May 5: Psalm 51:10-13

Psalm 51:10-13

In the previous note, in this series exploring the references to the Spirit (j^Wr) of God in the Old Testament, we examined the tradition of the Saul-David conflict as narrated in 1 Samuel, and how it is expressed in terms of the spirit of God. As I have discussed, there was a strong principle of charismatic leadership in early Israel—that is to say, the qualified leader of the people was marked by possession of a divine spirit, their giftedness a product of being specially touched by the spirit of God. This entailed the possession of wisdom and understanding (to guide the people), but also the (physical) strength and skill needed to lead the people in times of battle. From Moses to his successor Joshua, through the Judges and the first kings (Saul and David), this principle of divinely-inspired leadership was maintained. Only with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy did the principle gradually fade; even then, the king was seen as holding a special relationship with YHWH, reflected in the repeated phrase that “YHWH was with him (i.e. with the king)”. Rooted in the ancient concept of covenant loyalty, it came to be a central component of the (Judean) royal theology, focused on the Davidic line—beginning with David (1 Sam 16:18; 18:14; 2 Sam 5:10; cf. also 1 Chron 11:9; 2 Chron 1:1) it was emphasized especially with Hezekiah at the time of the Assyrian crisis (2 Kings 18:7), and underlies the significance of the Immanuel title in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10.

We saw how, when David was chosen (and anointed) to be the next king, the spirit of YHWH “rushed” to him (1 Sam 16:13); correspondingly, the same spirit that had been upon Saul departed from him (16:14ff), and, in that vacuum, an evil spirit from YHWH came to afflict Saul in its place. This same sort of idea is expressed in Psalm 51, which, according to the superscription, was composed by David after his condemnation by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12:1-15) for his role in the Bathsheba/Uriah affair (chap. 11). Certainly it is a penitential Psalm, in which the Psalmist asks for forgiveness from YHWH, vowing to repent and amend his ways, making right the wrongs he may have done.

The motif of the spirit (j^Wr) is introduced in verse 10 [12], at the climax of the Psalmist’s plea to be forgiven:

“Create for me a clean heart, O Mightiest,
and make new (the) firm spirit in my inner (part)s”

Here a clean (rohf*) heart is parallel with a firm/fixed (/okn`) spirit. The passive participle /okn` (from the root /WK) denotes the idea of something being firm, sound, secure (i.e. healthy and whole). If the motif in the first line is that of cleansing, in the second line it is healing and renewal. It may be better to translate j^Wr here in the more fundamental sense of “breath” (i.e. life-breath), but the same use of the word in vv. 11-12 [13-14] clearly indicates that a broader meaning is in view as well.

To the extent that the Psalm genuine comes from David—or at least reflects the Israelite/Judean royal theology—there may well be an allusion here to the tradition of charismatic leadership noted above, whereby the king is touched/possessed by a divine spirit. If so, then the king is praying that he would not share in Saul’s fate, when the divine spirit departed from him. Certainly, the language of verse 11 [13] may be rooted in this idea, at least in part:

“Do not throw me out (away) from your face,
and your holy spirit—do not take (it away) from me!”

The sense of the ancient tradition appears to have been generalized, set in a broader religious and ethical context. The relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH is in danger of being broken, expressed here from both sides: (a) being removed from God’s presence (line 1), and (b) God’s presence being removed from him (line 2). This is one of the only occurrences in the Old Testament of the expression “holy spirit”; it must not be understood here from the later Jewish or Christian standpoint, but simply as reflecting a specific quality or aspect of God’s spirit—namely holiness and purity. Literally the expression is “spirit of your holiness” (;v=d=q* j^Wr), the holiness (vd#q), from the root vdq) of El-Yahweh being a key attribute and central tenet of Israelite religion. The regular/frequent impurity of human beings was fundamentally incompatible with the purity of YHWH; this was realized both in the ritual and ethical sphere of Israelite religious culture, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The Psalmist’s sin threatened the removal of God’s holy presence (and his removal from that presence).

The thoughts expressed in the two couplets of vv. 10-11 [12-13] are combined together, in summary form, within the third (v. 12 [14]), and it brings the Psalmist’s petition to a close:

“Return to me a rejoicing (in) your salvation,
and may you lay hold of me (with) a stimulating spirit!”

The term uv^y#, typically translated “salvation”, in the royal theological context of the Psalms often reflects the idea of the covenant bond between the ruler (as vassal) and YHWH (as Sovereign). This bond means that YHWH is obliged to bring help and assistance to the ruler in his time of need, unless the terms of the agreement have been violated. While such language could easily be broadened to apply to God’s people in a more general sense, the royal/Davidic background in such Psalms needs to be recognized. The breaking of the bond results in the Psalmist being unable to rejoice in the salvation that YHWH, his Sovereign, can provide; he prays that this would be “returned” to him.

The precise meaning of the final line is difficult to determine. The verb Em^s* has the basic meaning “lay (upon)” or “lean (upon)”, often in the specific (ritual) context of the laying on of hands. The prayer is that YHWH will again lay His ‘hands’ upon the Psalmist, by way of a blessing that will restore the covenant bond. Here the place of the noun j^Wr (“spirit”) is ambiguous—is it a spirit from God that comes upon the Psalmist by this “laying on” (par with v. 11), or does it refer to the effect of this in/on the spirit within the Psalmist (par with v. 10)? The word hb*yd!n+ is a bit difficult to translate (it can be a noun or adjective), the root bdn fundamentally indicating an impulse—i.e., something that prompts a person to act, etc. What is being described? There are two possibilities:

    • The spirit of YHWH stimulates the Psalmist to repentance and a newfound loyalty, etc
    • By laying hold of him, YHWH stimulates the Psalmist’s spirit so that, from now on, he will be inclined to act in faithful/loyal manner

Both are valid ways of reading the line, but probably the emphasis is more on the action of God’s spirit.

In the concluding notes of this series, we will explore further the expression “holy spirit” as it came to be used subsequently in Jewish literature and tradition. However, it is first necessary to continue our Old Testament study with a survey of additional references to the j^Wr of God in the Psalms and Prophets. A key aspect of this will focus again on the specific association between the Spirit and prophetic inspiration, and how this developed over time.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 4

Psalm 18:32-51

Psalm 18:32-46 [31-45]

Verses 32-46 [31-45] mark a clear section of the Psalm, and, according to many critical commentators, represent the bulk of an original poem that was combined (with vv. 1-31) to comprise the current work as we have it (in Ps 18 and 2 Sam 22). The theme throughout is that of the military victory that YHWH brings to the faithful ruler. Certainly this the line of imagery is rooted in the ancient Israelite/Judean royal theology, though we must cautious about reading specific historical circumstances into the text. The military/victory theme provides a suitable complement to the deliverance theme in the first half of the Psalm (esp. verses 4-20).

Verse 32 [31]

“For who (is the) Mighty (One) apart from YHWH?
Who (is the) Rock apart from our Mightiest (One)?”

The initial couplet extols YHWH as the Mighty One (la@, i.e. ‘God’). It is not a statement of absolute monotheism, but confirms that the only true (and proper) God for the people of Israel is El-Yahweh—that is, YHWH identified as the “Mighty One”, the ancient Semitic Creator Deity (‘El). On this qualified monotheism in the Israelite religion of the late-2nd and early-1st millennium, see, for example, the Song of Moses (Deut 32:3, 8-12, 15, 17-18, 30-31, 36ff). Cf. especially Deut 32:31, where the same divine appellative “Rock” (rWx) is used precisely to make this distinction that (only) YHWH is Israel’s God, greater and mightier than all others. A literal rendering here of la@ and <yh!ýa$ as “Mighty” and “Mightiest” is especially useful in preparing the way for the strength/victory motifs that follow.

Verse 33 [32]

“The Mighty (One is) my place of security,
and the (One) giving strength (of arms)—
(the) path of His (power is) complete!”

Verse 33 [32], in the text as we have it, would seem to be a 2+2+2 tricolon. Given the parallels between vv. 33-35 and Habakkuk 3:19, it is possible that a traditional 3-beat tricolon has been expanded (cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 30). In the first line, Ps reads yn]r@Z+a^m=h^ (“the one girding me”), while 2 Sam has yZ]Wum* (“my place of security”); the latter is more concise and a more suitable parallel for the second line. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 114, along with Freedman) in reading the MT /T@y] (“he gives”) as = participle /t@y) (“[the] one giving”); 2 Sam mistakenly reads the verb rty for /ty. I also understand yK!R=d^ in line 3 as preserving a y– 3rd person masculine suffix (“His way”); cp. the standard 3rd person o– suffix (oKr=d^) in 2 Sam. The royal theological background here also supports the connotation “domain, dominion” for ird, which I render above as “path (of power)”.  The corresponding line in Hab 3:19a is: “YHWH my Lord (is) my strength” (yl!yj@ yn`d)a& hwhy).

Verses 34-35 [33-34]

“Making my feet like (those of) a deer,
He lets me stand upon His high places;
teaching my hand(s) for battle,
He brings down (the) bronze bow (in) my arms.”

Following the relative difficulties in v. 33, verses 34-35 have a clearer sense, a pair of 3+3 couplets that expound the strength that YHWH gives to the Psalmist. The rhythm and idiom is a bit awkward, due to a mixing of motifs; the main difficulty is in the last line, where the precise sense of the image is unclear. Overall, the imagery relates to physical strength and prowess, used to represent military ability and leadership in battle. In the first couplet, the focus is on the feet—in terms of speed and leaping ability (the deer [lY`a^] makes for a natural comparison). The second couplet has the parallel idea of the hands (or arms)—there is no corresponding motif from nature, but a clear interpretation in terms of military skill. As the second line of the first couplet contains the idea of ascent, it seems likely that the verb tj^n` in the parallel line of the second couplet specifically denotes descent. The image seems to be that of a divinely-touched bow (tv#q#) descending (from heaven) into the Psalmist’s arms. The word hv*Wjn+ presumably means “bronze” (cp. Job 20:24); however, there are several distinct roots vjn in Hebrew, and Dahood (p. 115) would derive hvjn here from the root signifying enchantment (i.e. divination, etc)—i.e., an enchanted bow. Perhaps some such wordplay is involved, as there is also between vjn and tjn. In any case, the divinely-touched bow symbolizes military skill that is inspired/guided by YHWH.

The corresponding couplet in Hab 3:19b-c is:

“He sets my feet (to be) like a deer,
He makes me tread upon His high places”

As in the Psalm, it is best to read the y– of yt^omB* as preserving the 3rd person suffix (“His high places”), frequent in older poetry and easily confused with the standard 1st-person suffix (i.e., “my high places”).

Verses 36-37 [35-36]

“You have given to me (the) protection [i.e. shield] of your salvation,
[your right hand holds me up]
and your conquering (power) has increased m(y ability);
you have made wide my steps beneath me,
and (so) my ankles did not slip (out from under).”

Ps 18 has an additional line in the first couplet (in square brackets above), and the irregular meter also indicates likely corruption in the text; the shorter reading in 2 Sam is probably to be preferred. The imagery of military strength and prowess is continued from the prior couplets, only here the idea of victory and success (in battle) is included. The ‘shield’ of YHWH’s protection saves the Psalmist, and his own ability to conquer (root wnu/hnu) similarly comes from YHWH, bringing an increase (vb hbr) in his skill/strength. Similarly, God gives to him secure footing and strong support on the ground.

Verses 38-39 [37-38]

“I pursued my enemies and reached them,
and I did not return until I finished them;
I struck them and they were not able to rise,
they fell (dead there) under my feet!”

Here the Psalmist’s victory in battle is described, with a pair of 3+3 couplets that exhibit a more dramatic synthetic parallelism (the second line building upon the first). In both couplets, the text of Ps 18 is to be preferred over 2 Sam 22, which reads “I destroyed them” instead of “I reached them” and “I finished them” (repeating the same verb from the end of the first couplet) instead of “I struck them”.

Verses 40-41 [39-40]

“You girded me (with) strength for (the) battle,
you bent (the one)s rising on me (to be) beneath me;
you gave my enemies to me (by the) neck,
the (one)s hating me—and I put and end to them!”

The slightly irregular rhythm of these couplets may be intentional, for dramatic effect, bringing a climax to the idea of the Psalmist’s victory over his enemies. The second couplet seems to build on the imagery of the first—the victorious warrior standing on the neck of his defeated enemy. I follow the reading of 2 Sam in the position of the w-conjunction in the last line, occurring before the final verb; again this adds to the dramatic effect.

Verses 42-43 [41-42]

“They called for help, and there was no (one) saving (them),
(even) upon YHWH, and He did not answer them;
I pulverized them like (the) dust of (the dirt) path,
(and) like the mud outside I stamped them (down)!”

The defeat of the Psalmist’s enemies is complete in these two couplets, the second of which shows signs of corruption in both Ps 18 and 2 Sam. The Qumran Samuel manuscript 4QSama seems to preserve something close to the original reading of v. 43 [42]; in any case, it allows us to reconstruct it. As indicated above, the first line is:

I pulverized them like (the) dust of (the dirt) path [jr^a)]

In Ps 18, jra seems to have been confused with jwr (“wind”), with the word yn@P= (“face of”) perhaps added to fill out the idiom (i.e. dust strewn about in the face of the wind). By contrast, in 2 Sam, jra was apparently misread as Jra (“earth”). The final verb of the second line in 2 Sam is <q@yr!a& (“I poured them out”), which appears to be a misreading of <u@q*r=a# (“I pounded/stamped them”), found also in Ps 18 but conflated with the synonymous <Q@d!a& (“I crushed them”).

Verses 44-46 [43-45]

“You delivered me from (the) arrows of (the) people,
and set me as (the) head of nations;
people I have not known shall serve me,
at (the) hearing of (their) ear they are made to hear me;
sons of an alien (people) submit themselves before me,
and are restrained by (the bond)s enclosing their (necks)!”

These closing lines of the poem of victory are most difficult, both textually and metrically, and in terms of sense. The precise imagery, for example, in the first couplet is hard to determine. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 117) in reading MT yb@yr! (“strivings/conflicts[?] of”) as = yB@r^ (“arrows [of]”), from the root bbr II; another possibility is oBr! (“multitudes”) from bbr I. Either of those two options seems better to fit the military imagery of the poem. Equally problematic is the second line of the couplet, where Ps has the verb <yc! (“you set me to [be] head”), while 2 Sam has rm^v* (“you guarded me as[?] head”). Dahood suggests that rm^v* is original, and that var) is not “head”, but a separate word (var)) meaning “poison”; this would yield a synonymous parallel:

“You delivered me from (the) arrows[?] of (the) people,
and guarded me against (the) poison of (the) nations”

However, it seems that a synthetic parallelism is more appropriate to these verses—i.e., God delivers the Psalmist, and so sets him as head over nations, that is, as a victorious sovereign over vassal kings. This would be fully in keeping with the underlying royal theology of the Psalm.

The textual difficulties in the last two couplets are even more acute. I follow McCarter (pp. 461-2), in reconstructing vv. 45-46 primarily on the basis of the shorter text in 4QSama. On this basis, it would seem that both Ps 18 and 2 Sam (MT) contain an extra (conflate) line: “sons of an alien (people) shrink [before me]” = “sons of an alien (people) cringe (?) before me”. The latter is preferred as the reading of v. 46a, though the exact meaning of the verb sj^k* is a bit difficult to determine. As this verb is used in the Old Testament, it seems to have the basic meaning “fail, fall short”, though on a few occasions it (or a separate root sjk) is used in the context of a defeated enemy, much as it is here (cf. Deut 33:29, also Ps 66:3; 81:15). Perhaps the idea in these instances is of a person showing weakness, either in the sense of submitting to the victorious party or cringing, etc, before them; both options are attested in the translations.

The final line, punctuating the poem, has its own complications. The verb rg~j* fundamentally means “surround”, sometimes in the sense of “restrain”, which almost certainly is the meaning here; Ps 18 incorrectly reads gr^j* (“tremble”) instead of rg~j*. The last word, a suffixed plural form of tr#G#s=m! (from rg~s*, “shut [up], close”), refers to something that encloses a person, possibly meant here in terms of a neck-collar that binds the prisoners of war (cf. verse 41 for the emphasis on the enemy’s neck). This is how I have chosen to render the line above (cf. McCarter, p. 472).

Psalm 18:47-51 [46-50]

The final portion of the Psalm is a brief hymn of thanksgiving to YHWH, similar in some respects to the concluding section of the first half (vv. 21-31), emphasizing the justice, etc, of YHWH.

Verses 47-49 [46-48]

“(By the) life of YHWH—blessed (be) my Rock,
and lifted high (the) Mightiest (One) of my salvation,
the Mighty (One), the (one) giving vengeance for me,
and (the one) bringing down peoples under me,
bringing me out from my enemies, and from (the one)s rising (against) me—
you lift me high up from (such a) man,
you snatch me (away) from (the) violent (one)s!”

After two couplets praising YHWH, the third opens up into a tricolon punctuated (in v. 49b) by a pair of two-beat lines extolling the deliverance and victory that God gives to the Psalmist. This again is part of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, focused specifically on the Davidic line (cf. below). The rendering of uv*y# and hm*q*n+ by “salvation” and “vengeance”, respectively, can be rather misleading; here they need to be construed more narrowly in terms of military victory, and the vindication of the king’s rule, rather than in the more general moral and religious sense. However, the message certainly could be (and was) applied to the people of God more generally, especially as the Psalm came to circulate and be used in a worship setting. The emphasis on deliverance in v. 49 returns to the main theme in the first half of the Psalm.

Verses 50-51 [49-50]

“Upon this [i.e. for this reason] will I throw you (praise), O YHWH,
and make music to your name among the nations,
(the One who) makes salvation great (for) His king,
and acts (with) loyalty to His Anointed,
to Dawîd and his seed unto (the) distant (future)!”

The final two couplets form a doxology, bringing the Psalm to a close. Whatever we me say about the date or composition of the main portions (poems) of the Psalm, almost certainly this doxology was added when they were brought together into a single poetic work. The last line, with its reference to David, confirms the Davidic association of the Psalm (cf. the superscription and the location in 1-2 Samuel), and, most likely, the early Judean milieu, during which time the complete poem could be copied and transmitted (along with certain scribal errors and adaptations), before its inclusion within Samuel and the Psalter, respectively.

The noun ds#j# (“goodness”) is the key term for the idea of covenant loyalty throughout the Psalm—i.e., as the Psalmist is faithful/loyal to YHWH (as his Sovereign), so God will respond in kind, rescuing him in his time of distress and giving him victory over his enemies.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965). “McCarter” refers to P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 9 (1984).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

 

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 3

Psalm 3

This is the first entry in the Psalter (following the customary order) which begins with a superscription, which for the Psalms typically contain an indication of subject/author and a musical instruction. According to the Hebrew verse numbering, the superscription counts as the first verse, while in most English versions it is regarded as part of the verse. In such instances, I will be utilizing the Hebrew numbering, but with the English numbering in parentheses.

Verse 1

The superscription marks this work as romz+m! (mizmôr) which simply means a musical composition, often specifically one that is sung. It is also said to be dw]d*l= (l®d¹wid), which would be “(belonging) to David”, either in the sense of being written/composed by him or, that he is considered to be the subject of the work. This setting of the song (according to the superscription) is David’s flight during the rebellion by his son Absalom (cf. 2 Samuel 15-18). The historical reliability of these traditional notices is disputed by commentators; generally, it does seem that they reflect attempts to place a particular Psalm into the context of a specific Scriptural narrative, one which fits the overall mood and tone of the work. Critical scholars regard the superscriptions as traditional, but quite secondary to the Psalms themselves; even among traditional-conservative commentators, few would treat the superscriptions as part of the original (inspired) text.

Verses 2-3 (ET 1b-2)

The tone of lament, which, of course, would suit the situation of David indicated in the superscription, comes through clearly in the opening lines, in which the root bbr (“to be many”) appears three times. This sets the lone Psalmist against his “many” opponents and enemies; whether this reflects an historical reality or poetic hyperbole is impossible to say. In any case, it is to God (YHWH) that the Psalmist raises his lament to ask for deliverance:

“YHWH, how many they are [WBr^], the (one)s hostile to me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s standing up against me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s showing (hostility) to my soul!
—There (seems to be) no help for him with the Mightiest [i.e. God]!”

The sense of these lines is straightforward, with one notable exception which affects the specific meaning (and translation) of the passage. In the third line, we have the participle <yr!m=a), from the verb rm^a*, which is typically translated “say, speak”. Following this standard interpretation, the fourth line reflects what the “many” say to the Psalmist (to “his soul”), as a taunt: “There is no help for him with God!”. However, the original, fundamental meaning of the Semitic root rma had more to do with making something visible (“shine, show”), from which came the idea of making something known through speaking. Admittedly, this earlier meaning of rma is not attested much in the Hebrew of the Old Testament; however, poetry often preserves older/archaic usage, and that may be the case in a number of Psalms. Dahood (p. 16) cites examples where he feels rma has the meaning of “see, look (at)” rather than “say”; perhaps the most relevant example is from Ps 71:10, where rma is set parallel to rmv (“watch”) in a construction very close to that here in Ps 3:

“My enemies say/show [Wrm=a*] to me, and the (one)s watching my soul [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)] take counsel as one [i.e. together]”

This suggests that, in these instances, rma may indeed have the sense of looking at someone (with hostile intent). I have tried to capture both possibilities by rendering the participle <yr!m=a) as “(one)s showing (hostility)”. According to this interpretation, the fourth line would not necessarily record the words of the “many”, but could simply reflect the apparent hopelessness of the situation.

Verses 4-5 (ET 3-4)

In these lines, the Psalmist’s hope is restored by reflecting on the character of YHWH—as a Ruler who has proven that he will protect and reward his loyal vassals. It begins with an address to YHWH (v. 4 [3], continuing from vv. 2-3 [1b-2]), then shifts to an objective declaration of His character:

“And (yet) you, YHWH, are (my) Protection (round) about me,
my Honorable [lit. Weighty] (One), and (the one) lifting my head (up) high.
(When) I should call out with my voice to YHWH,
(then) indeed he answers me from (the) mountain of his Holiness.
Selah

Verse 4 (3) utilizes three idioms related to the language of royalty and suzerain-vassal relations:

    • /g@m*, a noun derived from the root /ng (“surround, protect”); it is often translated “shield”, but is better rendered according to its basic meaning (“protection”), perhaps as an honorific attribute of the ruler (i.e. Protector, Defender)
    • dobK*, a noun derived from db^K*, fundamentally referring to something with weight, i.e. value, worth, etc. It refers to the honor (and honorable/noble character) of the ruler, including the authority he possesses to bestow honor on others (cf. Psalm 84:12 [11]). The specific epithet “(my) honorable (one)” as a Divine title, is found in Pss 4:3 [2]; 62:8 [7]; 66:2 (Dahood, p. 18).
    • yv!ar) <yr!m@ (“[the] one lifting/raising my head high”)—to “lift the head” or “lift the face” is an ancient Near Eastern idiom, referring to one in a position of authority who shows favor to a subordinate.

If the Psalmist affirms YHWH’s status as a trustworthy and honorable Ruler in verse 4, he publicly affirms His faithfulness again in v. 5. I would agree with commentators who take this as a conditional sentence, one which demonstrates YHWH’s faithfulness. When a person calls out to YHWH (as the Psalmist is doing), He will answer, responding to the request. We ought to read here the same Ruler-Vassal language of v. 4 and understand the condition as referring to the request of a loyal vassal (e.g. David, in the purported setting of the Psalm). Moreover, the wording “call out with my voice” is presumably meant to indicate the intensity of the situation—the earnestness of the Psalmist, as well as his desperation. The sacred-mountain locale of the Deity is common, especially in the Semitic world where the Creator God °El/Ilu was typically seen as dwelling on (or in) a great Mountain-Tent. The Canaanite sky/storm deity Haddu (i.e. “Baal”) also had a mountain dwelling. Typically, a specific mountain which came to be associated with the deity was based on actual geographic circumstances—but any mountain could fill this role, even a modest hill such as that of Zion/Jerusalem. The mountain was foremost the dwelling place of God (El/YHWH).

This is the first Psalm (in the standard Psalter) with the musical notation Selah (hl*s#). Both the etymology and technical meaning of this term remain uncertain; presumably in the Psalms it refers to some kind of musical refrain, either instrumental or choral.

Verses 6-7 (ET 5-6)

The assurance of the Psalmist in verse 5 [4] receives even greater expression in these lines, with the answer/response of YHWH cast in more personal terms, according to the needs of the Ruler’s loyal vassal (the Psalmist/David):

“(When) I should lie down and sleep, (then) I wake (again), for YHWH rests (his hand on) me.
I will not fear from the multitudes of people placed around against me.”

Verse 6 [5] is probably best read as another conditional sentence, on the pattern of v. 5 [4]; it shows that YHWH’s protection extends even to the times when his vassal is asleep. We should assume here a setting of sleeping/waking in the midst of being surrounded by enemies, a situation which is made clear again in the following line. The verb Em^s* (“lay/lean [on], hold, support”) here is a bit tricky to translate; probably the sense is twofold: (a) of God laying his hand down on the sleeping Psalmist (as protection); and (b) as support under and around him. The idea of full protection all around is implied; indeed, this is the reason why the Psalmist does not fear the enemies surrounding him. The noun hb*b*r= (“multitude”) is related to the same root bbr used in vv. 2-3 (cf. above). However, there is a separate roor bbr which means “shoot (arrows)”, and it is possible that here the expression <u* tobb=r!m@ means something like “(groups of) arrows of the people” which surround the Psalmist. We see this idiom elsewhere in Scripture, most notably in Job 16:13, but there may also be two occurrences in the Psalms. In Psalm 89:51 [50], we read:

“Remember, my Lord, the scorn of your servants,
I carry (with)in my chest the <yB!r^ of the peoples”

Here <yB!r^ as “arrows” (i.e. things shot at him) makes much more sense than “many/multitudes”. Also worth noting is Ps 18:44 [43]:

“You have brought me out (away) from the <yb!yr! of the people”

Here, in the Masoretic text, the noun in question appears to be derived from the root byr! (“strive, contend, dispute”), with the expression <u* yb@yr!m@ meaning something like “from the strife/disputes of the people”. However, again the reading “from the ‘arrows’ of the people”—i.e., the scorn/taunts as something “shot” like arrows by the people—would make equally good sense, and would only require a general repointing of the consonental text. Cf. Dahood, p. 19.

Verses 8-9 (ET 7-8)

Verse 8 [7] the Psalmist returns to the immediacy of his dire situation, calling out to YHWH to act on his behalf:

“Stand up, YHWH, save me, my Mighty (One) [i.e. God]!
That you (would) have struck all my enemies (on the) jaw,
(and would) have broken the teeth of (the) wicked (one)s!”

The verbs in the first line are imperative forms, urging YHWH to take action. The verbs in the next two lines are perfect forms, and are almost certainly to be understood as precative perfects—i.e. what the Psalmist would have God do as though it already has been accomplished. The request is made in graphic, almost gruesome terms—breaking the jaws of the enemies and shattering their teeth—symbolic of a humiliating defeat at YHWH’s hands. According to Israelite (royal) theology, even if the defeat occurs through military action, it is still seen as God’s own work on behalf of his people, and his loyal vassal the king (David). The closing line of the Psalm serves as a final refrain, calling on God (YHWH) to save his people:

“Salvation, O YHWH!—Your blessing be upon your people.”

The prefixed preposition (l) may serve as a vocative marker (hw`hyl^, “O YHWH”), and that is how I have translated it here; otherwise the phrase would mean “Salvation (belongs) to YHWH”. It seems more likely that here it is a general call to YHWH for salvation/deliverance. Actually the petition is two-fold:

    • bring salvation (to the Psalmist) in his time of need, and
    • bring blessing (hk*r*B=) to the people as a whole

This second line, especially, forms a doxology to the Psalm which is quite similar to that of Psalm 2 (cf. the previous study):

“(The) happiness of all (the one)s taking refuge in Him [i.e. in YHWH]”

The general pattern which this establishes between the first two Psalms (2 and 3) is instructive. In each instance, we have a poem/song which draws upon Israelite royal tradition and theology. The first (Psalm 2) is rooted in the tradition of the coronation/enthronement of the new king; the second (Psalm 3) purports to come from a setting in the life of David (as king). However, each utilizes royal language and imagery which expresses the idea of the king as the faithful vassal of YHWH, ruling under His favor and protection. By the time these Psalms took on definite written form, and certainly by the time the Psalter was put together, the royal traditions had been re-interpreted and applied to the Israelite/Judean people as a whole. Most likely this took place under the influence of Wisdom traditions, such as those expressed in the opening Psalm 1 (cf. the initial study). Long after the monarchy effectively ceased to exist, Israelite and Jews—collectively and individually—could identify with the Psalmist. All of the themes and motifs from the earlier royal theology take on new meaning—trust in YHWH, the favor and protection he provides, deliverance from surrounding enemies, etc.—these all now apply more directly to the people‘s relationship with God. We will see this dynamic repeated numerous times as we proceed through these studies.

Interestingly, despite the royal/Davidic setting, there is no real evidence that Psalm 3 was ever interpreted or applied in a Messianic sense; this differs markedly from Psalm 2, as we saw.

Also, for those interested, I made no mention above of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the simple reason that Psalm 3 is not preserved among the surviving manuscripts of the Psalter. This is unfortunate, as it may have elucidated one or two textual points discussed above.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 2

Psalm 2

The second Psalm is, in many respects the first Psalm proper of the collection, with Psalm 1 (discussed previously) being better viewed as a prologue or introduction to the Psalter. This is likely reflected in the variant reading of Acts 13:33; at the very least, there is some confusion in the manuscript tradition regarding how the Psalms were numbered. Psalm 1 is a piece of Wisdom literature, as the analysis given last week demonstrates, and likely dates from a later period, after most (if not all) of the Psalms had already been composed. Psalm 2, on the other hand, clearly stems from the kingdom period and, in both substance and language, may date back very nearly to the time of Solomon (10th century B.C.). It is thus fitting as the first Psalm of the collection; moreover, the royal theology reflected in it can be found in many of the Psalms, and is a central component of the Psalter (and to our understanding of it). This aspect was preserved in subsequent Israelite and Jewish tradition and informed Messianic beliefs regarding a future/end-time Davidic Ruler (on this, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Psalm 2, given a Messianic interpretation, was applied to Jesus already in the very earliest stages of Christian tradition; its widespread application is seen at numerous points in the New Testament (Mark 1:11 par [Lk 3:22 v.l.]; 9:7 par; Acts 4:25-26ff; 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5).

In many ways, Psalm 2 is the royal Psalm par excellence—certainly, nowhere else is the Israelite/Judean royal theology presented so concisely and forcefully. It is generally recognized by most scholars that the setting of the Psalm is the accession (coronation/enthronement) of the new king; however, there are few clear signs of a specific ritual use of the Psalm. Thematically, Psalm 2 has a basic three-part structure, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Depiction of the surrounding nations and their rulers (at the time of the king’s coronation)—vv. 1-3
    • The Enthronement: YHWH and the King—vv. 4-9
    • Warning to the nations and their rulers (with the new king now enthroned)—vv. 10-12

The Psalm more or less follows the typical 3 + 3 bicola meter—i.e. three stressed syllables for each half line (colon).

Verses 1-3

The first two verses run parallel and show what the nations and their rulers are doing; in verse 3 they declare their intentions, climaxing in a sudden act of rebellion. In the ancient world, the accession of a new king (especially if he happened to be a child or young man) provided an opportunity, at this time of transition, for vassals and rulers of surrounding territories to seek to gain independence and/or power of their own. Acts of rebellion and warfare were not uncommon at such moments. This is what we see depicted in verse 1-3. At the time of accession, before the new (Israelite/Judean) king has the chance to establish/consolidate his rule, vassals and other surrounding nations are plotting to take action. Let us examine the structure of these lines, and some of the key words involved.

hM*l* (“for what”, i.e. “for what purpose, why”)—the opening word summarizes the wickedness and futility of such plans for rebellion. Despite the youth and/or inexperience of the new king, and the apparent vulnerability of the Israelite/Judean kingdom at this moment, king and kingdom have the protection of God (YHWH) himself. This is the point made in verses 4-9.

There is a chiastic parallelism to the remainder of words in verse/line 1:

    • “they throng (together)” [Wvg+r*]
      • “(the) nations” [<y]og]
      • “and (the) peoples” [<yM!u%l=W]
    • “they mutter empty (threats)” [qyr!-WGh=y#]

Moreover, the final word (qy!r, “emptiness, empty [thing]”) echoes the futility of the first (“for what, why”). The two verbs are certainly parallel, in a synonymous or synthetic manner:

    • vg~r* (r¹gaš)—this relatively rare verb, often translated “rage” here, more properly refers to a group or throng of people coming together, with a hostile intent or purpose (cf. also Psalm 55:14; 64:2).
    • hg`h* (h¹gâ)—this basic verb seems to refer to someone (or something) making a low/deep sound, as of a person moaning or an animal growling (Isa 31:4; 38:14; 59:11). It is used in the context of mourning in Isa 16:7; Jer 48:31. Figuratively, it can be used of words or thoughts coming from the heart, often in a negative or hostile sense (Prov 24:2; Isa 8:19; 59:3, 13; Lam 3:62), but also for the thoughts/words of the righteous and devout (Ps 1:2; 19:15; 35:28; 63:7; Prov 15:28, etc). Typically it is understood here in terms of negative/hostile thoughts (i.e. plans for rebellion, etc); however, Dahood (p. 7) cites the cognate usage in the Canaanite Kirta text (lines 90-91) where the root seems to be used in the sense of counting/numbering military troops. This meaning would fit the context of the Psalm as well.

The two nouns are also parallel and complementary, forming a hendiadys: “nations” (<y]og) and “peoples” (<yM!u%)—i.e. all of the surrounding people who are (and have been) under the influence and authority of the Israelite/Judean king, including individuals, socio-political and ethnic groups, vassal states, and separate kingdoms. This comprehensive depiction sets the stage for the warning—to any and all who might seek to rebel at the time of the new king’s coronation—at the end of the Psalm (vv. 10-12). In verse 2, the rulers of these nations/peoples are in view, following a similar poetic parallelism as in verse 1; note the sequence of words:

    • “they set/place themselves” (Wbx=y~t=)
      • “(the) kings of (the) earth” (Jr#a#-yk@l=m^)
      • “and (the) honored (one)s” (<yn]z+orw+)
    • “they are set/established” (Wds=on)

These parallel and partially synonymous verbs need to be considered:

The verb /z~r* should also be noted; it is similar in meaning to db^k*, “(be) weighty, worthy, honored/honorable” (cf. Judg 5:3; Prov 8:5; 31:4; Isa 40:23; Hab 1:10. Here the participle is parallel to “kings of the earth” and refers to persons who have a commanding presence or position, i.e. ruler, prince, etc; a related noun has a similar meaning (Prov 14:28). With all this in mind, here are verses 1-2 in full translation:

“For what [i.e. why] do the nations throng together,
and for (what) do the peoples mutter empty (threats)?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the honored (one)s are set (firmly),
against YHWH and against his Anointed.”

The rebellious plans and actions are directed against the new king (“[the] anointed [one]”, j^yv!m*), but, at the same time, also against Yahweh Himself; this is to be expounded in vv. 4-9. The drama of the scene continues to build in verse 3, where the rulers speak and declare their rebellious intent:

“We shall pull off their (cord)s binding (us)
and we shall throw away their ropes from (off of) us!”

This is a typical example of synonymous parallelism in Hebrew poetry, in which the second line heightens and intensifies the first. The verbs qt^n` (“pull, drag, draw [away]”) and El^v* (“throw, drag [away]”), along with the nouns rs@m) (from rs^a*, i.e. something which binds) and tb)u& (“woven [strands]”, i.e. rope), create a doubling which underlines the hostile intent of the rulers, but also, in a sense, the futility of their efforts. From the standpoint of the historical setting, the pronoun suffix “their” (o[m]) could simple refer to the Israelites; however, based on the context of what preceded in verse 2, the plural certainly refers to “YHWH and his Anointed” (i.e. God and the new king, together). The rebellious hostility of the rulers is directed specifically, and ultimately, against Yahweh and the anointed King of Israel/Judah.

Verses 4-9

In these verses, the focus shifts to the coronation and enthronement of the new king, who is under the protection of YHWH. This ruler is referred to specifically as “his [i.e. Yahweh’s] Anointed”. There would have been an actual anointing ceremony involved at the accession/coronation of the king, but here we see expressed the religious and theological dimension—the king is anointed by God, and belongs under His authority and protection. The power ruling Israel/Judah ultimately belongs to God, not the king. This is the basis for the Israelite royal theology in the Psalms, which we see expounded throughout vv. 4-9. It begins in striking fashion, emphasizing not the king’s enthronement, but that of God’s own throne in Heaven:

“The (One) sitting in the heavens laughs,
My Lord [yn`d)a&] chatters at them”

Both verbs indicate mocking derision: (a) qj^c* (equivalent to qj^x*), “laugh (at)”, perhaps in the sense of “play/toy (with)”; and (b) gu^l*, apparently a kind of stuttering/stammering, done in a mocking manner. In verse 5, the mockery gives way to more direct action against the rebels; but does God act by speaking, or by driving away and scattering his enemies in a more primal and concrete sense? Based on a customary reading of the MT, verse 5 begins:

“Then he speaks to them…” (omyl@a@ rB@d^y+ za*)

where omyla is read as the preposition la + object suffix; however, Dahood reads this as the noun lya (“ram”) with defective spelling, the expression “their rams” being a reference to the valiant warriors and commanders of the rebellious rulers. At the same time, Dahood understands the verb rbd not in the ordinary sense of “open the mouth, speak, say”, but according to the Akkadian duppuru/dubburu, “pursue, drive (away)” (p. 9; citing Chicago Assyrian Dictionary [CAD] III (D), p. 188a). For other Old Testament examples, he cites Psalm 56:5; 116:10; 127:5; Jer 9:20-21; Lam 5:9. According to this reading, v. 5 would be:

“Then he drives away their ‘rams’ [i.e. warriors]…”

Most notably, in support of this reading, I would point out Exodus 15:15, in the Song of the Sea; cf. also 2 Kings 24:15; Job 19:22 (Dahood, p. 9). The parallel use of the verb lh^B* (also in Ex 15:15) would seem to support this sense as well; it adds to the idea of God creating a disturbance which alarms and frightens the rebels, causing them move quickly (run away, etc). The nouns [a^ (lit. “nostril”, fig. “anger”) and /orj* (“burning”) add to the graphic depiction of the scene, often obscured in conventional English translation. Here is my rendering (using Dahood’s reconstruction of v. 5a for the moment):

“Then he drives away their ‘rams’ with his nostril(s flaring),
he frightens them (all) with his burning (anger)”

Verse 6 has proven even more problematic for commentators. As it stands, the Masoretic text reads:

“And I have placed [yT!k=s^n~] my king upon ‚iyyon,
upon (the) mountain of my holiness”

However, this has been frequently emended, based largely upon the reading of some Greek manuscripts, whereby it is the king speaking rather than God: “I have been placed (as) his king [Heb. oKl=m^ yT!k=S^n]?] upon ‚iyyon…”. Dahood (p. 10) repoints the MT to give a slightly different reading, along the same lines: “But I have been anointed [yT!k)s%n+] (as) his king upon ‚iyyon…”. According to this interpretation the waw (w+) at the beginning of the verse is contrastive: “Then he drives away their ‘rams’…but I have been set/anointed (as) his king…”. Following the traditional MT, the conjunction would indicate a dramatic climax to God’s action in v. 5: “Then he drives away…he frightens them…and (then says), ‘(See) I have placed my king upon ‚iyyon…”. If we keep to the understanding of the verb rbd in verse 5 as “speak”, then verse 6 represents what YHWH says to the rebels.

If it is God speaking in verse 6, then verse 7, in which the king is (again) clearly the speaker, suggests a dramatic dialogue, of sorts, within the Psalm. If the king is the speaker in verse 6, then v. 7 simply builds upon this scenario:

“But I have been placed (as) his king upon ‚iyyon,
upon (the) mountain of his holiness,
(and) I will recount the inscribed (decree) of YHWH
(in which) he said to me
‘You (are) my Son—I have given birth to you th(is) day!
…’

Whichever is the precise scenario envisioned in vv. 6-7, all commentators can agree that vv. 7b-9, the remainder of the section, represents the “inscribed (decree)” [qj)] of Yahweh, in which God lays out His relationship with the Israelite/Judean king. God is the Ruler of All, enthroned in Heaven, and it is He, through His own written (inscribed/engraved) decree, who gives ruling power and authority to the king. This authority includes rule over the surrounding peoples and nations, extending even to “the ends of the earth”. It is this idea of the Israelite/Judean king’s authority over all the nations which influenced certain aspects of Messianic thought—i.e. the coming Davidic Ruler who will subdue the wicked nations and usher in God’s (end-time) Judgment against them. The influence of verses 7-9 can be seen both in the New Testament (Luke 3:22 v.l.; Acts 4:25-26ff; Heb 1:5; 5:5; Rev 2:27; 12:5), and in other Jewish writings of the period (e.g. Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25; 2/4 Esdras 13:33ff). For more on the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2 (esp. verse 7) by early Christians, see Parts 6-8 and 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Here is my rendering of verses 7b-9:

“You (are) my Son—I have given birth to you th(is) day!
As (for it) from me, and I will give the nations (for) your inheritance,
and the ends of the earth (as land) seized for your (possession).
You will break them with a staff of iron,
(and) shatter them (to) pieces like vessel(s) shaped (from clay).”

Verses 10-12

A precise interpretation of these closing verses of the Psalm depend much on the textual question surrounding the last two words of v. 11 and the first two of v. 12. Because of the complexities involved, I have devoted a separate note to a discussion of the matter. Fortunately, a general interpretation is still possible, and, indeed, clear enough from the overall context. If the enthronement of the new king is the focus in vv. 4-9, here in verses 10-12 we have a warning to the surrounding nations, now that the king is on the throne. This time-indicator is present in the opening word of verse 10, hT*u^w+, which means something like “and (so) at (this) time”, i.e., “and now…”. I take the context of the warning which follows to be two-fold: (a) you missed your chance to rebel before the enthronement, (b) now that he is enthroned you must not dare to rebel against him. However one ultimately understands the first two words of verse 12 (customarily read as “kiss the son…”, cf. the supplemental note), there can be no doubt of the idea, central to the royal theology, that the Israelite king is under the protection of YHWH, and any action against the king is effectively taken against God Himself. Thus we have the forceful warning (and exhortation) for the surrounding nations, with their rulers, to submit to the rule of YHWH—who is ultimately the one on the throne (in Heaven). The closing line of the Psalm makes clear that the orientation of the work, as it has come down to us, transcends the original (historical) setting with its Israelite royal theology. Indeed, we find an echo of the beatitude that begins the first Psalm (cf. the earlier study):

“(The) happiness of all (the one)s trusting in Him!”

Thus, the second Psalm, despite the historical origins of its content, is not addressed merely to the rulers of the nations, but to the nations themselves—to all people everywhere. The one who serves as God’s representative on earth, among the people, is rightly called His “son”, being the heir to God’s own ruling power, with the privileges and protections that come from such a position. The central message of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is that divine representative, the Son of God, in the fullest possible sense, and all the ones who trust in him have the happiness and blessedness of knowing that they, too, share in that same status and position—of being children of God.

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