Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 3

Psalm 18:21-31

Verses 21-31 [20-30], function as a distinct unit within the Psalm. Many commentators would view it as the closing portion of the first half—or the first of the two original poems that make up Ps 18 / 2 Sam 22—and this would seem to be correct (cf. below). It is also possible to view these verses as intermediary, forming a bridge between the poem of deliverance (discussed in Parts 1 and 2) and what follows in verses 32-46, as a hymn giving thanks for (military) victory. The worthiness of the Psalmist is emphasized in vv. 21-31, from two thematic standpoints: (1) a judicial setting, stressing action that is in accord with justice, and (2) the idea of covenant loyalty, i.e. between a vassal and his sovereign. Both of these aspects are frequent in the Psalms, and reflect, to varying degrees, their royal theological (and ritual) background. The royal background is especially strong in the discernibly older poems, including those (such as Psalm 18) which may genuinely go back to the time of David.

Verses 21-25

It is possible again to divide verses 21-31 [20-30] into two parts, with vv. 21-25 [20-24] as they stand forming an inclusio, v. 25 essentially repeating the declaration in v. 21. The middle three couplets (vv. 22-24) most clearly evoke the judicial setting, as the Psalmist demonstrates his claim from verse 21/25.

Verses 21 [20]

“YHWH (has) dealt with me according to my justice,
according to (the) cleanness of my hands he returned (it) to me.”

In the context of the preceding verses, the Psalmist here states the reason why YHWH has heard his cry for help and acted to rescue him. It was because of “my justice” (yq!d=x!), that is, because the Psalmist has acted in a just and upright manner. The parallel in line 2 is the “cleanness [rb)] of my hands”. The basic idea of the root rrb seems to that of a substance (such as metal) that is clean and shining, free from impurities, etc. Clearly it is used here in an ethical sense—i.e., to be free from sin and guilt, with the idiom of “clean hands” being natural (drawn from the idea of ritual purity), and attested variously in the Scriptures, especially within the Wisdom traditions (e.g., Psalm 24:4; 73:13; Job 17:9; 22:30, etc).

Metrically, yq!d=x!K= is to be preferred over yt!q*d=x!K= in 2 Sam 22, which has the more abstract noun hq*d*x= instead of qd#x#. The rhythm of the 3+3 couplet is better preserved here in Ps 18.

Verses 22-24 [21-23]

“For I have guarded the ways of YHWH,
and have not done wrong (against) my Mighty [One];
(in) that all His judgments are th(ere) in front of me,
and His inscribed (decree)s I did not turn (away) from me;
I have been complete(ly straight) with Him,
and guarded myself from (any) crookedness (with) Him.”

In this trio of 3+3 couplets, the Psalmist, as in a judicial setting before YHWH, demonstrates his claim to justice in v. 21. It involves three instances of synonymous parallelism—one in each couplet—by which his loyalty and faithfulness to YHWH is affirmed. Here, we are dealing more properly with the idea of covenant loyalty, and this is expressed three ways, corresponding to the three couplets.

The first couplet generally refers to the “ways of YHWH”, a kind of blanket reference to God as a sovereign exercising authority over a vast domain (the Er#d# can refer fundamentally to a territory). The Psalmist, as a subordinate (vassal), declares his faithfulness with the dual-aspect motif of “guarding” (vb rm^v*, repeated in v. 24b) the covenant bond, along with avoiding the opposite (i.e. doing wrong against his sovereign). The syntax of the second line is a bit uncertain, as the MT reads yh*ýa$m@ yT!u=v^r* aýw+ (“and I have not done wrong from my Mighty [One]”). However, the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) after the verb uv^r* is somewhat awkward and unexpected. Cross and Freedman (p. 27) propose that the text be emended to an original þm ytuvp, reading the verb uv^P* instead of the more general uv^r*. This is an attractive solution, as the verb uv^P*, which can distinctly connote the breaking of a covenant relationship, even to the point of a rebellion/revolt, can also be used with the preposition /m! (cf. 2 Kings 8:20, 22), i.e., “break (away) from”, “rebel from (the authority of)”.

In the second couplet, the focus is on the royal decisions and decrees of YHWH. The noun fP*v=m! (“judgment”), preserves the overall judicial context of the passage, but also refers specifically here to the idea of the sovereign as ultimate lawgiver and adjudicator. The noun hQ*j%, provides the parallel, emphasizing the written (authoritative) decrees of the sovereign. For the people of Israel generally, this refers to the decrees and regulations inscribed in the Torah, the written document(s) that preserve the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. The ruler (and the ruling family/dynasty) has his own related binding agreement, as a vassal king under YHWH, the ultimate sovereign. Here the Psalmist’s conduct has to do with not turning (i.e. setting) aside (vb rWs) the very terms of the covenant that are right there in front (dgn) of him; the implication in the first line is that he has kept God’s decrees in front of him, an indication of his faithfulness. The expression “from me” (yn]M#m!) is parallel to “from my Mighty One [i.e. God]” in the first couplet, and would seem to confirm that the prefixed –m there is indeed the preposition (and correct, contra Dahood, p. 111).

The 3+3 meter in the third couplet is less secure, in the text as it stands (the second line has two beats). The longer form of the initial verb in 2 Sam is more likely to be original (with or without the w-conjunction, cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 28). There is also a difference in the preposition in the first line: ol (“to[ward] him” 2 Sam) vs. oMu! (“with him” Psa). There is presumably little difference in meaning, since both would refer to the covenant bond between the Psalmist and YHWH, but the reading in Ps 18 (oMu!) should perhaps be preferred on metrical grounds. While it is possible that a word has dropped out of the second line, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 112) in reading yn]ou&m@ as preserving an archaic 3rd person singular (object) suffix, “perversion/crookedness [i.e. acting crookedly] (with) Him”. This establishes the parallel with the first line—the Psalmist’s complete (<mt) loyalty and integrity means that he never bends or twists, so as to act crookedly toward his Sovereign.

Verse 25 [24]

“And (so) YHWH has returned to me according to my justice,
according to the cleanness of my hands in front of His eyes.”

This effectively restates the declaration in v. 21, having been proven and affirmed by the evidence presented in vv. 22-24. The Psalmist’s covenant loyalty has been confirmed before God in this judicial setting. The verb in this regard, in both vv. 21 and 25, is bWv (“[re]turn”)—since the Psalmist has proven himself just, YHWH returns justice to him, based on the covenant bond, acting to rescue and protect him in his time of need.

Verses 26-31

The second portion functions as a hymn of praise to YHWH, for His faithfulness and justice. Even the Psalmist declared it on his own behalf in vv. 21-25, now he affirms the same of His Sovereign. It is thus a fitting conclusion to the first half of the Psalm, and prepares the way for the hymn of victory that follows in vv. 32-46.

Verses 26-27 [25-26]

“With (the) loyal, you (yourself) are loyal,
with (the) complete, you (yourself) are complete;
with (the) pure, you (yourself) are pure,
but with (the) crooked, you (yourself) are twisted!”

These two couplets form a gnomic (proverbial) pair, which affirms the covenant faithfulness of YHWH, in terms of the extent to which the other party (i.e. the vassal) has been faithful. This reflects a perfect kind of justice, since God’s response mirrors that of His human vassal (the lex talionis principle). The first three statements are synonymous, with the goodness (loyalty, ds#j#) of the faithful servant expressed by two other characteristics previously mentioned in vv. 21-25 (cf. above)—complete integrity (<mt) and purity (rb), both of intention and conduct. The fourth line indicates the opposite, the other possibility—i.e., disloyalty and lack of integrity—and the initial w-conjunction should be read in an adversative sense (“but…”). The idea of crookedness, of bending away from covenant loyalty, was previously expressed by the noun /ou*, but here by the adjective vQ@u!, indicating something that has been distorted. Here, too, YHWH responds in kind; if the person is crooked, distorting the covenant bond, then He also will be twisted toward him. The verb used is lt^P*, which can connote the twisting that occurs as one grapples/wrestles with another.

Verse 28 [27]

“For you, you save (the) people bent down,
but (the) eyes raised high you bring (down) low!”

This couplet continues the motifs from v. 27, including the image of bending, here expressed in terms of the result of the crookedness/perversion of the disloyal (wicked), who oppress the populace. Built into this is the same contrast from v. 27—God is faithful to the righteous, but opposes the wicked. In each instance, there is a reversal of fortune—the oppressed are raised (saved/rescued), while those with worldly ambition (“eyes raised high”) are humbled. The reading of this verse in Ps 18 more accurately reflects the original (cf. the discussion in Cross and Freedman, p. 28).

Verses 29-30 [28-29]

“For you are my (shining) light, O YHWH,
my Mighty [One] makes bright my darkness;
for with you I run strong of limb,
and with my Mighty [One] I (can) leap a wall.”

These two 3+3 couplets, like that of v. 28 [27], begin with the particle -yK!. The implication seems to be that the promise of salvation for the faithful is here being applied personally by the Psalmist. I.e., what you do for those loyal to you, YHWH, when they are oppressed, may you do (now) for me. This theme of deliverance, so central to the earlier sections of the Psalm (cf. Parts 1 and 2), is here expressed through two different motifs: (1) light to see by, and (2) strength of limb (for battle, etc). The first motif is more general, common to many different religious and wisdom traditions. The reading of Ps 18 in this line appears to be conflate, with the variant readings(?) rn@ and ra) combined (2 Sam has only rn). Both words essentially mean “light”, though rn@ more properly indicates a shining/burning light (or “lamp”). Otherwise, the reading of Ps 18 is to be preferred over 2 Sam.

The motif in the second couplet involves physical strength, which foreshadows the military imagery in vv. 32-46 (to be discussed in the next study). Somewhat difficult is the exact meaning of the word dwdg; I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 114) in relating it to the root dyG, generally denoting strong limbs (i.e. muscles, sinews). Elsewhere, the noun dWdG+, presumably derived from ddg (“cut [through]”), seems to refer to an attacking military force. That may also be the sense here; the parallelism could be: “I rush through an army // I leap over a wall”.

Verse 31 [30]

“The Mighty (One)—His way is complete,
the word of YHWH is (as) pure (metal),
He is protection for the (one)s taking shelter in Him.”

The final verse is a 3+3+3 tricolon, the first line of which echoes early poetic language such as in Deut 32:4, while the latter two lines seem to reflect (later) Wisdom tradition (being very close in wording to Prov 30:5). As I have already mentioned several times in these studies, many Psalms, in their closing portions, appear to have been influenced by Wisdom traditions. This was a natural by-product of the adaptation and use of earlier poems for a wider audience, giving to the ritual and royal-theological setting a wisdom application for the people as a whole. A possible explanation for the tricolon form of v. 31 is that an early couplet was modified in light of Prov 30:5 (or a similar Wisdom tradition), the second line being ‘replaced’ by an additional wisdom-couplet which would close the poem (cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 29). If so, it would confirm that verse 31 marks the end of the first of two poems that eventually came to make up the Psalm, and may have circulated independently for a time, before being joined with the second poem (vv. 32ff).

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

 

 

 

 

February 18: Revelation 22:7b, 14-15

Revelation 22:7b, 14-15

This is the third component within the parallel sections of vv. 6-17. Following the exalted Jesus’ announcement of his imminent return (vv. 7a, 12-13, cf. the previous note), there is a beatitude, or “macarism”, marked by the opening adjective maka/rio$ (makários, “happy”). The background of the beatitude-form is essentially eschatological, as I discuss in an earlier article (part of a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus). Here, of course, at the end of the book of Revelation, it is unquestionably so, referring to the blessed happiness that awaits for believers who remain faithful through the end-time period of distress. Ultimately, the source of this blessedness is the eternal life that the true believer is to experience, dwelling with God and Christ in the heavenly “Jerusalem” of the New Age (21:1-22:5).

The beatitude in verse 7b is brief and concise:

“Happy [maka/rio$] (is) the (one) keeping watch [thrw=n] (over) the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll.”

As in vv. 6, 10, the reference is literary, i.e. to the book (bibli/on, “paper-roll, scroll”) of Revelation as a whole—all of the visions and messages contained in it. The beatitude thus relates to how people respond to the book (when they hear it read aloud, etc), and treat its contents. The verb thre/w means to “keep watch” over something; it is often used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, as part of ethical instruction and the exhortation to remain faithful as the end comes nearer (cf. earlier in 2:26; 3:3, 8, 10). This reproduces the beatitude in the opening of the book (1:3), where this aspect of imminence is clearly stated (“…for the moment [is] near.”).

The beatitude in verse 14 is more extensive:

“Happy (are) the (one)s washing their robes, (so) that their e)cousi/a will be upon the tree of life, and (that) they should enter into the gate-ways of the city.”

Here “keeping watch over” the prophecy is parallel with the expression “washing their robes” (plu/nonte$ ta\$ sto/la$ au)tw=n); however, in many (later) manuscripts, and some versions, the reading is instead the similar sounding poiou=nte$ ta\$ e)ntola/$ au)tou= (i.e., “doing His commands”, cp. 12:17; 14:12). The idiom of washing one’s robe (stolh/, a long ceremonial garment) was used earlier in 7:14, specifically in the context of believers who have remained faithful during the end-time period of distress (“…coming out of the great distress [qli/yi$]”). The implication of the parallelism, between verses 7b and 14, is that the true believer will accept the prophecies in the book, and will guard them with care. The verb thre/w is combined with the motif of keeping one’s garments clean in the beatitude of 16:15.

The idea of “washing” (vb plu/nw) alludes to the flowing (i.e. living, eternal) waters of the great river (of life) in the “new Jerusalem” (22:1), indicating a reward that corresponds to the believer’s actions. Here the same Paradise-setting is indicated by the motif of the “tree of life” (22:2, also 2:7); cf. the earlier note on 22:1-3a.

English translations tend to obscure the actual wording of the Greek in v. 14, as the subject of the second verb is not the believers themselves, but their e)cousi/a. The noun e)cousi/a is notoriously difficult to render accurately (and consistently) in English. Literally, it indicates something that comes out of a person’s own being, i.e. something he/she is able to do; however, it can specifically connote an ability that is given to the person from a superior, in which case, we might understand it in terms of permission. The word “authority” is perhaps the best option for capturing this semantic range in English. Here, the context is the ancient tradition of humankind being barred from access to the “tree of life”; in the New Age, for believers, this ‘curse’ is removed (v. 3), and we have the ability to come into the Garden of God and eat from the fruit of this tree. This access is part of the wider image of entering into the heavenly “city”, through the gate-ways that always stand open (21:25).

For the blessings described in v. 14, there is a corresponding curse in verse 15, defined in terms of being left outside (e&cw) the city (cp. Matt 8:12; 25:11-12, 30, etc):

Outside (are) the ‘dogs’ and the drug-handlers and the prostitute-(seek)ers and the murderers and the image-servers—indeed, every (one) being fond of, and doing, (what is) false.”

This more or less reproduces the vice-list of 21:8 (cf. also 9:20-21; 21:27), with the addition of the deprecatory label ku/ne$ (“dogs, hounds”); as a traditional term of opprobrium, it suggests both that a person is unclean and is deserving of contempt. On the idea of dogs (the actual animals) being excluded from the holy city, cf. the Qumran text 4Q394 fr. 8 iv. 8-9 (Koester, p. 843). The four terms, taken together, serve as a summary of human wickedness, traditionally associated (in Judaism and early Christianity) with the pagan culture of the “nations”:

    • fa/rmakoi (drug-handlers, drug-users)—a label for any kind of magical practice, perhaps best understood here, more generally and figuratively, for evil and mind-altering deception.
    • po/rnoi (those engaged in, or seeking, prostitution)—a traditional catch-term for any kind of immorality, sexual or otherwise.
    • fonei=$ (murderers, killers)—generally covering any kind of violent and lawless action.
    • ei)dwlola/trai (lit., ones serving images)—representing, not merely the idolatrous aspects of pagan religion, but false religion of any kind, and even, we may say, of pagan culture as a whole (i.e. the surrounding Greco-Roman world).

These are all summarized under the aspect of people “being fond of” (filw=n), as well as actually “doing” (poiw=n), what is false (yeu=do$).

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February 16: Revelation 22:6, 10-11

Revelation 22:6-21

Verses 6-21 form the conclusion to the book of Revelation, and, as might be expected, they run parallel in many respects with the introduction (1:1-3ff). Many of the same words, phrases, and motifs occur here. Verses 6-17 have a parallelistic structure that may be outlined as follows:

    • Angelic declaration (“And he said to me…”), involving the words of the prophecy (the book) as a whole—vv. 6 / 10-11
    • Announcement of the exalted Jesus (“See! I come quickly…”)—vv. 7a / 12-13
    • Beatitude declaring happiness/blessings for those who remain faithful—vv. 7b / 14-15
    • Closing personal statement, by the seer (John) and the exalted Jesus, respectively (“I, Yohanan…”, “I, Yeshua…”)—vv. 8-9 / 16f

It makes sense to discuss each component, as it occurs in each part, together.

Revelation 22:6, 10-11

Each part begins with a declaration by the heavenly Messenger who is speaking with the seer (John), cf. 21:9, 15; 22:1. Let us compare the two statements:

“And he said to me: ‘These accounts [i.e. words] (are) trustworthy and true; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the foretellers [i.e. prophets], se(n)t forth His Messenger to show to His slaves the (thing)s that are necessary to come to be in (all) haste [e)n ta/xei]’.” (v. 6)

“And he says to me: ‘You shall not seal (up) the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll], for the moment is near [e)ggu/$]’.” (v. 10)

Clearly the statements are similar, involving a common set of verbal and thematic elements: (1) the opening phrase, (2) reference to the “accounts” (lo/goi, i.e. the words) in the book, (3) that it is prophecy (foretelling what is to come), and (4) the things described in the book are imminent.

22:6—Verse 6 is quite close to the introductory statement in 1:1 (words in italics):

“An uncovering of Yeshua (the) Anointed which God gave to him, to show to His slaves the (thing)s that are necessary to come to be in (all) haste…”

To this is added a specific reference to the words of the prophecy as being “trust(worthy) and true” (pistoi\ kai\ a)lhqinoi/), which repeats the wording in 21:5; elsewhere, the same dual expression is used of God and Christ himself (3:14; 19:11; cf. also 6:10; 15:3), indicating here the divine source and character of the prophecy.

There is also an emphasis on the spirit (pneu=ma) of the prophecy. From the standpoint of early Christian religious psychology and anthropology, the spiritual dimension of prophecy was rather complex, with certain conceptions that are generally foreign to us today. The word pneu=ma (“[life-]breath, spirit”) is used in three distinct, but interrelated ways, in regard to prophecy:

    • The deity as a spirit-being—this applies not only to the Spirit of God (and Christ), i.e. the Holy Spirit, but to the opposite: evil/unclean or deceptive “spirits” (spirit-beings)
    • The “spirit” (inner-most breath and source of life) within the human being; it represents the point, or level, at which people relate to the Spirit of God (and other spirit-beings); this is especially true for those gifted as prophets
    • The prophetic gift or ability is also referred to as a “spirit” (pneu=ma); early Christians saw it as a specific gift from the Spirit of God—this is a uniquely Christian development of the conception in the ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world, etc, whereby such giftedness was due to the indwelling presence of a personal deity (or semi-divine being), i.e. a genius, in the original sense of the word.

This spiritual aspect of prophecy is described several ways in the book of Revelation:

    • On certain occasions, the seer (John) is said to be “in the spirit” (e)n pneu/mati) when he receives his visions (1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10); since he is in contact with the Spirit of God at these moments, he is certainly “in the Spirit“, but he is also engaged “in the spirit (of prophecy)”
    • In 19:10 there is the statement that “the witness of Yeshua is the spirit of prophecy” (or “…of the prophecy”); the primary meaning here is that the exalted Jesus, through the Spirit, is the source of the message (cf. 1:1, above, and my earlier note on 19:10)
    • This message is also communicated (by God and Christ) through heavenly Messengers (i.e. Angels), themselves spirit-beings who are specifically called “spirits” (pneu/mata) in 1:4; 4:5; 5:6; by contrast, false prophecy is inspired by evil/unclean spirits (16:13-14, cf. also 13:15; 18:2).

22:10-11—If verse 6 resembles 1:1, the statement in verse 10 is correspondingly similar to 1:3, as it specifically emphasizes the need for believers to read (i.e. hear read aloud) the words of the prophecy, along with the declaration that “the moment (is) near” (o( kairo\$ e)ggu/$). Here the reading of the book is expressed negatively: “You shall not seal (up) the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll”. The verb sfragi/zw (“seal”), along with the related noun sfragi/$, is used repeatedly in the book of revelation, mainly as an idiom for a message that is meant to be kept hidden until it is revealed at some future time (5:1-2ff; 6:1ff; 7:2; 8:1; 10:4). Generally, in the visionary narrative, seals are being opened—that is, the message is finally being revealed (and fulfilled) in the end-time, which is also the present time (and/or the near future) for readers of the book. This is also the reason here for the injunction not to seal the prophecy—the events described do not refer to things that will take place at some time in the distant future, but are about to be fulfilled now.

On the use of the adverb e)ggu/$ (“near”), and the expression e)n ta/xei (“in [all] haste”), as clear indications of the imminent eschatology of early Christians, cf. my earlier study on the subject. It is probably this sense of imminence that informs the proverbial declaration in verse 11:

“(For) the (one) being without justice [i.e. unjust], he must yet be without justice; and the (one who is) dirty, he must yet be dirty; and the (one who is) just, he must yet do justice [i.e. act justly]; and the (one who is) holy, he must yet be holy.”

The pairs of opposites are precise: just(ice) vs. without justice, holy [i.e. clean/pure] vs. dirty. The book of Revelation has a strong sense throughout of the wicked as belonging to evil, while the righteous (true believers) belong to God and the Lamb. Little hope is held out for the repentance and conversion of the wicked. The end-time was seen as a period of ever-increasing wickedness, a time of testing that will reveal a person’s true character and identity—i.e. whether he/she belongs to God, or to the forces of evil. As the end draws nearer, this dynamic will only intensify further, to the point that, even in the face of God’s Judgment, the wicked will scarcely repent (9:20-21; 16:9, 11). Believers will genuinely repent of their sins (2:5, 16, 21-22), but not the wicked. There is also in the book of Revelation an emphasis on what we would call predestination, which corresponds to the aforementioned sense of person’s essential religious identity (which cannot be changed). The form and language in verse 11, with its poetic parallelism, is similar to that earlier in 14:9-10; it also resembles certain proverbial statements in the Old Testament (e.g., Ezek 3:27; Dan 12:10).

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Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 17

Psalm 17

This vivid, passionate Psalm is simply called a “petition” (hL*p!T=) in the heading, and a Davidic composition. Its tone and language are similar to several other of the Psalms we have studied so far, which also had many characteristics of a prayer or appeal to God. The meter of the Psalm is mixed, generally alternating between 4+3, 3+3, and 4+4 couplets. It may roughly be broken into two parts: in vv. 1-5 the Psalmist declares his innocence and loyalty to YHWH, while in vv. 6-15 the prayer turns to a request for protection and for the destruction of the Psalmist’s enemies. As always in these compositions, the ‘enemies’ are a nameless, faceless crowd–not individuals so much as a collective personification of the suffering and affliction felt by the protagonist. It is possible to subdivide vv. 7-15 into at least two tropes or sections (vv. 7-12 and 13-15).

Verses 1-5

Each part of the Psalm begins with a direct appeal to God, giving the work the character of a petition (hL*p!T=), as indicated in the heading. The verse 1 petition is comprised of a pair of 2+2 bicola:

“Hear, YHWH (my plea for) justice,
give attention to my cry (for help);
turn (your) hear to my petition,
(from) lips with no deceit (in them).”

To preserve the meter, with the inclusion of the divine name (YHWH) in the first line, the substance of the request is abbreviated. We might otherwise expect yq!d=x! (“my justice”) instead of simple qd#x# (“justice”), with “my justice” best understood as “my plea for justice”, “my request for justice”, justice being a frequent and constant theme in the Psalms, especially those with lament and prayer features. The parallelism in the first couplet is synonymous, while the second is synthetic. However, Dahood (p. 93) would read the MT aýB= (usually understood as preposition B= + a negative particle, “with no”) as a form of the verb alb (= hlb), “wear out”. This would give to the line the meaning “wear out [i.e. consume/destroy] lips of deceit”; then the parallelism of the couplet would be synonymous (and, in a sense, antithetic), contrasting the Psalmist’s prayer with the words of wicked/deceitful men. While this is possible, the parallel with verse 6, as well as the overall tone of vv. 1-5, suggests that the focus of the petition is entirely on the Psalmist, rather than the wicked.

Verses 2-3ab are comprised of a pair of 3+3 bicola in which the Psalmist declares his own loyalty and adherence to justice, and asks YHWH (as Judge) to test him in this regard:

“May my judgment (shin)e forth from (be)fore your face,
may your eyes look (clearly) at (my) straightness (in all thing)s;
you (may) test my heart, examine me (during the) night,
melt me (in the fire)—you will not find my intention (to be evil)!”

Each couplet contains a kind of synthetic parallelism, the second line building upon the first, increasing the dramatic tension. In the first line of each couplet the Psalmist calls on YHWH to test him, and deliver the judgment (fP*v=m!) which will confirm his just and faithful character. In the second line, he predicts how this test will come out for him. The motif of the first couplet involves the clarity and brightness of God’s judgment, since it comes from His very face which shines forth (vb ax*y`, “go out”) light, and His eyes which penetrate the darkness (of night). The Divine Presence thus sees and reveals all things. The second couplet deals with the idea and imagery of testing (metal, etc) with fire, this comes out clearly in line two with the verb [r^x*, which has to do with the smelting/refining of metal; it makes more concrete the testing (vb /j^B*) and examining (dq^P*) mentioned in line one.

Establishing an accurate division of vv. 3-5 into lines is somewhat difficult, the standard versification is problematic, both metrically and in terms of the parallelism of the lines. Moreover, the sense is not entirely clear regardless of how they are divided. Assuming that the MT preserves the text of the Psalm here more or less intact, it would seem that vv. 3c-5 should be taken together as a pair of (4+4?) couplets. In these lines the Psalmist declares more precisely the just nature of his character and conduct:

“My mouth does not cross over toward the deeds of man,
(but) by the word of your lips (do) I keep (myself);
(from the) paths of destruction my steps stay firmly (away),
(and) my footsteps are not shaken (from) within your tracks.”

In each couplet the Psalmist declares that he keeps away from the world and its wickedness (line 1), while at the same time keeping himself close to the ways of God (line 2). The juxtaposition of words (mouth/lips) and deeds in the first couplet is a bit odd, something of a mixed metaphor; probably here hL*u%P= should be understood in the general sense of “activity, behavior”, which would include how a person speaks. Dahood (pp. 94-5) reads the first line a bit differently, with the verb rb^u* in the sense of transgressing (i.e. crossing a boundary), and MT <da not as the common noun signifying humankind (“man”), but as a rare/archaic dual form of dy` (= da*), “hand”, i.e. God’s hand. The line would then read: “My mouth does not cross over against the works of (your) hands”. I do not find that interpretation particularly convincing; moreover, it distorts the parallelism of the couplets, which fits better if “paths of destruction” is juxtaposed with “deeds of man“.

The imagery in the second couplet is clearer—that of a person walking (steps/footsteps) in certain established paths. In the first line the paths are of destruction (Jyr!P*), i.e. broken down, as the result of violence (implied); the Psalmist keeps away from these (the verb Em^T*, “keep firm”, in the sense of keeping firmly away from something). Instead, his feet are kept securely in the tracks (pl. of lG`u=m^) God has laid down. The root lgu seems to indicate a round or circular track, such as the ditch which encircles a fortified site, which would serve as a suitable contrast to a site that had been broken down and destroyed (vb Jrp).

Verses 6-15

I am inclined to divide this second part into three components: (1) an initial petition (v. 6, parallel to that in v. 1), (2) a call for protection from the wicked/enemies (vv. 7-12), and (3) a renewed call to be rescued from the wicked, along with their punishment (vv. 13-15).

Verse 6

“I call on you, for you will answer me, Mighty (One);
stretch (down) your ear to me (and) hear my speaking [i.e. hear me as I speak].”

This is a single 4+4 bicolon which echoes the petition in verse 1 (cf. above). The request assumes that God will answer the Psalmist, a reflection of the covenant bond shared between El-YHWH and those loyal/faithful to him. Quite often in the Psalms this covenant emphasis blends together with idea of God as Judge, delivering justice for His people. That is certainly the case here.

Verses 7-12

In both verse 7 and 13 there is a call on YHWH to act, i.e. in His primary role as Judge—to protect the righteous and punish the wicked. This call marks the beginning of the two main sections in this part of the Psalm. The meter of verse 7 is apparently 3+3:

“May you set forth your goodness, (you the one) bringing salvation,
stopping with your right hand (the one)s standing up (against me)!”

I am inclined to derive <ys!oj from the root <sj (“stop up, muzzle”), along with Dahood (p. 96); this seems to make better sense of the text than reading it as a plural particple of hsj. The parallelism is synthetic—in the first line the Psalmist calls on YHWH to act (in covenant loyalty) to bring salvation, while in the second this act entails, specifically, the stopping of those hostile to the Psalmist (i.e. the wicked).

Verses 8-9 represent a pair of couplets (with mixed meter, 3+3 and 4+4), emphasizing the Psalmist’s request for protection from his enemies:

“May you guard me as (the) center within your eye,
in the shade of your wings you will keep me hidden,
from (the) face of wicked (one)s (who) would ruin me,
my enemies in (the) soul (who) come round against me.”

The main difficulty in these verses is the syntax of the fourth line with the expression vp#n#B= (“in/with [the] soul”); it is best understood as modifying “my enemies” (yb^y+a)), i.e. those seeking the soul of the Psalmist. In English idiom we might say, “my mortal enemies”. Also uncertain is the word tb in line 1. The MT /y]u*-tB^ literally means “daughter of (the) eye”, but it is possible that tB relates instead to tyB@, construct of the noun meaning “house”, or sometimes the place within a house or room. This might accord better with the context—i.e. the center (pupil) within the eye.

Verse 10 is hard to place, being a single couplet (with an irregular 2+3 meter) that, apparently, functions as an aside, an insulting description of the wicked person’s character:

“They are shut up in their (own) fat,
(and) with a rising up (of) their mouth they speak!”

The motif of being “shut up” or enclosed with fat (bl#j#) relates to the idea that the wicked are unable to hear and understand the word of God; instead, they speak arrogantly, proud of themselves. The uneven meter continues in verses 11-12, couplets alternating 3+4 and 4+3; it shows the hostile and violent action of the wicked:

“They observed me (as prey and) now they surround me,
they set their eyes to pulling (me) down in(to the) earth;
their likeness (is) as a lion longing to tear (its prey) apart,
and as a maned (lion) sitting in the hidden (place)s.”

The text of the first line is likely corrupt; yet all attempts at reconstruction are dubious. The context suggests that the initial verb should be derived from the root rWv II, which can be used for an animal lying in wait observing its prey (Hos 13:7), the very image here in verse 12. On the idea of the wicked as a predator (a lion, etc), cf. the imagery in Psalm 10:9ff.

Verses 13-15

In verse 13, the Psalmist again calls on YHWH to act, this time even more forcefully:

“Stand up, YHWH! May you confront his face (and) bring him down!
May you rescue my soul from (the) wicked (with) your sword!”

It is possible that the final word ibrj is not the noun with suffix (MT “your sword”), but a verbal noun with object suffix (“one using weapons [i.e. making war] on you”, “one attacking you”), ;B#r=j) (cf. Dahood, p. 98). The line would then read “May you rescue my soul from (the) wicked (one) attacking you” —the idea presumably being that, by attacking the people of God the wicked are attacking God Himself.

The deliverance of the righteous here entails the defeat and destruction of the wicked, as described in the two couplets of verse 14:

“Your hand bringing death, YHWH, you bring (them) death
from (the) duration (of their) life, their portion among the living!
And (the one)s (who are) your hidden treasure, you fill their belly;
(the) sons are satisfied and set down the remainder for their children.”

The textual situation in these verses is extremely complicated. There is evidence of corruption throughout, and the Masoretic text as we have it is confusing as well as rhythmically awkward. It is not entirely certain whether both couplets describe the fate of the wicked, or only the first; the latter option seems to be preferable. The Masoretic pointing cannot be relied upon and likely reflects an attempt to make sense of a confusing situation. The versions offer little help in clearing this up, and the fragmentary Qumran MSS 8QPs and 11QPsc are not complete enough to offer a distinct alternative to the MT; in any case, the textual confusion may already have been established by the 1st century B.C./A.D.

To begin with we have the repetition of <yt!m=m! in line 1, which the MT pointing reads as “from (the) men”. This makes little sense in context, and a number of commentators would derive it instead from the root twm (“die, bring/cause death”), which is preferable in terms of the scenario of judgment against the wicked. It is possible to read <ytmm as an intensive plural (<yt!omm=, cp. Jer 16:4; Ezek 28:8; Kraus, p. 244). Dahood (pp. 98-9) would parse it as a causative participle with plural suffix (<t*ym!m=); I tentatively follow this approach above. The repetition may simply be a stylistic device for emphasis. If so, there is a similar sort of repetition in line 2— “from the duration (of their) life” / “their portion among the living” —creating a unique parallelism in the couplet.

The second couplet (v. 14b) is even more problematic, with an extremely awkward rhythm and no obvious way to divide the lines; possibly something has dropped out of the text (or been added) to create this difficulty. The Masoretes already recognized a problem in the first word, identifying it as a verbal form with an object or possessive suffix. Even so, the meaning remains obscure. The root /p^x* signifies something that is hidden, sometimes in the sense of a hidden treasure. If it is the fate of the righteous being described in v. 14, then that is likely the connotation here as well. More awkward is the position of the phrase “(the) sons are satsified” (<yn]b* WuB=c=y]); rhythmically it fits with neither what precedes nor what follows, nor does it work to divide the couplet into smaller lines. However, the basic imagery seems relatively clear, establishing a poetic sequence:

    • YHWH fills their bellies
    • (The) sons are satisfied
    • They lay down the remainder (rt#y#) for their children

Thus, in spite of the textual difficulties, the couplets of vv. 13-14 effectively continue the two-fold theme of the Psalm—the deliverance of the righteous and the defeat/punishment of the wicked. Overall this language and imagery reflects the covenant bond between YHWH and His people, which includes the promise of protection and blessing. In the concluding couplet of v. 15, the Psalmist specifically identifies himself with the righteous/faithful ones of the people of God who are able to receive the covenantal blessings:

“(And) I, in justice, I will look at your face,
in waking I will be satisfied (with) your likeness.”

The physical blessings of v. 14 (i.e. “filling the belly”), we may say, have been transformed into spiritual blessing—understood in terms of a beatific vision of God. Beholding a theophany, i.e. the appearance of God Himself, represented the pinnacle of religious experience for the people of God in Old Testament tradition. Most important in this regard were the traditions involving Moses (cf. especially Exodus 34). In Numbers 12:8 YHWH declares that only Moses is able to behold His hn`WmT= (“likeness, form, shape”), the same noun used here in v. 15b. It seems clear enough that the Judgment scene of the afterlife is in view here, with the parallel between “in justice” (qd#x#B=) and “in waking” (JyQ!h*B=), i.e. waking out of sleep, the ‘sleep’ of death. This is one of the few passages in the Old Testament which indicates belief in a blessed afterlife for the righteous, though allusions to the idea seem to occur rather more frequently than is generally admitted. We have already encountered several instances in the Psalms studied thus far, beginning with the initial Psalm 1. The afterlife Judgment scenario was, in fact, a typical element in ancient Near Eastern Wisdom traditions; as we have seen, such Wisdom traditions are prevalent throughout the Psalms, and played an important role in shaping their outlook.

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




Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 15

Psalm 15

This is one of the shortest and simplest Psalms of the collection, similar in tone and scope to the introductory Psalm 1. It shares the same basic Wisdom orientation, except that, instead of a contrast between the righteous and the wicked, here in Ps 15 is only a description of the righteous, even as the prior Ps 14 describes the wicked (cf. the previous study). There is no information provided in the superscription other than identifying the Psalm as another composition “belonging to David”.

The meter of Psalm alternates between three-beat (3+3) and two-beat (2+2) couplets. We may view verses 1-2a as a strophe with a 3+3 bicolon followed by a 2+2 bicolon; this same pattern is followed for the strophes in verses 4 and 5. In between, in vv. 2b-3, is a pair of 3+3 bicola instead.

Verses 1-2a

“YHWH, who will reside (there) in your tent?
Who will set up dwelling on the hill of your holiness?
The (one) walking complete
and doing what is just.”

The first couplet asks the question, the second gives the answer. The question, addressed to YHWH, frames righteousness in terms of dwelling in God’s presence. The two lines form a precise parallel with the verbs rWG and /k^v*. The first refers to a foreigner (rG@) who comes to reside in a particular place; the second is the common verb used for setting up a dwelling (i.e. tent) and so putting down (more permanent) roots in a location. Similarly, there is a parallel between the tent (lh#a)) of God and the mountain (rh^) or hill on which He dwells. In ancient Canaanite thought, the abode of the Creator God (la@, “the Mighty [One]”) was envisioned as both a mountain and tent, sharing a similar shape; indeed, in Canaanite poetry the two images are paired together in a traditional formula (e.g., Baal Epic II.i.5; III.v.7-8; IV.iv.23-24; VI.i.34-36), much as we see here. Wisdom literature often utilizes the idea of the afterlife judgment scene, whereby the righteous, having passed through the judgment, are allowed to enter into the blessed heavenly domain of the gods. Psalm 1, with its beatitude format, certainly makes use of this image, and there is likely an allusion to it here in verse 1 of Psalm 15 as well. It is the holiness (vdq) of the Divine abode which makes it proper to wonder how a human being is able to dwell there in God’s presence.

The answer provided in the second couplet is direct and concise, again with a synonymous parallelism. Two verbs are set in tandem, participles which describe the character of the person who is able to dwell with God. The first of these, El^h* (“walk”) is frequently used in Wisdom literature to refer to a person’s way of life, and similarly occurs in the first verse of Psalm 1, only there with the negative to show how the righteous person should not walk. It is a common enough motif, which later Jews and Christians often made use of in their ethical instruction; it appears a number of times, for example, in Paul’s letters (Rom 6:4; 8:4; Gal 5:16, 25; 1 Thess 2:12; Phil 3:17; Col 1:10; Eph 4:1, etc). The noun qd#x#, along with the related adjective qyD!x*, is a basic term in the Psalms; typically the noun is translated “justice”, but here I render it in the more general sense of “what is just/right”.

Verses 2b-3

“And (one) speaking truth with his heart—
he does not go about on foot upon his tongue,
he does not do evil to his companion,
and does not raise blame upon his close (friend).”

It would be entirely valid to read the first line together with the prior couplet in v. 2a (above); however, the rhythm of the poem is better served if it is viewed as the start of a second strophe that builds upon the first. Indeed, it develops the idea of the person who is able to dwell with God. Clearly “speaking truth” is parallel with “walking complete” and “doing what is just”, but it opens up a more specific description of the righteous person’s conduct. The first couplet has a synthetic (and partly antithetic) parallel matching “his heart” with “his tongue”, since a person can “speak” with both. Here “speaking truth” is contrasted with the verb lg`r*, which literally means “go on foot”, but is frequently used in the negative sense of “spying on” someone, and even more harshly in the sense of going about speaking ill of a person (i.e. slandering them). The latter connotation is meant here, since the wicked behavior is described as going about “upon the tongue”, i.e. using the tongue to speak.

The second couplet has a more straightforward synonymous parallelism, with the expressions “do evil” (hu*r* hc*u*) and “lift/raise blame” (hP*r=j# ac*n`) and also the pairing of “companion” and “close (friend)”. There is a bit of wordplay involved between “evil” (ur*) and “companion” (u^r@), creating a kind of irony which heightens the sense of the behavior as improper.

Verse 4

“(One) rejected (by God) is of little (worth) in his eyes,
but he values (greatly) the (one)s fearing YHWH;
he binds himself seven-fold (not) to cause evil,
and he will n(ever) change (from this).”

This verse returns to the strophe-pattern of verse 1-2a (to be repeated in v. 5), continuing the description of the righteous person. Translations tend to obscure the imagery of the first couplet; it uses antithetic language to create a synonymous parallelism. The passive verbal substantive “rejected (by God)” (sa*m=n]) is contrasted with the active expression “fearers of YHWH”; similarly, the passive verb “be of little (worth)” (hz#b=n]) is contrasted with the active “value” (dB@k^y]). The latter verb could also be rendered “honor” (i.e. treat with honor), but I believe the parallelism is better served by preserving here the more basic sense of the root dbk as signifying “weight”, i.e. the value or worth of something.

I have rendered the verb ub^v* according to what would seem to be its fundamental meaning, related to the number seven; however, much of this etymology remains uncertain. Whatever the exact ancient idiom, it is clear that ub^v* has the regular meaning of “swear with an oath”. There is a magical-ritual context to this usage, connected with the number seven, but the specifics of it are largely lost for us today (cf. the underlying tradition in Gen 21:23-31). This should not detract us from the point being made here in the Psalm, that the righteous person “binds himself” (the stem is Niphal reflexive), i.e. with an oath, not to cause any evil. The phrase need not be taken literally; rather, the binding “oath” symbolizes the basic character of the righteous person—that he/she would never intend to cause evil or bring harm to another. The binding (i.e. seven-fold?) nature of this “oath” is such that the person would never change (vb. rWm) from this intention and way of life.

Verse 5

“His silver he does not give with a ‘bite’,
and a ‘gift’ he does not take over the empty (mouth)—
the (one) doing these (thing)s
will not be shaken into the distant (future).”

As in Psalm 1:1, the righteous person is described in terms of not behaving as the wicked do (cf. also here in strophe 2 [vv. 2b-3], above). The first couplet uses the idiom of economic/commercial activity to describe how one might do evil by taking advantage of a person. I have translated the idiom in line 1 quite literally—Ev#n# means “bite”, often in the technical sense of harming a person by taking excessive interest on a financial loan; in English we might also describe such unscrupulous behavior as “taking a bite” out of someone. Similarly, the word dj^v) (“gift, present”) is often used as a euphemism for a bribe. It is not entirely clear what is being described in the second line. The adjective yq!n` can have the meaning “clear/free (of guilt)”, i.e. “innocent”, in which case the phrase would mean taking a bribe to act against the innocent (in a judicial setting, etc). However, a more fundamental meaning of yq!n` would be “empty”, and it is possible that here it may connote something like an “empty mouth” (cf. Amos 4:6; Dahood, p. 85). This would fit the parallel with “bite” (Ev#n#) in the prior line; the sense might be that a ‘hungry’ person, eager to get a ‘bite’, would offer a bribe to someone on their behalf. I have tentatively followed this line of interpretation.

The final (2+2) couplet refers not only to the first bicolon, but to all of vv. 2-5a in its description of the righteous—”the one doing these things“. The closing line corresponds generally with the context of the initial question in verse 1. The expression “into the distant (future)” (<l*oul=) could also be translated in more conventional religious/theological terms as “for eternity”; and, indeed, it is likely that something of a blessed/eternal afterlife is implied, parallel with the idea of dwelling in the (heavenly) presence of God. At the same time, <l*oul= also signifies that the righteous person will remain faithful and secure all through the remainder of his/her life. The verb fom in the passive means “be shaken”; however, if we refer back to the start of the description in verse 2, with the initial verb El^h* (“walk”), it might be better rendered here as “made to slip/stumble”. This would convey a sense of the providential protection YHWH gives to those devoted to Him—He will not allow them to stumble in their righteous walk.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 14

Psalm 14

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

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

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

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

Verses 1-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 3 concludes this section:

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

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

Verses 4-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 7

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 12

Psalm 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 11

Psalm 11

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

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

Verse 1

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

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

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

Verse 2

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

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

Verse 3

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

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

Verse 4

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

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

Verse 5

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

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

Verse 6

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

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

Verse 7

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10 (continued)

Psalm 9-10, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Part: Psalm 10

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

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

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

Verse 1

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

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

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

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

Verses 2-11

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

Verses 2-3:

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

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

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

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

Verse 4-5a:

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

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

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

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

Verses 5b-7:

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

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

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

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

Verses 8-10:

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

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

Verse 11:

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

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

Verses 12-16

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

Verse 12-13 q:

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

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

Verse 14 r:

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

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

Verses 15-16 ?:

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 17-18 t

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

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

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10

Psalm 9-10

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

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

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

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

Verses 2-3 [1-2]a

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

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

Verses 4-5 [3-4]b

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

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

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

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

Verses 6-7 [5-6]g

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

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

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

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

Verses 8-9 [7-8]h

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

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

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

Verses 10-11 [9-10]w

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

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

Verses 12-13 [11-12]z

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

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

Verses 14-15 [13-14]j

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

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

Verses 16-17 [15-16]f

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

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

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

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

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

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1 Teilband (Psalmen 1-59), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).