Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 102 (Part 3)

Psalm 102, continued

The first stanza of Psalm 102 (vv. 2-12), discussed in Part 1, involves the individual sickness and suffering of the Psalmist/protagonist, while the second stanza (vv. 13-23, see Part 2) focuses on the suffering of the people as a whole (and their land). The two themes come together in the concluding section (vv. 24-29), with the affliction of the Psalmist thus serving as an emblem for the people as whole. His prayer for healing and deliverance parallels the hope for Israel’s restoration and the rebuilding of Zion.

Second Stanza, continued

Verse 19 [18]

“This shall be inscribed for (the) circle (coming) after,
and a people being created shall give praise to YH(WH):”

This couplet establishes the expectation the Psalmist has, that YHWH will answer his prayer and will deliver/restore the people. I take the inscription (vb bt^K*) to refer to what follows in vv. 20-23 (cf. Dahood, III, p. 18). In other words, the deliverance which YHWH will provide is to be recorded, ahead of time, as a testimony for generations to come (“people being created”, i.e., yet to be born). The imperfect verb form bt#K*T! can be read as having jussive force, i.e., “Let this be inscribed…”. The noun roD (“circle”), understood in a temporal sense in v. 13 (and there rendered “cycle”), here refers more properly to the people living in a particular period of time (viz., a ‘generation’). The w-conjunction beginning the second line indicates the purpose/result, in relation to the first clause: “and (then)…”, i.e., “so that…”.

Verse 20 [19]

“That He looked over from (the) heights of His holy (place),
(did) YHWH,
(and) from (the) heavens to (the) earth did look (down),”

The meter of this couplet, like the first (v. 19), is 4+3; however, it is perhaps best to render this symmetrically, in a 3+1+3 format, with hwhy at the center, serving as the subject of both lines. Indeed, the entire verse is a chiasm:

    • “He looked over
      • from the heights of His holy place
        • YHWH
      • from the heavens to the earth
    • He looked on”

The first line portrays YHWH as looking out the window of His palace, leaning out over the window sill, to look down at the earth below. The second line makes clear that He is looking from heaven, and gazing down onto the earth. The first verb is [q^v*, while the second is fb^n`. On this basic imagery, cf. Psalm 14:2; 53:3[2].

The perfect verb forms should be understood here as prophetic perfects—speaking of what will be (or is expected to take place) as though it has already happened.

Verse 21 [20]

“to hear (the) groaning of (the one) bound,
(and) to open (up for the) sons of death,”

As He looks down on the earth, YHWH will hear the groaning (hq*n`a&) of the prisoner (lit, one “bound”, rys!a*), and will respond by setting them free—that is, “opening” their bonds (and/or the prison doors). The prisoners are referred to as “sons of death”, perhaps indicating specifically those who have been sentenced to death. There is doubtless an aspect of social justice that is being emphasized here, but the imagery may also be intended to describe the human condition generally, and the suffering of God’s people (the righteous) specifically.

The meter of this couplet has switched to 3+3.

Verse 22 [21]

“to recount in ‚iyyôn (the) name of YHWH,
and (the) praise of Him in Yerushalaim,”

Those who are released from their bonds (and saved from death) will give worship and praise to YHWH in Jerusalem. This applies not only to the people of Israel/Judah, but to all humankind (see v. 23; cf. Isa 42:6-7). The scenario implies the restoration of Judah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Indeed, given the context and contours of the stanza, this restoration is part of the comprehensive deliverance described in v. 21. On the significance of the name of YHWH, particularly in relation to Jerusalem and the Temple, see the discussion on v. 16 in Part 2.

Verse 23 [22]

“with (the) peoples being gathered as one,
and (the) kingdoms (set) to serve YHWH.”

As noted above, it is not only the people of Israel/Judah who are among those delivered/saved, who worship YHWH in the restored Zion. Members of all the nations (“peoples” and “kingdoms”) will come to Jerusalem to worship YHWH. This is a frequent theme in the exilic and post-exilic Prophets, one which appears to have arisen in the late monarchic (pre-exilic) period—cf. Micah 4:1-5 [Isa 2:2-4]; Isa 49:6, 22ff; 56:6-8; 60:3ff; 66:12ff, 18; Zech 2:11-12; 8:22-23; 14:16ff. The theme was discussed in the recent studies on Pss 93-100; as in those Psalms, the expectation here is that all the nations will acknowledge YHWH, worshiping Him as their God, and serving Him as their King. They will join with the people of Israel in this regard, becoming one with them.

As a textual note, some of the Greek MSS and versions read “kings” (basilei/$), rather than “kingdoms” (basilei/a$), and Dahood (III, p. 19f) would explain the Hebrew plural tokl*m=m^ (“kingdoms”) in the same way (as here denoting “kings”); though this would not have much affect on the overall meaning.

Conclusion: Verses 24-29 [23-28]

Verse 24 [23]

“He bent down my strength in (its) stride,
(and) a shortening of my days He announced.”

Suddenly, the Psalmist returns to the theme of the first stanza—viz., the individual suffering and affliction experienced by the protagonist. While this, as noted above, is emblematic of the people’s suffering (in exile), it is in stark contrast to the hope for deliverance and restoration expressed in the second stanza (see above).

It seems preferable to vocalize rxq as a noun (rx#q), “shortness, shortening”) rather than a verb form (rX^q!, “he cut short”) as in the MT. Then, by moving rma from the beginning of v. 25 to the end of v. 24, and vocalizing as a third person form (“he said”, rather than “I said”), a full and well-balanced couplet is achieved; cf. Allen, p. 16. The verb rm^a* (“say, show [forth]”) here is used in the sense of “announce” —viz., YHWH seems to have announced a shortening of the protagonist’s life, as a result of his sickness. The illness has already “bent down” (vb hn`u* II/III) the Psalmist’s once-vigorous strength (“my strength,” MT qere yjk) in ‘mid-stride’ (lit. “in the step [of it]”), and now it threatens to end his life as well.

For a very different parsing and explanation of vv. 24-25, see Dahood, III, pp. 20-21.

Verse 25 [24]

“My Mighty (One)—
do not take me up in the half of my days,
in (the) cycle and cycles of your years!”

The meter of verse 25 (with the initial word repositioned, see above) is 4+3; however, I prefer to treat the first word (the Psalmist’s invocation to YHWH) as an introductory single-beat line, followed by a 3+3 couplet. The shortness of the Psalmist’s life is contrasted with the incredible length of YHWH’s existence. As indicated in v. 24, the protagonist feels his life coming to an end abruptly, at a time when he should still be strong; here this is expressed in terms of being half-way through his expected life-time. By contrast, YHWH’s existence last for cycles and cycles, i.e., ages and ages, utilizing the noun roD again in temporal sense (as in v. 13). As a traditional idiom, applied to God, this sense of duration means something like “forever”.

The idea of the Psalmist’s death is expressed by the verb hl*u* (“go up”) in the Hiphil (causative) stem, i.e., “take up”, in the sense of God taking away his life.

Verse 26 [25]

“At (the) front, the earth you did found,
and the work of your hands, the heavens—”

The initial prepositional expression <yn]p*l= can be a bit tricky to translate. The basic meaning is “at/to the front”, but, in context, it could also be rendered “before (all thing)s”; in any case, the sense is temporal, i.e., in/at the beginning, referring to the creation of the universe by YHWH. The motif of founding the earth, i.e., laying it as a foundation (or laying down its foundation, using the verb ds^y`, is traditional (Job 38:4; Psalm 24:2; 78:69, etc). Also traditional is the expression “the work of your hands”, especially in reference to the heavens (e.g., Psalm 19:1).

The thought in this verse builds upon the prior line, emphasizing the vast extent of YHWH’s existence, encompassing and surpassing that of all the cosmos.

Verses 27-28 [26-27]

they shall pass away, while you shall stand!
Indeed, all of them, like the garment, wear out;
like the clothing, you remove them and they move (on).
Yes, you (are) He—and your years do not end!”

These couplets continue the thought from verse 26, but it is difficult to express the syntactical relationship of the lines in English. Yet the idea expressed and the imagery are quite clear. In contrast to all created things, which wear out and pass away, YHWH remains forever. Two different verbs are employed to express this sense of passing away: (a) db^a*, and (b) [l^j*. The first verb can mean “wander off”, connoting the idea of becoming lost; the second typically carries the meaning of replacement—of something giving way and being replaced by another. For this reason, [l^j* is particularly appropriate for the idea of changing clothes, which is the idiom being used here. The verb occurs twice in the third line (of vv. 27-28), once in the Hiphil (causative) stem, with YHWH as the subject, and once in the ordinary Qal stem, with the heavens and earth as the (plural) subject. For lack of any better option, I have translated this sequence in English as “You remove them and they move (on)”.

The first phrase of v. 28 contains very terse syntax, aWh aT*a^w+ (“and you he”), which needs to be filled out in translation. I would explain the initial w-conjunction as emphatic (i.e., “indeed…”, or “yes…”), while the sequence of pronouns represents an essential predication: “You (are) He”, that is, YHWH is identified as the Creator, as the very One who is thus able to remove/replace created things when they ‘wear out’. This declaration also confirms the idea that YHWH’s existence lasts forever, far transcending the creation itself.

Verse 29 [28]

“(So the) sons of your servants shall dwell (secure),
and their seed before your face shall be set firm.”

Here in the final couplet, the Psalmist brings together, definitively, the two main themes of the Psalm: (i) the healing/deliverance of the protagonist, and (ii) the restoration of the people (rebuilding of Zion). The first theme, from the first stanza (and here in vv. 24-28), is joined with the second theme, from the second stanza. Like the people as a whole, the protagonist hopes that he will be made firm (i.e., in health) and will dwell secure in God’s presence (enjoying His favor). This motif of dwelling (vb /k^v*), of course, also relates specifically to the hope of Israel/Judah’s restoration to the land (and the rebuilding of Jerusalem). As YHWH Himself stands firm for eternity, so also God’s people will remain firmly in place, dwelling secure in the restored kingdom.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 102 (Part 2)

Psalm 102, continued

There are two main stanzas to Psalm 102: the first (vv. 2-12), discussed in Part 1, involves the individual sickness and suffering of the Psalmist/protagonist, while the second (vv. 13-23) focuses on the suffering of the people as a whole (and their land). The affliction of the Psalmist thus serves as an emblem for the people as whole, presumably in the exilic (or early post-exilic) period. In the first portion of the second stanza, vv. 13-18, the protagonist expresses his trust in YHWH, lauding His greatness and His Kingship, anticipating, as he does, the restoration of the Israelite/Judean kingdom (centered at Jerusalem). Just as the Psalmist’s suffering parallels that of the people as a whole, so his hope for healing and deliverance parallels the expectation for the restoration of Zion.

Second Stanza: Verses 13-23 [12-22]

Verse 13 [12]

“But you, YHWH, for (the) distant (future) sit (as King),
and mention of you (lasts) for cycle and cycle!”

This initial (4+3) couplet, praising YHWH as King, is nearly identical with Lamentations 5:19, the notable difference being “your memorial” (;r=k=z]) instead of “your throne” (;a&s=K!). It is possible that Lamentations here quotes the Psalm, making the natural substitution of “throne” for “memorial”. The noun rk#z@, from the root rkz I (“mention, have in mind, call to mind”), here relates to YHWH’s renown and glory as King, which makes Him worthy to be spoken of (and invoked) for all generations to come. The pairing of the temporal expressions, <l*oul= (“for/[in]to the distant [future]”) and rd)w` rd)l= (“for cycle and cycle”), is traditional and occurs frequently in the Psalms. The noun roD (rD)) means “circle”, indicating, in this context, a cycle of time (“age”), or the circle of people (“generation”) living during a particular cycle. YHWH’s reign as King lasts “into the far distant future” —i.e., forever.

Verse 14 [13]

“You (surely) will stand up (and) have mercy (on) Ṣiyyôn—
for (the) time to show her favor,
indeed has come, (the) appointed time!”

The pronoun hT*a^ (“you”) at the beginning of this verse matches that of v. 13; here, in particular, its occurrence is emphatic. The Psalmist urges YHWH to act, expressing confidence that God, in His ruling power (as King, v. 13), will surely now (or soon) take action. The idea is that YHWH will stand up (from His throne) and exercise His royal authority, so as to deliver Zion and restore the kingdom to the people of Israel/Judah. This restorative act is referenced in terms of “showing mercy/compassion” (vb <j^r*, Piel), implying YHWH’s deep love for His people (and the city of Jerusalem). The act is particularly described as that of a sovereign who shows favor (vb /n~j*) to a subordinate.

The Psalmist is convinced that this, indeed, is the time—considered as the “appointed (time)” (du@om)—for the restoration to occur, now, after a period of suffering and desolation (i.e., exile), which parallels the individual suffering and sickness of the Psalmist/protagonist (see above, and the exegesis of the first stanza in Part 1).

Metrically, this verse is a long 4-beat (4+4) couplet; however, the poetic rhythm seems better served by parsing it as a 4+2+2 tricolon.

Verse 15 [14]

“Indeed, your servants are favorable (toward) her stones,
and (even to) her dust they would show favor.”

If YHWH’s servants are eager to show favor to Jerusalem (in her ruins), then how much more should YHWH Himself wish to show her favor! There is also a certain chain of relationship at work here: YHWH is the Sovereign who shows favor to His servants, and they, in turn, would show favor to the ruined city (i.e., its stones and dust) by rebuilding it. But the servants can only convey this favor to the city if YHWH first bestows it upon them; in so doing, YHWH is effectively showing favor Himself upon the city.

The verbs hx*r* and /n~j* (also used in v. 14) are conceptually related in this regard. The first verb (hx*r*) indicates that a person has a favorable attitude or disposition toward someone (or something), while the second (/n~j*) denotes showing favor or bestowing a favor.

Even today, in an entirely different time period and generation, devout Israelites and Jews show favor to the ruins of Jerusalem, e.g., by spending time in prayer and meditation before the Western (‘Wailing’) Wall.

Metrically, this verse returns to the 3-beat (3+3) couplet format that tends to dominate the two main stanzas.

Verse 16 [15]

“And (even) the nations will fear (the) name of YHWH,
and all (the) kings of the earth your weight.”

The devotion that God’s people show to YHWH, acknowledging Him as King (v. 13), will eventually be shared by all the nations. This expectation, of the nations joining Israel in recognizing YHWH as their Sovereign and God, was an important theme of the Kingship Psalms 93-100. It is a key component of the eschatological prophecies of the exilic and post-exilic period, but a rudimentary form of the theme seems to have developed already by the late kingdom-period.

In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person, in a magical sort of way. This is all the more true in the religious sphere, with regard to God. A deity is understood to be present (and manifest) through his/her name; and Israel shared this basic belief with regard to YHWH. The people were able to have contact with YHWH, in a symbolic and ritual manner, through His name. This was realized in a number of different ways and context, but, most notably, through the idea that YHWH’s name was present in the Temple sanctuary. The presence of God’s name applied to (was “called over/upon”) the entire building complex; the entire structure belonged to YHWH, and His name fully pervaded its precincts. This is a key theme in the Deuteronomic Writings; see, in particular, the Prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8 par), and my recent notes on this passage. On the significance of names and naming in ancient Near Eastern thought, cf. the Introduction to the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

YHWH is also manifest through His dobK* (“weight”)—viz., His attributes, etc, all that makes Him ‘weighty’ and worthy of honor and praise, etc. This dobK* came to conceptualized visually, drawing upon storm-theophany and various kinds of light-imagery; it was envisioned as a brilliant splendor that covered and surrounded YHWH. In 1 Kings 8 (see above), the dobK* of YHWH, manifest in the Temple, is described briefly (using traditional imagery) in vv. 10-11f; in the remainder of the passage, the emphasis is on the name of YHWH.

The meter of v. 16 is 4+3, as in the first couplet (v. 13).

Verse 17 [16]

“Indeed, (when) YHWH has built Ṣiyyôn,
(and) is seen (there) in (all) His weight,”

The precise syntactical relationship of vv. 16-18 may be debated. It is possible to read verse 17 as a continuation of v. 16:

“Even the nations will fear (the) name of YHWH,
and all (the) kings of the earth your weight,
when YHWH has built Ṣiyyôn (again),
(and) is seen (there) in (all) His weight”

That is to say, it is the restoration of Israel (including the rebuilding of Jerusalem) which will lead to the nations revering YHWH (as their God). Indeed, the coming of the nations to Jerusalem is a key theme in a number of Prophetic passages (e.g., Micah 4:1-5, par Isa 2:1-4), and is particularly prominent in connection with the eschatological theme of Israel’s restoration.

This approach is altogether valid. And yet, at the same time, one can also read verse 18 as a continuation of v. 17 (see below). I am more inclined to emphasize the relationship between vv. 17 and 18, indicated by the alliterative wordplay between the verbs hn*B* (b¹nâ, “build”) and hn*P* (p¹nâ, “turn, face”); on this point, cf. Dahood, III, p. 17f.

In any case, this verse clearly expresses the expectation for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. By all accounts, such a rebuilding has not yet occurred, but is viewed as a real possibility (in the near future). This would be accord with an exilic (or early post-exilic) date for the Psalm.

The meter of verse 17 is 3+2, followed by 3+3 in v. 18.

Verse 18 [17]

“(then) He will have turned to (the) prayer of the naked,
and (indeed) will not have disregarded their prayer.”

The implication of the Psalmist’s wording here is that the rebuilding of Jerusalem will be proof that YHWH has heard and answered (“turned to”) his prayer—and, collectively, the prayer of all other faithful and devout ones, who currently suffer (like the Psalmist) in the face of the kingdom’s ruin. The Psalmist’s purpose, again, is to urge YHWH to take action, beginning the chain of events that will lead to Israel’s restoration and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

The righteous ones, who are currently suffering, are designated here, collectively, as “the naked” (ru*r=u^h*). An implicit allusion to the suffering of the protagonist (in stanza 1) is probably intended. If so, then it anticipates the concluding section of the Psalm (vv. 24-29), in which the protagonist’s suffering (and his deliverance from suffering) is paired with that of the people as a whole. The conclusion, along with the remainder of the second stanza (vv. 19-23) will be examined in Part 3.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 102 (Part 1)

Psalm 102

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (vv. 1-2, 18-29 [1, 17-28]); 4QPsb (vv. 5, 10-29 [4, 9-28])

This Psalm is an extended lament, in the manner of others that we have studied thus far. Verses 2-12 represent the lament proper, in which the Psalmist-protagonist prays to YHWH for deliverance from his suffering. By describing his affliction in rather colorful and graphic language, it is hoped that YHWH will be moved to act on his behalf. The language suggests that the protagonist is suffering from a physical illness or sickness, serious enough to raise the possibility that it could lead to death. Many Psalms of lament seem to be characterized by a similar dramatic setting.

However, the motifs of illness and suffering can be applied to other poetic-narrative contexts as well, as we see here in the second stanza (vv. 13-23), where the protagonist’s suffering mirrors that of the people (and land) as a whole. Just as the Psalmist endures affliction stemming from the anger of YHWH, so the Israelite/Judean people have suffered under God’s Judgment. The reference to the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Zion) indicates an exilic (or post-exilic) date for this Psalm. The stanza conveys a sense of hope that restoration is possible, and may soon occur. In the first portion, the Psalmist expresses his trust in YHWH, framed within a hymn of praise, emphasizing at several points, the Kingship of YHWH—a theme that dominated the collection of Pss 93-100 (recently discussed). By emphasizing YHWH’s Kingship, there is an implicit expression of hope and expectation that the Israelite/Judean kingdom, centered at Jerusalem, will be restored.

These two thematic aspects—the individual deliverance of the protagonist, and the restoration of the people—are blended together in the final section (vv. 24-29). In the midst of this expression of hope for the people’s restoration, the Psalmist’s own petition for healing/deliverance is couched.

The Psalm was presumably composed during the exilic (or early post-exilic) period, though the lament-portion (vv. 2-12 + 24-25 [?]) could represent an adaptation of an earlier, existing psalm. However, it is equally possible that the lament was composed following the pattern of other examples in the genre.

The meter of Psalm 102 is irregular, though a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to dominate. The heading simply designates the Psalm as a prayer/petition (hL*p!T=) of an oppressed (yn]u*) person, perhaps with the understanding that it could be recited by people on occasions of suffering and affliction. The adjective yn]u* (“pressed down, oppressed”) occurs frequently in the Psalms, and can function as a descriptive attribute of the righteous. The full heading is translated: “A prayer (belonging) to (one who is) oppressed, when he is languishing [or ‘perishing’, vb [f^u* II], and pours out (his) speech [j^yc!] before (the) face of YHWH”.

This relatively lengthy Psalms is preserved nearly complete between the two Qumran manuscripts 11QPsa and 4QPsb. There are a number of minor variant readings, compared with the MT, mainly in the latter manuscript (4QPsb).

First Stanza: Verses 2-12 [1-11]

Verse 2 [1]

“O YHWH, may you hear my prayer,
and my cry for help, may it come to you!”

In this initial couplet (3+3) of the lament, the Psalmist invokes YHWH, making his plea before him. As in the heading, the noun hL*p!T= (“prayer, petition, supplication”), the common term for the lamenting person’s plea to YHWH, is used. It is paired with the rarer noun hu*w+v^, which also occurs on a number of occasions in the Psalms (18:7[6]; 34:16[15]; 39:13[12]; 40:2[1]; 145:19), denoting a cry (for help).

Verse 3 [2]

“Do not hide your face from me
on (the) day of distress for me!
Stretch (out) to me your ear
on (the) day I call!
Hurry (and) answer me!”

What normally, according to the metrical pattern, would be a pair of 3+3 couplets, has here been expanded (for dramatic effect) into a 3+3 couplet followed by a 3+2 couplet and an additional (climactic) 2-beat line.

The couplets are in parallel, the essence of which is summarized in the final line—the Psalmist is calling on YHWH, with a sense of urgency (vb rh^m*, “hurry, hasten”), to answer his prayer. This is expressed by two regular, traditional idioms: (i) “do not hide [vb rt^s*] your face”, and (ii) “stretch out your ear”. The first idiom emphasizes that YHWH should not turn away from his plea, and the second, correspondingly, that He should turn (His ear) toward the plea (i.e., hear and answer it). The urgency of the prayer is indicated by the parallel second lines, establishing that the prayer is being made in a time (“day”) of distress (rx^), and that it is at this time, out of his distress, that the Psalmist “calls” to YHWH.

Verse 4 [3]

“For my days come to an end in smoke,
and my limbs are roasted like a burning (oven)!”

The descriptive lament begins here in verse 4. The protagonist can feel his life (potentially) coming to an end, in the midst of his distress. The language in these verses is suggestive of an intense physical suffering, presumably as the result of an illness or sickness. In the first line, he declares that the “days” of his life are “coming to an end”. The verb hl*K* (I) has the basic meaning “complete”, sometimes being applied to the end of a person’s life; in English idiom, we might say that a person’s life  (or strength) is “spent”. More indirectly, the same verb can connote the failing of a person’s strength/health, in the midst of sickness, etc, as one’s life approaches its end.

The intensity of the protagonist’s suffering means his “days” are coming to an end with burning (i.e., pain, etc). The image of “smoke” conveys this motif of a burning fire, but also suggests the brevity and transitory nature of human life—it vanishes like smoke. Dahood (III, p. 11) suggests that the preposition B= (on /v*u*B=, “in smoke”) has comparative force, paralleling the use of K= (“like”) in the second line; and thus the phrase should be read “come to an end like smoke”, or “…(quicker) than smoke”.

The burning-motif continues in the second line, as the protagonist expresses that he feels his ‘limbs’ roasting (vb rr^j*, Niphal passive-reflexive stem) like they were in a “burning” (dq^om) oven. The noun <x#u# properly denotes the strength in one’s limbs, sometimes referring specifically to the bone(s), cf. verse 6 below.

Verse 5 [4]

“Struck like the grass, so has dried up my heart—
indeed, I wither away from (the) devouring (heat)!”

The burning-motif from v. 4 continues here, with the idea that the protagonist has been “struck” (vb hk*n`, Hophal stem) by the sun’s heat, and, like the grass, burns up and withers away. Indeed, he declares that his heart has “withered” (lit., dried up, vb vb^y`) in the heat of his suffering. The allusion to the sun striking him anticipates the idea of his illness being brought about by God (in His anger), v. 11.

The initial yK! particle in the second line is emphatic. I follow Dahood (III, p. 11f), along with several other commentators, in treating the verb form yT!j=k^v* as belonging to a root jkv (II), separate from jkv I (“forget”), and cognate with Ugaritic ¾kµ, denoting the wilting/withering of something in the face of heat. Other occurrences have been posited for Psalm 31:13[12]; 59:12[11]; 77:10[9]; 137:5b; cf. HALOT, p. 1490-1. The “devouring” (verbal noun [infinitive] from lk^a*, “eat”) refers to the burning fire (with its heat) that seems to consume the Psalmist.

With Dahood (III, p. 12), I also transfer the final word of v. 5 to the beginning of v. 6 (see below). However, if one were to follow the MT, then the verse would presumably be read as follows:

“My heart was struck like the grass, and dried up,
(so) that I forgot about eating my bread.”

Cf. Job 33:20-21.

Verse 6 [5]

“(Tongue to) my jaws, from (the) voice of my groaning,
(so also) stick my bone(s) to my skin.”

I tentatively follow Dahood (III, p. 12) in reading ymjl (at the end of v. 5) as a (dual) form of yj!l= (“jaw[s]”), and include the word as part of the first line of v. 6. This yields the proper length (3-beats) for the first line, which I takes as employing the same imagery as in Psalm 22:16[15]—the Psalmist’s tongue “sticks” (vb qb^D*) to his jaws. According to this proposal, the verb qbd does double duty in verse 6: just as the Psalmist’s tongue sticks to his jaws, so also his bones (<x#u#, translated “limb[s]” in v. 4b) stick to his skin (cf. Ps 22:15[14]). Both of these are the result of the Psalmist’s suffering—the burning heat that dries him up, and the constant groaning he makes in the midst of such affliction.

The MT, as it stands, is an irregular 2+3 couplet:

“From (the) voice of my groaning
stick (even) my bone(s) to my skin.”

Verse 7 [6]

“I may be likened to (the) owl of (the) outback,
I have become like a desert owl of (the) dry-lands.”

The birds designated by the terms ta^q* and soK cannot be identified with certainty; presumably one or more kind of desert owl is being referenced. The desert image here brings together from prior verses the motifs of burning heat and being dried up. It also captures the Psalmist’s feeling of being alone and desolate in his suffering.

Verse 8 [7]

“I stay awake, and become like a little bird,
(chirp)ing alone on (the) rooftop.”

The bird-imagery from verse 7 continues here, along with the profound feeling of being alone. In his suffering, the protagonist remains awake (the verb dq^v* properly means “watch”). The image of a bird perched on the rooftop may allude to the idea that the Psalmist is unable to lay down and sleep. The noun roPx! denotes a chirping bird, which here is probably meant to echo the idea of constant groaning/sighing (noun hj*n`a& in v. 6). The verb dd^B* in line 2 specifically expresses being “separate” (i.e., alone).

Verse 9 [8]

“All the day (long), (those) hostile to me taunt me,
(and those) deriding me are sworn against me.”

This verse introduces a common theme of the lament-Psalms—namely, how the protagonist’s suffering is compounded by the ridicule and scorn he endures from other people (esp. his adversaries). Here, it is emphasized that he faces such derision “all the day (long)”. Emphasis is also made by the parallelism in the couplet, given with chiastic variation:

    • those hostile to me
      • taunt me
      • those deriding me
    • are sworn against me

The verb [r^j* I means “treat with scorn”, with the act of taunting or mocking being highlighted. Similarly, the verb ll^h* III (Poel stem) means “deride, mock, cause (someone) to look foolish”. The hostility of the Psalmist’s adversaries (line 1) is paralleled by the idea that they are his sworn enemies, utilizing the common (but somewhat difficult to translate) verb ub^v* (Niphal stem); this is the regular verb for swearing an oath.

Verse 10 [9]

“Ashes, indeed, like bread I have eaten;
and my drink with dripping (tears) I mix.”

The image of “ashes” echoes once again the burning and dried-up motifs from earlier in the lament, though here it brings out a different aspect of the Psalmist’s suffering. He is unable to enjoy his food; in fact, so pervasive is his suffering, that he feels like he is eating the ashes (of the hearth/oven, cf. verse 4), and ends up drinking the tears (from his weeping) along with his wine, etc. The idiom of eating/drinking tears is known from Old Testament (and Canaanite) tradition, see Psalm 42:4[3]; 80:6[5], but the idea of eating ashes is more unusual (cf. Isa 44:20).

Verse 11 [10]

“From (the) face of your anger and your rage,
see (how) you lift me (up) and throw me (down)!”

Here, at last, the Psalmist associates his suffering with the angry judgment of YHWH upon him. There is no admission of sin or guilt, only a recognition that it is the anger of YHWH that has brought about his affliction, which here is described in terms of being ‘thrown up and down’. Two different terms are used to express the idea of God’s anger. The first is <u^z~ which often refers to a expression of anger through speech—such as an angry denunciation, or even a curse. The second noun is [x#q#, which captures the idea of a burning anger (or rage), rather close in sense to words such as hm*j@ and /orj* which properly denote a hot or “burning” anger.

The initial yK! particle of the second line should be treated as emphatic; here I render it as “see (how)…!”

Verse 12 [11]

“My days (are) like a shadow stretched out,
and I, like (the) grass, am (now) dried up.”

Motifs from earlier in the lament are picked up here at the close. The idea of the Psalmist’s life (his “days”) extending like a shadow echoes the idiom of his “days” coming to an end “in smoke” (v. 4). In verse 5, the Psalmist compared himself to the grass that is dried up (vb vb^y`) and withers under the heat of the sun; the same imagery is used again here. As we have seen, the motifs of burning heat and being dried-up occur variously throughout the lament.

The second stanza (vv. 13-23) will be examined in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 94 (Part 2)

Psalm 94, continued

Wisdom Couplets (verses 12-15)

The four Wisdom couplets in vv. 12-15 parallel those in vv. 8-11 (discussed in Part 1). The first set of couplets addressed the wicked (who are fools), while the second addresses the righteous (i.e., the wise).

Verse 12

“(O the) happiness of (the) strong (one) when you discipline him,
O YH(WH), and from your Instruction you teach him.”

This first couplet addressing the wise/righteous takes the form of a beatitude, utilizing the plural construct yr@v=a^ (“[the] happy [thing]s of…”) as an intensive interjection: viz., “O (the) happiness of…!”. It is typically translated “blessed is…” or “blessed be…”. The beatitude formula occurs frequently in the Psalms, most notably in Psalm 1 (see the earlier study). As I discuss in a separate note, the happiness (or blessedness) indicated in the beatitude formula refers to one who obtains the blessed afterlife (with God) in heaven. While the wicked are merely left with the emptiness of their brief life on earth (v. 11), the righteous will experience a blessed life after death.

However, the blessedness begins for the righteous even in this life, as they have the good fortune of being taught by YHWH, from the Divine Instruction (hr*oT) which He has given to His people. The righteous are willing to be taught, even when it involves sometimes painful discipline (vb rs*y`) and correction. The noun rb#G# denotes a strong/mighty person, though sometimes it is used more generally, as referring to an(y) able-bodied male. It is presumably being used here in a generic sense, though one should not ignore the etymological force of rbg; the righteous are made strong, able, and skilled (like a warrior) through the discipline and and instruction provided by YHWH.

Verse 13

“(It is) to give rest for him from (the) days of evil,
while for (the) wicked is dug a (pit of) ruin!”

The Instruction from YHWH, and the blessedness it brings, results in a place quiet and rest (vb fq^v*, Hiphil) from the “days of evil”. Again the blessed afterlife is primarily in view, but the imagery can also apply to happiness and blessedness for the righteous in this life. By contrast, the wicked have only death and the grave to look forward to. The noun tj^v^ literally means “ruin, corruption”, but is often applied more concretely to a grave or “pit” in which a person goes to ruin. There is almost certainly an intentional bit of alliterative wordplay here, between the verb fq^v* (š¹qa‰) and tj^v^ (šaµa¾).

A contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates) is found frequently in the Psalms, the theme drawing heavily in this regard upon Wisdom tradition. It is very much part of the beatitude in Psalm 1, just as it is here.

The meter of this couplet is slightly extended, 4+4. Also, I should note that it is possible (and perhaps preferable) to read verse 13 gramatically as a continuation of v. 12: “…you teach him, (in order) to give rest to him…”.

Verse 14

“For (surely) YHWH does not cast away His people,
and His inheritance does not leave behind.”

The faithfulness of YHWH, to the covenant-bond with His people, is implied here. However, in the Wisdom context of these verses, with the focus on the righteous, we should understand the reference to God’s people in this ethical-religious (rather than an ethno-religious) sense. YHWH will not abandon His people, insofar as they remain faithful to the covenant, and to His Instruction.

The initial yK! particle is emphatic. Metrically, this couplet is slightly irregular (4+3).

Verse 15

“Indeed, the ruling-seat of righteousness returns judgment,
and following after it (are) all (the) straight of heart.”

The interpretation of this closing couplet is difficult. If the word du in the first line is (as most commentators and translators take it) the preposition du^ (“until, unto”), then the line would mean something like: “indeed, unto righteousness (right) judgment returns”. That is to say, for the righteous, as a result of their righteousness, YHWH’s ruling judgment is to their benefit (and blessedness); a reference to the afterlife judgment would fit the contextual background of the beatitude-form (see above).

However, I am inclined to follow Dahood (II, p. 349, also p. 81f) in seeing du here as another (rare) example of a separate root indicating “throne, throne-room, royal pavilion” (HALOT, p. 788; cf. Ps 89:38[37] and the earlier note on this verse). The expression “throne [du] of righteousness” provides a suitable (contrastive) parallel with “throne [aS@K!] of corruption” in verse 20.

Ultimately, it is best to see this verse in parallel with the previous verse 14, referring to YHWH’s role in relation to the righteous. He takes His seat of rule as Sovereign over humankind, and renders judgment. The righteous (“[those] straight of heart”) follow His judgment, even as they have followed His instruction (see above), and it is favorable for them, leading to their blessedness.

Prayer for Deliverance (verses 16-21)

This section corresponds to the lament in vv. 3-11 (see the discussion of these verse, and the chiastic outline for the Psalm, in the previous study [Part 1]). This pairing of lament + prayer for deliverance is typical of many Psalms. Here, it also continues the theme of contrast between the righteous and wicked. The protagonist prays specifically for YHWH to rescue him (i.e., the righteous) from the wicked.

Verse 16

“Who will stand up for me against (those) doing evil?
Who takes his stand for me against (those) making trouble?”

The motif of standing up (vb <Wq) and taking one’s stand (vb bx^y`, Hitpael) here has a dual-meaning. On the one hand, the theme of YHWH as Judge continues from verse 15—i.e., YHWH stands in judgment, on behalf of the righteous, and against the wicked. At the same time, standing against (prep. <u!) an opponent can imply a military action, and such imagery is frequently used in Psalms, in the context of the protagonist’s prayer for deliverance. The Psalmist presents the matter here as a rhetorical question: “who will stand up…?” The implication is that he has no one to stand up for him against the wicked, apart from YHWH.

The wicked are referred to by a pair of common substantive participles (the latter being a participial expression), indicating their characteristic behavior: <yu!r@m= (“[one]s doing evil”) and /w#a* yl@u&P) (“doers/makers of trouble,” “[one]s making trouble”, i.e. trouble-makers).

Verse 17

“If it were not (that) YHWH (was the) help for me,
in a little (while) would dwell my soul in silence.”

Only YHWH can provide help (hr*z+u#) for the Psalmist. If YHWH were not there to help (a condition indicated by the negative particle al@Wl), then it would not be long (fu^m=K!, “in a little [while]”) before the wicked would destroy him, sending his soul to “(the place of) silence” (hm*WD). On this expression as an idiom for death and the grave, cf. Psalm 115:17. Dahood (II, p. 347f) suggests that hm*WD here is better explained in relation to the Akkadian dimtu and Ugartic dmt, “fortress, tower”, which would mean that a different image is being employed—viz., the realm of death as a fortress in which one is imprisoned.
Some commentators explain hmd (hmdk) in Ezek 27:32 as having a similar meaning, i.e., Tyre as a mighty fortress/tower in the midst of the sea; cf. M. Greenberg, Ezekiel 21-37, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 22A (1997), p. 562f.

Verse 18

“If I were to say, ‘My foot is slipping!’
your loyal devotion, YHWH, supports me.”

The Psalmist here expresses his confidence in the help that YHWH provides, that it will come in time, and as needed. The moment he realizes that his foot is slipping (vb fom), YHWH is right there to support him (vb du^s*). This support is an expression of God’s ds#j#—a regular term meaning “goodness, kindness”, which (as I have frequently noted), in the context of the covenant, connotes faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion. It indeed carries this meaning (i.e., covenant loyalty) in most of the Psalms. Another regular theme in the Psalms is of the protection which the faithful/righteous ones can expect from YHWH, as part of His obligation to the covenant bond.

Verse 19

“Among (the) multitude of impassioned (thought)s in my heart,
your comforting (word)s give delight to my soul.”

A different sort of help given by YHWH is expressed here, in this rather more prosaic couplet. The plural noun <yP!u^r=c^ is usually explained as a byform of <yP!u!c= with an inserted (epenthetic?) letter r (cf. also Psalm 139:23). The root [uc denotes the presence of passionate thoughts/feelings (cf. Job 4:13; 20:2). In the first line, the Psalmist describes a situation where there are a multitude of passionate thoughts within him. The noun br#q# denotes something close/near; in such an anthropological context, it refers to the nearest/inmost part of a person, which here, for poetic concision, I have translated as “heart” (“in my heart”).

In the midst of such turbulent passions—thoughts and feelings—YHWH gives comfort to the Psalmist. The plural of the noun <Wmjn+T^ (from the root <jn) is used to express this. The plural form (“comforts”) could indicate comforting words, or actions; I have opted for the former, as a counterbalance to the impassioned thoughts/feelings within the Psalmist. The idea of YHWH speaking also continues the theme of instruction from vv. 12-15 (see above).

Verse 20

“Can a throne of corruption be allied with you,
(or one) fashioning trouble upon an inscribed (decree)?”

The language and imagery of this couplet is rather difficult to decipher. What seems clear is that it continues the contrast of the righteous and wicked. The righteous are aligned with the throne of YHWH (a “royal-seat of righteousness”), being obedient to His instruction and sovereign judgments (see verse 15, above). The wicked, by contrast, are aligned with a separate “throne of corruption”, which cannot be joined or allied with the throne of YHWH’s righteousness. The noun hW`h^ could be read as two different nouns: (I) connoting evil desire, or (II) meaning “destruction, disaster”. The latter is related to cognate words in Syriac and Arabic referring to the “pit” or “abyss” (of death and the nether-realm, etc); this is fitting in light of the wording used in verse 13 (see above). In keeping with this parallel with tj^v^ (in v. 13), I have translated hW`h^ here as “corruption”.

The second line is more difficult to explain. I have retained the MT without emendation or re-vocalizing (cp. Dahood, II, p. 350). Parallelism with the first line suggests the figure of a ruler (on the “throne of corruption”) who inscribes wicked decrees (“upon an inscribed [decree]”). By these evil decrees, the wicked human leaders of this world are fashioning (vb rx^y`) trouble (lm*u*); compare the wording in verse 16 (see above).

Verse 21

“They band together against (the) soul of (the) righteous,
and (the) blood of (one) clear (of guilt) they treat wickedly.”

Though these wicked leaders cannot be aligned with YHWH and His righteousness, there are able to join together, with each other; and, in their wickedness, they end up attacking the righteous. The verb dd^G` II seems to have, as its basic meaning, the idea of people moving together (the cognate Arabic jannada means “mobilize”, cf. HALOT, p. 177). The sense is of people banding together for a hostile purpose (cf. Psalm 56:7[6]; cp. 59:4[3]). The description of evil world-leaders (v. 20) gathering together against the righteous reminds one of the opening lines of Psalm 2.

The righteous person is “clear” (yq!n`) of guilt; that is, he/she has done nothing worthy of being condemned and attacked. The righteous are innocent in this regard, and their “blood” (i.e., their lives) are sacrosanct, and should be protected. The wicked, however, treat the innocent blood of the righteous in a wicked fashion, implying violent action. It is this hostile intent which prompts the Psalmist’s prayer to YHWH, asking for His protection and deliverance.

Conclusion (verses 22-23)

Verse 22

“And (so) may YHWH be for me as my place up high,
even my Mighty (One) as (the) Rock of my refuge!”

The conclusion of the Psalm corresponds with the invocation (in vv. 1-2), where the Psalmist calls on YHWH to stand and render judgment, punishing the the wicked for their evil deeds. The same basic idea prevails here in the concluding lines, but adapted to reflect the themes of the previous sections—most notably the language and imagery in vv. 16-21. The Psalmist expects an answer to his prayer for deliverance, that he will be protected and rescued (by YHWH) from the wicked adversaries who threaten him.

The initial w-consecutive verb form could be rendered as past tense, suggesting that YHWH has already acted on the Psalmist’s behalf. This is a valid way of reading the text; however, I believe it is better to treat this verb as a precative (comparable to a precative perfect form), expressing the Psalmist’s wish (and expectation) in terms of something that has already happened.

The locative nouns bG`c=m! and hs#j&m^ both allude to the protection that YHWH provides for the righteous. The first term denotes a “place set up high”, protected and difficult to access; the second means “protected place” or “place of refuge”. Both terms occur with some frequency in the Psalms, part of the broader theme of Divine protection as a reflection of YHWH’s loyalty to the covenant. This protected place “up high” fits nicely with the motif of YHWH as a “Rock” (rWx); the same image also serves to represent the faithfulness of God.

Verse 23

“And may He return upon them their trouble,
and in their evil may He destroy them,
may He destroy them, YHWH our Mighty (One)!”

The Psalm ends with an imprecation, calling upon YHWH to bring judgment upon the wicked, just as the Psalmist does in the opening invocation (v. 2). This judgment reflects true justice, according to the principle of lex talionis. The Psalmist asks YHWH to “return” upon the wicked the trouble that they have caused (“their trouble”, cf. verses 16 and 20). The idea is that their own actions will come back upon them, being punished for their evil deeds in like measure, and in like manner.

Beyond this, the Psalmist calls on God to “destroy” (vb tm^x*) the wicked, even as they are engaged in their evil conduct (“in their evil”). This double-call for YHWH to destroy the wicked may seem quite harsh and disconcerting to modern readers (esp. Christian readers), but it is altogether typical of ancient imprecatory language and conventions, of which there are many examples in the Psalms (and throughout the Old Testament). The Psalmist expects, and hopes, that judgment will finally come for the wicked. Though they may have prospered during this life (vv. 3-7), God’s justice and judgment ultimately cannot be flaunted or escaped; the wicked will pay the price for their evil conduct, especially for the oppression and violence inflicted upon the righteous—including all manner of injustice against the innocent, poor, and vulnerable members of society.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 90 (Part 2)

Psalm 90, continued

Prayer: Verses 11-16

Verse 11

“Who knows (the) might of your (burning) anger,
and <who> sees (the) center of your boiling (rage)?

The second part of the Psalm (vv. 11-16) constitutes a prayer, following the lament in the first part (vv. 3-10, discussed in the previous study). The Wisdom orientation of the lament continues in this initial unit (vv. 11-12), which can be viewed as transitional to the prayer proper (in vv. 13-16).

The MT of this verse is problematic. The meter is irregular (3+2), and the first word of the second line creates an awkward reading and syntax— “and according to your fear your boiling (rage)”. A parallelism of the lines would indicate that “and according to your fear” (;t=a*r=y]k=W) should match “who (is the one) knowing (the) might of…?” (zu) u^d@oy ym!) in the first line. It has been suggested (cf. Kraus, p. 214, following Gunkel; HALOT, p. 1730) that the MT should be emended slightly—from itaryk to itarym—and redivided and vocalized as Et) ha#r) ym!. This emendation finds support in the LXX, which translates beginning with a)po (“from…”), assuming a preposition /m! (prefixed –m).

While the LXX translator may have understood a prefixed preposition (-m), it is more likely that an interrogative particle (ym!) was present in the original, being repeated from the first line to create a double rhetorical question. The parallelism would then be formal:

    • Who (is) | knowing | (the) might of | your anger?
    • Who (is) | seeing | (the) center of | your rage?

The verb ha*r* (“see”) in this case would have the sense of “perceive, recognize, understand”, bringing out the parallel with ud^y` (“know”). The word ET) (defective for EoT) is understood as the substantive (meaning “midst, middle, inside”) derived from the root Ew#T*; for concision, I translate it above as “center,” though “heart” would make a better poetic rendering. As a parallel with zu), (“strength, might, power”), the sense is probably something like “substance, essence, force”. The noun hr*b=u# denotes something “crossing over”; when used of the anger of YHWH (as earlier in v. 9), the sense is of an ‘overflowing’ rage that bursts forth (or, in the idiom I am using here, “boils over”).

Verse 12

“(How) to number our days, so may you help us know,
that we might bring (in) a heart of wisdom.”

The implication of the double question in v. 11 is that no human being is able to understand fully the reasons for God’s anger—and, in particular, why it should last as long as it does. The length of YHWH’s anger is tied to the related theme of the shortness of human life; this was a key Wisdom-theme in the lament (cf. the exegesis in Part 1), and it continues here. The wise person knows how to “number” (vb hn`m*) his/her days; the point is not simply to know the length of one’s life, but to make the most of it. This is achieved through YHWH’s instruction (vb ud^y` Hiphil, “make know, bring knowledge”); the person who knows (v. 11) receives the teaching provided by God.

The corresponding Hiphil of the verb aoB in line 2, “make come” (i.e., “bring”), should be understood in the sense of “bring in”, with the contextual connotation of acquiring something and bringing it into one’s possession. In this instance, the possession to be desired is a “heart of wisdom” (i.e., a wise heart).

Verse 13

“Turn back, O YHWH—until when?—
and ease (your anger) over your servants!”

As noted above, the prayer properly begins here in verse 13. The Psalmist pleads for YHWH to “turn back” from His anger (v. 11, and in vv. 7-9). The verb bWv (“turn back”) can also be understood here in the sense of YHWH returning to His people, so as to give them blessing and protection once again. However, the idea of God refraining from His punishing anger would seem to be the dominant aspect of meaning. The verb <j^n` in the second line can be difficult to translate; when used in the Niphal (passive-reflexive) stem, as it is here, it typically refers to a person finding relief, with the easing of strong emotions (such as anger or grief). Here, the verb, as applied to YHWH, clearly refers to an easing of His anger, to the point where it eventually subsides.

The expression “your servants”, as it is used here in the Psalms (and elsewhere in Scripture), specifically designates the faithful ones among God’s people. Even though they have been loyal to YHWH (and to the covenant), they still have endured, along with the rest of the people, the punishing anger of God. The Psalmist typically identifies himself with these faithful/loyal ones.

The temporal expression yt*m*-du^, “until when…?” (i.e., “how long…?”), echoes the tone of lament from Part 1 (vv. 3-10). It occurs with some frequency in the Psalms, and can be used in the context of both a personal and national lament—cf. 6:4 [3]; 74:10; 80:5 [4]; 94:3; for the comparable expressions hm*-du^ and hn`a*-du^, cf. 13:1; 74:9; 79:5; 89:47[46]; note also 35:17.

Verse 14

“May you fill us in the break (of day) (with) your goodness,
that we may sing out and be glad in all our days!”

The Psalmist here draws upon the language from the lament, utilizing the day-motif (also in v. 12, cf. above)—both in the temporal sense of the passing of a day (and the “days” of a person’s life), and in the symbolic sense of the daylight that marks the end of the darkness of night. On the interplay of these two aspects of meaning, cf. the notes on vv. 4-9 in Part 1. The noun rq#B) specifically denotes the “break (of day), daybreak”, and was used in vv. 4-5. Here, it represents the moment when the ‘night-time’ of YHWH’s anger against His people comes to an end, the darkness being dispelled by rays of light—symbolizing the blessing and favor that God once again shows to His people.

This idea of blessing/favor is expressed two ways in the first line: (a) by the verb ub^c* which generally means “be filled (up)”, to the point of abundance, overflowing, etc; and (b) by the familiar noun ds#j#, meaning “goodness, kindness”, though often in the covenantal sense of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. With regard to ds#j#, here the idea of YHWH’s loyalty to the covenant is certainly present, however it is the primary aspect of goodness (i.e., blessing and favor) that is being emphasized.

The blessing that comes at daybreak will allow the righteous to rejoice (singing/ringing out, vb /n~r*) and to be glad (vb jm^c*) all of their days.

Verse 15

“Let us be glad, according to (the number of) days you pressed us,
(according to the) years (that) we have seen evil.”

The Psalmist asks that he (and the other faithful ones of his people) be allowed to experience gladness (vb jm^c*, repeated from v. 14) for a length of time commensurate with their experience of suffering. This suffering occurred when the people were “pressed down” (vb hn`u*) by YHWH, afflicted by His punishing anger. The period of this punishment seems to have been quite long, indicated by the mention here of “years”, as well as the temporal expression yt*m*-du^ (“until when…?”) in verse 13. This suggests that the Exile is in view, with a corresponding exilic (or post-exilic) dating for the Psalm; however, the reference here is brief and general enough that other periods in Israel’s history could also provide the relevant background.

The feminine plural form tomy+ (“days”), rather than the masculine <ym!y`, is a bit odd, and may simply be used for poetic assonance with the following tonv= (“years”). The same pair of word-forms occurs in Deut 32:7, and it is likely that there is an intentional allusion to that verse here; cf. Dahood, II, p. 326.

Verse 16

“Let your act be visible to your servants,
and your (very) splendor upon their sons!”

The Psalmist’s short prayer (vv. 13-16) concludes with this request a manifestation of YHWH’s presence among His people. The implication is that God, in His anger, has turned away from His people; but now, according the Psalmist’s petition (v. 13), it is hoped that He will return. The Niphal (passive) of the verb ha*r* (“see”) means “be seen”, i.e., be visible, be manifest/apparent. YHWH’s action (lu^P)), that which He does (and will do) on behalf of His people, will be seen. This probably is an allusion to the historical traditions of the mighty deeds performed by YHWH in the past, which, in their miraculous nature, would be looked upon with wonder by all people.

In manifesting Himself, His very splendor (rd*j*) will be revealed to future generations, even as it was to those in the past. There may be a veiled reference here to Moses’ request to see YHWH’s glory (Exod 33:18), though the noun rd*h* (relatively common in the Psalms) is used instead of dobK*. More broadly, the various theophanies of the Moses/Exodus traditions (e.g., Exod 19-20, 24, 33-34f, 40) are likely in view, being alluded to by the Psalmist in his prayer.

Benediction: VERSE 17

“And let (the) favor of our Lord (the) Mightiest be upon us,
and may He make firm (the) work of our hands for us,
and (also) make firm for Him (the) work of our hands!”

The Psalm concludes with this benediction, an irregular tricolon that is rather awkward in both rhythm and phrasing. It may have been added subsequently by an editor; the repeated use of the verb (/WK, “make firm”) reminds one of the “firmness” theme that runs throughout the prior Psalm 89.

I have translated the noun <u^n) in the first line as “favor”. This noun has a relatively wide semantic range (“loveliness, pleasantness, beauty, kindness”), but it is best understood here in connection with the idea of blessing and favor from YHWH returning to His people. In this context, <u^n) would carry the primary sense of “kindness”, being close in meaning to ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”), used in v. 14. The favor shown by YHWH reflects His loyal devotion to the covenant; He will show favor to those who are faithful to Him.

The final two lines of this tricolon each express the same basic wish—viz., that YHWH would “make firm” (vb /WK, Polel) the “work” of His people’s hands. However, this is stated oddly, with slight variation in each of the two lines. In the first line, the prepositional expression Wnyl@u* (“upon us”) is added. Since this same word occurs at the end of the first line, it is possible that it was repeated here by scribal error, and should perhaps, then, be omitted. Eliminating it has the advantage of producing a clean 3-beat (3+3) meter for the two lines. If Wnyl@u* is original, then it would seem to be specifying that the “making firm” of the people’s work is for their benefit; in this case, the prepositional expression (“upon us”, “over us”) could be rendered, more simply, “for us”.

In the final line, the MT apparently includes, for the imperative, a third person singular suffix (Wh-). One is inclined to alter this to match the suffix on the verb in the prior line (paragogic h-). If this were done, along with eliminating the prepositional expression at the end of line 2 (in the MT), then the two closing lines would be identical, each reading:

hn`n+oK Wnyd@y` hc@u&m^W
“and (the) work of our hands may you make firm”

If the MT is correct, then the third person suffix on the verb in the final line may be intended as a datival suffix (a dative of advantage), as Dahood (II, p. 327) suggests. It would then serve a purpose comparable to the prepositional expression in the prior line. That is to say, it expresses who the action (i.e., the making firm) benefits; in line 2, the action is done for the people (“over us,” i.e., for us), while in line 3 it is done for God’s own sake (his honor, etc).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 90 (Part 1)

Psalm 90

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This vigorous and highly creative Psalm contains a lament, but also a prayer to YHWH for deliverance (indeed, it is designated a hL*p!T=). On this basis, it may be divided into two main parts—the lament (vv. 3-10), and the prayer (vv. 11-16). The lament is preceded by a hymnic invocation to YHWH (vv. 1-2), and the prayer is concluded by a benediction (v. 17).

The lament draws heavily upon Wisdom tradition, dealing particularly with theme of the shortness of human life, a theme that continues into the beginning (vv. 11-12) of the prayer section. In this regard, Psalm 90 resembles the lament portion of the prior Psalm 89 (vv. 39-52), with its strong Wisdom-emphasis in vv. 47-49 (see the earlier note on these verses).

For a discussion of the possible dating of this Psalm, and its relation to the formation of the Psalter (and the fourth book), cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 418-21. Dahood (II, p. 322), noting the parallels with Deuteronomy 32, and certain archaic aspects of the language, suggests a much older dating for this composition, possibly in the 9th century.

Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses in the superscription: “A prayer of Moshe, the man of (the) Mightiest [i.e. man of God]”. This attribution is likely due to certain allusions to the Song of Moses (Deut 32), and also the Blessing of Moses (Deut 33), found in the Psalm. These will be noted at relevant points in the exegesis. The Psalm is called a hL*p!T=, that is a prayer—emphasizing its aspect as plea or supplication made to YHWH. This properly characterizes verses 13-16, but can apply to the entire composition. The same term designates Pss 17, 86, and 102.

The meter of this Psalm is irregular, but it tends (more often than not) to follow a 3+3 couplet format.

Invocation: Verses 1b-2

Verse 1b

“My Lord, a source of help
you have been for us,
(even) from cycle to cycle!”

The meter of this initial verse is problematic, parsed as an irregular 2+3+2 tricolon. One might be inclined to eliminate the pronoun hT*a^ (“you”) in the second line, and thus obtain a cleaner 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. In any case, the verse functions as an invocation to YHWH (“my Lord”, yn`d)a&) by the Psalmist. YHWH is declared to have been a /oum*, a locative noun which most translators and commentators derive from /Wu, “cover”, i.e., a place of cover, where one dwells protected. This would certainly fit the traditional motif of YHWH as a “place of refuge” (hs#j&m^), occurring frequently in the Psalms. However, the thematic emphasis seems to favor deriving /oum* from a separate root /wu denoting “(give) help”, cognate with Arabic ±wn; /oum* would then mean “source of help” (or, generally, “help, assistance”), and would correspond to Arabic ma±¥nat. Cf. HALOT, pp. 610, 799; Dahood, II, p. 322.

YHWH has been a source of help for His people “in cycle and cycle”, better expressed in English as “from cycle to cycle”. The noun roD has the basic meaning “circle”, usually in the temporal sense of a cycle of time, but sometimes also in specific reference to the people living turning a particular period (i.e., a “generation”). In English idiom, we would say, “from age to age”, or “from generation to generation”. The reference is primarily to the periods/generations of Israel’s history.

Overall, the language of this verse seems to echo Deut 33:27; cf. also (possibly) 32:7a, with the use of the expression rodw` roD.

Verse 2

“Before (the) mountains were given birth,
and you writhed (bearing) earth and land,
even from distant (past) unto distant (future),
you (are the) Mighty (One)!”

This second part of the invocation has a hymnic quality. The focus has shifted from Israel’s history to the entire cosmos, and YHWH’s role as Creator of the universe. In the first couplet, God’s act of creation is described in female terms—viz., of giving birth. The passive form of dl^y` (“give birth”) is used in the first line, while a Polal (MT Polel) form of the verb lWj (lyj!) is used in the second line, in the familiar sense of  (a woman) “writhing” (in labor). It is somewhat unusual to apply such imagery to YHWH, but the same pair of verbs occurs in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:18), a verse that is almost certainly being echoed here (cf. above).

At first, it is the “mountains” that are mentioned, as a dramatic point of reference for YHWH’s act of creation—i.e., before even the mighty and enduring mountains were produced. In the second line, the pair of terms Jr#a# and lb@T@ are used, widening the scope of the creation. The noun Jr#a# (“earth”) refers to the lower half of the cosmos (containing the flat earth-disc and all that is below), while lb@T refers to the productive land that is cultivated and inhabited by humans.

YHWH’s pre-existence (i.e. prior to creation) is implied in the first couplet; however, in the second couplet, His eternal existence is declared, with the temporal expression <l*ou-du^ <l*oum@, “from (the) distant (past) unto (the) distant (future)”. This expression is parallel with rd)w` rd)B= in verse 1 (cf. above). Here, we are not dealing with the cycles (or periods) of time, but of the entire scope and extent of time itself. The final line could alternately be translated “you, (the) Mighty (One), are!”, further emphasizing YHWH’s eternal existence.

Metrically, verse 2 is comprised of a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by a 2-beat (2+2) couplet.

Lament: Verses 3-10

Verse 3

“You make humanity return unto powder,
and say, ‘Return, O sons of mankind!'”

The two aspects of the invocation—YHWH’s relation to His people (v. 1b) and to all Creation (v. 2)—are here combined in the Wisdom-lament of vv. 3-10. All human beings (including Israelites) ultimately die and “return” (vb bWv) to the dust of the earth, a process that is controlled by the sovereign authority of YHWH (as Creator).

This statement introduces the familiar wisdom-theme of the brevity of human life, and of lamenting that fact. The idea of human beings ‘returning to the dust’ is, of course, ancient and traditional (Gen 3:19; Psalm 104:29), and is found in the Wisdom literature (Job 10:9; 34:15; Eccl 3:20); however, here the rare noun aK*D^ (“powder”) is used, rather than rp*u* (“dust”). Since aK*D^ denotes something that is “crushed” (i.e., pulverized), the emphasis would seem to be on YHWH’s creative act (by the spoken word, Gen 1:3ff) that reduces human beings to powder.

Verse 4

“For a thousand years, in your eyes,
like a day, yesterday, so they pass by,
even (as) a watch in the night.”

The blending of the human and cosmic aspects of creation continue here, as the brevity of human life (v. 3) is related to the brevity even of the vast life-cycles of the cosmos, when compared with YHWH’s eternal existence. As YHWH looks on (“in your eyes”), as Creator and Sovereign of the universe, a thousand years “pass by” (vb rb^u*) like they were merely a single day. The thought expressed in this verse was utilized, famously, in 2 Peter 3:8.

Verse 5

“You put a stop to them (in) sleep—
they come to be, with the break (of day),
like (the) grass (that) moves along.”

The thoughts expressed in vv. 3-4 are condensed here, with a new image in verse 5. The death of human beings is framed in the context of a day that “passes by”. Death is described by the traditional idiom of “sleep” (hn`v#), which also entails wordplay with the noun “year” (hn#v*) in v. 4. The first line is ambiguous: it could mean that death comes ‘like sleep’, or that it comes during the night while a person is asleep; probably both aspects of meaning are intended. The verb <r^z` I take as deriving from a root (meaning “halt, stop”, cf. Arabic zarama, zarima) separate from <rz II (denoting “storm, thunder, pour rain”).

The end of the short human life comes like sleep (or in/with sleep), after which, at daybreak (rq#B)), the person’s life/existence simply “moves along” (vb [l^j*), i.e., “passes away”. It is compared with the grass (ryx!j*), an image that continues into the next verse.

Verse 6

“With the break (of day), it flowers and moves along,
(then) at the evening it is withered and dries up.”

The imagery from verse 5 continues here, but with a slight shift of emphasis. Instead of death coming during the night, putting an end to a person’s life, here the span of person’s life seems to identified with the brief time of morning (during the day)—i.e., it “flowers” (vb Jyx!) briefly, and then “moves along” (same verb, [l^j*, as in v. 5). By the evening, the dead (cut?) grass has withered (vb ll^m* I) and become dried up (vb vb^y`).

Verse 7

“So we are finished (off) by your anger,
and (how) your burning horrifies us!”

Death can be seen as a natural product (and result) of God’s judgment and anger. Here, the emphasis of the lament shifts from the language of Wisdom tradition (vv. 3-6) to the judgment idiom that is so common in both Scriptural narrative and poetry (including in the Psalms). The noun [a^ denotes the nostril(s), but frequently is used to express the idea of anger more abstractly, this sense presumably being derived from the colorful image of an angry, snorting bull, etc. Another frequent idiom for anger is that of something hot and burning (hm*j@). God’s anger is so powerful as to completely “finish off” (vb hl*K*) a mere human being. Humans should rightly be “horrified” (vb lh^B*, Niphal) by such a fate.

Verse 8

“You set our crooked (deed)s right in front of you,
our hidden (sin) before (the) light of your face.”

YHWH’s anger and judgment are the result of sin and “crooked (deed)s” (/ou*, plural). As Creator and Sovereign of the universe, YHWH also functions as all-seeing Judge (cf. an allusion to this motif in v. 4, “in your eyes”). The sin of all human beings is right there “in front of” (dg#n#) God, both the blatant misdeeds and other less obvious (“hidden”, <lu) sin. Even that which hidden is exposed before the light of God’s face.

Verse 9

“So have all our days turned, in your crossing (rage),
(and) we finish (up) our years like a moan.”

This tricky couplet is rife with wordplay, echoing the wording in several of the prior verses. To begin with, there is a continuation of the “day” (<oy) motif from vv. 4-6 (cf. above), but here it is further informed by the immediate reference to light in v. 8b. The “days” of a human being have turned (vb hn`P*, playing on the related <yn]P*, “face”, at the end of v. 8); this could mean “turned away” (i.e. passed [away]), or “turned dark (i.e. to night)”, the latter being somewhat more likely, given the night-motifs in vv. 4-5 and the reference to light in v. 8.

The noun hr*b=u# here is difficult to translate. Literally, it means a “crossing (or passing) over”; but often it is used in the sense of a ‘boiling over’ of anger, i.e., an outburst or ‘overflowing’ rage, especially in the context of the anger of YHWH. Here it reflects the thought expressed in verse 7 (cf. above), but there is also a wordplay-echo from the verb rb^u* in verse 4—referring to the years that “pass by” so quickly (like a single day) in God’s eyes. This obviously relates to the theme of human death (and brevity of life) that comes as the result of YHWH’s all-seeing judgment.

The phrase “we finish [vb hl*K*] our years” similarly echoes the wording from earlier verses (vv. 4f, 7). The end comes “like a moan [hg#h#]”, capturing a sense of suffering, frustration, and emptiness.

Verse 10

“(The) days of our years—
in them (are) seventy year(s),
and if in (full) strength, eighty year(s),
yet (the) pride of them (is) toil and trouble—
how quickly it is cut off, and we fly away!”

The lament closes with a more prosaic (and practical) assessment of the brevity of a human life (“[the] days of our years”). At most it will last seventy years; on rare occasions, a person in the fullness of strength (hr*WbG=, intensive plural) may live eighty years, but almost never any longer. Regardless of how many years a person lives, the “pride” (bh^r)) of them—i.e., even the prime years of a person’s life—consist largely of toil (lm*u*, i.e. wearisome labor) and trouble (/w#a*), the latter term often connoting pain, sorrow, grief, etc.

I take the initial yK! particle of the final line to be emphatic, marking an exclamatory declaration (“How…!”). The rather bitter sounding, yet poignant exclamation makes a fitting end to the lament, dominated as it is by the Wisdom-theme of the shortness of human life.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 88 (Part 2)

Psalm 88, continued

(For a discussion of Part 1 [vv. 2-10a], cf. last week’s study.)

Part 2: Verses 10b-13

Verse 10bc [9bc]

“I call to you, YHWH, with every day;
(indeed) I stretch out to you my palms!”

The heart of the Psalm is this central section, in which the protagonist makes his fervent (and urgent) plea to YHWH. As he calls out to God, the Sheol-imagery from Part 1 (cf. the discussion) presumably still holds. The Psalmist presents himself as trapped down below, in the realm of death (cp. Sirach 51:9), imagery that is mean to emphasize how near he is to death. The temporal phrase, “on/with every day” (<oy lk*B=), is meant to contrast the protagonist’s repeated pleas with YHWH’s (to this point) apparent failure/refusal to respond, in hopes of urging God finally to act.

Verse 11 [10]

“To th(ose who) are dead, can you do wonder(s);
or can (the) shades stand (and) throw you praise?”
Selah

This is the first of three question-pairs that comprise the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH in this section. The tone and content of the rhetorical questions, meant to exhort and urge God to action, reflect the influence of Wisdom tradition, and bring to mind the dialogues in Job. The idea that the dead are no longer able to worship YHWH is found elsewhere in the Psalms (e.g., 4:6; 30:10; 142:8), and is intended as a compelling argument for YHWH not to allow one of His righteous servants to perish. To this is added the parallel argument that neither can YHWH perform any wonders for His people once they are dead.

The plural noun <ya!p*r=, known both in Hebrew and Phoenician, is clearly cognate with Ugaritic rp°i. The use of the term in the Ugaritic texts suggests a specific historical-mythic tradition identifying local rulers with legendary Near Eastern kings (or god-kings) from the past. The legendary kings are now dead, functioning like deified ancestors who are able to commune and socialize with the gods. In the Old Testament, <ya!p*r= seems to be used in two different ways, related to this line of tradition: (1) as legendary rulers/peoples of Canaan from ages past, geographically focused (it seems) in the northern Transjordan region (Gen 14:5; Deut 2:20; 3:11, etc); and (2) as the “shades” of the dead generally. The latter is how the term is used here, in parallel with “the dead” (<yt!M@h^); cf. also Job 26:5; Prov 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Isa 14:9; 26:14, 19.

The reason for the Selah (hl*s#) pause marker after verse 11 is not clear.

Verse 12 [11]

“Shall your devotion be recounted in the grave,
your firmness in the (land of) perishing?”

The idea from v. 11b is repeated here: the dead are unable properly to give honor and praise to YHWH. The parallel terms ds#j# and hn*Wma$ both refer to YHWH’s faithfulness and loyalty (to the covenant). The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”, but, as I have repeatedly noted, in a covenantal context it connotes loyal devotion, which is how I translate it here. The noun hn`Wma$ literally means “firmness”, but here the sense clearly is that of “faithfulness, trustworthiness,” etc.

The noun /oDb^a& (°¦»addôn), derived from the root db^a* (“perish”), is a poetic term for death (and the realm of death) as the “place of perishing” (or “of destruction”). It is specifically paired with Death (tw#m*) in Job 28:22, and with Sheol in Job 26:6; Prov 15:11; 27:20. It is sometimes transliterated in English as Abaddon, just as it is in Greek in Rev 9:11.

Verse 13 [12]

“Are your wonder(s) made known in the darkness,
and your righteousness in (the) land of forgetting?”

If the questions of verse 12 relate to v. 11b (cf. above), those of verse 13 relate to v. 11a, emphasizing how YHWH is unable to make his wonders (collectively as the singular al#P#) known to His people anymore once they are dead. Similarly, He cannot demonstrate His right(eous)ness to them; the noun hq*d*x=, like hn`Wma$ (and ds#j#) in v. 12, also alludes to YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant-bond.

Here, the realm of death is described by the terms “darkness” (Ev#j)) and “forgetting” (hY`v!n+)—the latter in the expression “land of forgetting”. The noun hY`v!n+ occurs only here in the Old Testament; nor is the specific association of death with forgetting prominent elsewhere in Biblical poetry. Such an association is, of course, natural enough, and brings to mind the Greek mythological tradition of the dead drinking the waters of forgetfulness from the river Lethe in Hades.

Part 3: Verses 14-19 [13-18]

Verse 14 [13]

“Indeed I, to you, O YHWH, do cry (for help)—
so in the morning let my plea come before you!”

The final section of the Psalm returns to the lament of Part 1, which the protagonist here presents even more forcefully (and despairingly) to God. I take the initial w-conjunctions of both lines as emphatic in nature. The imperfect verb form (of the verb <d^q*, “come before”) in line 2 should similarly be read as having jussive force. The temporal phrase “in the morning” (more literally, “at the break [of day]”) functions on two levels: on the one hand, it reflects a sense of urgency, hoping that God might rescue the Psalmist immediately; at the same time, it plays on the idea of the protagonist being trapped in the darkness (of death), which will only come to an end when the dawning light (of salvation) comes.

Verse 15 [14]

“For what, O YHWH, do you repel my soul,
(and) hide your face (away) from me?”

Again the protagonist asks a question of YHWH; only this question is different from those in vv. 11-13 (cf. above), for it is made with a true sense of anguish and despair. The compound interrogative particle hm*l*, “for what (reason)…?”, indicates how the Psalmist cannot understand why he is forced to suffer the way he does. This is a dramatic, personalized form of the broader Wisdom-question as to why the righteous should suffer—what is the purpose of such suffering?

The Psalmist clearly sees his suffering as rooted in the action of YHWH; but it is a negative action—God repels/rejects (vb jn~z`) the Psalmist’s soul, and also hides His face away from him. Most likely, the verb form ryT!s=T^ reflects the verb rt^s* (“hide”), though Dahood (II, p. 306) would parse it as an infixed-t stem form of the root rWs (“turn [aside]”); the meaning would be much the same in either case.

The protagonist cannot understand why YHWH would turn away from him, especially since he (apparently) does not recognize his suffering as being the result of any sin. This makes it difficult to know the reason for God’s action, and why He seems to refuse to answer the repeated calls for help, leaving the protagonist at the point of complete despair.

Verse 16 [15]

“Pressed down (am) I and perishing—
(the) roaring I must bear,
(and) your terrors I must <face>!”

This difficult verse, which I parse metrically as an irregular 3+2+2 tricolon, proves a problem for commentators and translators. There is no easy solution; even the surviving fragment of 4QPst offers little help, so we are forced to grapple with the Masoretic text. The MT seems to read the verse as a 4+3 couplet:

“Pressed down (am) I, and perishing from (my) youth;
I bear your terrors (and) am {?}”

The phrase “perishing from (my) youth” (ru^N)m! u^o@G) does not make much sense in context. Possibly a wisdom-theme lamenting the mortality of the human condition is intended (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 391, 396), but I do not find this particularly convincing. I have decided, tentatively, to follow Dahood (II, p. 306), redividing and vocalizing MT ru^N)m! u^o@G as ru@n) <u@G). This reading preserves an enclitic-<, followed by a participle of the verb ru^n` (“roar, groan”), a root which otherwise occurs in Jer 51:38, but is also cognate in Ugaritic (n²r). The protagonist could be saying that he “lifts up” a roar, but the context suggests that the bearing (i.e. enduring) of a roaring (from YHWH) is meant.

The final word of the verse is also problematic. The MT form hn`Wpa* suggests a root /WP, the meaning of which is quite uncertain as it would occur only here in the Old Testament. Some commentators suggest emending to hg`Wpa*, from the root gWP (“be/grow numb”), which is also rare (cf. Lam 2:18; 3:49); Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 391) gives to /WP a somewhat comparable meaning (“grow stiff, be paralyzed”), though on what basis I am not certain. The Qumran fragment of 4QPst reads hrwpa, but this may be a scribal error for hnwpa. The LXX translates with e)chporh/qen (“I am in great doubt”).

Lacking any reliable option, or explanation for the MT, am inclined, somewhat reluctantly, to adopt an alternative solution suggested by Dahood (II, p. 307)—namely, to emend the MT slightly to read hn#p=a#, “I turn/face”. This yields a fitting, if slightly dubious, parallel:

“(the) roaring I must bear,
your terrors I must face”

Verse 17 [16]

“Over me come (the fire)s of your burning (rage);
your terrible furies threaten to finish me!”

This 3+2 couplet builds upon the 3+2+2 tricolon of the previous verse, as the protagonist further describes his suffering in terms of the furious (and terrifying) rage of YHWH. The plural nouns could be treated as numerical plurals (as I have rendered them above), or as intensive plurals, in which case a translation in the singular would be preferable—i.e., “your (great) burning (anger),” “your (most) terrible fury”. As in v. 16, the twin aspects of rage and terror are combined. The plural <yt!WuB! is close in meaning to <ym!ya@ in v. 16—both essentially mean “terrors”.

The final verb form in the MT is problematic; the reading in some MSS, yn]Wtm=x!, “they have finished me (off)”, is preferable, unless the morphological doubling (yn]t%Wt-) was intentional (for emphasis) by the author.

Verse 18 [17]

“They surround me like the waters all the day (long),
(and) they circle around me all together!”

The burning fires (of God’s rage) now are described in terms that echo the idea of the watery depths of Sheol (v. 7)—i.e., the fires behave like the waters. This same juxtaposition was expressed, more vaguely, in the earlier lament (vv. 7-8).

Verse 19 [18]

“You have put far from me (every) loved (one)—
(the only) companion known to me (is) darkness.”

This second lament ends similarly to the first one, with a reference to God putting far away (vb qj^r*) from the Psalmist all his (former) friends and acquaintances (v. 9). The protagonist is thus left all alone, feeling that even YHWH has abandoned him (cf. above on v. 15). Here, however, the lament ends on a particularly bitter note, as the sufferer declares that darkness is his only companion—that is, he is all alone in the darkness (of Sheol). Darkness is, of course, a natural characteristic of (and way of describing) the realm of death; in verse 13 (cf. above), the noun Ev#j) was used, while here we have the related Ev*j=m*, which more properly means “dark place, place of darkness” —an accurate description of Death/Sheol.

The syntax of the final line deserves comment. The initial word u^r@ (“companion”) is followed by a suffixed plural noun (passive participle), yu^D*y%m=, “(those) known by/to me”. The combination could be translated as a construct chain, “(the) companion of (those) known to me”, but I prefer to treat the plural participle as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “(the only one) known to me”. The combination of the two words thus means: “(the only) companion known to me”.

This bleakest of Psalms thus ends on a thoroughly bleak note. Though the protagonist continues to pray to YHWH, there is no real expectation that God will hear and answer him. Typically in these lament-Psalms there is some clear expression of the protagonist’s faith and trust that YHWH will act to rescue him. Such an expression is generally absent from this Psalm, especially here in the final (second) lament. It ends with the protagonist alone in the darkness, feeling that even God has turned away from him. If the Psalms are meant to capture the full extent of religious experience and feeling by God’s people, then it is perhaps fitting that, in at least one composition, the righteous are allowed to reach a point of almost complete hopelessness and despair.

The Psalmist’s wish in verse 14, at the beginning of this lament (cf. above), may provide at least a faint ray of hope—holding out the possibility that, like the dawning light of daybreak, God ultimately will answer His faithful servant’s prayer, bringing salvation that will dispel the darkness, and which will rescue him from the pit of despair.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 88 (Part 1)

Psalm 88

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (vv. 1-2, 4-5 [1, 3-4]); 4QPst (vv. 15-17 [14-16])

This Psalm of lament is one of the bleakest in the collection, summarizing many of the themes and motifs found throughout the lament-Psalms, presented here in a more intense and prolonged manner. At the heart of the composition are the fearful questions posed by the protagonist in his appeal to YHWH (in the central section, vv. 10b-13). As in many of the Psalms, these questions evince influence from Wisdom traditions; indeed, similarities with the book of Job have been noted.

This is another Korahite Psalm, attributed to the “sons of Qorah”, the last of the collection comprised of Pss 84-85, 87-88 (cf. also the earlier collection 42-49); for the background of this attribution, see the earlier study on Ps 42-43. Our Psalm shares certain themes and features with Pss 84-84, 87, as well as the following Ps 89; cf. the discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 396-7.

Like Ps 87, this Psalm is designated as both a musical composition (romz+m!) and a song (ryv!); the reason for using both terms, and what this is meant to distinguish, is not entirely clear. The heading includes the musical direction tl^j&m*-lu^, which also occurs in Ps 53. The use of the preposition lu^ suggests that it could refer to a specific melody or mode/style of performance (i.e., “according to…”). The noun hl*j&m^ (from hlj I) means “sickness, weakness”, which could refer to a mode, style, or melody suitable to a lament; however, Dahood (II, p. 302) suggests a derivation here from lWj (I) “circle, whirl, dance”. The meaning of the additional phrase toNu^l= is also unclear. Is it part of the direction governed by lu^? If so, and if the verbal term is derived from hnu IV (“sing”), then the entire phrase toNu^l= tl^j&m*-lu^ may mean “to be sung according to the mode/style hl*j&m^“.

Psalm 88 is also designated a lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl), which occurs in the heading of 12 other Psalms, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32. The root lk^c* fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), or possibly a poem/song used for instruction. If the author of the poem indicated in the heading (/m*yh@, Hêman) is the person mentioned in 1 Kings 5:11 [4:31], then a wisdom orientation is almost certainly intended. The Heman of 1 Chron 6:16-18[31-33] was a Levitical singer with official duties under David; he and his sons were considered to be musicians with prophetic abilities (1 Chron 25:1, 4-6). The term jr*z+a# means “native-born” (e.g., Num 15:29), literally someone “rising” (jrz) up from the land (like a tree, Ps 37:35), and this may be the meaning of yj!r*z+a#h* here (and in Ps 89:1). However, the sage Heman in 1 Chron 2:6 is referred to as a descendant of Zerah, which is how yj!r*z+a#h* is customarily understood.

In terms of the thematic structure of the Psalm, it may be divided rather neatly into two parts: vv. 2-10a and 10b-19. Each of these divisions both begins and ends with similar language and imagery. However, a stronger argument can perhaps be made for a three-part structure, with lament-sections (vv. 2-10a, 14-19) surrounding a central section (vv. 10b-13) in which the author-protagonist makes his appeal to God. For a solid defense of this tripartite division, cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 391-2. The Selah pause-markers following verse 8 and 11 do not appear in any way to be structural indicators, and are rather difficult to explain.

The meter of the Psalm is irregular, though a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to be followed.

Part 1: Verses 2-10a

Verse 2 [1]

“O YHWH, Mighty (One) of my salvation,
(by) day I cry out and in the night before you.”

The Psalmist’s lament is expressed, in traditional terms, in this opening couplet, as he emphasizes his repeated and constant “crying out” (vb qu^x*) to YHWH during his distress. The specific wording is meant to appeal to God. In the first line, he stresses YHWH as his God, and the source of his salvation. The second line implies that the Psalmist has been calling out to God repeatedly, day after day, both day and night, without (yet) receiving an answer—that is, he has not yet been delivered from his suffering and distress. The preposition dg#n# (“in front of, before”) is presumably mean to emphasize how all of this is has been going on right in front of God’s eyes.

Verse 3 [2]

“May my prayer (truly) come before your face,
may you stretch your ear to my ringing (cry)!”

The Psalmist continues to employ traditional language in his plea for YHWH to answer his prayer (hL*p!T=). He has already stated how his suffering and his pleas for help have been taking place right “in front of” God; now, he asks, more devotedly, that his prayer really would come before the face of God—in other words, that He would acknowledge and answer it. God’s answer of prayer is often expressed in terms of hearing it—in this instance, with the common idiom of “stretching” (vb hf*n` Hiphil) out one’s ear.

Verse 4 [3]

“For my soul is stuffed full of bad (thing)s,
and my life is touching near to Še°ôl!”

Here in this couplet, the Psalmist begins his lament proper, as he describes his travail and suffering, in general terms. In the first line, he declares that his soul is “stuffed full” (vb ub^c*) of many evils and troubles. The noun ur^ is a catch-all term with a wide range of meaning; here it refers to anything bad or evil (i.e., trouble, misfortune, harm, illness, disaster, etc) that a person might experience.

The initial –w conjunction of the second line should perhaps be translated “so that…”; in other words, all the bad things the Psalmist has endured has led to his coming near to death. The noun loav=, of uncertain etymology, is a traditional (and poetic) term for death and the realm of the dead; for more on the background and usage, cf. my earlier article.

The Hebrew word order of the verse is chiastic:

    • “is stuffed full
      • with bad (thing)s
        • my soul
        • and my life
      • to Sheol
    • is touching near”
Verse 5 [4]

“I am thought (to be) with (those) going down (to the) Pit;
I have become like a mighty man with no strength.”

The protagonist’s severe misfortune has put him on the brink of death. Some commentators consider the reference to be one of a physical illness or disease, but this is probably too limiting. However, there can be no doubt that the protagonist has lost nearly all of his strength and vitality, whatever the exact cause (or causes) might be. We should perhaps imagine the effect of a series of different kinds of misfortunes that have piled up upon one another. The noun rb#G# denotes a person with strength and vitality—it can refer specifically to a warrior, or more generally to a healthy and/or prominent individual. The point is, that this strength and vitality has been lost; the negative particle /y]a^ is privative, indicating that something is not (or no longer) present or does not exist.

The Psalmist’s condition is severe enough that people seem to have given up on him. He is generally thought or considered (vb bv^j*) to be on his way with those going down to the “Pit” (roB), another term for the realm of the dead, parallel with loav=.

Verse 6 [5]

“Among the dead (I am) freed,
(just) like (the) slain (one)s,
having lain down (in the) grave—
for you do not remember them any more,
and they are cut off from your hand.”

Metrically, this verse should be parsed as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, followed by an irregular 4+3 couplet. Both components describe, in different ways, the condition of the dead—which the Psalmist-protagonist is on the verge of becoming! The term yv!p=j* (if the MT is correct) in the first line refers to someone who has been “set free”, which could be understood in the positive sense; however, here it is important to recognize the Canaanite idiom describing death and the realm of the dead as the “house of freedom” (Ugaritic bt—p¾t, cf. Baal Epic IV:col. viii, line 7; compare 2 Kings 15:5). The development of this expression is difficult to trace. It may relate to the noun —p¾ (par —b¾) as a technical term for a ‘freedman’ who is able to serve as soldier; the military context of —p¾ is notable in the Ugaritic texts (see, e.g., Kirta I:col. ii, line 37). It is perhaps significant that yv!p=j* here in verse 6 is specifically connected with the image of slain soldiers.

In any case, the ‘freedom’ the protagonist would have among the dead is decidedly negative (and not positive). It is specifically explained in terms of being “cut off” (vb rz~G`) from God. Once dead, he will no longer have any contact with YHWH; he will be ‘released’ from the covenant bond, and God will no longer have him in mind (vb rk^z`), nor will God be able to bless or protect him any longer with His “hand”.

Verse 7 [6]

“You have put me in (the) Pit, (the realm)s below,
in places dark, in places deep.”

Now the Psalmist declares that it was YHWH who has effectively placed him in the pit of death (or, on the verge of entering it). Since God Himself is in control of events, surely He is able to rescue the protagonist from his suffering and distress. This verse is a slightly irregular 3+2 couplet; it might be better to read it as a 2+3 couplet, since the three plural noun-phrases belong together, as parallel with robB= (“in [the] Pit”):

    • “(the place)s (far) below”, toYT!j=T^
    • “in dark places”, <yK!v^j&m^B=
    • “in deep places”, tolxm=B!

These are all general expressions of the realm of the dead. The plurals should perhaps all be taken as intensives; this is especially so in the case toYT!j=T^, i.e., “(places) far/furthest below”. The realm of the dead represents the lowest, darkest, and deepest place.

Verse 8 [7]

“Upon me took hold your burning (anger),
and (with) all your breakers you press down!”
Selah

The effective action of YHWH in placing the Psalmist “in the Pit” is here described more conventionally, in terms of YHWH’s “burning (anger)” (hm*j@). Often God’s anger is specifically directed against human beings because of their sin; however, the protagonist (unlike in some Psalms) makes no acknowledgement that he considers his suffering to be the result of sin. It is probably best to read this Psalm in the Wisdom-context of the suffering of the righteous. This makes the questions in the central section of the Psalmist’s plea (vv. 10b-13) all the more moving and powerful.

The realm of the dead is often envisioned as a place of dark and turbulent waters. This is related to the ancient cosmology that saw the (geocentric) universe as being surrounded by the primeval waters. Just as the upper hemisphere was surrounded by waters, so also the portion below the surface of the earth was surrounded by these dark and powerful waters. The “breakers” (rB*v=m! plur.) that press down hard on the protagonist should be thought of in terms of powerful breaking waves.

Verse 9ab [8ab]

“You have set (those) known by me far from me;
you set me as (something) most loathsome to them!”

The Sheol-imagery of vv. 4-8, with the idea of being trapped in a deep pit, was one way that the Psalmist expressed a sense of distance, of being cut off from life. Here a religious-mythical orientation is replaced by the social dimension: his suffering and misfortune have left him distant (vb qj^r*) from friends and acquaintances. Again, it is YHWH who is effectively responsible for this. Even worse, the protagonist has been made into something “most loathsome” (hb*u@oT, intensive plural) to others. This certainly could imply the repellent effect of severe illness or disease.

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

“Having been shut off, I cannot come out;
my eye grows faint from (my) oppression.”

The protagonist’s condition leaves him feeling cut off from others (and from God), but it also presses against him, pressing him down. Both of these aspects are contained in the verb al*K*, referring to being closed off and held back (restrained), etc. The burden of his misfortune and suffering presses him down, which is the fundamental meaning of the root hnu III. The noun yn]u* is a regular term in the Psalms describing the righteous characteristically as poor and afflicted, often including the idea of suffering and oppression at the hands of the wicked. Here, the related noun yn]u( is used, which more properly denotes the idea of affliction (cf. Ps 9:14[13]; 25:18; 31:8[7]; 44:25[24], etc).

There is a bit of alliterative wordplay in this final line (v. 10a), between yn]yu@ (±ênî), “my eye”, and yn]u) (±œnî), “(my) oppression”. The  MT has the singular “my eye” (yn]yu@); however, as Dahood notes (II, p. 305), a dual form is also possible (yn~yu@), lit. “my (two) eyes”.

In the next study, the final two sections (vv. 10b-13 and 14-19) will be examined.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 86 (Part 2)

Psalm 86, continued

Part 2: Verses 8-13

(For Part 1, see the previous study.)

Verse 8

“There is none like you among the Mighty (one)s,
my Lord, and there is no(thing) like your works!”

This second section of the Psalm shifts from a prayer to a hymn in praise of YHWH. The focus in the initial verse is the familiar theme of the incomparability of YHWH—His uniqueness and superiority over every other god or divine being. This reflects the qualified monotheism of Israelite religion in the period of the Judges and the (early) Kingdom period. YHWH’s incomparability is expressed, in each line, by the use of the negative particle /y]a^, which typically has a privative force, indicating absence or lack. This particle tends to function as a substantive verbal element (or as an adverb), with the meaning “there is no…”.

I have presented the verse as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, but it might be more accurate to treat it as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, which better brings out the chiastic parallelism:

    • “There is no one like you
      • among the Mighty (one)s, my Lord,
    • and there is no(thing) like your works”
Verse 9

“All (the) nations that you have made
shall come and shall bow down
before your face, O my Lord,
and shall give weight to your name.”

Metrically, I parse this verse as a slightly irregular (3+2+2+2) quatrain; dividing it into a quatrain with primarily 2-beat lines fits the rhythm/meter of the Psalm as a whole.

The nations are here regarded as among the great “works” of YHWH (“that you have made”). His supremacy lies principally in the fact that He is the supreme Creator—who created all of humankind, the nations and their people. For this reason, all the nations should recognize and acknowledge Him as the Mightiest and Greatest One; worship of YHWH should not be limited to the Israelite people alone. The verse speaks of a future time with the nations will come and bow down before YHWH. This is an important theme in the Prophetic writings of the exilic and post-exilic periods. In these prophetic poems and oracles, it is envisioned that representatives of the nations will come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the (restored) Israelite/Judean kingdom; in the process, they will acknowledge and worship Israel’s God, YHWH. See, for example, Isaian passages such as 2:1-4 (par Mic 4:1-5); 42:1-6ff; 49:6-7, 22-23; 56:6-8; 60:3-16; 66:12ff, 18-21; the close of the book of Zechariah (14:16-21) contains an especially notable prophecy on this theme.

In the final line, the verb db^K* (Piel, “give weight, make heavy”) is used in its typical figurative sense of “give honor”, i.e., considering (someone) worthy or of value. The nations will give honor to YHWH’s name, which implies a ritual or symbolic honoring of YHWH Himself. On the relation of a person’s name to the person, in ancient Near Eastern thought, cf. the introduction to my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

Dahood (II, p. 294) gives an interesting alternative reading of this verse, treating the relative particle rv#a& as conditional, and thus rendering the first line as a conditional clause: “When you act, the nations will come…”.

Verse 10

“For great you (are indeed),
and a worker of wonders—
you, O Mightiest—you alone!”

The Psalmist takes over the worship of YHWH now, in the present, acknowledging His greatness (adj. lodG`). There is emphatic force to the initial particle yK!, and it would be possible (but not necessary) to translate the line as “how great you (are)”. YHWH’s works (v. 8) include creation (i.e., of humankind and the nations, v. 9), but also the wonders (toal*p=n]) He has performed—specifically, on behalf of His people during their history. Through these supernatural and miraculous deeds, YHWH also shows Himself to be incomparable, and far superior to all other deities (“you alone”, ;D#b^l=).

Metrically, I take this verse to be an irregular 2+2+3 tricolon. If one were to combine verses 9 and 10 together, there would be a sequence of five 2-beat lines bracketed by a pair of 3-beat lines. Thematically and poetically, it would be possible to combine the verses in this way.

Verse 11

“Direct me, O YHWH, in your way,
(that) I may walk in firmness for you only,
(with) my heart fearing your name.”

Embedded in this hymnic section, is a separate prayer-request by the Psalmist to YHWH. He asks God to “direct” him on the path. The verb hr*y` denotes throwing or shooting (an arrow, etc), often in the symbolic or figurative sense of showing a direction; in association with the ethical-religious motif of a path (in which one must ‘walk’), this idea of pointing a direction essentially means “instruct, teach”. Such a meaning of the verb is embedded in the derived noun hr*oT (i.e., “instruction”).

The Psalmist wishes to walk in “firmness” (tm#a#) on the path—that is, firmly, with a sure step, showing himself faithful and trustworthy as a follower of YHWH. The noun tm#a# can also connote truthfulness. I have chosen to vocalize djy in line 2 as the adverb dj^y~, rather than the MT dj@y~ (imperative of the verb dj^y`). I translate it as “alone, only”, parallel with dbl in v. 10—that is, the Psalmist wishes to be faithful to YHWH alone, even as he acknowledges that YHWH alone is the Mightiest One. However, it would also be possible to translate the adverb here as “altogether” (i.e., completely).

As I interpret the verse, metrically it is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 12

“I will throw you, my Lord (and) Mightiest,
(praise) with all of my heart,
and will give your name weight for ever!”

I view verse 12 as being dependent upon the Psalmist’s request in v. 11—i.e., “Instruct me…(and then) I will throw you praise…”; however, for poetic concision I have omitted a glossed “then” from the beginning of the first line. There is a parallelism between the opening verbs of vv. 11 and 12: both (hr*y`, hd*y`) essentially mean “throw” —as YHWH “throws” direction to the Psalmist (i.e., instructs him), then he, in turn, will “throw” praise to YHWH. For a musician-composer, praise in song is an especially appropriate means by which to show one’s gratitude. On the idiom of “giving weight” (vb db^K*) to God’s name, cf. above on verse 9; as the nations will all come to worship and honor YHWH’s name in the future, so the Psalmist, being among the righteous/faithful ones of Israel, does so now in the present.

The final word <l*oul= is a prepositional expression that literally means “into/unto (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here more conventionally, as “forever”. Metrically, this verse, again, is irregular, being a 3+2+3 tricolon; it is also possible to read it as an extended 4+3 bicolon, which would represent more precisely the poetic parallelism in the verse. Eliminating either yn]d)a& (“my Lord”) or yh^l)a$ (“my Mighty [One]”, i.e., my God) from the first line would tighten the rhythm, and would make a couplet format more tenable.

Verse 13

“For (indeed) your goodness is great over me,
and you shall snatch me from Še’ôl below!”

The first line of verse 13 echoes that of v. 10 (cf. above), as the Psalmist declares that YHWH’s goodness (ds#j#) is great (lodG`), even as earlier he declared that YHWH Himself was great. The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”; however, as I have discussed repeatedly, in the context of a covenant-bond, it frequently connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”, and so it does regularly throughout the Psalms. YHWH is loyal to the binding agreement (covenant) with His people, and, when they are faithful and loyal as well, He is obligated (as the Sovereign) to provide blessings and protection.

This protection includes deliverance from danger and threat of death, whether by human adversary or illness/disease, etc. The danger to the Psalmist here is described in terms of being pulled down into Še’ôl (loav=), a term used frequently in the Psalms (and on which cf. my earlier note). The verb lx^n` (“snatch away,” i.e., out of danger) also occurs often in the Psalms.

This allusion to danger provides a transition to the final section of the Psalm, which returns to the prayer-petition emphasis of section 1, but with a stronger tone of lament.

Metrically, this verse is a 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Part 3: Verses 14-17

Verse 14

“O Mightiest, boiling (one)s stand against me,
and a meeting of terrible (one)s seeks my Soul—
indeed, they do not set you in front of them!”

Typical of the lament-sections of the Psalms is this opening reference to a group of nameless adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. While the specific motif may be widespread, the adjectives used to describe the adversaries here are less common. The first, dz@, literally means “boiling (over),” in a negative sense—whether boiling over with rage, or with pride, etc; it occurs 8 times in the Psalms (out of 13 in the OT), but 6 of these are in Ps 119; the only other occurrence is in 19:14 [13]. The second adjective, Jyr!u*, means “terrible, terrifying”, often implying the threat or possibility of violence. Elsewhere in the Psalms, this adjective occurs only in 37:35 and 54:5 [4].

The final line identifies these opponents as unquestionably wicked—they do not set YHWH “in front of them”, as their God and Sovereign. This distinguishes the wicked from the righteous, and is main the reason why the wicked desire to attack and harm the righteous.

Verse 15

“But you, my Lord, (are)
Mighty of love and favor,
long in (your) nostrils,
and Great of goodness and trust.”

This verse is a tight 2-beat quatrain—or, we might say, a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, with an introductory line. The introductory line addresses YHWH: “But you, my Lord…”. The remaining three lines describe the attributes and characteristics of YHWH. Lines two and four are parallel, framing the description:

    • “Mighty of | love | and favor”
    • “Great of | goodness | and trust”

The parallel terms la@ and br^ can either be viewed as construct adjectives (“mighty of…”, “great of…”), or as comparable substantives functioning as Divine titles (“Mighty [One] of…”, “Great [One] of…”). Both approaches are entirely valid. The term <Wjr* denotes the possession and/or exhibiting of a deep love; it is comparable to the parallel noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness, devotion”). There is a similar parallel between /WNj^ (“[showing] favor”) and tm#a# (“firmness,” spec. the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness). All of these terms essentially allude to YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant-bond with His people, and to the blessings which He provides. For poetic concision (required by the short 2-beat lines), I have simplified and shortened these terms in the translation above.

The third line (and the central line of the tricolon) contains a distinctive Hebrew idiom. The expression is “long of nostrils” (<y]P^a^ Er#a#), referring to the nostrils (their burning, flaring) as a symbolic expression of anger. Thus to be long in one’s nostrils is the opposite of being “short” in them—that is, one is not quick to anger. The expression connotes the idea of patience, and is often translated (not inappropriately) as “longsuffering”; many translations render the expression as “slow to anger”.

The sequence of phrases and attributes here in v. 15 echoes the famous proclamation in Exodus 34:6 (cf. also Num 14:18; Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:3; Jonah 4:2; Nehemiah 9:17).

Verse 16

“(So) turn to me and show me favor!
Give (now) strength to your servant,
and give safety to (the) son of your trust!”

Since YHWH is Mighty in showing favor (/WNj^, v. 15), the Psalmist, in his time of need, calls on YHWH now to show him favor (vb /n~j*). The related call for God to “turn” (vb hn`P*) to the Psalmist is another way of asking Him to hear and answer his prayer (cf. on vv. 1, 6 in the previous study). The prayer would be answered if/when YHWH protects and rescues the Psalmist from his enemies, and from the danger that threatens him (v. 13, cf. above). Here, this protection is described by the parallel actions of “give strength” (vb /t^n` + zu)) and “give safety/salvation” (vb uv^y` Hiphil). In protecting/rescuing the Psalmist, the “strength” that YHWH gives is His own (“your strength”).

Again, it is important to remember of the covenantal context of the language in this petition. The Psalmist can request (and expect) Divine protection, because he has been faithful to the covenant-bond, and so YHWH (as Sovereign) is obligated to provide protection. The Psalmist’s loyalty is here indicated by the parallel expressions “your servant” and “son of your firmness” (i.e., your faithful son). Almost certainly, the MT is incorrect in the vocalization of the final word ;t#m*a& (“your maidservant [?]”); it should be vocalized ;T#m!a& (“your firmness”, cf. Dahood, II, p. 296), echoing the use of tm#a# in verse 11 (cf. above) and the final line of v. 15. As previous noted, tm#a# connotes faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness; for poetic concision, I have translated it above in the line as “trust” (“son of your trust,” i.e., your trustworthy son).

Verse 17

“Make with me a sign of (your) good (favor),
and let (those) hating me see (it) and be shamed!
(Oh,) that you, YHWH,
would help me and comfort me!”

The Psalmist here further asks that there be some “sign” (toa) that accompanies the act of rescue by YHWH—a clear indication that it was YHWH who did this good thing (hb*of), and that the reason why the Psalmist was delivered was that he was shown favor by God. Upon seeing this sign, the Psalmist’s enemies will come to shame (vb vWB).

The Psalm concludes with a terse renewed plea by the Psalmist, calling on YHWH to give him help (vb rz~u*) and comfort (vb <j^n`). It is best to treat these perfect verb forms as precative perfects, expressing the Psalmist wish (and expectation) for what will happen. In this regard, the yK! particle should be read as emphatic and exclamatory—i.e., “Oh, that…!”.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 86 (Part 1)

Psalm 86

Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsa (vv. 5-6, 8); 4QPse (vv. 10-11); 11QPsd (vv. 11-14)

This Psalm reflects the character and tone of many of the lamentprayer Psalms we have examined. Indeed, the superscription simply designates it as a hL*p!T=, which typically refers to a petition or prayer made to God, asking him to intervene on the supplicant’s behalf. The usual term romz+m!, indicating that the Psalm is a musical composition, is absent. This could mean that Psalm 86 represents a non-musical poem-text, which one could (and presumably did) set to music.

There is a rather clear three-part structure to the poem. The first part (vv. 1-7) is a general prayer to YHWH, framed by specific requests for God to hear/answer the Psalmist’s prayer (vv. 1, 6f). In the middle section (vv. 2-5), the author bases his appeal on YHWH’s goodness and loyalty to the covenant; God’s faithfulness (to the covenant-bond) is the basis for His providing the protection that the protagonist needs.

In the second part of the Psalm (vv. 8-13), the focus shifts to a YHWH-hymn, in which the author praises YHWH, drawing upon several strands of poetic, prophetic, and wisdom tradition. The poem concludes (vv. 14-17) with another appeal to YHWH, this time more specifically as a petition with lament-features, similar to those we find throughout the Psalms. Typically, the lament section occurs at the beginning of the Psalm, not the end, so the order here is essentially reversed.

The superscription attributes Psalm 86 to David, and there are certain details and elements of the poem which do suggest that the protagonist is a king. As we have seen, many Psalms evince a royal background, to a greater or lesser degree. This does not necessarily mean that the particular Psalm originates from the monarchic (pre-exilic) period, since Psalms of later composition could still draw from older lines of poetic tradition rooted in the royal theology, and utilize the type-figure of the king who stands as the protagonist, representing the people before God. It has been suggested that Psalm 86 intentionally was meant to serve as a kind of summary of earlier Davidic Psalms, echoing, in particular, the poems placed at the close of the earlier Davidic Psalter-collections (e.g., 40-41, 69-71, 72; cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 369f).

The meter of Psalm 86 appears to be irregular and mixed. Specific details will be given in the notes below.

Part 1: Verses 1-7

Verse 1

“Stretch (out), O YHWH, your ear (and) answer me,
for pressed (down) and needy (am) I.”

The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH is expressed in traditional (and typical) language. In the first line he calls on God to “stretch out” (vb hf*n`) His ear, an idiom for hearing/listening, and to answer the prayer. In the second line, the protagonist identifies himself by the traditional pair of adjectives yn]u* (“pressed [down]”, i.e., oppressed/afflicted, and in a low state) and /oyb=a# (“needy,” implying a low and poor condition). These are characteristics of the righteous, and often their use assumes hostility toward the righteous and persecution (by the wicked). For other occurrences of this pair, see 35:10; 37:14; 40:18 [17]; 70:6 [5]; 72:12; 74:21; 109:16, 22; 140:13 [12].

It is worth mentioning the alliteration in verse 1, particularly in the second line; to highlight this, I give the relevant portion here with an accompanying transliteration:

yn]a* /oyb=a# yn]u* yK! yn]n@u&
±¦n¢nî kî ±¹nî °e»yôn °¹nî

Metrically, this verse is a 4+3 couplet.

Verse 2

“May you guard my soul,
for (one) devoted (am) I;
may you save your servant,
O you my Mighty (One),
coming to You for refuge!”

The meter of this verse can be seen as problematic, especially if one attempts to treat it as a couplet. I choose to read it, without emendation, as a series of 2-beat lines—a 2+2 bicolon, followed by a 2+2+2 tricolon. The units are parallel, in that each is governed by an imperative in the first line:

    • hr*m=v*— “may you guard my soul”
    • uv^oh— “may you save your servant…”

These actions reflect the essence of the Psalmist’s prayer. Also, in each unit, there is an expression of the basis for his appeal to YHWH—namely, his faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant. Such loyalty would mean that the protagonist (the vassal) is due the protection that YHWH (the Sovereign) is obligated to provide. By calling himself God’s servant, this loyalty is implied; and it is made explicit in the first couplet by the claim “I am devoted [dys!j*]”. The adjective dys!j*, like the related noun ds#j#, denotes showing goodness/kindness to a person; as I have discussed repeatedly, in the context of the covenant, it also connotes faithfulness, loyalty and devotion. The adjective typically carries this meaning in the Psalms; I have translated it here as “devoted”.

The last line of the tricolon also indicates the Psalmist’s loyalty. He describes himself as one “coming to you for refuge”. The substantive participle j^f@oBh^ is used (“the [one] seeking refuge”). The verb jf^B* occurs frequently in the Psalms (46 times, out of 120 in the OT), part of the vocabulary referring to the righteous person seeking/finding refuge under the protection that YHWH provides. The prepositional expression ;yl#a@ (“to you”) emphasizes that the Psalmist is coming to YHWH for protection, seeking refuge in Him. The phrase also implies the idea of trusting in YHWH—viz., he comes to YHWH for protection because he trusts in Him—and is a further indication of the Psalmist’s faithfulness.

Verse 3

“May you show me favor, my Lord,
for (it is) to you (that) I call out,
(indeed) all the day (long)!”

I view this verse as another 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, matching that of verse 2b (cf. above). Again there is an imperative in the first line (“may you show favor…”, vb /n~j*), comprising the Psalmist’s request, along with an expression of his faithfulness/loyalty to God. The second line matches the third line of the previous tricolon:

    • “coming to you [;yl#a@] for refuge”
    • “(it is) to you [;yl@a@] (that) I call out”

Again, the Psalmist trusts in YHWH (as his Lord/God), which is why he comes to Him and prays (“calls out,” vb ar*q*) to Him. The protagonist’s trust and faithfulness is also indicated by the claim that he does this continually (“all the day [long]”).

Verse 4

“Make glad (the) soul of your servant,
for (it is) to you, my Lord,
(that) I lift up my soul.”

The tricolon format of verse 4 matches that of verse 3, though the meter differs slightly (3+2+2). Again, the Psalmist’s request is reflected by the opening imperative in the first line (“[may you] make glad…”, vb jm^c*); in other words, his soul will be made glad when God answers his prayer and acts on his behalf. Note the further parallelism between vv. 3-4:

    • “…my lord,
      for (it is) to you (that) I call out”
    • for (it is) to you, my lord,
      (that) I lift up my soul”

There is also a certain chiasmus to verse 4 involving the motif of “my soul”:

    • “make glad (the) soul of your servant
      • for (it is) to you, my Lord
    • (that) I lift up my soul”
Verse 5

“Indeed, you, my Lord,
(are) good and forgiving,
and abundant in devotion,
to all (those) calling on you.”

It is possible to parse this verse as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, however it seems better to continue with the 2-beat line format of the previous verses and to treat it as a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain. The unit breaks from the series of imperatives in vv. 1-4; the Psalmist pauses his petition to declare and affirm the goodness (adj. bof) and loyalty (ds#j#) of YHWH. As noted above, the noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”, but also carries the meaning “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion,” especially in a covenantal context. In keeping with the translation of the adjective dys!j* as “devoted” above (v. 2), I translate ds#j# here as “devotion”.

The Psalmist adds the idea of YHWH showing mercy by forgiving (jls) the sins of those who are faithful/loyal to Him. It is thus hoped by the protagonist that YHWH will overlook any sins he may have committed; as one of the righteous, the Psalmist would have confessed and acknowledged any sin, and taken the (ritual) steps needed to atone for any (unintentional) misdeeds. The righteous/faithful ones, among whom the Psalmist identifies himself (as a representative), are characterized as those “calling out” to YHWH in trust and hope.

Verse 6

“Turn your ear, O YHWH, to my prayer,
and hear (the) voice of my (plea)s for favor.”

This couplet echoes the initial line of verse 1 (cf. above), calling on YHWH to ‘bend’ His ear to the Psalmist’s prayer and hear/answer it. The use of the verb /z~a* (Hiphil, “give/turn [one’s] ear”) matches the idiom “stretch out the ear” (vb hf*n` + /z#a)) in v. 1. This call for YHWH to hear the Psalmist’s petition thus frames the prayer. The verb translated “hear,” bv^q* (Hiphil), would perhaps be more properly rendered “attend to” or “pay attention to”.

Verse 7

“In (the) day of my distress, I call to you—
(O) that you would answer me!”

As verse 6 matches the first line of verse 1, so verse 7 thematically matches the second line:

“for I (am) pressed (down) and needy”

The adjective yn]u* in verse 1 means “pressed (down)”, but could also be rendered “hard-pressed”, which would perhaps be a closer fit to the distress (hr*x*) the Psalmist mentions here. Both terms convey the idea of pressure or stress that a person experiences. The Psalmist’s distress (“day of my distress”), which is indicated here as being the occasion and reason for his prayer to YHWH, will be developed as a principal theme in the third and final part of the Psalm.

The final line could be translated “for you (are sure to) answer me”, treating the perfect tense of the verb /n~u* as a gnomic perfect—i.e., something that God is sure to do, as a reflection of His (eternal) character. However, it seems better to translate the verb as a precative perfect, as an expression of the Psalmist wish and hope (and expectation) for what will happen; cf. Dahood, II, p. 294. In such an instance, the particle yK! would be emphatic, not causal, with a similar precative force (“O, that…!”).

The remainder of the Psalm (Parts 2 and 3, vv. 8-17) will be discussed in next week’s study.

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