Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 96

Psalm 96

Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsa (vv. 1-2); 4QPsb (v. 2)

This Psalm, like the previous Ps 95 (esp. in its first half, see the prior study), is a hymn to YHWH, in which His Kingship is praised. This, indeed, is the guiding theme of the entire collection of Pss 93-100. For analysis of the similarities between Psalm 96 and the following Pss 97-100, examining common vocabulary and thematic connections, see the study by Howard, pp. 141-55. There seems to be a particularly strong relationship between Psalm 96 and 98.

Psalm 96 has a clear strophic structure, being one of the most consistently strophic of all the Psalms. There are two parallel strophes, which are quite similar (but not identical) in structure and meter. Each strophe is comprised of two sections—(1) a call to worship (vv. 1-3, 7-9), followed by (2) a verse-section describing and extolling the Kingship of YHWH (vv. 4-6, 11-13). Each call to worship begins with a parallelistic tricolon invoking praise for YHWH. The verse-sections are different in tone but similar in theme. However the second section is longer, more dramatic, and is preceded by an additional verse (v. 10) emphasizing YHWH’s Kingship over the entire cosmos.

As for the date of this Psalm, there are no definite indicators, other than the fact that it was known by the author(s) of the Chronicles, since it is quoted (in part) in 1 Chron 16:23-33. Comparison with Psalm 95, and others in the collection (93-100), suggest a pre-exilic date, though perhaps at a relatively later point in the monarchic period. Thematic comparisons have been made with the Deutero-Isaian poems, but they are, it would seem, too general to be decisive. The parallelistic tricola in vv. 1-2a and 7-8a, which remind one of 93:3-4, reflect a poetic technique and style with ancient roots in Canaanite poetry (cf. the earlier note on 93:3-4).

Interestingly, the LXX sets the Psalm in the post-exilic (Second Temple) period. Though there is no heading or superscription for Psalm 96 in the Hebrew, the LXX (Ps 95) contains a heading which reads: “When the house [i.e. the Temple] was built after the captivity. A song belonging to David”. The Davidic attribution is obviously anachronistic for the time indicated; perhaps it was meant as “a song for David”, or “…dedicated to David”.

Metrically, the Psalm is comprised almost entirely of tricola—4-beat (4+4+4), 3-beat (3+3+3), and a few with mixed/irregular meter. The meter is not entirely consistent, in spite of the strong strophic structure of the composition.

First Strophe: verses 1-6

Verses 1-3

The first section in each strophe represents a call to worship, calling on people to give praise and honor to YHWH, the King of the universe. The section is comprised of a pair of tricola.

Verse 1-2a

“Sing to YHWH a new song!
Sing to YHWH, all the earth!
Sing to YHWH, bless His name!”

Each line of this tricolon consists of four short beats. This is one of the few instances where a literal translation (in English) of a Psalm verse generally matches the rhythm of the Hebrew. Each line begins hwhyl^ Wryv!, “Sing to YHWH…!” The Psalmist calls on all people (“all the land/earth”)—and certainly all the Israelite/Judean people—to give praise to YHWH. This praise includes giving honor (and homage) to YHWH as King: “bless His name”, with the allusion to bending the knee that is implicit in the verb Er^B*.

The “new song” is probably to be understood as this Psalm itself, as Dahood notes (II, p. 357). The wording also appears in Isa 42:10, in a comparable context, emphasizing the universal reign and Sovereignty of YHWH, and calling on all people, everywhere, to worship Him. The aspect of newness may, in accordance with the theme of the Psalm as a whole, reflect the idea that YHWH is now exercising His Kingship over all the nations, and not just over His people Israel. In this regard, note the strong Judgment emphasis in the second strophe (vv. 11-13).

Verse 2b-3

“Announce from day to day His salvation,
recount among the nations His weight,
(and) among all the peoples His wonders!”

This second tricolon has 3-beat lines, though it is difficult to bring this across in English, compared with the rendering of the 4-beat lines in verse 1-2a (above). Also, it lacks the repetitive parallelism of the first tricolon; though it retains a synonymous parallelism—between lines 1 and 2, and again between lines 2 and 3. After the initial call to worship, this tricolon gives more information as to what this worship should entail. Three different things are to be extolled:

    • “His salvation” —that is, YHWH’s saving and protective acts, on behalf of His people (i.e., those who are faithful to Him)
    • “His weight [dobK*]” —i.e., His power, splendor, and glory, all that makes YHWH worthy to be praised; His actions, on behalf of His people, etc, demonstrate His “weight”.
    • “His wonders” —lit. “wondrous (deed)s”, “wonderful (thing)s”, utilizing the Niphal (passive) participle of the verb (al*P*).

These things are to be praised among all the nations and peoples (lines 2 & 3). Dahood (II, p. 357a) suggests that the Hebrew in the first line should be read as “from sea [<y`] to sea”, rather than “from day [<oy] to day”. This would, indeed, better suit the parallelism of the tricolon, since “from sea to sea” is geographically comparable to “among (all) the nations/peoples”. His explanation of how the MT reading came about, is intriguing. However, I would hesitate to adopt his proposal, particularly since the MT phrase (“from day to day”), as it stands, provides a fitting parallel to the motif of a new song, in the first line of the first tricolon.

Verses 4-6

The verse-section of the first strophe expounds the reason that YHWH is to be worshiped, beyond what was already stated in v. 2b-3 (see above). He is to be praised because He is the King of all the universe, and the greatest of all Divine beings. On this theme, cf. the previous study on Ps 95:1-7c (esp. verse 3).

Verse 4-5a

“For great (is) YHWH, and much (to) be praised;
(to) be feared (is) He, over all (the) Mighty (one)s,
for all Mighty (one)s of the peoples (are) weak!”

This first tricolon (4-beat) generally matches that of the first section (v. 1-2a, cf. above). Thematically, however, it builds upon the preceding v. 2b-3, alluding to the universal scope of YHWH’s Kingship—i.e., over all the nations and peoples on earth. In extending His Kingship over all the nations, YHWH is displacing those deities which the nations previously worshiped (as their sovereign[s]).

Continuing from v. 2b-3, YHWH’s greatness is again extolled, as making Him both worthy to be praised by all people, and to be feared by them. Passive participles (Pual and Niphal) of the verbs ll^h* (“show/give praise”) and ar*y` (“fear”) are used to reflect this characteristic of YHWH—viz., of being worthy of praise and fear. In particular, YHWH is to be feared more than all other “mighty (one)s” (gods/deities), since He is the greatest and King over them all. This point was stated most clearly in 95:3 (see the previous study).

The final line is perhaps prone to misunderstanding, and here it is best to keep to a literal rendering. The Psalmist declares that all of the deities (“Mighty [one]s”) worshiped by the nations are <yl!yl!a$. The substantive (adjectival) noun lyl!a$ basically means someone (or something) that is “weak, powerless” (cp. Akkadian ul¹lu). The term can be used in a more derogatory sense, as “useless, worthless”; and, indeed, in this way the plural <yl!yl!a$ came to designate the pagan deities as “worthless” idols. Probably the full force of this derogatory usage is not intended here by the Psalmist; rather, more likely, he is simply declaring that the other deities (of the nations) are weak and impotent in comparison with YHWH.

Verse 5b-6

“But (indeed) YHWH, He made (the) heavens;
might and splendor (are) before His face,
strength and beauty (are) in His holy place!”

The second tricolon as a shorter 3-beat meter, comparable to the second tricolon of the opening section (v. 2b-3, see above). The contrast, between YHWH and the other deities (v. 4-5a), continues here. YHWH is the Creator—He it is who made the heavens, and all of the heavenly beings as well. It is because of His role as Creator, primarily, that YHWH has Sovereign rule over all the universe.

The final two lines are parallel, and could be taken as a couplet in their own right. The noun pair “might and splendor” (alliterative rd*h*w+ doh) is parallel with “strength and beauty”, both being similar in meaning. All power and splendor belong to YHWH, in His greatness. This may allude to the fact that all other Divine/heavenly beings must come before YHWH, in homage and submission to Him. They stand before Him (as King) in His “holy place” —i.e., His heavenly throne (room) and sanctuary.

Second Strophe: Verses 7-13

Verses 7-9

The first section of the second strophe is a call to worship, matching that of the first strophe (cf. above).

Verse 7-8a

“Give to YHWH, (you) clans of the peoples,
give to YHWH (all) weight and strength,
give to YHWH (the) weight (due) His name!”

The repetitive parallelism of this 4-beat tricolon, matches that of v. 1-2a (see above). Instead of the imperative Wryv! (“sing…!”), here it is Wbh* (from the verb bh^y`, “give”), in the specific context of giving praise and honor to YHWH—a gift that is worthy of His Kingship. Again, it is all the peoples on earth who are called to worship YHWH; specifically, all the “families” (or “clans”) of the different peoples are called. Again, the noun dobK* (“weight”) is used, in the sense of the worth of YHWH—i.e., that which makes Him worthy of being praised, His strength and splendor, etc. The honor and worship that the peoples give to YHWH must be worthy of His name—that is, worthy of He Himself, who He is, as Creator and King of the universe, greatest of all Divine/heavenly beings.

Verse 8b-9

“Carry a gift and come (in)to His enclosures!
Bow to YHWH at the splendor of His holiness,
writhe from (before) His face, all the earth!”

This second tricolon continues the call to worship, and generally matches that of the first strope (v. 2b-3). The theme of giving honor (vb bh^y`) to YHWH, from the first tricolon, is picked up here, with the concrete image of people bearing a gift (hj*n+m!) and coming into the “enclosures” of YHWH’s palace. In verse 6, the heavenly sanctuary (“holy place”) of YHWH was referenced; here, it would seem that the earthly sanctuary (of the Jerusalem Temple) is in view. Moreover the noun hj*n+m! is frequently used in the specific cultic sense of a sacrificial offering. The imagery thus suggests that the nations are giving worship to YHWH much the same way that the people of Israel/Judah do, with sacrificial offerings presented in the Temple precincts. On the prophetic (and eschatological) theme of the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship YHWH, see my earlier article in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Like the Divine/heavenly beings who appear before YHWH in His heavenly sanctuary, the representatives of the nations pay homage to Him in His earthly temple. They bow down before him in fear and reverence, recognizing His Sovereignty. The fear is palpable, as all people on earth are called to tremble (lit. “twist, writhe”) in His presence. Most likely there is an allusion here to the theme of vv. 11-13—YHWH’s appearance upon the earth, bringing the Judgment.

Verse 10

“Say among the nations, ‘YHWH rules as King!’
Surely the world is fixed, it cannot be shaken—
He judges (the) peoples with straightness!”

I regard verse 10 as supplemental to the poetic structure of the Psalm, and as transitional between the two parts of the second strophe (cf. Howard, p. 65f). Its inclusion adds suspense and dramatic effect to the strophe, building toward the Judgment-scene depicted in vv. 11-13. Here, the Psalmist is directly addressing the Israelite people, urging them to take a part in calling on the nations to worship YHWH. They are to declare YHWH’s Kingship (“YHWH rules as King [vb El^m*]!”), and His role as Judge over all people. Just as He fixed the earth (here lb@T@ for the inhabited surface), setting it firmly in place within the cosmos (‘heaven and earth’), so He renders judgment in a firm and fair manner, lit. “with straightness”. The plural of the noun rv*ym@ (“straightness”) could mean specifically “straight [i.e. fair/just] judgments”, though it is perhaps best to read it as a comprehensive or intensive plural, i.e., “with complete fairness”. Cf. Psalm 93:1 for similar language and imagery to what we have here in v. 10.

Metrically, verse 10 is an irregular (4+4+3) tricolon.

Verses 11-13
Verses 11-12a

“Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar and (all) its fullness,
let (the) field clamor, and all that is in it!”

YHWH’s greatness over the other Divine/heavenly beings was emphasized in the first tricolon of the verse-section of the first strophe (vv. 4-5a, cf. above); here, His authority over the cosmos itself (“heaven and earth”) is in view. The call to worship YHWH (from vv. 7-9f) is extended to all of creation. Specifically, world of nature is called to rejoice, expressed by four different verbs in the three lines. In the first line, the basic verb jm^c* (“be glad/happy”) is used, along with lyG] (“spin/circle [joyously]”), which, for poetic concision, I have translated above simply as “rejoice”. The sea is then asked to “roar” (or “crash”, <u^r*) joyously, while, similarly, the “field” (i.e., dry land) to make a joyful noise (or clamor, vb zl^u*).

The meter of this tricolon is slightly irregular (4+3+4).

Verse 12b-13b

“Then shall ring out all (the) trees of (the) thicket,
before (the) face of YHWH—for He comes!
For He comes to render Judgment (on) the earth!”

In this second tricolon, the theme of the rejoicing of nature (from the first tricolon, v. 11-12a) blends into an announcement of the coming of YHWH to judge the earth. This explains, belatedly, why all of nature is asked to rejoice—it is in anticipation of the coming Judgment. The initial adverbial particle za* indicates the specific moment (“then, at that time”) when YHWH appears. This would seem to be an early example of the theme, found throughout the later (exilic and post-exilic) Prophets, in which the “day of YHWH” motif—the time when God judges (and punishes) a specific people—is expanded to cover an (eschatological) judgment of all the nations, collectively. The motif of the trees rejoicing is found elsewhere, famously, in Isaiah 55:12.

Verse 13cd

“He shall judge (the) world with righteousness,
and (the) peoples with His firmness!”

I regard this final (3+2) couplet—the only couplet which I identify as such in this Psalm—as supplemental, used to bring the strophe, and the Psalm itself, to a conclusion. It builds upon the Judgment-theme in vv. 12b-13b, emphasizing YHWH’s action in rendering Judgment (vb fp^v*) upon all the world. It is specifically the inhabited earth (lb@T@), with all its people, that is judged.

The “straightness” (i.e., fairness) of YHWH in bringing judgment (see v. 10, above) is again mentioned here—i.e., that He judges with justice and equity. This aspect of YHWH’s role as Judge is expressed with traditional religious terminology, using the pair of nouns qd#x# and hn`Wma$. The former noun means “right(eous)ness”, but sometimes with the social-legal connotation of “justice”; it can also connote the idea of faithfulness and loyalty. The latter noun (hn`Wma$) properly means “firmness”, which is a suitable parallel for the “straightness” (rv*ym@) of YHWH in rendering judgment. The noun is often used in the covenantal context of God’s faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., to the covenant bond), and frequently so in the Psalms.

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 “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 87

Psalm 87

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This short Psalm is arguably among the most obscure and difficult in the Psalter. The awkward phrasing, abrupt shifts in language and wording, and—most notably—the apparent ambiguities of thought and expression in vv. 4-6, have all led commentators to theorize that the MT as it has come down to us is corrupt and in a disorganized state. Some have attempted to reconstruct and reorder the lines to produce a more coherent poem (see Kraus, pp. 184-85f). Others (e.g., Dahood, Hossfeld-Zenger) are unwilling to take such a step, or do not feel the need, and attempt instead to make sense of the MT as it stands (with only minor modifications).

Unfortunately, Psalm 87, perhaps due to its brevity, is not preserved among the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts, so there is no way to confirm whether (or to what extent) the MT may be corrupt. Nor is much clarity to be found in the LXX and other ancient versions, which seem to struggle just as much as modern scholars in making sense of the Hebrew text. I have chosen to work from the Masoretic text, keeping closely to it, and adopting only modest changes in vocalization and line divisions, at several points.

As might be expected, the meter of the Psalm (in the MT) is quite irregular, and, probably to some extent, unreliable. I discuss the rhythm/meter only in a few places below.

This Psalm is attributed to “(the) sons of Qorah”, as were the prior Pss 84-85 and 87. These follow the earlier collection of Pss 42-49; on the Qorah-tradition, cf. the study on Ps 42-43. These Korahite Psalms share a number of themes and motifs, including the Zion-emphasis that we find here in Ps 87. They also deal with the relationship between Israel/Judah and the nations, reflecting certain eschatological emphases or points of reference that indicate a measure of affinity with Prophetic oracles and poems of the exilic (and post-exilic) period. For more on the the relation of Ps 87 to the Korahite corpus, cf. the discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 385-8.

The structure of this Psalm is indicated, in this instance, by the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker, following vv. 3 and 6. The first section (vv. 1-3) is a short hymn of praise for Zion, and for its special place as the chosen dwelling of YHWH; God’s love for the site of Jerusalem/Zion is particularly emphasized. The second section (vv. 4-6) draws upon aspects of the Prophetic nation-oracles, according to the thematic emphasis of the poems in the exilic (and post-exilic) period which offer the promise that, in the New Age of Israel’s restoration, the surrounding nations will join Israel in worshiping YHWH on mount Zion. The enigmatic verse 7 concludes the Psalm.

Verses 1-2

“Founded by Him on (the) mountains of holiness,
YHWH is loving (you), O gates of ‚iyyôn,
(more) than all (the) dwelling-places of Ya’aqob.”

The Psalm begins in an unusual manner, with (it seems) an orienting subordinate clause (v. 1b) that modifies the object of the central statement (v. 2a) (“[the] gates of Zion”). I take the initial word to be a verbal noun, a passive participle with 3rd person singular suffix (of agency); cf. Dahood, II, p. 299. It is a feminine form (hd*Wsy+), which presumably refers to the city of Jerusalem (the noun ryu! being feminine); the expression “gates of Jerusalem” in the central line stands for the implied object noun, specified in v. 3, “city of the Mightiest” (i.e., city of God, Jerusalem).

Cities were often personified as women in the ancient Near East, a tendency that goes beyond the grammatical gender here of ryu!. The feminine personification of Zion is perhaps best known through the expression “daughter of Zion” (or “daughter Zion”), frequent in the Prophetic texts (cf. also Psalm 9:14).

The plural “mountains” may be intended as an intensive plural (like <yh!l)a$), as a way of identifying the fortified hilltop site of Zion as the holy mountain of YHWH’s dwelling. In Semitic (and Canaanite) religious tradition, any mountain or hill can serve as a local manifestation of the great cosmic mountain where the Creator (El-YHWH) resides. Such hills are thus holy (vdq), since God has chosen to reside there. Jerusalem was founded by YHWH (vb ds^y`) on this holy site.

The central statement in v. 2a declares that YHWH loves (vb bh^a*) the site that he has chosen, and the city that is built there. The idea of God’s love for Jerusalem (and the Temple) is implied in many Scriptural passages, but only rarely stated directly. Psalm 78:68 is the most notable example, indicatin that His love extends beyond the site of mount Zion to the entire tribe/territory of Judah. There can be little doubt that the Judean royal theology informs this language and imagery a good deal. YHWH’s love is implicit in the fact that He chose Judah and Jerusalem for His dwelling-place (i.e., the Temple sanctuary).

The expression “gates of Zion” refers both to the city (Jerusalem), but also, specifically, to the Temple precincts built on the ancient fortified hilltop-location. The gates are mentioned, along with the feminine representation of Zion (as “daughter”) in Psalm 9:14; see also Lamentations 1:4. On God’s specific love for the Temple sanctuary, cf. Malachi 2:11.

The participle bh@a) may be meant to indicate the regular and continual nature of this love, being part of YHWH’s essential character and His abiding relationship to His people. The fact that YHWH chose Zion/Jerusalem over all the other “dwelling-places” in Israel (Jacob), is an indication that He loves it more than those other sites.

Metrically, vv. 1-2, as they stand, read as a slightly irregular 3-beat tricolon.

Verse 3

“Worthy (thing)s are being spoken in you,
O city of (the) Mightiest!”
Selah

Following the MT, the sense of this verse (3+2 couplet) is not clear. The referent for the passive (Niphal) feminine plural participle (todB*k=n]), in particular, is ambiguous. Dahood (II, p. 299) would parse the lines differently, reading the participle as modifying the plural noun tonK=v=m! (“dwelling-places”), with which it agrees. He also revocalizes MT lK)m! (“from all,” with comparative /m!, i.e., “more than all”) in v. 2b to read lk@m@ (Hiphil participle of the verb ll^K*)— “(the One) completing”. By this approach, vv 2b-3 form a 4-beat (4+4) couplet:

“(the One) completing (the) glorious dwellings of Jacob
is speaking in you, O city of (the) Mightiest”

For commentators who prefer to follow the MT, the participle todB*k=n] is typically understood as referring to things (i.e., words of praise, etc) that are spoken. It is thus rendered as a substantive adjective “weighty (thing)s” (i.e., worthy, honorable, glorious things). Who is it that speaks these things? The context suggests that it is YHWH. Since He resides on mount Zion, in the Temple sanctuary, it is natural that He would be speaking there. In this sense, Jerusalem is, indeed His city (“city of the Mightiest”, i.e., city of God).

Verse 4

“I mark (down) Rahab and Bab-il—
(they belong) to (those) knowing me;
see Pelešet and ‚ôr (along) with Kûš—
‘This (one) was born there’.

The next unit of the Psalm (vv. 4-6) is difficult to interpret, leading to a variety of approaches by commentators. Though the language and poetry (as it stands in the MT) is awkward, these lines seem to express the idea that, in the (near) future, the surrounding nations will join with Israel in worshiping YHWH, becoming (in a sense) part of God’s people.

This reflects a longstanding line of Prophetic tradition which developed throughout certain oracles and poems of the exilic and post-exilic periods. It is tied to the promise of the restoration of Israel. In the New Age of Israel’s restoration, the nations will be forced to submit, and they will send representatives to Jerusalem to pay homage and to give worship to Israel’s God YHWH. The classic passage expressing the ideal of the nations coming to join Israel/Judah on mount Zion is Isaiah 2:1-5 (par Mic 4:1-5). The motif of the nations coming to Jerusalem features prominently in the Deutero- and Trito-Isaian poems, along with a universalistic message portending that the nations will find blessing and salvation in the knowledge of YHWH—e.g., 42:1-6; 49:6, 22f; 56:1-8; chap. 60; 66:18-24; cf. also 11:10ff. Another famous (post-exilic) example of this theme is found at the close of Zechariah (14:16-21). The relation of the nations to Zion is also a recurring theme in other Korah Psalms (e.g., 46-48).

I regard verse 4 as comprised of two thematically parallel couplets. In the first line of each couplet, YHWH (or His prophet) makes special note of certain representative nations—Egypt (“Rahab”) and Babylon (line 1); then Philistia, the city-state of Tyr, and Cush (line 3). The name Raha» is a mythopoeic term for the dark/chaotic primeval waters, personified as a sea-monster (cf. Psalm 89:11[10]; Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa 51:9), which YHWH (as Creator) subdued, thus bringing order to Creation (for the mythological background of this imagery, cf. my earlier article). The name Rahab is applied to Egypt also in Isa 30:7.

The guiding verb of the first line, rk^z` denotes having something in mind; in the Hiphil (causative) stem, the force is can be either “bring to mind” or “keep in mind”. Here it seems to be used in the special sense of noting something—that is, marking it down or recording it; the participle ryK!z+m^ is used as the title of an official or scribe who acts as a recorder.

In the second line of each couplet, the nations are being treated as though they belonged to God’s people and were citizens of the holy city of God (Zion/Jerusalem). In line 2, I take the prefixed preposition –l of the participial expression yu*d=y)l= in the sense of “belonging to”; the single word thus forms a distinct phrase, indicating that these nations belong (or will belong) to “(the one)s knowing me” —those who know (and worship) YHWH. In line 4, this same idea is expressed in terms of belonging to the holy city; the people of the nations will be treated like citizens born in the city (“this [one] is born there”).

Verse 5

“Indeed, for of ‚iyyôn it is said,
‘(This) man and (that) man has been born in her’ —
and He, (the) Highest, sets her firm.”

The initial –w is emphatic and explicative, building upon the previous line to explain the significance of the declaration “This (one) is born there”. It refers to the record of a person’s citizenship—that is, the place of his/her birth—specifically, of belonging to the city of God (Zion/Jerusalem).

The final line here, however, remains difficult. What is the precise meaning of the verb /WK in context? Fundamentally, the verb means make/set (something) firm, establishing it as being fixed and secure, etc. The feminine suffix (h*-) presumably refers again to the city (personified as female), and probably alludes back to the idea that YHWH founded Jerusalem upon the holy mountain(s) (see on v. 1 above), thus setting the city on a firm foundation. Possibly this imagery is meant to extend here to a person’s citizenship—that belonging to the city of God is made firm and secure (by YHWH Himself).

Verse 6

“YHWH (Himself) makes an account,
in (His) inscribing (of the) peoples:
‘This (one) was born there!’
Selah

This final tricolon reiterates the message of vv. 4-5, stating it now more directly (and less ambiguously). YHWH Himself does the recording of the nations (here, “peoples”), granting to them citizenship in the holy city of God. On an ethnic-religious level, this refers (as noted above) to the Prophetic tradition of the nations coming to Jerusalem (Zion) to pay homage to Israel/Judah and to acknowledge and worship YHWH. It can also be interpreted in a spiritual sense, whereby the “city of God” refers, not to a geographical location, but to one’s relationship (in heart/mind/soul) to God Himself.

Verse 7

“And they are singing as they twirl:
All my springs (are) in you!”

The Psalm ends, abruptly and enigmatically, with this obscure couplet, the exact meaning (and translation) of which is anyone’s guess. For lack of any better option, I have kept quite literally to the MT as we have it.

The reference to singing and dancing seems out of place, but it is fitting to the context of the Psalm itself—as a musical composition (romz+m!) and a poem to be set to music and sung (ryv!). It may imply a liturgical (worship) setting in the Temple precincts, and perhaps this is meant to relate, however tangentially, to the idea of “worthy things” being spoken within the gates of Zion (v. 3, cf. above). Kraus (p. 185), in his reconstruction of the Psalm, has verse 3 follow verse 7, with both occurring in the middle of the composition.

What is the meaning of the final line? Does it represent the words that the performers sing? Is there an allusion to the eschatological image in Zech 14:8, or to a correspondingly similar tradition? Is “my springs” even the correct way to understand and render yn~y`u=m^ here? (cf. the very different explanation by Dahood, II, p. 300). Overall, in keeping with the (eschatological) theme of the conversion/salvation of the nations, it is perhaps best to maintain (cautiously) the idea that the people of God (including members of the nations) will enjoy the blessings provided by YHWH—represented by fountains and streams of life-giving waters—in the holy city; cf. the brief discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 384-6.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 83 (Part 2)

Psalm 83, continued

Part 2: Verses 10-19 [9-18]

After the description of the hostile nations in Part 1 (cf. the previous study), with which the Psalmist gives forth a national lament and plea to YHWH, the tone in Part 2 shifts to a prayer for deliverance, asking God to bring judgment upon the nations. This is an early example of the Prophetic theme of the day of YHWH’s collective judgment against all the nations of earth. The concept of a collective judgment is an extension and development of the nation-oracle genre, in which the prophet delivers an oracle of judgment against a particular nation or people. Another example of this development is the Isaian ‘Apocalypse’ (chapters 24-27) that follows the collection of nation-oracles in chaps. 13-23.

Verse 10-11 [9-10]

“Do to them as (you did to) Midyan, as (to) Sîsera,
(and) as (to) Yabîn at (the) wadi Qîšôn,
(who) were destroyed at (the) Spring of Dôr,
(and) became manure for (the) ground!”

In calling for YHWH to bring judgment on the nations, the Psalmist turns to past historical examples when God delivered his people from oppression and attack. Obviously, these examples indicate that YHWH acted to achieve a military victory for Israel, and, most likely, the Psalmist envisions the judgment on the nations coming in a similar manner. The victory over Midian presumably alludes to the episodes described in Judges 6-7, while those over Sisera and Jabin are narrated in Judges 4-5. There were two different kings of the Canaanite city-state Hazor with the name Jabin (for the other, cf. Joshua 11).

I take verse 11 as a continuation of the example in v. 10, and read the perfect verb forms as past tense narrative verbs. However, Dahood (II, p. 275f) treats the verbs as precative perfects, understanding the couplet to express a separate (or additional) imprecation against the nations—i.e., “Let them be destroyed…, may they become…”.

If verse 11 is truly a continuation of the thought in v. 10, then the (plural) subject of the verbs is almost certainly the pair of leaders Jabin and Sisera, who were defeated near the wadi Qîšôn (Kishon), cf. Judg 4:7, 13ff; 5:21. The location of the “Spring of Dor” (En-Dor, rad) /yu@) in the first line is problematic. There is no mention of this site in Judges 4-5, and, though it is in the general area indicated, it is located some distance north of the Kishon. It may reflect a detail in the historical tradition that has otherwise been lost. Kraus (p. 160) would emend the text to dr)j& /yu@ (“Spring of Harod,” En-Harod), the location of the battle against the Midianites (Judg 7:1). Dahood (II, p. 275f) takes an entirely different approach, which, while alleviating the geographic difficulties, creates certain implausibilities of its own.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

“Set their nobles (to be) like ±Oreb and like Ze°eb,
and like Zebaµ and like ‚almunna all their princes,
who said, ‘Let us seize for ourselves
(the) abodes of (the) mighty (one)s!'”

This pair of couplets picks up from the initial mention of Midian in v. 10a, referring to the Gideon narratives in Judges 6-8. The four Midianite leaders mentioned here were among those defeated and killed by Gideon, according to Judg 7:25ff and 8:5-21. Their declaration in v. 13 reflects the wicked and violent ambitions of the foreign rulers, who seek to take possession (vb vr^y`) of the land of Israel. The noun ha*n` is a general term denoting a dwelling or abode, whether human or animal; it can refer to a human home/house, but also to pasture-land for herds, etc. The expression <yh!l)a$ toan+ could be translate “abodes of (the) Mightiest [i.e. God, Elohim]”; in any case, the author is doubtless playing on the double meaning of <yh!l)a$ (“mighty ones” / “Mightiest”), cf. the first word of v. 14. Dahood (II, p. 276) is probably correct in emphasizing the term’s principal significance here as a superlative, viz., the best/finest lands, etc.

Verse 14 [13]

“O Mightiest, set them (to be) like the rolling (brush),
like stubble (blown) before (the) face of (the) wind;”

Here, the defeat of the nations is expressed via images from nature. The noun lG~l=G~ denotes something that rolls or is rolling; here it probably refers a rolling tumbleweed (or similar brush) that is blown about by the wind. Describing them as stubble (vq^) suggests an even more feeble and helpless condition in the face of YHWH’s judgment.

Verse 15 [14]

“(just) as fire burns (through) a forest,
and as (its) flame consumes (the) hills—”

Syntactically, this couplet continues the thought from v. 14, shifting the imagery, from a windstorm to that of a fire that burns through (and burns up) the forests and wooded hills. The verb ru^B* denotes the actual burning of something, while fj^l* refers to something being consumed (i.e., burned up) by fire.

Verse 16 [15]

“so may you pursue them with your windstorm,
and with your tempest terrify them!”

I view this couplet syntactically as the principal clause that completes the thought of vv. 14-16. It calls on YHWH to strike the nations, driving them off (lit. pursuing [vb [d^r*] them) in fear/alarm (vb lh^B*). Two different nouns signifying a powerful storm are used—ru^s^ and hp*Ws. This is part of an ancient poetic storm-theophany tradition, describing the manifest presence of YHWH through the imagery and phenomena of the storm. This reflects YHWH’s control over the forces of nature, but particularly the celestial phenomena related to the rains and the waters above the heavens (cf. my earlier article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”). The forces of nature fight under YHWH’s command and control, on behalf of His people Israel. The most famous example of this tradition is the event and the Reed Sea (Exodus 14-15), but it is also present in the Song of Deborah (Judg 5:4-5, 20-21); cf. above on the mention of Sisera and Jabin in v. 10.

The verb forms are jussive imperfects, with the force of imperatives.

Verse 17 [16]

“Fill (all) their faces (with) dishonor,
and let them seek your name, YHWH.”

This couplet is problematic, as the apparent wish for the nations to seek the name of YHWH seems rather out of place. Dahood’s clever solution (II, p. 277) is worth mentioning. He divides and vocalizes the text in the second line differently from the MT, reading the first two words as ;m=v!W vQ@b^w], with the second w-conjunction having emphatic force: “and let your name (indeed) seek (vengeance)”.

However, if the MT is correct, then a different explanation must be sought. Thematically, it would seem that the two lines of verse 17 represent a seminal form of a juxtaposition that is developed more fully in vv. 18-19. The first line refers to the judgment/punishment of the nations, and corresponds to v. 18; the second line, corresponding to v. 19, refers to the nations’ acknowledgment of YHWH as the one true God and Sovereign over the earth.

Verse 18 [17]

“May they be put to shame and alarmed even to (the end)—
indeed, may they be disgraced and may they perish!”

As noted above, this couplet corresponds with the first line of v. 17. The two verbs denoting the experience of shame/disgrace, vWB and rp^j*, essentially carry the same meaning as the idiom in v. 17 (of one’s face being filled with disgrace [/olq*]), and are parallel here. Also parallel is the phrase “let them be alarmed until (the) end” and the verbal form “let them perish” (vb db^a*). The line 1 phrase uses the verb lh^B* (“be alarmed, frightened, disturbed”), as earlier in v. 16 (cf. above), along with the qualifying expression du^ yd@u&. This prepositional expression is difficult to translate; loosely it means something like “for perpetuity”, connoting something going on continually, and yet the parallel with the verb db^a* (“perish”) suggests an end. The intensity of the double du construction is best understood as referring to a severe and prolonged state of fear and suffering that accompanies the nations’ destruction.

Verse 19 [18]

“And let them know that you, your name (is) YHWH,
you alone are (the) Highest (One) over all the earth!”

The Psalm closes with this elongated 4-beat (4+4) couplet, developing the theme from the second line of v. 17 (cf. above). The judgment of the nations will cause them (i.e., the nations) to know that YHWH is the supreme God and Sovereign over all Creation. I take hwhy ;m=v! (lit. “your name YHWH”) as a phrase modifying the pronoun hT*a^ (“you”)—i.e., “you, (whose) name (is) YHWH”; that is, the God of Israel, whose name is YHWH.

How does this couplet relate to v. 18? There are three possibilities:

      • Both couplets refer to the nations that are judged (and destroyed); in their punishment, they are forced to acknowledge YHWH as the Mightiest (One), the supreme God.
      • The verses refer to two different groups of nations—those who are judged/destroyed, and those which remain; the ones remaining recognize Israel’s God, YHWH, as the true God.
      • The same nations are referenced in both verses; while they are judged and punished as nations, not all the people are destroyed, and the survivors acknowledge YHWH as God (compare Zech 14:16ff).

The last approach seems to make the best sense of vv. 18-19, and also of the juxtaposed lines in v. 17, where the more positive motif of people seeking (vb vq^B*) YHWH is present.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 83 (Part 1)

Psalm 83

Dead Sea MSS: MasPsa (vv. 1-19)

This Psalm is the last of the Asaph-collection, Pss 73-83); on Asaph, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50. It generally follows the pattern of many Psalms of lament. The first part contains a lament to YHWH, referring to the threats and oppression posed by hostile/wicked enemies, while the second part shifts to a prayer for deliverance, including a call for God to bring judgment upon the Psalmist’s enemies. In many of the Psalms, the author/protagonist essentially represents the people as a whole (esp. the righteous among them); here in Psalm 83, however, the people of Israel, collectively, are more clearly in view. The Psalm is, in fact, a national lament and prayer for deliverance.

There is a clear two-part structure to this Psalm, and here the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker serves as a structural indicator. In the first part (vv. 2-9), the threat posed to Israel by the nations is laid out, including a list of the many surrounding nations, presented as though they were all engaged in a coalition to attack Israel. As Dahood notes (II, p. 273), this likely does not refer to any specific historical episode or situation; rather, the list of nations represents those peoples and kingdoms which have shown themselves hostile to Israel throughout its history (this historical sweep is indicated in the second part, vv. 10, 12). The list climaxes with Assyria, which suggests a pre-exilic date for the Psalm (its original composition), presumably sometime in the 8th century (or late 9th century)

In the second part (vv. 10-19), the Psalmist calls on YHWH to bring judgment upon the nations. If a pre-exilic 8th century date for the Psalm is correct (cf. above), then this would make Ps 83 an early example of (or precursor to) the Prophetic oracles and poems which have as their theme the collective judgment on the nations. These passages represent a development of the nation-oracle genre in the Prophets, in which judgment is announced on a specific nation in each oracle. Isaiah 13-23 is the most notable collection of such nation/judgment-oracles, and the collection concludes with the Isaian ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27, where the judgment theme is extended, with an eschatological emphasis, to cover the entire earth (and all the nations). Psalm 83 is not too far removed, both in time and spirit, from these Isaian oracles.

With only a couple of exceptions, this Psalm follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The heading refers to the Psalm as both a musical composition (the regular term romz+m!) and a song (ryv!). Since a poem set to music is, by definition, a “song”, it is not entirely clear why only some of the Psalms have this specific designation, or whether the term is meant to make a particular distinction. Two other Asaph-Psalms (75, 76) are marked the same way, as also are Pss 45-46, 48, 65-68, and a number of others.

Like the prior Psalm (82), Ps 83 is not preserved among the Qumran Psalm manuscripts; however, it does survive, virtually complete in a Dead Sea manuscript from Masada. The text of this MS is very close to the Masoretic Text, there being only a handful of minor variants attested.

Part 1: Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“O Mightiest, (may there) not (be) ceasing for you—
do not be silent, and do not keep still, Mighty (One)!”

The translation of the first line of this opening couplet follows the MT, but the peculiarity of the syntax raises the possibility that the LXX (and other ancient versions) preserve an underlying Hebrew text that is closer to the original, and that the MT ought to be emended slightly. Dahood (II, p. 273) makes a strong case for redividing and repointing the text (D), as follows:

    • MT: El* ym!D( la^ <yh!l)a$
      D: El* ym@D) la@ ym! yh@l)a$

The first line then becomes a question (comparable to that in Ps 77:14[13]):

“My Mighty (One), who is a mighty (one) like unto you?”

The LXX seems to reflect a similar Hebrew text here: o( qeo/$ ti/$ o(moiwqh/setai/ soi (“My God, who shall be likened to you?”).

Instead of the proposed participle ym@D) (“being like”), from the verb hm*D* I, the MT reads the noun ym!D( from the root hmD II (“cease, cut off”). This noun is rare, occurring elsewhere in just two places (in Isaiah, 38:10; 62:6-7). In the first Isaiah reference, the context is the cutting short of one’s life; literally, the phrase is “in the cutting off [ym!D(] of my days”. The dual reference in Isa 62:6-7 appears to be close in sense to the MT of verse 2a here; the fundamental meaning of ym!D( (“ceasing”) is understood in terms of ceasing from activity (and speech), i.e., being quiet. The syntax in Isa 62:6 is almost identical with Ps 83:2a, with the phrase being:

“…(let there) not (be) ceasing [i.e. rest/quiet] for you”
<k#l* ym!D( la^

However one parses the first line of the couplet, the second line makes clear the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH, with parallel jussives (translated as imperatives), using the verbs vr^j* II (“be silent”) and fq^v* (“be quiet”). The Psalmist is asking God not to be silent/quiet—in other words, to answer his prayer.

Verse 3 [2]

“For, see, (those) hostile to you make a clamor,
and (the one)s hating you lift up (their) head!”

The contrast is between YHWH keeping silent and the enemies of YHWH making a loud noise (vb hm*h*); the implication is that it is only because of God’s apparent silence and inactivity on behalf of His people, that their enemies are able to act with such violent boldness and aggression. The Psalmist refers to the enemies of Israel as God’s own enemies; the theological basis for this identification has to do with the specific covenant bond between YHWH and His people, but also with the fact that the other nations reject YHWH and worship other deities instead.

There is clear synonymous parallelism in this couplet. Participles of the verbs by~a* (“be hostile”) and an`c* (“hate”) are used to characterize the nations as hostile adversaries who hate Israel (and thus also hate YHWH, Israel’s God). Their specific actions are also parallel: hm`h* (“make a [loud] noise, clamor”) and the expression “lift [the] head” (with the verb ac*n`). The latter expression indicates the boldness of the opponents.

Verse 4 [3]

“Against your people they act cunningly (in) concert,
and take counsel against your treasured (one)s.”

The combination of motifs in vv. 3-4, with the hostile nations first making a loud clamor, and then the people taking counsel with one another against God, is reminiscent of the famous lines in Psalm 2:1-2 (cf. the earlier study). In that earlier Psalm, the nations’ hostility is directly equally against God and His “anointed one” (i.e., the king); here it is against God and His people as a whole. The verb Ju^y` (“advise, plan, [take] counsel”) in the second line is parallel with the expression “act cunningly (in) concert” in the first. The verb <r^u* (I) denotes being careful, shrewd, etc; the word “cunning” captures the characteristic of a crafty adversary.

The verb /p^x* means “hide”, sometimes in the sense of hiding treasure, and thus can also mean (more abstractly), “to treasure”. Here the passive participle of the verb (lit. “hidden [one]s”) should probably be understood as “treasured [one]s” —i.e., God’s people as His treasure (cp. Exod 19:5; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Psalm 135:4; Mal 3:17, etc). Dahood (II, p. 274), following some of the ancient versions, vocalizes iynwpx as a singular noun, ;yn]Wpx=, “your treasure”.

Verse 5 [4]

“They say, ‘Come and let us make them cease from (being) a nation,
and (then the) name of Yisrael shall not be remembered any more!'”

The intention of the hostile nations, as they plan and conspire together, is expressed here. Their desire, as the Psalmist puts it, clearly is to wipe out Israel as a nation.*

* There is a tragic modern expression of this same sentiment at work, even as I am writing these notes, with the attacks on the state of Israel (and its people) by surrounding hostile nations and groups—Oct 7-8, 2023.

The basic meaning of verb dj^K* is something like “make disappear”, i.e., disappear from being a nation; I have translated this somewhat conventionally as “make them cease from (being) a nation”, in order to utilize a bit of conceptual wordplay with verse 2 (cf. above). YHWH has “ceased” from acting on behalf of His people, and so they are in danger of “ceasing” from being a nation any longer. This reflects the urgency of the Psalmist’s prayer: YHWH needs to respond, so as to help and protect His people in their moment of existential need.

Verse 6 [5]

“Indeed, they take counsel together (with) one heart,
(and) against you they cut a binding agreement:”

The second line of this couplet has the prepositional expression “against you” (;yl#u*) in first (emphatic) position. I take the Psalmist to be expounding the enemies’ words from the previous verse: i.e., “in saying this, they are actually taking counsel against you”. In this regard, the particle yK! at the beginning of the first line should also be understood as emphatic (translated “indeed…”). The second point of development is that the nations’ agreement with their heart (i.e., intention, purpose, desire) to act against Israel (and against YHWH) is given formal expression through a binding agreement (tyr!B=) that they have “cut” (vb tr^K*) with one another. This wicked ‘covenant’ between the nations is, of course, meant to be contrasted with the binding agreement (tyrB=) that was cut between YHWH and His people Israel.

I punctuate the end of verse 6 with a colon, taking the Psalmist to be indicating that the binding agreement made against Israel (and YHWH) includes the nations listed in vv. 7-9. All of these nations, at various points in Israel’s history, have been hostile adversaries.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“(The) tents of ‘Edôm and (the) Yišma’eli,
Mo’ab and (the) Hagri’i,
Gebal and ‘Ammôn and ‘Amalek,
(the) Pelešet with (the) settlers of ‚ôr.”

This list includes many of the nations/peoples surrounding the kingdom of Israel; they all were enemies, at different times, during the pre-exilic period. It is not necessary to assume that there was ever an actual agreement between all of these nations, at the same time, against Israel. The motif is poetic, and also prophetic, in that it anticipates the (later) prophetic theme of the day of YHWH’s judgment against all the nations (collectively). Here, these nations are listed together because they all have in common the characteristic of being (during their history) hostile opponents of Israel.

By scribal error (metathesis), the Dead Sea manuscript MasPsa reads “gods of [yhla] Edom” instead of “tents of [ylha] Edom”. The people of Edom and the Ishmaelites are neighbors to the south (and southeast) of Israel, while the people of Moab and the Hagrites, as well as the people of Ammon, populated the Transjordan regions to the east. The association of Amalek with Ammon (and the Transjordan) may reflect the historical tradition of the alliance of Ammon and Amalek with Moab (king Eglon) to attack Israel (Judges 3:12-14); the Amalekites also seem to have had a presence further north and to the west, at times serving as raiders and mercenaries against Israel. The Philistines (Pelešet) and the city-state of Tyr (‚ôr) represent the western and northern boundaries of the Israelite kingdom.

Of the nations and peoples in this list, only “Gebal” (lb*G+) is problematic. Its position here, being included with the Transjordan nations, makes it unlikely that the reference is to the Phoenician Gbl (Byblos). A more probable identification is with the region Gibal/Jebal SE of the Dead Sea, located in the hilly Edomite territory of Seir; Josephus (Antiquities 2.6) refers to Gobolitis as forming part of Idumea.

Verse 9 [8]

“Also ‘Aššûr has become joined with them,
and is (the strong) arm of (the) sons of Lôt.”
Selah

The list of hostile nations, and the first part of the Psalm, concludes with this mention of Assyria (‘Aššûr), connecting it specifically with the nations of Moab and Ammon (the “sons of Lot”, cf. the tradition in Gen 19:36-38; Deut 2:9). The implication is that Assyria is only involved in conflict with Israel through Moab and Ammon as proxies. Perhaps the allusion is to Moab’s status as an Assyrian vassal state following the conquests by Tiglath-Pileser III (mid-late 8th century). In any case, within the dramatic scenario portrayed in the Psalm, Assyrian military might provides Moab/Ammon with a strong “arm” with which to attack Israel.

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 82

Psalm 82

Dead Sea MSS: MasPsa (vv. 1-8)

This relatively short Psalm is among the most intriguing and provocative in the entire collection. The main source of intrigue is the setting established in verse 1, where YHWH is standing as Ruler (and Judge) “in the midst of” the gathering of the gods. This juxtaposition between YHWH and the gods (of the nations) is striking, particularly with the double-use of the plural <yh!l)a$, but it can be problematic for Jews and Christians who are accustomed to reading the Old Testament Scriptures from the standpoint of an absolute monotheism. But such a monotheism is the end-product of a long process of religious and theological development—a process of which this Psalm is very much a part. In actuality, the relationship between the YHWH and the deities worshiped by the other nations, as expressed in ancient Israelite thought and writing, was quite complex.

Opinions of commentators regarding the date of this Psalm vary widely. It may be necessary to distinguish between the poem in its original form and its inclusion (with redaction) as part of the Elohistic Psalter (and Asaph-collection, Pss 73-83). As far as the content and thought-world of the original composition, there are certain similarities with the Song of Moses (Deut 32), which might suggest a very old (and perhaps even pre-monarchic) date (cf. Dahood, II, p. 269).

The brevity of this Psalm allows us to treat it essentially as a singular unit. However, it can also be rather neatly divided into two parts, vv. 1-4 and 5-8, which I would outline in a loose chiastic form, framed by the opening and closing verses:

    • YHWH’s position as Ruler and Judge in the heavenly council (v. 1)
      • YHWH’s pronouncement of Judgment (vv. 2-4)
      • A prophetic announcement of Judgment (vv. 5-7)
    • Call for YHWH to act as Ruler and Judge over the nations on earth (v. 8)

There is a certain prophetic quality to this Psalm, which it has in common with others in the Asaph-collection; on the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50. The Psalmist functions as a prophet, effectively seeing a vision of YHWH in the heavenly council, rather like the vision by Micaiah in 1 Kings 22 (cf. vv. 19ff). The vision is narrated in the first part (vv. 1-4); then, in the second part (vv. 5-8), the Psalmist responds to the vision, essentially delivering a short prophetic message based upon it.

The occurrence of a Selah (hl*s#) pause marker following verse 2 is curious. In this case, it does not seem to be any kind of structural indicator; a pause may simply be intended to make a clear distinction between the rhetorical question in verse 2 and the declaration that follows.

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format—strictly so in the first part, and more loosely in the second.

Psalm 82 is not preserved among the Qumran Psalm manuscripts; however, it does survive, virtually complete in a Dead Sea manuscript from Masada. The text of this MS is more or less identical with the Masoretic Text.

Verse 1

“(The) Mightiest is standing in the appointed (place) for (the) Mighty,
in (the) midst of (the) Mighty (one)s he holds judgment.”

On the one hand, this opening couplet is quite straightforward; but, on the other hand, it is rather tricky to translate. This is, in part, because of the repeated use of the terms la@ / <yh!l)a$, with different nuances of meaning. The noun la@ (°¢l) represents the common (and ancient) Semitic term for deity. I take its fundamental meaning to be something like “mighty (one)”. The plural of la@ is <yl!a@ (°¢lîm, “mighty [one]s”), but this form is quite rare in the Old Testament; far more common is the expanded plural <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm), which, in a monotheistic Israelite context, typically refers to the one deity, the Creator El-YHWH. I understand the plural form, in this context, to represent an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “(the) Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier articles on the titles El and Elohim.

The interplay in verse 1, utilizing these terms, is striking. The first plural <yh!l)a$ (in line 1) clearly refers to YHWH (“Mightiest [One]”), while the second (in line 2) just as clearly refers to other divine beings, and thus is a regular (numeric) plural, i.e., “Mighty (one)s”. Meanwhile, the singular la@, in between, appears to refer to (all) the gods, in a collective (or general) sense “(the) Mighty (ones)”.

The noun hd*u@ denotes an appointed time/place; here it indicates the appointed place where the deities gather, and where YHWH serves as Ruler/Judge, holding judgment. The noun br#q# suggests spatially that YHWH is standing in the midst/middle of the gathering of gods.

The implication is that these “mighty (one)s” (gods) are the deities recognized and worshiped by the other nations. One could describe them more loosely as divine/heavenly beings, without considering them to be “gods” per se; this would certainly be more in keeping with the absolute monotheism of later Israelites, Jews and Christians, but it would also gravely distort the theological and polemic message of the Psalm. All throughout the ancient Near East, there are variations of the heavenly/Divine council motif, where the supreme Creator/Ruler presides over the assembly of the gods; for the application of this motif in ancient Israel, and various ancient/poetic allusions to it, see, e.g., Psalm 29:1-2, 9-10; 89:6-7; Job 1-2; 1 Kings 22:19.

Verse 2

“Until when will you judge with corruption,
and (the) faces of (the) wicked lift up?”
Selah

In vv. 2-4, YHWH pronounces the judgment (in His role as Judge). He is, it would seem, addressing the other gods (“mighty [one]s”) in the assembly. The judgment begins with an accusing question, in the prophetic style. YHWH asks the gods how long (“until when…?”) they will continue to judge with “corruption”. The basic meaning of the noun lw#u* in context is perversion (of justice), i.e., injustice. The perversion of justice is glossed with the specific idiom of “lifting the face” of a person, which, in a judicial setting, refers to inappropriately showing partiality to someone, rather than based on the application of equitable and fair justice.

The underlying theological worldview here is probably reflected in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (on which, cf. my earlier study). The other deities were assigned (by El-YHWH) to have rule and authority over the various nations. According to the poetic narrative of the Psalms, the gods have abused this authority, by ruling/judging in a corrupt and unjust manner. The same essential charge can be leveled against the human rulers/leaders of the nations; for more on this, cf. below.

Verse 3

“Judge (rightly) for (the) weak and (the) orphan,
make (things) right for (the) afflicted and destitute!”

The imperatives in this next couplet reflect how the “mighty (one)s” (gods) of the nations should have ruled, with justice and right judgment. In particular, the rule of the nations should have protected those in society who are most vulnerable and in need. The pairing of the “afflicted” (yn]u*) and “needy” (/oyb=a#) is frequent in the Psalms; here the verbal noun vWr, denoting the condition of “being poor/destitute” is used in place of the latter (cf. v. 4 below). The vulnerability of orphaned children, and the like, is expressed by the adjective lD^ (“weak”). A failure to treat justly/rightly the poor and needy, and to protect them, is particularly emphasized in Prophetic judgments against the nations (and their leaders). As noted above, this Psalm (like many of the Asaph-Psalms) has definite prophetic characteristics.

Verse 4

“Give escape for (the) weak and needy,
snatch (them) from (the) hand of (the) wicked!”

Here the theme of protecting the weak and needy is given more forceful emphasis, extending the concept to include the idea of rescuing them from the oppressive power of wicked persons. The rule of law and justice in a nation should oppose wickedness, protecting people from those who are wicked; instead, as indicated in verse 2 (cf. above), the “mighty (one)s” have shown favor and partiality to the wicked. The implication is that this favor has helped the wicked to achieve the kind of power in society that enables them to oppress the poor.

This couplet concludes the heavenly judgment scene of the first part, and, in particular, the pronouncement of judgment by YHWH in vv. 2-4. It must be pointed out again that, within this scenario, YHWH is addressing the other gods (“mighty [one]s”) in the assembly—that is, we may assume, the deities who (according to earlier lines of tradition) were given authority over the nations (cf. on Deut 32:8-9, above).

Verse 5

“They do not know and do not understand;
in the darkness they walk about,
and (the) foundations of (the) earth are shaken.”

Following the prophetic vision of the first part, with YHWH as the speaker (vv. 2-4), here the Psalmist speaks in the second part, delivering a prophetic message that builds upon the earlier vision. The subject “they” must still refer to the gods (of the nations) from the first part (cf. above); however, as becomes increasingly clear, these “mighty (one)s” also, in their own way, stand for the human rulers and leaders of the nations. Thus, while on the literary/poetic level, the Psalmist is addressing the nations’ gods, he is also effectively addressing the nations themselves.

The meter of this verse differs markedly from the regular 3-beat (3+3) couplets of the first part; it is an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon, the unevenness of which may be meant as a rhythmic-poetic expression of the content—especially the idea in the central line, viz., of the “mighty (one)s” wandering about in the darkness. The ignorance/blindness of the gods brings chaos and disorder to the nations, causing the “foundations of the earth” to be shaken (vb fom). This may also allude to the judgment that has come (or is coming) upon them. In Psalm 75:3-4 [2-3], there is a comparable reference to the earth’s foundations (pillars) shaking (note the similar judgment context); it is only through the right and equitable rule of YHWH that things are kept firm and steady.

Verses 6-7

“And I say: ‘Mighty (one)s you (are),
and sons of (the) Highest, all of you,
but (yet just) like men you shall die,
and like one of the(ir) rulers shall fall!'”

The precise thrust of these two couplets is not entirely clear. As I interpret it, the Psalmist is delivering a prophetic oracle that corresponds to the earlier pronouncement of judgment by YHWH (in vv. 2-4). The actual sentence of judgment is delivered here: which is, that the “mighty (one)s” (i.e., the gods of the nations) shall fall and die like any ordinary human ruler (rc*).

In the mythic-poetic context of the Psalm, this is a sentence of the death for the gods. From a rhetorical-polemical standpoint, it functions in several different ways. First, it can be interpreted as a dramatic description of the gods’ fall from power, so that they no longer hold the position (of rule over the nations) indicated in the older lines of tradition (as in Deut 32:8-9, cf. above). Their corrupt rule has led to their being removed from divine status, thus paving the way (conceptually) for the absolute monotheism of later times—where YHWH is the only existing Deity, with direct control over all the nations (cf. on verse 8 below).

Secondly, the judgment of the nations’ gods parallels (and foreshadows) their own judgment. This is all the more pertinent since the same charges of injustice and corrupt rule could just as well be leveled by YHWH against the human rulers of the nations. And, if a sentence of death could be delivered against their gods, how much more could such a punishment come to them!

Finally, along the same lines, this dramatic presentation of Divine judgment against the nations (and their gods) has an exhortational purpose, just as with many of the nation-oracles in the Prophetic writings. The people (of Israel) must learn from this example. Instead of being like the nations, who, following the pattern of their corrupt deities, rule in an wicked and unjust manner, the Israelites (and their leaders) need to follow in the way of YHWH. His manner of judgment is totally unlike that of the nations’ gods; He rules and judges with righteousness and equity, protecting the poor and needy, and opposing the wicked. Israelite society should be conformed to this Divine pattern—according to the rule of YHWH, the one true and holy God.

There is no verb in the declaration of the first line, and would have to be supplied in translation. It could be rendered in the present tense (“You are Mighty [one]s”) or the past tense (“You were Mighty [one]s”); the latter would convey more clearly the idea of a loss of divine status—i.e., that they are no longer gods, but will die like ordinary men. In either case, there is a strong contrast intended by the adversative particle (/k@a*) at the beginning of verse 7.

Verse 8

“Stand (up), Mightiest, (and) judge the earth;
take possession (yourself) over all the nations!”

This closing couplet, in a longer (4+4) meter, functions on two different levels. First, the call (by the Psalmist) is for YHWH to take over from the deposed gods all of the authority that had been given to them. No longer will they exercise rule over the nations that had been allotted to them (cf. again on Deut 32:8-9 above); instead, YHWH (as the one true God) will act as the sole Ruler over all the nations. Previously, it is was only Israel that YHWH held as His possession, having chosen them (for His own) from all the other nations; now the call is for YHWH to take possession (vb lj^n`) over all the nations of the earth. As noted above, this represents a strong step, theologically, in the direction of an absolute monotheism, depicted in dramatic-mythic terms as a fall (and deposition) of the (other) gods from power.

On a second level, this closing couplet clearly parallels the opening couplet of verse 1 (cf. above). There YHWH was standing (lit. taking [His] stand, vb bx~n`) in heaven, as Ruler and Judge over the gods of the nations; now He is called on to stand up (vb <Wq) and assume the same position of rule on earth over the nations themselves. I indicated this parallelism in the outline of Psalm above, where the two prophetic pronouncements of judgment (vv. 2-4, 5-7) are framed by these references to YHWH’s position as Ruler and Judge over the universe.

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 81 (Part 2)

Psalm 81, continued

PART 2: Verses 9-17 [8-16]

Verse 9 [8]

“Listen, my people, and I will testify against you.
O Yisrael, if (only) you would listen to me!”

As in vv. 6c-8 (cf. the previous study), YHWH is the speaker throughout the second half of the Psalm, making these verses function as a prophetic oracle. On the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50; the prophetic character of a number of the Asaph-Psalms has been noted in prior studies.

Both thematically and poetically, vv. 6c-8 differs significantly from this second oracle. Metrically, the earlier passage consisted of a pair of 3-beat (3+3+3) tricola, while the oracle here follows  the regular 3+3 bicolon format. Beyond this, vv. 6c-8 functioned as summary of the Exodus, in which YHWH gives a brief but dramatic account of His role in the events. It concludes (v. 8b) with a reference to the episode at the “waters of strife/Meribah” (Exod 17:1-7), introducing the theme of the people’s lack of trust and disloyalty/rebellion against YHWH. This same theme continues in the second half oracle.

Indeed, the oracle seems to be indebted to the ‘covenant lawsuit’ format, in which YHWH raises the complaint that His people have violated the binding agreement (covenant). In this line of ancient Near Eastern religious-cultural tradition, the wronged party bringing such a complaint calls on the witnessing deities; however, in the context of Israelite monotheism, where God Himself is a party to the covenant, He instead calls on the forces of nature (“heaven and earth”) as witnesses. The most famous such ‘covenant lawsuit’ passages are the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) and the first chapter of Isaiah.

Here, however, YHWH calls on His people (Israel) to hear His complaint. This emphasizes the instructional (didactic) purpose of a poem such as the Song of Moses—that is, the purpose of the complaint is to exhort God’s people to remain faithful and loyal to the covenant, reforming their ways as needed. Past disobedience is noted (along with the punishment that resulted from it), as well as a warning that much the same could happen to the people and nation again if they do not repent; the promise of blessing and protection that stems from loyalty to the covenant is also emphasized, in the lines that close the Psalm (vv. 15-17).

The opening couplet contains a dual call, twice using the verb um^v* (“hear, listen”); in the opening of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and Isaiah 1, the verb um^v* is paired with /z~a* in the Hiphil (“give [your] ear”). The emphatic nature of the complaint is indicated by the use of the verb dWu. This verb is often translated “(give) witness, testify”, but it properly denotes the act of repeating something, of causing (in the Hiphil stem) an action or words of speech to be repeated. I have rendered it above as “testify” for poetic concision.

Verse 10 [9]

“There shall not be a strange mighty (one) with you,
nor shall you bow down to a mighty (one) foreign (to you).”

In this couplet, YHWH gives the basis for His complaint: His people have violated the covenant by recognizing and worshiping deities other than He. This is the central and foremost prohibition in the Torah (the terms of the covenant), as indicated by its position as first of the “Ten Words” (Exodus 20:3ff par). When judgment comes upon the people during their history, as narrated and referenced in the Old Testament Scriptures, it is usually because of this central violation of the covenant.

The basic Semitic term la@ (°¢l) is used here for deity; I take its fundamental meaning to be “mighty (one)”, and consistently translate it so, though most English versions render it more conventionally as “god”. The regular term for deity in the Hebrew Scriptures is the expanded plural <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm, = <yl!a@), which I typically translate as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, i.e., “Mightiest (One)”. The noun la@ is the more primitive term, and can be applied to YHWH, though usually only in poetry that preserves the older/archaic usage; here la@ is used for a deity other than YHWH. Cf. my earlier articles on the titles °E~l and °E_lœhîm.

The parallel adjectives rz` and rk*n@ are used, being largely synonymous in meaning. The first term is a verbal adjective (participle) of the root rWz (I), similar in meaning (and perhaps related) to rWs, “turn aside”; rWz denotes being a stranger, and rz` as an adjective thus means “(something) strange”. There would seem to be two rkn roots, which may (or may not) be related; rkn I means “know, recognize”, while rkn II seems to denote being hostile or an enemy. If rk*n@ is derived from rkn I, then it perhaps should be understood in a privative sense (i.e., something unknown or unrecognized, and thus foreign), though the sense could also be of something specifically recognized (and designated) as foreign. Clearly, any deity other than YHWH is (and should be) foreign/strange to His people; they should neither acknowledge such a deity, nor give worship (lit. “bow down”) to it.

Verse 11 [10]

“I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One),
the (One) having brought you up from (the) land of Egypt;
(when) you open wide your mouth, even I do fill it.”

This verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, though the consistency of the meter over the three lines cannot be reproduced in English (where the first line must appear shorter). YHWH is the God (“Mighty [One]”) for Israel—their only God, in contrast to the foreign deities (v. 10) of the surrounding nations. Here the plural <yh!l)a$ is used, in contrast with la@ (cf. above). The Exodus was the theme of the short oracle in vv. 6b-8 (cf. the previous study), and is mentioned here again. It was YHWH who brought about Israel’s departure from Egypt, through His power and strength; the phrase “bringing up from the land of Egypt” also entails the protective guidance by God that supervised their journeys through the Sinai.

The MT points the initial word of the third line as an imperative (bj#r=h^, “open wide…!”); however, the context (YHWH presenting the evidence for His complaint) suggests a description, rather than exhortation, at this point. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 266) in reading bjrh as an infinitive (byj!r=h^). The reference is thus to YHWH’s regular providential care of His people (esp. during their wilderness journeys): “(in) your opening wide your mouth, I do fill it” —i.e., when you have need, and call out to me, I satisfy it. However, in this image of filling of an appetite, there is also an implicit allusion to the people’s lack of trust and unfaithfulness during their time in the wilderness (as indicated earlier in verse 17).

Verse 12 [11]

“But my people would not listen to my voice;
indeed, Yisrael was not willing to (hear) me!”

The people’s past disloyalty and lack of faith is stated more explicitly here. The use again of the verb um^v*, following the exhortative (dual) use in verse 9 (cf. above), carries the implication that God’s people today should not follow the example of the wilderness generation in their faithlessness and rebellion. The verb hb*a* (I) means “be willing (to do something)”; in English this has to be translated in a modal sense, auxiliary to a primary verb that has to be filled in: i.e., “they were not willing to (hear/obey) me”.

Verse 13 [12]

“So I sent him away in the stubbornness of (his) heart,
(and) they walked (on) by their (own) plans.”

In the MT, there is a shift in person here, from first person singular to third person plural. This is not all that unusual, when the reference is to the people of God (Israel), since a people or nation can be referred to both ways—singular and plural. It is probably the specific mention of Israel in the preceding line (of v. 12) that led to the initial use of the singular here in v. 13a. Most translations will normalize the number (to the plural) throughout the verse, though this is not necessary. On the reading of the <– suffix (at the close of the first line) as a <– enclitic, cf. Dahood, II, p. 266.

Again, the principal point of reference is the generation of the wilderness journeys (following the Exodus). Through their stubborn unwillingness to trust in YHWH, God “sent” them off to travel according to their own purpose and plan. This rejection of His people sets a pattern for times of punishment that would occur throughout the history of Israel/Judah.

Verse 14 [13]

“If only my people would be listening to me,
(that) Yisrael would walk in my ways!”

The focus in vv. 14-17 shifts from the past to the present. Having presented His complaint, describing (in summary fashion) His people’s past disloyalty to the covenant, YHWH now calls on them to learn from this example. The initial particle Wl reflects YHWH’s fervent wish; it can also be used as particle of entreaty, which is appropriate to the exhortational character of the oracle. For poetic concision, I have translated the particle tersely as “if only…!”.

Again the verb um^v* occurs, as in vv. 9 and 12. In verse 9a, the call was for Israel to listen to YHWH’s complaint; here, however, the meaning follows vv. 9b, 12—i.e., of listening in terms of obedience to the covenant (and the Torah). The use of a participle (“hearing, listening”) indicates a regular, characteristic behavior, i.e., a pattern of faithful/loyal obedience. This same emphasis is expressed by the idiom of “walking” in the ways/paths of God; this is traditional religious-ethical language that occurs throughout the Scriptures (and frequently in the Psalms, cf. most recently in Ps 78:10). This faithful walking in obedience to the covenant is in marked contrast to the rebellious past generation that walked according to the purposes of their own stubborn hearts (v. 13).

Verse 15 [14]

“(Then) in (but) a little (while) I would bend down their enemies,
and upon their adversaries I would turn my hand.”

Faithfulness to the covenant means that YHWH will fulfill His covenantal obligation to provide protection and security for His people. Accordingly, when they are in danger from enemies (lit. “[those] being hostile”) and adversaries, then YHWH will fight on His people’s behalf, giving them victory over all their foes.

The initial prepositional expression, fu^m=K!, is difficult to translate in English; it essentially means something like “in a little bit, in short (order)”, indicating that YHWH’s response to any threat against His people would be very quick. The protection provided by YHWH is here expressed by the anthropomorphic image of His hand—as a symbol of power and strength; cf. recently, in Psalm 80:18[17]. The incomparable power of God, fighting on His people’s behalf, will ensure that every enemy will be defeated. By contrast, when Israel is unfaithful, violating the covenant bond, then this protection is removed, and the people will be faced with defeat and destruction.

Verse 16 [15]

“(The one)s hating YHWH shall cringe before Him,
and their time shall (last) into (the) distant (future).”

The enemies of YHWH’s people are also His enemies; when they show hatred (vb. an~c*) to Israel, they are actually hating God Himself. As a result, they will end up cringing in fear and submission before Him. The verb vj^K* is tricky to translate, as it carries a wide range of meaning. The basic meaning seems to be something like “to fail, fall short”, sometimes in the specific negative (and active) sense of “deceive”. It is occasionally used in the distinctive context of subordinates who are compelled to recognize the superiority of another. In several rare instances in the Psalms (18:45[44]; 66:3, and here), the context further suggests an act of fearful/cringing submission.

The second line is a bit ambiguous, simply stating that “their time” will last long into the distant future (<l*oul=). Presumably the reference is to the judgment/punishment of the hostile nations; it may also allude to the idea of a state of perpetual submission and servitude—both to YHWH and to His people.

Verse 17 [16]

“But He will let him eat from (the) fat of (the) wheat,
and I will make you full (of) honey from (the) rock.”

Again, we have here, in this closing couplet, a jarring shift in person, both subject and object, more severe than the one noticed in v. 13 (cf. above). Yet, it seems clear that in both lines YHWH is the subject (He/I) and the people Israel is the object (he/you). Translators will doubtless wish to smooth this over, normalizing the person/number; however, such shifts are not all that uncommon in ancient Near Eastern (and Hebrew) poetry, and the MT can be retained. However strange or foreign the person/number shifts may seem, it is part of the richness and diversity of the poetic idiom.

Faithfulness to the covenant not only results in YHWH’s protection (from enemies, etc), it leads to His blessing as well. The land will be blessed, yielding a richness (lit. “fat”, bl#j#) of grain (and all crops). Almost certainly, this is an allusion to the Song of Moses (Deut 32:14), though the language is traditional and doubtless could be found in a wide range of poems. The motif of “honey from the rock” also comes from the Song of Moses (32:13b); it should not be taken it a concrete/literal sense, but simply serves as another colorful figure to express the idea of the richness and fertility of the land, as with the traditional expression of the Promised land as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8, et al; cf. Deut 31:20 for a reference in the context of the Song of Moses).

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).

Notes on Prayer: 1 Kings 8:41-43

Before proceeding with the next section of the Prayer of Solomon (in 1 Kings 8), it may be worth considering several points of interpretation, established from our study thus far, as they might apply to Christians (both in the New Testament era and today).

In terms of the religious and historical background of the Prayer, a key theme is the centralization of worship for the Israelite people, focused on the kingdom-capital of Jerusalem and the site of the Temple (Zion). This theme runs throughout the entire Deuteronomic history, beginning with the book of Deuteronomy and climaxing with the religious reforms in Judah under Josiah (2 Kings 23). For people all over the kingdom, Jerusalem (and the Temple) was to be the focal point of their religious devotion. Sacrificial offerings were to be presented only at the Jerusalem Temple, adult males were to travel to Jerusalem for (at the very least) the three great pilgrimage festivals, and, as expressed here in 1 Kings 8, prayers were to be directed toward the Temple.

The Temple filled the ritual and symbolic role as YHWH’s dwelling place among His people, His “house”. And yet, as the Prayer makes clear, God does not actually reside on earth in the Temple sanctuary, but in heaven. This important theological principle is made repeatedly, in spite of the reference (in vv. 10-13) to the older conception of God’s manifest presence residing within the sanctuary (of the Temple, and earlier Tent-shrine).

It is only God’s name that truly resides in the Temple. The name represents the person, if only in a symbolic and ritual sense; it also signifies ownership—i.e., the Temple building belongs to YHWH, just as the city of Jerusalem belongs to Him, and also the Israelite/Judean people (as His people). It is for these reasons, that the people are to demonstrate their devotion and loyalty to YHWH by praying in the direction of the Temple, to the place where His name resides.

This idea of the centralization of worship, focused on the Temple, has important implications for Christians, in light of the Christological principle that Jesus Christ essentially replaces the Temple, fulfilling in his own person the symbolic and ritual significance of the Temple building. For more on this subject, cf. my earlier articles in the series “Jesus and the Law” (part of “The Law and the New Testament”). This shift in focus is already evident early on in the New Testament, within the historical traditions of the Gospels and Acts, emphasizing the Temple as a place for prayer (and teaching/preaching), rather than sacrificial ritual. In this regard, early Christians were essentially developing the very emphasis we find here in the 1 Kings 8 Prayer.

The focus on the name of God also is significant in this regard. We may mention, for example, the well-established early Christian tradition that prayers were to be made in Jesus’ name. Even more important, from a theological standpoint, is the idea that Jesus (the Son) makes the name of God the Father known to believers. This is a prominent theme in the Gospel of John, particularly in the great Discourse-Prayer of chapter 17 (vv. 6, 11-12, 26). It serves as another key example of how Jesus fulfills the role of the Temple as the dwelling place for God’s name.

Finally, we should mention the related idea of believers as the dwelling place for God’s presence—now no longer symbolically, but through the reality of God’s own Spirit. The image of believers—both individually and collectively—as the Temple of God is most prominent in the Pauline letters. Paul applies the image to individual believers in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16, while in Eph 2:21 it is applied to believers in a collective sense. The presence of God—both manifest through His Spirit, and through His name—in believers (as His Temple) demonstrates that we belong to Him and bear His name.

These points will be discussed and developed further as we approach the end of our notes on 1 Kings 8.

1 Kings 8:41-43

“And also unto (the) foreigner, he who (is) not from your people Yisrael, but comes from a land far off in response to your name— ” (v. 41)

Verses 41-43 make clear that the role of the Temple, applies, not only to Israel (as YHWH’s chosen people), but to people from other nations as well. The adjective yr!k=n` (cf. also the related rk*n@) is used as a substantive, denoting something that is “(not) recognized”, derived from the root rkn (“recognize, acknowledge”), presumably in a privative sense. From an ethno-cultural standpoint, yr!k=n` refers to a foreigner, to be distinguished, however, from the foreigner who comes to reside among the Israelite people (the word rG@ is used for such a person). Here, the idea is of a foreign visitor to the land of Israel, but particularly one who has traveled to Israel “in response to” (/u^m^l=) the name of YHWH—that is, because he/she has heard about the great things that YHWH, as the God of Israel, has done for His people. This qualification is clearly expressed in verse 42:

“for they shall hear of your great name, and (of) your strong hand and your arm (out)stretched— “

The “hand” and (outstretched) “arm” of YHWH are euphemisms for the exercise of His Divine power and strength, through miracles and mighty deeds performed on behalf of His people. This motif-pair is part of the Deuteronomic language, occurring repeatedly in the book of Deuteronomy (4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 11:2; 26:8; cf. also Jer 21:5; Cogan, p. 286), but the basic imagery is traditional—see, for example, its use in the Song of the Sea (15:6, 12, 16). In that ancient Song, as here, it is assumed that people in the surrounding nations will hear of the mighty things done by YHWH (vv. 14-16), demonstrating that He is far greater than any of the deities they worship (v. 11).

The second half of verse 42 picks up from v. 41:

“…but he comes and makes prayer to(ward) this house”

The fact that the foreign visitor makes prayer toward the Temple demonstrates two important points: (1) he/she recognizes YHWH as God, worthy of worship, and (2) she/he acknowledges the role of the Temple within the Israelite religion (i.e., the worship of YHWH). It is clear that Solomon (and the author of Kings) expects that YHWH will answer the prayers of such a devout foreigner, no less than He will those of His own people:

“you shall hear (him from) your dwelling place (in) the heavens, and shall do (for him) according to every(thing about) which the foreigner calls to you, so that (as a result) all (the) peoples of the earth might know your name, (coming) to fear you (just) like your people Yisrael, and to know that your name is called over this house that I have built.” (v. 43)

The prayer-wish is that, through the witness of such a devout foreigner, many other people, throughout all the surrounding nations, will come to respond in like manner—learning to know and fear YHWH, acknowledging Him (His name) as true God and Sovereign, and recognizing the Temple (in Jerusalem) as the place where His name dwells. This is an early example of a theme that would be developed in the later Prophets (and subsequently in Jewish eschatology)—namely, the prospect of people from the surrounding nations coming to Jerusalem in order to worship YHWH, and even joining with Israel to become part of the people of God. It is a theme that would feature prominently in early Christian thought, and, as a principle, would underlie the entire early mission to the Gentiles (cf. Mk 13:10 par; Lk 2:30-32; 24:47; Acts 1:8; 10:35ff; 13:46-47ff; 15:7-11, 14-18ff, etc). A key reference to the Temple, in this regard, is found in Isaiah 56:7, a Scripture cited by Jesus in the context of his Temple-action (according to the Synoptic tradition, Mk 11:17 par); the emphasis, as here, is on the Temple as a place associated with prayer.

Within Old Testament tradition, the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13) is the most notable example of a foreign visitor who comes to Israel and acknowledges YHWH as God (v. 9). Naaman (in 2 Kings 5) also features as a foreigner who recognizes that worship must be given to YHWH alone (vv. 17f); cf. Cogan, p. 286. In the New Testament, in the context of the early Christian mission, Cornelius (Acts 10-11) is the type-figure for the God-fearing non-Israelite who becomes a believer.

References marked “Cogan” above are to Mordechai Cogan, I Kings, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 10 (Yale: 2001/8).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 79

Psalm 79

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is a lament-Psalm, similar in tone to Ps 74 (on which, cf. the earlier study). The setting is the Exilic period, as is clear from the reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in v. 1. Verses 2-3 are apparently quoted in 1 Maccabees 7:17, being applied to the context of an event that took place during the Maccabean wars; however, the Babylonian conquest of the late-7th/early-6th century almost certainly provides the original setting for the Psalm. One might propose a date in the first half (or first quarter) of the 6th century, when the destruction of Jerusalem was still fresh in memory.

There would seem to be three-part structure for this Psalm (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 302f):

    • Vv. 1-4—A lament over the fate of Jerusalem, focusing on the wicked acts of destruction by the “nations”
    • Vv. 5-9—A plea to YHWH, calling on God to act, helping His people and bringing judgment against the nations
    • Vv. 6-10—A imprecatory request for the destruction of the nations that attacked Israel/Judah, along with the restoration of God’s people—reversing the situation described in section 1.

This is the seventh in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50.

The meter of Psalm 79 is quite irregular; mention will be made of the meter for each verse below.

Part 1: Verses 1-4

Verse 1

“(The) nations have come within your inheritance!
They have defiled (the) palace of your holiness,
(and) they have set Yerušalaim to ruins!”

The Psalm opens with a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon that well expresses the reason for the Psalmist’s lament. The “nations” presumably is a comprehensive way of referring to the invading Babylonians (and their allies). The noun hl*j&n~ refers to an inherited property or allotment of territory; here the reference is to the land of Israel—specifically the Judean territory and the city of Jerusalem—as YHWH’s own possession (cf. the recent note on Psalm 78:68-69). By describing the land this way, the Psalmist no doubt wishes to spur YHWH to action—so as to defend His property.

The invaders have destroyed the city of Jerusalem (lit. set it to ruins [<yY]u!]) and have destroyed the Temple (lit. palace of [YHWH’s] holiness) in the process; in so doing, they have defiled (vb am*f*) the Temple, desecrating its holiness. Compare the description in Ps 74:2-3ff.

Verse 2

“They gave (the) withered bodies of your servants
(as) food for (the) flying (birds) of the heavens,
(the) flesh of your devoted (one)s for (the) beasts of (the) earth.”

The slaughter of the people of the city is described in this verse. The specific reference is to the faithful ones among the people, whose death, in particular, should move YHWH and prompt Him to take action. Their loyalty is indicated by the adjective dys!j* (“good,” spec. in the sense of faithful/loyal), by which is meant that they are YHWH’s good servants—i.e., they are faithful to the covenant and to the Torah regulations (the terms of the covenant). The dead bodies are left as carrion for the birds and wild animals to feed on.

This verse, like v. 1, is a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 3

“They poured forth their blood like the(y would) water,
all around Yerušalaim,
and with no (one) burying (them)!”

The death of the people (spec. YHWH’s faithful servants among them) was bloody, with the blood pouring (and spraying) out like water all over the city. The final line repeats the idea expressed in v. 2—viz., that the bodies of the dead were left unburied, as food for the birds and beasts. For the dead to be treated this way, without proper burial, was a sign of abject dishonor.

This verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon (cp. vv. 1-2), with the shorter second and third lines producing a sharp rhythmic shift. It expresses, in poetic terms, the violence and disgrace being described by the Psalmist in this verse.

Verse 4

“We have become an object of scorn for (those) dwelling near us,
(of) derision and mocking for (those) round about us!”

The opening (lament) section of the Psalm closes with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet; following the tricola of vv. 1-3, the rhythmic shift has a dramatic, climactic feel, which fits the sense of the verse. The Psalmist is no longer talking about events of the past, but of the condition of YHWH’s faithful servants in the present. As noted above, this almost certainly relates to the setting of the Psalm in the period of the Exile (in the 6th century).

The surrounding nations now have reason to mock and taunt God’s people; the implication is that their trust in YHWH is foolish and misplaced—i.e., look what has happened to these people! The Psalmist uses three nouns with overlapping meaning for this idea of scornful, derisive taunting: hP*r=j#, gu^l^, and sl#q#, which I translate above as “scorn,” “derision,” and “mocking,” respectively.

Part 2: Verses 5-9

Verse 5

“Until when, O YHWH?
Will you be angry to the end?
Shall your jealous (rage) burn like fire?”

The dual-particle expression hm*-du^ typically functions as an interrogative, as it does here; it means “until what..?”, i.e. “until what (time/moment)…?”, which, for poetic concision, is best rendered in English as “until when…?”. The same despairing question is essentially asked at the beginning of Psalm 74 (v. 1), which has the same historical context for its lament—viz., the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The question is intended to spur God to action: how long will He let His city (and holy Temple) remain destroyed, defiled, and unavenged?

The destruction of Jerusalem was naturally seen as a sign of YHWH’s anger against the people (for their sin and unfaithfulness); the burning of the city serves as a graphic demonstration of God’s burning anger/rage. In the ancient Near East, military conquest was viewed as a means by which the deity would act out his/her rage, bringing judgment upon a people and their land. Even though the Babylonians, on one level, functioned as YHWH’s servants in this regard, enacting the judgment against Judah/Jerusalem, they are themselves to be judged for their wicked and brutal acts of violence and desecration (cf. above, and beginning with v. 6 below). YHWH’s anger is described as a jealous rage, with His jealousy (ha*n+q!) for His people (and His covenant-bond with them) featuring as a regular theme in the Scriptures, most frequently in the Prophets (ha*n+q! occurs relatively often in Isaiah and Ezekiel).

The meter of this verse is that of an irregular (2+2+3) tricolon. The terseness of the opening lines fits the sense of despairing impatience expressed by the Psalmist.

Verse 6

“Pour out your burning (anger)
onto the nations
that do not know you,
and upon (the) kingdoms
that do not call on your name!”

Metrically, this verse is highly irregular; it is perhaps best divided into five short lines, the first four of which have two beats. The obvious parallelism—

    • onto the nations
      | that do not know you
    • upon the kingdoms
      | that do not call on your name

argues strongly against Dahood’s suggestion (II, p. 251) that la should be read as la@ (“Mighty [One],” i.e., God) vocative, rather than the preposition la# as vocalized by the MT (“[un]to,” or here “onto”).

The Psalmist asks that the anger which has burned against God’s own people should now be turned against the nations—specifically those which attacked Israel/Judah, and took advantage of the people’s misfortune. These nations are not God’s people—they neither know Him nor call on His name, worshiping other (false) deities instead. And yet these are the ones who invaded Jerusalem and desecrated YHWH’s holy temple!

Verse 7

“For they have devoured Ya’aqob
and devastated his abode!”

This irregular (3+2) couplet further explains the reasons why the nations (spec. the Babylonian conquerors and their allies/supporters) should now face the brunt of YHWH’s anger: it is because of their cruelty in “devouring” (lit. eating [up]) God’s people (called Jacob [= Israel]) and destroying the land (lit. their habitation/abode [hw#n`]).

Verse 8

“Do not keep in mind against us
(the) crooked deeds of (those) before;
O swift (One), let your mercy come before us,
for we have been brought so very low!”

The basic idea in lines 1 & 3 is that of God keeping a record of the people’s sins/crimes. That is the connotation here of the verb rk^z` (“remember, keep in mind, bring to mind”). Dahood (II, p. 252) is doubtless correct in explaining rhm (which he vocalizes rh!m* [= ryh!m*] instead of MT rh@m*) as a shorthand for the expression ryh!m* rp@os in Ps 45:2[1]. YHWH is functioning as a recording scribe whose ‘pen’ (i.e. ability) is “swift” (that is, skillful). Dahood mentions an Egyptian papyrus (Anastasi I, 18:4), where mahir, apparently as a Semitic loanword, clearly designates the activity of a scribe. It is possible to retain this association and imagery, even if the MT rh@m* (“swiftly”) is followed; the third line would then read:

“let your mercy swiftly come before us”

In any case, the Psalmist’s request is that the faithful/loyal ones today should not continue to be punished for the sins of those who came before (<yn]v)ar!). This has been taken as an indicator that the Psalm was written a good many years after the Babylonian conquest (and Exile) took place, putting the date of composition more properly in the post-Exilic period. The people of the Psalmist’s generation have been brought low (vb ll^D*) by the judgment that occurred in the past, and he asks that this situation not be allowed to continue. His request thus hints at the restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to the land.

Verse 9

“Give us help, O Mighty (One) of our salvation,
over (the) word of weight of your name,
and snatch us (up) and wipe over our sins,
for (the) sake of your (great) name!”

The second part of the Psalm concludes with a pair of 3+2 couplets (slightly irregular in rhythm), in which the Psalmist fully calls on YHWH to deliver His people from their current situation (in exile). In the first couplet (line 1), the request is for God to “give help” (vb rz`u*); in the second couplet (line 1), two verbs are used in tandem:

    • lx^n` (Hiphil stem), which literally means “snatch away”; when YHWH is the subject, and His people (spec. the righteous ones) the object, this verb is used in the positive sense of snatching someone out of danger; here the context suggests that YHWH would snatch His people away from the nations where they are currently dispersed (and often under threat, cf. v. 11 below).
    • rp^K* (Piel stem), with preposition lu^, meaning “wipe/rub over”, i.e. erase; it is specifically the people’s sins that are to be wiped away; in light of verse 8a (cf. above), this could be a reference to YHWH no longer holding the sins of a prior generation against His faithful/loyal ones today.

The Psalmist appeals specifically to the name of YHWH, and to its honor (lit. “weight,” dobK*)—that is, to YHWH’s own honor, which is imperiled the longer His faithful/righteous ones continue to live in their lowly state, in exile among the nations. YHWH’s honor requires that His people be restored and raised to an exalted position once more. Cf. the thought expressed in the following verses 10ff.

Part 3: Verses 10-13

Verse 10

“For what (reason) should the nations say,
‘Where (is) their Mighty (One)?’
Let it be known among the nations before our eyes,
an avenging of (the) blood of your servants th(at) they poured out!”

The initial couplet essentially summarizes the mocking taunts by the nations, mentioned in verse 4 (cf. above), and points again to the need for YHWH to act in defense of His honor. Only by avenging (<qn) the cruel violence and desecration wrought by the conquerors can the situation be rectified. Indeed, the Psalmist calls for a reversal of the situation described in Part 1: destructive judgment should come upon the nations, instead of upon God’s people; now it is their blood that will be poured out! (cf. on verse 3, above).

Metrically, this verse is comprised of a 3+2 couplet followed by a 3+3 couplet.

Verse 11

“Let come before your face
(the) cry of (the one) bound;
according to (the) greatness of your arm,
let remain (alive the) sons of death.”

The motif in this verse is that of people in bondage (lit. “bound” rys!a*), particularly prisoners who are sentenced to die. The idiom “sons of death” uses the noun /B# (“son”) in the abstract sense of belonging to a group (or category)—here, e.g., those condemned to die. The imagery may be representative of life in exile, which also can entail the specific condition(s) of bondage/slavery, imprisonment, and the prospect of being put to death. Certainly, a sense of oppression against God’s people (spec. the righteous) by the nations is in view.

The verb rt^y` has the basic meaning “be left over, remain”; in the Hiphil stem, the sense is “cause to remain”, which in context clearly refers to remaining alive.

The meter of this verse is irregular; I treat it as a quatrain (2+2+2+3).

Verse 12

“And return to (those) dwelling near us seven-fold into their lap
(for) their scorn, (with) which they scorned you, my Lord!”

The rather more complex syntax of this verse justifies treating it as a longer-lined (4+4) couplet. The Psalmist’s prayer here turns into an imprecation, along the lines indicated above—i.e., a reversal of the situation described in Part 1 (vv. 1-4, cf. above). The scorn heaped on God’s people (and thus on YHWH Himself) by the surrounding nations (v. 4, cf. also v. 10a above) will come back (vb bWv, “turn back, return”) upon them. The Psalmist asks that this judgment should literally fall “into their lap” (<q*yj@-la#). On the motif of a seven-fold revenge, cf. the famous line in the song by Lamech (Gen 4:24).

Verse 13

“But we, your people, and (the) flock of your pasture,
shall throw (praise) to you into (the) distant (future)—
unto circle and circle we shall recount your praise.”

The fate of the nations (according to the Psalmist’s imprecation, v. 12) is here contrasted with that of God’s people. On the shepherding motif—with God as herder, and the people as His flock/herd—cf. the recent notes on Ps 78:52-53ff and 70-72. The promise given to YHWH is that the Psalmist, representing all the faithful/loyal ones of the people, will continually give (lit. throw/cast) praise to God, and will also recount (vb rp^s*) for future generations the reasons for this praise. I translate roD according to its fundamental meaning (“circle, cycle”), though it is typically understood as referring to the people living during a particular circle/cycle of time (i.e., a ‘generation’).

Many Psalms deal with the theme of fulfilling a vow made to YHWH, in response to His (expected) answer to prayer. Given the context of Psalmist as a poet-composer, it is not surprising that this vow-fulfillment is often described in terms of making music and giving praise to God. That is essentially the idea we see here at the close of Psalm 79 as well.

The meter of this final verse is again irregular: a 4+3+4 tricolon.

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

August 20: Psalm 78:52-55

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

Psalm 78:52-55

Verse 52

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

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

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

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

Verse 53

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

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

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

Verse 54

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 55

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

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

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

March 13: Psalm 68:33-36

Strophe 9: Psalm 68:33-36 [32-35]

Strophe 8 was discussed in the previous note; on the overall structure of Psalm 68, see the introductory study.

Verse 33 [32]

“(You) kingdoms of the earth,
sing to (the) Mightiest,
make music (to our) Lord,”
Selah

The opening verse of this final strophe is a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. As previously noted, a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker occurs after the first verse of the third strophe in each part of the Psalm. Probably, the initial verse is meant to establish the musical pattern for the strophe, in some way.

This verse continues the theme of the previous strophe (cf. the previous note), calling on the nations (“kingdoms of the earth”) to join Israel in giving praise to YHWH. They are to sing and make music, just as in the scene of worship depicted in the first strophe of this part (strophe 6, vv. 25-28). In vv. 29-32, the emphasis was on the surrounding nations submitting to YHWH, resulting in their coming to Jerusalem to pay homage to Him. This homage is now expected to take the form of worship.

Verse 34 [33]

“to (the One) riding on (the) heavens,
(the) heavens of (times) before,
see!—He gives (forth) with His voice,
(the) voice of (His) strength.”

It is probably best to see this verse, syntactically, as continuing the thought of the previous v. 33. The One to whom the nations are to give praise, YHWH, the God of Israel (“my Lord”), is further identified as the Creator God and King of the universe who “rides on the heavens”. This is a variation of YHWH’s designation in v. 5, as “Rider on the Clouds” (“[one] riding on [the] clouds”); cf. also Deut 33:26. For more on this expression, cf. the earlier note on strophe 2.

The “heavens” on which YHWH ‘rides’ are further described as “(the) heavens of (times) before [<d#q#]”; this alludes to the primeval period at the beginning of Creation, when El-YHWH subdued the dark and chaotic waters, bringing order to the universe. His control over the waters, means, in particular, that He is able to bring life-giving rain in its season. The language and imagery here is cosmological.

This is also so with regard to the “voice” that YHWH gives forth (vb /t^n`). Traditionally, in the ancient Near East, thunder was thought of as God’s voice. Indeed, typically in the Old Testament, thunder is referenced simply by the word loq (“voice”), just as it is here. It is a voice of incomparable strength (zu)) and power.

Verse 35 [34]

“Give (praise with) strength
to (the) Mightiest, High (One) of Yisrael,
His height and strength (are) above (the) clouds!”

This strength (zu)) of YHWH needs to be acknowledged correspondingly through the praise given to Him by humankind. I have tried to preserve something of the wordplay (completely lost in most translations) between vv. 34-35:

    • YHWH gives (forth) [/T@y]] His voice of strength [zu)]
    • People are to give [WnT!] acknowledgment (with their voices) to God’s strength [zu)]

This one instance where I follow Dahood (II, p. 152), in reading lu as a Divine title “High (One),” or “(Most) High” (cf. the root hlu and the related title /oyl=u# [±Elyôn]), rather than the preposition –lu^. Here the poetic context and syntax seems to require such a reading. The titles <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One]”) and lu^ (“High [One]”) correspond to the attributive nouns zu) (“strength, might”) and hw`a&G~ (“height, elevation,” i.e., majesty) in the following line. More to the point, “High (One) [lu] of Israel” precisely matches the expression “Mighty (One) [la] of Israel” in v. 36 (cf. below); and the validity of this reading is thus confirmed.

The final word, the plural noun <yq!j*v= more or less corresponds to <y]m^v* (“heavens”), but specifically in terms of the atmospheric vapors or “clouds”. As in v. 34, the preposition B= here means “(up)on”, but perhaps with the specific nuance of “above”. Dahood would read the meaning here as comparable to /m! (“from”) used in a comparative sense (“more/greater than”). This is certainly possible.

Verse 36 [35]

“(To be) feared (are you), Mightiest, from your holy places!
(The) Mighty (One) of Yisrael,
He (is the One) giving
strength and might (to His) people.
Blessed (be the) Mightiest!”

Metrically, this final verse is comprised of another 2+2+3 tricolon unit, bracketed by two exclamations of praise to YHWH—a longer 3-beat line (1) and a short 2-beat line (5). The central tricolon continues the theme of strength in this strophe. Previously, it was the strength/might of YHWH Himself that was emphasized; here, the focus is on how God, in His power, gives strength to His people (cf. the same idea expressed in v. 29). YHWH is described with the verbal noun (participle) /t@n), “(the one) giving,” i.e., the one who gives. It implies that this is characteristic of YHWH, reflecting regular activity, by which He acts/works to protect and strengthen His people.

The two nouns expressing what He gives to His people are more or less synonymous—zu) (used repeatedly in prior verses, cf. above) and hmx%y&T^—both essentially meaning “strength”. The latter noun occurs only here in the Old Testament, but other related words are more common: <x#u), hm*x=u*, <Wxu*. Possibly twmxut represents a feminine singular form, rather than the apparent feminine plural; cf. Dahood, II, p. 152. If a plural is intended, it should probably be understood in a collective or comprehensive (or intensive) sense.

The initial line of the verse continues the theme of YHWH’s dwelling-place that has run through most of the Psalm. Three different such dwellings have been emphasized: (1) His heavenly dwelling, (2) the mountain dwelling of Sinai, and (3) the Temple in Jerusalem (on ‘mount’ Zion). YHWH is to be acknowledged and worshiped in all these “holy places”. The final line repeats this point, in the simplest possible terms, with the declaration “Blessed [EWrB*] (be) the Mightiest!”

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).