Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 59 (Part 2)

Psalm 59, continued

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

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

Stanza 2: VV. 11-14 [10-13]

Verse 11bc [10bc]

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

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

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

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

Verse 12 [11]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 13 [12]

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

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

Each line ends with a niphal imperfect with jussive force:

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

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

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

Verse 14 [13]

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 15 [14]

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

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

Verse 16 [15]

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

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

Verse 17 [16]

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

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

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

Verse 18 [17]

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 58

Psalm 58

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

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

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

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

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

VERSES 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

Verse 3 [2]

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

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

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

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

Verse 7 [6]

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 8 [7]

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

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

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

Verse 9 [8]

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

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

Verse 10 [9]

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

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

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

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

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

Verse 11 [10]

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

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

Verse 12 [11]

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

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

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 3)

Psalm 55, continued

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

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

VERSES 17-24 [16-23]

Verse 17 [16]

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

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

Verse 18 [17]

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

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

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

Verses 19 [18]

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

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

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

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

Verse 20 [19]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 21 [20]

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

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

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

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

Verse 22 [21]

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

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

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

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

(indeed) softer than oil were his words…”

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

Verse 23 [22]

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 24 [23]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 50 (Part 2)

Psalm 50, continued

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

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

Verse 16

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

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

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

Verse 17

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

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

Verse 18

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

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

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

Verse 19

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

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

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

Verse 20

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

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

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

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

Verse 21

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 22

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

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

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

Verse 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 50 (Part 1)

Psalm 50

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction (vv. 1-4)

Verse 1

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

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

Verse 2

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

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

Verse 3

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

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

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

Verse 4

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

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

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

Introductory Address (vv. 5-6)

Verse 5

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 6

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

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

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

Verse 7

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

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

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

Verse 8

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

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

Verses 9-11

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 12-13

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

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

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

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

Verse 14

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

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

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

Verse 15

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 2)

Psalm 44, continued

The first part of this Psalm (vv. 2-9 [1-8]), cf. the previous study) emphasized the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Here we are looking at the second part. The meter in this section tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though there are certain exceptions, particularly several 3+2 couplets, which are noted below.

Verses 10-17 [9-16]

Verse 10 [9]

“But you rejected (us) and brought disgrace on us,
and you did not go forth with our armies.”

The opening particle [a^ is adversative, indicating a transition (and point of contrast) with the first section of the Psalm. YHWH’s support for Israel, including fighting battles on her behalf, has changed to rejection (vb jn~z`). He no longer travels with the armies of Israel to provide his Divine power on their behalf. This has led to military defeats, and to humiliation and disgrace (vb <l^K*).

Verse 11 [10]

“You made us turn back from (the) adversary,
and (the one)s hating us took plunder for themsel(ves).”

Here the context of military defeat is made clear; Israel’s defeat in battle reflects YHWH’s withdrawal of His support. As a result, Israel is forced to turn back from her enemies.

Verses 12 [11]

“You have given us, like sheep, (as something) eaten,
and among (the) nations you have scattered us.”

This 3+2 couplet combines herding and agricultural imagery—i.e., sheep raised to be slaughtered for meat, and grain tossed (threshed) about after harvest. Both reflect the idea that the people of Israel, following their military defeats, are overpowered and devoured/consumed by their enemies. The first line alludes to conquest, the second to exile. It is not possible to isolate a specific historical setting for the Psalm, but this reference to exile suggests a time no earlier than the late-8th/early-7th century B.C. (following the Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom and/or the southern conquests during the invasion of Sennacherib).

Verse 13 [12]

“You sold your people with no wealth (coming),
and did not think much by (the) price for them.”

The exile motif of v. 12 [11] continues here with the idea of YHWH selling off (vb rk^m*) His people—that is, like slaves. Not only that, but God sold them at a low price, with “no (real) wealth [/oh]” coming from the sale. Indeed, He did not even bother to set a significant price (ryj!m=, plural) for them, indicating that He did not “think much” (vb hb^r*) of their worth. The harsh and derisive wording here should be seen as rhetorical in nature, a kind of exaggeration to show how far Israel has fallen in God’s eyes.

Verse 14 [13]

“You set us (as) an insult for (those) dwelling (around) us,
(as) mocking and laughter for (those) surrounding us.”

It is possible that this couplet is meant to express life in exile. Certainly there are other people dwelling (vb /k^v*) around Israel, and the verb bb^s* (“[en]circle, surround”) in the second line may suggest that the Israelites are a minority, being surrounded by other nations and peoples. More important is the fact that Israel’s defeats—including conquest and exile—has led to them being an object of ridicule among the nations. Three nouns are used to express this, within the synonymous parallelism of the couplet: hP*r=j# (“insult, cast blame, treat with scorn”), gu^l* (“mocking, derision”), and sl#q# (something of no value, a target of laughter/derision, i.e. ‘laughing-stock’)—the latter two words being close in meaning.

Verse 15 [14]

“You set us (as) an example (of shame) among (the) nations,
(for) shaking of head(s) among (the) peoples.”

Another 3+2 couplet, which follows closely in meaning and tone after v. 14 [13]. Not only has Israel become a target for derision among the nations, they have turned into a veritable example for the shame and disgrace that can befall a people. The noun lv*m*, often translated flatly as “proverb”, fundamentally refers to a likeness, and here it seems to be used in the sense of a pattern or “example” of a people’s shame. The nations can only “shake (their) head” (a literal translation of the idiom var)-dogm=) at what has become of Israel. This is perhaps to be understood in light of the first section of the Psalm, with its references to the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (in the past) on behalf of Israel, things which caused amazement (and fear) among the nations. Now the nations are amazed in a different way: what has happened to this people who had God on their side?

Verse 16 [15]

“All the day (long) my humiliation is in front of me,
and (the) shame of my face has covered me.”

The wording of this couplet would seem to make clear that, in terms of the Psalm-setting, the shame (of exile) experienced by Israel is a present condition. The Psalmist counts himself among the people, shifting from the plural (“us”) to the singular (“me”). He experiences this humiliation and shame (tv#B)) “all the day (long)”. The sense of disgrace is complete and overwhelming, “covering” him. Dahood (p. 266) suggests that the problematic suffixed verb yntsk should be read as a Pual (passive) form, understood in a privative sense—i.e., “the shame of my face is uncovered (before) me.”

Verse 17 [16]

“(It is) from (the) voice of (the one) insulting and reviling,
(and) from (the) face of (the one) hostile and taking vengeance.”

The overwhelming shame and disgrace heaped upon Israel (in exile) is two-pronged: it comes from the voice of the nations (i.e., their speech), and their faces (i.e., their attitudes and how they treat Israel). The abusive speech is characterized by the verbs [r^j* and [d^G` which are similar in meaning (“insult, revile,” etc). While the nations’ attitudes and behavior toward Israel reflects hostility (vb by~a*) and a desire to take revenge (vb <q^n`). All four verbs are participle forms, indicating a situation that is continuous, and that is characteristic of the relationship between the nations and Israel.

This part of the Psalm makes for rather depressing reading, with its litany of suffering and repeated descriptions of the abuse Israel has suffered (from the nations) since YHWH has withdrawn His support. The reason God has ceased to support Israel is not stated, but anyone familiar with the Scriptural account of Israelite history would know that it was due to violation of the covenant bond—acts of wickedness and idolatry that led to YHWH bringing judgment upon His people.

Sadly, the abuse directed at Israel has not been limited to the Exilic period, but has continued, in a variety of ways, during the many centuries since—a long period which can be seen as a continuation of Israel’s exile and ‘dispersion’ among the nations. The “nations” have frequently mistreated the Israelites and Jews who dwelt in their territories, often in harsh and terrible ways. This is to the shame of the “nations” themselves, as much as it is for Israel.

Fortunately, the Psalm does not end here. In the final part (beginning with verse 18 [17]), we find expressed a profound hope for Israel’s restoration, for deliverance from their suffering among the nations. This expectation is tied to a collective affirmation by the people of a renewed loyalty to the covenant with YHWH. We will examine this section of the Psalm in next week’s study.

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

February 13: Isaiah 40:6-8

Isaiah 40:6-8

The poem in verses 1-8 may be divided according to a three-part dramatic framework. In verse 1-2, God (YHWH) is speaking. Then in verses 3-5 we have the voice of another, acting in the role of a royal herald, “calling out” the King’s edict, commanding a great building project (road construction) to commence. Now, in verses 6-8, there is yet another “voice”, similar to the one prior—that is to say, it is another herald/messenger of God—and yet there are subtle (but significant) differences in how these two heralds are characterized:

    • Vv. 3-5—ar@q) loq: “A voice (is) calling”, or “(the) voice (of one) calling”
    • Vv. 6ff—ar*q= rm@a) loq: “A voice (is) saying, ‘Call (out)…’

In the first instance, it is the heavenly voice that is “calling”; now, in the second instance, the voice is telling a third messenger that he must do the calling out. It is probably best to understand the messengers of vv. 3-5 and 6 as heavenly beings (Angels). The one who is commanded in vv. 6ff, by contrast, is a human messenger—a prophet who is to announce the same message of good news to the people of Judah. Both Angel and prophet function is a similar manner: as royal heralds who announce the word of the King (YHWH) to the people.

The mini-drama continues, as the human herald, the one commanded by the heavenly herald, responds to this command by asking “What shall I call (out)?” The message that he is to announce takes the form of a beautiful proverb-poem:

“All flesh (is like the) green (grass),
and all its goodness like (the) sparkle of (the) field;
(the) green (grass) shall dry up,
and (the) sparkle shall wither,
(in) that (the) breath of YHWH blows on it.
Surely, the people are (the) green (grass):
(the) green (grass) has dried up,
(the) sparkle has withered,
and (so the) word of our Mighty (One) [Elohim]
shall stand (in)to (the) distant (future).”

A simple bit of nature-imagery has been transformed into a powerful statement on the sovereignty of God as Ruler over all the world. With the passing of the seasons, in the heat of summer (and the dead period of autumn/winter) the lush green grass of springtime dries out (vb vb^y`), and the beautiful flowering (lit. “sparkle”, Jyx!) of the fields withers (vb lb^n`). This may be part of the natural order of things, but it is ultimately governed by the word and power of YHWH. The word (rb*D*) of God accomplishes all things, and his breath (j^Wr) both gives life and takes it away. All of this comes from the mouth (hP#) of God.

This little vignette illustrates the punishment that God brought upon the people (of Judah). The people are the grass (and flower), and they withered when God breathed (judgment) upon them. The illustration thus goes beyond the obvious proverbial emphasis—viz., the transitory nature of human existence—and relates specifically to the fate of God’s people.

What is implicit in the nature-illustration, but not directly stated, is that the lush green grass and flowers of the field return again in the spring-time. This, too, is brought about through the mouth of God (His word and breath); and YHWH has now declared the restoration of His people to new life. Like the spring grass, they also will return, giving the land of Judah back its true beauty once again. While this is not declared, as such, here in vv. 1-8, it is the subject of the poem that follows (verses 9-11ff).

When one reads the two poems together, it is possible to view them as part of a single narrative. The herald who is commissioned in vv. 6-8 effectively gives the good news (of restoration/return) to Jerusalem, and then the capital city (personified as a woman, note the feminine syntax) functions a messenger herself (vv. 9-11)—announcing the joyful message to all the other cities of Judah.

Parallel with the proverb-poem in vv. 6-8, are the grand lines in vv. 12-17. In both instances God’s sovereign power over the universe is emphasized. In vv. 6-8, it is the people of Judah who are in view, in vv. 12-17, it is all of other peoples (of the Nations). This is another example of how the Deutero-Isaian theme of the restoration of Israel/Judah blends in with a wider (eschatological) background theme of God’s Judgment on the Nations. The Exile was His judgment on Israel/Judah, and has now passed, while His judgment on the remaining Nations still awaits (and is soon to commence).

*      *      *      *      *

In conclusion, I would be remiss if I did not mention a  small text-critical point on verse 6. The Masoretic text of the opening words reads (in translation):

“A voice (is) saying: ‘Call (out)!’ And he said [rm^a*w+]: ‘What shall I call (out)?'”

However, the LXX has kai\ ei@pa (“and I said”), and there is Hebrew support for a first-person singular form in the great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran (1QIsaa), where the reading is, apparently (and somewhat curiously), a cohortative (hr*m=oaw+), “and I shall say,” “and let me say”. The main question is whether a third-person or first-person form is correct (“he said” vs. “I said”). If the latter, then the person who is commissioned by the (Angelic) herald, is the Deutero-Isaian poet/prophet himself, and the scene may be viewed as comparable to the commission of Isaiah in chapter 6.

There could, indeed, be an intentional parallel. In that earlier passage, Isaiah was divinely commanded with a message of judgment to give to Judah. It related to the devastation that would come from the Assyrian invasion, an invasion that foreshadowed the more complete destruction of Judah (including Jerusalem) by the Babylonians. Now the prophet has been given a message that the judgment for Judah is ended—there will be restoration both for the people and for the city of Jerusalem herself.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 4)

Psalm 37, continued

Verses 30-40

This final section of Psalm 37 reiterates the different themes that have run throughout the Psalm (cf. Parts 1, 2, 3, on the earlier sections). As such, it effectively summarizes the proverbial message of the composition, with its strong emphasis on the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates).

Verses 30-31

p “(The) mouth [yP!] of (the) just murmurs wisdom,
and his tongue speaks (right) judgment;
(the) Instruction of his Mighty (One is) in his heart,
his steps do not slip away (on the path).”

These two couplets neatly capture the character of the righteous (adj. qyd!x*, “just, right”), drawing upon traditional religious and proverbial language. The first couplet defines the righteous in terms of their speech: they speak wisdom (hm*k=j*) and justice (fP*v=m!, lit. “[right] judgment”). This essentially means that the righteous person both acts (i.e. behaves) in a wise and just manner, and exhorts others to do the same. Such a person is also preoccupied with wisdom and justice, a characteristic that is reflected by the use of the verb hg`h* (“murmur, mutter”). The verb denotes a low, rumbling sound (like an animal’s growl), and, in this context, refers to a person speaking (muttering) to himself/herself on a regular basis—note the famous parallel in Psalm 1:2, where it is the Instruction (Torah) of God that the focus of the righteous person’s attention.

And, indeed, the Torah is emphasized in the second couplet (v. 31), where the focus is on the overall conduct of the righteous, utilizing the familiar wisdom-motif of “walking” in a straight/right path—i.e., the path of God, represented by the precepts and regulations of the Torah. The righteous person is so preoccupied with the Torah—embodying as it does wisdom and justice (v. 30)—that it may be said to reside “in his heart.” As such, it guides his steps (sing. rv%a&) along the way—on the straight/right path that YHWH has laid out for him. On this path, his feet will not slip (vb du^m*), thanks to his faithfulness and the secure guidance of YHWH.

Verses 32-33

x “(The) wicked is looking out [hp#ox] for (the) just,
and is seeking to cause him death;
(but) YHWH will not leave him in his hand,
and will not treat him as (the) wicked in his judgment.”

The behavior of the wicked, in contrast to the righteous, is described in the first couplet here. It is characterized by an interest in doing harm (violence) to the righteous; it is thus an extreme form of injustice that occupies his attention, compared with the justice that occupies the righteous person. The purpose of this planned violence is ultimately to kill the righteous (“cause death”, vb tWm in the Hiphil stem), a theme that we have encountered a number of times in the Psalms thus far. The verb hp^x* (“look out [over], watch”) indicates that the wicked is looking for an opportunity to cause death for the righteous, and the use of the participle form in each line emphasizes that this is regular behavior—i.e., something he is constantly doing.

The promise in the second couplet is that YHWH will not give the righteous over into the power of wickedness. Quite literally, this means that the wicked person will not be able to fulfill his desire to kill the righteous (line 1). The idiom used here is of being “in the hand” of another person, that is, subject to his power and control. The effective promise is that YHWH will not leave the righteous behind (vb bz~u*), helpless in the hands of the wicked.

If the idea of being saved from death in this life is emphasized in the first line, it is the final Judgment and the afterlife that is view in the second line. If YHWH will not give over the righteous to the power of a wicked person, neither will he treat them like the wicked in the time of the Judgment. The verb uv^r* is, of course, related to the adjective uv*r* (“wicked”), and in the Hiphil stem can have the specialized sense of “treat/regard (someone) as wicked”. It is best to retain this wordplay and translate the root uvr consistently, however the verb uv^r* could also be rendered according to the fundamental meaning “do/cause wrong” —i.e., YHWH will not do wrong to the righteous in the Judgment. The syntax “his judgment” refers to the judgment of the righteous person; it thus differs in point of reference with the parallel “his hand” (i.e., hand of the wicked person) in the first line.

Verse 34

q “Look [hW@q*] (patiently) to YHWH,
and guard His path (with care);
and He will raise you (up) to possess the land,
(and) in (the) cutting off of (the) wicked you will see (it).”

In contrast to the 3-beat (3+3) meter that dominates this Psalm, the first bicolon here is a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet. The short lines contain a clear and direct exhortation for the righteous. Again, the juxtaposition with the wicked is implied; even as the wicked “looks out” for a chance to harm the righteous, so the righteous “looks” (vb hw`q*) to YHWH with hope and devotion, trusting that He will bring deliverance and will rectify things (with justice) in the time of Judgment. Indeed, it is the great Judgment that is in view here in the second couplet, contrasting the fate of the righteous and wicked, using the same combined idiom from vv. 22 and 28-29: viz., the righteous will possess the earth (or land), while the wicked will be “cut off” (vb tr^K*).

In this regard, the wording of the last line is difficult. The basic idea seems to be that the judgment of the righteous and wicked is simultaneous, and occurs at the same moment: the righteous is “raised high” (vb <Wr), while the wicked is cut down; and, as the wicked falls, the righteous has a clear view of the land he will inherit. Some might interpret the last line to mean that the righteous will see the wicked person fall, but I feel that this is incorrect: he sees the land, not the wicked person who has fallen out of view. This “land” is a symbol for the blessed life with God (in Heaven).

Verses 35-36

r “I have seen [yT!ya!r*] (the) wicked (appear) awesome,
(spread)ing leaves like a (lush) green native (tree);
and (yet) he passed over, and see! he was no (more),
I searched (for) him and he was not found.”

The syntax of these lines, along with their mixed metaphors, is a bit awkward. Kraus (p. 403), based on the LXX reading, would emend the adjective Jyr!u* (“terrible, awesome, mighty”) to JyL!u*, meaning something like “raised high (in triumph)”. This would perhaps better fit the image of a majestic tree. The LXX also indicates a different reading for the second line of the first couplet, referring to the “cedars of Lebanon”, rather than the curious wording of the MT, which would have to be seriously emended to match the LXX. An underlying Hebrew text, corresponding to the LXX (cf. Kraus, p. 403), would yield the following translation for the first couplet:

“I have seen the wicked raised high (in triumph),
and lifted up like (the) cedars of (the) white-peaked (mountains) [i.e. Lebanon]”

In any case, the basic message of these couplets is clear enough, and is well-rooted in Wisdom tradition. The wicked may prosper, appearing mighty and majestic, during their lifetime, but with their death, all of that suddenly vanishes, and they “are no more”. This fate of disappearance also alludes to the Judgment, when the wicked will be “cut off” (or cut down, following the tree-motif), cf. above. The verb rb^u* (“pass/cross over”) almost certainly refers to crossing over into the realm of the dead (i.e., the death of the wicked).

Verses 37-38

? “Watch [rm*v=] (the) complete and see (the) straight,
for (what) follows for (that) man (is) fulfillment;
but (those) breaking (the bond) are destroyed as one,
(and what) follows for (the) wicked is (to be) cut off.”

The wording of these couplets seems somewhat forced and awkward; however, the Wisdom-theme comes through clearly, continuing the striking contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates). The initial verb (rm^v*) literally means “guard”, but can also be rendered “watch closely” (i.e., keep watch over); paired as it is here with ha*r* (“see”), the simple translation of “watch” is appropriate.

The adjectives <T* (“complete”) and rv*y` (“straight”) should be understood here as substantives which refer to the righteous—i.e., that which characterizes the righteous: their complete devotion to the covenant bond with YHWH, and their upright conduct (in both a moral and religious sense). One should look to such people as an example, but also, more particularly, as an indication of what the fate of the righteous will be. Their righteousness finds completion and fulfillment (<olv*) with YHWH; that is, fulfillment of what is promised by the covenant bond: blessing and security, both in this life, and in the life to come.

The wicked, by contrast, break the covenant bond, and this is the specific meaning of the verb uv^P*, used here as substantive (participle) to characterize the wicked, even as <T* and rv*y` characterize the righteous. The fate (lit., “[what] follows”) for the wicked is to be “cut off” (vb tr^K*), a motif that has been used several times already in this Psalm. This “cutting off” is a specific element of the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. Originally, it referred to a ritual cutting up of an animal, as a way of symbolizing what will happen to the person who violates the terms of the binding agreement—that is, they will be “cut up” in a similar manner. Even when the use of such a concrete ritual had faded, the associated language remained: the covenant formula had built-in “curse” language implying that God would bring about the death of one who violated the covenant (i.e., they would be “cut off”). On the theme of the death of the wicked, cf. the discussion above.

Verses 39-40

t “(The) salvation [tu^WvT=] of (the) just (comes) from YHWH,
(their) place of strength in time of distress;
and YHWH will help them and will rescue them,
He rescues them from (the) wicked and saves them,
for they (have) sought protection in Him.”

In order to preserve the acrostic format, the initial prefixed conjunction (-W) in the MT should probably be omitted. The theme of these concluding couplets is salvation (hu*WvT=)—that is, the safety and security that YHWH provides for the righteous. This relates specifically to the covenant bond (cf. above) between YHWH and His people. Those who remain faithful to the bond are under YHWH’s continual protection, and He will rescue them from danger. In the context of the Psalm, this refers to the threat to the righteous from the wicked, who seek to bring about their death. God will rescue the righteous from this danger.

This imagery, of YHWH as a “place of strength” and protection, has been used repeatedly in the Psalms. In particular, the verb hs*j* is distinctive of the Psalms, and occurs frequently; already, in the Psalms we have studied thus far, it has occurred 14 times (2:12; 5:12; 7:2; 11:1; 16:1; 17:7; 18:3, 31; 25:20; 31:2, 20; 34:9, 23; 36:8). The verb denotes a person seeking (and/or finding) protection; it also connotes the trust one places in that protection. As this usage makes clear, hs*j* is part of the covenantal language and imagery that is characteristic of many Psalms, and which runs through the composition.

The final couplet is expanded into a tricolon, adding a short, climactic third line, as is befitting of the conclusion to such a grand poem. The closing line, appropriately, emphasizes the trust that the righteous have in God. It is this, perhaps more than anything else, that distinguishes them from the wicked, and which serves as the basis for the fundamental contrast between the two groups.

References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 3)

Psalm 37, continued

(The previous two studies cover verses 1-11 and 12-22).

Verses 23-29

Verses 23-24

m “From YHWH [hw`hy+m@] (the foot)steps of the strong (one are secure),
He makes him firm (who) delights (in) His path,
(so) that he shall shall (no)t fall nor be hurled down,
for YHWH supports (him with) His hand.”

The theme of this section is established in the initial pair of couplets, continuing the 3+3 meter that dominates the Psalm. After the focus in the previous section on the hostility and evil plans of the wicked, directed against the righteous, here the emphasis shifts to the help and support offered by YHWH in the face of such danger. There is some difficulty of interpretation in these lines, due to the ambiguity of the persons (and associated pronoun suffixes): does “he/his/him” refer to YHWH or to the righteous person? There are also several minor textual difficulties in the second and third lines, which cannot be resolved completely.

The basic image in the first couplet (v. 23) is that of a person walking—a common enough idiom in Old Testament religious and Wisdom tradition, where it refers to a person’s behavior and way of life. Here the noun is du*x=m!, literally a “place of stepping”, i.e., where one’s foot steps. This signifies the action and conduct of the righteous person in his/her regular daily life. The noun in the second line is Er#D#, again indicating a place where a person frequently walks or steps—specifically, a trodden path. The suffix o (i.e., “his path”) could refer to the path that the righteous person takes, but also to the path as set out by YHWH (“His path”). Such a dual meaning is common with this idiom, but I would emphasize here the latter aspect—viz., as a reference to the way of God.

Indeed, YHWH gives help to the righteous in both aspects of this daily walk. He guides the person’s footsteps; there is no verb specified in the first line, but God’s action is indicated by the preposition /m! (“from YHWH…”), implying that He is the source of guidance for the righteous. He also makes this path firm and secure, establishing the righteous person’s footing as he/she walks. The verb wnnwk should perhaps be vocalized as onn+oK (“he makes him firm”). Thanks to YHWH’s support, the righteous person, one who “delights” (vb Jp^j* I) in the way of God, has strength to walk firmly upon the path, and so is characterized as a “strong (one)” (rb#G#).

The apparent reading of the first line of the second couplet (v. 24) is problematic. If YHWH makes the righteous secure, walking with firm footing, how could such a person fall (vb lp^n`)? The typical way this is rendered is, “if he falls, he will not be hurled down”, but this seems incongruous with the idea that the feet of the righteous will not slip at all (v. 31). Dahood (p. 231) suggests that lp^n` here should be understood in the sense of “fall upon” (an enemy), drawing upon the military imagery that occurs so frequently in the Psalms.

I am inclined to retain the ordinary meaning of lp^n`, and to consider the possibility that the negative particle al) here does double duty, effectively governing both verbs in the line: “he shall not fall nor be hurled down”. This rendering seem to fit best the overall sense of vv. 23-24, with the emphasis on the complete support provided by YHWH. The support is described through the anthropomorphic image of “His hand” —i.e., God’s hand that is upon the righteous, preserving and protecting them.

Verses 25-26

n “Young [ru^n~] have I been and am (now) also old,
and (yet) I have not seen the just (person) left (wanting),
and his seed searching (for) bread (to eat)—
(no,) all the day (long) he is showing favor and giving,
and his seed (is destined) for blessing.”

The help and support provided by YHWH is defined here in terms of physical and material need. This plays upon the characterization of the righteous as poor (/oyb=a#, v. 14), seemingly incongruous with the idea of blessing that is being emphasized in these lines. The point is that, though the righteous may be poor, in the sense that they do not possess the wealth of wicked (cf. the prior study on vv. 1-11), God will always supply their needs. The Psalmist regards this as a promise well established and documented through observation, during his own long life experience (“I have been young and now am old…”).

Not only are the basic needs met—i.e., food (“bread”) for himself and his children (“his seed”)—but there is enough so that the righteous (qyd!x^, the “just” person) is able to give help to others in turn. “All the day (long)” he is “showing favor” and joining (vb hw`l*) his material possessions to those of others. The latter verb is often used in the technical sense of lending and borrowing; in v. 21 it referred to the wicked borrowing (but not paying back), while here it is used in the Hiphil causative stem, in the sense of “cause to borrow”, i.e., make it possible for someone to borrow. The tendency to give of one’s resources in this way is characteristic of the righteous, even as it is typical of the wicked to borrow without paying back.

Verses 27-28a

s “Turn aside [rWs] from evil and do (what is) good,
and dwell (secure) into the distant (future);
for YHWH is (One) loving [i.e. who loves] justice,
and He does not leave His loyal (one)s (in need).”

The imperative in the first line is exhortational, urging God’s people to live in an upright manner; though not specified, this entails faithful observance of the Torah regulations, which serve as the terms of the covenant between YHWH and His people. Again, the idea of walking on the path set out by YHWH (cf. on vv. 23-24 above) is in view. In the second line, the imperative follows upon the very behavior that is urged the first line. Translating into English syntax, we might render this as “you must turn aside…and (so) you shall dwell…”. The imperatival sense could also be captured colloquially as “go ahead and dwell secure (since surely that is what you want), by turning aside from evil…”.

This choice between evil and good, characterizing the dualistic Wisdom-contrast between the wicked and the righteous, is encapsulated here by the term “justice” (fP*v=m!). It also refers to the establishment of justice, which takes place through the exercise of right “judgment”. YHWH is said to be one who loves justice—with the participle bh@a) (“loving”) effectively treated as a Divine attribute and characteristic. The righteous share this love for justice, and reflect the character of YHWH by always choosing that which is good.

This upright way of life and devotion to the covenant of YHWH (through observance of the Torah) is the basis for the support and protection that God provides. Only those who are loyal to the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) will receive this support. As I have noted on a number of occasions, the adjective dys!j*, though fundamentally denoting goodness or kindness, is often used in the context of loyalty and devotion (to the covenant).

Verses 28b-29

[u] “<(The) perverse (one)s [<yl!W`u^] will be destroyed> into the distant (future),
and (the) seed of (the) wicked will be cut off;
(while the) just (one)s will possess the earth,
and will dwell (secure) upon it until (the end).”

There is some indication of textual corruption here in the first couplet (v. 28b). To begin with, an acrostic entry for the letter u is missing from the Psalm, suggesting that a word may have dropped out. Such an omission would seem to be confirmed by the irregular rhythm of the text as we have it (2+3 meter in v. 28b). Further, it seems probable that the LXX (aA) preserves such a missing word through the presence of the plural substantive a&nomoi (“lawless [one]s”).

Kraus (p. 403) suggests restoring the corresponding plural <yl!W`u^ (“perverse [one]s”) to the text at this point, and there is much to recommend his proposal. It would restore the acrostic pattern (providing an u-section), and would also fit the LXX translation quite well. Moreover, it is easy to see how this word might have dropped out, by haplography, occurring as it does before the similar <l*oul=. An added advantage for the proposed restoration is that it introduces a fine bit of wordplay to the couplet (between <yl!W`u^ and <l*ou), of a sort that our poet could well have employed.

Restoring <yl!W`u^ would seem to require that the subsequent verb also be emended, slightly, from Wrm*v=n] (“they are guarded”) to Wdm*v=n] (“they are destroyed”)—an emendation that is reasonably plausible, since it involves the alteration of a single (similarly shaped) letter.

If one were to retain the Masoretic text as it stands (with no emendation), the couplet would read as follows:

“they [i.e. the righteous] are guarded into the distant (future),
but (the) seed of (the) wicked (one)s will be cut off”

Clearly, in this instance, v. 28b would have to be included together with the two couplets of vv. 27-28a (cf. above), and vv. 27-28 treated as a three-couplet (six line) unit. Verse 29 then would stand as a single concluding bicolon.

However, I believe a stronger argument is to be made for the division I have followed, requiring as it does the proposed emendation of the text. Thematically, the orientation of the two couplets in vv. 28b-29 as presented above is clear and consistent: the fate of the wicked (28b) contrasted with the fate of the righteous (29). There is an interlocking parallelism, whereby the “perverse ones” are destroyed “into the distant (future)” [line 1] while the righteous are preserved, dwelling secure “until (the end of the Age)” [line 4]. The contrastive parallel of the inner lines (2 & 3) mirrors the closing couplet of the previous section (v. 22): the righteous come to “possess the earth” while the wicked are “cut off” (same verb, tr^K*). Each of the three sections we have examined concludes with a similar promise, to the effect  that the righteous will inherit the earth (cp. Matt 5:5).

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


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 2)

Psalm 37, continued

The first section of Psalm 37 (vv. 1-11) was examined in the previous study. This is an acrostic Psalm, and I notate the opening letter of each verse in the translations below.

Verses 12-22

Verses 12-13

z “(The) wicked is planning [<m@z)] (evil) for (the) just,
and grinds his teeth upon him;
(but the) Lord laughs at him,
for He sees that his day comes.”

In the first section, the righteous are urged not to react in anger or resentment when the wicked appear to prosper in this life. This Wisdom-message is part of a general (and familiar) contrast between the righteous and the wicked. Here, however, the contrast has sharpened into a sense of outright hostility and opposition—that is, the wicked opposing and attacking the righteous—such as we have seen expressed in a number of other Psalms. We need not imagine that any particular adversaries are in view; rather, the hostility is characteristic of the wicked in general.

What the wicked intend for the righteous is referenced in the first couplet (v. 12); it is described in terms of planning (vb <m^z`)—that is, intentional acts of evil directed at the righteous. The inherent violence of what they intend is expressed through the familiar idiom of “grinding the teeth”.

God’s response to the evil plans of the wicked is described in the second couplet (v. 13). He simply laughs (vb qj^c*)—playfully and derisively—at all they intend to do. The dismissive laughter conveys two points. First, the righteous are under God’s protection, and, even if they do suffer for a time, they ultimately will be delivered and blessed/rewarded for their suffering. Second, whatever cruelty the wicked would inflict on the righteous is trivial and insignificant compared to great suffering that they (the wicked) themselves will endure on the day of Judgment.

Indeed, the “day” in v. 13 certainly is an early reference to the “day of YHWH” theme, as it would be developed in the Prophetic writings. The poetic idiom has not been sharpened to the point that it would be, for example, in the late pre-exilic and exilic Prophets. Here it simply refers, in a general sense, to the Judgment that the wicked will face at the time of their death (and thereafter). There can be little doubt that the death of the wicked is primarily in view.

Verses 14-15

j “(Their) sword [br#j#] (the) wicked (one)s open (wide),
and they tread their bow (as they string it),
(so as) to fell (the) oppressed and needy,
(and) to slay (the one)s straight o(n the) path;
(but) their sword will come in(to) their (own) heart,
and their bows will be shattered (to pieces).”

In the first pair of couplets, the evil plans of the wicked have taken the form of preparation for violent action. The preparation is expressed in the first couplet, using military imagery. The wicked “open” their swords, by which is meant drawing it out (into the open), so as to sharpen and whet it. The collective action of the wicked as a group (and character type) is indicated by the singular “sword” (br#j#). The wicked also step (“tread”) on their bows to string them, in preparation for using them in battle, etc. Again, the noun (tv#q#) is singular, though it also may be possible to parse/vocalize it as a plural (“their bows”, cf. Dahood, p. 228f).

The purpose of this weapon-preparation is expressed in the second couplet, with a pair of phrases governed by infinitives:

    • “to fell [i.e., cause to fall]” (lyP!h^l=)
    • “to slay [i.e., kill in a violent manner]” (j^obf=l!)

The purpose is to kill the righteous, but the language perhaps is meant to convey, in extreme terms, a range of cruel and violent actions. The righteous are characterized as “oppressed” (yn]u*) and “needy” (/oyb=a#). This identification of the righteous with people who are poor and oppressed may seem overly simplistic, but it is an essential aspect of the Old Testament and subsequent Jewish tradition. It is precisely because of their righteousness that there is such opposition from the wicked. The expectation of poverty and affliction suggests that the attacks by the wicked will succeed, at least for a time. In any case, painful experience has taught many devout believers the truth of this apparent contradiction. The day of Judgment (v. 13, cf. above) will correct any wrongs done to the righteous during this life.

The judgment-theme returns in the final couplet, utilizing the lex talionis and ‘reversal of fortune’ motifs found so frequently in the Psalms. By a harsh irony, what the wicked intended for the righteous will be turned upon their own person: their sword will enter their own heart bringing about their own death. The ultimate failure of the wicked is summarized by the image of their weapons (spec. their bows) being “shattered” by God.

Verses 16-17

f “Good [bof] (is the) little (belonging) to (the) just,
from (the) wealth of (the) wicked (who have) much;
for (the) arms of (the) wicked (one)s will be shattered,
but YHWH is giving support (for the) just (one)s.”

I have translated the Hebrew syntax /m!bof quite literally above (“Good [is]…from…”); however, such phrasing typically indicates a comparison. In conventional English, this would be rendered “Better is…than…”; a corresponding translation of the first couplet would be:

“Better (is the) little belonging to (the) just
than (the) wealth of (the) wicked (who have) much”

The just/righteous one (singular, qyD!x^) is juxtaposed with the wicked ones (plural, <yu!v*r=) who have much (<yB!r^). Some commentators would emend <yB!r^ to the singular br^, to reinforce the parallel with fu^m= (“little”) in the first line. However, there is good reason to maintain the reading of the Masoretic text here, with the plural <yB!r^ modifying <yu!v*r=. The contrast is between the righteous person, who is often poor and needy (v. 14), and the wealthy (i.e. successful/prosperous) wicked ones.

God’s support for the righteous, and opposition to the wicked, is expressed in the second couplet. Again, there is an allusion to the ultimate (final) Judgment of God upon the wicked, framed entirely in terms of the dualistic contrast of righteous vs. wicked.

Verses 18-19

y “YHWH knows [u^d@oy] (the) days of (the) complete (one)s,
and their portion shall be for (the) distant (future);
they will not dry (up) in (the) time of evil,
and in (the) days of hunger they will be satisfied.”

In these couplets, the attacks by the wicked have vanished, and the emphasis is on the future reward for the righteous. Clearly, the day of Judgment is in view, along with the blessed afterlife that awaits for the righteous (in contrast with the suffering and punishment that belongs to the wicked). This is very much part of the Wisdom-tradition as we see it expressed in the Psalms (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 1).

Here the righteous are characterized as the “complete (one)s” (<m!ym!t=)—that is, those who have proven themselves to be completely devoted to YHWH, pure in heart and mind, and obedient to the covenant bond between God and His people. The idea that YHWH “knows their days” implies the providential care that He has for the righteous, including the blessing that He will provide for them at the end of their life (i.e., in the afterlife). Indeed, the “portion” (hl*j&n~) that the righteous will inherit belongs to the “distant (future)”, or, in later Jewish terminology, “the Age to come”, which often signifies “eternal life”, i.e., the blessed life in heaven with God.

This blessing, in the second couplet, is described in terms of agricultural/farming imagery. Like the crops that come through to a successful harvest, the righteous will endure, and will not “dry up” (vb vby) in the harsh heat of summer (here called the “time of evil”). More than this, they will eat their fill and be satisfied (vb ubc), even in time of famine (“days of hunger”). Harvest imagery came to be a standard way of depicting the end-time Judgment, and of the inherent contrast between the righteous and wicked (i.e., the grain vs. the chaff).

Verse 20

k “(And it is) that [yK!] (the) wicked (one)s shall perish,
and (the one)s hostile (to) YHWH shall be finished—
like (the) rich(ness) of meadows (on fire),
they shall be finished (off) with smoke!”

This is a most difficult verse, and the certain confusion that is present in the lines (as they stand) suggests possible corruption in the text. Unfortunately, there is no help to be had here from the Dead Sea manuscripts, and any significant emendation would be highly questionable. As a tentative, working solution, I have made one small emendation, moving the first occurrence of the verb form WlK (“they will be finished”) back two words into the second line. The result is a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet. This gives to the unit a dramatic climax, and retains a relatively consistent poetic rhythm and structure.

The general sense of the verse is clear enough: it narrates the fate of the wicked, in contrast to that of the righteous (in vv. 18-19, cf. above). While the righteous will endure the heat of summer, and come through as fine crops for the harvest, the ‘fields’ of the wicked will be destroyed, burned up by fire. While the righteous are “complete” (<mt), the wicked are “completed” (llk)—that is, finished off, meeting their end; they are completely destroyed.

Unless there is something missing from the text, the last brief couplet, as we have it, gives only a vague allusion to fields being destroyed by fire. However, this seems to be the imagery that is involved, as a contrastive parallel with the positive harvest imagery in vv. 18-19. Even so, it must be admitted that any treatment of the verse, based on the current data available, must be regarded as tentative and preliminary. For different ways of understanding and rendering these lines, compare, for example, the approaches of Dahood (p. 230) and Kraus (p. 403).

Verse 21

l “(The) wicked borrows [hw#l)] and does not fulfill (his obligation),
but (the) just (person) is (always) showing favor and giving.”

This proverbial couplet, while rooted in the Wisdom-tradition that we find expressed throughout the Psalm, seems somewhat out of place here (and might fit better as part of the first section [cf. the previous study]). However, it continues the contrast between the righteous and the wicked that is central to this Wisdom-Psalm. The contrast is straightforward enough. The wicked person tends to borrow (vb hw`l*) but does not fulfill (vb <l^v*) his obligation. The righteous person, on the other hand, is always showing favor to others and giving (rather than taking). The pair of participles suggests an ongoing action, behavior that characterizes the righteous.

Verse 22

“For (the one)s being blessed by Him will possess (the) earth,
but (the one)s being cursed by Him will be cut off.”

This couplet continues the contrast from v. 21, and should be probably be joined with that verse as a unit, forming a pair of couplets. However, I have isolated it here as the climactic point that brings the section to a close. Likewise, the first section concluded with a promise that the righteous would “possess the earth” as an inheritance (v. 11), and the third section also ends in a similar manner (v. 29, to be discussed in the next study). As previously noted, Jesus essentially quotes verse 11 in his famous Beatitudes (Matt 5:5).

The contrast here involves a pair of passive participles, an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), in which God is the implied actor. The righteous are designated as those “being blessed” (vb Er^B*) by YHWH, while the wicked are those “being cursed” (vb ll^q*) by Him. This juxtaposition of blessings/cursings is part of the ancient Near Eastern covenant pattern, as also is the contrasting fate of inheritance and being “cut off”. The faithful and loyal vassal will inherit a territory, while the one who violates the binding agreement will be “cut off” (tr^K*).

This ‘cutting’ was often symbolized, in ancient times, by the actual dismemberment of a sacrificial animal, sometimes accompanied by a formula that effectively affirmed, “as this animal has been cut up, so let it (i.e., so it will) be done to me if I violate the terms of this agreement,” etc. In Old Testament and Israelite tradition, the death penalty was not always applied in such situations, when the covenant with YHWH was violated—a symbolic “cutting off” could be substituted in its place. However, the idea that the transgressor will ultimately meet death at God’s hand (perhaps in a violent or untimely manner), is very much present in many Scripture passages, including a number of places in the Psalms. Almost certainly, the death of the wicked is in view here, along with indications of future punishment after death.

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