This Psalm is an acrostic, in which, for the most part, each verse or couplet begins with a successive letter of the alphabet; on the acrostic format, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 9-10. As a poetic or literary device, the acrostic seems quite artificial, placing constraints on the poem, which, from our standpoint today at least, are altogether arbitrary, and add little to the artistic merit of the work. However, the device does have practical value, as an aid for the memorization of a relatively long poem, such as we have here. Because of the acrostic arrangement, it seemed best to comment on each letter-couplet (or line) individually. I have, however, also divided the Psalm into two parts—verses 1-11 and 12-22; this week’s study will examine the first part.
This Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though with some minor irregularity. The superscription identifies the poem simply as “belonging to David”, perhaps intending to indicate his composition of the words, but not (necessarily) the music; the significance of the lack of the word romz+m! (“musical composition”), or comparable term, in the superscriptions remains uncertain.
The Hebrew letters that make up the acrostic are indicated in the translations below; as far as possible, I have attempted to keep the corresponding English of the first word in the first position of the translation.
Verse 1 [a]
“To you [;yl#a@], YHWH, I lift up my soul,
<…. > my Mightiest (One).”
Verse 1, as it stands now, consists of a single line, not a couplet; this, along with the fact that the first word of v. 2 is out of place, disrupting the acrostic, has led some commentators to theorize that the surviving text is corrupt. According to this view, yh^l)a$ (“my Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “my God”) is part of a lost second line, parallel with YHWH in line 1. One can only speculate as to how this line might have read. Unfortunately, no help is to be found from the Dead Sea Scrolls, since verse 1 is not preserved in the surviving Psalms MSS.
Verse 2 [b]
“In you [;B=] I trust—let me not feel shame,
do not let my enemies rejoice because of me.”
As in many other Psalms we have examined thus far, we find here the theme of unknown enemies or adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. The verb jf^B* is also frequent in these Psalms; it has the basic meaning of trusting, but also with the specific connotation of finding safety or security (in someone or something). God Himself is the place of safety for the Psalmist. The imperfect forms with the negative particle la^ have jussive/cohortative force—i.e., “may I not…”, “let me not…”, etc. Victory by his enemies would bring the Psalmist shame (vb vWB)—not only for the defeat itself and the “rejoicing/exultation” (vb Jl^u*) of his enemies, but because it would mean that his trust in YHWH was all in vain.
Verse 3 [g]
“Indeed [<G~] all (those) calling (on) you will not feel shame;
but they will feel shame, (the) disloyal (one)s (making) empty (the bond).”
I follow Dahood (p. 155f) in identifying the basic meaning of the verb hw~q* (II) here as “call (on)”, supported by the context of the occurrences in Psalm 40:2; 52:11, etc. The attested meaning “gather” is doubtless related— “call [i.e. bring] together”, similar to the situation with the roots lh^q* and ar^q*. To “call on” YHWH implies faithfulness to him, and devotion/loyalty to the covenant bond. Such a person will never feel shame; by contrast, those who are disloyal (vb dg~B*) to the covenant, who make the bond void or “empty” (<q*yr@), they will experience shame. The root dg~B* can be used to express unfaithfulness in marriage, which is also a fitting symbol for disloyalty to the covenant with YHWH (i.e. religious unfaithfulness); cf. further below on v. 11.
Less certain is Dahood’s suggestion that the initial word <G~ be understood here in its meaning “with the voice, aloud”, as attested in Canaanite. With very few exceptions (Psalm 137:1?), this word in the Old Testament is used in its weaker sense as a particle of addition or emphasis (“also, even”).
Verse 4 [d]
“Your ways [;yk#r*D=], YHWH, make known to me,
your paths teach me (to travel).”
Faithfulness to YHWH is described with the familiar idiom of traveling (walking) a path. This metaphor was especially popular in Wisdom literature, and, as we have noted on numerous occasions, many Psalms, in the form we have them, were influenced by Wisdom traditions.
Verse 5ab [h]
“Make me walk [yn]k@yr!d=h^] in (the way of) your truth and teach me,
for you (are the) Mighty (One) of my salvation.”
The same imagery continues from v. 4, with the cognate verb Er^D*, “walk/tread the path (or way)”, related to Er#D# (“way”).
Verse 5c [w]
“<And> (on) you [;toa<w+>] do I call all the day (long).”
The place of this single line in the acrostic is uncertain. It does not properly begin with the requisite letter, and the single line raises the possibility that something has dropped out of the text (cf. on verse 1 above). Even if we were to grant that the text is corrupt here, any sort of reliable reconstruction would be virtually impossible at this point. In order to preserve the acrostic, I have emended the first word to begin with the w-conjunction (cf. Kraus, p. 318). The same meaning is given here to the verb hw~q* (II) as in v. 3 (cf. above).
Verse 6 [z]
“Remember [rk)z+] your (act)s of compassion, YHWH,
and your (act)s of kindness, that they (are) from (the) distant (past).”
The covenant loyalty of YHWH is rooted in the distant past, and similarly extends into the distant future—the word <l*ou can connote both aspects. Probably the Psalmist has in mind all that God has done for the ancestors of Israel, His many acts of compassion (<j^r^) and kindness (ds#j#). The latter term, in particular, can signify loyalty in a covenant-context. The appeal to what God has done in the past is meant to spur action on behalf of His people (represented by the Psalmist) in the present. This literary-theological device appears frequently in Old Testament narrative, as well as in the poetry.
Verse 7 [j]
“(The) sins of [twaF)h^] my youth, do not remember (them),
(but) according to your kindness, may you remember me—
in response to you (own) goodness, YHWH.”
There are several formal difficulties in this verse. To begin with, the meter is distended in the first line, and the word yu^v*p=W (“and my [act]s of rebellion”) feels like a (secondary) addition; I have tentatively omitted it in the translation above. If original, the use of uv*P# would indicate a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to the covenant with YHWH, in the active sense of treacherous disloyalty or outright “rebellion” against God. This would suggest that the Psalmist represents a person who had previously been an adherent of Canaanite religion (and/or its syncretistic Israelite forms), with its ‘idolatry’, but then subsequently converted to Yahwism. Cf. below on verse 11.
As it stands, the verse is a tricolon, unusual within the structure of the Psalm, though there is a legitimate (partial) parallelism between the second and third lines. An interesting explanation (cf. Kraus, p. 318) is that the second line (7b) originally completed the couplet in v. 5, but came to be transferred to the current location during the course of transmission. In any case, the plea for YHWH to ignore the sins of a person’s youth, focusing on one’s current faithfulness, is natural in the context of such a prayer.
Verse 8 [f]
“(Indeed,) good and straight (is) YHWH,
(and the one)s sinning He will instruct in the way.”
The Wisdom language of vv. 4-5 (cf. above) continues here, emphasizing that God instructs His people when they sin. This is not the flagrant sin of rebellion or blatant transgression against the covenant, but follows the idea of “sins of youth” from v. 7, connoting especially unintentional error, the sin of negligence or carelessness. However, the use of uv*P# (“rebellion”) in v. 7, if original, would imply a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to YHWH—which requires special forgiveness (cf. below).
The last word of the first line (/K@-lu^) is seemingly out of place, disrupting the rhythm of the couplet, and may well be a secondary addition and corruption of the original text; I have tentatively omitted in the translation above. If retained, it functions as a join between the two lines, translated literally as “upon this”, in conventional English something like “and so…”.
Verse 9 [y]
“He makes (the) oppressed (one)s walk in the judgment,
and He will teach (the) oppressed (to walk) in His way.”
Again, the Wisdom motif of “walking in the way” is used, along with the verb Er^D* (cf. above). The proper nuance of fP*v=m! (“judgment”) must be understood, as it here connotes God’s justice, such as he establishes for the righteous, as opposed to the punishment that comes upon the wicked. The judgments of God are good and holy, and are synonymous with His “way” (Er#D#).
Verse 10 [k]
“All [lK*] (the) paths of YHWH (are) kindness and truth
for (the one)s guarding His binding (agreement) and His repeated (command)s.”
The context of covenant-loyalty, implicit throughout, is now stated clearly here. Faithfulness and devotion to YHWH is defined in terms of loyalty to the binding agreement (tyr!B=). Such loyalty is expressed specifically as fulfilling the “repeated (instruction)s” by YHWH recorded in the Torah. For the one loyal to YHWH, walking in his paths becomes a blessing, as the person experiences the goodness and truth of God Himself.
Verse 11 [l]
“In response to [/u^m^l=] your (own) name, YHWH,
give pardon for my crookedness, for it (is) great (indeed)!”
Human “crookedness” (/ou*) is in contrast to the “straightness” (rv*y`, v. 8) of God. Even for the faithful ones among God’s people there is a measure of “crookedness”, marked by occasional sinning (vv. 7-8). The prayer here is for YHWH to give pardon (vb jl^s*) for such sin, purely on the basis of God’s own name—that is, His essential nature and character as the Mightiest, the Creator, and the One who is always straight and true. The opening word /u^m^l= is a prepositional particle derived, in part, from the root hnu, meaning to answer or give response. I translate it above, rather literally, as “in response to”. God responds with forgiveness, not because of anything the Psalmist has done (or will do), but simply because God’s name—His identity and His own loyalty to the covenant-bond—prompts it.
The declaration of the Psalmist’s “crookedness” as being great (lit. “much”, br^) may simply be an instance of pious exaggeration, a recognition of human imperfection in comparison with the holiness of God; however, it is also possible that something more is involved. In discussing verse 7 (above), I noted that the inclusion of the noun uv^P# (plur. “[act]s of rebellion”), if original, would imply that the Psalmist, at one point (in his “youth”), was an adherent of Canaanite religion—that is, of ‘idolatry’, presumably in the syncretistic forms that were relatively common and widespread throughout Israel. The idiom “great sin” (hl*d)g+ ha*f*j&) has this connotation, especially in the “Golden Calf” episode in Exodus 32 (vv. 21, 30-31; cf. also Gen 20:9; 2 Kings 17:21). The comparable br* uv^P# (“great rebellion”) would express this idea even more forcefully (Psalm 19:14; cf. Dahood, p. 125). The same idiom in Akkadian and Canaanite is used to denote adultery, which itself serves as a fitting metaphor in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness to YHWH.
References marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, Biblischer Kommentar series, 5th edition (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978), published in English translation as Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).