Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 59 (Part 2)

Psalm 59, continued

As noted in the previous study, there are two stanzas to the poem (miktam) of Psalm 59, each of which contains a common refrain (vv. 7-11a, 15-18). The poetic and thematic structure is as follows:

    • Stanza 1 (vv. 2-6 [1-5])—A prayer to YHWH for protection and deliverance from the Psalmist’s enemies, with a contrast established between the wicked and the righteous
      • Refrain (vv. 7-11a [6-10a])
    • Stanza 2 (vv. 11b-14 [10b-13])—Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
      • Refrain (vv. 15-18 [14-17])

Stanza 2: VV. 11-14 [10-13]

Verse 11bc [10bc]

“(The) Mightiest shall go before me,
He shall let me look on (those) watching me.”

The opening verses of the second stanza follow a different meter—a 2-beat (2+2) rather than 3-beat (3+3) couplet. As discussed in the previous study, the traditional verse division here is incorrect, and the first line of verse 11 [10] (a) belongs with v. 10 [9].

The theme of the second stanza—God’s judgment on the wicked (i.e., the Psalmist’s adversaries)—is established here in the initial couplet. The Psalmist expects (and anticipates) that YHWH will answer his prayer (stanza 1), acting to protect and deliver him from his enemies. The first line expresses this clearly and concisely: “the Mightiest shall go before me,” using the verb <d^q* in the sense of “go first, go ahead,” so as to meet the Psalmist’s enemies and strike them.

The verb in the second line is ha*r* (“see”); the nuance of this common verb in the hiphil stem (“make/let me see”), in this context, is tied to the idea of the judgment/punishment of the wicked. I have translated it here as “let me look on (them)” —that is, look on their punishment (indeed, with some satisfaction). The enemies are described as “watchers” (from the root rWv [II]), that is, they watch his every move, with wicked intent, waiting for a chance to strike. There is thus a bit of semantic wordplay here, with the Psalmist looking on those who have been watching him.

Verse 12 [11]

“Mighty (One), slay them, lest my people wither;
stagger them with your strength,
and bring them down!
(You are) our protection, (O) my Lord.”

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 71) in vocalizing the initial word as la@ (“Mighty [One],” El, i.e., ‘God’), rather than the negative particle la^. Asking God not to slay his enemies makes little sense in context. Also reading the divine title la@ here provides a fitting parallel for the related <yh!l)a$ in the first line of the prior couplet (cf. above).

Quite possibly, the reference to “my people,” which otherwise seems somewhat out of place here, is a vestige of the royal background we see in many such Psalms. The king represents the people and serves as their protector; an attack on the king ultimately affects the people as well. The verb jk^v* is best understood in the specific sense of “wither” (rather than “forget”); this particular meaning may derive from a separate root jkv (II).

Military imagery is utilized in the second line, indicating that YHWH will defeat the Psalmist’s enemies. The two verbs (in the hiphil imperative) are u^Wn (“shake, waver, stagger”) and dr^y` (“go down,” hiphil “make go down, bring down”). To “go down” here carries the specific added meaning of going down to the realm of the dead (Sheol), i.e., being killed. The imperfect verb form in the first line is to be read with jussive force, matching the imperatives in the second line.

The specific motif is of YHWH (“my Lord”) as the Psalmist’s protection, drawing upon a covenantal theme that occurs frequently in the Psalms; the noun used is /g@m*, literally “place of protection”.

The rhythm of this expanded couplet is 3+3+2.

Verse 13 [12]

“(By the) sin of their mouth and pestilence of their lips,
may they be captured!
In their rising (up) and cursing and lying,
may they be counted!”

The meter of this verse also is irregular (loosely, a 4-beat couplet). One might be inclined to emend the text (along with that of v. 12) and reorder (or redivide) these lines to achieve metrical consistency (i.e., 3-beat couplets); cf. Kraus, p. 539. Indeed, the only way both stanzas of the Psalm could (originally) have been sung to the same melody, is if they had the same meter. Unfortunately, such consistitency is practically impossible to recover now (if it ever truly existed). It must be said that the poetic structure of v. 13, as we have it, seems to demand a 4-beat couplet format.

Each line ends with a niphal imperfect with jussive force:

    • Wdk=L*y] (“may they be captured”)
    • WrP@S*y] (“may they be counted”)

I follow Dahood (II, p. 73) in reading wrpsy as a niphal form, rather than the piel of the Masoretic vocalization (WrP@s^y+). The idea of being “counted” should be understood as being judged (by God) as wicked. The root rps can relate to the act of recording—i.e., of a person being written down. Quite plausibly the intended image here is of the wicked being recorded as destined for death (and Sheol); cp. Jeremiah 17:13. This is parallel to the image of the names of the righteous being recorded in God’s book [rp#s@] ‘of life’ (Exod 32:32-33, etc). To be “captured” (vb dk^l*) in this context means to be captured by death and the grave.

The behavior of the wicked that results in their punishment (and death) is defined in terms of the evil that they speak. In the first line are the twin expressions “sin of their mouth” and “pestilence [rbd] of their lips”; in the second line, these are matched by the collective (verbal) nouns hl*a* (“cursing”) and vj^K^ (“lying”). There is a bit of wordplay in the first line with the word rbd, since rb*D* generally means “word,” while rb#D# means “pestilence” —i.e., the pestilence of the wicked is in their evil/sinful speaking.

Verse 14 [13]

“Finish (them) in your hot (anger), finish (them),
and may they no longer (be)!
Then they shall know that (the) Mightiest is ruling in Ya’aqob,
(even) to (the) ends of the earth.”

This is another long 4-beat (4+4) couplet, followed by an extra 2-beat line; the last line fits uneasily, and may be a secondary addition to the stanza.

The Psalmist’s call for judgment on his enemies reaches a high pitch in this final couplet, repeating the imperative hL@K^ (“finish [them off]!”). It is almost as though the protagonist is attempting to stoke the flames of YHWH’s hot anger (“heat,” hm*j@) himself. The extreme nature of this imprecation is indicated by the concluding word “may they no longer (be)”. This act of judgment, however, also has a higher purpose, beyond simply punishing (and putting to death) the wicked—it will demonstrate, in the most dramatic terms, that YHWH (the Mightiest, <yh!l)a$) is indeed the King and Judge over all the earth.

Refrain: vv. 15-18 [14-17]

This refrain matches that of the first stanza (vv. 7-10a [6-9a]); however, the wording is not identical. Only the points of difference will be noted below; for the remainder of the refrain, cf. the previous study.

Verse 15 [14]

“They sit until evening,
they howl like a dog
and go around (the) city.”

Essentially identical with v. 7 [6] (discussed in the previous study).

Verse 16 [15]

“Howling, they wander (about for something) to eat,
(and) if not satisfied, they do (not) stop for the night.”

This couplet holds the same place as v. 8 [7] in the first refrain, but differs entirely in wording (and emphasis) from that earlier couplet. Here the action of the wicked fits much better, contextually, with the image of a pack of hungry dogs roaming the city at night. Indeed, v. 16 continues the imagery of v. 15. I follow Dahood (II, p. 73f) in reading the initial word hmh as a verbal element (from the root hmh, “cry [out], howl, growl,” same as in v. 15), rather than the pronoun hM*h@ (“they”). Also (with him) I recognize an implied (second) negative particle in the second line.

Verse 17 [16]

“But I, I will sing of your strength,
and will ring out your goodness in the morning;
for you have been (the) place high up for me,
and a place to flee in (the) day of distress for me.”

This pair of couplets corresponds to the couplet in v. 9 [8], but they are altogether different, both in form and content. The lines here are more fitting for the conclusion of the Psalm as a whole, emphasizing the aspect of public praise and worship that we find frequently at the close of Psalms. The first couplet expresses this theme of praise, in traditional/conventional terms. The strength (zu)) of YHWH is praised in tandem with His goodness (ds#j#); the latter noun often connotes faithfulness and loyalty (in the context of the covenant-bond), and frequently so in the Psalms.

The second couplet returns to the central theme of YHWH as the Psalmist’s protection. Two locative nouns are used, in parallel, to express this: (1) bG`c=m! (“place high up”), and (2) sonm* (“place [to which] to flee”, i.e., place of refuge).

Verse 18 [17]

“My Mighty (One is) my strength—
thus shall I be guarded;
for (the) Mightiest (is) my (refuge) up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

These lines are essentially identical with those of vv. 10-11a [9-10a] which close the refrain of the first stanza (cf. the previous study). In the second line of v. 10, the verb is rm^v*, while here it is rm^z`, but the meaning is certainly the same (“guard”). If rmz is correct here, then it would seem to be a stylistic variant, with no difference in meaning. It may reflect an older/archaic meaning of the root rmz (zmr), attested, it would seem, by the Ugaritic cognate root (¼mr).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 59 (Part 1)

Psalm 59

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (vv. 5-6, 8 [4-5, 7]) 

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar in many respects to those in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ that we have recently studied. The focus on the punishment of the wicked is especially strong.

There are two stanzas to the poem, each of which contains a common refrain (vv. 7-11a, 15-18) following the Selah pause-indicator. The meter is irregular, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominating the first stanza; one is perhaps inclined to modify the second stanza to match the rhythmic pattern, but any attempt would be questionable at best. Unfortunately, the second stanza does not survive in the only Qumran manuscript of this Psalm (11QPsad), which otherwise might have provided help in confirming the Hebrew text.

On the heading, cf. the previous studies on Psalm 57 and 58. On the term <T*k=m! (miktam), cf. the earlier study on Psalm 16. The David tradition alluded to in the superscription is that of 1 Samuel 19:8ff.

The two stanzas of the Psalm are clearly delineated:

    • Stanza 1 (vv. 2-6 [1-5])—A prayer to YHWH for protection and deliverance from the Psalmist’s enemies, with a contrast established between the wicked and the righteous
      • Refrain (vv. 7-11a [6-10a])
    • Stanza 2 (vv. 11b-14 [10b-13])—Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
      • Refrain (vv. 15-18 [14-17])

Stanza 1: VV. 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“Snatch me away from (those) hostile to me, O Mightiest;
from (the one)s standing up against me, set me up high!”

This opening couplet has a loose 3-beat rhythm which establishes both the meter and the tone of the Psalm. The prayer in the first stanza takes the form of a lament. The Psalmist calls out for help against his enemies. The parallelism of the couplet is conceptually precise, though formally presented as a chiasm:

    • “snatch me away” (vb lx^n`)
      • “from those hostile to me” (verbal noun, vb by~a*)
      • “from those standing against me” (verbal noun, vb <Wq)
    • “set me up high” (vb bg~c*)

In terms of the theme of deliverance, the aspect in the first line is rescue, while in the second line it is protection. YHWH protects the Psalmist by bringing him up to a high and inaccessible (and thus secure) place.

Verse 3 [2]

“Snatch me away from (the one)s making trouble,
and from men of blood, make me safe!”

This second couplet matches the form and focus of the first almost precisely. The Psalmist’s enemies here are generalized as the wicked who corrupt society and would persecute the righteous (and harm the innocent). They are characterized verbally in the first line as “(one)s making [i.e. who make] trouble [/w#a*]”. In the second line, they are described as “men of blood [<ym!d*]”. The plural <ym!d* (lit. “bloods”) almost always means “acts of bloodshed,” often understood generally as acts of violence (even when no blood is actually shed). Dahood (II, p. 67) would understand <ym!D* here as “images” (that is, idols), from the root hm*D* (I), “be like, resemble”, as also in Ps 26:9; 55:24 [23] (I, p. 163; II, p. 39). Both interpretations would be valid, since, from the standpoint of the Psalms, violence and idolatry (i.e., worship of other deities) are equally characteristic of the wicked.

The suffixed hiphil imperative of the verb uv^y` could be translated “save me”; however, given the parallel with verse 2 [1], it is better to bring out the aspect of protection (“make me safe”), parallel with the verb bg~c* (cf. above).

Verse 4 [3]

“For, see!—they lie in wait for my soul,
(the) strong (one)s gather against me;
(with) no breaking (of the bond) by me,
and no sin by me, O YHWH.”

The 3-beat (3+3) couplet has been expanded with the addition of another 3-beat line, which here in translation is better represented as a short (irregular) couplet. The added line introduces the important theme of the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The Psalmist wishes to make clear that he his innocent—he has neither broken the bond with YHWH (and his fellow Israelites), nor has he sinned. The verb uv^P* is typically used in the context of the covenant—i.e., breaking the bond or trust between two people (or parties). To say that one has upheld the covenant and has not sinned, means that a person is righteous (and right/just before God). There is thus no reason or cause for attacks against the Psalmist; the attacks come only because of the wickedness of his adversaries.

Here the wicked are called “strong (one)s” (<yz]u*), indicating that they possess worldly power and influence. In terms of the royal background of such Psalms, the Psalmist’s opponents would be princes, nobles, or other vassal kings, people who actually could muster a military force. However, in the Psalms, this aspect has been generalized, often under the influence of Wisdom tradition, so that the motif of strength/power more properly characterizes the oppressive (and violent) might of the wicked.

Verse 5 [4]

“(I am) without crookedness, (yet) they run and stand (against me)—
rouse (yourself) to meet me, and see (for yourself)!”

The first line repeats the sense of verse 4 [3]: the Psalmist’s righteousness/innocence is again expressed in negative (or privative) terms—he is without (yl!B=) any “crookedness” (/ou*). Yet the wicked run to attack him, taking up a position against him (vb /WK, “be fixed/firm,” in something of a military sense).

In the second line, the Psalmist again calls on YHWH to rescue/deliver him. In particular, he asks God to come meet him (vb ar^q*); because of the urgency of the situation, the Psalmist would dare seek to stir God to action (vb rWu [I], “rouse [oneself], awaken”). Once YHWH comes and sees the situation, He cannot but act to rescue and protect His faithful servant.

Verse 6 [5]

“You, YHWH, (commander) of (the heavenly) armies,
(you the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael,
awaken to reckon (judgment on) all (the) nations!
May you not show favor to (those) traitors making trouble!”

The final two lines of v. 6 form a couplet that builds upon the second line of v. 5 (cf. above). The verb JWq (“wake [up]”) here is generally synonymous with the earlier rWu (I) (“awaken, rouse oneself [from sleep]”), and the basic idea is the same: God is to rouse Himself and come to rescue/deliver the Psalmist. In so doing, YHWH will effectively bring judgment against the wicked. Here the wicked are identified (in traditional religious-cultural terms) with the “nations”; but, more specifically, they are traitors to the covenant with YHWH. The verb dg~B* generally denotes deceptive or treacherous behavior. By making “trouble” (/w#a*, cf. also in v. 3 [2]) for the righteous, the wicked show that they have rejected and betrayed the covenant bond between YHWH and His people.

The root dqp is notoriously difficult to render into English; here, it is probably best understood in the sense of meting out judgment (punishment) on the wicked. Two of the fundamental meanings could apply: (1) “appoint” (i.e., an appointed moment of judgment), or (2) “reckon” (i.e., call to account); I have opted for the latter.

In this Psalm, the hl*s# (Selah) pause-marker serves to indicate the structure of the composition; this is not always the case, but here, in each stanza, the refrain follows directly after the pause.

Refrain: vv. 7-11a [6-10a]
Verse 7 [6]

“They sit until evening,
they howl like a dog
and go around (the) city.”

The refrain begins with a distinct shift in rhythm (aided by the preceding Selah-pause), with verse 7 (= v. 15) taking the form of a 2-beat tricolon (2+2+2). These terse, staccato-like lines express the habitual conduct of the wicked in simplistic terms, using the animal-motif of a pack of dogs. The initial verb bWv means “turn, return,” and the line would then be translated “they return at evening”. However, I am inclined to follow Dahood (II, p. 69) in reading bwv here as a byform of bvy (“sit”). This seems to make better sense in context—i.e., the wicked (like dogs) sit and wait until evening; it is only at night that they howl and then come out to wander around the city. This behavior is also appropriate to the treacherous character of the wicked (cf. verse 6 above).

Verse 8 [7]

they gush out by their mouth,
swords (come out) by their lips:
‘For who is hearing (us)?'”

Verse 8 is essentially another 2-beat tricolon (like v. 7); only the initial interjection hN@h! (“see!”) distorts the rhythmic pattern slightly. Again, the behavior of the wicked is crude and repellent. The verb ub^n` in the first line means “pour/gush out”, but often in the decidedly negative sense of something uncontrolled or foul. Some translations render it here as “belch”, which would be quite appropriate for the context. What comes out of the mouth of the wicked is foul-smelling and extreme, but it also indicates a violent purpose—i.e., the image of “swords” coming from the lips in the second line. The third line, it seems, summarizes the thinking of the wicked. There is no need to curb or restrain their crude and evil speech, for “Who is there hearing it?”

Verse 9 [8]

“But you, YHWH, will laugh at them,
you will mock at all (the) nations!”

Like the stanza itself, the refrain shifts in tone, from describing the behavior of the wicked to an anticipation of the judgment YHWH will bring upon them. Their own mocking taunts will be turned back on them. God will laugh at them and mock them, using the parallel verbs qj^v* (“laugh”) and gu^l* (“mock, deride”). The wicked are identified here with the “nations” (cf. v. 6 [5] above); but this is merely a traditional way of speaking, even when the wicked within Israel are in view.

A shift in rhythm matches the shift in tone, as we have here a 3+2 couplet.

Verses 10-11a [9-10a]

“My Mighty (One is) my strength—
thus shall I be guarded;
for (the) Mightiest (is) my (refuge) up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

The final lines of the refrain are problematic. The parallel in v. 18 [17] rather clearly shows that the verse division here is in error–the first two words of v. 11 belong with v. 10. Again, one very much wishes that these verses were preserved in the Qumran manuscript (11QPsad), and could thus assist us in establishing a secure text, but that is not the case. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 70f) in emending iyla, dividing it into two words yK! yl!a@, and also parsing hrmva as a passive (niphal) form, hr*m@V*a# (“I shall be guarded”). Also the opening word oZu% (“his strength”) should be modified to yZu% (“my strength”), based on the parallel in the second stanza. The first part of verse 10 would then read:

hr*m@V*a# yK! yl!a@ yZ]u%
“My Mighty (One is) my strength,
thus I shall be guarded [i.e. protected]”

Much the same is expressed in the final two lines, in a simple parallel couplet:

“for (the) Mightiest (is) my place up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

In each line the plural title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e. ‘God’), possibly substituted for the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) originally (as is typical in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms). The suffixed nouns yB!G~v=m! and yD!s=j^ are parallel (synonymous) terms. The first noun, bG~v=m!, means “place up high”, referring to high and inaccessible location that serves as a safe, protected place; the related verb bg~c* was used in a similar sense in v. 2 (cf. above). The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness,” but also frequently denotes faithfulness and loyalty, especially in relation to the covenant bond; and, indeed, ds#j# typically carries this sense in the Psalms. The suffixed noun here would seem to mean something like “my loyal (protector)”.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 58

Psalm 58

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar in many respects to those in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ that we have recently studied (cf. the previous study on Ps 57). Indeed, Psalm 58 has the same musical direction as Ps 57, designating it as a  <T*k=m! (miktam, cf. the study on Psalm 16) sung to the melody “Do not destroy” (or “May you not destroy”), tj@v=T^-la^, apparently the name of a well-known lament (the phrase itself probably is an allusion to Deuteronomy 9:26).

However, if both Psalms were to be sung to a common lament-melody, it is worth nothing that the meter of each poem is different; Psalm 58 contains longer verses, predominantly 4-beat (4+4, or 4+3) couplets.

The thematic structure of the Psalm may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 2-6 [1-5]: Descriptive lament regarding the wicked
    • Verses 7-10 [6-9]: Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
    • Verses 11-12 [10-11]: The reward of the righteous (contrasted with the fate of the wicked)

VERSES 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“Are you firm, mighty (one)s, (in) justice (when) you speak?
You should judge (with) straightness (the) sons of men.”

These opening line is probably best read as a rhetorical (and accusatory) question. The MT <l#a@ should be parsed as a defective form of <yl!a@, “mighty ones;” alternatively, it could be a plural of ly]a^ (“leader, ‘ram’ [figurative for a human noble or ruler]), with defective spelling (<yl!ya@ > <yl!a@). Clearly, the Psalmist is referring to those powerful men who are supposed to be leading and ruling the people; when they are corrupted by wickedness, society becomes oppressive, characterized by lawlessness and perversion of justice. The emphasis here is thus on speaking (vb rb^D*) with justice (qd#x#), and on rendering judgment (vb fp^v*). The concept of being firm (root /ma) in justice (line 1) is parallel with the idea of judging in a straight (rvy, i.e., fair and right) way (line 2).

Verse 3 [2]

“Yet, in (your) heart you act (with all) crookedness,
in (the) land your hands balance (the scales with) violence!”

The wickedness of the situation here is contrasted with what it should have been (v. 2). The first line strikes a formal (contrastive) parallel with the first line of v. 2:

    • “…(with) justice | you (should) speak” (v. 2)
    • “…(with) crookedness | you act” (v. 3)

The plural form tl)ou (lit. “crooked/perverse [thing]s”) may perhaps be intended as an intensive or comprehensive plural. On the other hand, the plural could be understood in the judicial sense of “crooked judgments”. Dahood (II, p. 58) suggests that this spelling represents a Phoenician dialectal form of the Hebrew singular hl*w+u^. The noun lw#u* (“crookedness, perversion”) is often used in the specific socio-legal sense of injustice, and, given the context of v. 2, the idea of a perversion of justice is certainly in view.

The verb in line 2 is sl^P*, which specifically refers to weighing something out on the balance-scales; here it can be understood in the sense of the ‘scales of justice’. Injustice and corruption among the rulers in society inevitably leads to lawlessness, oppression, and violence (sm*j*).

Verse 4 [3]

“Perverse (are the) wicked (one)s, from (the) womb they stray,
(and) from (the) belly (they are) speakers of lie(s)”

This couplet has something of an awkward structure with an off-beat (4+3) rhythm, which may well be intentional, as if expressing poetically how the wicked stagger and stray (vb hu*T*). They are said to be perverse and deceitful (“speakers of lie[s]”) from birth. Again, the primary idea is of the perversion of justice brought about by the wicked leaders, and the corrupting effect this has on the whole of society.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“The hot poison of them (is) like that of a (venomous) snake,
like that of a deaf adder (which) closes its ear,
which does not listen to (the) voice of (those) whispering,
(the) binding of (those) binding (who) are (so) wise.”

These two verses should be taken together as a pair of 4+3 couplets that form a quatrain. The syntax of each couplet is a bit uneven. It would seem that the second occurrence of construct noun tm^j& in the first line ought to be omitted, in order to preserve the meter (cf. Kraus, p. 534). The image itself is straightforward: the deceit, perversion, and violent impulse of the wicked is like the venom of a poisonous snake. In particular, the figure of an adder is used,one which is “deaf,” a motif clarified (in v. 6) as referring to a snake that cannot be rendered harmless by the sounds of a snake-charmer. This person who “whispers” (vb vj^l*, resembling the ‘hissing’ of a snake) the charms represents the vain and futile wisdom of the world, which is unable to curb the wickedness in society.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

Verse 7 [6]

“O Mightiest, break down their teeth in their mouth!
(The) fangs of (the) young lions, pull down, YHWH!”

The tone of the Psalm shifts here from a lament, describing the wicked, to a call for YHWH to bring down judgment on them. There is thus an imprecatory character to the Psalmist’s prayer here.

These lines have a chiastic syntax spread over the eight (4+4) beats:

    • O Mightiest [Elohim]
      • break down
        • their teeth
          • in their mouth
          • (the) fangs
        • of the young lions
      • pull down
    • [O] YHWH

The image is of the wicked as a group of ravenous lion-whelps, with their deadly and oppressive teeth/fangs. The plural noun touT=l=m^ is apparently the same (by metathesis) as touL=t^m=, referring to the devouring teeth/bite of an animal.

Verse 8 [7]

“Let them flow (away) like waters (that) go to their (place);
like (the) <grass> (on which) one treads, may they wither!”

The second line of the MT as we have it makes little sense. Here we are very much in need of a reliable Dead Sea manuscript to offer clarity, but, alas, nothing of Psalm 58 survives. A reasonably sound line can be achieved by a small emendation of the text (cf. Kraus, p. 534), reading ryx!j* (“grass”) instead of wyX*j! (Qere, “his arrows”). The motif of the grass that is worn down on the path (ird) is a suitable parallel with the flowing waters in line 1, preserving the nature-imagery of the couplet. This also fits the verb in the second line, which I take to be ll^m* (III), “wither, languish, fade”; also possible is ll^m* (IV), “cut off”. My translation above of the second line requires a reordered text (with the one emended word) that reads:

Wll*m)t=y] Er)d=y] ryx!j* omK=

Verse 9 [8]

“Like a <miscarriage> dissolving, may they go (away);
(like the) failed birth of a woman, may they fail to see (the) sun!”

Instead of the MT lWlB=v^, I am inclined to read lWKv* (or loKv*), which is a less significant emendation than it might at first appear, since some manuscripts read lwlkv instead of lwlbv. The image of a miscarriage provides a suitable parallel for the motif of a failed birth (lp#n#, i.e., stillbirth or abortion) in line 2 (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 77f).

Verse 10 [9]

“Before thorn-bush(es) can <produce> their thorns,
(the) Living (One in His) burning anger, shall sweep them away!”

The MT of this verse makes very little sense, and is doubtless corrupt. Again, one wishes a reliable Dead Sea manuscript of the Psalm had survived, as it likely would have clarified the situation; but unfortunately that is not the case. Any reading or reconstruction of these lines will have to remain hypothetical and speculative. I have adopted the following changes, so as to produce a relatively clean 4+3 couplet that makes decent sense:

    • Following at least one Hebrew MS, I read <h#yt@r)ys! with the third-person suffix (“their thorns”)
    • I follow Kraus (p. 534) in reading WbWny` (“they bear [fruit],” “they produce”) in place of MT Wnyb!y`.
    • I omit the two occurrences of the suffixed preposition omK= in the second line; these probably crept into the text at this point due to their presence in the prior lines.

Here we have an announcement of YHWH’s coming judgment on the wicked, with the Psalmist anticipating God’s answer to his imprecatory prayer.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

Verse 11 [10]

“The righteous shall be glad when he sees (the) vengeance;
(with) his footsteps, he shall wash in (the) blood of (the) wicked.”

The contrasting fates of the wicked and the righteous are presented in these closing verses. The scene, in spite of the promise of rejoicing, will doubtless strike modern readers as unduly harsh and gruesome. Very few Christians, I think, would find any enjoyment in the idea of washing our feet in the blood of the wicked who have been slaughtered. However, there can be no denying that the terrible death and destruction of the wicked is an integral part of the tradition of the (end-time) Divine judgment inherited by early Christians. It is depicted vividly enough in the book of Revelation (6:10ff; 14:14-20; 16:3-6; 19:2, 13).

Verse 12 [11]

“And man will say, ‘Surely (there is) fruit for the righteous!
Surely there is a Mightiest (One) making judgment on the earth!'”

The eschatological dimension of the Judgment is expressed here rather clearly, as humankind (collectively) is forced to admit that God exists, and that YHWH is the true God (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”). He has the power and authority to act as Judge over the entire world (“making judgment on the earth”). By contrast to the imagery in verse 10 [9] (cf. above), where the wicked are depicted as thorn-bushes that are swept away in the wind, the righteous are presented as plants that produce a rich and succulent fruit. This is part of a well-established Wisdom tradition that was inherited by the Psalms, and which exerted a significant influence on many of the compositions. The same basic contrast is featured in the famous Psalm 1 (vv. 3-4) at the beginning of the collection.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 56 (Part 2)

Psalm 56, continued

The second half of the Psalm generally follows the pattern of the first half (vv. 2-7 [1-6], cf. the previous study), with a pair of short stanzas separated by a central refrain. The tone of lament in the first half gives way to the expectation that YHWH will deliver the Psalmist, rescuing him from his wicked adversaries.

VERSES 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“Against trouble make escape for <us>!
In (your) anger (against the) peoples,
bring (them) down, O Mightiest!”

Metrically, this opening verse is somewhat irregular; it can be read, loosely, as an odd 2+4 couplet, but much better as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. However, in that format, the thought of the last two lines is divided; conceptually, a longer 4-beat line would be more appropriate: “In (your) anger, bring down (the) peoples, O Mightiest!”

There are textual difficulties related to the first line. The verb fl^P* of the MT, meaning “(make) escape, deliver,” would seem to require a first-person plural suffix on the preposition l= that follows (rather than the 3rd person plural of the MT). This problem could be solved by emending oml* (“for them”) to Wnl* (“for us”), while Dahood (II, p. 44; cf. also I, p. 173) would read wml (here and in other OT poetic passages) as a first-person form, without emendation. This is the solution I have followed above. Another possibility is to emend the verb, from fl^P* to sl^P* (cf. Kraus, p. 525), with the meaning “weigh, balance,” indicating a context of judgment against the wicked:

“Weigh out (judgment) to them for (the) trouble (they cause)”

It is also possible to preserve the MT as it stands, reading it as a kind of rhetorical question:

“Against (their) trouble can there be escape for them?”

Verse 9 [8]

“My waving may you yourself recount,
set my tears (as record) on your skin.
Are (they) not (there) in your account?”

This tricolon may be viewed as a straightforward 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by an additional short 2-beat line. The question posed in the extra line adds to the tension and dramatic effect of the poetic scene. The basic image is of YHWH writing down an account (rps) of the Psalmist’s suffering. The meaning of the second line, in this regard, is somewhat ambiguous: the image could be of setting (vb <yc!) down his tears on (B=) a piece of parchment (“skin,” dan)), or of setting them in a skin-bottle to preserve a record of them. There is an obvious word-play between dan) (nœ°¼) in the second line and don (nô¼) in the first line; the latter refers to a waving movement, and the parallel with tears suggests a gesture of mourning or lamentation.

The written accounting of the Psalmist’s suffering, and thus also of the actions by the wicked, is essential for YHWH to bring judgment (against the wicked) on his behalf.

Verse 10 [9]

“When (the one)s hostile to me turn back,
(falling) behind on (the) day I call (out),
(by) this I shall know that (you are the) Mightiest for me!”

Metrically, this verse is a tricolon similar to v. 9, but with an extended 3-beat (3+3+3) format. The Psalmist anticipates that YHWH, indeed, will bring judgment on his behalf, rescuing him from his enemies. The initial particle za*, a demonstrative adverb indicating time and place, is best rendered here as “when”. When what the Psalmist describes happens, then by this (hz#) it will truly be confirmed for him (“I shall know”) that YHWH is the Mightiest One (<yh!l)a$, i.e., ‘God’).

The covenant bond between the righteous Israelite (and/or the king as the representative of Israel) is indicated by the statement that YHWH is God “for me” —He is my God, and I am His faithful servant. The image of the  Psalmist’s enemies “turning back” (vb bWv) and falling back (roja*) suggests a military encounter, which would be appropriate to the royal background of this and many other Psalms. However, it tends to be the case that this royal/military setting of the Psalms has become generalized, referring in a more common sense to God delivering His people (the righteous ones) from the forces of wickedness.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“In (the) Mightiest, (in) whose word I boast,
[in YHWH, in whose word I boast,]
in (the) Mightiest I find protection!
I shall not be afraid—
what can man do to me?”

This central refrain is virtually identical to that in the first half of the Psalm (v. 5 [4], cf. the discussion in the previous study). The line in square brackets is a gloss that, almost certainly, preserves the original form of the opening line, where the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) occurs rather than the title <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’). This Psalm is part of the ‘Elohist’ Psalter, in which Elohim is consistently substituted for YHWH (cf. above). Verse 12 here also has “man” instead of “flesh” in v. 5, but the meaning is the same.

Verse 13 [12]

“Upon me, Mightiest, (are my) vows to you;
I will complete (them) casting (praise) to you.”

The Psalmist’s “vows” (<yr!d*n+) relate to his deliverance by YHWH; that is, once YHWH has acted to rescue him, he is obligated to fulfill what he has promised—his vows are binding upon (lu^) him. Principally, he is obligated to give praise to God, and that is how the Psalmist will “complete” (vb <l^v*) his obligation. As discussed repeatedly, the root <lv in the Psalms typically is used in a covenant context. The protection YHWH provides to his faithful servants (i.e., the righteous) is part of His covenant obligation.

The suffix ;– on ;yr@d*n+ should be read as an object suffix—i.e., “(my) vows to you,” rather than a possessive (“your vows”).

Verse 14 [13]

“For you (will) snatch my soul from death,
so as (surely) to prevent my feet from falling,
(and thus) to walk before (the) face of (the) Mightiest
in (the) light of the Living (One).”

The perfect verb form T*l=X^h! may be translated in the simple past tense, with the Psalmist describing a condition after the deliverance from YHWH that he anticipates (as an answer to his prayer). However, it is perhaps even better to understand the verb here as a precative perfect—that is, the Psalmist describes what he hopes (and expects) will happen as something that has already occurred. The verb lx^n` is another way of referring to the idea of being delivered or rescued by God; the verb fl^P* in verse 8 [7] (cf. above) denotes making an escape, while lx^n` carries the more vivid and concrete meaning of being “snatched away” from danger.

The negative particle (al)) in the second line, prefixed by the interrogative particle –h&, is a bit unusual (and difficult to translate) in context. Literally, emphasizing the interrogative aspect, the line would read: “will not my feet (be kept) from falling?” But this would be extremely awkward within the poetry of the verse; thus, it is better to understand the prefixed particle as an expression of certainty.

By keeping the Psalmist’s feet from falling (yj!D=), YHWH enables him to walk securely, upright and straight ahead (as befits the righteous). This walk takes place “before (the) face” of God (preserving the concrete sense of <yn]P*, “face”). The plural <yY]j^ (lit. “living [one]s”) in the final line should be understood as an intensive plural, and as a Divine title (“Living [One]”), precisely parallel with <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One]”). The expression “light of the Living (One)” is clearly parallel with “face of the Mightiest (One)”.

This verse is conceptually parallel with v. 7 [6] at the close of the first half of the Psalm, sharing the combined motifs of feet/walking and life. However, verse 7 is part of the Psalmist’s lament, referring to the desire of the wicked to destroy the life (soul) of the righteous. Here, we find quite the opposite, with God protecting the life of the righteous. Moreover, the path before God ultimately leads to the blessed/heavenly afterlife in His presence; as the Living One, YHWH is the source of (eternal) life for those who trust in Him.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 56 (Part 1)

Psalm 56

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (v. 4 [3])

This Psalm has an interesting bipartite structure, with two parts (vv. 2-7 [1-6] & 8-14 [7-13]), each of which contains a pair of stanzas separated by a central refrain (vv. 5, 11-12). This refrain is an expression of trust in YHWH, in the midst of a lament. The lament-character of Psalm 56 is stronger in the first division. 

Like Psalm 16 (cf. the earlier study), this Psalm is described in the heading as a <T*k=m! (miktam), a term whose meaning remains uncertain. It has been related to the word <t#K# (“gold”), and to a separate root <tk that only occurs once elsewhere in the Old Testament (Jer 2:22). The Greek Septuagint and Aramaic Targums translate it as referring to an inscription on a stone slab or pillar (Grk sthlografi/a).

In addition to this term, we have the musical direction that the Psalm is to be performed on (lu^, according to) “Doves of (the) distant terebinths[?],” which was apparently a well-known melody. The meter of the Psalm is irregular, though a three-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to dominate.

The superscription marks it as another Psalm “belonging to David”, associating its composition with the David tradition narrated in 1 Samuel 27.

VERSES 2-7 [1-6]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

“Show favor to me, Mightiest, for men gasp (after) me,
all the day (long) their jaws press (on) me;
they would trample me, (those) watching me all the day,
for many (are those) fighting against me!”

These opening couplets show that we are dealing with another prayer-Psalm, characterized as a lament. That is to say, the Psalmist laments his current suffering to YHWH, asking God to deliver him in his time of distress. There are several points of wordplay in these couplets, which are lost completely if one is not careful to preserve the nuances in translation. First, we have the verb [a^v*, for which there are two separate roots, one (I) meaning something like “gasp, pant (after)”, and the second (II) meaning “trample, crush”. In my view, the first meaning is intended in v. 2, depicting the image of a hostile pursuer, like an animal pursuing after its prey. In verse 3, it is the second meaning, viz. that the pursuer intends to crush/trample the protagonist.

The second wordplay involves the consonants <jl. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 42) in reading <jl in v. 2 as a contracted form of the dual <h#yj@l= (> <j@l#), “their (two) jaws”. The idea of jaws pressing on the Psalmist fits well the imagery in v. 2 of an animal chasing after its prey. In verse 3, however, we have the root <j^l*, “fight”, as an active participle characterizing the enemies (plural) of the Psalmist, parallel with the verbal noun rr@ov, “(one) watching,” in the hostile sense of laying in ambush, eying something to devour, etc.

Metrically, verse 2 is a 4+3 couplet, while v. 3 is in the regular 3-beat (3+3) format. The use of <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’), presumably in place of an original hwhy (YHWH), marks this Psalm as part of the ‘Elohist’ Psalter.

Verse 4 [3]

“O (Most) High, (on the) day I am afraid
I will seek protection in you.”

A proper 3-beat (3+3) couplet is achieved by including the last word of v. 3 (according to the standard verse division) at the beginning of v. 4. While the noun <orm* can be understood as a locative (place) noun, meaning a “high/exalted place,” it is best read here as a Divine title, “High/exalted One”, i.e. “(Most) High”. The verb jf^B*, as we have seen, occurs frequently in the Psalms; it fundamentally denotes seeking (and/or finding) protection, but it also connotes the trust that one has in such protection. Given the possible locative meaning of <orm* we should understand by it the idea of YHWH as a place of protection for the righteous. A place situated high up, on an inaccessible location, is especially secure.

Verse 5 [4]

“In (the) Mightiest, (in) whose word I boast,
in (the) Mightiest I find protection!
I shall not be afraid—
what can flesh do to me?”

This central refrain, essentially repeated in vv. 11-12, is an expression of trust in YHWH, even in the midst of the Psalmist’s lament over his suffering. Again the verb jf^B* is used, but here perhaps with the nuance of finding protection (rather than seeking protection, v. 4). The first line is a bit difficult, but it is probably best to read it in a straightforward and conventional sense: “In (the) Mightiest I praise/boast (in) His word”. This can be rendered better poetically by treating the o– suffix on orb*D= (“his word”) like a relative pronoun, i.e., “(in) whose word”.

The meter of this quatrain is irregular, but has a certain symmetry—3+2+2+3. The language in the last two lines is simple and direct.

Verse 6 [5]

“All the day they cause me pain with (their) words,
upon me all their thoughts (are) for evil.”

Following the central refrain in v. 5, a second short lament-stanza follows in vv. 6-7. The same basic theme, of the Psalmist lamenting his suffering at the hands of his enemies, picks up from vv. 2-3. There is a clear bit of contrastive wordplay between the word of God (“his word”) in v. 5, and the words of the wicked here in v. 6. The Hebrew (MT) literally reads “my words”, but it is much preferable to read the y– suffix as an object suffix—i.e., their words against me. This meaning is virtually required by the parallel with “their thoughts” in line 2. Both the words and the thoughts (i.e., intention, plans, designs) of the wicked are directed against the righteous. The verb bx^u* (I) in line 1 denotes causing pain (or sorrow).

Verse 7 [6]

“They gather and hide themselves, they (do),
my heel-tracks they watch as (I) walk,
they lay in wait for my soul!”

Though there are admittedly difficulties in this verse, it is possible to make sense of it, following the MT and with no real emendation. Metrically, I read it as a tricolon, an expansion of a 3-beat couplet with an additional 2-beat line included for dramatic effect, as befits the close of the first part of the Psalm.

The two verbs in line 1 form a proper pair: (1) WrWgy` (vb rWg, I/II), “they band/gather together”; and (2) WnyP!x=y~ (vb /p^x*), “they hide themselves”. Clearly the image is of a group of conspirators laying in wait for an attack/ambush. The pronoun hM*h@ (“they”), assuming that is the correct reading of the text (cf. Dahood, II, p. 44), is emphatic (placed in final position).

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 44) in repointing MT rv#a&K^ as rv@a)K=—Qal participle of the verb rv^a* (“walk, go straight”) with prefixed preposition. This gives a clear and vivid sense to the line: “they watch my heel-tracks [i.e. footsteps] as (I am) walking”. The short final line gives the climax, pointing out the hostile (and violent) intention of the wicked: “they lay in wait [vb hw`q* I] for my soul!”

The second half of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study) follows the same basic format as the first half, though the tone of lament gradually gives way to the hope and expectation that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer and deliver him from his distress.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 3)

Psalm 55, continued

We conclude our study of this Psalm with an examination of the third and final section:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in Part 1, the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf, was studied last week in Part 2; now we proceed to the final section, in which YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer is anticipated, with the expectation of deliverance.

VERSES 17-24 [16-23]

Verse 17 [16]

“(And) I, to (the) Mightiest I called,
and YHWH saved me.”

This initial couplet has a 3+2 meter, generally returning to the metrical pattern of the first (lament) section. The answer to the Psalmist’s prayer in this section, balances the opening lament. Though Ps 55 is categorized as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the term/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e., God) is used in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH), here both of the ‘names’ are used. The imperfect verb forms are used to express past action, as is often the case in Hebrew poetry.

Verse 18 [17]

“(At) sunset and daybreak and mid-day,
I muttered and I moaned,
and He heard my voice.”

The 3+2 meter continues here in v. 18, though, apparently, the couplet has been expanded into a tricolon (3+2+2) with the inclusion of an extra line. The extended rhythm heightens the tension and provides a dramatic effect.

The extent of the Psalmist’s suffering is summarized by the three periods of the day: the setting of the sun (br#u#, i.e., evening), the breaking through of daylight (rq#b), daybreak, i.e., morning), and a point between the two (halves) of day (dual <y]r^h(x*, i.e., mid-day, noon). All this time (i.e., all day long), he makes his lament and prayer to God. This activity is summarized by the two verbs in line 2, which I translate concisely as “I muttered and I moaned,” in order to capture the rhythm of the line. Both verbs, however, have a relatively wide semantic range and can be difficult to translate. The verb j^yc! generally refers to the act of going over a matter (repeatedly), either in one’s mind or in speech; often an agitated state of mind is implied, and it can specifically connote the act of complaining or even repenting. The second verb (hm*h*) is more intensive, denoting the primal act of moaning, roaring, howling, etc, like an animal.

Verses 19 [18]

“He ransomed my soul in fullness from (the) approach against me,
for with many they were standing (against) me.”

The MT as it stands appears to be an elongated 4+3 couplet. However, some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 519) view the text of vv. 19-20 as corrupt and requiring some measure of emendation. Essentially the verse describes the nature of how YHWH answered (or is expected to answer) the Psalmist’s prayer. God rescues the soul of the Psalmist from his enemies.

This rescue is described using the verb hd*P*, which refers to the making of a payment to achieve the transfer of ownership; it can be used in a more general or figurative sense for the deliverance of someone out of bondage or oppression, etc, and the English “ransom” captures this all fairly well. Based on this ransom/payment idea, there likely are three aspects of meaning for the noun <olv* that are involved here: (1) the soul has been rescued in its fullness (i.e., completely safe/intact), (2) the ransom was paid in full, and (3) the soul is allowed to go free/safe in peace.

There is indeed a military context to the imagery. The Psalmist’s soul is rescued “from (the) approach” (br*Q&m!) of his enemies, and the noun br*q= can specifically refer to a hostile encounter or battle. Moreover, the crowd of “many” (<yB!r^) enemies suggests the image of an attacking army.

Verse 20 [19]

“(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them,
even (He the) Ancient (One) sitting, [Selah]
in that there is no changing for them,
and they do not fear (the) Mightiest.”

The lines of verse 20 are admittedly difficult, and may be corrupt; the situation is complicated by the odd placement of the hl*s# (Selah) marker apparently in the middle of the verse. If the Masoretic text and verse division is correct, then we have a quatrain—a pair of irregular, but conceptually (and syntactically) related, couplets. This may explain the curious placement of the Selah-marker—i.e., the pause is intended to make clear the shift in subject/person between the second and third lines. This, if correct, strongly increases the likelihood that the second line does not refer to the enemies of the Psalmist, but to YHWH.

The meaning of the second line is thoroughly obscure and ambiguous (at least to us). The noun <d#q# could have several different meanings in context here:

    • It could refer to a confrontation, either from the enemies of the Psalmist set against him, or by YHWH against his enemies.
    • It could refer to sitting in the front/first position
    • It could indicate a geographic location, in the east (sitting/dwelling in the east)
    • It could be a temporal designation, i.e., times long before, in old/ancient times.

In my view, the latter is correct, and <d#q# should be read as a divine epithet of El-YHWH, meaning something like “the Ancient (One)”, as in Deut 33:27. Probably the participle bv@y) (“sitting”) should be understood literally, in reference to God sitting in judgment.

If the word-division of the MT in the first line is correct, and if the suffix <– on the second verb is an object suffix (3rd person plural), then this may explain the placement of the Selah-marker. The first line would read “(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them“. After the second line, which further describes God sitting in judgment (by which he ‘answers’ the wicked), the final two lines refer back to “them” (i.e., the wicked). The Psalmist (or a later editor) may have wished to avoid any possible (grammatical) misunderstanding, which could happen if these four lines were read/recited together quickly; the pause helps to clarify the situation being described.

The wicked will not repent or change their ways (“there is no changing for them”), primarily because they have “no fear of God”. They are thus deserving of the severe punishment they face from YHWH in the judgment.

Verse 21 [20]

“He sent out his hands on (the) bonds of peace,
he broke his binding (agreement).”

The shift in subject from YHWH (“He”) to the friend (“he”) who betrayed the Psalmist can be confusing at first glance, and raises the possibility that the the Selah-pause marker was intended to be placed at the end of verse 20 (rather than in the middle, cf. above). A pause at that point would help to clarify the shift in subject. This friend-turned-betrayer was introduced in vv. 13-15 [12-14] (cf. the discussion in Part 2).

The word wym*l)v=B! is almost impossible to translate with precision in English and still preserve any sense of the poetry. As discussed above, the noun <olv* has a wide range of meaning. Fundamentally, it means “fullness, completion”, but it is often used specifically in the context of a covenant bond, and that is certainly the case here, where <olv* is parallel with tyr!B= (“binding [agreement]”, i.e., covenant). Here <lv denotes one who is obligated to fulfill the terms of the agreement, establishing a bond of unity, welfare, and peace between those bound by the same agreement. For lack of a better alternative, I have translated the plural above as “bonds of peace”. By betraying the Psalmist, this person broke the binding agreement between them and violated the ‘bond of peace’.

Metrically, this verse returns to the 3+2 couplet pattern of the section.

Verse 22 [21]

“Smooth from cream were (the words of) his mouth,
but a (hostile) encounter (was in) his heart;
soft (indeed) were his words from oil,
but they (were) open (sword)s.”

My translation distorts somewhat the meter of these lines, which in the Hebrew are a pair of metrically similar 3+2 couplets (following the pattern of this section). The two couplets also exhibit similar antithetical parallelism, contrasting the smooth words (i.e., friendly and alluring) of this person with the hostile and wicked intention of his heart.

Grammatically, the preposition /m! (“from”) is used, in the first line of each couplet, in a comparative sense; in English idiom, the lines would properly read:

“Smoother than cream were (the words of) his mouth

(indeed) softer than oil were his words…”

The same sort of military imagery is used here (including the noun br*q=, “approach, encounter”), as in v. 19 [18] (cf. above). Probably this imagery is figurative, used in a general sense for the ‘attacks’ of the wicked; however, the royal background of many Psalms also allows for the possibility that an actual political-military rebellion is involved (i.e., against the king).

Verse 23 [22]

“Throw upon YHWH that given (to) you,
and He will hold you (up);
He will not give, (even) into (the) distant (future),
(any) shaking for the righteous.”

The sudden inclusion of a proverbial exhortation here in v. 23 may seem peculiar, but it is important to remember that the Psalms have been influenced considerably by Wisdom traditions. Besides this, in a good many Psalms, the closing verses show signs of adaptation to a communal worship setting, a likely indication that an original composition has been adapted for use in public worship.

The two couplets are parallel, with the first line of each playing on the concept of giving—using the different (but conceptually related) roots bhy and /tn. The noun bh*y+ literally means “something given”, but here the implication is that it refers to something placed upon a person as a burden. The exhortation is to “throw” this burden onto YHWH, and he will hold it for you (meaning also that he will hold you up, i.e., sustain/support you, in the process).

This idea of firm support is expressed in the second couplet in a negative sense, as a lack of any shaking (fom, i.e., slipping, faltering). Not only does YHWH support the righteous, but He also will not do (lit. will not give [vb /t^n`]) anything that will cause the righteous to slip and fall.

For a different way of reading these lines in detail, cf. the discussion in Dahood, II, pp. 37-8.

Verse 24 [23]

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
to (the) Pit of destruction,
(these) men of blood and deceit!
They will not reach half their days,
while I find protection in you!”

Verse 23 [22] is best viewed as an parenthetical aside, if not an editorial insertion (cf. above); verse 24 [23] properly continues the thought from v. 22 [21]. The Psalmist expects that, in answering his prayer, YHWH will bring judgment upon his enemies (the wicked), including the friend who betrayed him. This judgment entails an untimely death, as is clear from the directional verb dr^y` (in the Hiphil, “bring down“) and the expression “pit of destruction” (tj^v^ ra@B=, cf. Psalm 7:16; 9:16; 16:10; 30:10; 35:7; 49:10).

This verse has a complex (and dramatic) poetic structure. It begins with a triad (3+2+3 meter), perhaps best viewed as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet expanded with an intervening 2-beat line (for dramatic effect). The intervening line consists of the terse expression “pit of destruction”, qualifying what it means for YHWH to “bring down” the wicked (i.e., where it is that He brings them). The syntax is clear from the surrounding couplet:

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
(these) men of blood and deceit!”

The pairing of blood (i.e., violence) and deceit is a typical characterization of the wicked, and provides a neat summary of their wicked behavior. The plural <ym!d* (lit. “bloods”) is used for acts of violence, even when there is no actual shedding of blood. For the interpretation of <ym!d* here as a reference to images (idols), derived from the root hm*D* I (“be like”), cf. Dahood, II, p. 39 (and I, pp. 31f).

The Psalm concludes with a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet, contrasting the fate of the wicked and the righteous. The wicked will meet with an untimely death, expressed by the idea of reaching only half (vb hx*j*) of their days. This should not be read in an overly concrete sense, as if it were limited to a shortened life-span here on earth; it can also be understood in terms of missing out on a blessed afterlife (with God), doomed simply to dwell in the realm of the dead. By contrast, the righteous finds protection (vb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms) in YHWH, and so has his/her life preserved and kept safe, even into the Age to Come (i.e. the blessed afterlife).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 1)

Psalm 55

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

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

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

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

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

VERSES 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 4 [3]

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

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

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

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

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 53

Psalm 53

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1); 4QPsa (vv. 4-5, 7 [3-4, 6])

This Psalm can be described as an ‘Elohist’ version of Psalm 14. The relationship between Pss 14 and 53 continues to be debated, but most likely they represent two separate (independently transmitted and preserved) editions of the same underlying composition. As this composition was discussed in the earlier study on Psalm 14, here we will focus on the unique elements of the version in Ps 53.

The principal theme of the composition is YHWH acting to bring justice against the wicked (and on behalf of the righteous), consisting almost entirely of a description of the wicked. There is an implicit contrast with the righteous at work which is generally characteristic of Wisdom tradition. Structurally and thematically, the Psalm may be divided into three sections:

    • Verses 2-4 [1-3]: A description of the wicked as those who disregard God
    • Verses 5-6 [4-5]: The actions of the wicked against God’s people (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones)
    • Verse 7 [6]: A call for YHWH to act, bringing justice/deliverance for His people

The superscription of Psalm 14 simply refers to it as a composition “belonging to David” (dw]d*l=), while Ps 53 includes the following musical direction: lyK!c=m^ tl^j&m*-lu^. On the term lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl), which occurs in the heading of 12 other Psalms, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32. The meaning and significance of the term tl^j&m* is quite unknown. The use of the preposition lu^ suggests that it could refer to a specific melody or mode/style of performance (i.e., “according to…”); it could also conceivably indicate an intended musical instrument for performance (“on…”). The term occurs again in the heading to Psalm 88.

VERSES 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

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

The initial two couplets are identical with verse 1 of Psalm 14 (cf. notes) with one notable difference: it has lw#u* (“crookedness, perversion”) in the third line, instead of hl*yl!u& (“deeds, actions, works”) in Ps 14.

Verse 3 [2]

“(The) Mightiest 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 3 [2] is essentially identical with Ps 14:2 (notes), the only difference being the Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim) for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) in the opening word.

Verse 4 [3]

All of them have turned back, corrupted as one—
there is no (one) doing good, there is not even one!”

Identical with Ps 14:3 (notes), except for the opening two words, with no real difference in meaning:

    • Ps 14: “They all have turned aside” (rs* lK)h^)
    • Ps 53: “All of them have turned back” (gs* oLK%)

The variation between the similar verbs rWs and gWs illustrates how easily differences and variations can crop up during the transmission of an ancient text.

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.

Verses 5-6[4-5]

Verse 5 [4]

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

Again, this verse is virtually identical with that of Psalm 14 (v. 4, notes), except for the particle lK* in the first line in Ps 14 (i.e., “all [those] making trouble” vs. “[those] making trouble”). We also have the typical Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ for hwhy in the third line.

Metrically, I view this verse as another 3+2 bicolon that has been expanded, with a parenthetical statement (second line), into a tricolon.

Verse 6 [5]

Verse 6 is markedly different from the corresponding vv. 5-6 of Psalm 14 (notes). This presents an insoluble textual problem for those wishing to isolate the definitive original composition. Almost certainly, something was corrupted during the course of transmission. Here is how Ps 14:5-6 reads:

“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.”

It must be said that the MT of Ps 53:6 [5] seems, at this distance, to be most difficult; some commentators would regard it is as more or less unintelligible (and likely corrupt). Here is how one might conceivably render the lines:

“There—(see) the fear, the fear they would bring!
(But) there was not (any) fear,
for (the) Mightiest has scattered (the) bones of (those) surrounding you,
(and) you put them to shame,
for (the) Mightiest has rejected them.”

Another way of rendering the opening lines is:

“There [i.e. then] they feared a (great) fear,
(such) fear (as) there has not (ever) been”
(cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 35)

It is possible that these two versions (Ps 14 and 53, respectively), each have attempted to make sense of an original text which, at this point, either came to them corrupt or with archaic poetic language that could no longer be understood. Unfortunately, the fragmentary Qumran manuscript 4QPsa provides no help (the text of Psalm 14 in 11QPsc also has a lacuna at this point).

It would probably simplest to opt for Psalm 14:5-6 as representing something close to the original text of the composition, since it would mean that the textual problem (and the corruption) can be located in the garbled text of Ps 53:6. As an example, it is possible to see how the letters of rdb (“in the circle”) could have been misread as rzp (“he scattered”); similarly, note how one might confuse txu (“[the] council of”) with tmxu (“[the] bones of”). There are other words similar in sound or appearance—e.g., –nu* vs. –nj); –shm vs. –sam).

A related theory is that Psalm 14 here was modified (intentionally) to fit within a different socio-religious or literary context (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 38f).

Psalm 14 here emphasizes how the wicked oppress the righteous, and how YHWH, acting as Judge, will ultimately vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. In Psalm 53, a very different line of imagery is found: the wicked are presented as an army besieging God’s people, but their attack will fail and they will meet with a humiliating (military) defeat (perhaps the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib is in mind). In both scenarios, the focus is on the protection YHWH provides for His people (the righteous).

VERSE 7 [6]

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

After the radical differences between Psalm 14 and 53 in the previous lines, here verse 7 [6] is virtually identical with Ps 14:7 (notes). The only difference is the Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ for the Divine name hwhy in the second line.

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. As the rather stilted translation above indicates, it is rather difficult to render literally the syntax and wording of these long (4-beat) lines into readable English.

References above marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 2)

Psalm 52, continued

Verses 8-11 [6-9]

Verse 8 [6]

“(The) just (one)s will see and will fear,
and upon him they will laugh.”

The first part of the Psalm (vv. 3-7 [1-5]) presented a harsh polemic, inspired by both prophetic and Wisdom tradition, against the wicked (cf. the previous week’s study). The specific focus of the polemic was the false and deceitful speech of the wicked—their words may sound good, but they are belied by the action and intention of such people. In particular, their confession of loyalty to YHWH (and His covenant) is false. The section concluded with an imprecatory declaration regarding the fate of the wicked, and it is this fate (death and permanent dwelling in the grave) which is in view as we begin the second part of the Psalm. The suffixed preposition wyl*u* (“upon him,” i.e., at him) refers to the wicked person (and his fate).

There is obvious wordplay in the first line combining the similar sounding verbal phrases “and they will see” (War=y]w+, w®yir°û) with “and they will fear” (War*yy]w+, w®yîr¹°û). Viewing the miserable fate of the wicked brings fear, but also laughter (vb qj^v*). This may seem an inappropriate response for the righteous, to laugh at the punishment and suffering that awaits the wicked; perhaps it should be understood in the sense of rejoicing at the establishment of YHWH’s justice, made manifest through the punishment meted out, deservedly, to the wicked.

The 3+2 meter of this couplet establishes the rhythm of the remainder of the Psalm, which follows a 3+2 meter more consistently than in the first part.

Verse 9 [7]

“See—the strong (one who) would not set
(the) Mightiest (as) his safe place,
but sought protection in (the) abundance of his riches
and would be strong in his downfall!”

This pair of 3+2 couplets represents, apparently, the mocking words of the righteous, and should be associated—however inappropriate it may seem to us—with their laughter at the wicked. Overall, the tone fits the harsh polemic of the first half of the Psalm, and builds on the Wisdom-themed contrast between the righteous and the wicked in the second half. The righteous person trusts in YHWH, while the wicked person trusts instead in their earthly wealth and power. This contrast here is expressed both in negative and positive terms:

    • He would not make YHWH his “safe/secure place” (zoum*), i.e., the place where finds protection, but instead…
    • He “sought protection” (vb jf^B*) in his riches

The verb jf^B* is used frequently in the Psalms, denoting seeking (and finding) protection; implied is the trust one has in that protection. This usage has, as its background and context, the ancient covenant idea—specifically, the protection which YHWH (the Sovereign) is obligated to provide to His faithful servants/vassals, according to the terms of the covenant. Not only are the wicked disloyal to the covenant, they effectively disregard and ignore it, relying instead on their worldly strength and wealth for protection. Note how the false and empty strength of the wicked is contrasted with the true strength of YHWH (as the Mightiest [<yh!l)a$]):

    • the ‘strong’ one (rb#G#h^)
      • the Mightiest (<yh!l)a$)
    • he was ‘strong’ (zu)y`)

There is also a bit of alliterative wordplay between the words oZWum* (“his secure place”) and zu)y` (“he was strong”). The wicked clings to his false strength even in his downfall (hW`h^)—that is, even as he meets his terrible fate. Another bit of wordplay occurs here, since the word hW`h^ can also be read as a byform of hW`a^, referring to a person’s wicked/evil desire—i.e., the wicked remains ‘strong’ in his wickedness, clinging to it even as he perishes.

Verse 10 [8]

“While I (will be) like a fresh green olive-tree
in (the) house of (the) Mightiest—
I find protection in (the) goodness of (the) Mightiest,
(for the) distant (future) and until (the end).”

With this pair of 3+2 couplet, the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist) contrasts his fate with that of the wicked. While no future life awaits for the wicked—only death and the grave—the righteous will experience a blessed afterlife “in the house of God”. His faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant will result in blessing both in this life and in the life to come. Again the use of the verb jf^B* (cf. above) and the noun ds#j# must be understood in the context of the covenant idea—the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people. The “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH refers specifically to His covenant loyalty—i.e., He generously bestows blessings on those who have been loyal to Him. The protection God provides extends even to rescuing the righteous from the final fate of death and the grave. Moreover, dwelling in the house of YHWH is an extension of the covenant-idea of the faithful vassal having a place in the house (and at the table) of his sovereign. The specific motif of the righteous as a fresh and growing (green) tree derives from a separate line of (Wisdom) tradition—cf. Psalm 1:3, etc.

It is worth noting again that Psalm 52 is one of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms, in which, most probably, occurrences of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) were consistently replaced by the name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim). In these verses, however, the use of the title <yh!l)a$ has its own special significance, since its presumed meaning (“[the] Mightiest [One]”) relates to the contrastive theme of strength/might—i.e., the false (worldly) strength of the wicked, and the true strength of YHWH (cf. above).

Verse 11 [9]

“I will throw you (praise), Eternal (One), for you have done (this)—
and I will call on your Name, for (it is) good—
in front of your good (and loyal one)s!”

Many Psalms, at least in the form they have come down to us, conclude with lines that apply the poem to a communal worship setting. That is certainly the case here, as the Psalmist speaks of praising and proclaiming the name of YHWH in front of [dg#n#] the righteous (“good/loyal ones”, <yd!ys!j&). This descriptive title of the righteous, specifically connoting loyalty to YHWH and His covenant, stands in contrast to the false and deceitful devotion of the wicked as a “good (servant) of the Mighty (One)” (in a sarcastic sense, cf. on v. 3 [1] in the previous study).

The expression <l*oul= echoes the use of <l*ou at the end of v. 10 (cf. above), and may be used here in the same temporal sense: “I will through you praise into (the) distant (future) [<l*oul=]”. However, it is also possible that there is a bit of wordplay involved, and that the occurrence of <l*ou here is actually part of the praise of YHWH, referring to Him by the title of <l*ou (requiring a translation something like “Eternal [One]”). In such an instance, the prefixed preposition (l=) would be an example of the vocativel—i.e., “O, Eternal (One)”. Cf. Dahood, II, p. 16f; with some hesitation, I have adopted this interpretation in my translation above.

I also follow tentatively follow Dahood (I, p. 121f; II, p. 17) in deriving the verbal form hW#q^a& here from the root hwq (II), “gather, collect”, in the sense of “call” (cf. the comparable occurrence in Psalm 19:5), and thus similar in meaning to the more common arq. The action of calling (on) the name of YHWH is more suitable to the public/communal worship setting of the verse.

The meter of this final verse is, loosely, 3+3+2.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 1)

Psalm 52

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 5-11 [3-9])

This Psalm, like the prior Psalm 51, is part of the so-called ‘Elohist’ Psalter (cf. below), and is also a Davidic Psalm, being attributed in the superscription to David. The historical setting assigned (v. 2) is, however, rather puzzling, referring to events narrated in 1 Samuel 21:8 and 22:6ff. There is little about that narrative background that would apply to the thoughts expressed in the Psalm.

The heading designates Psalm 52 as a lyK!c=m^; the prior Psalms 32, 42, 44, and 45 were similarly described. The precise meaning of this term remains uncertain, but it is presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely.

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3+2 couplet format, though here in the first part a 3-beat (3+3) couplet is actually more common.

In terms of a poetic and thematic structure, I am inclined to divide the composition into two parts. The first part (vv. 3-7 [1-5]) contains a polemic diatribe directed at the wicked with their false and deceitful profession of trust in God; this part concludes, it would seem, with an imprecation against the wicked (see below on v. 7). The second part (vv. 8-11 [6-9]) declares the fate of the wicked, and also presents a familiar contrast between the wicked and the righteous—those who are truly faithful to YHWH. The Psalmist, of course, counts himself among the righteous.

Wisdom themes tend to dominate, centered around the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their fates). There are also prayer elements in the Psalm, related to the covenant appeal setting that we find in many of the compositions. By emphasizing the faithlessness and deceit of the wicked, the Psalmist uses this point of contrast to affirm his own loyalty to YHWH.

An interesting rhetorical aspect to this Psalm is the juxtaposition of the terms la@ and <yh!l)a$ as Divine titles. la@ (°E~l) occurs in the first part of the Psalm, in connection with the wicked, while <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm) occurs in the second part, connected with the righteous. As an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, many commentators believe that the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) was used in the original composition, but was later replaced by the title <yh!l)a$. This would mean that, originally, the Divine names la@ and hwhy were juxtaposed. There are two ways of explaining the specific association of the title la@ with the wicked here:

    • The wicked have, at best, a nominal and superficial faith in ‘God’ (used as a general designation), rather than a true faith in YHWH and covenant loyalty to Him.
    • The false character of the religion of the wicked is indicated by its association with the Creator El (as understood by the Canaanites), in contrast with a true faith in El-YHWH, the God of Israel.

Israelites and Judeans, having become increasingly familiar with Canaanite religion and culture over the centuries, must have been aware of certain clear differences between the Canaanite conception of the Creator El and the Israelite understanding of El-Yahweh. Interestingly, however, there is scarcely a trace of this sense of conflict in the Old Testament. For the most part, YHWH was identified simply with the Creator (El), and the title la@, though relatively rare, almost always refers to the God of Israel. Here, in Psalm 52, we have one of the only instances in the Old Testament where the title is used in a negative context, being contrasted with the name YHWH (here as Elohim).

For readers who might be new to these studies, a brief explanation of the titles El (la@) and Elohim (<yh!l)a$) may be helpful. The word la@ is a fundamental (and primitive) Semitic term for deity. While the precise meaning and derivation is not entirely certain, the basic meaning would seem to be something like “mighty” —as a divine title, “Mighty (One)”. The plural of la@ is <yl!a@, “mighty (one)s”, but this is only rarely used in the Old Testament; much more common is the plural form <yh!l)a$, which is an expanded form to match the triconsonantal pattern of words (i.e., hla instead of la) that is more common in Classical Hebrew. As a divine title, <yh!l)a$ would literally mean “Mighty (One)s”, rendered generally as “Gods” (or “gods”); however, as applied to El-Yahweh, in an Israelite monotheistic context, the plural form is best understood as an intensive (or possibly comprehensive) plural—i.e., “Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier studies on the names El and Elohim.

Verses 3-7 [1-5]

Verse 3 [1]

“(For) what do you give shout with evil, O strong (one),
(you) ‘loyal’ of (the) Mighty (One), all the day planning disasters?”

The polemic begins with a sarcastic tone, describing the wicked person by the descriptive titles “strong (one)” (roBG]) and “good [i.e. loyal] (one) of °E~l.” As indicated above, I translate the name la@ (°E~l) according to its fundamental meaning, “Mighty (One)”, which is loosely parallel in meaning here to roBG] (“strong [one]”). However, la@ refers to God, to the Creator Deity (El-Yahweh). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 13) in vocalizing dsj (MT ds#j#) as dys!j& (spelled defectively). The expression la@ ds!j& means “loyal one of El”, which may have a double-meaning here: (1) it is used in a sarcastic sense for the false religious devotion of the wicked, and/or (2) the loyalty of the wicked corresponds to the corrupt/idolatrous understanding of the Creator God by the Canaanites (El vs. YHWH).

Part of the “shout” (vb ll^h*) given by the wicked likely involves a boast regarding his own religious profession of faith and loyalty to God. The actions of the wicked belie his/her supposed faith and prove it to be false. It is made “with evil” (hu*r*B=), probably best understood as “with evil (intent)”. Whatever the wicked person may say or claim, he/she intends to bring about disastrous things. The noun hW`h^, here in the plural, literally means “(down)fall”. The verb bv^j* reveals the true intention of the wicked, the planning/plotting of evil.

With some reluctance, I have included the first two words of v. 4 [2] as part of the opening couplet (cf. Dahood, p. 12-3), yielding a 4-beat (4+4) bicolon.

Verse 4 [2]

“Your tongue, like a sharpened razor,
is (busy) working treachery.”

With this second couplet, the normative 3-beat (here 3+2) meter of the Psalm begins. The deceitfulness and false religious confession of the wicked person is described more pointedly here, with the image of a tongue that is sharp like a razor (ru^T^). With his speech, the wicked person is working deceit and treachery. The noun hY`m!r= (“deceit”) can carry the stronger meaning of “treachery” —that is, against the covenant, showing disloyalty to YHWH and intending evil against the righteous.

Verse 5 [3]

“You love (what is) evil more than (the) good,
falsehood more than speaking (what is) right.”

This couplet well-summarizes the character of the wicked, and also, implicitly, establishes the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The comparative use of the preposition /m! (“from”) essentially has to be translated in English as “more than”. The noun rq#v# (“[acting] false, falsehood, deceit”) is contrasted with speaking “(what is) right” (qd#x#), a specific manifestation of the more general contrast between “evil” (ur*) and “good” (bof). Again the focus is on the speech of the wicked, with the relation between what is actually spoken (which may seem good) and the underlying intent (which is evil). That is why the deceitfulness of the wicked continues to be emphasized.

Verse 6 [4]

“You love all (those) words devouring (the truth),
(with your) tongue of treachery!”

The deceitfulness and treachery (hm*r=m!) of the wicked person’s speaking is here colorfully summarized as “all words of devouring” (ul^B# yr@b=D!-lK*). The root ul^B* (I) refers to a mouth that opens up and swallows something. This language is often used in Biblical poetry, applied to the ravenous mouth (and appetite) of Death, and this same allusion is probably also intended here. The deceit of the wicked person leads to death—both for his victims, but also, more importantly, for himself. The immediate point of reference, however, is probably to the idea of the wicked person’s mouth/speech ‘devouring’ all truth and rightness.

Verse 7 [5]

“(So) also (the) Mighty (One) will bring you down to the end,
He will take hold of you and tear you away from your tent,
and will (up)root you from (the) land of (the) living.”

This first part of the Psalm concludes with a dramatic declaration, in a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, of the fate of the wicked. The death of the wicked was already alluded to in v. 6 [4] (cf. above), but here it is described clearly and graphically. Such references in Old Testament poetry tend to have a double-meaning: both the ordinary sense of physical death, and the idea of a death that is permanent and final (with no hope of a blessed afterlife).

The initial particle <G~, “(so) also”, allows the Psalmist to express the idea that the fate of the wicked person (in death) will correspond to his/her wicked conduct (in life). Just as, through deceitful words, the wicked would “swallow (down)” what is right, so also, in the end, God will “bring (them) down” (vb Jt^n`) to the realm of Death. The two-fold aspect of death, noted above, is expressed through the final two lines:

    • The ordinary aspect of death—i.e., being torn away from one’s “tent” (home and, figuratively, one’s body)
    • The second/final aspect of death—being torn up (lit. uprooted) from the “land of the living”, from the possibility of any future life.

Gunkel (Die Psalmen [1926], p. 230) claimed that the imperfect verb forms here in v. 7 are not simple declarative statements about what will happen, but are precative—expressing a wish for something to happen (cf. also Dahood, p. 14). There are many such imprecatory sections in the Psalms, which essentially serve as curse-formulas; following this sense, the force of the translation would be: “May (the) Mighty (One) bring you down…[etc].” Such a curse-formula would be fitting to the polemic of the Psalm, and would make for an appropriate conclusion to the first part.

The reference to the “Mighty (One),” °E~l (la@), matches the earlier reference in v. 3 [1] (cf. above), thus framing the first part of the Psalm. The first occurrence of la@ seems to been intended to highlight the false religious confession of the wicked; however, in terms of the judgment rendered against the wicked, here la@ functions in a manner consistent with the true God (YHWH). To be sure, in Israelite religious thought, la@ and hwhy are different names for the same God, though, as noted above, la@ is the more general title, used throughout the Semitic world, and could also apply to a false/distorted view of God (as with the Canaanite conception of the Creator El).

The first part of the Psalm closes with a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker. However, the presence of the marker itself really cannot be used to determine the structure of the Psalm (note the earlier occurrence of the marker after v. 5 [3]). In any case, the precise purpose and significance of these markers remains uncertain, other than that they relate to the performing tradition of the Psalms, and seem to indicate a musical pause or (possibly) a shift in tone or key, etc. They do not appear to have been applied consistently, nor is it particularly likely that they have been consistently preserved in the text as it has come down to us.

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