Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 1)

Psalm 55

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is another prayer-Psalm that includes a lament in the face of suffering and opposition from wicked adversaries, continuing a genre of which we have seen numerous examples among the Psalms studied thus far. Psalm 55 is a particularly complex example of the genre—a relatively long composition, divided into three sections:

The two hl*s# (Selah) markers are curiously placed in the text as it has come down to us (cf. below), and cannot be used as an indication of the structure of the composition.

The Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) meter, varying with the ‘limping’ 3+2 meter that is often used in lament-poems; however, there other irregularities as well.

The superscription indicates that this is another lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32), attributed to David (“belonging to David”, dw]d*l=), to be performed on stringed instruments (toyg]n+B!).

VERSES 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

“Give ear, O Mightiest, to my petition,
and do not hide from my request for favor;
be attentive to me and answer me,
come down in (response to) my prayer.”

These first two couplets establish the Psalmist’s plea, in relation to the lament that follows in vv. 4ff; the meter is 3+2, which often is used in poems of lament. There is a synonymous (and synthetic) parallelism in each couplet, but the four lines also form a chiasm from a conceptual standpoint:

    • Give ear to (i.e., hear) my petition
      • do not hide (i.e., giving no response)…
      • be attentive and answer/respond
    • Come down in response to my prayer

The noun in line 1 is hl*p!T=, while in the line 4 it is j^yc!. Both are terms denoting prayer; the main significance of hl*p!T= refers to a petition/plea that is made to God, while j^yc! implies a burden that is on a person’s heart, about which one speaks to God, going over the matter (repeatedly) in a fervent way. With the inner lines (2 and 3), the Psalmist’s prayer is framed, regarding God’s response, in both negative and positive terms:

    • Negative: “do not hide yourself from my request for favor”
    • Positive: “be attentive to me and answer me”

The verb <l^u* (“hide [away], conceal”) in the reflexive Hithpael stem (“hide oneself”) should perhaps be understood in the sense of ‘pretending not to see/hear’ (cf. Dahood, II, 31). The noun hN`j!T=, formally parallel to hl*p!T= (cf. above), is derived from the root /nj (“show favor”), and so I have translated the noun literally as “request for favor” in order to preserve this etymology.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 31) in reading the verb form dyr!a* as an Aphel (imperative) from the root dry (“go down”); this explanation provides a rather elegant solution that fits the context of these lines.

It should be noted in passing that Psalm 55 is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the Divine name YHWH (hwhy) is typically replaced by the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One],” i.e., ‘God’).

Verse 4 [3]

“I am disturbed from (the) voice of (the one) hating (me),
from (the) faces of oppression (of the) wicked;
for they make trouble to fall upon me,
and with anger show hatred to me.”

These next two couplets give the reason for the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH, and begin the lament proper in this section. As is often the case in the Psalms, the protagonist speaks of suffering and oppression he faces from wicked adversaries (enemies). In most instances, it would be futile to attempt to identify these enemies with any specific persons; rather, these nameless and faceless opponents represent the wicked, who oppose and attack the righteous.

The final word of verse 3 [2] in the MT (hm*yh!a*w+, “I have been disturbed”), according to the standard verse-division, properly belongs at the beginning of verse 4; the initial conjunction (-w+) can be retained from a stylistic standpoint, but typically has no real force when beginning a couplet.

The Psalmist is disturbed by both the “voice” and the “face” (lit. plural, “faces”, i.e. presence) of his wicked enemies. They are enemies in the sense that they hate him (participle by@oa), a point emphasized again in the fourth line, with the use of the verb <f^c* (“show hatred/animosity” toward someone). They give both distress (lit. “pressure,” hq*u*, i.e., oppression) and trouble (/w#a*) to the righteous. This is expressed violently and with vicious intent, done both with anger and by the act causing trouble to fall/slide down (like an avalanche) on the Psalmist.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“My heart is twisting around within me,
and (the) terrors of death
have fallen upon me;
fear and trembling has come (to be) in me,
and shuddering has covered over me!”

The Psalmist’s lament continues here with a pair of 3+2 couplets, the first of which has been expanded with an additional 2-beat line (forming a 3+2+2 tricolon); this irregular meter in verse 5 would seem to be intentional, creating a tension that is appropriate to the context of  the fear of death. In each couplet, the first line refers to what the Psalmist feels inside himself in the face of threatening attacks by the wicked:

    • “My heart is twisting around [vb lWj] within [br#q#B=] me”
    • “Fearful trembling [lit. fear and trembling] has come to be within [B=] me”

The following line(s) of each verse refer to the external threat that faces the Psalmist, and which is the source of his fear:

    • “Terrors of death have fallen [vb lp^n`] upon me”
    • “(Great) shuddering has covered over [vb hs*K*] me”

The idea that the wicked ultimately threatens the righteous with death is expressed frequently in the Psalms.

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

The opening plea (and lament) of this section concludes with a short poem, which may have existed independently of our Psalm (cp. Jeremiah 9:1 [2]).

“And I said:
Who would give to me wing[s] like a dove,
(so) I might take wing and dwell (in safety)?
See, I would go far off, (my wings) flapping,
and would find lodging in the outback. Selah
(That) I might make quick (the) escape for me
from (the) rushing wind (and) wind-storm!”

This wonderful little poem, so vivid and evocative, hardly requires any comment. The Hebrew idiom “Who will give to me…?” is a colorful way of expressing an urgent wish or request—in English idiom, we would probably say, “Oh, if I only had…!” Here, however, the literally rendering of the idiom is especially important, in light of the prayer-context of these lines. The implicit answer to the question “Who will give…?” is that YHWH will give to him the means for escape.

The image is of a bird that could take flight from trouble (down below, on earth), and go far away to find a safe dwelling-place (vb /k^v*); it would be in the outback (or ‘desert,’ rB^d=m!), far away from other people. The wings of the bird, which enables it to fly off, are especially emphasized: the protagonist desires a pair of wings (sing. rb#a@), so that he can “take wing” (take flight, vb [Wu), his wings constantly flapping (dd)n+) as he makes his escape.

Even as he flies, danger would follow, and thus there is a second part to the Psalmist’s wish: that his wings would enable him also to escape from the onrushing wind of the storm (windstorm) that threatens behind him.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 2)

Psalms 42-43, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 7-12 [6-11]

Verse 7 [6]

“My soul upon me is bent down low,
(yet) upon this will I remember you,
from (the) land of (the river) going down,
and the sacred (mountain)s from (the) miƒar hill.”

The initial verse of this section picks up from the refrain in v. 6 [5] (cf. the previous study), emphasizing the suffering and sorrow of the Psalmist’s soul. Both rhythmically, and in terms of its imagery, these lines are difficult. The meter is irregular—a 3+2+2+3 quatrain, or, possibly, a pair of 3+2 couplets (depending on how one divides the last two lines).

The main idea is that the Psalmist’s soul has “bent down low” (vb jj^v*), in his sorrow and suffering. The sense of the second line seems to be that, even in the midst of his suffering, the Psalmist will continue to remember YHWH. He imagines a scenario where he is approaching death, as the imagery in the last two lines strongly suggests. To render /D@r=y~ and /omr=j# as simple geographical terms (i.e., the Jordan river and Mt. Hermon) is to miss the point; it is, rather, a symbolic landscape, which requires a literal translation of the terms (in their fundamental meaning) in order to bring the symbolism across properly.

The /D#r=y~ is literally the “(place of) going down [dry]”, i.e., the river that leads to the underworld, while the <yn]omr=j# means something like “(the) sacred (mountain)s”. The significance of ru*x=m! is uncertain; derived from root ru^x* I, it would mean something like “place of littleness, (the) little place”. It seems to indicate a particular location in the “sacred mountains” (the Hermon range, in Canaanite geography), which, we must assume, also leads to the underworld.

In the ancient Near East, both rivers and mountains were viewed as mythical/spiritual conduits (points of entry) to the otherworld—in this case, it leads down into the watery depths below the earth, from which one reaches the realm of the dead (netherworld). The context here makes this set of associations abundantly clear (cp. Jonah 2:7[6]); on the same line of traditional imagery in Canaanite sources, cf. Dahood, pp. 258-9.

Verse 8 [7]

“Deep to deep is calling,
at (the) voice of your shafts
all your breaking (wave)s and heaps (of water)
pass over upon me.”

Following the line of imagery in v. 7 [6], the Psalmist feels that he is entering the dark watery depths that lead to the netherworld, the realm of the dead (i.e., he is in danger of death). The idea of being threatened by powerful engulfing waves of water is a frequent motif in Old Testament poetry; in addition to the famous poem in Jonah 2:2-10 [1-9], cf. Psalm 32:6; 69:1-2; 88:4-7; 130:1; Job 22:11, etc.

The expression “deep to deep” reflects the ancient bi-partite view of the universe, in which the cosmos can be divided into two halves (hemispheres, generally speaking) that are surrounded by waters above, and waters below, respectively. From the waters above come the rains (and rainstorms); YHWH tends to be associated with the waters above, but He ultimately has control over all the waters. Indeed, his command (and control) reaches from the heavens (the upper waters, and above) all the way down to the watery depths below the earth. On this control over the waters, as expressed through the ancient cosmological myth of the Deity’s ‘defeat’ of the Sea, cf. my earlier article.

The word roNx! (“shaft”), occurring elsewhere only in 2 Sam 5:8, suggests a conduit by which YHWH extends His command (over the waters) to the depths below. Dahood, p. 259, would identify it with the storm (and lighting/thunder bolts) that stirs and roils up the sea. Given that thunder, in the ancient Near Eastern mindset, is typically referred to as the “voice” (loq) of God, this seems most likely.

Verse 9 [8] ab

“By day YHWH commands His goodness,
by night His hry?[?] (is) with me”

This couplet seems to parallel the idea in v. 8 [7] of YHWH commanding the waters—both above and below. While those waters threaten to engulf the Psalmist, and thus reflect a very real danger of death to him, here in v. 9 the emphasis is on God’s goodness. YHWH commands his goodness (ds#j#), which can also connote faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., loyalty to the covenant). Typically in the Psalms, the covenant aspect is in view, whereby the term ds#j# refers specifically to the care and protection that YHWH gives to the righteous (like the Psalmist), i.e., those who are loyal to the covenant.

The parallelism of the lines would require a corresponding term in the second line to match this goodness (ds#j#) of YHWH in the first. The term in the MT here is Hr*yv! (Qere oryv!), “his song”, which makes little sense in context, and many commentators feel that here the text likely is corrupt. It is not at all clear, however, in what way the text can, or should, be emended. The context indicates that the word in this position must signify something sent by YHWH (at His command) to the Psalmist, and which the protagonist now has with him, serving as hope and comfort for him in his time of distress. The reception by the Psalmist (at night) matches the active sending by YHWH (in the daytime).

One very much wishes that the text of this verse had survived among the Qumran Psalm scrolls, as it might well solve the textual problem noted above; but, alas, this is not the case. The LXX translates according to the MT, although the B text here has the verb dhlo/w (“make visible, make manifest, show”), which certainly would form a fitting parallel with Hebrew hw`x* (“command, charge,” Grk e)nte/llomai). Dahood (p. 259), following the suggestion by T. Gaster (Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL], vol. 73 [1954], pp. 237-8), identifies hryv here with Akkadian š£ru and Ugaritic ´rt, “vision” (par. to µlm, “dream”). The sense of v. 9 then, might run as follows:

“By day YHWH sends his goodness (to me) by command,
(and) by night makes it known to me in a vision.”

This is an appealing solution, though not entirely convincing.

Verse 9c-11a [8c-10a]

“My prayer (is) to (the) Mighty (One) of my life:
I will say, ‘(O) Mighty (One), my Rock,
for what [i.e. why] have you forgotten me,
for what should I walk covered in darkness,
in (the) squeeze of (the one) hostile (to me),
with murdering (power) on my limbs?'”

The Psalmist’s prayer, to the effect that YHWH has forgotten him, makes the preceding verse 9ab seem out of place, and tends to confirm the theory that those lines may be corrupt (cf. the discussion above). This prayer is typical of many of the lament-Psalms, and the thought expressed here echoes that found, for example, in the famous opening of Psalm 22. The idea of the Psalmist going about “being covered in darkness” (rd@q)) could be understood in terms of a person clothed in mourning garb, but it also reflects the earlier image of the protagonist being covered over by the dark and tumultuous waters of the deep. In any case, the association with death is very much at the fore.

While enemies are frequently mentioned in the Psalms, they are often indistinct from the suffering experienced by the Psalmist. Here the singular by@oa (“hostile [one],” i.e., enemy) should probably be understood as a personification of Death itself. The “squeeze” (Jj^l^) that this enemy puts on the Psalmist is so deadly that it puts his once-strong limbs (<x#u#, plur.) in a murderous grip (the noun jx^r# indicates an act of killing). Clearly, only YHWH can deliver the Psalmist from this mortal danger; often in the Psalms, this danger is expressed in terms of illness or disease, and this may well be in view here.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The one)s opposed to me cast blame (on) me,
in their saying to me all the day (long):
‘Where (is) your Mighty (One)?'”

The remainder of verse 11 [10] consists of a dramatic tricolon, with the mocking taunts of the wicked being added to the Psalmist’s suffering and distress. Here the plural noun (verbal participle, <yr!r=ox) unquestionably refers to human enemies. The root rrx II is similar in meaning to by~a*, and the participle here (with the 1st person suffix) could likewise be translated “one[s] hostile to me” (i.e., “my enemies, my adversaries”). I have opted to denote rrx with the specific idea of opposition—i.e., “(one)s being opposed to me” —to keep it distinct from bya.

Such taunts by the protagonist’s wicked enemies are a frequent feature in the Psalms, and can be seen in a number of the compositions that we have examined thus far. The motif plays on two important ideas: (1) the hostility of the wicked toward the righteous, and (2) as an expression of the doubt experienced by the righteous, in the face of severe suffering and misfortune, regarding their loyalty to YHWH. The climactic question posed by the wicked in their taunt is pointed: “Where is your Mighty One?” (i.e., God, Elohim, lit. “Mightiest [One]”). In other words, if this “Mightiest One” truly exists, and rewards the righteous for their faithfulness and loyalty to Him, then why are you (a righteous one, presumably) suffering so badly? This is another way of framing the common Wisdom-theme regarding the suffering of the righteous. It is a theme that is quite frequent in the Psalms, as we have seen.

Refrain: Verse 12 [11]

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

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm (for comments, cf. the previous study, on v. 6 [5]). Given the sense of mortal danger and suffering that pervades this section, the call to wait on YHWH, and to trust in Him for deliverance, is particularly significant—a sign of faith and trust that can encourage the righteous in their own time of distress.

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

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 40 (Part 2)

Psalm 40, continued

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

The tenor of the second part of the Psalm changes notably, with vv. 14-18 [13-17] forming a separate poem, a lament that is nearly identical with Psalm 70. It is possible that vv. 12-13 [11-12] were added to join to two poems together; in any case, they function in the Psalm as a short transitional unit.

Verse 12 [11]

“You, YHWH, did not withhold your (great) compassion from me,
your goodness and firmness continually keep watch (over) me.”

This irregular 5+4 couplet establishes the transition between the thanksgiving-praise to YHWH for deliverance in vv. 2-11 and the lament-plea for help in vv. 14-18. The basis for the Psalmist’s cry for help rests in the continual protection YHWH provides for the righteous. This protection is rooted in the idea of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people. As long as God’s people remain faithful and loyal, they have the guarantee of His protection. Covenant loyalty is regular theme in the Psalms, as we have seen throughout these studies. Here, the terms ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) and tm#a# (“firmness, certainty,” = trustworthiness and truth[fulness]) in line 2 must be understood in a covenantal context.

Along these same lines, YHWH shows love and compassion (<j^r^) to His people by protecting and delivering them in time of trouble. The plural form here could mean “acts of love/compassion”, or we may understand it as an intensive plural, i.e., “great compassion”.

The perfect forms in v. 12 could perhaps be taken as precative perfects, expressing a wish for what YHWH will do, framing the action as something that has already taken place (“Oh, that you would have…”).

Verse 13 [12]

“For evils have closed round upon me,
until there is no counting them;
my (own) crookedness has reached me,
and I am not able to <fly> (away);
they are great (in number) from (the) hairs of my head,
and my heart leaves me (behind)!”

In this verse, which I also take as transitional, the focus shifts to the Psalmist’s need for YHWH’s protection (v. 12 [11]), in the face of much trouble and evil that afflicts him. This triad of sharp, terse couplets (rhythmically, 3+2 | 2+2 | 3+2) sets the stage for the fervent plea for help in vv. 14-18. The first and third couplets form an inclusio of sorts, framing the verse:

    • Evils close in around the Psalmist
      • there is no counting (the number of them)
      • they (number) greater than the hairs of his head
    • His heart leaves him (because of this great threat)

The “evils” (tor*) in v. 13a can be understood in a generic and comprehensive sense. The reference brings to mind many passages in the Psalms where the wicked—enemies and adversaries of the Psalmist—surround and threaten him. The verb [p^a* (“surround”) tends to be used in Hebrew poetry for the idiom of the ‘waters’ of death that threaten to engulf a person (Ps 18:5 [4]; 116:3; Jonah 2:6).

However, in the second (middle) couplet, the emphasis is on the Psalmist’s own “crookedness” (/ou*)—that is, his own sinfulness. The evils that surround the Psalmist thus are not the attacks by the wicked, but his own sins. This may suggest the experience of a life-threatening illness (or other affliction) that was thought to have come upon him as a result of sin. We have seen this basic dramatic setting in a number of the Psalms we have examined thus far. It appears to have a common setting for lament-poems.

On a minor text-critical note, I follow Dahood (p. 247) in reading toad=l! (“to fly [away]”) for the MT toar=l! (“to see/look”). Confusion between dalet (d) and resh (r) was relatively common, with examples of variant versions of texts where this occurs in Ps 18:11 [10] (par 2 Sam 22:11 [10]) and Lev 11:14 (par Deut 14:13).

Verses 14-18 [13-17]

Verse 14 [13]

“May you rush, YHWH, to snatch me (away)!
(O) YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

The Psalmist’s plea for help begins with this single couplet. As the text stands, the meter is 3+3, but some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 422f) would eliminate the second hwhy as a duplication, resulting in a 3+2 couplet that is more fitting to the overall metrical pattern. I follow Dahood (p. 247) in vocalizing the initial verb form (hxr) as hx*r% (from the root JWr, “run, rush”), rather than MT hx@r= (from hx*r*, “be pleased [to act]”). The verb JWr makes a more obvious (and fitting) parallel with vwj (“hurry”) in the second line.

That this is the opening couplet of what was originally a separate poem (vv. 14-18) would seem to be confirmed by the parallel version in Psalm 70. However, Ps 70:2 [1] differs slightly in its reading.

Verse 15 [14]

“May they feel shame and humiliation as one,
(those) seeking my soul to sweep it (away)!
May they be sent backward and be ashamed,
(the one)s (who) delight in my evil!”

While verse 13 [12] emphasized the Psalmist’s own sin (lit. “crookedness”), here in the lament proper we return to the familiar motif of wicked assailants who attack the righteous protagonist, seeking to do him harm (and even to kill him). This is a dramatic paradigm we have encountered in dozens of Psalms. It is a general way of referring to the wicked (in contrast to the righteous), and does not require the presence of specific enemies. However, the poetic idiom could certainly be applied to any number of historical situations or practical circumstances.

The desire that such wicked assailants would be “put to shame”, and have their evil plans thwarted (“turned back”), is also a common prayer-wish in these lament-Psalms. This is expressed through three different verbs which share a similar range of meaning: vWB, rp@j*, and <l^K*. These are used repeatedly throughout the Psalms, and often with similar formulations (35:4 is quite close to v. 15 [14] here). Cp. Psalm 70:3 [2].

Verse 16 [15]

“May they be devastated upon (the) heel of their shame,
(the one)s saying to me, ‘Aha, aha!'”

The wish of v. 15 [14] is restated here, but even more intensely, as the Psalmist asks that his adversaries be “devastated” (vb <m@v*) on account of their shame. The expression “upon (the) heel of” (bq#u@ lu^) is a Hebrew idiom that can be rendered blandly in English as “on account of”. The sense of their wickedness is captured here through their accusatory taunting of the righteous (cp. 35:21).

Verse 17 [16]

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!’
(the one)s loving your (great) salvation.”

Just as the Psalmist prays for the wicked to feel shame and humiliation, so he also wishes (conversely) for the righteous to experience joy. The verb pair cWc and jm^c* expresses this joyfulness, even as the pair vWB and rp@j* in v. 15 [14] expresses the shame/humiliation of the wicked. The contrastive parallel (between the righteous and wicked) is quite precise here. The wicked are the ones “seeking [vb vq^B*]” the soul of the righteous, to do it harm; by contrast, the righteous are the ones “seeking” (same verb) after YHWH, to do His will. The wicked utter accusatory taunts (“Aha, aha!”) against the righteous, while the righteous utter praise in honor of YHWH (“Great is YHWH!”).

Structurally, this verse is best understood as a tricolon that has been expanded with two additional short lines. The tricolon is comprised of lines 1-2 and 5 above, producing a fine characterization of the righteous:

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(the one)s loving your (great) salvation.”

Within this poetic structure, the additional descriptive element has been added:

“(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!'”

To their heart and intention, a confessional aspect is included, whereby the righteous demonstrate their devotion to YHWH through what they say publicly. It implies a worship setting, but even more importantly, it marks the Psalmist as belonging to the gathering of (all the) the righteous (cf. the discussion on vv. 10-11 [9-10] in the previous study).

Verse 18 [17]

“And (though) I (am) oppressed and needy,
my Lord has regard for me.
You (are) my help and my escaping—
my Mighty (One), do not stay behind!”

These beautiful closing lines combine both a statement of trust in YHWH, and a cry for help. As such, this verse effectively summarizes and encompasses the entire scope of this part of the Psalm (vv. 12-18). The righteous are frequently characterized as poor/needy (/oyb=a#) and oppressed (yn]a*). The wicked, by contrast, are rich and powerful (at least by worldly standards), and oppress the righteous. This is expressed from the standpoint of social justice, but as an idiom also carries a deeper religious and theological resonance. The righteous, by their very nature, cannot share the success and strength of the wicked in the world; instead, they must trust in YHWH for sustenance and protection.

The protection provided by YHWH is again the subject of the final two lines, as the Psalmist closes his poem with the plea: “My Mighty One [lit. Mightiest, Elohim, i.e., God], do not stay behind!”. The verb rj^a* literally means “stay behind, keep back”, and expresses a situation that is the opposite of what the Psalmist needs. He needs YHWH to come forward to rescue him, to stand in front of him and give the necessary protection. YHWH is both the help and the “way out”, the escape (vb fl^P*) from all that threatens him.

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 39 (Part 1)

Psalm 39

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (vv. 13-14 [12-13])

The superscription of this Psalm contains the interesting detail /WtWdyl! [Qere], “for/to Yedûtûn”. The word /WtWdy+ (Y®¼û¾ûn) is a proper name, which belonged to a priestly official overseeing aspects of musical activity in the Tabernacle/Temple, though the evidence for this is almost entirely limited to the books of Chronicles (1 Chron 25:1-6; cf. also 16:38ff; 2 Chron 5:12, etc. If the Davidic attribution of the Psalm here (i.e., a musical composition “belonging to David”) is historically accurate, then this additional detail may identify Yedûtûn as the ‘musical director’ (j^X@n~m=) in question. On the other hand, in Psalms 62 and 77 the name occurs in the expression /WtWdy+-lu^, which is usually taken to mean “in the manner/style of Yedûtûn”, indicating a well-known or established musical style. Since the direction in the superscriptions tends to refer to the performing tradition, this would seem to be correct, and it is probably the meaning here as well.

This particular Psalm follows generally in the pattern of the previous Ps 38 (cf. the most recent study), as well as a number of others we have examined thus far. There is a lament for the suffering (from illness) experienced by the Psalmist, with a plea to YHWH for deliverance. The Psalm also contains strong Wisdom-elements, including the familiar contrast between the righteous and wicked that characterizes so many of the Old Testament Psalms.

The meter is irregular, and makes surprising use of a tricolon (triplet, three-line) format at several points. The Psalm is also unusual in that it can be divided rather clearly on the basis of the Selah (hl*s#) markers. Many Psalms contain this marker, though in relatively few cases does it appear to define clearly the poetic or musical structure of the work. Here, the two markers would seem to divide the Psalm into two stanzas (vv. 2-6 and 7-12), followed by the concluding verses (vv. 13-14) which comprise a plea to YHWH (cp. the ending of Ps 38, in the previous study).

Verses 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“I said, ‘I will guard my paths (I walk)
from sinning with my tongue,
I will guard my mouth (like) a muzzle,
in (the time) while (the) wicked (is) in front of me’.”

In this opening pair of couplets (3+2 and 3+3), the setting of the Psalm is established, echoing that of the prior Ps 38—viz., the protagonist is suffering (presumably from illness), and his adversaries (the wicked) take advantage of this opportunity to mock and abuse him (verbally). In that Psalm too, the protagonist states that he remained silent in face of the attacks by the wicked (vv. 14-15 [13-14]). Here, the implication is phrased in more ethical terms; that is to say, the Psalmist is careful not to sin (vb af*j*) by speaking out against them.

Guarding (vb rm^v*) one’s tongue/mouth (i.e., one’s speech) is an important aspect of following the righteous path (Er#D#) that conforms to the Way of God. This “path” by which one ‘walks’ is a comprehensive image for an entire way of life—of thinking, speaking, and acting. The “tongue”, in particular, is apt to trip one up on this path (Ps 15:3, etc; and note the famous discussion in James 3:1-12, cf. also 1:26).

Verse 3 [2]

“I was bound (in) silence,
I kept still from dropping (words),
and (yet) my anguish was stirred.”

While the Psalmist may have remained silent, he was suffering inside (in his “heart”, see v. 4 below). The noun ba@K= denotes “anguish” (mental as much as physical), which can also result in suffering and sorrow. This anguish was “stirred” (rk^u*), both by his ailing condition, and from the virtuous requirement to stay silent in the face of attacks by the wicked.

In the second line, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 240) in relating boTm! to a root bfn (a by-form of [fn), meaning “drop, drip”, sometimes used in the sense of speaking (i.e. dropping words). He notes instances of interchange between p (p) and b (b) in Hebrew and Ugaritic, and cites Prov 15:2 for a similar example of bfn.

Metrically, this verse has the form of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, creating a terse staccato-like effect when recited.

Verse 4 [3]

“My heart was hot in my inner (parts),
(and) in my murmuring a fire burned,
(until) I spoke (with) my tongue:”

Another tricolon follows here (with loosely the same meter, 2+2+2), building upon the portrait in v. 3 [2], and leading into the moment when the protagonist speaks (out loud) in v. 5 [4] (cf. below). He is burning so inside that he is finally compelled to speak with his tongue (i.e., out loud), thus breaking his self-imposed silence (cf. above). It is fascinating to see how this dramatic scenario progresses. From a stirring of anguish within, his “heart” ignites and becomes hot (vb <m^j*); as this “burns” inside, he begins to mutter/murmur (vb gg~h*) quietly to himself, until it finally breaks out into full speech (“I spoke [with] my tongue”).

Verse 5 [4]

“Make me to know, YHWH, my end,
and (the) measure of my days, what it (is),
(that) I may know how fleeting I (am).”

When the Psalmist speaks, it is as a prayer to God. This is somewhat unexpected. His burning desire to speak out, in the face of attacks by the wicked (implied in v. 2 [1]), leads one to expect a denunciation, a declaration protesting his innocence/righteousness, a contrast between the righteous and wicked, or something of the sort. Instead, his speech is phrased as a noble Wisdom-saying, humbly declaring the transitory nature of human existence, in comparison with eternal sovereignty and power of God. On the Wisdom-theme of a human being understanding one’s “end” (Jq@) and length of life (“measure of days”), cf. Job 6:11; 7:1, 6; 8:9; 9:25; 14:5; Psalm 90:9, 12ff; 102:3, 11; 144:4; Prov 14:12; Eccl 3:11; 6:12; 7:2; 8:13ff.

It is not just that a human being’s “days” on earth are fleeting, it is the person himself/herself who is transitory in nature. The adjective ld@j* denotes something that ceases—i.e., ceases to be. The Psalmist truly makes the point personal by emphatically using the pronoun “I” (yn]a&): “I (am) fleeting”, i.e., “I cease to be”. YHWH knows the measure of his days, the length and extent of his earthly existence; this further implies the sovereign control God has over human affairs.

This verse is another tricolon, but with a longer 3-beat (3+3+3) rhythm.

Verse 6 [5]

“See, you have given a hand-breadth (to) my days,
and my duration (is) as no(thing) in front of you—
oh (yes), every (one is) an empty (wind),
every man (is but) a standing (shadow)!”
Selah

The Wisdom-theme continues here in verse 6, with a pair of couplets emphasizing again the shortness and transitory nature of human existence. Indeed, YHWH has ‘measured out’ the length of the Psalmist’s “days” (i.e., his life), and it extends merely a “hand’s breadth” (jp^f@)—that is, the width/length of one’s palm. This relatively short distance indicates rather dramatically the shortness of one’s life. Even more striking is the use of the negative (privative) particle /y]a^ (“[there is] no…”) to indicate that human existence amounts to nothingness in comparison with God (that is, when one is in His presence, “in front of” Him). This statement essentially recognizes the sovereign control YHWH has over human life (including the power to end it).

The second couplet is shorter (2-beat [2+2]), as if to express in poetic terms the shortness and insignificance of human life. In these two lines, a human being (“every [one], every man”) is likened to an “empty (wind)” (lb#h#) or a “standing (shadow)” (bV*n]). This last word is a bit difficult to translate precisely. As pointed, the MT reads a Niphal (passive) participle of the verb bx^n` (“stand, [be] set”). This root can be used for a standing image (i.e., statue, pillar, etc), in the specific sense of an idol. This makes a fitting parallel here with lb#h#, sometimes used in reference to the emptiness/nothingness and ‘vanity’ of idols. Here, however, the comparison is less pejorative, and is used merely to capture (most vividly) the idea of emptiness/nothingness.

The poetic marker hl*s# (selah) occurs here after verse 6. The precise nature and purpose of this marker remains uncertain, apart from the fact that it is a (musical) direction that almost certainly relates to the performing tradition. It can be explained as a pause, an indication of a change in tempo or style, and there are other possibilities as well. As I noted above, in the case of this Psalm, its use of the hl*s# marker seems to demarcate the essential structure of the work, dividing it into two stanzas, followed by a short closing section.

The second stanza (vv. 7-12 [6-11]) and the closing lines (vv. 13-14 [12-13]) will be discussed 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 38 (Part 2)

Psalm 38, continued

In the first part of this Psalm (vv. 2-11 [1-10], cf. the previous study), the protagonist at length laments the illness that afflicts him, recognizing that it may indicate that YHWH is angry with him because of sin that he has committed.

The second part of the composition (vv. 12-17 [11-16]) expands the scope of the Psalmist’s suffering, to including the response/reaction by the people around him. In the final lines of the Psalm (vv. 18-23 [17-22]), all of these themes are summarized and reiterated, and the protagonist offers a final plea to YHWH for deliverance.

Verses 12-17 [11-16]

Verse 12 [11]

“(Those) loving me and my companions (stay away) from what has struck me,
and (those) near to me (now) stand from far off.”

The Masoretic text of the first line is problematic and is likely corrupt. The line is too long, there is a repeated verb (dmu from line 2), and, more to the point, the reading in the Qumran manuscript (4QPsa) is quite different (and the LXX differs as well). I suspect that the Qumran text is rather closer to the original, which in translation might be rendered as follows:

“I have been struck in front of my loved (one)s and companions”

In any case, the main idea is that the Psalmist’s illness, and the effects of it, are conspicuous, taking place “in front of” (dg#n#) his friends and relatives. That it causes fear and revulsion in them is clear enough, especially in context of the second line: “(those) near to me (now) stand far away”. The ‘nearness’ may imply friendship (line 1), or simply proximity (i.e., neighbors).

Verse 13 [12]

“And they would hit (me), (the one)s seeking my soul,
and (the one)s searching evil (for) me say ruinous (thing)s,
and murmur deceitful (thing)s all the day (long).”

If verse 12 gives us the response of those close to the Psalmist, verse 13 describes the reaction of those who are already hostile to him. The ponderous and awkward rhythm of this verse (a rare 4+4+3 tricolon) may be intended to convey poetically the grim burden faced by the Psalmist—with the abuse from his enemies added to the experience of having his friends withdraw from him (v. 12).

The intent of these wicked adversaries is clear by the parallel expressions “seeking my soul” / “searching evil [i.e. harm] for me”. As is often the case in the Psalms, the wicked are depicted as intending violence toward the righteous. However, the main idea in this verse is not physical violence, but verbal abuse. They look to “bring down” the Psalmist, striking him as a hunter does a bird (this is the fundamental meaning of the verbal root vq^n`). They would do this by “speaking ruinous things” and “murmuring/muttering deceitful things” against him. And they are inspired in their wickedness to do this constantly, relentlessly, “all the day (long)”.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“But I am like a deaf (man who) <does> not hear,
and like a mute (who) opens not his mouth;
and (indeed) I have become like a man who (has) no hearing,
and there are no arguments in my mouth.”

There is a play on words and imagery in these two couplets, giving a double-sense to the idea of being deaf and mute. In the first couplet, the Psalmist describes himself as being like a deaf and mute person. By this is meant that he does not respond to the verbal abuse of his attackers, trying to ignore them as best he can. However, we should not necessarily understand this silence as an example of virtuous forbearance. The fact is, as the Psalmist ruefully admits in the second couplet, he is silent because there is nothing he can offer in his own defense.

The wording here implies a legal, judicial context. To say that he “has no hearing”, in this context, means that he has nothing that deserves a hearing. Similarly, he has no arguments (plur. of hj*k@oT) that he can speak to answer his opponents. Why is this? We must assume that the substance of their abusive claims is that the Psalmist’s suffering (from God) is deserved because of his sin. Against this he can give no argument, since he has already admitted his sin as the likely reason for his illness (vv. 5-7 [4-6], cf. the discussion in the previous study).

Verses 16-17 [15-16]

“(It is) that I wait (patiently) for you, YHWH,
you will answer (me), Lord, my Mighty (One),
when I say, ‘Take away the(ir) rejoic(ing) over me,
in (the) slipping of my foot, (when) they make great (taunts) against me!'”

This portion of the Psalm, dealing with people’s response to his illness, concludes with a dense and complex pair of couplets, that is extremely difficult to translate into English.

Though the Psalmist has no arguments to offer against his accusers, he continues to trust in YHWH. It is only to God that he makes his address, humbly and with a plea for help. He hopes and expects that YHWH will answer him, though he may need to wait patiently (vb lj^y`) for this help to come. The essence of his request is stated in the second couplet: he asks that God will take away (remove) the mocking abuse of his opponents. Since this can only really occur if his illness is removed, it is a roundabout way of making a request for healing. It is also effectively an appeal to YHWH’s own honor, which is indirectly attacked when one of His devout followers (the Psalmist) is assaulted with taunting and condemnation by the wicked. The protagonist admits his sin(fulness), by way of the phrase “in (the) slipping of my foot”, but he asks that the punishment not be so severe that it gives the wicked reason to “rejoice” and mock at his suffering.

The verb in the final phrase, ld^G`, in the Hiphil stem, normally has the general meaning “make great, cause to grow”, and certainly can be used in the negative sense of exalting oneself over another. Dahood (p. 236) would understand the root here in its more rudimentary, concrete sense of “twist” —i.e., the wicked twist lies or weave accusations against him (cp. Ps 12:4)

Verses 18-23 [17-22]

Verses 18-19 [17-18]

“For my trouble is (ever) fixed at (the) side,
and my sorrow is in front of me continually;
(so it is) that I put my crookedness out front,
(for) I am fearful from [i.e. because of] my sin.”

I follow Dahood (p. 236f) in parsing MT yn]a& (1st person pronoun) as the noun /w#a* (“trouble, toil”) with a pronoun suffix; the vocalization would then be yn]a), defective for the full yn]oa (“my trouble”). There are two possibilities for the second prefixed word ulxl: the first involves the root ulx I, from which the noun ul*x@ (“rib, side”) is presumably derived, while second involves the root ulx II (“limp”, noun ul^x# [“limping”]). The parallel with “in front of me” in the second line, argues in favor of the former, i.e. “at the side.

The verb in the first line of the second couplet, dg~n`, “be/stand in front” (Hiphil “put in front”), is related to the preposition dg#n# (“in front of”) in the prior line. There is thus a bit of wordplay involved, of the kind that is typically lost in translation. By putting his crookedness “out in front”, the Psalmist admits and confesses it to God. He is forced to this by his constant pain and suffering, and by his fearfulness over how YHWH has, and may yet further, punish him for his sin. Even so, this attitude of contrition and repentance ultimately reflects the righteous character of the protagonist, and of his devotion to the covenant bond with YHWH.

Verses 20-21 [19-20]

“And (the one)s hostile (to) me have living strength,
and (those) hating me (with) lies are many (indeed);
and (they are) fulfilling evil under [i.e. in exchange for] good,
(the one)s accusing me under my pursuing (the) good.”

As noted above, these two couplets summarize the section (vv. 12-17, cf. above) dealing with the reaction of people to the Psalmist’s illness. Specifically, the focus is on the response by his enemies and opponents (i.e., the wicked). Effectively, this is part of the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH (begun in vv. 18-19), and here he emphasizes the strength and number of his enemies. Again, it is primarily through verbal abuse (including lies/slander, rq#v#) that they attack him.

The idiom of the verb <l^v* followed by the preposition tj^T^ is difficult to translate in English. The idea is of an exchange, of a person making payment (i.e., fulfilling or completing an obligation, which is the basic meaning of the root <lv). The point of the exchange (or payment) is indicated by the preposition tj^T^ (literally, “under, beneath”)—i.e., one thing under [in exchange for] another. Here, the wicked (the Psalmist’s opponents) are paying him evil (ur^) instead of good (bof). This could be taken to mean that the protagonist only wants good for these people, and yet they still attack him. However, more likely is the general idea, expressed as a key theme throughout many of the Psalms, that the wicked are hostile to the righteous specifically because of their righteousness and loyalty/devotion to YHWH. The final line would seem to confirm this: it is the Psalmist’s “pursuing the good” that provokes his opponents to vilify him.

Verses 22-23 [21-22]

“Do not leave me, YHWH, my Mighty (One),
do not keep far away from me!
Hurry to help me, Lord, (for) my salvation!”

The Psalm closes with this final plea, terse and direct, to God for deliverance—that is, of healing from the illness that has plagued the Psalmist. A shortened 3+2 couplet is followed by a single 4-beat line. While he may be waiting patiently for YHWH to answer him, this does not keep the protagonist from calling out for immediate deliverance (“Hurry…!”). The sense may be that the Psalmist, who, as the context of the poem indicates, has been suffering for some time, is at the end of his rope. He does not see how he can go on much longer in this condition, if God does not help him. It is an experience with which many people can clearly relate, anyone who who has undergone a serious illness or debilitating ailment. As such, it is understandable why it would also feature so frequently as a theme in the Psalms, and elsewhere in ancient poetry and Wisdom literature (cf. the book of Job).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 38 (Part 1)

Psalm 38

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 3, 5, 7, 9-11, 13, 17-24)

This Psalm has 22 verses, which suggests an alphabetic pattern, even though it is not an actual acrostic poem; this could, however, explain why it follows Ps 37, which is an acrostic (cf. the previous studies). The 22-verse format came to be associated specifically with poems of lament (cf. the poems in the book of Lamentations), and that is certainly the case here.

The Psalm has a rather clear two-part structure: in the first part (verses 2-11), the Psalmist describes his suffering from a serious illness, while the second part (vv. 12-17ff) presents the response of people to his condition. In the final portion of the second part (vv. 18-23), all the main themes of the poem are summarized and recapitulated, closing with a plea to YHWH for healing and deliverance.

In terms of its poetic rhythm, the Psalm generally follows the 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. Any significant deviations will be mentioned in the notes.

The superscription marks this as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. The precise meaning of the additional direction ryK!z+h^l= is unclear. If parsed as a Hiphil infinitive (of the verb rk^z`), it would mean “to cause to remember, to bring to remembrance”, but whether this relates to the performing tradition, or to the content (and purpose) of the poem, is uncertain. The same expression occurs in the superscription of Ps 70.

Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Verse 2 [1]

“YHWH, in your displeasure do not decide (against) me,
and in your hot (anger) do (not) discipline me!”

The initial couplet involves a plea to YHWH, that He would not act in anger against the Psalmist. Illness was often viewed as the result of the deity’s anger or displeasure against humankind, and, in a monotheistic context, this specifically means the anger of the Creator Deity El-YHWH. The two verbs are jk^y` and rs^y`; the first implies the handing down of a legal judgment (“decide [against]”), while the second refers to a punitive or corrective action (“chastise, discipline, rebuke,” etc). The parallelism of the lines is filled out by a pair of modifying prepositional expressions: “in your fierce (displeasure) [[x#q#]” and “in your hot (anger) [hm*j@]”. The experience of illness by the protagonist leads to the realization that YHWH may be angry with him, and he hopes to forestall any (further) judgment that might come as a result of the Divine anger.

The meter in this opening couplet is 3+2; however, the addition of a second negative particle (la^), attested in some manuscripts, would balance things somewhat in the second line.

Verse 3 [2]

“For your arrows have come down in(to) me,
and (so) your hand has come down upon me.”

Assuming the repetition of the verb tj@n` (“go down, descend”) in both lines is original (cf. Kraus, p. 410), it is meant to give double emphasis to the Psalmist’s experience of suffering (from illness). The image of “arrows” shooting into a person is a fitting metaphor for the coming of pestilence and disease, and occurs frequently in ancient Near Eastern thought (e.g., Deut 32:23; Job 6:4, etc). In the setting of Israelite monotheism, these “arrows” have to come from YHWH, even if by way of divine intermediaries (i.e., Angels/spirits with authority to bring disease). In Job 16:12-13, God is said to send “archers” against the person, shooting the arrows of illness. In Canaanite (Ugaritic) tradition, the personification of burning plague (Ršp, cp. Hebrew [v#r#) is similarly referred to as an archer (cf. Dahood, p. 235).

In the second line, it is clear that it is YHWH who is acting against the Psalmist, with “your hand” parallel to “your arrows”. Moreover, it is the hand (and forearm) that is specifically in focus when the archer draws back his bow. Strength of hand/arm is required, and it is YHWH’s divine power that creates and brings pestilence and disease upon humankind.

Verse 4 [3]

“There is no completeness in my flesh from (the) face of your curse,
there is no fullness in my bones from (the) face of my sin.”

The couplet has an expanded 4-beat (4+4) meter which gives to it a special weight, and may be intended to express, poetically, the burden that the Psalmist feels. The parallelism is precise, with each line beginning with the negative particle /ya@ (“there is no”), functioning in a verbal (or adverbial) sense. There is also the common prepositional expression yn@p=m! (“from [the] face of,” i.e., before), emphasizing the reason for the protagonist’s suffering. Let us consider the main points of parallelism:

    • “there is no [/ya@]
      • completeness [<t)m=]
        fullness [<olv*]

        • in my flesh [yr!c^b=B!]
          in my bones [ym^x*u&B^]
      • from (the) face of [yn@p=m!]
        • your curse [;m#u=z~]
          my sin [yt!aF*j^]”

The pair of nouns <t)m= / <olv* denotes wholeness, completion, health. Since there is none of this in the Psalmist’s body, he is clearly in a state of physical weakness and debility. The noun <x#u# literally refers to the strength in a person’s limbs; however, in the plural it often specifically connotes the bones, and so I have translated it conventionally here, as a proper parallel with “flesh” (i.e., flesh and bones).

There are two reasons cited for the Psalmist’s illness. The first relates to God: “your <u^z~.” The noun <u^z~ is difficult to translate here in context, while still preserving the poetry of the line. It fundamentally  refers to an angry reaction, and, specifically, something spoken; it would best be rendered here as “denunciation”, but the makes for awkward poetry. The translation “curse” fits the rhythm of the line much better, and provides a straightforward parallel with “sin”.

The second reason, indeed, for the Psalmist’s illness is sin: “my sin“. In the ancient world, disease and illness were often thought to have come about because of something wrong (i.e., sinful) that a person had done (cf. John 9:2, etc). From a traditional religious (and theological) standpoint, God’s anger is aroused by human sin, and the heat of this divine anger is often seen as manifest in the burning effects of disease and pestilence (cf. on the term [v#r#, above).

Verse 5 [4]

“For my twisted (deed)s have gone over (upon) my head,
like a heavy burden they are (too) heavy f(or) me.”

This couplet also has an expanded meter (properly 3+4) that, again, suggests poetically something of the burden (aC*m^) that the Psalmist feels. In verse 3[2], the protagonist felt the weight of God’s hand upon him; now it is the weight of his own sins that he experiences (note the parallelism in v. 4[3] above). He claims that they are “heavy from me”, which, translated into English idiom and comparative syntax, means “too heavy for me (to bear)”.

Verse 6 [5]

“My wounds come to stink (and) are ooz(ing),
from (the) face of my foolishness!”

Here the protagonist’s sins are characterized ruefully as “foolishness” (tl#W#a!). The same prepositional expression (“from the face of”, i.e., in the face of, because of) from v. 4[3] is used again to express the reason for his suffering. The image of festering wounds may be meant to depict the symptoms of an actual illness, or it may simply be a general point of reference that includes the idea of punishment (i.e., bruises, stripes) for sin (cp. Isa 1:5-6). The meter of this couplet is 3+2, providing an interesting counterbalance to the irregular 3+4 rhythm of the previous verse.

Verse 7 [6]

“I am bent, bowed down, until (I reach the) very (end),
all the day (long) I walk about dark (with mourn)ing.”

The complete and all-encompassing experience of suffering is described vividly in this couplet. In the first line, he bends over and goes down (presumably from pain), practically to the very ground. The general expression da)m=-du^ (“until [the] very [last/end, etc]…”) is intentionally open-ended, and is meant to convey an intense and extreme situation.

In the second line, the man is upright, and able to walk about; however, he has the demeanor and appearance of someone in mourning, looking dark and ashen-faced. This may be meant to imply a condition that places him in danger of death. In any case, like a mourner, there is no joy of life for the Psalmist in such a condition.

Verse 8 [7]

“For my loins are filled with roasting (heat),
and there is no completeness in my flesh.”

The second line repeats the statement from the first line of verse 4[3] (cf. above), referring to a lack of physical health. This is juxtaposed with the specific (and demeaning) point of suffering described in line 1: a burning, fever-like condition that is located in the loins. The root hl*q* can signify a drying out, due to heat (i.e., the translation “roasting” above), possibly with the specific idea of the genitals shriveling and withering. This may be a particularly shameful way of indicating a lack of health and vitality.

Verse 9 [8]

“I am weakened and broken until (the) very (last),
I moan, groaning (deep in) my heart.”

The Psalmist’s weakened and debilitating condition (vb gWP) has left him “crushed” (vb hk*D*), in his spirit as much as in his body. With apparently little hope, he is left to moan/groan deep in his heart. The reading in the Qumran MS 4QPsa of the first word in line 1 (agpn) is unclear and may represent a scribal error (cp. MT ytwgwpn). By comparson, the LXX here reads “I am ill-treated” (e)kakw/qen), so there does seem to be some textual uncertainty at this point.

Verse 10 [9]

“My Lord, all my longing is (there) in front of you,
and my sighing (surely) is not hidden from you.”

The Psalmist points out the obvious: that YHWH is aware of his suffering. Indeed, this must be so, since God has brought about the very illness that has led to his debilitating condition. However, by drawing attention to this situation, the Psalmist hopes to gain the sympathy and favor of YHWH.

Verse 11 [10]

“My heart moves, my strength has left me,
and (the) light of my eyes it also is no more to me.”

The verbal form rj^r=j^s= is peculiar; if it derives from the root rj^s* (“move/go around”), then the idea may be that the sick man’s heart is fluttering or palpitating. Parsing this as a rare Pealal form would tend to confirm such an image, since it can be used to describe quick/rapid and repeated movements (cf. GKC §55e). For a different explanation, see Dahood p. 236.

Based on the parallel with the phrase “my strength has left me”, perhaps the proper sense is that the man’s heart has moved away from him. In any case, the usually stout heart is no longer stable or a source of strength. Similarly, the strength of his vision (“light of my eyes”) is also gone. The manner of expression here is a bit awkward, but this may be intentional, with the wordiness of the line perhaps meant to convey the sense of affliction—i.e., the awkwardness of visually disabled person groping about. Again the negative (privative) particle /ya@ is used to emphasize the lack of health: “it is no more for me”.

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 35 (Part 2)

Psalm 35, continued

Verses 11-21

Verses 11-21 make up the middle portion of the Psalm, the development section that bridges the two main stanzas (vv. 1-10, discussed in the previous study, and vv. 22-28). Here, the conflict in the Psalm is developed, as the adversaries and opponents of the Psalmist are described, along with the threat they pose. We need not assume that specific historical persons are being referenced. In the Psalms, these adversaries tend to represent the wicked generally, the forces of evil that are at work in the world, oppressing the righteous, even to the point of presenting a danger of death and destruction.

It is possible to divide this section into two parts—verses 11-15 and 16-21; each of these emphasizes in different ways the threat that the wicked present to the righteous, in the person of the Psalmist, the protagonist of the composition.

Verses 11-12

“They stand up, witnesses of cruel (inte)nt,
(those) whom I do not know interrogate me;
they complete (for) me evil under (the) good,
(seek)ing the finish for my soul!”

These two couplets establish the action and purpose of the wicked in this section. They testify with cruel intent against the Psalmist, implying a judicial setting of sorts, a forum where accusations and charges are made. The noun du@ fundamentally signifies someone who repeats, in the sense of repeating something one (supposedly) has seen or heard. Here the idea is that certain people are acting as false witnesses, testifying with sm*j*, a noun that generally signifies violence, but often with a specific connotation of lawlessness and injustice. The effect of their evil testimony is to “complete” (vb <l^v*), in the sense of making a compensatory exchange, evil “under” (i.e., in place of) the good. Possibly this implies an act of betrayal against the Psalmist—i.e., while pretending to do good, their conduct is actually intended for evil.

The word lokv= in the final line can be taken for a noun meaning “childlessness”; however, I tentatively follow commentators such as J. A. Soggin and Dahood (p. 213), who would read it as a verbal noun of the root hlK in the Shaphel (causative) stem. The verb hl*K* has the basic meaning of “complete, finish”, and so makes a fitting parallel with <l^v* in the prior line. It can be used in the negative sense of “finish (someone) off”, i.e., bring a person’s life to an end, and that would seem to be the context here. In English idiom, we might translate the line as “bringing an end to my soul”.

Verse 13

“And I, in their wearing (me) down, my clothing (grew) loose,
I was pressed down (in) my soul with fasting,
and my plea turned (back) upon my (own) lap.”

The rhythm, structure, and meaning of this verse are all problematic. As it stands, it would seem to be a tricolon, with an irregular 4+3+3 meter. Moreover, the description is awkward and cumbersome, though this may be intentional, as if intending to convey poetically the wearisome burden that the protagonist feels. Faced with the oppressive actions of the wicked against him, the Psalmist responds with prayer and fasting. If the judicial setting of vv. 11-12 is retained, the “wearing down” (vb hl*j* in a causative sense) of the Psalmist may involve repeated slanderous accusations made against him.

The sense of the verb bWv (“turn [back]”) in the third line is not entirely clear. Does the “turning back” of the Psalmist’s petition indicate something positive or negative? The latter would seem more appropriate in the overall context of the tricolon—that is, even though the protagonist brings himself low with prayer and fasting, his plea (to God) seems to come back unanswered (cf. verse 17a, below).

Verse 14

“As (though for) a companion (or) a brother to me,
did I walk about, (yes even) as one mourning (his) mother,
going dark (with mourning), I bent myself (down low)!”

Another difficult verse. Presumably it is another tricolon, building upon that of verse 13; however, if the sense of the last line in v. 13 is positive, then conceivably it would be paired with the first line here in v. 14. In that case, vv. 13-14 would be comprised of 3 couplets rather than 2 tricola, and the middle couplet would be an expression of comfort and hope:

“and my prayer turned back upon my lap,
like a companion or a brother to me”

The overall sense of these verses, however, is one of suffering and an expression of grief and despair by the Psalmist. Thus, on this basis, the division into a pair of triplets (tricola) seems more appropriate. His efforts to change his circumstances (through prayer and fasting) having failed, the protagonist now responds like one who is in mourning. In v. 13, his clothing was loose and coarse, but now he goes about in dark/black garments (vb rd^q*), as if in mourning for a dear friend or family member. I take the references to a “companion” and “brother” in the first line as connected to the act of mourning in the second line. They are likewise objects of the verb, even though they are mentioned prior—a technique which builds suspense and is used for dramatic effect. In more conventional syntax, we might have instead worded it, “I walked about like (I was) mourning a companion, or my brother, or (even) my mother”.

Verse 15

“And, in my limping, they took joy and gathered,
they gathered (as one)s striking against me;
(the ones) I do not know tore away (at me),
and did not cease in acting false (with) me.”

With some reluctance, I have followed Dahood (p. 214) in including the first word of v. 16 (ypnjb) as part of the final line of v. 15. This results in a rhythmically consistent pair of 3-beat (3+3) couplets here in v. 15, and preserves the parallelism in the second couplet. The suffering and grief of the Psalmist only goads the wicked to further malice. With evil delight (vb jm^c*), they gather together around the Psalmist—the doubling of the verb Wpsan (“they gathered”) serves to emphasize this aspect of their behavior. The sense is that they surround him, taunting him in a manner that becomes increasingly hostile and violent. The verb [n~j* has the basic meaning of “be/act false”, and so echoes the idea of the wicked as ‘false’ witnesses who slander the protagonist (cf. on vv. 11-12 above). It also connotes both immorality (corruption) and betrayal, and continues the motif of ruthless/lawless behavior expressed by the word sm*j* at the opening of this section.

The phrase yT!u=d^y` al) (“I do not know”) is also repeated from verse 11, and so characterizes the wicked again as strangers, i.e. ones whom the Psalmist does not know. It seems likely that this emphasis actually reflects a sense of betrayal—his opponents may indeed have been known to him, but their cruel behavior shows that he did not realize their true nature until now.

Verse 16

“(The one)s mocking in a circle grind their teeth at me.”

This single 4-beat line opens the second part of the section, and continues the motif-setting from v. 15—of a circle of hostile, taunting adversaries surrounding the Psalmist. The basic meaning of the word goum* would seem to be something that has a curved or circular shape. The construct expression goum* yg@u&l^ (“mockers of a circle,” i.e., ones mocking in a circle) is difficult to translate literally; nor can the alliteration of the expression (la±¦gê m¹±ôg) be captured in English.

Verse 17

“My Lord, to what (end) do you see (this)?
Turn away my soul from (the one)s <giving roar>,
my only (life) from the (shaggy) lions!”

The scenario of the wicked surrounding the Psalmist leads to a despairing plea. The use of the common verb ha*r* (“see”) in the first line must be understood in the specific sense of “see (this), and yet do not respond.” The prepositional particle hm*K* (“for what”, i.e. for what reason/purpose) can have the force of “how long?”, adding to the sense of despair. Following the suggestion of Kraus (p. 391, and other commentators), I have reluctantly chosen to emend the MT <h#ya@V)m! (“from their destructions”) to <yg]a&V)m! (“from [the one]s roaring”). The Masoretic reading is awkward, but not impossible in context (viz., “from their destructive [act]s”); however, this emendation has the decided advantage of preserving a strong and clear parallelism in the final two lines. The term ryp!K= is one of several referring to a lion—in this case, to a vigorous young (male), possibly related to the idea of being covered (rpk I) with hair (i.e., a shaggy mane).

Verse 18

“(Then) I will throw you (praise) in (the) great assembly,
among (the) throng (of) people I will shout (praise to) you.”

The Psalmist promises to give a formal (public) account of what YHWH has done for him, extolling it in praise, if, indeed, God will deliver him from his wicked adversaries.

Verse 19

“They must not rejoice at me, (the) deceitful (one)s hostile to me;
(the one)s hating me for no (purpose), may they squeeze (their) eye(s shut)!”

The precise meaning of this couplet is difficult to determine. The sense seems to be of the Psalmist making an appeal to YHWH that the wicked not be allowed to exult in the suffering of the righteous. The imperfect verb forms have jussive (imperative) force; essentially God is being called on to act. The contrast is between a joyous demeanor (vb jm^c*), and an angry, frustrated expression, indicated by the idiom “squeeze [vb Jr^q*] the eye(s)”. The Psalmist calls on YHWH to frustrate the wicked, so that they are not able effectively to act out their hostility/hatred toward the righteous.

The word <N*j! poses certain difficulties in context here. I have followed the typical rendering that derives it (as an adverb) from the root /nj (I), “to show favor, do (a) favor”, in the negative sense of doing something “for no good (reason)”. However, Dahood (p. 214f) would derive it from a separate root /nj (II/III) meaning “act stealthily” (cf. the previous study on v. 7).

Verse 20

“For they do not speak (a message of) peace,
but (are) about stirring (up trouble) in (the) land,
(and so) they devise words of treachery.”

Here is an example where the semantic range of the root <l^v* (and the noun <olv*) are difficult to render clearly in English. I have opted for the typical translation of <olv* as “peace”, but I believe that the primary idea here is properly related to the context of the covenant, and of (God’s people) fulfilling the terms of the agreement—which includes acting in such a way so as to promote peace throughout the land. The noun hm*r=m! conveys just the opposite: deceit, treachery, and a violation of the covenant bond. The wicked may appear to be devout and faithful on the surface, but in reality their hearts and minds are set against the bond with YHWH.

The root ugr in the second line has an interesting range of meaning which creates a parallel with <lv in line 1. While the verb ug~r* can denote rest and repose (i.e., peace), it can also indicate the opposite—i.e., stirring and unrest. Possibly the linguistic evidence is the result of two separate roots being conflated, but that is uncertain (cf. Dahood’s analysis, p. 215, and previously on Ps 30:6). Here, the antithetic meaning is clearly in view, i.e. “stirring (up trouble)”. Similarly, “words [<yr!b*D=] of treachery” is contrasted with “speaking [vb rb^D*] peace” in line 1.

Verse 21

“And they open wide their mouth against me,
(and) say: ‘Ha, ha! our eyes have seen (it)!'”

While the behavior of the wicked is described broadly, and variously, throughout vv. 11-21, the main focus is that which was introduced at the start of the section (cf. on vv. 11-12, above)—namely, that of adversaries of the Psalmist giving false and slanderous testimony against him. This is restated here in a rather blunt and coarse manner, capturing the sense of taunting that was emphasized in the following verses 13ff. What do the Psalmist’s opponents claim to have seen? This is not specified; most likely, it would imply either a supposed religious transgression or ethical crime. In any case, the detail is more or less irrelevant; the main point is the way that the wicked are willing to slander and impugn the character of the righteous. This basic motif played a role, famously, in the Synoptic Passion narrative of the interrogation of Jesus (Mk 14:56ff), and is the sort of thing that many good and faithful believers are apt to have experienced, in different ways and in varying degrees, from time to time.

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 28

Psalm 28

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

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

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

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

Verses 1-5

Verse 1

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

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

Verse 2

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

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

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

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

Verse 3

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

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

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

Verse 4

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

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

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

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

Verse 5

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

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

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

Verses 6-9

Verse 6

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

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

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

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

Verse 7

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

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

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

Verse 8

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

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

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

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

Verse 9

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 1

Psalm 22

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 3-8, 14-20); 4QPsf (vv. 14-17)

Psalm 22 is a lengthy lament, which I would divide into three main sections:

    • Vv. 2-11 [1-10]—A lament to God by the Psalmist in regard to his suffering and the deplorable situation he faces
    • Vv. 12-23 [11-22]—This situation is described in terms of attacks by his adversaries
    • Vv. 24-32 [23-31]—Praise to YHWH for his power and goodness, anticipating that God will bring deliverance

The meter is irregular, with 3+3 couplets dominating; however, 4+4 couplets are found, especially in the concluding praise section, along with 2 beat tricola (2+2+2). In an ancient poem of this length and complexity, it is not surprising to find many metrical irregularities and inconsistencies; some of these, at least, may be intentional and part of the original composition, without necessarily reflecting textual corruption.

The superscription indicates that this is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David. It also provides the specific musical direction (in the MT) rj^V^h^ tl#Y#a^ lu^, which would mean “upon (the) hind/doe of the dawn”, though there is some uncertainty regarding the form tlya, which the Greek versions (LXX, Symmachus) and Targums apparently understood as tWly`a$ (“strength, help”), as in verse 20 [19]. The expression then could mean something like “strength/help that comes with the dawn”, the implication being that the Psalmist is facing a ‘dark night of the soul’, but that the sunrise of deliverance from YHWH is coming. In the context of the musical direction, it may refer to a particular melody or style, the preposition lu^ (“upon”) indicating that the poem is to be performed according to that musical standard. It may be comparable to the many ‘parody’ works by medieval and Renaissance composers, based on previously existing melodies and compositions.

This Psalm is especially significant for Christians, due to its use in the Passion narrative of the (Synoptic) Gospels, with details from the poem effectively being enacted (fulfilled) in the narrative. In the Synoptic tradition (Mark-Matthew), Jesus quotes the opening line while fastened to the stake (Mk 15:34 par), and it may have been that historical tradition which prompted early believers to turn to the Psalm, where they recognized certain parallels with the events of his death. The Gospel writers clearly were aware of these details, and take care to highlight them, though the Psalm is cited directly only at Jn 19:24. In addition to the words uttered by Jesus, three elements of the Psalm were seen as related to the circumstances of his death:

Section 1: Psalm 22:2-11

Verse 2 [1]

“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me,
(be)ing far removed from my (cry for) help, (the) words of my groaning?”

This opening 4+4 couplet establishes the Psalm as a lament, in which the protagonist cries to God in the midst of his suffering. It is an example of synthetic parallelism, with the second line building upon the first. The verb bz~u* (“leave, [set] loose, abandon”) in line 1 is picked up by qojr* in line 2, which I parse as a verbal noun (from qj^r*, “be far [removed], distant”). Not only does the Psalmist feel that God has left him, but He has gone far away. The parallel suffixed nouns yt!u*Wvy+ (“my [cry for] help”) and yt!g`a&v^ (“my groaning”) in the second line further add to the intensity of the scene. The root ga^v* more properly denotes roaring—i.e., a roaring cry of suffering and distress. On the use of v. 2a in the Passion narrative, cf. above and the special note at the end of this study.

Verse 3 [2]

“My Mightiest (One)—
I call by day and you do not answer (me),
and by night, and (there is) no calm for me.”

The initial address to God (“my Mightiest”, yh^ýa$), if original, rather distorts the meter of the verse, though it does provide a fitting parallel to the opening of v. 2 (“my Mighty [One]”, yl!a@, repeated). To preserve the clarity of the couplet, I have rendered the initial address as a partial line which adds a moment of tension and suspense to the rhythm of the two couplets of vv. 2-3 [1-2] when read together. The parallelism of the couplet here is obvious, being more conceptual than formal. The noun hY`m!Wd can specifically mean “silence”, emphasizing that the Psalmist cries out continually (and is not silent), or it could indicate that there is no calm or stillness for him (i.e. no rest or respite from his suffering); the latter sense is to be preferred.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“And (yet) you are sitting (in the) holy (place),
the shining (splendor) of Yisrael!
In you our Fathers trusted (for safety)—
they trusted, and you made escape (for) them;
to you they cried out and were rescued,
in you they trusted and were not disgraced!”

These three couplets provide a contrast with the Psalmist’s situation. Since YHWH rescued and delivered the people of Israel in times past, why will he not deliver the protagonist now? In some ways, this anticipates the praise section in vv. 24-32, but here the recollection of past action of God on behalf of his people only serves as a bitter irony. There is a hint of rebuke in the opening couplet, contrasting the Psalmist’s deplorable condition on earth with YHWH sitting in splendor on his throne in heaven; it could perhaps be rendered “…and yet, there you are, sitting in the holy place!” The contrast between God and the human condition is further developed, most vividly in the verses that follow.

The threefold use of the verb jf^B* in vv. 5-6 may seem overly repetitive, but effectively makes a theological point: God will deliver those who trust in him. The root jfb often connotes trusting in someone for safety and protection, and is occasionally rendered “seek refuge [in]” —i.e. God as a place of protection. In spite of this threefold affirmation, implying that the Psalmist, too, is trusting in YHWH, there is as yet no deliverance from suffering.

The rhythm of these lines is terser than the couplets of vv. 2-3, the verbal repetition giving a staccato-like quality to the strophe, with a pair of 3+2 bicola followed by a 3+3 couplet (v. 6).

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

“And (here) I (am) a worm, and not a man,
(the) scorn of mankind, and contempt of (all) people!
All (those) seeing me bring derision to(ward) me,
they let out (laughter) with (the) lip and wag (their) head:
‘He circled (with joy) to YHWH, so let Him (now) bring escape!
let Him rescue him, (seeing) that he finds delight in Him!'”

The contrast of the Divine and human condition is a frequent theme in Old Testament poetry, the human side often expressed by the parallel “man…son of man”. Here, however, the contrast is made even more graphically—the Psalmist’s condition is that of a worm, something even less than a man! By this is meant, primarily, the disgrace that he experiences from the rest of humankind (or, so it seems to him). The first couplet, a 3+3 bicolon with rhythmic tension in the second line, provides a synthetic parallelism, where the idea of being a “worm” is defined specifically in terms of the scorn (hP*r=j#) and contempt (hz)B=) he experiences from other people.

Even allowing for poetic exaggeration, to be sure, it is interesting to consider just what it is which brings about such treatment by the people at large. The only evidence provided here is that the protagonist has been struck by severe misfortune, which seems to run contrary to his faithful devotion to YHWH. In other words, if he has been faithful and loyal to YHWH (i.e. trusting in Him, cf. above), then how is it that he is now trapped in such a deplorable situation? This is a natural religious sentiment, felt my many devout persons at various times, and was a frequent theme in the ancient Wisdom literature (indeed, it runs throughout the entire book of Job). His sense of disgrace is only heightened all the more by the mockery he receives from the faithless in society. This is presented most vividly in vv. 8-9 [7-8], including a representative taunt expressed by the populace; this taunt, clearly reflected in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 15:29-32), as noted above, occurs in the climactic couplet of v. 9, with both synonymous and chiastic parallelism:

    • The Psalmist circles (with joy) unto YHWH
      • so let God bring escape for him
      • and let (God) deliver him
    • since he finds delight in (YHWH)

The Masoretic pointing of the first verb (lG)) suggests that it is a form of the root ll^G` (“roll”); equally possible is derivation from lyG] (“circle around”), in which case it should probably be vocalized lG`. The meaning would not change much, though the derivation from lyG], with its connotation of rejoicing (i.e. circling with joy), seems to fit better the parallelism of the couplet.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]

“(Yet it is) that you brought me forth from (her) belly,
making me trust (in safety) upon (the) breasts of my mother;
upon you was I (then) thrown out from (the) loving (womb)—
from (the) belly of my mother you are my Mighty (One)!”

The vulnerability of the human condition is again emphasized here, with the basic image of childbirth. The child is thrust harshly out into the world, away from the loving care (symbolized by the natural motifs of the “breasts” and “womb/bosom”) of its mother. Yet the Psalmist counts himself among those (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones) who, removed from the state of childhood (trusting in the mother), come to trust wholly on God (YHWH) instead. The same verb jf^B* is used here in verse 10, echoing its earlier threefold usage in v. 5-6 (cf. above).

Thus, this section of the Psalm, in spite of its character as a lament, closes with an affirmation of trust in YHWH. It is a trust that remains, despite the suffering and misfortune that may be experienced, at the lowest point of the human condition; this test of faith and trust in God is a golden strand that runs through the Psalm, leading into the final praise-section of vv. 24-32. In this regard, Psalm 22 has a stronger wisdom emphasis that many of the Psalms we have recently studied; the royal theology and covenant-background is less prominent, though it does come more into view in the second section of the Psalm, as we shall see in the next study.

Psalm 22:2[1] in the Synoptic Passion Narrative

As mentioned above, most Christians are familiar with this Psalm through certain details of the Passion narrative in the (Synoptic) Gospels; most notably, in the Markan narrative (followed by Matthew), Jesus quotes the first line (v. 2a) of the Psalm as he is fastened to the stake. The Synoptic tradition preserves this in transliterated form, though with some confusion regarding whether it is a transliteration of the Aramaic or the Hebrew. This confusion runs through the manuscripts, to the point that there is no way of being sure whether, at the historical level, Jesus would have made such an utterance in Aramaic or Hebrew. Typically, however, such (Aramaic) transliterations preserved in the Gospels are seen, on objective grounds, as a mark of historical authenticity.

Generally, it would seem that the transliteration preserves an Aramaic form, with the most common difference involving a modification of the initial address to God to reflect the Hebrew. The Hebrew of Psalm 22:1 (cf. above) reads:

yn]T*b=z~u& hm*l* yl!a@ yl!@a@
°E~lî °E~lî l¹mâ ±¦za»t¹nî
“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me?”

The best form of the Markan reading (in Mk 15:34), as presented in the Nestle-Aland critical text (unaccented), would seem to be:

elwi elwi lema sabaxqani
which transliterates the Aramaic
yn]T^q=b^v= am*l= yh!l*a$ yh!l*a$
°E_lohî °E_lohî l®mâ° š®»aqtanî

In Mark, this is subsequently translated as:

o( qeo/$ mou o( qeo/$ mou ei)$ ti/ e)gkate/pile/$ me;
“My God, my God, unto what [i.e. why] have you left me down in (this place) [i.e. left me behind]?”

The verb form e)gkte/pile$ follows the LXX translation, and is a more or less accurate rendering of the Hebrew verb bz~u* (“leave [behind], abandon”). Matthew’s translation uses the vocative address qee/ mou… (“O my God…”), but otherwise is closer to the LXX. Matthew’s Greek transliteration similarly differs by having the opening address in Hebrew (hli hli = yl!a@ yl!a@), while the rest is Aramaic, making it a composite (bilingual) citation, such as would be fitting for a popular adaption of Scripture among the largely Aramaic-speaking population of the time. Of many such examples of this bilingualism, one need only note the shifting between Hebrew and Aramaic (apparently without any comment) in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Daniel.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 13

Psalm 13

This Psalm is among the shortest and simplest of the collection, though still not without certain textual difficulties. It is comprised of two strophes, which seem to follow a general metrical pattern. The first strophe clearly is that of a personal lament. Most of the Psalms we have thus studied have characteristics of a lament, effectively functioning as a prayer to YHWH for deliverance. These can either reflect the vantage point of the Psalmist (or protagonist of the poem), or that of the people generally. Here it is almost exclusively a personal, private lament. Many of these such Psalms were associated with a particular historical situation; here however there is no mention of any traditional setting in the superscription. Nor is there any musical direction, other than the standard indicator that it is a composition “belonging to David”.

The two strophes have an interesting structure: a 4+4 bicolon, followed by a 4+3 bicolon, and concluding with a single 4-beat line. The second strophe includes an additional 3+3 couplet before the final line.

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Until what point, YHWH, will you forget me? (To the) last?
Until what point will you (continue to) hide your face from me?
Until what point shall I lay (up) thoughts (of despair) in my soul
(and there be) pain in my heart daily?
Until what point shall my enemy lift (himself) high over me?”

Four of the five lines begin with the compound particle hn`a*-du^, “until where”, i.e. “until what point”, usually understood in a temporal sense: “until when”, “how long”. The three components to the strophe—4+4 bicolon, 4+3 bicolon, and single 4-beat line—each ask the question from a different vantage point. The first is addressed to YHWH, the second refers to the Psalmist himself, and the third to the Psalmist’s ‘enemy’.

The plea to YHWH in the first couplet brings out two emphases: (1) impatience that the suffering has lasted so long (line 1), and (2) the Psalmist’s feeling that YHWH has turned away from him (line 2). The substantive noun jx^n@ that ends the first line fundamentally refers to something that is strong, enduring, lasting, sometimes also denoting that which is clear or complete. I render it above as an emphatic follow-up to the Psalmist’s question. The phrase “will you hide your face” (;yn@P*-ta# tyT!s=T^) is usually understood to involve the verb rt^s* (“hide”); but it is also possible that it preserves older usage of the reflexive infixed-t stem, in which case the verb would be rWs (= rWc), “turn [away/aside]” (cf. Dahood, pp. 64, 76). The phrase would then be “will you turn (away) your face”, which also corresponds to the LXX translation. The sense of the line is roughly the same either way.

The word toxu@ in the first line of the second couplet creates considerable difficulty. It is usually read as a plural of hx*u@ (“plan, purpose, counsel”), but this ill suits the context, where the parallelism of the couplet indicates that toxu@ should be comparable in meaning to /ogu* (“pain, suffering”). Dahood (p. 77) suggests that it may be cognate to Ugaritic n²ƒ (“shake, tremble”), corresponding to a Hebrew root Ju^n` (n¹±aƒ), otherwise unattested. Kraus (p. 212), on the other hand, suggests that the Hebrew hx*u@ may occasionally have the nuance of “sorrow(s)”, citing the context of Prov 27:9. Other commentators would emend the text to read tobX*u^ (“pains”). I have tentatively translated toxu@ as “thoughts (of despair)”, in an attempt to preserve the conceptual parallel at work in the line.

The “enemy” (by@a)) or adversary of the Psalmist is otherwise unidentified. Generally the ‘adversaries’ in the Psalms are figurative for the wicked and/or forces of evil and suffering present in the world. This sense of conflict is central to the emotional rhetoric and imagery of the Psalms, and scarcely needs to be related to any concrete historical situation. Some poems which evince a strong royal theology and background, likely do draw upon certain kinds of political events and patterns (cf. on the second strophe below).

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“Look at (me and) answer me, YHWH my Mighty One!
Give light to my eyes so that I should (not) sleep the (sleep of) death,
(and) so that my enemy should (not) say ‘I had power (over) him’,
(and) my adversaries go round (happy) that I am shaken.
And I (do still) trust in your kindness (to me)—
may my heart go round (for joy) in your salvation!
I will sing to YHWH, that He has dealt (out benefits) over me.”

As in the first strophe, the focus in the lines moves from an address to YHWH, to the situation of the Psalmist himself, and then to the vantage point of his enemy. The plea in the first strophe is turned into a more direct petition here in line 1. The Psalmist feels that YHWH has forgotten him, and the sequence of verbs is meant to get God’s attention. What he prays for specifically is stated in the second line: “give light to my eyes”. The context suggests an illness of some sort that has left the protagonist at the point of death (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 6). Twice here he uses the particle /P#, presumably related to the verb hn`P* (“turn”), which signifies the wish to avert (i.e. turn away) something from happening. The cleanest translation of this particle in English is “lest”, but that is seldom used, and normal English usage today would require a construction with a negative particle (“that [it] should not…”, etc).

The first thing he hopes to avert is his own death, with the expression “sleep the death”, probably meaning “the sleep of death”, i.e. to ‘sleep’ and never wake up, with sleep as an idiom for death. The second thing he wishes to avert is expressed in the second bicolon (v. 5); that his enemies/adversaries would not rejoice and boast following his illness (and death). Instead of them “going around” (vb lyG]) happy, the Psalmist hopes that it will be his own heart “going around” (same verb). The language of the covenant and royal theology appears, however faintly, in this strophe, with the Psalmist (David, according to the superscription) approaching God as the sovereign Benefactor who demonstrates loyalty through acts of kindness (ds#j#) and bestowing rewards/benefits (vb lm^G`) on His faithful vassal (i.e. David/the king). Thus the conflict in this Psalm is not, as in the prior Pss 9-12, the wicked generally, but rather personal adversaries. They blend almost imperceptibly with the grave illness of the Psalmist, as if personifying his physical and emotional suffering. It would perhaps not be too far off the mark to identify the symbolism as related to the realm of Death, a common enough idea in the ancient world, ruled by a sovereign (a rival to YHWH and His king), with other personified (demon-type) figures manifest in various diseases, etc. The vague and shadowy adversaries are a suitable reflection of the conflict experienced in human suffering. Here they function as a corollary to the nameless/faceless wicked ones in society who oppress the righteous and the weak/poor, etc (see esp. Ps 9-10, and the earlier study on it).

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), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).