Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 103 (Part 2)

Psalm 103, continued

For the Introduction (vv. 1-5) of the Psalm, and the first two stanzas (vv. 6-8, 9-11) of the central hymn, see Part 1 of this study.

The Hymn: Verses 6-18 (cont.)

Third Stanza: Vv. 12-14
Verse 12

“Like (the) distance of (the sun’s) rising from (its) setting,
(so) He has made distant from us our breaches (of faith).”

The theme of this stanza picks up from that of the previous (vv. 9-11, cf. the discussion in Part 1)—viz., YHWH’s mercy and compassion in forgiving the sins of His people. In particular, this first couplet builds upon the prior couplet (v. 11), comparing the greatness of YHWH’s loving devotion (ds#j#) with the distance (height) between heaven and earth. Similarly here, the motif of distance (using the root qjr) is employed to express the greatness of God’s forgiveness. Instead of a vertical distance (heaven-earth), a horizontal (east-west) distance is used.

The verb qj^r* means “be far/distant” and occurs in both lines, to express the comparison. In the first line, a stative infinitive is used, for the (fixed) distance between the rising (jr*z+m!) and setting/darkening (br*u&m^) of the sun, i.e., between east and west. In the second line, there is a Hiphil (causative) perfect form, indicating how YHWH puts far away His people’s sins. He removes them from us, virtually to the ‘other side of the world’.

The noun uv^P# essentially refers to a breach of trust, sundering the bond of relationship between two persons or parties. Implicit in the use of the term is the idea of a violation of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH, whereby His people break faith/trust, viz., by failing to live up to the terms of the covenant—the Torah precepts and regulations. In this respect, the sins that YHWH removes/forgives are defined in terms of violations of the Torah.

Verse 13

“Like (the) deep love of a father over (his) sons,
(so) YHWH has love over (those) fearing Him.”

The comparison in this second couplet is formed according to the pattern of the first (v. 12). The greatness of YHWH’s compassion and devotion, expressed in vv. 11-12 by the motif of distance (see above), is here captured through the verb <j^r* (note the alliterative wordplay with qj^r* [v. 12]). This verb essentially conveys the idea of a deep love that one person has toward another; the strong connotation is that of caring for a person, treating them with compassion, etc. The example given in line 1 is of the love that a father has for (lit. over, lu^) his sons; this example, can, of course, be rendered more inclusively, as the love a parent has for his/her children.

YHWH has similar love toward His people. The motif of Israel as YHWH’s sons/children, and He as their Father, occurs with some frequency in the Scriptures (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Hos 2:1 [1:10]; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 63:7[8]; Jer 31:9). Here the relationship is limited to, or defined in terms of, the devout/faithful ones of Israel (“[those] fearing Him”). YHWH is particularly a loving Father to those who are faithful to Him (and to the covenant).

Verse 14

“For He (indeed) knows our (very) form,
(and is) mindful that we (are but) dust.”

Here the idiom of YHWH as Father shifts to that of Creator. The two idioms are closely related, as, in ancient Near Eastern religious tradition, the Creator is often referred to as “Father”. See, in particular, Deuteronomy 32:6b for the pairing of these ideas. The noun rx#y@ (“form”) alludes to the traditional mythological image of God as an artisan who forms/fashions a vessel (or image) out of raw material—such as a potter who shapes his work out of the clay. As Creator, YHWH knows the form of each human being; in particular, He knows the form/shape of His people, including their innermost parts (cf. vv. 1ff), and so is able to create them.

The final line anticipates the Wisdom theme in the fourth stanza, emphasizing the limited and transient nature of a created human being. The reference to human beings as “dust” is traditional (Gen 2:7; 3:19, etc); the noun rp*u* can also be used for dirt in a broader sense—including the specific consistency of “mud” or “clay”, which would well fit the artisan/potter allusion here in the verse (cf. Dahood, III, p. 28).

The verb form rWkz` is a bit unusual; as a (passive) participle, or, possibly, an infinitive (cf. Dahood, III, p. 28), it functions here as a verbal adjective. The verb rk^z` is typically translated “remember”, but properly it means “have in mind” or “bring to mind”. Here the verbal adjective carries the meaning “mindful of”, emphasizing again YHWH’s care and concern for His people (cf. on the verb <j^r* in v. 13, above).

Fourth Stanza: Vv. 15-18
Verse 15

“Humanity—like (the) grass (are) its days;
like a blossom of the field, so it blossoms.”

The Wisdom-theme introduced in verse 14, continues here in vv. 15-16, emphasizing the transitory nature of human life on earth. We have seen such an emphasis in previous Psalms, including the comparison of humankind with the grass and flower of the field, that flourishes only briefly—cf. Psalm 37:2; 72:16; 90:5; 102:5[4], 12[11]; cp. Job 8:12; 14:2; Isa 40:6-8.

The noun vona$, rather more so than the parallel vya!, can refer to humankind collectively (or generally), and should be read this way here.

Verse 16

“Then (the) wind passes over him, and he is no more;
even his standing place will not recognize him any longer.”

The brief ‘blossoming’ of a human being on earth (v. 15) is contrasted with his/her vanishing. When the grass or flower has withered (and died), the wind “passes over” it, blowing it away. This aspect of the example is then applied to a human being, to illustrate how he/she ceases to exist (“he is no more”, using the negative particle of absence [or non-existence], /ya@). Even the place where that ‘flower’ stood (“his standing place”) soon will no longer recognize (vb rk^n`) him—there will be no acknowledgment that he was ever there.

Verse 17

“But (the) devotion of YHWH (is), from distant (ages past),
and until (the) distant (future), over (those) fearing Him,
and His loyalty (remains) for (the) sons of sons—”

The transitory nature of human beings (vv. 15-16) is contrasted with the lasting permanence of YHWH. In particular, His devotion and loyalty toward His people—viz. those who are faithful to the covenant (“[those] fearing Him”)—extends from the distant past all the way into the distant future. These two temporal aspects of the noun <l*ou are here combined, so as to express emphatically the idea of “forever”.

The verse has an extended 3+3+3 (tricolon) format, as is fitting for this climactic moment at the close of the hymn. A third line has been added for emphasis (and dramatic effect). It is not simply that YHWH’s devotion lasts for all time, throughout the Ages—it also applies to all the people living during that time, generation after generation (“sons of sons”).

The frequently used nouns ds#j# and hq*d*x=, due to their relatively wide range of meaning, defy easy or consistent translation. The noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”), as I have repeated noted, carries the meaning of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion” when used in the context of the covenant-bond; throughout this Psalm, I have translated it as “devotion”. The noun hq*d*x= basically means “rightness” (i.e., what is right), but the precise meaning can fluctuate depending on the specific context. Here, in light of the parallel with ds#j#, it should be understood in terms of YHWH’s loyalty toward His people (and the covenant). With regard to the covenant-bond, YHWH will always do what is right.

Verse 18

“for (those) guarding His binding (agreement),
and for (those) mindful to do His charges.”

This awkward, irregular couplet reads like a gloss on the final line of v. 17, and may represent a secondary addition to the original hymn. It effectively clarifies that YHWH’s covenant loyalty to the future generations of Israel (“sons of sons”) applies only to those who are similarly loyal to the covenant (tyr!B=, “binding agreement”). This means, of course, fulfilling the requirements and precepts of the Torah.

The suffixed noun wyd*Q%P! is virtually impossible to translate with any sort of poetic concision. The range of meaning of the root dqp, as it is used in the Scriptures, is notorious, and has long vexed translators. In this context, the plural noun <yd!Q%P! means something like “(thing)s (we are required to) attend to”, or “(thing)s (we must) take care of”. It refers to the requirements (regulations and precepts, etc) of the Torah. For lack of any better option, I have followed Allen (p. 25) in translating it as “charges” (i.e., things we are charged with doing).

Conclusion: Verses 19-22

Verse 19

“YHWH in the heavens has set firm His throne,
and (in His) Kingship He rules over all!”

This couplet is transitional, between the Hymn and the conclusion of the Psalm (vv. 20-22). The call to bless YHWH is based upon his Sovereignty over all of creation. The throne of YHWH’s Kingship is in the heavens (viz., the upper half/dome of the cosmos) which arches over the earth below, covering it completely. Thus, YHWH’s Kingship extends over all the earth (and over all humankind).

It is preferable to understand YHWH Himself (rather than “His kingdom/kingship”) as the subject of the verb lv^m* (“rule [over]”). On this point, see Dahood (III, p. 28f), who explains the apparent feminine singular form (which would agree with the noun tWkl=m^) as an archaic masculine form (qatala pattern). He adds that this form was likely used for poetic-stylistic reasons, to lengthen the syllabic count of the second line. The suggestion is intriguing, and I have tentatively followed it.

Verse 20

“Bless YHWH, (you) His Messengers,
mighty of power (and) doers of His word,
(ready) to hear at (the) voice of His word!”

The conclusion of the Psalm properly begins here with verse 20, a call to bless YHWH (using the verb Er^B*) parallel to that of vv. 1-5 (see the exegesis in Part 1). The focus in that first call was on the inward microcosm of the Psalmist’s soul. Here, the focus is on the outward macrocosm of the entire universe (viz., all of creation). He begins with the heavenly “messengers” of YHWH, the mighty (divine) beings who carry out the Creator’s wishes at His command (“word”). The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb has the plural “words” (<yr!b*D=) rather than the singular; the emphasis would then be on the individual commands, rather than a collective reference.

Metrically, the verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 21

“Bless YHWH, all (you) His armed warriors,
(those) attending to Him (and) doing His pleasure!”

A second group of divine/heavenly beings is addressed. Like the “messengers”, these beings also attend to YHWH, responding with obedience to His word, ready to carry it out. Here, the word (and will) of YHWH is expressed in terms of what delights or pleases Him (“His pleasure”).

They are specifically referred to as “armed warriors”, i.e., soldiers. This derives from an ancient militaristic tradition which viewed the heavenly beings—especially those related to the celestial and atmospheric phenomena of the natural world (e.g., sun, moon, stars, winds, rain)—as soldiers who fight at YHWH’s command (and on behalf of His people). This line of tradition was preserved in the title “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies” (toab*x= hwhy). Here the masculine plural <ya!b*x= (“armed warriors”) is used, rather than the feminine plural toab*x= (“armed forces, armies”).

Verse 22

“Bless YHWH, all (you who are) His works,
in all standing-places under His rule!
*          *         *           *         *         *
May you bless, O my soul, YHWH!”

It is possible that this final couplet, like vv. 20-21, also refers to the divine/heavenly beings. However, it would seem that the scope of the call has widened to include all creation—all created beings. As created beings, they are YHWH’s “works”. In every place where one might stand under YHWH’s rule—which is to say, everywhere on earth and in all of creation—the beings created by Him should bless YHWH, giving praise and honor to Him. The blessing is to be an acknowledgment of YHWH’s Kingship and His ruling presence and power in the universe.

The closing couplet is expanded into a tricolon (to match the initial tricolon of v. 20) by repeating the initial line of the Psalm (v. 1). Thus, in the call to worship YHWH, the macrocosm of the entire universe is joined to the microcosm of the individual worshiper’s soul.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 103 (Part 1)

Psalm 103

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (v. 1); 4QPsb (vv. 1-6, 9-14, 20-21); 2QPs (vv. 2, 4-6, 8-11)

This Psalm is a carefully structured hymn to YHWH, calling on people to praise and give thanks to God for all that he has done. The focus is both individual and corporate. This is indicated by the parallel call to bless YHWH (using the verb Er^B*) that brackets the Psalm (vv. 1-5, 20-22). The opening blessing comes from the standpoint of the ‘inward parts’ of the individual worshiper (represented by the Psalmist/protagonist). This inward focus is balanced by the cosmic orientation of the concluding blessing—as the Psalmist calls on all created beings everywhere (human and angelic) to praise YHWH.

The main hymn (vv. 6-18) emphasizes the love, compassion and forgiveness of YHWH, and is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 33-34. The division of the hymn into four stanzas (cf. Allen, p. 29f) seems to be most reasonable. The stanzas are each composed of three couplets (vv. 6-8, 9-11, 12-14), with the fourth (concluding) stanza having an expanded form (vv. 15-18). There is a didactic aspect to the hymn, designed to instruct the Community, and to exhort them to remain faithful to the covenant. The Wisdom-elements in the final stanza are part of this emphasis.

The date of the Psalm is difficult to determine. The use of the second person feminine (yk!-) suffix has been thought to indicate Aramaic influence (cf. GKC §91e), and thus to reflect an Exilic (or post-Exilic) date. Similarly, vv. 15-16 have been considered to be dependent upon Isa 40:6-8. Such a time-frame for the Psalm is certainly possible; however, it may be that use of the yk!– suffix is primarily stylistic and poetic, intended for assonance with the imperative yk!r&B* (cf. Allen, p. 26).

Metrically, Psalm 103 consistently follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, with only a few exceptions. The superscription simply attributes the Psalm to David (dw]d*l=, “[belonging] to David”).

The Psalm is relatively well-preserved in two Qumran manuscripts—4QPsb and 2QPs—with only a handful of minor variant readings.

Introduction: Vv. 1-5

Verse 1

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and all my inner parts, His holy name!”

In this opening couplet, the Psalmist calls on everything within him to bless YHWH. The verb Er^B* essentially means “greet with praise/blessing”, usually in a religious (ritual) context, implying a consecrated setting. The precise relationship between this verb and the noun Er#B# (“knee”) is still debated, as kneeling certainly would serve as a gesture (and position) for blessing and worship.

The “middle parts” (i.e., inner parts), <yb!r*q=, are parallel with vp#n#, a noun usually rendered as “soul”, but which specifically denotes the mouth/throat and what passes through it (esp. the breath). This is particularly significant for the Psalmist as a singer; it is naturally that he would begin with the mouth/throat, and his breath, the sound and vibrations which pass through to form music of praise to God. Yet, it is the inward aspect of his life-breath (“soul”) that is being emphasized. His ‘inner parts’ (“all my inner parts”) function as microcosm which will be matched by the macrocosm of all things (outwardly) in creation (vv. 20-22).

The plural form of the noun br#q# occurs only here in the Scriptures; in this context (of a person’s insides or inner-organs), the dual (<y]b^r*q=) is regularly used.

In the second line, the literal expression is “(the) name of His holiness”; for poetic concision, I have translated this conventionally as “His holy name”.

Verse 2

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and do not forget all His dealings—”

The first line of v. 1 is repeated here, and again serves to conclude the Psalm (v. 22c). By the repetition, emphasis is put on the Psalmist speaking to his soul (and inner parts), exhorting and urging himself—and, by extension, all worshipers—to honor YHWH by remembering the things He has done. The act of remembering here is framed in negative terms (viz., as not forgetting, vb jk^v*). As for what God has done, this is expressed by the noun lWmG+, from a root (lmg) with a relatively wide range of meaning. The basic verbal sense is of something being completed, often in the context of an interaction between people, and frequently emphasizing how one treats or deals with another, either in a positive (beneficial) or negative (harmful, punitive) way. Here the sense of the plural noun is “all the ways YHWH has dealt with His people”.

Verse 3

“the (One) forgiving all your deviations,
the (One) healing all your sicknesses,”

A sequence of participial phrases follows in vv. 3-5, the articular verbal noun (participle) in each instance capturing a definitive attribute of YHWH, a regular action that he performs on behalf of His people, reflecting His nature and character as God, and demonstrating His devotion to the covenant-bond. The formulation is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 34:6-7ff, and expresses here much the same thought as in that famous passage. The idea of YHWH forgiving the “crookedness” (/ou*) of the people is similarly found in Exod 34:7, but using the verb ac*n` (“lift/take [away]”), rather than jl^s* (which does occur in v. 9). The noun /ou* implies a bending away from what is right, but also could be understood in terms of a crooked and twisted (i.e., perverse) character.

The healing of sickness/disease is naturally paired  with the forgiving of sin; in the ancient world, particularly, sickness and ailments of various kinds tended to be viewed as the result of sin (and Divine punishment of sin). When YHWH forgives the people’s sins, the healing of illness and disease follows.

The second person feminine suffix (yk!-, “your”) refers back to the feminine noun vp#n# (“soul”).

Verse 4

“the (One) redeeming your life from (the) Pit,
the (One) encircling you (with) devotion and love,”

The verb la^G` (“redeem”) is generally parallel with jl^s* (“pardon, forgive”) in v. 3. Human crookedness and sickness, if not forgiven and healed, naturally leads to death and destruction, which here is represented by the noun tj^v^. This noun properly refers to a hole (or pit) dug for a grave, and thus also connotes the death and decay which belongs to the grave. Like the verb tj^v*, the noun can be understood in this associated or abstract sense of “destruction, ruin”. The root lag refers to the ancient Near Eastern social context of a relative who (through payment) ‘redeems’ his kin (and/or their property) from servitude, etc; it can also encompass the idea of protecting (or rescuing) someone from danger, etc.

Redemption from the Pit (i.e., death/grave) can be understood in two different ways: (i) rescuing a person when the danger of death (and the grave) threatens, or (ii) actually bringing a dead person out of the grave. The latter instance would imply an afterlife setting (cf. Dahood, III, p. 26).

The verb rf^u* properly means “encircle, surround”, though in the Piel (and Hiphil) it tends to have the more specific (denominative) meaning “crown” (from the noun hr*f*u&). Either translation (“encircling” or “crowning”) would be valid, though I prefer the meaning “encircle” here, as it captures the important aspect of being “surrounded” by YHWH’s love and protection.

The noun ds#j#, which occurs frequently in the Psalms, has been much discussed in these studies. It has the basic meaning “goodness, kindness”, but in the context of the covenant-bond between YHWH and His people, it carries the connotation of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. The noun <j^r^ denotes a deep love; the plural here could indicate the many acts (and/or feelings) of love/compassion by YHWH, but it could also be understood as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, i.e. great love/compassion.

Verse 5

“the (One) filling your long (life) with good,
(so that) your youth is renewed like the eagle!”

Having brought the righteous/devoted one’s soul out of the Pit, and then surrounding (or crowning) it with love, YHWH proceeds to give to it long life—but a life that is also perpetually new and youthful, even as it lasts long into the future. This idiomatic language is best understood in an afterlife context, i.e., with God in heaven (see above), though it could conceivably apply to a blessed life on earth as well.

With other commentators (Dahood, III, p. 26; Allen, p. 26), I revocalize (and emend slightly) the MT Ey@d=u# (“your ornament[?]”) to yk!d@u), as suffixed form of the noun dou (du)), meaning “duration”, in the sense of “long life” or “(ever)lasting life”. On the eagle soaring as a motif of the renewal of life and strength (i.e., youthfulness), cf. Isa 40:31.

The Hymn: Verses 6-18

First Stanza: Vv. 6-8
Verse 6

“The (One) making right—(it is) YHWH—
and (true) judgment for (the) oppressed.”

The pattern of substantive participial phrases (vv. 3-5) continues into the hymn, where the Psalmist makes clear again that YHWH is the One doing all these things. The focus in the hymn shifts from the individual soul of the devout/righteous worshiper to the people as a whole. Indeed, the theme of individual salvation (from sin and death) gives way here to a social (corporate) sense of righteousness and justice.

YHWH makes things right, i.e., does what is right (hq*d*x=), for His people—and especially for those who are oppressed. Acting as Judge, he renders right (and beneficial) judgments on their behalf.

Verse 7

“He made known His ways to Moshe,
and to (the) sons of Yisrael His deeds.”

This couplet summarizes what YHWH has done for His people (Israel) during their history, and especially during the formative (Mosaic) period of the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai. The making known of His ways to Moses refers primarily to the revelation (of the Torah) at Sinai, but it also alludes to the subsequent revelation to Moses (associated with the restoration/renewal of the covenant) in Exod 33-34 (see below).

Verse 8

“Loving and showing favor (is) YHWH,
long of nose and abundant in devotion.”

This verse is essentially a quotation of the Divine declaration to Moses in Exod 34:6 (see above). While it declares YHWH’s essential character, it also epitomizes His covenant relationship with His people. Four different (but related) attributes are presented here, two in each line. In the first line we have the adjectives <Wjr^ (“loving, compassionate”) and /WNj^, the latter defining YHWH as one who “grants/bestows favors”.

In the second line, the expression “long of nostrils” (or “long of nose”) is an idiom for being slow to anger, i.e., the opposite of being ‘short-tempered’ (“short of nose”); in certain respects the expression is parallel to the adjective <Wjr^ in line 1. The second expression “abundant of devotion” utilizes the familiar noun ds#j# (on which, see verse 4 above). This also is parallel with the second adjective of line 1—both terms referring principally to YHWH’s loyalty and devotion to the covenant-bond.

There is a subtle bit of alliterative wordplay, between the adjective br^ here in v. 8 and the verb byr! in v. 9.

Second Stanza: Vv. 9-11
Verse 9

“Not to the end shall He contend (with us),
and not for ever shall He keep (angry).”

This second stanza of the hymn illustrates and expounds the principle laid out in verse 8, regarding the devotion and loyalty YHWH shows to His people. When He is angry (because of the people’s lack of faithfulness) and “contends” (vb byr!) with them (i.e., punishes them), His anger does not last forever. Once discipline and punishment has been meted out, anger is replaced by mercy and compassion.

Two common temporal expressions are used, each of which conveys the sense of a duration of time lasting far into the future (i.e., everlasting). The first, jx^n#l*, means something like “to (the) utmost”, properly in the sense of “continuing in force” (or “…with [full] strength”); the simple rendering “to (the) end” is used above. The second expression, <l*oul*, occurring many times in the Psalms, means “(in)to (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here as “for ever”.

Verse 10

“Not according to our sins does he act to(ward) us,
and not according to our deviations does he deal with us.”

Though YHWH may punish sin, He does not deal with His people as their sins deserve. Even in His severe judgment against His people, His actions are tempered by mercy.

Verse 10 represents the first divergence from the regular 3-beat (3+3) meter of the Psalm; the longer lines read 4+4.

Verse 11

“But like (the) height of (the) heavens over the earth,
(so) His devotion is strong over (those) fearing Him.”

Through it all, YHWH’s loyalty and devotion (ds#j#) remains firm, strong and mighty, towering over the faithful ones (“[those] fearing Him”). There is a bit of wordplay here, between the verbal noun H^b)G+ (vb hb^G`, “be high”) and the verb rb^G` (“be strong/mighty”). An allusion to a strong tower is likely (cf. Allen, p. 26). The all-encompassing strength and height/breadth of YHWH’s devotion is like the great arching dome of the heavens over the earth. It is spread out over His people, just as the dome of the heavens spreads over the earth.

The remainder of the Psalm will be discussed next week, in Part 2.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 102 (Part 3)

Psalm 102, continued

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

Second Stanza, continued

Verse 19 [18]

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

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

Verse 20 [19]

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 21 [20]

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

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

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

Verse 22 [21]

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

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

Verse 23 [22]

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

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

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

Conclusion: Verses 24-29 [23-28]

Verse 24 [23]

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

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

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

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

Verse 25 [24]

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

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

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

Verse 26 [25]

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

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

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

Verses 27-28 [26-27]

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

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

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

Verse 29 [28]

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 102 (Part 2)

Psalm 102, continued

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

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

Verse 13 [12]

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

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

Verse 14 [13]

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

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

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

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

Verse 15 [14]

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 16 [15]

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 17 [16]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 18 [17]

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 102 (Part 1)

Psalm 102

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 2 [1]

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

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

Verse 3 [2]

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

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

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

Verse 5 [4]

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

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

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

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

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

Cf. Job 33:20-21.

Verse 6 [5]

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

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

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

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

Verse 7 [6]

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

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

Verse 8 [7]

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

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

Verse 9 [8]

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

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

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

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

Verse 10 [9]

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

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

Verse 11 [10]

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

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

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

Verse 12 [11]

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 101

Psalm 101

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (vv. 1-8)

Following the set of Psalms (93-100) dealing with the theme of YHWH as King, this composition (a romz+m! attributed to David) returns to a situational framework found frequently in the prior Psalms. The protagonist presents himself before YHWH, affirming his devotion, loyalty, and upright conduct. There is both a judicial and ritual aspect to this protestation of innocence. It also draws upon Wisdom-tradition in its juxtaposition of the righteous and the wicked.

Many commentators would see the protagonist as a royal figure (viz., the Israelite/Judean king), who presents himself as a faithful servant of YHWH. This affirmation of covenant-loyalty means that YHWH is expected to fulfill His covenant obligation of providing protection and blessing. Many Psalms evince a royal background, and it is likely that Psalm 101 preserves something of this background. The king represents the people before YHWH, and this understanding would seem to be reflected in the final section of the Psalm (vv. 6-8).

I have theorized that a good number of Psalms have undergone a certain development, whereby an original royal background/setting has been adapted to a more general communal worship setting. The king as protagonist serves as a template for the more general figure of the righteous Israelite. The righteous/faithful Psalmist, like the king in the (earlier) royal theology, represents the people before God. The Wisdom-traditions, which seem to influence this development as they are applied to the Psalm, further emphasize this communal aspect. The Psalmist is one of the righteous/faithful, and thus represents the people of God.

There would seem to be a relatively simple three-part structure to Psalm 101:

    • An opening section (vv. 1-2), in which the Psalmist calls upon YHWH, affirming his righteousness and loyalty.
    • The Psalmist then presents evidence for his faithfulness, on an individual basis (vv. 3-5)
    • The same is then done on a communal basis (vv. 6-8), whereby the protagonist represents the people and identifies with the faithful ones among them.

This Psalm presumably dates from sometime in the pre-exilic (monarchic) period, at least in its earliest form. The apparent Wisdom influence, however, could also reflect subsequent development and adaptation, as noted above.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3+2 couplet format.

It is interesting to note that Psalm 101 is preserved largely intact in the Qumran manuscript 11QPsa. Though this manuscript is fragmentary throughout, all 8 verses of the Psalm are present, requiring very limited restoration. This is a relatively unusual situation for the Psalms in the Qumran MSS. The text of Ps 101 matches the MT, except for one small variant.

Verse 1

“(Of your) goodness and justice I will sing,
to you, O YHWH, will I make music!”

In typical fashion, the Psalmist’s invocation to YHWH has a musical focus, his address taking the form of a musical composition sung to YHWH; the verbs ryv! (“sing”) and rm^z` (“make music”) are in parallel. The noun pair ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) and fP*v=m! (“judgment, justice”) establishes both the covenantal and judicial aspects of the Psalmist’s address. The noun ds#j# regularly connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”, particularly in a covenantal context, such as is almost always the case in the Psalms. YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant means that He will act to protect and bless the servant who is similarly loyal.

Verse 2a

“I perform with skill in (your) way complete—
when will you come to me?”

The final line enhances the sense of the Psalmist’s invocation; he quite literally is calling on YHWH to come to him. There is a certain impatience implied by the question. Given the Psalmist’s righteous conduct and devotion to the covenant, it is expected that YHWH will respond favorably, with blessing and protection.

Use of the verb lk^c* effectively blends together the idea of the Psalmist’s musical talent and his upright/faithful conduct (in the religious and moral sphere). The verb can indicate that a person acts with wisdom and insight, but also that he/she is able to perform a certain task or art with skill; indeed, the verb in the Hiphil stem (as it occurs here) occasionally refers specifically to the artful/skillful playing of music.

The preposition B= prefixed to the noun Er#D# is also somewhat ambiguous, and may contain a dual meaning here. It can continue the sense from verse 1, that the Psalmist is singing “of/about” God’s way (of truth and devotion, etc); at the same time, it anticipates the idea (in v. 2b) of the righteous person walking “in” the way of God. In this regard, the adjective <ym!T* (“complete”) connotes the idea of personal integrity, specifically in terms of faithfulness/loyalty to the covenant.

Verse 2b

“I walk about in (the) completeness of my heart,
in (the) inmost part of my house.”

Just as the Psalmist sings of the righteous way of YHWH, in its completeness (adj. <ym!T*), so he also “walks about” in/on that same path. The verb El^h* (“walk”), especially in the reflexive (Hithpael) stem, is frequently used as an idiom for a person’s habitual, characteristic behavior—in an ethical-religious sense (e.g., Psalm 1:1; 15:2; 26:1, 3, 11, and many other examples). It occurs in the specific context of obedience to the Torah precepts and regulations (Psalm 119:1ff, etc). The noun <T) (“completeness”) is related to the adjective <ym!T* (also <T*), referring to the integrity and upright conduct of a person.

Upright conduct is a result of the inner condition of one’s heart. The motif of walking about in the center (br#q#, “near[est], inner[most] part”) of one’s “house” could be seen as an idiom parallel to the idea in line 1, of the integrity (“completeness”) of the person’s heart. However, the “house” can also represent a person’s daily life and (habitual) conduct.

Verse 3

“I do not (ever) set in front of my eyes
an object of worthlessness;
(the) making of perverse (thing)s I do hate,
and it will not cling (up)on me!”

As noted above, in verses 3-5, the protagonist presents the case for his faithfulness, in terms of his personal integrity. As an individual, he affirms his loyalty to YHWH, offering evidence on an ethical and religious basis. Here in verse 3, he references two things, in particular, which he detests and always tries to avoid:

    • “an object of worthlessness” (lu*Y`l!B= rb^D=)
    • “making of perverse (thing)s” (<yf!s@ hc)u&)

While both of these expressions could refer to wickedness and immorality generally, they allude specifically to the veneration of deities other than YHWH and, in particular, to the images (idols) of such deities. The plural noun <yf!s@, which occurs only here in the Old Testament, is presumably derived from the root fWs as a byform of fWc (cf. also hf*c*), “turn/run away (from)”. In this polemical context, the noun presumably refers to something “deviant” or “perverse”, and to activity which has moved far away from the path of God.

The avoidance of images (of deity) and the refusal to venerate (in any way) deities other than YHWH are fundamental characteristics of the person who is faithful to the covenant.

Verse 4

“A crooked heart also turns away from me,
(and) an evil (person) I will not know.”

Not only does the protagonist avoid what is perverse, his righteous heart and conduct also makes it so that a “crooked” (vQ@u!) person will avoid him. The crooked/twisted heart of such a person clearly contrasts with the complete heart of the righteous. A person with such a crooked heart is, at his/her core, “evil” (ur^). The Psalmist avoids such people, and does not wish even to know them; the idiom of “knowing” here (expressed by the verb ud^y`) implies a certain closeness and familiarity, comparable to the use of the verb qb^D* (“cling/cleave [to]”) in v. 3.

Verse 5

“(The one) wagging tongue in secret (on) his companion,
him I would reduce to silence;
(the one) high of eyes and wide of heart,
him I am not able (to endure)!”

The Psalmist’s attitude to the wicked, introduced in verse 4, is developed here. The two couplets express two different kinds of wicked conduct, and the Psalmist’s opposition to them. The first involves using the tongue (vb /v^l*, denominative from /ovl*, “tongue”, cf. Prov 30:10) in a decidedly negative or derogatory sense, i.e., slandering, ‘backbiting’, etc. Such a person speaks “in secret” against his neighbor or would-be companion (u^r@), and the Psalmist would “reduce to silence” (vb tm^x*) all such ‘tongue-waggers’; the verb tm^x* can carry the more dramatic sense of “destroy, exterminate”. There may be a bit of subtle (contrastive) wordplay here between the adjective ur^ (“evil [person]”) from v. 4 and the noun u^r@ II (“companion”).

The second couplet describes a certain characteristic attitude and bearing of the wicked: being “high of eyes” and “wide of heart”. Both of these expressions refer to a certain negative kind of pride—haughtiness, arrogance, etc. The Psalmist insists that he is not able (vb lk)y`) to endure such people. Dahood’s emendation (or revocalization) of the MT (III, p. 5) is interesting, but unconvincing; he would parse lka as a Piel imperfect form of the verb hl*K* (“finish [off]”), viz., “I finished him (off)”.

Verse 6

My eyes are on (the one)s of (the) land firm (in faith),
(wishing them) to sit along with me;
(the one) walking in (the) way (that is) complete,
he (it is who) will serve me.”

While the eyes of the wicked are raised high in self-pride (v. 5), the Psalmist’s eyes are focused on others—the community of faithful ones throughout the land. The root /ma, denoting being firm, is frequently used in the sense of faithfulness, loyalty, devotion, etc, especially in the context of the covenant. The passive (Niphal) stem of the verb /m^a* here carries the idea of a person being trustworthy; as a substantive (participle), it represents a fundamental characteristic of the righteous—viz., that they are faithful to YHWH. The same idea is expressed in the second couplet by the traditional idiom of “walking in the way” of God (cf. verse 2b above).

The Psalmist desires to keep company with such people (and not with the wicked). He would have them “sit alongside” him, implying table fellowship, and that they would be the ones who would serve him. This imagery, including the use of the verb tr^v* (“serve, attend to”), certainly suggests that it is the king’s table being referenced. Even if the Psalm originally stems from a royal background and setting (see the introduction above), where the protagonist is the king, faithful to YHWH, this imagery could easily be applied to the righteous person generally. The righteous person, like the king, represents the the people as a whole—and, in particular, is to be identified with the faithful ones among the people.

Verse 7

“(But) he shall not sit in (the) inmost part of my house,
(the one) acting (with) deceit;
(the one) speaking false (word)s
shall have no firm place in front of my eyes!”

The contrast between the righteous and the wicked continues here. While the protagonist would have other faithful ones sitting at the table with him, he will not allow untrustworthy and deceitful persons to sit with him in his house. The same expression “(the) innermost part of (the) house” was used in verse 2b (see above). The deceitfulness of the wicked is in stark contrast to the trustworthiness of the righteous (cf. the use of the verb /m^a* in v. 6).

The couplets of v. 7 are best treated as a chiastic unit, with a 3+2+2+3 meter (reflected in the translation above). The two inner lines are parallel, expressing the deceitfulness of the wicked. In the first of these lines, the verb hc^u* (“make, do”, translated as “act”) is used with the noun hY`m!r= (“deceit,” sometimes with the more forceful connotation of “treachery”). The implication is that such persons have deceitful intent, pretending to be faithful/loyal, but actually plotting treachery—an aspect of meaning which has greater impact in a royal context. Their wicked intent is demonstrated by the fact that they speak false words, again under the pretense of being loyal (to YHWH, the king, and to the faithful ones as a whole).

There is a bit of conceptual wordplay in the final line, as the verb /WK has a meaning similar to /m^a* (used in v. 6); both verbs essentially mean “be firm”. The righteous prove themselves to be firm (i.e., loyal and faithful), while the wicked have shown themselves to be untrustworthy, and thus are to have no “firm (or fixed) place” before the king (or before the righteous). The wicked are like the “worthless thing” that the protagonist will not allow to be placed before his eyes (v. 3).

Verse 8

“At the break of day I will make silent all (the) wicked of (the) land,
to cut off from (the) city of YHWH
all (those) making trouble!”

In this final couplet (or tricolon), the protagonist expresses his intention to “reduce to silence” (vb tm^x*, also used in verse 5a [see above]) all the wicked of the land. As noted above, this verb can have the more forceful connotation of “destroy, exterminate”. Its use is limited largely to the Psalms (11 of 14 occurrences), cf. most recently in 94:23; possibly the range of meaning (“make silent” vs. “destroy, wipe out”) reflects two distinct tmx roots (see HALOT, p. 1036).

I prefer to see the plural <yr!q*B= (“daybreaks”, i.e., “mornings”) as an intensive plural; the initial prepositional expression would thus be rendered, with dramatic effect, as “at daybreak…”, marking the decisive moment when the righteous (king) will eliminate (and silence) the wicked. The symbolism is appropriate, since night represents the time when the wicked would naturally flourish; by contrast, the coming of light (to dispel the darkness) at the break of day represents the elimination of wickedness.

The “land” inhabited by the faithful/righteous ones is also expressed as the “city” of YHWH—i.e., the place where God’s people, those loyal to the covenant, will dwell. The wicked will be “cut off” (vb tr^K*) from this place. The royal background of this Psalm, evident most strongly in vv. 6-8, would naturally include, as part of its royal theology, the motif of Jerusalem (as the “city of God”).

In the final line, the wicked are further described, rather bluntly, as “(those) making trouble” (/w#a* yl@u&P), a traditional expression that occurs with some frequency in the Psalms (5:6[5]; 6:9[8]; 14:4; 28:3; 36:13[12]; 53:5[4]; 59:3[2]; 64:3[2]; 92:8, 10; 94:4, etc). This brings out the social-justice aspect of the Psalm, in keeping with the royal background. A faithful king will strive to remove wickedness from his realm, resulting in a stable and secure social order. This duty is all the more important when, as is emphasized here in the Psalm, the king is himself a faithful servant of YHWH, obligated to walk (and rule) according to the Torah and the way of God.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 100

Psalm 100

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsb (vv. 1-2)

This is the final Psalm of the collection Pss 93-100, all of which deal with the central theme of the Kingship of YHWH. Various thematic links from the Psalms of this collection converge in the brief hymn of praise that comprises Psalm 100. These links have been analyzed thoroughly by Howard in his study (pp. 105-65).

There is a simple three-part structure to Psalm 100, being composed of three tricola. The first and third tricola (vv. 1-2, 4) have a common 3-beat (3+3+3) meter, while the second (central) tricolon (v. 3) has an extended/expanded meter (4+4+3). Verse 3 may be considered as a bridge between the two praise strophes of vv. 1-2 and 4. This bridge-verse describes the reason for praising YHWH, emphasizing His relationship (as God) to His people (Israel). The praise strophes deal with two key themes found elsewhere in the collection: (1) the universality of YHWH’s Kingship, which demands that all people everywhere (indeed, even all of creation) worship Him; and (2) the (ritual) praise that is expected of His people, focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. The final couplet (v. 5) serves as a concluding doxology, both for Psalm 100 and the collection as a whole.

As with other Psalms in this collection, a pre-exilic date (in the monarchic period) seems likely, though it is impossible to be any more precise than this. Parallels (in Pss 93-100) to the Deutero-Isaian poems suggest a late pre-exilic time-frame. Both the Temple-setting and the Kingship theme are fully compatible with the Judean royal theology of the monarchic period. The Psalm itself may have been part of ritual worship in the Temple from early times, or, at least, draws upon such traditions.

Psalms 98 and 100 are the only Psalms of the collection which contain a heading, simply designating the work as musical composition (romz+m!). Psalm 100 adds the detail that it is “for confession” (hd*otl=), i.e., a confession of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Verses 1-2

“Make a shout to YHWH, all the earth!
May you serve YHWH with gladness!
Come before His face with a ringing cry!”

The Psalms of this collection (93-100) typically begin with a call to worship, often emphasizing the universality of YHWH’s Kingship. His Rule extends over all the earth, and so all peoples and nations—even all of creation itself—are to give Him praise. See, for example, this theme highlighted in the prior studies on Psalm 98 (vv. 4-6ff) and 99 (vv. 1-2). The call for “all the earth” to shout (vb u^Wr) praise to God closely resembles the call in 98:4 (see also 96:1, 11; 97:1). Within the collection, the verb uWr occurs in 95:1-2 and 98:4, 6. The noun hn`n`r= is quite rare, but the verb /n~r* is quite frequent in the Psalms (e.g., 95:1; 96:12; 98:4, 8) and the later Prophetic poetry. Both verbs uwr and /nr denote the giving of a ringing shout or cry (viz., of praise).

Verse 3

“Know that YHWH, He (is the) Mightiest!
He made us, and (it is) to Him we (belong),
(we) His people and flock of His pasture.”

The central tricolon of the Psalm gives the principal reason for praising YHWH. This is indicated in line 1: He is the Mightiest (One) [<yh!l)a$]—that is, the greatest of all gods (“mighty [one]s”, <yh!l)a$), the Sovereign over all other divine/heavenly beings. This theological declaration refers to the universal aspect of YHWH’s kingship (emphasized in vv. 1-2), alluding to the Prophetic promise that eventually all peoples will recognize and worship YHWH as their God. However, it also relates to the emphasis in the third tricolon (v. 4), focusing on the worship to be given to YHWH by Israel—He is their God (“Mighty [One]”, <yh!l)a$), and they His people.

Indeed, this covenant-emphasis, occurring so frequently in the Psalms, is specified in lines 2 and 3, using traditional language and imagery. The declaration in line 2, that YHWH “made” Israel, alludes to His role as Creator, but also to the way that he formed Israel, as a distinct nation and people, when He brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. This same language occurs, notably, in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:6ff).

The Kethib of the Masoretic Text reads “and not [al)w+] we”, which gives a contrastive emphasis to the line: “He (it is who) made us, and not we (ourselves)”. However, the Qere indicates that, instead of the negative particle al), the text should correctly be read as ol (“to/for him”)—the preposition l= and the third person singular suffix. Along with other commentators (e.g., Howard, p. 92; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 492), I follow the Qere. For a different way of understanding the text, see Dahood II, p. 371f.

The third line builds upon the point made in the second line—namely, that Israel is YHWH’s chosen people (“[we are] His people”), i.e., “we (belong) to Him”. This is central to the covenant-bond that informs the Israelite religious-cultural identity. The pronoun Wnj=n~a& (“we”) could be treated as part of either the second or third line; we may also regard it as doing double-duty, serving as a kind of join between the two lines:

“(belong) to Him we


we (are) His people”

It is also possible that the pronoun occurred in both lines, as attested, apparently, by the LXX (Codex A). If the pronouns occurred in sequence, at the end of the second line and also the beginning of third, then the loss of one could easily be explained as a scribal error (haplography). Adding to the attractiveness of this hypothesis is the fact that restoring a second pronoun results in a more consistent (4-beat, 4+4+4) meter for the verse. Cf. the discussion in Howard, p. 95.

The motif of YHWH as a shepherd to Israel, with the people thus as His flock of sheep (/ax)), occurs frequently in Old Testament tradition. This includes numerous examples in the Psalms—28:9; 44:12[11], 23[22]; 68:11[10]; 74:1; 77:21[20]; 78:52, 71; 79:13; 80:2[1]; 95:7; 119:176, and the entirety of Psalm 23. This shepherd-motif connotes the care and guidance that YHWH provides for His people; indeed, both of these aspects are embedded in the the image of the tyu!rm!—literally, a place for grazing/feeding the sheep, translated typically (and here, for poetic concision) as “pasture”. The shepherd guides the flock to a place where they may graze, and guiding them to such place demonstrates the shepherd’s concern to nurture and care for his flock.

Verse 4

“Come (into) His gates with praise,
and in His enclosures with joyful song!
Give praise to Him and bless His name!”

The final tricolon, like the first (vv. 1-2, above), has a 3+3+3 meter. Both strophes express a call to praise YHWH; however, while the first strophe had a universal orientation (“all the earth”), the focus in this third strophe is on the worship given to YHWH by His people Israel. As noted above, this shift occurs in the second tricolon (lines 2&3). The call to worship here in verse 4 assumes a ritual setting in the Jerusalem Temple. Both the “gates” (ru^v^, plur.) and the “enclosures” (rx@j*, plur.), i.e., courtyards, are traditional allusions to the Temple precincts and its Jerusalem locale (Zion). This strophe may reflect an actual ritual procession when the Psalm itself would have been sung.

The regular nouns hd*oT (line 1) and hL*h!T= (line 2) have similar meaning—the former refers to a confession (vb hd*y` II), viz., of praise or thanksgiving (to God), while the latter (vb ll^h* II) indicates the giving forth of a bright and joyous song. The same verbal root (hd*y`) from line 1 also occurs in line 3. One is called on both to praise YHWH and to bless (vb Er^B*) Him—indicating two distinct, but related, aspects of worship. To bless the name of God essentially means the same as blessing Him; on the significance of names and naming in ancient Near Eastern thought, see the introduction to my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”. The reference here may allude to the specific tradition of YHWH’s name residing in the Jerusalem Temple; this is most prominent in the Deuteronomic writings (Deut 12:5, 11, 21; 14:23-24, et al.), as, for example, throughout Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8, vv. 16-20, 29, 33, 35, 42-44, 48)—on which, cf. my recent series of notes.

Verse 5

“For good (is) YHWH—
His loyalty to (the) distant (future),
and His firmness unto cycle and cycle!”

The final couplet forms a concluding doxology—both for Psalm 100, and the collection (93-100) as a whole. The 4+3 meter of this couplet is difficult to capture in translation, though it can be approximated somewhat by a more conventional rendering:

“For good (is) YHWH—His loyalty (lasts) forever,
and His firmness to generation and generation!”

The implicit theme of the second half of the Psalm (vv. 3b-4)—namely, the covenant bond between YHWH and His people—is emphasized also here in the final couplet. The terms ds#j# and hn`Wma$ (or the related tm#a#), paired with some frequency in the Psalms (e.g., 36:6[5]; 40:11-12[10-11]; 57:4[3], 11[10]; 69:14[13]; 85:11[10]; 86:15; 88:12[11]; 89:2-3[1-2], 15[14], 29[28], 34[33]; 92:3; 98:3, etc), are part of this covenant-context. The noun ds#j# properly means “goodness, kindness”, but, in such a context as we find here, connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. As for hn`Wma$, it means “firmness”, but often in the sense of “faithfulness”. The adjective bof (“good”) similarly here connotes “faithful, loyal”.

This loyalty of YHWH effectively lasts forever—He Himself will never violate the binding agreement (covenant) with His people. This abiding, durative aspect of YHWH’s faithfulness is expressed by two regular idioms: <l*oul= (“into [the] distant [future]”), and rd)w+ rD)-du^ (“unto cycle and cycle”). The noun <l*ou can refer to either the distant past or the distant future; here it clearly refers to the future. The expression rd)w+ rD) (lit., “circle and circle”, or “cycle and cycle”) indicates both continuity and perpetuity—that is, as each cycle (rD)) of time passes, and, with it, each circle (rD)) of people (i.e., ‘generation’) living during that period. YHWH will remain loyal, over time, to each generation of His people.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).
Those marked “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 99

Psalm 99

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsk (vv. 1-2, 5); 4QPsv (v. 1); 4QPsb (vv. 5-6)

Like other Psalms in the collection Pss 93-100, Psalm 99 praises YHWH as King. The universality of His Kingship is likewise emphasized. Other thematic links and common vocabulary are shared by these Psalms; in the case of Psalm 99, one may note, in particular, the connections with Psalms 97 (see the earlier study) and 98 (previous study). For a relatively detailed examination of these links, see the analysis by Howard, pp. 157-9, 161-2, 164-5.

This Psalm has a strophic structure, comprised of three strophes, each of which concludes with a declaration of YHWH’s holiness (“Holy [is] He!” in strophes 1 and 2). The strophes are similar in form, but are far from consistent in rhythm. Verses 6-7 represent an interlude, drawing upon Israelite history, and establish the thematic transition to the final strophe. The meter is irregular throughout, and it is impossible to say whether the Psalm, in an earlier form, had more consistent rhythm in its strophes.

As with other Psalms in this collection, a pre-exilic date (in the monarchic period) seems likely. As Howard notes (p. 192), the use of zu) as a substantive (Divine) title (“Strong/Mighty [One]”, v. 4) occurs in early poetry (Exod 15:2; cf. Psalm 29:1), which suggests the possibility that Psalm 99 was composed at a relatively earlier point (in the monarchic period) than others in the collection.

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsk includes a heading, which designates the Psalm as a “musical composition” (romz+m!), as in Psalm 98 MT; it also (probably) included the attribution dw]d*l= (“belonging to David”), as the the letter d can be read prior to romzm.

First Strophe: verses 1-3

Verse 1

“YHWH is king—let (the) peoples tremble!
Seated (upon the) kerû»s—let the earth stagger!”

The theme of YHWH’s kingship is established in this initial (4-beat, 4+4) couplet. Again, as in other Psalms of this collection (see above), YHWH is presented as King over all creation—all of the earth and its inhabitants. We find often, as here, a call for the nations to worship YHWH, acknowledging Him as King. There is a clear parallelism between each half-line:

    • “YHWH reigns as King [vb El^m*]”
    • “being seated (on the) kerubs”

The “kerubs” (plur. <yb!WrK=) refer to the winged creatures on the golden chest (ark) of the covenant, which was situated in the Temple sanctuary, functioning as the symbolic/ritual ‘throne’ of YHWH. Thus, even though He is King over the entire universe (ruling from heaven), he is also ‘enthroned’ on earth in the Temple sanctuary.

The response of humankind to YHWH’s Kingship is indicated in the second half-line:

    • “let (the) peoples quake/tremble [vb zg~r*]”
    • “let the earth wobble/stagger [vb fWn]”

All peoples everywhere—and even all of creation itself—should shake and tremble before YHWH as King. There may be an allusion here to the eschatological notion that the nations will come to Jerusalem (and the Temple) to pay homage to YHWH (cf. Micah 4:1-3 [par Isa 2:2-4], etc).

The verb fWn occurs only here in the Old Testament. It is doubtless similar in meaning to Ugaritic n‰‰ (ffn), “wobble, totter”; as Dahood (II, p. 368) notes, weak verbs that share the same two base consonants (in this case, fn) typically have a common/similar meaning.

Verse 2

“(Indeed,) YHWH in ‚iyyôn is great—
raised high (is) He over all (the) peoples!”

This second couplet (3-beat, 3+3) emphasizes the greatness and majesty of YHWH, as he reigns (as King) from His throne in Jerusalem (Zion). The verbs ld^G` (“be great”) and <Wr (“be high”) are used. The implicit idea in verse 1, of YHWH’s reign extending over all the nations (and peoples) of earth, is expressed more clearly here. I treat the initial w-conjunction in the second line as emphatic, and, for poetic concision, I have essentially transferred it to the start of the first line in my translation (above).

Verse 3

“Let them praise your name,
O Great and Fearsome (One)!
Holy (indeed is) He!”

Rhythmically, the initial couplet (v. 1) has four beats, the second (v. 2) three beats, and the third (v. 3) here 2 beats (2+2). The couplets thus increasingly narrow their focus, becoming terser and more direct. Here, the call (for all people) to praise YHWH is essentially repeated from v. 1. Praising the name of YHWH means praising YHWH Himself. However, there may be a specific allusion to the idea that YHWH is present in the Temple sanctuary particularly through His name. This is a key Deuteronomic theme (Deut 12:5ff; 26:2, etc), found extensively, for example, throughout Solomon’s prayer (at the Temple dedication) in 1 Kings 8 (vv. 16-20, 29, 33, 35, 42-44, 48), a passage which I have discussed in a recent series of notes.

The adjectives lodG` (“great”) and ar*on (“fearsome”, or “(to) be feared”) are best understood here as descriptive epithets of YHWH, though they could just as well be applied to His name (cf. Deut 28:58).

The strophe ends with the two-beat refrain, “Holy (is) He!” (aWh vodq*). In context, this declaration could also apply to YHWH’s name (i.e., “Holy it [is]!”).

Second Strophe: Verses 4-5

Verse 4a

“Indeed, (the) Strong (One is) King! He loves justice!
You make (it) firm (with) straight (judgment)s.”

The first couplet of the second strophe has, apparently, an irregular 4+3 meter (cp. 4+4 in strophe 1). The thematic focus is on the judgment rendered by YHWH as King (and thus, also as Judge). By His straight (i.e., fair, even) decisions, He establishes justice throughout. Here, the noun fP*v=m! means both “judgment” and “justice”. The sudden shift from third person (line 1) to second person (line 2) address may seem a bit strange and off-putting, but it is not all that uncommon in the Psalms.

I follow Howard (p. 85f) and other commentators in reading zu) (“strength”) as a Divine title (i.e., “Strong [One]”); the sense could be adverbial, i.e., the One who rules with strength. The initial w-conjunction of the first line, opening the strophe as it does, should be taken as emphatic.

Verse 4b

“Justice and righteousness in Ya’aqob
(indeed) you make (stand)!”

Again, this (second) couplet has irregular meter (3+2, cp. 3+3 in strophe 1). It follows upon the first (v. 4a), expounding the justice which YHWH, as King, “makes firm” on earth. In particular, He establishes justice (and righteousness) in Israel (“Jacob”), among His people. This refers to the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel, and His faithfulness and loyalty to that bond.

It is conceivable that a word has dropped out from the second line of v. 4b, as the short line t*yc!u* hTa^ (“you do/make”) reads somewhat oddly. Unfortunately, the three fragmentary Qumran manuscripts which contain this Psalm do not preserve verse 4, so there is no way to confirm the MT at this point.

Verse 5

“Lift high YHWH our Mighty (One),
and bow before (the) stool of His feet!
Holy (indeed is) He!”

The third strophe is a 3-beat couplet (as in strophe 1), calling on people to give praise and worship to YHWH. Here, the focus is specifically on the people of Israel (cf. verse 4), who are to worship YHWH as their King and God. The motif of the “stool [<d)h&] for His feet” probably alludes to the Ark (as YHWH’s ‘throne’) located in the Temple sanctuary (see v. 1b, above). Thus, a Temple worship setting is implied, and could indicate a ritual (liturgical) setting for the Psalm.

Transitional Verses (6-7)

Verse 6a

“Moše and Aharon (were) among His priests,
and Šemû’el among (those) calling His name.”

These transitional verses refer, in a general and summary way, to Israelite religious history—in particular, to those priestly/prophetic leaders who served YHWH. Moses and Aaron (in the Exodus period) are paired with Samuel (period of the Judges).

Verse 6b

“(They were) calling to YHWH,
and He answered them.”

This short two-beat (2+2) couplet follows the three-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 6a. It summarizes the dynamic relationship between YHWH and the faithful priestly/prophetic leaders: they call to YHWH, and He answers them.

Verse 7

“In a standing (mass) of cloud He spoke to them;
they guarded His repeated (command)s,
and (the) engraved (law) He gave to them.”

This long prosaic couplet (4-beat, 4+4) I have extended in translation as three lines (4+2+2). It again summarizes the dynamic for the faithful ones of God’s people, in their covenantal relationship to YHWH. Moses and Samuel, as leaders, represent the people. Their faithfulness (and covenant loyalty) serve as the ideal pattern and example for the people to follow. YHWH gave His commands (i.e., the Torah regulations) to Moses (and thus to the people) out of the cloud. The faithful ones guarded (vb rm^v*) His commands, and took care to obey them. The noun qj) denotes something engraved or inscribed, usually in the sense of an authoritative, governing rule or statute; the term here alludes the theme of YHWH’s kingship.

I have translated the plural of hd*u@ according to its fundamental meaning of “something repeated”. YHWH’s commands are to be repeated, in terms of obedience to them (their fulfillment, etc), but also in the sense of repeating them (and their importance) for subsequent generations.

Third Strophe: Verses 8-9

Verse 8

“(Yes,) YHWH, our Mighty (One), you answered them—
a Mighty (One) lifting (guilt) you were for them,
and (as the) avenging (Most) High dealt with them.”

The historical setting established in the transitional vv. 6-7 (above) leads into the third (and final) strophe. The structure and rhythm differs from the the first two strophes, reflecting the prosaic (and didactic) tone of the transitional lines. Instead of a pair of couplets, we have here an irregular (4+3+3) tricolon. The first line picks up from verse 7.

The theme of YHWH’s Kingship has been translated into the idiom of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people. In this binding agreement, YHWH is the Sovereign, and the people His servants. They are obligated to serve Him faithfully, by following the terms of the agreement (i.e., the Torah precepts and regulations, v. 7). YHWH would respond to them based on whether or not they fulfilled their covenant obligations. If they fulfilled them faithfully, then YHWH would be a merciful and forgiving Sovereign, one who “lifts” (vb ac*n`) away sin and guilt, and who “lifts” His people, carrying them with His (Divine) protection and blessing. This is expressed in line 2.

However, if they were unfaithful and refused to follow the terms of the covenant, then YHWH would become an avenging (vb <q^n`) Ruler, dealing (root llu) with His people as their disobedience deserves. This negative side is the focus of line 3. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 369), in treating lu as a Divine title (“High [One], [Most] High”); this establishes a clear parallel between the lines:

“Mighty [One] lifting…” | “High [One] avenging…”

The final word is problematic. The MT reads “their dealing”; in such a context, the noun hl*yl!a& usually has a decidedly negative connotation, i.e. “evil dealing” —that is, wicked/improper behavior and treatment of others. However, it is probably better to view the suffix here as reflecting a dative of (dis)advantage (cf. Dahood, II, p. 370), and with the noun retaining the verbal force of its root (with YHWH as the subject)—viz., “(His) dealing with them”, meaning God dealt with them harshly, as their disobedience deserved.

Verse 9

“Lift (up) high YHWH our Mighty (One),
and bow before (the) hill of His holiness!”
For Holy (indeed is) YHWH our Mighty (One)!”

The final couplet corresponds with that of the earlier two strophes; it is particularly close to the second strophe (see verse 5, above). Indeed, it is almost identical, only, instead of bowing down before the “stool of His feet”, the people are directed to bow before “the hill of His holiness” (i.e., His holy hill). The Temple ‘mount’ of Zion is certainly intended in both instances, referring to the location of the Temple and its sanctuary, where YHWH is ‘enthroned’ and reigns as King.

The final refrain is given in an expanded form. Instead of “Holy (is) He!”, we have the fuller phrase “Holy (is) YHWH our Mighty (One)!”. The longer phrase, with its honorific expansion, allows the Psalm to end on a dramatic, climactic note.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).