Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 1)

Psalm 55

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is another prayer-Psalm that includes a lament in the face of suffering and opposition from wicked adversaries, continuing a genre of which we have seen numerous examples among the Psalms studied thus far. Psalm 55 is a particularly complex example of the genre—a relatively long composition, divided into three sections:

The two hl*s# (Selah) markers are curiously placed in the text as it has come down to us (cf. below), and cannot be used as an indication of the structure of the composition.

The Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) meter, varying with the ‘limping’ 3+2 meter that is often used in lament-poems; however, there other irregularities as well.

The superscription indicates that this is another lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32), attributed to David (“belonging to David”, dw]d*l=), to be performed on stringed instruments (toyg]n+B!).

VERSES 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

“Give ear, O Mightiest, to my petition,
and do not hide from my request for favor;
be attentive to me and answer me,
come down in (response to) my prayer.”

These first two couplets establish the Psalmist’s plea, in relation to the lament that follows in vv. 4ff; the meter is 3+2, which often is used in poems of lament. There is a synonymous (and synthetic) parallelism in each couplet, but the four lines also form a chiasm from a conceptual standpoint:

    • Give ear to (i.e., hear) my petition
      • do not hide (i.e., giving no response)…
      • be attentive and answer/respond
    • Come down in response to my prayer

The noun in line 1 is hl*p!T=, while in the line 4 it is j^yc!. Both are terms denoting prayer; the main significance of hl*p!T= refers to a petition/plea that is made to God, while j^yc! implies a burden that is on a person’s heart, about which one speaks to God, going over the matter (repeatedly) in a fervent way. With the inner lines (2 and 3), the Psalmist’s prayer is framed, regarding God’s response, in both negative and positive terms:

    • Negative: “do not hide yourself from my request for favor”
    • Positive: “be attentive to me and answer me”

The verb <l^u* (“hide [away], conceal”) in the reflexive Hithpael stem (“hide oneself”) should perhaps be understood in the sense of ‘pretending not to see/hear’ (cf. Dahood, II, 31). The noun hN`j!T=, formally parallel to hl*p!T= (cf. above), is derived from the root /nj (“show favor”), and so I have translated the noun literally as “request for favor” in order to preserve this etymology.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 31) in reading the verb form dyr!a* as an Aphel (imperative) from the root dry (“go down”); this explanation provides a rather elegant solution that fits the context of these lines.

It should be noted in passing that Psalm 55 is another ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the Divine name YHWH (hwhy) is typically replaced by the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One],” i.e., ‘God’).

Verse 4 [3]

“I am disturbed from (the) voice of (the one) hating (me),
from (the) faces of oppression (of the) wicked;
for they make trouble to fall upon me,
and with anger show hatred to me.”

These next two couplets give the reason for the Psalmist’s plea to YHWH, and begin the lament proper in this section. As is often the case in the Psalms, the protagonist speaks of suffering and oppression he faces from wicked adversaries (enemies). In most instances, it would be futile to attempt to identify these enemies with any specific persons; rather, these nameless and faceless opponents represent the wicked, who oppose and attack the righteous.

The final word of verse 3 [2] in the MT (hm*yh!a*w+, “I have been disturbed”), according to the standard verse-division, properly belongs at the beginning of verse 4; the initial conjunction (-w+) can be retained from a stylistic standpoint, but typically has no real force when beginning a couplet.

The Psalmist is disturbed by both the “voice” and the “face” (lit. plural, “faces”, i.e. presence) of his wicked enemies. They are enemies in the sense that they hate him (participle by@oa), a point emphasized again in the fourth line, with the use of the verb <f^c* (“show hatred/animosity” toward someone). They give both distress (lit. “pressure,” hq*u*, i.e., oppression) and trouble (/w#a*) to the righteous. This is expressed violently and with vicious intent, done both with anger and by the act causing trouble to fall/slide down (like an avalanche) on the Psalmist.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“My heart is twisting around within me,
and (the) terrors of death
have fallen upon me;
fear and trembling has come (to be) in me,
and shuddering has covered over me!”

The Psalmist’s lament continues here with a pair of 3+2 couplets, the first of which has been expanded with an additional 2-beat line (forming a 3+2+2 tricolon); this irregular meter in verse 5 would seem to be intentional, creating a tension that is appropriate to the context of  the fear of death. In each couplet, the first line refers to what the Psalmist feels inside himself in the face of threatening attacks by the wicked:

    • “My heart is twisting around [vb lWj] within [br#q#B=] me”
    • “Fearful trembling [lit. fear and trembling] has come to be within [B=] me”

The following line(s) of each verse refer to the external threat that faces the Psalmist, and which is the source of his fear:

    • “Terrors of death have fallen [vb lp^n`] upon me”
    • “(Great) shuddering has covered over [vb hs*K*] me”

The idea that the wicked ultimately threatens the righteous with death is expressed frequently in the Psalms.

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

The opening plea (and lament) of this section concludes with a short poem, which may have existed independently of our Psalm (cp. Jeremiah 9:1 [2]).

“And I said:
Who would give to me wing[s] like a dove,
(so) I might take wing and dwell (in safety)?
See, I would go far off, (my wings) flapping,
and would find lodging in the outback. Selah
(That) I might make quick (the) escape for me
from (the) rushing wind (and) wind-storm!”

This wonderful little poem, so vivid and evocative, hardly requires any comment. The Hebrew idiom “Who will give to me…?” is a colorful way of expressing an urgent wish or request—in English idiom, we would probably say, “Oh, if I only had…!” Here, however, the literally rendering of the idiom is especially important, in light of the prayer-context of these lines. The implicit answer to the question “Who will give…?” is that YHWH will give to him the means for escape.

The image is of a bird that could take flight from trouble (down below, on earth), and go far away to find a safe dwelling-place (vb /k^v*); it would be in the outback (or ‘desert,’ rB^d=m!), far away from other people. The wings of the bird, which enables it to fly off, are especially emphasized: the protagonist desires a pair of wings (sing. rb#a@), so that he can “take wing” (take flight, vb [Wu), his wings constantly flapping (dd)n+) as he makes his escape.

Even as he flies, danger would follow, and thus there is a second part to the Psalmist’s wish: that his wings would enable him also to escape from the onrushing wind of the storm (windstorm) that threatens behind him.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 3)

Psalm 44, continued

In the first two parts of this Psalm (see the earlier studies on vv. 2-9 [1-8] and 10-17 [9-16]), the Psalmist recounts the great deeds performed by YHWH in protection of His people, and then the suffering and loss that came upon them when He removed that protection. Clearly, the latter involves conquest of the land and exile of the people, even if the precise historical circumstances indicated by the Psalm cannot be determined. At the very least,the conquest/exile of the Northern kingdom would have occurred, and we can fairly assume a time-frame no earlier than the end of the 8th century B.C.

The reason for YHWH removing His protection, and allowing the conquest/exile of the people, is not stated in the Psalm, but would have been known to anyone familiar with Israelite history (especially as it is presented in the Prophetic Scriptures). It was the flagrant (and repeated) sin by the people, the violation(s) of the covenant bond with YHWH, that led to the punishment of conquest/exile. The breach of covenant took the form, primarily, of idolatry—that is, the worship of deities other than YHWH.

While the Psalmist identifies with the people, he does not identify himself with the sin that brought about the exile. This suggests that he may belong to a younger generation, Israelites who had to endure the punishment (the suffering and shame of exile, etc), even though they were not directly responsible for the sin that led to it. Throughout the final section of the Psalm, the protagonist affirms his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH, identifying himself with the righteous ones.

Verses 18-27 [17-26]

Verse 18 [17]

“All this has come (upon) us,
and (yet) we did not forget you,
and have not been false by (the) binding (agreement).”

This opening verse is (loosely) a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, emphasizing, as noted above, that the Psalmist is among those who have remained faithful to the covenant (tyr!B=, lit. “binding [agreement]”) with YHWH, even as he has to endure the suffering and disgrace of life in exile. This faithfulness is expressed by two verbs in the negative: jk^v* (“forget,” i.e., “we did not forget you”) and rq^v* (“be false, act falsely,” i.e., “we were not false regarding the covenant”).

Verse 19 [18]

“Our heart has not moved back behind,
and our footsteps (never) bent from your path.”

Both in their intention (“our heart”) and their daily conduct (“our footsteps”), the righteous have not strayed from the path of faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH. This image of walking the path or way of God is a common Wisdom motif, and occurs frequently in the Wisdom writings (including many Psalms). Here the jr^a) signifies a well-worn and traveled road, meaning primarily that the track is well-defined and clear. The allusion is to the commands and regulations of the Instruction (Torah), which represent the terms of the agreement (covenant) with YHWH.

Verse 20 [19]

“For you have crushed us in (the) place of monsters,
and (then) covered over us with (the) shadow of death.”

The emphasis in this couplet shifts back to the idea of the suffering of the righteous (in exile). The first line is uncertain. The Masoretic text has the expression <yN]T^ <oqm=B! (“in the standing-place of monsters”), which could stand as an apt description of the polytheistic heathen environment where the righteous now dwell (in exile, i.e., within the Assyrian/Babylonian empire). However, Dahood (p. 267) suggests that the consonantal text be divided differently, as <y]n~t=m* qomB=, “with decay (in the) loins”. Here the image is of a festering illness/sickness that can lead to death—a familiar motif in the Psalms, as we have seen.

In any case, the life of suffering and shame can be described as living “in the shadow of death [tw#m*l=x^]”; this idiom occurs with some frequency in Old Testament poetry—cf. the famous occurrence in Psalm 23:4; also 107:10, 14, and 10 times in the book of Job (3:5; 10:21-22; 12:22; 16:16; 24:17, etc).

Verses 21-22 [20-21]

“(Yet) if we had forgotten (the) name of our Mighty (One),
and stretched (out) our palms to a strange(r’s) Mighty (One),
would not (the) Mightiest (One) have searched this (out)?
for He (is One) knowing (the) hidden (place)s of (the) heart.”

Verse 21 [20] is related to v. 20 [19] as a confirmation of the Psalmist’s faithfulness. Even though YHWH has “crushed” him (and the other righteous ones now in exile), this was not due to his disloyalty to the covenant. He makes clear that he has not worshiped or recognized any deity besides YHWH. The divine name in the first and third lines is the plural <hy!l)a$ (Elohim), which I translate as “Mightiest (One)”, or, when with a possessive suffix, as “Mighty (One)”. The second occurrence here (in line 3, first line of v. 22 [21]) is likely an Elohist substitution for hwhy (YHWH).

In line 2, “Mighty (One)” translates the related singular noun la@, the common Semitic word for deity, and the title for the High Creator God (El). Here it is used in the general sense of deity (i.e., a[ny] god). The designation rz` means that it is a deity worshiped by the surrounding peoples; literally it refers to people who have “turned aside” to dwell (among the Israelites), but it is often used simply to designate a non-Israelite (i.e., a stranger/foreigner). Thus the connotation here is specifically a non-Israelite deity—that is, a deity other than YHWH.

There is no point in the Psalmist making such a confession if it were not true, that is, if he really had worshiped other gods (and thus would be deserving of punishment). Since YHWH knows the “hidden places” of every person’s heart, He would surely know if there were any inclination to idolatry (i.e., veneration of other deities) in the Psalmist’s heart. Such idolatry in Israel led to the punishment of conquest and exile, but the Psalmist denies that he is guilty of any such sin. This kind of affirmation of loyalty to YHWH is frequent in the Psalms, often featuring as part of an appeal to YHWH (as Judge) by the Psalmist that he is innocent of any violation of the covenant.

Verse 23 [22]

“(But it is) that over you we are being slain all the day (long),
considered as sheep (for the) slaughter.”

The prepositional expression ;yl#u* (“over you”) is emphatic, and can be understood a couple of different ways. It may carry the sense of “for your sake”, that is, because we are your people. Another possibility is that it refers to the purpose and action of YHWH— “because of you”, i.e, because you have done this or willed this. In any case, the current suffering of the Psalmist (and other righteous ones like him) is not because of any disloyalty to YHWH on his part; rather, it is because he belongs to the people that has endured the punishment from YHWH.

This punishment involves some measure of persecution by the nations in which Israel is exiled. Such persecution was described extensively, if in rather general terms, in the second section of the Psalm (cf. the previous study). Here it is described by the motif of slaughter. Two different roots are used for this: the first, gr^h*, is the regular verb for the slaying of a human being; the second, hb^f*, for the slaughtering/butchering of an animal (for food). The idea of sheep being slaughtered is used in a number of Old Testament (Prophetic) passages for the suffering of the people, and, in particular, of the judgment that comes upon them (cf. Isa 53:7; Jer 12:3; 25:34; Zech 11:3).

Probably this should be understood in a general, figurative sense here, rather than specifically to the idea of the people of Israel being killed. However, the experience of persecution may, in fact, involve instances of people being put to death, just as, sadly enough, we find it amply recorded in the long history of anti-Israelite and anti-Jewish violence.

Verse 24 [23]

“Rouse (yourself)! For what [i.e. why] do you sleep, my Lord?
Awaken! May you not reject (us) to (the) end!”

The Psalmist calls on YHWH to act, to end this condition of suffering and disgrace for His people. This is done utilizing the motif of rising/waking from sleep. To suggest that a deity is ‘asleep’ means that there is no obvious evidence that he is acting (on behalf of his adherents), which gives the impression that he is sleeping. This motif is used as part of the anti-Baal polemic in the Elijah narratives (cf. 1 Kings 18:27). As the true God, El-Yahweh cannot be “asleep” in that sense (Psalm 121:4); rather, his ‘sleep’ means that He seems to be inattentive to the prayers of His people (cf. Dahood, pp. 267-8).

Verse 25 [24]

“For what [i.e. why] have you hidden your face,
(so that) you forget our oppression and our distress?”

The apparent lack of response, to the prayers of the righteous for deliverance, can also be described by the image of God hiding (vb rt^s*) His face. Dahood (p. 268), here, and at other points in the Psalms, would read the verb as derived from the root rWs (“turn [aside]”); the meaning is comparable, since God “turns away” His face when He “hides” it. The suffering of the people is described by a pair of nouns with similar meaning: (1) yn]a(, “oppression”, with the fundamental meaning of being bent/pressed down; and (2) Jj^l^, “distress, pressure”, with the basic idea of being squeezed. The first root (hn`a*), in particular, occurs frequently in the Psalms, in reference to the righteous (and their suffering).

Verse 26 [25]

“For our soul is bent down to the dust,
and our belly sticks (hard) to the earth.”

Here the idea of being pressed down, from v. 25 [24], is described vividly, in terms of a person laying down on the ground. The people collectively, in spirit (“our soul”) as much as in body, are forced to bow down (i.e., are bent down, vb hj*v*) to the ground, to the point of crawling/laying down in the dust. The second line extends the image further, to that of a person laying flat on the ground (on his/her belly), a prostrate position that well symbolizes both weakness and humiliation.

Verse 27 [26]

“Stand (up now and) give help to us,
and ransom us as response to your goodness!”

The call in v. 24 [23] (cf. above) is repeated here, though in the more general terms of standing up (i.e. rising) to give help to one who is in need. Along with Dahood (p. 268) and other commentators I read htrzu as a verb (rather than noun) form, “give help”; it probably should be parsed as a precative perfect, parallel in meaning with the prior imperative (hm*Wq, “stand [up]!”).

The call for YHWH to act is based on the binding agreement (covenant). The Psalmist throughout has affirmed his loyalty to the covenant bond, and his faithfulness means that he is deserving of the protection that YHWH is obligated to provide. According to the terms of the covenant, YHWH must keep His loyal vassals safe from danger, rescuing and fighting on their behalf, just as He did for Israel in times past (cf. the study on the first section of the Psalm). As I have previously noted, the noun ds#j#, while having the basic meaning of “goodness, kindness”, is often used in a covenant context, where it connotes faithfulness and loyalty. That is very much its meaning here; the rescue (lit. “ransom,” vb hd*P*) that the Psalmist asks for is based on, and must come as a response to (/u^m^l=), YHWH’s own faithfulness to the covenant.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 2)

Psalm 44, continued

The first part of this Psalm (vv. 2-9 [1-8]), cf. the previous study) emphasized the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Here we are looking at the second part. The meter in this section tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, though there are certain exceptions, particularly several 3+2 couplets, which are noted below.

Verses 10-17 [9-16]

Verse 10 [9]

“But you rejected (us) and brought disgrace on us,
and you did not go forth with our armies.”

The opening particle [a^ is adversative, indicating a transition (and point of contrast) with the first section of the Psalm. YHWH’s support for Israel, including fighting battles on her behalf, has changed to rejection (vb jn~z`). He no longer travels with the armies of Israel to provide his Divine power on their behalf. This has led to military defeats, and to humiliation and disgrace (vb <l^K*).

Verse 11 [10]

“You made us turn back from (the) adversary,
and (the one)s hating us took plunder for themsel(ves).”

Here the context of military defeat is made clear; Israel’s defeat in battle reflects YHWH’s withdrawal of His support. As a result, Israel is forced to turn back from her enemies.

Verses 12 [11]

“You have given us, like sheep, (as something) eaten,
and among (the) nations you have scattered us.”

This 3+2 couplet combines herding and agricultural imagery—i.e., sheep raised to be slaughtered for meat, and grain tossed (threshed) about after harvest. Both reflect the idea that the people of Israel, following their military defeats, are overpowered and devoured/consumed by their enemies. The first line alludes to conquest, the second to exile. It is not possible to isolate a specific historical setting for the Psalm, but this reference to exile suggests a time no earlier than the late-8th/early-7th century B.C. (following the Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom and/or the southern conquests during the invasion of Sennacherib).

Verse 13 [12]

“You sold your people with no wealth (coming),
and did not think much by (the) price for them.”

The exile motif of v. 12 [11] continues here with the idea of YHWH selling off (vb rk^m*) His people—that is, like slaves. Not only that, but God sold them at a low price, with “no (real) wealth [/oh]” coming from the sale. Indeed, He did not even bother to set a significant price (ryj!m=, plural) for them, indicating that He did not “think much” (vb hb^r*) of their worth. The harsh and derisive wording here should be seen as rhetorical in nature, a kind of exaggeration to show how far Israel has fallen in God’s eyes.

Verse 14 [13]

“You set us (as) an insult for (those) dwelling (around) us,
(as) mocking and laughter for (those) surrounding us.”

It is possible that this couplet is meant to express life in exile. Certainly there are other people dwelling (vb /k^v*) around Israel, and the verb bb^s* (“[en]circle, surround”) in the second line may suggest that the Israelites are a minority, being surrounded by other nations and peoples. More important is the fact that Israel’s defeats—including conquest and exile—has led to them being an object of ridicule among the nations. Three nouns are used to express this, within the synonymous parallelism of the couplet: hP*r=j# (“insult, cast blame, treat with scorn”), gu^l* (“mocking, derision”), and sl#q# (something of no value, a target of laughter/derision, i.e. ‘laughing-stock’)—the latter two words being close in meaning.

Verse 15 [14]

“You set us (as) an example (of shame) among (the) nations,
(for) shaking of head(s) among (the) peoples.”

Another 3+2 couplet, which follows closely in meaning and tone after v. 14 [13]. Not only has Israel become a target for derision among the nations, they have turned into a veritable example for the shame and disgrace that can befall a people. The noun lv*m*, often translated flatly as “proverb”, fundamentally refers to a likeness, and here it seems to be used in the sense of a pattern or “example” of a people’s shame. The nations can only “shake (their) head” (a literal translation of the idiom var)-dogm=) at what has become of Israel. This is perhaps to be understood in light of the first section of the Psalm, with its references to the mighty deeds performed by YHWH (in the past) on behalf of Israel, things which caused amazement (and fear) among the nations. Now the nations are amazed in a different way: what has happened to this people who had God on their side?

Verse 16 [15]

“All the day (long) my humiliation is in front of me,
and (the) shame of my face has covered me.”

The wording of this couplet would seem to make clear that, in terms of the Psalm-setting, the shame (of exile) experienced by Israel is a present condition. The Psalmist counts himself among the people, shifting from the plural (“us”) to the singular (“me”). He experiences this humiliation and shame (tv#B)) “all the day (long)”. The sense of disgrace is complete and overwhelming, “covering” him. Dahood (p. 266) suggests that the problematic suffixed verb yntsk should be read as a Pual (passive) form, understood in a privative sense—i.e., “the shame of my face is uncovered (before) me.”

Verse 17 [16]

“(It is) from (the) voice of (the one) insulting and reviling,
(and) from (the) face of (the one) hostile and taking vengeance.”

The overwhelming shame and disgrace heaped upon Israel (in exile) is two-pronged: it comes from the voice of the nations (i.e., their speech), and their faces (i.e., their attitudes and how they treat Israel). The abusive speech is characterized by the verbs [r^j* and [d^G` which are similar in meaning (“insult, revile,” etc). While the nations’ attitudes and behavior toward Israel reflects hostility (vb by~a*) and a desire to take revenge (vb <q^n`). All four verbs are participle forms, indicating a situation that is continuous, and that is characteristic of the relationship between the nations and Israel.

This part of the Psalm makes for rather depressing reading, with its litany of suffering and repeated descriptions of the abuse Israel has suffered (from the nations) since YHWH has withdrawn His support. The reason God has ceased to support Israel is not stated, but anyone familiar with the Scriptural account of Israelite history would know that it was due to violation of the covenant bond—acts of wickedness and idolatry that led to YHWH bringing judgment upon His people.

Sadly, the abuse directed at Israel has not been limited to the Exilic period, but has continued, in a variety of ways, during the many centuries since—a long period which can be seen as a continuation of Israel’s exile and ‘dispersion’ among the nations. The “nations” have frequently mistreated the Israelites and Jews who dwelt in their territories, often in harsh and terrible ways. This is to the shame of the “nations” themselves, as much as it is for Israel.

Fortunately, the Psalm does not end here. In the final part (beginning with verse 18 [17]), we find expressed a profound hope for Israel’s restoration, for deliverance from their suffering among the nations. This expectation is tied to a collective affirmation by the people of a renewed loyalty to the covenant with YHWH. We will examine this section of the Psalm in next week’s study.

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

May 2: Isaiah 53:7

Isaiah 53:7

“And he, being pressed (down), was (op)pressed,
and (yet) he did not open his mouth;
like a sheep to (the) slaughter he was carried (along),
and like a ewe before (the one) shaving her is bound,
and he did not open his mouth.”

If verses 2-6 describe the suffering of the Servant, vv. 7-9 refer to his death. The implication here in verse 7 is that his suffering leads to his death. This suffering is summarized in the first line by the use of the verbs vg~n` and hn`u*, which each have the similar meaning “press, pressure”, with the latter specifically denoting “press down (low)”. The use of the passive Niphal stem, in both cases, indicates that the Servant is “pressed (down)” by the suffering he has experienced.

The idea of the Servant as a shepherd was alluded to in verse 6 (cf. the previous note); now, the same basic imagery has shifted, and he is identified with the sheep. This is fundamental to the overriding theme in the passage, of the Servant identifying with the suffering and weakness of the people, and taking that burden upon himself. The motif of sheep being ‘led to the slaughter’ is part of the wider line of imagery—viz., that sheep without a shepherd, unable to maintain the integrity and guidance of the flock, are scattered and wander off, and are prone to many dangers. At the same time, a callous and exploitative leader may see the sheep as nothing more than animals to be slaughtered, and so this particular theme can reflect the wickedness of the leaders of Israel/Judah, as also that of foreign oppressors (cf. Psalm 44:22; Zech 11:4-7ff, etc).

Here the image of a ‘sheep led to slaughter’ is used to emphasize the submissive silence and docility of the sheep. Twice it is specifically stated that the Servant “did not open his mouth”, even in the midst of the oppression he faced. This silence should be understood as a virtue, as a characteristic of the righteous. It is a Wisdom-theme, and Psalm 39:1-3 is a good example of the ideal of keeping silent in the face of attacks by the wicked. The silence of the righteous, in this regard, is an expression of trust in YHWH—the hope and expectation that one will be delivered and vindicated by God.

The parallel image of a ewe being led, not the slaughter, but to being shaved/sheared (vb zz~G`) of its wool, suggests a familiarity with what is happening (and acceptance of it), rather than dumb ignorance. As such, it may imply that the Servant, at some level, understands the necessity of his suffering, and how it is part of his very role as YHWH’s servant.

For Christians, the application of the sheep/slaughter motif to the death of Jesus has introduced the specific idea of the sheep (Jesus) as a sacrificial offering. However, it is important to note that this ritual/sacrificial aspect is not being emphasized here in verse 7. The reference is to the ordinary slaughtering or butchering of animals for food. This is clear from the use of the verb jb^f#; if the intention were to bring out the idea of sacrificial slaughter (as a religious ritual, etc), the verb jb^z` or fj^v* presumably would have been used instead.

The silence of the Servant is a notable detail that relates specifically to the suffering of Jesus, at least as it is described in the Synoptic Passion narrative. During his interrogation before the Jerusalem Council (Sanhedrin), and again before Pilate, it is emphasized how Jesus kept silent, saying almost nothing during the proceedings (Mk 14:60-61ff; 15:2-5 par). These parallels, between the Passion of Jesus and Isa 52:13-53:12 will be discussed in more detail, in a concluding article.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 3)

Psalms 42-43, continued

Psalm 43:1-5

This is the third and final stanza of the psalm (cf. Parts 1 and 2 for the first and second stanzas).

Verse 1

“Judge (on) my (behalf), Mightiest (One),
struggle (for the sake of) my struggle:
from a nation with no goodness,
(and) from a man of deceit
and injustice, help me escape!”

The opening verse of this stanza consists of five 2-beat lines, and the terse staccato-like rhythm seems to highlight the dramatic situation facing the Psalmist. He makes his plea to God for deliverance, framed as a legal petition, made to YHWH in His role as Judge. As previously noted, in these ‘Elohist’ Psalms, the general title “Mightiest (One)” (<yh!l)a$, Elohim) is regularly used in place of the Divine name hwhy.

At the end of the second stanza (42:10-11 [9-10]), the Psalmist’s suffering was described in terms of attacks and taunts by his adversaries, and this theme is picked up here in verse 1. Now, however, the adversaries are understood as the wicked generally—and this human wickedness is realized both in terms of nations (“a nation with no goodness”) and individuals (“a man of deceit and injustice”). While I have translated the substantive adjective dys!j* and noun hm*r=m! according to their fundamental meaning (“goodness” and “deceit”), both terms have a special meaning in the context of the covenant bond; dys!j* denotes one who is faithful and loyal, while hm*r=m! can specifically indicate treachery or betrayal. The root lw#u* basically signifies a departure or deviation from right conduct, whether in a moral-ethical or legal sense. Since a judicial context in involved, it is appropriate to translation the noun hl*w+u^ as “injustice”.

The judicial setting is clear enough from the first two lines, with the use of the verb fp^v* (“judge, render judgment”) and by byr!. This latter verb means “struggle, grapple”, but regularly in the sense of a legal contest—i.e., for justice, in a court of law. The double-use of the root, with the related noun byr!, emphasizes the idea of a legal fight (by God, on behalf of the Psalmist). This suggests that YHWH is as much a legal advocate for the Psalmist as He is the actual Judge in the case.

Verse 2

“For you are the Mighty (One) of my place of refuge—
(so) for what [i.e. why] do you reject me,
for what [i.e. why] do I walk about (clothe)d in darkness,
in (the) pressure of the (one) hostile to me?”

The imagery in this verse shifts to YHWH (“Mighty [One]” = “Mightiest,” Elohim) as a place of protection for the Psalmist, lit. a “place of refuge” (zoum*). The legal aspect of the covenant with YHWH has been replaced by the socio-political—referring to the protection which the sovereign is obligated to provide for his faithful vassal.

The last two lines echo 42:10 [9] (cf. the previous study on stanza 2), with the image of the Psalmist forced to go about in darkness (i.e., dark in color/dress, like one in mourning) because of the oppression he faces from his enemy. The singular verbal noun by@oa (“[one] being hostile”) can be understood as a human adversary, or the great enemy Death himself (that is, the danger facing the Psalmist is life-threatening). As the second line makes clear, the protagonist feels that God has turned away from him (vb jn~z`, “reject, repel”), leaving him vulnerable to the attacks of his enemies. This is the reason for the appeal to YHWH, calling for both justice and protection, on the basis of the covenant bond.

Metrically, this verse generally follows the pattern of v. 1, with its sequence of 2-beat lines; here it is a quatrain, with the rhythm 3+2+2+2.

Verse 3

“Send (out) your light and your truth,
they shall be my guide (to safety),
they shall bring me to (the) hill of your holiness,
and to (the) places of your dwelling.”

Having established the covenant-basis for his appeal, the Psalmist now requests that God act on his behalf. In spite of the legal/judicial setting of verse 1, the action requested by the Psalmist is one of rescue. This is indicated by the use of the verb fl^P* in v. 1, and also the noun zoum* (“place of refuge”) in v. 2. This place where YHWH will provide protection is further described here in v. 3 as the “mountain of [God’s] holiness” (i.e., His holy mountain), and the locale where He Himself dwells (plur. of /K*v=m!, “dwelling-place”). The idea of El-Yahweh residing on/in a great mountain (shaped like a giant tent) is an ancient Semitic cosmological (and religious) motif. While the mountain is an archetypal symbol, it can be realized at the practical conceptual (and ritual) level in any local mountain or hill-top site. Here the emphasis is on the presence of YHWH—i.e., the place where He dwells.

The fact that the Psalmist specifically calls for YHWH to send His light (roa) and truth (tm#a#, signifying “firmness, certainty”), illustrates that what threatens him is understood primarily in an ethical-religious sense—as wickedness and injustice. The lack of faithfulness and loyalty (dsj) is a primary characteristic of the wicked, but also a tendency to act falsely and with deceit (on both points, cf. verse 1 above). In the second stanza (42:10-11 [9-10]), the attacks by the wicked involve slanderous taunts against the Psalmist. Truth and light serve as the antidote for the poison of such dark slander.

Verse 4

“And I will come to (the) place of slaughter for (the) Mightiest,
to (the) Mighty (One) of my joyous circling,
and (there) I will throw you (praise) on (the) harp,
(O) Mightiest (One), my Mighty (One)!”

In this verse, the “mountain” of God’s dwelling is now realized as the location of the Temple (i.e., the ancient fortified hilltop site of ‘Mount’ Zion). Having been rescued by YHWH, and now dwelling in safety under His protection, the Psalmist will give worship to God in the Temple precincts. The image is of a person circling joyously around the altar (“place of [ritual] slaughter”), giving praise to God. The motif is symbolic, as much as it may be meant to describe an actual scene of worship in the Temple. Whether, or to what extent, the stanzas of this Psalm were part of a specific Temple ritual (procession into the precincts, etc) is difficult to say.

The oddity of the final line, which reads (literally) “(O) Mightiest (One), my Mightiest (One)” (in conventional English, “[O] God, my God”), provides a strong argument in favor of the theory that, in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms, the divine name hwhy (YHWH) had been originally used throughout, but that it was (systematically) replaced by the plural title <yh!l)a$ (for reasons that are far from clear). The final line would thus have originally made more sense: “(O) YHWH, my Mighty (One)”, “(O) YHWH, my God”.

Refrain: Verse 5

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm (for comments, cf. the previous study, on 42:6 [5]). After the declaration of hope, in v. 4, that YHWH will rescue the Psalmist, this refrain takes on a new tone. There is even more reason now for the righteous to wait on the Lord, trusting that He will act to deliver them, and less reason for one’s soul to be sad and downcast in the midst of distress.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 2)

Psalms 42-43, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 7-12 [6-11]

Verse 7 [6]

“My soul upon me is bent down low,
(yet) upon this will I remember you,
from (the) land of (the river) going down,
and the sacred (mountain)s from (the) miƒar hill.”

The initial verse of this section picks up from the refrain in v. 6 [5] (cf. the previous study), emphasizing the suffering and sorrow of the Psalmist’s soul. Both rhythmically, and in terms of its imagery, these lines are difficult. The meter is irregular—a 3+2+2+3 quatrain, or, possibly, a pair of 3+2 couplets (depending on how one divides the last two lines).

The main idea is that the Psalmist’s soul has “bent down low” (vb jj^v*), in his sorrow and suffering. The sense of the second line seems to be that, even in the midst of his suffering, the Psalmist will continue to remember YHWH. He imagines a scenario where he is approaching death, as the imagery in the last two lines strongly suggests. To render /D@r=y~ and /omr=j# as simple geographical terms (i.e., the Jordan river and Mt. Hermon) is to miss the point; it is, rather, a symbolic landscape, which requires a literal translation of the terms (in their fundamental meaning) in order to bring the symbolism across properly.

The /D#r=y~ is literally the “(place of) going down [dry]”, i.e., the river that leads to the underworld, while the <yn]omr=j# means something like “(the) sacred (mountain)s”. The significance of ru*x=m! is uncertain; derived from root ru^x* I, it would mean something like “place of littleness, (the) little place”. It seems to indicate a particular location in the “sacred mountains” (the Hermon range, in Canaanite geography), which, we must assume, also leads to the underworld.

In the ancient Near East, both rivers and mountains were viewed as mythical/spiritual conduits (points of entry) to the otherworld—in this case, it leads down into the watery depths below the earth, from which one reaches the realm of the dead (netherworld). The context here makes this set of associations abundantly clear (cp. Jonah 2:7[6]); on the same line of traditional imagery in Canaanite sources, cf. Dahood, pp. 258-9.

Verse 8 [7]

“Deep to deep is calling,
at (the) voice of your shafts
all your breaking (wave)s and heaps (of water)
pass over upon me.”

Following the line of imagery in v. 7 [6], the Psalmist feels that he is entering the dark watery depths that lead to the netherworld, the realm of the dead (i.e., he is in danger of death). The idea of being threatened by powerful engulfing waves of water is a frequent motif in Old Testament poetry; in addition to the famous poem in Jonah 2:2-10 [1-9], cf. Psalm 32:6; 69:1-2; 88:4-7; 130:1; Job 22:11, etc.

The expression “deep to deep” reflects the ancient bi-partite view of the universe, in which the cosmos can be divided into two halves (hemispheres, generally speaking) that are surrounded by waters above, and waters below, respectively. From the waters above come the rains (and rainstorms); YHWH tends to be associated with the waters above, but He ultimately has control over all the waters. Indeed, his command (and control) reaches from the heavens (the upper waters, and above) all the way down to the watery depths below the earth. On this control over the waters, as expressed through the ancient cosmological myth of the Deity’s ‘defeat’ of the Sea, cf. my earlier article.

The word roNx! (“shaft”), occurring elsewhere only in 2 Sam 5:8, suggests a conduit by which YHWH extends His command (over the waters) to the depths below. Dahood, p. 259, would identify it with the storm (and lighting/thunder bolts) that stirs and roils up the sea. Given that thunder, in the ancient Near Eastern mindset, is typically referred to as the “voice” (loq) of God, this seems most likely.

Verse 9 [8] ab

“By day YHWH commands His goodness,
by night His hry?[?] (is) with me”

This couplet seems to parallel the idea in v. 8 [7] of YHWH commanding the waters—both above and below. While those waters threaten to engulf the Psalmist, and thus reflect a very real danger of death to him, here in v. 9 the emphasis is on God’s goodness. YHWH commands his goodness (ds#j#), which can also connote faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., loyalty to the covenant). Typically in the Psalms, the covenant aspect is in view, whereby the term ds#j# refers specifically to the care and protection that YHWH gives to the righteous (like the Psalmist), i.e., those who are loyal to the covenant.

The parallelism of the lines would require a corresponding term in the second line to match this goodness (ds#j#) of YHWH in the first. The term in the MT here is Hr*yv! (Qere oryv!), “his song”, which makes little sense in context, and many commentators feel that here the text likely is corrupt. It is not at all clear, however, in what way the text can, or should, be emended. The context indicates that the word in this position must signify something sent by YHWH (at His command) to the Psalmist, and which the protagonist now has with him, serving as hope and comfort for him in his time of distress. The reception by the Psalmist (at night) matches the active sending by YHWH (in the daytime).

One very much wishes that the text of this verse had survived among the Qumran Psalm scrolls, as it might well solve the textual problem noted above; but, alas, this is not the case. The LXX translates according to the MT, although the B text here has the verb dhlo/w (“make visible, make manifest, show”), which certainly would form a fitting parallel with Hebrew hw`x* (“command, charge,” Grk e)nte/llomai). Dahood (p. 259), following the suggestion by T. Gaster (Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL], vol. 73 [1954], pp. 237-8), identifies hryv here with Akkadian š£ru and Ugaritic ´rt, “vision” (par. to µlm, “dream”). The sense of v. 9 then, might run as follows:

“By day YHWH sends his goodness (to me) by command,
(and) by night makes it known to me in a vision.”

This is an appealing solution, though not entirely convincing.

Verse 9c-11a [8c-10a]

“My prayer (is) to (the) Mighty (One) of my life:
I will say, ‘(O) Mighty (One), my Rock,
for what [i.e. why] have you forgotten me,
for what should I walk covered in darkness,
in (the) squeeze of (the one) hostile (to me),
with murdering (power) on my limbs?'”

The Psalmist’s prayer, to the effect that YHWH has forgotten him, makes the preceding verse 9ab seem out of place, and tends to confirm the theory that those lines may be corrupt (cf. the discussion above). This prayer is typical of many of the lament-Psalms, and the thought expressed here echoes that found, for example, in the famous opening of Psalm 22. The idea of the Psalmist going about “being covered in darkness” (rd@q)) could be understood in terms of a person clothed in mourning garb, but it also reflects the earlier image of the protagonist being covered over by the dark and tumultuous waters of the deep. In any case, the association with death is very much at the fore.

While enemies are frequently mentioned in the Psalms, they are often indistinct from the suffering experienced by the Psalmist. Here the singular by@oa (“hostile [one],” i.e., enemy) should probably be understood as a personification of Death itself. The “squeeze” (Jj^l^) that this enemy puts on the Psalmist is so deadly that it puts his once-strong limbs (<x#u#, plur.) in a murderous grip (the noun jx^r# indicates an act of killing). Clearly, only YHWH can deliver the Psalmist from this mortal danger; often in the Psalms, this danger is expressed in terms of illness or disease, and this may well be in view here.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The one)s opposed to me cast blame (on) me,
in their saying to me all the day (long):
‘Where (is) your Mighty (One)?'”

The remainder of verse 11 [10] consists of a dramatic tricolon, with the mocking taunts of the wicked being added to the Psalmist’s suffering and distress. Here the plural noun (verbal participle, <yr!r=ox) unquestionably refers to human enemies. The root rrx II is similar in meaning to by~a*, and the participle here (with the 1st person suffix) could likewise be translated “one[s] hostile to me” (i.e., “my enemies, my adversaries”). I have opted to denote rrx with the specific idea of opposition—i.e., “(one)s being opposed to me” —to keep it distinct from bya.

Such taunts by the protagonist’s wicked enemies are a frequent feature in the Psalms, and can be seen in a number of the compositions that we have examined thus far. The motif plays on two important ideas: (1) the hostility of the wicked toward the righteous, and (2) as an expression of the doubt experienced by the righteous, in the face of severe suffering and misfortune, regarding their loyalty to YHWH. The climactic question posed by the wicked in their taunt is pointed: “Where is your Mighty One?” (i.e., God, Elohim, lit. “Mightiest [One]”). In other words, if this “Mightiest One” truly exists, and rewards the righteous for their faithfulness and loyalty to Him, then why are you (a righteous one, presumably) suffering so badly? This is another way of framing the common Wisdom-theme regarding the suffering of the righteous. It is a theme that is quite frequent in the Psalms, as we have seen.

Refrain: Verse 12 [11]

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm (for comments, cf. the previous study, on v. 6 [5]). Given the sense of mortal danger and suffering that pervades this section, the call to wait on YHWH, and to trust in Him for deliverance, is particularly significant—a sign of faith and trust that can encourage the righteous in their own time of distress.

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


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalms 42-43 (Part 1)

Psalms 42-43

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc & 4QPsu (42:5 [4]); 11QPsd (43:1-3)

Most commentators recognize that Psalms 42 and 43 comprise a single Psalm, containing three stanzas (42:2-6 [1-5], 7-12 [6-11], and 43:1-5), each of which ends with a common refrain. This is one of the clearest examples of a Psalm that, in its current form, would have been especially well-suited to being sung by a congregation in public worship. Metrically, it tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon (couplet) format (the so-called Qinah meter).

The superscription is distinctive, since it attributes the composition, not to David (as in most of Pss 1-41), but to the “sons of Qorah [Korah]”. The Korahites were priestly officials who served in the Temple, as attested in the books of Chronicles (1 Chron 9:19; 26:1, 19), and also as a company of singers (2 Chron 20:19). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, they are simply designated as Levite clan (Exod 6:21; 1 Chron 6:7, 23 [22, 38]), with no additional information provided. Clearly it is the group of Temple singers that is most relevant to the superscription here (as also in Pss. 44-49, 84-85, 87-88). It is possible that they were responsible for the editing of the ‘Elohist Psalter’ (cf. below).

The musical direction of the superscription also indicates that this composition is a lyK!c=m^, a term of uncertain meaning, but presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely. The term appears in the superscriptions of a number of Psalms in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ (44-45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88-89); cf. also the earlier study on Psalm 32.

Stanza 1: Verses 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“As a deer cries (out) upon channels of water,
so my soul cries (out) to you, Mightiest (One)!”

The meter of this initial couplet is 4+4, an expanded metrical form that creates a grand and solemn opening. The feminine form of the verb (gr)u&T^) in the first line does not match the noun-subject (lY`a^, “[male] deer”); we would rather expect hl*Ya^ (“[female] deer”), in agreement with the verb. Dahood (p. 255) suggests dividing the text grut lyak differently, as gr)u* tl#Y#a^K= (“like a [female] deer crying [out]”).

The verb gr^u* refers to a cry of longing; a crying out loud is indicated by the parallel between gr^u* and ar^q* in Joel 1:19-20 (the only other occurrence of gru in the OT). The idea may be of the deer’s longing to quench his (or her) thirst, but the parallel between the “channels of water” and God (“[the] Mightiest”) suggests rather a scene where the longing for thirst is fulfilled (upon finding water). The basic imagery is well-established in Semitic poetry, going back to the Canaanite poetic texts from Ugarit; most notably, the image of a deer/stag going to a spring to quench its thirst is compared to the ravenous appetite (hunger/thirst) of Death personified (Baal Epic, tablet V, column 1, lines 16-19, etc).

“Mightiest (One)” is my regular translation of the plural noun <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), understood as an intensive plural when applied to El-Yahweh (in the context of ancient Israelite monotheism). It can be transliterated as a name/title (Elohim), though more often it is simply translated generically as “God”. Curiously, in Psalms 4283 Elohim is used far more often than YHWH (more than 200 times, compared with only 45 for YHWH), in contrast to the rest of the Psalms, where YHWH dominates (more than 580 times, compared with little over 90 for Elohim). This has led to Pss 42-83 being referred to as the “Elohist Psalter”. The reasons for the difference are not entirely clear. It has been thought that the regular use of <yh!ýa$ reflects an intentional editing of compositions which originally used the divine name hwhy (YHWH) throughout.

Verse 3 [2]

“My soul thirsts for (the) Mightiest,
for (the) Living Mighty (One)—
when will I come and be seen (by)
(the) face of (the) Mightiest?”

Here we have a pair of 3+2 couplets that builds upon the idea expressed in the opening verse. The motif of “drinking” has led Dahood (p. 256) to explain hara as a form of the root ary II (cognate with hwr), involving the idea of pouring out and watering (saturating) the ground, along with the related concept of a person (or animal) being filled (sated/satisfied) by drink. If his analysis turns out to be correct, then the second couplet above would be translated something like:

“when will I come and drink my fill
(of the) face of (the) Mightiest?” (cp. Ps 34:9)

In any case, the thing that will quench the Psalmist’s thirst is to experience the very presence of YHWH Himself (His “face”).

Verse 4 [3]

“My tears have been food for me
(by) day and (by) night,
in (their) saying to me, all the day (long):
‘Where (is) your Mighty (One)?'”

The motif of thirst/drinking continues in this verse (again another pair of 3+2 couplets). While the Psalmist longs to drink from the very presence of YHWH, here on earth he has been been drinking only from his tears (toum*D=)—by which is meant his experience of sorrow and suffering. The idea of eating/drinking tears (as “food” [or bread, <j#l#]) reflects another ancient Canaanite poetic idiom. Again, an example is at hand in the Baal Epic from Ugarit (Tablet VI, column 1, lines 9-10), in which, following the death of Baal Haddu, the goddess Anat, in her mourning “she weeps her fill, drinks her tears like wine”.

The Psalmist’s sorrow/suffering is accompanied by mocking taunts from a group of wicked onlookers. This is a familiar motif in the Psalms (cf. the recent studies on Pss 40 and 41). The suffering of the Psalmist (often depicted as the result of an illness) brings into question his loyalty and trust in YHWH. The voice of the wicked and faithless ones, which can also serve to express his own doubts, asks “Where is your Mighty (One)?”. Here “Mighty One” = “Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$), the two titles El and Elohim being so close in meaning (and significance) as to be virtually identical. The theme of the suffering of the righteous—and with it, the apparent absence of God’s presence—was popular in ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature, and is reflected in many of the Psalms as well.

Verse 5 [4]

“These will I remember, and will pour out
my soul upon me (as I do)—
that I went over in(to the) cover of (the) <Majestic> (One),
unto (the) house of (the) Mightiest,
with a voice of shouting and casting (praise),
(amid the) noise of (those) circling.”

While these lines are difficult to interpret (and translate) in detail, the overall sense of them is clear enough. The protagonist of the Psalm, in his suffering, recalls his recent pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple, almost certainly on the occasion of a holy festival. This is indicated by the verb gg~j*, which, it seems, has the fundamental meaning of making a (circular) procession, but which early on took on the technical meaning of making a procession (to Jerusalem) for one of the three great pilgrimage feasts; a cognate root in Arabic was used later on for the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj).

Here, the festival in question may be that of Booths/Tabernacles (Sukkot), for which an allusion seems to be present in the obscure phrase “I went over in(to the) cover [Es)] of Majesty [?]”. I follow Kraus (p. 437) in tentatively emending MT <D@D^a# as reflecting the root rda—possibly a plural substantive <yr!yD!a^, or the adjective ryD!a^ with an enclitic <-. According to this line of interpretation, ryD!a^ (“great, majestic”) is a title for YHWH, creating a clear parallel: “cover of (the) Majestic (One)” / “house of the Mightiest (One)”. The Es) (sœk, “covering”) is the Temple and its sanctuary, the “booth” (= house) of God.

At such a pilgrimage festival, the Psalmist would have come before “the face” of YHWH, to “be seen” by Him (cf. on verse 3 [2] above), in a symbolic and ritual sense. Now, in the midst of his sorrow, the Psalmist longs for a real experience of God’s presence, one that he can “drink” to give him nourishment and to satisfy him in his time of need.

Refrain: Verse 6 [5]

“(For) what are you bent down, my soul,
and make (such) a clamor upon me?
Wait for (the) Mightiest (One)—
for again will I throw Him (praise),
(the) Salvation of my face and my Mighty (One).”

This same refrain occurs in all three stanzas of the Psalm. The parallel occurrences in v. 12 [11] and 43:5 make clear that the first word of v. 7 [6] is misplaced and belongs at the end of the final line of v. 6 [5].

The Psalmist’s suffering and sorrow has led to his “soul” being “poured out”, and the same idea here is expressed by the verb jj^v* (“bend down [low]”) in the passive-reflexive (Hitpolel) stem. The sense of suffering/sorrow is reinforced by the image of the soul making a loud noise (‘clamor’), vb hm*h*. The Psalmist’s response to his own troubled soul is to wait (vb lj^y`) for God—that is, for Him to act, delivering the Psalmist from the source of his suffering. Indeed, the protagonist believes that he will once again, very soon, praise YHWH and worship Him just as he did at the pilgrimage festival (cf. above). The Psalmist remains firm in his belief that YHWH is his Savior (“the Salvation of my face”) and the true God (“Mighty/Mightiest [One]”) who will act on his behalf.

This reflects the theme of covenant loyalty that runs throughout many (indeed most) of the Psalms we have studied. Because the Psalmist has remained faithful and loyal, he is confident that he will receive help and protection from YHWH. Indeed, the promise of such protection is implicit in the very terms of the covenant (between YHWH and Israel). This extends to healing and deliverance from illness, as well as relief from the attacks (and taunts) by the wicked. Only a complete deliverance will confirm the trustworthiness of YHWH (as Sovereign), and vindicate the righteousness and loyalty of the Psalmist (His vassal).

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 41 (Part 2)

Psalm 41, continued

The first part of the Psalm (vv. 2-5 [1-4]) is a prayer to YHWH with strong Wisdom features (cf. the previous study). It focuses on the righteous, and climaxes with a personal plea (by the Psalmist) for healing and deliverance.  The second part (vv. 6-13 [5-12]) deals with the attacks by the wicked against the righteous, retaining the central theme-setting of the first part: the experience of illness by the righteous.

Verses 6-13 [5-12]

Verse 6 [5]

“(The one)s hostile to me say evil against me:
‘When will he die and his name be lost (forever)?'”

The Psalmist’s enemies (<yb!y+oa, lit. ones being hostile [to him]) respond to him in his illness. The preposition l= is best understood here in the sense of “against”, though this is normally expressed through lu^. These people say evil (things) regarding the Psalmist’s condition. They are eagerly awaiting his death, though it is not clear just why they are so antagonistic toward him; it is typically of the conflict between the righteous and wicked generally—the wicked seek the harm (including the death and demise) of the righteous. It is not only the Psalmist’s own life that is involved; the wicked seek the obliteration of his entire reputation and posterity (lit. “name”, <v@), including that of his family and any children who would follow him.

Verse 7 [6]

“And if (such a one) comes to see (me),
he speaks emptiness (from) his heart,
(and) gathers (up) trouble to him(self)
(then) goes forth outside (and) speaks (it).”

Verse 6 [5] was a 4-beat (4+4) couplet, while here in v. 7 [6] we have pair of 3-beat (3+3) couplets, though the rhythm is relatively loose. The action of the wicked is described, expounding the basic idea expressed in the initial verse. The first couplet here sets the scene: one of the Psalmist’s enemies comes to see him (while he is ill and suffering), apparently feigning friendship; but what the man says in false friendship is actually “emptiness” (aw+v*), in terms of what is truly in his heart. Indeed, while he speaks emptiness (pretending to friendship), this person is busy “gathering up” (vb Jb^q*) trouble (/w#a*). It would seem that the true purpose of the enemy’s visit is not to see the suffering protagonist (as a friend), but to see the nature and extent of his condition (i.e., the illness), so that it can be used to make trouble. This “trouble” takes the form of a gossiping slander that the wicked person spreads about once he gets outside (JWjl^).

Verse 8 [7]

“(As) one, they (all) whisper about me,
all (the one)s hating me plan evil for me.”

The meter of this verse would seem to require omitting the second yl^u* (“against me”) as a duplication (cf. Dahood, p. 251 for a different solution). The result is a 3-beat couplet (if loosely so). The verse picks up on the idea from the end of the previous line. The wicked are gossiping (lit. “whispering”, vb vj^l*) about the Psalmist’s condition. This reflects their hatred for him—that is, of the wicked for the righteous—with the verbal noun “(one)s hating” (<ya!n+v)) more or less synonymous with “(one)s being hostile” (<yb!y+oa), i.e., “enemies”. The preposition l=, translated as “for” above, can also be understood in the sense of “against”, as in v. 6 [5] (cf. above).

Verse 9 [8]

“‘(May) a word of destruction be poured in(to) him,’
and ‘(may he) who lies (there) not be (able) to stand again!'”

The couplet in verse 9 [8] is best understood as an expression of the hatred (for the Psalmist) by his enemies. The evil that they plan for him (v. 8 [7]) is meant for his destruction and death. The “word of destruction” (lu^Y~l!B-rb^D=) is conceived of as a lethal poison which (it is hoped by them) will finish off the Psalmist. That they wish for his death is clear from the second line. Their evil hope is that the illness which has the Psalmist laying bed-ridden will become fatal, so that he will never rise up again.

Verse 10 [9]

“Even (the) man of my bond, in whom I trusted,
(the one) eating my bread, has twisted (the) heel upon me!”

This couplet seems to build upon the idea that at least one of the Psalmist’s enemies had pretended to be his friend (cf. the first couplet of v. 7 [6] above). Here this person is called “man of my <olv*,” an expression that is extremely difficult to translate literally in English. The noun <olv* has the fundamental meaning of “wholeness, fullness, completion”, often in the specific context of a binding agreement (covenant). That is to say, it reflects the idea of an agreement that has been completed, so that the two parties have a bond that gives to them mutual security, protection, etc. The Psalmist thought he had such a bond (of friendship and loyalty) with this person; they ate together at the same table, and so forth. And yet, as it turns out, this would-be friend has “twisted the heel” upon him. This idiom of ‘giving someone the heel’ especially connotes slandering or maligning a person (cf. Dahood, pp. 251-2).

This verse was famously interpreted by early Christians as applying to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas (cf. the citation in John 13:18).

Verse 11 [10]

“But you, YHWH, (may you) show favor to me,
and make me stand (up), and I will complete (this) for them!”

The Psalmist now prays to YHWH, asking for God to “show favor” (vb /n~j*) to him, healing him from his illness (“make me stand up”). The verb <l^v* involves a bit of wordplay, with the noun <olv* in the previous verse. In terms of the covenant context, we should understand the verb here in the sense of “making good on the bond that has been broken”, or, we might say, of completing the broken bond by paying the betrayers back (with punishment). This draws on the more general idea of God punishing the wicked—and of prayers by the righteous to that effect. Part of this punishment involves the shame and humiliation his enemies will experience when their evil plans and hopes (for his death) are thwarted.

Verse 12 [11]

“By this will I know that you find delight in me:
(that the one) hostile to me will not make a shout over me.”

If YHWH heals the Psalmist, and so thwarts the evil plans and desires of his enemies, then he will truly know that God takes delight (vb Jp^j*) in him. The “shout” (i.e., a ringing cry [u^Wr] of triumph) that the hostile ones (enemies) would have made “over” (lu^) the Psalmist, conjures up the image of victorious soldiers celebrating over a dead body.

Verse 13 [12]

“And I, in my wholeness, may you take hold of me,
and stand me (upright) to your face (in)to (the) distant (future)!”

The noun <T) (“completeness, wholeness”) here has a double meaning. Through the healing provided by YHWH, the Psalmist will be made whole again; at the same time, this healing also reflects the Psalmist’s own righteousness and loyalty to YHWH. The prayer here is that this completeness (both in the physical and moral/religious sense) be preserved from now on. This is expressed through the verb bx^n` (in the Hiphil causative stem), referring to the act of making something to stand upright, fixing it in position. The Psalmist asks (and hopes) that YHWH will place him right in front of Him, before His face. This location in God’s very presence implies a blessed afterlife in heaven, a condition than will last “into the distant (future)” (<l*oul=).

Verse 14 [13]

“Blessed be YHWH, Mighty (One) of Yisrael,
from the distant (past) and until the distant (future)—
surely (it is so), and (may it) surely (be so).”

The final verse of the Psalm (14 [13]) takes the form of a closing benediction, of the sort that may well have been applied to the poem secondarily. It very much reflects a general Israelite (Yahwist) piety, affirming YHWH as the God (Mightiest [One], Elohim)—that is, the one and only true God—of Israel. I have tried to capture the fundamental meaning of /m@a* (°¹m¢n) in the final line (“surely, certainly),” through a glossed translation, rather than simply transliterating it in English as “amen”.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 41 (Part 1)

Psalm 41

Dead Sea MSS: Nothing of Ps 41 has been preserved among the surviving Psalms MSS

This Psalm may be divided loosely into two parts. The first (vv. 2-5 [1-4]) is a prayer to YHWH with strong Wisdom features. It focuses on the righteous, and climaxes with a personal plea (by the Psalmist) for healing and deliverance.  The second part (vv. 6-13 [5-12]) deals with the attacks by the wicked against the righteous, retaining the central theme-setting of the first part: the experience of illness by the righteous. As in several other Psalms we have studied thus far, the wicked respond with malice (slanderous taunts) to the suffering of the righteous. The prayer that concludes this second part (vv. 11-13 [10-12]) focuses on deliverance from these attacks by the wicked. A short verse of praise (v. 14 [13]) to YHWH brings the Psalm to a close.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 4+4 bicolon (couplet) format; however, there many irregularities as well, some of which may be evidence of textual corruption. Sadly, as noted above, there is no help available from the Dead Sea manuscripts, since Psalm 41 is not to be found among the surviving Psalms MSS.

The superscription gives the common direction, designating the work as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) lowly <and needy>,
in (the) day of evil, YHWH will cause him to slip away [i.e. escape].”

There is a fundamental difficulty in the first line of this couplet. The meter of the couplet as it stands is 3+4, rather than the expected 4+4, suggesting that a word may have dropped out. Secondly, we have the word lD*: does it mean “lowly (one)” (from ll^D*), or “door” (from hl*D*)? The former is the more common lD* in the Psalms, where it is paired with the noun /oyb+a# (“needy, poor”), i.e., “the lowly and needy” (72:13; 82:3-4; 113:7). Many commentators thus would add here /oyb=a#w+, a reading which the LXX seems to assume. In this case, the first line would be:

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) lowly <and needy>”

However, another possibility is raised by a comparison with Psalm 141:3, where we find the idea of keeping watch over “the door [lD*] of (one’s) lips” (i.e., guarding one’s speech).

Making the situation more difficult is the fact that the verb lk^c* only rarely takes a direct object or governs a prepositional phrase; such occurrences are even rarer when the verb form is a participle, such as the Hiphil form here /yk!c=m^, where it tends to be used as a substantive (“[one] giving consideration”, i.e., who is wise/prudent/understanding). The only such instances of the participle in the Psalms are 14:2 and 53:3 [2], while it is rather more common in the Proverbs. It is also in the Proverbs where we find the closest parallels to the usage here:

    • Prov 16:20: “(the one) giving consideration upon a word” (rb*D*-lu^ lyK!c=m^)
    • Prov 16:23: “(the) heart of a wise (man) gives consideration (to) his mouth, and upon his lips he continues receiving (instruction)”
    • Prov 21:11: “in (his) giving consideration to (the) wise he receives knowledge”
    • Prov 21:12: “(the) righteous (one) is giving consideration to (the) house of the wicked”

Prov 16:23 favors lD* as “door (of)” in Ps 41:2 [1], with an emended reading such as: “(the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his lips >” (cf. Dahood, p. 249). On the other hand, Prov 21:11-13 favors an emended text that follows the LXX (cf. above), with the idea of paying attention to the lowly (lD*) and needy. The evidence, as I see it, is equally divided. It is unfortunate that nothing of Psalm 41 is preserved in the Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts; if verse 2 [1] were present, it might well resolve the textual question.

Another factor is the beatitude context. This formulation (opening with yr@v=a^, “happiness of”, “how happy is…”) is frequently applied to the righteous, in terms of those who walk according to the path of YHWH, following the commands and precepts of the Torah, etc. As such, it seems that it might relate better to the idea of guarding one’s lips (and heart), as in Psalm 141:3-4. All things considered, I am inclined to adopt a reading that is comparable in meaning to Psalm 141:3:

“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his lips>”
or, conceivably,
“Happiness of (the one) giving consideration to (the) door of <his heart>”

However, with no textual support for such an emendation, it is probably safer, for the time being, to follow the LXX, in the manner indicated above.

Verse 3 [2]

“YHWH shall guard him and keep him alive,
He shall make (him) happy in the land,
and shall not give him in(to the) throat of his enemies!”

Metrically, this verse is difficult and may possibly be corrupt; if so, there is, unfortunately, no reliable way to modify or emend the text. As it is stands, the verse reads as an irregular (3+2+3) tricolon. Conceptually, the lines are straightforward enough, following the promise of deliverance for the righteous in the second line of verse 2 [1] (cf. above). The protection provided by YHWH, guarding the life of the righteous, relates to the idea of rescuing him “in the day of evil”.

The second line here is a bit awkward, and it may be preferable (along with Dahood, p. 249) to vocalize rvay as an active (Piel) form, rV@a^y+ (“he will make happy”), rather than the passive (Pual) of the MT, rV^a%y+ (“he will be made happy”). Clearly, the verb rv^a* relates to the beatitude formula the opens the Psalm (cf. above), and reflects the blessing that YHWH gives to the righteous. Those whom YHWH delivers in the time of evil, under his protection they will be safe and will prosper in the land (i.e., their life on earth).

In the final line, it is best to understand vp#n# in the concrete sense of “throat”, which is how the word is used occasionally in the Psalms (and other early poems). Another possible translation is “appetite”, which would conform more closely to the regular rendering of vp#n# as “soul” (cf. below). The enemies (lit. “hostile [one]s”) of the righteous seek to devour them, which can include the idea of causing their death. It is also possible that the wording here reflects the traditional image of Death personified as an all-consuming, ravenous entity, with a massive mouth/throat that seeks to swallow (devour) all things.

Verse 4 [3]

“YHWH shall support him upon (the) couch of (his) sickness,
every place of his lying down shall you turn over in his illness.”

This couplet gives some confirmation that the “enemies” of verse 3 [2] (as a collective or intensive plural) refer to death itself. We have encountered many Psalms where a life-threatening illness is involved, and that is clearly the focus here. The “day of evil” can take many forms, whereby the righteous are threatened and may be in danger of death; and, in the ancient world with its high rate of mortality, disease and illness frequently led to death. The promise here, continued from the opening verse, is that YHWH’s protection for the righteous will extend to help and healing in time of illness.

The shift from 3rd person to 2nd person may seem peculiar, but it is not at all uncommon in Near Eastern poetry. Here, we may view the shift as transitional to the Psalmist’s address to YHWH in verse 5 [4]. The verb Ep^h* often means “overturn”, but here it is perhaps better to keep to the fundamental meaning of “turn”, in the sense of turning (i.e. changing) the “couch of sickness” into something else—namely, a place of health and wholeness. Every place where the righteous lies down, there will be healing and life, rather than sickness and the threat of death.

Verse 5 [4]

“I said, ‘YHWH, show favor to me!
May you heal my soul,
for I have sinned against you!'”

This initial portion of the Psalm concludes with a plea to YHWH by the Psalmist. As is often the case, the Psalmist represents the righteous, and here the general Wisdom-sentiment of vv. 2-4 (i.e., instruction for the righteous) gives way to a personal appeal by a protagonist who personifies and embodies the righteous. Whether the author of the Psalm actually experienced such illness and suffering is beside the point; it is a topos that occurs repeatedly in the Psalms, and reflects an experience that would have been familiar to many faithful Israelites. As such, it relates to the common Wisdom-theme of the suffering of the righteous.

While illness could be viewed as an attack by a malevolent adversary, the monotheistic faith of the devout Israelite ultimately viewed YHWH Himself as the source of sickness and disease. Typically, it was thought as coming about as the result of sin—the disease being the punishment (by God) for such sin. Here the Psalmist admits that he has sinned against YHWH, recognizing that the illness that has struck him must be the result of his sin. It is a confession that is meant to demonstrate his faithfulness and devotion to YHWH, hoping (and expecting) that God will deliver him and remove the illness. He specifically prays that YHWH will heal (vb ap*r*) his soul (vp#n#, i.e., his life), but this concept of healing can have a deeper level of meaning as well, tied to the idea of repentance. In repenting of his sin, the Psalmist effectively asks that his life be made whole again, so that he can follow the path of God faithfully, avoiding any sinful ways that might turn him from the path.

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


March 15: Isaiah 61:1 (continued)

Isaiah 61:1, continued

The remainder of verse 1 introduces the series of infinitives that further summarizes and describes the mission of the Anointed Herald (cf. the discussion in the previous note):

“He (has) sent me
to bind (up wounds) for (the) broken of heart,
to call (out) freedom for (the one)s taken captive…”

It is possible to take the suffixed verb yn]j^l*v= (“he has sent me”) with the previous line; indeed, it is much preferable to do so, as it results in a series of six (instead of five) infinitives, which can be grouped into three pairs that are each related conceptually. Following this way of dividing the verse, we render it thus:

“(The) Spirit of my Lord YHWH (is) upon me,
because YHWH has anointed me;
He (has) sent me
to bring (good) news (for the) oppressed,
to bind (up wounds) for (the) broken of heart,
to call (out) freedom for (the one)s taken captive…”

Let us consider the first pair of infinitives (with prefixed preposition l): rC@b^l= and vb)j&l^. The verbal phrases are:

    • “to bring (good) news (for the) oppressed”
      <yw]n`u& rC@b^l=
    • “to bind (up wounds) for (the one)s broken of heart”
      bl@-yr@B=v=n]l= vb)j&l^

These are clearly related conceptually, forming a pair. The adjective wn`u* (= yn]u*) is often translated “poor”, emphasizing a condition of poverty; however, here it is much better to preserve the fundamental meaning of “pressed down, oppressed”, forming a parallel with the expression “broken of heart”. It is not merely a question of poverty, but of a despairing condition resulting from the experience of suffering and oppression. The Matthean version of Jesus’ Beatitudes (5:3) captures this same aspect with the phrase “the (one)s poor in spirit” (oi( ptwxoi\ tw=| pneu/mati)—an expression which transcends the socio-economic condition of poverty (compare the Lukan version, 6:20).

Indeed “the (one)s poor in spirit” is close in meaning to the Hebrew verbal expression bl@ yr@B=v=, “(the one)s being broken of heart” (cp. the English idiom “broken-hearted”). The experience of suffering and oppression has broken/shattered (vb rb^v*) their heart. However, it is not merely the experience of suffering that is in view; like the adjective wn`u*, the expression bl@ yr@B=v= is meant to characterize the righteous, specifically. The righteous are often referred to as “oppressed” (wn`u* / yn]u*) or “poor/needy” (/oyb=a#) in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and Prophets. The sense in the Psalms, in particular, is that it is their very upright conduct, their faithfulness and devotion to YHWH, that leads to the righteous being attacked and oppressed by the wicked.

Here in our passage, two definite aspects are in view: (1) a real socio-economic situation in which segments of the society experience suffering and oppression, and (2) the traditional characterization of the faithful/righteous as poor and oppressed. The socio-economic situation of the post-exilic period (i.e., mid-5th century) is the result of several factors:

    • The relative poverty of Judah as a minor province of the Persian empire
    • The fact that much of the region was still recovering from the conquest and exile, and needed to be rebuilt
    • Economic conditions hit the lower classes (peasant farmers, etc) especially hard; taxation added to increased debt, which, in turn, led to foreclosures and confiscation of peasant holding, making it that much more difficult to pay off debt (cf. the vivid description of conditions in Nehemiah 5:1-5).

Injustice and oppression within Judean society was brought about by the wicked. A fundamental principle was that the wicked tended to be the oppressors, rather than the oppressed; similarly, it was much more likely that the righteous would be among the oppressed. Along these lines, it is also worth pointing out the passages where the idea of a ‘broken’ heart implies repentance and a renewed turning to YHWH in trust and obedience (Psalm 51:17; Jer 23:9.

In any event, the Anointed Herald’s mission is to deliver a message of good news (vb rc^B*) to those who are oppressed. Though not stated here in verse 1, the essence of the ‘good news’ is that the current time of suffering is about to come to an end, and conditions are about to be reversed, when the glorious New Age for Judah and Jerusalem is finally realized. This message provides aid and comfort to the people, symbolically “binding up” (vb vb^j*) the wounds of those who are oppressed—wounds that are located in the heart, i.e., the suffering and despair of a heart that has been “broken” by injustice, oppression, and poverty (cf. Psalm 147:3).

In the next note, we will turn to the next pair of infinitives, covering the remainder of verse 1 and the first part of verse 2. This will isolate a different aspect of the Herald’s mission.