Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 54

Psalm 54

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 2-3, 5-6 [1, 3-4])

This Psalm, one of the simplest in structure, gives evidence of the royal background we glimpsed in a number of the prayer- and lament-Psalms in the first division of the Psalter. The heading (vv. 1-2) attributes it to David, specifically noting the incident recorded in 1 Sam 23:19. Even if this is not the actual occasion for the composition, it is quite fitting for the royal background of the Psalm, suggesting the king’s suffering at the hands of his enemies and opponents. In making his appeal to God, the king is drawing upon the specific covenant bond between YHWH and the Israelite/Judean king, which requires that YHWH (the Sovereign) provides protection for His faithful/loyal vassal (the king). And, since the king also serves as the people’s representative, the covenant-protection ultimately extends to the people as well. In the Psalm as we have it, and as it would have been sung in the communal worship, much of the specific royal background—the language and imagery, etc—has been generalized to apply to Israel (the righteous ones) as a whole.

The structure of this Psalm is extremely simple, divided into two short strophes separated by a hl*s# (Selah) pause-marker. In the first strophe (vv. 3-5 [1-3]), the Psalmist makes his plea to YHWH for help, while in the second strophe (vv. 6-9 [4-7]), the help provided by YHWH is described (and anticipated).

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3, also 3+2) couplet format. The superscription marks it as another Davidic composition (dw]d*l=), a lyK!c=m^ (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32), with the added musical direction that it is to be performed on stringed instruments (tn)yg]n+B!, cf. the study on Psalm 4).

Verses 3-5 [1-3]

Verses 3-4 [1-2]

“O Mightiest, by your name save me,
by your strength may you defend me;
O Mightiest, hear my petition,
may you give ear to (the) words of my mouth!”

The Psalmist’s plea is fundamentally legal and judicial in nature, based on the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. As noted above, the covenant requires that the Sovereign (YHWH) provides protection for His faithful and loyal vassals (the king and the righteous ones of Israel). He calls on YHWH to act “by/with [B=] His name”. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented and embodied the essence of the person. Thus, to call on the name of God is essentially the same as calling on God Himself.

God’s name (<v@) is parallel with His strength (hr*WbG+) in the second line, emphasizing again how the name is equivalent to the substance of the person. The action requested from YHWH is also expressed in parallel terms: to save (uv^y`, Hiphil stem) and to defend him (vb /yD!). This latter verb has a wide semantic range, the specific connotation of which must be determined by the context. A judicial setting is often implied, as here, referring to a judgment or decision that is made (on someone’s behalf); in this case, the parallel with uv^y` indicates that a more forceful nuance is intended, which I render above as “defend” (the verb in English can be used in both a legal and military context).

The four lines (of these two couplets) are given in reverse order, in relation to the action requested by the Psalmist:

    • Give ear to the words of my mouth (line 4)—i.e., listen to what I am saying
    • Hear my petition (line 3)—respond (fairly/favorably) to my request
    • Defend me (line 2)—i.e., make decision/judgment on my behalf
    • Save me (line 1)—i.e., act according to your decision and give me your protection (rescue me)

Syntactically, in each couplet, an imperative is followed by an imperfect verb form (with imperatival force); this imperative-imperfect sequence is a well-established feature of Canaanite and Hebrew poetry (cf. Dahood, I, pp. 29-31, 65, 261; II, p. 24). Metrically, these couplets follow a 3+2 pattern.

It is also worth noting that, as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, the first occurrence of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) here (if not both instances) has replaced the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) of the original composition.

Verse 5 [3]

“For strangers have stood (up) against me,
and dreadful (one)s have sought my soul—
they have not set (the) Mightiest in front of them.”
Selah

The first two lines of v. 5 give the reason for the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH. Foreign enemies (“strangers”, <yr!z`) have risen up (vb <Wq) against him, which is fully in accord with the royal background of this style of prayer-Psalm (cf. above). They are further described, in the second line, as “dreadful (one)s” (<yx!yr!u*)—that is, foreigners awesome and terrifying in their strength.

The final line, rounding out the verse as a tricolon (3-beat, 3+3+3), adds the important detail that “they have not set the Mightiest in front of them” (for a different way of understanding this line, cf. Dahood, II, p. 24f). Presumably, this refers to other nations and peoples, who worship other deities rather than YHWH. However, there may also be a bit of conceptual wordplay involved:

    • These people have stood up against Israel, having the king in front of them, and yet
    • They cannot succeed, since they do not have the God of Israel in front of them.

Verses 6-9 [4-7]

Verse 6 [4]

“See, (the) Mightiest (is the one) giving help to me,
my Lord, indeed, (the one) upholding my soul.”

The second strophe describes how YHWH answers the Psalmist’s plea (or how He is expected to answer). This description begins with an affirmation of trust in YHWH as his protector, being the one who “gives help (to)” and “upholds” the righteous—using substantive participles of the verbs rz~u* and Em^s*, respectively. The prefixed preposition B= is best understood as an emphatic (i.e., “indeed, truly”) use of the preposition (cf. Dahood, II, p. 25). Again, the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”) is an ‘Elohist’ substitution in place of the Divine name (hwhy) that likely was present in the original composition.

Verse 7 [5]

“May the evil turn back to (the one)s hard (against) me!
In your firmness, may you finish them off!”

The imprecation of the first line follows a familiar theme in the Psalms—viz., that the evil intended by the wicked will come back upon them in a similar manner (variation of the lex talionis principle). The verb form bovy` is best understood as a jussive, expressing the Psalmist’s wish for what will happen, and fully expecting that YHWH will act to bring it about. There is a bit of conceptual wordplay between the “firmness” of the Psalmist’s opponents (i.e., those hard [rr^c*] against him) and the “firmness” (tm#a#) of YHWH. His firmness (in loyalty, goodness, and truth) is far superior to the stubborn resolve of the wicked, and so YHWH is certain to “finish them off” (vb tm^x*). There may be an additional bit of alliterative wordplay here between –tm!a& (°¦mit-) and –tym!x= (ƒ®mît-).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2, following the full 3-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 6.

Verse 8 [6]

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name,
YHWH, for (it is) good.”

The person of these lines suddenly shifts, as the Psalmist returns to the framework of his prayer to God. He interrupts the strophe to offer a vow to YHWH that, if as he expects, God will answer his prayer, then (in return) he will offer a sacrifice to Him. The type of offering is indicated by the term hb*d*n+ (from the root bdn, “[be] willing”), sometimes called a freewill offering—that is, an offering made freely by the worshiper (i.e., with a willing heart), apart from the sacrificial offerings required by the Torah. This sacrificial offering will be accompanied by praise to YHWH (lit. “to His name,” cf. above). The praise will acknowledge the goodness [bwf] of YHWH (“that [your name] is good,” i.e., “that you are good”).

The meter of this verse in the MT is irregular; it would be made somewhat more consistent (conforming loosely to a 3-beat couplet) if the Divine name (hwhy) were eliminated from the second line, as a number of commentators propose:

“With a willing (heart) I will slaughter to you,
I will throw (praise to) your name, for (it is) good.”

Verse 9 [7]

“For from all distress you have snatched me (away),
and on (the one)s hostile to me my eyes have looked (down).”

In this final (3-beat) couplet, the Psalmist confirms his expectation that YHWH will answer his prayer, expressing God’s action (on his behalf) in the past tense, as though it had already taken place (i.e., use of the precative perfect). The Psalmist trusts that YHWH will rescue him (“snatch away,” vb lx^n`, Hiphil stem) from all the “distress” (hr*x*) he faces from his adversaries, and that the tables will be turned on his enemies (lit. those “hostile” to him, active participle of the vb by~a*). His eye will look (down) on his enemies, implying their defeat and humiliation. While this may take place through the ordinary means of military conflict (keep in mind the royal background of this language and imagery, cf. above), victory is achieved through the strength of YHWH (fighting on Israel’s behalf). Protection against adversaries—for both the king and the Israelite people—is part of what God is required to provide to those who remain faithful/loyal to Him, according to the terms of the covenant.

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 48 (Part 1)

Psalm 48

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsj (vv. 1-9 [1-8])

Much like the two prior Psalms, Ps 48 is a hymn on the Kingship of YHWH, with special emphasis on Jerusalem (Mt. Zion) as the King’s city. It continues the theme of YHWH as King over all the earth (and the nations), but who has a special covenant relationship with Israel, with His throne in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. This is an important component of Israelite (and Judean) royal theology. As long as Israel (and its king) remains faithful to the covenant, YHWH will continue to provide protection. The emphasis on Zion as a fortified location (on a hill) is a way of expressing this idea of God’s protection.

This Psalm consists of two stanzas (vv. 2-9 [1-8], 10-15 [9-14]), with a Selah (hl*s#) pause indicator marking the end of the first stanza. The meter is irregular, but the first stanza tends to follow a 2-beat couplet (or quatrain) format, with a brief shift to a 3+2 meter, before returning to a 2-beat quatrain in the closing verse.

The musical direction in the superscription is quite brief, somewhat oddly indicating that this musical composition (romz+m!) is also a “song” (ryv!). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to the study on Psalm 42/43.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“Great (indeed is) YHWH
and very much to be praised,
in (the) city of our Mighty (One),
(on the) mountain of His holiness.”

The second couplet emphasizes the mountain location of Jerusalem, which is somewhat misleading, since the city scarcely is located on a mountain, but rather a more modest hill. However, in Canaanite religious tradition, the Creator El (“[the] Mighty [One]”) resided on a great cosmic mountain. Any local mountain could represent this dwelling of El. The same was true in terms of Israel’s view of the dwelling of El-Yahweh. He could be seen as present upon any local mountain (such as Sinai/Horeb), or even a modest hilltop site such as Zion/Jerusalem.

Indeed, the original fortified hilltop site captured by the Israelites was the location for both the Temple and royal Palace-complex. While the name Zion (/oYx!, ‚iyyôn) could refer to the expanded city of Jerusalem, it properly signifies the smaller fortress-site (the “City of David”) where the Temple and Palace were built.

Verse 3 [2]

“Beautiful (in its) height,
(the) joy of all (the) earth:
Mount ‚iyyôn, (on the) sides of ‚aphôn,
meeting-place of (the) great King!”

The quatrain in this verse is composed of another 2-beat (2+2) couplet followed by a 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The first couplet emphasizes both the beauty of Zion and its elevated location (indicated by the rare noun [on)—so stated in the first line. Both of these attributes are figurative, rather than meant as a realistic description of the city itself. Both its beauty and its elevation are due to the dwelling of YHWH there. Zion thus represents, from a symbolic and ritual standpoint, the cosmic dwelling of El-Yahweh, traditionally understood as a great mountain filling the heavens. As the dwelling-place of God, Zion also brings joy, i.e., is a cause for rejoicing (cocm=), for the entire earth.

The second couplet makes two points. The first point is that Zion is on the “sides” (dual of hk*r@y+) of Zaphon. The noun /opx* in Hebrew commonly means “north”, though it literally refers to something “hidden” or stored away. However, in Canaanite tradition, a local manifestation of El’s cosmic mountain-dwelling (and also that of Baal-Haddu) was Mt. Zaphon, usually identified with Mt. Casius (modern Jebel el-Aqra’). This great mountain was certainly to the ‘far north’ of Jerusalem, and a suitable location for the dwelling of the Great King (El-Yahweh). El’s mountain-dwelling (also envisioned as a great domed tent) was traditionally understood as existing in the ‘far north’, which may explain the origins of the name Zaphon (/opx*). Clearly, Mt. Zion is being identified here with the cosmic dwelling of El, according to Canaanite (and Israelite) religious tradition.

In the final line, the hy`r=q! could be translated flatly as “city” or “town”, parallel with ryu! in v. 2 [1]. However, I have chosen to translate it here in a way that preserves what is likely the original meaning, as a “meeting place”. In this case, it is a place where the people can “meet” the Great King (YHWH), referring to the religious ritual surrounding the Temple and its sanctuary.

Verse 4 [3]

“(The) Mightiest (is) among her forts,
being known as a place set (up) high.”

This is a rather difficult couplet, largely due to the attempt of expressing a relatively complex matrix of ideas within the confines of a short 2-beat couplet. But the basic meaning seems to be that it is the presence of YHWH, dwelling among the fortifications of the city, that gives to Zion (Jerusalem) its secure position and protection. Remember that Zion properly refers to the old Canaanite hilltop fortress-site that was captured by Israel (in the time of David). The ancient fortifications, and elevated position, gave to the city some measure of protection against invaders and hostile peoples. However, Zion was scarcely a high mountain (like Zaphon), and the characteristic here of its being a bG`c=m!, literally a “place set high up”, is something of an exaggeration. Its figurative high elevation (and thus its secure position) is due to the presence of YHWH.

Even though the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) was used earlier in the Psalm, the occurrence of <yh!l)a$ here may be another example of substitution (for YHWH) in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (cf. also the closing line of v. 9 [8] below).

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“For, see! the kings are (gather)ed as appointed,
they passed by (the city) as one;
they saw (it and) thus were astounded,
they were terrified and (fle)d in fear.”

With this verse, there is a metrical shift in the stanza, from a predominantly 2-beat (2+2) couplet format to a 3+2 meter. The idea of kings gathering together, meeting at an appointed time and place, suggests that they have come together for a hostile purpose (cf. Psalm 2:1-2). The emphasis on protection in the previous verses certainly makes a military scenario probable here. The site of the grandeur and elevated position of Zion (Jerusalem) fills the kings with astonishment (vb Hm^T*). This turns to utter fear, causing them to flee in terror (vbs lh^B* and zp^j*). Their reaction, of course, is properly due to the presence of YHWH in the city.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“Trembling seized hold of them (right) there,
writhing like (that of one) giving birth;
(as when) by (the) east wind (they) are shattered,
(the proud) ships of Tarshish.”

The fear and trembling (du^r^) that take hold of the kings is here described with a pair of picturesque illustrations: (1) a woman in writhing pain (ly!j) while giving birth, and (2) trading ships (filled with goods) that are torn apart at sea by a powerful east-wind.

Verse 9 [8]

“Even that which we have heard,
so (now) we have seen (it),
in (the) city of YHWH of (the) armies,
in (the) city of our Mighty (One)!
(The) Mightiest will make her firm
until (the) distant (future)!”
Selah

As in the opening verse, so also at the close of the stanza we have a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain, though this meter is skewed slightly by the third line (which may be textually suspect [cf. Kraus, pp. 472-3]). The idea seems to be that the residents of Jerusalem (and Judah) have heard of how YHWH protected His city (and its people) in times past, but now they have witnessed this first hand. There is no way of knowing if any specific historical incident is in view, though the famous attack on the city by Sennacherib during the Assyrian invasion of Judah (701 B.C.) naturally comes to mind.

To preserve the poetic meter, I have translated the title toab*x= hwhy according to its abbreviated form, i.e., “YHWH of (the) armies”. However, the full sense of the expression must be understood according to its likely meaning as a sentence-title that retains the verbal force of hwhy, something like “(the One who) creates the (heavenly) armies”. From the ancient Israelite religious standpoint, once YHWH came to be used as the regular name for the Creator God (El), the expression is perhaps best understood as “YHWH, (commander) of (the heavenly) armies”, emphasizing His control over the heavens (forces of nature, Angelic beings, etc).

The final (3-beat) line is a declaration of praise to YHWH, confirming that He will protect His city, and continue to make it secure, far into the distant future (i.e., for all time). Almost certainly this Psalm well pre-dates the fall of Jerusalem (and the destruction of the Temple) in 587. It is interesting to consider how Israelites and Jews would explain this hymn from the standpoint of the Exile. The obvious theological explanation is that YHWH’s protection is contingent upon Israel/Judah remaining faithful to the covenant. As long as the nation, and its capital city of Jerusalem, remained faithful, God’s protection of her would last forever.

References above 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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 45 (Part 2)

Psalm 45, continued

As noted in the previous study, this Psalm is a love song (td)yd!y+ ryv!, lit. “song of loves”), identified by most commentators as an epithalamium, or wedding song—for the royal wedding between the king and his bride. The first part of the song (vv. 2-10 [1-9]) is addressed to the king, the second part (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) is addressed to the queen.

The meter in this second part tends to follow, quite consistently, a 2-beat couplet (2+2) and/or quatrain (2+2+2+2) format.

Verses 11-18 [10-17]

Verse 11 [10]

“Hear, daughter, and see,
and bend your ear,
and forget your people,
and (the) house of your father.”

This verse is best divided as 2-beat quatrain, containing a pair of 2+2 couplets, much as we find a 2-beat meter in sections of vv. 2-10 [1-9] (cf. the previous study). The “daughter”, i.e., the young bride intended for the king, is called to be obedient (“hear…bend the ear”) to the arranged marriage, willing to leave her family and relatives (“your people…house of your father”). On the traditional principle involved, cf. Gen 2:24 (cited in Mk 10:7 par, etc).

Verse 12-13a [11-12a]

“And he shall desire your beauty,
for [the king] he is your lord,
and you must bow down before him,
with a tB* of Tyre as a gift.”

The 2-beat meter requires that the first line of v. 13 [12] be recognized as part of the unit (a quatrain). Consistency would also require that the word in square brackets (“the king”, El#M#h^) be omitted as a secondary addition (cf. Kraus, p. 452); it may have been added to make clear who “he” (aWh) is.

Dahood (p. 274f) points to 2 Kings 23:7 and Isa 3:20 and would read tb as a noun meaning something like “robe” (i.e., a luxurious woven garment). Tyrian garments had a well-established reputation as luxury items, and would have been appropriate as a wedding gift. The bride is apparently presenting this garment as a gift for the king. The standard translation of rx tb is “daughter of Tyre” (rx)-tB^), in which case the bride would presumably be identified as a Tyrian princess; however, I tentatively follow Dahood’s line of interpretation above.

Verse 13b [12b]

“They shall entreat your face,
the rich ones of the people(s)”

This couplet marks a minor transition in the section. Even as the bride must make homage before the king, so also the nobles and distinguished guests will pay homage to her. The verb hl*j* (II) means something like “seek favor (from), appeal to”. It would seem that gifts are also involved in this process.

Verse 14-15a [13-14a]

“All her splendid (raimant is), inside,
(made with) settings of gold;
(in) her clothing, brightly embroidered,
she is brought along to the king.”

These lines are difficult, and may well be corrupt (cf. Kraus, p. 452, and Dahood, p. 275, for different ways of explaining them). I have chosen to keep to the Masoretic text, with the only emendation being the elimination of “daughter of the king” (ilm-tb), in the first line, as a secondary (explanatory) addition, similar to “the king” in the second line of v. 12 [11] (cf. above). The removal of it yields a consistent 2-beat quatrain.

Even if it is not possible to explain these lines in precise detail, the overriding idea seems clear enough. The bride is honored with gifts of rich and luxurious clothing, which she herself wears as she approaches the king during the wedding ceremony. Her clothing is brocaded with gold on the inside (hm*yn]P=) and with richly colored embroidery on the outside.

Verse 15b-16 [14b-15]

“(The) virgins (following) behind her,
her companions coming before her,
they shall be brought with gladness and joy,
they shall come in(to the) palace of (the) king.”

There would seem to be rhythmic shift in these lines, with a 2-beat couplet (v. 15b) followed by a 3-beat (3+3) colon (v. 16). The bride is surrounded by young maidens in the wedding train. It is not necessary to require that two separate groups (“virgins behind her…companions before her”) are involved; the parallelism in the lines is such that it may represent two ways of referring to the same thing.

In any case, the entire procession is brought along (vb lb^y` in the causative stem, as also in v. 15a) into the royal palace-room where the main wedding ceremony will take place. It is a time of great happiness and joy (lyg], literally denoting a twirling or spinning [with joy]).

Verse 17 [16]

“Under your fathers
shall be your sons,
you shall set them to (be) princes
o(ver) all the earth.”

This verse could be read as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, though it seems better to keep to the 2-beat format that has dominated this part of the Psalm (cf. above). The lines would seem to express a wish for children to be born to the royal couple—sons to continue the dynasty and to serve as princes (<yr!c*) throughout the kingdom.

The preposition tj^T^ literally means “under”, but often denotes “in place of”, which is certainly the sense here. The royal offspring will take the place of their fathers before them, as kings and princes in the dynasty.

Verse 18 [17]

“I will cause your name to be remembered
in every circle and circle (to come);
upon this (the) peoples will throw you (praise)
into (the) distant (future) and until (the end)!”

These closing lines echo the opening lines in v. 2 [1] (on which, cf. the previous study). The poet returns to declare how his art will serve to praise and honor the king on this occasion of the royal wedding. The song that he composes will (a) cause the king’s name to be remembered by future generations (rd)w+ rD), “circle and circle”, from one cycle to the next, i.e. generation to generation, age to age), and (b) cause those future generations to praise him.

Indeed, although we do not know the name of the king for whom the song was composed (assuming it was written for a specific king), the preservation of the Psalm within the Old Testament Scriptures has given the song an enduring legacy. It has continued to be sung or recited (as well as being read) by generations of Israelites, Jews and Christians, for more than 2500 years. And, even though we may no longer have the same appreciation for royalty and kingship today, the symbolism, as it is expressed in the inspired poetry of the Psalms, remains vital for us. This is so, if for no other reason than that the ancient royal imagery (and theology) in the Old Testament exerted a tremendous influence on Messianic thought. This Messianic tradition, in turn, was applied to the person of Jesus, giving us (as believers) a rich trove of images and motifs with which we, like the Psalmist, may give praise and honor to the King.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 45 (Part 1)

Psalm 45

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 8-11 [7-10]); 11QPsd (vv. 6-8 [5-7])

This Psalm is unusual in that it is addressed, not to God (YHWH), but to the king and his queen. It is called a “song of love” (td)yd!y+ ryv!, lit. “song of loves”) in the superscription, and commentators typically identify it as an epithalamium, or wedding song—that is, for the royal wedding between the king and his bride. This may seem to us a peculiar subject for a sacred hymn, considering how kingship has been devalued in the modern age. Even in countries which still maintain the figure of a king (or queen), the honor attached to the office only faintly resembles that of kingship in the ancient world.

It is thus difficult for us to appreciate the religious and theological aspects of ancient Near Eastern kingship. Indeed, a royal theology pervades the Psalms, and is directly relevant to the background and setting of many compositions. The king had a divine status; at the very least, he functioned as God’s representative on earth. The ancient Israelite concept of kingship was tied to the covenant between YHWH and Israel. If the king remained faithful to YHWH, and did not fall into wickedness and false/aberrant religion, then he would receive the Divine blessing and protection. This covenantal relationship was an extension of the binding agreement between YHWH and the people.

The Psalm is rather clearly divided into two parts. The first part (vv. 2-10 [1-9]) is addressed to the king, the second part (vv. 11-18 [10-17]) is addressed to the queen. The meter in the first part is irregular, with 3-beat units alternating with 2-beat units (and even occasional 4-beat units). A triad or tricolon format tends to be followed, though there is considerable confusion and difference of opinion regarding how to divide and delineate the verse-structures. In a few places the text may well be corrupt, but there is no clear guidance for how it may be safely (and accurately) emended. I have, for the most part, followed the Masoretic text, though not always its vocalization and word-division.

On the term lyK!c=m^ and the attribution to the “sons of Qorah,” see the introduction to Psalm 42/43. It is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, using the common plural name/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One]”) in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH). The direction <yN]v^v)-lu^ (“[sung] upon [i.e. according to] ‘Lilies’ [?]”) presumably refers to a particular melody.

Verses 2-10 [1-9]

Verse 2 [1]

“My heart is stirred (to this) good word,
(and) I am speaking my creations, (my) king!
My tongue (is the) pen of a swift recorder.

This is a relatively rare example of the Psalmist describing the creative process of his art. The idea seems to be of a poet-singer at court, making use of an improvisational style of composition. He is inspired (“my heart is stirred”) to this poem, and speaks it (creating it) in the moment. He did not write it out or compose it beforehand; rather, on this occasion (the king’s wedding?), he creates it as he speaks/sings it out loud (in performance).

The verb vj^r* occurs only here in the Old Testament, so its meaning is uncertain. Evidence from later Hebrew suggests a meaning of “stir”, which would be appropriate for a poet’s inspiration. It has been suggested (cf. Dahood, p. 270) that this vjr is a metathetic variant of the root vrj (II), which has the fundamental meaning “engrave,” but which can be used figuratively in the sense of “devise,” i.e., create, compose (cf. Zeph 3:17).

Metrically, this first verse is an extended 4-beat (4+4+4) tricolon.

Verse 3 [2]

“You are most beautiful from (the) sons of men,
favor having been poured on your lips—
upon this has (the) Mightiest blessed you f(rom the) distant (past)!”

The curious doubled form typypy has been parsed as a Pealal verb form, probably to be understood in an intensive (and/or iterative) sense. Assuming its derivation from the root hpy, denoting something that is “bright, beautiful, fair,” etc, here it would mean “the most beautiful,” the one who is truly beautiful. A fine handsome form, setting him apart from other human beings (“from [the] sons of men”), would be a traditional indicator of someone destined for (and worthy of) the role of king (cf. regarding Saul in 1 Sam 9:2; 10:23-24).

Such a man has been favored by YHWH, gifted by God to be king. Not only is he handsome in appearance, but is gifted in speech (“in/on your lips”)—a helpful, if not necessary, attribute of leadership. Both his fine physical appearance and eloquence in speaking are signs that YHWH has blessed him. The expression /K@-lu^ literally means “upon this”, and can be translated in English as “from this (we know that…)”.

The temporal expression <l*oul= can mean “from the distant (past)” or “into the distant (future)”. Both would be valid in context, but I have opted for the first, implying that YHWH has (pre)destined the chosen individual to be king. It could also indicate that the Divine blessing will remain upon him, so long as he remains faithful, for the remainder of his life (and for all time).

It is possible, however, that <l*oul= is a secondary addition to the text, since the final line of the tricolon in the MT seems to be overloaded, leading to an irregular 3+3+4 meter, whereas one would expect a consistent 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 4 [3]

“Gird your sword upon (your) thigh!
Be strong (in) your splendor and honor!”

The blessing of YHWH on the king is marked by the apparel and accoutrements that he wears, symbols of (divine) honor and splendor (the nouns doh and rd^h^, similar in meaning). Chief among the king’s apparel is his sword, representative of his ability to protect his people (and their territory) and to subdue the enemies of Israel. This militaristic aspect is elaborated in the verses that follow.

I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 271) in reading rbg as an imperative (vocalized rb^G+, “be strong…!”), parallel with rogj& (“gird [on]…!”) in the first line. Rhythmically, the verse is a 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 5 [4] ab

“Press through (and) ride upon a word of truth,
and work justice (for the) oppressed”

A most difficult verse. It is quite possible that these lines are corrupt, but any attempt at emendation must be considered tentative at best, especially without any supporting evidence from the Qumran manuscripts (the verse is not among the portions that have been preserved). With some hesitance, I follow commentators such as Kraus  (p. 451) in reading the opening word of v. 5 as a dittography (i.e., repetition from the closing word of v. 4), and have omitted it.

With this adjustment, the first two lines of the verse form a fine 3+2 couplet. Overall, the sense seems clear enough. The king is to act in his role as protector of the people, using the symbols of his majesty (including his military trappings of sword, horse/chariot, bow and arrows, etc) to establish justice  and righteousness. When he “presses through” (vb jl^x*) and “rides” (vb bk^r*) into action, he must do so “upon a word of truth [tm#a#, lit. firmness]”, with special attention being paid to working to bring justice (vb qd^x*) for the oppressed. I follow Dahood here (p. 272) in dividing the consonantal text differently than the MT, reading qdxh wnuw: “and work justice [Hiphil of the verb qd^x*] (for the) oppressed” (comp. Psalm 82:3).

Verse 5c-6a [4c-5a]

“and (the thing)s bringing fear in your right hand will point you,
your arrows (indeed are) sharp!”

As the king rides to bring justice to the land, the weapons (lit. “[the thing]s causing fear”) in his ‘right hand’ point the way for him. There is a play on words here with the idea of “pointing”, as the very arrows he holds—and which he would fire against the wicked and other enemies—are also “pointed” (i.e., sharp, vb /n~v*). Metrically, this is another 3+2 couplet, and probably should be joined together with the prior couplet (in v. 5ab [cf. above]) as a poetic unit.

Verse 6 [5] bc

“(The) peoples under you shall fall,
in heart, (the) hostile (one)s of the king!”

There are also difficulties surrounding this verse, primarily due to the curious (and tantalizingly incomplete) evidence from the Qumran manuscript 11QPsd. Without clearer elucidation, any attempt at emending the text here is questionable, at best. Somewhat reluctantly, I have held to the MT, which provides a reasonably clear (if slightly awkward) couplet. The surrounding peoples, who would set themselves as being hostile to the king of Israel, will fall under him. This suggests a military defeat, with the king benefiting from the power and protection of YHWH (fighting on his side). Even more significant, perhaps, is the further implication that the peoples may submit, falling under his authority “in [their] heart”, without the need of actual battle.

Verse 7 [6]

“(The) Mightiest has enthroned you,
(from the) distant (past) and until (the end),
(and) a staff of straightness
(is the) staff of your kingdom.”

Since the Psalmist has been consistently addressing the king, the apparent shift to addressing God (Elohim = YHWH) in this verse seems out of place. Dahood (p. 273) suggests that the opening word, iask, should be read as a (Piel) denominative verb (with object suffix), from the noun aS@K!, “ruling-seat, throne”. This is an attractive solution, despite the lack of textual evidence, and I have followed his suggestion above.

The king is able to subdue his enemies and establish justice in the kingdom because YHWH (Elohim) has put him on the throne. This implies that God protects the king (so long as he remains faithful), and works/fights on his behalf. The king’s rule is symbolized by his staff (fb#v@), which produces a straight and fair result, leading to righteousness, justice, and equity for the people. This straightness (rovym!) reflects that of YHWH Himself.

Verse 8 [7] ab

“You have loved justice and hated wickedness—
upon this, (the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One) has anointed you”

Metrically, this is a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, but could also be divided as a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain, which yields a cleaner and more attractive result (and follows the same meter as v. 7 [6] above):

“You have loved justice
and have hated wickedness;
upon this He has anointed you,
(the) Mightiest, your Mighty (One).”

The anointing (vb jv^m*) of the king is here equivalent to his enthroning by YHWH (in the prior verse); it is another way of referring to the establishment of his kingdom and rule (by God). The righteous character of this person is indicated by the fact that he “loved justice and hated wickedness”, even before becoming king. Indeed, it was because of (lK@-lu^) this righteous character that YHWH chose to anoint him as king.

The doubling of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”) in the last line is another clear indication of how, in the Elohist Psalms, <yh!l)a$ was substituted for the Divine name YHWH (hwhy). In its original form, the line almost certainly would have read: “…YHWH, your Mighty (One)”.

Verse 8c-9a [7c-8a]

“(The) oil of rejoicing (is on) your robes,
myrrh and aloes and cassia all (on) your garments.”

The meter here returns to a 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The imagery develops the idea of the king’s anointing. The sacred oil of his anointing has permeated all of his garments (and his surroundings). The meaning of iyrbjm is uncertain. The context, and the parallel with ;yt#d)g+B! (“your garments”), suggests that something like “your robes” is intended. The root rbj fundamentally means “join together”, and the use of the nouns tr#b#j) and tr#B#j=m^ in Exod 26:4, 10; 28:27 shows how it can refer to sewn or woven fabrics (drapes, curtains, etc).

Along with the oil, the king’s garments are fragrant with aromatic spices, another indication of the honor and splendor (and sacredness) that was associated with kingship in the ancient Near East.

Verse 9b-10 [8b-9]

“From (your) palaces of (ivory) tooth,
how they make you joyful,
(the) daughters of kings (who)
stand among your precious (one)s,
(and the) queen to your right hand,
in (the) gold of Ophir.”

I read this final portion as a sextet, or trio of 2-beat couplets. The splendor of the king’s surroundings continues here with a scene in the royal palace-rooms, filled with ivory (lit. the “tooth” or tusk of elephants). Further filling this splendid environment are the “precious ones” of the royal court, especially the noble ladies (“daughters of kings”). Among these women stands the queen, clothed in gold (from Ophir). The queen stands at the right hand of the king, and it would seem that the scene has shifted, most subtly and skillfully by the poet, to the moment of the royal wedding.

In any case, the mention of the queen makes for a suitable transition to second part of the Psalm, which is specifically addressed to her.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 21

Psalm 21

Thematically, Psalm 20 and 21 belong together, with each having as its background the Israelite/Judean king and his army in time of war. An important aspect of the ancient Near Eastern covenant idea, in terms of political agreements, is that the binding agreement (tyr!B=) involves treaty terms for (military) assistance and protection. In agreements between equal parties, this means mutual protection; however, in the case of suzerain-vassal treaties, the emphasis is on the protection and aid provided by the sovereign, or superior party. From the standpoint of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, the king is a vassal of YHWH, and, insofar as he remains faithful and loyal to the covenant, he receives Divine aid and protection in time of need.

This royal theology underlies many of the Psalms, including these two (20 and 21) in particular, dealing with situations involving the need for military action and warfare. The setting of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study) is a communal prayer to YHWH for assistance that will bring victory for the king and his army. In Psalm 21, this has shifted to a declaration of praise and thanksgiving for the victory provided by YHWH.

The structure of Psalm 21 is similar to that of Psalm 20, and may be divided into two parts:

    • Vv. 3-8—the blessings given to the king by YHWH, reflecting the covenant bond between the two
    • Vv. 9-13—the aid given to the king, specifically, that allows him to be victorious in battle

These stanzas are bracketed by couplets of praise to YHWH (vv. 2, 14). The two parts have a joining transition point in vv. 8-9 which contrasts the faithfulness/loyalty of the king, binding him to YHWH, against the wickedness of his enemies/opponents and their helplessness before God.

The meter in the first half tends to be 4+4, while 3+3 in the second, though there are certain irregularities throughout. The superscription, with minimal musical information and direction, is the same as that of Ps 20 (and many other of the Psalms). Sadly, neither Psalm 20 nor 21 are preserved among the Dead Sea Scroll Psalms manuscripts.

Verse 2 [1]

“YHWH, in your strength the king finds joy,
and in your salvation, how great(ly) he spins (for joy)!”

In this opening (4+4) couplet, praising YHWH for the blessings shown to the king, the nouns zu) (“strength, might”) and hu*Wvy+ (“salvation, protection”) must be understood in terms of the assistance provided by God in time of war (cf. above). YHWH’s “strength” is what ultimately gives the king victory in battle—it is a Divine protection which keeps him safe from death and defeat. Compare this couplet with the closing praise in verse 14 [13] (cf. below).

Verses 3-8 [2-7]

Verses 3-4 [2-3]

“(The) longing of his heart you have given to him,
and (for the) desire of his lips you have held nothing back; Selah
for you put blessings of goodness in front of him,
you set onto his head a circle [i.e. crown/wreath] of pure (gold).”

Throughout these two Psalms the king represents the people as a whole, and the community identifies itself with the anointed ruler as the faithful one(s) of YHWH. Thus the prayer of the people (in Ps 20) blends into the prayer of the king (for victory in battle). This couplet confirms that the prayer—both of king and people—has been answered. The synonymous parallelism is clear, with the second line intensifying the theme of the first. The noun tv#r#a& in line 2 occurs only here in the Old Testament, from an unused root (vr^a*) that is, however, attested in other Semitic languages (such as Ugaritic). Both the context here, and the cognate usage, indicate that the meaning is something like “desire, wish, request”.

The lone occurrence of the musical indicator hl*s# (selah) after this couplet is difficult to explain. Under the basic assumption that it is meant primarily as a pause in singing/reciting the text, it may be intended to preserve the integrity of the couplet, in light of the conjunction (yK!) that begins the next line.

The encircling wreath (tr#f#u&) of gold signifies the honor that comes from victory in battle—a victory won through YHWH’s own strength. There may be an alliterative parallel intended between tr#f#u& (±¦‰ere¾) and the earlier tv#r#a& (°¦reše¾) in verse 3.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“(Year)s of life he asked from you, and you gave to him—
length of days (for the) distant (future and) until (the end);
great (is) his weight (achieved) in [i.e. through] your salvation,
(great the) honor and splendor you have placed upon him!”

These two couplets, with slight irregularities of meter, expound two different aspects of the honor given to king by YHWH:

    • the opportunity to live a long and full life, i.e. saved from death in battle; long life being especially valued as an ideal in ancient times, and here expressed two ways:
      • the plural noun <yY]j^ which signifies a (long) life; spec. the years of a person’s life(time), but perhaps also in an intensive or emphatic sense (i.e. full life)
      • “length of days”, the length(ing) of days being a common Semitic idiom for old age and a long life
    • the value and worth (lit. “weight”, dobK*) of his person is enhanced, marked by an honorific improvement of his appearance, using the alliterative expression rd*h*w+ doh (hô¼ w®h¹¼¹r, roughly “honor and splendor”)
Verse 7-8 [6-7]

“(So it is) that you set blessings for him until (the end),
you have made him look with joy at your face;
(for it is) that the king is (one) trusting in YHWH,
and in (the) kindness of the Highest there is no slipping (away)!”

The blessings of a long life of honor and splendor here climax with the idea of a future blessing that involves a beatific vision of God (i.e. to look upon His “face”). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 133) in reading the verb hd*j* as = hz`j* (“look/gaze at, behold”), which better fits the context of the line; it would be thus explained as a (Canaanite) dialectical form involving the familiar interchange of the consonants d/z (Heb d/z).

The final couplet emphasizes again the (covenant) loyalty of the king, characterizing him as one “trusting” in YHWH, using a participle form of a verb (jf^B*) which can specifically connote the idea of seeking protection. This loyalty is reciprocated by God’s own, showing goodness/kindness (ds#j#) and favor to the faithful vassal. The covenant bond is indicated by the closing phrase, “there is no slipping (away)” (foMy] lB^), reading the Niphal verb form in a reflexive sense—i.e., there is no falling away from the covenant bond with YHWH.

Verses 9-14 [8-13]

As noted above, a 3+3 meter dominates the second part of the Psalm, which describes God’s blessings to the king in terms of the aid/assistance given to him in time of battle.

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“Your hand found (its way) to all your enemies,
your right (hand) found (its way to the one)s hating you;
you set them as a fire-stove at the time your face (appears)—
with His nostril(s) He engulfs them, and (His) fire devours them.”

The mixing of 2nd and 3rd person forms is a bit confusing, but hardly unusual in Old Testament poetry. It is all the more natural here, given the close connection between the king’s military action and the strength of YHWH Himself that fights for the king (cf. above). More difficult is the extended/irregular meter of verse 10, suggesting that there may be one or more (secondary) accretions to the couplet. I tentatively emend the text to read as a 4+4 couplet, by omitting the first of the two occurrences of va@ (“fire”), in line 1, and the divine name hwhy in line 2. The addition of the name may be an explanatory gloss to clarify the identity of the 2nd person markers (i.e., “…your face, YHWH” ). It is perhaps best to understand YHWH as the subject throughout, referring to His actions on the king’s behalf.

The judgment of God on His enemies (= the king/Israel’s enemies) is expressed by the idiom of the face, according to the traditional religious idea that to see YHWH’s face means death for a human being. This fiery destruction from God’s “face” natural blends together with the common idiom for God’s anger—i.e., burning from the nostrils (as of an angry, snorting bull).

Verse 11 [10]

“Their fruit you made to perish from (the) earth,
and their seed from (among the) sons of man.”

This couplet suggests something more than the defeat of a nation or people in battle, though it may allude to the idea of a defeat so total that it would virtually deprive an entire generation of its young men. More likely is the notion that the military defeat of Israel/Judah’s enemies reflects a wider sense of their (ultimate) destruction that has been determined by God. The nouns “fruit” and “seed” of course are used figuratively for the children/offspring of a people.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

“(For it was) that they stretched out evil upon you,
they wove an (evil) plan, (but) were not able (to complete it);
(so it is) that you set them (to the) shoulder,
you fixed your (bow)strings upon their faces.”

There is a clear parallel  between the enemies of God “stretching” out evil strands upon (lu*) Him, and God, in turn, aiming His bowstrings upon (lu*) their faces. It is typical of the thematic imagery found in the Psalms (and other Old Testament poetry) in they way that the evil intent of the wicked is turned back upon them, so that they are essentially destroyed by the very thing they sought to accomplish. We have already encountered a number of examples of this sort in the Psalms we have studied thus far. The precise meaning of the idiom in the first line of v. 13 [12] is not entirely clear; I have rendered it quite literally: “that you set them (to the) shoulder”. It could indicate a person turning his back (to flee), or, perhaps, of bending/falling down in defeat (or submission). In any case, the defeat of God’s enemies—meaning also the defeat of Israel’s enemies—is clear.

VERSE 14 [13]

“May you rise up (high), YHWH, in your strength,
and we shall sing and make music in your might!”

This closing couplet is parallel to the opening couplet of the Psalm (v. 2 [1], cf. above), emphasizing both the strength (zu)) of YHWH that brought victory for the king, and also the praise of the people who rejoice together in that victory. The noun hr*WbG+ (“strength, might, vigor”) in the second line is virtually synonymous with zu) in the first. It alludes to the youthful vigor of warriors, only, for the Israelite/Judean army of the king faithful to YHWH, the normal strength of young men has been enhanced by the divine power of YHWH Himself. This is reflected in verse 8 [7] of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study), with the contrast between those nations who trust in their (ordinary) military strength (of horses and chariots, etc), and those who rely instead on the person and presence (the “Name”) of YHWH the true God. Even for later Israelites, Jews, and Christians, for whom the original military setting of this Psalm has long disappeared, it is a contrast that all faithful believers can still appreciate.

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

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 20

Psalm 20

This Psalm (and the one following) have, as its original setting and background, the royal Israelite/Judean army, led by its king, preparing to go to war. I agree with earlier commentators (Gunkel, Dahood, et al) who identified this context, and the wording and imagery throughout the composition would seem to confirm that it is correct. The Psalm functions as a prayer to God for victory in battle, and may well reflect a specific ritual setting, involving sacrificial offerings made prior to going out to battle. It is not necessary, however, to insist that the Psalm was originally composed for performance in such a setting.

The religious and theological dimension of warfare, expressed in this Psalm, will doubtless seem foreign to modern western readers; indeed, many Christians today may find the association rather repellent, in light of our modern view of the medieval Crusades, Islamic jihad, and other forms of “holy war”. However, in the ancient Near East, the divine role in warfare simply reflected an understanding of the control exercised by deities (or the Deity) over all areas of daily life. The success of an army meant that its gods (or God) favored it, with the deities of the victorious nation effectively gaining victory over those of the defeated people. In the context of Israelite Yahwism, a victory in battle for Israel served as proof that their God (YHWH) was superior to those of the other nations.

The language of the Psalm was such that, over time, the concepts of salvation and victory, trust in the name of God, etc, could be given a wider and more general application to the people of Israel. However, like many of the Psalms, the royal background must be kept clearly in view and central to any proper interpretation. The original context is that of the king and his army, as he responds to the various conflicts with his enemies and opponents. While these “enemies” may be treated generically and symbolically at many points in the Psalms, the poems were also composed within the background of real socio-political conflicts and real battles. It was not the classic “holy war” of the earlier Israelite confederacy, but the basic idea remained, filtered through a strong (Judean) royal theology, regarding the king (from the line of David) and his relationship to YHWH.

Structurally, the Psalm divides into two parts:

    • Vv. 2-6—a prayer for God’s help and support, for the king (and his army)
    • Vv. 7-10—a declaration of victory, indicating that the prayer has been (i.e. will be) answered

Rhythmically, a 4-beat meter dominates in the first part (2+2, but 4+4 in the opening couplet), though not without some tension and irregularity, which may be a way of expressing musically the “distress” that the king faces. In the second part, it is a 3+3 meter, again with certain irregular points of tension that build, only to resolve in the final two couplets.

The musical direction in the superscription simply indicates that this Psalm is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David.

Part 1: Verses 2-6

Verse 2 [1]

“May YHWH answer you (to bring victory) in (the) day of distress,
(the) name of the Mightiest (One) of Ya’aqob set you (safe) on high!”

This 4+4 couplet establishes the theme and setting of the Psalm, which, as noted above, would seem to be a time of conflict for the king (and nation), requiring an act of war. In several Old Testament passages, the verb hn`u* connotes the idea of engaging in violent conflict, to force an opponent into submission, etc (e.g., Num 24:24); in such instances, it is root hn`u* III in the Piel stem. Here, apparently, in line 1 the root is hn`u* I (“answer, respond”), implying the hope that YHWH will answer the prayer and respond to king’s need (in battle). The verb bg~c* in the second line, in the Piel stem, refers to putting something (or someone) in a high place, where they will be safe.

The concept of the “name”, especially that of the deity, was extremely complex in ancient Near Eastern thought. A person’s name embodied the character and nature of the person. Thus, to speak of God’s name, was to refer to God Himself–His nature, power, and presence. Moreover, at times, the “name” of God was understood as functioning as a distinct hypostasis, or active manifestation. Here the “name” (<v@) of the Mighty One (“Mightiest”, <yh!l)a$, i.e. God) of Jacob (Israel) protects the people of Israel, and their king. For more on significance of names and naming in the Old Testament, cf. my earlier Christmas series “And you shall call His name…”, especially the articles on the names of God.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

“May He send your help from (His) holy place,
and give you (His) support from ‚iyyôn;
may He remember all your gifts (to Him),
and receive the fat (of) your rising (offering)s. Selah
May He give (to) you according to your heart,
and fulfill (for you) all of your plan(s);
may we shout (for joy) in your salvation,
and in (the) name of our Mightiest display (the banner)!
May YHWH fulfill all your petitions (to Him)!”

After the 4+4 bicolon of verse 2, a series of four 2+2 couplets follow, interrupted by a pause (hl*s#, selah), perhaps to indicate that the four couplets should not be run together, but to function as two distinct strophes. The first strophe establishes the religious context of the prayer, and of the mobilization for war (on this last point, cf. above). The “help” (rz#u@) YHWH will send to the king comes from His “holy place” (vd@q))—that is, the sanctuary of the Temple, in the temple-palace complex on the ancient fortified hill-top locale (Zion) of Jerusalem. Moreover, this response is predicated upon the faithfulness of the king (and his priests and people) in fulfilling the ritual obligations of the covenant: the “gifts” and sacrificial offerings to God. Possibly, a specific sacrificial ritual, prior to going out to war, and overseen by the king, is in view.

The second strophe, or pair of couplets, brings out this relationship of the king and his people (including his army). The first couplet offers a prayer that God will allow the king to fulfill everything that he plans (presumably in terms of conducting the war); and that, as a result, the people will be able to shout together in confidence that victory (salvation) is assured. The verb lg~D* is often used in the technical sense of displaying (i.e. carrying/raising) a banner or (military) standard.

The final couplet serves a climax to the first part of the Psalm, emphasizing again the prayer context. It is framed in terms of the petitions that the king himself will make to God, presumably prior to (and during) the course of the battle.

Part 2: Verses 7-10

Verse 7 [6]

“Now I know that YHWH brings salvation (for) His anointed—
He (has) responded from (the) heavens of His holy (place),
(bring)ing salvation with (the great) strength of His right (hand)!”

The opening of this part of the Psalm parallels the couplet in verse 2 (cf. above), building upon the war-prayer setting. It is a declaration that God has answered the prayer, and will bring victory (“salvation”). The beat of the opening is irregular—almost, but not quite a 3+3 couplet; I have rendered it above as a single line. A proper 3+3 couplet follows, expounding the idea in the opening line. I tentatively regard the plural form torb%g+ (“strengths, mighty [deed]s”) as an intensive plural, perhaps to convey the sense that YHWH’s aid from heaven will function much like the warriors (“mighty ones”, <yr!oBG]) of an earthly army. On the king as the “anointed one” (j^yv!m*) of God, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 2.

Verse 8 [7]

“Th(e)se with the ride [i.e. chariot], and th(o)se with the horses—
(but) we bring to mind (our trust) in the name of our Mightiest!”

The sequence of 3+3 couplets is interrupted by this 4+4 bicolon, the precise sense of which is difficult to determine. It appears to incorporate a proverbial slogan, perhaps reflecting the ancient “holy war” tradition of the Israelite confederacy. The main idea appears to be that the Israelite army does not simply rely upon superior military strength (i.e. chariots and horses) for victory, but upon the support of YHWH their God. It seems likely that the actual name YHWH (the tetragrammaton hwhy) may be a secondary addition; many commentators omit it as disruptive to the rhythm, and its absence is indicated in the A text of the Greek LXX.

More problematic is the final verb form ryK!z+n~, which would be parsed as a Hiphil imperfect of the verb rk^z`, essentially meaning “bring to mind”. According to this, the line would read: “but we bring to mind with/by the name of our Mightiest”. The parallel with Isa 48:1 suggests that the idea here involves an affirmation of Israel’s allegiance to YHWH, making an oath or confession of loyalty by His name. This special sense of invoking God’s name, with its magical-religious attributes, is also indicated in Isa 26:13; 62:6, and Amos 6:10. By contrast, Dahood (p. 129), derives ryK!z+n~ from a separate root, a denominative verb based on rk*z` (“male”), i.e. “to be male”; as such, the form would be parallel to ryB!g+n~ (from rb#G#, “strong/vigorous [young] man”), cf. Psalm 12:5. In context, the meaning would then be “we will be strong/victorious (in battle)”. It is an intriguing interpretation, but the use such a denominative verb rk^z` (II) elsewhere in the Old Testament is extremely slight and uncertain (but see Exod 34:19).

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“They—they bend down and fall,
but we—we rise and take our (stand) again;
YHWH brings salvation (to) him, the king,
He answers us in (the) day we call (to Him).”

The contrast between Israel and the other nations (spec. their opponents) is continued from verse 8 in the first couplet. Those who trust in chariots and horses are bent to the ground and fall (in defeat), while those who rely on YHWH’s strength, invoking His name in allegiance to Him, rise to stand victorious in battle. The specific verb forms in the final couplet are unclear; the Masoretic pointing indicates an imperative, following by a jussive, i.e. “YHWH, (may you) bring salvation…may He answer us…”. However, it may be better (and more consistent) to read the first verb form as = ouyv!oh (“He brings/brought salvation [for] him”, i.e. for the king). Both the prayer setting (with an answer to prayer), and the unified juxtaposition of king and people (army), are integral to the entire sense and structure of the Psalm.

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

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).