Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 59 (Part 2)

Psalm 59, continued

As noted in the previous study, there are two stanzas to the poem (miktam) of Psalm 59, each of which contains a common refrain (vv. 7-11a, 15-18). The poetic and thematic structure is as follows:

    • 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 2: VV. 11-14 [10-13]

Verse 11bc [10bc]

“(The) Mightiest shall go before me,
He shall let me look on (those) watching me.”

The opening verses of the second stanza follow a different meter—a 2-beat (2+2) rather than 3-beat (3+3) couplet. As discussed in the previous study, the traditional verse division here is incorrect, and the first line of verse 11 [10] (a) belongs with v. 10 [9].

The theme of the second stanza—God’s judgment on the wicked (i.e., the Psalmist’s adversaries)—is established here in the initial couplet. The Psalmist expects (and anticipates) that YHWH will answer his prayer (stanza 1), acting to protect and deliver him from his enemies. The first line expresses this clearly and concisely: “the Mightiest shall go before me,” using the verb <d^q* in the sense of “go first, go ahead,” so as to meet the Psalmist’s enemies and strike them.

The verb in the second line is ha*r* (“see”); the nuance of this common verb in the hiphil stem (“make/let me see”), in this context, is tied to the idea of the judgment/punishment of the wicked. I have translated it here as “let me look on (them)” —that is, look on their punishment (indeed, with some satisfaction). The enemies are described as “watchers” (from the root rWv [II]), that is, they watch his every move, with wicked intent, waiting for a chance to strike. There is thus a bit of semantic wordplay here, with the Psalmist looking on those who have been watching him.

Verse 12 [11]

“Mighty (One), slay them, lest my people wither;
stagger them with your strength,
and bring them down!
(You are) our protection, (O) my Lord.”

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 71) in vocalizing the initial word as la@ (“Mighty [One],” El, i.e., ‘God’), rather than the negative particle la^. Asking God not to slay his enemies makes little sense in context. Also reading the divine title la@ here provides a fitting parallel for the related <yh!l)a$ in the first line of the prior couplet (cf. above).

Quite possibly, the reference to “my people,” which otherwise seems somewhat out of place here, is a vestige of the royal background we see in many such Psalms. The king represents the people and serves as their protector; an attack on the king ultimately affects the people as well. The verb jk^v* is best understood in the specific sense of “wither” (rather than “forget”); this particular meaning may derive from a separate root jkv (II).

Military imagery is utilized in the second line, indicating that YHWH will defeat the Psalmist’s enemies. The two verbs (in the hiphil imperative) are u^Wn (“shake, waver, stagger”) and dr^y` (“go down,” hiphil “make go down, bring down”). To “go down” here carries the specific added meaning of going down to the realm of the dead (Sheol), i.e., being killed. The imperfect verb form in the first line is to be read with jussive force, matching the imperatives in the second line.

The specific motif is of YHWH (“my Lord”) as the Psalmist’s protection, drawing upon a covenantal theme that occurs frequently in the Psalms; the noun used is /g@m*, literally “place of protection”.

The rhythm of this expanded couplet is 3+3+2.

Verse 13 [12]

“(By the) sin of their mouth and pestilence of their lips,
may they be captured!
In their rising (up) and cursing and lying,
may they be counted!”

The meter of this verse also is irregular (loosely, a 4-beat couplet). One might be inclined to emend the text (along with that of v. 12) and reorder (or redivide) these lines to achieve metrical consistency (i.e., 3-beat couplets); cf. Kraus, p. 539. Indeed, the only way both stanzas of the Psalm could (originally) have been sung to the same melody, is if they had the same meter. Unfortunately, such consistitency is practically impossible to recover now (if it ever truly existed). It must be said that the poetic structure of v. 13, as we have it, seems to demand a 4-beat couplet format.

Each line ends with a niphal imperfect with jussive force:

    • Wdk=L*y] (“may they be captured”)
    • WrP@S*y] (“may they be counted”)

I follow Dahood (II, p. 73) in reading wrpsy as a niphal form, rather than the piel of the Masoretic vocalization (WrP@s^y+). The idea of being “counted” should be understood as being judged (by God) as wicked. The root rps can relate to the act of recording—i.e., of a person being written down. Quite plausibly the intended image here is of the wicked being recorded as destined for death (and Sheol); cp. Jeremiah 17:13. This is parallel to the image of the names of the righteous being recorded in God’s book [rp#s@] ‘of life’ (Exod 32:32-33, etc). To be “captured” (vb dk^l*) in this context means to be captured by death and the grave.

The behavior of the wicked that results in their punishment (and death) is defined in terms of the evil that they speak. In the first line are the twin expressions “sin of their mouth” and “pestilence [rbd] of their lips”; in the second line, these are matched by the collective (verbal) nouns hl*a* (“cursing”) and vj^K^ (“lying”). There is a bit of wordplay in the first line with the word rbd, since rb*D* generally means “word,” while rb#D# means “pestilence” —i.e., the pestilence of the wicked is in their evil/sinful speaking.

Verse 14 [13]

“Finish (them) in your hot (anger), finish (them),
and may they no longer (be)!
Then they shall know that (the) Mightiest is ruling in Ya’aqob,
(even) to (the) ends of the earth.”
Selah

This is another long 4-beat (4+4) couplet, followed by an extra 2-beat line; the last line fits uneasily, and may be a secondary addition to the stanza.

The Psalmist’s call for judgment on his enemies reaches a high pitch in this final couplet, repeating the imperative hL@K^ (“finish [them off]!”). It is almost as though the protagonist is attempting to stoke the flames of YHWH’s hot anger (“heat,” hm*j@) himself. The extreme nature of this imprecation is indicated by the concluding word “may they no longer (be)”. This act of judgment, however, also has a higher purpose, beyond simply punishing (and putting to death) the wicked—it will demonstrate, in the most dramatic terms, that YHWH (the Mightiest, <yh!l)a$) is indeed the King and Judge over all the earth.

Refrain: vv. 15-18 [14-17]

This refrain matches that of the first stanza (vv. 7-10a [6-9a]); however, the wording is not identical. Only the points of difference will be noted below; for the remainder of the refrain, cf. the previous study.

Verse 15 [14]

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

Essentially identical with v. 7 [6] (discussed in the previous study).

Verse 16 [15]

“Howling, they wander (about for something) to eat,
(and) if not satisfied, they do (not) stop for the night.”

This couplet holds the same place as v. 8 [7] in the first refrain, but differs entirely in wording (and emphasis) from that earlier couplet. Here the action of the wicked fits much better, contextually, with the image of a pack of hungry dogs roaming the city at night. Indeed, v. 16 continues the imagery of v. 15. I follow Dahood (II, p. 73f) in reading the initial word hmh as a verbal element (from the root hmh, “cry [out], howl, growl,” same as in v. 15), rather than the pronoun hM*h@ (“they”). Also (with him) I recognize an implied (second) negative particle in the second line.

Verse 17 [16]

“But I, I will sing of your strength,
and will ring out your goodness in the morning;
for you have been (the) place high up for me,
and a place to flee in (the) day of distress for me.”

This pair of couplets corresponds to the couplet in v. 9 [8], but they are altogether different, both in form and content. The lines here are more fitting for the conclusion of the Psalm as a whole, emphasizing the aspect of public praise and worship that we find frequently at the close of Psalms. The first couplet expresses this theme of praise, in traditional/conventional terms. The strength (zu)) of YHWH is praised in tandem with His goodness (ds#j#); the latter noun often connotes faithfulness and loyalty (in the context of the covenant-bond), and frequently so in the Psalms.

The second couplet returns to the central theme of YHWH as the Psalmist’s protection. Two locative nouns are used, in parallel, to express this: (1) bG`c=m! (“place high up”), and (2) sonm* (“place [to which] to flee”, i.e., place of refuge).

Verse 18 [17]

“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).”

These lines are essentially identical with those of vv. 10-11a [9-10a] which close the refrain of the first stanza (cf. the previous study). In the second line of v. 10, the verb is rm^v*, while here it is rm^z`, but the meaning is certainly the same (“guard”). If rmz is correct here, then it would seem to be a stylistic variant, with no difference in meaning. It may reflect an older/archaic meaning of the root rmz (zmr), attested, it would seem, by the Ugaritic cognate root (¼mr).

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 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 55 (Part 2)

Psalm 55, continued

Here is a reminder of the three-part structure of this Psalm:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in the previous study (Part 1); here we turn to the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf.

There is an interesting dramatic structure to this section. The prayer takes the form of an imprecation, in which the Psalmist would bring a curse down on his enemies. The imprecation frames the section in vv. 10-12, 16; however, in vv. 13-15 the protagonist focuses on a specific enemy, addressing him directly, as a supposed friend who has betrayed him.

VERSES 10-16 [9-15]

Verse 10 [9]

“Confuse (them), my Lord,
bring division to their tongue;
for I have seen (much) violence
and strife in the (great) city.”

The Masoretic text as it stands suggests a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. Each line of the first couplet begins with an imperative, by which the Psalmist calls on YHWH to act. In the second line it is gL^P^, from the root glp (“split, divide”); in which case, the matching imperative uL^B^ in the first line would have to derive from a second root ulb II, meaning “confuse, confound,” rather than ulb I (“swallow”). This second root is similar in meaning to llb, which which it would be related. If the MT is correct, then we would seem to have here a poetic allusion to the Tower of Babel tradition; and the Psalmist’s prayer-curse calls upon YHWH to repeat his action in the Babel episode (Gen 11:7ff).

Dahood (II, p. 33) takes a different approach, reading glp as the noun gl#P# (“split, division”), and as the object of the line (reading the first two lines of the verse as a single 4-beat line):

“Swallow [i.e. destroy], O Lord, (the) split of their tongue [i.e. their forked tongue]”

Kraus (p. 519) finds an even more serious problem with the MT and adopts a more radical emendation of the text. The city motif that is developed in vv. 11-12 tends to support the MT, with its apparent allusion to the Babel scene—Babel (= Babylon) being symbolic of the wicked city, as we see elsewhere in Old Testament tradition (and cf. Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21).

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Day and night they go around her,
upon her walls (are) both trouble and toil;
in (the) midst of her (evil)s befall,
in (the) midst of her it never departs,
in her wide street, oppression and deceit!”

A 3-beat (3+3) couplet is followed by a slightly irregular 2-beat tricolon. These lines pick up from verse 10, and presumably the subject of the first line (“they go around her”) is the pair of “violence [sm*j*] and strife [byr!]” from v. 10. They “go around” (vb bb^s*) the city, functioning as watchmen; and they are joined by the pair of “trouble [/w#a*] and toil [lm*u*]” who stand guard on the walls. Thus the wicked city is governed and patrolled by wickedness.

Adding to this image of the wicked city is the double emphasis that great evils are in the midst of her, and that they never depart (vb vWm). The plural noun toWh^ is derived from the verb hw`h* I, and refers to some evil or calamity that falls upon (befalls) a person; I have translated the plural noun here with intensive verbal force. The expression “her wide/broad (street)” is generally synonymous with “in the midst of her” —we should understand a central square or main street. Both oppression (implying violence) and deceit—two fundamental characteristics of the wicked—are present, and especially active, in the heart of the wicked city.

Verse 13 [12]

“For (it was) not a hostile (one)
(who) brought on me (the) scorn that I bear,
nor (was it one) hating me
(who) brought great (slander) on me,
that I should hide myself from him.”

Both the meter and structure of this verse are difficult and problematic. However, the first four lines clearly form a pair of parallel couplets (with loose/uneven 2-beat meter). This specific opponent of the Psalmist is identified as neither a “hostile (one)” (vb by~a*) nor “(one) hating” (vb an@v*) him—that is to say, he was not obviously or openly an enemy.

The second line of each couplet is rather difficult. In the first couplet, the difficulty is syntactical, with the MT reading “he reproached me and I bore (it)”. However, the relationship with the first line indicates that the phrase should be translated as a relative clause: “…who reproached me and I bore (it)”. The poetic sense of this line is improved if we treat the w-conjunction on the second verb like a relative particle (cf. Dahood, II, p. 34): “…who brought the scorn on me that I bear”.

In the second line of the second couplet, the difficulty lies in the specific meaning of the verb ld^G` (Hiphil stem, “make grow, make great”) in context. Literally, the phrase would be “he made great over me” (or possibly, “he grew over me”). However, as in the first couplet, this second line also should be read as a relative clause, with a wicked act implied (such as slandering someone), i.e. “…who brought great (slander) over me”.

The final line (“that I should hide myself from him”), as a coda to the two couplets, relates to the idea that this person was not an obvious enemy (at first) to the Psalmist, implying that we was a friend of sorts, so that the Psalmist would not have felt the need to protect himself from this person.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“But (it was) you, a man of my (own) order,
my companion and (one) being known by me,
(so) that as one we had sweet intimacy,
in (the) house of (the) Mightiest,
we walked in (the) surging (crowd).”

Verses 14-15 make clear what was implied in v. 13—viz., that this enemy was a man previously considered by the Psalmist to be a friend. He was of the same social rank (lit. “order,” Er#u@) as the Psalmist, both a companion ([WLa^) and someone well-known to him.

The second couplet, expanded into a tricolon, indicates that the Psalmist and this man had some measure of intimacy in their friendship. The noun dos connotes intimate conversation, and the verb qt^m* refers to the fact that the two men had a number of “sweet” moments together. These moments are specifically located in the “house of God”, which suggests the occasion of religious festivals. If the Psalm preserves a royal background, they it could also refer to the king and his court (with his loyal vassals) attending religious festivities in the Temple. The motif in the final line, of walking together in a crowd, certainly suggests a festival and/or ritual occasion.

Verse 16 [15]

“May death take over them,
may they go down (to) Sheol living!
For evils (are) in their dwelling-places.”

Having addressed the friend who betrayed him, the Psalmist returns to the imprecation, asking God to bring a curse (of death) down upon his enemies. This imprecatory language naturally makes Christians and modern readers uncomfortable, but it was very much part of the ancient Near Eastern tradition, and many examples can be found in the Old Testament. This section allows Psalm 55 to be counted among the imprecatory Psalms.

Most commentators (correctly) follow the Qere, parsing the first word of the MT (Kethib) as two words: tw#m* yV!y~. Dahood (II, p. 34) would derive the verb form yV!y~ from the rare root hvy, otherwise attested (only) in the noun hY`v!WT (Job 12:16, etc); the basic denotation would seem to something like “advance, succeed”. The verb used together with the preposition lu^ could fairly be rendered “take over” (overtake): “May death [tw#m*] take over them”. Parallel with death is loav= (Sheol), the realm of the dead. To be taken alive into Sheol would be an especially stunning and miraculous form of death, only to be achieved through the power of God. Here, however, it is probably simply an exaggeration, as befits the curse-formula.

The final line hearkens back to the “wicked city” motif in vv. 10-12 (cf. above). Great evils (plur. tour*), passing through the wicked city, find lodgings in it. They are temporary lodgings—indicated by the noun rWgm*, derived from the root rWg, typically denoting a stranger who comes to live/reside within a population. Evil will only dwell in the city for a short time, since the wicked population will soon face death (viz., the Psalmist’s curse). That the wicked of the city would give lodgings to Evil is altogether proof of their wickedness.

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).