Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 51 (Part 1)

Psalm 51

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-5 [1-3]); 4QPsj (vv. 2-6 [1-4])

Psalm 51 is certainly one of the most famous compositions in the Psalter, a prayer-Psalm attributed to David (according to the superscription) on the occasion of his sin with Bathsheba (and his condemnation by Nathan), cf. 2 Samuel 11-12. Most commentators are inclined, at the very least, to doubt this traditional background for the Psalm; the events surrounding the Bathsheba affair happen to be best fit for a such a petitionary prayer in the recorded life of David, so it is natural that scribes and editors would assign that historical background to the Psalm.

It is, indeed, a petitionary prayer, in which the Psalmist asks God to forgive his sin and to renew his heart. Commentators continue to debate whether this petition relates to healing from sickness, a situation that we have already seen emphasized in a number of the prayer-Psalms we have examined thus far. Since, in the ancient mind, disease and illness were often viewed as the result of sin, brought about as divine punishment, the two aspects—forgiveness and healing—can be closely connected.

After the sequence of Psalms attributed to the sons of Korah or to Asaph (cf. the previous study on Ps 50), we return here to David as the ascribed author. It is another musical composition (romz+m!), with no other direction (on performance, etc) given in the superscription. Metrically, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates, with a few exceptions.

From a structural and thematic standpoint, the Psalm can be divided into two parts or stanzas: the first (vv. 3-11 [1-9]) focuses on forgiveness of sin, while the second (vv. 12-21 [10-19]) emphasizes the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin.

This is one of the seven “Penitential Psalms” in the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, recited (or sung/chanted) especially during the Lenten season. Psalm 51 is certainly the most famous of these, known by its opening words in Latin (Miserere mei Deus, “God have mercy on me”). There have been many wonderful musical settings of the Miserere over the centuries; perhaps the one most widely heard is the two-choir setting by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652).

Part 1 (vv. 3-11 [1-9])

Verse 3 [1]

“Show favor to me, Mightiest, according to your goodness,
according to your many (act)s of love,
may you rub out my (act)s of breaking (faith)!”

This opening couplet has an irregular (extended) 3+4 meter, which I prefer to treat as a 3+2+2 tricolon—an initial 3-beat line followed by a short 2-beat couplet.

The use of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”, i.e., God) marks this as another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which (most) instances of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) have been replaced by the plural name/title <yh!l)a$. In all likelihood, the original composition read hwhy here in v. 3 [1].

The verbs are imperatives, by which the Psalmist implores YHWH to show mercy to him and to forgive his sin. The verb /n~j* fundamentally means “show favor”; it is relatively common verb (and religious term) which occurs frequently (32 times) in the Psalms. The second verb (hj*m*) means “wipe out, rub out”, here in the religious sense of wiping away the guilt of sin (and its effects).

The common noun ds#j# means “goodness, kindness”, but often connotes “loyalty, faithfulness” in the context of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. ds#j# carries this specific meaning often in the Psalms, as indeed it also does here. This relates also to the deep and abiding love (<j^r^) God has for his people, being expressed many different ways, including specific acts of love shown to them. Thus the use of the plural here, qualified by the construct noun br) (“multitude, abundance”), used in an adjectival sense (“many”). YHWH’s acts (and feelings) of deep love are contrasted with the Psalmist’s acts (again in the plural) of breaking faith (uv^P#) with God. The context of the binding agreement (covenant) is in view throughout.

Verse 4 [2]

“Many (times) may you stamp me (clean) from my crookedness,
and from my sin may you make me pure.”

The many (br)) acts of love by YHWH are paralleled here by repeated acts of cleansing, utilizing the modal verb hb*r* (related to br)), “be(come) many”. Probably the written MT is correct in reading an infinitive absolute (hB@r=h^), used here in an adverbial sense, i.e., doing something many times, or repeatedly. The verb sb^K* refers to washing a garment, etc, by stomping or kneading it in water; I have retained the harsh idea of stamping/stomping on something (to make it clean). This repeated and forceful washing results in making the object clean and pure (vb rh@f*).

The noun /ou* literally means “crookedness”, indicating something that is crooked or twisted (in a moral or religious sense). Parallel with this is the more general noun ha*F*j^, basically denoting an error or failure, but almost always in the sense of a moral or religious failure (i.e., sin).

Verse 5 [3]

“For my (act)s of breaking (faith) do I acknowledge—
indeed, my sin is continually in front of me.”

The Psalmist admits and recognizes the times and moments that he has broken faith (i.e., violated the covenant bond) with YHWH. This refers primarily to violations of the Torah regulations, which represent the terms of the covenant. These can be either intentional or unintentional sins—the former being much more serious and beyond the normal ritual means (sacrificial offerings, etc) for correcting the offense. David’s sin with Bathsheba, indicated in the superscription (cf. above) is an example of a grave (intentional) sin that requires a special act of mercy and forgiveness by God to remove its effects.

The verb ud^y` (“know”) is used here in the sense of “acknowledge”. The acknowledgement of sin is necessary before repentance can truly take place. Until YHWH forgives and cleanses him, the protagonist is constantly aware of his sinfulness (“my sin [is] continually in front of me”), suggesting that it is keeping him from having any peace with himself. This may also mean that the effect of his sin, possibly in the form of suffering (from illness, etc), is also continually present, and will not be removed until YHWH removes his guilt. By being “in front of” (dg#n#) him, the Psalmist’s sin may also be functioning in the role of his accuser (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 12).

Verse 6 [4]

“Against you—against you alone—have I sinned,
and (what is) evil in your eyes have I done.
(This is) so that you be (considered) just in your speaking,
and clear (of wrong) in your judging.”

The relation of these two couplets to each other is problematic. The meaning of the first couplet is straightforward enough: the Psalmist acknowledges that, in his failure, he has sinned against YHWH Himself. This involves a tacit recognition of sin in terms of the covenant bond with YHWH—violation of the bond means breaking faith with YHWH. What is “evil in God’s eyes” is expressed fundamentally through the regulations of the Torah.

More difficult is the sense of the second couplet. It would seem to be dependent on the Psalmist’s confession/admission of sin. He is fundamentally admitting that YHWH, in rendering judgment against him (in the form of disease, illness or other suffering?), has acted justly/rightly and is clear of any (judicial) wrongdoing Himself.

Syntactically, the difficulty lies in the opening particle—the prefixed conjunction /u^m^l=, used in something of an adverbial sense. This expression is notoriously difficult to translate in English. Here it would seem to summarize the Psalmist’s confession in vv. 3-5, indicating purpose: i.e., “this is so that…” —I say all of this so that you will be considered right/just in how you have judged me. This right judgment by YHWH is expressed verbally, using the verbs qd^x* (“be right/just”) and hk^z` (“be clear, clean, pure”).

Verse 7 [5]

“See, in crookedness I was twisted (into shape),
and in sin did my mother become warm (with) me.”

The two verbs—lWj and <j^y` —which I here translate quite literally, in their fundamental sense, both refer to a woman giving birth. The “twisting” (vb lWj) alludes to the writhing of the mother in childbirth, but also relates conceptually to the idea of “crookedness” (/ou*) and of being ‘twisted’ into shape (i.e. born as a human being). The Psalmist’s sinfulness, however, goes back even to the moment when his mother became pregnant (lit. became warm/hot, vb <j^y`) with him. This is one of the few Old Testament passages that suggests something akin to the later doctrine of ‘original sin’.

Verse 8 [6]

“See, you delight in firmness in the covered (part)s,
and in the closed up (part)s you make me know wisdom.”

There is a certain parallelism of thought between this couplet and the one preceding (v. 7 [5]), contrasting the sinfulness in which the Psalmist was born (outwardly) with the faithfulness of the heart that is established (within). The “covered (part)s” (hj*f%, plur.) and the “closed up (part)s” (passive participle of the verb <t^s*) essentially refer to the same thing: the innermost part of the person—in Pauline terms we might refer to the contrast between the “inner man” and the “outer man”.

Even though a person may be ‘born in sin’, one is still able to follow God, being faithful and loyal to Him, in one’s heart. The “firmness” (tm#a#) of one’s intention is manifest through action—that is, a willingness to fulfill the requirements of the covenant bond, the regulations, etc, in the Torah. At the same time, such a person is also receptive to being taught (lit. made to know) wisdom by God in the heart. It is thus possible to have wisdom and understanding, and to think and act in a way that is pleasing to God, despite being ‘born in sin’.

Verse 9 [7]

“Purge me of sin with hyssop, and I will be pure;
stomp me (clean), and like snow I will be made white!”

Hyssop (boza@) was used in several different ritual contexts; most notably, it was part of the cleansing rituals outlined in Leviticus 14 (vv. 4, 6, 49, 51-52), and also the ‘Red Heifer’ purification rite in Numbers 19 (vv. 6, 18). There, it was a question of ritual purity (for the physical body), while here, in the Psalm, the sinfulness is of a moral (and/or religious) kind. Yet, the Psalmist asks God to perform a similar kind of ritual act (as with the hyssop) in order to cleanse him of sin. This is further described in terms of washing a garment (by stomping or treading on it), using the same idiomatic verb (sb^K*) as in v. 4 (cf. above).

This ‘washing’ will make the Psalmist clear (of sin) and thus clean and pure (vb rh@f*). This also expressed through the idiom of whiteness (vb /b^l*, “be [or make] white”), like that of freshly fallen snow (cp. Isa 1:18). The prefixed /m! (“from”) on the noun gl#v# is an example of the preposition used in a comparative sense (i.e., “like” or “more than”). This can be difficult to render in English; to preserve a smooth poetic line, I have translated it as “like” above, but one could also say, “…and even more than snow will I be made white” (i.e., “I will be made whiter than snow”).

Verse 10 [8]

“Let me hear (again) joy and rejoicing,
and may (the) strong (limb)s you crushed spin (for joy)!”

This verse is cited by those who believe that the Psalmist is suffering from some form of illness or disease, viewed as punishment by God (for his sin). The mention of the crushing (vb hk*D*) of his once-strong limbs (or “bones”) would certainly seem to suggest this, as in previous Psalms we have examined (cp. 6:2; 22:14, 17; 31:10; 32:3; 38:3). Similarly, the desire to be able to “hear” joy and happiness again, and to dance (“twirl, spin”) for joy, suggests that he has been experiencing suffering. The removal of his sin (and its guilt) will also remove any suffering that had been imposed by God as punishment for it.

Verse 11 [9]

“May you cover up your face from my sins,
and all my crooked (deed)s may you rub out!”

At the close of this section (or stanza), the Psalmist repeats his plea from v. 3 [1], asking YHWH to “rub out” (vb hj*m*) his sins and “crooked” deeds. He also asks God to “cover up” (vb rt^s*) His face so that He cannot see the sin. The covering of the face is parallel with the act of wiping away—these are two different aspects of the same process of forgiving/removing sin; in classical theological terminology, we would describe these as propitiation (God’s favorable view of the sinner) and expiation (the removal of the actual guilt).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 32

Psalm 32

Dead Sea MSS: (Psalm 32 is not preserved among the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts).

This Psalm is akin to the prior Pss 30 and 31, blending the setting of prayer for deliverance (from illness, etc) with praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for having rescued his faithful follower. Psalm 32 is simpler in structure and more streamlined in its thought. The idea of repentance and forgiveness (from sin) also features more prominently, to the point that Ps 32 came to be counted as one of the seven “Penitential Psalms” in Catholic ritual and liturgical tradition.

The musical direction of the superscription indicates that this composition is a lyK!c=m^, a term of uncertain meaning, but presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely. Like most of the Psalms we have studied thus far, the superscription marks it as “belonging to David”.

As noted above, this Psalm is not present in the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts; there is no way to be certain whether this means the Psalm was unknown by the Qumran Community, or that its absence is simply an accident of survival.

I would divide the Psalm as follows:

    • Verses 1-2: Beatitude regarding forgiveness of sin
    • Verses 3-7: Prayer for healing/deliverance that includes confession of sin to YHWH
    • Verses 8-9: Response of YHWH instructing/exhorting the Psalmist
    • Verses 10-11: Closing exhortation to the righteous

The outer portions (vv. 1-2, 10-11) reflect the strong influence of Wisdom tradition on the Psalms (a point made numerous times in these studies). The inner portions (vv. 3-7, 8-9) form the dramatic heart of the composition, presenting the prayer for deliverance, along with God’s answer.

Verses 1-2

“Happiness of (he whose) violation (is) being lifted,
(whose) sin (is) being covered (over)!
Happiness of (the) man (when)
YHWH does not determine for him (any) perversion,
and (indeed) there is no deceit in his spirit!”

This section is comprised of a pair of beatitudes, the second of which is longer and more difficult (poetically) than the first. For this particular wisdom-form, with ancient roots in religious ritual and concepts of the afterlife, cf. the study on Psalm 1, as well as my earlier article (on the background of the beatitude form) in the series on the Beatitudes of Jesus. As in Psalm 1:1, these beatitudes begin with the plural construct form yr@v=a^; literally, this would mean something like “happy [thing]s of…”, but the plural actually should be understood in an intensive or superlative sense, with the force of an exclamation: “(O, the) happiness of…”, “How happy (is)…!”.

The first beatitude (v. 1) is a tight 3+2 couplet, though it is difficult to capture this meter in a literal translation, which requires glossing (cf. above). The parallelism of the couplet is precise, enhanced by its use of terse rhythm and rhyme:

uv^P# yWcn+
ha*f*j& yWsK+
n®´ûy peša±
k®sûy µ¦‰¹°â
“being lifted (the) violation,
“being covered (the) sin”

The noun ha*f*j& (“sin, error”) in the second line is set parallel with uv^P# in the first line, a term which, in the covenant setting, refers to a breach or violation of the binding agreement. In a more extreme connotation, uv^P# can even refer to the revolt or rebellion of a vassal against his sovereign. Given the religious dimension of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, any sin or transgression (whether from a ritual or ethical standpoint) constitutes a violation of the covenant. That person is truly blessed (i.e. “happy”) when God forgives such a violation—forgiveness here signified by the verbs ac^n` (“lift, carry [away]”) and hs*K* (“cover”).

The second beatitude (v. 2) is more complex, with an irregular meter. Here a specific individual is in view (“Happiness of [the] man…”), with the noun <d*a* used in this sense (rare in the Psalms). The short introductory line leads into the couplet proper, which defines the forgiveness of sin as an action performed specifically by God (YHWH). In point of fact, there are two aspects to the idea of forgiveness in this couplet:

    • What God determines (vb bv^j*) regarding the person—that he/she is not ‘crooked’ or perverse (/ou*); there is a judicial connotation here
    • What is truly in the person’s spirit—that there is no deceit (hY`m!r=), implying no intention toward perversion; the noun can also connote treachery or betrayal (in a covenant context).

Ultimately, what YHWH determines regarding a person reflects that person’s true nature and character (what is “in the spirit”); God simply makes a (judicial) determination to this effect. Even so, the divine decree of forgiveness is a cause for great happiness among the righteous.

Verses 3-7

Verse 3

“For I keep quiet, (yet) my substance is worn out,
in my roaring (that still occurs) all the day.”

The verb form yT!v#r^j#h# in the MT is problematic. It would seem to be derived from the root vrj II (“be silent, quiet), which occurs regularly in the Hiphil stem; but, if so, the sense of the parallelism in the couplet becomes difficult to determine. Perhaps, it reflects a sort of grim irony–even though the protagonist keeps quiet (i.e. says no words), the suffering he experiences in his body produces “roaring” that goes on all day long. Dahood (p. 194) suggests that the verb here should be taken as deriving from crj (“scrape, scratch, cut”), more or less identical in meaning with vrj I. The noun cr#j# refers to a shard of pottery, etc, used for scraping, and the noun occurs in Psalm 22:16 in an idiomatic context quite similar to what we find here: the Psalmist feels his “strength dried up like a shard (of pottery) [cr#j#]”. If this line of interpretation is correct, then the verse would need to be translated as a tricolon, something like:

“For I became a scraping(-shard),
my substance was worn out
by my roaring all the day.”

In both renderings, I have translated the plural of <x#u# in an abstract or collective sense that preserves the fundamental meaning of “strength, substance”; however, it also frequently alludes specifically to a person’s bones (as the strength/substance within the body).

Verse 4

“For day and night your hand was heavy upon me,
my <tongue> was turned up by (the) dry (heat) of summer.

As most commentators would point out, yD!v^l= of the MT in the second line is unintelligible, and would seem to require emendation. I tentatively follow the suggestion of Olshausen, adopted by other commentators (cf. Kraus, p. 367), of reading yn]v^l= (“my tongue”) instead. It entails the small correction of a single letter, and fits the imagery of the line (along with that of v. 3, above): that of the harsh heat of summer drying out a person’s tongue. The use of the verb Ep^h* (“turn over, turn about”) here may refer to the motion of the parched tongue in one’s mouth desperately seeking moisture. This oppressive heat is symbolic of the Psalmist’s suffering, recognized as coming from the “hand” of God. Most likely, this suffering is to be understood as stemming from an illness or disease of some kind (cf. the setting of Pss 30-31, discussed in the most recent studies).

Verse 4 concludes with the musical-poetic indicator hl*s# (Selah). The meaning and significance of this term remains one of the most persistently puzzling, if minor, elements of Psalm Studies. The term, as it occurs in the texts that have come done to us, often does not appear to be applied in a clear or consistent manner. Almost certainly it relates to some aspect of the performance tradition of the Psalms, presumably indicating a pause of some kind—marking a change or shift of tone, tempo, etc, perhaps even something like a musical key change. In any case, here the term occurs three times in close succession, and may carry a definite structural and thematic significance for the composition; note:

    • Vv. 3-4: The suffering of the Psalmist—Selah
      • V. 5: His confession of sin and forgiveness—Selah
    • Vv. 6-7a: The safety and protection for the Psalmist—Selah

The confession of sin (and forgiveness by YHWH) in verse 5 is central to this structure, providing the transition between suffering (in violation of the covenant, vv. 3-4) and security (back under the covenant protection provided by YHWH, vv. 6-7).

Verse 5

“My sin I made known to you,
and my perversion I did not cover;
I said, ‘I will throw (out) over me
my violation toward YHWH!’
and you lifted (away from me)
(the) perversion of my sin.”

There is a similar three-part structure to this central verse, involving each of the three pairs of couplets:

    • Repentance/recognition of sin (violation of the covenant) [5a]
    • Formal confession of sin, as being directed toward YHWH [5b]
    • Forgiveness of sin (restoration of the covenant bond) [5c]

The syntax of the middle couplet is a bit difficult; in particular, the expression hwhyl (“to YHWH”) is ambiguous, and may carry a double meaning: (a) he makes his confession “to YHWH”, but also (b) admits that his is sin is a violation directed “toward YHWH” (that is, in violation of the binding agreement with YHWH). Dahood (p. 195) suggests that the lamed (l=) here is vocative (“O, YHWH”), and this also is possible.

Note that the idiom of “covering” (vb hs*K*) sin here has the exact opposite meaning as it does in v. 1 (cf. above). When the sinful human being “covers” sin, he/she tries to hide it; when God “covers” that person’s sin, he removes it from consideration, wiping it away.

Verse 6

“Upon this shall he pray,
every loyal (one), to you—
for (in the) time of outpouring reaching,
through a flood of many waters,
they will not touch him (at all)!”

This is a most difficult verse, both metrically and syntactically. A two beat (2+2) bicolon is followed by three beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The overall idea is clear enough: the faithful/loyal (dys!j*) follower of YHWH will pray to Him in the manner described in v. 5, repenting and confessing any sin, and the covenant bond will be restored. At that point, the faithful one comes back under the covenant protection provided by YHWH, and he will then be kept safe from any danger or trouble that he might encounter (symbolized as a flood of “many waters”). The manner of expressing this matrix of ideas, in terms of the syntax of the verse, however, is quite difficult, at least in the text as it has come down to us. The main problem lies in the third line (the first of the tricolon), which in the Hebrew MT reads:

qr^ ax)m= tu@l=

The word qr^, as vocalized, would normally be understood as an adjective meaning “thin, weak”, which is often used (in prose) as a more generic adverb (with restrictive force), i.e., “only”. However, here qr more likely derives from the root qyr! (“pour out, draw out, empty”). This would fit the idea of an outpouring of water, as well as the violent/military aspect of the verb—i.e., drawing out the sword, an armed force pouring out (Gen 14:14), etc. This does not eliminate all of the syntactical difficulties (note the awkwardness in English of the literal translation above), but it at least provides a plausible framework for the verse as a whole.

Verse 7

“You are (the) covering for me,
from oppression you shall guard me,
(with) cries of deliverance you surround me!”

Here the protection provided by YHWH is more clearly emphasized. He serves as a “covering” (rt#s@), a “guard” (vb rx^n`), and one who “surrounds” (vb bb^s*) the righteous.

The precise meaning of the last line is a bit obscure. The verb /n`r* means “shout, cry”, i.e., making a piercing, ringing cry, like that of a bird. The use of the verb in Psalm 63:8 [7] suggests a similar connotation of protection that is otherwise not clearly attested elsewhere in the Old Testament. The allusion here may be precisely that of Ps 63:8—viz., the cry of bird protecting its young, surrounded by the parent’s wings. Also possible are the metaphorical “cries” of attackers against the shields (?) that surround and protect the righteous, or even the cries of soldiers holding the protective shields. The same verb is used, in a somewhat different sense, in the closing lines of verse 11 (cf. below).

Verses 8-9

Verse 8

“I will make you understand and give you direction in (the) way that you shall walk,
I will give you counsel, my eye (ever) upon you.”

With verse 8, the remaining lines of the Psalm become longer—here a 4+3 couplet. In vv. 8-9 YHWH responds to the Psalmist’s prayer. Even though God had already given answer by healing/delivering him, now He provides a direct (formal) response. It comes in the form of a promise to give understanding and direction to His faithful follower; we can see rather clearly here the influence of Wisdom-tradition, which is found quite frequently in the Psalms (especially the closing portions). The verbs are in the Hiphil (causative) stem, indicating what YHWH will make happen for the Psalmist:

    • “I will make you understand” (vb lk^c*), i.e., give knowledge, wisdom; see the note on the term lyK!c=m^ in the superscription, above.
    • “I will give you direction” (vb hr*y`), lit. “I will cast (the arrow) for you”, pointing the way, giving direction; this use of hry is often summarized as “instruct[ion]”, the proper translation of the derived noun hr*oT (Torah).

The main verb in the second line would appear to be Ju^y` (“counsel, advise, guide”), keeping with the same line of imagery. However, Dahood (p. 196) offers the intriguing suggestion that the form hx*u&ya! should be parsed as the verb hx*u* (“close, shut”, cf. Prov 16:30) preceded by the negative particle ya!, otherwise clearly attested in the Old Testament only at Job 22:30. I am very nearly persuaded by this analysis, which, if correct, would mean that the second line should be translated as “my eye upon you is not (ever) closed”.

Verse 9

“You must not be like a horse (or) like a mule, without understanding,
with muzzle and harness (needed) to curb its surging (nature)—
otherwise (there is) no coming near to you!”

This verse, an extended and irregular (4+4+3) tricolon, continues the address of YHWH to the Psalmist, following the Wisdom-aspect of this section with a colorful bit of proverbial instruction. There is some difficulty in the second line, particularly the meaning of MT oyd=u#. I tentatively follow Dahood here (p. 197), deriving it from a root ddu, rare in the Old Testament (cf. Job 10:17), but attested in Ugaritic as the cognate ²dd, with the meaning “swell (up), expand”. The illustration of the horse that needs a muzzle and harness to control it suggests a comparable meaning for wydu here—viz., a wild and untamed nature, that swells and surges and is difficult to control.

There is also some difficulty in determining the precise meaning of the third line. We would expect the third person singular, rather than the second person suffix of ;yl#a@ (“to you”); but this may simply indicate a sudden shift applying the proverb directly to the Psalmist. In this respect, the shorter third line functions as a warning: if you act in a reckless and heedless manner, ignoring the sound instruction and wisdom (from God), no one will want to come near you! Perhaps, the idea in view is that YHWH Himself will not wish to come near such a person.

Verses 10-11

In this brief final section, the Wisdom instruction is broadened, directed to the people of God, the righteous ones, as a whole. This is typical of the closing lines of many Psalms, as has been previously noted.

Verse 10

“Many (are the) afflictions (belonging) to (the) wicked,
but (the one) seeking protection in YHWH will have goodness surrounding him!”

Ultimately, the wicked will have “afflictions” (pl. of the noun boak=m^), or “pains”; the root bak can also connote sadness and sorrow. Probably this refers to the final fate of the wicked, the punishment which God has in store for (l=) them. By contrast, the righteous will continue to be surrounded vb bb^s*, used above in v. 7) by the covenant protection and blessing provided by YHWH. The loyal and faithful one both seeks the protection of God, and also finds it; this is the fundamental meaning of the verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, and, quite naturally, it also connotes the trust one places in YHWH. The common noun ds#j# means “goodness”, but often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, in the context of the covenant; here it signifies the blessing that comes to those who are loyal to YHWH. The contrast between the righteous and the wicked is a staple of Wisdom literature, and features in many of the Psalms (cf. especially in Psalm 1).

Verse 11

“Rejoice in YHWH, and spin round (with joy), (you) righteous (one)s,
and give a (ringing) cry all (you the one)s straight of heart!”

The final couplet is an exhortation for the righteous to praise God. The joyous twirling (spinning/dancing in a circle) of the righteous parallels the motif of the righteous being surrounded (vb bb^s*) by His protection (v. 7). The same verb /n`r* was also used in v. 7, referring to a ringing cry. There it seems to allude to the piercing cry of a bird protecting its young (cf. also Ps 63:8 [7], noted above). Here it is the protected ones (i.e. the righteous) who cry out, in joy. Those faithful and loyal to YHWH (and to the covenant with Him) are characterized in traditional terms as “just, right[eous]” ones (<yqyD!x^); like dsj, the root qdx can also connote faithfulness and loyalty. Another traditional expression is “straight of heart” (here bl@ yr@v=y]), which implies the faithfulness of one’s intention, which goes deeper than a practical observance of the covenant (i.e., the Torah).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 25

Psalm 25

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsc (vv. 2-7); 5/6HevPs (vv. 4-6); 4QPsa (v. 15)

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.

Verses 1-11

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).

May 5: Psalm 51:10-13

Psalm 51:10-13

In the previous note, in this series exploring the references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God in the Old Testament, we examined the tradition of the Saul-David conflict as narrated in 1 Samuel, and how it is expressed in terms of the spirit of God. As I have discussed, there was a strong principle of charismatic leadership in early Israel—that is to say, the qualified leader of the people was marked by possession of a divine spirit, their giftedness a product of being specially touched by the spirit of God. This entailed the possession of wisdom and understanding (to guide the people), but also the (physical) strength and skill needed to lead the people in times of battle. From Moses to his successor Joshua, through the Judges and the first kings (Saul and David), this principle of divinely-inspired leadership was maintained. Only with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy did the principle gradually fade; even then, the king was seen as holding a special relationship with YHWH, reflected in the repeated phrase that “YHWH was with him (i.e. with the king)”. Rooted in the ancient concept of covenant loyalty, it came to be a central component of the (Judean) royal theology, focused on the Davidic line—beginning with David (1 Sam 16:18; 18:14; 2 Sam 5:10; cf. also 1 Chron 11:9; 2 Chron 1:1) it was emphasized especially with Hezekiah at the time of the Assyrian crisis (2 Kings 18:7), and underlies the significance of the Immanuel title in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10.

We saw how, when David was chosen (and anointed) to be the next king, the spirit of YHWH “rushed” to him (1 Sam 16:13); correspondingly, the same spirit that had been upon Saul departed from him (16:14ff), and, in that vacuum, an evil spirit from YHWH came to afflict Saul in its place. This same sort of idea is expressed in Psalm 51, which, according to the superscription, was composed by David after his condemnation by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12:1-15) for his role in the Bathsheba/Uriah affair (chap. 11). Certainly it is a penitential Psalm, in which the Psalmist asks for forgiveness from YHWH, vowing to repent and amend his ways, making right the wrongs he may have done.

The motif of the spirit (j^Wr) is introduced in verse 10 [12], at the climax of the Psalmist’s plea to be forgiven:

“Create for me a clean heart, O Mightiest,
and make new (the) firm spirit in my inner (part)s”

Here a clean (rohf*) heart is parallel with a firm/fixed (/okn`) spirit. The passive participle /okn` (from the root /WK) denotes the idea of something being firm, sound, secure (i.e. healthy and whole). If the motif in the first line is that of cleansing, in the second line it is healing and renewal. It may be better to translate j^Wr here in the more fundamental sense of “breath” (i.e. life-breath), but the same use of the word in vv. 11-12 [13-14] clearly indicates that a broader meaning is in view as well.

To the extent that the Psalm genuine comes from David—or at least reflects the Israelite/Judean royal theology—there may well be an allusion here to the tradition of charismatic leadership noted above, whereby the king is touched/possessed by a divine spirit. If so, then the king is praying that he would not share in Saul’s fate, when the divine spirit departed from him. Certainly, the language of verse 11 [13] may be rooted in this idea, at least in part:

“Do not throw me out (away) from your face,
and your holy spirit—do not take (it away) from me!”

The sense of the ancient tradition appears to have been generalized, set in a broader religious and ethical context. The relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH is in danger of being broken, expressed here from both sides: (a) being removed from God’s presence (line 1), and (b) God’s presence being removed from him (line 2). This is one of the only occurrences in the Old Testament of the expression “holy spirit”; it must not be understood here from the later Jewish or Christian standpoint, but simply as reflecting a specific quality or aspect of God’s spirit—namely holiness and purity. Literally the expression is “spirit of your holiness” (;v=d=q* j^Wr), the holiness (vd#q), from the root vdq) of El-Yahweh being a key attribute and central tenet of Israelite religion. The regular/frequent impurity of human beings was fundamentally incompatible with the purity of YHWH; this was realized both in the ritual and ethical sphere of Israelite religious culture, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The Psalmist’s sin threatened the removal of God’s holy presence (and his removal from that presence).

The thoughts expressed in the two couplets of vv. 10-11 [12-13] are combined together, in summary form, within the third (v. 12 [14]), and it brings the Psalmist’s petition to a close:

“Return to me a rejoicing (in) your salvation,
and may you lay hold of me (with) a stimulating spirit!”

The term uv^y#, typically translated “salvation”, in the royal theological context of the Psalms often reflects the idea of the covenant bond between the ruler (as vassal) and YHWH (as Sovereign). This bond means that YHWH is obliged to bring help and assistance to the ruler in his time of need, unless the terms of the agreement have been violated. While such language could easily be broadened to apply to God’s people in a more general sense, the royal/Davidic background in such Psalms needs to be recognized. The breaking of the bond results in the Psalmist being unable to rejoice in the salvation that YHWH, his Sovereign, can provide; he prays that this would be “returned” to him.

The precise meaning of the final line is difficult to determine. The verb Em^s* has the basic meaning “lay (upon)” or “lean (upon)”, often in the specific (ritual) context of the laying on of hands. The prayer is that YHWH will again lay His ‘hands’ upon the Psalmist, by way of a blessing that will restore the covenant bond. Here the place of the noun j^Wr (“spirit”) is ambiguous—is it a spirit from God that comes upon the Psalmist by this “laying on” (par with v. 11), or does it refer to the effect of this in/on the spirit within the Psalmist (par with v. 10)? The word hb*yd!n+ is a bit difficult to translate (it can be a noun or adjective), the root bdn fundamentally indicating an impulse—i.e., something that prompts a person to act, etc. What is being described? There are two possibilities:

    • The spirit of YHWH stimulates the Psalmist to repentance and a newfound loyalty, etc
    • By laying hold of him, YHWH stimulates the Psalmist’s spirit so that, from now on, he will be inclined to act in faithful/loyal manner

Both are valid ways of reading the line, but probably the emphasis is more on the action of God’s spirit.

In the concluding notes of this series, we will explore further the expression “holy spirit” as it came to be used subsequently in Jewish literature and tradition. However, it is first necessary to continue our Old Testament study with a survey of additional references to the j^Wr of God in the Psalms and Prophets. A key aspect of this will focus again on the specific association between the Spirit and prophetic inspiration, and how this developed over time.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:16-18

1 John 5:16-18

“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request.”

Verses 16-18 are among the most notoriously difficult in all the New Testament to interpret. They have challenged commentators and theologians for centuries. We must presume that the language and point of reference would have been more readily understandable to the original audience than for us today. At this distance removed, it is virtually impossible to establish the context and background of the passage with any certainty. There are two points which have been especially difficult to understand:

    1. The statement in verse 18, to the effect that believers (those “born of God”) do not sin, when elsewhere it is recognized that believers do sin (v. 16, etc)
    2. The distinction between sin that is “toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]” and sin that is not so.

The latter is especially significant since the reference to “death” (qa/nato$) would seem to relate to the giving of “life” (zwh/) mentioned in verse 16. However, since both points above are important for an understanding of the statement(s) in verse 16, it is necessary to discuss each of them in some detail. It will be helpful, I think, to begin with first point—the statement in verse 18.

1 John 5:18

“We have seen [i.e. known] that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ou)x a(marta/nei]…”

I have intentionally stopped after the first clause, since it is this particular statement which has proven difficult to interpret, from a theological standpoint. First, the perfect participle (with the article)—o( gegennhme/no$, “the one having come to be born” (i.e. born “…out of God“)—is used by the author as a descriptive title for believers (also in 3:9). The verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) is used repeatedly this way (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4; cf. also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8). This statement essentially repeats the earlier declarations in 3:9

“Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do/make sin [i.e. act sinfully]…”

and also in the prior v. 6:

“Every (one) remaining in him does not sin…”

At the same time, it is quite clear that believers in Christ do sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2, etc). How is this evidence to be reconciled? There are several possibilities:

    • The statements in 3:9 & 5:18 reflect prescriptive, rather than descriptive, language—i.e., expressing how things ought to be, the ideal, rather than how things actually are.
    • The present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6-9 and 5:18 specifically indicates a practice of sinning—i.e. continual or habitual. According to this interpretation, true believers do sin, but do not continually sin.
    • The “sinlessness” of believers expressed in 3:6, 9 and 5:18 reflects the essential reality of our union with Christ, but not necessarily the daily life and practice of practice of believers, which entails the regular dynamic of both sin and forgiveness.

There are, perhaps, elements of truth in all three of these interpretive approaches. The first option is the simplest, but, in my view, is something of an artificial (modern) distinction. Probably the majority of commentators (and translators) adopt the second option, but, again, there is little clear indication of such a distinction in the text itself. The use of the present tense of a(marta/nw scarcely need be limited to the idea of repeated or continual sin; much more likely is a simple distinction between past sins (cleansed upon coming to faith in Jesus) and present sins committed during the time now that one is a believer.

In my view, the third option above best fits the thought (and theology) of the letter, and is likely to be closest to the mark. Note, in particular, the way that the “sinlessness” is worded and qualified:

    • “the one having come to be born of God…”
    • “the one remaining/abiding in him…”

To understand this better, let us examine the context of each of the statements in 3:6, 9, and 5:18.

1 Jn 3:6. The statement is: “Every one remaining in him does not sin”. This is contrasted with the parallel statement in v. 6b: “every one sinning has not looked upon [i.e. seen] him and has not known him”. The combination of these statements would suggest that, if a believer commits sin, then he/she has not seen/known Christ, and (thus) is not a true believer. However, that is not quite the logic of the verse; consider the structure of it, outlined as follows:

    • The one remaining in Christ [i.e. the believer]
      —does not sin [i.e. characteristic of the believer]
      —the one who does sin (“sinning”) [i.e. characteristic of the unbeliever]
    • The one who has not seen/known Christ [i.e. the non-believer]

The thrust of the statement is the kind of dualistic contrast so common in Johannine thought and expression—seeing/not-seeing, knowing/not-knowing, believer/non-believer. How, then, should we regard the similar contrast between not-sinning and sinning? This is made more clear when we look at the prior statements in vv. 3-5, working backward:

    • “in him [i.e. Jesus Christ] there is not (any) sin” (v. 5b)
      —this is a fundamental statement of Jesus’ sinlessness; the “sinlessness” of believers must be understood first, and primarily, through this.
    • “and you have seen/known that that (one) [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. revealed], (so) that he might take up [i.e. take away] sin” (v. 5a)
      —a central aspect of Jesus’ mission and work on earth, esp. his sacrificial death, was to “take away” sin (cf. Jn 1:29, etc); it is through this work of Jesus that we (believers) are cleansed from sin (1 Jn 1:7).
    • “The one doing sin does/acts without law [a)nomi/a], and sin is (being/acting) without law [a)nomi/a]” (v. 4)
      —on the surface, this seems simply to reflect the traditional principle that “sin” entails the violation of religious and ethical standards (“law”, “commandments”); however, the Gospel and Letters of John understand and interpret the “commandments” (e)ntolai/) for believers in a distinctive way (cf. especially the two-fold ‘commandment’ in 1 Jn 3:23-24). If “sin” is defined as being “without the commandments” then, here in the letter, this essentially means being without (real) trust in Jesus and without (true) love.
    • “Every one holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that one [i.e. Jesus] is pure.” (v. 3)
      —this statement focuses more on the attitude and behavior of believers, with the expression “makes himself pure” (a(gni/zei e(auto\n); it functions as an exhortation for believers to live and act according to their true identity (in Christ). Paul does much the same thing when he exhorts his readers, e.g., “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also ‘walk in line’ in/by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25).
    • “Loved (one)s, (even) now we are offspring [i.e. children] of God, but it is not yet made to shine forth [i.e. revealed] what we will be…” (v. 2)
      —this declaration is vital to an understanding of the author’s perspective here in the letter; it reflects the two aspects of a “realized” and “future” eschatology, applying it to our identity as believers (“children of God”). Already now, in the present, we are “born of God”, yet this will not be experienced fully for us until the end time. Thus, while we partake of the sinlessness of Christ, we do not act sinlessly at every point of our lives on earth.

1 Jn 3:9. At first glance, throughout verses 2-6ff, the author seems to be speaking generally about “sin”, and it is easy to insert a conventional religious and ethical sense of the word, as though he were simply summarizing traditional immorality such as we see in the Pauline “vice lists” (Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Yet, a careful reading of the letter itself indicates that this really is not what he is describing. Indeed, apart from 2:15-17 and (possibly) 5:21, there is very little evidence of traditional ethical teaching in the letter. Which is not to say that the Johannine congregations were careless about such things; however, the emphasis in the letter is specifically on the two-fold “commandment” for believers stated in 3:23-24, etc—of (proper) trust in Jesus and (true) love for fellow believers. We must keep in mind the rhetorical background of the letter, which is directed against the would-be believers (“antichrists”) who have separated from the Johannine congregations. The author views them as breaking both of these “commandments”, and are thus sinning in a fundamental way that the remainder of the faithful are not.

In verse 10, the author begins transitioning his discussion toward the two-fold commandment, beginning with the duty to love one another, according to Jesus’ own example (Jn 13:34-35, etc). This is prefaced by the dualistic contrast of righteousness/sin and God vs. Devil, sharpening and intensifying the line of rhetoric. These characterize true believers, against those who are not (e.g. the Johannine separatists):

    • “the one doing justice/righteousness” vs. “the one doing sin” (vv. 7-8a)
    • “(the works of God)” vs. “the works of the Devil” (v. 8b)
    • “the one born out of God” vs. “the one (born) out of the Devil” (vv. 8a, 9a)

It is thus not merely a question of committing (or not committing) particular sins, but of attributes and qualities characterizing two different “groups” of human beings (and supposed Christians). Again, it is the purity and sinlessness of Jesus himself, the Son of God, by which we come to be made pure and ‘without sin’—i.e. “born of God”, “offspring of God”. The essence and character of this fundamental identity is clearly expressed in verse 7:

“the (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just”

Doing justice does not make a person just; quite the reverse—the believer’s “just-ness” in Christ results in his/her acting justly. Note how this is expressed in verse 9; it will be useful to look at each component in the verse:

    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin”
      • “(in) that [i.e. because] His seed remains in him”
      • “and he is not able to sin”
        • “(in) that [i.e. because] he has come to be (born) out of God”

This is one of the most elliptical statements in the letter:

    • “the one having come to be born out of God”
      —”he does not sin”
      ——”His seed remains in him”
      —”he is not able to sin”
    • “he has come to be born out of God”

Central to the “sinlessness” of believers is the essential reality that God’s seed (spe/rma) remains/abides [me/nei] in us. We may fairly interpret this “seed” as the living/abiding Spirit of His Son (which is also His own Spirit). Just as there is no sin in the Son, even so there is no sin abiding/remaining in us.

This brings us again to the statement in 1 Jn 5:18; let us now examine the verse in its entirety:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but (rather) the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”

The difficulty of the wording (and meaning) is reflected by several key variant readings, which I discussed briefly in an earlier Saturday Series study. The main question is whether the second occurrence of the verb genna/w (aorist pass. participle, gennhqei/$) refers to Jesus, as the Son of God, or the believer as child/offspring of God. Commentators and textual critics are divided on this question, which involves three different major variants, two involving the object pronoun, and one involving the form of the verb:

    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him”
    • o( gennhqei\$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= e(auto/n
      “the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) himself”
    • o( ge/nnhsi$ e)k tou= qeou= threi= au)to/n
      “the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps watch (over) him”

It would seem that the first reading best explains the rise of the other two, and, in my view, is more likely to be original. Though the verb genna/w, used in a symbolic or spiritual sense, otherwise always applies to the believer rather than Jesus (Jn 18:37 refers more properly to his physical/human birth), the emphasis in the letter on Jesus on the Son of God, and on that as the basis for our being “born of God”/”offspring of God”, makes it highly likely that the author is playing on such a dual-meaning here. This would also seem to be confirmed by 3:9 (cf. above), which speaks of God’s “seed” (i.e. son/offspring) abiding in the believer. It is this seed, this “offspring” born of God, which guards believers, keeping and protecting us from evil.

This detailed study should, I think, shed some light on the author’s thought and mode of expression. Still, it does not entirely explain the statement at the beginning of verse 18. A clearer understanding requires that we now turn to the second interpretive difficulty highlighted above—namely, the meaning of the expression “sin(ning) toward death” in vv. 16-18. This will be discussed in the next note.

March 12: Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4a, continued

Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4a (continued)

In the previous note, we discussed the petition in the Lord’s Prayer for the forgiveness (lit. release, sending away) of debto)fei/lhma, something which one owes and ought to pay back (vb. o)fei/lw). The Didache (8:2) version of the Prayer uses the singular, but Matthew’s version has the plural: “may you release for us our (deb)ts (that we) owe [o)feilh/mata]”. The corresponding Hebrew and Aramaic root would presumably be bwj, the noun boj referring to an obligation or debt. When used in a religious context, relating to sin, it would mean something like “guilt”. This religious usage is largely absent from the o)feil– word group in Greek, which may explain why the Lukan version of the Prayer reads “our sins [ta\$ a(marti/a$ h(mw=n]” instead of “our debts“.

Taking the Matthean version of this petition, on its own, the person to whom the debts are owed is not immediately clear. However, based the context in the Sermon on the Mount (especially vv. 14-15 which follow) it is apparent that these are things we owe to God, a point the Lukan version makes explicit by referring to sins. But what are these “debts” precisely?

In ancient Israel, sin was closely connected with the holiness expected of the people (Lev 19:2, etc), along with the various religious obligations which that entailed. These obligations are documented and described throughout the Old Testament Torah, the chief ones being related to the ritual purity required for contact with the sanctuary and sacred precincts of the Tabernacle/Temple. There were, of course, various sins and crimes (and other failings) which might be committed at the social level, but a carefully study of the Torah shows that even these are closely tied to the ritual holiness that defined the Israelite religious identity.

Jesus, following a line of teaching begun by the Prophets, turns this around—making the social-ethical aspect of religion take priority over the ritual dimenion. This is a thematic emphasis expressed, for example, throughout the Sermon on the Mount (see esp. the instruction in Matt 5:23-24), and it is certainly present here in this petition of the Prayer. Consider that Jesus might have said “may you release for us our debts we owe, even as we released the debts owed to us”; however, instead, the second half of the petition personalizes the matter, in terms of social relationships—not the debt owed (o)fei/lhma) but the person who owes the debt (o)feile/th$). The Lukan version makes the same point with a verbal participle: “…for (the one) owing [o)fei/lonti] to us”. Indeed, in Luke this is turned into a more inclusive, universal principle: “…for every [panti] (one) owing to us”.

As discussed in the prior note, a precise interpretation of this part of the Prayer depends on how one resolves the (text-)critical question, both in terms of the differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions, and the form of the verb a)fi/hmi (“send away, release”) in the second half of the petition. If the reading a)fh/kamen (“we [have] released”) is correct, then it implies that having our debts released by God requires that we (first) be willing to forgive the things owed to us by others. This condition is expressed a bit differently in the two versions:

    • Matt: “…even as [w($ kai\] we (also have) released our (deb)tors owing (to us)” — i.e., this is something we have done.
    • Luke: “…for we (our)selves also release every (one) owing to us” — i.e., this is something we regularly do (and are willing to do).

Clearly there is a principal of reciprocity involved, and it is conditional—only if we are willing to release (i.e. cancel) the things owed to us can we expect God to release the things we owe. Here, again, debt is understood, not in the sense of money or ordinary social obligations (though that can be involved), but in the ethical and moral sense. The “debts” owed to us (by other people) encompass any wrong or injustice toward us which might come about during the course of our life on earth, whether intentional or unintentional, in simple matters or major violations. We must be willing to “wipe away” and cancel the obligation such persons have to correct the wrong on our behalf. This also extends to any injustice or disruption which affects the relationship between two people. Jesus’ teaching in this regard is surprisingly practical, as we see in examples in the Sermon on the Mount such as 5:23-26. At the same time, the ethic required by Jesus of his followers cuts against the grain of the natural human desire for justice and retribution, especially in the command to love and pray for one’s enemies, refusing to strike back at one who mistreats us (5:38-47). Even if a person wrongs us many times, we must be willing to forgive (cf. below).

The conditional aspect of the petition—we are in a position to ask for forgiveness from God only when we forgive others—can make some Christians uncomfortable, as it suggests a requirement (something we must do) before we are forgiven by God. Yet, this is clearly a significant part of Jesus’ teaching; the saying which follows the Prayer in Matt 6:14-15 leaves no doubt of the condition required:

“For if you would release for (other) men their (moment)s of falling alongside, (so) also will your heavenly Father release (them) for you; but if you do not release (them) for (other) men, your heavenly Father will not release your (moment)s of falling alongside (either).”

The word para/ptwma, usually translated (somewhat inaccurately) as “trespass”, is here rendered more literally “(moment) of falling alongside”; in English idiom we might say “falling over the line”, i.e. any religious or moral failing, usually (but not always) unintentional. Mark 11:25 has a simpler saying which expresses much the same idea, and in language very much reminiscent of the traditions in the Sermon on the Mount:

“when you stand speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], you must release (it) [i.e. forgive] if you hold anything against anyone, (so) that also your Father the (One) in the heavens might release for you your (own moment)s of falling alongside”

Luke 6:37 has an even simpler and more concise saying (utilizing the verb a)polu/w):

“you must loose (others) from (their bond/debt), and you will be loosed from (yours)” [cp. Matt 7:1f].

This basic instruction occurs a number of times throughout the Gospel tradition, including several parables where Jesus employs the concrete metaphor of “debt” (using the verb o)fei/lw), as he does in the Lord’s Prayer:

1. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:21-35). This parable is introduced by the saying of Jesus in v. 22 (preceded by a question by Peter, v. 21):

“Lord, how many (times) shall my brother sin unto [i.e. against] me and I (still) release [i.e. forgive] it for him? until seven (times)?”
Jesus’ answer:
“I do not say to you ‘until seven (times)’, but ‘until seventy (times) seven'” [compare Lk 17:3-4]

In the parable itself, the reciprocal (and conditional) principle in Matt 6:12, 14-15 is illustrated most vividly, in terms of the monetary debt owed by a person. The much larger amount owed by the unforgiving servant to his master, of course, represents the “debt” a person owes to God.

2. The Parable of the “Dishonest Manager” (Luke 16:1-9). This is another parable involving a servant who collects money that is owed—this time it is done on behalf of his master. An interpretation of this parable has proven difficult for commentators, but the thrust of the illustration appears to be that the manager of an estate, who is being relieved of his position, decides, in the course of his final duties, to help his own future interests by deducting a certain amount from the bill owed by the servants (tenant farmers) on the estate. Most likely, the amount he deducts represents his own commission (he is presumably not stealing from what is owed to his master), and, as a result, lessens the burden for the other servants. This is practical advice, similar to the example given in Matt 5:25-26, but it underlies a spiritual principle: one’s relationship with God is based on, and should be reflected by, our wise efforts to make things right with our fellow human beings, acting fairly and mercifully, etc. The reciprocity of Matt 6:12, 14-15 is expressed again in the sayings which follow the parable (vv. 10-12).

3. The Parable on Forgiveness, part of the anointing scene in Luke 7:36-50 (vv. 41-47). Here a different sort of reciprocal principle is expressed, one which is doubtless more familiar (and appealing) to Christians today: our religious (and ethical) behavior should reflect our gratitude to God for his forgiving us our debt (i.e. sins).

All three of these parables use the verb o)fei/lw to illustrate the idea of sin and injustice, etc, as “debt”, something we owe both to God and to others, and the requirement that we “send it way”, by forgiving it (for others) and making things right again. It is important to keep this concept in mind as we consider the Prayer within the context of Jesus’ wider teaching. In the next note, we will turn to the subsequent petition(s) to see how Jesus further instructs his followers to respond to sin and evil in the world.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.

March 11: Matt 6:12; Luke 11:4a

Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4a

The next petition of the Lord’s Prayer, and the 2nd of the second part of the Prayer, has traditionally been translated in terms of forgiveness. While this is generally correct, it obscures the actual Greek vocabulary that is used. There are again certain differences between the Matthean and Lukan versions, but the basic form of the petition is the same; it begins as follows:

kai\ a&fe$ h(mi=n
“and may you release for us…”

The conjunctive particle (kai, “and”) indicates the close connection, in thought and form, with the previous petition, though this may not be immediately apparent to the average reader. This connective sequence for the petitions will be discussed as we proceed. The verb a)fi/hmi, usually translated “forgive” is more accurately rendered as “release”, though a more literal rendering would actually be “set/send (away) from”. In the New Testament, it is used regularly (along with the related noun a&fesi$) in connection with the sins of a person (or people), i.e. “releasing” sin, in the sense of sending it away. The ancient Day of Atonement ritual gives a concrete symbol for this in the “scapegoat” that is sent away into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people (Lev 16:20-22). Of the many New Testament examples where the verb and noun are used in this sense (for release of sins), cf. Mark 1:4; 2:9-10 par; 3:28-29 par; 11:25; Matt 18:35; 26:28; Luke 1:77; 7:47-48; 17:3-4; Acts 2:38; 5:31; Col 1:14; James 5:15; 1 John 1:9, etc. The opposite of releasing sin is to hold it, using a verb such as e&xw or krate/w, as in the famous formula in John 20:23 (cp. Matt 16:18):

“Anyone (for) whom you would release th(eir) sins, they have been released for them, and anyone (for) whom you would hold (them) firm, they have been held firm.”

Indeed, it is the release of sins that is expressed in the Lukan form of the petition: kai\ a&fe$ h(mi=n ta\$ a(marti/a$ h(mw=n, “and may you release for us our sins“. In Matthew’s version, however, the wording is different:

kai\ a&fe$ h(mi=n ta\ o)feilh/mata h(mw=n
“and may you release for us our (deb)ts (we) owe

The Didache (8:2) follows Matthew’s version, but uses the singular noun instead of the plural: “…our (deb)t (we) owe [th\n o)feilh/n h(mw=n]”. The difference here between Matthew and Luke is just part of the textual complication related to the form of this petition. First, we must note that Matthew is consistent in the wording used in both parts of the petition:

“and may you release [a&fe$] for us our (deb)ts (that we) owe [o)feilh/mata], even as we (have) released [a)fh/kamen] our (deb)tors (who) owe [o)feile/th$ pl] (to us)”

In Luke, however, the wording is different, resulting in a (partially) mixed metaphor:

“and may you release [a&fe$] for us our sins [a(marti/a$], for we (our)selves also release [a)fi/omen] every (one) owing [o)fei/lonti] (anything) to us”

How are we to account for these differences? Some commentators would chalk them up to different ways that the original (Aramaic) words of Jesus were rendered into Greek. This is certainly possible. In particular, it is likely that the Lukan form attempts to explain a (Semitic) concept of sin as (religious) debt which might have seemed strange to Greek hearers and readers. In this regard, Matthew’s version is almost certainly closer to the original, the Aramaic of which might have been something like (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901):

an`y+b^oj Hn`l^ qb%v=W
an`y+b^Y`j^l= an`q=b^v= yd]K=
ûš®buq lán¹h µôbayn¹°
k§dî š§báqn¹° l§µayy¹bayn¹°

Fitzmyer (p. 906) also cites an interesting example (in Aramaic) from the Qumran texts (4Q534, col. ii. 17) in which “sin” “debt” (i.e. guilt) are juxtaposed: “its sin and its debt” ([htb]wjw hafj).

In any case, the Lukan ‘modifications’ clarify the text in several important ways:

    • That the debts a person owes to God are to be understood in terms of sin, as opposed to money or other ‘ordinary’ debt.
    • Retaining the specific idea of debt in the second half of the petition implies that what a person must forgive for others includes things like ‘ordinary’ debt—i.e., wrongs and injustices brought about during the course of daily life and business.
    • The final pronoun makes clear that the wrongs to be forgiven are things done specifically to us (believers).
    • The use of the adjective pa=$ (“every [one]”) also gives to the petition a universal context and setting which otherwise has to be inferred in the Matthean version.

The meaning of this petition, both within the Prayer and the wider Gospel context, will be discussed in more detail in the next daily note. However, before continuing it is worth pointing out a couple of other textual variants which can affect how the passage is interpreted. In Matthew’s version, for the second occurrence of the verb a)fi/hmi

    • The majority of manuscripts have the present tense, a)fi/emen/a)fi/omen, “even as we release…”.
    • The aorist form (a)fh/kamen), adopted above, is read by a smaller (but diverse) range of witnesses: a* B Z 1 22 124mg 1365 1582 vulgatemss, and some Syriac and Coptic manuscripts (Metzger, p. 13).

These readings each give a slightly different nuance to the petition. The use of the present tense suggests that the disciples are to follow God’s example—as He has cancelled our debts, so we will forgive the debts of others. The aorist implies a different sort of reciprocal principle, such as Jesus emphasizes in vv. 14-15 (and elsewhere in his teaching): if we want God to forgive us, we must (first) forgive any wrongs others have done to us. Both external evidence, and the context of the Sermon on the Mount, argue in favor of the aorist form. The Didache has the present (a)fi/emen), which also appears in some manuscripts of Luke (instead of a)fi/omen).

References marked “Fitzmyer” above (and throughout this series) are to  the Commentary on Luke by Joseph A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible [AB] series, Vol. 28/A, 1985. References marked “Metzger” are to the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition).

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.