Psalm 73, continued
The first section of the Psalm (vv. 1-12) was discussed in the prior study.
“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.”
“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.
“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”).
“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.
“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.
“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”).
“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”.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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).
“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”).
“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
- (but) my heart and my portion
- (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).
“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).
“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 (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).