Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 103 (Part 2)

Psalm 103, continued

For the Introduction (vv. 1-5) of the Psalm, and the first two stanzas (vv. 6-8, 9-11) of the central hymn, see Part 1 of this study.

The Hymn: Verses 6-18 (cont.)

Third Stanza: Vv. 12-14
Verse 12

“Like (the) distance of (the sun’s) rising from (its) setting,
(so) He has made distant from us our breaches (of faith).”

The theme of this stanza picks up from that of the previous (vv. 9-11, cf. the discussion in Part 1)—viz., YHWH’s mercy and compassion in forgiving the sins of His people. In particular, this first couplet builds upon the prior couplet (v. 11), comparing the greatness of YHWH’s loving devotion (ds#j#) with the distance (height) between heaven and earth. Similarly here, the motif of distance (using the root qjr) is employed to express the greatness of God’s forgiveness. Instead of a vertical distance (heaven-earth), a horizontal (east-west) distance is used.

The verb qj^r* means “be far/distant” and occurs in both lines, to express the comparison. In the first line, a stative infinitive is used, for the (fixed) distance between the rising (jr*z+m!) and setting/darkening (br*u&m^) of the sun, i.e., between east and west. In the second line, there is a Hiphil (causative) perfect form, indicating how YHWH puts far away His people’s sins. He removes them from us, virtually to the ‘other side of the world’.

The noun uv^P# essentially refers to a breach of trust, sundering the bond of relationship between two persons or parties. Implicit in the use of the term is the idea of a violation of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH, whereby His people break faith/trust, viz., by failing to live up to the terms of the covenant—the Torah precepts and regulations. In this respect, the sins that YHWH removes/forgives are defined in terms of violations of the Torah.

Verse 13

“Like (the) deep love of a father over (his) sons,
(so) YHWH has love over (those) fearing Him.”

The comparison in this second couplet is formed according to the pattern of the first (v. 12). The greatness of YHWH’s compassion and devotion, expressed in vv. 11-12 by the motif of distance (see above), is here captured through the verb <j^r* (note the alliterative wordplay with qj^r* [v. 12]). This verb essentially conveys the idea of a deep love that one person has toward another; the strong connotation is that of caring for a person, treating them with compassion, etc. The example given in line 1 is of the love that a father has for (lit. over, lu^) his sons; this example, can, of course, be rendered more inclusively, as the love a parent has for his/her children.

YHWH has similar love toward His people. The motif of Israel as YHWH’s sons/children, and He as their Father, occurs with some frequency in the Scriptures (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Deut 32:6, 19; Hos 2:1 [1:10]; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 63:7[8]; Jer 31:9). Here the relationship is limited to, or defined in terms of, the devout/faithful ones of Israel (“[those] fearing Him”). YHWH is particularly a loving Father to those who are faithful to Him (and to the covenant).

Verse 14

“For He (indeed) knows our (very) form,
(and is) mindful that we (are but) dust.”

Here the idiom of YHWH as Father shifts to that of Creator. The two idioms are closely related, as, in ancient Near Eastern religious tradition, the Creator is often referred to as “Father”. See, in particular, Deuteronomy 32:6b for the pairing of these ideas. The noun rx#y@ (“form”) alludes to the traditional mythological image of God as an artisan who forms/fashions a vessel (or image) out of raw material—such as a potter who shapes his work out of the clay. As Creator, YHWH knows the form of each human being; in particular, He knows the form/shape of His people, including their innermost parts (cf. vv. 1ff), and so is able to create them.

The final line anticipates the Wisdom theme in the fourth stanza, emphasizing the limited and transient nature of a created human being. The reference to human beings as “dust” is traditional (Gen 2:7; 3:19, etc); the noun rp*u* can also be used for dirt in a broader sense—including the specific consistency of “mud” or “clay”, which would well fit the artisan/potter allusion here in the verse (cf. Dahood, III, p. 28).

The verb form rWkz` is a bit unusual; as a (passive) participle, or, possibly, an infinitive (cf. Dahood, III, p. 28), it functions here as a verbal adjective. The verb rk^z` is typically translated “remember”, but properly it means “have in mind” or “bring to mind”. Here the verbal adjective carries the meaning “mindful of”, emphasizing again YHWH’s care and concern for His people (cf. on the verb <j^r* in v. 13, above).

Fourth Stanza: Vv. 15-18
Verse 15

“Humanity—like (the) grass (are) its days;
like a blossom of the field, so it blossoms.”

The Wisdom-theme introduced in verse 14, continues here in vv. 15-16, emphasizing the transitory nature of human life on earth. We have seen such an emphasis in previous Psalms, including the comparison of humankind with the grass and flower of the field, that flourishes only briefly—cf. Psalm 37:2; 72:16; 90:5; 102:5[4], 12[11]; cp. Job 8:12; 14:2; Isa 40:6-8.

The noun vona$, rather more so than the parallel vya!, can refer to humankind collectively (or generally), and should be read this way here.

Verse 16

“Then (the) wind passes over him, and he is no more;
even his standing place will not recognize him any longer.”

The brief ‘blossoming’ of a human being on earth (v. 15) is contrasted with his/her vanishing. When the grass or flower has withered (and died), the wind “passes over” it, blowing it away. This aspect of the example is then applied to a human being, to illustrate how he/she ceases to exist (“he is no more”, using the negative particle of absence [or non-existence], /ya@). Even the place where that ‘flower’ stood (“his standing place”) soon will no longer recognize (vb rk^n`) him—there will be no acknowledgment that he was ever there.

Verse 17

“But (the) devotion of YHWH (is), from distant (ages past),
and until (the) distant (future), over (those) fearing Him,
and His loyalty (remains) for (the) sons of sons—”

The transitory nature of human beings (vv. 15-16) is contrasted with the lasting permanence of YHWH. In particular, His devotion and loyalty toward His people—viz. those who are faithful to the covenant (“[those] fearing Him”)—extends from the distant past all the way into the distant future. These two temporal aspects of the noun <l*ou are here combined, so as to express emphatically the idea of “forever”.

The verse has an extended 3+3+3 (tricolon) format, as is fitting for this climactic moment at the close of the hymn. A third line has been added for emphasis (and dramatic effect). It is not simply that YHWH’s devotion lasts for all time, throughout the Ages—it also applies to all the people living during that time, generation after generation (“sons of sons”).

The frequently used nouns ds#j# and hq*d*x=, due to their relatively wide range of meaning, defy easy or consistent translation. The noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”), as I have repeated noted, carries the meaning of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion” when used in the context of the covenant-bond; throughout this Psalm, I have translated it as “devotion”. The noun hq*d*x= basically means “rightness” (i.e., what is right), but the precise meaning can fluctuate depending on the specific context. Here, in light of the parallel with ds#j#, it should be understood in terms of YHWH’s loyalty toward His people (and the covenant). With regard to the covenant-bond, YHWH will always do what is right.

Verse 18

“for (those) guarding His binding (agreement),
and for (those) mindful to do His charges.”

This awkward, irregular couplet reads like a gloss on the final line of v. 17, and may represent a secondary addition to the original hymn. It effectively clarifies that YHWH’s covenant loyalty to the future generations of Israel (“sons of sons”) applies only to those who are similarly loyal to the covenant (tyr!B=, “binding agreement”). This means, of course, fulfilling the requirements and precepts of the Torah.

The suffixed noun wyd*Q%P! is virtually impossible to translate with any sort of poetic concision. The range of meaning of the root dqp, as it is used in the Scriptures, is notorious, and has long vexed translators. In this context, the plural noun <yd!Q%P! means something like “(thing)s (we are required to) attend to”, or “(thing)s (we must) take care of”. It refers to the requirements (regulations and precepts, etc) of the Torah. For lack of any better option, I have followed Allen (p. 25) in translating it as “charges” (i.e., things we are charged with doing).

Conclusion: Verses 19-22

Verse 19

“YHWH in the heavens has set firm His throne,
and (in His) Kingship He rules over all!”

This couplet is transitional, between the Hymn and the conclusion of the Psalm (vv. 20-22). The call to bless YHWH is based upon his Sovereignty over all of creation. The throne of YHWH’s Kingship is in the heavens (viz., the upper half/dome of the cosmos) which arches over the earth below, covering it completely. Thus, YHWH’s Kingship extends over all the earth (and over all humankind).

It is preferable to understand YHWH Himself (rather than “His kingdom/kingship”) as the subject of the verb lv^m* (“rule [over]”). On this point, see Dahood (III, p. 28f), who explains the apparent feminine singular form (which would agree with the noun tWkl=m^) as an archaic masculine form (qatala pattern). He adds that this form was likely used for poetic-stylistic reasons, to lengthen the syllabic count of the second line. The suggestion is intriguing, and I have tentatively followed it.

Verse 20

“Bless YHWH, (you) His Messengers,
mighty of power (and) doers of His word,
(ready) to hear at (the) voice of His word!”

The conclusion of the Psalm properly begins here with verse 20, a call to bless YHWH (using the verb Er^B*) parallel to that of vv. 1-5 (see the exegesis in Part 1). The focus in that first call was on the inward microcosm of the Psalmist’s soul. Here, the focus is on the outward macrocosm of the entire universe (viz., all of creation). He begins with the heavenly “messengers” of YHWH, the mighty (divine) beings who carry out the Creator’s wishes at His command (“word”). The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb has the plural “words” (<yr!b*D=) rather than the singular; the emphasis would then be on the individual commands, rather than a collective reference.

Metrically, the verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 21

“Bless YHWH, all (you) His armed warriors,
(those) attending to Him (and) doing His pleasure!”

A second group of divine/heavenly beings is addressed. Like the “messengers”, these beings also attend to YHWH, responding with obedience to His word, ready to carry it out. Here, the word (and will) of YHWH is expressed in terms of what delights or pleases Him (“His pleasure”).

They are specifically referred to as “armed warriors”, i.e., soldiers. This derives from an ancient militaristic tradition which viewed the heavenly beings—especially those related to the celestial and atmospheric phenomena of the natural world (e.g., sun, moon, stars, winds, rain)—as soldiers who fight at YHWH’s command (and on behalf of His people). This line of tradition was preserved in the title “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies” (toab*x= hwhy). Here the masculine plural <ya!b*x= (“armed warriors”) is used, rather than the feminine plural toab*x= (“armed forces, armies”).

Verse 22

“Bless YHWH, all (you who are) His works,
in all standing-places under His rule!
*          *         *           *         *         *
May you bless, O my soul, YHWH!”

It is possible that this final couplet, like vv. 20-21, also refers to the divine/heavenly beings. However, it would seem that the scope of the call has widened to include all creation—all created beings. As created beings, they are YHWH’s “works”. In every place where one might stand under YHWH’s rule—which is to say, everywhere on earth and in all of creation—the beings created by Him should bless YHWH, giving praise and honor to Him. The blessing is to be an acknowledgment of YHWH’s Kingship and His ruling presence and power in the universe.

The closing couplet is expanded into a tricolon (to match the initial tricolon of v. 20) by repeating the initial line of the Psalm (v. 1). Thus, in the call to worship YHWH, the macrocosm of the entire universe is joined to the microcosm of the individual worshiper’s soul.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 95

Psalm 95

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsm (vv. 3-7); 1QPsa (v. 11)

This Psalm has a clear two-part structure: (1) a hymn to YHWH extolling His Kingship (vv. 1-7c), and (2) a prophetic oracle (vv. 7d-11) exhorting the Israelite people to faithfulness. There are a number of Psalms in which YHWH is the speaker, in a certain section, implying that the Psalmist is functioning in the manner of a prophet. Note, for example, Psalm 50 and 81, which Hossfeld-Zenger (pp. 459-60) compare with Ps 95. Parallels with the Deuteronomic ‘Song of Moses’ (Deut 32) have also been noted (cf. Howard, pp. 60-1); indeed, the two poems share the emphases on YHWH’s Kingship and on the need for the people to learn from the example of the earlier Wilderness-generation. The didactic and exhortational orientation of the Psalm, in light of its second part, seems clear.

A pre-exilic date for the Psalm seems likely, particularly if verses 2 and 6 allude to a ritual setting for the Psalm in connection with the Temple. The Kingship-theme would, of course, also be most suitable to the monarchic period. This Kingship-theme tends to characterize the collection of Pss 93-100 as a whole; on the thematic and vocabulary links between Psalm 95 and the following Pss 96-99, in particular, see the discussion by Howard (pp. 131-41).

Structurally, verses 6-7c belong to the hymn in the first part; however, they can also be seen as transitional to the oracle that follows. The call to worship in v. 6 is formally parallel to the opening call of v. 1, while the tricolon of v. 7a-c anticipates the theme of the Israelite people as a flock of sheep in the wilderness, who refused to be guided by YHWH (v. 10).

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a three-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are exceptions (which are noted below).

Part 1 (Hymn): Verses 1-7c

Verse 1

“Come, let us (all) ring out (praise) to YHWH,
let us raise a shout to (the) Rock of our salvation!”

This opening couplet represents a call to worship, which could indicate a specific ritual setting. The invocation in verse 6 is parallel in form, and effectively serves to frame the hymn to YHWH (vv. 2-5). The verbs /n~r* (“ring out”) and u^Wr (“shout”) are parallel and similar in meaning; in this worship context, they refer to praising God in music, song, and/or chant. The use of the noun rWx (“rock”) as a epithet and title for YHWH is one of several points of similarity between this Psalm and the Song of Moses (Deut 32, vv. 4, 15, 18, 30-31, 37; see the discussion above), though the title also occurs with some frequency throughout the Psalms (of those most recently studied, cf. 78:35; 89:27[26]; 92:16[15]; 94:22). On the expression “the Rock of my/our salvation”, see Deut 32:15; Psalm 18:46 [2 Sam 22:47]; 89:27[26]; cf. also 62:3[2], 7-8[6-7]; Isaiah 17:10. In the use of the term “rock” (rWx) there may also be an allusion to the wilderness narratives (Exod 17:1-7; Num 20:1-13), anticipating the oracle in vv. 8-11 (cf. Howard, p. 54).

Verse 2

“Let us come before His face with a (cry of) praise,
with (joyful) music let us raise a shout to Him.”

The verb <d^q* denotes “go/come before”; here it refers to the idea of coming before the ‘face’ of YHWH, but it could also allude to a scene of musicians, etc, leading a procession of worshipers. The “face” of YHWH, implying His presence (i.e., in the Temple sanctuary), could indicate a ritual setting in association with the Temple; perhaps a festival occasion is in view.

The noun hd*oT denotes a confession, presumably based on the fundamental meaning of the root hd*y` (“cast, shoot”), i.e., words cast forth, in the (religious) context of words directed to God—in praise and thanksgiving to Him. I have translated it above as “a (cry of) praise”, maintaining the parallel with the verb u^Wr (“shout”). The noun rym!z*, denoting music-making, is in the plural, and could be rendered here as “songs”.

Verse 3

“For (the) great Mighty (One) (is) YHWH,
and (the) great King over all Mighty (one)s!”

The main reason for praising YHWH is that He is the greatest of all Divine beings, the King over all of them. The noun la@, “mighty (one)”, denotes a Divine being (i.e., “G/god”), and is the fundamental Semitic term for deity. The extended plural <yh!l)a$ (= <yl!a@), though it can be applied to YHWH as an intensive/comprehensive plural (“Mightiest [One]”), is here used as a normal plural (“mighty [one]s”, i.e., gods). Like the Song of Moses (vv. 8, 43), and other Scriptural texts (e.g., Ps 82), the Psalm seems to allow for the existence of other deities (besides YHWH), but, if so, then YHWH is the greatest and King over all of them. This qualified monotheism seems to have been typical of Israelite religion in the earlier periods. The adjective lodG` is used to twice to express this idea of greatness.

The meter of verse 3 is slightly irregular, and could be read as 3+4.

Verse 4

“In whose hand (are the) deep places of the earth—
and (also the) peaks of (the) mountains (belong) to Him.”

The first line of both verse 4 and 5 begins with a relative particle, tying each verse back to the reference to YHWH in v. 3. He is “the One who…”; English syntax requires that the combination of a relative particle, followed by a noun with a possessive suffix, be translated “whose…”. If YHWH is King over all gods, then He is also Ruler over all of creation. Indeed, YHWH as King of the universe is a common theme in the Psalms—one that will be continued and developed in the following Pss 96-99. This Kingship is based upon His identity as Creator of the universe; there may also be an allusion (in v. 3, see above) to the identification of YHWH with the Creator °E~l (la@) of Semitic and Canaanite religious tradition.

YHWH’s greatness—as Creator and King—is depicted here by the way that He is able to hold in His hand both the depths and heights of the earth; in other words, the entire cosmos is encompassed by His controlling presence. The noun rq*j=m# is rather difficult to translate, especially in this poetic context; it means “place searched out, explored place”, but here (in the plural) probably connotes something like “(un)explored depths” (i.e., the deepest recesses of the earth). It is matched in the second line by the plural topu&oT—another difficult term (cp. its usage in Num 23:22; 24:8; Job 22:25), but which clearly refers here to the ‘grand peaks’ of the mountains.

Like verse 3, the meter of v. 4 is irregular (4+3).

Verse 5

“To Him (belongs) the sea—indeed, He made it,
and (also the) dry land His hands formed.”

If YHWH is King over the heights and depths of the earth, He is also Sovereign over the sea and dry land alike. This can refer to the earth proper—i.e., the flat cylinder/disc—or to the cosmos as a whole. In the former case, the “sea” refers to the waters on the surface of the earth (and below it); however, “sea” can also allude to the waters surrounding the cosmos (heaven & earth). In either case, YHWH is the Ruler over it all. He created and fashioned both the sea(s) and the dry land.
The Qumran manuscript 4QPsm reads the more common hv*B*y~, instead of MT tv#B#y~, for “dry land”; it is a very minor difference.

The meter of this verse (4+3) matches or approximates that of v. 4.

Verse 6

“Come, let us bow down and bend the knee,
let us kneel before (the) face of YHWH our Maker!”

As noted above, this call to worship, which closes the hymn, matches the initial call in verse 1. The opening imperative of each verse has been translated “Come…!”, yet different verbs are employed: in verse 1, it is El^h* (“go, walk”), while here in v. 6 it is aoB (“come”). The focus in verse 1 was on giving praise to YHWH (in music/song), while here it is the act of “prostrating” oneself, bowing down before YHWH in homage (to His Kingship). The verbs ur^K* and Er^B* each mean “kneel (down)”, being derived from different terms referring to a person’s knee (or leg).

YHWH is acknowledged again as Creator, but here specifically as Creator of human beings (“our Maker”); the phrase may also refer to YHWH being the One who made Israel as His people, bringing them out of Egypt and forming a covenant with them. This certainly would fit the context of the oracle that follows in vv. 7d-11. Note the similar language in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:6). Cf. also Psalm 100:3, and the theme as expressed in Isa 29:23; 60:21; 64:6 (Howard, p. 56).

Verse 7abc

“For He (is) our Mighty (One),
and we (the) people of His pasture,
and (the) flock of His hand.”

YHWH is the God—the only God—for Israel. Here the plural <yh!l)a$ is used, rather than the singular la@ (v. 3). He is the “Mightiest (One)”, and the only “Mighty (One)” for Israel. This refers to the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel—He is their God, and they are His people.

The idea of YHWH as a Shepherd, with the corresponding image of Israel as His flock, is widespread throughout the Scriptures. Noteworthy examples elsewhere in the Psalms are: 28:9; 74:1; 78:52, 71-72; 79:13; 80:1; 100:3, and, of course, the entirety of the famous Psalm 23. The wording here is particularly close to 79:13 and 100:3.

Dahood (II, p. 354) argues that the noun dy` (“hand”) here properly means “portion (of land)”, noting the use of Ugaritic yd in such a context (in the Kirta epic, Tablet I, column V, line 35). He identifies other Scriptural instances where a portion of pasture-land is indicated (Job 1:14; Jer 6:3; 23:1), this being a more specific application of dy` in the sense of “part, portion” (e.g., 2 Sam 19:44; 2 Kings 11:7).

Metrically, verse 7abc is an irregular (3+3+2) tricolon. It holds a transitional position in the Psalm, closing the hymn of the first part and leading into the prophetic oracle of the second.

Part 2 (Oracle): verses 7d-11

Verse 7d

“Th(is) day, if (only) you would hear His voice!”

The oracle is introduced by this single line, indicating the exhortational character of the poem that follows. There is is a strong revelatory aspect to the idiom of “hearing the voice” of YHWH (Deut 4:36, etc). To “hear” (vb um^v*) in such a context entails both listening and responding with obedience. As in the Song of Moses (Deut 32, see above), the poem, with its warning not to follow the example the disobedient Israelites of the Wilderness-generation, is meant to instruction the current people toward obedience.

Verses 8-9

“Do not harden your heart, as (at) Strife-place,
as on (the) day of Testing in the outback,
when your fathers (dared) put me to the test,
tested me, even (though) they had seen my act.”

The locative (verbal) nouns hb*yr!m= (“place of strife”) and hS*m^ (“place of testing”) refer to a famous episode (or episodes), from the Exodus narratives, which took place during the journey through the Wilderness (rB*d=m!, “place out back”)—Exodus 17:1-7; Num 20:1-13 (cf. Deut 6:16; 9:22; 32:51)—where the people were disobedient and put God to the test.

In the second line of verse 9, the verb /j^B* has a similar meaning to hs*n` (“test”), but with the specific emphasis on examining something (or someone) to see (i.e. test, prove) whether it is valid. Such testing demonstrated the faithlessness of the people; since they had already seen the great deeds (lu*P*, sing.) performed by YHWH (at the Reed Sea, etc), they should not have needed proof that He would be able to act to deliver them again.

Verse 10

“Forty years I was disgusted with (that) circle,
and I said: ‘A people straying of heart (are) they!
Indeed, they have not known my ways!'”

YHWH declared, regarding that circle (roD) of people (i.e., the Wilderness generation) that they were “straying” (vb hu*T*) in their heart. This alludes back to verse 7, and the idea of Israel as a flock of sheep; having rejected the guiding hand of their Shepherd, they went astray (in their hearts). They did not follow in the paths (“my ways”) by which YHWH led them.

Metrically, this verse is a prosaic, irregular tricolon (4+4+3). I read the w-conjunction of the third line as emphatic.

Verse 11

“(So) then I swore an oath in my anger:
‘(See) if they will come to my place of rest!'”

For the reference to such an oath by YHWH, in the context of the Meribah/Massah episode(s), cf. Num 14:23, 28, 30; Deut 1:35. The etymology of the verb ub^v*, though disputed, would seem to be connected with the number seven (ub^v#), perhaps in the sense of binding oneself by seven (or sevenfold) through the oath. To avoid cluttering the line here, I have omitted reference to this aspect of meaning, rendering the verb in the conventional sense of “swear (an oath)”. The use of the particle <a! (“if”) in such a truncated oath formula, takes on a negative emphasis, which I render above as “(see) if {it will be so}…!” —i.e., “surely it will not be so!”. The paragogic /– suffix on the verb Wab)y+ (“they will come”) only enhances this emphatic aspect of the clause (cf. GKC §47m; Howard, p. 57).

The Promised Land is here referred to as “my place of rest”; for this usage elsewhere, see Deut 12:9. It implies resting from the long forty years of journeying, but also alludes to the Land, given by YHWH, as a hereditary possession for the people—a place where they can establish a permanent home for generations to come. The Wilderness-generation missed out on this opportunity, and their example serves as a warning to the current generation: do not act in disobedience to YHWH’s instruction, as that earlier generation did.

Hebrews 3:11-4:13 famously cites vv. 7d-11, applying the Psalmist’s prophetic exhortation to the situation of believers in Christ. The Sabbath rest that yet remains for the people of God (i.e., believers) is the heavenly blessedness which we will inherit if we remain faithful to the Gospel of Christ.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).
Those marked “Howard” are to David M. Howard, Jr., The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, Vol. 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

 

December 22: Psalm 89:14-15

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:14-15 [13-14]

Verses 14-15 are best treated in the manner of an intermediary refrain, occurring between the second (cf. the previous note) and third strophes of the first division (vv. 6-19) of the Psalm. These lines summarize and reiterate several key themes from the prior sections, and genuinely seem to constitute a distinct poetic unit. See the outline of the suggested structure by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 399f) along with their brief discussion (pp. 406-7).

Verse 14 [13]

“To you (belongs) an arm with might—
strong is your (left) hand,
high is your right (hand).”

This opening verse is an irregular 3+2+2 tricolon, with a governing 3-beat line followed a short two-beat couplet. The power of YHWH—His strength and might—is emphasized, building upon the descriptive imagery in vv. 10-13 (discussed in the previous note), but also developing further the thematic motif of God’s firmness (hn`Wma$), established in the introductory unit (vv. 2-5).

The imagery is that of YHWH as a warrior, referring back to the cosmological tradition of the Creator-deity subduing the primeval waters (v. 11), and, in a similar manner, defeating all human enemies (viz., those of His people). The noun hr*WbG+ (“strength, might”) indeed suggests the strength of a warrior. YHWH’s “arm” —an anthropomorphic way of referring to His power and strength—is filled with this ‘warrior-might’.

The same point is elucidated poetically in the terse couplet that follows, in the second and third lines. YHWH’s “hand” is strong (vb zz~u*), and His “right (hand)” is high (vb <Wr). The term “right (hand)” (/ym!y`) may simply be an intensification of “hand” (dy`), since the right hand particularly designates strength (as well as similar positive aspects of blessing, etc); however, I have adopted the suggestion of Dahood (II, p. 315), that “hand” here implies the left hand, allowing for a left-right pairing in the couplet.

Verse 15 [14]

“Right and justice (are the) firm base of your throne,
(while) loyalty and fidelity stand before your face.”

The motif of YHWH’s throne—symbolizing His sovereignty over the universe (including over the divine beings in the heavens)—was introduced in verse 5. This image was presented in the context of the firmness theme that was established in vv. 2-5. In vv. 2-3, the noun ds#j# was paired with hn`Wma$, while here, in the second line, it is paired with the related noun tm#a#. Both hn`Wma$ and tm#a# essentially mean “firmness”, in the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, and also truthfulness (tm#a# frequently carries this specific nuance of meaning). As I have mentioned, while ds#j# denotes “goodness, kindness”, in the context of the covenant it tends to carry the specific meaning(s) of faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion.

Here the nouns should be understood somewhat more abstractly, as detached attributes which characterize the domain of YHWH’s Kingship; thus I render the pair in this verse as “loyalty [ds#j#] and fidelity [tm#a#]”. They “stand before” (vb <d^q*, possibly, “travel before”) God’s throne, like dutiful servants. Similarly, the pair of attributes, “right(eousness)” (qd#x#) and “justice” (fP*v=m!), in line 1, function as servants to YHWH, supporting His throne. The noun /okm= denotes a firm/fixed place, which I render here as “firm base” (that is, for the throne); the verbal root /wK is very close in meaning to /ma (“be firm”), and thus continues the Psalm’s thematic motif of YHWH’s firmness (hn`Wma$).

YHWH, seated on His throne as King, is surrounded by these four Divine attributes. They also characterize His Kingdom (and His Kingship). The idea of God’s throne being supported by right and justice (as their firm base), means that His rule is based on these same attributes. Similarly, the loyalty and fidelity that stand before Him reflect the way that God handles the affairs of His kingdom. In particular, they allude to His covenant with His people Israel.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the third (and final) strophe (vv. 16-19) of the praise-hymn, where the aspect of YHWH’s faithfulness toward His people is emphasized.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

December 21: Psalm 89:10-13

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:10-13 [9-12]
Verse 10 [9]

“You are ruling over (the) rising up of the Sea;
at (the) lifting of its billows, you still them.”

In this second strophe of the hymn in vv. 6-19 (cf. the previous note on vv. 6-9), the focus on YHWH’s incomparable power over the universe (as Creator and King) shifts from the heavens to the cosmos as a whole. Here it is particularly the Sea (<y`) that is in view—and, not simply the waters of the earth (seas, lakes, rivers, etc), but also (and especially) the primeval cosmic waters that surround the world. According to the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, at the beginning of Creation, there was a great mass of dark waters (Gen 1:2), in the midst of which the universe took shape, as a spherical (or hemispherical) form, like a bubble within the waters. These primeval waters continue to surround the cosmos, being held above the disc/cylinder-shaped earth by the hemispheric shell of the ‘firmament’ (Gen 1:6-8); similar waters surround the world below the earth.

In His act of creating the world, the Creator gave both light and order to the dark and chaotic waters (Gen 1:4ff). In cosmological myth, this is often described in terms of God subduing the unruly waters, defeating them like a warrior in combat. Because of their dark and chaotic aspect, the primeval waters tend to be depicted as a great monster (aided by monstrous allies) which needs to be defeated by the Divine hero, in order to bring about a universe capable of sustaining life. I discuss this subject in the article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

Not infrequently, ancient Hebrew poetry draws upon this line of cosmological myth, applying to YHWH (the Creator) the militaristic imagery of a hero-warrior who defeats/subdues the primeval waters. This imagery is very much being referenced here in vv. 10-11; I mention a number of similar Old Testament poetic passages in the aforementioned article.

YHWH’s subduing of the Sea means that He has control over the waters that surround the earth, including all the waters present on/in the earth—the rain from above, the floods/springs below, and all the seas, etc, on the surface. As expressed here in verse 10, He rules (vb lv^m*) over them; and, since the waters continue to possess something of their primeval chaotic unruliness, YHWH frequently has need or occasion to tame them when they get out of line. The lifting and swelling of the sea’s great waves, so powerful and awesome to behold, are governed by God’s authority, and are “stilled” (vb jb^v*) when necessary.

There is some alliterative assonance here in v. 10, which cannot be captured in translation but can be demonstrated in transliteration:

°¹ttâ môš¢l b®g¢°û¾ hayy¹m
b®´ô° gall¹yw °attâ ¾®šabµ¢m

Verse 11 [10]

“You crushed Rahab like (one who is) slain;
with (the) arm of your strength you scattered your foes!”

YHWH’s control over the waters (v. 10) is due to his ‘defeat’ of the primeval Sea, drawing upon ancient cosmological myth (as noted above). “Rahab” (bh^r*) is one of the names in the tradition for the great Sea-monster of myth, also occurring in Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa 51:9. The same line of mythic tradition probably underlies its application to Egypt (Ps 87:4; Isa 30:7), blending with the naturalistic image of the mighty creatures (i.e., crocodile, hippopotamus) of the Nile to symbolize Egypt’s ancient power and prestige.

Indeed the ‘subduing of the Sea’ motif can be applied to the defeat of human enemies (i.e., enemies of Israel) by YHWH. The event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15) is a good example of this, where God uses his power over the waters to defeat the Egyptians (cf. especially the poetic account in the Song of chap. 15). The primeval Sea (and its monstrous allies) had to be “scattered” in order to create the cosmos, and also to provide the individual bodies of water on earth (and also the rain from above, etc); similarly, human enemies are scattered (vb rz~P*) when they are defeated by God.

The suffixed plural participle ;yb#y+oa means “your hostile (one)s” or “(those) hostile to you”; here, for poetic concision, it has been translated “your foes”.

Verse 12 [11]

“To you (belongs the) heavens, (and) also to you (the) earth;
(the) thriving (world) and its fullness, you have founded them.”

The first line of this next couplet states concisely what has been established in vv. 6-9 and 10-11—namely, that YHWH is Creator and Sovereign over both the heavens and the earth. The conjunctive particle [a^ (“also, indeed”) emphasizes that the earth (and its inhabitants) belong to YHWH, and is under His authority, just as much as the heavens are.

The universe as a whole (as understood within the ancient Near Eastern cosmology) is defined by the pairing “the heavens [upper half] and the earth [lower half]”; however, the inhabitable world, supportive of life, is signified here by the term lb@T@. This noun is extremely difficult to translate, as there is really no English word (or phrase) that corresponds to it. The noun lb@T@, in context, refers to the living and productive aspect of the world—the movement of things (and creatures) from one place to another, entailing growth and activity of all sorts. I have rendered this above as “thriving (world)”. YHWH’s founding (vb ds^y`) of this world, and all that is in it (“its fullness”), refers to His work as Creator (Gen 1:6-31).

Verse 13 [12]

‚a¸ôn and Yamîn, you have created them;
Tabôr and „ermôn, at your name they ring out!”

The final couplet of this strophe, emphasizing YHWH’s sovereignty over all the universe, seems to be utilizing some wordplay that cannot be captured in translation. The terms /opx* and /ymy` in line 1, in particular, likely carry a double-meaning. The noun /opx* denotes something “hidden”, but came to be used specifically, in a directional or geographic sense, for the north. In this, Hebrew tradition (and its poetry) is drawing upon Canaanite religious myth, which located the dwelling of the gods in the north, on the ‘hidden’ peak of a cosmic mountain, which had a local/symbolic manifestation in the mountain called by the name ƒpn or ƒpwn (= Heb ƒ¹¸ôn), modern Jebel el-Aqra. Thus /opx* can refer either to the north, or to a great mountain in the north.

Similarly, /ym!y` (y¹mîn) can refer to the south (lit. right-hand side); but Dahood (II, p. 314) may well be correct that here /my (ymn) also serves as a byform of /ma (°mn), referring to the Amanus mountain(s)—that is, the Alma Dag or Nur mountains. This would allow for the terms /opx* and /ym!y` to refer, alternately, to the directions of north and south, or to the great northern mountain locales of Zaphon and Amanus.

The mountain sites of Tabor and Hermon in the second line add support to the view that there are also mountain references in line 1. Tabor and Hermon are mountains in Israel—located in the northern Esdraelon plain of Galilee, and further north in the anti-Lebanon range, respectively. By contrast, Zaphon and Amanus are located in the ‘far north’, in northern Syria and southern Turkey.

However the first line is to be understood, the emphasis is (again) on YHWH as Creator. His creation of the entirety of the cosmos may be implied by the comprehensive juxtaposition of north/south. On the other hand, creation of the mountains Zaphon and Amanus, with their associations with Semitic/Canaanite mythic tradition, would fit in well with the theme from the first strophe (vv. 6-9, cf. the previous note)—of YHWH’s superiority over all other divine beings. The second line plays on this same theme, by reiterating that even the great mountains, like the heavens (and the heavenly beings), give praise and worship to YHWH. Here, the specific idiom is “ring out [vb /n~r*] (praise)” to God’s name.

In the next note, we will turn to verses 14-15, which, it seems, function as something like a refrain between the second (vv. 10-13) and third (vv. 16-19) strophes.

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).

February 13: Isaiah 40:6-8

Isaiah 40:6-8

The poem in verses 1-8 may be divided according to a three-part dramatic framework. In verse 1-2, God (YHWH) is speaking. Then in verses 3-5 we have the voice of another, acting in the role of a royal herald, “calling out” the King’s edict, commanding a great building project (road construction) to commence. Now, in verses 6-8, there is yet another “voice”, similar to the one prior—that is to say, it is another herald/messenger of God—and yet there are subtle (but significant) differences in how these two heralds are characterized:

    • Vv. 3-5—ar@q) loq: “A voice (is) calling”, or “(the) voice (of one) calling”
    • Vv. 6ff—ar*q= rm@a) loq: “A voice (is) saying, ‘Call (out)…’

In the first instance, it is the heavenly voice that is “calling”; now, in the second instance, the voice is telling a third messenger that he must do the calling out. It is probably best to understand the messengers of vv. 3-5 and 6 as heavenly beings (Angels). The one who is commanded in vv. 6ff, by contrast, is a human messenger—a prophet who is to announce the same message of good news to the people of Judah. Both Angel and prophet function is a similar manner: as royal heralds who announce the word of the King (YHWH) to the people.

The mini-drama continues, as the human herald, the one commanded by the heavenly herald, responds to this command by asking “What shall I call (out)?” The message that he is to announce takes the form of a beautiful proverb-poem:

“All flesh (is like the) green (grass),
and all its goodness like (the) sparkle of (the) field;
(the) green (grass) shall dry up,
and (the) sparkle shall wither,
(in) that (the) breath of YHWH blows on it.
Surely, the people are (the) green (grass):
(the) green (grass) has dried up,
(the) sparkle has withered,
and (so the) word of our Mighty (One) [Elohim]
shall stand (in)to (the) distant (future).”

A simple bit of nature-imagery has been transformed into a powerful statement on the sovereignty of God as Ruler over all the world. With the passing of the seasons, in the heat of summer (and the dead period of autumn/winter) the lush green grass of springtime dries out (vb vb^y`), and the beautiful flowering (lit. “sparkle”, Jyx!) of the fields withers (vb lb^n`). This may be part of the natural order of things, but it is ultimately governed by the word and power of YHWH. The word (rb*D*) of God accomplishes all things, and his breath (j^Wr) both gives life and takes it away. All of this comes from the mouth (hP#) of God.

This little vignette illustrates the punishment that God brought upon the people (of Judah). The people are the grass (and flower), and they withered when God breathed (judgment) upon them. The illustration thus goes beyond the obvious proverbial emphasis—viz., the transitory nature of human existence—and relates specifically to the fate of God’s people.

What is implicit in the nature-illustration, but not directly stated, is that the lush green grass and flowers of the field return again in the spring-time. This, too, is brought about through the mouth of God (His word and breath); and YHWH has now declared the restoration of His people to new life. Like the spring grass, they also will return, giving the land of Judah back its true beauty once again. While this is not declared, as such, here in vv. 1-8, it is the subject of the poem that follows (verses 9-11ff).

When one reads the two poems together, it is possible to view them as part of a single narrative. The herald who is commissioned in vv. 6-8 effectively gives the good news (of restoration/return) to Jerusalem, and then the capital city (personified as a woman, note the feminine syntax) functions a messenger herself (vv. 9-11)—announcing the joyful message to all the other cities of Judah.

Parallel with the proverb-poem in vv. 6-8, are the grand lines in vv. 12-17. In both instances God’s sovereign power over the universe is emphasized. In vv. 6-8, it is the people of Judah who are in view, in vv. 12-17, it is all of other peoples (of the Nations). This is another example of how the Deutero-Isaian theme of the restoration of Israel/Judah blends in with a wider (eschatological) background theme of God’s Judgment on the Nations. The Exile was His judgment on Israel/Judah, and has now passed, while His judgment on the remaining Nations still awaits (and is soon to commence).

*      *      *      *      *

In conclusion, I would be remiss if I did not mention a  small text-critical point on verse 6. The Masoretic text of the opening words reads (in translation):

“A voice (is) saying: ‘Call (out)!’ And he said [rm^a*w+]: ‘What shall I call (out)?'”

However, the LXX has kai\ ei@pa (“and I said”), and there is Hebrew support for a first-person singular form in the great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran (1QIsaa), where the reading is, apparently (and somewhat curiously), a cohortative (hr*m=oaw+), “and I shall say,” “and let me say”. The main question is whether a third-person or first-person form is correct (“he said” vs. “I said”). If the latter, then the person who is commissioned by the (Angelic) herald, is the Deutero-Isaian poet/prophet himself, and the scene may be viewed as comparable to the commission of Isaiah in chapter 6.

There could, indeed, be an intentional parallel. In that earlier passage, Isaiah was divinely commanded with a message of judgment to give to Judah. It related to the devastation that would come from the Assyrian invasion, an invasion that foreshadowed the more complete destruction of Judah (including Jerusalem) by the Babylonians. Now the prophet has been given a message that the judgment for Judah is ended—there will be restoration both for the people and for the city of Jerusalem herself.