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 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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 4)

Psalm 69, continued

Part 3: Verses 31-37 [30-36]

Verses 31 [30]

“(Then) I will praise (the) name of (the) Mightiest with song,
and ascribe greatness to Him with thanksgiving.”

The focus shifts from lament and prayer to praise in this final part of the Psalm, a pattern that can be found in many of the Psalms we have studied thus far. The implication is that the Psalmist expects YHWH to answer his prayer, and promises to give praise to Him—formally and publicly. In some Psalms, this is framed specifically in terms of a vow.

On the significance of the name of God in ancient Near Eastern thought, cf. the discussion in my earlier series “And you shall call His Name…” The name embodies the essence of the person; thus, to praise the name of YHWH is essentially the same as praising Him. As is appropriate for a musician-composer, praise and thanksgiving takes musical form (a “song” [ryv!]).

The meter in this opening couplet is 3+2, which marks a shift from the 3-beat (3+3) meter that dominates the Psalm.

Verse 32 [31]

“Indeed this will be good to YHWH more than an ox,
or a bull having horns and having split hooves.”

This is a strange couplet, in terms of the poetry, though the meaning is clear enough. The principle, that praise to YHWH (from the righteous) is more important than fulfilling the ritual sacrificial offerings, can be found in a number of Psalms (e.g., 40:6; 50:8-15, 23; 51:16-19). Such offerings (<ym!l*v= offerings) would be made to YHWH in response to God answering the protagonist’s prayer, and delivering him from his distress. Praise and worship takes the place of the sacrificial ritual.

The prefixed /m! preposition (-m) in the first line is an example of the comparative /m!, which requires, in context, a translation like “more than” instead of the literal “from”. The rather banal description in the second line may be intended to emphasize the relative uselessness of sacrificial offerings. There is also a bit of wordplay in the first line that is lost in translation, between rov (šôr, “ox”) and ryv! (šîr, “song”) in v. 31 (cf. above).

Here in this couplet the meter returns to 3+3 (from 3+2 in v. 31).

Verse 33 [32]

“See, (you) oppressed (one)s,
be glad, (you) seekers of (the) Mightiest,
and let there be life for your heart!”

This verse is best treated as a 2-beat tricolon, though the meter is slightly irregular (properly, 2+3+2). The rhythmic shift fits the sudden shift in focus, as the Psalmist calls on the righteous, characterized as “(those) seeking [vb vr^D*] the Mightiest” (i.e., “seekers of God”), that they might find encouragement in the way that YHWH answers his prayer and delivers him in his time of distress. Typically, the righteous are characterized as “oppressed” (adjective wn`u*), as in v. 30 (yn]u*). This way of referring to the righteous is common in the Psalms, where the suffering of the righteous (at the hands of the wicked) is a frequent theme.

With many commentators (e.g., Dahood, II, p. 165) I read the verbs in lines 1-2 as plural imperatives; the imperfect verb form in line 3 correspondingly has jussive force.

Verse 34 [33]

“For YHWH is listening to (His) needy (one)s,
and (those) bound to Him He does not despise.”

The adjectival noun /oyb=a# (“needy”) is another term that is characteristic of the righteous, forming a regular parallel with yn`u* (“oppressed”)—cf. 9:19; 12:6; 35:10; 37:14; 40:18, etc. The participle u^m@v) (“hearing, listening [to]”) denotes the regular (and characteristic) activity of YHWH: He hears the prayer of the righteous ones who are faithful/loyal to Him. This covenantal emphasis, so frequent in the Psalms, is indicated here in the second line, where the root rsa (“bind”) is best understood as referring to the covenant-bond. Admittedly, rsa often is used in reference to prisoners who are bound, but here the idea of a binding obligation is to be preferred. Cf. the note by Dahood, II, p. 165f.

The 3-beat couplet pattern is maintained here, but only loosely so.

Verse 35 [34]

“Let (the) heavens and the earth praise Him,
(the) seas, and everything teeming in them!”

From his exhortation to the righteous, the Psalmist now calls on all of creation to give praise to YHWH. Such an idea is not uncommon in the Psalm, though typically the call to the earth refers specifically to all people and nations on earth, e.g., 66:1ff; 96:1ff. Conceivably, the teeming waters could be meant as an allusion to the nations; however, the basic sentiment, that every living creature should praise God, is expressed clearly enough in the climactic lines of Pss 145 and 150.

The invocation of “heaven and earth” is more in keeping with the ancient covenant treaty-form, and especially the so-called ‘covenant lawsuit’, when judgment needs to be made regarding violations of the covenant—cf. 50:4; Deut 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:1; Isa 1:2. Here, the context is quite different, even though the covenant-bond with YHWH is clearly in view (cf. above on v. 34).

Verses 36 [35]

“For (the) Mightiest is keeping ‚iyyôn safe,
and He will build (the) cities of Yehudah,
and they shall settle there, even (those) dispossessed (from) her,”

The dual-thought expressed in the first two lines—that of God keeping Zion (Jerusalem) safe and (re)building the (other) cities of Judah—suggests the historical circumstances of Hezekiah’s reign, in the aftermath of Sennacherib’s invasion. However, the setting could just as easily be that of the exilic (or the post-exilic) period. In any case, the ‘Zion theology’ found here in vv. 36-37 can be seen, similarly expressed, in other Psalms—most notably, in 51:20 [18] and 102:14-23 [13-22], and overall in 4648 and 97-100. The timeframe of this theology has been associated with the final composition/redaction of the book of Isaiah; cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 176, 183.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 166), though without necessarily following his re-vocalization of the MT, in reading the verb vr^y` (“take possession, possess”) in the specific (privative) sense of being dispossessed—that is, of the people having been expelled/exiled from the land. With the rebuilding of the Judean cities (presumably after the exile), the people will be able to return and settle (vb bv^y`) there again.

Verse 37 [36]

“and (so the) seed of His servants will inherit her,
and (the one)s loving His name shall dwell in her.”

Both conceptually and syntactically, these lines continue the thought from v. 36. The faithful ones of God’s people (“His servants”), those loyal to Him (“loving His name”), will once again inherit the land (of Judah) and dwell in the cities. Jerusalem (Zion) with the Temple-sanctuary of YHWH will be the center of this restored Judean kingdom. That this will be fulfilled by the “seed” of the faithful ones, suggests that a relatively long process of restoration is involved, one that spans more than a single generation. At the same time, the focus on the “seed” of the people can imply an inheritance and settlement that will last far into the future.

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 66 (Part 2)

Psalm 66, continued

The first part of this Psalm (vv. 1-12, discussed in the previous study) is a hymn to YHWH, in three stanzas, in which the Psalmist calls upon all people to worship and give praise to God. The emphasis is on the mighty deeds of YHWH, done on behalf of His people—particularly the Exodus event at the Reed Sea (specifically alluded to in stanzas 2 and 3).

The second part (vv. 13-20) is very different. It is divided into two sections, or stanzas; here, again, the Selah [hl*s#] pause-marker is an indicator of the poetic structure. The focus is now on a individual worshiper (note the shift to 1st person singular at v. 13). The first section describes a ritual scene, in which a devout worshiper presents a sacrificial offering (in the Temple) in order to fulfill a vow made to YHWH. The association between praise and fulfilling a vow is found with some frequency in the Psalms, and the ritual fulfillment can be expressed through the very sort of praise which the Psalmist has composed. This featured prominently at the beginning of Psalm 65 (cf. the earlier study).

The ritual setting fades from view in the second section, and the focus is, instead, on offering praise to God. The two aspects—sacrifice and praise—both relate to the idea that YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer—a theme that occurs frequently in the Psalms, which often are framed within the context of prayer to God for deliverance, etc.

As in the first part of the Psalm, the meter tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, which is to be assumed (unless otherwise noted) in the analysis below.

Part 2: VERSES 13-20

Stanza 1: Verses 13-15
Verse 13

“I will go in(to) your house with (offering)s brought up,
(indeed,) I will fulfill to you (all) my vows—”

The setting is clear enough, as outlined above. A devout worshiper declares his/her intention to present sacrificial offerings to YHWH in the Temple (the house of God, “your house”). The noun hl*u), which literally signifies something (or someone) “going up”, usually refers to a (whole) burnt offering. The etymology may relate to the idea of making the offering “go up” (with smoke) to God as it is burnt in the altar-fire, or, possibly, to the more general concept of “bringing up” the offering to the altar (traditionally located at a high/elevated place). Regardless of the word’s etymology, the latter concept seems to be in view here—viz., focusing on the worshiper bringing the offering to God.

The offerings clearly are meant to fulfill (vb <l^v*) a vow (rd#n#) to YHWH. The idea is that a vow was made to God, to the effect that, if He answered the prayer, bringing deliverance in time of trouble, then the person would do such and such. As noted above, the theme of fulfilling a vow is relatively frequent in the Psalms (cf. the prior study on Ps 65, v. 2 [1]); often the vow is fulfilled through giving praise to God and proclaiming his greatness publicly to others (as in the second section, vv. 16-20, cf. below).

The plurals are intensive, as well as iterative; they describe the regular behavior of the righteous (who fulfill their vows), and also emphasize the generosity and lavish worship that the devout and faithful ones offer to God.

Verse 14

“that which my lips opened,
and my mouth spoke,
in the (time of) distress for me.”

Verse 14 follows conceptually (and, to some extent, syntactically) verse 13, continuing the line of thought; it could have been included with the prior verse. The six beats could certainly be treated as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet; however, I feel the poetic rhythm of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon is more proper here. In the time of the Psalmist’s “distress” (rx^), he made a vow to God, that, if YHWH answered his prayer, and delivered him from his trouble, he would bring offerings to the Temple. The vow (rd#n#) designates, quite literally, a “consecrated” action. The Torah regulations regarding vow-offerings are found in Lev 7:16ff; 22:18-22; Num 15:3ff; 29:39; an entire tractate of the Mishnah (Nedarim) was devoted to the subject of vows.

The noun rx^ literally denotes something “tight” or “narrow”, as in the English idiom “in a tight spot,” or “to be in a bind”. Many Psalms are framed as a prayer to YHWH for deliverance from suffering or distress, danger and attacks from enemies, etc.

Verse 15

“(Offering)s of fatlings I will offer up to you,
with (the) rising smoke of rams—
I will offer up bull(s) with goats.”

Here the noun hl*u) (and the related verb hl^u*) seems to have in view the aspect of making the smoke (of the burnt offering) “go up” to God; the parallel noun tr#f)q= specifically denotes the rising of the fragrant smoke. The offerings of fat/plump animals (fatlings), of rams, bulls, and goats, taken collectively, are certainly lavish, and are here comprehensive in describing the kinds of offerings brought forward by the righteous. The generosity of the worshiper is also being described.

Metrically, this verse is an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon.

Stanza 2: Verses 16-20
Verse 16

“Come (and) hear, and I will recount,
(to) all you fearing (the) Mightiest,
that which He has done for my soul.”

The second section returns to the thematic setting of the earlier hymn (vv. 1-12), calling on people to hear of the great deeds of YHWH, and so to give Him the worship and praise that He deserves. In the hymn, the focus was upon what God has done for the Israelite people as whole; here, it is on the individual righteous one (the Psalmist)—that is, what God has done for him (“for my soul”). YHWH has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, delivering him in his time of distress. Every one who fears God, utilizing the adjective ar@y` (“fearing”) as a substantive adjective characterizing the righteous—i.e., “(the one)s fearing” God—will respond with praise to the Psalmist’s report (“I will recount [vb rp^s*]…”).

This initial verse is, taken loosely in its meter, a 3-beat tricolon.

Verse 17

“Unto Him (with) my mouth I called (out),
and sounds (of praise were) under my tongue.”

Here, the Psalmist describes his own praise that he gives to YHWH. This praise should be understood as parallel to the sacrificial offerings in section 1—both are offered up to God, as fulfillment of vow, following an answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. For a musician-composer, of course, an offering in music and song is particularly appropriate.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 124) in reading <mr as a plural form (= <ym!or), related to Ugaritic rm (“sound [of music]”). Probably, <mr here is meant as a parallel to the ritual offerings “brought/sent up” in section 1 (vv. 13-15); the root <wr has a comparable denotation “rise/raise (up)”, and can, in a context of religious worship, can refer to exalting/praising God.

Verse 18

“If I had looked (for) trouble with my heart,
my Lord would not have heard (me).”

The context makes clear that God has answered the Psalmist’s prayer. This is an indication of the faithfulness and loyalty of the Psalmist. There may be a dual-meaning to the language in line 1 (involving the verb ha*r* and the preposition B=):

    • “If I had seen trouble in my heart”
      i.e., if there were any wicked or mischievous tendency visible or present in his heart
    • “If I had looked (for) trouble with my heart”
      i.e., if he had carried a wicked intent, meaning that his apparent righteousness would have been a sham

The noun /w#a* fundamentally means “trouble”, often as a characteristic of the wicked—i.e., one who is out to cause/make trouble. There is no such wicked tendency or intent in the heart of the Psalmist, which is a sign that he is faithful/righteous, and so YHWH answers his prayer; if it were otherwise, God would not “hear” him when he prays.

Verse 19

“(But) surely (the) Mightiest has heard me,
He has been attentive to (the) voice of my prayer.”

This verse simply confirms what was implied in v. 18, and what was already confirmed by the context here in the Psalm—namely, the YHWH has heard (and answered) the Psalmist’s prayer. The noun hL*p!T= is a common Hebrew term denoting a prayer or petition made to God; it is relatively common in the Psalms, with nearly half of the Old Testament occurrences (32 of 77) found there.

Verse 20

“Blessed (be the) Mightiest,
who has not turned away my prayer,
nor His goodness (away) from me!”

The meter of this verse is irregular, as a 2+3+2 tricolon, to match the 3+2+3 tricolon in v. 15 at the end of the first sections; such irregular tricola more commonly occur at the close of a poem (or stanza). Because God has answered the Psalmist’s prayer, that means He has not “turned (away)” (vb rWs) from it. The noun ds#j# in the third line means “goodness” (or “kindness”); however, as I have mentioned repeatedly in these studies, it often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, in relation to a covenant bond, such as between YHWH and His people. When YHWH answers the prayer of His loyal servant, providing protection and deliverance, He is fulfilling His covenant obligation, and is thus demonstrating faithfulness/loyalty to the bond. By not turning away the Psalmist’s prayer, God has not turned away that covenant-loyalty; indeed, YHWH is ever faithful to the binding agreement, and so is worthy of blessing and praise.

Dahood (II, p. 125) offers a different reading of the final word ytam (MT yT!a!m@, “from me”), vocalizing it yT!a@m!, as a verbal form denominative of ha*m@ (“hundred”), and thus meaning “do (something) a hundred times”. The final line would then read something like: “and (so) I declare His goodness a hundred times!” Cp. Psalm 22:26 [25], where Dahood finds the same denominative verb, in a similar context.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 2)

Psalm 52, continued

Verses 8-11 [6-9]

Verse 8 [6]

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

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

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

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

Verse 9 [7]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 10 [8]

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

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

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

Verse 11 [9]

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 7: Isaiah 53:12

Isaiah 53:12

“For this (reason) I will give a portion to him with (the) many,
(and with) the strong he shall have a portion of (the) plunder;
(it is) for that which (he did:) he laid bare his soul for death,
and (with the one)s breaking (faith) he was counted,
and he (himself) lifted (the) sin of many,
and met (with the punishment) for their breaking (faith).”

This final verse (12) is comprised of three parallel couplets. It will be helpful to examine each of these in some detail.

Couplet 1

The verse opens with the compound particle /k@l*, which I translate rather literally as “for this (reason)”. It continues the discussion of the previous lines, but also anticipates the final two couplets here. The Servant’s faithfulness to YHWH, even while enduring suffering and punishment (on behalf of the people), has resulted in his being given a heavenly reward, and entry into the blessed afterlife, where he also will hold a new (heavenly) position as YHWH’s servant. This reward is described in the remainder of the first couplet:

“I will give a portion to him with (the) many,
and (with) the strong he shall have a portion of plunder”

The verb ql^j* is used twice, in the technical sense of giving someone a share or allotment in an inheritance, etc. A covenant setting must be assumed, whereby each vassal receives an appropriate portion from the sovereign, in return for faithful service he has rendered. This includes the plunder (ll*v*) from warring activity. There are “many” (<yB!r^) such vassals for YHWH, and some are particularly strong (<Wxu*), in battle, etc. The Servant is to be given an honored place among these mighty vassals. Probably the divine/heavenly beings (Angels, etc) are in view here, in which case, there is an intentional play on the meaning of the plural substantive <yB!r^ (“[the] many”).

Earlier in this passage, <yB!r^ referred to the nations (and their rulers, 52:15), but also, apparently, to God’s people Israel/Judah (cf. the previous note on 53:11). Possibly the initial occurrence in 52:14 is meant to encompass both groups. There will be “many” among Israel/Judah, and among the nations, who will be made righteous through the Servant’s work. Thus, we should not discount the earthly aspect—that is, of the restored Israel/Judah in the New Age, with a kingdom centered at Jerusalem, from which point the Torah of YHWH will spread out to embrace the nations.

This touches upon an important Isaian theme (cf. 2:2-4) that is developed in the Deutero-Isaian poems (and again in the so-called Trito-Isaiah of chaps. 56-66). In the New Age, the nations will come to Jerusalem to pay homage and give worship to YHWH; within this eschatological imagery, we find the motif of the nations bringing tribute to Judah (cf. chap. 60, etc). The section that follows here (54:1-17) certainly involves the idea that God’s people will prosper in the New Age, and will spread out to possess the territory and wealth of the nations (vv. 2-3). This will constitute a reversal of earlier times: instead of being plundered by the nations, Israel/Judah will come to possess their wealth.

Couplet 2

The second couplet begins with an expression (rv#a& tj^T^) that is difficult to translate in English. Literally it means “under which”, but it essentially modifies the initial particle /k@l* in the first couplet (cf. above), “for this (reason)”. Here it is clarified: the reason is that which the Servant did. And what did he do? The couplet states this clearly:

“he laid bare his soul for death,
and (with the one)s breaking (faith) he was counted”

The verb hr*u* signifies a condition of nakedness—of uncovering or baring oneself. The Servant willingly laid bare his soul, leaving it naked and vulnerable, to the point where it could easily meet with death. He did this by taking on himself the guilt that would make him prone to the judgment (of death) from YHWH. But it is the guilt of the people, not his own, as the discussion in the prior verses makes clear. The guilty persons are characterized as “(the one)s breaking (faith)” (<yu!v=P)), that is, breaking the covenant bond with YHWH and rebelling against His authority. This fundamental meaning of the root uvP has been discussed in the earlier notes. While the Servant has remained faithful/loyal to YHWH, he bears the guilt of those who have broken faith.

It is worth mentioning that it is possible to translate the verb hr*u* in the sense of “empty (out),” which naturally brings to mind the idea of kenosis in the famous Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11.

Couplet 3

The final couplet essential restates the point made in the second:

“and he (himself) lifted (the) sin of many,
and met (with the punishment) for their breaking (faith)”

The two couplets together have a chiastic thematic structure, which may be illustrated as follows:

    • The Servant bares his soul for death
      • He is identified with (i.e. bears the guilt of) those breaking faith
      • He bears/lifts the guilt of those committing sin
    • He meets with the punishment (of death) for their sin

Again the verb ac*n` is used for the lifting/bearing of guilt (cf. also in v. 4). The pronoun “he” (aWh) is specifically set in emphatic (first) position, emphasizing that the Servant himself did this, that he bore the guilt of their sin upon himself.

The verb in the final line (ug~P*) can be a bit difficult to translate. In my view, it is best to keep to the fundamental meaning of “meet” —that is, to meet with (i.e., encounter) someone or something. It can be used in the harsher sense of meeting with an impact, i.e., getting hit or struck. Here, it would seem, the idea is of the Servant meeting with punishment—that is, the punishment that should have fallen upon the guilty people, but which has come upon him instead. This is the central theme of the passage: the vicarious suffering of the Servant, by which he bears on himself the guilt of the people.

There can be no doubt that it is this theme which helped to make Isa 52:13-53:12 such a powerful passage when applied to the sacrificial death of Jesus. Interestingly, however, the vicarious and sacrificial aspect does not seem to have been foremost in view for the earliest believers who applied the passage to Jesus. Rather, it appears to have been the correspondence with certain details in the account of Jesus’ Passion that first established the connection between Jesus and the Servant.

Having gone through the passage in detail, it now remains for us to explore the main lines of interpretation—including, but not limited to, the early Christian interpretation. How, precisely, should the figure of the Servant be understood? Does he represent a specific historical person, or is he a symbolic or collective figure? Does he differ in any way from the Servant-figure in the other so-called “Servant Songs” of Deutero-Isaiah? How does this figure fit within the visionary framework of the Deutero-Isaian poems, in terms of their theology, eschatology, expository purpose, and so forth? These subjects will be touched on in the concluding article (on this passage) in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”.

May 6: Isaiah 53:11

Isaiah 53:11

“From (the) labor of his soul he shall see and be satisfied,
with his knowledge my just servant shall bring justice for (the) many,
and their crooked (deed)s, he shall carry (them) along.”

This verse continues the theme from verse 10 (cf. the previous note), regarding the Servant’s reward for remaining faithful, enduring the suffering and punishment (from YHWH) on behalf of the people. In v. 10, the promise is that the Servant will see his descendants (“seed”) flourishing; here, the same verb (ha*r*) is used, but in a more general sense. There is no object provided in the MT for what the Servant will “see”, but the Qumran MSS 1QIsaa and 1QIsab include the word roa (“light”)i.e., “…he shall see lightand this reading would seem to be confirmed by the LXX. Whether or not this represents the original text, it probably reflects the sense of the line accurately enough.

The “light” seen by the Servant, and the satisfaction (vb ub^c*) experienced by his soul, indicates his presence in a heavenly/blessed afterlife. This is the reward for the labor (lm*u*) and suffering of his soul during his lifetime. He is now freed from this toil in the afterlife. If the setting of the passage, as suggested, is the heavenly court, then these verses reflect the decision passed down on the Servant’s behalf, in his favor. The announcement is made by YHWH Himself (“my servant”), or in His name.

The second line shows that the Servant, in his new heavenly position, will, in many ways, be continuing the service he performed on earth. That is to say, he will act on the people’s behalf, functioning as their intermediary and intercessor. With his just/right character having been confirmed, before YHWH in the heavenly court, the Servant is now able to establish justice/righteousness for the people of YHWH. Here he is called the “just [qyD!x^] servant” of YHWH (“my just servant,” or “[the] just [one], my servant”). And he will work to make/bring justice (vb qd^x* in the Hiphil causative stem); the religious aspect of this work would be emphasized by translating this verb form as “do righteousness, make righteous”. However, we should perhaps understand the verb here in the fundamental sense of “make right”, in terms of the covenant between YHWH and his people (but cp. the Servant’s role in bringing justice to the nations in 42:1-4). The Servant’s role in establishing the new covenant, likely reflects the role of Moses as the mediator of the first covenant.

It is not entirely clear what the knowledge (“with/by his knowledge”) is through which the Servant will accomplish this work. There are two possibilities: (1) it refers to his knowledge (i.e., the experience, etc) of his suffering, especially its purpose and significance; (2) the focus is on his new heavenly position in the presence of God, which gives to him a new awareness and revelatory knowledge. I would lean toward the first option. Since the emphasis in the entire passage is on the suffering of the Servant, it seems likely that his “knowledge” must be related to it as well. In any case, this knowledge and understanding is fundamentally given to him by YHWH (on this theme elsewhere in Deutero-Isaiah, cf. 40:14; 41:20; 42:16ff; 43:10; 50:4-5; 51:7; 52:6; and cp. 11:2).

In the final line, it is declared that the Servant will carry the “crooked (deed)s” (or “crookedness,” in a general sense) of the people. This continues the motif from earlier in the passage, only here the verb lb^s* refers, not so much to the lifting of a heavy burden, but of transporting it, i.e., carrying it along. In other words, the Servant now does not merely bear the sin of the people, he transports it; likely a sense of expiation is in view herethat is, the sins of the people are taken away. However, this does not apply to all the people, but to the “many” (<yB!r^).

The motif of the “many” was introduced at the beginning of this passage (52:14-15), and is taken up again at the conclusion (53:11-12). The significance is perhaps best understood in light of the traditional “remnant” motif in the Prophets. In a time of great wickedness only a small portion of people are declared holy or righteous, with the implication that only they will survive or be rescued from the judgment. Now, with the dawn of the New Age, and a new covenant established between YHWH and Israel, the situation is reversed: a multitude (“many”) will be righteous and faithful throughout to YHWH. The same even applies, it would seem, to the nations— “many” of them (and their rulers) will come to be holy and righteous in the New Age. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on v. 12).


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 41 (Part 1)

Psalm 41

Dead Sea MSS: Nothing of Ps 41 has been preserved among the surviving Psalms MSS

This Psalm may be divided loosely into two parts. The first (vv. 2-5 [1-4]) is a prayer to YHWH with strong Wisdom features. It focuses on the righteous, and climaxes with a personal plea (by the Psalmist) for healing and deliverance.  The second part (vv. 6-13 [5-12]) deals with the attacks by the wicked against the righteous, retaining the central theme-setting of the first part: the experience of illness by the righteous. As in several other Psalms we have studied thus far, the wicked respond with malice (slanderous taunts) to the suffering of the righteous. The prayer that concludes this second part (vv. 11-13 [10-12]) focuses on deliverance from these attacks by the wicked. A short verse of praise (v. 14 [13]) to YHWH brings the Psalm to a close.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 4+4 bicolon (couplet) format; however, there many irregularities as well, some of which may be evidence of textual corruption. Sadly, as noted above, there is no help available from the Dead Sea manuscripts, since Psalm 41 is not to be found among the surviving Psalms MSS.

The superscription gives the common direction, designating the work as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) lowly <and needy>,
in (the) day of evil, YHWH will cause him to slip away [i.e. escape].”

There is a fundamental difficulty in the first line of this couplet. The meter of the couplet as it stands is 3+4, rather than the expected 4+4, suggesting that a word may have dropped out. Secondly, we have the word lD*: does it mean “lowly (one)” (from ll^D*), or “door” (from hl*D*)? The former is the more common lD* in the Psalms, where it is paired with the noun /oyb+a# (“needy, poor”), i.e., “the lowly and needy” (72:13; 82:3-4; 113:7). Many commentators thus would add here /oyb=a#w+, a reading which the LXX seems to assume. In this case, the first line would be:

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) lowly <and needy>”

However, another possibility is raised by a comparison with Psalm 141:3, where we find the idea of keeping watch over “the door [lD*] of (one’s) lips” (i.e., guarding one’s speech).

Making the situation more difficult is the fact that the verb lk^c* only rarely takes a direct object or governs a prepositional phrase; such occurrences are even rarer when the verb form is a participle, such as the Hiphil form here /yk!c=m^, where it tends to be used as a substantive (“[one] giving consideration”, i.e., who is wise/prudent/understanding). The only such instances of the participle in the Psalms are 14:2 and 53:3 [2], while it is rather more common in the Proverbs. It is also in the Proverbs where we find the closest parallels to the usage here:

    • Prov 16:20: “(the one) giving consideration upon a word” (rb*D*-lu^ lyK!c=m^)
    • Prov 16:23: “(the) heart of a wise (man) gives consideration (to) his mouth, and upon his lips he continues receiving (instruction)”
    • Prov 21:11: “in (his) giving consideration to (the) wise he receives knowledge”
    • Prov 21:12: “(the) righteous (one) is giving consideration to (the) house of the wicked”

Prov 16:23 favors lD* as “door (of)” in Ps 41:2 [1], with an emended reading such as: “(the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his lips >” (cf. Dahood, p. 249). On the other hand, Prov 21:11-13 favors an emended text that follows the LXX (cf. above), with the idea of paying attention to the lowly (lD*) and needy. The evidence, as I see it, is equally divided. It is unfortunate that nothing of Psalm 41 is preserved in the Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts; if verse 2 [1] were present, it might well resolve the textual question.

Another factor is the beatitude context. This formulation (opening with yr@v=a^, “happiness of”, “how happy is…”) is frequently applied to the righteous, in terms of those who walk according to the path of YHWH, following the commands and precepts of the Torah, etc. As such, it seems that it might relate better to the idea of guarding one’s lips (and heart), as in Psalm 141:3-4. All things considered, I am inclined to adopt a reading that is comparable in meaning to Psalm 141:3:

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his lips>”
or, conceivably,
“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his heart>”

However, with no textual support for such an emendation, it is probably safer, for the time being, to follow the LXX, in the manner indicated above.

Verse 3 [2]

“YHWH shall guard him and keep him alive,
He shall make (him) happy in the land,
and shall not give him in(to the) throat of his enemies!”

Metrically, this verse is difficult and may possibly be corrupt; if so, there is, unfortunately, no reliable way to modify or emend the text. As it is stands, the verse reads as an irregular (3+2+3) tricolon. Conceptually, the lines are straightforward enough, following the promise of deliverance for the righteous in the second line of verse 2 [1] (cf. above). The protection provided by YHWH, guarding the life of the righteous, relates to the idea of rescuing him “in the day of evil”.

The second line here is a bit awkward, and it may be preferable (along with Dahood, p. 249) to vocalize rvay as an active (Piel) form, rV@a^y+ (“he will make happy”), rather than the passive (Pual) of the MT, rV^a%y+ (“he will be made happy”). Clearly, the verb rv^a* relates to the beatitude formula the opens the Psalm (cf. above), and reflects the blessing that YHWH gives to the righteous. Those whom YHWH delivers in the time of evil, under his protection they will be safe and will prosper in the land (i.e., their life on earth).

In the final line, it is best to understand vp#n# in the concrete sense of “throat”, which is how the word is used occasionally in the Psalms (and other early poems). Another possible translation is “appetite”, which would conform more closely to the regular rendering of vp#n# as “soul” (cf. below). The enemies (lit. “hostile [one]s”) of the righteous seek to devour them, which can include the idea of causing their death. It is also possible that the wording here reflects the traditional image of Death personified as an all-consuming, ravenous entity, with a massive mouth/throat that seeks to swallow (devour) all things.

Verse 4 [3]

“YHWH shall support him upon (the) couch of (his) sickness,
every place of his lying down shall you turn over in his illness.”

This couplet gives some confirmation that the “enemies” of verse 3 [2] (as a collective or intensive plural) refer to death itself. We have encountered many Psalms where a life-threatening illness is involved, and that is clearly the focus here. The “day of evil” can take many forms, whereby the righteous are threatened and may be in danger of death; and, in the ancient world with its high rate of mortality, disease and illness frequently led to death. The promise here, continued from the opening verse, is that YHWH’s protection for the righteous will extend to help and healing in time of illness.

The shift from 3rd person to 2nd person may seem peculiar, but it is not at all uncommon in Near Eastern poetry. Here, we may view the shift as transitional to the Psalmist’s address to YHWH in verse 5 [4]. The verb Ep^h* often means “overturn”, but here it is perhaps better to keep to the fundamental meaning of “turn”, in the sense of turning (i.e. changing) the “couch of sickness” into something else—namely, a place of health and wholeness. Every place where the righteous lies down, there will be healing and life, rather than sickness and the threat of death.

Verse 5 [4]

“I said, ‘YHWH, show favor to me!
May you heal my soul,
for I have sinned against you!'”

This initial portion of the Psalm concludes with a plea to YHWH by the Psalmist. As is often the case, the Psalmist represents the righteous, and here the general Wisdom-sentiment of vv. 2-4 (i.e., instruction for the righteous) gives way to a personal appeal by a protagonist who personifies and embodies the righteous. Whether the author of the Psalm actually experienced such illness and suffering is beside the point; it is a topos that occurs repeatedly in the Psalms, and reflects an experience that would have been familiar to many faithful Israelites. As such, it relates to the common Wisdom-theme of the suffering of the righteous.

While illness could be viewed as an attack by a malevolent adversary, the monotheistic faith of the devout Israelite ultimately viewed YHWH Himself as the source of sickness and disease. Typically, it was thought as coming about as the result of sin—the disease being the punishment (by God) for such sin. Here the Psalmist admits that he has sinned against YHWH, recognizing that the illness that has struck him must be the result of his sin. It is a confession that is meant to demonstrate his faithfulness and devotion to YHWH, hoping (and expecting) that God will deliver him and remove the illness. He specifically prays that YHWH will heal (vb ap*r*) his soul (vp#n#, i.e., his life), but this concept of healing can have a deeper level of meaning as well, tied to the idea of repentance. In repenting of his sin, the Psalmist effectively asks that his life be made whole again, so that he can follow the path of God faithfully, avoiding any sinful ways that might turn him from the path.

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


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 40 (Part 1)

Psalm 40

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (verse 1 [only part of the superscription survives])

This Psalm is clearly comprised of two parts: (1) a hymn of thanksgiving to YHWH for deliverance (vv. 2-11 [1-10]), and (2) a lament in which the Psalmist describes his suffering/oppression and makes a plea to YHWH for help (vv. 12-18 [11-17]). The very different character of these two portions has led commentators to regard the Psalm as a combination of two prior (and originally separate) poems. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that vv. 12-18 [11-17] closely resemble Psalm 70. Still, the order of the compositions here is curious; we might rather have expected the thanksgiving to follow the lament (instead of the other way around).

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon (couplet) format. The superscription is common, designating the work as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Verse 2 [1]

“Gathering, I gathered YHWH (with my voice),
and He stretched (down) to me,
and He heard my cry for help!”

The initial verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, essentially an expanded form of a 3+2 bicolon with a doubling of the second line. The last two lines are in a kind of synthetic parallelism, in which the second line builds upon the thought in the line prior.

I follow Dahood (pp. 121-2, 245) in understanding the verb in the first line to be a form of hw`q* II (“gather, collect”) rather than the more common hw`q* I (“wait [for], hope, expect”). The Psalmist “gathers” YHWH in the sense that he calls Him with his voice (cp. Ps 19:5 [4]). The doubling of the verb—an infinitive followed by a perfect form—represents a bit of Hebrew syntax that is difficult to translate in English. I have rendered it here quite literally (“Gathering, I gathered…” = “Calling, I have called…”); but often it is used in an intensive sense–viz, “surely I have called…”, “I called repeatedly,” etc.

The Psalmist’s call “gathers” YHWH to him, and God “stretches” (or bends, vb hf*n`) down to him in response. Indeed, He has heard the urgent (and/or repeated) cry for help.

Verse 3 [2]

“And He brought me up from (the) pit of ruin,
and (up) from (the) muck of the mire;
and He made my feet stand upon (the) rock-cliff,
He fixed my steps (to walk) straight.”

This pair of 3+2 couplets continues the thought in verse 2 [1], describing YHWH’s response to the Psalmist—bringing deliverance/salvation for him, using the vivid imagery of a rescue out of a muddy bog. This “pit of ruin” (/oav* roB) is a traditional idiom for Death (and the realm of the dead). This indicates that the protagonist of the Psalm had been in danger of death when YHWH rescued him. Stuck in the mire, he was like a man trapped in quicksand, or in the midst of a deep and treacherous bog, threatening to engulf him. The nouns fyf! and /w#y` are more or less synonymous (each referring to mud/mire), and are joined together here for dramatic emphasis.

From this deep and muddy “pit”, the Psalmist is lifted out and placed on a high rock-cliff (ul^s#) with firm footing. The extreme contrast is intentional and meant to convey how completely YHWH has delivered him. There could not be a greater difference in location—i.e., deep muddy pit vs. high rock-cliff. The verb /WK (here in the Polel stem) refers to something that is established or fixed in place. It expands on the idea of the Psalmist’s feet being firmly planted on the rock-cliff: the dual yl^g+r^ (“my [two] feet”) is parallel with the plural yr*v%a& (“my walking/going [straight]”). The root rva denotes going straight toward something.

Verse 4 [3]

“And He gave [i.e. put] in my mouth a new song,
a shout (of praise) to our Mighty (One);
many shall see (this) and be afraid,
and shall seek protection in YHWH.”

The two couplets in this verse continue the course of action, describing the response by people to YHWH’s saving deed. For the Psalmist himself (lines 1-2), it leads him to utter a song (ryv!) and shout (hL*h!T=) of praise to YHWH; indeed, we may understand vv. 2-11 of the Psalm as this very song. For others who see (or come to know) what God has done on the Psalmist’s behalf, it will cause them to fear YHWH, and to seek His protection. The verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, denotes seeking (or finding) protection in someone or something; it also can refer specifically to the trust one has in that protection. It is often used in the context of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people—that is, to the protection that He is obligated to provide (so long as the people remain faithful).

Verse 5 [4]

“(The) happiness of the strong (one) who makes YHWH his place of protection,
and does not turn to (the) proud (one)s,
and (to the one)s swerving (to) lie(s)!”

This irregular tricolon contains (in its first line) a beatitude (on the use of yr@v=a^, “happy [thing]s of,” “[the] happiness of”, cf. the study on Psalm 1). It clearly draws upon the language of the previous verse, with the noun jf*b=m! (lit. “place of protection, protected place”) derived from the root jfb (“seek/find protection,” cf. above).

As in Psalm 1, the beatitude-form here is part of a Wisdom-contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous trust in YHWH, while the wicked turn to false deities (or to comparable unethical/immoral behavior). In the second line, the wicked are characterized as those who “turn to (the) proud (one)s”; in the third line, the expression is “(one)s swerving (toward) lie(s)”.

Both of these phrases can be understood in a religious and an ethical sense. The term bz`K* (“lie”) is often used in reference to idolatry and the worship of false deities, while the verb fWc, though extremely rare (cf. Ps 101:3), seems to have the sense of “turning away” (i.e., swerving, veering). At the same time, these expressions can also refer to the moral/ethical conduct of the wicked, with their tendency toward arrogance and pride (bh*r*) and toward speaking/believing lies.

Verse 6 [5]

“Many (are they that) you have done, YHWH,
your marvelous (deed)s, my Mighty (One),
and your thoughts to(ward) us—
there is none compared to you!
(If) I should put (them) up front and speak (them),
they would be great beyond numbering!”

This verse is comprised of three couplets, but the awkwardness and lack of a clear poetic flow suggests the possibility of textual corruption. However, there is (as yet) no satisfactory approach for emending or navigating these difficulties. For lack of any better option, I have retained the Masoretic text throughout.

The emphasis in the first couplet is on the wonderful/marvelous deeds that God has done. They are described as “many” (toBr^), but the same adjective can also indicate “greatness”. The Psalmist has included his own experience within the wider experience of God’s people. YHWH has done many great deeds (including miracles) during Israel’s history, and His deliverance of the Psalmist is one more such deed.

The second couplet is a bit obscure in meaning, but the focus is on thought, rather than action. It also creates a transition between what YHWH thinks of us (His people), and what we think of Him (our God). His thoughts toward us are loving and caring, expressed through the “marvelous deeds” He has chosen to do on our behalf. Conversely, our thoughts toward Him recognize that, because of such deeds, etc, YHWH is truly the “Mightiest (One)”, the true God, and there is no one like him. The actual wording here is “there is none compared to you”. The verb Er^u* literally refers to arranging things in a row—in this case, so that they can be compared one to another.

The final couplet turns again to the great deeds of YHWH, as the Psalmist recognizes that they are so many (<x#u#, lit. “strength, abundance”) that they are beyond being numbered—i.e., beyond anyone’s ability to count them all (cp. John 21:25).

Verse 7 [6]

“(Ritual) slaughter and gift you did not desire,
(instead) you cut (open the) ears for me,
rising (smoke) and (offering for) sin you did not request.”

This is a curious and difficult verse, again giving the impression that something may be missing here in the text. The basic sense is clear enough, reflecting a Wisdom-message, found frequently in the Prophets, to the effect that obedience to God is more important than the ritual duty of performing sacrificial offerings (summarized in lines 1 and 3). The wording in the middle line is difficult; literally it reads (apparently) “ears you cut (open) for me”. Possibly the cutting (vb trk) of the ears is meant as a contrast with the ‘cutting’ (i.e. ritual slaughter) of the sacrificial offerings. In this case, the action is taken by YHWH, rather than the Psalmist: He has opened the Psalmist’s ears, so that he can hear and understand, responding in obedience to God’s Word. Conceivably, there may also be an allusion to the idea of having one’s ears ‘circumcised’ (i.e., as an idiom for obedience, cf. Jer 6:10).

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“Then I said: ‘See, I come!
In (the) roll of (the) account it is inscribed upon me:
to do your pleasure, my Mighty (One), (so do) I delight,
and your Instruction (is) in the middle of my (in)ner parts!'”

Again, the poetic style and rhythm in this verse feels rather forced and awkward. Metrically, we have a pair of 3+3 couplets (but only loosely so); conceptually, it might be better to view the verse as a 3-beat quatrain (3+3+3+3). The poetry is subservient to the religious message, which can be summarized as a confessional statement that characterizes the righteous.

The first two lines are preliminary to this statement, and their precise meaning is not entirely clear. The idea seems to be that the righteous person (the Psalmist) is committed to acting/behaving in accordance with his identity (as a righteous/ faithful one). Another possibility is that the afterlife is in view—that is, the promise of blessed life in heaven (with God) for the righteous. In this latter context, the declaration “See, I come” could refer to the Psalmist’s readiness to enter the blessed afterlife. The beatitude context of verse 5 [4] would tend to confirm this interpretation. In any case, the “roll of the account” refers to the accounting (or ‘book’) of a person’s deeds, etc, recorded by God in heaven, which will be used in the afterlife judgment-scene. At the same time, it reflects the ultimate destiny of the person (cf. Job 13:26, etc); for the righteous, this is equivalent to being written down in the ‘book of life’ (cf. Exod 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; 139:16; Mal 3:16; Jubilees 30:19ff; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 21:27).

The last two lines record the confessional statement that defines the righteous. The destiny and purpose of the righteous is to do what pleases YHWH (or what He favors). The term /oxr* fundamentally refers to something that is received favorably, implying that a person finds pleasure in it and desires it, etc. In a religious and ethical context, it is used to express the will of God (i.e., what He desires that should be done). The delight (vb Jp@j*) of the righteous is to do God’s will, to do what pleases Him. And, what it is that pleases YHWH is stated clearly enough in the final line: it is to observe faithfully all of the precepts and regulations, etc, in the Instruction (hr*oT, Torah) that God has given to His people. Observance of the Torah is so much a part of the righteous person’s character and way of life that it resides deep within him (lit. “in the middle of my inner parts”).

Verse 10 [9]

“I have given the news of (your) justice in (the) assembly,
see! my lips have not refrained—
YHWH, you know (this)!”

The song and shout of praise that the Psalmist gives to YHWH (cf. verse 4 [3] above), recounting God’s great act(s) of deliverance (v. 6 [5]), is done publicly, in the assembly (lh*q*), the gathering of faithful ones. This refers to actual gatherings, but even more as a symbolic reference to the righteous (as a collective group). A characteristic of the righteous is that they “do not refrain” from confessing all that God has done (and continues to do). As noted above, the Psalmist includes his individual experience of deliverance as part of the wider experience of God’s people.

Verse 11 [10]

“Your justice I have not kept hidden in (the) midst of my heart,
your firmness and your saving (power) I have declared—
I have not kept back your goodness and truth from the great assembly.”

This portion of the Psalm concludes with yet another irregular tricolon, with the poetic style and rhythm stretched to fit the religious message. It continues the thought from verse 10 [9], emphasizing how the Psalmist makes known the greatness of YHWH in the (public) assembly of the righteous. The context of corporate worship is very much in view—the sort of setting in which a Psalm like 40:2-11 would be sung.

The themes of the prior verses are drawn together, combining the inward and outward aspects of righteousness. What is true within the heart of the righteous, is also proclaimed publicly. Here, the terms bl@ (“heart”) and hu#m@ (= inner organs, inner parts, v. 9 [8]) are synonymous. By declaring the marvelous deeds of YHWH one also exclaims His character and attributes. These include his “right[eous]ness” and “justice” (qd#x# / hq*d*x=), and also his “goodness” (ds#j#). Both of these terms are often used in a covenantal context—i.e., referring to faithfulness and loyalty to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people.


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 4)

Psalm 37, continued

Verses 30-40

This final section of Psalm 37 reiterates the different themes that have run throughout the Psalm (cf. Parts 1, 2, 3, on the earlier sections). As such, it effectively summarizes the proverbial message of the composition, with its strong emphasis on the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates).

Verses 30-31

p “(The) mouth [yP!] of (the) just murmurs wisdom,
and his tongue speaks (right) judgment;
(the) Instruction of his Mighty (One is) in his heart,
his steps do not slip away (on the path).”

These two couplets neatly capture the character of the righteous (adj. qyd!x*, “just, right”), drawing upon traditional religious and proverbial language. The first couplet defines the righteous in terms of their speech: they speak wisdom (hm*k=j*) and justice (fP*v=m!, lit. “[right] judgment”). This essentially means that the righteous person both acts (i.e. behaves) in a wise and just manner, and exhorts others to do the same. Such a person is also preoccupied with wisdom and justice, a characteristic that is reflected by the use of the verb hg`h* (“murmur, mutter”). The verb denotes a low, rumbling sound (like an animal’s growl), and, in this context, refers to a person speaking (muttering) to himself/herself on a regular basis—note the famous parallel in Psalm 1:2, where it is the Instruction (Torah) of God that the focus of the righteous person’s attention.

And, indeed, the Torah is emphasized in the second couplet (v. 31), where the focus is on the overall conduct of the righteous, utilizing the familiar wisdom-motif of “walking” in a straight/right path—i.e., the path of God, represented by the precepts and regulations of the Torah. The righteous person is so preoccupied with the Torah—embodying as it does wisdom and justice (v. 30)—that it may be said to reside “in his heart.” As such, it guides his steps (sing. rv%a&) along the way—on the straight/right path that YHWH has laid out for him. On this path, his feet will not slip (vb du^m*), thanks to his faithfulness and the secure guidance of YHWH.

Verses 32-33

x “(The) wicked is looking out [hp#ox] for (the) just,
and is seeking to cause him death;
(but) YHWH will not leave him in his hand,
and will not treat him as (the) wicked in his judgment.”

The behavior of the wicked, in contrast to the righteous, is described in the first couplet here. It is characterized by an interest in doing harm (violence) to the righteous; it is thus an extreme form of injustice that occupies his attention, compared with the justice that occupies the righteous person. The purpose of this planned violence is ultimately to kill the righteous (“cause death”, vb tWm in the Hiphil stem), a theme that we have encountered a number of times in the Psalms thus far. The verb hp^x* (“look out [over], watch”) indicates that the wicked is looking for an opportunity to cause death for the righteous, and the use of the participle form in each line emphasizes that this is regular behavior—i.e., something he is constantly doing.

The promise in the second couplet is that YHWH will not give the righteous over into the power of wickedness. Quite literally, this means that the wicked person will not be able to fulfill his desire to kill the righteous (line 1). The idiom used here is of being “in the hand” of another person, that is, subject to his power and control. The effective promise is that YHWH will not leave the righteous behind (vb bz~u*), helpless in the hands of the wicked.

If the idea of being saved from death in this life is emphasized in the first line, it is the final Judgment and the afterlife that is view in the second line. If YHWH will not give over the righteous to the power of a wicked person, neither will he treat them like the wicked in the time of the Judgment. The verb uv^r* is, of course, related to the adjective uv*r* (“wicked”), and in the Hiphil stem can have the specialized sense of “treat/regard (someone) as wicked”. It is best to retain this wordplay and translate the root uvr consistently, however the verb uv^r* could also be rendered according to the fundamental meaning “do/cause wrong” —i.e., YHWH will not do wrong to the righteous in the Judgment. The syntax “his judgment” refers to the judgment of the righteous person; it thus differs in point of reference with the parallel “his hand” (i.e., hand of the wicked person) in the first line.

Verse 34

q “Look [hW@q*] (patiently) to YHWH,
and guard His path (with care);
and He will raise you (up) to possess the land,
(and) in (the) cutting off of (the) wicked you will see (it).”

In contrast to the 3-beat (3+3) meter that dominates this Psalm, the first bicolon here is a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet. The short lines contain a clear and direct exhortation for the righteous. Again, the juxtaposition with the wicked is implied; even as the wicked “looks out” for a chance to harm the righteous, so the righteous “looks” (vb hw`q*) to YHWH with hope and devotion, trusting that He will bring deliverance and will rectify things (with justice) in the time of Judgment. Indeed, it is the great Judgment that is in view here in the second couplet, contrasting the fate of the righteous and wicked, using the same combined idiom from vv. 22 and 28-29: viz., the righteous will possess the earth (or land), while the wicked will be “cut off” (vb tr^K*).

In this regard, the wording of the last line is difficult. The basic idea seems to be that the judgment of the righteous and wicked is simultaneous, and occurs at the same moment: the righteous is “raised high” (vb <Wr), while the wicked is cut down; and, as the wicked falls, the righteous has a clear view of the land he will inherit. Some might interpret the last line to mean that the righteous will see the wicked person fall, but I feel that this is incorrect: he sees the land, not the wicked person who has fallen out of view. This “land” is a symbol for the blessed life with God (in Heaven).

Verses 35-36

r “I have seen [yT!ya!r*] (the) wicked (appear) awesome,
(spread)ing leaves like a (lush) green native (tree);
and (yet) he passed over, and see! he was no (more),
I searched (for) him and he was not found.”

The syntax of these lines, along with their mixed metaphors, is a bit awkward. Kraus (p. 403), based on the LXX reading, would emend the adjective Jyr!u* (“terrible, awesome, mighty”) to JyL!u*, meaning something like “raised high (in triumph)”. This would perhaps better fit the image of a majestic tree. The LXX also indicates a different reading for the second line of the first couplet, referring to the “cedars of Lebanon”, rather than the curious wording of the MT, which would have to be seriously emended to match the LXX. An underlying Hebrew text, corresponding to the LXX (cf. Kraus, p. 403), would yield the following translation for the first couplet:

“I have seen the wicked raised high (in triumph),
and lifted up like (the) cedars of (the) white-peaked (mountains) [i.e. Lebanon]”

In any case, the basic message of these couplets is clear enough, and is well-rooted in Wisdom tradition. The wicked may prosper, appearing mighty and majestic, during their lifetime, but with their death, all of that suddenly vanishes, and they “are no more”. This fate of disappearance also alludes to the Judgment, when the wicked will be “cut off” (or cut down, following the tree-motif), cf. above. The verb rb^u* (“pass/cross over”) almost certainly refers to crossing over into the realm of the dead (i.e., the death of the wicked).

Verses 37-38

? “Watch [rm*v=] (the) complete and see (the) straight,
for (what) follows for (that) man (is) fulfillment;
but (those) breaking (the bond) are destroyed as one,
(and what) follows for (the) wicked is (to be) cut off.”

The wording of these couplets seems somewhat forced and awkward; however, the Wisdom-theme comes through clearly, continuing the striking contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their respective fates). The initial verb (rm^v*) literally means “guard”, but can also be rendered “watch closely” (i.e., keep watch over); paired as it is here with ha*r* (“see”), the simple translation of “watch” is appropriate.

The adjectives <T* (“complete”) and rv*y` (“straight”) should be understood here as substantives which refer to the righteous—i.e., that which characterizes the righteous: their complete devotion to the covenant bond with YHWH, and their upright conduct (in both a moral and religious sense). One should look to such people as an example, but also, more particularly, as an indication of what the fate of the righteous will be. Their righteousness finds completion and fulfillment (<olv*) with YHWH; that is, fulfillment of what is promised by the covenant bond: blessing and security, both in this life, and in the life to come.

The wicked, by contrast, break the covenant bond, and this is the specific meaning of the verb uv^P*, used here as substantive (participle) to characterize the wicked, even as <T* and rv*y` characterize the righteous. The fate (lit., “[what] follows”) for the wicked is to be “cut off” (vb tr^K*), a motif that has been used several times already in this Psalm. This “cutting off” is a specific element of the ancient Near Eastern covenant format. Originally, it referred to a ritual cutting up of an animal, as a way of symbolizing what will happen to the person who violates the terms of the binding agreement—that is, they will be “cut up” in a similar manner. Even when the use of such a concrete ritual had faded, the associated language remained: the covenant formula had built-in “curse” language implying that God would bring about the death of one who violated the covenant (i.e., they would be “cut off”). On the theme of the death of the wicked, cf. the discussion above.

Verses 39-40

t “(The) salvation [tu^WvT=] of (the) just (comes) from YHWH,
(their) place of strength in time of distress;
and YHWH will help them and will rescue them,
He rescues them from (the) wicked and saves them,
for they (have) sought protection in Him.”

In order to preserve the acrostic format, the initial prefixed conjunction (-W) in the MT should probably be omitted. The theme of these concluding couplets is salvation (hu*WvT=)—that is, the safety and security that YHWH provides for the righteous. This relates specifically to the covenant bond (cf. above) between YHWH and His people. Those who remain faithful to the bond are under YHWH’s continual protection, and He will rescue them from danger. In the context of the Psalm, this refers to the threat to the righteous from the wicked, who seek to bring about their death. God will rescue the righteous from this danger.

This imagery, of YHWH as a “place of strength” and protection, has been used repeatedly in the Psalms. In particular, the verb hs*j* is distinctive of the Psalms, and occurs frequently; already, in the Psalms we have studied thus far, it has occurred 14 times (2:12; 5:12; 7:2; 11:1; 16:1; 17:7; 18:3, 31; 25:20; 31:2, 20; 34:9, 23; 36:8). The verb denotes a person seeking (and/or finding) protection; it also connotes the trust one places in that protection. As this usage makes clear, hs*j* is part of the covenantal language and imagery that is characteristic of many Psalms, and which runs through the composition.

The final couplet is expanded into a tricolon, adding a short, climactic third line, as is befitting of the conclusion to such a grand poem. The closing line, appropriately, emphasizes the trust that the righteous have in God. It is this, perhaps more than anything else, that distinguishes them from the wicked, and which serves as the basis for the fundamental contrast between the two groups.

References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).