Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 14

Psalm 14

This is another short Psalm focusing on the theme of YHWH acting to bring justice against the wicked (and on behalf of the righteous). Here, however, it consists almost entirely of a description of the wicked; there is an implicit contrast with the righteous (vv. 5ff, cf. also the next study on Psalm 15) at work which is generally characteristic of Wisdom traditions.

The superscription identifies it as another Davidic composition, with no other musical direction. Psalm 14 is very close to Psalm 53, suggesting that both stem from a single original composition; the relationship between the two, and the textual differences, will be addressed in the future study on Ps 53.

The meter of Psalm 14 is mixed, though it tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon format, especially in the first section. Structurally and thematically, the Psalm may be divided into three sections:

    • Verses 1-3: A description of the wicked as those who disregard God
    • Verses 4-6: The actions of the wicked against God’s people (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones)
    • Verse 7: A call for YHWH to act, bringing justice/deliverance for His people

Verses 1-3

“A foolish person says in his heart (that)
‘There is no Mightiest (One)!’
They are decayed (and) show detestable behavior—
there is no (one) doing good!”

Verse 1 consists of a pair of 3+2 couplets, with an interesting sort of parallelism. The first (3-beat) line of each bicolon gives a dramatic and harsh description, both of the inner thoughts (line 1) and outward actions (line 3) of the wicked. The characterization of the wicked as “foolish, senseless” (lb*n`) places this Psalm fully in the ancient Near Eastern (and Israelite) Wisdom tradition. While the inner thoughts (“in his heart”) may be foolish, they result in corruption (vb tj^v*) and detestable acts (vb bu^T*). The noun hl*yl!a& is an abstract (and comprehensive) term referring to a person’s behavior—in particular, how one deals with others—almost always in a profoundly negative sense. Often it connotes mistreatment or exploitation of others. The wicked are referred to here both with the singular and plural, a feature typical of the Psalms.

The second (2-beat) line of each couplet (lines 2, 4) exhibits a formal parallelism, using the negative/privative particle /ya@ (“there is no”). This sharply characterizes the wicked, similarly shifting from the inner thoughts (“there is no Mightiest One [i.e. God]”) to a summary description of behavior (“there is no one doing good”). The statement reflecting the wicked person’s thought does not necessarily mean that the person is an atheist, as modern-day readers might assume. Rather, it indicates that such people behave as if there were no God (<yh!ýa$, “Mightiest One”) to judge or punish their actions.

“YHWH looks out from (the) heavens
(down) upon the sons of man,
to see—Is there any (one who is) discerning,
(any one) seeking the Mightiest?”

Verse 2 has another pair of 3+2 couplets, but exhibiting a more traditional kind of parallelism. The first bicolon presents the picturesque image of YHWH looking out from the window of his heavenly palace down onto the earth below. However, this colorful detail expresses two more serious points: the all-seeing character of YHWH, and the apparent separation between God and humankind. The second couplet, which represents the purpose of YHWH’s looking out from heaven, also answers the 2-beat statements from verse 1 (in the form of a question):

    • “there is no one doing good” (v. 1d)
      • “is there any one who is discerning?” (v. 2c)
      • “(is there any) one seeking the Mightiest?” (v. 2d)
    • “(the fool says…) “there is no Mightiest (One)” (v. 1b)

Verse 3 concludes this section:

“They all have turned aside, corrupted as one—
there is no (one) doing good, there is not even one!”

This verse can either be read as four 2-beat lines (2+2+2+2) or two 4-beat lines (4+4); it is easier to present it visually as the latter. This is a dramatic restatement of the second couplet of verse 1 (lines 3-4, above). Here, in verse 3, each line (or couplet) involves parallel use of dja / djy to make its climactic point. dj*a# literally means “one”, and the related verb dj^y`, to “be one”, or “become one/united”. The first statement (v. 3a) indicates the solidarity and united character of humankind (in its wickedness), “one” meant in a collective sense. The second statement (v. 3b) makes the same point, but focusing on each individual person (“there is no one…not even one”). The apparent absoluteness of this dual-declaration should not be misunderstood. Certainly there are those (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones) who are doing good and seeking God—the Psalms regularly indicate this—however, viewed from a distance, it certainly seems as though all of the population is corrupt. It is something of a rhetorical exaggeration, used to make a point; however, Paul famously takes the idea more literally when he cites verses 1 and 3 together in Romans 3:10-12. His point is that all of humankind has been in bondage under the power of sin. We must be cautious about reading Paul’s use of Psalm 14 back into the original meaning/context of the Hebrew composition.

Verses 4-6

The text of verses 4-6 is a bit more difficult, both in terms of structure and its wording/phrasing. Verse 4 is the most problematic in terms of meter. I am inclined to view it fundamentally as another 3+2 bicolon that has been expanded, with a parenthetical statement, into a tricolon:

“Do they not know, all (those) making trouble—
(the one)s eating up His people (as) they eat bread—
(is it) not YHWH they confront?”

The intermediate line creates tension within the couplet that is artistically meaningful, a discordant note which reveals the nature of the wicked person’s action—that is, it is aimed against the people of God (i.e. the righteous, faithful ones). The image is one of harsh and violent action, “eating” or consuming the righteous, as one devours bread (<j#l#). I think it likely here that yM!u^ preserves an older 3rd-person singular suffix y– (i.e. “his people”), which otherwise coincides with the regular 1st person suffix (“my people”). In NW Semitic, the y– 3rd-person singular suffix is best known from the Phoenician evidence; cf. Dahood (pp. 10-11) for other possible examples of its preservation in Hebrew.

I read the closing verb form War*q* as deriving from the root ar*q* II (“meet, encounter”), rather than ar*q* I (“call”). This root ar*q* II can be used of meeting someone in a hostile sense (or with hostile intent), i.e. as confronting an enemy in battle, etc. This seems to fit better the overall context here. The typical reading of the line (assuming ar*q* I) would be “they (who) do not call on YHWH”. While this perhaps better matches the use/position of the negative particle (), it is hard to square with the rhetorical question raised in line 1. Admitting certain syntactical difficulties, I would understand the sense of the verse to be: Do they not know that in attacking His people they are actually confronting YHWH Himself?

“There—(see now) the fear (that) they should fear ,
for the Mightiest (is) in the circle of the just;
(and so) the council of the oppressed will bring him [i.e. the wicked] to shame,
for YHWH (is) his [i.e. the righteous’] place of shelter.

Verses 5-6 actually represent a relatively straightforward bicolon pair (again following the 3+2 pattern). However, the wording/phrasing used makes a precise interpretation difficult. There is ambiguity or confusion in the person/number agreement; however, this is not all that uncommon in Hebrew poetry. In particular, when dealing with the wicked (and also the righteous), one can alternate between referring to them in the singular and plural (cf. on verse 1 above). Conceptually, the thought expressed in these lines is also complicated by the interlocking parallelism, which overlaps between the cola (i.e. across the poetic rhythm of the lines).

To begin with, the first line of each couplet (lines 1 and 3) expresses the fate of the wicked, which, for them, will be rather unexpected. Line 1 introduces this abruptly with the particle <v* (“there”), followed by a cognate verb + noun coupling which functions as an intensive (“they feared a fear”, “the fear the feared”, i.e. how greatly they [should] fear!). That is to say, the wicked are quite unaware of just how much they should fear the judgment of YHWH. In line 3, the idea is that the wicked will be unexpectedly humiliated by the very people whom they have been oppressing. I am inclined to point wvybt as a form with the 3rd person suffix, since the 2nd person form of the MT (Wvyb!t*) is rather out of place here (cf. Dahood, p. 82).

There is also an inner parallel between lines 2 and 3, with the expressions “circle of the just” and “council of the oppressed”. The noun roD is often translated “generation”, but more properly refers to a “circle” or “cycle”; I here render it in this more literal sense of a collection of people, i.e. gathered in a circle. This forms a clear parallel with hx*u@ (here “council”), that is, a group of people gathered together for a specific purpose (cp. its use in Psalm 1:1). The substantive adjectives qyD!x* (“just, right[eous]”) and yn]u* (“beaten/pressed down, oppressed, afflicted”) also form a precise parallel.

Finally, we have the parallelism of the second lines in each couplet (lines 2 and 4), which emphasize YHWH’s protective presence with the righteous:

    • “the Mightiest [i.e. God, <yh!ýa$] is in the circle of the just”
    • “YHWH is his [i.e. the oppressed person’s] place of shelter [hs#j=m^]”

Verse 7

“Who will give salvation (to) Yisra’el from (out of) ‚iyyôn?
(It is) in YHWH’s turning back the turning back of His people
(that) Ya’aqob will (dance) around (and) Yisra’el will find joy.”

The final verse is best read as a 4-beat tricolon, which stands as a final declaration of hope and promise for God’s people. It is expressed in specific religious-cultural language that contrasts with the more general Wisdom language in the rest of the Psalm. The idea of God’s people (the righteous) is now localized in terms of Israel and Zion (i.e. Jerusalem). It is is the central line that explains the verse, with its description of YHWH’s action in answer to the question “who will give salvation to Israel…?” (line 1). We have an intensive cognate verb + noun coupling, as in verse 5 (cf. above). The particular verb here is bWv, with the basic meaning “turn (back), return”. Often this is used in the sense of people repenting and “turning back” to God; here, however, it is better understood in terms of YHWH restoring the fortunes of His people; the intensive construction would mean something like “YHWH turning back (things for) his people completely“. The faithful ones who have been oppressed by the wicked, will now be given justice by God, and will no longer be mistreated. In this sense “salvation” means deliverance from the hands of the wicked. Originally, this language would have derived from within a royal/national context—i.e. the covenant between YHWH and His people (and their king), which includes promises of protection from enemies, etc. However, in the Psalm as we have it, the scope has widened to embrace a more universal aspect (the righteous vs. the wicked) typical of Wisdom literature and the religious-ethical messages of the Prophets. This blending of royal/national and Wisdom elements is actually a common feature of the Psalms.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 13

Psalm 13

This Psalm is among the shortest and simplest of the collection, though still not without certain textual difficulties. It is comprised of two strophes, which seem to follow a general metrical pattern. The first strophe clearly is that of a personal lament. Most of the Psalms we have thus studied have characteristics of a lament, effectively functioning as a prayer to YHWH for deliverance. These can either reflect the vantage point of the Psalmist (or protagonist of the poem), or that of the people generally. Here it is almost exclusively a personal, private lament. Many of these such Psalms were associated with a particular historical situation; here however there is no mention of any traditional setting in the superscription. Nor is there any musical direction, other than the standard indicator that it is a composition “belonging to David”.

The two strophes have an interesting structure: a 4+4 bicolon, followed by a 4+3 bicolon, and concluding with a single 4-beat line. The second strophe includes an additional 3+3 couplet before the final line.

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Until what point, YHWH, will you forget me? (To the) last?
Until what point will you (continue to) hide your face from me?
Until what point shall I lay (up) thoughts (of despair) in my soul
(and there be) pain in my heart daily?
Until what point shall my enemy lift (himself) high over me?”

Four of the five lines begin with the compound particle hn`a*-du^, “until where”, i.e. “until what point”, usually understood in a temporal sense: “until when”, “how long”. The three components to the strophe—4+4 bicolon, 4+3 bicolon, and single 4-beat line—each ask the question from a different vantage point. The first is addressed to YHWH, the second refers to the Psalmist himself, and the third to the Psalmist’s ‘enemy’.

The plea to YHWH in the first couplet brings out two emphases: (1) impatience that the suffering has lasted so long (line 1), and (2) the Psalmist’s feeling that YHWH has turned away from him (line 2). The substantive noun jx^n@ that ends the first line fundamentally refers to something that is strong, enduring, lasting, sometimes also denoting that which is clear or complete. I render it above as an emphatic follow-up to the Psalmist’s question. The phrase “will you hide your face” (;yn@P*-ta# tyT!s=T^) is usually understood to involve the verb rt^s* (“hide”); but it is also possible that it preserves older usage of the reflexive infixed-t stem, in which case the verb would be rWs (= rWc), “turn [away/aside]” (cf. Dahood, pp. 64, 76). The phrase would then be “will you turn (away) your face”, which also corresponds to the LXX translation. The sense of the line is roughly the same either way.

The word toxu@ in the first line of the second couplet creates considerable difficulty. It is usually read as a plural of hx*u@ (“plan, purpose, counsel”), but this ill suits the context, where the parallelism of the couplet indicates that toxu@ should be comparable in meaning to /ogu* (“pain, suffering”). Dahood (p. 77) suggests that it may be cognate to Ugaritic n²ƒ (“shake, tremble”), corresponding to a Hebrew root Ju^n` (n¹±aƒ), otherwise unattested. Kraus (p. 212), on the other hand, suggests that the Hebrew hx*u@ may occasionally have the nuance of “sorrow(s)”, citing the context of Prov 27:9. Other commentators would emend the text to read tobX*u^ (“pains”). I have tentatively translated toxu@ as “thoughts (of despair)”, in an attempt to preserve the conceptual parallel at work in the line.

The “enemy” (by@a)) or adversary of the Psalmist is otherwise unidentified. Generally the ‘adversaries’ in the Psalms are figurative for the wicked and/or forces of evil and suffering present in the world. This sense of conflict is central to the emotional rhetoric and imagery of the Psalms, and scarcely needs to be related to any concrete historical situation. Some poems which evince a strong royal theology and background, likely do draw upon certain kinds of political events and patterns (cf. on the second strophe below).

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“Look at (me and) answer me, YHWH my Mighty One!
Give light to my eyes so that I should (not) sleep the (sleep of) death,
(and) so that my enemy should (not) say ‘I had power (over) him’,
(and) my adversaries go round (happy) that I am shaken.
And I (do still) trust in your kindness (to me)—
may my heart go round (for joy) in your salvation!
I will sing to YHWH, that He has dealt (out benefits) over me.”

As in the first strophe, the focus in the lines moves from an address to YHWH, to the situation of the Psalmist himself, and then to the vantage point of his enemy. The plea in the first strophe is turned into a more direct petition here in line 1. The Psalmist feels that YHWH has forgotten him, and the sequence of verbs is meant to get God’s attention. What he prays for specifically is stated in the second line: “give light to my eyes”. The context suggests an illness of some sort that has left the protagonist at the point of death (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 6). Twice here he uses the particle /P#, presumably related to the verb hn`P* (“turn”), which signifies the wish to avert (i.e. turn away) something from happening. The cleanest translation of this particle in English is “lest”, but that is seldom used, and normal English usage today would require a construction with a negative particle (“that [it] should not…”, etc).

The first thing he hopes to avert is his own death, with the expression “sleep the death”, probably meaning “the sleep of death”, i.e. to ‘sleep’ and never wake up, with sleep as an idiom for death. The second thing he wishes to avert is expressed in the second bicolon (v. 5); that his enemies/adversaries would not rejoice and boast following his illness (and death). Instead of them “going around” (vb lyG]) happy, the Psalmist hopes that it will be his own heart “going around” (same verb). The language of the covenant and royal theology appears, however faintly, in this strophe, with the Psalmist (David, according to the superscription) approaching God as the sovereign Benefactor who demonstrates loyalty through acts of kindness (ds#j#) and bestowing rewards/benefits (vb lm^G`) on His faithful vassal (i.e. David/the king). Thus the conflict in this Psalm is not, as in the prior Pss 9-12, the wicked generally, but rather personal adversaries. They blend almost imperceptibly with the grave illness of the Psalmist, as if personifying his physical and emotional suffering. It would perhaps not be too far off the mark to identify the symbolism as related to the realm of Death, a common enough idea in the ancient world, ruled by a sovereign (a rival to YHWH and His king), with other personified (demon-type) figures manifest in various diseases, etc. The vague and shadowy adversaries are a suitable reflection of the conflict experienced in human suffering. Here they function as a corollary to the nameless/faceless wicked ones in society who oppress the righteous and the weak/poor, etc (see esp. Ps 9-10, and the earlier study on it).

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), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 12

Psalm 12

This week we examine Psalm 12, another prayer-composition with the character of a lament, such as we have seen in a number of those studied thus far (cf. the previous studies on Pss 9-10 and 11). Here the meter and structure is more consistent, with 4-beat (4+4) bicola in vv. 2-7a, followed by 3-beat (3+3) couplets in the closing vv. 7b-9. In spite of a certain tension in vv. 6-7, the rhythm is generally maintained, and there are relatively few obvious textual difficulties. The musical direction in the heading is tyn]ym!V=h^-lu^ (“upon the eighth[?]”), as in Psalm 6 (cf. the earlier study); the precise meaning of most such directions in the Psalter remains uncertain, other than that they relate to the performance tradition.

There is a fairly simple outline of the Psalm, according to a four-part structure, each part generally corresponding to a bicolon pair (4-lines); the third part climaxes with an extra couplet, transitioning to the 3-beat meter of the fourth part:

    • Plea for YHWH to help the righteous—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • A call for YHWH to act (as Judge) against the wicked—vv. 4-5 [3-4]
    • YHWH’s declaration that He will act, with a comment of the Psalmist—vv. 6-7 [5-6]
    • Concluding strophe expressing assurance that YHWH will act—vv. 8-9 [7-8]

The Psalmist utilizes the common themes of the suffering of the righteous/innocent at the hands of the wicked, along with the judicial (and covenant) setting of YHWH as sovereign whose role it is to establish justice.

Strophe 1: Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Deliver (me), YHWH, for the good (man) has come to an end,
(and all) firmness has disappeared from the sons of men!
Empty (words) they speak, a man with his (close) companion,
(their) smooth lips speak with (one) heart and (then) a(nother) heart.”

The substantive adjective dys!j* often refers to one who is loyal (i.e. “good”), both from a social and religious standpoint; such language reflects the binding-agreement (covenant) concept which pervades the theology and thought-world of the Psalms. This loyalty is expressed also by the root /ma (often paired with dsj); here the form <yn]Wma$ is best understood as an intensive (and abstract) plural adjective, which I translated here as “(all) firmness”, this “firmness” reflecting that of a faithful and loyal friend. The disappearance of such faithfulness and loyalty among people who should be (or claim to be) close companions (noun hu*r*), is a sign of the overall condition of society. The parallel use of the verbs rmg` and ss^P* (or perhaps the related sp^a*), reinforces the idea that loyalty is no longer to be found among human beings. It is possible that there is a play on words with the adjective ql*j*. This is usually thought to derive from the root (qlj, µlq) indicating smoothness (parallel to aw+v*, “emptiness”), and when used of lips, tongue, etc, often signifies false or deceptive speech; however, there is a separate[?] Semitic root (Ugaritic —lq) which has the basic meaning “be lost, ruined, ‘dead'”, and so the destructive character of this speech may be emphasized here as well (cf. Dahood, p. 73). Still, the overall idea seems to be that of false and empty words, among those whose speech should reflect the bond of friendship and loyalty; this duplicitous behavior and ‘double-dealing’ is expressed by the idiom “with a heart and a(nother) heart”, i.e. with two hearts or minds.

Strophe 2: Verses 4-5 [3-4]

“Cut off, YHWH, all (these) lips of (deadly) smoothness,
(every) tongue speaking (such) twisted (word)s!
(Those) who say, ‘By our tongue we are made strong,
our lips (are) our (streng)th!—who (else) is Lord for us?'”

This second strophe follows the pattern of the first, with an imperative address to YHWH: “Deliver (me), YHWH…!”, “Cut off, YHWH…!” However, while the basic form and subject matter is the same, the thrust of this part is quite different, shifting from a plea for help to a more forceful call for God to act. The behavior of the wicked ones is described differently as well. In the prior strophe the emphasis was on false and double dealing, treating bonds of loyalty as empty words; here, the words that are actually spoken reflect an attitude that shows no real fear of God, but instead evince worldly ambition and self-centered desire. The expression from the previous couplet, “lips of smoothness”, now takes a sharper turn with the parallel “tongue speaking twisted (word)s [told)G+]”. The adjective ld*G` is typically translated “great”, but here it may be derived from a (presumed) separate root ldg indicating something twisted, or woven together. This image, involving the wordplay with the (more common) root meaning “strong, great” is an effective way of transitioning from their deceptive speech to the impious boasting that characterizes their essential attitude. That boast, as such, is described in the second couplet (v. 5), however the a precise rendering of the phrasing is a bit difficult. The couplet begins with the relative particle rv#a&, something not altogether uncommon in Hebrew poetry; since the first couplet has the speech of the wicked as the subject (“lips, tongue”), the relative particle serves to shift the focus to the person who so speaks this way. Again the parallelism features both “lips” and “tongue”, the actual parallel being embedded in a syntax that it somewhat awkward, perhaps intentionally so; we may illustrate this as a chiasm:

    • (These are the ones) [i.e. the false/wicked] who say… (5a)
      • ‘By our tongue we are made strong (5b)
      • our lips (are) our (streng)th!’ (5c)
    • …’Who is Lord for [i.e. over] us?’ (5d)

These persons trust in their own skill and cleverness, symbolized by their speech, rather than YHWH, as the source of their strength. The last line is particularly difficult, especially as involving the word WnT*a!, usually understood as the particle ta@ with a 1st person plural suffix. If so, it is likely that ta here should be read in its earlier/original sense as a substantive noun, meaning something like “essence, substance”, which I translate loosely above as “strength”. Dahood (pp. 73-4) prefers to derive it from the root tta, as the derived noun ta@, rare in the Old Testament, indicating a cutting tool or weapon(?)—”our lips (are) our weapon”.

Strophe 3: Verses 6-7 [5-6]

“From the breast of the oppressed, from the groaning of the (one)s in need—
Now I will stand up!’ says YHWH,
‘I will place in safety he (who) pants for it [i.e. for help].’
—(and) the sayings of YHWH are pure sayings,
(like) silver melted (down) in a rising (fire),
refined from (the) earth (even) seven (time)s.”

At the heart of this strophe is the declaration by YHWH, announcing that he will now act on behalf of those who are in need, those oppressed (“pressed/beaten down”) by the wicked. It is not entirely certain whether this declaration properly begins with the second line or extends to include the first; I prefer to read the first line as a dramatic setting for YHWH’s announcement. The noun dv) here is typically understood as coming from ddv, meaning “violence, assault, destruction”; however, it is here perhaps better identified with the word meaning “breast” (with the form dv), as in Isa 60:16). This keeps the parallelism of the line consistent, with a subjective genitive relationship for the substantive plurals “(one)s beaten down [i.e. oppressed]” and “(one)s in need”. The breast is essentially the source of the “groaning, crying” (hq*n`a&), and, admittedly, yields a female image, perhaps intentionally drawing upon the traditional motif of the woman (i.e. widow, pregnant mother, etc) as a poignant symbol of human suffering.

YHWH’s announcement that he will act on behalf of the oppressed is sudden and dramatic: “Now I will stand up!”. The nature of this action, described in the third line, is clear enough (“I will set/place [him] in safety”), but the syntactical relationship of this phrase with the remainder of the line is rather ambiguous. The final two words are ol j^yp!y`, literally “he breathes for him/it”, but which could be read two different ways in context: (1) “he [i.e. the wicked] breathes/blow after him [i.e. the oppressed]”, or (2) “he [i.e the oppressed] breathes/pants [i.e. longs] for it”, that is for help from YHWH. The latter seems better to fit the overall sense of the strophe—it is the suffering of the oppressed that is primarily in view, not the action of the wicked.

The “sayings” (torm=a!) of YHWH carry important nuances here, namely that of a promise—i.e., that what YHWH says he intends to do will be done—and also, as a demonstration of his justice and care for the righteous; this latter connotation perhaps stems from the earlier/original meaning of rma, “make visible, show”. This is essentially a comment by the Psalmist regarding YHWH’s declaration, affirming that God will indeed act to bring justice and deliverance to the righteous who are oppressed. The final line of the second couplet also serves to introduce a third couplet (3+3 meter) which further expounds the assurance that YHWH will act. It utilizes a familiar and traditional motif of precious metal (“silver”) refined and purified in fire. However, the actual wording used to express this image is a bit difficult, and it is possible that the text may be corrupt at this point.

The difficulty lies in the two words at the end of line 5 and the beginning of line 6. The noun lyl!u& occurs only here in the Old Testament; the context suggests it should mean something like “furnace”, but the derivation is quite unclear. It may be better to read it in light of the root hlu (“go up, rise”), frequently used of fire (including sacrificial offerings), in which case the form would presumably be yl!u& (“rising”), with the final lamed (l) an instance of dittography. The word Jr#a*l* at the beginning of the next line has also proven problematic; however, the preposition l= has a relatively wide range of meaning, and I read it here in the sense of “from the earth”, perhaps in the sense that the “earth” represents the impurities which are burned away in the refining process.

Strophe 4: Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“You, YHWH, (shall) guard them,
you watch (over) him from this cycle into (the) distant (future);
(for) all around (the) wicked (one)s walk about,
(and) they dig {ruins} for the sons of men.”

Following the last two lines in strophe 3, these couplets continue the 3-beat (3+3) meter. The first bicolon is clear enough, as the Psalmist gives further assurance that YHWH will both guard and keep watch over the righteous for all time (“into the distant [future]”, <l*oul=). The protection is said to be “from this cycle” (Wz roDh^), the noun roD referring to the current Age (“life-cycle”), or “generation”, emphasizing the general wickedness and faithlessness of the current time. This is characterized by the rather ominous statement “all around [i.e. surrounding us] the wicked ones walk about”.

Unfortunately, the final line of the Psalm is quite difficult, and any attempt at translation must be hypothetical. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer no help, since the verse is scarcely preserved in the two MSS containing Psalm 12. The noun tWLz% occurs only here in the Old Testament; it presumably derives from the root llz (II), generally indicating something that is worthless. The prior word (MT <r%K=) is practically unintelligible in context. I am inclined, perhaps, to view it as a third-person plural form of the verb hr*K* (“dig”, WrK* “they dug, they dig”) with an enclitic < to fill out the rhythm of the line. But how this verb would relate to the noun tWLz% is still unclear; I tentatively translate it above as “ruins”, possibly in the sense that they dig (i.e. take furtive, hostile action) so as to bring people to ruin. If we retain the Masoretic pointing of <r%K=, as a form of the verb <Wr (“be high, rise, raise”) with the prefixed preposition K=, then the last two lines could conceivably be translated something like:

“all around (the) wicked (one)s walk about,
(even) as worthless (thing)s are raised up for the sons of men.”

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 11

Psalm 11

After the lengthy acrostic Psalm 9-10, with its many textual difficulties, Psalm 11 is simple and straightforward by comparison. Which is not to say that there are not challenges in interpreting some of the lines. The meter is mixed/inconsistent, and there seem to be a fair number of archaic features present, better preserved perhaps due to the very brevity of the Psalm.

This is also the first in a series of Psalms which simply indicate that it is a composition “belonging to David” (dw]d*l+); there is no other musical direction given in the heading. The general structure of the work is divided into two parts: (1) a lament by the Psalmist (vv. 1-3), and (2) a praise-description of YHWH in heaven as Ruler and Judge (vv. 4-7). It draws upon many of the same themes we have seen previously, including those in Psalm 9-10. The praise in the second half serves as an effective counter to the lament in the first, implying that YHWH will indeed act with justice on behalf of those who are faithful and loyal to Him.

Verse 1

The initial lines pose a metrical problem. It appears to be a bicolon, but with an awkward and extended (4+3?) poetic rhythm:

With YHWH (do) I seek refuge—(yet) how you show to my soul
(that) I must flee like a bird (into the) mountains!

The place of the first two words (yt!ys!j* hw`hyB^, “with YHWH I seek refuge”) is unclear. It seems to stand alone as a sentence, but the poetry of the verse suggests that it relates, conditionally, to the remaining words. Perhaps the first line is meant to establish a contrast: the Psalmist declares that he trusts in YHWH, seeking refuge in Him, yet circumstances force him to flee “like a bird (into) the mountains”. I would read the particle Eya@ (“how”) more as an exclamation than introducing a question. Dahood (p. 69) parses the second line differently, pointing the consonantal text as roPx! omk= rdh)d=n] (“rushing [after me] as a bird”) instead of roPx! <k#r=h^ WdWn (“flee [into the] mountains [as] a bird”).

Verse 2

For see! the wicked (one)s step down on the bow,
they make firm their arrows upon the (cord) stretched down
to shoot (out) in the darkness toward the straight of heart.

The poetry demands that this verse be treated as a tricolon (4+3+3). In the first two lines, the wicked (plural) are shown preparing their bows, stepping down on them to string them, then setting the arrows upon the string stretched across the frame. This tightened/bent cord (rty), with the arrows pointed out from it, serves as contrast (using a bit of wordplay) to the “straight” (rvy) heart of the righteous. The phrase “in the darkness” (lp#a) omB=) refers to the wicked hiding in the darkness to shoot arrows out at the righteous. Arrows are a common image for attacks by the wicked.

Verse 3

That the (thing)s set in place should be broken down–
what work is (the) Just (One) doing (to correct this)?

The force and meaning of this (2+2) couplet depends on how one understands the substantive adjective qyD!x^ (“just/righteous [one]”). It can refer either (a) to righteous human beings, or (b) to YHWH, as a divine title. If the former, then the second line expresses the despair of the just person (“what can the just [person] do [about it]?”); if the latter, then it is a question posed toward God, asking why He is allowing this to happen. The tone of lament in verses 1-3, suggests the latter, which I have adopted in the translation above. The plural noun totv*, “(thing)s set in place”, implies the order established by God, including the law and justice that is meant to regulate society and protect the innocent (from the wicked). This order has broken down (vb sr^h*), as indicated by the wicked shooting arrows out at the righteous from the darkness. The “work” (lu*P*) that God is expected to do, as the Just One, is to establish justice. That is fundamentally the plea of the Psalmist, and, to this end, he brings out the imagery of YHWH on His seat of rule, from which He judges over the world. This praise-description, in the following vv. 4-7, is meant to spur God to act in fulfillment of his role as heavenly Judge.

Verse 4

YHWH (is there) in (the) palace of His holiness;
YHWH (is) in the heavens (on) His covered seat—
His eyes perceive (all things),
His roving (eye)s examine
(all) the sons of man.

Verse 4 is made up of a 3+3 bicolon, followed by a 2+2+2 tricolon. The initial couplet locates YHWH’s place of rule in heaven—first in the holy place of his heavenly Palace (lk^yh@), then on his actual throne (“covered seat”). The two are essentially synonymous—Palace/Heaven, Holy-Place/Throne. The cover or canopy (ask) of his throne is the “holiness” (vdq), or glory/splendor, which surrounds him. The tricolon, with three short dual-beats, emphasizes the all-seeing character of YHWH, from this position high above the heavens.

Verse 5

YHWH (the) Just (One) examines even (the) wicked,
and (the one) loving violence His soul hates.

The force of the conjunction w+ relates back to v. 4b, where it is stated that YHWH’s eyes examine (vb /j^B*) all humankind; now, it is specified that even the wicked are so examined. This is important since the apparent lack of justice in the world might lead one to think that God does not see what is going on (cf. the discussion on Psalm 9-10 in the previous studies). Not only does YHWH see the injustice of the wicked, but he hates what he sees. Here the behavior of the wicked is characterized in its most egregious form, as sm*h*, wrong doing that results in violence. Dahood (p. 70) would treat ovp=n~ (“his soul”) as the object, rather than the subject, with ha*n+c* as an archaic form of the 3rd masculine singular—i.e., “the one loving violence hates his (own) soul”. While this is certainly possible, it distorts the parallelism of the couplet, which is better served by having YHWH (“His soul”) as the subject.

Verse 6

He shall rain down upon the wicked puffs of fire and sulphur,
and (His) burning breath (will be) the portion of their cup.

The word <yj!P^ in the MT of the first line remains quite uncertain. Many commentators would emend it to <j#P^, or perhaps the plural construct form ym@j&P^, i.e. “coals of fire…”. I tentatively relate it to the root jWP, “blow (out), breathe”, as that provides a fitting parallel for the noun j^Wr (“breath/wind”) in the second line. Though the exact morphology here is unclear, there are conceptual parallels, relating to fire, burning, etc, for the root in Exod 9:8ff and Prov 26:21 (cf. also Jer 6:29; Dahood, p. 70). I take the overall imagery here to be that of the anger of YHWH, depicted within the traditional idiom of the burning nostrils, etc, like the angry bull, snorting out hot puffs and breaths. The idiom of the cup from which a person drinks is also traditional, referring to a person’s fate, often in the context of suffering and death. Jesus famously uses this image in the Gethsemane scene in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:36 par). I understand the “portion” (tn`m=) here in light of the idea that YHWH will “rain down” the burning/fiery Judgment, and, like rainwater, it will fill up the cup to a certain measure (count/number, hnm).

Verse 7

For (the) Just (One), YHWH, loves just (action)s,
(and so the) straight (in heart) will perceive His Face.

The reference to YHWH as the “Just (One)” (qyD!x^) parallels a similar use of the divine title in verse 3 (cf. above). The final word of the Psalm remains difficult to decipher. One would expect the form wyn`P*, rather than the MT omyn@P*. However, the archaic suffix om– occurs at least once in this Psalm (v. 2, possibly also in v. 1b), but suffixed to the preposition (omB=), and this may be a similar sort of poetic/enclitic use, perhaps to fill out the meter of the final line. Dahood (pp. 70-1) reads it as a first person plural pronominal suffix, in which case the adjective rv*y` (“straight”) must be a divine title similar to qyD!x^—i.e., “our face will see the Straight [i.e. Upright] One”. This does not seem at all correct to me, as nowhere else in the Psalm is the 1st person plural used. More appropriate to the context of the poem is the idea of the righteous experiencing the manifest blessing of YHWH as he comes to act on their behalf. The “face” of God is an idiom used to describe the divine power and Presence, lit. his turning toward his people (i.e. turning to face them). More to the point, the Psalmist hopes YHWH will turn to act as Judge, establishing justice for those who are just, aiding and protecting the righteous from the hostile and violent attacks of the wicked.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10 (continued)

Psalm 9-10, continued

Last week’s study examined the first part (9:2-17 [1-16]) of the acrostic Psalm 9-10; today we will explore the ‘interlude’ (9:18-21 [17-20]) and second part (Ps 10). In terms of the structure of the composition, it is noteworthy that the musical direction hl*s# (selâ, “Selah”) occurs at the end of verse 17 [16], and again after v. 21 [20]. The precise meaning of this term remains unknown, but it would seem to indicate a pause and/or (musical) transition of some sort. Furthermore, at the end of v. 17, hl*s# is preceded by the word /oyG`h! (higg¹yôn), apparently another musical direction, but only used (as such) here in the Psalms. Elsewhere the word occurs in Ps 19:15 and 92:4 [3] (and also Lam 3:62); it presumably derives from the root hg*h*, which fundamentally signifies a low moaning, growling, etc, sound such as an animal makes, but for humans also a kind of muttering, murmuring, etc, sometimes in the deeper sense of the intention or motivation from inside a person (i.e. utterance from the heart). In Psalm 19:15 the word is used in this latter sense, while in Ps 92:4 it refers specifically to a sound made on a harp (roNK!). This would seem to justify the idea that the word here marks a kind of musical pause (‘meditation’) and interlude in the composition. Along these lines, it is also likely that the second “Selah” marks the end of the interlude, and a transition to the next part of the composition (Psalm 10) with a different tone/style/tempo[?], etc.

The ‘Interlude’: Psalm 9:18-21 [17-20]

I divide these four bicola (8 lines) as follows: (1) two bicola (vv. 18-19 [17-18]) which continue the acrostic pattern (letters y and k), and a second (separate) pair of bicola (vv. 20-21 [19-20]) which specifically call on YHWH to act.

y They shall turn [WbWvy`], (shall the) wicked (one)s, (back) to Sheôl,
the nations (hav)ing forgotten the Mightiest (shall) come to an end.
k For [yK!] (it is) not to (be) lasting (that the) needy are forgotten,
(and) what (the one)s beaten down wait (for) does not perish for (all time) passing.

These two couplets admirably encompass and restate much of what was expressed in the first part (cf. the previous study), here presented as a precise contrast between the fate of the wicked and the hope of the righteous (i.e. those suffering in the present). This will also be the juxtaposition that dominates the thought of the second part (cf. below). Once again, the “wicked” (adj. uv*r*) are identified with the “nations” (<y]oG), and here defined more clearly as those who have “forgotten” (root jkv) God (“the Mightiest”, <yh!ýa$ Elohim), probably in the sense that they are unaware of Him. On the term loav= (Sheol), in the context that it is used here, cf. my earlier article. The verb bWv here echoes its use back in verse 4 [3], with the Psalmist’s expectation that YHWH’s act of judgment would “turn (back)” his enemies; now the idea is expressed more generally, that the wicked would “turn (back), return” to Sheol (the realm of death and the grave). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 58) in emending Masoretic ÁlK* (i.e. “all the nations”) to read the related verb form WLK* (i.e. “the nations [shall] come to an end“), as this perhaps better fits the parallelism of the line. In the second couplet there is some parallel wordplay with the root jkv (“forget”)—while the wicked may have “forgotten” God, He will not “forget” (i.e. abandon) His people. The temporal expressions indicating future permanencejx^n#l* (“for[ever] lasting”) and du^ (“[all time] passing”)—where also used earlier in the first part, but of the fate of the wicked rather than the suffering righteous.

Stand up, YHWH, man(kind) shall not (remain) strong—
(the) nations shall be judged upon [i.e. before] your face;
set, O YHWH, (that) fearfulness on them—
(the) nations shall know (that) they (are only) (hu)man!

This is a powerful theological (and anthropological) declaration, given in parallel couplets. The first line of each mentions the divine name YHWH, calling upon God to demonstrate his authority over humankind, using the collective noun vona$ (“[hu]man[kind]”, also in the closing line). YHWH in his “standing up” (vb. <Wq), i.e. for judgment, has two related effects on human beings: (1) they shall not “be strong” (vb zz~u*) anymore, i.e. they will lose their strength, and (2) fear (reading MT hr*om as ar*om) is placed on them; another possibility for the third line is to read hr*om from the root hr*y` in the sense of something by which people will be directed or controlled (i.e. under the power of YHWH). By contrast, the second line of each couplet mentions the nations (<y]og), specifically who will face judgment in God’s presence (lit. “upon [i.e. before]” God’s face). The wicked, in their brazen and oppressive actions, imagine that they, in their own way, are God-like, possessing great power; however, in the face of YHWH’s terrifying judgment, they will come to realize that they are “only human (vona$)”.

Second Part: Psalm 10

The second part of the acrostic composition (Ps 10), as noted above, takes on more the character of a lament—the Psalmist cries out to YHWH on behalf of the poor and oppressed in society. The structure of this half is relatively straightforward:

    • An initial plea to YHWH, in the form of a question (v. 1)
    • A description of the Wicked, their actions and attitudes, esp. in relation to those they oppress (vv. 2-11)
    • A call for YHWH to act against the Wicked, demonstrating His power and authority (vv. 12-16)
    • A final plea for YHWH to act on behalf of the poor/oppressed (vv. 17-18)

In the context of the Psalm, the initial question raised by the Psalmist gives to the composition the character of theodicy—the longstanding philosophical and theological issue of why God allows evil and suffering in the world, why the wicked apparently flourish without being punished (by God) in the present.

Verse 1

l For what [hm*l*, i.e why], YHWH, should you stand in a far(-off place)
(and) conceal (yourself) from (our) times of (being) in distress?

The final construct phrase is difficult to render in English, with the prefixed preposition B= on the articular noun hr*X*h^ (“the distress”); despite the awkwardness of syntax in translation, I have rendered it quite literally. As it happens, there is a parallelism in the way each line closes, as each word represents a spatial/temporal prepositional phrase with B=, a preposition with an extremely wide range of meaning:

    • qojr*B=, “in a far (off place), at a distance”
    • hr*X*B^, “in the distress”

The parallel is contrastive—when we are in times of distress, how can our God (YHWH) be standing far off, at a distance from our suffering? This certainly is how things seem, at times, for God’s people, who are oppressed and suffer at the hands of the wicked. This striking question, phrased almost as a challenge to YHWH, frames the entire section, and is essentially repeated at the end.

Verses 2-11

The lengthy description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is a dramatic tour de force, at once vivid and colorful, capturing their attitude and mindset, both in terms of their callous disregard of YHWH and their hostile (and even violent) actions against the innocent. The acrostic pattern is almost entirely lost (to be picked up again at verse 12), likely indicating corruption in the text, which would seem to be confirmed by apparent confusion at several points (cf. below). Unfortunately, neither the Septuagint nor the Dead Sea Scrolls offer any real help in clarifying the situation; the only Dead Sea MS containing Psalm 10 (5/6„evPs) is fragmentary, with nothing preserved prior to verse 6.

Verses 2-3:

In the rising of the wicked affliction burns,
they take hold on this purpose they devise;
for the wicked makes a shout upon the desire of his soul,
and cutting off <?> he bends the knee to <…>.

The LXX does not offer much beyond a generalized rendering of what we have in the MT:

“(in) that [i.e. because] the sinner gives praise upon (himself) in the impulses of his soul,
and the unjust (one) gives a good (word) on (his own) account [i.e. blesses himself]”

In Hebrew, the idiom “bend the knee” (vb Er^B*) means to give homage, worship, bless, etc, and is presumably intended to be taken parallel with ll^h*, “shout, praise, boast”. Similarly the participle u^x@b), “cutting off”, is meant to describe the character of the wicked—i.e. one who gains for himself through violence (cutting/breaking [off]).

Verse 4-5a:

n He spurns [Ja@n]] YHWH, (does) the wicked (saying)
‘As (for) the Exalted (One), his (burning) nostril(s) he hardly seeks (to satisfy)!’
(It seems) there is no Mighty (One) (to hinder) all his (evil) purposes—
his paths (of wickedness) remain firm in all time(s).

Again, it is likely that something has dropped out; the text is barely intelligible as it stands, and commentators divide and interpret it in a variety of ways. There would seem to be present an expression of the wicked’s thoughts, but it is by no means certain where the ‘quotation’ begins or how far it extends. I follow Dahood (p. 62) in reading hbg as H^b)G` as a divine title “High/Exalted (One)”, though I am less confident about emending the prefixed preposition K= to the particle yK!. If the Masoretic text and pointing is retained, then it is likely that oPa^ Hb^g)K= refers to the wicked, rather than YHWH:

“The wicked spurns YHWH by the lifting high of his nose (i.e. face)”

The Hebrew/Semitic word [a^, “nose, nostril, face”, is frequently used as an idiom for anger, especially the anger of God (YHWH)—i.e. the burning/flaring of His nostrils, presumably drawing upon animal imagery (of the snorting bull, etc). In this regard, it seems likely that the phrase vr)d=y]-lB^ (“he does not search/seek [out]”) relates back to the anger of God; in other words, the wicked, by their actions and attitudes, have no fear that YHWH will seek to satisfy His anger by punishing them for their wickedness. Above, I treat the end of verse 4 as a summary comment by the Psalmist, further emphasizing the apparent way the wicked person is able to act and behave with impunity. The position of the first line of verse 5 is unclear, but it would seem to belong as part of this description of the apparent success of the wicked in this present life.

Verses 5b-7:

From high (up) your judgments (are far) from in front of him,
(out of) all his inner (recess)es he puffs at them.
He says in his heart, ‘I (can) hardly be moved—
for cycle a(fter) cycle, happiness with no(thing) bad (for me)!’
(With) cursing his mouth is filled, a(lso) deceit and oppression,
(from) under his tongue (comes) trouble and weariness.

This ‘strophe’ expands on the prior (vv. 4-5a), giving a fuller picture of how the wicked “spurns” YHWH; it may be divided into three distinct components, one for each couplet:

    • 5b: The wicked is far removed from the judgments of God which are “from high (up) [<orm*]”; this must be understood at two levels:
      (a) apparent distance from the standpoint of his own attitudes and character, and
      (b) real distance, the lowness of his wicked nature compared to the exalted holiness, righteousness, etc, of God
    • 6: In his own heart, the wicked imagines that he will continue to prosper in his wicked ways
    • 7: As he speaks, expressing his wicked character, thoughts, and intention, all sorts of harmful things come out

In the last line of the first couplet (v. 5b), the word wyr*r=ox is typically translated as “his adversaries, (one)s hostile to him”. However, this does not fit the context or parallelism of the lines, in which the wicked is responding to the judgments of God; therefore, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 63) in deriving it from a separate root rrx, referring to the (narrow) inner organs or spaces within a person. This makes a fitting contrast between the high/wide space of heaven (where God dwells), and the narrow confines inside the wicked. If the description in vv. 5b-7 relates to the thoughts and word of the wicked, that in vv. 8-10 relates to his evil actions.

Verses 8-10:

He sits, lying in wait (among the) settlements,
in the hidden places he slays (those) free (of guilt)—
his eyes conceal (what he intends) for the unfortunate.
He lies waiting in the hidden place, like a lion in (the) thicket,
he lies waiting to catch (one to be) beaten down—
catches (the one) beaten down, by dragging him (off),
(caught) in his possession, and broken, bowed (over),
the unfortunate (one)s fall in(to) his <power>.

The actions of the wicked are represented by a single basic scenario, described using repetitive language, and building by way of an overlapping step-parallel approach. The wicked lies in wait, like a vicious hunter, looking to capture one whom he will “beat down”, the basic meaning of the term yn]u*. This word is often translated “poor”, “oppressed”, but here it does not necessarily mean that he is preying on the poor or weak (though that may be true enough); rather, the emphasis is on the role of the wicked in oppressing and ‘beating down’ his victims. What we do know about these victims is that they are innocent, in the sense of being free of any guilt that would justify a violent attack (for revenge, etc). In a general sense they are righteous—and thus make a precise contrast with the wicked themselves—and all those who are righteous and loyal (to YHWH) will identify with these victims of oppression, as the Psalmist does. The final line is especially difficult, due to the word wym*Wxu&B^, the meaning of which in context is unclear. Literally, the MT as we have it would be “his mighty (one)s”, but this does not fit very well with the image of a wicked predator, unless, collectively, a gang of the wicked is now to be envisioned. Possibly the reference is to the strength of the trap or prison which now holds the oppressed person(s) in the possession (tv#r#, often understood as a hunter’s net, etc) of the wicked. Dahood (p. 63) suggests that it derives from a separate (and rare) root meaning to “dig”, as in a pit, which would generally fit the context, but otherwise rests on extremely slim evidence. I have translated very loosely above as “power”, recognizing the possibility the MT may be corrupt, or that something has dropped out of the text at this point.

Verse 11:

He says in his heart, ‘(The) Mighty (One) forgets,
he hides his face (and) scarcely sees for (the) duration!’

This closing couplet repeats the basic idea expressed in verse 4 (cf. above)—that the wicked acts as though YHWH will not respond to punish his evil and harmful behavior. This underlying attitude would seem to be confirmed by the fact that, in the present, the wicked seem to prosper, often facing no justice or proper punishment for their actions. This, indeed, is at the heart of the Psalmist’s lament, and it leads into the call for YHWH to act, in vv. 12-16.

Verses 12-16

With this section, the acrostic pattern comes back in full, for the remainder of the Psalm—letters q, r, ?, t, each for a clear pair of couplets (bicola).

Verse 12-13 q:

q Stand (up) [hm*Wq], YHWH, Mighty (One), lift your hand,
you must not forget the (one)s (who are) beaten down—
upon what [i.e. why] (should) the wicked spurn the Mightiest,
(and) say in his heart ‘You will not seek (to punish)’?

Some commentators would eliminate la@ (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God) from the first line, but it may well be a relic of Israelite religious expression that is preserved, specifying something long understood—that YHWH is to be identified with the high Deity and Creator °E~l (la@). A summary of vv. 2-11 is provided in verse 13, establishing the attitude and behavior (of the wicked) that the Psalmist wishes YHWH to address and punish. I have translated yn]a* throughout as “(one who is) beaten down”, to capture the concrete idea of what the wicked is doing to their victims. Other common renderings, such as “oppressed”, “afflicted”, etc., are fine and generally capture the idea as well.

Verse 14 r:

r For you (must surely) see [ht*a!r*] (all) the trouble and (what this) provokes,
you will (certainly) look to give (justice) with your hand!
Upon you the unfortunate (one) places (his trust),
(and) the fatherless—you are (his) helper.

The noun su^K^, parallel with lz`u* (“trouble”), is difficult to translate accurately here; it has the basic meaning of provoking to anger, and it may be a subtle way for the Psalmist to stimulate God’s own anger, provoking him to act. The perfect tense in the first line is perhaps to be understood as a precative perfect, with the Hiphil imperfect in line 2 following, to express the wish (and hope/expectation) of the Psalmist. In the second couplet, YHWH is reminded that He is the only one whom the weak and unfortunate in society can go to for help; again the purpose is to sway God to take action by this appeal. There is a bit of alliterative word play between the verbal root bz~u* (II, “place, put, set”) and rz`u* (“help”).

Verses 15-16 ?:

? Shatter [rb)v=] the arm of the wicked and evil (one),
seek (out) his wickedness—you can scarcely (fail to) find (it)!
YHWH (is) King (for) the distant (future) and (all time) passing–
(and so) may the nations perish from the earth!

Here the section concludes with a fierce and lively imprecation, using the familiar ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) idiom of breaking/shattering the bodily limbs of the wicked. In particular, the arm (u^orz+) symbolizes the wicked person’s strength and ability to act—he stretches out his arm to do violence and injustice to others. The second line of this strophe is the most difficult, due to its peculiar syntax and metrical tension; it is made up of two construct phrases:

    • ouv=r!-vorD=T!—”you shall seek his wickedness”
    • ax*m=T!-lb^— “you will scarcely find (it)”

The verb vr^D* (“seek, search”) has a two-fold meaning: (a) the basic sense of seeking to find something, but also (b) the more specific sense of seeking something out so as to address it or deal with it. This latter meaning has been used more than once in the Psalm already, including earlier in v. 13, where the wicked expresses the thought the God will not “seek (out)” his wicked behavior, i.e. to avenge or punish it. The particle lb^ usually indicates negation, but often in the sense of failure, i.e. being unable to do something. Here the nuance of the expression perhaps is “you will scarcely (fail to) find it”, that is to say, there is so much wickedness around, and the wicked person acts so brazenly and repeatedly, that YHWH will have no trouble finding evidence of it.

The final line (v. 16b) again makes the standard identification of the wicked with the nations—i.e. all the surrounding (non-Israelite) nations. For generations, this would be a common way for Israelites and Jews to reference wickedness—immorality, and false/improper religious behavior, etc. Of course, it is predicated on the fundamental idea of the unique covenant bond between YHWH and Israel; any Israelites who violate the covenant and act wickedly, are behaving, not as God’s people, but in the manner of the surrounding nations who are not His people.

Verses 17-18 t

t The wish [tw~a&T^] of the (one)s beaten down, YHWH, you shall hear,
you make firm their heart, you incline your ear,
to judge (for) the fatherless and broken (ones)—
(then the wicked) will no longer continue
to make man(kind) tremble from the earth.

It is possible to read the < of <B*l! as an enclitic (cf. Dahood, pp. 66-7), in which case it refers to YHWH’s heart (“you make firm [your] heart”); however, the parallelism of the couplet suggests rather that it relates to the “wish/desire of the afflicted ones”, representing YHWH’s answer to their plea. The awkward syntax and metrical tension of the final verse opens the possibility that it should be read/divided as a tricolon (3 lines), as I gave generally done above. The referents of this last declaration are not entirely clear, but the basic point is, I believe, that the wicked will scarcely be able to act as they have been doing, once YHWH chooses to act and judge/punish their behavior. The actions of the wicked are described by the verb Jr^u* (“[make] tremble”), which sounds similar to the word Jr#a# (“earth, land”), creating a bit of wordplay in the final line.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10

Psalm 9-10

As nearly all commentators recognize, Psalms 9 and 10 likely were originally a single composition. This is seen primarily from the fact that there is a single acrostic (i.e. the first letter of each line/strophe in alphabetic order) pattern running through them. The Greek Septuagint, followed by the Latin Vulgate tradition, treats them as a single Psalm, resulting in the number of the Psalms being offset (by one) between the Greek/Latin and the Hebrew. The use of the acrostic technique in poetry seems wholly artificial and contrived to most readers today; however, the number of surviving acrostics in the Old Testament—seven other Psalms (25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145), as well as Proverbs 31:10-31 and Lamentations 1-4—is evidence of its popularity. Apart from any artistic concerns, the device served as an aid to memory, especially for lengthier compositions. Undoubtedly the most famous acrostic is Psalm 119, with the alphabetic structure being indicated in many modern English Bibles. The alphabetic arrangement of the Lamentations was preserved in Roman Catholic liturgical tradition (the settings for Holy Week). The acrostic structure of Ps 9-10 is incomplete (discussed in the notes below), suggesting that the text may be corrupt (esp. in the first half of Ps 10); however, any attempt at reconstruction, to restore a complete acrostic, is highly speculative and scarcely worth the effort.

This Psalm is another Davidic composition following the superscription pattern we have encountered thus far throughout Pss 2-8. The specific musical direction (indicated by the preposition lu^ “upon…”), like most in the Psalms, remains obscure to us today. It clearly relates to performance tradition, but beyond this, it is often unclear whether it refers to (a) instrumentation, (b) musical mode/key, (c) melody, or something else entirely. Here the direction is /B@l^ tWml=u^ (±almû¾ lab¢n), the meaning of which is quite uncertain (cf. also in Psalm 46). The pattern of these directions suggests that twmlu be parsed as tWm-lu^ (“upon [the] death [?] of…”), which scarcely seems intelligible. One plausible suggestion is that the preposition has dropped out, and that the text originally read toml*u&-lu^, indicating, perhaps, that the composition was to be sung by female voices (hm*l=u^ fundamentally referring to a young woman who has recently become mature). The significance of the following /B@l^ (“for a son” [?]) would still be unclear; a direction for male treble voices is possible.

As would be expected for a composition of this length and (textual) complexity, the meter in the Psalm as we have it is inconsistent, and there are a number of questions regarding the division of lines and strophes, especially where the acrostic pattern appears to have been disrupted. I will indicate this Hebrew alphabetic pattern throughout the notes. Generally a new letter is introduced for each pair of bicola (4 lines). I tentatively divide the composition, as it has come down to us, into two main parts (9:2-17 [1-16], and 10:1-18), with an ‘interlude’ at 9:18-21 [17-20]. The first part has a more confident tone, the second more in character of a lament, with urgency in the Psalmist’s prayer for YHWH to act.

Part 1: Psalm 9:2-17 [1-16]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]a

a I will give out [hd#oa] (praise), YHWH, with all my heart,
I will (re)count all your wondrous (deed)s;
I will rejoice and rise up (with joy) in you,
I will make music (to) your name, Most High!

This initial strophe is one of praise to YHWH, as in the opening of Psalm 8 (cf. the study last week); however, the composition overall is not a hymn of praise, but rather a prayer (with lament characteristics), drawing upon the same themes of the justice/judgment of YHWH, in the context of the Psalmist’s opponents/adversaries, that we saw, especially, in Psalm 7 (cf. the study). This comes immediately into view in the following couplets.

Verses 4-5 [3-4]b

b (For) with the turning [bWvB=] (back) of my enemies behind (me),
they (shall) have fallen and been destroyed from your face.
(O) that you (will) have made judgment and ruled (for) me—
you (who) have sat on the covered (seat) judging (with) justice!

The prepositional phrase that opens the bicolon in v. 4, “with (the) turning [bWvB=] of my enemies”, could be seen as continuing the thought of v. 3 (Dahood, p. 53, 55), however it seems preferable to regard it as establishing the setting for what follows. It begins a precatory section, describing, in this Prayer-composition of the Psalmist, what he wishes YHWH will do. As such, I would tend to agree with commentators who read the perfect-tense verb forms as precatory perfects—stating what the author wishes would happen, in terms of what YHWH has already done. This comes out most clearly in the second bicolon (v. 5), for which I read the initial yK! particle as emphatic, heightening the entreaty: “O, that you (would) have…”. It is important to understand how these lines relate in the mind of the Psalmist:

    • The turning back of his enemies behind him—God’s action realized in terms of a life situation (line 1)
      • The concrete manifestation of this—the falling/failing and death/destruction of the persons hostile to him (line 2)
        • yK! “O, that…” – the petition of the Psalmist
      • This reflects God judging and ruling on his behalf (judicial setting) (line 3)
    • And, because God rules (over all) as Judge, His judgment (i.e. what happens to the enemies) is right and just [qdx] (line 4)

The verb bv^y` (“sit”) here implies YHWH sitting on the ruling seat (i.e. throne), as both King and Judge, over the entire world. The “face” of God signifies his manifest Presence and Power—here also in the specific context of facing God in his role as Judge.

Verses 6-7 [5-6]g

g (O, that) you (shall) have called out [T*r=u^G`] (against the) nations (and) destroyed (the) wicked,
their name you have rubbed (out) for the distant (future) and until (the end).
The enemy, (that) they (would) be finished—dried (out ruin)s lasting for (all time)—
and (even) the guarded (place)s you have torn up (so that) memory of them is destroyed!

These two couplets continue the same theme (and the Psalmist’ request), but framed in a global, cosmic sense, reflecting YHWH’s rule over all people (all the “nations”). Here the “nations” (<y]og) are treated as synonymous with the “wicked” (collectively, uv*r*). The verb ru^g`, a bit difficult to translate in English, essentially refers to preventing someone from acting, often by means of a forceful word or command; it is generally synonymous with bWv (“turn”) in v. 4, YHWH stopping the Psalmist’s enemies and turning them back, away from him. It is a manifestation of YHWH ruling as Judge, executing judgment on the Psalmist’s behalf; this is also so of the verb db^a* (“[make] perish, ruin, destroy”, also used in v. 4), which is here parallel with ru^g`—the divine Judgment involves the death/destruction of these enemies, an idea that is most difficult, even repellent, to modern day Christians. Moreover, in these lines the permanence of this judgment—not just death for those persons involved, but perpetual ruin and disgrace, their very memory being “rubbed out”—is most clearly expressed. The idea of future permanence of this judgment is conveyed through several expressions, each of which closes a line:

    • “for the distant [<l*ou] (future)” and “until [du^] (the end)” (line 2)
    • “for(ever) lasting” [jx^n#l*] (line 3)
    • “their memory [rk#z@]” will perish (line 4)

All of this ultimately reflects the power and authority YHWH possesses—His rulings as Judge last forever. As an interesting side note, I have translated the plural noun <yr!u* here literally as “guarded (place)s”, which, in most instances, generally means “cities”, i.e. walled/fortified towns, sometimes guarded with watchtowers, etc. The emphasis here, I believe, is that even the fortified, guarded sites of the wicked are to be destroyed, left as desolate ruins, as part of YHWH’s judgment. However, Dahood (p. 55f) reads the plural in a different sense, as “watchers, protectors”, i.e. referring to the ‘gods’ of these people (the nations), drawing upon a use of this root attested, for example, in Aramaic and Syriac—ryu! = “watcher, (one) watching, guarding”, specifically a heavenly being or ‘Angel’ (cf. Daniel 4:10, 20). I do not find this very convincing, in terms of the immediate context and imagery in the line, though I agree that there may be a bit of dual-meaning wordplay involved here.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]h

In the acrostic pattern, there is no strophe present for the letter d, skipping from g to h. Possibly a portion has been lost; however, in the only relevant Dead Sea manuscript (11Psc), a corresponding d-strophe is also absent, the text generally matching that of the MT. If a strophe has dropped out, it must have occurred by the first century B.C. The apparent confusion surrounding the final word of v. 7, hmh, which, it would seem, properly begins the couplet of v. 8, suggests that the text here may well be corrupt.

h Behold [hmh], YHWH has sat (ruling) from the distant (past),
He set firm His covered (seat) for judgment,
and He judges the productive land with justice,
and rules for the tribes (of earth) with straight (decision)s.

Metrical considerations, along with the acrostic pattern of the Psalm, would seem to require that the last word in MT verse 7, hM*h@, begin the couplet of v. 8; in which case, a slight emendation and/or repointing of the text is likely needed, though the proper solution remains unclear. Dahood (p. 56), on the basis of Ugaritic evidence, posits an interjection (<h, hmh) similar to hN`h!, “see, look, behold!” Kraus (p. 190) would repoint hmh as hm#h), “roaring”, but it seems inappropriate to apply the verb to God in this way; it may, indeed, be the underlying Hebrew read by the Greek Version (met’ h&xou, “with [a] noise”), but the LXX relates it to the end of v. 7 (referring to the destruction of the wicked), not the beginning of v. 8. For lack of any better solution, I tentatively follow Dahood, or, at least, I assume a Hebrew equivalent of hmh => hN`h!; in any event, such a reading fits the tenor of the strophe, which depicts YHWH ruling, from His heavenly throne, since the most distant past. The word <l*ou can refer to either the distant past or distant future; in verse 6, the latter was meant, here it seems better to understand it in the former sense. Both aspects, taken together, connote the idea of “eternity”, God’s “eternal” rule in Heaven. The noun lb@T@ is difficult to translate in English; basically, it refers to the productive parts of the land (i.e. fertile, able to bring forth produce), and thus the areas (of the earth) that are inhabited by human beings, though occasionally it can signify the world as a whole (as understood in the ancient Near East). In any case, here it is the entire inhabited earth that is in view—YHWH rules as King and Judge over all human beings everywhere.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]w

w And (indeed) is [yh!yw]] YHWH a high place (of refuge) for (those being) crushed,
a (safe) high place for times (when they are) in distress;
and they shall be secure in you, (the one)s knowing your name,
for you do not abandon (those) seeking (refuge in) you, YHWH.

The primary image in this strophe is of YHWH himself as a citadel—the fortified city. Ancient Near Eastern cities were rather small in terms of area, comprised primarily of the temple and palace complexes where ruler (and his family, etc) dwelt. They were walled, fortified spaces, set on a hill, or otherwise elevated as a result of being built upon successive occupation levels. Most of the population did not reside within the city walls, being farmers and herders, but would seek refuge there in times of “distress” (warfare, invasion, etc). The specific word used here is bG`c=m!, literally a high, elevated place. It draws upon the idea of YHWH seated high up (above the heavens) on his throne; those faithful and loyal to Him will seek refuge in the place where He is. This proximity to YHWH is defined, in ancient religious-cultural terms, as “knowing [vb ud^y`] His name”. On the significance of this idiom, cf. my earlier Advent/Christmas season series “And you shall call his name…” (esp. the articles on the Names of God). The promise is that God will not abandon or forsake the one who remains loyal to Him, meaning, in the context of the Psalm, that God will answer his prayer. The verb jf^B*, which I translate above as “be secure (in)”, could also be rendered generally as “trust (in)”; as for the verb vr^D* (“seek [out], search [for]”), I have likewise translated with the idea of God as a place of security and refuge in mind (“seek [refuge in]”).

Verses 12-13 [11-12]z

z Make music [Wrm=z~] to YHWH, (to the One) sitting (over) ‚iyyôn,
put His deeds (out) front, (there) among the peoples;
for (He is) seeking (out the one)s wailing, He remembers them,
He does not forget the cry of (the one)s being beaten down.

With this strophe, the Psalm shifts from a petition within a judicial setting to that of a personal appeal or lament by the Psalmist. The exhortation to praise in verse 12 is parallel, in certain respects, to that which opens the Psalm (v. 2). In the second bicolon, God’s faithful ones are described as those who suffer, weeping/wailing/groaning (vb <md) and having been beaten down (vb hnu)—the latter verb denoting a position of lowness and affliction, not necessarily as a result of violent action. As in the prior strophe, the Psalmist expresses confidence that YHWH will not abandon his people when they are in distress. It is interesting how this personal appeal blends so deftly together with an appeal on behalf of the people—i.e. Israel, the faithful among them. The localization of Zion places God’s rule directly in relation to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Israel/Judah.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]j

j Show favor to me [yn]n@n+j*], YHWH, see my beatings down by (the one)s hating me,
(and) raise me up from (the) gates of Death!
In response, I would (re)count all (the) shouts (of praise) for you,
in the gates of Daughter ‚iyyôn will I go round with (news of) your help!

Again, in this strophe the personal merges with the idea of the people (the righteous) as a whole. It is safe to say, I think, that in this Psalm, more than any other we have yet examined, the Psalmist represents the people—the righteous ones loyal to YHWH—and stands for them. Rather than referring to a specific situation of distress for an individual—whether an historical figure (i.e. David) or literary protagonist—it is that of the people generally that is in view. This perhaps explains why the idea of the Psalmist’s enemies/opponents now shifts so decidedly toward the “nations” and the “wicked” in a more general, universal sense. At any event, the suffering of the righteous is still expressed in terms of the Psalmist’s own, in the first bicolon (v. 14). The plea for YHWH to rescue him and “raise” him up from the point of death is presented most vividly, using mythological-poetic imagery to describe death and the grave as a great kingdom (with gates) ruled by a king (Death, personified). On this motif, cf. the discussion on Psalm 6 and also the separate article on “Sheol”. The basic idiom “gates of Death” is preserved in the Greek of the New Testament as “gates of the Unseen [a%|dh$, hád¢s] (realm [i.e. of the dead])” in Jesus’ famous declaration to Peter (Matt 16:18). There is an intentional parallel to “gates of Death” with “gates of Daughter Zion” in the second bicolon (v. 15); the latter is a personification of Jerusalem, as the place where God’s people dwell (and thus opposite of the realm of death and the wicked). The Psalmist promises that, if delivered from his distress, he will spread the praise of YHWH, and news of the help given by Him, throughout all of Jerusalem—that is, to all of God’s people.

Verses 16-17 [15-16]f

f (O, that) they (would) be sunk [Wub=f*], (the) nations, in the ruin they made,
this trap hid to possess (others will) have captured their (own) feet!
(Yes) YHWH (shall) be (made) known (by) the judgment He makes—
with (the) works of his (own) palms is the wicked (one) struck down!

The final strophe of this part shifts to an imprecation (perfect vb. forms again read as precative perfects) against the “nations” (plural) who, as a whole, are synonymous with the “wicked” (singular). YHWH’s judgment against the wicked is notable in that it draws upon humankind’s own evil intent, described three ways:

    • “the ruin [i.e. with connotations of death/decay] they made”, possibly meant to convey the idea of digging a grave
    • “this trap hid to possess (others)”, probably to be understood as an ensnaring net
    • “the works of his (own) palms”, here “palms” being a more concrete and visceral synonym for “hands”

The wicked are buried, ensnared, and/or struck down by their own devices. This is a popular motif in the Psalms and wisdom literature, one which we have already encountered in Ps 5:10-11 [9-10] and 7:15-17 [14-16].

The remaining ‘interlude’ of 9:18-21 [17-20] and the second part (Psalm 10) will be discussed next week, along with a summary discussion of the composition as a whole.

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), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7 (cont.)

Psalm 7, continued

Last week’s study on Psalm 7 covered verses 2-10 [1-9]; here again is the structure of the Psalm as I have outlined it:

    • The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • An oath concerning his innocence—vv. 4-6 [3-5]
    • Call for YHWH to make vindication and deliver justice—vv. 7-17 [6-16], in three strophes:
      • vv. 7-10—Call for YHWH to act as Judge
      • vv. 11-14—Precatory description of YHWH in His ancient role as victor/vindicator
      • vv. 15-17—Precatory description of the judgment that comes upon the wicked
    • Closing statement of thanks to YHWH (anticipating his justice)—v. 18 [17]

As indicated above, the main section—the call for YHWH to deliver justice and vindicate the Psalmist—is made up of three strophes, the first of which (vv. 7-10) I examined in the previous study. Here is my translation of these verses, the poetic structure I identified as a pair of tricolons (vv. 7, 8-9a, three lines each [= 6]), along with three bicola (vv. 9b-10, six lines, with 3+2 meter):

7Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!
8-9a(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples!
9b-10Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

It is a powerful portrait of YHWH as Judge of all humankind; what follows in verses 11-17 [10-16] is a precatory description of His Judgment/Justice. By this is meant that the apparent references to past (and present) action by God reflects the wish of the Psalmist for what should happen. In this regard, the perfect-tense forms of verbs in vv. 13ff I would understand to be precative perfects—i.e. the Psalmist’s expressing his hope and expectation of what will happen, in terms of what has (already) happened.

Verses 11-14 [10-13]

There are 4 bicola (8 lines) in this section, with mixed meter—the second and fourth are 3+3, while the third is 4+3; the first bicolon, as we have it, appears to be 2+2. The verbal forms in the first 2 bicola (4 lines, vv. 11-12) are participles, while those in the last 2 bicola (vv. 13-14) are perfect/imperfect forms. This may roughly be understood as expressing:

    • 1 and 2: Actions of YHWH in terms of his (eternal) character—participles
    • 3 and 4: Specific actions by which He delivers Judgment—perfect/imperfect forms

In the initial line we immediately encounter a textual problem. The MT reads:

<yh!ýa$Álu^ yN]g]m*
“My protection is upon the Mightiest”

This seems to make little sense, as the Psalmist is stating that his shield/protection is upon [lu^] God [Elohim]. Therefore, many commentators are inclined to emend the text, perhaps adding an appropriate suffix to the preposition: yl^u*, “upon me”, i.e. “The Mightiest is my shield upon me”. Dahood (pp. 45-46) opts for a different solution, reading the word lu^ as a divine title, from hlu, meaning “(Most) High, Highest”, similar to /oyl=u# (cf. 2 Sam 23:1, etc). In this case, the line would read “My protection is the Mightiest (Most) High”, or “My protection is God (the Most) High”. Another possibility would be to understand the preposition lu^ as indicating proximity—i.e. beside, alongside—whereby the line could then mean something like “My protection (is from) alongside the Mightiest”; this appears to be how the Septuagint understands the Hebrew. When there are such ambiguities (from our vantage point) in the Psalms, often the context of the poetic parallelism may be the surest guide to interpretation. Let us then consider the 2 couplets (4 lines) of vv. 11-12 together:

{line 1 left untranslated}
making safe (the one)s straight of heart;
(the) Mightiest (is the One) judging (the) just,
(and the) Mighty (One) denouncing (the wicked) each day.

The parallel titles <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest”) and la@ (“Mighty [One]”) in lines 3-4 give credence to the idea that there is a corresponding pair of titles in line 1: lu^ (“[Most] High”) and <yh!ýa$ (“Mightiest”). This would seem to be the best way of reading the inner parallelism of the components of lines 1-2 as well:

    • my protection (yN]g]m*)
      • (the One who is) Mightiest (Most) High (<yh!ýa$ lu^)
    • making (me) safe (u^yv!om)
      • (the ones who are) straight of heart (bl@ yr@v=y])

The 1st and 3rd components are mem (m)-preformative nouns referring to safety/protection, while the 2nd and 4th components are construct pairs describing the character/attributes of God and the righteous respectively. Thus, am inclined to read line 1 much as Dahood does:

My protection is (the) Mightiest (Most) High,
making safe the (the one)s straight of heart;

The second couplet is rather more straightforward, with a formal parallelism that utilizes a pair of related divine titles (<yh!ýa$ / la@, “Mightiest” / “Mighty [One]”), along with a pair of descriptive participles indicating, it would seem, two different aspects of YHWH’s actions and role as Judge:

    • fp@ov (šô½¢‰), “judging”, in the sense of establishing justice for the righteous/righteous person (qyd!x*)
    • <u@z) (zœ±¢m), which I render “denouncing” above. The precise significance of the verb <u^z` is quite difficult to convey accurately in English; the basic meaning relates to speaking out angrily against someone, in opposition to them, sometimes with the more technical connotation of a denunciation or curse. The judicial context here suggests the denunciation of the wicked and their (false) accusations, etc. Thus, establishing justice for the righteous (i.e. loyal, innocent) person also entails the denunciation of charges (and/or crimes perpetrated) against them.

The third component refers to different aspects of YHWH’s justice again: (a) it is on behalf of the righteous (qyd!x*), and (b) it is constant/consistent, being delivered “on every day” (<oyÁlk*B=). Here are the three components presented in order for both lines:

<yh!ýa$ [“Mightiest”]
(divine title)
fp@ov [“judging”]
(aspect of justice)
qyd!x* [“just”]
(who it is on behalf of)
la@ [“Mighty One”]
(divine title)
<u@z) [“denouncing”]
(aspect of justice)
<oy-lk*B= [“each day”]
(when it is done)

As in the first line of couplet 1 (v. 11), discussed above, the first line of couplet 3 (v. 13) is also problematic, and considered to be corrupt by many commentators. The MT, as the Masoretes have parsed/pointed it, reads:

vofl=y] oBr=j^ bWvy` al)Á<a!
“if he does not turn (then?) he hammers [i.e. sharpens] his sword”

According to this syntax, the subject of the first verb (bWvy`, “he turns”) appears to be a human being (the wicked?), while the subject of the second is YHWH (vofl=y], “he hammers/sharpens”). But this rather depends on reading the <a!-statement as a conditional clause, “if he does not return [i.e. repent], then…”. However, the <a! particle, especially in the context of an oath (cf. my discussion on vv. 4-6 [3-5] last week), can be used to introduce a curse or imprecation formula, with al)Á<a! as an emphatic negative declaration (or wish). In this case, the line would read: “O that He [i.e. YHWH] would not turn (back) His sword (but) would sharpen it!”

Dahood (v. 46) suggests a repointing of al as al@ (l¢°, instead of al) lœ°), reading it as a form of the Semitic root l°y, “be strong”, and thus as a title/epithet for YHWH, i.e., “the Strong (One)”, in the sense of one who prevails or is victorious. The verb bWv would be understood in the sense of “(re)turn, turn (again)”, with the line read something like “O that the Strong/Victorious (One) would turn (again and) sharpen his sword…”. It is an interesting solution, but I do not quite find it convincing.

Given this reading of the line above, couplets 3 and 4 (vv. 13-14) would then be translated as follows:

O that He would not turn (back) His sword (but) would sharpen it,
bend (down) his bow and set it firm (for shooting);
and (O) that He would set firm His ‘tools of death’,
(and) make his arrows (in)to burning (shafts)!

Here YHWH’s justice is described in terms of military imagery, as weapons of attack—sword, bow, arrows, fire. These lines can be interpreted chiastically—

    • Preparing/sharpening weapons (sword)
      • Setting his weapons (bow) firmly [verb /WK] in place
      • Setting firm [same vb /WK] his weapons (“tools of death”)
    • Making his weapons to be fiery/burning (arrows)

as well as according to the clear synonymous parallelism that is present:

    • Not turning (back) his sword, but sharpening it
      • bending (down) his bow, and setting it firmly in place
    • Making firm his (weapons as) “tools of death”
      • making his arrows into “burning (shafts)”

Some would interpret the participle <yql=d) as referring to the wicked, etc, at whom God’s arrows of justice are aimed, i.e. “(in)to the (one)s burning hot after [i.e. persecuting] (the righteous)”. I do not believe this is correct; the imagery of the couplets is more consistent it is taken as referring simply to YHWH preparing his weapons. I also agree fully with commentators who repoint the opening particle of v. 14 as the precative particle Wl (, “O that…!”) rather than ol (, preposition + suffix); the former provides a perfect match with the opening al)-<a! of verse 13.

Verses 15-17 [14-16]

In the final strophe of vv. 7-17, there is a shift from YHWH in his (ancient) character and role as Judge, toward a description of His Judgment, especially as it is directed against the wicked. This was prepared for by the military imagery in vv. 13-14, of God preparing his weapons for use (see above). Overall, these lines in vv. 15-17 are more straightforward and consistent than those previous, with a 3+3 bicolon format throughout.

See—! he twists and is pregnant with trouble,
(he is in) labor, and gives birth to deceit;
he bore a pit and dug (deep) into it,
and (then) fell in(to) the sunken (grave) he made;
his labor turned (back) on his (own) head,
and upon his (very) scalp his malice came down!

This is a marvelous example of parallelism in Hebrew poetry, and how it can be used to build tension and incorporate different sorts of images within this poetic structure. The sudden shift in focus (and subject) is indicated by the opening interjection “see!” (hN@h!); the subject of the verbs in vv. 15-17, though never specifically stated, is clearly now the wicked person, rather than YHWH. The imagery in the first couplet (v. 15) is that of a woman giving birth, indicated by the three verbs used: (1) lb^j*, “twist, turn”, as of a pregnant woman writhing in pain; (2) hr*h* “conceive, be(come) pregnant”; and (3) dl^y`, “give birth (to)”. This image is applied to a person who makes trouble (/w#a*), i.e. trouble-maker; he toils and is in labor (lm*u*) at this, and eventually gives birth to rq#v#, the basic meaning of which is “deceit”, probably in the covenantal sense of “disloyalty”, but also, most certainly, in the legal context of “false” accusations or charges. For an interesting parallel in the New Testament, involving evil and giving birth, cf. James 1:14-15.

The imagery in the second couplet (v. 16) moves to that of a person digging a (deep) pit or hole. This represents a different kind of labor—note that the noun lm*u* is used again down in v. 17. There is likely a bit of alliterative wordplay intended between the verb hr*K* (k¹râ), “dig, bore (a hole)” and hr*h* (h¹râ), “conceive, be(come) pregnant”; I have tried to retain something of this through the ambiguity of the English “bore” above—i.e. “bore a hole”, “bore a child”. The progression of this labor follows a similar progression as that of a person giving birth; note how this builds through the verbs used:

    • hr*K*—in the basic sense of digging a hole into the ground
    • rp^j*—which here connotes a person digging deep down to the point of at least partially going down into it himself, i.e. “dig, delve (down)”; the verb sometimes carries the meaning of “search (into)”.
    • lp^n`—the person quite literally falls into the hole that he/she dug.

This of course reflects a sort of grim irony, expressed elsewhere in the Psalms (cf. on 5:10[9]), etc, whereby the punishment waiting for the wicked matches his/her own character. The imagery of the final couplet (v. 17) carries out this basic idea—of evil (falseness, disloyalty, etc) thrown out (as accusations, etc) by the wicked ending up landing back down on them (like the flight of a boomerang). It is almost comical now the way that the person’s labor (lm*u*), acting treacherously and deceitfully against the righteous, simply lands down on their own head (using the parallel nouns var), “head” and dq)d=q*, “scalp, skull-top, arch, crown [of the head]”). The noun sm*j* often connotes violent action specifically, but here it probably refers more to the person’s hostile intent, which I render above as “malice”. It is a harsh word, and one that reveals the true character and nature of the wicked person—not only deceptive and disloyalty, but genuinely hostile and malicious.

Verse 18 [17]

The final couplet serves as the conclusion of the Psalm, as a statement of thanks to YHWH, and anticipating His justice:

I will hold out (praise) to YHWH according to His justice,
and (indeed) make music to the name of [YHWH] (the Most) High!

I bracket the second occurrence of YHWH, recognizing the possibility, along with a number of textual critics, that the name should be omitted on metrical/rhythmic grounds. Certainly the names hwhy (YHWH) and /oylu# (“Highest, [Most] High”) make a natural parallel; at the same time, it is also possible that the compound /oylu hwhy  (“YHWH [the] Most High”) could also serve as a fitting parallel to <yh!ýa$ lu^ (“[the] Mightiest [i.e. God] Most High”) in verse 11 (cf. above). At any rate, /oylu# would essentially be equivalent to lu^ as a divine title.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 7

Psalm 7

This composition in the Psalter is unique in the use of the word /oyG`v! (šigg¹yôn) in the heading to describe it, a musical (or poetic) term whose meaning is unknown to us. It may be related to a primitive root gv (ggv, hgv) which has the basic meaning “stray, go astray”; others would connect it with ugv (Akkad. šegû) which refers to a kind of howling like that of animals, and could possibly indicate some sort of lament. Also uncertain is the significance of the notice “upon the words of Kûš the ‘son of the right-hand’ [i.e. Benjaminite]”; possibly this refers to an accusation made against David (cf. on vv. 4-6 [3-5] below), relating to a tradition otherwise unknown to us.

This Psalm is the longest and most complex of those we have encountered thus far. Not surprisingly, it has a mixed meter with a number of apparent half-lines (cola) which make coordinating the meter and structure difficult; the closing section (vv. 14-18) is more consistent with a strict 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format. Most of the metrical difficulties are in the first half of the Psalm (vv. 2-9). Tentatively, I offer the following outline:

    • The Psalmist’s petition to YHWH—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • An oath concerning his innocence—vv. 4-6 [3-5]
    • Call for YHWH to make vindication and deliver justice—vv. 7-17 [6-16], in three strophes:
      • vv. 7-10—Call for YHWH to act as Judge
      • vv. 11-14—Precatory description of YHWH in His ancient role as victor/vindicator
      • vv. 15-17—Precatory description of the judgment that comes upon the wicked
    • Closing statement of thanks to YHWH (anticipating his justice)—v. 18 [17]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

The Psalmist’s opening petition—the Psalm itself functioning largely as a prayer—is delivered with a pair of bicola (i.e. 4 lines) that generally utilizes the common 3+3 metrical format, though the first bicolon is actually 4+3 (ever so slightly), due perhaps to the inclusion of the divine name YHWH in the initial line. The presence of the divine name often creates metrical tension in ancient Hebrew poetry, and could, at times, be a sign of secondary adaptation. Here are the lines:

YHWH, my Mighty One, with you I have sought protection—
save me from all (the one)s pursuing me and rescue me,
lest he rip (at) my soul like a lion,
tearing (it) apart (with) no one (to) rescue!

Each bicolon ends with a form of the verb lx^n` (“take/snatch away”) in the Hiphil, emphasizing the need for deliverance, for YHWH to rescue the Psalmist in his time of trouble (a frequent motif in the Psalms, as we have seen). The second occurrence is verbal noun (participle) form which I have rendered like an infinitive in an attempt to preserve the rhythmic sense of the line. The shift from plural (“the ones pursuing”) to singular (“lest he rip…”) is not all that uncommon, especially when dealing with opponents of the protagonist in the Psalms; they can be described as many or as one, collectively or individually—the description can be quite fluid. In part, I think, this is meant to reflect the lack of firmness and integrity in the wicked, in contrast to the Psalmist, who remains firm (and unified) in his loyalty to YHWH.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

The petition gives way to an oath in these lines, drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. The force of such binding agreements was magical-religious, and involved an oath. First, the parties of the agreement would call upon God (or the gods) as witness; second, this meant that, by way of certain ritual formula, divine judgment would be brought down upon one who violated the agreement. The idea of the covenant between YHWH and the people Israel was unique in this regard, since God was not a witness, but a participant in the agreement—as the superior (suzerain) to whom Israel and its rulers were the subordinate (vassal). In agreeing to the terms of the covenant, Israel took an oath to uphold it, including the curse/punishment which would come upon them if/when it was ever violated. Here the oath is more generalized, in terms of common morality and the normal functioning of society, but it still reflects the righteousness and covenant loyalty of the Psalmist.

He approaches YHWH, his sovereign, confirming his innocence by way of an oath. It begins as a 4+3 bicolon precisely parallel to the opening of the petition (v. 2): “YHWH, my Mighty One…”. He has sought protection (vb hs^j*) with YHWH as his Lord and protector (under the covenant); the oath is taken in this very context. According to the text as we have it, the first line reads: “YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this [taz)]”. It is not clear what “this” is, which has led some commentators to emend the text. Dahood (p. 42) suggests that here taz) is a substantive meaning something like “insult”, but whose etymology “is not immediately evident”; he cites other such examples in Ps 44:18[17]; 74:18[17], and Job 2:11. While this is a convenient solution, the basis for it seems extremely slight. Some would relate “this” to the “words of Kuš” in the superscription, i.e. presumably as an accusation made against the Psalmist (David), of which we do not know the precise content, though it may be implied in the lines that follow. Indeed, more properly the pronoun (“this”) refers to the following two “if”-statements. This conditional statement (protasis, “if…”) of the oath, taken together, in vv. 4-5 is:

YHWH, my Mighty One, if I have done this,
if there really is guilt in my palm(s),
if I have dealt (in) evil (with) my sound (ally),
and pulled away (in) empty (word)s (to make him) my foe,

The last line is difficult to translate, but there is a clear contrast (and formal parallel) between ym!l=ov and yr!r=ox, as also between ur* and <q*yr@. The words in the first pair are themselves difficult to translate, though the sense is clear enough. Both are verbal noun (participle) forms with a first person singular suffix (“my…”). The first verb is <l^v* from the root <lv and denominative of the noun <olv* in the sense of a (covenant) agreement that establishes peace, security, and friendship between two parties. The second verb, rr^x* indicates just the opposite—hostility, rivalry, opposition. By acting with evil (ur*) toward one who was supposed to be a firm ally, it would render their bond as merely “empty [words]” (<q*yr@), creating hostility when there should have been peace. This would seem to be the substance of the accusation against the Psalmist—an act of treachery and disloyalty. Verse 6 provides the result for the condition (apodosis, “…then”) of the oath—it is a three-fold declaration, comprised of three lines (tricolon):

(then) let (the) enemy pursue and reach my soul,
and let him trample my life to (the) earth,
and make my (very) weight dwell in (the) dust!

Three comprehensive terms are used to represent the (whole) person of the Psalmist in its deepest sense:

    • vp#n#—refers to the life-breath or essence of the person, usually rendered as “soul” (here yv!p=n~, “my soul”)
    • <yY]j^—a plural noun referring to the physical life, span of life, etc., of a person (here yY`j^, “my life”)
    • dobK*—”weight”, often in the basic sense of “worth, value”, figuratively as “honor”, etc (here yd!obk=, “my weight/worth”)
      [some commentators read ydbk here as yd!b@k=, “my liver”, in the sense of “my inner(most) organ(s)”]

The purpose of this oath is to confirm—by magical-ritual means—the Psalmist’s innocence; from the religious standpoint of the Psalm, it is meant to demonstrate his loyalty to YHWH. He declares, indeed, that he has remained loyal, and would not have acted in such a disloyal way as he is accused of doing. That he is willing to take on the curse of the oath is an implicit proof that he is innocent. This oath section ends with a hl*s# (Selah) mark, frequent in the Psalms, and the exact significance of which remains uncertain. Here it can be used a structural indicator, marking a break before the next major section.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

As indicated in the outline above, verses 7-17 are to be divided into three sections, or strophes. They make up a call to YHWH, for him to act as judge and declare justice for the Psalmist, vindicating him in the accusation against him. The call proper is contained in vv. 7-10, structurally (metrically) one of the most difficult portions of the Psalm. It is a challenge to divide this portion accurately into lines and couplets. As with verse 6, it seems most natural to view vv. 7-9a as utilizing a tricolon (three-line) format. The first tricolon (v. 7) is:

Stand up, YHWH with your (flaring) nostrils [i.e. in anger],
lift (yourself) up on (the) passing (slander)s of my foes,
rouse (yourself) my Mighty One—you have charge of judgment!

The three imperatives are intended to stir YHWH to action, which is the emphasis of these lines. The last verb (hwx, perfect form t*yW]x!) is a bit difficult to render; I take it as a precative perfect, reflecting the expectation of the Psalmist, in the sense that YHWH has the power to command (i.e. make) judgment and deliver justice. In the second tricolon (vv. 8-9a), He is seen as acting, and the imagery shifts to the assembling of the tribunal:

(May) the appointed (gathering) of tribes [<yM!a%] surround you,
and you seated at the high(est) place over it,
YHWH you act as judge (for all the) peoples [<yM!u^]!

This triad marvelously moves from the congregation of Israel (line 1) to an image of all the peoples [of the world] (line 3); in between is the comprehensive, unifying motif of YHWH seated high above on His throne (line 2). The verb form hb*Wv in the second line is best understood as deriving from bvy (“sit, dwell”) rather than bwv (“turn, return”). In the following lines, vv. 9b-10, this triadic structure expands to include a set of three bicola (6 lines), it seems, following a 3+2 meter. With the tribunal in place, the Psalmist now asks YHWH to make judgment on his behalf:

Judge me, YHWH, according to my just (loyalty),
and according to my completeness, (decide) over me.
Make an end of the evil of (the) wicked (one)s,
and establish (the one who is) just—
(indeed, the One) examining hearts and kidneys,
(you the) Mightiest (are) Just!

The initial verb (fp^v*, “judge”) is different from that in the prior line (/yD!, “[act as] judge”), and connotes the establishment of justice in the case at hand. The root qdx plays an important role in these lines, with the noun qd#x# in v. 9b (line 1), and the adjective qyd!x* twice in v. 10 (parallel lines 4 and 6). This key root is central to the idea of the covenant, and, as a consequence, to Israelite religious thought and theology as a whole. It has a relatively wide semantic range, but fundamentally refers to something that is right, straight, and according to a standard (measure). The noun qd#x# is often translated “righteousness” or “justice”, much as the similar noun dikaiosu/nh in Greek (indeed, the diakaio- word-group is close in meaning to Hebrew qdx); perhaps “right-ness” or “just-ness” would capture the meaning better, but there is no such corresponding word in English. In the context of the ancient binding agreement (covenant), it also denotes faithfulness and loyalty. In a judicial setting, the idea certainly is that of determining justice, making things right—and, of course, whether a person (and his/her behavior, cause, etc) is just and right. The loyal servant of YHWH possesses a “right-ness/just-ness” that mirrors that of God Himself (note the clear parallel in lines 4 & 6).

The last word in line 2 (MT yl*u*) has caused some difficulty, leading commentators occasionally to emend (or repoint) the text. Dahood (p. 45) suggests that it should be read as yl!u@, as a divine name, i.e. “(YHWH the) Most High”. However, the parallelism in the bicolon is perhaps better preserved by the (Masoretic) pointing—as the preposition lu^ with first person singular suffix—marking an absent, but implied, verb. Note:

    • judge me [yn]f@p=v*]
      • according to my right-ness [yq!d=x!K=], and
      • according to my completeness [yM!t%K=]
    • (decide) over me [yl*u*]

The parallelism in the second bicolon is antithetic, marking the precise contrast—between righteous and wicked, loyal and disloyal—that lies at the heart of the judgment scene. God is able to make a proper determination, since he is the one “examining [vb /j^B*] hearts and kidneys”—both of these inner organs were use to represent (and locate) the mind (thoughts, intention, desire, etc) of a person; in our idiom we would say “examining hearts and minds”. The significance of the characterization of YHWH as “just” (qyd!x*, cf. above) is two-fold: (a) it means that he is able to establish true and proper justice, and (b) it marks the “just” person as one who is, and remains, loyal to YHWH.

[The remainder of the Psalm (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) will be discussed in the next study.]

Note on “Sheol”

In the recent study on Psalm 6, the usage of the term loav= (š®°ôl, sheol) was noted, being the first such occurrence in the Psalter as we have it. As this term will be encountered in other Psalms, and, indeed, is found relatively frequently in Old Testament poetry, I felt it was worth devoting a special study to it. The word loav= occurs 66 times in the Old Testament Scriptures, primarily in poetry (16 in the Psalms, 9 in Job, 9 in Proverbs, 10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and 5 in the Minor Prophets). The context of how it is used makes clear that it is a (poetic) term for the realm of death and the dead, occasionally used as a personification of death (and the grave) itself. However, in spite of this, the actual origins and derivation of loav= remain quite uncertain. It is clearly an ancient, traditional Hebrew word, and yet there are no clear parallels or cognate examples from other Semitic languages of the period (i.e. Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc).

Etymology

The most obvious association for loav= would be with the common root lav, which has the basic meaning “ask, inquire” (cf. Akkadian ša°¹lu, “ask, decide”, etc). Unfortunately, it is hard to see exactly how the word, as it is used in the Old Testament, might relate to this root. One suggestion is that it refers to the realm of death (or the “underworld”) as a “place of interrogation”, i.e. where the deceased is judged and called to account (examined). Another possibility is that it relates to the idea of “asking/inquiring of the dead”, i.e. necromancy and the consulting of spirits (of the dead). Admittedly, such a connection is quite speculative, and far from convincing.

Another conceivable derivation, and one adopted by a number of commentators today, is from the root huv I (vb ha*v* š¹°â), which indicates ruin, devastation, destruction—cf. the related nouns hY`a!v= (š®°iyyâ), /oav* (š¹°ôn)—the final lamed (l, l) being an example paragogic epenthesis (insertion of a letter at the end of a word to aid in pronunciation). According to this theory, loav= would fundamentally mean something like “(land) of ruin”, “desolate (land)”.

Less plausible attempts have been made over the years to connect the word with different ancient Semitic roots (real or putative), but none have achieved any real acceptance by scholars. For a good survey of this evidence, consult the major critical dictionaries such as the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) and the Anchor Bible Dictionary (article “Dead, Abode of the”).

Old Testament Usage

While loav= occurs primarily in Old Testament poetry, there are a few instances in the historical books (8 total) where it is included as part of the traditional narrative. Most notably, there are four occurrences in the Joseph narratives, referring to the sorrow and misfortune that will accompany the aged Jacob when he dies (to meet his son[s] in the realm of death). In Gen 37:35 (following the reported death of Joseph), we read:

“And all his sons and all his daughters stood up to sigh (with) [i.e. console] him, and he refused to be (consol)ed, and said that ‘I will go down to my son mourning, (down) to Še’ol!’ And his father wept (for) him.” (cf. also Gen 42:38; 44:29, 31)

In Numbers 16:30, 33 (the episode of Korah’s rebellion), the emphasis is on the sudden destruction, from natural disaster (brought about by YHWH as punishment), which will befall the rebels and send them “down to Sheol”:

“But if YHWH (should) exercise creation (over the) created (thing), and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them (up)—and all the (ones who are) for them—and they go down living to Še’ol, then you will know that these men (have) despised YHWH!” (v. 30)

The contrast clearly is with the natural death most humans experience (v. 29). Similarly in 1 Kings 2:6, 9, there is a contrast between dying in peace and as the result of violence, etc. Thus, in all these instances, loav= is used in connection with the idea of a person dying under unusual or unfortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the oldest occurrence of loav=, in terms of the age of the preserved text, is in the so-called “Song of Moses” (Deut 32), dated by many commentators (on objective grounds) to perhaps the 12th-11th century B.C. (cf. my recent Saturday Series studies on the Song, esp. on vv. 15-25). The two bicolons (couplets) in verse 22 use the image of a blazing wildfire to illustrate the burning anger of God (YHWH) when he acts in judgment (on Israel, for violating the covenant):

For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!

Other examples from early poetry, preserved in the context of the traditional (historical) narrative are: 1 Samuel 2:6 (Song of Hannah) and 2 Samuel 22:6 (Song of David). The first of these follows closely the idea of God’s judgment (in its violent aspect) and power over the created order (life and death), as expressed in the Song of Moses and the episode of Numbers 16 (cf. above); indeed the statement in 1 Sam 2:6 echoes that of Deut 32:39b. In the Song of David (2 Sam 22:6), loav= is clearly used as a colorful (hyperbolic) reference to the violent turmoil and (destructive) danger the poet (David) faces; note the parallelism in the bicola of vv. 5-6, which is both synonymous (second line [in italics] stating and intesifying the imagery of the first)—

“For the breaking (wave)s of death surrounded me,
the torrents of Beliyya’al struck me with fear;
the twisting (cord)s of Še’ol swirled around me,
the ensaring (trap)s of death hit (right) in front of me.

but also chiastic:

    • waves of death
      • torrents of Beliyya’al
      • swirling bonds/pains of Še’ol
    • snares of death

When we turn to the remainder of occurrences in Old Testament poetry, we may divide these as follows: (a) Psalms and the book of Job, (b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs), and (c) in the Prophets.

(a) Psalms and the book of Job

The word loav= occurs 16 times in the Psalms, and 9 times in the poetic dialogues of Job. Much of this poetry appears to be quite early, and/or preserving genuinely archaic features. The data from the Psalms may be summarized as follows:

    • as a general (poetic) term for the realm of the dead
    • in the context of suffering/misfortune leading or drawing a person to death
    • imagery related to the fate of the wicked

This largely confirms the usage and range of meaning indicated above. With regard to the first point, laov= as a basic poetic term for death and the realm of the dead, this is more or less present throughout; perhaps the clearest examples would be in 6:6[5]; 49:15[14]; 139:8; 141:7 (cf. also Song 8:6). However, in many of the Psalms, the idea is connected with suffering and distress facing the Psalmist, by which his very life is in danger and on the verge of death (88:4[3], etc). Whether this should be taken literally or figuratively, it is part of the motif of a hope for deliverance which is integral to those Psalms (cf. the study on Psalm 6). In Psalm 49:16[15] and 89:49[48], we read of the “hand [dy`] of Š®°ôl“, referring to its power to grasp/keep hold of the dead, or to bring a person down into the grave. A similar anthropomorphic image involves Š®°ôl as one who devours (49:15[14]), possessing a wide mouth (hP#, 141:7) along with a ravenous appetite. This sort of personification of death and the grave was common to Ancient Near Eastern (religious) thought, and the idiom was retained in Israelite tradition and poetry (cf. on Psalm 5:10[9] in my recent study). A more objective image was that of a deep pit (30:4[3]; 86:13), or ropes/bonds which hold the deceased tight (18:6[5]; 116:3). With regard to death and the grave (i.e. loav=) as the fate of the wicked, sometimes indicating an unnatural or violent death (as in Num 16:30ff, etc), this is expressed clearly in 9:18[17]; 31:18[17]; 49:15[14]; 55:16[15].

In the book of Job, laov= tends to be used more figuratively as an image of deep darkness (i.e. characteristic of the realm of death)—11:3; 14:13; 17:13. However, the basic association with the actual death of a person, and fate of the grave, is also very much present, as fits the general narrative context of Job’s suffering (7:9f; 17:13, 16; 21:13). The association with the fate of the wicked, mentioned in examples above, is also seen in 24:19. Of special interest is Job 26:5-6, where there is evidence of a more precise concept of the realm of death as a “netherworld” located under the earth. Here loav= is paired with the term /oDb^a& (¦»addôn, cf. Prov 15:11; 27:20; and also Job 28:22; 31:12; Ps 88:12), probably meant to indicate the decay and destruction characteristic of the grave.

(b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs)

The word laov= occurs 9 times in Proverbs (also once in Ecclesiastes [9:10]); however one dates the various Proverbs, they certainly utilize much ancient (poetic) imagery to make an ethical point. We have, for example, the motif of Death/Sheol as a ravenous, devouring person (1:12; 27:20; 30:16), used to illustrate human greed and wickedness, etc. Indeed, abandoning the way of wisdom, and taking the way of sin and folly instead, leads to Š®°ôl (5:5; 7:27; 9:18)—another adaptation of traditional imagery involving Š®°ôl and the fate of the wicked (cf. above). There is also a wisdom-variation of the Psalmist’s plea for deliverance from death (cf. examples above), with the exhortation to avoid the fate of Š®°ôl by adopting the course of wisdom and prudence (15:24; 23:14). The maxim in Eccl 9:10 is similar to the Psalmist’s statement in 6:6[5].

(c) The Prophetic Oracles (esp. Isaiah and Ezekiel)

There are 20 occurrences of loav= in the Prophetic writings—10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and another 5 in the Minor Prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Habakkuk). The references in Ezekiel (31:15-17; 32:21, 27) are interesting in that they likely represent the most recent occurrences in the Old Testament, perhaps reflecting the intentional use of older (archaic) imagery.

In Isaiah 5:14 we find again the traditional image of the wide mouth and devouring appetite of Death/Sheol; whereas in 7:11 (cf. also 57:9) it is simply the depth of it (in contrast with the height of heaven) that is emphasized. Š®°ôl features in two noteworthy nation-oracles: against Babylon (chap. 14 [vv. 9, 11, 15]) and against Jerusalem itself (chap. 28 [vv. 15, 18]). In 14:9ff we have another example of Š®°ôl as the fate of the wicked; while in 28:15ff this is played on in the opposite sense—the people of Jerusalem believe they will be able to avoid the fate of death and destruction. Isa 38:10ff simply utilizes loav= in the basic sense as the realm of death, the sentiment expressed in v. 18 being similar to that of Psalm 6:6[5].

The traditional imagery of the depth of Š®°ôl, and its devouring appetite, occur again in Amos 9:2 and Habakkuk 2:5. Two other references in the Minor Prophets are especially noteworthy:

    • The opening of the poem in Jonah 2:2-9, very much of a kind with many Psalms in which the protagonist asks YHWH for deliverance from the danger and distress he faces (cf. above):
      “I called out to YHWH from (the things) pressing on me, and he answered me;
      from the belly of Še’ol I (call)ed for help, and You heard my voice.”
    • In Hosea 13:14, the word occurs twice, in parallel couplets, which form a declaration (or question) by YHWH, the interpretation of which, in context, continues to be debated. Reading the first couplet as a declaration, we have:
      “From the hand of Še’ol I will pay to release them,
      from death I will redeem them (as my kin)—
      where (are) your deadly (blow)s, Death?
      where your destroying (power), Še’ol?
      —(their) gasping (for sorrow) is hid from my eyes.”
      Paul makes use of the second couplet in 1 Cor 15:55.

LXX and influence on the New Testament

In the Greek Septuagint (LXX), laov= is translated by a%|dh$ (hád¢s), a word used almost exclusively for that purpose in the LXX. It is often transliterated in English as “Hades”, while the common translation “Hell” is quite inappropriate. In my view, it is better to translate literally as “(the) Unseen (place, i.e. of the dead)”, especially since the realm of the dead is the basic meaning, in context, for Hebrew laov=. The label “unseen” is also appropriate for the characteristic of the realm of the dead as a dark, shadowy place beneath the earth.

This word a%|dh$ occurs 10 times in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation (1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14), it is virtually synonymous with “death” (qa/nato$). Acts 2:31 simply comes via the citation of Psalm 16:10 (v. 27), where a%|dh$ = loav= as the grave in which bodies decay. The occurrence in the saying of Jesus (“Q” [Matt 11:23; Lk 10:15]) also draws upon traditional imagery, though with a contrast between Heaven above and Š®°ôl below (cf. Isa 7:11). Only in two instances do we find a more decidedly negative aspect and connotation of the term, perhaps a bit more akin to the idea of “hell” in English:

    • In Jesus’ words to Peter in Matt 16:18, he states that “the gates of a%|dh$ will not have strength against it”—that is, against his e)kklhsi/a, i.e. believers, those called out to join together as his followers. This could be taken to refer to the powers of evil, etc, though it could just as easily be understood in the more traditional sense of Hades/Sheol as the realm of death—i.e. that Jesus’ disciples will have power over death, and the kind of illness, etc, that brings people to the point of death.
    • A sense of a%|dh$ closer to our conception of “hell” is found in Lk 16:23, within the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, even here, the term need not mean anything more than the place of the dead. The best way to view the scene described by Jesus, in my view, is that both men are in the Unseen realm (i.e. Hades)—i.e. both are dead—but within this realm there is a great separation. The Rich Man is in torment, while Lazarus enjoys (apparently) a more pleasant existence in “Abraham’s lap”. Even so, it is likely that a%|dh$ here draws upon one traditional aspect of loav= mentioned above—as signifying the fate of the wicked. It is this aspect that gave rise to our standard conception of “hell”, and the use of that word, however inappropriate, to translate both a%|dh$ and loav=.

Conclusion

The evidence examined above demonstrates, rather conclusively, I think, the basic range of meaning for the word loav= in the Old Testament, even if its fundamental (original) meaning and derivation remain uncertain. This may be summarized as follows:

    1. It refers generally to death and the realm of the dead, i.e. where the dead reside—both for the grave in the narrower sense, and in the wider sense of a dark, shadowy place of existence (for the dead) beneath the earth.
    2. This foreboding aspect, along with the universality of death, led to imagery emphasizing the all-consuming power of Š®°ôl, and the force by which it grabs hold of people. Sometimes, but not always, this was expressed by way of mythological personification—Death/Sheol as a person—a common ancient mode of expression, especially in poetry, which was preserved in the Old Testament.
    3. Quite often, the word loav= was used specifically in association with death (and the danger of death) experienced in the midst of suffering and misfortune of various kinds (including violence).
    4. As an extension of this, wicked and violent persons were seen especially as belonging to Š®°ôl, which also would be their fate—perhaps through an unnatural or violent death brought about by God’s judgment.
Note on loav= and the Afterlife

One striking fact, which many Jews and Christians today are bound to find troubling, is that, in all these references to Death and Š®°ôl in the Old Testament, there are precious few examples which indicate a specific belief in an afterlife. The references to Š®°ôl, insofar as they describe an afterlife at all, do not go much beyond the basic ancient Near Eastern concept of a dark, shadowy place where the dead have only a limited sort of existence. Even passages which refer to God delivering one up from Š®°ôl (e.g. Psalm 16:10; 49:16[15]; Hos 13:14) do not indicate anything like the idea of resurrection or promise of a future life in heaven; for the most part, they simply refer to deliverance from death in the present. The righteous person, loyal to YHWH, is being pulled down into Š®°ôl, in danger of death, and is saved by God—at least, that is the idea, expectation, and hope expressed in such passages. It is only in later Israelite and Jewish tradition that we find more clearly a belief in the resurrection of the dead, along with a blessed life in heaven (with God) for the righteous. Daniel 12:2, however one dates the book of Daniel, would seem to represent the earliest certain example. By the first centuries B.C./A.D., the belief was quite widespread, enough so that, in the 1st century A.D., the Sadducean denial of resurrection was worthy of comment (Mark 12:18 par; Acts 23:8; Josephus Antiquities 18.16). Earlier evidence for belief in actual resurrection from the dead is ambiguous at best; commentators would cite examples such as Hos 6:1-3; Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:13-14—these refer primarily, in context, to national restoration, but may draw upon a more basic idea of bodily resurrection. Hope for the possibility of personal immortality—dwelling with God in Heaven—without experiencing death at all, may have been present in early Israelite thought as well (cf. Psalm 16:10, etc, and the examples of Enoch & Elijah).