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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 81 (Part 1)

Psalm 81

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (vv. 2-3 [1-2]); 11QPsd (vv. 5-11 [4-10]; MasPsa (vv. 2-17 [1-16])

This Psalm has a curious hybrid character: part hymn, part prophetic oracle, and a composition that may have had a place in the Israelite liturgy for the celebration of the festivals (esp. Passover, cf. the discussion below). Like other of the Asaph Psalms that we have recently examined, Ps 81 appears to have a northern provenance (indicated by the Israel/Joseph pairing in vv. 5-6).

There is a definite two-part structure to this Psalm, and here the Selah (hl*s#) pause marker serves as a legitimate structural indicator. The first part (vv. 2-8) is a hymn to YHWH, functioning as a call to worship. Within this framework, the historical tradition of the Exodus provides the setting for the prophetic oracle that follows in the second part (vv. 9-17). The words of YHWH begin at v. 6b, and this fact has led commentators, incorrectly I believe, to treat vv. 6b-17 as a coherent division of the Psalm; it is the Selah marker the provides the correct structural point of division, as noted above.

Metrically, this Psalm follows the typical 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are a few exceptions (which will be noted). The heading gives the musical direction tyT!G]h^-lu^, as in Pss 8 and 84; the term tyT!G] could refer to a type of instrument (perhaps a harp), or to a particular melody (or mode).

Psalm 81 is one of the best attested Psalms among the Dead Sea manuscripts, including a MS from Masada where it fully represented. All of the manuscripts are quite fragmentary, however it is perhaps worth noting that there are no variant readings of substance in the portions of the text that are preserved.

As with all of Pss 7383, this composition is attributed to (and/or associated with) Asaph. The second half of this Psalm is presented as a prophetic oracle, and, as we have seen, a number of the Asaph-Psalms have certain prophetic features; for more on Asaph, and the tradition that he and his descendants were prophets, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50).

PART 1: Verses 2-8 [1-7]

Verse 2 [1]

“Ring out (praise) to (the) Mightiest, our Strength,
give a shout to (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The opening couplet is a call to worship, calling on the people to sing/shout praise to YHWH. The basic religious and theological principle is that YHWH is the God (Mighty One) of Israel (Jacob); as a result, He is considered as the ultimate source of their strength (zou) and protection. The suffixed word “our strength” is a bit unusual, and it is possible that here the noun zou connotes “stronghold”. Dahood (II, p. 263) reads parallel construct expressions in both lines (i.e., “Mighty [One] of…”) and treats the final <– of <yh!l)a$ as an interposed enclitic <-; in such a case the expressions would, indeed, be parallel: “Mighty (One) of our strong(hold) / Mighty (One) of Jacob”.

Verse 3 [2]

“Lift up music and give (it on the) tambor(ine),
(on the) sweet lyre (together) with (the) harp.”

The call to worship continues with this direction for the people to take up their instruments, in order to sing out praise to YHWH (as directed in v. 2). They are to “lift up” their music (hr*m=z]); curiously, the regular term (romz+m!) designating the Psalm as a musical composition is absent from the heading of Ps 81. The adjective <yu!n` means “sweet, pleasant”, here referring to the sweet sounds that can be produced on the lyre and harp.

Verse 4 [3]

“Blow (the) horn on the (day of the) new (moon),
on the full (moon), for (the) day of our festival.”

The call to worship continues, with the praise being located at the time of a public festival. The term gj^ came to designate the great pilgrimage festivals, such as Passover and Sukkot. Here the timing of the festival coincides with the beginning of the month—the expressions “new (moon)” (vd#j)) and “full (moon)” (hs#K@) are obviously parallel, marking the transition from one month to the next. The Exodus context of vv. 6-11 suggests that the festival in question is Passover.

Verse 5 [4]

“For this (is) an engraved (decree), O Yisrael,
an edict from (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob.”

This couplet refers specifically to celebration the festival (gj^) mentioned in v. 4. If the context is the celebration of the Passover, then the solemn declaration here would be particularly appropriate (cf. the instructions and tradition regarding Passover in Exodus 12). The order to celebrate the festival is here treated as an edict or decree sent down by a king (YHWH), using the terms qj) (denoting something engraved or written) and fP*v=m! (a decision given down by a ruling figure which has the force of law).

This verse demonstrates the wide range of meaning that attaches to the simple prepositions l= and B=. Here, the first prefixed –l is best treated a vocativel (“O Israel”), though most translators render it flatly as “for Israel”; the vocative better fits the context of a call to the Israelite people to praise YHWH and celebrate the festival. The second –l clearly refers to the decree as coming from YHWH, though it also possible to translate the preposition in this instance as “belonging to”.

Verse 6ab [5ab]

“(As a duty to be) repeated He set it on Yôsep,
in his going out (from) upon (the) land of Egypt.”

The term tWdu@ is parallel with qj) and fP*v=m! in v. 5, referring to the command by YHWH to celebrate the festival; the context here would seem to require that Passover is the festival in view. According to the tradition(s) recorded in Exodus 12, the directions for celebration of Passover were given at the time of Israel “going out from the land of Egypt”.

The noun tWdu@ fundamentally refers to something which is repeated; I take it to be used here with this basic emphasis, referring to the regular/repeated celebration of the Passover festival.

The use of the preposition lu^, in the context of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, is peculiar; one would rather expect /m! as in many other such references (e.g., here in v. 11 of this Psalm). As noted above, many of the Hebrew prepositions have a wide semantic range, and lu^ can occasionally carry a meaning something like “from” in English (cf. Dahood, II, p. 264). Other commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld-Zenger) translate it here as “against”, but this does not seem appropriate (or correct). I have slanted my translation slightly, to capture the idea of the Israelite people going out from the place where they had been—viz., living upon (or spread over) the land of Egypt.

Verse 6c-7 [5c-6]

“(The) lip of (one) I did not know I heard,
(and) I turned aside his shoulder from (the) load,
and his hands passed over from (the) basket.”

There is an abrupt change of speaker at the third line of verse 6, and it immediately becomes clear that YHWH is now speaking; thus the Psalm shifts to become an oracle, with the Psalmist functioning as a prophet. The setting of the Exodus, introduced in 6b, provides the impetus for this brief but dramatic recounting of YHWH’s role in the Exodus events.

It is, I think, best to treat v. 6c together with v. 7 as a tricolon. It presents a clear narrative progression:

    • God hears Israel’s cry for help =>
      • He responds and takes away the burden =>
        • The people become free from their service/labor

It may seem strange that YHWH would refer to Israel as “(one) I did not know”. This could be an allusion to the sequence in Exodus 2:23-25: the people cry for help in their bondage, and the cry comes up to God, who hears it; the cry prompts Him to remember the covenant He established with Israel’s ancestors (Abraham/Isaac/Jacob). Then in v. 25 we read: “And (the) Mightiest saw (the) sons of Yisrael, and the Mightiest knew (them).” This was the moment when God truly knew Israel as His people.

Verse 8 [7]

“In the (time of) distress you called and I pulled you out;
I answered you (from with)in (the) hiding (place) of thunder,
(and yet) I was tested by you at (the) waters of strife.”

The oracle continues with a second tricolon that further summarizes the events of the Exodus (cf. vv. 6-7 above). The first two lines here may simply be repeating the general idea of Israel’s cry for help and YHWH’s answer; however, I think it probable that the scene has shifted to the more specific setting of the episode at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15), where the people cried out to God (14:10), and He answered them, through the hand of Moses (vv. 13-14ff). The reference to “the hiding (place) of thunder” is an allusion to the storm-theophany, applied to YHWH as Creator and heavenly Ruler, with his control over the waters; for more on this ancient cosmological imagery, expressed with some frequency in the Psalms, cf. my earlier article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”. His power over the Sea allowed Israel to escape from Egypt. The thunder-motif, with the theophanous cloud as a ‘hiding place,’ also alludes to the scene at mount Sinai (Exodus 19ff).

The implied reference to the waters of the Reed Sea is paralleled by the reference, in the final line, to the episode at the “waters of strife/Merîbah [hb*yr!m=]” (cf. Exod 17:1-7; Num 20:10-13). Dahood (II, p. 265) is almost certainly correct in his assessment that injba needs to parsed as a passive (Niphal) form with dative suffix (of agency)—i.e., “I was tested by you”. This act of faithlessness by the people is meant as a stark contrast with the faithfulness of YHWH in answering them and rescuing them from their bondage in Egypt (lines 1-2). My translation above brings out this contrastive emphasis: “…(yet) I was tested by you at (the) waters of strife”.

This ending of the Psalm’s first half, on a negative note highlighting the people’s lack of trust in God, sets the stage for the second half (vv. 9-17), in which YHWH, in another prophetic oracle, brings forth a complaint (in the tradition of the ‘covenant lawsuit’) against His people for their lack of loyalty and trust.

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 80 (Part 2)

Psalm 80, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

Each of the stanzas of Psalm 80 begin with a similar refrain; here in verse 8 we have a slight expansion of the refrain in verse 4 (cf. the previous study). Some commentators would emend v. 4 to read “Mighty [One] of the armies”, as here in v. 8. For the expression “YHWH of the armies”(toab*x= hwhy), see the note on v. 5 in the previous study. As Creator, YHWH has command of the armies of heaven—the divine beings and the heavenly/celestial phenomena they inhabit/control; these armies fight on behalf of His people Israel, when God so wills it.

Verse 9 [8]

“A vine you did pull out from Egypt;
you drove out (the) nations and planted her.”

This second stanza summarizes the chief event(s) of the formative Israelite history—the Exodus and the conquest/settlement of the Promised Land of Canaan. This is done via the illustration of a vine to represent the nation of Israela proverbial motif that came to be well-established in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:22; Judg 9:12-13; Isa 5:1-7; 27:2ff; Hos 10:1; Joel 1:7; Jer 2:21; 12:10; Ezek 15:1ff; 17; 19:10-14). The Exodus is clearly referenced here within the illustration: YHWH pulls the vine out (vb us^n`) of the ground in Egypt, uprooting it, and planting it in a new land. In order to plant the vine in this land (of Canaan), the peoples (nations) living there were driven out (vb uf^n`). There is both conceptual and alliterative (assonance) wordplay between the verbs us^n` (n¹sa±, “pull out”) and uf^n` (n¹‰a±, “plant [in]”). The idiom of YHWH planting Israel in the land of Promise can be found already in the Song of Sea (Exod 15:17).

I translate literally the feminine morphology and suffixes connected with the vine (/p#G#), treated in the Psalm as a grammatically feminine noun.

Verse 10 [9]

“You (work)ed (its) face before her face,
and made her roots take (deep) root,
and she filled (the entire) land.”

This verse breaks from the general 3+3 metrical pattern, reading as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The settlement of Israel in the Promised Land is described here in terms of the vine-motif. The ground is turned (vb hn`P*), i.e., tilled, prepared for the planting. I have translated this as working the “face” of the land (i.e. the ground, soil), so as to preserve the etymological wordplay between the verb hn`P* (“turn, face”) and the prepositional expression h*yn#p*l= (“before her face”). There is comparable wordplay in the second line, between the verb vr^v* (“[take] root”) and the suffixed noun h*yv#r*v* (“her roots”). Once the vine took root, it began to grow abundantly (as grape-vines tend to do), spreading out and filling the land. This refers to the continual conquest and settlement of the land by the Israelite people, and to their flourishing there. Eventually, of course the confederate nation would grow into a great kingdom (and regional empire), reaching its peak during the reign of Solomon.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The) hills were covered by her shade,
and (by) her branches (the) mighty cedars.”

This verse (returning to a 3+3 meter), expounds the final line of v. 10, and the idea that the vine spread out to fill the land. The vine grew so tall and great that its “branches” (tendrils) covered and cast shade over even the cedar trees on the hills. The construct expression “cedars of might” (la@ yz@r=a^) simply means “mighty cedars”. Conceivably, the reference to the “hills” here may allude to Israelite settlement of the hill-country.

Verse 12 [11]

“She sent forth her tendrils unto (the) Sea,
and to (the) River her (many) young shoots.”

The extent of the vine is here described a different way, clearly alluding to the boundaries of the Israelite kingdom at its greatest extent (under Solomon), reaching from the (Mediterranean) Sea in the west to the (Euphrates) River in the east. Like [n`u* in verse 11, the noun ryx!q* means “branch”; however, the extent of the vine’s spread should probably be understood in terms of the fresh grape-bearing tendrils at the end of the branches, parallel with tq#n#oy (“suckling”, i.e., [young] shoot) in the second line. The vine’s growth is so prodigious that there is an abundance of fresh tendrils spreading out in every direction.

Verse 13 [12]

“For what (reason then) did you burst her hedges,
(so) that all (those) passing by (the) way may pluck her?”

The motif of the vine’s great size and growth has here shifted to the idea of it being protected behind “hedges” (<yr!d@G+). It is not clear whether this refers to the Divine protection provided by YHWH, or to the nation’s own kingdom structures and defenses. In either case, YHWH has allowed the hedges to be “burst/broken through” (vb Jr^P*); the specific action-reference may be to YHWH breaking down the protective hedges. The destruction of the hedges allows anyone passing by to “pluck” the fruit from the vine. This use of the verb hr*a*, along with the feminine aspect of the vine-language (i.e., “pluck her [fruit]”), is suggestive of aggressive/violent sexual activity. Indeed, the implication is that the passers-by are acting with hostility and violence toward the vine (Israel). The conquests (by the Assyrians, etc) are being foreshadowed through this language.

Verse 14 [13]

“(The) boar from (the) forest cuts her to pieces,
and (the) moving (things) of (the) field feed on her!”

The idea of military conquest is more clearly alluded to in this climactic couplet. The “wild boar” from the “forest” could refer to any foreign invader; but probably the Assyrian conquests (of the northern territories) in the second half of the 8th century are specifically in view (cf. the discussion on the historical setting of the Psalm, in the previous study). The odd verb form hN`m*s=r=k^y+ probably should be related to the root <sk (“cut/tear off, shear”, cp. Akkadian kas¹mu, “cut to pieces”), as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 259). Once the vine has been torn down and cut apart, everything that moves (zyz]), i.e., every living creature, in the field can come and feed on it.

The Masoretes drew special attention to the word ru^Y`m! (“from [the] forest”) by writing the letters ru above the line (the so-called littera suspensa). The precise significance of this is not certain; several possibilities are mentioned in the note by Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 309.

Stanza 3: Verses 15-19 [14-18]

Verse 15a [14a]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, please return!”

A shortened version of the refrain begins the third stanza (cf. the note on v. 8 above). Instead of the request “return to us”, the terser “please return”, with the particle of entreaty (an`), is used.

Verse 15b-16 [14b-15]

“Look down from (the) heavens and see—
and may you attend to this (your) vine,
and (so) secure what your right hand planted,
and (watch) over (the) son you yourself made strong.”

The call is for YHWH to pay attention to the condition of His ravaged vine—the nation/kingdom of Israel (esp. the northern territories, v. 2)—and so to respond with help and protection in its time of need. The wide-ranging verb dq^P* probably should be understood here in the basic sense of “attending to” something, exercising oversight, etc.

The couplet in verse 16 expounds what YHWH’s care for His vine entails. The initial word should be understood as a form of the verb /n~K* I, related to /WK, meaning “be firm”, parsed as an imperative with a paragogic (energic) h– suffix. The wish is that YHWH would keep His vine secure, preserving it, in the midst of further (and continuing) threats. The reference to a “son” in the second line seems a bit odd, the Psalmist appearing to mix his metaphors. The reference could be to the people of Israel (collectively) as YHWH’s “son”, or to the king as their representative; cf. on verse 18 below.

Verse 17 [16]

“They (who) have burnt her with such a scouring fire,
from (the) rebuke of your face may they perish!”

The Psalmist’s prayer in this verse takes the form of an imprecation against the hostile enemies of Israel, those who threaten to continue ravaging her. As noted above, it is presumably the Assyrian threat against the northern kingdom that is in view. The first stanza made clear that Israel had experienced great suffering and hardship, with military conquest being alluded to here in vv. 13-14 (cf. above). Such action is now made explicit, with mention of the enemy having burnt the vine (i.e. Israel) with fire.

The first word in the MT needs to be repointed as a plural form with an accusative h– feminine suffix (h*p%r*c=, “they have burnt her”, cf. Hossfeld Zenger, p. 310); Dahood (II, p. 260) suggests a plural participle, h*p#r=s). The final word of the first line, in the MT, hj*WsK= is also problematic. It is perhaps best explained as an emphatic –k preformative (= yK!) attached to a verbal noun from the root hj*s* (cp. jWs), meaning “scouring”; here it would refer to a fiery blaze that sweeps things away.

This fire of judgment is expressed in the second line in terms of the burning anger that comes from YHWH’s face. It is a “rebuke” that will destroy the enemies of Israel.

Verse 18 [17]

“May your hand be over (the) man of your right (hand),
over (the) son of (the) man you yourself made strong.”

This verse expounds upon the statement in the second line of verse 16 (cf. above). The Israelite king may well be in view, as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 260). YHWH’s “hand” refers to the protection He provides, as part of His covenant obligation.

Verse 19 [18]

“For (see,) we shall not (ever) turn back from you:
(so) restore us to life, that we may call on your name!”

Here the Psalmist identifies himself with the righteous/faithful ones of Israel—and identification which, in large part, serves as the basis of his prayer to God for help. Based on the covenant bond, YHWH is obligated to give help and protection to those who remain loyal to Him. The protagonist in the Psalms frequently makes his petition with this idea of covenant loyalty in mind. The imperfect verb form in the first line can be translated a number of ways: (1) as a past tense (“we have not turned away”), (2) as a future tense (“we will not turn away”), or (3) as an emphatic jussive (“we shall not [ever] turn away”). I have opted for the latter, with the initial –w conjunction also as an emphatic, heightening the emphasis.

The verb form of hy`j* (“live,” Piel stem) in the second line also can be understood different ways—i.e., “keep us alive”, “preserve our life”, “restore us to life”. I have chosen the last of these (cf. also Dahood, II, p. 261).

Conclusion: VERSE 20 [19]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

The introductory refrain found in each stanza (vv. 4, 8, 15) is repeated here, in its fullest form, at the conclusion of the Psalm. It serves as a final call, and prayer to God, for salvation.

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).

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 22: Psalm 78:65-72

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. 56-64; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:65-72

Verse 65

“Then (the) Lord awoke like (one who was) asleep,
like a mighty (warrior) shouting from (the) wine.”

This section is parallel with vv. 52-55, in the way that it describes YHWH acting on behalf of His people, utilizing the motif of a shepherd who guides/leads his flock. The initial w-conjunction here indicates a new development (i.e., “and then…”). While vv. 56-64 (like the earlier vv. 40-51) emphasized the people’s disobedience, which led to God’s judgment against them, here the focus shifts to His action on their behalf. The apparent “sleeping” of YHWH reflects His lack of support, over a period of time, as part of the judgment. Now, in his return to action for His people, He ‘awakes’ with a great shout.

Verse 66

“And He struck His adversaries (on the) behind—
disgrace into (the) distant (future) He gave to them!”

YHWH’s action on behalf of His people is described in military terms, and His role in an actual Israelite military victory may be in view. He strikes the enemies of His people, who are also His enemies, in such a way as to give them lasting disgrace (hP*r=j#). The humiliating nature of the enemies’ defeat is indicated by the use of the noun roja* (“rear, [area] behind”); probably a blow on their behind(s) is intended (cf. Dahood, II, p. 247), which certainly would entail a sense of disgrace. It may also refer more generally to a military defeat that sent the enemies going back in a rout. In any case, their defeat, thanks to YHWH’s power fighting on Israel’s behalf, is to be understood as devastating.

Verse 67

“But He (also) rejected (the) tent of Yôsep,
and (the) staff of Eprayim He did not choose.”

As in the opening couplet of v. 9, this verse refers to YHWH’s rejection of the northern tribes (and the northern Kingdom), in favor of the south (i.e., Judah). This implies that the rejection preceded the revolt of the northern tribes; however, more likely, the revolt is being anticipated here, as a literary device in the Psalm. With foreknowledge, YHWH chooses the tribe of Judah (and the city of Jerusalem) to have the leading and favored position. As mentioned in the earlier note (on v. 9), Ephraim often represents the northern tribes as a whole (being the most prominent of them); here “Joseph” is included as a parallel reference.

The rejection of the northern tribes/kingdom is connected with the defeat of the enemies of YHWH; the implication is that the northern tribes, in their faithlessness and rebellion, acted in manner similar to the surrounding nations.

Verse 68

“And (instead) He chose (the) staff of Yehûdah,
(and the) mount of ‚iyyôn which He loves.”

The implication here is that Judah was chosen primarily because of the location of the fortified hilltop site of ancient Jerusalem (i.e., ‘mount’ Zion), where the Temple would be built. At the same time, apparently, the southern tribes remained faithful in a way that the norther tribes did not, at least so as not to be disqualified as YHWH’s favored choice.

Verse 69

“And He built like (the) heights (of heaven) His holy place,
and like (the) earth which He founded for (the) distant (future).”

Like the cosmos itself, YHWH established His holy dwelling place (lit. “holy place”, vD*q=m!) to last for the ages. The upper half of the cosmos contains the heavenly “heights”, while the “earth” surface (and all that is below it) makes up the lower half. This description alludes to the cosmic dwelling of the Creator El-YHWH; in ancient Semitic tradition, this dwelling was viewed as a great mountain, reflecting the cosmological-mythic idea of the primeval universe itself as a mountain (“heaven-earth,” Sumerian an-ki). Any local geographic mountain could serve, ritually and symbolically, for the cosmic mountain of the Creator. This is certainly true of mount Sinai/Horeb for YHWH, and the same symbolic association applied to the much more modest mount of Zion. The Temple, of course, built on this ‘mountain’, is patterned conceptually after the heavenly dwelling-place of YHWH.

The second line literally reads: “and like the earth, He founded her…” (using a femine suffix); however, this makes for very awkward English, and it is customary to replace this syntax with the use of a relative pronoun (i.e., “…which He founded”).

Verse 70

“And He (also) made choice of Dawid, His servant,
and took him from (the) holding pens of (the) flock.”

The building of the Temple (v. 69) is mentioned prior to the choice of David as king, even though historically the two events occurred in reverse order. The priority of the Temple, as YHWH’s holy dwelling place, takes priority over the human kingship of Israel/Judah. The choice of David, and his origins as a sheep-herding youth, are narrated in 1 Samuel 16.

Verse 71

“From following (the) suckling (ewe)s, He brought him
to feed (as sheep) Ya’aqob, His people,
and Yisrael, His inheritance.”

David’s origins as a shepherd are played on here, drawing upon the tradition motif of the king as a shepherd over the people. This symbolism was widespread throughout the ancient Near East; on references in the Old Testament, cf. Num 27:17; 2 Sam 7:7; 1 Kings 22:17; Isa 44:28; Jer 3:15; 23:1ff; Ezek 34:2ff, etc. The specific application of this motif to David is first referenced in 2 Samuel 5:2, and, through this association, the Shepherd-motif came to take on Messianic significance (cf. Mic 5:4-5; Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Elsewhere in the Scriptures, God Himself is referred to as the Shepherd of His people (e.g., Gen 49:24; Psalm 23:1ff; 80:1; Isa 40:11). In Psalm 77:20, God’s shepherding of Israel is done through the intermediary of Moses and Aaron (as leaders); here, similarly, it is through David as Israel’s king.

The verb hu*r*, here and in v. 72, denotes the feeding of animals, often specifically in the context of herding—i.e., leading animals to pasture where they can graze.

Verse 72

“And (so) he fed them, according to (the) completeness of his heart,
and with (the) skillfulness of his hands he guided them.”

The idea of David’s heart being “complete” (<t) may contain an allusion to the original tradition in 1 Samuel (cf. 13:14; 16:7). The faithfulness and integrity of David’s heart toward YHWH (and the covenant) was traditional, being referenced repeatedly in the book of Kings (1 Ki 9:4, etc) as an example for the other rulers of Israel and Judah.

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).

August 21: Psalm 78:56-64

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. 52-55; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:56-64

Verse 56

“Yet (again) they tested and defied (the) Mightiest,
(the) Highest, and His witnesses they did not guard;”

As with vv. 17, 32, 40, this next section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience. Again the verbs hs*n` (“test, try”) and hr*m* (“be disobedient, defy, rebel [against]”) are used, as in vv. 17-18, 40-41. The basis of this disobedience, as recorded in Israel’s history (esp. with the generation of the Exodus), is stated in v. 7: it involves (a) forgetting about the wondrous things YHWH did on their behalf, and (b) failing to keep/guard the regulations and precepts of the Torah. The Torah represents the terms of the covenant between YHWH and Israel; failing to obey the Torah regulations means violating the covenant-bond.

The term hd*u@, denoting something which is (to be) repeated, encompasses both aspects (a-b) noted above. It refers to the witnessing record of all the wonders, etc, that YHWH has done, and it also includes the regulations and precepts of the Torah. The people of Israel are obligated to “guard” (vb rm^v*) both of these. The encompassing term (plur. todu@) is typically translated “testimonies” in English; the idea of guarding the “testimonies” of YHWH is fundamental to Israelite religious teaching and tradition—cf. Deut 6:17; Psalm 25:10; 99:7; 132:12, and the repeated references in Psalm 119 (vv. 2, 22, 24, et al).

Verse 57

“but they turned back and broke faith, like their fathers,
they turned themselves about like a bow of treachery!”

The context vv. 52-55 (cf. the previous note) indicates that the narration here refers to the period when Israel was settled in the Promised Land. They “turned back” (vb gWs) from obedience to YHWH and were unfaithful/disloyal to the covenant-bond. The verb dg~B* is a bit difficult to translate, but it basically to refers to someone who breaks or betrays an agreement (i.e., breaking faith with someone). The expression “like their fathers” means that the people behaved like the earlier generation of the Exodus.

The second line reflects the earlier phrase in v. 9 (cf. the prior discussion on that verse). The idea of a “treacherous bow” (lit. “bow of treachery”) is that it is turned against the cause, with archers/soldiers betraying the cause of their sovereign (and the people). The Niphal stem of the verb Ep^h* should probably be understood in a reflexive sense—i.e., “they turned themselves about”.

Verse 58

“Indeed, they provoked Him with their high (place)s,
and with their carved images made Him jealous!”

The people violated the covenant with YHWH, by deviating from proper religious worship in two ways: (1) they continued to use different local shrines and altars (on various “high [place]s”, tomB*), and (2) they utilized and venerated “carved images” (<yl!ys!P=). With regard to the latter, the images could be Yawhistic, meant to depict El-YHWH, but more commonly the term lys!P= refers to images (i.e., ‘idols’) of other deities (Deut 7:5, 25; 12:3, etc). Of the many references to the people’s persistent worship of false/lesser deities (spec. through their images), see the summary statement in 2 Kings 17:41.

The injunction against worshiping at “high (place)s” is more problematic, since it can apply even to faithful worship of YHWH (as the true God). It involves the centralization of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and there is very little direct reference to the issue of aberrant “high places” in the Torah regulations. The implication in Lev 26:30 and Num 33:52 is that such “high places” represented earlier Canaanite sites (where polytheistic/idolatrous worship occurred) which the people of Israel continued to use. Almost certainly it is this association with idolatry that informs the injunction against “high places”. The continued use of the local shrines and altars is repeatedly mentioned as a persistent problem (and sin) throughout the book of Kings. There are similar, but relatively infrequent, condemnatory references in the Prophets (e.g., Hos 10:8; Amos 7:9), but here in v. 58 is the only such reference in the Psalms.

Verse 59

“(The) Mightiest heard and (boil)ed over (with rage),
and He came to despise Yisrael greatly.”

The verb um^v* (“hear”), in this instance, probably should be understood in the looser sense of “being aware” of something. The reflexive (Hitpa’el) stem of the verb rb^u* (“pass/cross over”) is relatively rare, but tends to be used in the specific context of a person becoming angry or enraged. I have adopted the English idiom of “boiling/bubbling over” (i.e., with rage). YHWH’s anger at Israel’s flagrant violation of the covenant through false/idolatrous worship (violating the fundamental prohibition of the Decalogue, Exod 20:3-4), caused Him to despise/reject (vb sa^m*) His people.

Verses 60-61

“And He left behind His dwelling-place (at) Šilow,
(the) Tent (in which) He (had) dwelt among men,
and He gave (over) His strength to captivity,
and His beauty in(to the) hand of (the) foe.”

The historical reference in these verses is the loss of the Golden Chest (Ark), the symbolic throne and seat of YHWH’s presence, after Israel’s defeat by the Philistines in the battle of Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4). This episode represents the climax of the narrative in chaps. 1-4 detailing the corruption of the priesthood at the Shiloh Tent-shrine. The strength (zu)) and beauty/splendor (hr*a*p=T!) of YHWH’s presence among the people was manifested in the sacred locus of the Ark; this helps to explain the seemingly harsh and impious-sounding expressions in v. 61, which generally reflect the statement in 1 Sam 4:21f. It also indicates how closely the manifest presence of YHWH was connected with the Ark in early Israelite religious tradition. The loss of the Ark was catastrophic in its religious significance, and represented a severe judgment. However, the Samuel narrative does not tie this loss to polytheistic idolatry among the people, in the way that this is implied here in the Psalm.

Verse 62

“He also closed up His people to (the) sword—
indeed He (boil)ed over against His inheritance!”

Beyond the departure of YHWH’s manifest presence, He went further, shutting up (vb rg~s*) His people to the judgment of the sword—i.e., death in battle and destruction through military conquest. This may continue with the immediate context of the battle of Ebenezer (1 Sam 4:2, 10; cf. on vv. 60-61 above), but likely it is also meant to encompass a range of Israelite military defeats and disasters, stretching into the Kingdom period. The defeat at Ebenezer serves as a type pattern for all such future disasters. In this way, YHWH truly “(boil)ed over” with anger against His people, as the couplet repeats the idiom (using the verb rb^u*, Hitpa’el stem) from v. 59 (cf. above).

Verse 63

“Fire devoured their choice (young men),
and their young maidens were not praised.”

This couplet, though a bit difficult to translate, quite clearly (and cleverly) expresses the devastating impact of military defeat (and conquest) on the population. The fire (from war/conquest) kills off (lit. eats/devours) the choice young men, which means that the young girls (of marriageable age) have no one to wed; as a result, the maidens are never to be praised (as brides) at their wedding.

Verse 64

“Their sacred officials fell by the sword,
and their widows could not (fully) weep.”

This couplet follows the formal thematic pattern of v. 63. Just as the chosen ones in the secular sphere (i.e., strong young men of military age) were killed off, so also those in the sacred sphere (the men officiating as priests, <yn]h&K)) were slain. Both groups met with death as the result of military defeat and conquest (by fire and sword, respectively). In each instance, the man’s wife (or perspective bride) has her expected life upended and shattered. Here, the slain priest’s widow has no opportunity to weep (i.e., mourn and lament) in a proper and fitting way; possibly a planned ceremony (comparable to the wedding ceremony implied in v. 63) with formal dirges and the like is in mind.

August 15: Psalm 78:17-22

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. 9-16; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:17-31

Verse 17

“And (yet) they continued still to sin against Him,
to defy (the) Most High (there) in the dry land.”

The theme of the people’s faithless disobedience, betraying the covenant with YHWH, was introduced in verse 8, and then becomes a key refrain in each of the main sections of the Psalm, emphasizing a repeated and continual pattern of disobedience. This is particularly indicated by the combination of the verb [s^y` (“add [to something]”, often in the sense of “repeat, do again”) with the adverb dou (indicating a repetition or return to something).

The people’s lack of trust, and breaking of the covenant bond with YHWH, is expressed here through two different idioms: (1) sinning (vb af*j*) against YHWH, and (2) stubbornly defying (vb hr*m*) Him. The verb hr*m* can carry the more forceful (and dramatic) connotation of rebelling against someone, provoking an intense anger.

In verse 15, the locative noun rB*d=m! was used; it is typically translated “wilderness” or “desert”, but properly means something like “place out back” (i.e., “outback”). Here, the specific idea of a desert region is intended, through the use of hY`x! (“dry/parched [land]”).

Verse 18

“And they tested (the) Mighty (One) in their heart,
(so as) to request something to eat for their throat.”

This couplet, which expounds the statement in v. 17, refers in a comprehensive way to the various traditions regarding the people’s grumbling over the lack of food and water in the desert (e.g., Exod 16:3; Num 11:4; 20:3; 21:5). On the motif of the people “testing” (vb hs*n`) God in their heart, cf. Psalm 106:14; also 95:9; Deut 6:16; and the reference by Paul in 1 Cor 10:9. This “testing” reflects a lack of faith and trust in YHWH.

The noun vp#n# is difficult to translate in the second line. Usually rendered “soul”, which makes a fine parallel here with “heart”, it can sometimes refer to a person’s desire or appetite (i.e., longing of the soul). On other rare occasions (and always in poetry), vp#n# has the more concrete (and physiological) meaning of “throat”. Here the specific juxtaposition of “heart” (one’s inward intent and desire) and “throat” (i.e., the physical longing of the body for something to eat) seems most appropriate.

Verse 19

“And they spoke out
against (the) Mightiest and said:
‘Is the Mighty (One) able
to arrange a table-spread
(here) in the outback?'”

The meter and structure of this verse is irregular and uneven, prompting Kraus (p. 121) to recommend eliminating the initial two words; admittedly, this would instantly produce a proper 3-beat (3+3) couplet, consistent with the metrical pattern of the Psalm:

“And they said: ‘Is (the) Mighty (One) able
to arrange a table-spread in the outback?'”

However, this also eliminates the clever bit of wordplay that frames the verse, by which the Psalmist may be playing on the different meanings of the two rbd roots—one meaning “speak”, and the other denoting “be in back”. As noted above, the locative noun rB*d=m!, though typically translated “wilderness” (or “desert”), properly means something like “place out back”. I have tried to capture this wordplay in English: i.e., the people “spoke out” (against God) regarding their being “in the outback”.

Verse 20

“‘See, He did strike (the) rock,
and (the) waters flowed,
and torrents poured down;
but is He also able to give bread,
or provide meat for His people?'”

The people’s expression of faithless questioning continues here from v. 19. It indicates that they saw the dramatic scene of copious water-streams pouring out of the rock, and understood its significance (as a miraculous act by YHWH); yet they could still doubt whether God was also (<g~) able to provide bread and meat for them to eat.

Verse 21

“So then—
(when) YHWH heard this, He boiled over,
and fire blazed (up) against Ya’aqob,
yes, even His anger came up against Yisrael;”

Structurally, this verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, to which is added an initial beat for dramatic effect. YHWH’s initial reaction to hearing the people’s skeptical questioning was to “boil over” (or cross over, be overcome, vb rb^u*) with anger. This causes a “fire” to ignite and ‘blaze’ (vb qc^n`) within Him; the fire (va@) is specifically identified emotionally with His anger, rising up (vb hl*u*) against His people. The noun [a^ typically heightens this sort of anthropomorphic imagery, by including the concrete (and vivid) motif of a person’s nostrils burning or flaring (i.e., like the snorting of an angry bull). More abstractly, the sense can be of the burning of a person’s face (as a sign of his anger). Here, however, it is the specific emotion of anger, expressed by YHWH, that best reflects the meaning of [a^.

For the corresponding reference in the tradition to this reaction by YHWH, cf. Numbers 11:1ff, where it seems that a real (physical) fire breaks out in the camp—i.e., the internal fire (of YHWH’s anger) is expressed naturalistically through an actual, destructive fire.

Verse 22

“because they did not set (their heart) firmly on (the) Mightiest,
and did not put (their) trust in His saving (power)!”

The parallel verbs /m^a* (Hiphil stem) and jf^b* both express the idea of having faith/trust in someone. The latter specifically refers to seeking refuge or protection, and is used frequently in the Psalms (46 out of 120 OT occurrences). The former verb (/m^a*) in the Hiphil (causative) stem denotes making something firm, or causing it to stand firm, etc; it is often used in the more abstract religious-ethical sense of having faith or trust—indicating that one’s heart is firm.

The remainder of this section (vv. 23-31) will be discussed in the next note.

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 78

Psalm 78

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsb (v. 1); 11QPsd (vv. 5-12); 4QPse (vv. 6-7, 31-33); pap6QPs (vv. 36-37)

This lengthy Psalm (the second longest of the Psalter) is a didactic poem based on Israel’s history—focusing primarily on the Exodus and the wilderness journey. In this regard, it is similar to Pss 105106 and 136, which also present an extensive historical summary in poetic form. However, the stated purpose of Ps 78, with its call to obedience, and for the use of the poem in teaching the generations to come, this Psalm resembles the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy (chap. 32)—though that poem is, by all accounts, a much older composition. The narrative description in Deut 31:19-22, regarding the purpose of the “Song Moses”, corresponds broadly to vv. 1-8 of the Psalm (discussed below).

The contrast between Ephraim (i.e., the Northern Kingdom) and Judah that frames the poem (vv. 9ff, 68ff) suggests a dating for the Psalm (at least in its original form) in the period between 922-721 B.C. The lack of any obvious reference to the Exile, even for the Northern Kingdom, would seem to indicate a time of composition prior to 721 B.C.; however, many commentators would assign a much later date to the Psalm (cf. the discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 290-3). The importance of this Psalm (cf. below), as well as its length, increases the likelihood that it was subjected to a substantial process of edition/redaction, perhaps over a number of centuries. Some possible points of editing will be discussed in the notes.

The relative importance of Psalm 78 is indicated by its central position among the Asaph-Psalms (7383), as well as in the Psalter as a whole. A Masoretic marginal note at v. 36 marks that verse as the midpoint of the entire Psalter (its 2,524 verses); a variant tradition in the Talmud (b. Qid. 30a) makes the same claim for v. 38 (counting 2,527 verses); cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 285. There are numerous points of similarity in theme and vocabulary among the Asaph-Psalms, which are particularly notable in relation to Ps 78 (because of its length). For a fine survey of these points, including the similarities between Pss 78 and 77 (cf. the prior studies), see Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 293-4. On the figure of Asaph, see the earlier studies on Pss 50 and 73.

Psalm 78, in spite of its extreme length, is one of the simplest in its poetry, relatively easy to read, and generally lacking in textual or poetic difficulties. It is one of the most prosodic of all the Psalms, due primarily, it would seem, to the historical content—rooted so firmly to the narrative traditions of Israel—and its didactic purpose. Its simple poetic language and style makes it well-suited for teaching to children and the general population. The Psalm follows a standard three-beat (3+3) couplet format throughout, with but few exceptions.

There is no clear defining structure for Ps 78—either thematic or poetic—apart from the opening section (vv. 1-8) that declares the poem’s purpose. One way of dividing the Psalm uses the repeated references to the people’s disobedience—in vv. 17, 32, 40, 56—as structural markers. This yields five strophes, the last two of which conclude with short sections referring specifically to YHWH’s guiding/leading His people like a shepherd (vv. 52-55, 70-72). For a slightly different division, building upon the work of earlier scholars, cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 282-5, 290-2.

The heading refers to this Psalm as a lyK!c=m^; on the possible meaning and significance of this term (used also in the Asaph Psalm 74), cf. the earlier study on Ps 32.

Verses 1-8

Verse 1

“Give ear, O my people, to my instruction;
extend your ear to (the) sayings of my mouth.”

The opening lines are reminiscent of the opening of the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1)—an ancient poem with a similar expressed purpose (in its Deuteronomic context, 31:19-22) to that of Ps 78. The Psalmist functions here as a prophet, speaking as YHWH’s representative in addressing the people. On the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, and on the prophetic character and features of certain of the Asaph-Psalms, cf. the earlier studies on Ps 50 and 7377.

Verse 2

“I will open up my mouth with a parable,
(and) will pour out riddles from (times) before.”

The Psalmist states that he will begin his discourse (“open my mouth”) with a lv*m*. The term refers to a saying or story, etc, that describes one thing as being like (lvm) another—i.e., a similitude or parable. Beginning with this parable, his mouth will “pour out” todyj!. The noun hd*yj!, in its basic meaning, covers a wide range of enigmatic sayings or questions; often the term seems to denote a “riddle” or a “puzzle”. In what sense does the Psalm proper (beginning with verse 9) constitute a parable or set of riddles? Presumably, the main idea is that the people should learn from the example of an earlier generation, understanding their own situation as being in the likeness of that which took place in times before (cf. on verse 8, below). The enigmatic sayings (todyj!) then refer to the individual couplets of the Psalm, which spin out, in poetic form, the parabolic narrative from times past.

Verses 3-4a

“(That) which we have heard and known,
and (which) our fathers recounted to us,
we will not hide (it) from their sons,
recounting (it) to the circle following:”

It is possible to read verse 3 syntactically as part of v. 2—i.e., “…riddles from (times) before, which we have heard and known…”. However, it is just as likely that the relative pronoun at the beginning of v. 3 looks ahead, referring to the traditional content, described in vv. 3-4, specifically, that has been passed down from one generation to the next. Verses 2 and 3 are related conceptually, if not syntactically; the Psalmist is giving creative poetic expression (parable/riddles) to the traditional accounts of the Exodus (and other events in Israel’s history). The noun “sons” (<yn]B*) in v. 4 (line 1) means children—or, properly, descendants—in a more general sense; the second line makes clear that this refers to the circle/cycle (roD) of people that comes after (i.e. the next generation[s]). Verse 4 expresses the people’s intention (collectively) to be faithful in teaching their children the lessons of the past.

Verse 4b

“(the) praise(worthy deed)s of YHWH and His strength;
and (the) wonderful (thing)s that He has done.”

Verse 4b makes clear what it is that the faithful ones (represented collectively by the Psalmist) will recount (rps) to their children. The narrative is not simply the mundane history of Israel, but an account of the wondrous deeds performed by YHWH. The noun hL*h!T= in line 1 properly refers to a shout (of praise, etc); the things YHWH has done for His people in the past are, quite literally, “something to shout about,” being praise-worthy deeds. These deeds, mighty and miraculous, demonstrate His power and strength (zWzu$). The miracles surrounding the Exodus are particularly in mind.

Verse 5

“For He made stand a witness in Ya’aqob,
and instruction He set (with it) in Yisrael,
which He commanded our fathers
to make them known to their sons.”

The “witness” (tWdu@) is a traditional record and recounting of what YHWH has done—an account which can be repeated for each generation. Along with this witness, God provided “instruction” (hr*oT, torah) for His people. Both of these He commanded to the people (“our fathers”) that they should make them (both) known to their children.

Verse 6

“For (this) reason:
(that) the circle (coming) after would know,
(that) sons (who) are born would stand up
and recount (it) to their (own) sons.”

The purpose of the witness and the accompanying Instruction (Torah) is so that each generation would be taught, and the people thus would remain faithful to YHWH from one generation to the next. The meter and structure of this verse is irregular, and does not fit the pattern of the Psalm particularly well. The secondary and redactional character of v. 6 has been suggested (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 287). Again, I translate roD literally as “circle” (or “cycle”), though the word typically refers to the people alive during a particular cycle (of time)—i.e., a “generation”, in our common parlance; that is certainly the meaning here.

Verse 7

“And (so) they might set their hope on (the) Mightiest,
and not forget (the) deeds of (the) Mighty (One),
and (also) keep watch (over) His commands.”

The meter of this verse is also irregular—a 3+3+2 tricolon. Lines 2 and 3 refer again to the witness (of YHWH’s deeds) and the accompanying Instruction (“His commands”), respectively. The noun ls#K# in line 1 has a peculiar range of meaning; based on the cognate root in Arabic, the fundamental denotation seems to involve being “thick”, from which are derived both the negative meaning of “dullness” (i.e., stupid, foolish) and positive meaning of having “firmness” of trust or hope. Here the positive meaning of ls#K# is in view (i.e., trust in God), though it is also possible that the negative sense of the word is being anticipated as well—viz., the repeated theme of the people’s foolish disobedience, which begins in v. 9.

Verse 8

“And (then) they would not be like their fathers,
a circle being obstinate and rebellious,
a circle (that) has not set firm its heart,
(for) its spirit was not firm with (the) Mighty (One).

The theme of the people’s disobedience, developed throughout the poetic narrative of the Psalm, is introduced here, at the conclusion of the opening section. The idea of the Psalm as a lv*m* (“likeness”, v. 1, cf. above) is somewhat explained here: the example-narrative from Israel’s past is provided so that the current generation (roD) might not end up being like (K=) those who rebelled against YHWH in times before (the generation of the Exodus, etc). The concept of faithfulness toward God is expressed, in the second couplet, through the motif of “firmness”, utilizing two roots:

    • /WK (line 1)—verb in the Hiphil stem, meaning “set firm, fix (firmly) in place”; here it refers to the heart (bl@) of the people, i.e., they did not set their heart firmly in place, so as to remain faithful to YHWH.
    • /m^a* (line 2)—verb in the passive Niphal stem, referring to the nature/character of the people in their spirit (j^Wr); they did not set their heart firmly toward obeying God, because they were not firmly devoted to Him in their underlying spirit; i.e., their faithlessness was intrinsic to their character and identity (as a wicked and faithless generation).

*    *    *    *    *    *

Due to the length of Psalm 78, the remainder of its verses (vv. 9-72) will be discussed over a series of daily notes.

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

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,”

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).




March 8: Psalm 68:8-11

Strophe 3: Psalm 68:8-11 [7-10]

The second strophe was examined in the previous note; on the structure of Psalm 68, see the introductory study.

Verse 8 [7]

“O Mightiest, in your going forth
before (the) face of your people,
in your stepping in (the) desolate (land),”

Syntactically, this verse (a 2-beat tricolon) is only the first part of a statement that extends into the next verse. It is interrupted by a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker. As I mentioned in the introductory study, a pause-marker occurs following the initial couplet of the third strophe in all three parts of the Psalm. This may indicate that the first couplet establishes a musical pattern for the strophe, like the hirmos in a Greek liturgical ode. Even so, its occurrence at the midway point of a grammatical sentence is most unusual.

In the previous note, I mentioned that the final couplet of verse 7 likely contained an allusion to the Exodus tradition (spec. the years of wandering in the desert). This would seem to be confirmed by the rather clear reference to the Exodus here in v. 8. There is also a bit of wordplay, picked up from v. 7, in the use of the verb ax*y` (“go/come out”). In the middle line of verse 7, the Psalmist refers to God bringing bound prisoners out of their confinement. This was a part of a general reference to YHWH acting on behalf of the poor and oppressed (the righteous). Here, the reference is to the specific historical tradition of God bringing His people out of their bondage in Egypt. In doing so, YHWH Himself goes out in front of them (“before the face of your people”), leading the way. The image in the third line is of God marching right there with his people, stepping (vb du^x*) along in the “desolate land” (/omyv!y+).

Verse 9 [8]

“(the) earth shook,
(the) heavens dropped (rain),
from (the) face of (the) Mightiest
—the (One) of Sinai,
from (the) face of (the) Mightiest
—(the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael!”

As noted above, this verse continues the statement begun in v. 8; grammatically, vv. 8-9 form a single sentence-unit. The verse contains six 2-beat lines, and is best parsed as a couplet, followed by a hymnic quatrain, with the kind of repetition that is typical of the earliest Hebrew psalm-poetry.

The response of earth and heaven to the approach of YHWH should be understood on two levels. First, it reflects the authority and control that God has over the cosmos. This was discussed in the previous note (on v. 5). Certainly the mention of the heavens dropping (vb [f^n`) rain follows the imagery in v. 5 of YHWH as “Rider on the Clouds” (cf. also Deut 33:26), with His control over the heavens and their rain-water. The shaking (vb vu^r*) of the earth is also a response to YHWH’s authoritative command.

At the same time, these disturbances in nature are a sign of fear. Indeed, the “dripping” of moisture (rain) could be understood in terms of a person sweating, out of fear. Poetically, the forces of nature are personified as beings who react (with the emotion of fear and awe) to the presence and power of YHWH. In the context of ancient Near Eastern polytheism, the forces of nature were either thought of as being themselves deities, or as under the manifest control of personal deities.

The association of YHWH with Sinai is an indication that this poetry is part of the same ancient line of tradition, dealing with the Exodus and Conquest, that we see, for example, in Judges 5:4-5 and Deut 33:2-3 (cf. also Hab 3:3-6). The expression yn~ys! hz# (“the [one] of Sinai”) also occurs in Judg 5:5. The demonstrative-relative particle z/d reflects ancient Semitic usage, which was preserved in old/archaic Hebrew poetry, after its use had largely disappeared during the classical/kingdom period. It is represented as early as the 15th century proto-Canaanite (Sinaitic) inscriptions: i.e., °l ¼ ±lm (°il ¼¥ ±ôlami), meaning something like “(the) Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of eternity”; cf, Cross, pp. 18-20; Dahood, II, p. 139.

Verse 10 [9]

“Rainfall of willingness
you made drop, O Mightiest;
your inheritance and <dominion>,
you (yourself) established it.”

Again, the principal motif is on rainfall (here, <v#G#), emphasizing YHWH’s role as controller of the heavens, utilizing the ancient religious idiom of the storm-theophany. If the specific emphasis in v. 9 was on the Exodus, here it is on the establishment of God’s people (Israel) in the Promised Land. This, of course, implied the historical tradition of the Conquest, but here the primary idea is on YHWH providing for His people—principally by the bringing of rain to make the land fruitful.

The unusual expression “rain of willingness [tobd*n+]” connotes something which God gives willingly and in abundance—i.e., generously; the plural form tobd*n+ could indicate multiple/repeated gifts of rain, or it could be understood in a collective (or intensive) sense.

The noun hl*j&n~ (“inheritance, hereditary possession”) refers to both the people and the land, as belonging to YHWH; it also alludes to the covenantal idea of the land (of Canaan) as the territory which Israel would inherit. This is an important component of the ancient Exodus tradition, as expressed notably, for example, in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:17 [discussed in an earlier note]).

The pairing of hlj&n~ and ha*l=n] almost certainly needs to be understood in light of the similar pairing of nhlty (“my inheritance”) and tliyt (“my dominion”) in Canaanite poetry (cf. the closing lines of the repeated refrain in the Baal Epic, III, col. 3, 30-31, etc). This suggests that the MT ha*l=n] (whether or not textually corrupt) is related to the Ugaritic root l°y, denoting the use of strength/might, i.e., “prevail, overcome”; cf. Dahood, II, pp. 139f. Thus, the land of Canaan, in which God’s people would be settled, is His dominion, to be established through the exercise of His might. This, again is an integral part of the Exodus/Conquest tradition in ancient Hebrew poetry—cf. Exod 15:17, where the same verb /WK (in the Polel) is used.

Verse 11 [10]

“Your family (that) dwells in it,
you established in your good(ness),
(even) for (the) afflicted, O Mightiest!”

I follow Dahood (II, p. 140) in relating tyj to Ugaritic µwt, referring to a family-line or ‘house’; cf. also 2 Sam 23:13. The Israelite people are thus understood, according to tradition, as a royal household belonging to YHWH, similar to the idea of Israel as God’s hereditary possession. He established them in the Promised Land; again the verb /WK is used, however this verb can also connote the idea of making something ready or prepared, making provision, etc. This would well fit the motif of YHWH bringing the blessing of abundant rainfall, making the land fruitful for His people.

The last line revisits the theme from vv. 6-7, emphasizing the concern and care God has for the poor and afflicted. Throughout the Psalms, the adjective yn]u* (“pressed [down], oppressed, afflicted”) occurs frequently (29 times out of 73 OT occurrences), usually as a general designation for the righteous (and often emphasizing their mistreatment by the wicked). It is part of a wider Wisdom-emphasis, on the contrast between the righteous and the wicked, that is quite prevalent 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 “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, (Harvard University Press: 1973).