Psalm 81, continued
PART 2: Verses 9-17 [8-16]
“Listen, my people, and I will testify against you.
O Yisrael, if (only) you would listen to me!”
As in vv. 6c-8 (cf. the previous study), YHWH is the speaker throughout the second half of the Psalm, making these verses function as a prophetic oracle. On the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50; the prophetic character of a number of the Asaph-Psalms has been noted in prior studies.
Both thematically and poetically, vv. 6c-8 differs significantly from this second oracle. Metrically, the earlier passage consisted of a pair of 3-beat (3+3+3) tricola, while the oracle here follows the regular 3+3 bicolon format. Beyond this, vv. 6c-8 functioned as summary of the Exodus, in which YHWH gives a brief but dramatic account of His role in the events. It concludes (v. 8b) with a reference to the episode at the “waters of strife/Meribah” (Exod 17:1-7), introducing the theme of the people’s lack of trust and disloyalty/rebellion against YHWH. This same theme continues in the second half oracle.
Indeed, the oracle seems to be indebted to the ‘covenant lawsuit’ format, in which YHWH raises the complaint that His people have violated the binding agreement (covenant). In this line of ancient Near Eastern religious-cultural tradition, the wronged party bringing such a complaint calls on the witnessing deities; however, in the context of Israelite monotheism, where God Himself is a party to the covenant, He instead calls on the forces of nature (“heaven and earth”) as witnesses. The most famous such ‘covenant lawsuit’ passages are the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) and the first chapter of Isaiah.
Here, however, YHWH calls on His people (Israel) to hear His complaint. This emphasizes the instructional (didactic) purpose of a poem such as the Song of Moses—that is, the purpose of the complaint is to exhort God’s people to remain faithful and loyal to the covenant, reforming their ways as needed. Past disobedience is noted (along with the punishment that resulted from it), as well as a warning that much the same could happen to the people and nation again if they do not repent; the promise of blessing and protection that stems from loyalty to the covenant is also emphasized, in the lines that close the Psalm (vv. 15-17).
The opening couplet contains a dual call, twice using the verb um^v* (“hear, listen”); in the opening of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and Isaiah 1, the verb um^v* is paired with /z~a* in the Hiphil (“give [your] ear”). The emphatic nature of the complaint is indicated by the use of the verb dWu. This verb is often translated “(give) witness, testify”, but it properly denotes the act of repeating something, of causing (in the Hiphil stem) an action or words of speech to be repeated. I have rendered it above as “testify” for poetic concision.
“There shall not be a strange mighty (one) with you,
nor shall you bow down to a mighty (one) foreign (to you).”
In this couplet, YHWH gives the basis for His complaint: His people have violated the covenant by recognizing and worshiping deities other than He. This is the central and foremost prohibition in the Torah (the terms of the covenant), as indicated by its position as first of the “Ten Words” (Exodus 20:3ff par). When judgment comes upon the people during their history, as narrated and referenced in the Old Testament Scriptures, it is usually because of this central violation of the covenant.
The basic Semitic term la@ (°¢l) is used here for deity; I take its fundamental meaning to be “mighty (one)”, and consistently translate it so, though most English versions render it more conventionally as “god”. The regular term for deity in the Hebrew Scriptures is the expanded plural <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm, = <yl!a@), which I typically translate as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, i.e., “Mightiest (One)”. The noun la@ is the more primitive term, and can be applied to YHWH, though usually only in poetry that preserves the older/archaic usage; here la@ is used for a deity other than YHWH. Cf. my earlier articles on the titles °E~l and °E_lœhîm.
The parallel adjectives rz` and rk*n@ are used, being largely synonymous in meaning. The first term is a verbal adjective (participle) of the root rWz (I), similar in meaning (and perhaps related) to rWs, “turn aside”; rWz denotes being a stranger, and rz` as an adjective thus means “(something) strange”. There would seem to be two rkn roots, which may (or may not) be related; rkn I means “know, recognize”, while rkn II seems to denote being hostile or an enemy. If rk*n@ is derived from rkn I, then it perhaps should be understood in a privative sense (i.e., something unknown or unrecognized, and thus foreign), though the sense could also be of something specifically recognized (and designated) as foreign. Clearly, any deity other than YHWH is (and should be) foreign/strange to His people; they should neither acknowledge such a deity, nor give worship (lit. “bow down”) to it.
“I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One),
the (One) having brought you up from (the) land of Egypt;
(when) you open wide your mouth, even I do fill it.”
This verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, though the consistency of the meter over the three lines cannot be reproduced in English (where the first line must appear shorter). YHWH is the God (“Mighty [One]”) for Israel—their only God, in contrast to the foreign deities (v. 10) of the surrounding nations. Here the plural <yh!l)a$ is used, in contrast with la@ (cf. above). The Exodus was the theme of the short oracle in vv. 6b-8 (cf. the previous study), and is mentioned here again. It was YHWH who brought about Israel’s departure from Egypt, through His power and strength; the phrase “bringing up from the land of Egypt” also entails the protective guidance by God that supervised their journeys through the Sinai.
The MT points the initial word of the third line as an imperative (bj#r=h^, “open wide…!”); however, the context (YHWH presenting the evidence for His complaint) suggests a description, rather than exhortation, at this point. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 266) in reading bjrh as an infinitive (byj!r=h^). The reference is thus to YHWH’s regular providential care of His people (esp. during their wilderness journeys): “(in) your opening wide your mouth, I do fill it” —i.e., when you have need, and call out to me, I satisfy it. However, in this image of filling of an appetite, there is also an implicit allusion to the people’s lack of trust and unfaithfulness during their time in the wilderness (as indicated earlier in verse 17).
“But my people would not listen to my voice;
indeed, Yisrael was not willing to (hear) me!”
The people’s past disloyalty and lack of faith is stated more explicitly here. The use again of the verb um^v*, following the exhortative (dual) use in verse 9 (cf. above), carries the implication that God’s people today should not follow the example of the wilderness generation in their faithlessness and rebellion. The verb hb*a* (I) means “be willing (to do something)”; in English this has to be translated in a modal sense, auxiliary to a primary verb that has to be filled in: i.e., “they were not willing to (hear/obey) me”.
“So I sent him away in the stubbornness of (his) heart,
(and) they walked (on) by their (own) plans.”
In the MT, there is a shift in person here, from first person singular to third person plural. This is not all that unusual, when the reference is to the people of God (Israel), since a people or nation can be referred to both ways—singular and plural. It is probably the specific mention of Israel in the preceding line (of v. 12) that led to the initial use of the singular here in v. 13a. Most translations will normalize the number (to the plural) throughout the verse, though this is not necessary. On the reading of the <– suffix (at the close of the first line) as a <– enclitic, cf. Dahood, II, p. 266.
Again, the principal point of reference is the generation of the wilderness journeys (following the Exodus). Through their stubborn unwillingness to trust in YHWH, God “sent” them off to travel according to their own purpose and plan. This rejection of His people sets a pattern for times of punishment that would occur throughout the history of Israel/Judah.
“If only my people would be listening to me,
(that) Yisrael would walk in my ways!”
The focus in vv. 14-17 shifts from the past to the present. Having presented His complaint, describing (in summary fashion) His people’s past disloyalty to the covenant, YHWH now calls on them to learn from this example. The initial particle Wl reflects YHWH’s fervent wish; it can also be used as particle of entreaty, which is appropriate to the exhortational character of the oracle. For poetic concision, I have translated the particle tersely as “if only…!”.
Again the verb um^v* occurs, as in vv. 9 and 12. In verse 9a, the call was for Israel to listen to YHWH’s complaint; here, however, the meaning follows vv. 9b, 12—i.e., of listening in terms of obedience to the covenant (and the Torah). The use of a participle (“hearing, listening”) indicates a regular, characteristic behavior, i.e., a pattern of faithful/loyal obedience. This same emphasis is expressed by the idiom of “walking” in the ways/paths of God; this is traditional religious-ethical language that occurs throughout the Scriptures (and frequently in the Psalms, cf. most recently in Ps 78:10). This faithful walking in obedience to the covenant is in marked contrast to the rebellious past generation that walked according to the purposes of their own stubborn hearts (v. 13).
“(Then) in (but) a little (while) I would bend down their enemies,
and upon their adversaries I would turn my hand.”
Faithfulness to the covenant means that YHWH will fulfill His covenantal obligation to provide protection and security for His people. Accordingly, when they are in danger from enemies (lit. “[those] being hostile”) and adversaries, then YHWH will fight on His people’s behalf, giving them victory over all their foes.
The initial prepositional expression, fu^m=K!, is difficult to translate in English; it essentially means something like “in a little bit, in short (order)”, indicating that YHWH’s response to any threat against His people would be very quick. The protection provided by YHWH is here expressed by the anthropomorphic image of His hand—as a symbol of power and strength; cf. recently, in Psalm 80:18. The incomparable power of God, fighting on His people’s behalf, will ensure that every enemy will be defeated. By contrast, when Israel is unfaithful, violating the covenant bond, then this protection is removed, and the people will be faced with defeat and destruction.
“(The one)s hating YHWH shall cringe before Him,
and their time shall (last) into (the) distant (future).”
The enemies of YHWH’s people are also His enemies; when they show hatred (vb. an~c*) to Israel, they are actually hating God Himself. As a result, they will end up cringing in fear and submission before Him. The verb vj^K* is tricky to translate, as it carries a wide range of meaning. The basic meaning seems to be something like “to fail, fall short”, sometimes in the specific negative (and active) sense of “deceive”. It is occasionally used in the distinctive context of subordinates who are compelled to recognize the superiority of another. In several rare instances in the Psalms (18:45; 66:3, and here), the context further suggests an act of fearful/cringing submission.
The second line is a bit ambiguous, simply stating that “their time” will last long into the distant future (<l*oul=). Presumably the reference is to the judgment/punishment of the hostile nations; it may also allude to the idea of a state of perpetual submission and servitude—both to YHWH and to His people.
“But He will let him eat from (the) fat of (the) wheat,
and I will make you full (of) honey from (the) rock.”
Again, we have here, in this closing couplet, a jarring shift in person, both subject and object, more severe than the one noticed in v. 13 (cf. above). Yet, it seems clear that in both lines YHWH is the subject (He/I) and the people Israel is the object (he/you). Translators will doubtless wish to smooth this over, normalizing the person/number; however, such shifts are not all that uncommon in ancient Near Eastern (and Hebrew) poetry, and the MT can be retained. However strange or foreign the person/number shifts may seem, it is part of the richness and diversity of the poetic idiom.
Faithfulness to the covenant not only results in YHWH’s protection (from enemies, etc), it leads to His blessing as well. The land will be blessed, yielding a richness (lit. “fat”, bl#j#) of grain (and all crops). Almost certainly, this is an allusion to the Song of Moses (Deut 32:14), though the language is traditional and doubtless could be found in a wide range of poems. The motif of “honey from the rock” also comes from the Song of Moses (32:13b); it should not be taken it a concrete/literal sense, but simply serves as another colorful figure to express the idea of the richness and fertility of the land, as with the traditional expression of the Promised land as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8, et al; cf. Deut 31:20 for a reference in the context of the Song of Moses).
References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).