Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7

Psalm 7

This composition in the Psalter is unique in the use of the word /oyG`v! (šigg¹yôn) in the heading to describe it, a musical (or poetic) term whose meaning is unknown to us. It may be related to a primitive root gv (ggv, hgv) which has the basic meaning “stray, go astray”; others would connect it with ugv (Akkad. šegû) which refers to a kind of howling like that of animals, and could possibly indicate some sort of lament. Also uncertain is the significance of the notice “upon the words of Kûš the ‘son of the right-hand’ [i.e. Benjaminite]”; possibly this refers to an accusation made against David (cf. on vv. 4-6 [3-5] below), relating to a tradition otherwise unknown to us.

This Psalm is the longest and most complex of those we have encountered thus far. Not surprisingly, it has a mixed meter with a number of apparent half-lines (cola) which make coordinating the meter and structure difficult; the closing section (vv. 14-18) is more consistent with a strict 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format. Most of the metrical difficulties are in the first half of the Psalm (vv. 2-9). Tentatively, I offer the following outline:

    • The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • An oath concerning his innocence—vv. 4-6 [3-5]
    • Call for YHWH to make vindication and deliver justice—vv. 7-17 [6-16], in three strophes:
      • vv. 7-10—Call for YHWH to act as Judge
      • vv. 11-14—Precatory description of YHWH in His ancient role as victor/vindicator
      • vv. 15-17—Precatory description of the judgment that comes upon the wicked
    • Closing statement of thanks to YHWH (anticipating his justice)—v. 18 [17]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

The Psalmist’s opening petition—the Psalm itself functioning largely as a prayer—is delivered with a pair of bicola (i.e. 4 lines) that generally utilizes the common 3+3 metrical format, though the first bicolon is actually 4+3 (ever so slightly), due perhaps to the inclusion of the divine name YHWH in the initial line. The presence of the divine name often creates metrical tension in ancient Hebrew poetry, and could, at times, be a sign of secondary adaptation. Here are the lines:

YHWH, my Mighty One, with you I have sought protection—
save me from all (the one)s pursuing me and rescue me,
lest he rip (at) my soul like a lion,
tearing (it) apart (with) no one (to) rescue!

Each bicolon ends with a form of the verb lx^n` (“take/snatch away”) in the Hiphil, emphasizing the need for deliverance, for YHWH to rescue the Psalmist in his time of trouble (a frequent motif in the Psalms, as we have seen). The second occurrence is verbal noun (participle) form which I have rendered like an infinitive in an attempt to preserve the rhythmic sense of the line. The shift from plural (“the ones pursuing”) to singular (“lest he rip…”) is not all that uncommon, especially when dealing with opponents of the protagonist in the Psalms; they can be described as many or as one, collectively or individually—the description can be quite fluid. In part, I think, this is meant to reflect the lack of firmness and integrity in the wicked, in contrast to the Psalmist, who remains firm (and unified) in his loyalty to YHWH.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

The petition gives way to an oath in these lines, drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. The force of such binding agreements was magical-religious, and involved an oath. First, the parties of the agreement would call upon God (or the gods) as witness; second, this meant that, by way of certain ritual formula, divine judgment would be brought down upon one who violated the agreement. The idea of the covenant between YHWH and the people Israel was unique in this regard, since God was not a witness, but a participant in the agreement—as the superior (suzerain) to whom Israel and its rulers were the subordinate (vassal). In agreeing to the terms of the covenant, Israel took an oath to uphold it, including the curse/punishment which would come upon them if/when it was ever violated. Here the oath is more generalized, in terms of common morality and the normal functioning of society, but it still reflects the righteousness and covenant loyalty of the Psalmist.

He approaches YHWH, his sovereign, confirming his innocence by way of an oath. It begins as a 4+3 bicolon precisely parallel to the opening of the petition (v. 2): “YHWH, my Mighty One…”. He has sought protection (vb hs^j*) with YHWH as his Lord and protector (under the covenant); the oath is taken in this very context. According to the text as we have it, the first line reads: “YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this [taz)]”. It is not clear what “this” is, which has led some commentators to emend the text. Dahood (p. 42) suggests that here taz) is a substantive meaning something like “insult”, but whose etymology “is not immediately evident”; he cites other such examples in Ps 44:18[17]; 74:18[17], and Job 2:11. While this is a convenient solution, the basis for it seems extremely slight. Some would relate “this” to the “words of Kuš” in the superscription, i.e. presumably as an accusation made against the Psalmist (David), of which we do not know the precise content, though it may be implied in the lines that follow. Indeed, more properly the pronoun (“this”) refers to the following two “if”-statements. This conditional statement (protasis, “if…”) of the oath, taken together, in vv. 4-5 is:

YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this,
if there really is guilt in my palm(s),
if I have dealt (in) evil (with) my sound (ally),
and pulled away (in) empty (word)s (to make him) my foe,

The last line is difficult to translate, but there is a clear contrast (and formal parallel) between ym!l=ov and yr!r=ox, as also between ur* and <q*yr@. The words in the first pair are themselves difficult to translate, though the sense is clear enough. Both are verbal noun (participle) forms with a first person singular suffix (“my…”). The first verb is <l^v* from the root <lv and denominative of the noun <olv* in the sense of a (covenant) agreement that establishes peace, security, and friendship between two parties. The second verb, rr^x* indicates just the opposite—hostility, rivalry, opposition. By acting with evil (ur*) toward one who was supposed to be a firm ally, it would render their bond as merely “empty [words]” (<q*yr@), creating hostility when there should have been peace. This would seem to be the substance of the accusation against the Psalmist—an act of treachery and disloyalty. Verse 6 provides the result for the condition (apodosis, “…then”) of the oath—it is a three-fold declaration, comprised of three lines (tricolon):

(then) let (the) enemy pursue and reach my soul,
and let him trample my life to (the) earth,
and make my (very) weight dwell in (the) dust!

Three comprehensive terms are used to represent the (whole) person of the Psalmist in its deepest sense:

    • vp#n#—refers to the life-breath or essence of the person, usually rendered as “soul” (here yv!p=n~, “my soul”)
    • <yY]j^—a plural noun referring to the physical life, span of life, etc., of a person (here yY`j^, “my life”)
    • dobK*—”weight”, often in the basic sense of “worth, value”, figuratively as “honor”, etc (here yd!obk=, “my weight/worth”)
      [some commentators read ydbk here as yd!b@k=, “my liver”, in the sense of “my inner(most) organ(s)”]

The purpose of this oath is to confirm—by magical-ritual means—the Psalmist’s innocence; from the religious standpoint of the Psalm, it is meant to demonstrate his loyalty to YHWH. He declares, indeed, that he has remained loyal, and would not have acted in such a disloyal way as he is accused of doing. That he is willing to take on the curse of the oath is an implicit proof that he is innocent. This oath section ends with a hl*s# (Selah) mark, frequent in the Psalms, and the exact significance of which remains uncertain. Here it can be used a structural indicator, marking a break before the next major section.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

As indicated in the outline above, verses 7-17 are to be divided into three sections, or strophes. They make up a call to YHWH, for him to act as judge and declare justice for the Psalmist, vindicating him in the accusation against him. The call proper is contained in vv. 7-10, structurally (metrically) one of the most difficult portions of the Psalm. It is a challenge to divide this portion accurately into lines and couplets. As with verse 6, it seems most natural to view vv. 7-9a as utilizing a tricolon (three-line) format. The first tricolon (v. 7) is:

Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!

The three imperatives are intended to stir YHWH to action, which is the emphasis of these lines. The last verb (hwx, perfect form t*yW]x!) is a bit difficult to render; I take it as a precative perfect, reflecting the expectation of the Psalmist, in the sense that YHWH has the power to command (i.e. make) judgment and deliver justice. In the second tricolon (vv. 8-9a), He is seen as acting, and the imagery shifts to the assembling of the tribunal:

(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes [<yM!a%] surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples [<yM!u^]!

This triad marvelously moves from the congregation of Israel (line 1) to an image of all the peoples [of the world] (line 3); in between is the comprehensive, unifying motif of YHWH seated high above on His throne (line 2). The verb form hb*Wv in the second line is best understood as deriving from bvy (“sit, dwell”) rather than bwv (“turn, return”). In the following lines, vv. 9b-10, this triadic structure expands to include a set of three bicola (6 lines), it seems, following a 3+2 meter. With the tribunal in place, the Psalmist now asks YHWH to make judgment on his behalf:

Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

The initial verb (fp^v*, “judge”) is different from that in the prior line (/yD!, “[act as] judge”), and connotes the establishment of justice in the case at hand. The root qdx plays an important role in these lines, with the noun qd#x# in v. 9b (line 1), and the adjective qyd!x* twice in v. 10 (parallel lines 4 and 6). This key root is central to the idea of the covenant, and, as a consequence, to Israelite religious thought and theology as a whole. It has a relatively wide semantic range, but fundamentally refers to something that is right, straight, and according to a standard (measure). The noun qd#x# is often translated “righteousness” or “justice”, much as the similar noun dikaiosu/nh in Greek (indeed, the diakaio- word-group is close in meaning to Hebrew qdx); perhaps “right-ness” or “just-ness” would capture the meaning better, but there is no such corresponding word in English. In the context of the ancient binding agreement (covenant), it also denotes faithfulness and loyalty. In a judicial setting, the idea certainly is that of determining justice, making things right—and, of course, whether a person (and his/her behavior, cause, etc) is just and right. The loyal servant of YHWH possesses a “right-ness/just-ness” that mirrors that of God Himself (note the clear parallel in lines 4 & 6).

The last word in line 2 (MT yl*u*) has caused some difficulty, leading commentators occasionally to emend (or repoint) the text. Dahood (p. 45) suggests that it should be read as yl!u@, as a divine name, i.e. “(YHWH the) Most High”. However, the parallelism in the bicolon is perhaps better preserved by the (Masoretic) pointing—as the preposition lu^ with first person singular suffix—marking an absent, but implied, verb. Note:

    • judge me [yn]f@p=v*]
      • according to my right-ness [yq!d=x!K=], and
      • according to my completeness [yM!t%K=]
    • (decide) over me [yl*u*]

The parallelism in the second bicolon is antithetic, marking the precise contrast—between righteous and wicked, loyal and disloyal—that lies at the heart of the judgment scene. God is able to make a proper determination, since he is the one “examining [vb /j^B*] hearts and kidneys”—both of these inner organs were use to represent (and locate) the mind (thoughts, intention, desire, etc) of a person; in our idiom we would say “examining hearts and minds”. The significance of the characterization of YHWH as “just” (qyd!x*, cf. above) is two-fold: (a) it means that he is able to establish true and proper justice, and (b) it marks the “just” person as one who is, and remains, loyal to YHWH.

[The remainder of the Psalm (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) will be discussed in the next study.]

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 4

Psalm 4

This is the second Psalm of the collection designated as a musical composition (romz+m!), and one “belonging to David” (dw]d*l=); cf. the previous study on Psalm 3. The precise meaning of the opening word of the superscription remains uncertain—j^X@n~m=l^, found in the superscriptions of 55 Psalms (also Hab 3:19). The root jxn probably originally had the sense of “shine, [be] bright”, but the verb is rather rare in the Old Testament, occurring (outside of the Psalter) primarily in post-exilic writings (Chronicles, Ezra) in the technical sense of one who serves in a position of prominence or leadership, in a supervisory or overseeing role. This has led most commentators over the years to assume that in the Psalms the participle jxnm refers to the person directing/conducting the performance of the composition—a translation like “(the one) directing” is probably as good as any. Its place in the superscription relates to the musical direction which follows, i.e. how the composition is to be performed; in other words, it would seem to reflect a rudimentary performing tradition. Here the instruction simply indicates “on/with string (instrument)s” [tonyg]n+B!].

Verse 2 [1]

The opening lines mark the Psalm as a prayer, or petition, to God; at least, that is the framing structure (vv. 2, 8-9 [1, 7-8]) of the song. The central section (vv. 3-6 [2-5]) provides the religious (and theological) context for the Psalmist’s petition, the first line of which is:

“In my calling (to you), answer me, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of my justice”

As always, in my translation, “Mighty (One)”/”Mightiest (One)” renders the Hebrew plural <yh!l)a$ used as a Divine title (i.e. Elohim), and typically translated “God”. The construct phrase “Mighty (One) of my justice” is a literal rendering of yq!d=x! yh@l)a$, though the expression “my justice” (yq!d=x!) is a bit ambiguous. In the construct syntax it could mean “my just/righteous God”, where the suffix serves as a possessive for the entire expression. However, much more likely is that it is essentially an object suffix, with the noun qd#x# here having a kind of verbal force—i.e., God as the One “working (out) justice for me”; the English “vindication” has been suggested as an appropriate rendering of qd#x# here (Dahood, p. 23). For a similar occurrence in the opening of a Psalm, see 17:1.

The initial phrase reads “In my calling, answer me”; this is often understood in a temporal sense and translated in English as “When I call…”, but this obscures the parallel with the second line, each line beginning with the preposition B= (“in…”). Let us see the two lines together:

“In my calling (to) you), answer me, Mighty (One) of my justice!
In (my) distress, you (shall) have made room for me:
Show favor (to) me and hear my petition!”

There is a chiastic structure at work here in these lines as well:

    • My calling
      • Answer me
        • (Precatory request): In my distress…
      • Show favor / hear me
    • My petition

In between the two imperatives (“answer…”, “hear…”) the core of the request is expressed by way of a precative perfect—i.e., a wish or request phrased in terms of something which has (already) been done. The verb is T*b=j^r=h!, a hiphil perfect form of bj^r*, “be open, large, wide”, the hiphil being a causative stem, “make large, make wide,” etc. It relates here conceptually to the noun rx^, which has the fundamental meaning of something narrow, tight, etc, which presses in on a person (i.e. “distress”). The expectation is that God will literally “make room” for the Psalmist, relieving and protecting him from the forces and difficulties which press on him. The royal setting suggested by the superscription (associating the Psalm with David) may well provide the (artistic, narrative) context for the conflict faced by the Psalmist, a possibility to be considered further below.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

As noted above, these lines, which form the central core of the Psalm, provide the religious and theological thrust of the work. It functions on two levels:

    1. A contrast between the true God and the (false) idols of pagan (Canaanite) religion
    2. A contrast between the Psalmist who remains loyal to the true God and those who have gone after “idols”, i.e. who do not worship YHWH in the proper manner

Within the structure of the Psalm itself, there are two Selah pauses in this section, creating an interesting division:

    • Challenge (in the form of a question) to those prominent men who do not remain loyal to YHWH (v. 3)
      Selah Pause
    • Exhortation to the people, in two parts:
      (i) Promise that YHWH will honor those who are faithful to him (v. 4)
      (ii) Exhortation to purity and repentance (v. 5)
      Selah Pause
    • Challenge (in terms of religious ritual) for people to remain loyal to YHWH (v. 6)

Let us consider the lines together:

“Sons of man—until what [i.e. how long] is my Honor (to be given) to insult?
(How long) will you love an empty (thing) and seek after a lie? Selah
You should know that YHWH does wonders (for the one) loyal to him—
(indeed) YHWH will hear (me) in my calling to him.
You should be disturbed and not (continue to) err—
Show (this) in your heart upon your lying down, and groan. Selah
Slaughter (sacrifice)s of justice and show trust unto YHWH!”

There are several points in these lines where the Hebrew makes translation difficult; it is almost as though the sense of conflict and challenge comes to be expressed through the wording and poetic syntax itself. Some commentators have suggested emending the Masoretic text in various ways, but, for the most part, that would not seem to be necessary. Let us consider each portion of this section briefly.

Verse 3 [2]. The expression “sons of man” (vya! yn@B=) probably has a dual meaning here: (1) as an echo of the common “son of man” (<d*a* /B#), i.e. mortal human being, in contrast to YHWH; (2) the vya! with the specific sense of a certain (prominent man), i.e. “sons of a (prominent) man”, distinguished or notable persons. Also potentially misleading is the expression yd!obK=, “my honor”. We saw in Psalm 3 how dobK* can be understood as a Divine title, i.e. “Honorable One”; here, however, the parallel is with the expression “my justice” in verse 2 [1] (cf. above). In that earlier expression, the significance was a reference to God as the One who works/establishes justice for the person loyal to Him; the sense is similar here—YHWH as the One bestowing honor/worth to those faithful to Him. In any event, the expression is to be read as a Divine title.

The situation, however, is that certain prominent people in Israel have treated YHWH in a shameful way, with insult (hM*l!K=) rather than honor. And what is the nature of this shameful insult? The words “empty (thing)” (qyr!) and “lie” (bz`K*) are almost certainly intended here as euphemisms for idolatry (non-Israelite ‘pagan’ religion), which, according to the tenets of Israelite monotheism (and Yahwism) can itself serve as a pejorative description of any improper religious practice or behavior. It need not always denote worship of other deities; however, if the background of the Psalm genuinely derives from the kingdom period (or even the time of David), then specific Canaanite beliefs and practices, widespread in the surrounding population, may well be meant.

Verse 4 [3]. The Psalmist sets himself in contrast to these ‘prominent men’, as one who is “good” (dys!j*) to YHWH, the adjective having the sense of being loyal (i.e. the king as a loyal vassal) to God. As a result of this loyalty, YHWH hears and responds to the Psalmist’s prayer. The verb alp (al*p=h!), found in some manuscripts, should be read instead of hlp (hl*p=h!); the reference to God doing wonders (i.e. answering prayer, in a powerful/miraculous fashion) better fits the context, and removes the need for any further emendation in the verse.

Verse 5 [4]. The syntax of these two lines is most difficult, and nearly impossible to render accurately into English. Some commentators advocate emending or re-ordering portions of the verse (e.g. Kraus, p. 144-5), however, I do not know that such a step is at all necessary. Consider, for example, the beautiful symmetry of the (Masoretic) Hebrew as we have it, especially in the second line (v. 5b):

WMd)w+ <k#b=K^v=m! lu <k#b=b^l=b! Wrm=a!

The symmetry is both rhythmic/alliterative and conceptual, as can be seen from the following chiastic outline:

    • Wrm=a! “show/speak” (imperative)
      • <k#b=b^l=b! “in your heart” (location)
        • lu^ “upon” (locative preposition)
      • <k#b=K^v=m! “your (place of) lying down” (location)
    • WMd) “groan/wail/weep” (imperative)

I find the first line (v. 5a) actually to be more difficult. What is the sense of the two verbs in sequence? Actually, there is a similar, though different, sort of symmetry involved in this line:

    • Wzg+r! “be disturbed” (imperative)
      • la^w+ “and (do) not”
    • Waf*j$T# “you will err/sin”

The conjunction and particle of negation connect the two verbs, establishing the relation between them:

    • “You must be disturbed”—that is, troubled in soul/spirit because of their “idolatry”; and, if this mindset is in place, leading to repentance, then:
    • “You will not [will no longer] err”—i.e. will not sin (lit. miss the mark)

The sense of repentance is vividly expressed by the image of weeping/wailing/groaning on one’s bed, an idiom found in both Canaanite (Ugaritic) literature and the Old Testament (Psalm 6:7 [6]; Gen 48:30).

Verse 6 [5]. This short line stands on its own—a 4-beat single colon, instead of the 4+4 bicolon format that characterizes the Psalm. It serves, I think, to summarize the section as a whole, making clear the precise nature of the religious failure of the ‘prominent men’. Their failure is characterized by the two elements in this line: (1) sacrificial offerings that are not right, and (2) failing to trust in YHWH. It is hard to say whether by this is meant sacrifices made to deities other than YHWH; much depends on whether the Psalm (and/or its background) is to be dated to the time of David (or otherwise the early kingdom period). In light of the later messages by the Prophets, the expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of justice” could be understood in terms of the prescribed sacrificial offerings in combination with the correct religious attitude and moral conduct (or lack thereof). In either case, there is definitely a ritual dimension at work—i.e. loyalty to YHWH expressed, in large measure, through sacrificial offerings. This loyalty here is defined in terms of “trust” (vb. jf^B*), probably with the sense of relying upon God as a trustworthy Sovereign, expressing confidence in Him. The language and idiom of vassalage is part of the royal ideological (and cultural) background in many of the Psalms, especially those associated with David; for more examples of this, cf. the previous studies on Psalm 2 and Psalm 3.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

These lines return to the petition framework of the Psalm (v. 2 [1]), and may elucidate the context of the Psalmist’s prayer (or, perhaps, to the historical/ritual background of it). A precise interpretation depends on how one understands the noun bof (“good”) in verse 7. Dahood, in his commentary (pp. 23, 25-26), argues that here the “good” from God refers specifically to the rains, and that the setting of the Psalm is a prayer for rain (possibly in time of drought). For an ancient agricultural (and pastoral) society, one need hardly point out the importance of rain—both the proper amount, and in its proper season. Nearly all of the material “good” in society depended upon the rain. The emphasis on the “increase” in grain and wine in verse 8 would seem to confirm this interpretation, especially in connection with other Scriptural parallels (e.g., Deut 28:12; Jer 7:25 [cp. 3:3; Amos 4:7]; Psalm 85:13). However, I would not simply translate bof as “rain” (as Dahood does), but allow the Psalm to explain itself:

“Many are saying ‘Who will make us see the good?
The light of your face has fled (from) upon us!’ YHWH
You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart
from the time (when) their grain and their wine multiplies.

There are couple of points of difficulty that should be mentioned. The first is the position of hwhy (YHWH)—does it belong to the end of verse 7 or the beginning of v. 8? This is especially important, if, as a number of commentators would argue, the MT hsn in v. 7b should be read as (and/or emended to) a form of either the verb sWn (“flee [from]”) or us^n` (“pull away [from]”); something of the sort would seem to fit the context, whereby the entirety of v. 7 represents the faithless words of the “many”. The mention of YHWH could be part of this (“the light of your face has fled from us, YHWH”); but just as easily it could be part of what follows: “YHWH, you shall give joy (to me) in my heart”. Even more difficult, it seems, is the syntax of verse 8. There are two components to this line, each of which makes fine sense in its own right:

    • “You (shall) give joy/happiness (to me) in my heart”
    • “Their grain and their wine multiplies/multiplied”

But how are these two statements related? The problem lies in the connecting word tu@m@, which, as parsed in the traditional MT, is apparently the noun tu@ (“time”) with the prefixed preposition /m! (“from”). Some would read this as a comparative, continuing the contrast from earlier in the Psalm:

“You give joy (to me) in my heart, more than (in the) time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

At best this seems most awkward. Dahood proposes that the mem (m) prefix actually is an enclitic particle that belongs to the previous word (“my heart”), and that tu represents the related time-adverb hT*u^ written defectively (cf. Psalm 74:6; Ezek 27:24). By parsing the initial verb in verse 8 as a (precative) perfect form, it casts the line in a petitionary form much in keeping with the earlier part of the prayer:

“You (shall) have given joy (to me) in my heart; and now, (let) their grain and wine multiply”

In my translation above, I have attempted to capture something of this same sense, while respecting the traditional form of the Masoretic text:

“You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart from the time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

Verse 9 [8] and Summary

If we take seriously two key elements of the Psalm—(1) the issue of idolatry and (2) the idea of rain as the “good” from God—it may be possible to surmise an underlying historical setting. Through much of Israel’s history, from its settlement in Palestine down through the kingdom period, the influence of Canaanite religious beliefs and practices was prevalent in the culture. Most notable were those related to the god Haddu (better known by his popular epithet “Master”, Ba’al [cf. my earlier article]), representing the power of the storm/rain and dispenser of the life-giving waters from the heavens. It is altogether conceivable, even probable, that worship of Baal-Haddu underlies the references to ‘idolatry’ in the Psalm. For many Israelites, especially in the early kingdom period (i.e. the time of David and Solomon), it would have been most tempting and natural to blend together Baal- and Yahweh-worship in different ways. This would have been entirely in keeping with syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in the Ancient Near East, and, indeed, we see evidence for it at numerous points in the Scriptural record of Israelite history. It is hard to explain the prevalence of Baal-worship elements in Israelite society, over such a long period of time—from at least the time of the Judges until the reforms of Josiah—without the power and appeal of such syncretism. And if, indeed, the background of Psalm 4 involves a prayer for rain (cf. above), in the face of the threat of drought, etc, it is easy enough to image many ‘prominent men’ in Israel turning to the Canaanite god with power over the rains, perhaps including him (along with YHWH?) in the sacrificial offerings.

Whether or not such a reconstruction is accurate, there can be no doubt that the Psalmist feels himself at odds with important segments of society, their ‘idolatry’ (in whatever form it took) being central to the “distress” he experiences. In contrast to their lack of faith/trust in YHWH, the Psalms sees himself as remaining loyal to the true God, and this loyalty is proven by the fact that YHWH answers his prayer. It is possible that we have here a kind of parallel to the famous contest between Elijah and the Israelite ‘priests’ of Baal-Haddu (1 Kings 18): those offering sacrifices to other deities (Baal?) will not receive any answer, but YHWH answers (bringing rain) to the one who remains loyal to Him. If the Psalmist is meant to reflect a royal figure (such as David), then it is likely that his prayer is on behalf of the people as a whole; embedded in the Psalm is the message—the hope and expectation—that they, too, will remain faithful to YHWH.

The promise of God’s blessing and protection extends into the final lines (v. 9), and is similar to the statement of trust expressed in Ps 3:6 [5]. We may translate this bicolon as follows:

“In peace I lie down all (alone) and I sleep,
for you alone [YHWH] make me sit secure.”

The basic idea is clear enough, though the specific wording creates some difficulty. The adverbial particle wD*j=y~ can be tricky to render into English. Essentially it means “as one” or “at one”, sometimes in a comprehensive sense (“all together”) or in a temporal sense indicating suddenness (“at once”, etc). Here it is probably meant as a parallel to dd*B* (as an adverb) in the second line:

    • wD*j=y~ “all (alone)”, referring to the Psalmist
    • dd*b*l= “separately, alone”, i.e. by himself, referring to YHWH

Dahood (p. 27) suggests the possibility that wdjy here derives from the relatively rare Semitic (Canaanite) root µdw/µdy, “see, (be) visible”, and that it is functioning as a substantive for the appearance/manifestation of YHWH, parallel to “light of (his) face” in v. 7. It is an intriguing suggestion, but seemingly hard to square with the text as we have it, unless corruption occurred as the original word (and its meaning) was lost in the process of transmission.

The parallelism in the verse continues:

    • hb*K=v=a# “I (will) lie down”, i.e. to sleep
    • yn]b@yv!oT “you make me sit”, i.e. rest, dwell
      and, further
    • <olv*B= “in peace”
    • jf^b#l* “with trust/security”, i.e. safe, secure

Though hard to preserve in translation, the noun jf^b# is related to the verb jf^b* in v. 6; the root fundamentally means “trust (in), rely (on)”, but its range of meaning includes the idea of safety and security—i.e. the security which God provides is the basis for our trust in Him. We have here a beautiful image of complete trust and reliance on YHWH, a model of covenant loyalty, exemplified by the ruler (and/or the Psalmist) and intended as an exhortation for all the people.

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).

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:4-6ff

In the previous Saturday Series study, we looked at the opening verses (vv. 1-3) of Deuteronomy 32 (the “Song of Moses”), in light of the earlier critical analysis, to see how the various areas and aspects of Biblical criticism relate to the overall interpretation of a passage. This week we will proceed to the next section of the poem (vv. 4-18), based on the following outline:

    • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)
      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
    • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

We begin with the first portion (vv. 4-6), which establishes the principal theme of the Creator God (YHWH) as the Father of the people Israel.

Deuteronomy 32:4-6

Here is my translation of this section:

4The Rock—His work(s are) complete,
indeed, all His ways (are with) justice,
a Mighty (One) firm with no deviation—
He (is the One ever) true and straight!
5(Yet) His sons <ruined their loyalty to Him>,
an Age (now) crooked and (all) twisted!
6Would you deal this (way) with YHWH,
(as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?
Is He not your Father who created you?
(Didn’t) He make you and cause you to be?

After the exordium (vv. 1-3), these lines establish the fundamental theme of the poem. However one views the origin and composition of the Song itself, it must be read in the context of its position in the book of Deuteronomy. The entire thrust of the historical narration, presented as a speech (or speeches) by Moses, is as an exhortation (and warning) to the people to follow the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) established by YHWH. In the initial sections of the Epilogue (chapter 31), it is foretold that Israel would, in large measure, violate the covenant (vv. 16-18, 20-22) in the years to come. For critical scholars, who view the book of Deuteronomy as a product of the kingdom period (e.g. the reign of Josiah, and thereafter), the actual historical situation has been retrojected and presented as ex eventu prophecy (i.e. prophecy written after the fact). Many traditional-conservative commentators, of course, accept the book as recording Moses’ actual words, at least in substance, in which case it represents authentic prophecy announced by God. Either way, its purpose (and power) as a warning to Israel, to remain faithful to the covenant and its Torah, comes through loud and clear. We see this especially in verses 26-29:

26Take this account of the Instruction {Torah}, and you shall set it alongside the box of [i.e. containing] the binding (agreement) of YHWH your Mighty (One) {Elohim}, and it shall be there among you for a witness (always). 27For (indeed) I know your defiance and the hard (back of) your neck! see—in my (be)ing yet alive with you th(is) day, you have been (act)ing defiant with YHWH, and so (then) how (much more will you) following my death! 28Gather to me all the elders of your staffs [i.e. tribes] and (the one)s administering (for you), and I will speak these words in their ears, and I will make [i.e. call on] heaven and earth (to) give witness a(gainst) them. 29For I know that, following my death, you will go (completely) to ruin, and you will turn (aside) from the path which I have charged you (to walk), and the evil shall meet you in the days following, (in) that [i.e. because] you did the (thing that is) evil in the eyes of YHWH, and provoked Him with the (thing)s your hands (have) done.”

There is a strong parallelism at work in these verses:

    • Instruction/exhortation as a witness (of the covenant)—written, i.e. the book of Deuteronomy itself as a record of Moses’ words (v. 26)
      • Prophecy of future disobedience: “For I know (that)…” (v. 27)
    • Instruction/exhortation as a witness (of the covenant)—oral, Moses’ words given directly to the leaders of Israel (v. 28)
      • Prophecy of future disobedience: “For I know (that)…” (v. 29)

All of this sets the stage for Moses’ reciting the poem of chap. 32 (the Song) to the entire assembly of the Israelite people (v. 30). Thus, central to the poem is the idea of the binding agreement (b®rî¾, ‘covenant’) God made with Israel, and their need to remain faithful to it. There is a strong echo of the covenant-treaty formula in the opening words of the Song, as discussed previously. Now, in the first main section (vv. 4-18) the basis of the covenant is established and confirmed, through poetic narrative. The relationship between the two parties—YHWH and Israel—begins with YHWH’s position as Creator (of all humankind), and special role as Father of Israel. As such, verses 4-6 are fundamentally theological—presenting and describing the character and attributes of YHWH; and the primary characteristic is the faithfulness and loyalty He possesses, which informs His side of the binding agreement. This is expressed several ways in the first lines (2 bicola) of verse 4 (a-d):

    • V. 4a (1): The word ƒûr (“rock”) as a title (Haƒƒûr, “The Rock”), used repeatedly in the Song (vv. 15, 18, 30-31, 37); a rock by nature is strong and sure, while a hill or cliff is a natural position of refuge and protection; thus, the title indicates the reliability, security, and protection which God provides.
    • V. 4a (2-3): It is further said that His actions (pœ±al pl., root p¹±al) are complete (t¹mîm)—that is, there is nothing lacking or amiss in anything He does; for His part, He is utterly faithful and reliable. The call for the people of Israel, likewise, to be complete (t¹mîm) in 18:13 is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in Matt 5:48: “Then [i.e. if you follow my teachings] you will be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete”.
    • V. 4b: Similarly, it is declared that “all His ways/paths” (k¹l-d®r¹k¹yw) are “justice”. Here, the noun mišp¹‰ may be used in an adjectival sense (“just, right”); however, one can also understand it in a predicate sense—i.e., “all His paths (are in/with) justice”. Everywhere that YHWH walks and acts, there is justice, and nothing that is not just or right; clearly the thought in this half line (colon) is parallel to the one previous.
    • V. 4c: Here His faithfulness and loyalty is stated more directly, with two declarations:
      (i) He is a firm Mighty One (“God”)—that is, He is firm and true in everything He does, using the noun °§mûnâ, parallel to the noun mišp¹‰ (“justice”) in the previous line. He is also the only true Mighty One (°E~l, “God”); all other supposed “Mighty Ones” (whether “gods” or Rulers) are false and unreliable. This lays the groundwork for the contrast between YHWH and the deities of the surrounding nations later in the poem.
      (ii) There is no deviation (or corruption) in what He does; it is specifically stated that “there is no (°ên) deviation (±¹wel)”; moreover, such “deviation” is characteristic of idolatry, and likewise introduces the dualistic theme than runs through the remainder of the poem.
    • V. 4d: YHWH (“He”, hû°) is characterized by two fundamental attributes:
      (i) ƒadîq, often translated “faithful”, but, in the context of the covenant-setting, perhaps better understood as “true”, “loyal”; it is parallel with the noun °§mûnâ in the prior half-line.
      (ii) y¹š¹r, “straight”, clearly parallel with “there is no deviation”.

If YHWH is a completely faithful and reliable partner in the covenant, the same can not be said of the people (Israel). Their lack of faithfulness (to the covenant) is described in vivid, even difficult, terms, reflecting both past (i.e. the Golden Calf incident) and future violations. Despite the harsh language used, it does not necessarily mean that Israel was responsible for flagrant immorality, and the like; any violation of the covenant, however slight, could be described in this manner.

It is just here, in the bicolon of verse 5, that the force of the language used gives way to a significant textual difficulty, as I discussed in a prior study. Many commentators suggest that the text in the first half line, as it has come down to us in the Masoretic text, requires emendation. For the purposes of this study, I have tentatively adopted a reading along the lines of “His sons ruined their loyalty to Him” (see the translation above). The verb š¹µa¾ (“[go to] ruin, destroy, corrupt”) was used earlier in the section preceding the poem (31:29, see above), in Moses’ foretelling the people’s violation of the covenant. This lack of loyalty—to be understood primarily in terms of “idolatry”, as in the Golden Calf episode—characterizes an entire Age or generation (Heb. dôr) of the people. In the second half-line of verse 5, they are characterized as: “an Age crooked and (all) twisted (up)”. This crooked/twisted character of the people is in marked contrast with the “straightness” of YHWH.

In the two lines of verse 6, the contrast—between YHWH and Israel—is developed further, with a pair of questions (each beginning with the interrogative particle h¦-); the question in the first line is:

“Would you deal this (way) with YHWH, (as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?”

In Torah scrolls, the initial h¦- particle is especially large, perhaps to emphasize the enormity of the question, i.e. “Would you really treat YHWH this way?”. The contrast between one who is foolish (n¹»¹l) and wise (µ¹k¹m) is an essential element of Hebrew Wisdom literature, with ancient roots. The second question builds upon the first, and continues the contrast between YHWH and the people:

    • Character of the People:
      “Would you deal this (way) with YHWH, (as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?”
    • Character of YHWH:
      “Is He not your Father who created you? (Didn’t) He make you and cause you to be?”

If the people acts as faithless, defiant sons (v. 4), YHWH, by contrast remains a faithful/loyal Father to them. His role as Father begins with his more primary function as Creator of all things (and of humankind). Three verbs are used which mark YHWH-El as Creator God:

    • q¹nâ—a primitive root with the basic meaning “create”, sometimes confused/conflated with a similar root with the meaning “buy, purchase, acquire”. Its ancient Semitic religious use is attested in the famous formula of Gen 14:19, 22.
    • ±¹´â—a common verb indicating basic action or work, “make, do”.
    • A causative form of a primitive kn root (kûn, k¹nâ, k¹nan), with the basic meaning here of “cause to be” (see the parallel in Psalm 119:73)

This vital contrast in vv. 4-6 prepares the way for the narration in vv. 7-18, in which the contrast in played out through a colorful description of Israel’s early history. I would ask that you read through this section carefully, noting how the contrast is expressed and the various themes or motifs that are introduced within the fabric of the poem. Consider also the specific textual question in verse 8 (discussed in a previous study)—how does the overall sense and thrust of the passage differ depending on which reading is adopted? We will continue moving through this marvelous poem when we meet again here, next Saturday.