Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 101

Psalm 101

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (vv. 1-8)

Following the set of Psalms (93-100) dealing with the theme of YHWH as King, this composition (a romz+m! attributed to David) returns to a situational framework found frequently in the prior Psalms. The protagonist presents himself before YHWH, affirming his devotion, loyalty, and upright conduct. There is both a judicial and ritual aspect to this protestation of innocence. It also draws upon Wisdom-tradition in its juxtaposition of the righteous and the wicked.

Many commentators would see the protagonist as a royal figure (viz., the Israelite/Judean king), who presents himself as a faithful servant of YHWH. This affirmation of covenant-loyalty means that YHWH is expected to fulfill His covenant obligation of providing protection and blessing. Many Psalms evince a royal background, and it is likely that Psalm 101 preserves something of this background. The king represents the people before YHWH, and this understanding would seem to be reflected in the final section of the Psalm (vv. 6-8).

I have theorized that a good number of Psalms have undergone a certain development, whereby an original royal background/setting has been adapted to a more general communal worship setting. The king as protagonist serves as a template for the more general figure of the righteous Israelite. The righteous/faithful Psalmist, like the king in the (earlier) royal theology, represents the people before God. The Wisdom-traditions, which seem to influence this development as they are applied to the Psalm, further emphasize this communal aspect. The Psalmist is one of the righteous/faithful, and thus represents the people of God.

There would seem to be a relatively simple three-part structure to Psalm 101:

    • An opening section (vv. 1-2), in which the Psalmist calls upon YHWH, affirming his righteousness and loyalty.
    • The Psalmist then presents evidence for his faithfulness, on an individual basis (vv. 3-5)
    • The same is then done on a communal basis (vv. 6-8), whereby the protagonist represents the people and identifies with the faithful ones among them.

This Psalm presumably dates from sometime in the pre-exilic (monarchic) period, at least in its earliest form. The apparent Wisdom influence, however, could also reflect subsequent development and adaptation, as noted above.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3+2 couplet format.

It is interesting to note that Psalm 101 is preserved largely intact in the Qumran manuscript 11QPsa. Though this manuscript is fragmentary throughout, all 8 verses of the Psalm are present, requiring very limited restoration. This is a relatively unusual situation for the Psalms in the Qumran MSS. The text of Ps 101 matches the MT, except for one small variant.

Verse 1

“(Of your) goodness and justice I will sing,
to you, O YHWH, will I make music!”

In typical fashion, the Psalmist’s invocation to YHWH has a musical focus, his address taking the form of a musical composition sung to YHWH; the verbs ryv! (“sing”) and rm^z` (“make music”) are in parallel. The noun pair ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) and fP*v=m! (“judgment, justice”) establishes both the covenantal and judicial aspects of the Psalmist’s address. The noun ds#j# regularly connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”, particularly in a covenantal context, such as is almost always the case in the Psalms. YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant means that He will act to protect and bless the servant who is similarly loyal.

Verse 2a

“I perform with skill in (your) way complete—
when will you come to me?”

The final line enhances the sense of the Psalmist’s invocation; he quite literally is calling on YHWH to come to him. There is a certain impatience implied by the question. Given the Psalmist’s righteous conduct and devotion to the covenant, it is expected that YHWH will respond favorably, with blessing and protection.

Use of the verb lk^c* effectively blends together the idea of the Psalmist’s musical talent and his upright/faithful conduct (in the religious and moral sphere). The verb can indicate that a person acts with wisdom and insight, but also that he/she is able to perform a certain task or art with skill; indeed, the verb in the Hiphil stem (as it occurs here) occasionally refers specifically to the artful/skillful playing of music.

The preposition B= prefixed to the noun Er#D# is also somewhat ambiguous, and may contain a dual meaning here. It can continue the sense from verse 1, that the Psalmist is singing “of/about” God’s way (of truth and devotion, etc); at the same time, it anticipates the idea (in v. 2b) of the righteous person walking “in” the way of God. In this regard, the adjective <ym!T* (“complete”) connotes the idea of personal integrity, specifically in terms of faithfulness/loyalty to the covenant.

Verse 2b

“I walk about in (the) completeness of my heart,
in (the) inmost part of my house.”

Just as the Psalmist sings of the righteous way of YHWH, in its completeness (adj. <ym!T*), so he also “walks about” in/on that same path. The verb El^h* (“walk”), especially in the reflexive (Hithpael) stem, is frequently used as an idiom for a person’s habitual, characteristic behavior—in an ethical-religious sense (e.g., Psalm 1:1; 15:2; 26:1, 3, 11, and many other examples). It occurs in the specific context of obedience to the Torah precepts and regulations (Psalm 119:1ff, etc). The noun <T) (“completeness”) is related to the adjective <ym!T* (also <T*), referring to the integrity and upright conduct of a person.

Upright conduct is a result of the inner condition of one’s heart. The motif of walking about in the center (br#q#, “near[est], inner[most] part”) of one’s “house” could be seen as an idiom parallel to the idea in line 1, of the integrity (“completeness”) of the person’s heart. However, the “house” can also represent a person’s daily life and (habitual) conduct.

Verse 3

“I do not (ever) set in front of my eyes
an object of worthlessness;
(the) making of perverse (thing)s I do hate,
and it will not cling (up)on me!”

As noted above, in verses 3-5, the protagonist presents the case for his faithfulness, in terms of his personal integrity. As an individual, he affirms his loyalty to YHWH, offering evidence on an ethical and religious basis. Here in verse 3, he references two things, in particular, which he detests and always tries to avoid:

    • “an object of worthlessness” (lu*Y`l!B= rb^D=)
    • “making of perverse (thing)s” (<yf!s@ hc)u&)

While both of these expressions could refer to wickedness and immorality generally, they allude specifically to the veneration of deities other than YHWH and, in particular, to the images (idols) of such deities. The plural noun <yf!s@, which occurs only here in the Old Testament, is presumably derived from the root fWs as a byform of fWc (cf. also hf*c*), “turn/run away (from)”. In this polemical context, the noun presumably refers to something “deviant” or “perverse”, and to activity which has moved far away from the path of God.

The avoidance of images (of deity) and the refusal to venerate (in any way) deities other than YHWH are fundamental characteristics of the person who is faithful to the covenant.

Verse 4

“A crooked heart also turns away from me,
(and) an evil (person) I will not know.”

Not only does the protagonist avoid what is perverse, his righteous heart and conduct also makes it so that a “crooked” (vQ@u!) person will avoid him. The crooked/twisted heart of such a person clearly contrasts with the complete heart of the righteous. A person with such a crooked heart is, at his/her core, “evil” (ur^). The Psalmist avoids such people, and does not wish even to know them; the idiom of “knowing” here (expressed by the verb ud^y`) implies a certain closeness and familiarity, comparable to the use of the verb qb^D* (“cling/cleave [to]”) in v. 3.

Verse 5

“(The one) wagging tongue in secret (on) his companion,
him I would reduce to silence;
(the one) high of eyes and wide of heart,
him I am not able (to endure)!”

The Psalmist’s attitude to the wicked, introduced in verse 4, is developed here. The two couplets express two different kinds of wicked conduct, and the Psalmist’s opposition to them. The first involves using the tongue (vb /v^l*, denominative from /ovl*, “tongue”, cf. Prov 30:10) in a decidedly negative or derogatory sense, i.e., slandering, ‘backbiting’, etc. Such a person speaks “in secret” against his neighbor or would-be companion (u^r@), and the Psalmist would “reduce to silence” (vb tm^x*) all such ‘tongue-waggers’; the verb tm^x* can carry the more dramatic sense of “destroy, exterminate”. There may be a bit of subtle (contrastive) wordplay here between the adjective ur^ (“evil [person]”) from v. 4 and the noun u^r@ II (“companion”).

The second couplet describes a certain characteristic attitude and bearing of the wicked: being “high of eyes” and “wide of heart”. Both of these expressions refer to a certain negative kind of pride—haughtiness, arrogance, etc. The Psalmist insists that he is not able (vb lk)y`) to endure such people. Dahood’s emendation (or revocalization) of the MT (III, p. 5) is interesting, but unconvincing; he would parse lka as a Piel imperfect form of the verb hl*K* (“finish [off]”), viz., “I finished him (off)”.

Verse 6

My eyes are on (the one)s of (the) land firm (in faith),
(wishing them) to sit along with me;
(the one) walking in (the) way (that is) complete,
he (it is who) will serve me.”

While the eyes of the wicked are raised high in self-pride (v. 5), the Psalmist’s eyes are focused on others—the community of faithful ones throughout the land. The root /ma, denoting being firm, is frequently used in the sense of faithfulness, loyalty, devotion, etc, especially in the context of the covenant. The passive (Niphal) stem of the verb /m^a* here carries the idea of a person being trustworthy; as a substantive (participle), it represents a fundamental characteristic of the righteous—viz., that they are faithful to YHWH. The same idea is expressed in the second couplet by the traditional idiom of “walking in the way” of God (cf. verse 2b above).

The Psalmist desires to keep company with such people (and not with the wicked). He would have them “sit alongside” him, implying table fellowship, and that they would be the ones who would serve him. This imagery, including the use of the verb tr^v* (“serve, attend to”), certainly suggests that it is the king’s table being referenced. Even if the Psalm originally stems from a royal background and setting (see the introduction above), where the protagonist is the king, faithful to YHWH, this imagery could easily be applied to the righteous person generally. The righteous person, like the king, represents the the people as a whole—and, in particular, is to be identified with the faithful ones among the people.

Verse 7

“(But) he shall not sit in (the) inmost part of my house,
(the one) acting (with) deceit;
(the one) speaking false (word)s
shall have no firm place in front of my eyes!”

The contrast between the righteous and the wicked continues here. While the protagonist would have other faithful ones sitting at the table with him, he will not allow untrustworthy and deceitful persons to sit with him in his house. The same expression “(the) innermost part of (the) house” was used in verse 2b (see above). The deceitfulness of the wicked is in stark contrast to the trustworthiness of the righteous (cf. the use of the verb /m^a* in v. 6).

The couplets of v. 7 are best treated as a chiastic unit, with a 3+2+2+3 meter (reflected in the translation above). The two inner lines are parallel, expressing the deceitfulness of the wicked. In the first of these lines, the verb hc^u* (“make, do”, translated as “act”) is used with the noun hY`m!r= (“deceit,” sometimes with the more forceful connotation of “treachery”). The implication is that such persons have deceitful intent, pretending to be faithful/loyal, but actually plotting treachery—an aspect of meaning which has greater impact in a royal context. Their wicked intent is demonstrated by the fact that they speak false words, again under the pretense of being loyal (to YHWH, the king, and to the faithful ones as a whole).

There is a bit of conceptual wordplay in the final line, as the verb /WK has a meaning similar to /m^a* (used in v. 6); both verbs essentially mean “be firm”. The righteous prove themselves to be firm (i.e., loyal and faithful), while the wicked have shown themselves to be untrustworthy, and thus are to have no “firm (or fixed) place” before the king (or before the righteous). The wicked are like the “worthless thing” that the protagonist will not allow to be placed before his eyes (v. 3).

Verse 8

“At the break of day I will make silent all (the) wicked of (the) land,
to cut off from (the) city of YHWH
all (those) making trouble!”

In this final couplet (or tricolon), the protagonist expresses his intention to “reduce to silence” (vb tm^x*, also used in verse 5a [see above]) all the wicked of the land. As noted above, this verb can have the more forceful connotation of “destroy, exterminate”. Its use is limited largely to the Psalms (11 of 14 occurrences), cf. most recently in 94:23; possibly the range of meaning (“make silent” vs. “destroy, wipe out”) reflects two distinct tmx roots (see HALOT, p. 1036).

I prefer to see the plural <yr!q*B= (“daybreaks”, i.e., “mornings”) as an intensive plural; the initial prepositional expression would thus be rendered, with dramatic effect, as “at daybreak…”, marking the decisive moment when the righteous (king) will eliminate (and silence) the wicked. The symbolism is appropriate, since night represents the time when the wicked would naturally flourish; by contrast, the coming of light (to dispel the darkness) at the break of day represents the elimination of wickedness.

The “land” inhabited by the faithful/righteous ones is also expressed as the “city” of YHWH—i.e., the place where God’s people, those loyal to the covenant, will dwell. The wicked will be “cut off” (vb tr^K*) from this place. The royal background of this Psalm, evident most strongly in vv. 6-8, would naturally include, as part of its royal theology, the motif of Jerusalem (as the “city of God”).

In the final line, the wicked are further described, rather bluntly, as “(those) making trouble” (/w#a* yl@u&P), a traditional expression that occurs with some frequency in the Psalms (5:6[5]; 6:9[8]; 14:4; 28:3; 36:13[12]; 53:5[4]; 59:3[2]; 64:3[2]; 92:8, 10; 94:4, etc). This brings out the social-justice aspect of the Psalm, in keeping with the royal background. A faithful king will strive to remove wickedness from his realm, resulting in a stable and secure social order. This duty is all the more important when, as is emphasized here in the Psalm, the king is himself a faithful servant of YHWH, obligated to walk (and rule) according to the Torah and the way of God.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 94 (Part 2)

Psalm 94, continued

Wisdom Couplets (verses 12-15)

The four Wisdom couplets in vv. 12-15 parallel those in vv. 8-11 (discussed in Part 1). The first set of couplets addressed the wicked (who are fools), while the second addresses the righteous (i.e., the wise).

Verse 12

“(O the) happiness of (the) strong (one) when you discipline him,
O YH(WH), and from your Instruction you teach him.”

This first couplet addressing the wise/righteous takes the form of a beatitude, utilizing the plural construct yr@v=a^ (“[the] happy [thing]s of…”) as an intensive interjection: viz., “O (the) happiness of…!”. It is typically translated “blessed is…” or “blessed be…”. The beatitude formula occurs frequently in the Psalms, most notably in Psalm 1 (see the earlier study). As I discuss in a separate note, the happiness (or blessedness) indicated in the beatitude formula refers to one who obtains the blessed afterlife (with God) in heaven. While the wicked are merely left with the emptiness of their brief life on earth (v. 11), the righteous will experience a blessed life after death.

However, the blessedness begins for the righteous even in this life, as they have the good fortune of being taught by YHWH, from the Divine Instruction (hr*oT) which He has given to His people. The righteous are willing to be taught, even when it involves sometimes painful discipline (vb rs*y`) and correction. The noun rb#G# denotes a strong/mighty person, though sometimes it is used more generally, as referring to an(y) able-bodied male. It is presumably being used here in a generic sense, though one should not ignore the etymological force of rbg; the righteous are made strong, able, and skilled (like a warrior) through the discipline and and instruction provided by YHWH.

Verse 13

“(It is) to give rest for him from (the) days of evil,
while for (the) wicked is dug a (pit of) ruin!”

The Instruction from YHWH, and the blessedness it brings, results in a place quiet and rest (vb fq^v*, Hiphil) from the “days of evil”. Again the blessed afterlife is primarily in view, but the imagery can also apply to happiness and blessedness for the righteous in this life. By contrast, the wicked have only death and the grave to look forward to. The noun tj^v^ literally means “ruin, corruption”, but is often applied more concretely to a grave or “pit” in which a person goes to ruin. There is almost certainly an intentional bit of alliterative wordplay here, between the verb fq^v* (š¹qa‰) and tj^v^ (šaµa¾).

A contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates) is found frequently in the Psalms, the theme drawing heavily in this regard upon Wisdom tradition. It is very much part of the beatitude in Psalm 1, just as it is here.

The meter of this couplet is slightly extended, 4+4. Also, I should note that it is possible (and perhaps preferable) to read verse 13 gramatically as a continuation of v. 12: “…you teach him, (in order) to give rest to him…”.

Verse 14

“For (surely) YHWH does not cast away His people,
and His inheritance does not leave behind.”

The faithfulness of YHWH, to the covenant-bond with His people, is implied here. However, in the Wisdom context of these verses, with the focus on the righteous, we should understand the reference to God’s people in this ethical-religious (rather than an ethno-religious) sense. YHWH will not abandon His people, insofar as they remain faithful to the covenant, and to His Instruction.

The initial yK! particle is emphatic. Metrically, this couplet is slightly irregular (4+3).

Verse 15

“Indeed, the ruling-seat of righteousness returns judgment,
and following after it (are) all (the) straight of heart.”

The interpretation of this closing couplet is difficult. If the word du in the first line is (as most commentators and translators take it) the preposition du^ (“until, unto”), then the line would mean something like: “indeed, unto righteousness (right) judgment returns”. That is to say, for the righteous, as a result of their righteousness, YHWH’s ruling judgment is to their benefit (and blessedness); a reference to the afterlife judgment would fit the contextual background of the beatitude-form (see above).

However, I am inclined to follow Dahood (II, p. 349, also p. 81f) in seeing du here as another (rare) example of a separate root indicating “throne, throne-room, royal pavilion” (HALOT, p. 788; cf. Ps 89:38[37] and the earlier note on this verse). The expression “throne [du] of righteousness” provides a suitable (contrastive) parallel with “throne [aS@K!] of corruption” in verse 20.

Ultimately, it is best to see this verse in parallel with the previous verse 14, referring to YHWH’s role in relation to the righteous. He takes His seat of rule as Sovereign over humankind, and renders judgment. The righteous (“[those] straight of heart”) follow His judgment, even as they have followed His instruction (see above), and it is favorable for them, leading to their blessedness.

Prayer for Deliverance (verses 16-21)

This section corresponds to the lament in vv. 3-11 (see the discussion of these verse, and the chiastic outline for the Psalm, in the previous study [Part 1]). This pairing of lament + prayer for deliverance is typical of many Psalms. Here, it also continues the theme of contrast between the righteous and wicked. The protagonist prays specifically for YHWH to rescue him (i.e., the righteous) from the wicked.

Verse 16

“Who will stand up for me against (those) doing evil?
Who takes his stand for me against (those) making trouble?”

The motif of standing up (vb <Wq) and taking one’s stand (vb bx^y`, Hitpael) here has a dual-meaning. On the one hand, the theme of YHWH as Judge continues from verse 15—i.e., YHWH stands in judgment, on behalf of the righteous, and against the wicked. At the same time, standing against (prep. <u!) an opponent can imply a military action, and such imagery is frequently used in Psalms, in the context of the protagonist’s prayer for deliverance. The Psalmist presents the matter here as a rhetorical question: “who will stand up…?” The implication is that he has no one to stand up for him against the wicked, apart from YHWH.

The wicked are referred to by a pair of common substantive participles (the latter being a participial expression), indicating their characteristic behavior: <yu!r@m= (“[one]s doing evil”) and /w#a* yl@u&P) (“doers/makers of trouble,” “[one]s making trouble”, i.e. trouble-makers).

Verse 17

“If it were not (that) YHWH (was the) help for me,
in a little (while) would dwell my soul in silence.”

Only YHWH can provide help (hr*z+u#) for the Psalmist. If YHWH were not there to help (a condition indicated by the negative particle al@Wl), then it would not be long (fu^m=K!, “in a little [while]”) before the wicked would destroy him, sending his soul to “(the place of) silence” (hm*WD). On this expression as an idiom for death and the grave, cf. Psalm 115:17. Dahood (II, p. 347f) suggests that hm*WD here is better explained in relation to the Akkadian dimtu and Ugartic dmt, “fortress, tower”, which would mean that a different image is being employed—viz., the realm of death as a fortress in which one is imprisoned.
Some commentators explain hmd (hmdk) in Ezek 27:32 as having a similar meaning, i.e., Tyre as a mighty fortress/tower in the midst of the sea; cf. M. Greenberg, Ezekiel 21-37, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 22A (1997), p. 562f.

Verse 18

“If I were to say, ‘My foot is slipping!’
your loyal devotion, YHWH, supports me.”

The Psalmist here expresses his confidence in the help that YHWH provides, that it will come in time, and as needed. The moment he realizes that his foot is slipping (vb fom), YHWH is right there to support him (vb du^s*). This support is an expression of God’s ds#j#—a regular term meaning “goodness, kindness”, which (as I have frequently noted), in the context of the covenant, connotes faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion. It indeed carries this meaning (i.e., covenant loyalty) in most of the Psalms. Another regular theme in the Psalms is of the protection which the faithful/righteous ones can expect from YHWH, as part of His obligation to the covenant bond.

Verse 19

“Among (the) multitude of impassioned (thought)s in my heart,
your comforting (word)s give delight to my soul.”

A different sort of help given by YHWH is expressed here, in this rather more prosaic couplet. The plural noun <yP!u^r=c^ is usually explained as a byform of <yP!u!c= with an inserted (epenthetic?) letter r (cf. also Psalm 139:23). The root [uc denotes the presence of passionate thoughts/feelings (cf. Job 4:13; 20:2). In the first line, the Psalmist describes a situation where there are a multitude of passionate thoughts within him. The noun br#q# denotes something close/near; in such an anthropological context, it refers to the nearest/inmost part of a person, which here, for poetic concision, I have translated as “heart” (“in my heart”).

In the midst of such turbulent passions—thoughts and feelings—YHWH gives comfort to the Psalmist. The plural of the noun <Wmjn+T^ (from the root <jn) is used to express this. The plural form (“comforts”) could indicate comforting words, or actions; I have opted for the former, as a counterbalance to the impassioned thoughts/feelings within the Psalmist. The idea of YHWH speaking also continues the theme of instruction from vv. 12-15 (see above).

Verse 20

“Can a throne of corruption be allied with you,
(or one) fashioning trouble upon an inscribed (decree)?”

The language and imagery of this couplet is rather difficult to decipher. What seems clear is that it continues the contrast of the righteous and wicked. The righteous are aligned with the throne of YHWH (a “royal-seat of righteousness”), being obedient to His instruction and sovereign judgments (see verse 15, above). The wicked, by contrast, are aligned with a separate “throne of corruption”, which cannot be joined or allied with the throne of YHWH’s righteousness. The noun hW`h^ could be read as two different nouns: (I) connoting evil desire, or (II) meaning “destruction, disaster”. The latter is related to cognate words in Syriac and Arabic referring to the “pit” or “abyss” (of death and the nether-realm, etc); this is fitting in light of the wording used in verse 13 (see above). In keeping with this parallel with tj^v^ (in v. 13), I have translated hW`h^ here as “corruption”.

The second line is more difficult to explain. I have retained the MT without emendation or re-vocalizing (cp. Dahood, II, p. 350). Parallelism with the first line suggests the figure of a ruler (on the “throne of corruption”) who inscribes wicked decrees (“upon an inscribed [decree]”). By these evil decrees, the wicked human leaders of this world are fashioning (vb rx^y`) trouble (lm*u*); compare the wording in verse 16 (see above).

Verse 21

“They band together against (the) soul of (the) righteous,
and (the) blood of (one) clear (of guilt) they treat wickedly.”

Though these wicked leaders cannot be aligned with YHWH and His righteousness, there are able to join together, with each other; and, in their wickedness, they end up attacking the righteous. The verb dd^G` II seems to have, as its basic meaning, the idea of people moving together (the cognate Arabic jannada means “mobilize”, cf. HALOT, p. 177). The sense is of people banding together for a hostile purpose (cf. Psalm 56:7[6]; cp. 59:4[3]). The description of evil world-leaders (v. 20) gathering together against the righteous reminds one of the opening lines of Psalm 2.

The righteous person is “clear” (yq!n`) of guilt; that is, he/she has done nothing worthy of being condemned and attacked. The righteous are innocent in this regard, and their “blood” (i.e., their lives) are sacrosanct, and should be protected. The wicked, however, treat the innocent blood of the righteous in a wicked fashion, implying violent action. It is this hostile intent which prompts the Psalmist’s prayer to YHWH, asking for His protection and deliverance.

Conclusion (verses 22-23)

Verse 22

“And (so) may YHWH be for me as my place up high,
even my Mighty (One) as (the) Rock of my refuge!”

The conclusion of the Psalm corresponds with the invocation (in vv. 1-2), where the Psalmist calls on YHWH to stand and render judgment, punishing the the wicked for their evil deeds. The same basic idea prevails here in the concluding lines, but adapted to reflect the themes of the previous sections—most notably the language and imagery in vv. 16-21. The Psalmist expects an answer to his prayer for deliverance, that he will be protected and rescued (by YHWH) from the wicked adversaries who threaten him.

The initial w-consecutive verb form could be rendered as past tense, suggesting that YHWH has already acted on the Psalmist’s behalf. This is a valid way of reading the text; however, I believe it is better to treat this verb as a precative (comparable to a precative perfect form), expressing the Psalmist’s wish (and expectation) in terms of something that has already happened.

The locative nouns bG`c=m! and hs#j&m^ both allude to the protection that YHWH provides for the righteous. The first term denotes a “place set up high”, protected and difficult to access; the second means “protected place” or “place of refuge”. Both terms occur with some frequency in the Psalms, part of the broader theme of Divine protection as a reflection of YHWH’s loyalty to the covenant. This protected place “up high” fits nicely with the motif of YHWH as a “Rock” (rWx); the same image also serves to represent the faithfulness of God.

Verse 23

“And may He return upon them their trouble,
and in their evil may He destroy them,
may He destroy them, YHWH our Mighty (One)!”

The Psalm ends with an imprecation, calling upon YHWH to bring judgment upon the wicked, just as the Psalmist does in the opening invocation (v. 2). This judgment reflects true justice, according to the principle of lex talionis. The Psalmist asks YHWH to “return” upon the wicked the trouble that they have caused (“their trouble”, cf. verses 16 and 20). The idea is that their own actions will come back upon them, being punished for their evil deeds in like measure, and in like manner.

Beyond this, the Psalmist calls on God to “destroy” (vb tm^x*) the wicked, even as they are engaged in their evil conduct (“in their evil”). This double-call for YHWH to destroy the wicked may seem quite harsh and disconcerting to modern readers (esp. Christian readers), but it is altogether typical of ancient imprecatory language and conventions, of which there are many examples in the Psalms (and throughout the Old Testament). The Psalmist expects, and hopes, that judgment will finally come for the wicked. Though they may have prospered during this life (vv. 3-7), God’s justice and judgment ultimately cannot be flaunted or escaped; the wicked will pay the price for their evil conduct, especially for the oppression and violence inflicted upon the righteous—including all manner of injustice against the innocent, poor, and vulnerable members of society.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 94 (Part 1)

Psalm 94

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsb (vv. 1-4, 8-14, 17-18, 21-22); 1QPsa (v. 16)

This Psalm, typical of many in the Psalter, consists of a lament by the protagonist, along with a prayer to YHWH for deliverance. The Wisdom elements, integrated and situated prominently at the heart of the composition (vv. 8-15), are also typical of the influence of Wisdom tradition on many Psalms. In addition, the Psalmist anticipates that YHWH will answer his prayer, and will act on his behalf; the prayer thus also serves as an expression of trust in God. The protagonist in the Psalms is regularly presented as one of the righteous, and, as a faithful/loyal servant of YHWH, he can expect God to fulfill His side of the covenant bond and provide protection in the time of need.

There are no definite indications of a date for the composition of the Psalm (at any stage), though the extensive inclusion of Wisdom elements suggests perhaps an exilic (or post-exilic) date, at least for the final work as it has come down to us. Without the inner wisdom-sections (vv. 8-15), considered (perhaps) as a subsequent addition, it would be easier to view Psalm 94 as a pre-exilic composition. There is no attribution of authorship in the MT (or the Qumran manuscripts), but the LXX has a superscription attributing it to David and also indicating that it is to be performed on the “fourth day” of the week (cp. the heading of Ps 92).

On the relation of Psalm 94 within the collection of eight (93-100), grouped according to the theme of YHWH’s kingship, see the brief discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 453, 455-6) and the study by David M. Howard, The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

There is a well-developed, sectional structure to this Psalm, which also is chiastic in nature:

    • Invocation—the protagonist calls on YHWH to render judgment (vv. 1-2)
      • Lament with a Wisdom emphasis: ‘Why are the wicked allowed to go unpunished?’ (vv. 3-7)
        • Wisdom couplets—addressed to the foolish/wicked (vv. 8-11)
        • Wisdom couplets—addressed to the wise/righteous (vv. 12-15)
      • Prayer for deliverance—to rescue the righteous from the wicked (vv. 16-21)
    • Declaration of YHWH’s judgment, vindicating the righteous and punishing the wicked (vv. 22-23)

The meter of this Psalm is somewhat irregular, but a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to dominate.

For its relative length, the Psalm is extensively preserved in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsb. In this regard, it is worth noting that, in the portions which survive (without requiring reconstruction), there are ostensibly no textual variants; the text is essentially identical with that of the MT.

Invocation (vv. 1-2)

Verse 1

“O Mighty (One) of vengeance, YHWH,
Mighty (One) of vengeance, shine forth!”

In this opening couplet, the Psalmist calls on YHWH to appear, in his role as Judge, and render judgment. The nature of this judgment is indicated by the repeated attribute of hm*q*n] (“vengeance, revenge”), which can be rendered in the judicial sense of “retribution”. As Dahood mentions (II, p. 346), the root <qn connotes the idea of vindication (for the righteous) as well as punishment (for the wicked)—both aspects are unquestionably in view.

The repetitive parallelism of the couplet, with an a+b+c / a+b+d format, is characteristic of Canaanite poetry (cf. the tricola in Ps 93:3-4, discussed in the previous study):

    • Mighty (One) of | vengeance | YHWH
    • Mighty (One) of | vengeance | shine forth

The verb form, as vocalized by the MT, uy~p!oh, is most naturally read as a (Hiphil) Perfect, even though an imperative seems to be called for; an imperative, attested by some Versions, would be clarified by the form (with paragogic h-), hu*yp!oh (see Ps 80:2[1]). The MT could, however, be read as a precative perfect, which carries much the same force as an imperative. The verb up^y` means “shine”, often in the basic sense of “be visible, appear”; in the Hiphil causative stem, this becomes “make shine”, “cause to shine (forth)”, here understood reflexively of YHWH (“make [yourself] shine forth”).

Verse 2

“Lift yourself, (you the One) judging the earth,
turn (their) dealing (back) on (the) high (one)s!”

YHWH’s role as Judge is specified here in the second couplet, utilizing the verbal noun (participle) fp@v), “judging”, i.e., the one who judges, who renders a (legal) decision. YHWH is the Judge of the entire earth, a theme found frequently in the Psalms, and corollary to His identity as King (Sovereign) over the universe (cf. the previous Psalm 93).

The Psalmist specifically asks that God “turn back” onto the “high (one)s” (<ya!G@)—in English idiom, we might say the “high and mighty” —their lWmG+, referring to how one deals with other people, for good or evil (in this case, evil). In such a judicial context, it term implies a kind of recompense, in a decidedly negative sense—i.e., a punitive penalty that corresponds to one’s (wicked) behavior.

Indeed, the adjective ha#G@ (“high”) typically connotes a negative sort of “high-mindedness” —prideful arrogance, boasting, and the like—which is very much characteristic of the wicked. In other words, the Psalmist is asking YHWH to bring punishment upon the wicked, paying them back for their own wickedness. Their “highness” indicates, not only arrogance, but also a genuinely high (i.e., powerful) status in society, obtained, in large part, as a result of their wicked conduct (as the lament in vv. 3-7 makes clear).

Lament (verses 3-7)

Verse 3

“Until when (shall the) wicked, O YHWH,
until when shall (the) wicked shout (for joy)?”

The theme introduced in v. 2, regarding the “highness” of the wicked, is developed here in the lament. It deals with a subject familiar from Wisdom literature: why are the wicked allowed (by God) to prosper in this life? Here, this is posed as a comparable question: “Until when will the wicked clamor (triumphantly)?” The verb is zl^u*, which basically indicates a loud noise (like a shout, etc), made joyfully, sometimes specifically connoting the idea of triumph. The wicked shout joyfully and clamor about because they seem to triumph in this earthly life. The verb could also be rendered “exult”, which would provide continuity with the motif of being “high, lofty”. The imperfect verb form, as with the imperfects in vv. 4-7 (see below), is probably meant to express regular (and recurring) behavior.

Again, the same repetitive parallelism (a+b+c / a+b+d) from verse 1 (see above) is used here:

    • Until when | (the) wicked | O YHWH
    • until when | (the) wicked | shall clamor
Verse 4

“They gush (and) speak (many) a far-ranging (boast)—
they speak of themselves, all (these) makers of trouble!”

It is specifically the speech of the wicked that is in focus here—i.e., the high and mighty things they say, all their (boastful) shouting and clamoring. This evil speech gushes forth (vb ub^n`, Hiphil); in English idiom we might say that they “spout off”. The arrogance and insolence of their speech is indicated by the noun qt*u*, a word that is difficult to translate but which generally refers to something that “goes past” what is right and proper, etc—a sense of surpassing distance, in the arrogance of the wicked, that is comparable to their “highness” (v. 2).

Indeed, this is selfish, boastful talk, as the wicked “say (things) about themselves”, an emphasis indicated by the use the reflexive (Hitpael) of the verb rm^a*. Such people are literally “makers of trouble” (vb lu^P* + noun /w#a*), an idiom, as a characteristic of the wicked, which occurs with some frequency in the Psalms—5:6[5]; 6:9[8]; 14:4; 28:3; 36:13[12]; 53:5[4]; 59:3[2]; 64:3[2], etc.

Verse 5

“Your people, O YHWH, they do crush,
and your inheritance they oppress;”

Verses 1-4 were all 3-beat (3+3) couplets; now, in vv. 5-6, the rhythm suddenly shifts to shortened 3+2 couplets. This is perhaps intended as a poetic accompaniment to the dramatic description of the “trouble” (/w#a*, v. 4) caused by the wicked. In particular, they cause trouble for God’s people—meaning, ostensibly, the righteous ones of Israel. Thus, the familiar contrast between the righteous and the wicked—and of the suffering of the righteous at the hands of the wicked—is here established. This is a basic Old Testament theme, particularly prominent in Wisdom tradition, and found frequently throughout many Psalms.

The wicked “crush” (vb ak^D*) and “press down” (vb hn`u*), i.e., oppress, the righteous. Again, this is traditional terminology, the latter verb alluding to the common designation of the righteous as “pressed down, oppressed, lowly” (yn]u*, wn`u*).

Verse 6

“(the) widow and stranger they do kill,
and (the) orphans they smash—”

The description of the cruel and oppressive behavior of the wicked continues from verse 5, with the same 3+2 meter. In the Psalms, the righteous tend to be identified with the poor and lowly—in contrast with the “high” position of the wicked. Here, however, the Psalmist has in view also the practical matter of what we would call social justice—protection (and justice) for the weak and vulnerable members of society.

This includes, naturally and traditionally, widows and orphans, but also the rG@, referring to a person who leaves his home(land) to reside in another place. Such resident “strangers”, who are often displaced, seeking shelter from famine, disease, war, etc, are to be shown special care and treated as protected citizens. The Prophetic writings are particularly harsh in their condemnation of the oppression that exists in society, resulting in suffering for the weak and vulnerable; the Psalms frequently evince this social justice emphasis as well.

Verse 7

“and (yet) they say, ‘YH(WH) does not see (this),
nor does He discern (it), (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!'”

This mode of overconfident (and boastful) thinking is traditionally attributed to the wicked. Particularly egregious (and foolish, see below) is the idea that YHWH does not see what such people are doing. This kind of characteristic declaration has a two-fold purpose here: (i) it expresses the arrogant ‘high-mindedness’ of the wicked; but (ii) it also attests to the troubling incongruity that is at the heart of the particular wisdom tradition—viz., why are the wicked left unpunished and allowed to prosper in this life? Does God not see what wicked things they do?

Wisdom Couplets (verses 8-11)

Verse 8

“Discern (this), (you) brutish (one)s among the people!
and (you) fools—when will you show understanding?”

Verse 8 picks up on the use of the verb /yB! (“understand, discern”) in v. 7 to introduce this set of four Wisdom-couplets, addressed to the wicked—who are also fools. Indeed, they show themselves foolish by the way they act and speak, thinking that YHWH does not see what they do, and will not judge them for it. The verb lk^c* I, “be wise, understanding, skillful”, overlaps in meaning with /yB!, both verbs being very much part of the Wisdom-vocabulary.

Verse 9

“The (One) planting (the) ear, does He not hear?
or (the One) forming (the) eye, does He not observe?”

This extended 4-beat (4+4) couplet addresses the foolish thinking (and speaking) expressed in v. 7 (see above). Of course YHWH hears and sees everything the wicked says and does, since He is the One who made the ears and eyes of created beings in the first place. If He can give people the ability to see, then surely He Himself is able to see what the wicked are doing!

Verse 10

“The (One) disciplining nations, can He not bring rebuke?
the (One) teaching mankind, is He lacking knowledge?”

This couplet follows the pattern of verse 9, only with an irregular 4+3 meter, suggesting the possibility that a word has dropped out. The ability of YHWH to hear/see (the things people say/do) was emphasized in v. 9, now it is His ability to render proper judgment on their words and conduct. The universal scope of this ability is expressed, reflecting YHWH’s position as Judge of the entire world (see v. 2, above). The term “nations” (<y]oG) has a comprehensive and general meaning here, referring to all (hu)mankind (<d*a*). YHWH is certainly able to correct and rebuke human beings, giving discipline and punishment as needed, teaching all people the truth about what is right.

As mentioned above, the 4+3 meter of the second line allows for the possibility that a word has dropped out; the Qumran manuscript 4QPsb is unfortunately fragmentary at this point, so a determination cannot be made on this textual point. Regardless, the parallelism of the couplet requires that the implied phrase be “lacking in knowledge [tu^D*]”. Dahood (II, p. 348) offers the clever suggestion that the final <– on <d*a* does double-duty, and that we should essentially read, for the final two words, tu^D*m! <d*a*. The prefixed /m! preposition (“from”), taken in a privative sense, would carry the meaning “lacking of”, “without”.

Verse 11

“YHWH (is the One) knowing (the) thoughts of man,
how they (are all but) an (empty) breath!”

The irregular 4+3 meter of this final couplet adds support for the idea that the same meter in v. 10 (MT) is correct, and that the verse has come down to us intact. Not only does YHWH hear/see what all human beings say/do, but He even knows all the thoughts which a person thinks. This includes, most importantly, the person’s intention. The thoughts of human beings, in general, are empty and vain—how much more so the thoughts of the wicked! The noun lb#h#, denoting a breath, or vapor, often is used in a derogatory sense—i.e., a mere breath, a puff (of air), etc—and is a keyword in the vocabulary of Wisdom literature. It occurs most frequently in the book of Qohelet/Ecclesiastes (beginning in 1:2, 5 times), but also appears a number of times in the Psalms, as evidence for the influence of Wisdom-tradition on the Psalter.

The second half of Psalm 94 will be examined in the next study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 92 (Part 2)

Psalm 92, continued

The Hymn: Verses 5-12 (cont.)

Verses 10-12 comprise the second part of the central hymn; for the first part (vv. 5-9), cf. the previous study. Each part begins with the emphatic particle yK!.

While many Psalms evince a royal background, this aspect is particularly prominent here in vv. 10-12, where the protagonist seems rather clearly to represent the king, and certain aspects of the royal theology are vividly expressed. Given the archaic features in these verses (cf. especially below on v. 10), it seems quite possible that the lines, if not those of the entire hymn, were composed in the kingdom period.

Verse 10 [9]

“For, see, (those) hostile to you, O YHWH,
for, see (those) hostile to you shall perish—
shall be scattered, all (those) making trouble!”

This three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon builds upon the Wisdom-theme in the first part (in vv. 7-8f) alluding to the destruction of the wicked. Here in vv. 10-12, the wicked are presented as hostile enemies of the (royal) protagonist, against whom he calls to YHWH for protection. As a faithful servant of God, and a representative of God’s people, the king’s enemies are also God’s enemies, as this verse clearly expresses.

Scholars have long recognized the similarity of verse 10 to a tricolon from the Ugaritic Baal Epic (Tablet II, column iv, lines 8-9):

ht ibk b±lm
ht ibk tm—s
ht tƒmt ƒrtk

“Now your enemy, O Ba’al,
now your enemy may you strike,
now may you silence your foe!”

The first two lines of each are quite close, following an a+b+c / a+b+d pattern.

Sarna (p. 160ff) cites the parallel in support of his proposal that the hymn draws upon ancient cosmological mythic tradition, whereby the victories of YHWH (over His enemies) refer primarily to those which took place at the time of creation. In bringing forth the ordered universe out of the dark and watery chaos of the primordial time, God is depicted as subduing monstrous adversaries. For more on this ancient mythological tradition, and its application to YHWH in Hebrew poetry, see my earlier article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

In light of this background, it is possible to read the imperfect (yqtl) verb forms as describing past events (cf. Dahood, II, p. 337). However, almost certainly, any cosmological allusions are being applied here to the context of the hymn—namely, the expectation that YHWH will use His great power to protect His people, defeating their adversaries even as He did the primordial opponents. The verb dr^P* in the third line means “separate, divide”; here, in reference to the defeat of enemies, it can mean “scatter, disperse”, or, more cruelly, “take apart” (i.e. dismember).

Verse 11 [10]

“While you lift high my horn like (the) bull,
you make me wet with luxuriant oil.”

The initial w-conjunction establishes a contrast with v. 10: while YHWH’s enemies are defeated (and destroyed), His faithful servant (the king) is exalted. The image of the horn (esp. of a bull or ox) as a symbol of strength and vitality is traditional, as is the specific application of the motif as a reference to royal power and prestige—cf. Psalm 18:2 [2 Sam 22:3]; 74:4-5; 89:17, 24; 112:9; 132:17; 148:14; Jer 48:25; Ezek 29:21; Dan 7:8ff; Mic 4:13; Luke 1:69. The derivation of the noun <a@r= remains uncertain, as does the precise animal intended by the term (wild bull, buffalo, antelope, etc); a bull is most appropriate to the royal context.

The second line probably refers to the anointing of the king, however the use of the verb ll^B* for this is unusual. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, it is used in the context of mixing together oil; however, in Akkadian the cognate verb can mean “moisten”, and this may be the basic sense here—a person made wet by having oil poured (or rubbed) on him. The MT form and/or vocalization is problematic; it should rather be vocalized as a passive form (yT!L)B%,
“I have been made wet”), or, perhaps, emended to read yn]t^L)B^ (“you have made me wet”). I have opted for the latter.

It has also been suggested that the text should be emended to read instead the verb gl^B* (“be bright, glad, cheerful”), so that the line reads something like “I shine with fresh oil”; cf. Thijs Booij, “The Hebrew Text of Psalm XCII 11,” Vetus Testamentum [VT] 38 (1988), pp. 210-4.

While the idea of a royal anointing may be implicit, the immediate context suggests that strength and vitality (and blessing from YHWH) is the primary idea being expressed (cp. Ps 23:5). The adjective /n`u&r^ literally means “green”, but often in the sense of “fresh, luxuriant”. The protagonist is honored by being anointed (or rubbed) with luxuriant oil.

Verse 12 [11]

“My eyes shall look on (those) watching me,
of (those) standing against me my ears shall hear.”

The final verse of the hymn is the most difficult. The irregular and seemingly overloaded lines suggests a corruption—perhaps a gloss has made its way into the text. As it stands, the MT is best parsed as an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon. However, the parallelism is better served by omitting the word <yu!r@m= (“[those] doing evil”) as a gloss, resulting in a cleaner, though still slightly irregular (4+3), couplet. The participles of the verb rWv (“watch” [i.e., with hostile intent]) and <Wq (“stand up” [in opposition]) serve as fitting descriptions of the protagonist’s enemies. According to the royal background of these verses, the verbs may refer specifically to traitors plotting against the king, even to the point of (armed) rebellion against his rule.

Based on vv. 10-11, the implication is that these adversaries have been defeated (or will be so). It is in this condition that the protagonist looks upon them and/or hears reports about them.

Conclusion: Verses 13-16

Verse 13 [12]

“(The) righteous, like (the) palm tree, will sprout,
like a cedar in the white mountains he grows tall.”

The conclusion of the Psalm is comprised of a sequence of couplets that draw heavily upon Wisdom tradition. Taken in relation to vv. 7-8 (cf. the previous study), the familiar theme contrasting the righteous and the wicked—and the correspond fate of each—is expounded. The fate of the wicked was dealt with, however briefly, in vv. 7-8, while here in vv. 13-16 the fate of the righteous is described.

The tree-motif, utilized here, is better known from its use in Psalm 1:3; the context is the same—contrasting the righteous and the wicked (and their fates). The righteous will flourish like a tree planted next to the life-giving waters. Here, the righteous will similarly flourish, sprouting and blossoming like a palm tree, and growing tall (vb hg*c* [ag*c*]) like the cedars of Lebanon (lit. the “white mountain[s]”).

Even though the Wisdom-orientation of these closing verses is quite different from the setting of vv. 10-12 (cf. above), the two sections are related according to the general concept of the exaltation of the righteous (v. 11). The growth of the horn parallels the image of the growth of the tree.

Verse 14 [13]

“Having been planted in (the) house of YHWH,
in (the) enclosures of our Mighty (One) they sprout.”

In verse 14, the location of the “sprouting” (vb jr^P*) of the righteous, like a tree, is given. They will be planted (as shoots) in the dwelling (“house”) of YHWH. The expression “house of YHWH” can, of course, refer to the Temple, but that is not the point of reference here. Rather, it is a reference to the heavenly dwelling of God. The blessed afterlife is being expressed, just as in the beatitude setting of Psalm 1 (cf. the earlier study).

Verse 15 [14]

“Still they will bear fruit (even) in old age—
(full of) fat and luxuriant they will be!—”

The promise of long life has two-fold significance in Israelite and Old Testament tradition. On the one hand, the present life on earth is intended; on the other hand, this sense of duration also extends to the idea of the blessed afterlife (cf. above)—dwelling with God in heaven. In any case, the image is clear enough: the righteous while still be vital and full of life, able to “bear fruit” (vb bWn), even in old age. This vitality is expressed here by the traditional motif of “fatness” (i.e., richness); as the adjective /v@D* can also mean “juicy”, possibly the specific idea of a tree still full of sap is intended. The adjective /n`u&r^ was used earlier in verse 11; as noted, it literally means “green”, but often in the sense of “fresh” or “luxuriant”.

Verse 16 [15]

“(able) to put out front how straight YHWH (is),
my Rock, and (how there is) no deviation in Him!”

The final couplet of the Psalm returns to the worship-context of the introduction (vv. 2-4, cf. the previous study), even repeating the use of the verb dg~n` (Hiphil), “put in front” —that is, show or declare publicly the faithfulness of YHWH (v. 3). Here the characteristic of faithfulness is expressed by the attribute of “straightness” (adj. rv*y`, “straight, level”), which is also a traditional Divine attribute—parallel with qyd!x* (“right[eous]”). Being straight, there is no deviation (lw#u*, hl*w+u^) of any kind in Him. Both rvy and lwu are frequently used in an ethical-religious sense, with rvy connoting personal integrity, honesty, and “upright” conduct; conversely, lwu can connote injustice, sin/iniquity, and (moral) perversion.

The traditional motif of YHWH as a rock (rWx) is another way of expressing the idea of His faithfulness (hn`Wna$, v. 3, lit. “firmness”).

Syntactically, verse 16 should be seen as a continuation of v. 15.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Sarna” are to Nahum M. Sarna, “The Psalm for the Sabbath Day (Psalm 92),” Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 81 (1962), pp. 155-68.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 92 (Part 1)

Psalm 92

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsb (vv. 4-8, 13-15 [3-7, 12-14]); 1QPsa (vv. 12-14 [11-13])

This particular Psalm has a composite character, drawing upon a number of well-established genres and traditional themes.

The central body of the Psalm (verses 5-12) consists of a hymn to YHWH, but one which incorporates two very disparate and distinct lines of tradition. These correspond, more or less, to the two parts of the hymn. The first part (vv. 5-9) is centered on the Wisdom lines in vv. 7-8, drawing upon several key themes from Wisdom literature: the foolishness of humankind, the presence (or lack) of knowledge and understanding, the brevity of human life, the vegetation/sprouting motif, and the contrast between the righteous and wicked. The second part (vv. 10-12) emphasizes the salvation provided by God, in rescuing the protagonist from his hostile (wicked) adversaries. This is a genre-theme found frequently in the Psalms, and reflects the royal background of many Psalms, whereby the protagonist is (or takes on the role of) the king, calling upon YHWH for help in overcoming his opponents and enemies. The king functions as a loyal servant to YHWH, representing the people, in a specific way, within the covenant bond (between YHWH and His people). In protecting and rescuing the king, YHWH confirms his rule over the kingdom.

The hymn is preceded by an introductory section (vv. 2-4) which establishes a worship setting, possibly indicating something of the liturgical setting in which the Psalm itself was performed. These verses form a distinct unit, as is clear from the fact that, syntactically, they comprise a single sentence. Following the hymn, there is also a closing section (vv. 13-16), which again draws heavily upon Wisdom-tradition, developing several themes and motifs from vv. 7-8ff.

The hymn unquestionably contains the oldest layers of the Psalm, and probably, in some form, represented the core composition, to which the opening and closing sections were added. The age of the Psalm, and even of the central hymn, is difficult to determine; however, verses 10-12, with its royal background clearly preserved, may well date from the kingdom period

The heading of the Psalm, in addition to designating it as both a musical composition (romz+m!) and a “song” (ryv!), mentions that it is “for the day of resting [tB*v^, i.e. Sabbath]”. This is the only Psalm with such a designation; indeed, this is the only occurrence of the word tB*v^ in the Psalter. It presumably means that the Psalm was to be performed, or had come to be performed, during the Sabbath service, as part of the liturgy. How ancient this association was is impossible to say. For more on this subject, cf. the article by Nahum M. Sarna, “The Psalm for the Sabbath Day (Psalm 92),” Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 81 (1962), pp. 155-68.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are numerous departures from this meter.

Introduction: Verses 2-4

Verse 2 [1]

“(It is) good to cast (praise) to (you, O) YHWH,
and to make music to your name, Most High—”

As noted above, the opening couplets of the Psalm emphasize the worship of YHWH, and may allude to a liturgical setting for this composition. In this regard, verses 2-4 may have been composed or added later than the main body of the Psalm (vv. 5-12). The pairing of the verbs hd*y` (“throw, cast”, i.e., ‘throw’ someone praise) and rm^z` (“make music”) is natural, and occurs in a number of Psalms (e.g., 33:2). The prefixed –l in the first line can be read as a vocative (“O YHWH…”), or, similarly, a second person address can be understood as implied (“to [you,] YHWH”).

In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person, in a quasi-magical sense. This is no less true in a religious setting, where the name of God is involved—YHWH’s name represents the nature and character (and presence) of YHWH Himself. Thus, to make music to YHWH’s name essentially means the same thing as making music to YHWH. Possibly, a specific reference to the Temple is intended, particularly if the opening lines share the same religious-theological outlook as the Deuteronomic works, where it is particularly the Jerusalem Temple which YHWH has chosen for His name to reside. Cf. the recent series of notes on 1 Kings 8.

Verse 3 [2]

“to put out front in the daybreak your devotion,
and your firmness in the night (watch)es—”

This second couplet builds upon the idea expressed in the first, elaborating the praise (in music) that the Psalmist would give to YHWH. He would “put in front” (vb dg~n`) of everyone (that is, express publicly) the loyalty of YHWH. The familiar pairing of nouns—ds#j# and hn`Wma$—is used to express this idea of YHWH’s covenant loyalty; cf. the frequent use of them in Psalm 89. The noun ds#j# means “goodness, kindness”, but often (and nearly always in the Psalms), it connotes loyalty and faithfulness (i.e., to the covenant); here it is rendered as “devotion”. The parallel noun hn`Wma$ (like the related tm#a#) literally means “firmness,” in the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, etc.

YHWH’s goodness and faithfulness is such that He is worthy of being praised all day long—from the first “break (of day)” (rq#B)) in the morning, and then all through the night. The plural tolyl@ (lit. “nights”) is used, and probably refers to the ‘watches’ of the night (Ps 134:1, cf. Dahood, II, p. 336; I, p. 90).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2. Syntactically, vv. 3-4 represent the continuation of sentence beginning in v. 2. I read verse 3 as parenthetical, between vv. 2 and 4.

Verse 4 [3]

“on (the) ten-strings, even on (the) harp,
on (our) murmuring with (the) lyre!”

As mentioned above, verse 3, despite the centrality of its position, is parenthetical within the opening. Verse 4 properly continues the immediate thought of v. 2, elaborating the music-making that the Psalmist intends. Three different terms for a harp/lyre are used: rocu* (denoting an instrument with ten strings), lb#n`, and roNK!; we should not infer from this poetic variation that three different instruments are specifically meant. The music-making is done with the strings of a harp.

Similarly, the preposition lu^ (in the form yl@u&) occurs three times; it can be rendered “(up)on” —that is, the praise is sung to music played on the harp. The noun /oyG`h! denotes a low sound, such as the growl of an animal, or the “murmuring” of a person talking low/quietly; here it refers to music that is played—a ‘murmuring’ on the strings.

Metrically, verse 4 is best parsed as an extended 4+3 couplet; it could also be divided as an irregular 2+2+3 tricolon, each line consisting of a prepositional phrase (beginning with yl@u&).

The Hymn: Verses 5-12

Verse 5 [4]

“For you have made me glad, YHWH, by your deed,
and by (the) works of your hands I sing out.”

This couplet begins the main body of the Psalm, a hymn of praise to YHWH for the faithfulness which He has shown (v. 3) to His loyal servant. This faithfulness is demonstrated by specific actions. The noun lu*P* in the first line denotes something which YHWH has done, the singular probably intended in a comprehensive sense. The plural of hc#u&m^ (with basically the same meaning as lu*P*) is used in the second line. What YHWH has done on behalf of the protagonist has made him glad (vb jm^c*, Piel), and spurs him to “ring out” (vb /n~r*) praise in music and song.

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb apparently has a third person (passive) form of the verb /nr (/nry), “it rings out”, rather than “I ring out” (MT /N@r^a&). The same manuscript also reads a singular, rather than plural, form of the noun hc#u&m^.

Verse 6 [5]

“How great are your works, O YHWH,
(how) very deep are your thoughts!”

The things done by YHWH correspond to his purposes. There is a formal parallel here between the nouns hc*u&m^ (“work, deed, act”) and hb*v*j&m^ (“thought, purpose, plan”). The things which YHWH plans, and carries out,  are both “great” (ldg, implying height) and “deep” (qmu); the greatness is dynamic, expressed through action—the verbs ld^G` and qm^u* are used.

For a different way of understanding da)m= (“much, very”), at the beginning of the second line, cf. Dahood (II, p. 335), who treats it as a Divine title or epithet.

Verse 7 [6]

“A man (who is) brutish does not know,
and a stupid (person) does not discern this.”

The deep thoughts of God are contrasted with the brutish stupidity of human beings. The Psalmist almost certainly is not referring here only to particularly brute-like (ru^B^) or stupid (lsk) people; rather, this extreme language is used to characterize humankind generally, in comparison with God. Only those faithful ones, who are willing to devote themselves to the Wisdom of God, can truly understand or have any real knowledge. The influence of Wisdom-tradition on vv. 7-8 is clear, as also on the closing verses of the Psalm (13-16).

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb in the first line has a w-conjunction before the negative particle (alw), thus giving a slightly different reading: “the man (who is) brutish and does not know”.

Verses 8 [7]

“With (the) sprouting of (the) wicked like grass,
even (though) all (those) making trouble blossom,
(it is) for them to be destroyed forever!”

The relevance of this Wisdom-verse, within the context of the hymn, is not immediately apparent. It clearly builds upon the thought of v. 7 (cf. above), alluding to the brutishness and lack of knowledge among (most) human beings. Here, the focus shifts to the wicked, a popular emphasis in the Psalms (as in Wisdom literature), whereby the wicked are typically contrasted with the righteous. The apparent success and prosperity of the wicked, undeserved as it may be, is also a common theme in Wisdom literature, and can be found in a number of Psalms. This particular vegetation/sprouting imagery was used, in a similar context, in Psalm 90 (vv. 5-6ff); cf. the earlier study.

The wicked are characterized as people who make trouble and do evil/unjust things, combining the verb lu^P* with the noun /w#a*, a traditional idiom (cf. Psalm 5:6[5]; 14:4; 28:3, etc). Their actions are altogether opposite (and opposed) to what YHWH does (cf. the same root lup used in v. 5); the righteous, who follow God’s example, have their actions similarly contrasted with those of the wicked.

The idea of the destruction of the wicked anticipates the theme in vv. 10-12, while the sprouting/flowering motif is picked up again in vv. 13-16.

Verse 9 [8]

“But you (are the One) on High,
into the distant (future), YHWH!”

This verse, which serves as the climax to the first half of the hymn, is difficult, both in terms of its rhythm and syntax. Returning to the praise expressed in v. 6 (cf. above), it also clearly is meant to contrast with fate of the wicked (emphasized by the Wisdom verses 7-8). While the wicked ‘sprout’ up and flower for a brief time, only to be destroyed “forever”, YHWH remains exalted forever. Two different ways of expressing this idea, of a period of time lasting (indefinitely) into the future, are used in vv. 8 and 9.

First, there is the expression du^-yd@u&, an alliterative doubling of related words from the root hd*u* (“go on, pass [by]”): (1) the preposition du^ (in the form yd@u&), “until, as far as,” etc, and (2) the noun du^, meaning something like “perpetuity” (i.e., continual, lasting time). The doubling can imply a certain circuity, possibly alluding to the sense of futility that attends the brief flourishing of the wicked. Second, in v. 9, is the more common <l*oul=, which literally means “(in)to the distant (future)”, but often in the generalized or abstract sense of “forever”.

The locative noun <orm* (“high place”), probably refers to YHWH’s eternal dwelling in Heaven; however, it could also be viewed as a Divine title, something like “(the One) on High”.

Metrically, the verse can be viewed as a single 4-beat line, or as a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet; I have opted for the latter division.

The remainder of the Psalm, consisting of the second half of the core hymn (vv. 10-12) and the closing section (vv. 13-16), will be discussed in next week’s study.

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


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 86 (Part 2)

Psalm 86, continued

Part 2: Verses 8-13

(For Part 1, see the previous study.)

Verse 8

“There is none like you among the Mighty (one)s,
my Lord, and there is no(thing) like your works!”

This second section of the Psalm shifts from a prayer to a hymn in praise of YHWH. The focus in the initial verse is the familiar theme of the incomparability of YHWH—His uniqueness and superiority over every other god or divine being. This reflects the qualified monotheism of Israelite religion in the period of the Judges and the (early) Kingdom period. YHWH’s incomparability is expressed, in each line, by the use of the negative particle /y]a^, which typically has a privative force, indicating absence or lack. This particle tends to function as a substantive verbal element (or as an adverb), with the meaning “there is no…”.

I have presented the verse as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, but it might be more accurate to treat it as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, which better brings out the chiastic parallelism:

    • “There is no one like you
      • among the Mighty (one)s, my Lord,
    • and there is no(thing) like your works”
Verse 9

“All (the) nations that you have made
shall come and shall bow down
before your face, O my Lord,
and shall give weight to your name.”

Metrically, I parse this verse as a slightly irregular (3+2+2+2) quatrain; dividing it into a quatrain with primarily 2-beat lines fits the rhythm/meter of the Psalm as a whole.

The nations are here regarded as among the great “works” of YHWH (“that you have made”). His supremacy lies principally in the fact that He is the supreme Creator—who created all of humankind, the nations and their people. For this reason, all the nations should recognize and acknowledge Him as the Mightiest and Greatest One; worship of YHWH should not be limited to the Israelite people alone. The verse speaks of a future time with the nations will come and bow down before YHWH. This is an important theme in the Prophetic writings of the exilic and post-exilic periods. In these prophetic poems and oracles, it is envisioned that representatives of the nations will come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the (restored) Israelite/Judean kingdom; in the process, they will acknowledge and worship Israel’s God, YHWH. See, for example, Isaian passages such as 2:1-4 (par Mic 4:1-5); 42:1-6ff; 49:6-7, 22-23; 56:6-8; 60:3-16; 66:12ff, 18-21; the close of the book of Zechariah (14:16-21) contains an especially notable prophecy on this theme.

In the final line, the verb db^K* (Piel, “give weight, make heavy”) is used in its typical figurative sense of “give honor”, i.e., considering (someone) worthy or of value. The nations will give honor to YHWH’s name, which implies a ritual or symbolic honoring of YHWH Himself. On the relation of a person’s name to the person, in ancient Near Eastern thought, cf. the introduction to my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

Dahood (II, p. 294) gives an interesting alternative reading of this verse, treating the relative particle rv#a& as conditional, and thus rendering the first line as a conditional clause: “When you act, the nations will come…”.

Verse 10

“For great you (are indeed),
and a worker of wonders—
you, O Mightiest—you alone!”

The Psalmist takes over the worship of YHWH now, in the present, acknowledging His greatness (adj. lodG`). There is emphatic force to the initial particle yK!, and it would be possible (but not necessary) to translate the line as “how great you (are)”. YHWH’s works (v. 8) include creation (i.e., of humankind and the nations, v. 9), but also the wonders (toal*p=n]) He has performed—specifically, on behalf of His people during their history. Through these supernatural and miraculous deeds, YHWH also shows Himself to be incomparable, and far superior to all other deities (“you alone”, ;D#b^l=).

Metrically, I take this verse to be an irregular 2+2+3 tricolon. If one were to combine verses 9 and 10 together, there would be a sequence of five 2-beat lines bracketed by a pair of 3-beat lines. Thematically and poetically, it would be possible to combine the verses in this way.

Verse 11

“Direct me, O YHWH, in your way,
(that) I may walk in firmness for you only,
(with) my heart fearing your name.”

Embedded in this hymnic section, is a separate prayer-request by the Psalmist to YHWH. He asks God to “direct” him on the path. The verb hr*y` denotes throwing or shooting (an arrow, etc), often in the symbolic or figurative sense of showing a direction; in association with the ethical-religious motif of a path (in which one must ‘walk’), this idea of pointing a direction essentially means “instruct, teach”. Such a meaning of the verb is embedded in the derived noun hr*oT (i.e., “instruction”).

The Psalmist wishes to walk in “firmness” (tm#a#) on the path—that is, firmly, with a sure step, showing himself faithful and trustworthy as a follower of YHWH. The noun tm#a# can also connote truthfulness. I have chosen to vocalize djy in line 2 as the adverb dj^y~, rather than the MT dj@y~ (imperative of the verb dj^y`). I translate it as “alone, only”, parallel with dbl in v. 10—that is, the Psalmist wishes to be faithful to YHWH alone, even as he acknowledges that YHWH alone is the Mightiest One. However, it would also be possible to translate the adverb here as “altogether” (i.e., completely).

As I interpret the verse, metrically it is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 12

“I will throw you, my Lord (and) Mightiest,
(praise) with all of my heart,
and will give your name weight for ever!”

I view verse 12 as being dependent upon the Psalmist’s request in v. 11—i.e., “Instruct me…(and then) I will throw you praise…”; however, for poetic concision I have omitted a glossed “then” from the beginning of the first line. There is a parallelism between the opening verbs of vv. 11 and 12: both (hr*y`, hd*y`) essentially mean “throw” —as YHWH “throws” direction to the Psalmist (i.e., instructs him), then he, in turn, will “throw” praise to YHWH. For a musician-composer, praise in song is an especially appropriate means by which to show one’s gratitude. On the idiom of “giving weight” (vb db^K*) to God’s name, cf. above on verse 9; as the nations will all come to worship and honor YHWH’s name in the future, so the Psalmist, being among the righteous/faithful ones of Israel, does so now in the present.

The final word <l*oul= is a prepositional expression that literally means “into/unto (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here more conventionally, as “forever”. Metrically, this verse, again, is irregular, being a 3+2+3 tricolon; it is also possible to read it as an extended 4+3 bicolon, which would represent more precisely the poetic parallelism in the verse. Eliminating either yn]d)a& (“my Lord”) or yh^l)a$ (“my Mighty [One]”, i.e., my God) from the first line would tighten the rhythm, and would make a couplet format more tenable.

Verse 13

“For (indeed) your goodness is great over me,
and you shall snatch me from Še’ôl below!”

The first line of verse 13 echoes that of v. 10 (cf. above), as the Psalmist declares that YHWH’s goodness (ds#j#) is great (lodG`), even as earlier he declared that YHWH Himself was great. The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”; however, as I have discussed repeatedly, in the context of a covenant-bond, it frequently connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”, and so it does regularly throughout the Psalms. YHWH is loyal to the binding agreement (covenant) with His people, and, when they are faithful and loyal as well, He is obligated (as the Sovereign) to provide blessings and protection.

This protection includes deliverance from danger and threat of death, whether by human adversary or illness/disease, etc. The danger to the Psalmist here is described in terms of being pulled down into Še’ôl (loav=), a term used frequently in the Psalms (and on which cf. my earlier note). The verb lx^n` (“snatch away,” i.e., out of danger) also occurs often in the Psalms.

This allusion to danger provides a transition to the final section of the Psalm, which returns to the prayer-petition emphasis of section 1, but with a stronger tone of lament.

Metrically, this verse is a 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Part 3: Verses 14-17

Verse 14

“O Mightiest, boiling (one)s stand against me,
and a meeting of terrible (one)s seeks my Soul—
indeed, they do not set you in front of them!”

Typical of the lament-sections of the Psalms is this opening reference to a group of nameless adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. While the specific motif may be widespread, the adjectives used to describe the adversaries here are less common. The first, dz@, literally means “boiling (over),” in a negative sense—whether boiling over with rage, or with pride, etc; it occurs 8 times in the Psalms (out of 13 in the OT), but 6 of these are in Ps 119; the only other occurrence is in 19:14 [13]. The second adjective, Jyr!u*, means “terrible, terrifying”, often implying the threat or possibility of violence. Elsewhere in the Psalms, this adjective occurs only in 37:35 and 54:5 [4].

The final line identifies these opponents as unquestionably wicked—they do not set YHWH “in front of them”, as their God and Sovereign. This distinguishes the wicked from the righteous, and is main the reason why the wicked desire to attack and harm the righteous.

Verse 15

“But you, my Lord, (are)
Mighty of love and favor,
long in (your) nostrils,
and Great of goodness and trust.”

This verse is a tight 2-beat quatrain—or, we might say, a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, with an introductory line. The introductory line addresses YHWH: “But you, my Lord…”. The remaining three lines describe the attributes and characteristics of YHWH. Lines two and four are parallel, framing the description:

    • “Mighty of | love | and favor”
    • “Great of | goodness | and trust”

The parallel terms la@ and br^ can either be viewed as construct adjectives (“mighty of…”, “great of…”), or as comparable substantives functioning as Divine titles (“Mighty [One] of…”, “Great [One] of…”). Both approaches are entirely valid. The term <Wjr* denotes the possession and/or exhibiting of a deep love; it is comparable to the parallel noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness, devotion”). There is a similar parallel between /WNj^ (“[showing] favor”) and tm#a# (“firmness,” spec. the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness). All of these terms essentially allude to YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant-bond with His people, and to the blessings which He provides. For poetic concision (required by the short 2-beat lines), I have simplified and shortened these terms in the translation above.

The third line (and the central line of the tricolon) contains a distinctive Hebrew idiom. The expression is “long of nostrils” (<y]P^a^ Er#a#), referring to the nostrils (their burning, flaring) as a symbolic expression of anger. Thus to be long in one’s nostrils is the opposite of being “short” in them—that is, one is not quick to anger. The expression connotes the idea of patience, and is often translated (not inappropriately) as “longsuffering”; many translations render the expression as “slow to anger”.

The sequence of phrases and attributes here in v. 15 echoes the famous proclamation in Exodus 34:6 (cf. also Num 14:18; Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:3; Jonah 4:2; Nehemiah 9:17).

Verse 16

“(So) turn to me and show me favor!
Give (now) strength to your servant,
and give safety to (the) son of your trust!”

Since YHWH is Mighty in showing favor (/WNj^, v. 15), the Psalmist, in his time of need, calls on YHWH now to show him favor (vb /n~j*). The related call for God to “turn” (vb hn`P*) to the Psalmist is another way of asking Him to hear and answer his prayer (cf. on vv. 1, 6 in the previous study). The prayer would be answered if/when YHWH protects and rescues the Psalmist from his enemies, and from the danger that threatens him (v. 13, cf. above). Here, this protection is described by the parallel actions of “give strength” (vb /t^n` + zu)) and “give safety/salvation” (vb uv^y` Hiphil). In protecting/rescuing the Psalmist, the “strength” that YHWH gives is His own (“your strength”).

Again, it is important to remember of the covenantal context of the language in this petition. The Psalmist can request (and expect) Divine protection, because he has been faithful to the covenant-bond, and so YHWH (as Sovereign) is obligated to provide protection. The Psalmist’s loyalty is here indicated by the parallel expressions “your servant” and “son of your firmness” (i.e., your faithful son). Almost certainly, the MT is incorrect in the vocalization of the final word ;t#m*a& (“your maidservant [?]”); it should be vocalized ;T#m!a& (“your firmness”, cf. Dahood, II, p. 296), echoing the use of tm#a# in verse 11 (cf. above) and the final line of v. 15. As previous noted, tm#a# connotes faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness; for poetic concision, I have translated it above in the line as “trust” (“son of your trust,” i.e., your trustworthy son).

Verse 17

“Make with me a sign of (your) good (favor),
and let (those) hating me see (it) and be shamed!
(Oh,) that you, YHWH,
would help me and comfort me!”

The Psalmist here further asks that there be some “sign” (toa) that accompanies the act of rescue by YHWH—a clear indication that it was YHWH who did this good thing (hb*of), and that the reason why the Psalmist was delivered was that he was shown favor by God. Upon seeing this sign, the Psalmist’s enemies will come to shame (vb vWB).

The Psalm concludes with a terse renewed plea by the Psalmist, calling on YHWH to give him help (vb rz~u*) and comfort (vb <j^n`). It is best to treat these perfect verb forms as precative perfects, expressing the Psalmist wish (and expectation) for what will happen. In this regard, the yK! particle should be read as emphatic and exclamatory—i.e., “Oh, that…!”.

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

Spirit in the Qumran Texts: 1QH 6:19-33

1QH 6

(Unless otherwise noted, the translations of 1QH are my own.)

It is possible that the hymn beginning at line 12 of column V (cf. the previous notes) continues on into column VI. It has been suggested that the hymn extends through 6:18, or even through line 33 (cf. the discussion by the editors in DJD XL, pp. 77-8, 88-90); however, it may be better to treat 6:19-33 as a separate hymn. In any case, many of the themes in column V continue in column VI; the poems certainly share a number of features and aspects in common.

The difficulty in determining the division of the hymns stems, in large part, from the missing lines (1-11) at the beginning of column VI. Lines 12-18 emphasize once again that those righteous persons, who are able to obtain wisdom and understanding, do so through the mercy and favor of God. There is a strong predestinarian orientation to the Qumran Community, which is expressed here in the Hodayot, in a number of the hymns.

Those who receive the inspired revelation from God are described as “men of truth and the chosen (one)s of righteousness” (line 13); they are characterized by virtues that reflect the fundamental attributes of God Himself, being enabled to pursue wisdom and understanding by God’s spirits: “[(those) searching for insight and seeking understanding […] (the one)s loving compassion and (those) lowly [i.e. humble] of spirit…” (lines 13-14). Through God’s favor—His guidance and protection, given through His spirits—the chosen ones are able to remain faithful to the end, even in the face of affliction and persecution (lines 15-18).

The section (or separate hymn, cf. above) that begins at line 19, opens with a blessing (to God) which makes clear, again, that the ability possessed by the righteous/faithful ones is given to them by God:

“[Blessed are you,] my Lord, the (One) giving [i.e. placing] understanding in (the) heart of your servant, (for him) to gain insight in(to) all these (thing)s, and to have under[standing of…], and to hold himself (firm) against (wicked) deeds, and to bless with rightness all (those) choosing (what is) pleasing to you, [to choose all th]at you love and to abhor all that [you hate]…” (lines 19-21f)

As we have seen, elsewhere in these hymns the same wording from line 9 is used with a Divine spirit (j^Wr) as the object of God’s giving (4:29; 5:36) . The virtue or attribute (here “understanding”, hn`yB!), defined abstractly, can also be personified dynamically as an active spirit. The hymnist could just as well have used the expression “spirit of understanding” (cp. “spirit of knowledge” in line 36). It is thus a gift from God that enables the chosen one to have wisdom and understanding, and to resist the evil influences that lead humans to wickedness. Human begins must choose (vb rh^B*) between what is pleasing to God and what He despises/abhors, but only through the favor and guidance of God is one able to make the right choice (on a regular basis).

The deterministic emphasis, in this regard, is expressed quite clearly in line 22f:

“You have given your servant insight in(to) [… (the) lo]ts of humankind, for (according) to (the) mouth of (the) spirits you made (the lot) fall for them between good and evil, [and] you have established…”

In the expression “mouth of (the) spirits” (twjwr yp), the noun hP# (“mouth”) is presumably used in the abstract sense of “measure, portion”. The idea seems to be that the spirits have been measured/portioned out to different people (cp. the similar wording, applied to Jesus, in John 3:34), so that they will incline toward either the good or the evil. As we have seen, according to the thought-world of the Qumran hymns, there are both good and evil spirits that influence human beings, with people being trapped between the two forces. By nature, the spirit/nature of a human being (“spirit of flesh”) is corrupt, being ruled by a perverting spirit (“spirit of crookedness”). It requires a special gift/favor by God in order to enable a human being to be faithful and righteous. The protagonist of the hymn describes this very dynamic:

“And I (indeed) know, from your understanding, that through your favor to a m[a]n you make [abundant his inheritance] in (the) spirit of your holiness, and so you bring him near to your understanding…” (lines 23b-24)

Here, again, we find the expression “spirit of (God’s) holiness” (vd#oq j^Wr), as representing the principal spirit that God gives to His chosen one, reflecting the fundamental Divine attribute of holiness. God gives His holy spirit to all of His chosen ones, but gives to some a greater portion (i.e., a more abundant “inheritance” [hl*j&n~]). This spirit draws the person toward God’s understanding, bringing him/her near to it (vb vg~n`). Significantly, the protagonist states that it is from God’s own understanding, gifted to him by God’s spirit, that he has obtained his knowledge.

The possession of this spirit, and the inspired wisdom/understanding that it brings, enables a person to remain faithful and righteous in all things. This ethical-religious principle is developed in lines 25-33. It is according to the measure/portion of the person’s “nearness” (being near, brwq) to God’s understanding, that he/she will be faithful. The same expression as in line 22, with the noun hP# (“mouth”) in the abstract sense of “measure/portion”, is used. A person will act righteously, and remain faithful to God, to the extent that God’s holy spirit is present, drawing the person ever closer to God’s own wisdom and understanding.

The final line (32-33) makes clear that this faithfulness is defined in traditional terms, according to loyalty to the covenant (i.e., observance of the Torah precepts and regulations): “I will not bring into the council of [your] tr[uth any] (one) turning (away) [from] your [b]inding agreement [tyr!B=, i.e. covenant]”. It was expected that every member of the Community would be meticulously loyal and devoted to the Torah.

In the next note, we will at the remaining lines (34-41) of column VI.

DJD XL = Discoveries in the Judean Desert, Vol. XL: 1QHodayota, with Incorporation of 1QHodayotb and 4QHodayota-f, by Hartmut Stegemann with Eileen Schuller, translations of texts by Carol Newsom (Clarendon Press: 2009).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 76

Psalm 76

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (vv. 10-12 [9-11])

The central portion of this Psalm (vv. 5-10) is a hymn to YHWH. It is framed by a theological opening (vv. 2-4) and religious-ethical closing (vv. 11-13). In this instance, the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker (following verses 4 and 10) is a structural indicator for the Psalm.

As with all of Pss 7383, this composition is attributed to (and/or associated with) Asaph (cf. the earlier study on Ps 50). Like Ps 75 (cf. the previous study), this Psalm is also designated a “song” (ryv!). The precise significance of this term in the Psalm headings is not entirely clear. In some instances, it may indicate a poem that is sung to an existing melody, rather than being an original musical composition (romz+m!); but that would not seem to be the case here. For Ps 76 (and particularly, the central portion), ryv! may relate to it as a hymn—to be sung by people in the Temple precincts, or in a comparable worship setting. According to the heading, it is to be performed on stringed instruments (tonyg]n+).

The meter of the Psalm is slightly irregular, but a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates.

OPEnING: Verses 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2

“(The) Mightiest is known in Yehudah,
(and) in Yisrael His name (is) great.”

The Niphal form of the verb ud^y` in the first line should perhaps be understood in a reflexive (“makes Himself known”) rather than a passive (“is known”) sense. As I have discussed frequently, in ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person. This is very much true in a religious context, in reference to a deity’s name. Cf. the introduction to the series “And you shall call His Name…”.

Presumably, the Psalmist has in mind the great deeds performed by YHWH, throughout the history of Israel/Judah (during the Exodus, et al), as preserved in tradition. The people are reminded of what God has done in the past, raising the possibility that He may once again act on behalf of His people.

Verse 3 [2]

“And there came to be in Šalem His lair,
and His place of cover in ‚iyyôn.”

The historical traditions (of the Exodus and Conquest, etc) are related to the establishment of YHWH’s dwelling place in Jerusalem (here, Salem)—especially the ancient fortified hilltop location (i.e., mount Zion) which served as the site of the Temple. The noun hn`oum= in the second line has the general meaning of “dwelling place”, but often in the specific sense of the covered/concealed dwelling of animals (i.e., den, lair, etc). The parallel noun Es)/hK*s% has the same meaning—viz., that of a concealed dwelling-place (lair) in the wild, best envisioned as a thicket of branches, etc. The imagery suggests the motif of YHWH as a powerful animal (one that hunts prey, cf. below); the ruling figure of a lion is most fitting (as a royal symbol, cf. Gen 49:9; 1 Kings 10:19-20; Mic 5:8; Ezek 19:2ff; Rev 5:5-6). On the image of the lion laying in wait (in its lair/thicket) to pounce on its prey, cf. Job 38:40; elsewhere in the Psalms, this motif is applied to the predatory behavior of the wicked (7:2; 10:9; 17:12; 57:4, etc).

The meter of this verse is 3+2.

Verse 4 [3]

“There He broke (with) His bolts (the) bow,
shield and sword, and (all weapons of) war.”

The idea in this verse is clear: from His dwelling in Jerusalem, YHWH waged war on behalf of His people, subduing their enemies. Of possible historical incidents that could be referenced, one thinks of the dramatic defeat of the Assyrian army, in their attempted siege of Jerusalem, in 701 B.C. (cf. 2 Kings 18:13-19:37). The motif of YHWH as a warrior is relatively frequent in the Psalms.

The noun [v#r# appears to be an archaic term in Hebrew, occurring only in poetry. The fundamental meaning is of a fiery shaft or dart (Job 5:7; Song 8:6), typically used as a weapon. Probably a lightning-bolt is meant here (cf. Ps 78:48), though in Deut 32:24 and Hab 3:5 it alludes to the ‘burning’ that comes from pestilent disease or plague. In any case, here the “fiery darts” are is best seen as a weapon wielded by YHWH, not his human enemies; cf. the explanation by Dahood (II, p. 218).

The noun hm*j*l=m! (“war, battle”) in the second line is comprehensive, and a poetic shorthand for “weapons of war”. YHWH, wielding his fiery bolts from Mount Zion, shatters all the weapons of His people’s enemies. It is this Divine power, that is able to save and deliver Israel/Judah, which the Psalmist calls on in the hymn that follows.

The Hymn: Verses 5-11 [4-10]

Verse 5 [4]

“Shining (bright) you (are), (and) majestic—
from (the) mountains of tearing, they have become prey!”

Apparently the LXX translates ar*on (“being feared”, i.e. to be feared, fearful; cf. in v. 8), rather than MT roan` (“being light, luminous”), and some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 108) readily follow the LXX. The participle ar*on certainly would fit the imagery of the couplet, alluding (as in v. 3 [2], cf. above) to YHWH as a fierce and regal lion. It may be, however, that the Psalmist is here combining the two motifs from vv. 3-4—YHWH as a ferocious lion, and as a heavenly warrior wielding the lightning-bolt. The shining, luminous grandeur of YHWH, in line 1 of the MT for v. 5, follows nicely on the motif of His fiery bolts in v. 4.

The second line (in the MT) has the expression “from (the) mountains of tearing (prey)”. If correct (cp. the LXX, “from [the] eternal mountains”), the expression is presumably a poetic shorthand, meaning something like, “from the mountains where you tear your prey”. For a different way of reading the line, cf. Dahood, II, p. 219.

In my view, the first word of v. 6 is better taken with the second line of v. 5 here. The verb ll^v* II (“[take] plunder”) here properly referred to a predatory animal (i.e., lion) taking its prey. The enemies of Israel/Judah become the lion’s prey.

Verse 6 [5]

“(The one)s mighty of heart have slumbered (in) their sleep;
(of) all (the) men of strength, no(ne) can find their hands.”

The defeat of the human enemies of YHWH is described in terms of weakness and feebleness. The mighty and brave ones have dozed off, falling asleep, and the strong ones are no longer able to function effectively with their hands (to wield weapons, etc). If the noun [v#r# in v. 4 refers to pestilence and disease (cf. above), then the imagery here in v. 6 could be meant to depict soldiers succumbing to illness. Sending disease is one of the deadliest and most effective ‘weapons’ God can use.

Verse 7 [6]

“From your rebuke, O Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob,
both rider and horse are lain fast asleep!”

Whether struck by YHWH’s lightning-bolts, or by the fiery darts of disease, it is by His command, rebuking (rug) the enemy, that they fall. Even the powerful cavalry (and chariot) units of the armies are waylaid by God and “put to sleep” (vb <d^r*), i.e., they are left unconscious and/or lifeless. Cf. the famous tradition of Pharaoh’s chariots perishing in the event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14:17-18, 23ff, 28; 15:1, 4).

Verse 8 [7]

“You (are the one) to be feared—you!
Indeed, who can stand before your face,
from the moment your anger (comes)?”

The participle ar*on (Niphal of ar^y`, “be afraid, fear”), “being feared” (i.e., to be feared, fearful [one]), also seems to have been read by the LXX in v. 5 (cf. above). The reason YHWH is to be feared is that no human being is able to stand before His face when He is angry. The noun [a^ can be understood, fundamentally, in the concrete anthropomorphic (or zoomorphic) sense of burning/flaring nostrils—i.e., as a sign of anger. Searing steam, smoke, or fire coming from the ‘nostrils’ is the terrifying evidence of the anger emanating from God’s ‘face’, which is able to destroy and obliterate the wicked.

Verse 9 [8]

“From (the) heavens you made (the) decision to be heard—
(the) earth was afraid and became still,”

Here the imagery shifts to the more conventional religious motif of God as Judge, delivering the judgment (on humankind) from heaven. The noun /yD! properly refers to the decision rendered by the judge. The entire earth—i.e., all humankind—stands silent, in fear, as YHWH delivers His verdict. The verb um^v* (“hear”) in the Hiphil literally means “make [one] hear, cause to be heard”.

Even though YHWH may have His ‘dwelling-place’ on earth, with His people, on Mt Zion, His true dwelling is in the heavens.

Verse 10 [9]

“in (your) standing up for the judgment, O Mightiest,
to save all (the) lowly (one)s of (the) earth.”

Syntactically, verse 10 continues the thought of v. 9. YHWH, the Judge, stands up to deliver the verdict, the sentence of judgment against humankind. This judgment means salvation (vb uv^y`, Hiphil) for the <yw]n+u^. The adjective wn`u*, along with the related (and more common) yn]u*, refers to a condition of low(li)ness. This condition can be the result (negatively) of oppression/affliction (i.e., being pressed down), or (positively) from a meek and humble mindset. Both aspects of meaning are characteristic of the righteous, and equally inform the usage of yn]u* (29 times) and wn`u* (12 times) in the Psalms.

God’s Judgment brings salvation for the righteous ones among His people—and, it would seem, from among the other nations as well.

Closing: Verses 11-13 [10-12]

Verse 11 [10]

“Indeed, (the) burning of man shall throw you (praise);
and (the) remainder of (the) burning, you shall put around you!”

This couplet has proven difficult for commentators to interpret. The chief cause of the difficulty, it seems, lies with the construct expression “(the) burning (anger) of man” (<d*a* tm^j&). The question is whether this is a subjective (i.e., human anger) or objective (anger against humans) genitive. The context of the Judgment, at the end of the hymn (vv. 9-10, cf. above), strongly suggests the latter. On the other hand, the theme of the hostility of human beings toward God is also present in the hymn. The idea may be that, even those people who were burning with rage against YHWH will be forced to submit and give praise/homage to Him.

I tend to think that the principal thought, expressed somewhat awkwardly by the Psalmist, is that, in judging humankind, directing His burning anger against them (see esp. verse 8, above), His action is praiseworthy (and the righteous who see it will praise Him).

What remains after the exercise of His burning anger, YHWH will put around Himself (vb rg~j*). This could refer to what is left of the wicked (and their lives) after they are consumed, or to the righteous as the remnant of humankind; the latter seems much more fitting to the context of the Psalm here. The circle of the righteous, in the blessed afterlife, dwelling with God, is probably in view. In the communal worship setting (cf. verses 12-13), the circle of the devout/faithful ones anticipates this eschatological scene.

Verse 12 [11]

“Make your vows, and complete (them), to YHWH your Mighty (One);
let all (those) around Him bring along gift(s) to the fearsome (One)!”

The second line of v. 12 draws upon the earlier Judgment scene in vv. 9-10 (and continuing in v. 11), suggesting the image of submissive vassals paying homage to YHWH (as King). The rare noun yv^, of uncertain derivation, occurs only here and in Ps 68:30; Isa 18:7; the context indicates that yv^ is a collective term, referring to gifts brought in homage to a ruler.

However, as I commented above (on v. 11), the scene here has shifted—from the wicked who face God’s Judgment, to the righteous who will remain after the Judgment. The image of vassals bringing gifts to the King refers to the righteous, who give the praise and worship that is due to God. This is done, for example, by faithfully completing (vb <l^v*) what one has vowed to do for God. The verb rd^n` hardly occurs in the Psalms, but the idea of a devout person fulfilling a vow (rd#n#) to YHWH is found prominently in a number of Psalms, usually at the conclusion, but occasionally at the beginning (cf. 22:26 [25]; 50:14; 56:13 [12]; 61:6 [5], 9 [8]; 65:2 [1]; 66:13; 116:14, 18). The vow traditionally involves a sacrificial offering; however, in the context of the Psalms, not surprisingly, this is sometimes understood specifically in terms of an offering of praise and music to God.

This couplet is irregular, with an elongated 4-beat (4+4) meter.

Verse 13 [12]

“He takes away (the) spirit of (the one)s in front—
fearsome He is to (the) kings of (the) earth!”

The high-spirit of “the ones in front” (<yd!yg]n+), i.e., leaders and other prominent people in the world, is contrasted with the “lowly ones” (as a characteristic of the righteous) who are saved by YHWH’s judgment (v. 10, cf. above). As for the powerful and influential people (by human standards), if they are not destroyed by God’s judgment, then they are diminished in spirit. The precise meaning of the verb rx^B* is difficult to determine; if there is not more than one rxb root, then it has an extremely wide semantic range. Probably the primary meaning here is “take away, reduce”, which would be confirmed by the LXX translation with the verb a)faire/w.

The concluding declaration reaffirms the theme of YHWH’s fearsomeness—i.e., that He is to be feared, using the same Niphal participle (ar*on) as in v. 8 (and also v. 5, according to the LXX).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 75

Psalm 75

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This relatively short Psalm is difficult to classify, as most commentators admit. It probably has most in common with the poetry of certain prophetic oracles. The overriding theme of YHWH’s Judgment on the earth—specifically upon the wicked of the nations—shows obvious thematic and stylistic similarities with the judgment-oracles in the Prophets. In this regard, it is worth noting again the tradition that associates Asaph (and his sons) with prophetic inspiration (1 Chron 25:1-2; 2 Chron 20:14ff; 29:30). A similar prophetic tone and style can be seen in other Asaph-Psalms (e.g., 50, 81, 82).

This the third in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50.

There are several dozen Psalms that are also referred to as a “song” (ryv!). As any musical composition (romz+m!) with words could be called a “song”, it is not entirely clear why only certain Psalms have this designation. In this instance, it may denote a poem that is set to an existing melody, rather than being an original musical composition, in spite of the fact that the term romz+m! is also used (cp. the heading of Ps 46). Here, the melody is that of tj@v=T^-la^ (“Do not destroy”, or “May you not destroy”), apparently the name of a well-known lament. The miktams Pss 57-59 are sung to the same melody; cf. the study on Ps 57.

The meter of Psalm 75 is irregular, but tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The poetic and thematic structure of the composition will be discussed in the notes below.

Verse 2 [1]

“We cast (praise) to you, O Mightiest;
we cast (praise), <calling on> your name,
recounting your wonderful (deed)s!”

A three-beat couplet is followed by an additional 2-beat line, added for dramatic effect, producing a tricolon. The first-person plural verb indicates a communal worship setting, such as that in which the Psalm might be performed.

As Kraus (p. 103) and other commentators have noted, the LXX reads kai\ e)pikaleso/meqa to\ o&noma/ sou (“and we call upon your name”) in the second line, suggesting that the underlying Hebrew was imvb arq rather than MT imv bwrq. In which case, arq should perhaps be read as an infinitive (ar*q=). I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 210) in reading wrps as an infinitive in the third line; if his suggestion, that the W– postformative element represents an archaic ending for the infinitive, is correct, then perhaps the infinitive in the second line originally had a similar form (warq), which could have been reduced to wrq. If that were so, then the MT would not need to be emended at all, only redivided: imvb wrq.

On the idea of declaring the “wonderful deeds” of YHWH, see Ps 9:2[1]; 26:7; 73:28; cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 253.

Verses 3 [2]

“When I take (the) appointed place,
I will judge (with all) straightness.”

In verses 3-4, it is apparently YHWH who is speaking, meaning that the verses represent a Divine oracle and mark the prophetic character of the Psalm (on which, cf. above). As is fitting for a judgment-oracle, YHWH announces His intention to take His place as Judge. The noun du@om means “appointed place” —here, the place appointed for the Judgment. Probably a great level place is envisioned, where the assembled people will stand before Him. This levelness corresponds with the “straightness” (rv*ym@) with which God Himself judges—i.e., fairly, with justice and equity. The plural form <yr!v*ym@ should probably be understood as an intensive/emphatic or comprehensive plural  (with “all straightness,” i.e.,  total justice and fairness).

Verse 4 [3]

“(The) earth trembles and (those) sitting on her,
(while) I measure (out) her standing (post)s.”

YHWH is still the speaker in v. 4, continuing to announce the coming Judgment. The earth and its inhabitants are made to tremble (vb gWm Niphal), as God “measures” the columns/pillars (lit. “standing [post]s”). There is a dual meaning to the imagery in the second line. On the one hand, YHWH measures the pillars of the earth, alluding to His power and activity as Creator; at the same time, He is now busy preparing the place for His coming activity as Judge, where He will “measure out” the judgment for the earth (and its people). There is some syntactical wordplay that is almost impossible to translate fully in English; note the parallelism of the suffixed participles in each line:

    • h*yb#v=y) “(those) sitting (on) her”, i.e., those dwelling on her, the earth’s inhabitants
    • h*yd#Wmu^ “(those) standing (on) her,” i.e., her standing pillars/columns

The precise meaning of the verb gWm is not entirely certain. The Arabic root m¹³a (“surge, shake, totter”) is probably related, suggesting that the basic meaning is something like “shake, tremble”.

The Selah (hl*s#) pause marker at the end of v. 4 probably serves to demarcate the shift in speaker—from YHWH to the Psalmist. Since the first line of v. 5 begins (“I say/said…”), the pause helps the listener to realize that a different “I” is now speaking.

Verse 5 [4]

“I say to the (one)s boasting: ‘Do not boast!’
and to the wicked: ‘Do not lift high (your) horn!'”

The Psalmist, filling the role of prophet, gives a warning to the boastful (vb ll^h* II) and wicked people on earth. For poetic concision, I have translated the imperfect (jussive) verb forms as imperatives.

Verse 6 [5]

“Do not lift up your horn to the place on high,
(nor) speak against (the) ancient Rock!”

In my opinion, there is some clever wordplay in this couplet that resists simple translation. To begin with, in the first line, which otherwise repeats v. 5b, the word <orM*h^ (lit. “the place on high”) connotes “the One dwelling on high”. This results in a double meaning: (a) lifting up one’s “horn” to the place up high (i.e. where YHWH dwells); and (b) lifting it up against YHWH Himself, as an arrogant challenge to His sole authority over the nations.

In the third line, the adjective qt*u* has the basic meaning “old, ancient”, but can also be used in combination with the verb rb^D* (“speak”) as an idiom indicating bold and arrogant speech, characteristic of the wicked (cf. for example, 1 Sam 2:3; Psalm 31:19[18]; 94:4). The preceding word in the MT is raW`x^b= (“with [the] neck”), but the LXX has “against God”, which suggests that the Hebrew is rWxb= (“against [the] Rock”), with rWx (“rock”) as the familiar Divine title. Whether the MT or LXX more properly reflects the original, it seems likely that the Psalmist is intentionally giving a double meaning to the line:

    • “do not speak with a stiff neck”
      (i.e. arrogantly) /
      “do not speak against the ancient Rock [i.e. against YHWH]”
Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“Indeed, not from (the) going forth and darkening (of the sun),
nor from (the) out back (to the) mountains,
(is there any) but (the) Mightiest judging,
the (One) who brings low,
and the (One) who lifts high.”

Verse 7 of the MT, as it stands, is obscure. Dahood (II, p. 212f) would vocalize al as al@, rather than MT al) (negative particle), reading it as a verbal adjective or noun (participle) of the root yal meaning “prevail”. It thus designates YHWH as the “one prevailing”. This is an intriguing suggestion, but with relatively little evidence to support it.

It seems better to take vv. 7-8 together, as comprising a single syntactical statement. The basic message is that there is no one in the entire world besides YHWH who is capable of serving as Judge. The first line of v. 7 establishes the full scope of the earth from east to west—lit. from the “going forth” of the sun to its sinking (“darkening”). The second line does the same, moving from the “place out back” (outback, i.e., ‘wilderness, desert’) to the “mountains” (<yr!h*). The word <yr!h* could be taken as a verbal noun (Hiphil infinitive) of the root <Wr (“be high”), parallel with the imperfect form <yr!y` at the end of v. 8. In my view, this not correct, though the Psalmist likely is utilizing some wordplay again here, playing on the two possible meanings of <yr!h* (“mountains” / “lifting high”).

As the Sovereign Judge of all Creation, YHWH is the one who “brings low” (vb lp^v* Hiphil) and “lifts high” (vb <Wr Hiphil); thus, no human being should dare to lift one’s self up high (vv. 5-6, cf. above), acting in the place of God.

Verse 9 [8]

“For (there is) a cup in (the) hand of YHWH,
and wine foaming, full of mixed (spices),
and He pours out from this—
how He shall squeeze out its dregs!—
(and) all (the) wicked of (the) earth shall drink.”

This verse is rather complex in its structure: a three beat tricolon (lines 1-2, 5) is expanded into a quintet, with the addition of a pair of 2-beat lines (3-4) that builds suspense and heightens the dramatic effect. The Psalmist, functioning as a prophet delivering a judgment-oracle against the nations (i.e., the wicked), indicates that the great Judgment is about to take place. The cup of judgment is in God’s hand, and he is about to pour it out, upon the earth.

This image of judgment as a cup of wine that is poured out can be found in the Prophets (Isa 51:17ff; Jer 25:17ff; 51:7ff; Ezek 23:31-33; Hab 2:16; Zech 12:2, etc). It was adapted most vividly in the book of Revelation (14:10; 16:19; cf. 17:4; 18:6). The association between red wine and blood is obvious, and serves as a natural image for destructive/violent judgment (e.g., Joel 3:13ff; Rev 14:15-20).

Verse 10 [9]

“But I—I will put forth (praise) to (the) Eternal (One),
I will make music to (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob.”

The Psalmist’s declaration of his intent to give praise to YHWH matches the opening announcement in v. 2 (cf. above). I follow Dahood (II, p. 215f) in reading <l*ou here as a Divine title. Properly, the noun refers to either the distant past or the distant future, often connoting the sense of “etern(al)ity” when applied to God. The expression <l*oul= certainly could be taken here to mean “(in)to the distant (future)” (i.e., forever), as it often does in the Old Testament. However, the parallel with the expression “the Mighty One of Jacob” in line 2 strongly suggests that we are dealing with another Divine title here.

The verb dg~n` (in the Hiphil) literally means “put in front (of someone)” (in this case, in front of God); for poetic concision, I have translated the verb here as “put forth”.

Verse 11 [10]

“Indeed, all (the) horns of (the) wicked I will cut down,
but (the) horns of (the) righteous (one) shall be lifted high!”

The Psalm ends with another Divine oracle, announcing the coming Judgment. It thus functions in tandem with the oracle in vv. 3-4 (cf. above), framing the judgment-oracle of the Psalm as a whole. The contrasting fates of the wicked and righteous are clearly described, using the same motif of the animal’s horn (/r#q#), along with contrastive idiom of bringing low / lifting high, found throughout the Psalm. On the horn of the bull or wild ox as a symbol of honor and strength (especially for a king or human leader), cf. Ps 18:3[2] [par 1 Sam 22:3]; 89:18[17], 25[24]; 92:11[10]; 132:17; 148:14; Jer 48:25; Ezek 29:21; Dan 7:8ff; 8:5ff; Lk 1:69.

The parallelism of “horns of the wicked” vs. “horns of the righteous” is precise, but the syntax differs slightly:

    • “two horns [i.e. horn-pair, dual] of the wicked [plural]”
    • “horns [plural] of the righteous [singular]”

The judgment comes on the wicked collectively, as a group; they each have a pair of horns (like the bull/ox). By contrast, the blessing/exaltation of the righteous comes to each one individually, with the implication that a great single horn will be raised up for each, resulting a multitude of horns (indicating honor) for the righteous as a whole. On the other hand, it may be that the plural tonr=q^ is meant as a comprehensive or intensive plural, alluding to the greatness of the honor (“horn”) for each righteous person.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 73 (Part 2)

Psalm 73, continued

The first section of the Psalm (vv. 1-12) was discussed in the prior study.

VERSES 13-17

Verse 13

“Truly, in vain have I cleansed my heart,
and washed with clear (water) my palms.”

Like the first section of the Psalm (cf. the previous study), this second section begins with the affirmative particle Ea^ (“surely, truly…”). The initial couplet here establishes the protagonist’s struggle with the wisdom-question—viz., as to why God allows injustice to prevail in the world, and the wicked to prosper. He feels that he has devoted himself to righteousness “in vain”; if the wicked can flourish in this life, then what is the value of living in an upright and devout manner? The Psalmist’s active righteousness is described by the parallel idiom of cleansing/washing (vb hk*z` / Jj^r*) one’s heart and hands (lit. “palms”). The idiom draws upon the idea of ritual purity, but is also used in a figurative (ethical-religious) sense—cf. 18:20, 24; 24:4; 26:6; 51:2, 7; Prov 20:9; Isa 1:16; Jer 4:14, etc.

There is also a bit of conceptual wordplay in these lines, as both the root qyr (noun qyr!) and hqn (noun /oyQ*n]) denote the idea of emptying. Here the noun qyr! refers to “emptiness” in the negative sense of worthlessness or vanity (“in vain”); while /oyQ*n] captures the idea of something made clear through “pouring out”, specifically here of being made clean/pure through the pouring of water. I have preserved the scope of this imagery by translating /oyQ*n] above as “clear [i.e. pure/purifying] water.”

Verse 14

“For I have been touched all the day (long),
and (then) endure rebuke in the morning.”

Here we have a clear allusion to the suffering of the righteous, which forms the flip-side to the wisdom-problem of the prosperity of the wicked. The Psalmist has been “touched” (vb ug~n`) by misfortune (from YHWH), perhaps in the form of a physical ailment or disease (a frequent motif in the Psalms). After enduring this “all the day (long),” he then has to face accusation and rebuke in the morning. This rebuke (vb jk^y`) can be understood as either coming from God, or from the Psalmist’s wicked adversaries; the latter is a regular theme in the Psalms. On the parsing of ytjkwt as a verb form, cf. Dahood, II, p. 191.

Verse 15

“If I had said ‘I will give account thus,’ see!
I would have betrayed (the) circle of your sons.”

To give voice to his doubts in public (vb rp^s*, “give account, recount”) would be an act of treachery (vb dg~B*) against the covenant bond uniting the children of Israel (as YHWH’s ‘sons’, “your sons”). The root dgb denotes acting in a deceitful or unfaithful manner, sometimes in the harsher or dramatic sense of “treachery” or “betrayal”. The noun roD is typically translated “generation”, but properly means “circle”; here, as often in the Psalms, the assembly of the righteous—whether envisioned literally (in corporate worship) or in a figurative/symbolic sense—is intended. The righteous are God’s faithful children (“sons”).

Verse 16

“And (yet when) I gave thought to know this,
it (seemed like) hard labor in my eyes,”

Rather than express his own doubts publicly, the Psalmist seeks to understand (vb ud^y`, “know”) the matter better. Yet as he began to ponder it (vb bv^j*), it seemed like hard and wearisome labor (lm*u*), suggesting the intractable difficulty of the wisdom-question he faces. Indeed, it is a question (of theodicy) that has long provoked (and perplexed) wise and learned persons throughout the centuries, providing a thematic staple of ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature.

Verse 17

“until I came to (the) holy place of (the) Mighty (One),
(and) discerned (the thing)s following for them.”

These lines continue the thought from v. 16. It is only when he comes to the “holy place” of God—i.e., the Temple precincts in Jerusalem—that the protagonist is able to find an answer to the wisdom-question that has plagued him. The plural <yv!D*q=m! (lit. “holy places”) may refer to the Temple precincts as a whole, or may indicate a single sanctuary; cf. Dahood, II, pp. 111, 192, on the Canaanite practice of using plural forms for buildings and dwelling-places.

The “holy place” of El-YHWH ultimately refers to His cosmic/heavenly dwelling, after which the local mountain on earth (including the Temple locale on mount Zion) is patterned, serving as its symbolic and ritual representation. There is likely an allusion here to God’s abode in Heaven (cf. Dahood, II, p. 192), which introduces the afterlife Judgment idea that is featured in the final section of the Psalm (cf. below).

The suffix <t*– (“them”) of the final word refers to the wicked. The Psalmist comes to understand (vb /yB!) the things that await (lit. “follow”) for the wicked.

Verses 18-28

Verse 18

“Truly, in the (land of) ruin you set (a place) for them,
you make them fall into (the) place of destruction.”

The parallel plural nouns toql*j& and toaWVm^ are rightly understood as intensive plurals. The first word is typically rendered “smooth [i.e. slippery] place(s)”, i.e., on which the wicked slip and slide down to destruction. However, Dahood (II, p. 192; cf. also I, pp. 35, 207, 211) makes a convincing argument that toqlj here is to be derived from a separate root qlj (III), related to Ugaritic —lq—a root with a relatively wide semantic range (“perish, disappear, be[come] ruined, wear out”). I have thus translated toql*j& here as “(place of) ruin”, which makes a proper parallel with toaWVm^ (“place of destruction”) in the second line. Clearly, the dual-reference is to death (and the grave) as the ultimate fate for the wicked.

As in the first two sections of the Psalm, this final section begins with the affirmative particle Ea^ (“surely, truly”).

Verse 19

“How they are (brought) to ruin in a moment,
swept away and finished by (the) terrors!

The noun hM*v^ (“desolation, ruin”) is more or less synonymous with the two earlier nouns in v. 18 (cf. above); they all refer to the realm of death and the grave. The exclamation Eya@ (“how…!”) reflects a certain wonderment by the Psalmist, as he realizes the terrible fate that awaits the wicked. It is not merely the fact of death, something which every human being faces, but an experience accompanied by frightening “terrors” (tohL*B^); the terrors of death overwhelm them as they perish. The verb pair WMt^ Wps* “(they are) swept away (and are) finished” can also be read as a hendiadys—i.e., “they are completely swept away”. The verb [Ws can mean, generally, “come to an end”, being thus synonymous with <m^T* (“[be] finish[ed]”); however, given the meaning of the related noun hp*Ws (“storm-wind, whirlwind”, cf. Isa 5:28; Hos 8:7), it is proper to translate [Ws here as “(be) swept away”.

Verse 20

“Like a dream from (which) one awakes, O Lord,
in (the) rousing (from it) you despise their shadow.”

The couplet is somewhat awkward, and there have been different attempts re-parsing/vocalizing the second line (cf. Dahood, II, p. 193; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 223). Conceptually, however, it seems possible to retain the MT without emendation. The “shadow” (<l#x#) of the wicked is compared to a dream from which one awakes. YHWH, in being “roused” (i.e. from sleep), casts off the shadow of the wicked, now deceased, as an insubstantial and lifeless ‘dream’. The implication is that there is no real afterlife for the wicked; they exist only as shadows in the realm of the dead.

Verses 21-22

“Then (when) my heart had become sour,
and my kidneys were hit by sharp (pain),
(so) also I (was) brutish and did not know,
(like) a dumb animal was I with you.”

The wisdom and insight gained by the Psalmist in the previous verses, suddenly disappears as he is struck (again) by a physical ailment (i.e., sharp pain inside), which also has emotional and psychological effects (“my heart became sour [vb Jm@j*]”). Cf. verse 14 (above) for an earlier allusion to physical (and emotional) suffering by the protagonist. His understanding is gone and the Psalmist feels like a dumb animal now in the presence of YHWH (“with you”). Apparently, as is often the case for mortal human beings, physical distress overpowers insight and rational thought.

Verse 23

“And (yet) I (am) continually with you,
you grab hold of me by my right hand.”

The Psalmist, in his distress, may feel like a mere animal in God’s presence, but he is still in God’s presence. And the first line is a declaration of faith and trust in YHWH’s abiding presence; the righteous can say: “I am continually [dym!t*] with you”. YHWH gives help and support to the righteous, through the motif of grabbing hold of his (right) hand. The idea of Divine protection and deliverance for the righteous, a frequent theme in the Psalms, is implied.

Verse 24

“With your counsel may you guide me,
and then with honor take me to (you).”

I follow Dahood (II, p. 195) in reading the imperfect verb form in each line as having the force of an imperative. The Psalmist is requesting YHWH to guide him in the remainder of his life (even as death nears), and then to bring him into His presence, in the blessed heavenly afterlife. The noun dobK* literally means “weight,” often in the sense of “worth, value”; when applied to God, it regularly connotes “honor, splendor, glory,” much as I translate it here; the heavenly afterlife context makes the translation “honor” particularly fitting. YHWH will receive the righteous/faithful one with honor, taking him to Himself. This fate for the righteous clearly contrasts with that of the wicked; the righteous-wicked contrast is a common element in Wisdom-tradition, and features notably in many Psalms (famously in Psalm 1, etc).

Verse 25

“Who (else is there) for me in the heavens?
Even with you I desire no(thing else) on earth.

The syntax of this couplet is somewhat cryptic, but the basic idea seems to be that YHWH Himself is the Psalmist’s ultimate delight and desire, in heaven, just as it has been on earth. The blessedness of the afterlife, for the righteous, rests in being continually in the presence of God; this builds upon the earlier thought in vv. 22-23 (cf. above), with the repeated use of the expression ;M=u! (“with you”).

Verse 26

“My flesh and my heart may cease, O Rock,
(but) my heart and my portion, Mightiest, (is) forever.”

This difficult verse makes most sense when divided as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet. By this division, rWx (“rock”) is to be taken as the familiar Divine epithet (“[my] Rock”), parallel here with <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest,” Elohim, ‘God’); cf. Dahood, II, p. 195f). The syntactic structure of the couplet is clear, but complex:

    • “shall cease/end
      • my flesh and my heart
        • O Rock
      • (but) my heart and my portion
        • O Mightiest
    • (shall be) for ever”

The expression <l*oul=, which I here translate (for poetic concision) as “forever”, properly means “for/into (the) distant (future),” i.e., lasting into the distant future. The dual-positioning of the word bb*l@ (“heart”) indicates that here the heart represents the point of contact between the earthly and the heavenly, the mortal (human) and the Divine. The heart paired with “flesh” signifies human life and existence on earth, while heart paired with ql#j@ (“portion”) signifies that which is allotted to the righteous as their heavenly inheritance (in the blessed afterlife).

Verse 27

“For, see! (those who are) far from you shall perish;
you destroy every (one) having intercourse (away) from you!”

The fate of the wicked is reiterated here, in simpler and less colorful terms. They are fundamentally “far away” (qj@r*) from YHWH, in contrast to the righteous who are “with” (<u!) Him (vv. 22-23, 25). The verb hn`z` basically denotes illicit sexual intercourse, for which there is no good English equivalent. Here the verb signifies in what sense the wicked ones have ‘gone away’ from God—viz., off in pursuit of wicked (i.e., immoral) and idolatrous ways (hnz frequently connotes idolatry and/or worship of any deity other than YHWH).

Verse 28

“But I, (the) nearness of (the) Mightiest (is) good for me;
I have set my Lord YHWH (as) my place of refuge,
(so as) to give account of all your works.”

The Psalm concludes with a four-beat (4+4) couplet, in which the Psalmist again expresses his trust and devotion to YHWH. As in verse 25 (cf. above), he declares that being in the presence of God is his greatest (and only real) delight. Here he defines what he considers as the greatest good (bof) for him: “the nearness [hb*r*q=] of God”. The righteous trust in YHWH as their protection and “place of refuge” (hs#j&m^); this is a frequent theme in the Psalms, with the verb hs*j* (and the related noun hs#j&m^) used frequently to express it; the locative noun occurs 12 times in the Psalms, more than half of all OT occurrences (20).

The short final line, with its sudden shift back to second person address, could be viewed as a secondary addition. It is typical of many Psalms that they close with a reference to giving praise to YHWH, declaring the greatness of His deeds, etc, in a public/corporate worship setting. For other examples of a similar shift from third person to second person (direct) address in the same verse, cf. 22:26; 102:16[15] (Dahood, II, p. 197).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).