Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 1)

Psalm 55

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

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

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

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

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

VERSES 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

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

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

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 2)

Psalm 44, continued

The first part of this Psalm (vv. 2-9 [1-8]), cf. the previous study) emphasized the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Here we are looking at the second part. The meter in this section tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though there are certain exceptions, particularly several 3+2 couplets, which are noted below.

Verses 10-17 [9-16]

Verse 10 [9]

“But you rejected (us) and brought disgrace on us,
and you did not go forth with our armies.”

The opening particle [a^ is adversative, indicating a transition (and point of contrast) with the first section of the Psalm. YHWH’s support for Israel, including fighting battles on her behalf, has changed to rejection (vb jn~z`). He no longer travels with the armies of Israel to provide his Divine power on their behalf. This has led to military defeats, and to humiliation and disgrace (vb <l^K*).

Verse 11 [10]

“You made us turn back from (the) adversary,
and (the one)s hating us took plunder for themsel(ves).”

Here the context of military defeat is made clear; Israel’s defeat in battle reflects YHWH’s withdrawal of His support. As a result, Israel is forced to turn back from her enemies.

Verses 12 [11]

“You have given us, like sheep, (as something) eaten,
and among (the) nations you have scattered us.”

This 3+2 couplet combines herding and agricultural imagery—i.e., sheep raised to be slaughtered for meat, and grain tossed (threshed) about after harvest. Both reflect the idea that the people of Israel, following their military defeats, are overpowered and devoured/consumed by their enemies. The first line alludes to conquest, the second to exile. It is not possible to isolate a specific historical setting for the Psalm, but this reference to exile suggests a time no earlier than the late-8th/early-7th century B.C. (following the Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom and/or the southern conquests during the invasion of Sennacherib).

Verse 13 [12]

“You sold your people with no wealth (coming),
and did not think much by (the) price for them.”

The exile motif of v. 12 [11] continues here with the idea of YHWH selling off (vb rk^m*) His people—that is, like slaves. Not only that, but God sold them at a low price, with “no (real) wealth [/oh]” coming from the sale. Indeed, He did not even bother to set a significant price (ryj!m=, plural) for them, indicating that He did not “think much” (vb hb^r*) of their worth. The harsh and derisive wording here should be seen as rhetorical in nature, a kind of exaggeration to show how far Israel has fallen in God’s eyes.

Verse 14 [13]

“You set us (as) an insult for (those) dwelling (around) us,
(as) mocking and laughter for (those) surrounding us.”

It is possible that this couplet is meant to express life in exile. Certainly there are other people dwelling (vb /k^v*) around Israel, and the verb bb^s* (“[en]circle, surround”) in the second line may suggest that the Israelites are a minority, being surrounded by other nations and peoples. More important is the fact that Israel’s defeats—including conquest and exile—has led to them being an object of ridicule among the nations. Three nouns are used to express this, within the synonymous parallelism of the couplet: hP*r=j# (“insult, cast blame, treat with scorn”), gu^l* (“mocking, derision”), and sl#q# (something of no value, a target of laughter/derision, i.e. ‘laughing-stock’)—the latter two words being close in meaning.

Verse 15 [14]

“You set us (as) an example (of shame) among (the) nations,
(for) shaking of head(s) among (the) peoples.”

Another 3+2 couplet, which follows closely in meaning and tone after v. 14 [13]. Not only has Israel become a target for derision among the nations, they have turned into a veritable example for the shame and disgrace that can befall a people. The noun lv*m*, often translated flatly as “proverb”, fundamentally refers to a likeness, and here it seems to be used in the sense of a pattern or “example” of a people’s shame. The nations can only “shake (their) head” (a literal translation of the idiom var)-dogm=) at what has become of Israel. This is perhaps to be understood in light of the first section of the Psalm, with its references to the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (in the past) on behalf of Israel, things which caused amazement (and fear) among the nations. Now the nations are amazed in a different way: what has happened to this people who had God on their side?

Verse 16 [15]

“All the day (long) my humiliation is in front of me,
and (the) shame of my face has covered me.”

The wording of this couplet would seem to make clear that, in terms of the Psalm-setting, the shame (of exile) experienced by Israel is a present condition. The Psalmist counts himself among the people, shifting from the plural (“us”) to the singular (“me”). He experiences this humiliation and shame (tv#B)) “all the day (long)”. The sense of disgrace is complete and overwhelming, “covering” him. Dahood (p. 266) suggests that the problematic suffixed verb yntsk should be read as a Pual (passive) form, understood in a privative sense—i.e., “the shame of my face is uncovered (before) me.”

Verse 17 [16]

“(It is) from (the) voice of (the one) insulting and reviling,
(and) from (the) face of (the one) hostile and taking vengeance.”

The overwhelming shame and disgrace heaped upon Israel (in exile) is two-pronged: it comes from the voice of the nations (i.e., their speech), and their faces (i.e., their attitudes and how they treat Israel). The abusive speech is characterized by the verbs [r^j* and [d^G` which are similar in meaning (“insult, revile,” etc). While the nations’ attitudes and behavior toward Israel reflects hostility (vb by~a*) and a desire to take revenge (vb <q^n`). All four verbs are participle forms, indicating a situation that is continuous, and that is characteristic of the relationship between the nations and Israel.

This part of the Psalm makes for rather depressing reading, with its litany of suffering and repeated descriptions of the abuse Israel has suffered (from the nations) since YHWH has withdrawn His support. The reason God has ceased to support Israel is not stated, but anyone familiar with the Scriptural account of Israelite history would know that it was due to violation of the covenant bond—acts of wickedness and idolatry that led to YHWH bringing judgment upon His people.

Sadly, the abuse directed at Israel has not been limited to the Exilic period, but has continued, in a variety of ways, during the many centuries since—a long period which can be seen as a continuation of Israel’s exile and ‘dispersion’ among the nations. The “nations” have frequently mistreated the Israelites and Jews who dwelt in their territories, often in harsh and terrible ways. This is to the shame of the “nations” themselves, as much as it is for Israel.

Fortunately, the Psalm does not end here. In the final part (beginning with verse 18 [17]), we find expressed a profound hope for Israel’s restoration, for deliverance from their suffering among the nations. This expectation is tied to a collective affirmation by the people of a renewed loyalty to the covenant with YHWH. We will examine this section of the Psalm in next week’s study.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 1)

Psalm 44

Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsc (vv. 3-9, 23-25 [2-8, 22-24]); 4QPsc (vv. 8-9 [7-8]?)

This Psalm is a lament, written from the standpoint of the people, or nation as a whole. It appears to have an Exilic setting, to judge from the statement in verse 12 [11]; at any rate, the kingdom has met with crushing defeat, and it has led to exile of the population. Possibly the Assyrian conquests are in view, which would indicate a late 8th or 7th century date, but some commentators would place it in a later period; the lack of clear historical references do not allow for a precise dating.

The superscription is essentially the same as that of Psalm 42-43. On the term lyK!c=m^, and the identification of the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the study on that Psalm. This is an ‘Elohist Psalm’, using the general plural term/title <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm, understood as an intensive plural, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “God”) in place of the Divine name hwhy.

I divide this Psalm into three parts, the first of which (vv. 2-9 [1-8]) ends with a Selah pause. It emphasizes the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“Mightiest (One), with our ears we have heard,
our fathers have recounted (it) for us:
the deed(s which) you did in their days,
in (the) days (now gone) before”

The meter of this initial couplet is 3+2, typical of the so-called qina meter often used in poems of lament. The first section opens with a traditional reference to the history of Israel, marked by the great and wondrous deeds done (luP, both noun and verb) by YHWH on the people’s behalf. These deeds are presented as something told in narrative form, as a traditional tale (or tales) passed down from earlier generations (“our fathers…”, “…in days before”). Certainly this would have included the story of the Exodus from Egypt, with the miraculous deliverance at the Reed Sea, as well as accounts of the Conquest of Canaan (under Joshua), and the victories under the Judges and the first kings of Israel (Saul, David). Some of these existed in a poetic form that could be taught and committed to memory (cf. Exod 15:1-21; Judges 5); the great poems also formed the core of the larger historical narratives (in the Pentateuch and Joshua-Kings) that developed by the time of the Exile.

The opening word, <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim), used in place of the Divine name YHWH, marks the ‘Elohist’ character of this Psalm.

Verse 3 [2]

“You, (with) your hand,
dispossessed (the) nations and planted them,
broke apart (the) peoples and sent them (up).”

This verse is to be parsed rhythmically as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet preceded by a 2-beat line. The short initial line serves to build dramatic suspense, emphasizing that it is God (YHWH) who achieved the victories and successes for Israel; He did this with His own Divine power (His “hand”). The nations / peoples are contrasted with “them” —that is, with the people of Israel. This refers primarily to the nations of Canaan who were “dispossessed” (vb vr^y` in the Hiphil stem) of their land and “broken apart” (vb uu^r*) as national and territorial entities. In their place, Israel was “planted” in the land, where God’s people would “send (up)” (jl^v*) their shoots and branches—that is, grow and prosper. This imagery is ancient, and can be seen as early as the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:13-17).

Verse 4 [3]

“For it was not with their sword (that) they possessed the land,
and their arm did not work salvation for them;
(but it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them.”

The meter of this verse is quite irregular: an extended 4+3 couplet, followed by a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The initial couplet plays on the emphatic contrast in v. 3 [2] using the suffix < *– (“them, their”), referring to the people of Israel. In v. 3, the contrast was with the nations, while here it is with YHWH. The contrast emphasizes the point made in the initial line of v. 3—that is was God’s own hand that achieved these successes for Israel. Ultimately, victory and deliverance from enemy forces was not won by Israelite strength and military power (“their sword”), but by the power of God. This is expressed beautifully by the terse tricolon and closes the verse here:

“(it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them”

On the shining “face” (lit. “turning[s]”, <yn]P*) of YHWH as a manifestation of His fiery anger and judgment (against the wicked), cf. 34:16; 80:16, etc. The reverse of this is the motif of God’s face “shining” on the righteous in love and benevolence (4:6; 11:7; 17:15; 31:16; 67:1, etc). When the righteous experience suffering and misfortune, it seems that YHWH has turned away His face or has “hidden” it (10:11; 13:1; 27:9; 30:7, etc).

Verse 5 [4]

“You (are) He, my King (and) my Mighty (One),
commanding (act)s of salvation (for) Ya’aqob.”

The Psalmist, in addressing YHWH, identifies Him as the same one who did these things for Israel (Jacob) in the past: “You (are) He” (aWh-aT*a^). This expression also serves to establish, most emphatically, the declaration “you (are) my King and my God”. Here “Mighty (One)” = “Mightiest (One)” (<hy!l)a$). With Dahood (p. 265) and other commentators, I divide MT hwx <yhla as hwxm yhla (hW#x^m= yh*l)a$, “my Mighty [One], commanding…”).

Verse 6 [5]

“In you we butted (horns against) our adversaries,
in your name we trampled (the one)s standing (against) us.”

With God’s own strength on their side, the Israelite people are able to defeat their enemies. The imagery is that of a powerful animal, like a ram, butting (vb jg~n`) its opponent and trampling (vb sWB) him. The parallel of “in your name” with “in you” illustrates again how, in the ancient Near Eastern mind, the name of a person is a manifestation and embodiment of the person himself. To be protected and strengthened by God’s name means being protecting/strengthened by His very presence and power.

An important grammatical shift takes place in this verse, as the Psalmist now speaks in the first person plural (“we…”), rather than the third person (“they/them/their”). He, and the righteous ones of his generation, identify themselves with the Israel of the past.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“For not with my bow did I seek protection,
and my sword did not bring me salvation,
(but) you have saved us from our adversaries,
and (the one)s hating us you have put to shame.”

These two couplets essentially restate v. 4 [3] (cf. above), but with the Psalmist (and other righteous ones) taking the place of the Israelites of old, and thus speaking in the first person, as in v. 6 [5] (i.e., “our sword” instead of “their sword”). However, the point is the same: it was not our strength and military skill that won the victory, but the power of YHWH working on our behalf.

Verse 9 [8]

“In (the) Mightiest (One) we shout all the day (long),
and (to) your name we throw (praise) into (the) distant (future).” Selah

The first section closes with this declaration of praise and worship for YHWH (the “Mightiest [One]”, Elohim). The righteous ones shout (vb ll^h*) praise “in” YHWH—that is, in His power and presence (cf. above). But they also throw (vb hd*y`) praise to Him—specifically, to His name, which, as noted above, means the same as giving praise to Him.

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

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

Psalms 42-43, continued

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

Verse 7 [6]

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 8 [7]

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

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

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

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

Verse 9 [8] ab

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

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

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

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

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

This is an appealing solution, though not entirely convincing.

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

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

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

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

Verse 11 [10]

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

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

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

Refrain: Verse 12 [11]

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

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

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


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 40 (Part 2)

Psalm 40, continued

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

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

Verse 12 [11]

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

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

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

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

Verse 13 [12]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 14-18 [13-17]

Verse 14 [13]

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

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

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

Verse 15 [14]

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

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

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

Verse 16 [15]

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

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

Verse 17 [16]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 18 [17]

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 39 (Part 1)

Psalm 39

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

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

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

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

Verses 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

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

Verse 3 [2]

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

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

Verse 5 [4]

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

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

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

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

Verse 6 [5]

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

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

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

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

The second stanza (vv. 7-12 [6-11]) and the closing lines (vv. 13-14 [12-13]) will be discussed in next week’s study.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 38 (Part 2)

Psalm 38, continued

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

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

Verses 12-17 [11-16]

Verse 12 [11]

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

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

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

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

Verse 13 [12]

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

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

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

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

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

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

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

Verses 16-17 [15-16]

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

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

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

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

Verses 18-23 [17-22]

Verses 18-19 [17-18]

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

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

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

Verses 20-21 [19-20]

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

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

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

Verses 22-23 [21-22]

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 38 (Part 1)

Psalm 38

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

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

Verse 3 [2]

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 5 [4]

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

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

Verse 6 [5]

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

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

Verse 7 [6]

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

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

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

Verse 8 [7]

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

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

Verse 9 [8]

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

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

Verse 10 [9]

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

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

Verse 11 [10]

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 35 (Part 2)

Psalm 35, continued

Verses 11-21

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

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

Verses 11-12

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

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

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

Verse 13

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

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

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

Verse 14

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

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

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

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

Verse 15

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

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

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

Verse 16

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

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

Verse 17

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

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

Verse 18

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

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

Verse 19

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

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

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

Verse 20

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

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

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

Verse 21

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 31 (Part 2)

Psalm 31, continued

Following my three-part outline of this Psalm, we examined the first part (vv. 2-9 [1-8]) in the previous study; and now we continue with the second part this week:

    • Vv. 2-9 [1-8]: An expression of trust in YHWH, that He will deliver the Psalmist from the danger and distress he faces
    • Vv. 10-19 [9-18]: A lament for the illness and affliction which the Psalmist currently endures
    • Vv. 20-25 [19-24]: Praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for His goodness, shown in delivering those faithful to Him (such as the Psalmist) from suffering.

Verses 10-19 [9-18]

Verse 10a [9a]

“Show favor to me, YHWH,
for distress (belongs) to me!”

The meter of verse 10 [9] is a bit difficult; I suggest reading an opening 2-beat (2+2) couplet, followed by a 3+2 couplet that begins the stanza proper. The terse opening couplet serves as an invocation to God, whereby the Psalmist cries to YHWH for relief from his suffering (lit. “distress”, rx^), which is best understood as stemming from an illness or disease. In more forceful English idiom, we might translate the second line as “for distress is mine!”.

Verse 10b [9b]

“My eye wastes (away) with (its) stirring,
(yes) my throat and my belly (too)!”

The Psalmist’s entire being—physical and emotional—is consumed by the pain and suffering he endures. The idiom of his eye “wasting away” (vb vv@u*) presumably refers to his weeping, etc, being “provoked” by his condition. The noun su^K^ here is a bit awkward to translate so as to preserve a clean poetic line. Literally, su^k^B= would mean something like “with provocation”, “with agitation”; I have rendered this as “with (its) stirring”, i.e., his eyes are stirred to tears. The second 2-beat line seems almost perfunctory, and some commentators (cf. Kraus, p. 360) are inclined to eliminate it. The validity of the 3+2 meter in the text as we have it would seem to be confirmed by the metrical pattern that prevails in the following lines of the stanza (3+2 in v. 11 [10]).

Most likely, the second line is meant to extend the idea expressed in the first line, of the Psalmist’s eyes being worn out with grief from his suffering; by adding his “throat” and “belly”, he well conveys how this condition is wearing out his entire body. The noun vp#n# often has a meaning comparable to “soul” in English, but occasionally preserves an older (more concrete) denotation of a person’s throat (inside); there are only a handful of such instances in the Old Testament, all of which occur in the Psalms and other early poems. The juxtaposition of throat / belly may indicate a loss of appetite.

Verse 11 [10]

“For my life is completed with anguish,
and my years with gasping;
my strength staggers with my affliction,
and my substance wastes away!”

Following the metrical pattern of v. 10b, these 3+2 couplets build upon the idea expressed in that initial bicolon, making use of a vivid and poignant parallelism. Any one who has endured for long a painful or debilitating illness will surely relate to the lament the Psalmist expresses in these lines. The final word (verb vv@u*), repeated from v. 10b, brings us full circle back to the initial lament, as though itself a poetic depiction of the idea that the Psalmist’s life is coming round to its end (v. 11a). His very strength (j^K) and substance (<x#u#) is failing and fading away; by this is meant specifically physical health, and the noun <x#u# can refer, in a concrete sense, to the strength in a person’s bones. With Dahood (p. 189) and other commentators, I read yn][w]u) (“my affliction”) for MT yn]ou& (“my perversion”, i.e. my sin/guilt).

Verse 12 [11]

“From (the one)s pressing close to me I was (something) to be scorned,
and for (the one)s dwelling (near) me a misfortune,
and a (source of) fear for (the one)s with knowledge of me;
(the one)s seeing me in (the street) outside fly away from me!”

This verse is most difficult, from a metrical and structural standpoint. I parse it as an irregular 4+2+2+4 quatrain, though this is very hard to capture in English translation. There is, I believe, a genuine chiastic structure to the lines; note, for example, how they begin and ends with the preposition /m! (“from”). The ‘outer’ 4-beat lines express the basic drama: that people who come in contact with him are repulsed and horrified by his appearance. As a substantive participle, the verb rr^x* often refers to someone who is oppressing another; however, here I think it is better to understand the verb in the more general (and neutral) sense of a person who presses close (i.e. comes in close contact) with another. By contrast, in the fourth line, even someone who catches a glimpse at him (from a distance away) is horrified and flees at the sight.

The ‘inner’ 2-beat lines express the same dynamic more simply, and in a relational sense. I have rendered the lines (including their word order) quite precisely. The MT of the second line presents a difficulty, as it apparently contains the intensive (adverbial) particle da)m=, which normally means something like “very (much)”, but seems to make little sense here: “and for (the one)s dwelling (near) me, very (much so)” [?]. A number of emendations have been proposed (cf. Kraus, p. 360). For lack of a better option, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 189) in parsing dam as a mem-enclitic (<-, attached to the prior word) followed by the noun d[y]a@ (“misfortune, ruin”). Some support for this is to be found in the parallelism of dya@ with dj^P^ (“[source of] fear”, something to be feared) elsewhere, in Job 31:23 and Prov 1:26.

The exaggerated response to the Psalmist’s appearance is doubtless to be regarded as a bit of poetic hyperbole, though it conceivably could reflect response to an actual illness or visible condition. The description here brings to mind the traditional reaction to leprosy, for example, in ancient times.

Verse 13 [12]

“I am withered like a dead (man), (put out) from (the) heart—
I am (indeed) like (an earthen) vessel gone to ruin!”

After the expansive quatrain in v. 12, here we find a tighter, symmetric 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The Psalmist compares himself with a withered (vb jk^v*) dead body and a (clay) vessel that is going to ruin (vb db^a*). The prepositional phrase bL@m! is difficult; literally it means “from (the) heart”, or “from (the) mind”, but the precise sense and force of the idiom here is uncertain. If one were to understand the verb jk^v* in the customary sense of “forget”, then the line would presumably mean “I am forgotten like a dead man, (put) out of mind”. However, the context suggests that the root jkv is better understood with the meaning “wither”, attested by the cognate ¾kµ in Ugaritic, but somewhat rare in Hebrew (cf. Dahood, p. 190). Perhaps the expression “from (the) heart/mind” here simply reflects the idea of a loss of sense and feeling by the Psalmist.

Verse 14 [13]

“For I hear (the evil) whisper(s) of many,
terror from all around (me),
in their setting down as one against me,
(and) plot(ting) to take (away) my soul!”

The pair of irregular couplets here shifts the imagery to the familiar motif in the Psalms, of those nameless/faceless adversaries (the wicked) who threaten the Psalmist’s life. As previously noted on a number of occasions, these references are more likely to refer to the forces of evil and wickedness in general, than to actual/specific human opponents. If we are to keep here with the symbolism of (physical) illness and suffering, it may well be that the ‘adversary’ is Death itself, and those plotting against the Psalmist are Death’s minions, including the evil spirits personified and manifest in the very illness and disease afflicting him (according to the ancient worldview).

Verse 15-16 [14-15]

“And (yet still) I trust on you (for protection), YHWH!
I said, ‘You (are) my Mighty (One),
(the) stages of my (life are) in your hand, snatch me (away)
from (the) Hand of (those) hostile to me, (the one)s pursuing me!'”

Again, much as in v. 12 [11] (cf. above) we are dealing here with a complex and irregular quatrain–apparently 4+3+3+3, though if the divine name (YHWH) were omitted as secondary, it would yield a more consistent 3-beat quatrain (or pair of 3+3 couplets). The breaking of the thought here between lines 3 and 4 is unusual in Hebrew poetry, though not entirely unprecedented. In spite of the bitter lament in vv. 10-14, the Psalmist still expresses a profound trust in YHWH, and this sense of trust (and hope) pervades the remaining lines of this section. The verb jf^B* is relatively frequent in the Psalms, occurring 14 times in just the Psalms (1-31) we have studied thus far. As previously noted, the fundamental idea is of seeking protection, though this carries with it the connotation of placing one’s trust in someone or something. There is a strong covenant-context to its usage in the Psalms—i.e., a subordinate (vassal) seeks/find protection under his superior (sovereign), according to the terms of the binding agreement. Here the sense is generalized, applicable to protection (by God) from anything that might endanger or threaten the Psalmist’s life (including illness/disease). This threat is again expressed figuratively, in terms of hostile opponents or adversaries (cf. above on v. 14).

Verse 17 [16]

“May your face bring light upon your servant,
bring salvation to me in your (loyal) kindness!”

The covenant-idiom continues in this couplet, with the specific designation “servant” (db#u#) and the noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”), which frequently connotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in a covenant context. The light-giving face (of God) is a common theological motif, but the idiom specifically connotes a sovereign showing favor to his loyal vassal (servant). In this case, the favor comes in the form of healing and deliverance from illness.

Verse 18 [17]

“YHWH, may I not come to shame when I call on you,
(but) may (the) wicked (one)s be shamed, thrown (down) to Sheol!”

Here we have the fundamental thought at work: the wicked/faithless ones deserve to die, sent down to Sheol, realm of Death and the grave; the righteous/faithful ones, by contrast, trust that they will receive the favor and protection of YHWH. This is central to the covenant idea in ancient Israel (cf. above), and the conceptual language pervades many of the Psalms throughout. Here the particle yK! carries the conditional sense of “when”, though it could also be understood as the basis of the Psalmist’s hope for deliverance, i.e. “for (it is) that I (have) called on you” (I am faithful/loyal to you). I follow Dahood (p. 190) and other commentators in reading the verb form WmD=y] (MT) as derived from the root hd*n` (“throw [down]”), appropriate enough for the imagery here of being thrown “into Sheol” (loavl!).

Verse 19 [18]

“May (all) deceitful lips be bound,
th(ose) speaking against the Just (One),
hard with highness and contempt!”

The precise form and meaning of the verse remains uncertain; the sense of the final line, in particular, is unclear. Metrically, it would appear to be (roughly) a 3-beat tricolon. That it functions as an imprecation, and (perhaps more importantly) as a solemn declaration (asseveration), is clear. The point that the Psalmist wishes to declare before God is that he has nothing whatever in common with the wicked, and so should not meet their fate (through a violent or untimely death). The adjective qyD!x^ (“just, right[eous]”) in the second line is ambiguous; it could refer to the righteous human being, or to God as the Just/Righteous One. I have opted for the latter, though the overall thrust of the verse would not change much in either case, since to speak against the righteous ones (those loyal to YHWH) is tantamount to speaking against YHWH Himself.

We can see rather clearly here, I think, the purpose of the imagery of wicked opponents/adversaries that runs through many of the Psalms. They function on a religious and judicial level, as figures against whom the Psalmist sets himself in contrast, demonstrating (before God) what he is not like. The righteous, indeed, are not like the wicked—the salient contrastive point of Wisdom in the first Psalm, especially. Part of the very proof of this point is the formal confession that the righteous gives in God’s presence; the fact that he can make such a confession shows that he is among the righteous ones (and not the wicked).

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