. the prior note (on v. 12).

Verse 44

“(For) indeed, He turned their channels to blood,
so (that) their flowing (streams) none could drink.”

The couplet refers to the first ‘plague’ in Egypt (Exod 7:14-25); it emphasizes specifically that even the water of the canals (“channels, shafts”, <yr!a)y+) dug out from the Nile was turned to blood (v. 19).

Verse 45

“He sent (forth) among them a swarm (of flies),
and it ate them, and (also) frogs which ruined them.”

The syntax here fits awkwardly into the meter of the 3-beat (3+3) couplet; grammatically, a 4+2 couplet would be more appropriate. In any case, the verse is a summary reference to the third-fourth and second ‘plagues’ (Exod 8).

Verse 46

“And He gave (over) their produce to the consuming (hopper),
and their labor to the multiplying (locust).”

The terms lys!j* and hB#r=a^ presumably both refer to the locust, perhaps at different stages of its development (cf. 1 Kings 18:37; Joel 1:4; 2:25). However, in Ugaritic the distinction is between the grasshopper and the locust (cf. Dahood, II, p. 244). In any case, the reference here is to the eighth ‘plague’ (Exod 10:1-20).

Verse 47

“He killed (off) their vine(s) with the hail,
and their sycamores with the sleet.”

The first line refers to the seventh ‘plague’ (Exod 9:13-35); however, the second line is rather obscure in this context, particularly since the precise meaning of the noun lm^n`j& (occurring only here) is quite uncertain, though most commentators follow the ancient versions in translating it as “frost” or “sleet”.

Verse 48

“He also shut up their beast(s) to the hail,
and their possessions to the bolts.”

This couplet is parallel to that of v. 47 in referring to the plague of hail. The reference to “(fiery) bolts” (i.e., lightning bolts in the second line here suggests, based on the parallelism, that meaning of the obscure lm^n`j& in v. 47 should be comparable (“[fiery] sleet”?). The translation “possessions” is a literal rendering of hn#q=m! (plur.), referring to the people’s herds of livestock; it is parallel to “beasts” (collective) in the first line, a more general designation for herd animals.

The meter for each of vv. 46-48 is shortened (3+2 couplets).

The remainder of this section will be discussed in the next note.

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


August 17: Psalm 78:32-39

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 23-31; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:32-39

Verse 32

“(But even) with all this, they sinned yet (more),
and did not set (their hearts) firm by His wonders.”

As in verse 17, the section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience and sinning (vb af*j*) against YHWH. The thematic refrain allows the Psalmist to progress through different stages of his survey of the history of Israel (in the Exodus period). The “wonders” performed by YHWH include the miraculous ‘raining down’ of bread and meat from heaven (cf. the previous note on vv. 23-31). Yet, even upon witnessing these further miracles, the people did not set their hearts firm (vb /m^a*, Hiphil stem) to trust in YHWH and to follow His Instruction.

Verse 33

“And (so) He made their days end in emptiness,
and their years in (ghostly) fright.”

This couplet summarizes the fate of the generation of the Exodus, nearly all of whom perished in the wilderness without ever entering the Promised Land (Num 14:29, 35; 26:64-65, etc). The parallelism is of their “days” ending in “emptiness” (lb#h#) and their “years” ending in “fright/terror” (hl*h*B#); there is a bit of alliterative wordplay between the nouns lb#h# (he»el) and hl*h*B# (beh¹lâ) that cannot be conveyed in translation. Both terms refer to the prospect of death (and the realm of the dead), as being both frightening and empty (especially for the wicked).

Verse 34

“When He slew them, then they searched (for) Him;
then they returned and sought early (the) Mighty (One).”

Only after enduring fierce judgment from YHWH, did the people repent and return to follow the way of God, at least for a time. This is expressed by the idiom of “searching” (vb vr^D*) after God, being especially common (also with the similar vb rq^B*) in the Psalms, Wisdom literature, and the Prophets. The idea of repentance, indicated here by the used of the verb bWv (“return”), is especially prominent in the Prophetic oracles, calling on the people to “return” to YHWH their God. The diligence of their “searching” is conveyed by the denominative verb rj^v*, which refers to rising early (in the morning) to do something.

Verse 35

“And they remembered that (the) Mightiest (was) their Rock,
and (the) Mighty (One), (the) Highest, their Redeemer.”

The term rWx (“rock”), as a Divine title, refers to El-YHWH as a source of protection for His people. It often alludes to the idea of a place of refuge, located at a secure position high upon a rock. The verbal noun la@G) (“redeeming”) refers to YHWH acting as one who sets His people free from servitude or bondage, like a family member who “redeems” (vb la^G`) his relative by paying the price necessary to secure freedom. In the historical context of the narration here, this salvation-motif certainly refers to the Exodus from Egypt—and the “wonders” performed by YHWH to bring it about.

Verses 36-37

“But (while) they opened to Him their mouth,
they also lied to Him with their tongue;
for their heart was not standing firm with Him,
nor were they fixed on His binding (agreement).”

By these lines it is clear that the people’s return to faithfulness (vv. 34-35, cf. above) was not entirely genuine; they may have been faithful outwardly, saying the right things with their mouth, etc, but inwardly their heart was not right with God. Again the verbs /WK and /m^a* are used to express this idea of faithfulness through the idiom of having one’s heart set firm (cf. vv. 8, 20, 22, 32), i.e., fixed in faith/trust and obedience to God. As in the opening section of the Psalm (cf. the introductory study), and in verse 10, faithfulness to YHWH is defined primarily in terms of fulfilling the binding agreement (tyr!B=, i.e., covenant) established between God and His people Israel.

Verse 38

“But he, (the) Compassionate (One),
wiped away (their) crookedness
and did not destroy (them);
indeed, many (times) He acted to turn away His anger,
and did not rouse all of His burning (rage).”

This is a summary of YHWH’s dealings with His people throughout their history, but particularly during the years of wandering in the Exodus period. He would punish them when they sinned, but ultimately forgave (vb rp^K*, wipe over/away) their perverse heart (lit. “crookedness,” /ou*), so as not to unleash upon them His full anger (and thus destroy them completely).

Metrically, this verse is comprised of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, followed by a 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 39

“For He remembered that they (are) flesh—
a wind going (away)
that does not return.”

This section closes, poignantly, with a Wisdom-statement, in the form of a 3+2+2 tricolon. The sentiment expressed here is found frequently in the Psalms and Wisdom literature, emphasizing the fleeting nature of human life and existence, in its mortality. The Wisdom texts often include a call for people to remember this point—e.g., Job 7:6-7; 10:9; Ps 39:4-5f; 89:47; 103:15f; Eccl 11:8; 12:1. For the comparison of human life with the wind, in its ephemeral nature, as it passes quickly and is then gone, cf. Ps 103:16, and the repeated refrain in Ecclesiastes (1:14, 17, et al); the comparison is particularly appropriate as applied to the life and aspirations of the wicked (Job 21:18; 27:21; Ps 1:4; 35:5; 83:3; Prov 11:29; 21:6).

The use of the term rc*B* (“flesh”) echoes the previous section (cf. the previous note on vv. 23-31), with the motif of the “flesh” (i.e., meat) sent down from heaven for the people to eat. Their request was made out of real human need (for food), and thus was based upon the limitations of their mortal human nature (as “flesh”); but it also reflected a faithlessness and lack of trust in God. As pointed out above, for the wicked, in particular, their brief life, after it has passed (like the wind), ends in emptiness (cf. above on v. 33).

August 16: Psalm 78:23-31

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 17-22; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:17-31 (cont.)

Verse 23

“And (yet) He commanded (the) clouds from above,
and (the) doors of (the) heavens opened (up).”

This couplet follows the angry reaction by YHWH (v. 21) to the people’s faithless response regarding their predicament (i.e., lack of food to eat in the desert), vv. 19-20, 22. The initial w-conjunction could indicate that God’s opening of the heavens is an expression of His anger (“and so…”), or that He fulfilled the people’s request in spite of it (“and yet…”); the latter would seem to be a better fit.

The noun qj^v^, which almost always occurs in the plural, refers to clouds of dust or other fine particles; it could be rendered “vapors” here. The idiom “doors/gates [yt@l=D^] of the heavens” is a bit unusual; somewhat more common is the idea of windows in the heavens (cf. Gen 7:11), through which the rain comes down. Again, YHWH’s control over the waters is alluded to here, even though the motif of rain is figurative in this instance—as God ‘rains down’ bread and meat, instead of water, from heaven (v. 24; Exod 16:4).

Verse 24

“And He rained down upon them man(na) to eat,
even grain of (the) heavens He gave to them.”

This couplet essentially paraphrases Exod 16:4, and the following description in vv. 13ff. In Exodus, the expression is “bread [<j#l#] from the heavens”, while here it is “grain [/g`D*] of (the) heavens” (however <j#l# [‘bread”] is used in v. 25). The use of <j#l# is more in keeping with the tradition (Ps 105:40; Neh 9:15), followed in the Johannine Bread of Life Discourse by Jesus (Jn 6:31ff).

Verse 25

“Bread of (the) mighty (one)s did man eat—
He sent to them provision to (the) full!”

Since this bread came down from heaven, it has a heavenly nature and origin; the implication here is that it is food that the heavenly beings would eat. The plural substantive adjective <yr!yB!a^ is more or less synonymous with <yh!ýa$—both have the basic meaning “mighty ones”, and refer to Divine/heavenly beings. The singular ryb!a* is used as a Divine title for El-YHWH in Gen 49:24; Psalm 132:2, 5; Isa 1:24; 49:26; 60:16. In other passages, the plural adjective refers to powerful animals (bulls, oxen), or to human leaders/warriors by way of an animal-epithet. The idea that this heavenly food conveys life to Divine beings is certainly of significance for the use of the tradition in the Bread of Life Discourse (cf. above). This surely was a special privilege—for human beings to eat the food of the gods (or angels)!

Not surprisingly, the heavenly source of this food meant that it gave nourishment and provision (hd*yx@) in a way that was completely and fully satisfying (cf. below on v. 29).

Verse 26

“He made the front-wind set out in the heavens,
and drove forth (the) right-hand wind by His power.”

YHWH’s activity in causing the bread and meat to ‘rain down’ emphasizes still further His control over the skies and all related atmospheric phenomena (wind, etc). On the role of the wind in bringing forth the meat from heaven—i.e., driving the quail down to earth—see Num 11:31. The term <yd!q*, denoting a front or forward position, directionally refers to the east; thus the “front wind” is the east-wind. Similarly, the “right-hand” (/m*yT@) wind is the south-wind.

Dahood (II, p. 242, and elsewhere) notes that the wide semantic-range of the preposition B= includes “from”, especially in poetry where the archaic usage tends to follow that of the Canaanite (Ugaritic) poetic style. Thus <y]m*V*B^ could be translated “from the heavens”, as befits the context.

Verse 27

“And He rained down upon them meat like dust,
and feathered wing(s) like (the) seas’ whirling (sand)!”

The meat (“flesh,” ra@v=) that God “rained down” on the people was in the form of birds—spec. quail (according to Exod16:13ff; Num 11:31ff); here the visual image is of the flurry of feathers ([ou) and wings ([n`K*). A mass of birds comes down like a great dust-cloud, or like the swirling sands of the seashore; the motif of sand, in particular, is used to indicate a vast number (Gen 22:17, etc).

Metrically, this is a longer (4-beat, 4+4) couplet, prompted some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 122) to emend the text for rhythmic consistency.

Verse 28

“And He made (it) fall in the midst of (the) camp-circle,
(and) surrounding (all) their dwellings.”

The visual image here is two-fold: (a) the birds fall within the bounds of the Israelite encampment (hn#j&m^), traditionally assumed to be in an arc or circle (derivation from the root hn`j*); and (b) within the camp they fall all around the individual tents. Thus the ground of the entire camp is practically covered with birds.

The meter of this couplet, too, is slightly irregular (3+2).

Verse 29

“And (so) they ate, and were filled up (full)y;
even their (very) desire He made come to them!”

On the satisfying abundance of the bread and meat that came down, cf. Exod 16:13ff; Num 11:32ff. The very abundance ultimately served as a kind of punishment for the faithlessness of the people, cf. Num 11:4, 19-20, 34.

Verse 30

“(Yet) they were not estranged from their desire,
(even while) their food (was) still in their mouths.”

From these lines, it is clear that the noun hw`a&T^ (“longing, desire”) has a negative connotation that goes beyond the natural longing for food; it alludes also to the pervasive faithlessness of the people. Moreover, the sense is of fleshly orientation that values satisfying one’s appetite, through greedy consumption, rather than obedience to God. On the basis for this idea in the tradition, cf. Num 11:33, where it is indicated that Divine judgment (in the form of disease/plague) struck the people while the meat was still in their mouth.

Verse 31

“And the anger of (the) Mightiest came up against them,
and He slew (many) of (their) fattest—
indeed, (the) choice (one)s of Yisrael He cut down!”

The motif of YHWH’s rising anger ([a^), introduced in v. 21 (cf. the previous note), is completed here; on the judgment that kills off (with disease) many of the people, cf. Num 11:33ff. Here, the emphasis on the people’s sinful craving continues, by identifying the slain as among the “fattest” ones—i.e., sturdiest and most vigorous. The implication is that chief among the slain are those most well-fed and with the largest appetite. Clearly, the tradition is being interpreted here from a moralistic standpoint, which is in keeping with the didactic purpose and wisdom-orientation of the Psalm.

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).


August 15: Psalm 78:17-22

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 9-16; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:17-31

Verse 17

“And (yet) they continued still to sin against Him,
to defy (the) Most High (there) in the dry land.”

The theme of the people’s faithless disobedience, betraying the covenant with YHWH, was introduced in verse 8, and then becomes a key refrain in each of the main sections of the Psalm, emphasizing a repeated and continual pattern of disobedience. This is particularly indicated by the combination of the verb [s^y` (“add [to something]”, often in the sense of “repeat, do again”) with the adverb dou (indicating a repetition or return to something).

The people’s lack of trust, and breaking of the covenant bond with YHWH, is expressed here through two different idioms: (1) sinning (vb af*j*) against YHWH, and (2) stubbornly defying (vb hr*m*) Him. The verb hr*m* can carry the more forceful (and dramatic) connotation of rebelling against someone, provoking an intense anger.

In verse 15, the locative noun rB*d=m! was used; it is typically translated “wilderness” or “desert”, but properly means something like “place out back” (i.e., “outback”). Here, the specific idea of a desert region is intended, through the use of hY`x! (“dry/parched [land]”).

Verse 18

“And they tested (the) Mighty (One) in their heart,
(so as) to request something to eat for their throat.”

This couplet, which expounds the statement in v. 17, refers in a comprehensive way to the various traditions regarding the people’s grumbling over the lack of food and water in the desert (e.g., Exod 16:3; Num 11:4; 20:3; 21:5). On the motif of the people “testing” (vb hs*n`) God in their heart, cf. Psalm 106:14; also 95:9; Deut 6:16; and the reference by Paul in 1 Cor 10:9. This “testing” reflects a lack of faith and trust in YHWH.

The noun vp#n# is difficult to translate in the second line. Usually rendered “soul”, which makes a fine parallel here with “heart”, it can sometimes refer to a person’s desire or appetite (i.e., longing of the soul). On other rare occasions (and always in poetry), vp#n# has the more concrete (and physiological) meaning of “throat”. Here the specific juxtaposition of “heart” (one’s inward intent and desire) and “throat” (i.e., the physical longing of the body for something to eat) seems most appropriate.

Verse 19

“And they spoke out
against (the) Mightiest and said:
‘Is the Mighty (One) able
to arrange a table-spread
(here) in the outback?'”

The meter and structure of this verse is irregular and uneven, prompting Kraus (p. 121) to recommend eliminating the initial two words; admittedly, this would instantly produce a proper 3-beat (3+3) couplet, consistent with the metrical pattern of the Psalm:

“And they said: ‘Is (the) Mighty (One) able
to arrange a table-spread in the outback?'”

However, this also eliminates the clever bit of wordplay that frames the verse, by which the Psalmist may be playing on the different meanings of the two rbd roots—one meaning “speak”, and the other denoting “be in back”. As noted above, the locative noun rB*d=m!, though typically translated “wilderness” (or “desert”), properly means something like “place out back”. I have tried to capture this wordplay in English: i.e., the people “spoke out” (against God) regarding their being “in the outback”.

Verse 20

“‘See, He did strike (the) rock,
and (the) waters flowed,
and torrents poured down;
but is He also able to give bread,
or provide meat for His people?'”

The people’s expression of faithless questioning continues here from v. 19. It indicates that they saw the dramatic scene of copious water-streams pouring out of the rock, and understood its significance (as a miraculous act by YHWH); yet they could still doubt whether God was also (<g~) able to provide bread and meat for them to eat.

Verse 21

“So then—
(when) YHWH heard this, He boiled over,
and fire blazed (up) against Ya’aqob,
yes, even His anger came up against Yisrael;”

Structurally, this verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, to which is added an initial beat for dramatic effect. YHWH’s initial reaction to hearing the people’s skeptical questioning was to “boil over” (or cross over, be overcome, vb rb^u*) with anger. This causes a “fire” to ignite and ‘blaze’ (vb qc^n`) within Him; the fire (va@) is specifically identified emotionally with His anger, rising up (vb hl*u*) against His people. The noun [a^ typically heightens this sort of anthropomorphic imagery, by including the concrete (and vivid) motif of a person’s nostrils burning or flaring (i.e., like the snorting of an angry bull). More abstractly, the sense can be of the burning of a person’s face (as a sign of his anger). Here, however, it is the specific emotion of anger, expressed by YHWH, that best reflects the meaning of [a^.

For the corresponding reference in the tradition to this reaction by YHWH, cf. Numbers 11:1ff, where it seems that a real (physical) fire breaks out in the camp—i.e., the internal fire (of YHWH’s anger) is expressed naturalistically through an actual, destructive fire.

Verse 22

“because they did not set (their heart) firmly on (the) Mightiest,
and did not put (their) trust in His saving (power)!”

The parallel verbs /m^a* (Hiphil stem) and jf^b* both express the idea of having faith/trust in someone. The latter specifically refers to seeking refuge or protection, and is used frequently in the Psalms (46 out of 120 OT occurrences). The former verb (/m^a*) in the Hiphil (causative) stem denotes making something firm, or causing it to stand firm, etc; it is often used in the more abstract religious-ethical sense of having faith or trust—indicating that one’s heart is firm.

The remainder of this section (vv. 23-31) will be discussed in the next note.

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

August 14: Psalm 78:9-16

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. For the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:9-16

Verse 9

“(The) sons of Eprayim, armed (and) shooting (the) bow,
turned about on (the) day of coming near (for battle).”

In the Prophetic oracles and writings, “Ephraim” serves as a designation for the Northern tribes (and the Northern kingdom) as a whole, Ephraim being the most prominent of the northern tribes; cf. especially the usage in Hosea and Isaiah (Hos 4:17; 5:3ff; 6:4; 7:1; Isa 7:2ff, 17; 9:9; 11:13; 17:3, etc). The focus in the Psalm thus is on the faithlessness of the Northern tribes; cf. the discussion in the introduction. This faithlessness is depicted here in military terms—of the turning about (vb Ep^h*, i.e. turning back) by soldiers in the time of battle. When they should have “come near” (root brq I) to fight, they ‘turned tail’ and ran away.

Dahood (II, p. 239), along with other commentators, is doubtless correct in discerning a bit of wordplay between the roots hmr I, i.e., “casting/shooting (with the bow)”, and hmr II (“deceive, act treacherously”). The Israelite soldiers who were supposed to shoot with the bow (in battle), instead were faithless and betrayed the cause. It is not at all clear that a particular historical incident is intended; the couplet may simply refer, in a roundabout way, to the treachery of the Northern tribes, and allude to their defeat/conquest.

Many commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 121) would view verse 9 as a secondary addition to the Psalm, in light of the way that it seems to disrupt the flow between vv. 8 and 10. On the other hand, it is possible that this opening reference to the Northern kingdom (Ephraim) is meant to balance the later reference in vv. 67ff, thus framing thematically the body of the Psalm.

Verse 10

“They did not guard the bond of (the) Mightiest,
and in His Instruction they refused to walk.”

On the theory that originally v. 10 followed v. 8 (cf. above), the couplet here refers to the faithless generation of the Exodus, which died out in the desert because of their rebelliousness and unwillingness to keep faith with YHWH. However, in the immediate context of v. 9, the primary focus is on the ‘treachery’ of the Northern kingdom by which they broke faith with God.

The noun tyr!B= denotes a binding agreement; it is typically translated “covenant”, and this is fine, but I think it preferable to preserve the fundamental meaning of the word in translation—here “bond” is a poetic shorthand for “binding agreement”. The “Instruction” (hr*oT) refers, as is typical, to the regulations and commands of the Torah (esp. the “Ten Words”), which represent the terms of the binding agreement between YHWH and His people. The people of Israel are obligated to fulfill these terms, otherwise they are in violation of the agreement. By not “walking” in the Instruction, they do not guard (vb rm^v*, i.e., keep) the covenant. This is traditional religious-ethical language, used throughout the Old Testament, and is found regularly in the Psalms; it also reflects the strong Wisdom-component that is present in many Psalms.

Verse 11

“And they forgot His dealings (with them),
and His wonders that He caused them to see.”

The root llu (I) generally denotes the way that one person deals with another; here the plural noun refers to YHWH’s dealings with His people (and on their behalf). In particular, the reference is to the “wonderful (thing)s” (verbal noun, from al^P*), i.e., “wonders”, that He did for them; the principal point of reference, as the following verses make clear, is to the miracle-traditions surrounding the Exodus. The only way that the people could abandon the covenant with YHWH is if they completely “forgot about” the miraculous things He had done for them in the past.

Verse 12

“In front of their fathers He did wonder(s),
in (the) land of Egypt, (the) plain(s) of ‚o’an.”

The people of Israel saw these wonders, performed by YHWH right “in front of” (dg#n#) of them. The miracles of the Exodus period are meant, as the geographic reference in the second line makes clear. The Hebrew /u^x) (‚œ±an) is a transliteration of the Egyptian place-name Dja±net, referring to the district of Tanis (in the Nile Delta), capital of 21st-22nd Dynasties. In the Israelite Kingdom period (11th-8th centuries), the Nile Delta region would have been referred to, generally, this way. In earlier times (of the Exodus and prior centuries), the capital city in the region would have been Avaris (Tell ed-Dab±a) or Pi-Rameses (Qantir, probably). The Israelite ancestors who migrated to Egypt (along with many other Semitic migrants) dwelt and worked in the Delta, being heavily concentrated there; Old Testament tradition identifies the original settlement region as the “land of Goshen” (Gen 45:18, etc), i.e., the fertile area around the Wadi ˆumilât.

Verse 13

“He split the Sea and made them cross over,
and He made stand (the) waters as a pile.”

While YHWH performed many wonders in Egypt, in connection with the Exodus (as narrated in Exod 7-12), the foremost of these was the event at the Sea of Reeds (chaps. 14-15), when YHWH “split apart” (vb uq^B) the waters (14:16, 21), causing them to pile up on either side (as if behind a dam). The rare noun dn@ is almost always used in this context—i.e., for the piling up of dammed waters (Exod 15:8; Josh 3:13, 16; Psalm 33:7).

Verse 14

“And He (also) led them by the cloud (in the) daytime,
and all (through) the night by (the) light of fire.”

This is an obvious reference to the tradition in Exod 13:21f; 14:19, 24; 33:9-10; Num 14:14; Neh 9:12, 19, etc. The “wonders” performed by YHWH at the time of the Exodus include the guidance and protection given to the people during their journeys.

Verse 15

“He split apart (the) rock in the outback,
and let (them) drink abundantly (from the) depths.”

This is a reference to the famous episode narrated in Numbers 20:1-13. The fact that a singular rock (or rocky crag, ul^s#) is always mentioned, would tend to support the observation by Dahood (II, p. 240) that MT <yr!x% here represents another example of the familiar scribal confusion between a singular noun + enclitic <– suffix and a plural form. I also follow Dahood, generally, in treating the preformative –K (of MT tomh)t=K!) as having emphatic force. In agreement with other commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 119; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 285), it seems best to understand the adjective hB*r^ (“many, much, abundant”) in an adverbial sense (i.e., “abundantly).

Verse 16

“Indeed, He brought out flowing (water)s from (the) cleft,
and made waters come down like the river-streams.”

This verse, the closing couplet of the section, builds upon the previous description in v. 15, further emphasizing (and dramatizing) the abundant water that YHWH wondrously brought forth out of the rock. This poetic emphasis probably alludes to the idea of YHWH’s control over the waters, a cosmological theme brought out in a number of Psalms; see, for example, in the prior Psalm 77 (vv. 16-20), discussed in a recent study. Cf. also my earlier article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

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 77 (Part 2)

Psalm 77, continued

PART 2: Verses 12-21 [11-20]

Strophe 4: Verses 11-13
Verse 11 [10]

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

Thematically, verse 11 [10] belongs to the first half of the Psalm (on which, cf. the previous study); however, poetically, according to the five-strophe arrangement (proposed by B. Weber, and followed by Hossfeld-Zenger [pp. 273-6]), it can be counted as the first couplet of the fourth strophe (vv. 11-13).

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 that is how I translate it above.

The root hlj (I) denotes being weak or sick. The Psalmist describes how he became worn-out physically during his night-time vigil (strophe 2, vv. 5-7), during which time he has meditated and prayed fervently to God—with apparently no answer given (strophe 3, vv. 8-10). The moment is also characterized as a “day of distress” (v. 3) for the Psalmist; this can refer to individual suffering, but it is likely that the protagonist also is meant to represent the people as a whole. Thus, the “sickness” he feels also refers to the condition of the people (of Israel/Judah), perhaps alluding to an Exilic setting.

The “right hand” (/ym!y`) is an idiom for strength and power—and, particularly, the ability to act. When applied to YHWH, it typically connotes His ability to save His people from danger and distress; cf. especially in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:6, 12), and similarly in Deut 33:2; note the usage in the Psalms (17:7; 18:36[35]; 20:7[6]; 44:4[3]; 60:7[5]; 78:54, etc. Probably the event at the Reed Sea is being alluded to specifically (cf. below on vv. 17-20).

The Psalmist’s fear is that YHWH’s strong right hand has “changed” (verbal noun from the root hn`v* I). This verb can sometimes connote “growing old”, with the associated attributes of weakness and withering, etc. If God has chosen (for some reason) not to act, that is one thing, but what if He is now unable to deliver His people? This is the unspoken question among the people, spurred by fear, frustration, and despair.

Verse 12 [11]

“I call to mind (the) dealings of YH(WH);
indeed, I bring to mind your wonders from before.”

The Psalmist responds to the question of fear in v. 11—which, again, thematically marks the climax of the first part of the Psalm—with a hymn of praise to YHWH. The shift from speaking of YHWH (line 1), to addressing Him directly (line 2), is transitional, and makes somewhat more sense when v. 11 is read as the beginning of a strophe. The repetition of the verb rk^z` (“bring to mind, remember”) serves this transition; the verb occurred earlier in vv. 4, 7 (cf. the previous study), being something of keyword for the Psalm. The Kethib has a Hiphil (causative) form in line 1, while the Qere ‘corrects’ this as a Qal imperfect (to match the form in line 1); the Kethib reading is to be preferred as the more difficult, and thus more likely to have been modified by scribes. The Hiphil stem is appropriate for the Psalmist, who, through his composition, will cause YHWH’s deeds to be remembered; however, it also fits the dramatic scene, as the composer wishes to spur God to action by making Him remember what He has done for His people in the past.

The noun ll*u&m^ (from the root llu I), denotes a person’s dealing (i.e., how he deals) with another; specifically it refers here to how YHWH has dealt with His people (and their adversaries) in the past. In particular, the Psalmist has in mind the wonderful deeds (“wonder[s]”, collectively al#P#) God has performed—i.e., miracles, such as the event at the Reed Sea, by which He rescued and brought victory for His people. The word Hy` here is typically understood as the shorthand for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH, i.e., YH or Yah); however, Dahood (II, p. 229) would read it as a superlative (suffixed) element, Hy`-, attached to the noun (i.e., “[your] magnificent deeds”).

The expression <d#Q#m!, as in verse 6, indicates that the Psalmist is referring to things YHWH has done in the past—lit., “from (times) before”.

Verse 13 [12]

“So will I make mention of all your deeds,
and will compose on all your dealings.”

I treat the initial w-conjunction as emphatic (“so, indeed”), building upon the prior couplet. The verb hg`h* properly means something like “mutter”, even though it can be understood specifically as uttering something internally, within one’s heart/mind (i.e., “meditate”). The line is often translated that way here (“I meditate on your deeds”); however, the context suggests that the Psalmist is about to speak. I have rendered the verb loosely as “make mention”, building upon the idea of the Psalmist bringing God’s actions to mind (vb rk^z`) in the prior couplet.

The verb j^yc! in the second line can similarly be used both of audible communication and of something that one goes over in the heart/mind. The latter is probably more common, but here I think that audible communication is intended. In any case, the meaning of “going over” a set of words or facts is primary, and would also be appropriate for the Psalmist’s act of composing; I have translated the verb loosely above as “compose”. I.e., the Psalmist expresses here his intention (fulfilled in vv. 17-20) to compose a poem on YHWH’s mighty deeds from times past.

The supplemental character of this couplet is indicated by its shortened meter (3+2, or 2+2).

Strophe 5: Verses 14-16
Verse 14 [13]

“O Mightiest, your path (is) in the holy (place)—
who (is) a mighty (one) great like (the) Mightiest?”

Dahood (II, p. 230) is probably correct in understanding the noun Er#D# (“path[way]”) in the sense of “domain, dominion” (cp. in Ps 1:1 [I, p. 2])—i.e., the territory where the sovereign treads (ird) as representing his domain. YHWH’s domain (as King) is in the “holy (place)”, that is, the heavens high above; the noun vd#q) specifically refers to God’s dwelling—i.e., His holy palace, represented on earth by the Temple-shrine and its sanctuary. In Near Eastern cosmological tradition (cf. below), the Creator/Sovereign dwells on a great mountain that reaches up into the highest heaven.

The second line demonstrates the basic problem with translating both la@ (E~l) and <yh!ýa$ (E_lœhîm) equally (and flatly) as “God”. Here it results in a translation (“Who [is] a god great like God?”) that Dahood (II, p. 230) rightly calls “insipid”. This all changes, however, when one properly retains the distinction between the old singular form la@ (“Mighty [one]”) and the plural <yh!ýa$ (“Mighty [ones]”), treating the latter as an intensive/superlative (or comprehensive) plural (“Mightiest [One]”). Now, the character of the line as a confession of Israelite (Yahwistic) monotheism becomes clear: “Who (is) a mighty (one) [i.e. a god] (who is great) like (the) Mightiest [i.e., our God El-Yahweh]?”

Verse 15 [14]

“You, the Mighty (One) doing wonder(s),
you make known your strength among the peoples!”

Indeed, YHWH is the only true God (Mighty [One], la@), Creator and Sovereign of the universe, unsurpassed in greatness and strength. For poetic concision, I have translated the perfect verb form in the second line “you make known,” but it should properly be rendered “you have made known”. By the wonders YHWH has performed on behalf of His people (in the past), he has made known His strength (zu)) among all the surrounding peoples. The use of a participle (hc@u), “doing”) in the first line indicates that the performance of “wonders” is part of YHWH’s character; He is able to do such things on a regular basis, so there is no reason why He cannot can act again, now, and perform wonders once more on behalf of His people.

Verse 16 [15]

“You redeemed, with your arm, your people,
(the) sons of Ya’aqob and Yôsep.”

The wondrous deeds performed by YHWH in the past served to redeem (vb la^G`) the Israelite people, freeing them from servitude to a foreign nation (e.g., Egypt). Indeed, the Exodus from Egypt is primarily in view, with the specific mention of the “sons of Jacob and Joseph” —i.e., the Israelites who came out of Egypt. This reference sets the stage for the poem in vv. 17-20, with its echoes of the Song of the Sea (Exod 15), alluding to the event at the Reed Sea.

Cosmological Poem: Verses 17-20

This brief poem (or portion of a poem) has been inserted into the fabric of the Psalm. It is presented as the work of the Psalmist, but it may represent an older poem, with similarities in theme and structure to the ancient Song of the Sea (or Song of Moses, Exod 15); cf. also Habakkuk 3:10ff. Of course, the Psalmist could simply have written a poem in an archaic style, imitating older poems (like the Song of the Sea or Psalm 18, 29, etc).

This poem has a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon format, while the rest of the Psalm tends to follow a bicolon (couplet) pattern. The poem’s emphasis is cosmological, referring to the subduing of the primeval waters by YHWH (on which, cf. my article in the Ancient Parallels feature on this site). As in the Song of the Sea, this cosmological motif is applied to the history of Israel—esp. to the Exodus and the event at the Reed Sea. YHWH demonstrates his control over the waters, by separating the waters of the Sea, and allowing His people to cross over and escape from Egypt.

Verse 17 [16]

“The waters saw you, O Mightiest,
the waters saw you and swirled—
even (the) depths shook (with fear)!”

These lines allude to YHWH’s subduing of the primeval waters at the beginning of Creation (Gen 1:2); on this cosmological mythic theme, applied to El-Yawheh in ancient Hebrew poetry, cf. my aforementioned article (“Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”). The primary reference here, however, is to the control and power YHWH has over the waters. The waters themselves recognize this power, and acknowledge YHWH as their Lord, responding with fear at the sight of Him. The verb lWj in the second line has a double meaning; fundamentally, it means that the waters “swirled”, but the verb can also connote “twisting” or “writhing” (i.e., in anguish, etc), which would be more fitting to the theme of the waters showing fear. Cf. Psalm 114:3 and Hab 3:10.

Verse 18 [17]

“(The) dark clouds poured forth waters,
(the) fine clouds gave (forth your) voice—
and your arrows went back and forth.”

The theme of YHWH’s control over the waters continues here, shifting the focus to the rain that comes down out of the clouds, accompanied by the phenomena of the storm: thunder (line 2) and lightning (line 3). The Near Eastern storm-theophany is applied to El-YHWH with some frequency in ancient Hebrew poetry (including a number of Psalms, e.g. 18); the similarities with Canaanite Baal-Haddu in this regard helps to explain the fierce ‘rivalry’ between YHWH and Baal, at the religious level, in early Israelite history.

Thunder is frequently denoted by the word loq (“voice”)—i.e., as the “voice” of God; similarly, bolts of lightning are depicted as God’s “arrows” being shot back and forth. The ancient storm-theophany typically has a militaristic context, and especially so when applied to El-YHWH in the Old Testament. To some extent, as noted above, this motif of God as a warrior reflects the cosmological myth of the Creator defeating (subduing) the chaotic primeval waters, and thus allowing an ordered universe (capable of sustaining life) to be established.

The third line of this tricolon, like that of v. 17, begins with the particle [a^, a primitive adverbial/conjunctive particle with emphatic force (“[so] also, even”); it is typically used in poetry, or in comparable poetic/ritual forms.

Verse 19 [18]

“(The) voice of your thunder in the rolling (cloud)s,
(your) lightning-flashes light up (the) world,
(and so) the earth shakes and quakes!”

The power of the storm, and thus of the storm theophany (as applied to YHWH), is vividly expressed in this third tricolon. Here the “voice” (loq) of YHWH (v. 18) is explicitly identified as thunder (<u^r^). Earlier, it was stated that the waters shook in fear at the sight of YHWH; now the entire earth below shakes/quakes in fear at the awesome power of YHWH that is expressed through the rainstorm.

Verse 20 [19]

“On the sea, <Mightiest,> (is) your path,
and your passage-ways on mighty waters,
and (yet) your heel(print)s are not seen!”

The expression of YHWH’s power/control over the waters culminates here with the idea of his treading upon (B=) the waters. The preposition B= could also be rendered “in”, and this meaning is probably intended, at least secondarily, as an allusion to the Exodus event at the Reed Sea, when God led His people “through” (i.e., in) the waters of the Sea. However, it would seem that the principal reference here is to YHWH’s dominion over the waters, illustrated by the path(way)s he walks over/upon them. Yet, in spite of this anthropomorphic imagery, God leaves no “heel-marks” (i.e., footprints) in the surface of the water. His presence is invisible; we can only see the effects of His powerful presence and the control he has over the universe (esp. the rain and storm).

The first line (of the MT) has only two words/beats, in utter contrast to the rest of the poem. It thus seems relatively certain that something has dropped out, and a word is missing. The simplest solution is to propose that an occurrence of <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” i.e., God) has somehow been omitted.

For more on the use of the noun Er#D# (“path[way]”), in the sense of “domain, dominion”, see the note on verse 14 above.

Conclusion: Verse 21 [20]

“May you lead, like the flock, your people,
by (the) hand of Moshe and Aharon!”

The Psalm concludes with this 3+3 couplet, returning to the regular meter of the composition. In a sense, the couplet follows upon verse 16, resuming the line of thought from strophe 5 (cf. above), after the intervening poem of vv. 17-20. If the verb form is read as a typical indicative perfect, then the couplet simply concludes the recitation of YHWH’s past action on behalf of His people—i.e., “You led your people like a flock…”. However, given the prayer-lament emphasis of the Psalm as a whole, a precative perfect seems more fitting as a conclusion (as Dahood, II, p. 233, suggests). That is, the Psalmist states his heartfelt wish for what YHWH will do, expressing it in terms of something that has already happened. A more literal (but very cumbersome) translation would thus be: “(O, that) you (would) have led your people (again) like a flock…!”.

The wish is that YHWH will lead his people out of bondage/distress, just as He did in the time of the Exodus (“by the hand of Moses and Aaron”). This suggests an Exilic setting for the Psalm—viz., God will lead His people out of the (Assyrian/Babylonian) Exile, essentially repeating what He did in the Exodus from Egypt. This is an important theme, for example, in the Deutero-Isaian poems, where the idea of a new Moses also seems to be implied. This Moses-symbolism, accompanied by an application of the prophecy in Deut 18:15-19, helped shaped the eschatological expectation of the “Prophet-like-Moses” who is to come. For more on the Messianic Prophet figure-types, cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

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