Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 102 (Part 1)

Psalm 102

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

Verse 3 [2]

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

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

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

Verse 5 [4]

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

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

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

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

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

Cf. Job 33:20-21.

Verse 6 [5]

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

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

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

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

Verse 7 [6]

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

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

Verse 8 [7]

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

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

Verse 9 [8]

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

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

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

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

Verse 10 [9]

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

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

Verse 11 [10]

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

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

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

Verse 12 [11]

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 94 (Part 1)

Psalm 94

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsb (vv. 1-4, 8-14, 17-18, 21-22); 1QPsa (v. 16)

This Psalm, typical of many in the Psalter, consists of a lament by the protagonist, along with a prayer to YHWH for deliverance. The Wisdom elements, integrated and situated prominently at the heart of the composition (vv. 8-15), are also typical of the influence of Wisdom tradition on many Psalms. In addition, the Psalmist anticipates that YHWH will answer his prayer, and will act on his behalf; the prayer thus also serves as an expression of trust in God. The protagonist in the Psalms is regularly presented as one of the righteous, and, as a faithful/loyal servant of YHWH, he can expect God to fulfill His side of the covenant bond and provide protection in the time of need.

There are no definite indications of a date for the composition of the Psalm (at any stage), though the extensive inclusion of Wisdom elements suggests perhaps an exilic (or post-exilic) date, at least for the final work as it has come down to us. Without the inner wisdom-sections (vv. 8-15), considered (perhaps) as a subsequent addition, it would be easier to view Psalm 94 as a pre-exilic composition. There is no attribution of authorship in the MT (or the Qumran manuscripts), but the LXX has a superscription attributing it to David and also indicating that it is to be performed on the “fourth day” of the week (cp. the heading of Ps 92).

On the relation of Psalm 94 within the collection of eight (93-100), grouped according to the theme of YHWH’s kingship, see the brief discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 453, 455-6) and the study by David M. Howard, The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

There is a well-developed, sectional structure to this Psalm, which also is chiastic in nature:

    • Invocation—the protagonist calls on YHWH to render judgment (vv. 1-2)
      • Lament with a Wisdom emphasis: ‘Why are the wicked allowed to go unpunished?’ (vv. 3-7)
        • Wisdom couplets—addressed to the foolish/wicked (vv. 8-11)
        • Wisdom couplets—addressed to the wise/righteous (vv. 12-15)
      • Prayer for deliverance—to rescue the righteous from the wicked (vv. 16-21)
    • Declaration of YHWH’s judgment, vindicating the righteous and punishing the wicked (vv. 22-23)

The meter of this Psalm is somewhat irregular, but a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to dominate.

For its relative length, the Psalm is extensively preserved in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsb. In this regard, it is worth noting that, in the portions which survive (without requiring reconstruction), there are ostensibly no textual variants; the text is essentially identical with that of the MT.

Invocation (vv. 1-2)

Verse 1

“O Mighty (One) of vengeance, YHWH,
Mighty (One) of vengeance, shine forth!”

In this opening couplet, the Psalmist calls on YHWH to appear, in his role as Judge, and render judgment. The nature of this judgment is indicated by the repeated attribute of hm*q*n] (“vengeance, revenge”), which can be rendered in the judicial sense of “retribution”. As Dahood mentions (II, p. 346), the root <qn connotes the idea of vindication (for the righteous) as well as punishment (for the wicked)—both aspects are unquestionably in view.

The repetitive parallelism of the couplet, with an a+b+c / a+b+d format, is characteristic of Canaanite poetry (cf. the tricola in Ps 93:3-4, discussed in the previous study):

    • Mighty (One) of | vengeance | YHWH
    • Mighty (One) of | vengeance | shine forth

The verb form, as vocalized by the MT, uy~p!oh, is most naturally read as a (Hiphil) Perfect, even though an imperative seems to be called for; an imperative, attested by some Versions, would be clarified by the form (with paragogic h-), hu*yp!oh (see Ps 80:2[1]). The MT could, however, be read as a precative perfect, which carries much the same force as an imperative. The verb up^y` means “shine”, often in the basic sense of “be visible, appear”; in the Hiphil causative stem, this becomes “make shine”, “cause to shine (forth)”, here understood reflexively of YHWH (“make [yourself] shine forth”).

Verse 2

“Lift yourself, (you the One) judging the earth,
turn (their) dealing (back) on (the) high (one)s!”

YHWH’s role as Judge is specified here in the second couplet, utilizing the verbal noun (participle) fp@v), “judging”, i.e., the one who judges, who renders a (legal) decision. YHWH is the Judge of the entire earth, a theme found frequently in the Psalms, and corollary to His identity as King (Sovereign) over the universe (cf. the previous Psalm 93).

The Psalmist specifically asks that God “turn back” onto the “high (one)s” (<ya!G@)—in English idiom, we might say the “high and mighty” —their lWmG+, referring to how one deals with other people, for good or evil (in this case, evil). In such a judicial context, it term implies a kind of recompense, in a decidedly negative sense—i.e., a punitive penalty that corresponds to one’s (wicked) behavior.

Indeed, the adjective ha#G@ (“high”) typically connotes a negative sort of “high-mindedness” —prideful arrogance, boasting, and the like—which is very much characteristic of the wicked. In other words, the Psalmist is asking YHWH to bring punishment upon the wicked, paying them back for their own wickedness. Their “highness” indicates, not only arrogance, but also a genuinely high (i.e., powerful) status in society, obtained, in large part, as a result of their wicked conduct (as the lament in vv. 3-7 makes clear).

Lament (verses 3-7)

Verse 3

“Until when (shall the) wicked, O YHWH,
until when shall (the) wicked shout (for joy)?”

The theme introduced in v. 2, regarding the “highness” of the wicked, is developed here in the lament. It deals with a subject familiar from Wisdom literature: why are the wicked allowed (by God) to prosper in this life? Here, this is posed as a comparable question: “Until when will the wicked clamor (triumphantly)?” The verb is zl^u*, which basically indicates a loud noise (like a shout, etc), made joyfully, sometimes specifically connoting the idea of triumph. The wicked shout joyfully and clamor about because they seem to triumph in this earthly life. The verb could also be rendered “exult”, which would provide continuity with the motif of being “high, lofty”. The imperfect verb form, as with the imperfects in vv. 4-7 (see below), is probably meant to express regular (and recurring) behavior.

Again, the same repetitive parallelism (a+b+c / a+b+d) from verse 1 (see above) is used here:

    • Until when | (the) wicked | O YHWH
    • until when | (the) wicked | shall clamor
Verse 4

“They gush (and) speak (many) a far-ranging (boast)—
they speak of themselves, all (these) makers of trouble!”

It is specifically the speech of the wicked that is in focus here—i.e., the high and mighty things they say, all their (boastful) shouting and clamoring. This evil speech gushes forth (vb ub^n`, Hiphil); in English idiom we might say that they “spout off”. The arrogance and insolence of their speech is indicated by the noun qt*u*, a word that is difficult to translate but which generally refers to something that “goes past” what is right and proper, etc—a sense of surpassing distance, in the arrogance of the wicked, that is comparable to their “highness” (v. 2).

Indeed, this is selfish, boastful talk, as the wicked “say (things) about themselves”, an emphasis indicated by the use the reflexive (Hitpael) of the verb rm^a*. Such people are literally “makers of trouble” (vb lu^P* + noun /w#a*), an idiom, as a characteristic of the wicked, which occurs with some frequency in the Psalms—5:6[5]; 6:9[8]; 14:4; 28:3; 36:13[12]; 53:5[4]; 59:3[2]; 64:3[2], etc.

Verse 5

“Your people, O YHWH, they do crush,
and your inheritance they oppress;”

Verses 1-4 were all 3-beat (3+3) couplets; now, in vv. 5-6, the rhythm suddenly shifts to shortened 3+2 couplets. This is perhaps intended as a poetic accompaniment to the dramatic description of the “trouble” (/w#a*, v. 4) caused by the wicked. In particular, they cause trouble for God’s people—meaning, ostensibly, the righteous ones of Israel. Thus, the familiar contrast between the righteous and the wicked—and of the suffering of the righteous at the hands of the wicked—is here established. This is a basic Old Testament theme, particularly prominent in Wisdom tradition, and found frequently throughout many Psalms.

The wicked “crush” (vb ak^D*) and “press down” (vb hn`u*), i.e., oppress, the righteous. Again, this is traditional terminology, the latter verb alluding to the common designation of the righteous as “pressed down, oppressed, lowly” (yn]u*, wn`u*).

Verse 6

“(the) widow and stranger they do kill,
and (the) orphans they smash—”

The description of the cruel and oppressive behavior of the wicked continues from verse 5, with the same 3+2 meter. In the Psalms, the righteous tend to be identified with the poor and lowly—in contrast with the “high” position of the wicked. Here, however, the Psalmist has in view also the practical matter of what we would call social justice—protection (and justice) for the weak and vulnerable members of society.

This includes, naturally and traditionally, widows and orphans, but also the rG@, referring to a person who leaves his home(land) to reside in another place. Such resident “strangers”, who are often displaced, seeking shelter from famine, disease, war, etc, are to be shown special care and treated as protected citizens. The Prophetic writings are particularly harsh in their condemnation of the oppression that exists in society, resulting in suffering for the weak and vulnerable; the Psalms frequently evince this social justice emphasis as well.

Verse 7

“and (yet) they say, ‘YH(WH) does not see (this),
nor does He discern (it), (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!'”

This mode of overconfident (and boastful) thinking is traditionally attributed to the wicked. Particularly egregious (and foolish, see below) is the idea that YHWH does not see what such people are doing. This kind of characteristic declaration has a two-fold purpose here: (i) it expresses the arrogant ‘high-mindedness’ of the wicked; but (ii) it also attests to the troubling incongruity that is at the heart of the particular wisdom tradition—viz., why are the wicked left unpunished and allowed to prosper in this life? Does God not see what wicked things they do?

Wisdom Couplets (verses 8-11)

Verse 8

“Discern (this), (you) brutish (one)s among the people!
and (you) fools—when will you show understanding?”

Verse 8 picks up on the use of the verb /yB! (“understand, discern”) in v. 7 to introduce this set of four Wisdom-couplets, addressed to the wicked—who are also fools. Indeed, they show themselves foolish by the way they act and speak, thinking that YHWH does not see what they do, and will not judge them for it. The verb lk^c* I, “be wise, understanding, skillful”, overlaps in meaning with /yB!, both verbs being very much part of the Wisdom-vocabulary.

Verse 9

“The (One) planting (the) ear, does He not hear?
or (the One) forming (the) eye, does He not observe?”

This extended 4-beat (4+4) couplet addresses the foolish thinking (and speaking) expressed in v. 7 (see above). Of course YHWH hears and sees everything the wicked says and does, since He is the One who made the ears and eyes of created beings in the first place. If He can give people the ability to see, then surely He Himself is able to see what the wicked are doing!

Verse 10

“The (One) disciplining nations, can He not bring rebuke?
the (One) teaching mankind, is He lacking knowledge?”

This couplet follows the pattern of verse 9, only with an irregular 4+3 meter, suggesting the possibility that a word has dropped out. The ability of YHWH to hear/see (the things people say/do) was emphasized in v. 9, now it is His ability to render proper judgment on their words and conduct. The universal scope of this ability is expressed, reflecting YHWH’s position as Judge of the entire world (see v. 2, above). The term “nations” (<y]oG) has a comprehensive and general meaning here, referring to all (hu)mankind (<d*a*). YHWH is certainly able to correct and rebuke human beings, giving discipline and punishment as needed, teaching all people the truth about what is right.

As mentioned above, the 4+3 meter of the second line allows for the possibility that a word has dropped out; the Qumran manuscript 4QPsb is unfortunately fragmentary at this point, so a determination cannot be made on this textual point. Regardless, the parallelism of the couplet requires that the implied phrase be “lacking in knowledge [tu^D*]”. Dahood (II, p. 348) offers the clever suggestion that the final <– on <d*a* does double-duty, and that we should essentially read, for the final two words, tu^D*m! <d*a*. The prefixed /m! preposition (“from”), taken in a privative sense, would carry the meaning “lacking of”, “without”.

Verse 11

“YHWH (is the One) knowing (the) thoughts of man,
how they (are all but) an (empty) breath!”

The irregular 4+3 meter of this final couplet adds support for the idea that the same meter in v. 10 (MT) is correct, and that the verse has come down to us intact. Not only does YHWH hear/see what all human beings say/do, but He even knows all the thoughts which a person thinks. This includes, most importantly, the person’s intention. The thoughts of human beings, in general, are empty and vain—how much more so the thoughts of the wicked! The noun lb#h#, denoting a breath, or vapor, often is used in a derogatory sense—i.e., a mere breath, a puff (of air), etc—and is a keyword in the vocabulary of Wisdom literature. It occurs most frequently in the book of Qohelet/Ecclesiastes (beginning in 1:2, 5 times), but also appears a number of times in the Psalms, as evidence for the influence of Wisdom-tradition on the Psalter.

The second half of Psalm 94 will be examined in the next study.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 90 (Part 1)

Psalm 90

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

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

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

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

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

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

Invocation: Verses 1b-2

Verse 1b

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

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

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

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

Verse 2

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

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

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

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

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

Lament: Verses 3-10

Verse 3

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

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

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

Verse 4

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

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

Verse 5

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

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

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

Verse 6

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

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

Verse 7

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

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

Verse 8

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

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

Verse 9

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

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

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

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

Verse 10

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

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

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

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

January 5: Psalm 89:50

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:50-53 [49-52]
Verse 50 [49]

“Where (are) your former (act)s of devotion, my Lord,
which you confirmed sevenfold to David by your firmness?”

The closing vv. 50-52 form a strophe-unit parallel with that of vv. 47-49 (discussed in the previous note), the two units being separated by a Selah pause-marker. The Wisdom-emphasis of vv. 48-49 has disappeared, and the unit picks up from the lament-question in verse 47 (“Until when [i.e. how long], O YHWH…?”). Again a painful question is posed to God by the Psalmist: “Where are your former acts of devotion?” This question presents another variation on the firmness theme of the Psalm, utilizing the same pair of terms—ds#j# and hn`Wma$—established in the opening (vv. 2-3).

The noun ds#j# (“loyalty, devotion”) is the focus of the first line, with the plural form <yd!s*j& best understood in the sense of “acts of loyal devotion” —that is, by YHWH toward His people, based on the binding agreement (covenant) between them. Such acts, performed by YHWH in times past, reflect His fundamental attribute and character of ds#j#. Yet, where are such acts—giving Divine blessing and protection to His people—now, in the time of Israel’s exile (and/or post-exilic suffering)? The Psalmist emphasizes this disjunction by using the adjective /ovar! (“first [place], beginning”), in the temporal sense of former—i.e., having been done before, but not (it is implied) now.

The second term, hn`Wma$, is featured in the second line. As has been discussed, the noun literally means “firmness”, primarily in the sense of “faithfulness, trustworthiness”, giving it a meaning comparable with that of ds#j# (i.e., faithfulness, loyalty). Throughout the Psalm, it is the covenant with David that is the focus of YHWH’s faithfulness, and it is again emphasized here in these lines.

The loss of the kingdom and end of the kingship would seem to indicate that YHWH has renounced this covenant, and His promises to David, in spite of what is affirmed throughout vv. 29-38. This apparent contradiction is the main theme of the lament in vv. 39-46—how can YHWH have abandoned His covenant-promise to David (regarding the kingship)? This question is all the more pointed because of the fact that the promise was confirmed by a sacred oath, which makes it (and the covenant) binding.

The oath-theme was emphasized earlier in vv. 35-36, including use of the verb ub^v*. The verb is apparently denominative from ub*v# (“seven”), i.e., “do (something) seven times (or seven-fold)”. On this idiom, cf. the earlier note on v. 36. YHWH’s promise is binding, having been confirmed (sevenfold) by oath; how, then, can God have abandoned it? The thrust of the Psalmist’s question is seen in the following vv. 51-52, as he urges YHWH to act to fulfill the covenant-promise, and thus restore the kingship for David (and the kingdom to Israel). This will be discussed in the next daily note, as we conclude our study on the Psalm.

Comments for Christmas

The longing to see restored the mighty acts of salvation, by God for His people, performed in times past, but now seemingly absent, is characteristic of Jewish Messianic expectation in the first centuries B.C./A.D. It is also expressed in the Gospel Infancy narratives, especially in the hymns of the Lukan narrative.

This certainly can be seen in the Magnificat (1:46-55), where recollection of the past acts by YHWH blend into the present moment, with the hope and expectation that they will be realized now, even as they were in ages past. The protagonist of the hymn (Mary is the [probable] speaker in the narrative) affirms this timeless quality of God’s “acts of devotion” (to use the term from v. 50a of the Psalm):

“the Mighty (One) has done for me great (thing)s,
and Holy (is) His name,
and His mercy (is) unto generation and generation,
for (the one)s fearing Him” (vv. 49-50)

The Greek noun e&leo$ (“mercy”) is frequently used to translate ds#j# (cf. above) in the LXX, and so should be understood in that sense here—viz., of the kindness and loving care shown by God, reflecting His covenant loyalty toward His people. The present expectation will see a reprisal (and restoration) of the great acts performed by God in the past:

“He took hold of Yisrael His child (to help him),
remembering (His) mercy [e&leo$]” (v. 54)

The Benedictus (vv. 68-79) contains similar kinds of traditional language, framing the present fulfillment of the (Messianic) expectation in terms of the past:

“…He (has) looked on (them), and made a loosing from (bondage) for His people,
and (has) raised a horn of salvation for us in (the) house of David His child” (vv. 68-69)

The motif of covenant-loyalty is likewise emphasized:

“…to act (in) mercy [e&leo$] with our fathers,
(and) to remember His holy agreement,
(the) oath which he swore…” (v. 72f)

In this regard, the Messianic fulfillment (in the person of Jesus) of the Davidic covenant can be seen as an answer to the Psalmist’s request in vv. 51-52—a point that will be discussed in our final note on the Psalm.



January 4: Psalm 89:47-49

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:47-49 [46-48]
Verse 47 [46]

“Until when, YHWH, will you hide yourself?
Will it burn to the (very) end,
like fire, your hot (anger)?”

It is proper to view vv. 47-49 as a distinct poetic unit within the division vv. 39-52. The Selah (hl*s#) pause-markers, after vv. 46 and 49, confirm this point. These verses follow the main strophe of vv. 39-46 (discussed in the previous two notes), and are parallel with the subsequent vv. 50-52. Indeed, one may treat vv. 47-49 and 50-52 as two short strophes, or as two units within a single strophe.

The distinctiveness of this unit is indicated by the metrical shift at v. 47. I parse this verse as an irregular (3+2+2) tricolon. It functions as a response to the situation described in vv. 39-46, where YHWH has (apparently) renounced His covenant with David, allowing the kingship (and the kingdom) to come to a destructive and shameful end. Clearly, the conquest of Judah is in view, and the Psalm (certainly the third division of it) is written from the standpoint of the Exile (or the post-Exilic period), when the kingdom (and thus also the Davidic line of kings) has ceased.

The Psalmist asks the plaintive question hm*-du^ (“Until when…?”, i.e., “How long [will this last]?”), which also occurs, equally painfully, in Ps 79:5 (cf. also 74:9). He describes the current situation of exile (and/or post-exilic poverty), which apparently has lasted now for a considerable time, in traditional terms—viz., of YHWH “hiding Himself” (vb rt^s*, Niphal stem) from His people. Dahood (II, p. 320) would parse the verb form as deriving from the root rWs (“turn aside/away”), but the meaning is much the same, in either case. For similar usage of rt^s* in the Psalms, cf. 13:1; 27:9; 44:24; the motif of God hiding His face signifies a situation where He is seemingly not responding to prayer (e.g., 55:1; 69:17; 88:14; 102:2; 143:7), and thus not giving help to His people in their time of distress.

In the second and third lines, the present suffering of God’s people is expressed in the traditional judgment-language of the “burning” (hm*j@, vb ru^B*) of His anger. As long as YHWH’s hot anger burns, the shame and ruin of the current situation will continue.

Verse 48 [47]

“Remember my trouble, (and) how short (is) life!
For what emptiness did you create (the) sons of man?”

This couplet, clearly drawing upon Wisdom tradition, seems to have been inspired by the reference in verse 46 (cf. the previous note), to the king’s “days of youth” having been “cut short”. The focus now shifts to the individual circumstances of the author-protagonist, much as we see in the majority of the lament-Psalms. The first line highlights two points frequently emphasized in the Wisdom texts—viz., (1) that a person’s life is (often) all too brief, and (2) is typically filled with toil and trouble.

I follow the suggestion of Dahood (II, p. 320) that MT yn]a* (“I”) in the first line should be revocalized as yn]a) (= yn]oa, “my trouble,” or “my sorrow”). The noun dl#j# is difficult to translate, though the basic meaning, as it is used here, seems clear enough—viz., a reference to the short/fleeting duration of a person’s life (Ps 39:6; cf. also 17:14; 49:2; Job 11:17; Isa 38:11). The “emptiness” (aw+v*) of life, particularly in terms of human pursuits and ambition, is also a frequent theme in Wisdom literature, though not typically expressed by the noun aw+v* which tends to have the more harshly negative connotation of wicked falsehood, deceit, idolatry, etc (but see its use in Job 7:3).

Verse 49 [48]

“Who (is the) strong (one who) lives
and does not see death?
Can he (truly) rescue his soul
from (the) hand of Še’ôl?”

Metrically, I parse this verse as a pair of short 2+2 couplets, patterned after the second and third lines of v. 47 (cf. above). It continues the Wisdom-orientation of v. 48, with the emphasis on the shortness of human life, in its mortality, and the inevitability of death as the common fate. Is there any human being, in the strength and vigor (rbg) of his youth, who can somehow avoid (“does not see”) death? The answer to this rhetorical question is an obvious “no”. No human being is able to rescue his soul—that is, enable it (somehow) to escape (vb fl^m*, Piel)—from the power (“hand”) of Death.

On loav= as a poetic term for death (and the realm of death), cf. my earlier note.

Comments for Christmas

The Wisdom-emphasis of these verses is generally absent from the Gospel Infancy Narratives; however, the idea of human mortality is present, to some extent. I would note two passages, in particular. The first is the narrative arc in Matthew 2, in which Herod, troubled by the prospect of losing his kingship (a theme relevant to vv. 39-46 of the Psalm), seeks to kill off the true king, the Messiah, born in Bethlehem. The Gospel’s poignant treatment of the death of the infants (vv. 16-18), with its citation of Jer 31:15, provides a powerful illustration of the brevity of human life (the infants truly had “the days of their youth cut short”, v. 46 of the Psalm).

The second passage to mention is the episode involving Simeon in Luke 2:25-35. The aged Simeon was keenly aware that his life was reaching its end, but the time of his death was related to his seeing the Messiah—the one who will fulfill the promise of the Davidic covenant, and thus bring about the restoration for God’s people (vv. 25-26). The encounter, with the aged Simeon holding the infant Jesus, is one of the most beautiful of the portraits in the Lukan Gospel, graced as it is by the canticle (“Nunc dimittis”) in vv. 29-32, which begins with a memorable statement regarding the acceptance of death (and human mortality) by a faithful believer:

“Now, may you loose your slave from (his service), O Master, according to your word, in peace…”

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 89

Psalm 89

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsx (vv. 20-22, 26, 23, 27-28, 31 [19-21, 25, 22, 26-27, 30]); 4QPse (vv. 44-48, 50-53 [43-47, 49-52])

Psalm 89 is one of the very longest and most complex in the Psalter. This length, along with the relative lack of difficulties and disruptions in the text, suggests a rather late time-frame for composition. The lament portion (vv. 39-52) makes clear that the promise regarding the Davidic kingship was not being realized in the present, at the time when the Psalm was written. This indicates an exilic, or (more likely) post-exilic, date for the composition of the Psalm, as it has come down to us. However, almost certainly, the Psalm also draws upon older traditions—language, style, and motifs—from the kingdom-period itself. In particular, the hymn of praise to YHWH in vv. 6-19 seems to preserve a number of older/archaic elements.

The arrangement of the Psalm is unusual, in the way that a praise-section occurs at the beginning, and a lament section at the end. This reverses the normal arrangement of lament-Psalms.

In both the superscription, and with regard to certain features of the composition, Ps 89 has points of affinity with the Korahite Psalms, attributed to the “sons of Qorah”. It follows immediately the collection comprised of Pss 84-85, 87-88 (cf. also the earlier collection 42-49). Like Ps 88, this Psalm is designated a lyk!c=m^, and is attributed to author (Ethan, /t*ya@) identified as an yj!r*z+a#; on this particular term (and the term lyk!c=m^), cf. the introduction to the study on Ps 88. The attribution probably refers to the Ethan mentioned in 1 Kings 5:11 [4:31], a sage of great wisdom, associated with Heman (the name of the person to whom Ps 88 is attributed). There was also a Levitical singer-musician named Ethan who served, during David’s reign, as an overseer of the music performed in the Temple (1 Chron 6:29 [44]).

As mentioned above, there is a three-part division to this Psalm, the first division being preceded by a proemic introduction (vv. 2-5). The tripartate structure is as follows:

    • Hymn in praise of YHWH (vv. 6-19)
    • A “Messianic” Discourse, regarding God’s covenant with David and the Kingdom of Israel (vv. 20-38)
    • A Lament, over how YHWH seems to have renounced the Davidic covenant (and its promise of kingship) (vv. 39-52)

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow either a 4-beat (4+4) or 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. With a composition of this length, it is to be expected that there would various rhythmic and metrical irregularities. These will be pointed out in the notes.

Introduction: Vv. 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“(Of your faithful) devotion, O YHWH, (into) distant (ages) will I sing;
for cycle and cycle, will I make known your firmness with my mouth.”

Many Psalms end with the author-protagonist offering to fulfill a vow of praise to YHWH, promising to sing of His greatness, etc. That is essentially how our composition begins here, as the Psalmist promises to sing (vb ryv!) of God’s faithfulness. Two familiar terms are used, in parallel, to express this:

    • ds#j#—This word means “goodness, kindness”; however, as I have noted repeatedly, in the context of a covenant it regularly connotes faithfulness and loyalty. This is frequently the meaning of ds#j# in the Psalms, and certainly here at the beginning of Ps 89 (given the emphasis on YHWH’s covenant with David).
    • hn`Wma$—Literally, the noun means “firmness,” but often in the sense of “faithfulness, trustworthiness,” etc.

The plural of ds#j# in line 1 may refer to individual acts/deeds of faithful devotion; however, it is probably better to treat the plural in a collection or comprehensive sense (or even as an intensive plural, i.e., “your great loyalty”). For the construct form of the plural, we should assume an implied second person suffix, in parallel with “your firmness” in the second line (cf. Dahood, II, p. 311); however, it is not necessary to emend the text to make explicit the suffix.

The noun <l*ou typically denotes a time-frame (lasting) into either the distant future or the distant past. The meaning of the line is “I will sing of your faithful devotion into the distant future”. It is customary to set <l*ou[l] in parallel with rd)w rd)[l]—cf. Ps 33:11; 45:18[17]; 49:12[11]; 79:13, etc. The noun roD (rD)) is often translated “(a) generation”, but it fundamentally means “circle”, often in the temporal sense of a cycle of time; when it refers particularly to the people living in a particular time, it can be said to have the meaning “generation”. Possibly, the sense of the line could be that the Psalmist will sing of God’s faithfulness for each successive generation (of Israelites), but the parallel with <l*ou suggests that the emphasis is, rather, on the singing of it continually, into the distant future.

Metrically, verse 2 is a slightly irregular 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Verse 3 [2]

“Indeed, I have said, O Distant (One),
(that by your) devotion was built (the) heavens,
(and) you have fixed your firmness in them.”

The Psalmist builds upon the theme of v. 2, declaring that it was by the faithfulness of YHWH that the heavens were created, and that they reflect the character of His faithfulness. The same two terms from v. 2, ds#j# and hn`Wma$ are set in parallel. This establishes the theme of the first division of the Psalm (vv. 6-19), focusing on YHWH’s role as Creator (and thus also King) of the universe. Here, the term <y]m^v* (“heavens”) refers primarily to the hemispherical ‘shell’ that bounds the upper half of the cosmos, covering over the disc-shaped (or cylindrical) earth. In the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, this hemispheric surface was depicted as gleaming metal that had been ‘hammered’ into shape (Gen 1:6-7). It is thus firm (i.e. ‘firmament’), in a way that resembles the firmness of the Creator (YHWH) Himself. His firmness is fixed firmly within this firmament; the conceptual wordplay utilizes a different verbal root (/WK) for the idea of fixing something firmly in place.

I treat this verse as a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, and I follow Dahood (II, p. 312) in reading the <l*ou in the first line here as a Divine title (i.e., “Eternal [One]”); in order to preserve the wordplay with verse 2, I have translated this “Distant (One)”, understood in the sense of “Ancient (One)”, but certainly the Divine characteristic of Eternal/Everlasting is also intended.

The verb rm^a* (“say”) in the first line (“I have said…”) probably should be understood as “I have acknowledged…” or “I have recognized…”. The Psalmist, in his praise, admits and confesses his faith regarding YHWH as the Eternal Creator and Sovereign of the universe.

Verse 4 [3]

“I have cut a binding agreement for my chosen (one),
(and) have confirmed (it) sevenfold for David my servant:”

There is an abrupt shift in speaker between vv. 2-3 and 4-5; now it is YHWH speaking. The relationship between these two portions of the introduction are not entirely clear. It may simply be that the two units are meant to summarize the first two divisions of the Psalm—with vv. 2-3 corresponding to vv. 6-19, and vv. 4-5 corresponding to vv. 20-38. However, within the overall context of vv. 2-5, we may perhaps envision a mini-dialogue, in which YHWH responds to the Psalmist’s declaration of praise. There is, indeed, a certain formal parallelism between the openings of v. 3 and v. 4: “I have said…” / “I have cut…”. By this line of interpretation, YHWH is affirming His promise regarding the Israelite kingdom (and of David as Israel’s king), guaranteeing its fulfillment for the faithful ones of His people.

It is also possible to view vv. 4-5 as a kind of quotation, representative of the account of Israel’s history. Just as YHWH demonstrates His faithfulness in the Creation (vv. 2-3, 6-19), so He also does for His people throughout their history. In this regard, the covenant with David reflects the wider covenant that He established (lit. “cut”) with His people. This all the more appropriate since the king (and especially David) represents the people, serving as a mediating figure for their collective identity as God’s people. The idea of God’s promise for David (and his line) as a “binding agreement” (tyr!B=, i.e., covenant) is mentioned in 2 Sam 23:5; 2 Chron 13:5; 21:7; cf. also Ezek 34:25; 37:26. It is very much implied in other passages as well; note, for example, the context of 1 Kings 8:15-21. As for the promise itself, see, primarily, the account in 2 Samuel 7:8-16.

The promise was confirmed, and the covenant established, through a binding oath. That is the idea expressed in the second line, using the denominative verb ub^v*, which would seem to have the meaning “do (something) seven (times), or sevenfold”. It is used in the specific context of swearing an oath, related to an agreement, etc, presumably in the sense of binding it sevenfold (or seven times over); however, the precise background and significance of this idiom remains uncertain.

Metrically, verses 4 and 5 are both 3-beat (3+3) couplets.

Verse 5 [4]

“Unto (the) distant (future) will I set firm your seed,
and for cycle and cycle will I build your throne.”

The wording of YHWH’s promise to David, as expressed in v. 5, clearly echoes the Psalmist’s praise in vv. 2-3 (cf. above), with the parallelism of rd)w` rd)l= / <l*ou (v. 2), and that of the verbs hn`B* [“build”] and /WK [“fix, set firm”] (v. 3). The parallels are intentional and have theological significance. Just as YHWH’s faithfulness is manifest in Creation, so also it is in the promise to David. This is of great importance, given the fact that the promise regarding the Israelite/Davidic kingdom seems to have been broken (assuming an exilic/post-exilic provenance for the Psalm). If God’s faithfulness cannot be removed from Creation, then neither can it ever truly be removed from the promise to David—the covenant with David regarding the kingship will, eventually, be realized. The Messianic implications of this line of thought—both for Israelites/Jews of the time and in later generations, and also for early Christians (for whom the Messianic promise was seen as being fulfilled in the person of  Jesus)—are clear.

These two thematic strands are developed and expounded further in the corresponding divisions of the Psalm (vv. 6-19, 20-38). They provide the backdrop for the final lament-section of vv. 39-52. If God’s faithfulness cannot be renounced, being fixed (as it is) firmly within Creation, then His promise to David (and to His people) also cannot be renounced, and this means that it will, eventually, be fulfilled.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Due to the length of this Psalm, the remainder of it will be discussed over a series of daily notes, for Christmas season, during the rest of December. Given the Messianic focus of the composition, it seemed appropriate to connect the study of it with our celebration (as Christians) of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. The identity of Jesus as the royal (Davidic) Messiah, and of his birth as representing the fulfillment of Messianic hopes, is a key element in the Gospel Infancy narratives—the Lukan narrative, in particular emphasizes it (1:32-33, 68-69; 2:1-4ff, 10-11ff).

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 88 (Part 2)

Psalm 88, continued

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

Part 2: Verses 10b-13

Verse 10bc [9bc]

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

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

Verse 11 [10]

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

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

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

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

Verse 12 [11]

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

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

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

Verse 13 [12]

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

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

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

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

Verse 14 [13]

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

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

Verse 15 [14]

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

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

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

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

Verse 16 [15]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 17 [16]

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

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

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

Verse 18 [17]

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

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

Verse 19 [18]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 88 (Part 1)

Psalm 88

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: Verses 2-10a

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

Verse 3 [2]

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

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

The Hebrew word order of the verse is chiastic:

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

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

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

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

Verse 6 [5]

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

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

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

Verse 7 [6]

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

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

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

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

Verse 8 [7]

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

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

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

Verse 9ab [8ab]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 86 (Part 1)

Psalm 86

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: Verses 1-7

Verse 1

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

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

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

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

Metrically, this verse is a 4+3 couplet.

Verse 2

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 3

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

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

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

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

Verse 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 6

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

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

Verse 7

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

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

“for I (am) pressed (down) and needy”

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 83 (Part 1)

Psalm 83

Dead Sea MSS: MasPsa (vv. 1-19)

This Psalm is the last of the Asaph-collection, Pss 73-83); on Asaph, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50. It generally follows the pattern of many Psalms of lament. The first part contains a lament to YHWH, referring to the threats and oppression posed by hostile/wicked enemies, while the second part shifts to a prayer for deliverance, including a call for God to bring judgment upon the Psalmist’s enemies. In many of the Psalms, the author/protagonist essentially represents the people as a whole (esp. the righteous among them); here in Psalm 83, however, the people of Israel, collectively, are more clearly in view. The Psalm is, in fact, a national lament and prayer for deliverance.

There is a clear two-part structure to this Psalm, and here the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker serves as a structural indicator. In the first part (vv. 2-9), the threat posed to Israel by the nations is laid out, including a list of the many surrounding nations, presented as though they were all engaged in a coalition to attack Israel. As Dahood notes (II, p. 273), this likely does not refer to any specific historical episode or situation; rather, the list of nations represents those peoples and kingdoms which have shown themselves hostile to Israel throughout its history (this historical sweep is indicated in the second part, vv. 10, 12). The list climaxes with Assyria, which suggests a pre-exilic date for the Psalm (its original composition), presumably sometime in the 8th century (or late 9th century)

In the second part (vv. 10-19), the Psalmist calls on YHWH to bring judgment upon the nations. If a pre-exilic 8th century date for the Psalm is correct (cf. above), then this would make Ps 83 an early example of (or precursor to) the Prophetic oracles and poems which have as their theme the collective judgment on the nations. These passages represent a development of the nation-oracle genre in the Prophets, in which judgment is announced on a specific nation in each oracle. Isaiah 13-23 is the most notable collection of such nation/judgment-oracles, and the collection concludes with the Isaian ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27, where the judgment theme is extended, with an eschatological emphasis, to cover the entire earth (and all the nations). Psalm 83 is not too far removed, both in time and spirit, from these Isaian oracles.

With only a couple of exceptions, this Psalm follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The heading refers to the Psalm as both a musical composition (the regular term romz+m!) and a song (ryv!). Since a poem set to music is, by definition, a “song”, it is not entirely clear why only some of the Psalms have this specific designation, or whether the term is meant to make a particular distinction. Two other Asaph-Psalms (75, 76) are marked the same way, as also are Pss 45-46, 48, 65-68, and a number of others.

Like the prior Psalm (82), Ps 83 is not preserved among the Qumran Psalm manuscripts; however, it does survive, virtually complete in a Dead Sea manuscript from Masada. The text of this MS is very close to the Masoretic Text, there being only a handful of minor variants attested.

Part 1: Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“O Mightiest, (may there) not (be) ceasing for you—
do not be silent, and do not keep still, Mighty (One)!”

The translation of the first line of this opening couplet follows the MT, but the peculiarity of the syntax raises the possibility that the LXX (and other ancient versions) preserve an underlying Hebrew text that is closer to the original, and that the MT ought to be emended slightly. Dahood (II, p. 273) makes a strong case for redividing and repointing the text (D), as follows:

    • MT: El* ym!D( la^ <yh!l)a$
      D: El* ym@D) la@ ym! yh@l)a$

The first line then becomes a question (comparable to that in Ps 77:14[13]):

“My Mighty (One), who is a mighty (one) like unto you?”

The LXX seems to reflect a similar Hebrew text here: o( qeo/$ ti/$ o(moiwqh/setai/ soi (“My God, who shall be likened to you?”).

Instead of the proposed participle ym@D) (“being like”), from the verb hm*D* I, the MT reads the noun ym!D( from the root hmD II (“cease, cut off”). This noun is rare, occurring elsewhere in just two places (in Isaiah, 38:10; 62:6-7). In the first Isaiah reference, the context is the cutting short of one’s life; literally, the phrase is “in the cutting off [ym!D(] of my days”. The dual reference in Isa 62:6-7 appears to be close in sense to the MT of verse 2a here; the fundamental meaning of ym!D( (“ceasing”) is understood in terms of ceasing from activity (and speech), i.e., being quiet. The syntax in Isa 62:6 is almost identical with Ps 83:2a, with the phrase being:

“…(let there) not (be) ceasing [i.e. rest/quiet] for you”
<k#l* ym!D( la^

However one parses the first line of the couplet, the second line makes clear the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH, with parallel jussives (translated as imperatives), using the verbs vr^j* II (“be silent”) and fq^v* (“be quiet”). The Psalmist is asking God not to be silent/quiet—in other words, to answer his prayer.

Verse 3 [2]

“For, see, (those) hostile to you make a clamor,
and (the one)s hating you lift up (their) head!”

The contrast is between YHWH keeping silent and the enemies of YHWH making a loud noise (vb hm*h*); the implication is that it is only because of God’s apparent silence and inactivity on behalf of His people, that their enemies are able to act with such violent boldness and aggression. The Psalmist refers to the enemies of Israel as God’s own enemies; the theological basis for this identification has to do with the specific covenant bond between YHWH and His people, but also with the fact that the other nations reject YHWH and worship other deities instead.

There is clear synonymous parallelism in this couplet. Participles of the verbs by~a* (“be hostile”) and an`c* (“hate”) are used to characterize the nations as hostile adversaries who hate Israel (and thus also hate YHWH, Israel’s God). Their specific actions are also parallel: hm`h* (“make a [loud] noise, clamor”) and the expression “lift [the] head” (with the verb ac*n`). The latter expression indicates the boldness of the opponents.

Verse 4 [3]

“Against your people they act cunningly (in) concert,
and take counsel against your treasured (one)s.”

The combination of motifs in vv. 3-4, with the hostile nations first making a loud clamor, and then the people taking counsel with one another against God, is reminiscent of the famous lines in Psalm 2:1-2 (cf. the earlier study). In that earlier Psalm, the nations’ hostility is directly equally against God and His “anointed one” (i.e., the king); here it is against God and His people as a whole. The verb Ju^y` (“advise, plan, [take] counsel”) in the second line is parallel with the expression “act cunningly (in) concert” in the first. The verb <r^u* (I) denotes being careful, shrewd, etc; the word “cunning” captures the characteristic of a crafty adversary.

The verb /p^x* means “hide”, sometimes in the sense of hiding treasure, and thus can also mean (more abstractly), “to treasure”. Here the passive participle of the verb (lit. “hidden [one]s”) should probably be understood as “treasured [one]s” —i.e., God’s people as His treasure (cp. Exod 19:5; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Psalm 135:4; Mal 3:17, etc). Dahood (II, p. 274), following some of the ancient versions, vocalizes iynwpx as a singular noun, ;yn]Wpx=, “your treasure”.

Verse 5 [4]

“They say, ‘Come and let us make them cease from (being) a nation,
and (then the) name of Yisrael shall not be remembered any more!'”

The intention of the hostile nations, as they plan and conspire together, is expressed here. Their desire, as the Psalmist puts it, clearly is to wipe out Israel as a nation.*

* There is a tragic modern expression of this same sentiment at work, even as I am writing these notes, with the attacks on the state of Israel (and its people) by surrounding hostile nations and groups—Oct 7-8, 2023.

The basic meaning of verb dj^K* is something like “make disappear”, i.e., disappear from being a nation; I have translated this somewhat conventionally as “make them cease from (being) a nation”, in order to utilize a bit of conceptual wordplay with verse 2 (cf. above). YHWH has “ceased” from acting on behalf of His people, and so they are in danger of “ceasing” from being a nation any longer. This reflects the urgency of the Psalmist’s prayer: YHWH needs to respond, so as to help and protect His people in their moment of existential need.

Verse 6 [5]

“Indeed, they take counsel together (with) one heart,
(and) against you they cut a binding agreement:”

The second line of this couplet has the prepositional expression “against you” (;yl#u*) in first (emphatic) position. I take the Psalmist to be expounding the enemies’ words from the previous verse: i.e., “in saying this, they are actually taking counsel against you”. In this regard, the particle yK! at the beginning of the first line should also be understood as emphatic (translated “indeed…”). The second point of development is that the nations’ agreement with their heart (i.e., intention, purpose, desire) to act against Israel (and against YHWH) is given formal expression through a binding agreement (tyr!B=) that they have “cut” (vb tr^K*) with one another. This wicked ‘covenant’ between the nations is, of course, meant to be contrasted with the binding agreement (tyrB=) that was cut between YHWH and His people Israel.

I punctuate the end of verse 6 with a colon, taking the Psalmist to be indicating that the binding agreement made against Israel (and YHWH) includes the nations listed in vv. 7-9. All of these nations, at various points in Israel’s history, have been hostile adversaries.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“(The) tents of ‘Edôm and (the) Yišma’eli,
Mo’ab and (the) Hagri’i,
Gebal and ‘Ammôn and ‘Amalek,
(the) Pelešet with (the) settlers of ‚ôr.”

This list includes many of the nations/peoples surrounding the kingdom of Israel; they all were enemies, at different times, during the pre-exilic period. It is not necessary to assume that there was ever an actual agreement between all of these nations, at the same time, against Israel. The motif is poetic, and also prophetic, in that it anticipates the (later) prophetic theme of the day of YHWH’s judgment against all the nations (collectively). Here, these nations are listed together because they all have in common the characteristic of being (during their history) hostile opponents of Israel.

By scribal error (metathesis), the Dead Sea manuscript MasPsa reads “gods of [yhla] Edom” instead of “tents of [ylha] Edom”. The people of Edom and the Ishmaelites are neighbors to the south (and southeast) of Israel, while the people of Moab and the Hagrites, as well as the people of Ammon, populated the Transjordan regions to the east. The association of Amalek with Ammon (and the Transjordan) may reflect the historical tradition of the alliance of Ammon and Amalek with Moab (king Eglon) to attack Israel (Judges 3:12-14); the Amalekites also seem to have had a presence further north and to the west, at times serving as raiders and mercenaries against Israel. The Philistines (Pelešet) and the city-state of Tyr (‚ôr) represent the western and northern boundaries of the Israelite kingdom.

Of the nations and peoples in this list, only “Gebal” (lb*G+) is problematic. Its position here, being included with the Transjordan nations, makes it unlikely that the reference is to the Phoenician Gbl (Byblos). A more probable identification is with the region Gibal/Jebal SE of the Dead Sea, located in the hilly Edomite territory of Seir; Josephus (Antiquities 2.6) refers to Gobolitis as forming part of Idumea.

Verse 9 [8]

“Also ‘Aššûr has become joined with them,
and is (the strong) arm of (the) sons of Lôt.”

The list of hostile nations, and the first part of the Psalm, concludes with this mention of Assyria (‘Aššûr), connecting it specifically with the nations of Moab and Ammon (the “sons of Lot”, cf. the tradition in Gen 19:36-38; Deut 2:9). The implication is that Assyria is only involved in conflict with Israel through Moab and Ammon as proxies. Perhaps the allusion is to Moab’s status as an Assyrian vassal state following the conquests by Tiglath-Pileser III (mid-late 8th century). In any case, within the dramatic scenario portrayed in the Psalm, Assyrian military might provides Moab/Ammon with a strong “arm” with which to attack Israel.

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).