Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 59 (Part 1)

Psalm 59

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (vv. 5-6, 8 [4-5, 7]) 

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar in many respects to those in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ that we have recently studied. The focus on the punishment of the wicked is especially strong.

There are two stanzas to the poem, each of which contains a common refrain (vv. 7-11a, 15-18) following the Selah pause-indicator. The meter is irregular, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominating the first stanza; one is perhaps inclined to modify the second stanza to match the rhythmic pattern, but any attempt would be questionable at best. Unfortunately, the second stanza does not survive in the only Qumran manuscript of this Psalm (11QPsad), which otherwise might have provided help in confirming the Hebrew text.

On the heading, cf. the previous studies on Psalm 57 and 58. On the term <T*k=m! (miktam), cf. the earlier study on Psalm 16. The David tradition alluded to in the superscription is that of 1 Samuel 19:8ff.

The two stanzas of the Psalm are clearly delineated:

    • Stanza 1 (vv. 2-6 [1-5])—A prayer to YHWH for protection and deliverance from the Psalmist’s enemies, with a contrast established between the wicked and the righteous
      • Refrain (vv. 7-11a [6-10a])
    • Stanza 2 (vv. 11b-14 [10b-13])—Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
      • Refrain (vv. 15-18 [14-17])

Stanza 1: VV. 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“Snatch me away from (those) hostile to me, O Mightiest;
from (the one)s standing up against me, set me up high!”

This opening couplet has a loose 3-beat rhythm which establishes both the meter and the tone of the Psalm. The prayer in the first stanza takes the form of a lament. The Psalmist calls out for help against his enemies. The parallelism of the couplet is conceptually precise, though formally presented as a chiasm:

    • “snatch me away” (vb lx^n`)
      • “from those hostile to me” (verbal noun, vb by~a*)
      • “from those standing against me” (verbal noun, vb <Wq)
    • “set me up high” (vb bg~c*)

In terms of the theme of deliverance, the aspect in the first line is rescue, while in the second line it is protection. YHWH protects the Psalmist by bringing him up to a high and inaccessible (and thus secure) place.

Verse 3 [2]

“Snatch me away from (the one)s making trouble,
and from men of blood, make me safe!”

This second couplet matches the form and focus of the first almost precisely. The Psalmist’s enemies here are generalized as the wicked who corrupt society and would persecute the righteous (and harm the innocent). They are characterized verbally in the first line as “(one)s making [i.e. who make] trouble [/w#a*]”. In the second line, they are described as “men of blood [<ym!d*]”. The plural <ym!d* (lit. “bloods”) almost always means “acts of bloodshed,” often understood generally as acts of violence (even when no blood is actually shed). Dahood (II, p. 67) would understand <ym!D* here as “images” (that is, idols), from the root hm*D* (I), “be like, resemble”, as also in Ps 26:9; 55:24 [23] (I, p. 163; II, p. 39). Both interpretations would be valid, since, from the standpoint of the Psalms, violence and idolatry (i.e., worship of other deities) are equally characteristic of the wicked.

The suffixed hiphil imperative of the verb uv^y` could be translated “save me”; however, given the parallel with verse 2 [1], it is better to bring out the aspect of protection (“make me safe”), parallel with the verb bg~c* (cf. above).

Verse 4 [3]

“For, see!—they lie in wait for my soul,
(the) strong (one)s gather against me;
(with) no breaking (of the bond) by me,
and no sin by me, O YHWH.”

The 3-beat (3+3) couplet has been expanded with the addition of another 3-beat line, which here in translation is better represented as a short (irregular) couplet. The added line introduces the important theme of the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The Psalmist wishes to make clear that he his innocent—he has neither broken the bond with YHWH (and his fellow Israelites), nor has he sinned. The verb uv^P* is typically used in the context of the covenant—i.e., breaking the bond or trust between two people (or parties). To say that one has upheld the covenant and has not sinned, means that a person is righteous (and right/just before God). There is thus no reason or cause for attacks against the Psalmist; the attacks come only because of the wickedness of his adversaries.

Here the wicked are called “strong (one)s” (<yz]u*), indicating that they possess worldly power and influence. In terms of the royal background of such Psalms, the Psalmist’s opponents would be princes, nobles, or other vassal kings, people who actually could muster a military force. However, in the Psalms, this aspect has been generalized, often under the influence of Wisdom tradition, so that the motif of strength/power more properly characterizes the oppressive (and violent) might of the wicked.

Verse 5 [4]

“(I am) without crookedness, (yet) they run and stand (against me)—
rouse (yourself) to meet me, and see (for yourself)!”

The first line repeats the sense of verse 4 [3]: the Psalmist’s righteousness/innocence is again expressed in negative (or privative) terms—he is without (yl!B=) any “crookedness” (/ou*). Yet the wicked run to attack him, taking up a position against him (vb /WK, “be fixed/firm,” in something of a military sense).

In the second line, the Psalmist again calls on YHWH to rescue/deliver him. In particular, he asks God to come meet him (vb ar^q*); because of the urgency of the situation, the Psalmist would dare seek to stir God to action (vb rWu [I], “rouse [oneself], awaken”). Once YHWH comes and sees the situation, He cannot but act to rescue and protect His faithful servant.

Verse 6 [5]

“You, YHWH, (commander) of (the heavenly) armies,
(you the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael,
awaken to reckon (judgment on) all (the) nations!
May you not show favor to (those) traitors making trouble!”
Selah

The final two lines of v. 6 form a couplet that builds upon the second line of v. 5 (cf. above). The verb JWq (“wake [up]”) here is generally synonymous with the earlier rWu (I) (“awaken, rouse oneself [from sleep]”), and the basic idea is the same: God is to rouse Himself and come to rescue/deliver the Psalmist. In so doing, YHWH will effectively bring judgment against the wicked. Here the wicked are identified (in traditional religious-cultural terms) with the “nations”; but, more specifically, they are traitors to the covenant with YHWH. The verb dg~B* generally denotes deceptive or treacherous behavior. By making “trouble” (/w#a*, cf. also in v. 3 [2]) for the righteous, the wicked show that they have rejected and betrayed the covenant bond between YHWH and His people.

The root dqp is notoriously difficult to render into English; here, it is probably best understood in the sense of meting out judgment (punishment) on the wicked. Two of the fundamental meanings could apply: (1) “appoint” (i.e., an appointed moment of judgment), or (2) “reckon” (i.e., call to account); I have opted for the latter.

In this Psalm, the hl*s# (Selah) pause-marker serves to indicate the structure of the composition; this is not always the case, but here, in each stanza, the refrain follows directly after the pause.

Refrain: vv. 7-11a [6-10a]
Verse 7 [6]

“They sit until evening,
they howl like a dog
and go around (the) city.”

The refrain begins with a distinct shift in rhythm (aided by the preceding Selah-pause), with verse 7 (= v. 15) taking the form of a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2). These terse, staccato-like lines express the habitual conduct of the wicked in simplistic terms, using the animal-motif of a pack of dogs. The initial verb bWv means “turn, return,” and the line would then be translated “they return at evening”. However, I am inclined to follow Dahood (II, p. 69) in reading bwv here as a byform of bvy (“sit”). This seems to make better sense in context—i.e., the wicked (like dogs) sit and wait until evening; it is only at night that they howl and then come out to wander around the city. This behavior is also appropriate to the treacherous character of the wicked (cf. verse 6 above).

Verse 8 [7]

“See—
they gush out by their mouth,
swords (come out) by their lips:
‘For who is hearing (us)?'”

Verse 8 is essentially another 2-beat tricolon (like v. 7); only the initial interjection hN@h! (“see!”) distorts the rhythmic pattern slightly. Again, the behavior of the wicked is crude and repellent. The verb ub^n` in the first line means “pour/gush out”, but often in the decidedly negative sense of something uncontrolled or foul. Some translations render it here as “belch”, which would be quite appropriate for the context. What comes out of the mouth of the wicked is foul-smelling and extreme, but it also indicates a violent purpose—i.e., the image of “swords” coming from the lips in the second line. The third line, it seems, summarizes the thinking of the wicked. There is no need to curb or restrain their crude and evil speech, for “Who is there hearing it?”

Verse 9 [8]

“But you, YHWH, will laugh at them,
you will mock at all (the) nations!”

Like the stanza itself, the refrain shifts in tone, from describing the behavior of the wicked to an anticipation of the judgment YHWH will bring upon them. Their own mocking taunts will be turned back on them. God will laugh at them and mock them, using the parallel verbs qj^v* (“laugh”) and gu^l* (“mock, deride”). The wicked are identified here with the “nations” (cf. v. 6 [5] above); but this is merely a traditional way of speaking, even when the wicked within Israel are in view.

A shift in rhythm matches the shift in tone, as we have here a 3+2 couplet.

Verses 10-11a [9-10a]

“My Mighty (One is) my strength—
thus shall I be guarded;
for (the) Mightiest (is) my (refuge) up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

The final lines of the refrain are problematic. The parallel in v. 18 [17] rather clearly shows that the verse division here is in error–the first two words of v. 11 belong with v. 10. Again, one very much wishes that these verses were preserved in the Qumran manuscript (11QPsad), and could thus assist us in establishing a secure text, but that is not the case. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 70f) in emending iyla, dividing it into two words yK! yl!a@, and also parsing hrmva as a passive (niphal) form, hr*m@V*a# (“I shall be guarded”). Also the opening word oZu% (“his strength”) should be modified to yZu% (“my strength”), based on the parallel in the second stanza. The first part of verse 10 would then read:

hr*m@V*a# yK! yl!a@ yZ]u%
“My Mighty (One is) my strength,
thus I shall be guarded [i.e. protected]”

Much the same is expressed in the final two lines, in a simple parallel couplet:

“for (the) Mightiest (is) my place up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

In each line the plural title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e. ‘God’), possibly substituted for the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) originally (as is typical in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms). The suffixed nouns yB!G~v=m! and yD!s=j^ are parallel (synonymous) terms. The first noun, bG~v=m!, means “place up high”, referring to high and inaccessible location that serves as a safe, protected place; the related verb bg~c* was used in a similar sense in v. 2 (cf. above). The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness,” but also frequently denotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in relation to the covenant bond; and, indeed, ds#j# typically carries this sense in the Psalms. The suffixed noun here would seem to mean something like “my loyal (protector)”.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 58

Psalm 58

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar in many respects to those in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ that we have recently studied (cf. the previous study on Ps 57). Indeed, Psalm 58 has the same musical direction as Ps 57, designating it as a  <T*k=m! (miktam, cf. the study on Psalm 16) sung to the melody “Do not destroy” (or “May you not destroy”), tj@v=T^-la^, apparently the name of a well-known lament (the phrase itself probably is an allusion to Deuteronomy 9:26).

However, if both Psalms were to be sung to a common lament-melody, it is worth nothing that the meter of each poem is different; Psalm 58 contains longer verses, predominantly 4-beat (4+4, or 4+3) couplets.

The thematic structure of the Psalm may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 2-6 [1-5]: Descriptive lament regarding the wicked
    • Verses 7-10 [6-9]: Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
    • Verses 11-12 [10-11]: The reward of the righteous (contrasted with the fate of the wicked)

VERSES 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“Are you firm, mighty (one)s, (in) justice (when) you speak?
You should judge (with) straightness (the) sons of men.”

These opening line is probably best read as a rhetorical (and accusatory) question. The MT <l#a@ should be parsed as a defective form of <yl!a@, “mighty ones;” alternatively, it could be a plural of ly]a^ (“leader, ‘ram’ [figurative for a human noble or ruler]), with defective spelling (<yl!ya@ > <yl!a@). Clearly, the Psalmist is referring to those powerful men who are supposed to be leading and ruling the people; when they are corrupted by wickedness, society becomes oppressive, characterized by lawlessness and perversion of justice. The emphasis here is thus on speaking (vb rb^D*) with justice (qd#x#), and on rendering judgment (vb fp^v*). The concept of being firm (root /ma) in justice (line 1) is parallel with the idea of judging in a straight (rvy, i.e., fair and right) way (line 2).

Verse 3 [2]

“Yet, in (your) heart you act (with all) crookedness,
in (the) land your hands balance (the scales with) violence!”

The wickedness of the situation here is contrasted with what it should have been (v. 2). The first line strikes a formal (contrastive) parallel with the first line of v. 2:

    • “…(with) justice | you (should) speak” (v. 2)
    • “…(with) crookedness | you act” (v. 3)

The plural form tl)ou (lit. “crooked/perverse [thing]s”) may perhaps be intended as an intensive or comprehensive plural. On the other hand, the plural could be understood in the judicial sense of “crooked judgments”. Dahood (II, p. 58) suggests that this spelling represents a Phoenician dialectal form of the Hebrew singular hl*w+u^. The noun lw#u* (“crookedness, perversion”) is often used in the specific socio-legal sense of injustice, and, given the context of v. 2, the idea of a perversion of justice is certainly in view.

The verb in line 2 is sl^P*, which specifically refers to weighing something out on the balance-scales; here it can be understood in the sense of the ‘scales of justice’. Injustice and corruption among the rulers in society inevitably leads to lawlessness, oppression, and violence (sm*j*).

Verse 4 [3]

“Perverse (are the) wicked (one)s, from (the) womb they stray,
(and) from (the) belly (they are) speakers of lie(s)”

This couplet has something of an awkward structure with an off-beat (4+3) rhythm, which may well be intentional, as if expressing poetically how the wicked stagger and stray (vb hu*T*). They are said to be perverse and deceitful (“speakers of lie[s]”) from birth. Again, the primary idea is of the perversion of justice brought about by the wicked leaders, and the corrupting effect this has on the whole of society.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“The hot poison of them (is) like that of a (venomous) snake,
like that of a deaf adder (which) closes its ear,
which does not listen to (the) voice of (those) whispering,
(the) binding of (those) binding (who) are (so) wise.”

These two verses should be taken together as a pair of 4+3 couplets that form a quatrain. The syntax of each couplet is a bit uneven. It would seem that the second occurrence of construct noun tm^j& in the first line ought to be omitted, in order to preserve the meter (cf. Kraus, p. 534). The image itself is straightforward: the deceit, perversion, and violent impulse of the wicked is like the venom of a poisonous snake. In particular, the figure of an adder is used,one which is “deaf,” a motif clarified (in v. 6) as referring to a snake that cannot be rendered harmless by the sounds of a snake-charmer. This person who “whispers” (vb vj^l*, resembling the ‘hissing’ of a snake) the charms represents the vain and futile wisdom of the world, which is unable to curb the wickedness in society.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

Verse 7 [6]

“O Mightiest, break down their teeth in their mouth!
(The) fangs of (the) young lions, pull down, YHWH!”

The tone of the Psalm shifts here from a lament, describing the wicked, to a call for YHWH to bring down judgment on them. There is thus an imprecatory character to the Psalmist’s prayer here.

These lines have a chiastic syntax spread over the eight (4+4) beats:

    • O Mightiest [Elohim]
      • break down
        • their teeth
          • in their mouth
          • (the) fangs
        • of the young lions
      • pull down
    • [O] YHWH

The image is of the wicked as a group of ravenous lion-whelps, with their deadly and oppressive teeth/fangs. The plural noun touT=l=m^ is apparently the same (by metathesis) as touL=t^m=, referring to the devouring teeth/bite of an animal.

Verse 8 [7]

“Let them flow (away) like waters (that) go to their (place);
like (the) <grass> (on which) one treads, may they wither!”

The second line of the MT as we have it makes little sense. Here we are very much in need of a reliable Dead Sea manuscript to offer clarity, but, alas, nothing of Psalm 58 survives. A reasonably sound line can be achieved by a small emendation of the text (cf. Kraus, p. 534), reading ryx!j* (“grass”) instead of wyX*j! (Qere, “his arrows”). The motif of the grass that is worn down on the path (ird) is a suitable parallel with the flowing waters in line 1, preserving the nature-imagery of the couplet. This also fits the verb in the second line, which I take to be ll^m* (III), “wither, languish, fade”; also possible is ll^m* (IV), “cut off”. My translation above of the second line requires a reordered text (with the one emended word) that reads:

Wll*m)t=y] Er)d=y] ryx!j* omK=

Verse 9 [8]

“Like a <miscarriage> dissolving, may they go (away);
(like the) failed birth of a woman, may they fail to see (the) sun!”

Instead of the MT lWlB=v^, I am inclined to read lWKv* (or loKv*), which is a less significant emendation than it might at first appear, since some manuscripts read lwlkv instead of lwlbv. The image of a miscarriage provides a suitable parallel for the motif of a failed birth (lp#n#, i.e., stillbirth or abortion) in line 2 (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 77f).

Verse 10 [9]

“Before thorn-bush(es) can <produce> their thorns,
(the) Living (One in His) burning anger, shall sweep them away!”

The MT of this verse makes very little sense, and is doubtless corrupt. Again, one wishes a reliable Dead Sea manuscript of the Psalm had survived, as it likely would have clarified the situation; but unfortunately that is not the case. Any reading or reconstruction of these lines will have to remain hypothetical and speculative. I have adopted the following changes, so as to produce a relatively clean 4+3 couplet that makes decent sense:

    • Following at least one Hebrew MS, I read <h#yt@r)ys! with the third-person suffix (“their thorns”)
    • I follow Kraus (p. 534) in reading WbWny` (“they bear [fruit],” “they produce”) in place of MT Wnyb!y`.
    • I omit the two occurrences of the suffixed preposition omK= in the second line; these probably crept into the text at this point due to their presence in the prior lines.

Here we have an announcement of YHWH’s coming judgment on the wicked, with the Psalmist anticipating God’s answer to his imprecatory prayer.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

Verse 11 [10]

“The righteous shall be glad when he sees (the) vengeance;
(with) his footsteps, he shall wash in (the) blood of (the) wicked.”

The contrasting fates of the wicked and the righteous are presented in these closing verses. The scene, in spite of the promise of rejoicing, will doubtless strike modern readers as unduly harsh and gruesome. Very few Christians, I think, would find any enjoyment in the idea of washing our feet in the blood of the wicked who have been slaughtered. However, there can be no denying that the terrible death and destruction of the wicked is an integral part of the tradition of the (end-time) Divine judgment inherited by early Christians. It is depicted vividly enough in the book of Revelation (6:10ff; 14:14-20; 16:3-6; 19:2, 13).

Verse 12 [11]

“And man will say, ‘Surely (there is) fruit for the righteous!
Surely there is a Mightiest (One) making judgment on the earth!'”

The eschatological dimension of the Judgment is expressed here rather clearly, as humankind (collectively) is forced to admit that God exists, and that YHWH is the true God (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”). He has the power and authority to act as Judge over the entire world (“making judgment on the earth”). By contrast to the imagery in verse 10 [9] (cf. above), where the wicked are depicted as thorn-bushes that are swept away in the wind, the righteous are presented as plants that produce a rich and succulent fruit. This is part of a well-established Wisdom tradition that was inherited by the Psalms, and which exerted a significant influence on many of the compositions. The same basic contrast is featured in the famous Psalm 1 (vv. 3-4) at the beginning of the collection.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
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 56 (Part 2)

Psalm 56, continued

The second half of the Psalm generally follows the pattern of the first half (vv. 2-7 [1-6], cf. the previous study), with a pair of short stanzas separated by a central refrain. The tone of lament in the first half gives way to the expectation that YHWH will deliver the Psalmist, rescuing him from his wicked adversaries.

VERSES 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“Against trouble make escape for <us>!
In (your) anger (against the) peoples,
bring (them) down, O Mightiest!”

Metrically, this opening verse is somewhat irregular; it can be read, loosely, as an odd 2+4 couplet, but much better as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. However, in that format, the thought of the last two lines is divided; conceptually, a longer 4-beat line would be more appropriate: “In (your) anger, bring down (the) peoples, O Mightiest!”

There are textual difficulties related to the first line. The verb fl^P* of the MT, meaning “(make) escape, deliver,” would seem to require a first-person plural suffix on the preposition l= that follows (rather than the 3rd person plural of the MT). This problem could be solved by emending oml* (“for them”) to Wnl* (“for us”), while Dahood (II, p. 44; cf. also I, p. 173) would read wml (here and in other OT poetic passages) as a first-person form, without emendation. This is the solution I have followed above. Another possibility is to emend the verb, from fl^P* to sl^P* (cf. Kraus, p. 525), with the meaning “weigh, balance,” indicating a context of judgment against the wicked:

“Weigh out (judgment) to them for (the) trouble (they cause)”

It is also possible to preserve the MT as it stands, reading it as a kind of rhetorical question:

“Against (their) trouble can there be escape for them?”

Verse 9 [8]

“My waving may you yourself recount,
set my tears (as record) on your skin.
Are (they) not (there) in your account?”

This tricolon may be viewed as a straightforward 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by an additional short 2-beat line. The question posed in the extra line adds to the tension and dramatic effect of the poetic scene. The basic image is of YHWH writing down an account (rps) of the Psalmist’s suffering. The meaning of the second line, in this regard, is somewhat ambiguous: the image could be of setting (vb <yc!) down his tears on (B=) a piece of parchment (“skin,” dan)), or of setting them in a skin-bottle to preserve a record of them. There is an obvious word-play between dan) (nœ°¼) in the second line and don (nô¼) in the first line; the latter refers to a waving movement, and the parallel with tears suggests a gesture of mourning or lamentation.

The written accounting of the Psalmist’s suffering, and thus also of the actions by the wicked, is essential for YHWH to bring judgment (against the wicked) on his behalf.

Verse 10 [9]

“When (the one)s hostile to me turn back,
(falling) behind on (the) day I call (out),
(by) this I shall know that (you are the) Mightiest for me!”

Metrically, this verse is a tricolon similar to v. 9, but with an extended 3-beat (3+3+3) format. The Psalmist anticipates that YHWH, indeed, will bring judgment on his behalf, rescuing him from his enemies. The initial particle za*, a demonstrative adverb indicating time and place, is best rendered here as “when”. When what the Psalmist describes happens, then by this (hz#) it will truly be confirmed for him (“I shall know”) that YHWH is the Mightiest One (<yh!l)a$, i.e., ‘God’).

The covenant bond between the righteous Israelite (and/or the king as the representative of Israel) is indicated by the statement that YHWH is God “for me” —He is my God, and I am His faithful servant. The image of the  Psalmist’s enemies “turning back” (vb bWv) and falling back (roja*) suggests a military encounter, which would be appropriate to the royal background of this and many other Psalms. However, it tends to be the case that this royal/military setting of the Psalms has become generalized, referring in a more common sense to God delivering His people (the righteous ones) from the forces of wickedness.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“In (the) Mightiest, (in) whose word I boast,
[in YHWH, in whose word I boast,]
in (the) Mightiest I find protection!
I shall not be afraid—
what can man do to me?”

This central refrain is virtually identical to that in the first half of the Psalm (v. 5 [4], cf. the discussion in the previous study). The line in square brackets is a gloss that, almost certainly, preserves the original form of the opening line, where the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) occurs rather than the title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’). This Psalm is part of the ‘Elohist’ Psalter, in which Elohim is consistently substituted for YHWH (cf. above). Verse 12 here also has “man” instead of “flesh” in v. 5, but the meaning is the same.

Verse 13 [12]

“Upon me, Mightiest, (are my) vows to you;
I will complete (them) casting (praise) to you.”

The Psalmist’s “vows” (<yr!d*n+) relate to his deliverance by YHWH; that is, once YHWH has acted to rescue him, he is obligated to fulfill what he has promised—his vows are binding upon (lu^) him. Principally, he is obligated to give praise to God, and that is how the Psalmist will “complete” (vb <l^v*) his obligation. As discussed repeatedly, the root <lv in the Psalms typically is used in a covenant context. The protection YHWH provides to his faithful servants (i.e., the righteous) is part of His covenant obligation.

The suffix ;– on ;yr@d*n+ should be read as an object suffix—i.e., “(my) vows to you,” rather than a possessive (“your vows”).

Verse 14 [13]

“For you (will) snatch my soul from death,
so as (surely) to prevent my feet from falling,
(and thus) to walk before (the) face of (the) Mightiest
in (the) light of the Living (One).”

The perfect verb form T*l=X^h! may be translated in the simple past tense, with the Psalmist describing a condition after the deliverance from YHWH that he anticipates (as an answer to his prayer). However, it is perhaps even better to understand the verb here as a precative perfect—that is, the Psalmist describes what he hopes (and expects) will happen as something that has already occurred. The verb lx^n` is another way of referring to the idea of being delivered or rescued by God; the verb fl^P* in verse 8 [7] (cf. above) denotes making an escape, while lx^n` carries the more vivid and concrete meaning of being “snatched away” from danger.

The negative particle (al)) in the second line, prefixed by the interrogative particle –h&, is a bit unusual (and difficult to translate) in context. Literally, emphasizing the interrogative aspect, the line would read: “will not my feet (be kept) from falling?” But this would be extremely awkward within the poetry of the verse; thus, it is better to understand the prefixed particle as an expression of certainty.

By keeping the Psalmist’s feet from falling (yj!D=), YHWH enables him to walk securely, upright and straight ahead (as befits the righteous). This walk takes place “before (the) face” of God (preserving the concrete sense of <yn]P*, “face”). The plural <yY]j^ (lit. “living [one]s”) in the final line should be understood as an intensive plural, and as a Divine title (“Living [One]”), precisely parallel with <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One]”). The expression “light of the Living (One)” is clearly parallel with “face of the Mightiest (One)”.

This verse is conceptually parallel with v. 7 [6] at the close of the first half of the Psalm, sharing the combined motifs of feet/walking and life. However, verse 7 is part of the Psalmist’s lament, referring to the desire of the wicked to destroy the life (soul) of the righteous. Here, we find quite the opposite, with God protecting the life of the righteous. Moreover, the path before God ultimately leads to the blessed/heavenly afterlife in His presence; as the Living One, YHWH is the source of (eternal) life for those who trust in Him.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 3)

Psalm 55, continued

We conclude our study of this Psalm with an examination of the third and final section:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in Part 1, the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf, was studied last week in Part 2; now we proceed to the final section, in which YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer is anticipated, with the expectation of deliverance.

VERSES 17-24 [16-23]

Verse 17 [16]

“(And) I, to (the) Mightiest I called,
and YHWH saved me.”

This initial couplet has a 3+2 meter, generally returning to the metrical pattern of the first (lament) section. The answer to the Psalmist’s prayer in this section, balances the opening lament. Though Ps 55 is categorized as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the term/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e., God) is used in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH), here both of the ‘names’ are used. The imperfect verb forms are used to express past action, as is often the case in Hebrew poetry.

Verse 18 [17]

“(At) sunset and daybreak and mid-day,
I muttered and I moaned,
and He heard my voice.”

The 3+2 meter continues here in v. 18, though, apparently, the couplet has been expanded into a tricolon (3+2+2) with the inclusion of an extra line. The extended rhythm heightens the tension and provides a dramatic effect.

The extent of the Psalmist’s suffering is summarized by the three periods of the day: the setting of the sun (br#u#, i.e., evening), the breaking through of daylight (rq#b), daybreak, i.e., morning), and a point between the two (halves) of day (dual <y]r^h(x*, i.e., mid-day, noon). All this time (i.e., all day long), he makes his lament and prayer to God. This activity is summarized by the two verbs in line 2, which I translate concisely as “I muttered and I moaned,” in order to capture the rhythm of the line. Both verbs, however, have a relatively wide semantic range and can be difficult to translate. The verb j^yc! generally refers to the act of going over a matter (repeatedly), either in one’s mind or in speech; often an agitated state of mind is implied, and it can specifically connote the act of complaining or even repenting. The second verb (hm*h*) is more intensive, denoting the primal act of moaning, roaring, howling, etc, like an animal.

Verses 19 [18]

“He ransomed my soul in fullness from (the) approach against me,
for with many they were standing (against) me.”

The MT as it stands appears to be an elongated 4+3 couplet. However, some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 519) view the text of vv. 19-20 as corrupt and requiring some measure of emendation. Essentially the verse describes the nature of how YHWH answered (or is expected to answer) the Psalmist’s prayer. God rescues the soul of the Psalmist from his enemies.

This rescue is described using the verb hd*P*, which refers to the making of a payment to achieve the transfer of ownership; it can be used in a more general or figurative sense for the deliverance of someone out of bondage or oppression, etc, and the English “ransom” captures this all fairly well. Based on this ransom/payment idea, there likely are three aspects of meaning for the noun <olv* that are involved here: (1) the soul has been rescued in its fullness (i.e., completely safe/intact), (2) the ransom was paid in full, and (3) the soul is allowed to go free/safe in peace.

There is indeed a military context to the imagery. The Psalmist’s soul is rescued “from (the) approach” (br*Q&m!) of his enemies, and the noun br*q= can specifically refer to a hostile encounter or battle. Moreover, the crowd of “many” (<yB!r^) enemies suggests the image of an attacking army.

Verse 20 [19]

“(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them,
even (He the) Ancient (One) sitting, [Selah]
in that there is no changing for them,
and they do not fear (the) Mightiest.”

The lines of verse 20 are admittedly difficult, and may be corrupt; the situation is complicated by the odd placement of the hl*s# (Selah) marker apparently in the middle of the verse. If the Masoretic text and verse division is correct, then we have a quatrain—a pair of irregular, but conceptually (and syntactically) related, couplets. This may explain the curious placement of the Selah-marker—i.e., the pause is intended to make clear the shift in subject/person between the second and third lines. This, if correct, strongly increases the likelihood that the second line does not refer to the enemies of the Psalmist, but to YHWH.

The meaning of the second line is thoroughly obscure and ambiguous (at least to us). The noun <d#q# could have several different meanings in context here:

    • It could refer to a confrontation, either from the enemies of the Psalmist set against him, or by YHWH against his enemies.
    • It could refer to sitting in the front/first position
    • It could indicate a geographic location, in the east (sitting/dwelling in the east)
    • It could be a temporal designation, i.e., times long before, in old/ancient times.

In my view, the latter is correct, and <d#q# should be read as a divine epithet of El-YHWH, meaning something like “the Ancient (One)”, as in Deut 33:27. Probably the participle bv@y) (“sitting”) should be understood literally, in reference to God sitting in judgment.

If the word-division of the MT in the first line is correct, and if the suffix <– on the second verb is an object suffix (3rd person plural), then this may explain the placement of the Selah-marker. The first line would read “(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them“. After the second line, which further describes God sitting in judgment (by which he ‘answers’ the wicked), the final two lines refer back to “them” (i.e., the wicked). The Psalmist (or a later editor) may have wished to avoid any possible (grammatical) misunderstanding, which could happen if these four lines were read/recited together quickly; the pause helps to clarify the situation being described.

The wicked will not repent or change their ways (“there is no changing for them”), primarily because they have “no fear of God”. They are thus deserving of the severe punishment they face from YHWH in the judgment.

Verse 21 [20]

“He sent out his hands on (the) bonds of peace,
he broke his binding (agreement).”

The shift in subject from YHWH (“He”) to the friend (“he”) who betrayed the Psalmist can be confusing at first glance, and raises the possibility that the the Selah-pause marker was intended to be placed at the end of verse 20 (rather than in the middle, cf. above). A pause at that point would help to clarify the shift in subject. This friend-turned-betrayer was introduced in vv. 13-15 [12-14] (cf. the discussion in Part 2).

The word wym*l)v=B! is almost impossible to translate with precision in English and still preserve any sense of the poetry. As discussed above, the noun <olv* has a wide range of meaning. Fundamentally, it means “fullness, completion”, but it is often used specifically in the context of a covenant bond, and that is certainly the case here, where <olv* is parallel with tyr!B= (“binding [agreement]”, i.e., covenant). Here <lv denotes one who is obligated to fulfill the terms of the agreement, establishing a bond of unity, welfare, and peace between those bound by the same agreement. For lack of a better alternative, I have translated the plural above as “bonds of peace”. By betraying the Psalmist, this person broke the binding agreement between them and violated the ‘bond of peace’.

Metrically, this verse returns to the 3+2 couplet pattern of the section.

Verse 22 [21]

“Smooth from cream were (the words of) his mouth,
but a (hostile) encounter (was in) his heart;
soft (indeed) were his words from oil,
but they (were) open (sword)s.”

My translation distorts somewhat the meter of these lines, which in the Hebrew are a pair of metrically similar 3+2 couplets (following the pattern of this section). The two couplets also exhibit similar antithetical parallelism, contrasting the smooth words (i.e., friendly and alluring) of this person with the hostile and wicked intention of his heart.

Grammatically, the preposition /m! (“from”) is used, in the first line of each couplet, in a comparative sense; in English idiom, the lines would properly read:

“Smoother than cream were (the words of) his mouth

(indeed) softer than oil were his words…”

The same sort of military imagery is used here (including the noun br*q=, “approach, encounter”), as in v. 19 [18] (cf. above). Probably this imagery is figurative, used in a general sense for the ‘attacks’ of the wicked; however, the royal background of many Psalms also allows for the possibility that an actual political-military rebellion is involved (i.e., against the king).

Verse 23 [22]

“Throw upon YHWH that given (to) you,
and He will hold you (up);
He will not give, (even) into (the) distant (future),
(any) shaking for the righteous.”

The sudden inclusion of a proverbial exhortation here in v. 23 may seem peculiar, but it is important to remember that the Psalms have been influenced considerably by Wisdom traditions. Besides this, in a good many Psalms, the closing verses show signs of adaptation to a communal worship setting, a likely indication that an original composition has been adapted for use in public worship.

The two couplets are parallel, with the first line of each playing on the concept of giving—using the different (but conceptually related) roots bhy and /tn. The noun bh*y+ literally means “something given”, but here the implication is that it refers to something placed upon a person as a burden. The exhortation is to “throw” this burden onto YHWH, and he will hold it for you (meaning also that he will hold you up, i.e., sustain/support you, in the process).

This idea of firm support is expressed in the second couplet in a negative sense, as a lack of any shaking (fom, i.e., slipping, faltering). Not only does YHWH support the righteous, but He also will not do (lit. will not give [vb /t^n`]) anything that will cause the righteous to slip and fall.

For a different way of reading these lines in detail, cf. the discussion in Dahood, II, pp. 37-8.

Verse 24 [23]

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
to (the) Pit of destruction,
(these) men of blood and deceit!
They will not reach half their days,
while I find protection in you!”

Verse 23 [22] is best viewed as an parenthetical aside, if not an editorial insertion (cf. above); verse 24 [23] properly continues the thought from v. 22 [21]. The Psalmist expects that, in answering his prayer, YHWH will bring judgment upon his enemies (the wicked), including the friend who betrayed him. This judgment entails an untimely death, as is clear from the directional verb dr^y` (in the Hiphil, “bring down“) and the expression “pit of destruction” (tj^v^ ra@B=, cf. Psalm 7:16; 9:16; 16:10; 30:10; 35:7; 49:10).

This verse has a complex (and dramatic) poetic structure. It begins with a triad (3+2+3 meter), perhaps best viewed as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet expanded with an intervening 2-beat line (for dramatic effect). The intervening line consists of the terse expression “pit of destruction”, qualifying what it means for YHWH to “bring down” the wicked (i.e., where it is that He brings them). The syntax is clear from the surrounding couplet:

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
…..
(these) men of blood and deceit!”

The pairing of blood (i.e., violence) and deceit is a typical characterization of the wicked, and provides a neat summary of their wicked behavior. The plural <ym!d* (lit. “bloods”) is used for acts of violence, even when there is no actual shedding of blood. For the interpretation of <ym!d* here as a reference to images (idols), derived from the root hm*D* I (“be like”), cf. Dahood, II, p. 39 (and I, pp. 31f).

The Psalm concludes with a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet, contrasting the fate of the wicked and the righteous. The wicked will meet with an untimely death, expressed by the idea of reaching only half (vb hx*j*) of their days. This should not be read in an overly concrete sense, as if it were limited to a shortened life-span here on earth; it can also be understood in terms of missing out on a blessed afterlife (with God), doomed simply to dwell in the realm of the dead. By contrast, the righteous finds protection (vb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms) in YHWH, and so has his/her life preserved and kept safe, even into the Age to Come (i.e. the blessed afterlife).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 53

Psalm 53

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1); 4QPsa (vv. 4-5, 7 [3-4, 6])

This Psalm can be described as an ‘Elohist’ version of Psalm 14. The relationship between Pss 14 and 53 continues to be debated, but most likely they represent two separate (independently transmitted and preserved) editions of the same underlying composition. As this composition was discussed in the earlier study on Psalm 14, here we will focus on the unique elements of the version in Ps 53.

The principal theme of the composition is YHWH acting to bring justice against the wicked (and on behalf of the righteous), consisting almost entirely of a description of the wicked. There is an implicit contrast with the righteous at work which is generally characteristic of Wisdom tradition. Structurally and thematically, the Psalm may be divided into three sections:

    • Verses 2-4 [1-3]: A description of the wicked as those who disregard God
    • Verses 5-6 [4-5]: The actions of the wicked against God’s people (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones)
    • Verse 7 [6]: A call for YHWH to act, bringing justice/deliverance for His people

The superscription of Psalm 14 simply refers to it as a composition “belonging to David” (dw]d*l=), while Ps 53 includes the following musical direction: lyK!c=m^ tl^j&m*-lu^. On the term lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl), which occurs in the heading of 12 other Psalms, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32. The meaning and significance of the term tl^j&m* is quite unknown. The use of the preposition lu^ suggests that it could refer to a specific melody or mode/style of performance (i.e., “according to…”); it could also conceivably indicate an intended musical instrument for performance (“on…”). The term occurs again in the heading to Psalm 88.

VERSES 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“A foolish person says in his heart (that)
‘There is no Mightiest (One)!’
They are decayed and show detestable perversion
there is no (one) doing good!”

The initial two couplets are identical with verse 1 of Psalm 14 (cf. notes) with one notable difference: it has lw#u* (“crookedness, perversion”) in the third line, instead of hl*yl!u& (“deeds, actions, works”) in Ps 14.

Verse 3 [2]

“(The) Mightiest looks out from (the) heavens
(down) upon the sons of man,
to see—Is there any (one who is) discerning,
(any one) seeking the Mightiest?”

Verse 3 [2] is essentially identical with Ps 14:2 (notes), the only difference being the Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim) for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) in the opening word.

Verse 4 [3]

All of them have turned back, corrupted as one—
there is no (one) doing good, there is not even one!”

Identical with Ps 14:3 (notes), except for the opening two words, with no real difference in meaning:

    • Ps 14: “They all have turned aside” (rs* lK)h^)
    • Ps 53: “All of them have turned back” (gs* oLK%)

The variation between the similar verbs rWs and gWs illustrates how easily differences and variations can crop up during the transmission of an ancient text.

This verse can either be read as four 2-beat lines (2+2+2+2) or two 4-beat lines (4+4); it is easier to present it visually as the latter.

Verses 5-6[4-5]

Verse 5 [4]

“Do they not know, (the one)s making trouble—
(the one)s eating up His people (as) they eat bread—
(is it) not (the) Mightiest they confront?”

Again, this verse is virtually identical with that of Psalm 14 (v. 4, notes), except for the particle lK* in the first line in Ps 14 (i.e., “all [those] making trouble” vs. “[those] making trouble”). We also have the typical Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ for hwhy in the third line.

Metrically, I view this verse as another 3+2 bicolon that has been expanded, with a parenthetical statement (second line), into a tricolon.

Verse 6 [5]

Verse 6 is markedly different from the corresponding vv. 5-6 of Psalm 14 (notes). This presents an insoluble textual problem for those wishing to isolate the definitive original composition. Almost certainly, something was corrupted during the course of transmission. Here is how Ps 14:5-6 reads:

“There—(see now) the fear (that) they should fear ,
for the Mightiest (is) in the circle of the just;
(and so) the council of the oppressed will bring him [i.e. the wicked] to shame,
for YHWH (is) his [i.e. the righteous’] place of shelter.”

It must be said that the MT of Ps 53:6 [5] seems, at this distance, to be most difficult; some commentators would regard it is as more or less unintelligible (and likely corrupt). Here is how one might conceivably render the lines:

“There—(see) the fear, the fear they would bring!
(But) there was not (any) fear,
for (the) Mightiest has scattered (the) bones of (those) surrounding you,
(and) you put them to shame,
for (the) Mightiest has rejected them.”

Another way of rendering the opening lines is:

“There [i.e. then] they feared a (great) fear,
(such) fear (as) there has not (ever) been”
(cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 35)

It is possible that these two versions (Ps 14 and 53, respectively), each have attempted to make sense of an original text which, at this point, either came to them corrupt or with archaic poetic language that could no longer be understood. Unfortunately, the fragmentary Qumran manuscript 4QPsa provides no help (the text of Psalm 14 in 11QPsc also has a lacuna at this point).

It would probably simplest to opt for Psalm 14:5-6 as representing something close to the original text of the composition, since it would mean that the textual problem (and the corruption) can be located in the garbled text of Ps 53:6. As an example, it is possible to see how the letters of rdb (“in the circle”) could have been misread as rzp (“he scattered”); similarly, note how one might confuse txu (“[the] council of”) with tmxu (“[the] bones of”). There are other words similar in sound or appearance—e.g., –nu* vs. –nj); –shm vs. –sam).

A related theory is that Psalm 14 here was modified (intentionally) to fit within a different socio-religious or literary context (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 38f).

Psalm 14 here emphasizes how the wicked oppress the righteous, and how YHWH, acting as Judge, will ultimately vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. In Psalm 53, a very different line of imagery is found: the wicked are presented as an army besieging God’s people, but their attack will fail and they will meet with a humiliating (military) defeat (perhaps the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib is in mind). In both scenarios, the focus is on the protection YHWH provides for His people (the righteous).

VERSE 7 [6]

“Who will give salvation (to) Yisra’el from (out of) ‚iyyôn?
(It is) in (the) Mightiest turning back the turning back of His people
(that) Ya’aqob will (dance) around (and) Yisra’el will find joy.”

After the radical differences between Psalm 14 and 53 in the previous lines, here verse 7 [6] is virtually identical with Ps 14:7 (notes). The only difference is the Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ for the Divine name hwhy in the second line.

The final verse is best read as a 4-beat tricolon, which stands as a final declaration of hope and promise for God’s people. As the rather stilted translation above indicates, it is rather difficult to render literally the syntax and wording of these long (4-beat) lines into readable English.

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 50 (Part 2)

Psalm 50, continued

The Oracle, Part 2 (vv. 16-23)

In the second part of the prophetic oracle that forms the core of Psalm 50 (cf. the previous study for discussion of the introduction and Part 1), YHWH turns His address to those among the people who are the cause for Him bringing this accusation and charge against Israel. The principal accusation is that many people perform the requirements of the covenant (as outlined in the Torah), fulfilling the letter of the Law, even though their thoughts and actions are otherwise wicked.

Verse 16

“And to the wicked (the) Mightiest says:
What (use is it) for you to recount my engraved (law)s,
and (that) you take up my agreement upon your mouth?”

The people whom YHWH is addressing are characterized as “wicked” (uv*r*). We do not know what percentage of the population fits this description, and/or to what extent it applies to the Israelite people as a whole. The judicial setting of the Psalm makes clear that YHWH has called the entire people into judgment; at the same time, v. 15 would seem to establish a contrast between righteous and wicked persons. In the Old Testament Scriptures, one often cannot draw a definite line between the individual and the wider community—the action of the individual affects the community as a whole.

The “engraved (law)s” (<yQ!j%) are essentially identical with the regulations and statutes of the Torah, in a comprehensive sense—beginning with the “ten words” (Decalogue) which, according to the traditional narrative, were actually engraved in stone. A person who “recounts” them (vb rp^s*) knows them well enough to quote or recite them, and thus has the terms of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, or ‘covenant’) “upon” (lu^) his mouth. YHWH declares that there is little value in the wicked person knowing the Torah and fulfilling its requirements (esp. in terms of the sacrificial offering)— “what (good is it) for you…?”

Verse 17

“Indeed, you have hated (my) instruction,
and threw down my words behind you!”

The initial w-conjunction, if original, should be understood as emphatic—i.e., “indeed, you have…”. Even though the wicked may recite the Torah, such a person actually hates (vb an@v*) the instruction from YHWH. The verbal noun rs*Wm is used (from the root rs^y`), emphasizing the idea of corrective education and discipline, but is more or less synonymous with hr*oT (Torah, the “Instruction”). In reality, the wicked person “throws down” (or “throws away,” vb El^v*) God’s words in back of him, thus disregarding them completely, even as he may fulfill certain of the requirements accurately enough.

Verse 18

“When you see a thief, even (so) you are pleased with him,
and with (those) committing adultery, you would (have) a part.”

The way in which the wicked “throws away” the words and instruction of YHWH is described here in v. 18. The irregular 4+3 rhythm creates a certain kind of poetic tension that is appropriate to the moment. The wicked person does not necessarily commit the crimes mentioned here (theft, adultery); indeed, the wording in v. 17 suggests that the person may actually avoid such crimes in practice, but in his heart he is pleased by them, indicating that he would perhaps be willing to do the same. There is thus wickedness in one’s heart and intention, even if the regulations of the Torah are being fulfilled.

The opening particle (<a!) is usually translated in a conditional sense, “if…”, but here “when…” is more appropriate to the context.

Verse 19

“You mouth casts (forms) in evil,
and your tongue joins together deceit.”

In addition to the condition of his heart, the wicked person demonstrates his true nature through evil speaking. This couplet (returning to the 3+3 meter) actually builds upon the prior (v. 18), by indicating how through speech (mouth and tongue) a person can give shape to the evil in the heart. The verb jl^v* means “send (out)”, but Dahood (p. 309) notes a separate root, attested (albeit rarely) in Ugaritic, meaning “forge, cast (in metal)”. I have tentatively adopted his suggestion, based on the idea that seems to be expressed here, viz. of giving shape to evil.

The verb in the second line, dm^x* (“join, bind”) fits with this same line of imagery, even to a possible allusion to metal-working (forming a necklace or bracelet, etc). The sense would be that, through speaking, a person “joins (welds?) together” pieces of evil, giving them a distinct and insidious form. The deception (hm*r=m!) brought about by the wicked person could be taken as including the deceptive and hypocritical way that he fulfills the Torah regulations, all the while his heart is full of evil.

Verse 20

“You sit with your brother (and) speak (evil),
with (the) son of your mother you give (out) blame.”

In the first line of the MT (supported by the Qumran MS 4QPsc), there are two verbs: “you sit…(and) speak”. This perhaps captures the sense of deception and hypocrisy of the wicked person, who sits with his neighbor (apparently as a friend) and yet speaks evil to and/or about him. The evil nature of the speaking has to be implied from the context, since the verb is simply rb^D* (“speak”). It has been suggested (e.g., by Kraus, p. 487-8) that MT bvt (bv@T@, “you sit”) is a corruption (through reversal of letters) of original tvb (tv#B), “shame, shameful thing”); this is certainly possible, and, if correct, results in a more precise parallelism for the couplet:

“Shame(fully) with your brother do you speak,
with (the) son of your mother you give (out) blame.”

The parallelism of “brother…son of mother” may be intended to include both one’s neighbor (“brother” in a generic sense) and actual blood-relative.

Verse 21

“These (thing)s you did, and should I keep silent?
You imagine (in your) fallen (way)s (that) I am like you,
but I will prove you (wrong) and lay (it) out before your eyes!”

This tricolon, with loose 3-beat (3+3+3) meter in the MT, is fraught with certain difficulties, though the general meaning is clear enough. The second line, in particular, is problematic, with the odd construction hy#h=a# toyh$ at the center. Possibly it is intended as an instance of the cognate infinitive + imperfect used in an emphatic sense; the meaning would thus be something like:

“(Do) you imagine (that) I am at all like you?”

The use of a construct infinitive to achieve this would be curious. Dahood (p. 310) offers the intriguing suggestion that toyh should be read as toYh^ (rather than MT toyh$), as an orthographic variant of toWh^, plural of hW`h^ (“desire”, a byform of hw`a*), cf. Job 6:2; it would thus mean “(evil) desires”. However, the noun hW`h^ more properly denotes a “falling”, i.e., falling into an evil condition, etc. Perhaps the clearest parallel is in Ps 52:11[9], where the idea of wicked/evil heart is in view; such wicked persons have fallen into evil ways and are on the path to destruction (on hW`h^ in this sense, as characteristic of the wicked, cf. also Prov 10:3; 11:6; Mic 7:3).

In the final line, the judicial setting of the Psalm comes more into focus, as YHWH indicates that He will prove his case against the wicked, laying out (vb Er^u*) all the facts right in front of them (“before your eyes”).

Verse 22

“Discern this, you (who are) forgetting (the) Mightiest,
lest I tear you off (and there) be none snatching (you back)!”

The harshness of this couplet is expressed, in part, by its irregular (and rather awkward) 4+3 meter. The wording/phrasing also is cumbersome, giving to the whole verse a kind of poetic tension that reflects the coming judgment. The implication is that YHWH has now made His case (cf. the last line of v. 21), and the judgment against the people (the wicked, in particular) awaits.

At this moment, the prophetic oracle urges the people to repent, indicating that there is still time to experience a reprieve from the sentence of judgment that is about to be handed down. There is hope that the wicked (“[those] forgetting the Mightiest”) will come to understand (vb /yB!, “discern”) what YHWH Himself has presented to them, and act appropriately, repenting of their evil ways. If they do not repent, then God will “tear them off” (vb [r^f*); possibly the allusion is to being “torn apart” by a wild animal, etc, but I think the primary motif is being ripped out, like a flower or plant plucked out of the ground. There is a bit of conceptual wordplay involved here with the verb lx^n`, which has a similar denotation (“pull out, snatch [away]”), but here (as often) in the sense of “rescue”. If YHWH “tears out” the wicked soul, there will be no one who can then “pull out” the condemned person from His hand. The judgment (and punishment) is irrevocable, and results in the ultimate death/destruction of the soul of the wicked.

Verse 23

“(The one) slaughtering (with) a declaration will be honored by me,
and (the one) <complete> (in the) path I will make him drink
from (the) salvation of (the) Mightiest!”

These concluding lines of the Psalm return to the theme from the first part (discussed in the previous study)—how the performance of the sacrificial offerings is of no value if the ritual is not accompanied by a pure and upright heart. This is a relatively common theme in the Prophets, the most noteworthy example being in Isa 1:12-15, but even more striking as a message of judgment is the harsh polemic in Jeremiah 7 (v. 11 is alluded to by Jesus in the Synoptic version of the Temple ‘cleansing’ scene, Mk 11:17 par).

Here in Part 2 of the oracle the focus was on the Torah regulations in general, but we can fairly assume that observance of the ritual offerings is primarily in view. This is also the emphasis in Jeremiah: the sacrificial offerings will not be accepted by YHWH while the land is full of wickedness and injustice. Even though the wicked will face their own (individual) judgment, their behavior also corrupts (and brings judgment upon) the community as a whole.

In verse 14, YHWH made clear that the kind of sacrifice (lit. “[ritual] slaughter”, vb jb^z`) He truly wants is not the slaughtering of animals in blind observance of the ritual, but rather a declaration (hd*oT) of faith and devotion that comes from the heart. The same wording is repeated here. Only the person who fulfills the Torah obligations with a pure heart (and right intention) has truly been faithful to the covenant and will be accepted by God. I follow Dahood (p. 310) in reading ynndbky as a passive (Pual) verb form: “…will be honored by me”. The faithful and loyal vassal is honored by his Sovereign.

This show of honor includes the traditional imagery of feasting at the Lord’s table. I tentatively follow Dahood also in pointing wnara as a (Hiphil) imperfect from the rare root ary II (= hry), “pour, water” —i.e., WNa#r=a), “I will give (to) drink” (cf. Prov 11:25). The idea of drinking from God’s salvation is quite appropriate given the idiom of the “cup of salvation” in Ps 116:13 (cp. Isa 12:3). The feasting-motif also plays on the concept of the sacrificial offerings as something that God would consume.

There is a two-fold significance to the honor shown by YHWH to his faithful/loyal servants. On the one hand, the covenant blessings apply to this life (cf. Deut 28:1-14, etc), and include fruitfulness and plenty (food and drink, etc); at the same time, feasting at YHWH’s table certainly alludes to the blessed afterlife. The later tradition of the eschatological (and Messianic) banquet simply shifts the focus of the blessed feasting from the afterlife (in heaven) to the end of the current Age.

One final textual note: the first two words in the MT (confirmed by 4QPsc) read Er#D# <c*w+, apparently to be understood as “and (he who) sets (his) path (in order?)”. The wording is rather awkward, and it has been suggested that the text should be emended to Er#D# <t*w+, “and (the one) complete (in the) path” (cf. Kraus, p. 488). This seems preferable, given the Wisdom parallels in Job 4:6; Prov 13:6, etc, with the expression as characteristic of the righteous and denoting those who are faithful to the covenant with YHWH. The term <T* also connotes purity, integrity, and blamelessness, and is used (along with the related verb <m^T*) rather frequently in the Psalms.

By all accounts, the last two words of v. 23 do not fit the metrical pattern. It has been suggested that the final <yh!l)a$ is secondary and should be omitted (cf. Kraus, p. 488). To be sure, the excessive length of the final line would be alleviated if a reading “…my salvation” were adopted in place of “…(the) salvation of (the) Mightiest [i.e. God]”. However, this would still leave an irregular and cumbersome 3+4 couplet. It is perhaps best to treat the final two words as a short (2-beat) supplemental line (to the 3+3 couplet), which, while it disrupts the rhythm of the couplet, serves to punctuate the Psalm, bringing it to a close, with the recognition that all salvation and blessing comes from God (YHWH).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 50 (Part 1)

Psalm 50

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPse (vv. 3-7); 4QPsc (vv. 14-23)

This is the first of 12 Psalms attributed to [s*a* (“Asaph”), the others being Pss 73-83. According to 1 Chron 6:39, Asaph was one of three priestly (Levite) officials who were put in charge of the “service of the song” by David (cf. 25:1; 2 Chron 5:12); he also served as “chief minister” before the Ark in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:4-5; 25:5). He is said to have been a “seer” (hz#j), 2 Chron 29:30), and his sons apparently also functioned as prophets (1 Chron 25:1-2). The musical tradition associated with Asaph (and his descendants) is confirmed by the notices in Ezra 2:41 and Neh 11:22.

The prophetic role of Asaph (and his sons) is noteworthy, given the fact that Psalm 50 is itself a prophetic oracle. Though in Jewish tradition the Psalms were often regarded as inspired prophecy (with David as a prophet, etc), this is one of the only Psalms which has the form and style of a prophetic oracle. Even if Asaph was not the actual author/composer, due to the prophetic character of the Psalm it was natural for it to be attributed to him, and it may reflect his style.

Metrically, the Psalm follows a fairly consistent 3-beat (3+3, occasionally 3+2) couplet or tricolon (3+3+3) format.

The Psalm opens with a dramatic introduction (vv. 1-4), followed by an introductory address (vv. 5-6) that sets the stage for the oracle that makes up the remainder of the composition. It is a judgment oracle, delivered against the people of Israel/Judah as a whole, similar in tone and theme with prophetic passages such as Isa 1:2-20ff. The oracle itself has two parts:

    • Part 1 (vv. 7-15): Diatribe on the uselessness of sacrificial offerings when wickedness is present and prevails among the people.
    • Part 2 (vv. 16-23): The accusation against the wicked ones in Israel

Introduction (vv. 1-4)

Verse 1

“Mighty (One) of the Mighty (one)s (is) YHWH!
He spoke and called (forth the) earth,
from (the) rising of (the) sun unto its going  (down).”

This opening verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The first line reflects the character of this introduction as being in praise of YHWH as Creator and King (and Judge) over all. To say that he “called” (vb ar^q*) the earth alludes to His creation of the universe (“heaven and earth”) through the spoken word (Gen 1:1ff)—i.e., he called it into being. It also refers to his role as King over the universe, exercising control over it each day.

Verse 2

“From ‚iyyôn, (the) completion of (all) beauty,
(the) Mightiest (One), has shined (forth).”

This couplet picks up from the motif of the rising sun in v. 1, describing YHWH as the true Light shining forth. He shines “from Zion”, referring to the symbolic and ritual location of His throne in the Temple sanctuary. YHWH Himself is the “completion of beauty” (yp!y) ll^k=m!), but this expression could also apply to His Temple-dwelling on Zion.

Verse 3

“Our Mighty (One) will come and will not be silent,
a (raging) fire before him devours,
and around him a fierce (storm) is swirling.”

This is another 3-beat tricolon, using the imagery of storm-theophany to describe the approach and (manifest) presence of YHWH. Quite often in Old Testament tradition, including many passages in the Psalms, El-Yahweh is associated with the storm, much as was the case with Baal Haddu in Canaanite religious tradition; there are numerous similarities between YHWH and Baal in this regard, which helps to explain the fierce opposition to syncretistic adoption of Baal-worship among Yahwists in Israel.

The storm-imagery also relates to YHWH speaking (“He will not be silent”), since, in ancient Near Eastern thought, thunder was considered to be the “voice” (loq) of God. Here, however, the focus is on the fire that appears before YHWH, coming from in front of His face, and the devastating winds “swirling/whirling” around Him. The destructive character of these storm-phenomena reflects the judgment that will be brought against the wicked.

Verse 4

“He will call to the heavens from above,
and to the earth, to judge His people.”

This call to the heavens and the earth (i.e., the two main parts of the universe) reflects the “covenant lawsuit” genre, seen most notably in the openings of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and the oracle in Isa 1:2-20ff. It was customary in the ancient Near East to invoke God (or the gods) when establishing a binding agreement (covenant) between two parties, calling on the deities to be a witness to the agreement and to bring judgment/punishment in case the terms of the agreement are violated. In the monotheistic context of Israelite culture, the only Deity to call upon is YHWH, except that, in the case of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, He is one of the parties involved; therefore, “Heaven and Earth” are called upon to be witnesses instead.

The judgment-setting of the oracle here would indicate that heaven and earth, having witnessed the covenant, are being called upon now to give testimony against Israel (“His people”). In any case, they are taking part in the proceedings.

Introductory Address (vv. 5-6)

Verse 5

“Gather His loyal (one)s to Him,
(those) having cut a binding (agreement)
(made) upon a (ritual) slaughter.”

The poetic form is difficult to discern, the lines of these introductory verses (to the oracle) reading more as prosody than poetry. I have rendered v. 5 here as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon.

The y– suffixes should probably be read as reflecting the third person (rather that 1st person) singular (cf. Dahood, p. 307). This is not entirely uncommon in Old Testament poetry, where archaic features in the language are often preserved, causing certain confusion for later copyists.

The adjective dys!j* properly means “good, kind”, but frequently connotes (and denotes) loyalty, when used in the context of the covenant (as here). There may be a certain biting irony to the term; since the setting is an oracle of judgment against Israel, it might seem strange to call the people “loyal”. However, it is presumably used here in the more general sense of those who are bound by the covenant, who have been—and, more importantly, should have been—loyal to it.

The mention of “(ritual) slaughter” (i.e., sacrificial offering) refers primarily to the sacrifices which took place when the covenant was established (and ratified). This scene is described in Exodus 24. In Near Eastern tradition, such a binding agreement was often accompanied by the ritual cutting up of an animal; this is the background (and fundamental meaning) of the expression to “cut” (vb tr^K*) an agreement. At Sinai, the offerings had several specific purposes, including the ritual use of the blood (vv. 6-8), at which point the people affirmed their loyalty to the terms of the covenant, and a ritual meal (v. 11) to mark the ratification of the agreement.

Verse 6

“And (the) heavens shall put His justice out front,
for (the) Mightiest—He (is the) Judge.”
Selah

As noted above, the heavens (and earth) will give testimony in this courtroom-scene against Israel. Since heaven and earth were called on as witnesses to the covenant (cf. the tradition in Deut 32:1, etc), they can testify to how Israel had agreed to the terms, binding themselves to it; having violated the agreement, YHWH is perfectly in His rights to call for judgment/punishment to be brought against Israel. As it happens, YHWH is not only the plaintiff in the case, but is also Himself the Judge (fp@v)). Dahood (p. 307) would read fp^v=m! yh@l)a$ (“Mighty [One] of justice”) instead of fpv) <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One] [is] judge”), dividing and vocalizing the words differently from MT.

The Oracle, Part 1 (vv. 7-15)

Verse 7

“Hear, my people, and I will speak,
Israel, and I will repeat (it) against you,
(for the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One am) I!”

The oracle proper begins here in verse 7; it is now YHWH who is speaking, as the plaintiff in the “covenant lawsuit”, bringing the charge, the accusation, against His people Israel. The wording in the first and third lines frames the case, alluding to the very covenant bond that Israel has broken. By referring to Israel as His people (“my people”), and to Himself as their God, YHWH is affirming the central tenet of the covenant, going back to the time of Abraham and the Patriarchs.

The verb dWu literally means “repeat”, but it can be used in the sense of giving testimony (i.e., repeating what one has seen or heard). Here it has the broader meaning of the case that YHWH is presenting in the courtroom (before Himself as Judge).

Verse 8

“(It is) not over your slaughterings (that) I accuse you,
or your (offering)s going up continually in front of me.”

In verse 5 (cf. above) the sacrifice (lit. “[ritual] slaughter”, jb^z#) which established/ratified the covenant was mentioned. This reference, however, also serves the dual purpose of introducing the theme of sacrificial offerings that dominates the first part of the oracle. Here YHWH states that the problem is not related to any failure on Israel’s part to perform the sacrificial offerings required by the covenant. Indeed, even as they faithfully fulfill this ritual aspect of the binding agreement, they violate it, most egregiously, in other ways.

Verses 9-11

“I would not take from your house a bull,
(nor) goats from your enclosures;
for to me (belongs) every living (thing) of (the) thicket,
(the) beasts (are) on (the) hills of (the) Mighty (One),
and I know every flying (creature) of the mountains,
and every(thing) moving (in the) field (is there) with me.”

In the first couplet, YHWH points out the relative insignificance of the animal sacrifices per se, by declaring that He really has no need for those offerings. The reason is then stated in the final four lines, a pair of couplets with a chiastic conceptual structure:

    • to me belongs
      • every living thing of the forest
        • beasts of the mountains
          • (they belong to the) Mighty One
          • and I know them (all)
        • flying creatures of the mountains
      • every moving thing of the field
    • is with me (i.e. belongs to me)

This reflects, again, the place of YHWH as Creator and King over all the world (cf. the introduction, vv. 1-4, above). Since every animal in the world belongs to Him, clearly He does not need the relatively few animals, from the houses and stalls of the Israelites, that are offered as sacrifices. Moreover, since He already possesses a multitude of living animals, of what real value are those slaughtered animals?

A minor textual note: In the second line of v. 10, the correct reading is almost certainly la@ yr@r=h^B= (“on [the] mountains of [the] Mighty [One, i.e. God]”) rather than MT [l#a* yr@r=h^B= (“on [the] mountains of cattle [?]”); cf. Psalm 36:6. Dahood (p. 307f) would retain the final pe of MT [la and attach it as a prefixed conjunction (P^) to the following verb. Unfortunately, this verse is not preserved in the surviving Qumran manuscripts (cf. at top above).

Verses 12-13

“If I were hungry, I would not say (that) to you,
for (all that the earth) contains and its fullness (belongs) to me!
Would I (then) eat (the) flesh of (your) bulls,
or drink (the) blood of (your) goats?”

This is another way of YHWH stating that He has no actual need for sacrificial offerings. One basic concept in ancient sacrificial ritual was that the offerings provided a kind of nourishment for the deity (or for the spirits of the deceased, etc). In the case of the whole burnt offering, the entire animal was turned into smoke which then rose (lit. went up, hlu) to God in heaven; with such offerings, in particular, God could be seen as consuming (eating) the animal.

However, YHWH states rather bluntly that, even if He were in need of nourishment (“hungered,” vb bu^r*), it would hardly be necessary for Him to tell human beings about it. After all, every thing that the world contains (i.e., the term lb@T@)—all life and produce coming from the earth—belongs to Him, and He can take of its life-essence (for nourishment) anytime He wants.

All of this colorful polemic simply serves to devalue the importance of sacrificial offerings in and of themselves. This is a relatively common theme in the Prophet writings, perhaps the most famous example being found in Isa 1:12-15.

Verse 14

“(Instead) ‘slaughter’ to (the) Mightiest a declaration,
and fulfill for (the) Highest your promises (to Him).”

Much more important than sacrificial offerings are the things which a person declares to God, reflecting one’s personal character/integrity and the intention of one’s heart. The same verb jb^z` (“slaughter”) is used provocatively here; instead of cutting up an animal, it is more important to cut a declaration to God. This is the general significance of the word hd*oT, something which a person declares or confesses—viz., of one’s faith in YHWH, devotion to the Torah, including repentance and confession of sin, etc. The sacrificial offerings are just a small part of this wider portrait of covenant loyalty; without a true declaration, from the heart, fulfilling the letter of the ritual law is of little consequence.

Similarly the word rd#n# refers to something that a person promises (to God). It can involve a specific vow or obligation, but may also be understood in the broader sense of what every Israel promises in terms of being devoted to YHWH and faithful to His covenant. The verb <l^v* (“fulfill, complete”) can be used in the ritual context of the sacrificial offerings, but here its wider meaning is in view: fulfillment of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH.

Verse 15

“And (then) call on me in (the) day of distress,
and I will pull you (out) and you will be honored (by) me.”

If a person does what YHWH commands in v. 14, then the covenant bond will be fulfilled. This means that God will, in turn, fulfill His covenant obligation, which includes providing protection in time of danger (“[the] day of distress”). The faithful vassal can also expect to receive blessing and honor (dbk) from his Sovereign. I follow Dahood (p. 308) in parsing yndbkt as a passive (Pual) verb form, which is much better suited to the context of the line, referring to what YHWH will do for His faithful servant.

The apparent anti-sacrifice polemic in this first part of the oracle, as in prophetic passages such as Isa 1:12-15 (cf. above), may lead one to assume that fulfilling the Torah regulations regarding the sacrificial offerings is unnecessary and can (and perhaps even should) be abandoned. This would, however, almost certainly reflect a misunderstanding of the polemic. The point is, that a person can fulfill the ritual obligation without possessing a heart that is truly devoted to God. Especially for the rich or well-to-do in society, offering up an animal to the priesthood, in fulfillment of the ritual requirement, does not involve any real personal sacrifice. It can be done easily, in a half-hearted manner, or with wicked/impure motives. This is primarily the aspect of the sacrificial ritual that the Prophets are roundly condemning.

We will discuss this further when we examine the second part of the oracle in next week’s study.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 3)

Psalms 42-43, continued

Psalm 43:1-5

This is the third and final stanza of the psalm (cf. Parts 1 and 2 for the first and second stanzas).

Verse 1

“Judge (on) my (behalf), Mightiest (One),
struggle (for the sake of) my struggle:
from a nation with no goodness,
(and) from a man of deceit
and injustice, help me escape!”

The opening verse of this stanza consists of five 2-beat lines, and the terse staccato-like rhythm seems to highlight the dramatic situation facing the Psalmist. He makes his plea to God for deliverance, framed as a legal petition, made to YHWH in His role as Judge. As previously noted, in these ‘Elohist’ Psalms, the general title “Mightiest (One)” (<yh!l)a$, Elohim) is regularly used in place of the Divine name hwhy.

At the end of the second stanza (42:10-11 [9-10]), the Psalmist’s suffering was described in terms of attacks and taunts by his adversaries, and this theme is picked up here in verse 1. Now, however, the adversaries are understood as the wicked generally—and this human wickedness is realized both in terms of nations (“a nation with no goodness”) and individuals (“a man of deceit and injustice”). While I have translated the substantive adjective dys!j* and noun hm*r=m! according to their fundamental meaning (“goodness” and “deceit”), both terms have a special meaning in the context of the covenant bond; dys!j* denotes one who is faithful and loyal, while hm*r=m! can specifically indicate treachery or betrayal. The root lw#u* basically signifies a departure or deviation from right conduct, whether in a moral-ethical or legal sense. Since a judicial context in involved, it is appropriate to translation the noun hl*w+u^ as “injustice”.

The judicial setting is clear enough from the first two lines, with the use of the verb fp^v* (“judge, render judgment”) and by byr!. This latter verb means “struggle, grapple”, but regularly in the sense of a legal contest—i.e., for justice, in a court of law. The double-use of the root, with the related noun byr!, emphasizes the idea of a legal fight (by God, on behalf of the Psalmist). This suggests that YHWH is as much a legal advocate for the Psalmist as He is the actual Judge in the case.

Verse 2

“For you are the Mighty (One) of my place of refuge—
(so) for what [i.e. why] do you reject me,
for what [i.e. why] do I walk about (clothe)d in darkness,
in (the) pressure of the (one) hostile to me?”

The imagery in this verse shifts to YHWH (“Mighty [One]” = “Mightiest,” Elohim) as a place of protection for the Psalmist, lit. a “place of refuge” (zoum*). The legal aspect of the covenant with YHWH has been replaced by the socio-political—referring to the protection which the sovereign is obligated to provide for his faithful vassal.

The last two lines echo 42:10 [9] (cf. the previous study on stanza 2), with the image of the Psalmist forced to go about in darkness (i.e., dark in color/dress, like one in mourning) because of the oppression he faces from his enemy. The singular verbal noun by@oa (“[one] being hostile”) can be understood as a human adversary, or the great enemy Death himself (that is, the danger facing the Psalmist is life-threatening). As the second line makes clear, the protagonist feels that God has turned away from him (vb jn~z`, “reject, repel”), leaving him vulnerable to the attacks of his enemies. This is the reason for the appeal to YHWH, calling for both justice and protection, on the basis of the covenant bond.

Metrically, this verse generally follows the pattern of v. 1, with its sequence of 2-beat lines; here it is a quatrain, with the rhythm 3+2+2+2.

Verse 3

“Send (out) your light and your truth,
they shall be my guide (to safety),
they shall bring me to (the) hill of your holiness,
and to (the) places of your dwelling.”

Having established the covenant-basis for his appeal, the Psalmist now requests that God act on his behalf. In spite of the legal/judicial setting of verse 1, the action requested by the Psalmist is one of rescue. This is indicated by the use of the verb fl^P* in v. 1, and also the noun zoum* (“place of refuge”) in v. 2. This place where YHWH will provide protection is further described here in v. 3 as the “mountain of [God’s] holiness” (i.e., His holy mountain), and the locale where He Himself dwells (plur. of /K*v=m!, “dwelling-place”). The idea of El-Yahweh residing on/in a great mountain (shaped like a giant tent) is an ancient Semitic cosmological (and religious) motif. While the mountain is an archetypal symbol, it can be realized at the practical conceptual (and ritual) level in any local mountain or hill-top site. Here the emphasis is on the presence of YHWH—i.e., the place where He dwells.

The fact that the Psalmist specifically calls for YHWH to send His light (roa) and truth (tm#a#, signifying “firmness, certainty”), illustrates that what threatens him is understood primarily in an ethical-religious sense—as wickedness and injustice. The lack of faithfulness and loyalty (dsj) is a primary characteristic of the wicked, but also a tendency to act falsely and with deceit (on both points, cf. verse 1 above). In the second stanza (42:10-11 [9-10]), the attacks by the wicked involve slanderous taunts against the Psalmist. Truth and light serve as the antidote for the poison of such dark slander.

Verse 4

“And I will come to (the) place of slaughter for (the) Mightiest,
to (the) Mighty (One) of my joyous circling,
and (there) I will throw you (praise) on (the) harp,
(O) Mightiest (One), my Mighty (One)!”

In this verse, the “mountain” of God’s dwelling is now realized as the location of the Temple (i.e., the ancient fortified hilltop site of ‘Mount’ Zion). Having been rescued by YHWH, and now dwelling in safety under His protection, the Psalmist will give worship to God in the Temple precincts. The image is of a person circling joyously around the altar (“place of [ritual] slaughter”), giving praise to God. The motif is symbolic, as much as it may be meant to describe an actual scene of worship in the Temple. Whether, or to what extent, the stanzas of this Psalm were part of a specific Temple ritual (procession into the precincts, etc) is difficult to say.

The oddity of the final line, which reads (literally) “(O) Mightiest (One), my Mightiest (One)” (in conventional English, “[O] God, my God”), provides a strong argument in favor of the theory that, in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms, the divine name hwhy (YHWH) had been originally used throughout, but that it was (systematically) replaced by the plural title <yh!l)a$ (for reasons that are far from clear). The final line would thus have originally made more sense: “(O) YHWH, my Mighty (One)”, “(O) YHWH, my God”.

Refrain: Verse 5

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm (for comments, cf. the previous study, on 42:6 [5]). After the declaration of hope, in v. 4, that YHWH will rescue the Psalmist, this refrain takes on a new tone. There is even more reason now for the righteous to wait on the Lord, trusting that He will act to deliver them, and less reason for one’s soul to be sad and downcast in the midst of distress.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 35 (Part 3)

Psalm 35, continued

Verses 22-28

This final section of the Psalm represents the second of two stanzas. The conflict in the first stanza (vv. 1-10) is expressed primarily in military terms, while here in the second stanza the aspect is judicial. This shift in imagery took place throughout the intervening middle/development section(s), vv. 11-21, discussed in the previous study.

Verse 22

“See, YHWH, and do not keep silent,
my Lord, do not keep wide [i.e. far] from me!”

The call for YHWH to act parallels the opening couplet of the first stanza (v. 1). There the call is for God to give military aid, attacking the protagonist’s adversaries and doing battle with them. Here, in the second stanza, the expectation is for YHWH to function as a judge, to render a decision against those who slander the Psalmist. The motif of seeing is picked up from the close of v. 21, where the wicked are described as false witnesses; they testify as to what they supposedly saw the Psalmist do, but it is a false accusation, delivered in the form of a taunt. As the Judge, YHWH sees their evil—being God, indeed, He must see it; the petition is that He should respond to what He has seen, acting (in justice) on the Psalmist’s behalf.

Verse 23

“Rouse (yourself) and awake to my judgment,
my Mighty One and Lord, to (contend) my case!”

The Psalmist’s plea is expressed more directly here in this couplet. The parallel with the first stanza is made clear, again, by the common use of the root byr! (“contend”) in verse 1. The noun byr! here is parallel with fP*v=m! (“judgment”), and refers to a cause or case that is being contending, that is in dispute. As such, it is somewhat difficult to translate concisely in English; I have attempted to preserve the verbal aspect (of the root byr)—i.e., that YHWH would contend on the Psalmist’s behalf.

A minor note on the above translation; so as better to maintain the poetic rhythm of the second line, I did not translate the suffix on the noun /oda* (“Lord”). Literally, it should read “my Mighty One and my Lord”; the suffixed yn`d)a& (“my Lord”), of course, came to serve as a traditional substitution for the divine name YHWH (Yahweh) when recited.

Verse 24

“Judge me according to your justice, YHWH,
my Mighty One, do not let them rejoice at me.”

Even more direct is the Psalmist’s request here: YHWH is to act as judge and render judgment on the Psalmist’s behalf. This act of delivering judgment is to be done according to the qd#x# of YHWH. The judicial aspect of the word (i.e., “justice”) needs to be brought out in this context; however, as I have noted on many occasions, the root qdx also connotes “faithfulness” and “loyalty”, especially when used in the context of the covenant-bond. The verb jm^c* (“rejoice, find/take joy, delight”) here has the sense of the wicked taking a gleeful, mocking delight at the Psalmist’s expense. This attitude of the wicked, reflected by their actions, is described in some detail in vv. 11-21 (cf. the previous study).

Verse 25

“Do not let them say in their heart, ‘Ha! (in) our throat!’
don’t let them say, ‘We have swallowed him (up)!'”

This couplet expands upon the request in the second line of v. 24, asking that the wicked not be allowed to take joy in their slander, as they taunt and mock the Psalmist. The wordplay here is quite impossible to translate; even so, it is important to render it in as literal a manner as possible. To begin with, the wordplay is brought out by the repetition in the opening part of each line: “Do not let them say…” (Wrm=ay)-la^). This common wording highlights the detail in the remainder of each line:

    • “(say) in their heart, ‘Ha! our throat!'”
      Wnv@p=n~ ja*h# <B*l!b=
    • “(say) ‘we have swallowed him (up)!'”
      WhWnu&L^B!

There is alliteration in the Hebrew: b®lib¹m he°¹µ…û / billa±¦nûhû—that is one aspect of the wordplay. At the same time, there is a conceptual wordplay that runs in several directions. First, in the first line we have the parallel of the words bl@ (“heart”) and vp#n#, usually rendered “soul”, but which can similarly connote “desire”. However, on occasion, and almost always in poetry, the word vp#n# can carry the more concrete meaning of “throat”, and this properly fits the second parallel, with the verb ul^B* (“swallow, devour”) in the second line. Most likely the meaning of the exclamation “Ha! our throat!” is “Ha, he is in our throat!” (i.e., we are swallowing/devouring him)—in which case, there is a third parallel to be seen here, as the wicked boast “in their heart” that the Psalmist is ‘in their throat’. The multilayered semantic range of this wording also allows for the parallel of “in their heart” / ‘in their soul’, in the sense that their soul’s desire against him is being fulfilled.

Verse 26

“Let them feel shame and find disgrace together,
(the one)s taking joy (at the) evil (coming to) me;
may they be clothed (with) shame and humiliation,
the (one)s making out great (lies) against me!”

The Psalmist is no longer asking for YHWH simply to eliminate the opportunity for the wicked to take joy in their attacks; rather, now the request is for God to make judgment against them. Through the declaration of His justice, YHWH will make the wicked feel shame (vb vWB) and disgrace (vb rp@j*), as well as a complete humiliation (hm*l!K=). This indicates a sense of guilt, as well as implying a measure of punishment meted out against them.

The verb ld^G` in the final line, in the causative (hiphil) stem, usually means “make great, make firm, make strong”; here, in this context, it must carry the sense of “making great lies”, i.e., slandering someone in the most prominent (and public) manner. However, it is also possible that a cognate meaning of making something firm by twisting (as in a rope or cord) is intended; this would be quite appropriate for the context of twisting the truth, i.e., “twisting out slanders” against the Psalmist.

Verse 27

“Let them shout (for joy) and rejoice,
(the one)s delighting in my justice;
and may they continually say, ‘YHWH (is) great,
the (One who) delights (in the) fulfillment of His servant’!”

Metrically, this is a somewhat awkward verse, with an apparent 2-beat (2+2) couplet followed by a longer irregular 3-beat (4+3) couplet. The parallelism within the lines is similarly mixed. There is the obvious parallel between the righteous delighting (root Jpj) in the the justice experienced by the Psalmist, and the idea that YHWH Himself takes delight (same verbal root) in the well-being (<olv*) of his faithful/loyal servants. It should be pointed out that the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa has a slightly different reading of the second couplet:

“and may they continually say, ‘YHWH (is) great,’
you (who) delight (in the) fulfillment of His servant”

This reading makes for a closer formal parallel with the first couplet, keeping the focus on the righteous (as the ones who take delight), rather than shifting to YHWH as the subject. There is an obvious parallel between the righteous who rejoice and take delight at the Psalmist, in a good sense (i.e., in his innocence and the justice done for him), and the wicked who rejoice/delight in an evil sense (at his misfortune); cf. on vv. 24-26 above. The contrast between the righteous and wicked is a central theme, in this Psalm, and in many others.

The use of the terms <olv* (“completion, fulfillment”) and db#u# (“servant”) point out again that the context of the covenant bond is very much in view in this Psalm. The righteous are described as the faithful/loyal servants (vassals) of YHWH (their sovereign); in response to their continued loyalty, God looks after their well-being, providing the fulfillment of their needs. In so doing, YHWH also fulfills His part of the agreement (an important aspect of the word <olv* in context).

Verse 28

“And my tongue (also) shall utter your justice,
(giving) all the day (long) your shout (of praise)!”

The refrain of the second stanza begins in verse 27 (above) and continues here in v. 28, bringing the Psalm to a close. The focus has shifted from the righteous, collectively, to the person of the Psalmist. Counting himself as one of the righteous, those faithful/loyal to YHWH, the Psalmist makes the same sort of declaration to God, praising Him for the justice that He shows. The implication is that YHWH has heard his prayer and will respond, establishing justice for the Psalmist and punishing the wicked ones who attacked him. The expression “your shout (of praise)” means “the shout (of praise) you (deserve)”; similarly “your justice” means “the justice you established (for me)”.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 28

Psalm 28

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-5)

This short Psalm is made up of two parts: a prayer-lament in verses 1-5, and a concluding section of praise to YHWH (vv. 6-9). The first section is similar in style, tone, and emphasis to a number of lament-Psalms, where the protagonist is threatened by violence, oppression, and death. Sometimes these dangers are expressed in terms of human adversaries (if nameless and faceless ones), but it is not entirely clear whether these should be understood as real or figurative. More often than not, at least in the Psalms as they have come down to us, the enemies/adversaries are primarily figurative.

Many of the Psalms also evince a royal background or setting, though this has typically been displaced as the composition came to be used in a communal worship environment (see on verse 8 below). The closing lines often reflect this shift, sometimes even suggesting a specific worship/ritual context; and this is generally the case with our Psalm here.

As with the prior Psalms 25-27, the superscription simply indicates that it is “belonging to David”. The meter is irregular; it is generally based on a 3+2 couplet format, but this is utilized and adapted in a varied and highly creative way. Attempts to make the meter more consistent throughout are, for the most part, both unnecessary and misguided. Possible instances of textual corruption (in verses 5 and 7) only add to the complexity of the situation.

Verses 1-5

Verse 1

“To you, YHWH, do I call (out)—
my Rock, do not keep silent from me!
May (it be that) you do not keep quiet from me,
or I will be like (those) going down (to the) Pit!”

The syntax in the second couplet is rather difficult to render clearly in English. The conjunctive particle /P# reflects the wish that something be avoided or kept from happening. Its use at the beginning of a clause is precautionary. Coming as it does after the fervent wish expressed in the second line of the first couplet, it reinforces the Psalmist’s hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer his prayer (and not keep silent). There is a bit of wordplay between the verbs vr^j* and hv*j*, both of which have the similar meaning “be silent, quiet”. The “pit” (roB) of course, refers to death and the grave—i.e., Sheol, the realm of the dead. The “ones going down” to the pit are the wicked, who both literally and figuratively descend into the pit of Death.

Verse 2

“Hear (the) voice of my plea for favor,
in my crying out to you (for help),
in my lifting (up) of my hands,
to (the) deepest part of your Holy Place.”

These two couplets, as we have them, contain an interesting symmetrical structure, a mirrored 3+2 : 2+3 meter. The second line of the first couplet, together with the first line of the second couplet, forms an inner 2+2 pair. This is similar to the situation in verse 1, only here the (synthetic) parallelism is more precise, as the Psalmist’s prayer is described dramatically in terms of “crying out” (vb u^Wv) loudly (with his voice) and “lifting up” (vb ac^n`) his hands. A Temple setting is implied, whether or not the protagonist is envisioned as actually located in the sanctuary itself.

There is an interesting bit of dual-meaning wordplay involving the noun rybD= in the final line. Two separate rbd roots are attested, which, to some extent, seem to have been conflated with each other over the course of time. Root rbd I apparently has the core meaning “be in back, turn back”, while rbd II “give a word, speak, utter”. The parallel in line 1 with the Psalmist’s “voice” suggests the latter root, and the idea of an (oracular) utterance by God that takes place in His sanctuary. At the same time, the directional emphasis of the second couplet indicates that the former root is properly in view—i.e., the back part, the inner shrine of the sanctuary, where God Himself dwells.

In any case, all this imagery and clever poetry serves ultimately to emphasize the intensity of the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH. There may also be a conceptual parallel intended between the “Pit” (the place where Death reigns) and the back (i.e. deepest) part of the sanctuary where YHWH has His throne.

Verse 3

“Do not drag me along with (the) wicked (one)s,
and with (the one)s making trouble,
(the one)s speaking peace with their associates,
and (yet have) evil in their hearts!”

After the creative and irregular rhythmic structure of the couplets in the first two verses, here in v. 3 we find a more typical 3+2 meter, though with an expansive tension built into the lines. The force of the petition relates to the last line of verse 1, with its reference to the wicked—the “ones going down to the Pit”. Here these people are specifically called “wicked ones” (participle of the vb uv^r*). Again, there is a certain parallelism of the inner lines of these two couplets, when taken together. The wicked are further characterized as “ones making trouble” and “speaking peace” (falsely) with those who are supposed to be their close associates. The latter characteristic, presented in the 3-beat line of the second couplet, flows into the concluding line (the 2-beat line of the couplet), expressing a powerful antithetic parallelism that summarizes the wickedness of such people: they speak peace, and yet have evil in their heart (i.e. an evil intent).

Clearly, the Psalmist does not want to be grouped together with the wicked, which would be the implication if God does not answer his fervent prayer in his time of need. To be counted among the wicked means sharing their fate—of being “dragged along” (vb Ev^m*) down into the Pit.

Verse 4

“Give to them (in return) according to their actions,
and according to (the) evil of their deeds;
according to what their hands have made,
<return their treatment (of others back) to them!>”

The Psalmist’s desire to separate himself from the wicked leads to an imprecatory prayer against them. He asks that YHWH judge them (and pay them back) according to their wickedness—the implication being that God should similarly judge the protagonist according to his righteousness and faithful devotion.

It seems quite clear that the last line of the second couplet is corrupt, as it has come down to us. Unfortunately, the only surviving Dead Sea MS is fragmentary at this point, and is of no real help. The best explanation is that two similar phrases have been conflated in the text: “give to them” (<h#l* /T@) and “return to them” (<h#l*bv@h*). The first of these is likely due to a copyist’s mistake, drawing upon the occurrence of the same phrase in line 1 of the verse. Given this strong likelihood, we may with some confidence emend the text accordingly.

This emendation creates another 3+2 : 2+3 couplet pairing, as in verse 2 (cf. above). Again there is clear (synonymous) parallelism with the inner pair of this structure, characterizing the actions of the wicked. The social aspect of their wickedness is indicated by the use of the noun lWmG+, which refers to how one treats another person. The ethical dimension, naturally enough, blends with the judicial. To mistreat a person will lead to some measure of judgment in response to that action. Here the ancient lex talionis principle is at work—the punishment should be proportionate, and similar in nature, to the crime.

Verse 5

“For they give no discernment
(at all) to (the) actions of YHWH,
and to the working of His hands—
He pulls them down and does not build them!”

The highly creative and varied rhythmic structure of the Psalm continues with a 3+3 couplet pairing. Once again, there is a clear parallelism to the inner lines of these two couplets when taken together: “(the) actions of YHWH” | “(the) working of His hands”. God’s actions are contrasted with those of the wicked (v. 4, above). This is further expressed by the antithetic parallelism of the outer lines (first of couplet 1 + last of couplet 2), involving a bit of alliterative wordplay that is impossible to capture in English translation:

    • /yB (bîn), “discernment, understanding” —the wicked to not discern, i.e. they pay no heed to, the work of God
    • hn`B* (b¹nâ), “to build” —accordingly, God does not build up the wicked; on the contrary, he pulls/tears them down (vb sr^h*)

Verses 6-9

Verse 6

“YHWH (is to) be adored!
For He has heard
(the) voice of my plea for favor.”

This verse must be regarded as transitional, leading into the psalm of praise in vv. 7-9. Its meter is ambiguous, and a bit awkward, but should apparently be understood as a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2); the fragmented terseness of this form cannot adequately be rendered literally in English. A closer approximation of the rhythm in translation would be something like:

“Praised be YHWH!
For He has heard
the voice of my prayer.”

The wording echoes that of verse 2 (cf. above). The root irb literally refers to “bending the knee”, specifically as a gesture of homage and devotion. This denotation is difficult to render in English, especially as a passive participle; the basic meaning is someone “for whom the knee is to be bent” —i.e., someone who is to be given homage. I have translated it above as “(to) be adored”, while the more customary rendering is “blessed”.

Verse 7

“YHWH (is) my strength and my protection,
in Him has my heart trusted (for safety).
I was given help, and my heart leaps (for joy),
and (with) my singing I throw (praise to Him).”

The meter of verse 7 is slightly irregular, but generally corresponds to the 3+2 couplet pattern. The irregularity may be due to textual corruption in the second couplet, and the Greek and Syriac versions suggest a differing underlying Hebrew text at this point; however, there is little basis here for any emendation of the text. The verb jf^B* often has the connotation of seeking protection, i.e., trusting in someone or something for safety. It is used frequently with this meaning in the Psalms, and is fitting for the imagery of YHWH himself as a place of protection (/g@m*, i.e. covering, shield, etc).

The worship context, suggested already in the first section of the Psalm (cf. verse 2, above), comes more clearly into view here, with the specific emphasis on singing and giving praise to God.

Verse 8

“YHWH (is) their strength and strong place,
He (is the) salvation of His anointed (one).”

The syntax of verse 8 has led to a certain amount of confusion, both in terms of the specific meaning of the lines and how they are to be divided. It seems best to view it is an expanded 3+3 (~ 4+3) couplet.

Particularly problematic is the suffixed preposition of the first line: oml* (“for them, [belonging] to them”). The lack of a clear referent for the pronominal suffix apparently led to the variant oMu^l= (“for His people”) in the text underlying certain Greek and Syriac manuscripts. Presumably, this inference is correct, and that it refers implicitly to God’s people (Israel) as a whole. Parallel with the people is the king as their representative, who also holds a special king of covenantal relationship to YHWH (“His anointed [one]”). Just as YHWH is the strength and protection of the people , so He is also the salvation of the king (as the anointed one of God). This confirms the royal background of the Psalm (on which, cf. above), and offers a glimpse of how this related to the performance of the composition in an early worship setting.

The noun zoum* (“strong place”, i.e., fortified/protected place) is related to zu) (“strength”), and this repetitive doubling is emphatic. For a comparable statement with similar syntax, cf. Psalm 46:2 [1]. The plural form of the noun hu*Wvy+ (“salvation”) is best understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural—i.e., YHWH provides complete protection and safety for the king who remains faithful/loyal to Him. The pronoun “He” is in the final (emphatic) position of the line, and corresponds to the divine name (YHWH) at the beginning of the couplet.

Verse 9

“Make safe your people
and adore your possession,
give them pasture and carry them
until the distant (future).”

The Psalm concludes with a prayer to YHWH, a terse and pointed address that is expressed using a pair of short 2-beat (2+2) couplets. Each line involves a specific aspect of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people:

    • Line 1—the safety and protection God provides
    • Line 2—the care and devotion God gives to them
    • Line 3—this care expressed through pastoral imagery, i.e., God as a shepherd (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 23)
    • Line 4—the bond will last into the distant future

The reference to God’s people in this closing verse makes clear what was implied in the first line of v. 8 (above). The theme of covenant loyalty—applied to both king and people—is to be understood here, and, indeed, throughout the Psalm. Insofar as king and people remain faithful and loyal to YHWH, they will continue to receive His protection and blessing far into the distant future (i.e., for all time).