Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 5)

Isaiah 38-39

The second part of the work we have been discussing in the book of Isaiah, chapters 36-39, is comprised of the three tradition-units in chaps. 38-39. As previously noted, these chapters properly occur before chaps. 36-37, when examined in historical terms. It is interesting to consider the possible reasons for the current arrangement. Since the same order is found in both the Isaian and Kings version of this material, it is fair to assume that it was integral to the original work. The current ordering seems more appropriate to the overall literary context (and message) of the book of Kings, compared with that of Isaiah. This would be an argument in favor of the theory that the book of Isaiah borrowed these chapters from the book of Kings, rather than from a separate source; though, in my view, the theory of a separate source is more likely.

When studying chapters 38-39, it is the aspect of historical criticism that is most clearly in view. Such critical study involves careful consideration of the historical background (and historicity) of the text, and how the historical tradition(s) contained therein may have been developed and adapted by the author/editor(s) in the composition of the book (chaps. 2-39) as we have it. There are two main historical traditions in these chapters:

In between, the Isaian version contains a third traditional piece—a thanksgiving psalm for (Hezekiah’s) recovery from illness (38:9-20)—not found in the Kings version. The poem was almost certainly added by the Isaian author/editor, specifically, in composing chapters 36-39. There is clear evidence that the incorporation of the psalm has disrupted the context of the original historical (and prophetic) tradition, which is more accurately represented by the Kings version. In 2 Kings 20:8-11, Hezekiah asks for a sign from the prophet (Isaiah) that he will in fact be healed; this sign involves a shadow that will appear on the “steps of Ahaz”, with Hezekiah being offered a choice of two specific signs. This portion of the tradition has been altered in the Isaian version, displaced by the poem so that Hezekiah’s request for a sign (along with the poultice remedy instructed by Isaiah, v. 21) is out of place, and mentioned as an afterthought, with little significance any longer for the narrative. One can only speculate why the author/editor bothered to include vv. 21-22 after the poem at all; it may simply reflect a fidelty to the tradition, with a concern that it be fully included, however irrelevant it may have seemed to the overall narrative.

Isaiah 38:1-8: Hezekiah’s Illness

On verses 1-8, I have discussed the prayer of Hezekiah (vv. 2-3) in a recent study (in the Monday Notes on Prayer series). We do not know the nature of his illness, only that it was life-threatening, and that the initial message from the prophet was that Hezekiah would not recover. Following the king’s fervent prayer, the prophecy was changed, with YHWH answering the prayer and extending Hezekiah’s lifespan an additional 15 years (vv. 4-5). There was a clear parallel drawn between the personal situation with the king (his life threatening illness) and the threat to the city of Jerusalem (from the Assyrian invasion of Judah). This correspondence was part of the original tradition (and literary work) inherited by the author/editor of Isa 36-39, but it was an aspect he certainly emphasized (v. 6). It reflects a set of themes found elsewhere in the Isaian material—especially the historical/biographical traditions in chapters 7-9, where many commentators believe Hezekiah also plays a key role (cp. the “God-with-us” [Immanuel] references in 7:14; 8:8, 10-11 with the notice in 2 Kings 18:7). The salvation promised for Judah/Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat was symbolized in the person of Hezekiah—the king representing the city and its people in this regard. This certainly is the case in chapters 36-39.

Isaiah 38:9-20: The Thanksgiving Psalm

The psalm in vv. 9-20 is attributed to Hezekiah, but most critical commentators would hold that the poem is an anonymous composition (like, we must assume, many of the canonical Psalms), which has been included (and attributed to the king) because it fit the situational context of the narrative. Traditional-conservative commentators are perhaps less willing to accept such an explanation, as being at odds with a certain view of the inspiration of Scripture. However, the practice of placing (separate/independent) poetic compositions in the mouth of specific characters in the narrative was a common device used in ancient literary and historical works, and one could easily formulate a valid doctrine of inspiration that would allow for it. Nothing in the psalm requires the specific situation of Hezekiah, nor does anything militate against it as the context for the poem. Israelite and Jewish tradition did associate literary production with Hezekiah and his court (e.g., Prov 25:1; Babylonian Talmud Baba batra 15a).

In point of fact, this composition is quite similar to other thanksgiving (tôdâ) Psalms involving recovery from a life-threatening illness (and/or related danger); for a good example, see my recent study on Psalm 30, while one might also note Psalms 6 and 107, and a number of others. A tone of lament can also be found in such poems, particularly in the first portion, when the poet/protagonist decries his condition and prays to God for deliverance. A particular point, reflecting a genuine fear among people of the time, is that, once a person descends to Sheol (the realm of Death and the dead), one no longer has any contact with life, including contact with God (YHWH) himself. A repeated lament, intended as an appeal to YHWH, is that the dead are no longer able to give praise and worship  to God (vv. 18-19); we find the same idea expressed in Ps 6:6; 30:10; 88:11-12; 115:17. At the same time, the dead are unable to “see” YHWH any longer (v. 11); this reflects both a lament for the loss of life, but also alludes to the hope of eternal life (in the presence of God) which is cut off by an untimely death (see Ps 11:7; 17:15; 27:4ff; 88:5, etc).

An important point of interpretation relates to the question of Hezekiah’s repentance. There appears to be an allusion to this in the great weeping (his tears) that accompany his prayer (v. 3); however, more relevant is the idea expressed in vv. 16-17 of the psalm. Unfortunately, it is just at this point that the text of the poem is most difficult (and possibly corrupt). It may be worth briefly examining the text-critical problems in vv. 15-17, which I do in a special note.

The idea that Hezekiah repented, and thus was spared an immediate death, is of considerable significance to the Prophetic history, both in the book of Isaiah and within the Deuteronomic history in the book of Kings. Since Hezekiah’s life-threatening illness was set parallel with the threat of destruction to Jerusalem (from the Assyrian invasion), it would be natural that the response to the threat would effectively be the same in both instances. It was through the people turning to YHWH in renewed faithfulness (and repentance) that the city of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah would be saved; even then, salvation would not come without terrible suffering. In this regard, Hezekiah’s prayer (and psalm) in chapter 38 is parallel to his prayer to YHWH in 37:15-20 (discussed in the prior studies and a recent note). That prayer, asking God to save the city from destruction is set in tandem with an earlier response by Hezekiah to the Assyrian threat in 37:1-4, in which he called on the people to offer prayer to God for deliverance. The aspect of repentance in that prayer is indicated by the king’s gesture in tearing his clothes and putting on a coarse woven garment (‘sackcloth’), a traditional sign of mourning.

In Jeremiah 26:17-19, a related tradition is recorded, in which Hezekiah responded to a prophecy of Micah (Mic 3:12) that Jerusalem would (soon) be conquered and destroyed. It is indicated that he responded in a similar manner to what is preserved in Isaiah 36-39 par, calling on the people to turn to YHWH in prayer and repentance. The idea expressed in Jeremiah is that such prayer resulted in turning back and forestalling the prophesied destruction, with the warning that it was about to be realized in Jeremiah’s own time. The delaying of Jerusalem’s destruction corresponds to the traditional motif of Hezekiah’s life being extending by a number of years.

Isaiah 39:1-8: The Babylonian delegation

In this final historical tradition, we read of a delegation of officials from Babylon to Jerusalem, to meet with Hezekiah. At its core, this would appear to be an authentic tradition, which took place during the reign of the Babylonian king Marduk-apal-iddina II (= Merodach-Baladan). The visit from the delegation must have occurred sometime before the end of the Babylonian revolt against Assyria (703 B.C.). If the detail in verse 1, relating the visit to the time of Hezekiah’s recovery from illness (see above), is accurate, then the events in chapters 38-39 would have occurred around the same time, probably c. 704-3 B.C. Contrary to the notice in verse 1, which may reflect the stated diplomatic reason for the visit, it is all but certain that, at the historical-political level, the real reason for the delegation was to garner support for Marduk-apal-iddina’s rebellion against Assyria. In this context, the detail of Hezekiah showing them the wealth of his treasury (and armory), should be understood in terms of the financial and military support that the kingdom of Judah could provide.

The Prophetic tradition underlying 39:1-8 (2 Kings 20:12-19), however, has little interest in the realpolitik of the historical situation facing Hezekiah. Instead, through a marvelous bit of literary irony, the scene is used to prophecy the future destruction of Jerusalem, not by the Assyrians, but by the Babylonians–the very people with whom Hezekiah is here shown striking a potential alliance. This prophetic aspect is introduced with the appearance of Isaiah in verse 5, much as he tends to appear (suddenly and abruptly) in all of these traditions of chaps. 36-39. His message (vv. 6-7) is a word of judgment, prophesying the conquest of Jerusalem (and exile of its population). If the city had been saved in Hezekiah’s time, it would yet be conquered and destroyed during the reign of his descendants. This, of course, was fulfilled in 587/6 B.C., and leads to obvious critical questions regarding the historical character of Isaiah’s prophecy—that is, if it represents an authentic oracle by the prophet, or a prophecy “after the fact” (an ex eventu prophecy). For a moderate critical appraisal, allowing for the authenticity of the tradition (and the prophecy), see the discussion in Roberts (pp. 489-90).

A final bit of irony is recorded in verse 8, where Hezekiah apparently misunderstands the prophecy, treating it as a positive message: “Good (is the) spoken (word) of YHWH which He has spoken”. However, this must, I think, be read in the context of chapter 38 (see above), where the salvation of Jerusalem is defined in terms of the 15 years added to Hezekiah’s life. In this narrative, Hezekiah symbolizes the salvation of Judah/Jerusalem—a remnant of the kingdom that will survive the Assyrian crisis. This helps to explain the words uttered by Hezekiah (to himself?) that close the episode: “For there shall be peace [i.e. safety/security] and firmness in my days”. In other words, this time of peace and salvation is tied to the reign of Hezekiah (note again the Immanuel [“God-with-us”] passages in chaps. 7-9, cf. above). At the same time, the words contain a double meaning, since it clearly implies that after Hezekiah’s days, there may no longer be peace and security. To the author and audience of the book of Isaiah in the 6th century, the fulfillment of the prophecy would have been fully, and painfully, understood.

This brings us to the question of the order of the episodes in chaps. 36-39. Why were chaps. 38-39 placed after 36-37, when the events recorded in them clearly took place at least two years earlier? The best explanation was that it was important to use the tradition in 39:1-8 as a foreshadowing of future events, and this worked most effectively by having it conclude the narrative. This is very much to the purpose of the narrative in the book of Kings, which extends all the way to the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem; indeed, the Babylonian exile marks the culmination and climactic point of the narrative. Such an emphasis, however, does not seem to fit the overall message and thrust of Isaiah 2-39, which has a central theme the promise of salvation for Judah and Jerusalem. This is so even if we consider the possibility the Isaian oracles may have been adapted and reinterpreted by authors/editors in the 6th century. Even in the context of the Babylonian exile, the Isaian message of salvation is preserved, expressed in terms of restoration (and return from exile), much as it is in the so-called Deutero-Isaian poems of chapters 40-55ff. Given this outlook, it would have made more sense, it seems, to close the work (both chaps. 36-39 and the wider work of chaps. 2-39) with the deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat.

If the Isaian author/editor inherited the material from a pre-existing source (as seems likely), it may be that he simply did not feel at liberty to alter the existing order. Another possibility may be considered, if the “Deutero-Isaian” sections (some or all of them) were included as part of the book at around the same time as chapters 36-39. In such a scenario, the prophecy of the exile in 39:6-8 may have been deemed an appropriate launching point for the majestic oracles of restoration that follow in chapters 40ff. We are doubtless inclined to read the passage in this light, in the context of the complete book of Isaiah as we have it. Also to be noted is the way that oracles of salvation and judgment alternate throughout the Isaian material in chapters 2-39. If a word of warning follows a message of the hope for salvation, as it often does in the book, might not that serve as a suitable conclusion to the book, in its own right? It is interesting to speculate.

Next week, the Saturday Series studies will shift course, returning to the subject of New Testament criticism. I will be selecting a number of passages to illustrate how criticism relates to theology and key points of doctrine. The focus each week will be narrower, often looking at a single verse, but, at the same time, I hope to take you even deeper into a critical study of the text.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 30

Psalm 30

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (vv. 9-13 [8-12])

This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from death (possibly due to an illness), and thus has a setting similar to several other Psalms we have examined thus far (e.g., the opening portion of Ps 28, and see especially the earlier study on Ps 6). The poetry of this composition has been particularly admired by commentators. Its meter is irregular, with a 4-beat (4+4) couplet tending to dominate; there are also 4+3 and 3+3 couplets, and at least one 2-beat tricolon. The lines thus tend to be ‘heavier’ (longer) allowing for more detailed imagery and a richer mode of expression.

The superscription marks this Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. It also adds the detail that it is (to be) used for the “dedication of the house” (ty]B^h^ tK^n%j&)—that is, the celebration of the rededication (or consecration) of the Temple, better known as the festival of Hanukkah (transliteration of the noun hK*n%j&). This may be an indication of the relative date of the superscriptions (i.e. after 165 B.C.), long after most of the Psalms themselves had been composed. The reason why this particular Psalm would have been applied to the occasion of the Temple-dedication festival is not at all clear.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

In the opening stanzas, the Psalmist sings out to God in praise for his deliverance.

Verse 2 [1]

“I will raise you (high), YHWH, for you drew me out,
and did not (let) my enemies take delight from me.”

There is a parallel built into the opening line that is easily obscured in translation. The Psalmist says that he will “raise” God up high (through his praise); this is in response to YHWH lifting him up. The latter verb (hl*D*) specifically refers to drawing up water, lifting it up out of a (deep) well; it is a proper symbol for God delivering the Psalmist out of the “pit” of suffering and death.

As is often the case in these Psalms, the attitude of the Psalmist’s enemies and adversaries plays a role in how and why the protagonist prays to God as he does. It is not always clear whether these nameless enemies are to be taken as real or imagined, actual persons or literary and proverbial figures. Generally, those Psalms which evince a stronger royal background are more likely to refer to actual adversaries; on the whole, they appear to be generalized figures, representing the wicked in contrast to the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist). The Psalmist’s enemies naturally would take delight in his suffering, even as the wicked may do, in various ways, toward the righteous.

Verse 3 [2]

“YHWH, my Mighty (One),
I called to you for help
and you have healed me.”

The meter of this verse can be discerned roughly as 2+2+2, or a 2-beat tricolon (compared with the 4+3 couplet of verse 2 [1]). It summarizes the situation of the Psalm:

    • Line 1: He calls out (in praise) to YHWH, his God (lit. “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”)
    • Line 2: In his suffering he had previously called to God for help (vb uw~v*)
    • Line 3: God responded to that prayer and healed him (vb ap^r*), making him whole again
Verse 4 [3]

“YHWH, you made my soul come up from She’ol,
you gave me life (in) my going down (to the) Pit!”

The meter of this couplet (4+3) generally matches that of verse 2 [1] (above). It builds upon the idea expressed in the last line of the tricolon in verse 3 [2]—of how God responded to the Psalmist’s prayer and healed him, presumably from an illness that had left him at the point of death. His soul was on its way down to the realm of death (and the dead), called here by the noun loav= (š®°ôl, cf. the earlier note on the meaning and background of “Sheol”) as well as roB (“pit”). The “pit” is equivalent to the deep place from which the Psalmist was lifted up, like water from a well (in the first line of v. 2 [1], cf. above).

The preformative mem [m] of the Masoretic yd!r=Y`m! (qere yd@r=oYm!) is problematic. Dahood (p. 182) suggests that it should be regarded as an enclitic mem [<] and attached to the previous word. Along these lines, it may be that the MT kethib yd!r=y` is correct, read as a form of the singular participle, i.e. “(in) my going down”. The sense of the line is that YHWH gave life to the Psalmist as he was going down to the Pit.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

The next section of the Psalm addresses the power YHWH has over life and death. It is right and proper to trust that He will act to bring (and restore) life to those who are faithful to Him.

Verse 5 [4]

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His good (and loyal one)s,
and throw (praise) to (the) remembrance of His holiness!”

This 3-beat  (3+3) couplet is somewhat difficult to translate literally in English; a certain awkwardness is the result, with the rhythm of the lines better captured as follows:

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His loyal (one)s,
and throw (praise), remembering His holiness!”

The adjective dys!j* (related to the noun ds#j#) has the fundamental meaning “good, kind”, but in the context of the covenant-bond often connotes faithfulness and loyalty. Those who are faithful/loyal to YHWH will praise Him for His own goodness and faithfulness. Beyond this, there is the religious context of recognizing what sets YHWH apart from all others, as Israel’s God and the true Creator and Deity over all. This is expressed by the idiom “remember(ing) His holiness [vd#q)]”, which we might paraphrase as “recognizing that He is the Holy One”.

Verse 6 [5]

“For (there is) violence in His anger, (but) life in His pleasure;
at (the) setting (sun) weeping lodges, but at (day)break a cry (of joy).”

This is the first of several long 4-beat (4+4) couplets, tense and full of rich imagery. The contrast is between God’s harsh/violent anger and the grace/mercy he shows to the faithful ones. Even those loyal to YHWH may experience something of His anger—like the protagonist of the Psalm in his suffering and illness—but this does not affect the life that ultimately comes to them in the end.

The parallelism of the first line requires that the noun ug^r# is to be related to <yY]j^ (“life, living”). The problem is that there appear to be several different roots ugr; the noun ug^r# is typically thought to denote a short space of time, something which happens quickly (the sense of ugr I being “act quickly”). However, in a passage such as Job 26:12, ug^r* clearly refers to a violent act, something which is both harsh and decisive, and this appears to be the connotation of ugr here (whether or not ug^r# is the correct vocalization). The noun [a^ literally means “nose, nostril(s)” but is a regular Semitic idiom for anger, presumably drawn from the image of an angry, snorting bull, etc. I have translated it above in the more abstract sense of “anger” so as better to highlight the parallel with God’s /oxr* (“delight, pleasure, favor”).

The comparative contrast between sunset/sunrise and weeping/crying-with-joy is both natural and poignant. It expresses a message of hope and trust that is virtually universal to religious experience among human beings. Even if one has to endure a “night” of suffering, there will be a time of deliverance and release in the “morning”.

Verses 7 [6]

“And I said, in my tranqil (security),
‘I shall not slide for (the) distant (future)!'”

The sense of this couplet is not entirely clear. Presumably, it expresses the idea that the Psalmist’s trust in his own security (given to him by God) was misplaced. That is to say, just because he lived in faithfulness to YHWH, with the security and protection that brings, it did not mean that he would never experience suffering. This issue of the ‘suffering of the righteous’ has a long history in religious thought, being found frequently in ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature; it is, of course, the subject of the great discourse-drama in the book of Job. The Niphal (passive/reflexive) form of the verb fom connotes being “made to slip/slide”; the (misplaced) confidence expressed by the Psalmist can be accurately paraphrased as “nothing will ever make me slip” (i.e. slip from this peaceful and secure life).

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH, by your pleasure you made me stand for [i.e. like] a strong mountain;
(but) you hid your face (from me), and I was (suddenly) disturbed.”

The illness experienced by the Psalmist is presented as something that came upon him suddenly and quite unexpectedly. Yet now he realizes (and acknowledges) it is a simple fact of the sovereign power of YHWH; all He has to do is turn away His “face”, even for a moment (and for whatever reason or purpose), and suffering is the result. This may happen even to the righteous. As long as the protagonist experiences the pleasure and favor of God, he stands firm and strong like a mountain. The prefixed l= preposition is correctly read here as a lamed of comparison (lamed comparativum, Dahood, p. 183). Dahood also suggests that the verb form T*r=T^s=h! is of a t-infixed (i.e. Hishtaphel) stem of the root rWs (“turn [away]”), rather than a Hiphil form of the root rt^s* (“hide”). The basic meaning would not be too different in either case.

Verses 9-13 [8-12]

In the third (and final) section of the Psalm, the focus reverts to that of the first section (cf. above). Now, instead of addressing YHWH with praise and thanksgiving, the Psalmist prays for future deliverance—that is, to be delivered from any similar (life-threatening) illness and suffering in the future.

Verse 9 [8]

“(It is) to you, YHWH, (that) I call,
and to (you), my Lord, do I ask for favor.”

Here the prayer (vb ar^q*, “call [to]”) is petitionary, with a request that God show favor (lj@) to him (by answering the petition); the verb /n~j* here has the sense of “ask for favor”.

Verse 10 [9]

“What (is) bit off by my tears, in my going down (to) destruction?
Shall (the) dust throw (praise), shall it put your firmness up front?”

This is another instance of a long (4+4) couplet that is packed tight with imagery. In the first line, the idea is that nothing is to be gained by the sorrow and suffering of the Psalmist (i.e. the righteous) if it ends in death. The root ugb denotes “cut off, cut out”, but it can be used figuratively for unjust (or ill-gotten) gain; a comparable idiom in English might be “bite off”, “take a bite”. I follow Dahood (p. 183) in reading ym!D* as derived from <md II (“weep”), rather than the noun <D^ (“blood”). The idea of weeping (i.e. “tears”) better fits the context here (cp. Psalm 4:5). The rhetorical question of lament in the second line is similar to that in Psalm 6:6 [5], to the effect that the dead are no longer able to give praise to God. The noun tm#a# is best understood in the fundamental sense of “firmness” (i.e. faithfulness); to put the faithfulness of YHWH “up front” or “out front” (the basic sense of dgn) means to declare or make it known to others.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Hear (me), YHWH, and show me favor!
YHWH, may you be (One) giving help to me!
(May) you turn my wailing over to whirling for me,
open my loose (garment) and bind me (with clothes) of joy!”

The initial 3+3 couplet, expressing again the Psalmist’s desire to experience God’s favor in the future (by keeping from another bout of severe illness and suffering). The second couplet is yet another long 4-beat (4+4) bicolon, the imagery of which can be difficult to render clearly in English. To begin with, we have the perfect forms of the principal verbs. As the context involves a prayer for future deliverance, it is perhaps best to read these as precative perfects—expressing a wish for what will (or should) happen as though it is something that has already occurred. Unfortunately, this is rather difficult to convey in English syntax, i.e. “O, that you would have turned…”, which is admittedly awkward. The simple translation as a wish, “(May) you turn…”, etc, is perhaps the best solution.
Note: the Qumran manuscript 4QPsr reads the verb forms in verse 11 [10] also as (precative) perfects.

The contrast in the second couplet is between mourning and joyful celebration. The idea of mourning is obviously conveyed by the verbal noun dP@s=m! (“wailing”), but also by the loose/coarse garment (qc^, i.e. ‘sackcloth’) which is worn as a sign of mourning. By contrast, the prayer is that God would turn “wailing” into “whirling” (a similar verbal noun lojm*),  that is, dancing around joyously. In a comparable way, the loose mourning garments are to be replaced by tight-fitting clothes of joy.

Verse 13 [12]

“In response, my inner (parts) will make music to you,
and will not be silent, YHWH, my Mighty (One)—
into (the) distant (future) I will throw (praise) to you!”

The Psalm closes with a tricolon of irregular meter, in which a dual promise of (future) praise to YHWH (lines 1 and 3) bracket a central declaration regarding YHWH as the Psalmist’s God (“Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”). Such a theological confession may seem obvious, but it was central to the ancient covenant-bond established between YHWH and Israel as His people. YHWH is identified as the true “Mighty One” (indeed, “the Mightiest”), the Creator of heaven and earth. The verb in the central line, <m^D*, is somewhat ambiguous, as both of the main roots (denoting “be silent” and “weep”, respectively) are applicable to the context. The contrast between mourning and joy in the prior couplets (cf. above) would tend to support the latter, but the force of the promise (to praise YHWH) here favors the former—i.e., the Psalmist declares that he will praise God continually, and will not be silent. Perhaps a bit of dual-meaning wordplay is at work.

The two verbs for expressing praise to God are rm^z` (“make music”) and hd*y`, the latter literally meaning “throw” but often used in the sense of throwing/casting praise toward someone. The Masoretes have almost certainly mispointed dbk as dobk* (“weight, worth”, i.e. honor, glory), whereas db@K* is doubtless correct, referring to the liver, i.e., in a figurative sense as the location of deep feeling and emotion (equivalent to the “heart” in English). Some would derive it from the root dbk in the sense of the “heavy” (i.e. large/thick or deep) organ, but this is far from certain. In any case, “liver” sounds most strange in context here, as rendered in English translation; I have opted for the more generic “inner (parts)”, i.e. “inner (organ[s])”, which conveys something of the Hebrew term when used in this way.

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

 

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 29

Psalm 29

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 1-2)

The antiquity of this Psalm is admitted by nearly all critical commentators, who recognize it (on objective grounds) as one of the oldest surviving Psalms (no later than the 10th century B.C.). Its relative age is marked by the many details and features reflective of Canaanite poetry of the period. Some would go so far as to claim that Psalm 29 represents a Canaanite Baal-hymn that has been adapted for worship of Yahweh (cf. the earlier studies by H. L. Ginsberg, T. Gaster, F. M. Cross, and M. Dahood).

The meter of the Psalm will be mentioned in the notes below. The superscription marks it as a musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. The admitted age of the poem makes it one of the few Psalms where it is possible to date it to a time close to that of David himself.

Verses 1-2

“Give to YHWH, sons of (the) Mighty (One),
give to YHWH weight and strength!
Give to YHWH (the) weight of His name,
bow to YHWH at (the) appearance of (His) holiness!”

These are best presented as 4-beat (4+4) couplets; however, it may be more in keeping with ancient Canaanite style to view them as a series of short 2-beat (2+2) couplets. The repetitive parallelism of these short lines is typical of the Canaanite poetic style, as attested in the Ugaritic texts of the 14th-13th century. The repeated imperative Wbh* is of the verbal root bhy, “give”, in the transferred sense of offering to a great personage (i.e. God as king/ruler) a ‘gift’ of praise. The noun dobK* is translated in its fundamental meaning of “weight”, i.e. worth, value, and the honor that is to be accorded to something based on its worth.

The expression “sons of the Mighty (One)” in the opening line uses the ancient Semitic name and title la@ (°¢l), literally something like “mighty” —that is, the “Mighty (One)”, usually rendered “God” in English. The form <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) would normally be understood as a plural (“Mighty [One]s”, ‘gods’), comparable to the later expanded form <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm). However, Cross (p. 45-46) and other commentators prefer to view it as the singular (la@) with an enclitic <. Psalm 89:7 is another such example, as well as what likely is the original reading of Deut 32:8 (according to the Qumran MS ). The only definite instance of <la as a true plural would seem to be in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:11, cf. the recent daily note). In Canaanite polytheism, the “sons of °E~l” simply means the gods/deities in general, who are regarded as the offspring of the Creator (°E~l) and those divine beings who assemble in the court of His heavenly dwelling. Under the influence of Israelite monotheism, the “sons of God” are reduced to lesser heavenly beings who function as servants and messengers (i.e. Angels) of Yahweh (cf. Job 1:6; 2:1, etc). These beings appear to have been closely connected with the stars (Job 38:7) of heaven. Use of both singular la@ and plural <yl!a@ largely disappeared in Hebrew, being replaced by the expanded plural form <yh!ýa$; the older forms are preserved almost exclusively in poetry.

The noun hr*d*h& in the fourth line, usually translated “beauty”, is better understood in the fundamental sense of “adornment” —that is, of adorning one’s appearance to make it more attractive. The emphasis is on the splendor and majestic of YHWH’s appearance (i.e. as he appears). Given the storm-motif that is central here to this Psalm (cf. below), it is fair to assume that a theophany (manifestation of God on earth) is intended.

Verse 3

“(The) voice of YHWH (is) upon the waters,
(the) Mighty (One) of the weight brings thunder,
YHWH (is firmly) upon (the) many waters!

This is the first of a series of short stanzas dealing with the voice (loq) of YHWH, which is an ancient idiom for thunder—i.e., thunder conceived of as the “voice” of God. It is part of a wider stormtheophany—that is, of God manifest in the storm. Such storm-imagery was especially associated with the deity Haddu (called “Lord/Master”, or Baal) in Canaanite religious tradition, but was also connected with the Creator °E~l, and so similarly applied to Yahweh by the Israelites. The conflict between a strict worship of Yahweh and a (syncretistic) worship of Baal-Haddu in ancient Israel was based, in part, on these similarities.

The Sinai theophany, which was central to ancient Israelite religious thought and tradition, is described in terms of storm-theophany (Exodus 19:16-20; 20:18-21). The imagery is found in a number of Psalms and early poems as well, most notably in Psalm 18 (= 2 Sam 22), vv. 8-16, discussed in an earlier study; cf. also 89:6-19; 97:1-6; 77:16-18; 104:2-7; 144:5-6; Deut 33:26-29, and other examples. The power of the storm—both in its life-giving and destructive aspects—indicates control over the ancient waters.

In cosmological myth, this is often described in terms of the deity defeating and subduing the primeval waters (the Sea). There are likewise allusions to this conflict with the Sea in Old Testament poetry, and it is a component of the storm-theophany, as applied to YHWH. When the Psalm states that the voice of YHWH was “upon” (lu^) the waters it emphasizes God’s control over them; the preposition could also be understood in the sense of “against”, which would then contain an allusion to the cosmological conflict-motif. The context of creation may also entail a parallel with the traditional account in Genesis, where God’s presence (His breath/spirit) is “upon” the dark waters at the beginning of creation (1:2). The parallel between God’s breath and voice is obvious; in the Genesis account, the order of creation is established when He speaks (1:3ff).

The “weight” (dobK*) of YHWH—indicating His greatness and power, and the honor that is to be given to Him—is manifest especially through His presence in the storm. To ancient peoples, the storm, both through its terrifying power and life-sustaining rainfall, was held in awe and wonder. The religious focus shifts to the deity who is manifest in the storm, and has control over it.

Verses 4-6

“(The) voice of YHWH (is manifest) in power,
(the) voice of YHWH (is splendid) in appearance;
(the) voice of YHWH is breaking up (the) cedar trees,
YHWH breaks up (the) cedars of the white (mountains)—
He makes (the) white (mountains) jump like a bull-calf,
and the snow-peak(s) like (the) son of a wild bull!”

The use of repetitive parallelism is especially strong here, as the lines emphasize the grandeur and power of God’s “voice”. This power is manifest especially in the way that the storm (with its wind and lightning bolts) causes even the great cedar trees of the “white-capped” (/onb*l=) mountains (i.e., the Lebanon range) to burst/break apart (vb rb^v*). The parallel term /oyr=c! indicates the snow-capped (i.e. white) peaks of the mountains. The storm is depicted as affecting not only the trees, but the great mountain range as a whole.

Verses 7-9a

“(The) voice of YHWH is cutting through (with) flames of fire,
(the) voice of YHWH makes (the) hinterland [i.e. desert/wilderness] whirl,
YHWH makes whirl (the) hinterland of (the desert) sanctuary [Q¹¼¢š];
(the) voice of YHWH makes (the) deer twist (in anguish),
and makes bare (the) thicket (of the forest)!”

These verses continue the description of the thunder-storm’s effect on the land. If the focus in vv. 5-6 was on the mountains, in vv. 7-8 it is on the desert steppe (the “hinterland”, rB^d=m!, usually translated in English as “desert” or “wilderness”). Just as YHWH, through the power of the storm, can make the mountains “jump” (vb dq^r*), so he is able to make the desert steppe “whirl” (vb lWj). The reach of this power extends to the forest thickets in the flatland, where the deer and other animals dwell. As the land twirls, so also the deer “twist” (vb ll^j*) in anguish; this verb can refer specifically to the writhing of a woman in labor, so there may be here an allusion to the storm in its life-producing power. The destructive strength of the storm is also part of the fertility it brings to the land.

The mixing of imagery in verse 9 is further complicated by the incomplete/irregular meter, notably the two-beat line “and he makes bare the thicket”, which seems rather out of place. This, along with other factors, have led commentators to make various attempts at emending and/or rearranging the lines throughout verses 6-9 (e.g., Cross, pp. 154-155; Dahood, pp. 174-5). As there is no solution which, in my view, is remotely satisfactory or convincing, I make no attempt to do anything of the sort in my translation above. Instead, I work from the traditional Masoretic text as we have it, recognizing that the text, in verse 9 at least, is likely corrupt or incomplete. Unfortunately, there is no help from the Dead Sea texts, since the one surviving manuscript of Psalm 29 contains only the first two verses.

Verses 9b-10

“In all His palace (His) weight [i.e. glory] is shown—
YHWH sits against [i.e. over] (the) flood (waters),
and (so) YHWH sits (as) king into (the) distant (future)!”

Verse 9b is also problematic (cf. on 9a above), both rhythmically and in terms of the syntax. The line is awkward, due mainly to the presence of oLK% (“all of it” [?]), which Cross (p. 154) would omit as evidence of a scribal mistake (dittography). As it stands, the line is consistent with the 4-beat (or double 2-beat) meter that dominates throughout the poem, and many commentators would try to make sense of the text without modifying it. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 179) in understanding the term as modifying “his palace”. Literally, this would yield “in His palace, all of it”, which is exceedingly awkward in English; I have simplified this for the sake of poetic style, while preserving the presumed sense of the line—i.e., “in all His palace”.

The second line clearly alludes to the cosmological myth-tradition of God defeating/subduing the primeval waters. In Near Eastern thought, the regular flooding that occurs—often catastrophic in effect, but also necessary to make the land fertile—represents a temporary return to the primeval condition, when the cosmos was comprised of a dark mass of water (Gen 1:2). By ‘subduing’ this water, the Creator deity brings order and structure to the universe. This work of creation marks God as Sovereign over the universe.

Verse 11

“YHWH will give strength to His people,
YHWH will bless His people with peace.”

Like many Psalms, the closing lines here apply the message of the poem to the people of Israel collectively, and assume a definite worship setting. The power of YHWH manifest in the storm, and which subdued the waters at the beginning of creation, will likewise act on behalf of His people. This may allude to the ancient concept of El-Yahweh as the fashioner of the heavenly “armies” —the forces of nature, of the sun and moon, sky and storm, etc.—which fight against the enemies of God at His command. For more on this idea, cf. the current daily notes on the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-12ff).

References above marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).
Those marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 28

Psalm 28

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-5)

This short Psalm is made up of two parts: a prayer-lament in verses 1-5, and a concluding section of praise to YHWH (vv. 6-9). The first section is similar in style, tone, and emphasis to a number of lament-Psalms, where the protagonist is threatened by violence, oppression, and death. Sometimes these dangers are expressed in terms of human adversaries (if nameless and faceless ones), but it is not entirely clear whether these should be understood as real or figurative. More often than not, at least in the Psalms as they have come down to us, the enemies/adversaries are primarily figurative.

Many of the Psalms also evince a royal background or setting, though this has typically been displaced as the composition came to be used in a communal worship environment (see on verse 8 below). The closing lines often reflect this shift, sometimes even suggesting a specific worship/ritual context; and this is generally the case with our Psalm here.

As with the prior Psalms 25-27, the superscription simply indicates that it is “belonging to David”. The meter is irregular; it is generally based on a 3+2 couplet format, but this is utilized and adapted in a varied and highly creative way. Attempts to make the meter more consistent throughout are, for the most part, both unnecessary and misguided. Possible instances of textual corruption (in verses 5 and 7) only add to the complexity of the situation.

Verses 1-5

Verse 1

“To you, YHWH, do I call (out)—
my Rock, do not keep silent from me!
May (it be that) you do not keep quiet from me,
or I will be like (those) going down (to the) Pit!”

The syntax in the second couplet is rather difficult to render clearly in English. The conjunctive particle /P# reflects the wish that something be avoided or kept from happening. Its use at the beginning of a clause is precautionary. Coming as it does after the fervent wish expressed in the second line of the first couplet, it reinforces the Psalmist’s hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer his prayer (and not keep silent). There is a bit of wordplay between the verbs vr^j* and hv*j*, both of which have the similar meaning “be silent, quiet”. The “pit” (roB) of course, refers to death and the grave—i.e., Sheol, the realm of the dead. The “ones going down” to the pit are the wicked, who both literally and figuratively descend into the pit of Death.

Verse 2

“Hear (the) voice of my plea for favor,
in my crying out to you (for help),
in my lifting (up) of my hands,
to (the) deepest part of your Holy Place.”

These two couplets, as we have them, contain an interesting symmetrical structure, a mirrored 3+2 : 2+3 meter. The second line of the first couplet, together with the first line of the second couplet, forms an inner 2+2 pair. This is similar to the situation in verse 1, only here the (synthetic) parallelism is more precise, as the Psalmist’s prayer is described dramatically in terms of “crying out” (vb u^Wv) loudly (with his voice) and “lifting up” (vb ac^n`) his hands. A Temple setting is implied, whether or not the protagonist is envisioned as actually located in the sanctuary itself.

There is an interesting bit of dual-meaning wordplay involving the noun rybD= in the final line. Two separate rbd roots are attested, which, to some extent, seem to have been conflated with each other over the course of time. Root rbd I apparently has the core meaning “be in back, turn back”, while rbd II “give a word, speak, utter”. The parallel in line 1 with the Psalmist’s “voice” suggests the latter root, and the idea of an (oracular) utterance by God that takes place in His sanctuary. At the same time, the directional emphasis of the second couplet indicates that the former root is properly in view—i.e., the back part, the inner shrine of the sanctuary, where God Himself dwells.

In any case, all this imagery and clever poetry serves ultimately to emphasize the intensity of the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH. There may also be a conceptual parallel intended between the “Pit” (the place where Death reigns) and the back (i.e. deepest) part of the sanctuary where YHWH has His throne.

Verse 3

“Do not drag me along with (the) wicked (one)s,
and with (the one)s making trouble,
(the one)s speaking peace with their associates,
and (yet have) evil in their hearts!”

After the creative and irregular rhythmic structure of the couplets in the first two verses, here in v. 3 we find a more typical 3+2 meter, though with an expansive tension built into the lines. The force of the petition relates to the last line of verse 1, with its reference to the wicked—the “ones going down to the Pit”. Here these people are specifically called “wicked ones” (participle of the vb uv^r*). Again, there is a certain parallelism of the inner lines of these two couplets, when taken together. The wicked are further characterized as “ones making trouble” and “speaking peace” (falsely) with those who are supposed to be their close associates. The latter characteristic, presented in the 3-beat line of the second couplet, flows into the concluding line (the 2-beat line of the couplet), expressing a powerful antithetic parallelism that summarizes the wickedness of such people: they speak peace, and yet have evil in their heart (i.e. an evil intent).

Clearly, the Psalmist does not want to be grouped together with the wicked, which would be the implication if God does not answer his fervent prayer in his time of need. To be counted among the wicked means sharing their fate—of being “dragged along” (vb Ev^m*) down into the Pit.

Verse 4

“Give to them (in return) according to their actions,
and according to (the) evil of their deeds;
according to what their hands have made,
<return their treatment (of others back) to them!>”

The Psalmist’s desire to separate himself from the wicked leads to an imprecatory prayer against them. He asks that YHWH judge them (and pay them back) according to their wickedness—the implication being that God should similarly judge the protagonist according to his righteousness and faithful devotion.

It seems quite clear that the last line of the second couplet is corrupt, as it has come down to us. Unfortunately, the only surviving Dead Sea MS is fragmentary at this point, and is of no real help. The best explanation is that two similar phrases have been conflated in the text: “give to them” (<h#l* /T@) and “return to them” (<h#l*bv@h*). The first of these is likely due to a copyist’s mistake, drawing upon the occurrence of the same phrase in line 1 of the verse. Given this strong likelihood, we may with some confidence emend the text accordingly.

This emendation creates another 3+2 : 2+3 couplet pairing, as in verse 2 (cf. above). Again there is clear (synonymous) parallelism with the inner pair of this structure, characterizing the actions of the wicked. The social aspect of their wickedness is indicated by the use of the noun lWmG+, which refers to how one treats another person. The ethical dimension, naturally enough, blends with the judicial. To mistreat a person will lead to some measure of judgment in response to that action. Here the ancient lex talionis principle is at work—the punishment should be proportionate, and similar in nature, to the crime.

Verse 5

“For they give no discernment
(at all) to (the) actions of YHWH,
and to the working of His hands—
He pulls them down and does not build them!”

The highly creative and varied rhythmic structure of the Psalm continues with a 3+3 couplet pairing. Once again, there is a clear parallelism to the inner lines of these two couplets when taken together: “(the) actions of YHWH” | “(the) working of His hands”. God’s actions are contrasted with those of the wicked (v. 4, above). This is further expressed by the antithetic parallelism of the outer lines (first of couplet 1 + last of couplet 2), involving a bit of alliterative wordplay that is impossible to capture in English translation:

    • /yB (bîn), “discernment, understanding” —the wicked to not discern, i.e. they pay no heed to, the work of God
    • hn`B* (b¹nâ), “to build” —accordingly, God does not build up the wicked; on the contrary, he pulls/tears them down (vb sr^h*)

Verses 6-9

Verse 6

“YHWH (is to) be adored!
For He has heard
(the) voice of my plea for favor.”

This verse must be regarded as transitional, leading into the psalm of praise in vv. 7-9. Its meter is ambiguous, and a bit awkward, but should apparently be understood as a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2); the fragmented terseness of this form cannot adequately be rendered literally in English. A closer approximation of the rhythm in translation would be something like:

“Praised be YHWH!
For He has heard
the voice of my prayer.”

The wording echoes that of verse 2 (cf. above). The root irb literally refers to “bending the knee”, specifically as a gesture of homage and devotion. This denotation is difficult to render in English, especially as a passive participle; the basic meaning is someone “for whom the knee is to be bent” —i.e., someone who is to be given homage. I have translated it above as “(to) be adored”, while the more customary rendering is “blessed”.

Verse 7

“YHWH (is) my strength and my protection,
in Him has my heart trusted (for safety).
I was given help, and my heart leaps (for joy),
and (with) my singing I throw (praise to Him).”

The meter of verse 7 is slightly irregular, but generally corresponds to the 3+2 couplet pattern. The irregularity may be due to textual corruption in the second couplet, and the Greek and Syriac versions suggest a differing underlying Hebrew text at this point; however, there is little basis here for any emendation of the text. The verb jf^B* often has the connotation of seeking protection, i.e., trusting in someone or something for safety. It is used frequently with this meaning in the Psalms, and is fitting for the imagery of YHWH himself as a place of protection (/g@m*, i.e. covering, shield, etc).

The worship context, suggested already in the first section of the Psalm (cf. verse 2, above), comes more clearly into view here, with the specific emphasis on singing and giving praise to God.

Verse 8

“YHWH (is) their strength and strong place,
He (is the) salvation of His anointed (one).”

The syntax of verse 8 has led to a certain amount of confusion, both in terms of the specific meaning of the lines and how they are to be divided. It seems best to view it is an expanded 3+3 (~ 4+3) couplet.

Particularly problematic is the suffixed preposition of the first line: oml* (“for them, [belonging] to them”). The lack of a clear referent for the pronominal suffix apparently led to the variant oMu^l= (“for His people”) in the text underlying certain Greek and Syriac manuscripts. Presumably, this inference is correct, and that it refers implicitly to God’s people (Israel) as a whole. Parallel with the people is the king as their representative, who also holds a special king of covenantal relationship to YHWH (“His anointed [one]”). Just as YHWH is the strength and protection of the people , so He is also the salvation of the king (as the anointed one of God). This confirms the royal background of the Psalm (on which, cf. above), and offers a glimpse of how this related to the performance of the composition in an early worship setting.

The noun zoum* (“strong place”, i.e., fortified/protected place) is related to zu) (“strength”), and this repetitive doubling is emphatic. For a comparable statement with similar syntax, cf. Psalm 46:2 [1]. The plural form of the noun hu*Wvy+ (“salvation”) is best understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural—i.e., YHWH provides complete protection and safety for the king who remains faithful/loyal to Him. The pronoun “He” is in the final (emphatic) position of the line, and corresponds to the divine name (YHWH) at the beginning of the couplet.

Verse 9

“Make safe your people
and adore your possession,
give them pasture and carry them
until the distant (future).”

The Psalm concludes with a prayer to YHWH, a terse and pointed address that is expressed using a pair of short 2-beat (2+2) couplets. Each line involves a specific aspect of the covenant bond between YHWH and His people:

    • Line 1—the safety and protection God provides
    • Line 2—the care and devotion God gives to them
    • Line 3—this care expressed through pastoral imagery, i.e., God as a shepherd (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 23)
    • Line 4—the bond will last into the distant future

The reference to God’s people in this closing verse makes clear what was implied in the first line of v. 8 (above). The theme of covenant loyalty—applied to both king and people—is to be understood here, and, indeed, throughout the Psalm. Insofar as king and people remain faithful and loyal to YHWH, they will continue to receive His protection and blessing far into the distant future (i.e., for all time).

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 27

Psalm 27

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (v. 1); 4QPsc (vv. 12-14)

This Psalm is often considered to be a lament, and its character as such would tend to be confirmed by the 3+2 meter that dominates throughout. Certainly, the repeated references to the enemies and adversaries that threaten the Psalmist are typical in this regard. The first half of the Psalm (vv. 1-6) however expresses a clear trust and confidence in God, and in many ways is more characteristic of a song of praise. The second half (vv. 7-14) is more properly a prayer to God for deliverance. A number of themes we have encountered thus far in the Psalms occur here as well. The composition (the words, if not the music) is marked again as simply “belonging to David”, with no further musical direction indicated.

Verses 1-6

Verse 1

“YHWH (is) my light and my salvation—
from whom shall I be afraid?
YHWH (is the) place of safety for my life—
from whom shall I be alarmed?”

This pair of formally similar couplets emphasize YHWH as the source of the Psalmist’s safety and security—from darkness, evil, and all who might do him harm. The implicit threat from enemies/adversaries is present here, introducing a theme that will run through the Psalm.

Verse 2

“In (their) coming near upon me, (the one)s causing evil,
(it is) to devour my (very) flesh;
my adversaries, and (all the one)s hostile to me,
(see!) they stumble and they fall.”

The protection provided by YHWH is illustrated by way that attacks from the Psalmist’s enemies are thwarted. This imagery of nameless and faceless adversaries surrounding and threatening the protagonist is a common feature in many Psalms. It may be rooted in the royal background, involving actual socio-political conflict during the reign of the king (such as David); if so, by the time the Psalms were composed and came into regular use, such a setting had been generalized and given wider application, under the influence of Wisdom traditions (and other factors). The ‘enemies’ are largely symbolic of the various forces of sin and wickedness at work in the world. Here, in the first couplet, they are summarized broadly as “(one)s causing evil” (participle <yu!r@m=), while in the second couplet the common word pair “adversaries” and “enemies” is used—the latter through a verbal noun (participle), “(one)s being hostile”.

On the idiom of “eating flesh”, Dahood (p. 166) notes the Phoenician Kilamuwa text (lines 6-7). It expresses the idea of being reduced to the last point of life, and could be realized (quite literally) during the horrifying experience of siege warfare (Jer 19:19, etc). It is used figuratively in Mic 3:3; Isa 49:26.

Verse 3

“If an encampment should put down camp upon me,
my heart shall not be afraid;
(and) if battle (itself) should stand up [i.e. rise] upon me,
(even) in this shall I trust (His protection).”

Here in these couplets, the Psalmist’s adversaries are described in terms of a military force—something which might have been understood quite literally, from the standpoint of the royal background of the Psalms (i.e., battle between the king and rebellious vassals, etc). In the first couplet, the image is that of a military encampment, utilizing a root that fundamentally refers to stretching out and putting down a tent—that is, the army has its tents pitched and is ready for battle. The battle itself (hm*j*l=m!) is referenced in the second couplet. The Psalmist may remain secure, and confident in YHWH’s protection, even in the face of a powerful military threat.

Verse 4

“One (thing) have I asked from YHWH,
(and) it (alone) do I seek—
(that) I should sit [i.e. dwell] in (the) house of YHWH
all (the) days of my life,
(and) to gaze on (the) delightfulness of YHWH,
and to break through (each morning) in His palace.”

There is a certain rhythmic irregularity (and tension) in these three couplets, due to the climactic nature of the imagery, expressing the Psalmist’s desire to dwell with God in the blessed life to come. Here the “house of YHWH” refers to God’s heavenly dwelling, of which the Temple sanctuary on earth is a reflection. In speaking of the “days of my life”, the Psalmist utilizes a common Hebrew idiom for the eternal, divine life—expressing it in terms of a long and full life. The phrase “all the days of my life” is parallel with the idea of waking each morning. The actual vocabulary in this last line is difficult to render accurately in English. The verb rq^B* literally means “break through”, and can refer to the morning light ‘breaking through’ the darkness; this seems to be the sense here—the Psalms wishes to wake each morning of his life in the palace of YHWH. He will gaze with wonder at the beauty (<u^n), lit. “delightfulness, pleasantness”) of God just as one might the morning sunrise.

Verse 5

“For (so) He will store me in [i.e. under] His cover
when (the) day of evil (comes);
he will keep me hidden in (the) hidden (place) of His tent,
plac(ing) me high on a rock.”

Here it becomes clear that the dwelling of God is, in a real sense, simply an extension of His presence. It is understood especially in terms of the divine protection that will be given to His faithful ones (i.e., the motif of covenant loyalty). The apparent mixing of metaphors in the second couplet (tent vs. rock) is due to the fact that in ancient Semitic (Canaanite) cosmological myth the dwelling of the Creator °E~l was envisioned as both a mountain and a great domed tent. In Israelite religious thought, El-Yahweh shared many of the attributes and characteristics of the high Creator °E~l, including the concept of his dwelling-place. As with the temple sanctuary, any specified local mountain could serve as a reflection of the cosmic mountain of his dwelling. Even the modest hilltop site where the Temple was located could be thought of as the “mountain of God” (i.e., Mount Zion). The use of the term rWx specifically refers to a sharp cliff which might contain any number of safe hiding places within it; beyond this, the rock itself is set up high (root <Wr), a natural place of safety and protection.

By protecting the Psalmist from danger during his life, God ensures that he will be able to live the fullness of life with Him in the blessed time to come.

Verse 6

“And (even) now my head is raised (up) high
upon [i.e. over] (the) hostile (one)s surrounding me,
and I will slaughter in His tent
slaughterings (with) a shout (of joy),
I will sing and will make music to YHWH!”

The rhythm of the lines that bring the first half of the Psalm to a close is complex. As the text stands, we have a 3+3 couplet, followed by a short 2+2 couplet, and ending with a single 3-beat line. Again we are dealing with mixed metaphors, involving the same two lines of imagery from the prior verses: (1) the protective cover God gives the Psalmist (from his enemies), and (2) the sacred house of God where the Psalmist finds his ultimate dwelling. These are two aspects of the same core idea of God’s dwelling, which, in reality, means His very presence. Two kinds of “slaughter” are also associated with God’s protective dwelling: (a) victory by the Psalmist in battle over his enemies (implied in the first couplet), and (b) sacrificial offerings (i.e. ritual slaughter, jbz) made in the Temple complex. The context may imply the offerings that are made, in thanks to God, following victory in battle (cp. the royal background/setting of Psalms 20-21).

Verses 7-14

Verse 7

“Hear, YHWH, my voice (as) I call (to you),
and show favor to me and answer me.”

The tone of the Psalm shifts from one of confidence and praise, to that of prayer and petition. Some commentators have theorized that two separate poems have been combined (cf. Kraus, p. 332). In any case, there is a definite transition here between the closing line of v. 6 and the first line of the couplet in v. 7. In each instance the Psalmist is crying out (with his voice) to God; in verse 6 it is a shout/song of praise, while in v. 7 he calls to God in prayer.

Verse 8

“‘Go,’ my heart said (to me),
‘(and) seek His face!’
Your face, YHWH, will I seek.”

The Psalmist’s heart impels him to seek God (in prayer), part of the wider religious idea of seeking the “face” (hn#P*) of God. This idiom relates to one’s faithfulness and devotion to YHWH, and also to the blessedness of the life to come (i.e. the beatific vision when we will “see” God’s face); the latter is the result, and the natural outcome, of the former.

I tend to agree with Dahood (p. 168) here in reading il as an imperative form of the verb El^h* (El@, “go!”), and also in understanding the y– of yn`P* as preserving an archaic 3rd person suffix (i.e., “his face”).

Verse 9

“Do not hide your face (away) from me!
Do not spread (out) your servant with your nostril(s),
(you who) should be my help!
Do not leave me (outstretched) and do not abandon me,
O Mightiest (One) of my salvation!”

A pair of 3+2 couplets is preceded by a single line of exclamation, following upon the idea in verse 8 of seeking the face of God. The fear lies in the possibility that YHWH might turn away and “hide” his face. This may be due to a situation of moral or ritual impurity, of which the protagonist is not fully aware, but which could spark the anger of God. I have rendered this anger-idiom quite literally above as “with (the) nostril(s) [[a^]”, i.e., the burning/flaring of the nostrils to express anger, like the snorting of an angry bull. The verb (hf*n`) in this regard is a bit difficult to translate in English. It has the fundamental meaning “stretch (out)”, and in the Hiphil stem has the rare sense of causing something to be spread out (i.e. pushed away). A related verb, vf^n`, is used (in a similar sense) in the second couplet, expressing the idea of something being left spread out or outstretched. We might consider the image of a person laying stretched out in prayer, with no answer being given to him by God. It is just such an abandonment that the Psalmist fears, and wishes to prevent through his fervent prayer and devotion.

Verse 10

“For (even if) my father and my mother should abandon me,
(surely) YHWH will gather me (to Himself).”

The faithfulness and loyalty of YHWH is greater than even one’s own parents. This of course plays on the traditional (covenantal) image of YHWH as the father of Israel, and of the people of Israel as His children. In Wisdom tradition, this was generalized and given a specific ethical-religious sense—i.e., God as the father of the righteous. Both aspects—the covenantal and the ethical-religious—are present here in the Psalm. It is an expression of YHWH’s own loyalty to the covenant, and effectively serves as an appeal for God to answer the prayer of one who is faithful and devoted to Him.

Verse 11

“Instruct me, YHWH, (in) your way,
and guide me in (the) path of straightness,
in response to (the one)s watching me (in evil).”

This metrically irregular verse reads as a 3+3+2 tricolon, a rhythmic structure most difficult to reproduce in English translation. A clearer sense of the short third line would be produced by treating the noun rr@v) (“one watching, watcher”) as synonymous with “adversary / enemy” (by@oa / rx^)—i.e., “in response to my enemies”. However, the fundamental meaning of the root rrv ought to be preserved here as well, viz. “(one)s watching me (with evil intent)”. There may also be a bit of alliterative wordplay between “straight place” (rovym!, mîšôr) and the noun rr@ov (šôr¢r).

The “path of straightness” here has two levels of significance: (1) it refers to “way of God”, the divine instruction that the faithful one must follow, and (2) it leads to the wide and level place where the righteous will dwell together with God. Cf. the previous study on Psalm 26.

Verse 12

“Do not give me (over) in(to the) throat of my adversaries,
for repeaters of false (accusation) have stood a(gainst) me,
and (those) giving witness (with) violence.”

The rhythmic tension and irregularity of this tricolon(?) is altogether fitting for the situation it conveys–namely, the wicked and deceitful actions of the Psalmist’s adversaries. The prayer is that God should not abandon (vv. 9-10) him to his adversaries, but should instead protect and rescue him.

The use of vp#n# here in line 1 provides a rather clear example where commentators such as Dahood (p. 169) are justified in understanding the term in the sense of “throat”, a meaning attested occasionally in Akkadian and Ugaritic, but extremely rare in the Old Testament (and only in poetry). It does, however, demonstrate the relatively wide semantic range of vp#n# (usually translated “soul”); other possible renderings here are “appetite” and “desire” (in a negative sense). The image of the throat is quite appropriate, both to the idea of being devoured by the wicked (cf. on verse 2 above) and also to the evil speaking being done here by the Psalmist’s adversaries. Indeed, the sense of the final two lines is that of witnesses (in a religious-judicial setting) who bring a false accusation against him. The expression rq#v#-yd@u@ literally means something like “repeaters of falsehood”, that is, they repeat false or deceitful claims about the protagonist. Many of the Psalms include this theme of the righteous person (loyal/faithful to YHWH) defending himself against any disloyalty and faithlessness on his part.

The short final line of v. 12 is difficult to interpret (and translate). As Dahood notes (p. 169), the word ypµ in Ugaritic refers to a witness, and this meaning obviously fits the context and parallelism of the verse. The noun sm*j* (“violence”) can be understood broadly as any extreme form of wickedness or corruption.

Verse 13

“If it were not so (that I) had remained firm,
(how could I hope) to look on (the) goodness of YHWH
in (the) land of (the) living!”

The syntax of this tricolon is most difficult, apparently beginning as it does with the conditional particle al@Wl (“if [I had] not…”), but with no apodosis following the conditional statement. Such a conditional clause (without apodosis) can effectively be read as a positive statement of certainty (cf. GKC §159dd; Kraus, p. 332). I am inclined to view it as having the force of a solemn declaration or asseveration, in response to the ‘false accusations’ being made against the Psalmist (v. 12). Whether or not an actual judicial setting is envisioned, the motif serves the purpose of providing an opportunity for the protagonist to declare his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. If he had not remained firm in his trust and devotion, he could not expect to experience the beatific vision of God in heaven (the “land of the living”, cf. above). Here in verse 13, the Psalmist affirms his loyalty, and, along with it, his hope to dwell with YHWH in His heavenly palace, gazing upon Him “all the days of his life”.

Verse 14

“Look (forward) to (seeing) YHWH!
Be strong and make solid your heart—
and look (forward) to (seeing) YHWH!”

The Psalm concludes with a tricolon that is rhythmically similar to that of verse 13. The initial exhortation of the first line is repeated in the third. It involves the root hwq I (Piel stem), which has the basic meaning of looking with expectation, i.e. hoping for something to occur. In accordance with the theme of the blessed future life that runs through this Psalm—of the promise of “seeing” God in His heavenly dwelling—it is best to recognize this same theme here as well. Clearly, the emphasis in these closing lines has shifted from the protagonist of the Psalm to the people/audience as a whole. We have seen how the final verses of many Psalms contain a more general application (for the righteous), largely through the influence of wisdom traditions, and as a response to the increasing use of the composition in a communal worship setting.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 26

Psalm 26

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (vv. 7-12)

The dramatic setting in Psalm 26 involves an affirmation of the Psalmist’s innocence and faithfulness to YHWH, framed as an appeal to God. The basic setting is thus judicial, with the heavenly court (tribunal) of El-Yahweh in view. Quite possibly, the scenario envisioned for the protagonist of the Psalm may correspond with that described briefly in 1 Kings 8:31-32; if so, then the ‘action’ takes place in the Temple sanctuary, in front of the altar, and verse 6 would seem to confirm this as generally correct (cf. below).

Rhythmically, this Psalms follows a three-beat (3+3) bicolon format, but not without several points of irregularity (cf. on v. 1 below). The superscription simply marks it as “belonging to David”, with no other musical information indicated.

Verse 1

“Judge me, YHWH,
for (indeed) I have walked in my completeness—
and (indeed) in YHWH I have trusted (and) have not wavered.”

The opening verse establishes the Psalmist’s appeal to YHWH (cf. above), and the basis for it. The tension of the moment is reflected in the irregular meter. Essentially, a 3+3 couplet has been expanded, by the addition of the opening (2-beat) line, and also the second line of the couplet is overloaded, primarily by the inclusion of the divine name (“and in YHWH”). I regard the initial w-particle of the second line, and also the yK! particle of the first line, as emphatic—juxtaposing the protagonist (“I”) with God (“YHWH”):

    • “for (indeed) I…” (yn]a& yK!)
    • “and (indeed) in YHWH…” (hw`hyb^W)

The Psalmist requests YHWH to render judgment on his behalf—a familiar theme in the Psalms. The basis for his appeal is reflected in the parallelism of the couplet:

    • “I have walked | in my completeness”
    • “I have trusted | (and) have not wavered”

“Walking” here implies walking in the way of God, according to His instruction (cf. the previous study on Psalm 25); thus, it corresponds with “trusting” in Him. The expression “in my completeness” relates to a person’s integrity and faithfulness to YHWH in all things; it thus is equivalent to the idea of never wavering in trust of God.

Verse 2

“Examine me, YHWH, and test me,
refining my inner organs and my heart.”

This couplet essentially expounds the appeal of the opening line in v. 1 (above)— “Judge me, YHWH”. It uses three verbs that are similar in meaning. In the first line we have /j^B* (“examine, test”) and hs*n`, which also means “test”, but in the sense of testing the quality of something; this leads to the use of [r^x* in the second line, which refers to the refining (i.e. testing/proving) of metal. I take the final h– on the verb form hp*orx= as locative, pointing to where this refining takes place—namely, in the inward parts (inner organs [kidneys, intestines], and heart). This corresponds with the emphasis on a person’s “completeness” in v. 1, meaning the testing extends not only to outward behavior, but to one’s inner attitude and intention.

Verse 3

“For your goodness is t(here) in front of my eyes,
and (surely) I have walked about in your truth.”

If verse 2 expounds the opening line of v. 1, verse 3 here expounds the main couplet that follows (cf. above). A similar parallelism of thought is found here: trust in YHWH / walking in His way. The idea of trust is expressed in terms of the Psalmist keeping the “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH in front of him (right before his eyes); while the idiom of “walking” here makes explicit what is implied in v. 1, that the righteous person walks in the way (or the “truth”) of God. The Psalmist affirms that he has lived and acted in the same righteous manner.

Verse 4

“I have not sat with men of (those things of) emptiness,
and with (the one)s concealing themselves I have not come.”

The thrust of the Psalmist’s appeal shifts from the positive aspect of his trust in YHWH and faithfulness, etc, to the negative aspect—i.e., that he has not been a part of the wicked/faithless ones. The idea of “sitting” with the wicked was expressed, famously, in Psalm 1 (v. 1, cf. the earlier study), and has more or less the same meaning here. Parallel with “sitting” (vb. bv^y`) is the idea of moving about (coming/going, vb. aoB). The wicked themselves are characterized two ways:

    • by the expression “men of emptiness” (aw+v* yt@m=), where the noun aw+v* (“emptiness”) likely functions as a euphemism for false religion and idolatry (i.e. the god/image as a vain/empty thing), as noted by Dahood (p. 162) and other commentators.
    • by the verb <l^u* (“hide, conceal”), niphal (passive/reflexive) participle—i.e., persons who “hide/conceal themselves”, in the religious sense of hiding (to others) their unfaithfulness and disloyalty to YHWH, or that their wickedness is manifest especially while they are hidden.
Verse 5

“I have hated (the) gathering of (those) doing evil,
and with (the) wicked (one)s I have (never) sat.”

The Psalmist reaffirms his avoidance of evil/wicked persons, going so far as to state emphatically that he hates (vb an@v*) their gatherings. The repetition of the idea of sitting among the wicked should also be understood here as most emphatic—i.e., he has never sat with them.

Verses 6-7

“(See,) I wash my palms [i.e. hands] in cleanness,
and I go around your place of (ritual) slaughter, YHWH,
to make (it) heard with (the) voice of a shout (of praise),
and (there) to recount all your wonderful (deed)s.”

This couplet, situated at the heart of the Psalms, seems to allude to a ritual background, perhaps corresponding to the idea expressed in 1 Kings 8:31-32 (as noted above). As part of the process for judging wrongdoing, the accused was allowed to take an oath before the altar of YHWH in the Temple, calling upon God to decide the matter—condemning the guilty or vindicating the righteous (i.e. innocent). The ritual image here involves the washing of hands and circling the altar. However, it should be noted that frequently in the Psalms a ritual setting is used for a more general application to the righteous, i.e. in a religious-ethical sense, often influenced by wisdom traditions. The motif of ritual purity (washing the hands) here likely refers to the overall righteousness and integrity of the Psalmist (cp. Ps 24:4, “clean of hands and pure of heart”). The Temple sanctuary corresponds to the court of YHWH in heaven; even at the ritual level this would have been evident. The appeal is made in the Temple, while God hears and judges in Heaven.

The Temple-setting brings in an additional aspect of communal worship—giving praise to YHWH and recounting all the wonderful things God has done for his people. Whether or not this was ever part of a particular ritual (involving a person accused of wrongdoing), the worship-component certainly is intended to reflect the righteousness and loyal devotion (to YHWH) of the protagonist.

Verse 8

“[YHWH,] I have loved (this) place of abode (in) your house,
and (this) place to stand, (the) dwelling-place of your weight [dobk*].”

The initial occurrence of the divine name in line 1 may be a secondary addition, as it disrupts the 3+3 meter; if so, it is a natural addition. In this couplet, the religious devotion of the Psalmist is expressed by love for the Temple and its sanctuary, as the dwelling-place (/K^v=m!) of God. The corresponding noun /oum= in line 1 has a similar meaning (“place of habitation/abode”), but refers here to a place where the righteous (i.e. the Psalmist) may take up a temporary abode, a place of safety and refuge (where he finds ‘sanctuary’). In particular, the location by the altar is the “place to stand” (<oqm*), where he will be judged (and vindicated) by YHWH. “Weight” is a literal rendering of the noun dobK*, in the specific sense of “worth, value”; when applied to God it often refers to the value He is to be accorded by human beings—i.e., the honor, glory, etc, that is due to Him.

Verses 9-10

“Do not gather up my soul with (the) sinful (one)s,
and my life with (the) men of blood,
in whose hands (there is a wicked) plan,
and their right-hand is full of (evil) ‘gift(s)’.”

The Psalmist’s appeal to YHWH now turns into a prayer, a plea for God to recognize his righteousness/innocence and to judge him accordingly. As he affirmed earlier (vv. 4-5, cf. above), he should not be counted among the “sinful (one)s”, i.e. the wicked. The expression “men of blood” would normally indicate the violent tendencies often associated with the wicked; Dahood (p. 163), however, understands <ym!d* here not as “blood” (in its common plural form), but as a plural noun derived from the root hm*d* (“be like, resemble”), and thus as a reference to idolatrous “images” (cf. above on verse 4). While this is possible (cp. Ps 5:7), the overall orientation of the Psalm appears to be focused on wickedness in a more general sense (as expressed in verse 10). Certainly, however, an emphasis on religious devotion to YHWH would naturally have false religion—i.e., worship of other deities (and their images)—as the main point of contrast.

The actions of the wicked are summarized in verse 10, using the parallelism “hand(s)” / “right-hand”; this is a synonymous parallel, but one in which the second line also builds upon, and intensifies the imagery of, the first. In line 1, it is an evil purpose (or plan, hM*z]) that is in their “hands”, while in line 2, we see how they act on this wicked intention (with their “right hand”), by presenting a ‘gift’ (dj^v)), which is common euphemism for a bribe.

Verse 11

“And I, I will (continue) walk(ing) in my completeness—
ransom me, and show favor to me.”

Here the Psalmist restates his claim from verse 1, which serves as the basis for his appeal to God. Just as he has been completely faithful and devoted to YHWH, so he vows to continue to be so, living with integrity and walking in the way of God. The plea/prayer from verse 9 is also restated here, but in a positive form. He asks YHWH to “ransom” him, which here means being saved from the wicked and their (false) accusations against him. By judging in his favor, God will vindicate the Psalmist and “show favor” to him; in the context of the covenant, this implies a recognition and confirmation by the sovereign (YHWH) that the Psalmist is a faithful and loyal friend.

In the Masoretic text as it stands, this couplet has 3+2 meter; however, the Greek version reflects the presence of the divine name in the second line, which, if original, would yield 3+3, consistent with most of the other couplets. While it is possible that the divine name has dropped out of the MT, it is far more likely that is a secondary addition in the LXX. The only manuscript of Psalm 26 among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QPsr) has a different reading of this line, which also would effectively restore the meter:

“ransom me and preserve my life

Verse 12

“My foot takes its stand on a straight [i.e. level] place,
(and) in (the) places where (they) gather I bless YHWH.”

The juxtaposition of images in this final couplet is awkward and a bit confusing. The imagery in the first line is that of a person taking his stand (vb dm^u*), with firm footing, on level ground. The noun used (rovym!) literally means a “straight place”; however, the idea of “straightness” conveyed by the root rvy often has a religious and ethical connotation—i.e., “straight” = “upright, righteous”. Thus the firmness of the ground where the Psalmist is able to plant his feet (thanks to the favor YHWH has shown him), is also symbolic of the place where the righteous gather together (others take their stand there with him). This inference leads to the imagery in the second line, where the rare noun lh@q=m^ (parallel to rovym!) is used. Morphologically, this noun is presumably derived from the root lhq (“gather, assemble, call to assembly”), and would mean a place of gathering. The only other occurrence in the Old Testament is at Psalm 68:27 [26]. I suggest that the idea expressed here is twofold:

    • It refers to all the places were the righteous gather to worship YHWH
    • It refers to a place were all the righteous gather together—a vast assembly—which likely contains an allusion to the righteous dwelling with God in the blessed afterlife (cf. Psalm 1:6; 5:9, 12; 11:7; 16:11).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 25 (continued)

Psalm 25, continued

(Continued from the previous week’s study)

Verses 12-22

Verse 12 [m]

“Who [ym!] (is) this, the man fearing YHWH?
He shall instruct him in (the) way he will choose.”

The Wisdom-setting of this Psalm continues, and is clearly established in its second part. It asks the rhetorical question regarding who among humankind truly possesses such wisdom, defined in terms of the fear of God. This theme is widespread in Old Testament wisdom literature (including the Psalms); the keynote reference is Proverbs 1:7, and it also serves as the starting point for the great drama of Job (1:1, 8-9). For instances in the Psalms studied thus far, cf. 2:11; 5:7; 15:4; 19:9; 22:23ff. In a religious (or theological) context, “fear” (expressed primarily by the root ary) has to do with the proper honor and reverence a human being ought to show toward God. The one who possesses this “fear” toward God will be instructed by Him, even as Prov 1:7—and the wealth of wisdom traditions—makes clear.

Verse 13 [n]

“His soul [ovp=n~] shall lodge in a good (place),
and his seed shall possess (the good) land.”

The righteous person will not only receive wisdom and instruction from YHWH, he/she will also come to dwell secure and in prosperity. The parallelism of this (3+3) couplet is comprehensive, emphasizing both the individual (“his soul”) and the community (“his seed”, i.e. family and descendants). The blessing received from God is defined here in terms of dwelling. In the first line, the emphasis is on the character of the dwelling—that it is “in good(ness)”, or, perhaps more accurately, “in a good (place)”, the key term being bof (“good[ness]”). A temporary dwelling is indicated by the use of the verb /Wl which denotes spending the night in a particular location; the second line, by contrast, refers to a permanent place of dwelling, where an entire family or community can put down roots. That place is simply called “(the) earth” or “(the) land”, using the common noun Jr#a#; the goodness of the dwelling in line 1 certainly is meant to apply to the “land” in line 2 as well. The motif of “inheriting the earth” was used famously by Jesus in his Beatitudes (Matt. 5:5).

Verse 14 [s]

“(The) initimate (circle) [dos] of YHWH (belongs) to (the one)s fearing Him,
and His binding (agreement) He (surely) makes known to them.”

The simplicity and concision of this 3+2 couplet is almost impossible to render literally, as is indicated by the more expansive translation above. It involves the idea of the covenant (lit. binding [agreement], tyr!B=) between YHWH and his people—i.e. those loyal to him. The noun dos in the first line is parallel to tyr!B= in the second, meaning that it must be understood in the same light. The fundamental meaning of the root dws signifies something being said confidentially, spoken with one whom a person trusts or has a certain intimacy. Such a ‘circle’ of trusted friends “belongs to” (l=) those who fear YHWH (cf. above); it might better be stated that such persons themselves belong to God’s trusted circle. This is the basis for the binding agreement YHWH establishes with those loyal to him, and He himself instructs them in the terms of this agreement (i.e. the “Instruction”, or Torah). There is a bit of dual-use wordplay involving the preposition l=; in the first line, it has the meaning “belong to” (as in the superscription to the Psalm), while, in the second, it is best understood as a having the force of an emphatic particle (emphatic-l, or lamed emphaticum).

Verse 15 [u]

“My eyes [yn~yu@] (are) continually (looking) to(ward) YHWH,
for (it is) He (who) shall bring out my feet from (bein)g caught.”

There is a special kind of synthetic parallelism in this couplet, which is enclosed by its first and last words— “my eyes” and “my feet” —encompassing the entirety of the person’s body. On the one hand, the wise and righteous person looks to YHWH for protection, trusting in Him; and the same time, this trust is rewarded by the help God provides in time of need—rescuing one’s “feet” from the snare of capture (tv#r#). These are the two sides of the covenant bond: the loyalty/trust of the vassal, and the protection provided by the sovereign.

Verse 16 [p]

“Turn [hn@P=] (your face) to me and show me favor,
for (all) alone and oppressed (am) I!”

The statement of the help YHWH provides, in verse 15, is transformed here into a direct prayer and plea to God by the protagonist. The idea of a threat from enemies and adversaries was established earlier in the Psalm (vv. 2-3), even if it has been superseded by the wisdom-themes in the intervening verses; so it is picked up again here. The implication is that the Psalmist is faithful and loyal to YHWH; therefore, according to the covenant bond, God should act on his behalf, to protect and defend him. The protagonist declares that he is “alone” (dyj!y`) and “oppressed” (yn]u*), without any help available to him from other human beings. Only YHWH is able to rescue him from the dangers he faces. The Psalmist’s isolation is emphasized by the explicit use of the personal pronoun (yn]a*, “I”) in the last (emphatic) position of the second line. This also involves some wordplay which is otherwise lost in translation:

yn]a* yn]u*w+
w®±¹nî °¹nî
“and oppressed (am) I”

The sense of isolation is contrasted with the idea, expressed in the petition of the first line, that God would “turn” to face the Psalmist—that is, to come and be present with him, showing favor to him (by His presence).

Verse 17 [x]

“(O, that the) tightness [hr*x*] of my heart would be made wide!
May you bring me out from (these) pressures (on) me!”

The motifs of being rescued from capture (v. 15) and the experience of feeling oppressed (v. 16) are combined here with the more vivid imagery of freeing a person from being trapped in a tight space. This “tightness” is internalized in line 1, being located in the “heart”; while, in line 2, the focus is external, i.e. pressures felt on the person from outside (enemies, attackers, threats, etc). In each case, the prayer of the Psalmist is that God would bring him out of the “tight spot” into a “wide” space of freedom—an idiom for salvation and rescue.

Verses 18-19 [r]

“May you see [ha@r=] my oppression and my weariness,
and may you take (away) for (me) all my sins!
May you see [ha@r=] my enemies–for they are many,
and (with) violent hatred they hate me!”

The two couplets of verses 18-19 share the same acrostic letter (and opening word); this expansion of the format is probably interpretive, intended to clarify the traditional imagery in light of the wisdom themes of the Psalm. That is to say, the Psalmist’s enemies are identified with sin (and sinful tendencies), in a figurative sense, rather than as individual persons.

Indeed, here the idea of salvation (from v. 17) is rendered in religious and ethical terms—i.e., deliverance from sins. The overall wisdom context of the Psalm (cf. above) suggests that the traditional imagery of danger/attack from enemies should be understood primarily (if not entirely) in this figurative sense, as noted above. Even for the faithful and righteous person, sins can weigh one down, threatening to harm and disrupt the covenant bond with God. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to sins committed in the Psalmist’s past (his youth), which may have been of a more serious nature (vv. 7, 11, and cf. below), and that he expresses a concern that these may keep him from receiving help and forgiveness from YHWH.

Verse 20 [v]

“May you guard [hr*m=v*] my soul and snatch me away (from them)!
Do not let me be ashamed, for I would seek protection in you.”

The same thought of vv. 18-19 continues here, expressed in terms of the earlier petition in verse 2. The Psalmist confesses his trust in YHWH, using a verb (hs*j*) similar in meaning to that in vv. 2-3 (jt^B*); both carry the idea of trust, with the specific denotation of seeking protection (in someone or something). The root used here (hsj) perhaps indicates a more immediate or urgent action, which would be in keeping with the request, in the first line, that God “snatch (him) away” (vb lx^n`) from danger.

The idea of feeling shame (vb vWB) is also repeated here from vv. 2-3. The failure of YHWH to rescue the Psalmist would bring shame—i.e., to the Psalmist for trusting God, in vain—and, by implication, would call into question the covenant bond with YHWH. It is essentially an appeal to the duty of the sovereign within that bond. The fear expressed here could also relate to the possibility that the Psalmist’s (past) sins may prevent God from acting on his behalf, which would certainly be to his shame.

Verse 21 [t]

“Completeness [<T)] and straightness—may they guard me,
for (see how) I call on you!”

Once again, we have a terse 3+2 couplet that is difficult to translate with the same concision in English. In particular, the abstract nouns <T) (“completeness”) and rv#y) (“straightness”) are hard to render literally without a certain awkwardness. The prayer that these attributes should serve as (a pair of) guards for the Psalmist, in light of the similar request in v. 20, indicates that they are to be understood specifically as divine attributes. That is to say, he requests that the perfect integrity (“completeness”) of YHWH, and His righteousness (“straightness”), would serve to safeguard the same for the Psalmist himself—i.e., his own integrity and upright character. This reflects a unique ethical-religious sense of the covenant bond; the help God brings protects the loyal vassal, not from physical enemies, but from the danger and threat of sin (cf. above).

Here, at the close of the Psalm, the protagonist again identifies himself as one who “calls on” YHWH (for this sense of the verb hw`q*, cf. the notes on vv. 3, 5 in the previous study). This is a blunt declaration of his faithfulness and loyalty to God, in a particularly religious (and theological) context. That is to say, his loyalty and devotion is to YHWH, and not to any other deities. This raises the possibility, discussed in the previous study (on vv. 7 and 11), that the protagonist of the Psalm represents a person who, at one point, was an adherent of Canaanite religious beliefs, presumably in a syncretistic Israelite form, which blended together worship of YHWH with that of the Canaanite deities Baal-Haddu and Asherah, etc. While it is conceivable that a religious situation of this sort informs the background of the Psalm, the composition as we have it is more firmly rooted in wisdom traditions, where “sin” is better understood in a general religious-ethical sense, rather than the specific polemic context of Yahwism vs. Canaanite-syncretism.

Verse 22

“(O,) Mightiest, may you ransom Yisrael from all his (time)s of distress!”

The concluding verse 22 is a single line, outside of the acrostic couplet-format of the main Psalm. It may well be a secondary addition, but one which would have attached itself early on during the process of transmission. The use of <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “God”), instead of YHWH, marks its character as part of the wisdom-tradition so influential on the Psalm as a whole (cf. above, and the previous study).

Also unique is the way that the protagonist of the Psalm is now identified with the people of Israel. While this individual-community association is implicit in many of the Psalms, only rarely is it made explicit as it is here. The Psalmist, especially insofar as the traditional ascription to David would apply, is often to be understood as a royal figure, and there is typically a strong royal background that can be detected, underlying the original composition of many Psalms. However, in the form that we now have them, and as they came to be used in a communal worship setting, these same Psalms were interpreted so that the Psalmist could stand equally for the righteous person generally, and collectively for Israel as the (righteous) people of God. Just as the protagonist in the Psalms prays to God that he be rescued from his distress (hr*x*, v. 17), so here the prayer is that Israel be similarly saved in their times of distress (pl. torx*).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 25

Psalm 25

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsc (vv. 2-7); 5/6HevPs (vv. 4-6); 4QPsa (v. 15)

This Psalm is an acrostic, in which, for the most part, each verse or couplet begins with a successive letter of the alphabet; on the acrostic format, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 9-10. As a poetic or literary device, the acrostic seems quite artificial, placing constraints on the poem, which, from our standpoint today at least, are altogether arbitrary, and add little to the artistic merit of the work. However, the device does have practical value, as an aid for the memorization of a relatively long poem, such as we have here. Because of the acrostic arrangement, it seemed best to comment on each letter-couplet (or line) individually. I have, however, also divided the Psalm into two parts—verses 1-11 and 12-22; this week’s study will examine the first part.

This Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though with some minor irregularity. The superscription identifies the poem simply as “belonging to David”, perhaps intending to indicate his composition of the words, but not (necessarily) the music; the significance of the lack of the word romz+m! (“musical composition”), or comparable term, in the superscriptions remains uncertain.

The Hebrew letters that make up the acrostic are indicated in the translations below; as far as possible, I have attempted to keep the corresponding English of the first word in the first position of the translation.

Verses 1-11

Verse 1 [a]

“To you [;yl#a@], YHWH, I lift up my soul,
<…. > my Mightiest (One).”

Verse 1, as it stands now, consists of a single line, not a couplet; this, along with the fact that the first word of v. 2 is out of place, disrupting the acrostic, has led some commentators to theorize that the surviving text is corrupt. According to this view, yh^l)a$ (“my Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “my God”) is part of a lost second line, parallel with YHWH in line 1. One can only speculate as to how this line might have read. Unfortunately, no help is to be found from the Dead Sea Scrolls, since verse 1 is not preserved in the surviving Psalms MSS.

Verse 2 [b]

“In you [;B=] I trust—let me not feel shame,
do not let my enemies rejoice because of me.”

As in many other Psalms we have examined thus far, we find here the theme of unknown enemies or adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. The verb jf^B* is also frequent in these Psalms; it has the basic meaning of trusting, but also with the specific connotation of finding safety or security (in someone or something). God Himself is the place of safety for the Psalmist. The imperfect forms with the negative particle la^ have jussive/cohortative force—i.e., “may I not…”, “let me not…”, etc. Victory by his enemies would bring the Psalmist shame (vb vWB)—not only for the defeat itself and the “rejoicing/exultation” (vb Jl^u*) of his enemies, but because it would mean that his trust in YHWH was all in vain.

Verse 3 [g]

“Indeed [<G~] all (those) calling (on) you will not feel shame;
but they will feel shame, (the) disloyal (one)s (making) empty (the bond).”

I follow Dahood (p. 155f) in identifying the basic meaning of the verb hw~q* (II) here as “call (on)”, supported by the context of the occurrences in Psalm 40:2; 52:11, etc. The attested meaning “gather” is doubtless related— “call [i.e. bring] together”, similar to the situation with the roots lh^q* and ar^q*. To “call on” YHWH implies faithfulness to him, and devotion/loyalty to the covenant bond. Such a person will never feel shame; by contrast, those who are disloyal (vb dg~B*) to the covenant, who make the bond void or “empty” (<q*yr@), they will experience shame. The root dg~B* can be used to express unfaithfulness in marriage, which is also a fitting symbol for disloyalty to the covenant with YHWH (i.e. religious unfaithfulness); cf. further below on v. 11.

Less certain is Dahood’s suggestion that the initial word <G~ be understood here in its meaning “with the voice, aloud”, as attested in Canaanite. With very few exceptions (Psalm 137:1?), this word in the Old Testament is used in its weaker sense as a particle of addition or emphasis (“also, even”).

Verse 4 [d]

“Your ways [;yk#r*D=], YHWH, make known to me,
your paths teach me (to travel).”

Faithfulness to YHWH is described with the familiar idiom of traveling (walking) a path. This metaphor was especially popular in Wisdom literature, and, as we have noted on numerous occasions, many Psalms, in the form we have them, were influenced by Wisdom traditions.

Verse 5ab [h]

“Make me walk [yn]k@yr!d=h^] in (the way of) your truth and teach me,
for you (are the) Mighty (One) of my salvation.”

The same imagery continues from v. 4, with the cognate verb Er^D*, “walk/tread the path (or way)”, related to Er#D# (“way”).

Verse 5c [w]

“<And> (on) you [;toa<w+>] do I call all the day (long).”

The place of this single line in the acrostic is uncertain. It does not properly begin with the requisite letter, and the single line raises the possibility that something has dropped out of the text (cf. on verse 1 above). Even if we were to grant that the text is corrupt here, any sort of reliable reconstruction would be virtually impossible at this point. In order to preserve the acrostic, I have emended the first word to begin with the w-conjunction (cf. Kraus, p. 318). The same meaning is given here to the verb hw~q* (II) as in v. 3 (cf. above).

Verse 6 [z]

“Remember [rk)z+] your (act)s of compassion, YHWH,
and your (act)s of kindness, that they (are) from (the) distant (past).”

The covenant loyalty of YHWH is rooted in the distant past, and similarly extends into the distant future—the word <l*ou can connote both aspects. Probably the Psalmist has in mind all that God has done for the ancestors of Israel, His many acts of compassion (<j^r^) and kindness (ds#j#). The latter term, in particular, can signify loyalty in a covenant-context. The appeal to what God has done in the past is meant to spur action on behalf of His people (represented by the Psalmist) in the present. This literary-theological device appears frequently in Old Testament narrative, as well as in the poetry.

Verse 7 [j]

“(The) sins of [twaF)h^] my youth, do not remember (them),
(but) according to your kindness, may you remember me—
in response to you (own) goodness, YHWH.”

There are several formal difficulties in this verse. To begin with, the meter is distended in the first line, and the word yu^v*p=W (“and my [act]s of rebellion”) feels like a (secondary) addition; I have tentatively omitted it in the translation above.  If original, the use of uv*P# would indicate a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to the covenant with YHWH, in the active sense of treacherous disloyalty or outright “rebellion” against God. This would suggest that the Psalmist represents a person who had previously been an adherent of Canaanite religion (and/or its syncretistic Israelite forms), with its ‘idolatry’, but then subsequently converted to Yahwism. Cf. below on verse 11.

As it stands, the verse is a tricolon, unusual within the structure of the Psalm, though there is a legitimate (partial) parallelism between the second and third lines. An interesting explanation (cf. Kraus, p. 318) is that the second line (7b) originally completed the couplet in v. 5, but came to be transferred to the current location during the course of transmission. In any case, the plea for YHWH to ignore the sins of a person’s youth, focusing on one’s current faithfulness, is natural in the context of such a prayer.

Verse 8 [f]

“(Indeed,) good and straight (is) YHWH,
(and the one)s sinning He will instruct in the way.”

The Wisdom language of vv. 4-5 (cf. above) continues here, emphasizing that God instructs His people when they sin. This is not the flagrant sin of rebellion or blatant transgression against the covenant, but follows the idea of “sins of youth” from v. 7, connoting especially unintentional error, the sin of negligence or carelessness. However, the use of uv*P# (“rebellion”) in v. 7, if original, would imply a more serious kind of sin—unfaithfulness to YHWH—which requires special forgiveness (cf. below).

The last word of the first line (/K@-lu^) is seemingly out of place, disrupting the rhythm of the couplet, and may well be a secondary addition and corruption of the original text; I have tentatively omitted in the translation above. If retained, it functions as a join between the two lines, translated literally as “upon this”, in conventional English something like “and so…”.

Verse 9 [y]

“He makes (the) oppressed (one)s walk in the judgment,
and He will teach (the) oppressed (to walk) in His way.”

Again, the Wisdom motif of “walking in the way” is used, along with the verb Er^D* (cf. above). The proper nuance of fP*v=m! (“judgment”) must be understood, as it here connotes God’s justice, such as he establishes for the righteous, as opposed to the punishment that comes upon the wicked. The judgments of God are good and holy, and are synonymous with His “way” (Er#D#).

Verse 10 [k]

“All [lK*] (the) paths of YHWH (are) kindness and truth
for (the one)s guarding His binding (agreement) and His repeated (command)s.”

The context of covenant-loyalty, implicit throughout, is now stated clearly here. Faithfulness and devotion to YHWH is defined in terms of loyalty to the binding agreement (tyr!B=). Such loyalty is expressed specifically as fulfilling the “repeated (instruction)s” by YHWH recorded in the Torah. For the one loyal to YHWH, walking in his paths becomes a blessing, as the person experiences the goodness and truth of God Himself.

Verse 11 [l]

“In response to [/u^m^l=] your (own) name, YHWH,
give pardon for my crookedness, for it (is) great (indeed)!”

Human “crookedness” (/ou*) is in contrast to the “straightness” (rv*y`, v. 8) of God. Even for the faithful ones among God’s people there is a measure of “crookedness”, marked by occasional sinning (vv. 7-8). The prayer here is for YHWH to give pardon (vb jl^s*) for such sin, purely on the basis of God’s own name—that is, His essential nature and character as the Mightiest, the Creator, and the One who is always straight and true. The opening word /u^m^l= is a prepositional particle derived, in part, from the root hnu, meaning to answer or give response. I translate it above, rather literally, as “in response to”. God responds with forgiveness, not because of anything the Psalmist has done (or will do), but simply because God’s name—His identity and His own loyalty to the covenant-bond—prompts it.

The declaration of the Psalmist’s “crookedness” as being great (lit. “much”, br^) may simply be an instance of pious exaggeration, a recognition of human imperfection in comparison with the holiness of God; however, it is also possible that something more is involved. In discussing verse 7 (above), I noted that the inclusion of the noun uv^P# (plur. “[act]s of rebellion”), if original, would imply that the Psalmist, at one point (in his “youth”), was an adherent of Canaanite religion—that is, of ‘idolatry’, presumably in the syncretistic forms that were relatively common and widespread throughout Israel. The idiom “great sin” (hl*d)g+ ha*f*j&) has this connotation, especially in the “Golden Calf” episode in Exodus 32 (vv. 21, 30-31; cf. also Gen 20:9; 2 Kings 17:21). The comparable br* uv^P# (“great rebellion”) would express this idea even more forcefully (Psalm 19:14; cf. Dahood, p. 125). The same idiom in Akkadian and Canaanite is used to denote adultery, which itself serves as a fitting metaphor in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness to YHWH.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 24

Psalm 24

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 1-2)

This Psalm has one of the clearest liturgical settings of any in the Psalter, even if the historical situation cannot be reconstructed in detail. The superscription itself merely indicates that it is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, and offers no other information regarding the performance tradition. The structure of the composition is more enlightening, divided as it is into two main strophes, each of which may tell us something about how this Psalm was used in the ancient liturgy. Following an opening pair of couplets (vv. 1-2), the first strophe (of irregular meter) is comprised of vv. 3-6; the second strophe (of 3+3+3 tricola) is in vv. 7-10. A hl*s# (selah) notation comes at the end of each strophe.

VERSES 1-2

“The earth and her fullness (belongs) to YHWH,
(the) productive land, and (the one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] in her;
for He set her firmly upon the seas,
and fixed her upon (the) flowing (water)s.”

This pair of 3+3 couplets establishes YHWH as the Creator and Sovereign Lord of the universe. It is a fundamental statement of Israelite monotheism, identifying YHWH as the one supreme Deity. His position as Creator and Lord makes him worthy of worship and honor.

The “earth” (Jr#a#) is paired with the noun lb@T@, difficult to translate in English, emphasizing what the earth contains and produces (“brings forth”); for lack of a suitable alternative, I have rendered it above as “productive land”. Both terms refer to the flat disc or cylinder of the earth (or land) in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, a geocentric view of the universe. The notice in verse 2, that YHWH set the earth firm and fixed “upon the seas / waters” is an allusion to the the primeval waters that surround the universe (Gen 1:2). This founding/fixing of the earth implies that the chaos of the primeval condition has been ‘subdued’, allowing for order to be established in creation. In ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth, this is often described and depicted in terms of the deity defeating the Sea (and its allies) in battle. While this cosmological myth-aspect is virtually absent from the Genesis Creation account, vestiges of it—i.e., of El-Yahweh’s defeat of the waters—are preserved in the poetry of the Old Testament. For the relevant examples, and the ancient background of this mythic theme, cf. my article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

VERSES 3-6

“Who shall go up on (the) mountain of YHWH,
and who shall stand in (the) standing place of His holiness?
(The one) clean of palms [i.e. hands] and pure of heart,
who has not lifted his soul to the (thing that is) empty,
and has not (bound himself) seven-fold to deceit.” (vv. 3-4)

The expression “mountain of YHWH” in the Old Testament, while also deriving from cosmological myth, typically refers to the city of Jerusalem—in particular, the ancient fortified hill-top site around which the larger city grew. This original location, a Canaanite fort-city captured by David, was known as the “city of David” and also by the name /oYx! (Zion). Like most such Canaanite walled cities of the period, it was comprised largely of the Temple-Palace complex (rather than being a residence for the populace). So it was also with “Mount Zion”, the most ancient part of Jerusalem—it had a special association with the Temple sanctuary as the dwelling place of God.

The Temple mount was thus a holy site, and no one could approach God’s dwelling in the sanctuary if they were not themselves holy. This applied principally to the priests who officiated in the Temple precincts; however, by extension, the principle of holiness and (ritual) purity related to the wider community of Israel as well. Much of the legislation in the Torah involves the preservation of ritual purity, so that sacrificial offerings and other business conducted in the precincts of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple, performed in God’s presence, would not be rendered impure and ineffective.

This purity requirement is described in verse 4, a tricolon with irregular meter (3+4+3). Any one coming into the Temple courts and sanctuary must be both ritually pure (“clean of hands”) on the outside, but also inwardly “pure of heart” (bb*l@ rB^)—that is, one’s mind and intention must be pure. The final two lines function as a couplet with synonymous parallelism, expressing purity in terms of true religion—devotion to YHWH alone. The expression “lift (up) his soul” is parallel to the verb form uB^v=n], a Niphal (reflexive) of the root ub^v*. The precise meaning of this root in the Niphal is uncertain, but is perhaps best understood in its presumed literal sense as “bind oneself seven-fold” (i.e. by an oath or vow). The nouns aw+v* (“emptiness”) and hm*r=m! (“deceit”) are also parallel; while they could simply connote wickedness in a general sense, here, as in other instances in the Psalms, they seem to carry a specific association with the worship/veneration of false deities (i.e., any deity other than YHWH).

“He shall take up blessing from YHWH,
and justice from (the) Mighty (One) of his salvation;
(Yes,) this (is the) circle (that is) seeking Him,
(the one)s searching for (the) face of Ya’aqob. Selah” (vv. 5-6)

The couplet in verse 5 affirms the relationship between YHWH and the one who is righteous; the covenant bond is preserved, and God will provide hk*r*B= (“blessing”) and hd*q*x= to such a person. The latter noun has a semantic range that can be hard to translate consistently; it is usually rendered “righteousness” or “justice”, but in the context of the covenant bond, it can also connote loyalty, generosity, and the like.

The concluding couplet in verse 6 is most difficult, but the (demonstrative) pronoun hz# (“this”) gives the final answer to the question in v. 3: “Who shall go up…?” — “this is who…”. However, the syntax is by no means clear; the first line is alliterative, and reads:

ovr=D) roD hz#
zeh dôr dœršô

The translation would be “this (is the) circle seeking him”, a reference, presumably, to the faithful ones (the priests?) of YHWH, parallel with the initial word of the second line, “(the one)s searching for him” (<yv!q=b^m=). The last two words are the main source of confusion, the Masoretic text apparently being in error (“your face [;yn#P*], Jacob”). Critical commentators are inclined to emend the text here, one of two ways:

    • His face [wyn`P*], Jacob”, following the Targum
    • “(the) face of the Mighty One [i.e. God] of Jacob”, assuming that yhla has dropped out of the text, following some Syriac MSS; for this expression cf. Exod 3:6, 15; Psalm 20:1; 46:7, 11 (and elsewhere in the Psalms), etc.

The latter option is to be preferred; however, it is possible that the expression “face of the God of Jacob” here is preserved by the shorthand “face of Jacob”, the MT suffix ; either being a scribal mistake or representing an emphatic/enclitic particle (yK!) that has been mispointed (cf. Dahood, p. 152). The “face” is the manifest presence of God (Exod 33:14, etc).

Verses 7-10

“Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
and be lifted up, openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH, strong and mighty,
YHWH (the) mighty (one) of battle!

Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
lift up, (you) openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH (Creator) of (the heavenly) armies—
He (is) the King th(at is) worth(y)! Selah

By all accounts this is a very old piece of poetry (10th cent. B.C., cf. Cross, pp. 91ff), perhaps older than the remainder of the Psalm. It certainly retains the ancient ritual/liturgical context much more so than the first strophe. Many commentators would associate it with a ceremonial transport of the golden box (or ark) that served as the symbolic throne and dwelling of YHWH in the Temple. It is theorized that a procession of priests and people led the ark into the Temple complex, and that these verses were recited, perhaps in alternating chorus, as accompaniment. Even if this were correct, the exact occasion remains unknown and can only be guessed at. The reference to the Creation in vv. 1-2 raises the possibility of a New Year ceremony, when YHWH takes his place in his house after his victory in battle over the primeval forces of chaos and darkness. Another possibility is that it involves a ceremony commemorating the building/founding of the Temple itself, or of the moment when the ark of God’s Presence first entered the Temple (cp. the setting of Psalm 132).

The gates/doors of the Temple (and city) are directed to “lift up” their heads in homage to YHWH as he enters. This solemn bit of ritual imagery as always seemed curious, but there is some evidence that the basic portrait is derived, in different ways, from cosmological myth. The identification of the Temple-site with the “mountain of God” confirms the correspondence between God’s dwelling in heaven and his symbolic, manifest dwelling on earth. The Semitic Creator deity °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) was thought to dwell on a great (cosmic) mountain also depicted as a (heavenly) Tent. The same basic imagery was applied to YHWH, otherwise identified with as the Creator °E~l. Any local mountain could serve as a form of the cosmic “mountain of God”, even a modest hill-top site such as Jerusalem/Zion.

The heavenly dwelling of God was itself divine, and could be conceived as living or alive. Moreover, the mountain/palace of °E~l in west Semitic (Canaanite) tradition served as the heavenly court where the gods would assemble for feasts and other important occasions. In the great Canaanite Baal Epic (tablet II, column ii [CAT col. III]), as part of the conflict between Baal-Haddu and the Sea (Yamm), messengers from the Sea appear while the gods are assembled in the mountain/palace of °E~l. The purpose of their appearance is to deliver a threatening message that Baal should be handed over as a slave to the Sea. The deities lower their heads at the sight of these fearful emissaries from the Sea, to which Baal rebukes them with an opening line nearly identical to vv. 7a, 9a of Psalm 24:

š°u °ilm r°aštkm
“Lift up your heads, (you) Mighty (one)s [i.e. gods]!”

The only difference is that in the Psalm personified gates of the heavenly dwelling take the place of the gods residing within. It is hard to imagine that the formula used in the Psalm does not stem from the same basic line of tradition. A significant point is that, in the Baal Epic, following his battle with the Sea, a great heavenly palace is constructed for Baal-Haddu comparable to that of °E~l. It is only natural that the gods would likewise “lift their heads” to greet Baal as he comes into his palace, thus affirming his kingship and rule over the universe (cp. verses 1-2 here); it is easy to see how, in an Israelite monotheistic setting, the circle of deities might be replaced by the surrounding gates of the palace.

The gates are called <l*ou, a term which can mean either the distant past or the distant future; it can connote the idea of “eternity, eternal”, and thus implies that these ‘gates’ are somehow divine, or at least have an ancient and eternal quality. It is the heavenly dwelling itself that greets YHWH on his victorious return from battle. Dahood (p. 153) notes the use of the expression “king of the gate” in the Ugaritic texts, as a title for the Canaanite king; even more so would the Creator deity deserve such a title.

The construct expression dobK*h^ El#m# deserves some comment. Literally, it means “king of the weight”, i.e. “the king of weight”. The noun dobK* has the fundamental meaning “weight”, in the sense of have a certain worth or value. It often connotes the idea of “honor”, especially when applied to God, and in such cases is typically translated as “glory” (i.e., “the king of glory”). However, in my view, the force of the ritual has to due with YHWH’s worthiness to be enthroned in his palace as king—sovereign over the universe. A proper translation of the expression might then be “the king of worth”, which preserves the construct form. Along these lines, I have opted for a rendering which is less accurate syntactically, but which, I think, better captures the sense of the passage: “the King th(at is) worth(y)”. Because of YHWH’s strength and might, demonstrated in battle against the waters of chaos, He is worthy to be recognized as King over all Creation.

It is, indeed, YHWH’s role as a warrior (“mighty [man] of battle”) that is emphasized in vv. 7-10, and the cosmological background of the ritual scene best explains this. That is to say, the primary association is with God’s victory over the primeval waters of chaos (the “Sea”), by which He established the current order of creation. The extent to which this same pattern applied to the “holy war” tradition—i.e. YHWH achieving victory for Israel over her enemies—can be debated. Certainly the expression “YHWH of the armies” (toab*x= hwhy), essentially shorthand for “…creator of the heavenly armies”, relates to God’s role as protector of Israel, who fights (with the forces of heaven) on behalf of His people. Whether the ritual setting of Psalm 24 specifically refers to the “wars of Israel” —Exodus and Conquest, etc—remains uncertain.

How do the verses of the first strophe (vv. 3-6, cf. above) fit into the ritual/liturgical context of the second? Possibly, before the procession with the ark entered the Temple precincts, there was a liturgical affirmation of the holiness and purity of the officiants (priests and people), represented in these verses. There was often a magical quality inherent in such ritual formulae—that is to say, the proper performance of the ritual was essential to its efficacy. Without the ritual affirmation of purity, the effectiveness of the entire ceremony—including the divine blessing and favor that result from it—would be put at risk. The ceremonial aspect, however, was only intended to confirm the reality of the situation—i.e., that the priests, etc, had kept themselves pure, conducting themselves in a holy and righteous manner, in accordance with the regulations of the covenant bond.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 23

Psalm 23

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 2-6)

This relatively simple and beautiful Psalm is one of the most famous and beloved passages in all the Scriptures, immortalized for English speakers by the King James Version, in which form it has been treasured (and committed to memory) by millions of children and adults alike. So familiar is it in English translation, that many Christians today may be somewhat surprised by how it actually reads in the original Hebrew.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, with no other musical direction indicated. The meter is straightforward and balanced, but not consistent throughout. It is predominantly in 3+2 couplets, though verse 4 is made up of a pair of 2+2+2 tricola, and the initial line is 4+3. Structurally, it is best to follow this poetic versing, in which case the tricola of verse 4 may be seen as the center point (and central theme or message) of the composition:

    • Stanza 1: Verses 1-3 (3 couplets)
    • Stanza 2: Verse 4 (3 tricola)
    • Stanza 3: Verses 5-6 (4 couplets)

VERSES 1-3

“YHWH (is the One) tending me—I will not lack (anything),
in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along),
(yes, even) my soul He turns back (in rest);
He guides me in (the) tracks of righteousness,
for the purpose of (honoring) His name.”

The imagery is that of the herdsman (shepherd) and his flock—literally, one who tends (vb hu*r*) the flock. The emphasis is thus on the care that the herder shows to the sheep, concerned for their safety and well-being. This is summarized by the statement of the Psalmist “I will not lack (anything)”, using the root rs^j* which generally refers to a need or deficiency, i.e. something that is lacking.

Part of the true beauty of the poetry in these lines is the way that the parallelism is interlocking (and overlapping) within the rhythm of the couplets. Note, for example, the synonymous parallelism of the second line of the first couplet and the first line of the second:

“in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along)”

The imagery could not be more appealing, this charming pastoral scene of the sheep crouching down in the fresh grass, and then moving slowly alongside the gentle waters of a nearby stream.

There is subsequently a different kind of formal parallelism in the second and third couplets (both 3+2 meter). In the first line of these couplets, the emphasis is on the shepherd leading and guiding the sheep, using the similar verbs lh^n` and hj^n`. In the first instance, it is a natural image (sheep led alongside a stream), while in the second it is ethical and religious (people guided in “tracks of righteousness”). There is a comparable dual-imagery in the second line of each couplet, which interprets the motif in the first line (i.e., a kind of synthetic parallelism):

    • Sheep being led alongside a restful stream
      => a person’s soul being given rest (“turned back”, i.e. restored)
    • A person being guided in tracks of righteousness
      => that person living and acting in honor of God’s “name”

Again, there is tremendous beauty and power in the way that these complex ideas are expressed in just a few words (3 or 2 beats) of the poetic line. This sort of compression can also lead to difficulties for the translator which requires great sensitivity to the force and style of the poetic expression. For example, the last line of the third couplet simply reads omv= /u^m^l= (“for the purpose of his name”), which is not entirely clear unless one recognizes that “righteousness” (qd#x#) in the context of Israelite religion entails giving honor to YHWH (and His “name”). The noun qd#x# fundamentally denotes a straight line, and thus is appropriate for the visual motif of sheep being led in a straight path, by a well-established set of tracks (lG`u=m^ plur.) formed in the ground over the course of time.

VERSE 4

“Even when I should walk
in (the) valley of death( ‘s) shadow
I shall not fear (any) evil,
for you (are) along with me—
your staff and your support
they (surely) guide me.”

As noted above, this verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2+2) tricola; I have preserved this rhythmic structure in translation to distinguish it from the surrounding couplets of vv. 1-3, 5-6. This is the central section of the Psalm, which contains the primary message: the care YHWH shows to his people is such that they/we can trust in it, even during times of darkness and danger.

The expression “valley of death( ‘s) shadow” (tw#m*l=x^ ayg@B=) seems a bit overloaded as a construct phrase, but perhaps is intentionally so in order to emphasize the shift from the idyllic scene in vv. 1-3 to one of danger. However, the Greek LXX translates as “in the midst of [e)n me/sw|] (the) shadow of death”, which could mean that the underlying Hebrew word (ayG@, “valley”) was instead read as = wG@ (“back, midst [of]”), cp. Aramaic aW`G~. Dahood (p. 146f) follows this line of interpretation. In my view, however, the imagery in vv. 1-3, of the sheep traveling through a natural landscape (on safe/level ground), makes the contrasting motif of a valley appropriate here.

Presumably, the “staff” (fb#v@) here in v. 4b is the shepherd’s staff, and the paired noun hn`u@v=m! much the same (i.e. a staff for walking, etc). However, the fundamental meaning of the latter noun is a place of support (root /u^v*, i.e. something which gives support), and refers primarily to the support that YHWH provides. It is the staff of YHWH that provides this, in his role as shepherd.

The final line is problematic, as the apparent verbal root <j^n` (usually understood here in the sense of “comfort”) does not fit the imagery of the verse particularly well. Dahood (p. 147) suggests that the –m– in the form ynmjny is an infixed mem-enclitic. If so, its purpose here is presumably to fill out the rhythm of the 2-beat line which begins with the short beat of the pronoun (hM*h@). I tentatively follow this interpretation in my translation above, which reads the word ynmjny as a form of the verb hj*n` (“lead, guide”), as in v. 3a (cf. above). The point of the verse is that YHWH the Shepherd will lead his people even through the dark valley.

VERSES 5-6

“You arrange a table (be)fore my face,
in front of (those) hostile to me;
you fatten [i.e. anoint] my head with oil,
(and) my cup (is) drenched full.
Surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all (the) days of my life,
and I will sit in (the) house of YHWH
for (the full) length of days.”

Following the dark intermezzo of verse 4, the theme of God’s blessed care for his people returns in the couplets of vv. 5-6. Only the pastoral imagery has been replaced by that of the hospitality shown to an honored guest. In verse 5, the motif is specifically that of a guest receiving grand treatment as he dines with his host; three of the four lines express the idea clearly enough:

    • a table is arranged (vb Er^u*), set out in front of the person (lit. “to my face”)
    • the guest’s head is anointed (lit. “made fat”, vb /v@D*) with oil
    • his drinking up is filled (with wine) to the point of overflowing—the main point of the idiom is that the person will be completely satisfied.

The difficulty lies in the second line of the first couplet, which has the parallel of the table arranged before the guest’s face with its being arranged “in front of [dg#n#]” his enemies (those hostile to him). A comparable example of this detail may perhaps be found in the 14th century B.C. Amarna texts (100:33-35), which includes a request to the Pharaoh that “he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on” (Dahood, p. 147f). The shaming of one’s enemies makes the honored treatment all the much more conspicuous (and appealing). While this idea may conflict with our Christian ideals of humility, etc, it is generally in keeping with the ancient mindset and its associated social key values of honor and shame.

The couplets of verse 6 are rather more straightforward, in terms of our own religious vantage point. Even so, we may not fully appreciate the covenant-background of this imagery, and how it relates to the hospitality idiom of v. 5. The loyal and faithful vassal receives an honored place at his lord’s table, and receives blessings and benefits in turn. It this context, the general terms “goodness” (bof) and “kindness” (ds#j#) carry a specific connotation; in particular, ds#j# frequently connotes loyalty (i.e. to the covenant bond), while bof can refer to the benefits that result from the covenant.

Here, the “house” of God should be understood in these same terms, and not necessarily as a concrete reference to the Temple. It simply means the place where God dwells, presumably in the sense of his heavenly abode. The blessed life for God’s people—that is, the righteous, those faithful to the covenant—depicted in vv. 1-3, 5-6, strongly suggests that a heavenly afterlife is at least partly in view (cp. the imagery in Psalm 1:3, 6). The Hebrew of the Old Testament had no way to express the abstract idea of “eternity” or “eternal/everlasting life”; the Scriptures often rely on the more concrete idiom of long life. Living to a ripe old age was rare enough in ancient times that it came to be viewed as an ideal representation of blessing from God. In the final couplet of the Psalm there are two similar expressions:

    • “all (the) days of my life”, which, I think, properly reflects what we would call temporal blessing—blessings experienced during our life on earth, and
    • “for (the) length of days” —that is, the full length of days, both a long life on earth and its completion in the blessed heavenly abode (“in the house of YHWH”)

The Shepherd Motif

The widespread practice of sheep-herding, and the pastoral economy throughout the ancient Near East, made the motif of the shepherd immediately recognizable and appealing as a symbol. The herder was a leader and protector of the flock/herd, and thus served as a fitting symbol for leadership in society—i.e., of kings and other rulers. We need not go any further afield than the Old Testament Scriptures to see how common the image of the shepherd was as a representation of the kings and rulers of the nations—cf. Nah 3:18; Jer 10:21; 22:22; 23:1-4; 25:34-38; 49:19; 50:44; Ezek 34:1-10; Zech 10:3; 11:4-17, and Isa 44:28. This applied to the rulers of Israel and Judah as well (2 Sam 5:2; 7:7, etc), and the tradition of David’s role as a shepherd earlier in his life (1 Sam 16:11; 17:15, 20 etc; Ps 78:70-72) helped to shape the Messianic figure-type of the future Davidic ruler as a “shepherd” (cf. Jer 3:15; 23:4; Ezek 34:23; 37:22,24; Zech 13:7, and the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2; Mic 5:4ff). The idea of the people as “sheep without a shepherd” emphasizes the lack of proper leadership (Num 27:16-17; 1 Kings 22:17; Mark 6:34; Matt 9:36).

Jesus himself made use of this shepherd-imagery, even identifying himself as the “Good Shepherd” (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7; John 10:1-29; cf. also Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17), while the Messianic association is alluded to in Mk 14:27 par. Elders and ministers who served a leading role in the early Christian congregations were similarly called “shepherd” (poimh/n), as in Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet 5:1ff; Eph 4:11 (cp. John 21:15-17), a usage that continues with the title “pastor” today.

It is somewhat less common to refer to God as a shepherd, though it is a natural extension of the use of the motif to represent leadership and kingship. Apart from Psalm 23, the most notable references to YHWH as a shepherd are: Gen 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:15ff; Amos 3:12).