Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 1

Psalm 18

The 18th Psalm is one of the longest compositions in the Psalter. Its many archaic features, including ancient Canaanite elements, make any critical study of it challenging, as does the fact that the poem has been preserved separately as 2 Samuel 22, and the two versions must be compared. For this reason, it is necessary to divide our study into several parts, to be spread out over different Sundays. The first part will begin with an overview of the composition, and a comparative analysis of the opening verses.


Psalm 18 is unique in that a second form of it has been preserved independently, at the end of the David narratives in the books of Samuel (2 Sam 22). It would seem that Psalm 18 is closer to the original form of the poem, but this can only be established through a detailed textual comparison. This study will make use of both versions, examining each couplet and strophe in parallel, noting any key differences.

It is sometimes thought that more than one composition is involved, and that different poems were combined; most common is a two-part division into poems vv. 2-31 [1-30] and 32-51 [31-50]. Questions regarding the integrity of such a long and complex Psalm are natural enough, though ultimately speculative. As we consider each section, within the overall contours of the poem, the possibility of its composite character will be discussed.

The meter of the Psalm tends to be 3+3, utilizing the three-beat bicolon format; however, there are exceptions, including the use of 3+3+3 tricola, for example, in vv. 8-9 and 14. Attempts to emend or reconstruct points of difficulty on the basis of supposed metrical consistency are highly questionable, yet certain critical emendations are more plausible than others, and will be discussed.

The extended heading (superscription) is curious, both in form and content. After the initial address to the musical director (presumably, Heb. j^X@n~m=), it reads:

“(belonging) to (the) servant of YHWH, to Dawid, who uttered to YHWH the words of this song, in (the) day (that) YHWH pulled him away from (the) palm(s) of all his enemies and from (the) hand of lwav.”

This is nearly identical to the introduction in 2 Sam 22:1, which begins, appropriately in the context of the narrative, “And Dawid uttered to YHWH the words of this song…”. Otherwise, the only difference is a repeated use of “from the palm(s) of” instead of “from the hand of”. In Samuel, the poem serves to close the cycle of David narratives; thus its association with David is especially strong, perhaps more so than any other composition in the Psalter. The Canaanite elements in the poem certainly suggest an early date that could, on entirely objective grounds, support Davidic authorship. These details will be discussed at the appropriate points throughout our study.

The closing word of the heading, lwav, is pointed by the Masoretes as lWav*, i.e. the proper name (Saul), which could perhaps be translated literally as an abbreviated form of the phrase-name “requested (of God)”, cp. la@yT!l=a^v=. While this would allude to the famous episodes in the David narratives (1 Samuel 18-24), there is serious question as to whether lWav* is the correct pointing of the text. For example, it is odd to juxtapose Saul with “all of his enemies”, since Saul would have been counted as one of those enemies; possibly the w-conjunction has the force of “and even from the hand of Saul”, or “and especially from the hand of Saul”, but this is questionable. More to the point is the fact that the poem itself mentions not lWav* (Saul), but loav= (Sheol), and this makes a more appropriate pairing with “all of his enemies”:

“…in the day (that) YHWH pulled him away from the palm(s) of all his enemies and from the hand of Sheol [i.e. death, the grave].”

Conceivably, there is an intentional play on words (lWav*/loav=), introduced by the author of the heading.

First Part (Poem 1): Verses 2-31 [1-30]

Verses 2-4

The relationship between the two versions in these verses is complex. Vv. 2-4 form an introductory stanza of praise to YHWH. Let us compare them as they stand, beginning with Psalm 18:

“And he said:
I love you, YHWH, my strength!
YHWH (is) my rock-cleft and hill-top (site),
and my (only) means of escape,
my Mighty (One), my rock,
in which I find protection,
my shield and (the) horn of my salvation,
my place of high (walls), being (worthy) of praise!
I called to YHWH,
and from my enemies I was saved.”

Here is the same relative portion of the 2 Samuel version:

“And he said:
YHWH (is) my rock-cleft and hill-top (site),
and (the) means of escape for me,
my Mighty (One), my rock,
in which I find protection,
my shield and (the) horn of my salvation,
my place of high (walls) and my place to flee—
the (One) bringing salvation (to) me,
from violence you (have) saved me!
Being (worthy) of praise, I call to YHWH,
and (so) I am saved from my enemies.”

In their landmark study on this Psalm, F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman present the interesting theory that verses 2-4, in both Ps 18 and 2 Sam 22, are a conflation of two different earlier forms of the introduction (see pp. 21-22 of their study). In each reconstructed form, there are six lines, with a 3+3 bicolon followed by a pair of 2+2 bicola:

Different images and motifs of protection are present in these lines. The primary emphasis is on a protective place (location) high up in the cliffs, blending with the standard ancient Near Eastern idea of the fortified hilltop site. From this wider military application, the imagery moves to the narrower focus of personal protection, over the body, etc, of the one whom YHWH delivers from danger.

Verses 5-7

A different aspect of salvation is described in this stanza, utilizing the ancient mythic-cosmic image of Death (and chaos/destruction) as a great opponent of YHWH, even as death and disorder are the opposite of life and order. I have discussed the meaning and background of the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol) in prior studies as well as a supplemental article; the similar term lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al, Belial) was also examined briefly in an earlier article. This emphasis provides a strong argument that lwav in the superscription ought to be read as Sheol (loav=) rather than Saul (lWav*), cf. above.

“The breaking (wave)s of Death surrounded me,
the torrents of Beliyya’al (engulf)ed me (with) terror;
the twisted (cord)s of She’ol turned around me,
the snares of Death came (right) in front of me.
In th(is) tight (spot) for me, I called to YHWH,
unto my Mightiest [Elohim] I (cri)ed for help;
He heard my voice from His palace,
and my cry for help came in(to) His ears.”

Apart from some minor orthographic differences, we may note the following more substantial textual/versional points:

    • 2 Sam v. 4 begins with the particle yK! (“for”) which probably should be omitted as secondary.
    • The first line of Psa v. 4 has “twisted (cord)s” (yl@b=j#, plural construct), as in line 3, whereas 2 Sam reads “breaking (wave)s” (yr@B=v=m!), which much better suits the imagery of the couplet and is to be preferred.
    • Most commentators agree that the last line in Psa v. 7 is a conflation of two different phrases “came to(ward) His face [i.e. before Him]” and “came in(to) His ears”; the latter is the reading of 2 Sam, and probably is to be preferred. In any case, it would seem that only one of the two would have been present originally.

The remainder of the first part of the Psalm will be examined in next week’s study.

The aforementioned study by Cross and Freedman (“A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”) was originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 16

Psalm 16

The heading to this Psalm simply describes it as a <T*k=m! (miktam) belonging to David. The meaning of <T*k=m! remains uncertain; it has been related to the word <t#K# (“gold”), and to a separate root <tk that only occurs once elsewhere in the Old Testament (Jer 2:22). The Greek Septuagint and Aramaic Targums translate it as referring to an inscription on a stone slab or pillar (Grk sthlografi/a). The meter of the Psalm is mixed/uneven, except for verses 5-9 which consistently have 4+3 beat couplets. There is also some textual uncertainty at several points, especially in verses 3-4. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the portion about which there are textual questions is not preserved in the Dead Sea manuscripts; very little of Psalm 16 survives (a tiny fragment of verse 1, and a fragmentary portion with vv. 7-9). In style, theme, and setting, this Psalm has similarities with Ps 5 (cf. the earlier study), as the protagonist contrasts his loyalty to YHWH with the worship of other deities by people around him. It is almost impossible to recapture the sense of this religious aspect of Israelite society in the early periods. Syncretism of various sorts was common in the ancient Near East, and it would have been quite natural to blend together worship of El-Yahweh with that of other Canaanite religious beliefs and practices. The surviving historical and prophetic writings (in the Old Testament) only give us a partial picture of the conflicts and tensions that existed for those determined to remain faithful to YHWH and worship Him exclusively.

I would divide the Psalm into two parts. The first (vv. 1-4) contrasts loyalty to El-Yahweh with the worship of other (Canaanite) deities. It is comprised of an initial petition (v. 1), followed by a declaration of allegiance and trust in YHWH (v. 2), and a statement whereby the Psalmist disavows any worship of other deities besides YHWH (vv. 3-4). The statement in verses 3-4 establishes a contrast—a pair of 3+3(?) couplets, with an intervening line (v. 4a, in italics below).

Verses 1-4

“Watch over me, Mighty (One), for I seek shelter with you!
I said to YHWH, ‘You are my Lord,
my Good (One)—no (other is) over you!’
For the ‘holy (one)s’ in the earth, they (were so),
and the ‘great (one)s’ of (the land), my delight was in them;
their pains shall increase, (those who now) hurry after another,
but I will not pour out to them (offering)s poured out from (my) hands,
and I will not (even) lift up their names upon my lips!”

In my translation here I have not emended the text, though some commentators feel that it is corrupt. There are several apparent peculiarities of syntax, but much of the confusion stems from the seeming thematic shift from speaking about “holy ones” (<yv!odq=), assumed to be righteous persons, in verse 3, to the discussion of worshiping pagan deities (v. 4). Kraus, for example (pp. 233-4), assumes something is missing between verses 3 and 4. The point might be confirmed, one way or the other, if those verses were preserved in the Dead Sea Psalm manuscripts, but, as noted above, that is unfortunately not the case. A more consistent line of thought is retained if we understand the plural substantive <yv!odq= (“holy ones”) in the sense of “those treated as holy”, “those considered sacred”, “those honored”, etc. The expression “in the earth” (or “in the land”) may be intended to qualify it this way. Certainly the construct plural yr@yD!a^ (“great ones of…”) is meant to be taken parallel with <yv!odq=; I have filled in an implicit link in the construct chain (“…of the land”) for the sake of the translation: “holy ones in the earth…great ones of (the land)”. This, then, allows for two possibilities: (1) the expressions refer to great and honored persons in society, or (2) they are used as epithets for pagan deities. The phrase “my delight was in them” further complicates the situation, as it comes just before “their pains shall increase”. Without assuming a lacuna in the text, the juxtaposition of those phrases clearly is meant to establish a contrast. Following the same two lines of interpretation mentioned above, it might be suggested:

    • (1) The Psalmist once delighted in these great and honored persons, but now they have turned away from faithfulness to YHWH and have “hurried after other (deities)”
    • (2) The protagonist of the Psalm once delighted in the other deities of the land, but now he only follows YHWH, and wishes pain for any who would continue to worship those other gods

The second approach seems to fit the sense of these verses better, but it is not without difficulties. These may be illustrated in the following textual and exegetical notes on verses 1-4:

“Mighty One” (la@)—The noun la@ is the Hebrew reflex of the common Semitic word for deity, literally “mighty (one)”; it also serves as the proper name for the high Creator God (‘El) throughout much of the Semitic world, West (Canaanite) and East (Amorite). ‘El was the name of God in the period of the Patriarchs, and Yahweh (hwhy, YHWH) was identified with ‘El. This is seen precisely here in the Psalm, where la@ and hwhy are used interchangeably as proper names.

“I said” (T=r=m^a*)—The consonantal Trma represents the first person singular form of the verb (yT!r=m^a*) written defectively; compare at Isa 47:10, MT trma with 1QIsaa ytrma. Dahood characterizes this as an example of Phoenician orthography (p. 87).

“my Good” (yt!b*of)—Here the noun bof (“good”) seems to be used as another divine title, probably in the covenantal sense of “one who does/brings good (things) for me”.

“no (other is) over you” (;yl#u*-lB^)—The negative particle lB^ is used here in verse 2, and again in verse 4; it can be used specifically as an adverb of negation, e.g. “it will not be..”, “it can hardly be…”. Here it affirms the superiority and uniqueness of El-Yahweh (the preposition lu^ can also be used in the sense of “next to, alongside”)—there can scarcely be any other deity as great as YHWH. This is not an expression of absolute monotheism; such did not characterize early Israelite religion, but represents a secondary (and later) development. However, already in the kingdom period, and certainly by the time of the seventh-century Prophets, the belief that the deities worshiped by the surrounding peoples did not have any real existence, was being expressed.

“they” (hM*h@)—The word hmh at the end of the first line of verse 3 is, apparently, the third person plural pronoun (hM*h@, “they”) in emphatic position. Assuming that nothing has dropped out, the syntax and sense of the line is problematic. The line could be read, “For they, the holy ones in the earth…”, but it is also possible that the predicate of the clause is implied: “For the holy ones in the earth, they (were…)”. I have opted for the latter; the idea being expressed, I think, is that the other deities in the land are being (or were once) honored and worshiped just as the Psalmist (now) worships YHWH.

“and the great ones of…” (yr@yD!a^w+)—This construct form creates a difficult syntax. In the translation above, I fill it out (“…of the land”) to establish the clear parallel with “holy ones in the earth”. However, syntactically, it is probably better to regard the construct chain as governing the phrase that follows (see GKC §130d; Dahood, p. 88). Literally, this would be: “and the great ones of my delight in them”. In English we would perhaps phrase this as, “and the great ones in whom I have/had delight”. If one supplies a verb to fill out the phrasing, it is not entirely clear whether it should be in the present or past tense. Much depends on which of the two lines of interpretation (cf. the discussion above) is to be preferred.

“they hurry after another” (Wrh*m* rj@a^)—This phrase relates awkwardly to the preceding. Assuming that the Masoretic parsing/pointing is essentially correct (cf. Dahood, p. 88, for a different approach), it would seem that a relative/demonstrative pronoun is required to fill out the sense of the line—i.e., “…those who hurry after another”. The ‘other’ these people follow after is a deity other than YHWH.

“(to them) from (my) hand” (<D*m!)—The Masoretic Text would seem to read “from blood”, i.e. “offerings of blood poured out”, with the motif of blood perhaps emphasizing the wicked character of the offerings to other deities. However, I have here (tentatively) chosen to follow Dahood (p. 88) in reading <dm as representing a contracted form of dy (“hand”) in the dual (regularly Heb <y]d*y~). The juxtaposition of “hands…lips” seems better to preserve the parallelism of the couplet.

Verses 5-11

“YHWH, you have numbered out my portion and my cup,
you (firmly) hold the stone (that is) my (lot);
the boundary (line)s fallen to me (are) in pleasant (place)s—
indeed, (this) possession is (most) beautiful over [i.e. next to] me.
I will kneel to YHWH who counsels me—
indeed, (by) nights His (inner) organs instruct me.
I have set YHWH to (be) stretched long in front of me,
(and) from His right (hand) I will not be shaken (away).
For this my heart rejoices, my heaviest (part) circles (with joy),
indeed, (even) my flesh can dwell in (peaceful) security,
for you will not leave [i.e. give] my soul (over) to Sheol,
you will not give your loyal (one) to see (the place of) ruin.
You will make me (to) know the path of Life,
being satisfied with joys (before) your Face,
(and) lasting pleasures at your right (hand)!

After the syntactical and textual difficulties in verses 3-4, the remainder of the Psalm is relatively straightforward. Verses 5-9 make for a consistent sequence of five 4+3 bicola, followed by a 4+4 bicolon in verse 10. The Psalm concludes with a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

The imagery in the first two couplets (vv. 5-6) derives from the binding agreement (covenant) idea as it would have been realized between a superior (sovereign) and his vassals. God (YHWH) is the good sovereign who bestows benefits upon his loyal vassals. He measures out (vb hn`m*, “number [out], count”, i.e. assign, appoint, etc) the appropriate benefit, viewed as a share (ql#j#) of the good things controlled by the sovereign. This includes the place at the table (“cup”, soK), also used to symbolize generally all that the person will receive—i.e. his “lot” (literally, “stone, pebble” lr*oG, indicating that the person is to receive the benefit). A common socio-political benefit is property—a territory or fief bestowed upon the vassal. The tribal territories of the Promised Land itself was seen as such a covenantal benefit (and promise) for the descendants of Abraham. The parallel wording used here in verse 6 relates to territory: “boundary (line)s” (<yl!b*j&) and “possession” (hl*j&n~), described as “pleasant” (<yu!n`) and “beautiful” (vb rp^v*, be clear/bright). It is given over to the vassal (“fallen to me”) and now belongs to him (“over me”, i.e. alongside, next to me).

In verses 7-9, the covenantal relationship itself (i.e. between sovereign and vassal) is depicted. The couplets in vv. 7-8 express this through two actions by the Psalmist (the loyal vassal):

    • “I will kneel to YHWH” —The verb Er^B* generally denotes giving praise and honor to a person; in the case of a person’s response to God (as the superior) it more properly indicates showing homage. It is acknowledged that there is a close connection between the root and the word Er#B# (“knee”), but it is not entirely clear if the verb is denominative (i.e. giving homage/honor by way of the idea of “bending the knee, kneeling”). My translation assumes this derivation.
    • “I have set YHWH (in front of me)” —Here the verb is hw`v* (“set, place”), the action perhaps best understood in the sense of a person placing his/her attention and focus firmly on God. The context would also suggest that the Psalmist is affirming his covenantal loyalty to YHWH. The word dym!T*, literally meaning something like “(stretch)ed out long”, is used here in an adverbial sense. It may be taken to mean that the Psalmist is continually doing this, or that it is a deep and abiding expression of his loyalty.

In each couplet, the second line describes the effect of this relationship on the Psalmist (the vassal). Even at night (every night) YHWH instructs the Psalmist out of His (i.e. YHWH’s) innermost being. The plural toyl=K! refers to the deep inner organs (i.e. kidneys) of a person, representing the source of deep feelings and emotions, i.e. God’s care and devotion to those who are loyal/faithful to him. If verse 7b emphasizes the inner aspect of the relationship, verse 8b stresses the outer aspect. Instead of the inner organs, we have the prominent outer motif of a person’s right hand. From the standpoint of the covenant, and expressed in terms of royal theology, it means the vassal has a prominent place at the side of the sovereign. Early Christians, of course, applied this royal motif to the position of the exalted Jesus, following the resurrection, at the right hand of God the Father. In both lines, the suffix y– is best read as a third person (rather than first person) singular. The suffixes y– and w– were often interchangeable, especially in poetry, which tended to preserve earlier (NW Semitic, i.e. Phoenician, etc) features otherwise rare in Old Testament Hebrew. On this use of the y– suffix for the third person masculine, cf. Dahood, pp. 10-11 (on Ps 2:6), and 90.

Verse 9 summarizes the preceding lines and anticipates the climactic reference to death and the afterlife in v. 10. The couplet begins with the expression /k@l*, “for this”, i.e. for this reason (LXX dia\ tou=to). The Psalmist can rejoice and be at ease because of the covenantal relationship with YHWH, entailing both benefits and protection. The former was emphasized in vv. 5-6, the latter here in vv. 9-10. The noun dobK*, usually translated as “honor” or “glory”, is better understood in terms of the related word db@K*, i.e. the liver as the “heavy” organ. The root dbk fundamentally refers to heaviness or weight, often in the basic sense of what is of value. The “heavy” organ is parallel here with the “heart”. The security the Psalmist experiences extends to his very life being preserved and protected by YHWH. This is described in terms of being saved/delivered from Sheol, also here called “the (place of) ruin”. On the meaning and background of the term “Sheol” (loav=, Š®°ôl), see my earlier article. It is not entirely clear whether the emphasis here (esp. with the verb bz`u*) is on being left in the grave (i.e. after one has already died), or being given over to death in the first place. The references to Sheol in the Psalms suggest the latter. However, the New Testament use of vv. 9-10 in Acts 2:25-28ff (Peter’s Pentecost speech, cf. also 13:35) indicates the former, as it is applied to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The closing tricolon of verse 11 suggests the imagery of a heavenly/blessed afterlife, with the covenantal relationship now being re-imagined in heavenly/eternal terms, with the Psalmist standing before God’s face and at His right hand. It is little wonder that early Christians would come to interpret these lines in terms of the place of the exalted Jesus with God in heaven (Acts 2:25-28ff).

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, Biblischer Kommentar series (Neuchkirchener Verlag: 1978), translated in English as Psalms 1-59, Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

Note on “Sheol”

In the recent study on Psalm 6, the usage of the term loav= (š®°ôl, sheol) was noted, being the first such occurrence in the Psalter as we have it. As this term will be encountered in other Psalms, and, indeed, is found relatively frequently in Old Testament poetry, I felt it was worth devoting a special study to it. The word loav= occurs 66 times in the Old Testament Scriptures, primarily in poetry (16 in the Psalms, 9 in Job, 9 in Proverbs, 10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and 5 in the Minor Prophets). The context of how it is used makes clear that it is a (poetic) term for the realm of death and the dead, occasionally used as a personification of death (and the grave) itself. However, in spite of this, the actual origins and derivation of loav= remain quite uncertain. It is clearly an ancient, traditional Hebrew word, and yet there are no clear parallels or cognate examples from other Semitic languages of the period (i.e. Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc).


The most obvious association for loav= would be with the common root lav, which has the basic meaning “ask, inquire” (cf. Akkadian ša°¹lu, “ask, decide”, etc). Unfortunately, it is hard to see exactly how the word, as it is used in the Old Testament, might relate to this root. One suggestion is that it refers to the realm of death (or the “underworld”) as a “place of interrogation”, i.e. where the deceased is judged and called to account (examined). Another possibility is that it relates to the idea of “asking/inquiring of the dead”, i.e. necromancy and the consulting of spirits (of the dead). Admittedly, such a connection is quite speculative, and far from convincing.

Another conceivable derivation, and one adopted by a number of commentators today, is from the root huv I (vb ha*v* š¹°â), which indicates ruin, devastation, destruction—cf. the related nouns hY`a!v= (š®°iyyâ), /oav* (š¹°ôn)—the final lamed (l, l) being an example paragogic epenthesis (insertion of a letter at the end of a word to aid in pronunciation). According to this theory, loav= would fundamentally mean something like “(land) of ruin”, “desolate (land)”.

Less plausible attempts have been made over the years to connect the word with different ancient Semitic roots (real or putative), but none have achieved any real acceptance by scholars. For a good survey of this evidence, consult the major critical dictionaries such as the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) and the Anchor Bible Dictionary (article “Dead, Abode of the”).

Old Testament Usage

While loav= occurs primarily in Old Testament poetry, there are a few instances in the historical books (8 total) where it is included as part of the traditional narrative. Most notably, there are four occurrences in the Joseph narratives, referring to the sorrow and misfortune that will accompany the aged Jacob when he dies (to meet his son[s] in the realm of death). In Gen 37:35 (following the reported death of Joseph), we read:

“And all his sons and all his daughters stood up to sigh (with) [i.e. console] him, and he refused to be (consol)ed, and said that ‘I will go down to my son mourning, (down) to Še’ol!’ And his father wept (for) him.” (cf. also Gen 42:38; 44:29, 31)

In Numbers 16:30, 33 (the episode of Korah’s rebellion), the emphasis is on the sudden destruction, from natural disaster (brought about by YHWH as punishment), which will befall the rebels and send them “down to Sheol”:

“But if YHWH (should) exercise creation (over the) created (thing), and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them (up)—and all the (ones who are) for them—and they go down living to Še’ol, then you will know that these men (have) despised YHWH!” (v. 30)

The contrast clearly is with the natural death most humans experience (v. 29). Similarly in 1 Kings 2:6, 9, there is a contrast between dying in peace and as the result of violence, etc. Thus, in all these instances, loav= is used in connection with the idea of a person dying under unusual or unfortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the oldest occurrence of loav=, in terms of the age of the preserved text, is in the so-called “Song of Moses” (Deut 32), dated by many commentators (on objective grounds) to perhaps the 12th-11th century B.C. (cf. my recent Saturday Series studies on the Song, esp. on vv. 15-25). The two bicolons (couplets) in verse 22 use the image of a blazing wildfire to illustrate the burning anger of God (YHWH) when he acts in judgment (on Israel, for violating the covenant):

For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!

Other examples from early poetry, preserved in the context of the traditional (historical) narrative are: 1 Samuel 2:6 (Song of Hannah) and 2 Samuel 22:6 (Song of David). The first of these follows closely the idea of God’s judgment (in its violent aspect) and power over the created order (life and death), as expressed in the Song of Moses and the episode of Numbers 16 (cf. above); indeed the statement in 1 Sam 2:6 echoes that of Deut 32:39b. In the Song of David (2 Sam 22:6), loav= is clearly used as a colorful (hyperbolic) reference to the violent turmoil and (destructive) danger the poet (David) faces; note the parallelism in the bicola of vv. 5-6, which is both synonymous (second line [in italics] stating and intesifying the imagery of the first)—

“For the breaking (wave)s of death surrounded me,
the torrents of Beliyya’al struck me with fear;
the twisting (cord)s of Še’ol swirled around me,
the ensaring (trap)s of death hit (right) in front of me.

but also chiastic:

    • waves of death
      • torrents of Beliyya’al
      • swirling bonds/pains of Še’ol
    • snares of death

When we turn to the remainder of occurrences in Old Testament poetry, we may divide these as follows: (a) Psalms and the book of Job, (b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs), and (c) in the Prophets.

(a) Psalms and the book of Job

The word loav= occurs 16 times in the Psalms, and 9 times in the poetic dialogues of Job. Much of this poetry appears to be quite early, and/or preserving genuinely archaic features. The data from the Psalms may be summarized as follows:

    • as a general (poetic) term for the realm of the dead
    • in the context of suffering/misfortune leading or drawing a person to death
    • imagery related to the fate of the wicked

This largely confirms the usage and range of meaning indicated above. With regard to the first point, laov= as a basic poetic term for death and the realm of the dead, this is more or less present throughout; perhaps the clearest examples would be in 6:6[5]; 49:15[14]; 139:8; 141:7 (cf. also Song 8:6). However, in many of the Psalms, the idea is connected with suffering and distress facing the Psalmist, by which his very life is in danger and on the verge of death (88:4[3], etc). Whether this should be taken literally or figuratively, it is part of the motif of a hope for deliverance which is integral to those Psalms (cf. the study on Psalm 6). In Psalm 49:16[15] and 89:49[48], we read of the “hand [dy`] of Š®°ôl“, referring to its power to grasp/keep hold of the dead, or to bring a person down into the grave. A similar anthropomorphic image involves Š®°ôl as one who devours (49:15[14]), possessing a wide mouth (hP#, 141:7) along with a ravenous appetite. This sort of personification of death and the grave was common to Ancient Near Eastern (religious) thought, and the idiom was retained in Israelite tradition and poetry (cf. on Psalm 5:10[9] in my recent study). A more objective image was that of a deep pit (30:4[3]; 86:13), or ropes/bonds which hold the deceased tight (18:6[5]; 116:3). With regard to death and the grave (i.e. loav=) as the fate of the wicked, sometimes indicating an unnatural or violent death (as in Num 16:30ff, etc), this is expressed clearly in 9:18[17]; 31:18[17]; 49:15[14]; 55:16[15].

In the book of Job, laov= tends to be used more figuratively as an image of deep darkness (i.e. characteristic of the realm of death)—11:3; 14:13; 17:13. However, the basic association with the actual death of a person, and fate of the grave, is also very much present, as fits the general narrative context of Job’s suffering (7:9f; 17:13, 16; 21:13). The association with the fate of the wicked, mentioned in examples above, is also seen in 24:19. Of special interest is Job 26:5-6, where there is evidence of a more precise concept of the realm of death as a “netherworld” located under the earth. Here loav= is paired with the term /oDb^a& (¦»addôn, cf. Prov 15:11; 27:20; and also Job 28:22; 31:12; Ps 88:12), probably meant to indicate the decay and destruction characteristic of the grave.

(b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs)

The word laov= occurs 9 times in Proverbs (also once in Ecclesiastes [9:10]); however one dates the various Proverbs, they certainly utilize much ancient (poetic) imagery to make an ethical point. We have, for example, the motif of Death/Sheol as a ravenous, devouring person (1:12; 27:20; 30:16), used to illustrate human greed and wickedness, etc. Indeed, abandoning the way of wisdom, and taking the way of sin and folly instead, leads to Š®°ôl (5:5; 7:27; 9:18)—another adaptation of traditional imagery involving Š®°ôl and the fate of the wicked (cf. above). There is also a wisdom-variation of the Psalmist’s plea for deliverance from death (cf. examples above), with the exhortation to avoid the fate of Š®°ôl by adopting the course of wisdom and prudence (15:24; 23:14). The maxim in Eccl 9:10 is similar to the Psalmist’s statement in 6:6[5].

(c) The Prophetic Oracles (esp. Isaiah and Ezekiel)

There are 20 occurrences of loav= in the Prophetic writings—10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and another 5 in the Minor Prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Habakkuk). The references in Ezekiel (31:15-17; 32:21, 27) are interesting in that they likely represent the most recent occurrences in the Old Testament, perhaps reflecting the intentional use of older (archaic) imagery.

In Isaiah 5:14 we find again the traditional image of the wide mouth and devouring appetite of Death/Sheol; whereas in 7:11 (cf. also 57:9) it is simply the depth of it (in contrast with the height of heaven) that is emphasized. Š®°ôl features in two noteworthy nation-oracles: against Babylon (chap. 14 [vv. 9, 11, 15]) and against Jerusalem itself (chap. 28 [vv. 15, 18]). In 14:9ff we have another example of Š®°ôl as the fate of the wicked; while in 28:15ff this is played on in the opposite sense—the people of Jerusalem believe they will be able to avoid the fate of death and destruction. Isa 38:10ff simply utilizes loav= in the basic sense as the realm of death, the sentiment expressed in v. 18 being similar to that of Psalm 6:6[5].

The traditional imagery of the depth of Š®°ôl, and its devouring appetite, occur again in Amos 9:2 and Habakkuk 2:5. Two other references in the Minor Prophets are especially noteworthy:

    • The opening of the poem in Jonah 2:2-9, very much of a kind with many Psalms in which the protagonist asks YHWH for deliverance from the danger and distress he faces (cf. above):
      “I called out to YHWH from (the things) pressing on me, and he answered me;
      from the belly of Še’ol I (call)ed for help, and You heard my voice.”
    • In Hosea 13:14, the word occurs twice, in parallel couplets, which form a declaration (or question) by YHWH, the interpretation of which, in context, continues to be debated. Reading the first couplet as a declaration, we have:
      “From the hand of Še’ol I will pay to release them,
      from death I will redeem them (as my kin)—
      where (are) your deadly (blow)s, Death?
      where your destroying (power), Še’ol?
      —(their) gasping (for sorrow) is hid from my eyes.”
      Paul makes use of the second couplet in 1 Cor 15:55.

LXX and influence on the New Testament

In the Greek Septuagint (LXX), laov= is translated by a%|dh$ (hád¢s), a word used almost exclusively for that purpose in the LXX. It is often transliterated in English as “Hades”, while the common translation “Hell” is quite inappropriate. In my view, it is better to translate literally as “(the) Unseen (place, i.e. of the dead)”, especially since the realm of the dead is the basic meaning, in context, for Hebrew laov=. The label “unseen” is also appropriate for the characteristic of the realm of the dead as a dark, shadowy place beneath the earth.

This word a%|dh$ occurs 10 times in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation (1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14), it is virtually synonymous with “death” (qa/nato$). Acts 2:31 simply comes via the citation of Psalm 16:10 (v. 27), where a%|dh$ = loav= as the grave in which bodies decay. The occurrence in the saying of Jesus (“Q” [Matt 11:23; Lk 10:15]) also draws upon traditional imagery, though with a contrast between Heaven above and Š®°ôl below (cf. Isa 7:11). Only in two instances do we find a more decidedly negative aspect and connotation of the term, perhaps a bit more akin to the idea of “hell” in English:

    • In Jesus’ words to Peter in Matt 16:18, he states that “the gates of a%|dh$ will not have strength against it”—that is, against his e)kklhsi/a, i.e. believers, those called out to join together as his followers. This could be taken to refer to the powers of evil, etc, though it could just as easily be understood in the more traditional sense of Hades/Sheol as the realm of death—i.e. that Jesus’ disciples will have power over death, and the kind of illness, etc, that brings people to the point of death.
    • A sense of a%|dh$ closer to our conception of “hell” is found in Lk 16:23, within the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, even here, the term need not mean anything more than the place of the dead. The best way to view the scene described by Jesus, in my view, is that both men are in the Unseen realm (i.e. Hades)—i.e. both are dead—but within this realm there is a great separation. The Rich Man is in torment, while Lazarus enjoys (apparently) a more pleasant existence in “Abraham’s lap”. Even so, it is likely that a%|dh$ here draws upon one traditional aspect of loav= mentioned above—as signifying the fate of the wicked. It is this aspect that gave rise to our standard conception of “hell”, and the use of that word, however inappropriate, to translate both a%|dh$ and loav=.


The evidence examined above demonstrates, rather conclusively, I think, the basic range of meaning for the word loav= in the Old Testament, even if its fundamental (original) meaning and derivation remain uncertain. This may be summarized as follows:

    1. It refers generally to death and the realm of the dead, i.e. where the dead reside—both for the grave in the narrower sense, and in the wider sense of a dark, shadowy place of existence (for the dead) beneath the earth.
    2. This foreboding aspect, along with the universality of death, led to imagery emphasizing the all-consuming power of Š®°ôl, and the force by which it grabs hold of people. Sometimes, but not always, this was expressed by way of mythological personification—Death/Sheol as a person—a common ancient mode of expression, especially in poetry, which was preserved in the Old Testament.
    3. Quite often, the word loav= was used specifically in association with death (and the danger of death) experienced in the midst of suffering and misfortune of various kinds (including violence).
    4. As an extension of this, wicked and violent persons were seen especially as belonging to Š®°ôl, which also would be their fate—perhaps through an unnatural or violent death brought about by God’s judgment.
Note on loav= and the Afterlife

One striking fact, which many Jews and Christians today are bound to find troubling, is that, in all these references to Death and Š®°ôl in the Old Testament, there are precious few examples which indicate a specific belief in an afterlife. The references to Š®°ôl, insofar as they describe an afterlife at all, do not go much beyond the basic ancient Near Eastern concept of a dark, shadowy place where the dead have only a limited sort of existence. Even passages which refer to God delivering one up from Š®°ôl (e.g. Psalm 16:10; 49:16[15]; Hos 13:14) do not indicate anything like the idea of resurrection or promise of a future life in heaven; for the most part, they simply refer to deliverance from death in the present. The righteous person, loyal to YHWH, is being pulled down into Š®°ôl, in danger of death, and is saved by God—at least, that is the idea, expectation, and hope expressed in such passages. It is only in later Israelite and Jewish tradition that we find more clearly a belief in the resurrection of the dead, along with a blessed life in heaven (with God) for the righteous. Daniel 12:2, however one dates the book of Daniel, would seem to represent the earliest certain example. By the first centuries B.C./A.D., the belief was quite widespread, enough so that, in the 1st century A.D., the Sadducean denial of resurrection was worthy of comment (Mark 12:18 par; Acts 23:8; Josephus Antiquities 18.16). Earlier evidence for belief in actual resurrection from the dead is ambiguous at best; commentators would cite examples such as Hos 6:1-3; Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:13-14—these refer primarily, in context, to national restoration, but may draw upon a more basic idea of bodily resurrection. Hope for the possibility of personal immortality—dwelling with God in Heaven—without experiencing death at all, may have been present in early Israelite thought as well (cf. Psalm 16:10, etc, and the examples of Enoch & Elijah).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 6

Psalm 6

The superscription to this Psalm follows the common format we have seen for most of the Davidic compositions (romz+m!). As with Psalm 4, the note here is that it is to be played on stringed instrument(s) (the presumed meaning of hn`yg]n+). There is an additional musical instruction, tyn]ym!V=h^-lu^ (something like “upon the eight[h]”), the meaning of which remains uncertain. Possibly it indicates something akin to a musical key or mode, or perhaps a voice range (i.e. upper/lower, cf. 1 Chron 15:21); either way, it relates to a particular performing tradition. The same direction is given for Psalm 12.

The conceptual structure of the Psalm is as a petition or prayer to YHWH; I would outline it as follows:

    • Initial address/plea to YHWH (vv. 2-4 [1-3])
    • The basis/reason for the Psalmist’s prayer (vv. 5-8 [4-7])
      —Facing death: plea for rescue/deliverance (vv. 5-6)
      —The sign of his suffering: weeping/sorrow (vv. 7-8)
    • Declaration that YHWH has heard his petition (vv. 9-11 [8-10])

The Psalm generally utilizes a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format throughout, though there are a few places where it alters or is inconsistent (mixed meter). As always, there are serious questions as to whether, or to what extent, the text as it has come down to us ought to be emended to achieve greater metrical consistency.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

Here the Psalmist addresses YHWH, with these lines (3 bicola, 6 lines) forming the invocation and essential petition:

YHWH, do not judge me with your nostrils,
and do not punish me with your hot (breath)!
Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble;
even my soul is made to tremble (in fear)!
And you, YHWH—until when (will you help)?

The first and third bicola both have 3-beat (3+3) lines; the dual occurrence of the divine name (hwhy, YHWH) in the second bicolon expands the meter to 4-beat (4+4) lines, which has led some commentators to suggest that either (or both) occurrences of the name perhaps should be omitted as secondary. However, the repeated use of the divine name (including twice in the second bicolon) conveys the desperation and despair of the Psalmist, and serves as an effective poetic device. The first two bicola make use of synonymous parallelism, and expresses two different aspects of the suffering the protagonist faces, apparently in the form of some kind of serious disease. In the first couplet, where the parallelism is precise, the idea is clearly expressed that this suffering is the result of YHWH’s anger, according to the basic ancient worldview (much less common today) that disease, etc, is often brought about by divine displeasure or anger. Transposing the Hebrew word order to match our English (left-to-right):

do not
with your nostril(s)
judge me
do not
with your hot (breath)
punish me

Both the nouns [a^ (lit. “nose, nostril”) and hm*j@ (“heat”) are common figurative ways of expressing the idea of anger. Presumably, the ancient idiom involves the image of a powerful animal (such as a bull) snorting out hot breath. The verbs jk^y` and rs^y`, here translated “judge…punish”, could also be rendered “rebuke…chasten” or “correct…discipline”, giving a much softer sense to the imagery. However, there can be no doubt of the severity involved—YHWH’s rebuke, even if it is meant to discipline or correct the Psalmist, still results in immense suffering.

There is similar parallelism in the second bicolon, the second line of which is picked up in the third bicolon—a kind of step-parallelism that leads to the climactic cry of the final line. The central bicolon of verse 3 [2], with the dual occurrence of the divine name, represents the actual petition of the Psalm, stated clearly, reinforced by synonymous parallelism:

Show favor to me YHWH, for I am withering,
heal me YHWH, for my bones are made to tremble

It is interesting to see how this poetic style allows for the intensity of the thought to build. In the first line, the Psalmist refers to himself generally, with the emphatic use of the pronoun “I” (yn]a*)—”I (am) withering [ll^m=a%]”. The root lma has the basic meaning of “be(come) weak”; the phrase could also be translated “I am exhausted“. The verb lh^B*, in the passive-reflexive, has the sense of “being terrified, frightened”, i.e. trembling with fear/terror. The step parallelism in the overlap of lines 4 and 5 is clear and striking; the Psalmist’s own person (“I”) is now divided into two comprehensive components: (1) his bodily strength (<x#u#, in the plural and usually translated “bones”), and (2) his soul (vp#n#), i.e. the life within his body. So severe is the Psalmist’s suffering that even his soul (his very life) trembles along with his body.

The final despairing question, the outcry of the Psalmist is terse and direct, and is aimed squarely at God: “And you, YHWH—until when [yt*m*-du^]?”. Readable English requires that the line be filled out, i.e. “until when (will you help)”, “how long (must I wait)”, etc.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

As indicated in the outline above, the heart of the Psalm represents an exposition of the petition in verse 3, describing the suffering and despair of the Psalmist—i.e. the reason for his prayer, and the need for YHWH to act—from two points of view. The first involves the idea that the Psalmist, in his suffering (from disease?), is in danger of death. Above all else, death would separate him from the relationship with YHWH, who is the giver and preserver of life. This destruction of the covenant bond (through death) is emphasized in these lines:

Turn (to me), YHWH, take away my soul—
make me safe for the sake of your goodness!
For in death there is no memory of you;
in Sheol who gives out (praise) to you?

When the Psalmist asks YHWH to “take away” (vb. Jl^j*) his soul, this must understood in the sense of “pulling it away” from the point of death, or “snatching it away” from the jaws of death. The verb uv^y` in the Hiphil here expresses the other side of this deliverance—having pulled his soul away from death, YHWH is to “make it safe”, “bring it to safety”, i.e. saving/preserving it. Implicit in the expression “for the sake of your goodness” (;D#s=j^ /u^m^l=) is the idea of covenant loyalty between YHWH and His people, those who have themselves remained faithful to the covenant. In other words, it is a reminder of this bond and the responsibilities of YHWH to protect those loyal to him.

One must be cautious about reading two much into verse 6 regarding Israelite views of an afterlife (or lack thereof). However, generally in the Ancient Near East, the realm of death (i.e. where the dead reside, Job 30:23; Prov 5:5; 7:27, etc) was seen as a dark, shadowy place, and those who dwelt there had only a limited sort of existence. This is the basic idea expressed here in the Psalm. On the term loav= (š®°ôl, Sheol), which occurs here for the first time in the Psalter, I discuss the significance of it briefly in a supplemental article.

In the remaining two bicola (vv. 7-8), the imagery shifts to the sign of the Psalmist’s suffering, expressed in terms of weeping, crying, groaning, etc. The meter and organization of the Psalm as we have it suggests that the first two words of verse 7 represent a partial line, which, if correct as it stands, likely represents a point of transition from vv. 5-6:

I gasp (weary) with my groaning
in all (the) night my (place) of stretching swims,
with my teardrops I dissolve the frame of my (bed);
my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
it is passing (away) with all (that is) pressing me.

Leaving out the initial two words, vv. 7-8 are a pair of 3+3 bicola, using synonymous parallelism to express the Psalmist’s suffering. The first bicolon makes for a bit of colorful hyperbole—he is weeping so much that his couch/bed is drowning (and dissolving!) in the sea of tears. This idiom, of weeping upon one’s bed, is known both in the Old Testament (Ps. 4:6; Gen 43:30) and Canaanite literature of the period (Kirta I, col. 1:28-30).

The second bicolon describes the effect of this weeping/sorrow on the Psalmist’s eyes (and his entire body) using two verbs, vv^u* and qt^u*, which produce a nice alliterative effect. The former verb has the basic meaning of being worn (or wasting) away; the latter verb the idea of passing away, here in the sense of growing old, approaching death, etc. Most likely there is a conceptual parallel between the prepositional phrases su^K^m! and yr*r=ox-lk*B=. The root suk carries the basic idea of something agitating, disturbing, provoking, etc; the common root rrx similarly of something tight, pressing in, creating stress, etc. Thus the phrases “from (this) agitation” and “with all (the thing)s pressing (on) me” would both refer to the suffering and distress experienced by the Psalmist. However, it should be noted that Dahood, in his commentary (p. 38), reads the second line differently, parsing MT lk as a verbal form (“complete, finish”) and understanding yrrx in the sense of “inner (organ)s” (cf. Akkadian ƒurru, Ugaritic ƒrrt). According to this interpretation, the bicolon would exhibit a different sort of parallelism, something like:

my eye is worn (away) from (this) agitation,
my heart [i.e. inner organ] is made old with wearying.

This reading, however, ignores both the formal parallelism of the line and the foreshadowing that would result between “the (thing)s pressing on me” and the oppressors/opponents mentioned in vv. 9ff.

Verses 9-11 [8-10]

The final 3 bicola form the conclusion to the Psalm, expressing the hope (and expectation) that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer, and heal/deliver him. The meter is mixed here, but could be made more consistent, to a 3+3 and/or 4+3 format with slight emendation. The sudden reference to “trouble-makers” and “enemies” seems rather out of place in the context of vv. 2-8, but may be an indication that the apparent setting of suffering due to physical disease should not be taken too concretely, but rather as a more general symbol of suffering and distress. There is also the very strong possibility—even likelihood—that the imprecation against the wicked is meant to demonstrate and confirm the Psalmist’s righteous loyalty to YHWH (for more on this, cf. the prior study on Psalm 5).

Turn (away) from me, all (you) making trouble!
for YHWH has heard the voice of my weeping—
YHWH has heard my (plea for His) favor,
YHWH (has) received my petition (to Him).
Let all (those) hostile (to) me find much disgrace and terror,
let them turn (away), finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)!

The language is difficult, and, to some extent, rather obscure. Given the metrical consistency and awkwardness, it is possible that the text is corrupt here at one or more points. In particular, the sense of the final bicolon (v. 11) is a bit unclear. Some commentators would omit the second Wbv)y@ (“let them find disgrace”) as a scribal duplication; however, in spite of the metrical tension, it gives an effective emphasis to the imprecation in these lines. The verb lhb was translated as “tremble (i.e. from fear/terror)” in vv. 3-4; here it seems better to render it in terms of the actual terror that the wicked will experience. It is possible that the verb bWv (“turn”, essentially synonymous with rWs in v. 9) in the final line could be understood as “return”, in the sense of humankind returning to the earth (i.e. the grave), as in Job 1:21; 30:23; 34:15; Eccl 3:20f; 12:7, etc (cf. Dahood, p. 39).

The final word is difficult, and may be intended to close the Psalm on a harsh and discordant note (as appropriate for the fate of the wicked). There are three different ugr roots attested in Hebrew, and the relationship between them is not entirely clear. Here ugr is usually understood as a noun (but with adverbial force) with the basic meaning “(in) a moment”, i.e. “suddenly, at once”. However, there appears to be a traditional association of ugr with death and destruction (e.g., Num 16:21; Job 21:13; 26:12; Psalm 73:19). Dahood (p. 39) goes so far as to see the noun ugr (ug^r#?) here as a synonym for the place of death itself (i.e. Sheol), based on formal parallels with Ps 9:18 [17] and 31:18 [17]:

“Let the wicked turn (away) [WbWvy`] into Sheol” [9:18]
“Let the wicked find disgrace [Wbv)y@], let them … into Sheol” [31:18]

I have tried to capture this close association between ugr and death/Sheol parenthetically in my translation above: “…finding disgrace and sudden (destruction)”.

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