Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 2)

Psalm 55, continued

Here is a reminder of the three-part structure of this Psalm:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in the previous study (Part 1); here we turn to the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf.

There is an interesting dramatic structure to this section. The prayer takes the form of an imprecation, in which the Psalmist would bring a curse down on his enemies. The imprecation frames the section in vv. 10-12, 16; however, in vv. 13-15 the protagonist focuses on a specific enemy, addressing him directly, as a supposed friend who has betrayed him.

VERSES 10-16 [9-15]

Verse 10 [9]

“Confuse (them), my Lord,
bring division to their tongue;
for I have seen (much) violence
and strife in the (great) city.”

The Masoretic text as it stands suggests a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. Each line of the first couplet begins with an imperative, by which the Psalmist calls on YHWH to act. In the second line it is gL^P^, from the root glp (“split, divide”); in which case, the matching imperative uL^B^ in the first line would have to derive from a second root ulb II, meaning “confuse, confound,” rather than ulb I (“swallow”). This second root is similar in meaning to llb, which which it would be related. If the MT is correct, then we would seem to have here a poetic allusion to the Tower of Babel tradition; and the Psalmist’s prayer-curse calls upon YHWH to repeat his action in the Babel episode (Gen 11:7ff).

Dahood (II, p. 33) takes a different approach, reading glp as the noun gl#P# (“split, division”), and as the object of the line (reading the first two lines of the verse as a single 4-beat line):

“Swallow [i.e. destroy], O Lord, (the) split of their tongue [i.e. their forked tongue]”

Kraus (p. 519) finds an even more serious problem with the MT and adopts a more radical emendation of the text. The city motif that is developed in vv. 11-12 tends to support the MT, with its apparent allusion to the Babel scene—Babel (= Babylon) being symbolic of the wicked city, as we see elsewhere in Old Testament tradition (and cf. Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21).

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Day and night they go around her,
upon her walls (are) both trouble and toil;
in (the) midst of her (evil)s befall,
in (the) midst of her it never departs,
in her wide street, oppression and deceit!”

A 3-beat (3+3) couplet is followed by a slightly irregular 2-beat tricolon. These lines pick up from verse 10, and presumably the subject of the first line (“they go around her”) is the pair of “violence [sm*j*] and strife [byr!]” from v. 10. They “go around” (vb bb^s*) the city, functioning as watchmen; and they are joined by the pair of “trouble [/w#a*] and toil [lm*u*]” who stand guard on the walls. Thus the wicked city is governed and patrolled by wickedness.

Adding to this image of the wicked city is the double emphasis that great evils are in the midst of her, and that they never depart (vb vWm). The plural noun toWh^ is derived from the verb hw`h* I, and refers to some evil or calamity that falls upon (befalls) a person; I have translated the plural noun here with intensive verbal force. The expression “her wide/broad (street)” is generally synonymous with “in the midst of her” —we should understand a central square or main street. Both oppression (implying violence) and deceit—two fundamental characteristics of the wicked—are present, and especially active, in the heart of the wicked city.

Verse 13 [12]

“For (it was) not a hostile (one)
(who) brought on me (the) scorn that I bear,
nor (was it one) hating me
(who) brought great (slander) on me,
that I should hide myself from him.”

Both the meter and structure of this verse are difficult and problematic. However, the first four lines clearly form a pair of parallel couplets (with loose/uneven 2-beat meter). This specific opponent of the Psalmist is identified as neither a “hostile (one)” (vb by~a*) nor “(one) hating” (vb an@v*) him—that is to say, he was not obviously or openly an enemy.

The second line of each couplet is rather difficult. In the first couplet, the difficulty is syntactical, with the MT reading “he reproached me and I bore (it)”. However, the relationship with the first line indicates that the phrase should be translated as a relative clause: “…who reproached me and I bore (it)”. The poetic sense of this line is improved if we treat the w-conjunction on the second verb like a relative particle (cf. Dahood, II, p. 34): “…who brought the scorn on me that I bear”.

In the second line of the second couplet, the difficulty lies in the specific meaning of the verb ld^G` (Hiphil stem, “make grow, make great”) in context. Literally, the phrase would be “he made great over me” (or possibly, “he grew over me”). However, as in the first couplet, this second line also should be read as a relative clause, with a wicked act implied (such as slandering someone), i.e. “…who brought great (slander) over me”.

The final line (“that I should hide myself from him”), as a coda to the two couplets, relates to the idea that this person was not an obvious enemy (at first) to the Psalmist, implying that we was a friend of sorts, so that the Psalmist would not have felt the need to protect himself from this person.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“But (it was) you, a man of my (own) order,
my companion and (one) being known by me,
(so) that as one we had sweet intimacy,
in (the) house of (the) Mightiest,
we walked in (the) surging (crowd).”

Verses 14-15 make clear what was implied in v. 13—viz., that this enemy was a man previously considered by the Psalmist to be a friend. He was of the same social rank (lit. “order,” Er#u@) as the Psalmist, both a companion ([WLa^) and someone well-known to him.

The second couplet, expanded into a tricolon, indicates that the Psalmist and this man had some measure of intimacy in their friendship. The noun dos connotes intimate conversation, and the verb qt^m* refers to the fact that the two men had a number of “sweet” moments together. These moments are specifically located in the “house of God”, which suggests the occasion of religious festivals. If the Psalm preserves a royal background, they it could also refer to the king and his court (with his loyal vassals) attending religious festivities in the Temple. The motif in the final line, of walking together in a crowd, certainly suggests a festival and/or ritual occasion.

Verse 16 [15]

“May death take over them,
may they go down (to) Sheol living!
For evils (are) in their dwelling-places.”

Having addressed the friend who betrayed him, the Psalmist returns to the imprecation, asking God to bring a curse (of death) down upon his enemies. This imprecatory language naturally makes Christians and modern readers uncomfortable, but it was very much part of the ancient Near Eastern tradition, and many examples can be found in the Old Testament. This section allows Psalm 55 to be counted among the imprecatory Psalms.

Most commentators (correctly) follow the Qere, parsing the first word of the MT (Kethib) as two words: tw#m* yV!y~. Dahood (II, p. 34) would derive the verb form yV!y~ from the rare root hvy, otherwise attested (only) in the noun hY`v!WT (Job 12:16, etc); the basic denotation would seem to something like “advance, succeed”. The verb used together with the preposition lu^ could fairly be rendered “take over” (overtake): “May death [tw#m*] take over them”. Parallel with death is loav= (Sheol), the realm of the dead. To be taken alive into Sheol would be an especially stunning and miraculous form of death, only to be achieved through the power of God. Here, however, it is probably simply an exaggeration, as befits the curse-formula.

The final line hearkens back to the “wicked city” motif in vv. 10-12 (cf. above). Great evils (plur. tour*), passing through the wicked city, find lodgings in it. They are temporary lodgings—indicated by the noun rWgm*, derived from the root rWg, typically denoting a stranger who comes to live/reside within a population. Evil will only dwell in the city for a short time, since the wicked population will soon face death (viz., the Psalmist’s curse). That the wicked of the city would give lodgings to Evil is altogether proof of their wickedness.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 1)

Psalm 55

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

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

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

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

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

VERSES 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

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

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

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 54

Psalm 54

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 2-3, 5-6 [1, 3-4])

This Psalm, one of the simplest in structure, gives evidence of the royal background we glimpsed in a number of the prayer- and lament-Psalms in the first division of the Psalter. The heading (vv. 1-2) attributes it to David, specifically noting the incident recorded in 1 Sam 23:19. Even if this is not the actual occasion for the composition, it is quite fitting for the royal background of the Psalm, suggesting the king’s suffering at the hands of his enemies and opponents. In making his appeal to God, the king is drawing upon the specific covenant bond between YHWH and the Israelite/Judean king, which requires that YHWH (the Sovereign) provides protection for His faithful/loyal vassal (the king). And, since the king also serves as the people’s representative, the covenant-protection ultimately extends to the people as well. In the Psalm as we have it, and as it would have been sung in the communal worship, much of the specific royal background—the language and imagery, etc—has been generalized to apply to Israel (the righteous ones) as a whole.

The structure of this Psalm is extremely simple, divided into two short strophes separated by a hl*s# (Selah) pause-marker. In the first strophe (vv. 3-5 [1-3]), the Psalmist makes his plea to YHWH for help, while in the second strophe (vv. 6-9 [4-7]), the help provided by YHWH is described (and anticipated).

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3, also 3+2) couplet format. The superscription marks it as another Davidic composition (dw]d*l=), a lyK!c=m^ (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32), with the added musical direction that it is to be performed on stringed instruments (tn)yg]n+B!, cf. the study on Psalm 4).

Verses 3-5 [1-3]

Verses 3-4 [1-2]

“O Mightiest, by your name save me,
by your strength may you defend me;
O Mightiest, hear my petition,
may you give ear to (the) words of my mouth!”

The Psalmist’s plea is fundamentally legal and judicial in nature, based on the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. As noted above, the covenant requires that the Sovereign (YHWH) provides protection for His faithful and loyal vassals (the king and the righteous ones of Israel). He calls on YHWH to act “by/with [B=] His name”. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented and embodied the essence of the person. Thus, to call on the name of God is essentially the same as calling on God Himself.

God’s name (<v@) is parallel with His strength (hr*WbG+) in the second line, emphasizing again how the name is equivalent to the substance of the person. The action requested from YHWH is also expressed in parallel terms: to save (uv^y`, Hiphil stem) and to defend him (vb /yD!). This latter verb has a wide semantic range, the specific connotation of which must be determined by the context. A judicial setting is often implied, as here, referring to a judgment or decision that is made (on someone’s behalf); in this case, the parallel with uv^y` indicates that a more forceful nuance is intended, which I render above as “defend” (the verb in English can be used in both a legal and military context).

The four lines (of these two couplets) are given in reverse order, in relation to the action requested by the Psalmist:

    • Give ear to the words of my mouth (line 4)—i.e., listen to what I am saying
    • Hear my petition (line 3)—respond (fairly/favorably) to my request
    • Defend me (line 2)—i.e., make decision/judgment on my behalf
    • Save me (line 1)—i.e., act according to your decision and give me your protection (rescue me)

Syntactically, in each couplet, an imperative is followed by an imperfect verb form (with imperatival force); this imperative-imperfect sequence is a well-established feature of Canaanite and Hebrew poetry (cf. Dahood, I, pp. 29-31, 65, 261; II, p. 24). Metrically, these couplets follow a 3+2 pattern.

It is also worth noting that, as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, the first occurrence of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) here (if not both instances) has replaced the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) of the original composition.

Verse 5 [3]

“For strangers have stood (up) against me,
and dreadful (one)s have sought my soul—
they have not set (the) Mightiest in front of them.”

The first two lines of v. 5 give the reason for the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH. Foreign enemies (“strangers”, <yr!z`) have risen up (vb <Wq) against him, which is fully in accord with the royal background of this style of prayer-Psalm (cf. above). They are further described, in the second line, as “dreadful (one)s” (<yx!yr!u*)—that is, foreigners awesome and terrifying in their strength.

The final line, rounding out the verse as a tricolon (3-beat, 3+3+3), adds the important detail that “they have not set the Mightiest in front of them” (for a different way of understanding this line, cf. Dahood, II, p. 24f). Presumably, this refers to other nations and peoples, who worship other deities rather than YHWH. However, there may also be a bit of conceptual wordplay involved:

    • These people have stood up against Israel, having the king in front of them, and yet
    • They cannot succeed, since they do not have the God of Israel in front of them.

Verses 6-9 [4-7]

Verse 6 [4]

“See, (the) Mightiest (is the one) giving help to me,
my Lord, indeed, (the one) upholding my soul.”

The second strophe describes how YHWH answers the Psalmist’s plea (or how He is expected to answer). This description begins with an affirmation of trust in YHWH as his protector, being the one who “gives help (to)” and “upholds” the righteous—using substantive participles of the verbs rz~u* and Em^s*, respectively. The prefixed preposition B= is best understood as an emphatic (i.e., “indeed, truly”) use of the preposition (cf. Dahood, II, p. 25). Again, the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) is an ‘Elohist’ substitution in place of the Divine name (hwhy) that likely was present in the original composition.

Verse 7 [5]

“May the evil turn back to (the one)s hard (against) me!
In your firmness, may you finish them off!”

The imprecation of the first line follows a familiar theme in the Psalms—viz., that the evil intended by the wicked will come back upon them in a similar manner (variation of the lex talionis principle). The verb form bovy` is best understood as a jussive, expressing the Psalmist’s wish for what will happen, and fully expecting that YHWH will act to bring it about. There is a bit of conceptual wordplay between the “firmness” of the Psalmist’s opponents (i.e., those hard [rr^c*] against him) and the “firmness” (tm#a#) of YHWH. His firmness (in loyalty, goodness, and truth) is far superior to the stubborn resolve of the wicked, and so YHWH is certain to “finish them off” (vb tm^x*). There may be an additional bit of alliterative wordplay here between –tm!a& (°¦mit-) and –tym!x= (ƒ®mît-).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2, following the full 3-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 6.

Verse 8 [6]

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name,
YHWH, for (it is) good.”

The person of these lines suddenly shifts, as the Psalmist returns to the framework of his prayer to God. He interrupts the strophe to offer a vow to YHWH that, if as he expects, God will answer his prayer, then (in return) he will offer a sacrifice to Him. The type of offering is indicated by the term hb*d*n+ (from the root bdn, “[be] willing”), sometimes called a freewill offering—that is, an offering made freely by the worshiper (i.e., with a willing heart), apart from the sacrificial offerings required by the Torah. This sacrificial offering will be accompanied by praise to YHWH (lit. “to His name,” cf. above). The praise will acknowledge the goodness [bwf] of YHWH (“that [your name] is good,” i.e., “that you are good”).

The meter of this verse in the MT is irregular; it would be made somewhat more consistent (conforming loosely to a 3-beat couplet) if the Divine name (hwhy) were eliminated from the second line, as a number of commentators propose:

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name, for (it is) good.”

Verse 9 [7]

“For from all distress you have snatched me (away),
and on (the one)s hostile to me my eyes have looked (down).”

In this final (3-beat) couplet, the Psalmist confirms his expectation that YHWH will answer his prayer, expressing God’s action (on his behalf) in the past tense, as though it had already taken place (i.e., use of the precative perfect). The Psalmist trusts that YHWH will rescue him (“snatch away,” vb lx^n`, Hiphil stem) from all the “distress” (hr*x*) he faces from his adversaries, and that the tables will be turned on his enemies (lit. those “hostile” to him, active participle of the vb by~a*). His eye will look (down) on his enemies, implying their defeat and humiliation. While this may take place through the ordinary means of military conflict (keep in mind the royal background of this language and imagery, cf. above), victory is achieved through the strength of YHWH (fighting on Israel’s behalf). Protection against adversaries—for both the king and the Israelite people—is part of what God is required to provide to those who remain faithful/loyal to Him, according to the terms of the covenant.

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 51 (Part 2)

Psalm 51, continued

As previously discussed, this Psalm may be divided into two parts or stanzas: the first (vv. 3-11 [1-9], cf. last week’s study) focuses on forgiveness of sin, while the second (vv. 12-21 [10-19]) emphasizes the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin.

Part 2 (vv. 12-21 [10-19])

Verse 12 [10]

“A clean heart may you create for me, Mightiest,
and a sound spirit make new in my inner (parts).”

The opening couplet of the second stanza has a 4-beat (4+4) meter. It establishes the theme for the second part of the Psalm: the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin. Here we may properly refer to the New Testament (Pauline) idiom of a new creation, since the verbs ar*B* (“create”) and vd^j* (“be new,” Piel “make new”) are used in tandem. There is a formal parallelism at work in the couplet:

    • A heart | clean | may you create
    • A spirit | firm | may you make new

The verbs are imperatives, but when addressing God in this context, they are clearly petitionary: “may you…” The passive (Niphal) participle /okn, used as a verbal adjective, is a bit difficult to translate, since the root /wK has a relatively wide semantic range. The parallel with rohf* in the first line suggests that a purity of spirit is view; however, given the fundamental meaning of the verb /WK, a translation something like “well-founded” would not be far off the mark. For poetic concision, I have rendered it “sound” (= “firm, fixed”) above.

Verse 13 [11]

“May you not throw me out from before your face,
and (the) Spirit of your holiness, do not take it (away) from me!”

The meter in this second couplet is irregular, overweighted as 3+4. In such instances it is often better to treat the verse as a triad, with an initial 3-beat line followed by a short 2-beat couplet; however, here the parallelism of the lines is better served by retaining the longer 3+4 format:

    • Do not throw me out from before (you)
      • your face (i.e., Presence)
      • your holy Spirit
    • do not take away from me

The same basic petition is being made, but from two different directions or perspectives; the negative particle (la^) governs the two-fold petition, giving it a negative formation. The Psalmist asks that it should not happen:

    • that he be removed from God’s presence (His face) /
      that God’s presence (Spirit) be removed from him

The “face” and Spirit of YHWH both refer to His manifest presence and power. The literal expression in the second line is “spirit of holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr), but it corresponds precisely (in our idiom) to “holy spirit”. For more on this verse, in the context of Old Testament teaching and tradition on the Spirit, cf. my earlier study.

Verse 14 [12]

“May you return to me (the) joy of your salvation,
and (with) a willing spirit take hold of me.”

This verse builds upon the previous couplet, focusing on the effect of YHWH’s presence and power upon a person. That it has been missing for the Psalmist is indicated by the use of the verb bWv (“turn [back]”), here in the Hiphil, i.e., “make (something) turn back, make (it) return”. What has been missing, specifically, is the joyful experience of the salvation YHWH provides. The noun uv^y# here could also be rendered “safety” or “security”, referring to the protection provided by YHWH according to the binding agreement (covenant) He has established with those faithful/loyal to Him. Sin disrupts the covenant-bond, and removes the obligation for God to protect and deliver His vassal.

A second effect is that God’s Spirit transforms the spirit of His servant, turning it into a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit—so that the Psalmist might remain faithful to YHWH of his own accord, never again acting rebelliously to break faith with God. Here the Psalmist asks specifically that YHWH would “take hold of” him (vb Em^s*) with His holy Spirit, so that his own spirit might be changed (made new, v. 13 [11]) and strengthened.

This couplet returns to a 3-beat (3+3) meter, as if poetically resolving the tension (expressed metrically) built into the previous couplets.

Verse 15 [13]

“I will teach your ways (to those) breaking (faith),
and (those) sinning might (then) return to you.”

The vow or promise given here alludes back to the idea of a willing (hb*yd!n+) spirit in the previous verse, since the nouns hb*yd!n+ and hb*d*n+ can be used in the religious context of a voluntary gift or deed offered to God. Here the promise involves teaching the ways of God (as expressed primarily through the regulations and precepts of the Torah) to other sinners, those who are currently acting rebelliously and breaking faith (vb uv^P*) with YHWH. Following the ways of God means being faithful to the covenant bond (the Torah representing the terms of the covenant).

There is a bit of wordplay here that can be lost in English translation. In the previous verse, the Psalmist asked that God “return” the joy of salvation to him; now he promises that he will respond by causing other sinners to “return” to God—the same verb (bWv, “turn [back]”) being used in both instances.

Verse 16 [14]

“Snatch me away from blood, O Mightiest,
(you) Mighty (One) of my salvation,
(and) my tongue will ring out your justice.”

In this verse, the Psalmist makes yet another promise, framed conditionally—on the condition that YHWH rescue him (lit. snatch him away, vb lx^n`) from “(shedd)ing of blood”. The plural noun <ym!D* (“bloods”) is used in the Old Testament as a specific idiom (difficult to translate into English) referring to the shedding of blood. It can be used for violence (and wickedness) generally, even if no blood is actually shed. Here there are two possibilities: (1) it can refer to sin and wickedness, or (2) it can refer specifically to the guilt (from sin) that leads to death. Probably the latter is in view.

A 3-beat couplet (lines 1 and 3 above) has been expanded into a triad, including a short 2-beat middle line, emphasizing the Psalmist’s praise of God, the very thing that he promises to do if YHWH delivers him from death (“my tongue will cry/ring out [vb /n~r*] your justice”).

According to one line of interpretation, the Psalmist has experienced illness, which he understands as punishment for sin that he has committed. This generally fits the context, though the specific sense of physical suffering (from illness or disease) is not as prominent in this Psalm as it is in other prayer/petitionary Psalms we have studied. If he is praying to be delivered from death (cf. on the use of the word <ym!D* above), this would give some added weight to the idea that the Psalm involves a prayer for deliverance (healing) from sickness.

Verse 17 [15]

“My Lord, may you open (up) my lips,
and my mouth will bring out front a shout (to) you.”

This verse (another 3-beat couplet) builds upon the idea of giving praise to YHWH in v. 16 [14]. If God delivers him (from death), then the Psalmist promises to praise Him; yet, even so, he asks further that YHWH “open up” his lips (i.e., inspire him) so that he will be able to present a proper “shout” (hL*h!T=) of praise. The verb dg~n` (in the Hiphil stem) literally means “put in front, bring out front”. This is one of numerous references or allusions in the Psalms to the idea of musical/poetic inspiration, with the source of the inspiration being God Himself (His Spirit).

Verse 18 [16]

“For you do not delight (at all) in (ritual) slaughter,
and should I give (you) rising (smoke) you would not be pleased.”

The rhythm of this (slightly irregular) 3-beat couplet is a bit difficult to render into English. However the poetic parallelism of thought is clear and direct enough. It repeats some of the prophetic themes we saw expressed in Psalm 50 (cf. Parts 1 and 2 of that study), downplaying the importance of the sacrificial offerings. This message does not necessarily mean that one can (or should) forego the performance of the sacrificial ritual; rather, it emphasizes that the heart and intention of the person making the sacrifice is far more important. Simply fulfilling the ritual duty, while one’s heart remains unfaithful and rebellious, actually makes a mockery of the Torah regulations. This is clearly stated in the next verse.

Verse 19 [17]

“(The) slaughterings of (the) Mightiest (are) a broken spirit—
a heart broken and crushed, Mightiest, you will not despise.”

The powerfully concrete language used in this couplet tends to be lost in conventional English translation. It is important to preserve the fundamental meaning of the noun jb^z#; typically translated “sacrifice,” it literally refers to the slaughter of an animal (in a religious/ritual context). But what the Psalmist states here, most strikingly, is that the kind of slaughtering YHWH truly wants is not the cutting up of an animal, but the breaking apart of one’s spirit. That is to say, one should offer up one’s own spirit—one’s very own life and being—as a sacrificial offering. Two passive participles are used (as verbal adjectives) to express this, from the verbs rb^v* (“break [apart]”) and hk*D* (“crush”).

A broken and crushed spirit (j^Wr = heart [bl@]) refers both to an attitude of repentance and the experience of suffering. YHWH treats the animal sacrifices, in and of themselves, as worth nothing; however, the sacrifice of one’s own heart and spirit—that He does not treat as nothing (vb hz`B*, i.e., belittle, despise). On the contrary, a faithful/loyal heart is of the utmost importance to God, and part of this faithfulness is the willingness to make right the covenant bond when it is broken by sin. The process of making things right involves both repentance and the endurance of punishment (i.e., suffering) at times.

The expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of the Mightiest” means: sacrifices that one should offer to God, that are acceptable to Him.

Verses 20-21 [18-19]

“May you do good, by your pleasure, (to) ‚iyyôn,
(when) you build (the) walls of Yerushalaim;
then you shall delight (in) slaughterings of justice—
(the) rising (smoke) and (the) whole (offering)—
then they shall offer up bulls upon your place of slaughter.”

The Psalm comes to a close, somewhat curiously, with this pair of couplets (the second couplet being expanded into a triad), focusing rather abruptly on the city of Jerusalem. Commentators tend to regard it as an editorial appendix, whereby the original Psalm came to be adapted into a wider communal context. A number of Psalms show similar signs; once these compositions came to be utilized, on a regular basis, in a communal and ritual setting, it is not surprising that such minor additions would develop within the text.

The individual petition has shifted to a petition by the entire community of Jews (or Judeans) longing for a restoration of their holy city and its Temple. This clearly indicates an exilic (and probably post-exilic) setting. While this focus on communal and national restoration is secondary, it is not at all inappropriate from the standpoint of the Old Testament and Israelite religious tradition. Indeed, there is a close connection between individual sin and that of the community, and also between individual and national repentance.

It was, after all, the sins of individuals which led to the guilt and punishment of the entire community (of Judah and Jerusalem), culminating in the Exile and destruction of the Temple. Correspondingly, repentance will lead to the rebuilding of the city and Temple; once that happens, ritual sacrifices can again be offered to YHWH. The expectation is that, after the experience of suffering, the people will come to offer these sacrifices with a new and transformed heart, loyal to the covenant with YHWH, and thus the offerings will be acceptable to Him.


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 51 (Part 1)

Psalm 51

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-5 [1-3]); 4QPsj (vv. 2-6 [1-4])

Psalm 51 is certainly one of the most famous compositions in the Psalter, a prayer-Psalm attributed to David (according to the superscription) on the occasion of his sin with Bathsheba (and his condemnation by Nathan), cf. 2 Samuel 11-12. Most commentators are inclined, at the very least, to doubt this traditional background for the Psalm; the events surrounding the Bathsheba affair happen to be best fit for a such a petitionary prayer in the recorded life of David, so it is natural that scribes and editors would assign that historical background to the Psalm.

It is, indeed, a petitionary prayer, in which the Psalmist asks God to forgive his sin and to renew his heart. Commentators continue to debate whether this petition relates to healing from sickness, a situation that we have already seen emphasized in a number of the prayer-Psalms we have examined thus far. Since, in the ancient mind, disease and illness were often viewed as the result of sin, brought about as divine punishment, the two aspects—forgiveness and healing—can be closely connected.

After the sequence of Psalms attributed to the sons of Korah or to Asaph (cf. the previous study on Ps 50), we return here to David as the ascribed author. It is another musical composition (romz+m!), with no other direction (on performance, etc) given in the superscription. Metrically, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates, with a few exceptions.

From a structural and thematic standpoint, the Psalm can be divided into two parts or stanzas: the first (vv. 3-11 [1-9]) focuses on forgiveness of sin, while the second (vv. 12-21 [10-19]) emphasizes the new life (renewal) that follows the forgiveness (and expiation) of sin.

This is one of the seven “Penitential Psalms” in the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition, recited (or sung/chanted) especially during the Lenten season. Psalm 51 is certainly the most famous of these, known by its opening words in Latin (Miserere mei Deus, “God have mercy on me”). There have been many wonderful musical settings of the Miserere over the centuries; perhaps the one most widely heard is the two-choir setting by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652).

Part 1 (vv. 3-11 [1-9])

Verse 3 [1]

“Show favor to me, Mightiest, according to your goodness,
according to your many (act)s of love,
may you rub out my (act)s of breaking (faith)!”

This opening couplet has an irregular (extended) 3+4 meter, which I prefer to treat as a 3+2+2 tricolon—an initial 3-beat line followed by a short 2-beat couplet.

The use of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”, i.e., God) marks this as another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which (most) instances of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) have been replaced by the plural name/title <yh!l)a$. In all likelihood, the original composition read hwhy here in v. 3 [1].

The verbs are imperatives, by which the Psalmist implores YHWH to show mercy to him and to forgive his sin. The verb /n~j* fundamentally means “show favor”; it is relatively common verb (and religious term) which occurs frequently (32 times) in the Psalms. The second verb (hj*m*) means “wipe out, rub out”, here in the religious sense of wiping away the guilt of sin (and its effects).

The common noun ds#j# means “goodness, kindness”, but often connotes “loyalty, faithfulness” in the context of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. ds#j# carries this specific meaning often in the Psalms, as indeed it also does here. This relates also to the deep and abiding love (<j^r^) God has for his people, being expressed many different ways, including specific acts of love shown to them. Thus the use of the plural here, qualified by the construct noun br) (“multitude, abundance”), used in an adjectival sense (“many”). YHWH’s acts (and feelings) of deep love are contrasted with the Psalmist’s acts (again in the plural) of breaking faith (uv^P#) with God. The context of the binding agreement (covenant) is in view throughout.

Verse 4 [2]

“Many (times) may you stamp me (clean) from my crookedness,
and from my sin may you make me pure.”

The many (br)) acts of love by YHWH are paralleled here by repeated acts of cleansing, utilizing the modal verb hb*r* (related to br)), “be(come) many”. Probably the written MT is correct in reading an infinitive absolute (hB@r=h^), used here in an adverbial sense, i.e., doing something many times, or repeatedly. The verb sb^K* refers to washing a garment, etc, by stomping or kneading it in water; I have retained the harsh idea of stamping/stomping on something (to make it clean). This repeated and forceful washing results in making the object clean and pure (vb rh@f*).

The noun /ou* literally means “crookedness”, indicating something that is crooked or twisted (in a moral or religious sense). Parallel with this is the more general noun ha*F*j^, basically denoting an error or failure, but almost always in the sense of a moral or religious failure (i.e., sin).

Verse 5 [3]

“For my (act)s of breaking (faith) do I acknowledge—
indeed, my sin is continually in front of me.”

The Psalmist admits and recognizes the times and moments that he has broken faith (i.e., violated the covenant bond) with YHWH. This refers primarily to violations of the Torah regulations, which represent the terms of the covenant. These can be either intentional or unintentional sins—the former being much more serious and beyond the normal ritual means (sacrificial offerings, etc) for correcting the offense. David’s sin with Bathsheba, indicated in the superscription (cf. above) is an example of a grave (intentional) sin that requires a special act of mercy and forgiveness by God to remove its effects.

The verb ud^y` (“know”) is used here in the sense of “acknowledge”. The acknowledgement of sin is necessary before repentance can truly take place. Until YHWH forgives and cleanses him, the protagonist is constantly aware of his sinfulness (“my sin [is] continually in front of me”), suggesting that it is keeping him from having any peace with himself. This may also mean that the effect of his sin, possibly in the form of suffering (from illness, etc), is also continually present, and will not be removed until YHWH removes his guilt. By being “in front of” (dg#n#) him, the Psalmist’s sin may also be functioning in the role of his accuser (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 12).

Verse 6 [4]

“Against you—against you alone—have I sinned,
and (what is) evil in your eyes have I done.
(This is) so that you be (considered) just in your speaking,
and clear (of wrong) in your judging.”

The relation of these two couplets to each other is problematic. The meaning of the first couplet is straightforward enough: the Psalmist acknowledges that, in his failure, he has sinned against YHWH Himself. This involves a tacit recognition of sin in terms of the covenant bond with YHWH—violation of the bond means breaking faith with YHWH. What is “evil in God’s eyes” is expressed fundamentally through the regulations of the Torah.

More difficult is the sense of the second couplet. It would seem to be dependent on the Psalmist’s confession/admission of sin. He is fundamentally admitting that YHWH, in rendering judgment against him (in the form of disease, illness or other suffering?), has acted justly/rightly and is clear of any (judicial) wrongdoing Himself.

Syntactically, the difficulty lies in the opening particle—the prefixed conjunction /u^m^l=, used in something of an adverbial sense. This expression is notoriously difficult to translate in English. Here it would seem to summarize the Psalmist’s confession in vv. 3-5, indicating purpose: i.e., “this is so that…” —I say all of this so that you will be considered right/just in how you have judged me. This right judgment by YHWH is expressed verbally, using the verbs qd^x* (“be right/just”) and hk^z` (“be clear, clean, pure”).

Verse 7 [5]

“See, in crookedness I was twisted (into shape),
and in sin did my mother become warm (with) me.”

The two verbs—lWj and <j^y` —which I here translate quite literally, in their fundamental sense, both refer to a woman giving birth. The “twisting” (vb lWj) alludes to the writhing of the mother in childbirth, but also relates conceptually to the idea of “crookedness” (/ou*) and of being ‘twisted’ into shape (i.e. born as a human being). The Psalmist’s sinfulness, however, goes back even to the moment when his mother became pregnant (lit. became warm/hot, vb <j^y`) with him. This is one of the few Old Testament passages that suggests something akin to the later doctrine of ‘original sin’.

Verse 8 [6]

“See, you delight in firmness in the covered (part)s,
and in the closed up (part)s you make me know wisdom.”

There is a certain parallelism of thought between this couplet and the one preceding (v. 7 [5]), contrasting the sinfulness in which the Psalmist was born (outwardly) with the faithfulness of the heart that is established (within). The “covered (part)s” (hj*f%, plur.) and the “closed up (part)s” (passive participle of the verb <t^s*) essentially refer to the same thing: the innermost part of the person—in Pauline terms we might refer to the contrast between the “inner man” and the “outer man”.

Even though a person may be ‘born in sin’, one is still able to follow God, being faithful and loyal to Him, in one’s heart. The “firmness” (tm#a#) of one’s intention is manifest through action—that is, a willingness to fulfill the requirements of the covenant bond, the regulations, etc, in the Torah. At the same time, such a person is also receptive to being taught (lit. made to know) wisdom by God in the heart. It is thus possible to have wisdom and understanding, and to think and act in a way that is pleasing to God, despite being ‘born in sin’.

Verse 9 [7]

“Purge me of sin with hyssop, and I will be pure;
stomp me (clean), and like snow I will be made white!”

Hyssop (boza@) was used in several different ritual contexts; most notably, it was part of the cleansing rituals outlined in Leviticus 14 (vv. 4, 6, 49, 51-52), and also the ‘Red Heifer’ purification rite in Numbers 19 (vv. 6, 18). There, it was a question of ritual purity (for the physical body), while here, in the Psalm, the sinfulness is of a moral (and/or religious) kind. Yet, the Psalmist asks God to perform a similar kind of ritual act (as with the hyssop) in order to cleanse him of sin. This is further described in terms of washing a garment (by stomping or treading on it), using the same idiomatic verb (sb^K*) as in v. 4 (cf. above).

This ‘washing’ will make the Psalmist clear (of sin) and thus clean and pure (vb rh@f*). This also expressed through the idiom of whiteness (vb /b^l*, “be [or make] white”), like that of freshly fallen snow (cp. Isa 1:18). The prefixed /m! (“from”) on the noun gl#v# is an example of the preposition used in a comparative sense (i.e., “like” or “more than”). This can be difficult to render in English; to preserve a smooth poetic line, I have translated it as “like” above, but one could also say, “…and even more than snow will I be made white” (i.e., “I will be made whiter than snow”).

Verse 10 [8]

“Let me hear (again) joy and rejoicing,
and may (the) strong (limb)s you crushed spin (for joy)!”

This verse is cited by those who believe that the Psalmist is suffering from some form of illness or disease, viewed as punishment by God (for his sin). The mention of the crushing (vb hk*D*) of his once-strong limbs (or “bones”) would certainly seem to suggest this, as in previous Psalms we have examined (cp. 6:2; 22:14, 17; 31:10; 32:3; 38:3). Similarly, the desire to be able to “hear” joy and happiness again, and to dance (“twirl, spin”) for joy, suggests that he has been experiencing suffering. The removal of his sin (and its guilt) will also remove any suffering that had been imposed by God as punishment for it.

Verse 11 [9]

“May you cover up your face from my sins,
and all my crooked (deed)s may you rub out!”

At the close of this section (or stanza), the Psalmist repeats his plea from v. 3 [1], asking YHWH to “rub out” (vb hj*m*) his sins and “crooked” deeds. He also asks God to “cover up” (vb rt^s*) His face so that He cannot see the sin. The covering of the face is parallel with the act of wiping away—these are two different aspects of the same process of forgiving/removing sin; in classical theological terminology, we would describe these as propitiation (God’s favorable view of the sinner) and expiation (the removal of the actual guilt).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 3)

Psalm 44, continued

In the first two parts of this Psalm (see the earlier studies on vv. 2-9 [1-8] and 10-17 [9-16]), the Psalmist recounts the great deeds performed by YHWH in protection of His people, and then the suffering and loss that came upon them when He removed that protection. Clearly, the latter involves conquest of the land and exile of the people, even if the precise historical circumstances indicated by the Psalm cannot be determined. At the very least,the conquest/exile of the Northern kingdom would have occurred, and we can fairly assume a time-frame no earlier than the end of the 8th century B.C.

The reason for YHWH removing His protection, and allowing the conquest/exile of the people, is not stated in the Psalm, but would have been known to anyone familiar with Israelite history (especially as it is presented in the Prophetic Scriptures). It was the flagrant (and repeated) sin by the people, the violation(s) of the covenant bond with YHWH, that led to the punishment of conquest/exile. The breach of covenant took the form, primarily, of idolatry—that is, the worship of deities other than YHWH.

While the Psalmist identifies with the people, he does not identify himself with the sin that brought about the exile. This suggests that he may belong to a younger generation, Israelites who had to endure the punishment (the suffering and shame of exile, etc), even though they were not directly responsible for the sin that led to it. Throughout the final section of the Psalm, the protagonist affirms his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH, identifying himself with the righteous ones.

Verses 18-27 [17-26]

Verse 18 [17]

“All this has come (upon) us,
and (yet) we did not forget you,
and have not been false by (the) binding (agreement).”

This opening verse is (loosely) a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, emphasizing, as noted above, that the Psalmist is among those who have remained faithful to the covenant (tyr!B=, lit. “binding [agreement]”) with YHWH, even as he has to endure the suffering and disgrace of life in exile. This faithfulness is expressed by two verbs in the negative: jk^v* (“forget,” i.e., “we did not forget you”) and rq^v* (“be false, act falsely,” i.e., “we were not false regarding the covenant”).

Verse 19 [18]

“Our heart has not moved back behind,
and our footsteps (never) bent from your path.”

Both in their intention (“our heart”) and their daily conduct (“our footsteps”), the righteous have not strayed from the path of faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. This image of walking the path or way of God is a common Wisdom motif, and occurs frequently in the Wisdom writings (including many Psalms). Here the jr^a) signifies a well-worn and traveled road, meaning primarily that the track is well-defined and clear. The allusion is to the commands and regulations of the Instruction (Torah), which represent the terms of the agreement (covenant) with YHWH.

Verse 20 [19]

“For you have crushed us in (the) place of monsters,
and (then) covered over us with (the) shadow of death.”

The emphasis in this couplet shifts back to the idea of the suffering of the righteous (in exile). The first line is uncertain. The Masoretic text has the expression <yN]T^ <oqm=B! (“in the standing-place of monsters”), which could stand as an apt description of the polytheistic heathen environment where the righteous now dwell (in exile, i.e., within the Assyrian/Babylonian empire). However, Dahood (p. 267) suggests that the consonantal text be divided differently, as <y]n~t=m* qomB=, “with decay (in the) loins”. Here the image is of a festering illness/sickness that can lead to death—a familiar motif in the Psalms, as we have seen.

In any case, the life of suffering and shame can be described as living “in the shadow of death [tw#m*l=x^]”; this idiom occurs with some frequency in Old Testament poetry—cf. the famous occurrence in Psalm 23:4; also 107:10, 14, and 10 times in the book of Job (3:5; 10:21-22; 12:22; 16:16; 24:17, etc).

Verses 21-22 [20-21]

“(Yet) if we had forgotten (the) name of our Mighty (One),
and stretched (out) our palms to a strange(r’s) Mighty (One),
would not (the) Mightiest (One) have searched this (out)?
for He (is One) knowing (the) hidden (place)s of (the) heart.”

Verse 21 [20] is related to v. 20 [19] as a confirmation of the Psalmist’s faithfulness. Even though YHWH has “crushed” him (and the other righteous ones now in exile), this was not due to his disloyalty to the covenant. He makes clear that he has not worshiped or recognized any deity besides YHWH. The divine name in the first and third lines is the plural <hy!l)a$ (Elohim), which I translate as “Mightiest (One)”, or, when with a possessive suffix, as “Mighty (One)”. The second occurrence here (in line 3, first line of v. 22 [21]) is likely an Elohist substitution for hwhy (YHWH).

In line 2, “Mighty (One)” translates the related singular noun la@, the common Semitic word for deity, and the title for the High Creator God (El). Here it is used in the general sense of deity (i.e., a[ny] god). The designation rz` means that it is a deity worshiped by the surrounding peoples; literally it refers to people who have “turned aside” to dwell (among the Israelites), but it is often used simply to designate a non-Israelite (i.e., a stranger/foreigner). Thus the connotation here is specifically a non-Israelite deity—that is, a deity other than YHWH.

There is no point in the Psalmist making such a confession if it were not true, that is, if he really had worshiped other gods (and thus would be deserving of punishment). Since YHWH knows the “hidden places” of every person’s heart, He would surely know if there were any inclination to idolatry (i.e., veneration of other deities) in the Psalmist’s heart. Such idolatry in Israel led to the punishment of conquest and exile, but the Psalmist denies that he is guilty of any such sin. This kind of affirmation of loyalty to YHWH is frequent in the Psalms, often featuring as part of an appeal to YHWH (as Judge) by the Psalmist that he is innocent of any violation of the covenant.

Verse 23 [22]

“(But it is) that over you we are being slain all the day (long),
considered as sheep (for the) slaughter.”

The prepositional expression ;yl#u* (“over you”) is emphatic, and can be understood a couple of different ways. It may carry the sense of “for your sake”, that is, because we are your people. Another possibility is that it refers to the purpose and action of YHWH— “because of you”, i.e, because you have done this or willed this. In any case, the current suffering of the Psalmist (and other righteous ones like him) is not because of any disloyalty to YHWH on his part; rather, it is because he belongs to the people that has endured the punishment from YHWH.

This punishment involves some measure of persecution by the nations in which Israel is exiled. Such persecution was described extensively, if in rather general terms, in the second section of the Psalm (cf. the previous study). Here it is described by the motif of slaughter. Two different roots are used for this: the first, gr^h*, is the regular verb for the slaying of a human being; the second, hb^f*, for the slaughtering/butchering of an animal (for food). The idea of sheep being slaughtered is used in a number of Old Testament (Prophetic) passages for the suffering of the people, and, in particular, of the judgment that comes upon them (cf. Isa 53:7; Jer 12:3; 25:34; Zech 11:3).

Probably this should be understood in a general, figurative sense here, rather than specifically to the idea of the people of Israel being killed. However, the experience of persecution may, in fact, involve instances of people being put to death, just as, sadly enough, we find it amply recorded in the long history of anti-Israelite and anti-Jewish violence.

Verse 24 [23]

“Rouse (yourself)! For what [i.e. why] do you sleep, my Lord?
Awaken! May you not reject (us) to (the) end!”

The Psalmist calls on YHWH to act, to end this condition of suffering and disgrace for His people. This is done utilizing the motif of rising/waking from sleep. To suggest that a deity is ‘asleep’ means that there is no obvious evidence that he is acting (on behalf of his adherents), which gives the impression that he is sleeping. This motif is used as part of the anti-Baal polemic in the Elijah narratives (cf. 1 Kings 18:27). As the true God, El-Yahweh cannot be “asleep” in that sense (Psalm 121:4); rather, his ‘sleep’ means that He seems to be inattentive to the prayers of His people (cf. Dahood, pp. 267-8).

Verse 25 [24]

“For what [i.e. why] have you hidden your face,
(so that) you forget our oppression and our distress?”

The apparent lack of response, to the prayers of the righteous for deliverance, can also be described by the image of God hiding (vb rt^s*) His face. Dahood (p. 268), here, and at other points in the Psalms, would read the verb as derived from the root rWs (“turn [aside]”); the meaning is comparable, since God “turns away” His face when He “hides” it. The suffering of the people is described by a pair of nouns with similar meaning: (1) yn]a(, “oppression”, with the fundamental meaning of being bent/pressed down; and (2) Jj^l^, “distress, pressure”, with the basic idea of being squeezed. The first root (hn`a*), in particular, occurs frequently in the Psalms, in reference to the righteous (and their suffering).

Verse 26 [25]

“For our soul is bent down to the dust,
and our belly sticks (hard) to the earth.”

Here the idea of being pressed down, from v. 25 [24], is described vividly, in terms of a person laying down on the ground. The people collectively, in spirit (“our soul”) as much as in body, are forced to bow down (i.e., are bent down, vb hj*v*) to the ground, to the point of crawling/laying down in the dust. The second line extends the image further, to that of a person laying flat on the ground (on his/her belly), a prostrate position that well symbolizes both weakness and humiliation.

Verse 27 [26]

“Stand (up now and) give help to us,
and ransom us as response to your goodness!”

The call in v. 24 [23] (cf. above) is repeated here, though in the more general terms of standing up (i.e. rising) to give help to one who is in need. Along with Dahood (p. 268) and other commentators I read htrzu as a verb (rather than noun) form, “give help”; it probably should be parsed as a precative perfect, parallel in meaning with the prior imperative (hm*Wq, “stand [up]!”).

The call for YHWH to act is based on the binding agreement (covenant). The Psalmist throughout has affirmed his loyalty to the covenant bond, and his faithfulness means that he is deserving of the protection that YHWH is obligated to provide. According to the terms of the covenant, YHWH must keep His loyal vassals safe from danger, rescuing and fighting on their behalf, just as He did for Israel in times past (cf. the study on the first section of the Psalm). As I have previously noted, the noun ds#j#, while having the basic meaning of “goodness, kindness”, is often used in a covenant context, where it connotes faithfulness and loyalty. That is very much its meaning here; the rescue (lit. “ransom,” vb hd*P*) that the Psalmist asks for is based on, and must come as a response to (/u^m^l=), YHWH’s own faithfulness to the covenant.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 1)

Psalms 42-43

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc & 4QPsu (42:5 [4]); 11QPsd (43:1-3)

Most commentators recognize that Psalms 42 and 43 comprise a single Psalm, containing three stanzas (42:2-6 [1-5], 7-12 [6-11], and 43:1-5), each of which ends with a common refrain. This is one of the clearest examples of a Psalm that, in its current form, would have been especially well-suited to being sung by a congregation in public worship. Metrically, it tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon (couplet) format (the so-called Qinah meter).

The superscription is distinctive, since it attributes the composition, not to David (as in most of Pss 1-41), but to the “sons of Qorah [Korah]”. The Korahites were priestly officials who served in the Temple, as attested in the books of Chronicles (1 Chron 9:19; 26:1, 19), and also as a company of singers (2 Chron 20:19). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, they are simply designated as Levite clan (Exod 6:21; 1 Chron 6:7, 23 [22, 38]), with no additional information provided. Clearly it is the group of Temple singers that is most relevant to the superscription here (as also in Pss. 44-49, 84-85, 87-88). It is possible that they were responsible for the editing of the ‘Elohist Psalter’ (cf. below).

The musical direction of the superscription also indicates that this composition is a lyK!c=m^, a term of uncertain meaning, but presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root 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), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely. The term appears in the superscriptions of a number of Psalms in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ (44-45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88-89); cf. also the earlier study on Psalm 32.

Stanza 1: Verses 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“As a deer cries (out) upon channels of water,
so my soul cries (out) to you, Mightiest (One)!”

The meter of this initial couplet is 4+4, an expanded metrical form that creates a grand and solemn opening. The feminine form of the verb (gr)u&T^) in the first line does not match the noun-subject (lY`a^, “[male] deer”); we would rather expect hl*Ya^ (“[female] deer”), in agreement with the verb. Dahood (p. 255) suggests dividing the text grut lyak differently, as gr)u* tl#Y#a^K= (“like a [female] deer crying [out]”).

The verb gr^u* refers to a cry of longing; a crying out loud is indicated by the parallel between gr^u* and ar^q* in Joel 1:19-20 (the only other occurrence of gru in the OT). The idea may be of the deer’s longing to quench his (or her) thirst, but the parallel between the “channels of water” and God (“[the] Mightiest”) suggests rather a scene where the longing for thirst is fulfilled (upon finding water). The basic imagery is well-established in Semitic poetry, going back to the Canaanite poetic texts from Ugarit; most notably, the image of a deer/stag going to a spring to quench its thirst is compared to the ravenous appetite (hunger/thirst) of Death personified (Baal Epic, tablet V, column 1, lines 16-19, etc).

“Mightiest (One)” is my regular translation of the plural noun <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), understood as an intensive plural when applied to El-Yahweh (in the context of ancient Israelite monotheism). It can be transliterated as a name/title (Elohim), though more often it is simply translated generically as “God”. Curiously, in Psalms 4283 Elohim is used far more often than YHWH (more than 200 times, compared with only 45 for YHWH), in contrast to the rest of the Psalms, where YHWH dominates (more than 580 times, compared with little over 90 for Elohim). This has led to Pss 42-83 being referred to as the “Elohist Psalter”. The reasons for the difference are not entirely clear. It has been thought that the regular use of <yh!ýa$ reflects an intentional editing of compositions which originally used the divine name hwhy (YHWH) throughout.

Verse 3 [2]

“My soul thirsts for (the) Mightiest,
for (the) Living Mighty (One)—
when will I come and be seen (by)
(the) face of (the) Mightiest?”

Here we have a pair of 3+2 couplets that builds upon the idea expressed in the opening verse. The motif of “drinking” has led Dahood (p. 256) to explain hara as a form of the root ary II (cognate with hwr), involving the idea of pouring out and watering (saturating) the ground, along with the related concept of a person (or animal) being filled (sated/satisfied) by drink. If his analysis turns out to be correct, then the second couplet above would be translated something like:

“when will I come and drink my fill
(of the) face of (the) Mightiest?” (cp. Ps 34:9)

In any case, the thing that will quench the Psalmist’s thirst is to experience the very presence of YHWH Himself (His “face”).

Verse 4 [3]

“My tears have been food for me
(by) day and (by) night,
in (their) saying to me, all the day (long):
‘Where (is) your Mighty (One)?'”

The motif of thirst/drinking continues in this verse (again another pair of 3+2 couplets). While the Psalmist longs to drink from the very presence of YHWH, here on earth he has been been drinking only from his tears (toum*D=)—by which is meant his experience of sorrow and suffering. The idea of eating/drinking tears (as “food” [or bread, <j#l#]) reflects another ancient Canaanite poetic idiom. Again, an example is at hand in the Baal Epic from Ugarit (Tablet VI, column 1, lines 9-10), in which, following the death of Baal Haddu, the goddess Anat, in her mourning “she weeps her fill, drinks her tears like wine”.

The Psalmist’s sorrow/suffering is accompanied by mocking taunts from a group of wicked onlookers. This is a familiar motif in the Psalms (cf. the recent studies on Pss 40 and 41). The suffering of the Psalmist (often depicted as the result of an illness) brings into question his loyalty and trust in YHWH. The voice of the wicked and faithless ones, which can also serve to express his own doubts, asks “Where is your Mighty (One)?”. Here “Mighty One” = “Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$), the two titles El and Elohim being so close in meaning (and significance) as to be virtually identical. The theme of the suffering of the righteous—and with it, the apparent absence of God’s presence—was popular in ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature, and is reflected in many of the Psalms as well.

Verse 5 [4]

“These will I remember, and will pour out
my soul upon me (as I do)—
that I went over in(to the) cover of (the) <Majestic> (One),
unto (the) house of (the) Mightiest,
with a voice of shouting and casting (praise),
(amid the) noise of (those) circling.”

While these lines are difficult to interpret (and translate) in detail, the overall sense of them is clear enough. The protagonist of the Psalm, in his suffering, recalls his recent pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple, almost certainly on the occasion of a holy festival. This is indicated by the verb gg~j*, which, it seems, has the fundamental meaning of making a (circular) procession, but which early on took on the technical meaning of making a procession (to Jerusalem) for one of the three great pilgrimage feasts; a cognate root in Arabic was used later on for the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj).

Here, the festival in question may be that of Booths/Tabernacles (Sukkot), for which an allusion seems to be present in the obscure phrase “I went over in(to the) cover [Es)] of Majesty [?]”. I follow Kraus (p. 437) in tentatively emending MT <D@D^a# as reflecting the root rda—possibly a plural substantive <yr!yD!a^, or the adjective ryD!a^ with an enclitic <-. According to this line of interpretation, ryD!a^ (“great, majestic”) is a title for YHWH, creating a clear parallel: “cover of (the) Majestic (One)” / “house of the Mightiest (One)”. The Es) (sœk, “covering”) is the Temple and its sanctuary, the “booth” (= house) of God.

At such a pilgrimage festival, the Psalmist would have come before “the face” of YHWH, to “be seen” by Him (cf. on verse 3 [2] above), in a symbolic and ritual sense. Now, in the midst of his sorrow, the Psalmist longs for a real experience of God’s presence, one that he can “drink” to give him nourishment and to satisfy him in his time of need.

Refrain: Verse 6 [5]

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

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm. The parallel occurrences in v. 12 [11] and 43:5 make clear that the first word of v. 7 [6] is misplaced and belongs at the end of the final line of v. 6 [5].

The Psalmist’s suffering and sorrow has led to his “soul” being “poured out”, and the same idea here is expressed by the verb jj^v* (“bend down [low]”) in the passive-reflexive (Hitpolel) stem. The sense of suffering/sorrow is reinforced by the image of the soul making a loud noise (‘clamor’), vb hm*h*. The Psalmist’s response to his own troubled soul is to wait (vb lj^y`) for God—that is, for Him to act, delivering the Psalmist from the source of his suffering. Indeed, the protagonist believes that he will once again, very soon, praise YHWH and worship Him just as he did at the pilgrimage festival (cf. above). The Psalmist remains firm in his belief that YHWH is his Savior (“the Salvation of my face”) and the true God (“Mighty/Mightiest [One]”) who will act on his behalf.

This reflects the theme of covenant loyalty that runs throughout many (indeed most) of the Psalms we have studied. Because the Psalmist has remained faithful and loyal, he is confident that he will receive help and protection from YHWH. Indeed, the promise of such protection is implicit in the very terms of the covenant (between YHWH and Israel). This extends to healing and deliverance from illness, as well as relief from the attacks (and taunts) by the wicked. Only a complete deliverance will confirm the trustworthiness of YHWH (as Sovereign), and vindicate the righteousness and loyalty of the Psalmist (His vassal).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 41 (Part 1)

Psalm 41

Dead Sea MSS: Nothing of Ps 41 has been preserved among the surviving Psalms MSS

This Psalm may be divided loosely into two parts. The first (vv. 2-5 [1-4]) is a prayer to YHWH with strong Wisdom features. It focuses on the righteous, and climaxes with a personal plea (by the Psalmist) for healing and deliverance.  The second part (vv. 6-13 [5-12]) deals with the attacks by the wicked against the righteous, retaining the central theme-setting of the first part: the experience of illness by the righteous. As in several other Psalms we have studied thus far, the wicked respond with malice (slanderous taunts) to the suffering of the righteous. The prayer that concludes this second part (vv. 11-13 [10-12]) focuses on deliverance from these attacks by the wicked. A short verse of praise (v. 14 [13]) to YHWH brings the Psalm to a close.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 4+4 bicolon (couplet) format; however, there many irregularities as well, some of which may be evidence of textual corruption. Sadly, as noted above, there is no help available from the Dead Sea manuscripts, since Psalm 41 is not to be found among the surviving Psalms MSS.

The superscription gives the common direction, designating the work as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) lowly <and needy>,
in (the) day of evil, YHWH will cause him to slip away [i.e. escape].”

There is a fundamental difficulty in the first line of this couplet. The meter of the couplet as it stands is 3+4, rather than the expected 4+4, suggesting that a word may have dropped out. Secondly, we have the word lD*: does it mean “lowly (one)” (from ll^D*), or “door” (from hl*D*)? The former is the more common lD* in the Psalms, where it is paired with the noun /oyb+a# (“needy, poor”), i.e., “the lowly and needy” (72:13; 82:3-4; 113:7). Many commentators thus would add here /oyb=a#w+, a reading which the LXX seems to assume. In this case, the first line would be:

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) lowly <and needy>”

However, another possibility is raised by a comparison with Psalm 141:3, where we find the idea of keeping watch over “the door [lD*] of (one’s) lips” (i.e., guarding one’s speech).

Making the situation more difficult is the fact that the verb lk^c* only rarely takes a direct object or governs a prepositional phrase; such occurrences are even rarer when the verb form is a participle, such as the Hiphil form here /yk!c=m^, where it tends to be used as a substantive (“[one] giving consideration”, i.e., who is wise/prudent/understanding). The only such instances of the participle in the Psalms are 14:2 and 53:3 [2], while it is rather more common in the Proverbs. It is also in the Proverbs where we find the closest parallels to the usage here:

    • Prov 16:20: “(the one) giving consideration upon a word” (rb*D*-lu^ lyK!c=m^)
    • Prov 16:23: “(the) heart of a wise (man) gives consideration (to) his mouth, and upon his lips he continues receiving (instruction)”
    • Prov 21:11: “in (his) giving consideration to (the) wise he receives knowledge”
    • Prov 21:12: “(the) righteous (one) is giving consideration to (the) house of the wicked”

Prov 16:23 favors lD* as “door (of)” in Ps 41:2 [1], with an emended reading such as: “(the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his lips >” (cf. Dahood, p. 249). On the other hand, Prov 21:11-13 favors an emended text that follows the LXX (cf. above), with the idea of paying attention to the lowly (lD*) and needy. The evidence, as I see it, is equally divided. It is unfortunate that nothing of Psalm 41 is preserved in the Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts; if verse 2 [1] were present, it might well resolve the textual question.

Another factor is the beatitude context. This formulation (opening with yr@v=a^, “happiness of”, “how happy is…”) is frequently applied to the righteous, in terms of those who walk according to the path of YHWH, following the commands and precepts of the Torah, etc. As such, it seems that it might relate better to the idea of guarding one’s lips (and heart), as in Psalm 141:3-4. All things considered, I am inclined to adopt a reading that is comparable in meaning to Psalm 141:3:

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his lips>”
or, conceivably,
“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his heart>”

However, with no textual support for such an emendation, it is probably safer, for the time being, to follow the LXX, in the manner indicated above.

Verse 3 [2]

“YHWH shall guard him and keep him alive,
He shall make (him) happy in the land,
and shall not give him in(to the) throat of his enemies!”

Metrically, this verse is difficult and may possibly be corrupt; if so, there is, unfortunately, no reliable way to modify or emend the text. As it is stands, the verse reads as an irregular (3+2+3) tricolon. Conceptually, the lines are straightforward enough, following the promise of deliverance for the righteous in the second line of verse 2 [1] (cf. above). The protection provided by YHWH, guarding the life of the righteous, relates to the idea of rescuing him “in the day of evil”.

The second line here is a bit awkward, and it may be preferable (along with Dahood, p. 249) to vocalize rvay as an active (Piel) form, rV@a^y+ (“he will make happy”), rather than the passive (Pual) of the MT, rV^a%y+ (“he will be made happy”). Clearly, the verb rv^a* relates to the beatitude formula the opens the Psalm (cf. above), and reflects the blessing that YHWH gives to the righteous. Those whom YHWH delivers in the time of evil, under his protection they will be safe and will prosper in the land (i.e., their life on earth).

In the final line, it is best to understand vp#n# in the concrete sense of “throat”, which is how the word is used occasionally in the Psalms (and other early poems). Another possible translation is “appetite”, which would conform more closely to the regular rendering of vp#n# as “soul” (cf. below). The enemies (lit. “hostile [one]s”) of the righteous seek to devour them, which can include the idea of causing their death. It is also possible that the wording here reflects the traditional image of Death personified as an all-consuming, ravenous entity, with a massive mouth/throat that seeks to swallow (devour) all things.

Verse 4 [3]

“YHWH shall support him upon (the) couch of (his) sickness,
every place of his lying down shall you turn over in his illness.”

This couplet gives some confirmation that the “enemies” of verse 3 [2] (as a collective or intensive plural) refer to death itself. We have encountered many Psalms where a life-threatening illness is involved, and that is clearly the focus here. The “day of evil” can take many forms, whereby the righteous are threatened and may be in danger of death; and, in the ancient world with its high rate of mortality, disease and illness frequently led to death. The promise here, continued from the opening verse, is that YHWH’s protection for the righteous will extend to help and healing in time of illness.

The shift from 3rd person to 2nd person may seem peculiar, but it is not at all uncommon in Near Eastern poetry. Here, we may view the shift as transitional to the Psalmist’s address to YHWH in verse 5 [4]. The verb Ep^h* often means “overturn”, but here it is perhaps better to keep to the fundamental meaning of “turn”, in the sense of turning (i.e. changing) the “couch of sickness” into something else—namely, a place of health and wholeness. Every place where the righteous lies down, there will be healing and life, rather than sickness and the threat of death.

Verse 5 [4]

“I said, ‘YHWH, show favor to me!
May you heal my soul,
for I have sinned against you!'”

This initial portion of the Psalm concludes with a plea to YHWH by the Psalmist. As is often the case, the Psalmist represents the righteous, and here the general Wisdom-sentiment of vv. 2-4 (i.e., instruction for the righteous) gives way to a personal appeal by a protagonist who personifies and embodies the righteous. Whether the author of the Psalm actually experienced such illness and suffering is beside the point; it is a topos that occurs repeatedly in the Psalms, and reflects an experience that would have been familiar to many faithful Israelites. As such, it relates to the common Wisdom-theme of the suffering of the righteous.

While illness could be viewed as an attack by a malevolent adversary, the monotheistic faith of the devout Israelite ultimately viewed YHWH Himself as the source of sickness and disease. Typically, it was thought as coming about as the result of sin—the disease being the punishment (by God) for such sin. Here the Psalmist admits that he has sinned against YHWH, recognizing that the illness that has struck him must be the result of his sin. It is a confession that is meant to demonstrate his faithfulness and devotion to YHWH, hoping (and expecting) that God will deliver him and remove the illness. He specifically prays that YHWH will heal (vb ap*r*) his soul (vp#n#, i.e., his life), but this concept of healing can have a deeper level of meaning as well, tied to the idea of repentance. In repenting of his sin, the Psalmist effectively asks that his life be made whole again, so that he can follow the path of God faithfully, avoiding any sinful ways that might turn him from the path.

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


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 40 (Part 2)

Psalm 40, continued

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

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

Verse 12 [11]

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

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

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

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

Verse 13 [12]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 14-18 [13-17]

Verse 14 [13]

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

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

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

Verse 15 [14]

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

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

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

Verse 16 [15]

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

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

Verse 17 [16]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 18 [17]

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 39 (Part 2)

Psalm 39, continued

Verses 7-11 [6-12]

Verse 7 [6]

“Indeed, a man walks about in a shadow,
indeed, (in) emptiness he roars,
he heaps up, but does not know who will gather.”

This tricolon (3+2+3) continues the Wisdom-theme from verses 5-6 [4-5] (cf. the discussion in the previous study), emphasizing the brevity and transitory nature of human existence. Especially when compared to YHWH, human beings are nothing, a mere emptiness (lb#h#). The point being made here in v. 7 [6] has to do with all the activity and work a person performs during his/her life. Implicit in this is the idea of human ambition and earthly prestige, and how vain they are in the long run. This is a common theme in Wisdom literature, and it is emphasized here in the Psalm.

Human beings “walk about” (vb El^h* in the reflexive Hitpael stem) and are “in an uproar” (vb hm^h*, lit. “roar, cry out [loud]”), toiling, struggling, and fighting for earthly goods and gain. This is done “in a shadow” (<l#x#B=) and is characterized as “emptiness” (lb#h#). It is possible to read the initial preposition B= of <l#x#B= in an emphatic sense, i.e., “truly (as) a shadow”, emphasizing how a human being (especially with respect to human ambition and pride) exists only as a mere ‘shadow.’

The third line gives more clarity to the idea that humankind only works in vain to pile up earthly goods and riches. One’s lifespan is so short and uncertain that a person may “heap up” (vb rb^x*) wealth without really thinking about what will become of it when he/she dies—who will “gather” it (vb [s^a*) in the end. The final mem (<-) is usually read as a plural suffix (“will gather them [i.e., the heaped up riches]”), but it may simply be an enclitic particle (to fill out the rhythm of the line). Dahood (p. 241) also suggests the possibility that the MT has mispointed a participle (spelled defectively), <p!s=a).

Verse 8 [7]

“And now, what do I expect, my Lord?
My waiting—it is for you!”

Admitting as he does the shortness and transitory nature of human life, the Psalmist declares to YHWH that his focus is not on earthly goods or prestige, but on God Himself. There is possibly a play on words in the first line with the verb hw`q*. The most common root hwq means “wait [for], expect, hope”, but there is a separate root hwq with the fundamental meaning “gather, collect”, which would fit the context of v. 7 [6]. While many human beings are focused on gathering riches, etc, the Psalmist is only interested in gathering the things of God.

At the same time, hwq with the meaning “wait [for], expect” is clearly related in sense to the root ljy in the second line, which is synonymous in meaning (“wait, expect, hope”). The ultimate hope and expectation of the Psalmist is objectified by the noun tl#j#oT (“waiting”). His declaration to YHWH is that “my waiting is for you.”

Verse 9 [8]

“From all (those) breaking (against) me, snatch me away,
do not set me (as) a disgrace (before a) fool!”

The MT points yuvp as yu^v*P=, which suggests that it is the Psalmist’s sins that are in view. In this context, however, it is unlikely that the root uvp is being used in that sense, since its fundamental meaning relates to “breaking” a bond of faith (or of friendship, loyalty, the covenant with YHWH, etc). This more properly characterizes the wicked, than the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist). I tentatively follow Kraus (p. 416) in repointing yuvp as a verbal noun (participle) with 1st person object suffix—i.e., yu^v=P), which serves as a shorthand for the expression yl^u* <yu!v=P), or something similar (cf. GKC §116i).

The Psalmist’s prayer thus echoes that of 38:12-17 [11-16], in which the wicked oppress and taunt the ailing protagonist; a similar scenario is alluded to in v. 2 [1] of the current Psalm as well. The wicked person is characterized as a “fool” (lb*n`), as we find frequently in Wisdom tradition. The folly of such a person is indicated here in verse 7 [6] (cf. above).

Verse 10 [9]

“I was bound, (and) did not open my mouth—
(Oh) that you would (now) do (this for me)!”

The Psalmist reiterates how he has remained silent, even in the face of taunts from the wicked. This also reflects his humility before God, and his willingness to accept responsibility for any wrong-doing (and to repent of it). This, he hopes, would demonstrate to YHWH his faithfulness and loyalty, and that God would act in response, by delivering him from his illness and suffering. I believe that this is the best way to understand the somewhat obscure second line “that you did” or “that you have done”. It could be an admission that YHWH is the one who has struck him (with illness); however, a precative perfect better fits the context, in line with the interpretation stated above.

Verse 11 [10]

“Turn from upon me your blow (that has) struck (me),
from the force of your hand, (or) I am finished!”

Again, the Psalmist clearly admits that it is YHWH who has struck him (root ugn) with illness. God is the ultimate cause, and this suffering has come from His “hand”. The meaning of hr*g+T! here would seem to be something like “force, pressure”, which causes affliction and suffering. The Psalmist pleads for deliverance, and confesses that, if YHWH does not soon rescue him, he will be finished (vb hl*K*)— “I am finished!”

Verse 12 [11]

“With your decisions against crookedness, you discipline a man,
and you dissolve his splendid (form) like a moth—
yes (indeed), every man (is merely) emptiness!”

This second strophe of the Psalm concludes with a striking tricolon (with irregular meter, 4+3+3) that echoes again the Wisdom theme established in vv. 5-6 [4-5] ff (cf. above on v. 7 [6]). YHWH disciplines (punishes) human beings for their “crookedness” (/ou*)—in this case, by inflicting suffering through illness, etc. Such punishment wears down a person’s physical health and beauty. Indeed, YHWH’s power is such that, if he wished, he could completely dissolve a person’s entire bodily form, like that of a moth consumed by the flame. It reiterates that, ultimately, human beings are merely “emptiness” (lb#h#) in the face of God’s sovereign power—to both give life and to take it away. YHWH is the Sovereign and Judge, and the punishment he inflicts reflects a legal decision (hj*k@oT, root jky) made against human sin.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

Verse 13 [12]

“Hear my plea (to you), YHWH,
give ear to my cry for help,
do not be deaf to my tears,
for I am (one who) lives with you,
(who) sits (with you), like all my fathers!”

The Psalm concludes with a prayer and plea to YHWH for deliverance. Verse 13 [12] is comprised of a tricolon (3+2+2) followed by a slightly irregular 3-beat couplet (loosely 3+3). The emphasis is on YHWH hearing the Psalmist’s prayer, expressed three ways: by the verb um^v* (“hear”), the more concrete /z~a* (“give/turn [one’s] ear”, Hiphil stem), and verb vr^j* (II) with the negative particle (“do not be deaf,” “do not be silent”).

His petition is squarely centered upon the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel. This binding agreement requires that YHWH act to protect and deliver his people, as long as they remain faithful to the agreement. The Psalmist places himself among the Israelite people, as one who journeys and lives together with YHWH. This is the basic meaning of the noun rG@. It is often used in the context of those people from other tribes and ethnic groups who live/travel with Israel; but here Israel is placed in the same role, in relationship to YHWH. God dwells with His people, and they with Him. The root bv^y` properly means “sit”, but is frequently used in the more permanent sense of “dwell, reside”. The faithful Israelite essentially “sits” together with YHWH, at His ‘table’ and in His Presence. Here the noun bv*oT (“one who sits/dwells”) is more or less synonymous with rG@.

Verse 14 [13]

“Turn your gaze from me, and I will brighten (again),
before I walk (off) and am no more.”

From the motif of YHWH hearing (v. 13 [12]), the focus shifts here to His seeing, but in a rather different sense. The Psalmist wants God to turn His ear toward him, but now he pleads that YHWH turn his gaze away from him. This draws upon the traditional idiom of judgment and punishment coming from the “face” of YHWH. His face burns with anger at disloyalty, sin, and wickedness. Moreover, this imagery reflects the idea of the all-seeing ‘eye’ of God, the Sovereign and Judge over all Creation. YHWH sees the wickedness of human beings, and renders judgment, punishing them accordingly. Since the Psalmist’s suffering, he admits, comes from God, as a form of discipline and punishment for sin (cf. above), deliverance can only be affected by God “turning away” this punishment. The turning away of His gaze thus means deliverance and healing for the Psalmist, and he will “brighten” once again.

The final line plays on two different, but related, Wisdom themes that have been expressed in the Psalm. The first has to do with the shortness of a person’s life; the second emphasizes how human beings are “emptiness”, having no abiding existence apart from God, whose sovereign power both gives life and takes it away. The Psalmist’s closing statement reflects both of these aspects. On the one hand, he is asking for healing, so that he can live bright and cheerful again for the relatively short time that remains in his life-span (until he “is no longer” alive). On the other hand, it is an effective admission that a human being is ultimately nothing. In terms of one’s earthly existence, when a person dies, he/she simply “is no more.”

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