Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 71 (Part 2)

Psalm 71, continued

Part 1: Verses 1-13 (cont.)

For a discussion of verses 1-8, see the previous study.

Verses 9

“Do not cast me (away) in (the) time of (my) old age;
at (the) ending of my strength, do not leave me!”

In vv. 5-8, the Psalmist refers to how he has been faithful to YHWH since the time of his youth; now he calls on God to remain faithful to him in his old age (hn`q=z]). The three-beat couplet has a chiastic structure:

    • Do not cast me away [vb El^v*]
      • in the time of (my) old age
      • at the ending of my strength
    • do not leave/forsake me [vb bz~u*]
Verses 10-11

“For (those) hostile to me say (things) about me,
and (those) watching my soul, they plan as one,
‘(The) Mightiest has left him,
let us pursue and seize him,
for there is no (one) rescuing him!'”

The tone of lament from the opening verses returns here; the Psalmist laments his current suffering, and calls upon YHWH to rescue him from his hostile adversaries. These wicked people are characterized here by two substantive verbal nouns:

    • by~a*— “(the one)s being hostile to me” [yb~!y+oa]
    • rm^v*— “(the one)s watching my soul” [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)], that is, with evil/hostile intent

Dahood (II, p. 174) explains the verb rm^a* in line 1 as preserving the archaic meaning “see, watch” (as attested in Ugaritic), rather that the common meaning “say”. While this is possible, it would distort the close synonymous parallelism of the couplet:

    • “the ones hostile to me | speak…”
    • “those watching my soul | plan…(saying)”

Verse 10 is an irregular 4-beat couplet; verse 11 is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though it is perhaps better to separate out the initial word (as I have done above [some commentators would omit it]), and to read the verse as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The terseness of this rhythm reflects the harshness and directness of the opponents’ plotting. They seek to take advantage of the fact that the protagonist, in his old age and suffering, would seem to have lost God’s protection. They can pursue (vb [d^r*) and seize (vb cp^T*) him, because there is no one (else) around to “snatch” (vb lx^n`) him (i.e., rescue him) out of their grasp; the latter verb is used frequently in the Psalms to express the protection and deliverance YHWH provides to those who are (and remain) faithful to him. The opponents think that the Psalmist is no longer under this covenantal protection, but he makes his plea to YHWH on just this basis—that he has remained loyal to God throughout his whole life.

Verse 12

“Mightiest, do not be far away from me!
My Mighty (One), hurry to (give) me help!”

The Psalmist’s plea is expressed here, with a double-address to YHWH; probably the initial <yh!l)a$ should be seen as a substitution for the divine name YHWH (hwhy), such as occurs throughout the ‘Elohist’ Psalms. The negative “do not be far (away) [vb qj^r*]” is parallel with the positive “hurry [vb vWj]”, i.e., come near to give help. In the translation above, I treat yt!r*z+u#l= as a verbal noun (“to [give] me help”), but it might be more accurately rendered as “to (be) my help” —i.e., YHWH Himself is the Psalmist’s help.

Verse 13

“They shall be ashamed, finished,
(the one)s accusing my soul,
shall be wrapped (in) shame and disgrace,
(those) seeking my evil [i.e. harm]”

As it stands, v. 13 is a 2-beat couplet followed by a 3+2 couplet; however, one suspects that a word may be missing from the first line, and that originally there was a pair of 3+2 couplets. In any case, the thought of the verse is clear enough, as is the parallelism of the couplets. Again the wicked are characterized by a pair of substantive verbal nouns:

    • /f^c*— “(the one)s accusing my soul” [yv!p=n~ yn@f=c)]
    • vq^B*— “(the one)s seeking my evil [i.e. harm]” [yt!u*r* yv@q=b^m=]

The imperfect verb forms in lines 1 and 3 (“they shall be…”) have jussive force, and could be translated as an imprecation: “let them be…!” Imprecatory (curse) wishes are frequent in the Psalms, however uncomfortable they may be for us (as Christians) reading them today.

Part 2: Verses 14-24

Verse 14

“But I, continually I will wait, (for you),
and will add (further) upon your praise!”

The Psalmist’s expression of trust here mirrors that in the opening of Part 1 (cf. on verse 1 in the previous study). In spite of his suffering, and the hostile attacks of his opponents, the protagonist continues to trust in YHWH. The verb used here is lj^y`, meaning “wait (for someone/something),” often with a connotation of hopeful expectation. The aspect of continuity is expressed in the first line with the adverb dym!T* (denoting extension); in the second line, the verb ps^y` (“add [to]”) can similarly have the adverbial meaning “continue to do (something)”. The focus of praise is, of course, appropriate as an expression of trust for a musician-composer like the Psalmist.

Verse 15

“My mouth shall recount your righteousness,
all the day (long), your saving (deeds),
though I cannot know (the) count (of them).”

Verse 15 builds upon the thought in v. 14, with a slightly irregular 3-beat tricolon. The final two lines expound the first, while the framing (first and third) lines involve a bit of wordplay on the meaning of the root rps (“count, number”). In line 1, the verb rp^s* (in the Piel) means “give account of” or “recount”, in the sense of declaring something, telling of it (e.g., in poem and song). However, the plural noun torp)s= in line 3 refers more concretely to the count or number of something—best understood in terms of the saving deeds performed by YHWH, represented in line 2 by the [collective] singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”). I follow Dahood (II, p. 174) in understanding the yK! particle in line 3 as having concessive force (i.e., “even though…”). The ironic sense of the wordplay is: the Psalmist will recount the saving deeds of YHWH, even though he is not able to count the sheer number of them.

Verse 16

“I shall come with (your) mighty (deed)s, my Lord [YHWH],
I shall cause your righteousness to be remembered, yours alone.”

The exposition of the Psalmist’s praise continues here, with the declaration “I shall come” (vb aoB). The following prepositional expression, torb%g=B!, is somewhat ambiguous. If, as I propose, the singular noun hu*WvT= (“salvation”) in v. 15 (cf. above) refers collectively to the “saving deeds” performed by YHWH, then the plural torB%g+ would simply mean the “mighty (deed)s” of YHWH. The Psalmist comes “with” (B=) tales in hand (in poem and song) of these mighty deeds. Plausibly, the scenario is of the protagonist entering the sacred place of assembly (Temple precincts, etc) with praise of these deeds, ready to declare them publicly. Dahood (II, p. 175) would understand the noun hr*WbG+ as referring to the “mighty (house)” (i.e., the Temple) of God, noting the Semitic (Canaanite) tendency of using plural forms for the names of buildings.

There is a certain chiastic structure to verses 15-16, taken together:

    • “I shall recount your righteousness
      • (I shall announce) all day your saving (deeds)
      • I shall come with (praise of your) mighty deeds
    • I shall make (people) remember your righteousness

*    *    *    *    *    *

It is possible to view verse 17 as marking the start of a distinct unit within Part 2 of the Psalm. The reference to the youth and old age of the Psalmist (vv. 17-18) certainly parallels the theme of units vv. 5-8 and 9-13 of Part 1 (cf. above). Thematically, I would divide Part 2 as follows:

    • Vv. 14-16: Announcement of the Psalmist’s praise of YHWH
    • Vv. 17-21: Description of YHWH’s faithfulness to the Psalmist, with an expression of trust that God will deliver him
    • Vv. 22-24: Concluding declaration of praise to YHWH

Verses 17-24 will be discussed in next week’s study.

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 70

Psalm 70

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is essentially identical with Psalm 40:14-18 [13-17], discussed in an earlier study. The points of difference are noted below. The existence of Psalm 70 provides confirmation for scholars who hold that vv. 14-18 of Ps 40 originally constituted a separate Psalm. We are apparently dealing with two versions of the same basic poem. On its own, this poem is a lament, containing a plea/prayer to YHWH for deliverance. The meter is irregular.

The superscription simply marks this as another composition “belonging to David”. The precise meaning of the additional direction ryK!z+h^l= is unclear. If parsed as a Hiphil infinitive (of the verb rk^z`), it would mean “to cause to remember, to bring to remembrance”, but whether this relates to the performing tradition, or to the content (and purpose) of the poem, is uncertain. The same expression occurs in the superscription of Ps 38; and note the use of the verb rk^z` in the opening lines of Pss 132 and 137.

Verse 2 [1]

“(Rush, O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away)!
(O) YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

The Psalmist’s plea for help begins with this single couplet. It is nearly identical with Ps 40:14[13], the two differences being: (1) use of <yh!l)a$ in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) in the first line, and (2) the initial verb (hxr) is missing. The parallel with Ps 40, along with the irregular meter (2+3) of the couplet as it currently stands, strongly suggests that a comparable verb (imperative) has dropped out. In discussing 40:14 (cf. the earlier study), I mentioned that I had followed Dahood (I, p. 247) in vocalizing the initial verb form (hxr) as hx*r% (from the root JWr, “run, rush”), rather than MT hx@r= (from hx*r*, “be pleased [to act]”). The verb JWr makes a more obvious (and fitting) parallel with vwj (“hurry”) in the second line.

If the MT of verse 2 is correct, then it must be regarded as a rhythmically irregular couplet (though with identical numbers of syllables in each line [8+8]); it could be translated as follows:

“(O) Mightiest, to snatch me (away),
YHWH, may you hurry to help me!”

Dahood (II, p. 168) would parse yn]l@yX!hl= as a Hiphil imperative form with an emphatic –l; the first line would then read: “(O) Mightiest, snatch me (away)!”. The use of the general title <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm, “Mightiest,” i.e., ‘God’) in place of the Divine name (hwhy) is typical of the ‘Elohist’ Psalms we have been studying.

Verse 3 [2]

“May they feel shame and humiliation,
(those) seeking (after) my soul!
May they be sent backward and be ashamed,
(the one)s (who) delight in my evil!”

Again, this verse is very close to that of Psalm 40 (v. 15 [14]), cf. the earlier study; the second couplet is identical, while there is an extra word at the end of each in the first couplet of Ps 40 (yielding a 3+3 rather than 2+2 couplet):

“May they feel shame and humiliation as one [dj^y~],
(those) seeking my soul to sweep it (away) [Ht*oPs=l!]!”

Here we have familiar motif of wicked assailants who attack the righteous protagonist, seeking to do him harm (and even to kill him)—in this sense, of course, “my evil” means “evil done (or intended) against me”. This is a dramatic paradigm we have encountered in dozens of Psalms. It is a general way of referring to the wicked (in contrast to the righteous), and does not require the presence of specific enemies. However, the poetic idiom could certainly be applied to any number of historical situations or practical circumstances.

The desire that such wicked assailants would be “put to shame”, and have their evil plans thwarted (“turned back”), is also a common prayer-wish in these lament-Psalms. This is expressed through three different verbs which share a similar range of meaning: vWB, rp@j*, and <l^K*. These are used repeatedly throughout the Psalms, and often with similar formulations (35:4 is quite close here).

Verse 4 [3]

“May they be devastated upon (the) heel of their shame,
(the one)s saying (to me), ‘Aha, aha!'”

The second line of Ps 40:16[15] contains an additional word (yl!, “to me”, indicated in parentheses above), but is otherwise identical. The shorter second line of v. 4 here results in a tighter couplet, with a more precise 3-beat rhythm, though metrically there is not much difference between the two versions.

The wish of v. 3 [2] is restated here, but even more intensely, as the Psalmist asks that his adversaries be “devastated” (vb <m@v*) on account of their shame. The expression “upon (the) heel of” (bq#u@ lu^) is a Hebrew idiom that can be rendered blandly in English as “on account of”. The sense of their wickedness is captured here through their accusatory taunting of the righteous (cp. 35:21). For a slightly different explanation of bqu (with a different vocalization), cf. Dahood, II, p. 168.

Verse 5 [4]

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!’
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Ps 40:17[16] is identical, accept for the final noun, which in Ps 40 is hu*WvT= rather than the related hu*Wvy+, the two words essentially being byforms with identical meaning.

Just as the Psalmist prays for the wicked to feel shame and humiliation, so he also wishes (conversely) for the righteous to experience joy. The verb pair cWc and jm^c* expresses this joyfulness, even as the pair vWB and rp@j* in v. 3 [2] expresses the shame/humiliation of the wicked. The contrastive parallel (between the righteous and wicked) is quite precise here. The wicked are the ones “seeking [vb vq^B*]” the soul of the righteous, to do it harm; by contrast, the righteous are the ones “seeking” (same verb) after YHWH, to do His will. The wicked utter accusatory taunts (“Aha, aha!”) against the righteous, while the righteous utter praise in honor of YHWH (“Great is YHWH!”).

Structurally, this verse is best understood as a tricolon that has been expanded with two additional short lines. The tricolon is comprised of lines 1-2 and 5 above, producing a fine characterization of the righteous:

“May they rejoice and be joyful in you,
all (those) seeking (after) you,
(the one)s loving your salvation.”

Within this poetic structure, the additional descriptive element has been added:

“(who) say continually,
‘Great is YHWH!'”

To their heart and intention, a confessional aspect is included, whereby the righteous demonstrate their devotion to YHWH through what they say publicly. It implies a worship setting, but even more importantly, it marks the Psalmist as belonging to the gathering of (all the) the righteous.

Verse 6 [5]

“And (yet) I (am) oppressed and needy,
(O) Mightiest, (come) hurry to me!
You (are) my help and my escaping—
(O) YHWH, do not stay behind!”

Compared with the parallel in Ps 40:18[17], there is a more consistent parallelism in the couplets here, taking the form of an urgent plea to YHWH (matching that of v. 2 at the opening of the Psalm). The points of difference are indicated in italics above, as well as, correspondingly, here for Ps 40:

“And (though) I (am) oppressed and needy,
my Lord has regard for me.
You (are) my help and my escaping—
my Mighty (One), do not stay behind!”

The righteous are frequently characterized as poor/needy (/oyb=a#) and oppressed (yn]a*), and this pairing occurs numerous times in the Psalms—35:10; 37:14; 72:4, 12; 74:21; 86:1; 109:16, 22; 140:13; and cf. also on 69:33-34 (in the previous study). The wicked, by contrast, are rich and powerful (at least by worldly standards), and oppress the righteous. This is expressed from the standpoint of social justice, but as an idiom also carries a deeper religious and theological resonance. The righteous, by their very nature, cannot share the success and strength of the wicked in the world; instead, they must trust in YHWH for sustenance and protection.

The protection provided by YHWH is again the subject of the final two lines, as the Psalmist closes his poem with the plea: “O YHWH, do not stay behind!”. The verb rj^a* literally means “stay behind, keep back”, and expresses a situation that is the opposite of what the Psalmist needs. He needs YHWH to come forward to rescue him, to stand in front of him and give the necessary protection. YHWH is both the help and the “way out”, the escape (vb fl^P*) from all that threatens 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 69 (Part 4)

Psalm 69, continued

Part 3: Verses 31-37 [30-36]

Verses 31 [30]

“(Then) I will praise (the) name of (the) Mightiest with song,
and ascribe greatness to Him with thanksgiving.”

The focus shifts from lament and prayer to praise in this final part of the Psalm, a pattern that can be found in many of the Psalms we have studied thus far. The implication is that the Psalmist expects YHWH to answer his prayer, and promises to give praise to Him—formally and publicly. In some Psalms, this is framed specifically in terms of a vow.

On the significance of the name of God in ancient Near Eastern thought, cf. the discussion in my earlier series “And you shall call His Name…” The name embodies the essence of the person; thus, to praise the name of YHWH is essentially the same as praising Him. As is appropriate for a musician-composer, praise and thanksgiving takes musical form (a “song” [ryv!]).

The meter in this opening couplet is 3+2, which marks a shift from the 3-beat (3+3) meter that dominates the Psalm.

Verse 32 [31]

“Indeed this will be good to YHWH more than an ox,
or a bull having horns and having split hooves.”

This is a strange couplet, in terms of the poetry, though the meaning is clear enough. The principle, that praise to YHWH (from the righteous) is more important than fulfilling the ritual sacrificial offerings, can be found in a number of Psalms (e.g., 40:6; 50:8-15, 23; 51:16-19). Such offerings (<ym!l*v= offerings) would be made to YHWH in response to God answering the protagonist’s prayer, and delivering him from his distress. Praise and worship takes the place of the sacrificial ritual.

The prefixed /m! preposition (-m) in the first line is an example of the comparative /m!, which requires, in context, a translation like “more than” instead of the literal “from”. The rather banal description in the second line may be intended to emphasize the relative uselessness of sacrificial offerings. There is also a bit of wordplay in the first line that is lost in translation, between rov (šôr, “ox”) and ryv! (šîr, “song”) in v. 31 (cf. above).

Here in this couplet the meter returns to 3+3 (from 3+2 in v. 31).

Verse 33 [32]

“See, (you) oppressed (one)s,
be glad, (you) seekers of (the) Mightiest,
and let there be life for your heart!”

This verse is best treated as a 2-beat tricolon, though the meter is slightly irregular (properly, 2+3+2). The rhythmic shift fits the sudden shift in focus, as the Psalmist calls on the righteous, characterized as “(those) seeking [vb vr^D*] the Mightiest” (i.e., “seekers of God”), that they might find encouragement in the way that YHWH answers his prayer and delivers him in his time of distress. Typically, the righteous are characterized as “oppressed” (adjective wn`u*), as in v. 30 (yn]u*). This way of referring to the righteous is common in the Psalms, where the suffering of the righteous (at the hands of the wicked) is a frequent theme.

With many commentators (e.g., Dahood, II, p. 165) I read the verbs in lines 1-2 as plural imperatives; the imperfect verb form in line 3 correspondingly has jussive force.

Verse 34 [33]

“For YHWH is listening to (His) needy (one)s,
and (those) bound to Him He does not despise.”

The adjectival noun /oyb=a# (“needy”) is another term that is characteristic of the righteous, forming a regular parallel with yn`u* (“oppressed”)—cf. 9:19; 12:6; 35:10; 37:14; 40:18, etc. The participle u^m@v) (“hearing, listening [to]”) denotes the regular (and characteristic) activity of YHWH: He hears the prayer of the righteous ones who are faithful/loyal to Him. This covenantal emphasis, so frequent in the Psalms, is indicated here in the second line, where the root rsa (“bind”) is best understood as referring to the covenant-bond. Admittedly, rsa often is used in reference to prisoners who are bound, but here the idea of a binding obligation is to be preferred. Cf. the note by Dahood, II, p. 165f.

The 3-beat couplet pattern is maintained here, but only loosely so.

Verse 35 [34]

“Let (the) heavens and the earth praise Him,
(the) seas, and everything teeming in them!”

From his exhortation to the righteous, the Psalmist now calls on all of creation to give praise to YHWH. Such an idea is not uncommon in the Psalm, though typically the call to the earth refers specifically to all people and nations on earth, e.g., 66:1ff; 96:1ff. Conceivably, the teeming waters could be meant as an allusion to the nations; however, the basic sentiment, that every living creature should praise God, is expressed clearly enough in the climactic lines of Pss 145 and 150.

The invocation of “heaven and earth” is more in keeping with the ancient covenant treaty-form, and especially the so-called ‘covenant lawsuit’, when judgment needs to be made regarding violations of the covenant—cf. 50:4; Deut 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:1; Isa 1:2. Here, the context is quite different, even though the covenant-bond with YHWH is clearly in view (cf. above on v. 34).

Verses 36 [35]

“For (the) Mightiest is keeping ‚iyyôn safe,
and He will build (the) cities of Yehudah,
and they shall settle there, even (those) dispossessed (from) her,”

The dual-thought expressed in the first two lines—that of God keeping Zion (Jerusalem) safe and (re)building the (other) cities of Judah—suggests the historical circumstances of Hezekiah’s reign, in the aftermath of Sennacherib’s invasion. However, the setting could just as easily be that of the exilic (or the post-exilic) period. In any case, the ‘Zion theology’ found here in vv. 36-37 can be seen, similarly expressed, in other Psalms—most notably, in 51:20 [18] and 102:14-23 [13-22], and overall in 4648 and 97-100. The timeframe of this theology has been associated with the final composition/redaction of the book of Isaiah; cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 176, 183.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 166), though without necessarily following his re-vocalization of the MT, in reading the verb vr^y` (“take possession, possess”) in the specific (privative) sense of being dispossessed—that is, of the people having been expelled/exiled from the land. With the rebuilding of the Judean cities (presumably after the exile), the people will be able to return and settle (vb bv^y`) there again.

Verse 37 [36]

“and (so the) seed of His servants will inherit her,
and (the one)s loving His name shall dwell in her.”

Both conceptually and syntactically, these lines continue the thought from v. 36. The faithful ones of God’s people (“His servants”), those loyal to Him (“loving His name”), will once again inherit the land (of Judah) and dwell in the cities. Jerusalem (Zion) with the Temple-sanctuary of YHWH will be the center of this restored Judean kingdom. That this will be fulfilled by the “seed” of the faithful ones, suggests that a relatively long process of restoration is involved, one that spans more than a single generation. At the same time, the focus on the “seed” of the people can imply an inheritance and settlement that will last far into the future.

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).


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 3)

Psalm 69, continued

Part 2: Verses 14-30 [13-29]

(Verses 14-19 [13-18] were discussed in the previous study)

Verses 20-21 [19-20]

“You, (indeed) you know my scorn—
my shame and disgrace are before you—
(the) scorn (from) all my oppressors,
it has broken my heart  and I am sick.
I looked for but a nod, and there was none,
and for (those) sighing, but I did not find (one).”

In verses 14-19, the Psalmist makes his prayer, his petition, to YHWH for deliverance from his adversaries. Here, the tone of lament from the first part of the Psalm (cf. the prior study) is repeated. The protagonist details his suffering to God, defined primarily in terms of the verbal abuse and taunting from those oppressing him (vb rr^x* II). The primary word here is hP*r=j#, “scorn, reproach,” capturing the sense of verbal abuse, and often connoting the casting of blame upon someone. This abuse leads to the protagonist experiencing shame and disgrace—the nouns tv#B) and hM*l!K= being quite similar in meaning.

The standard verse division (between vv. 20 and 21) is problematic, both metrically and syntactically. Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 172) proposes transferring the words yt!M*l!k=W yT!v=b*W (“[and] my shame and my disgrace”) from line 2 in v. 20 down into v. 21. In my view, the simplest solution is to include the first word of v. 21 (hP*r=j#, “scorn”) as part of the final line of v. 22. This allows (more or less) the three-beat rhythm of the lines to be maintained throughout vv. 21-22. It also heightens the thematic emphasis on abuse/scorn in v. 21, making it clear that this abuse comes from the Psalmist’s adversaries.

YHWH is aware of all this, as the Psalmist points out in his petition— “my shame and my disgrace are in front of [dg#n#] you,” i.e., are right before God’s eyes. It is also known to God what the effect of this abuse has been: it has “broken” (vb rb^v*) the Psalmist’s heart and made him sick (vb vWn), a most vivid way of referring to suffering—both emotional and physical. Beyond this, he has no one to help or give comfort to him in his time of distress. The verb dWn denotes waving/shaking or nodding one’s head, here as a sign of sympathy for the psalmist’s suffering; similarly the verb <j^n` means “breathe (deep),” i.e., “sigh” on behalf of someone.

Verse 22 [21]

“They gave in my food (the bitter) head,
and for my thirst they made me drink sour (wine).”

It is possible that the initial –w conjunction is meant to contrast with the people (the Psalmist’s friends and neighbors) who should have been sympathetic toward him in his time of suffering. In this case, the translation would be: “Instead, they gave…poison…”. On the other hand, these lines may simply be amplifying the description of the abuse given by the Psalmist’s adversaries.

The noun var) literally means “head,” and presumably refers to the ‘head’ of a (particular) plant which is bitter and/or poisonous to the taste. The Psalmist’s adversaries (or would-be friends) further mock and abuse him by putting something harsh and bitter tasting (possibly even poisonous) in his food. The parallel is of giving him sour wine (Jm#j)) to drink. Probably this imagery is meant to be figurative, indicating the cruelty and treachery of the Psalmist’s opponents (or false friends).

Early Christians, quite naturally, came to interpret verse 22 (especially the second line) in terms of the events of Jesus’ Passion—of the sour wine given to him (to drink) while he was dying on the cross (Matt 27:34, 48 par).

Verse 23 [22]

“May their table be before them as a trap,
even for (those) of (their) bond, as a snare!”

The Psalmist’s lamenting plea suddenly turns into an imprecatory outburst, calling on God to visit the opponents’ own wicked intentions back upon them (in judgment). They will be caught in the very sort of treacherous trap they seek to lay for the righteous. The nouns jP^ and vq#om are parallel in meaning—the first word refers to a metal trap, and the second to a noose or snare made of rope/cord.

The plural noun <ym!olv= here is difficult to translate. My interpretation follows the use of <wlv in Psalm 41:11 [10] (cf. the earlier study), with the assumption that it refers to people in covenant-bond with one another, who have close/intimate fellowship at table. In such an environment, one should be able to trust in those at the table, but, based on the Psalmist’s curse-request, even a meeting of supposed friends sharing a common bond will turn into a “trap” for the wicked.

Verse 24 [23]

“Let their eyes be (made) dark from seeing,
and their thighs continually may (they) shake!”

The lex talionis imprecation continues from v. 23. Just as the Psalmist was made sick (to the point of suffering physically) by the opponents’ abuse, so they will be made to suffer in a similar way. Their eyes (i.e. sight) will become dark (vb Ev^j*); the expression “from seeing” (toarm@) is privative—i.e., their eyes will grow dark (i.e. blind) so that they are unable to see.

Verse 25 [24]

“May you pour out upon them your anger,
and may (the) burning of your nostril(s) take them!”

The imprecation by the Psalmist here turns into a direct call on YHWH to bring destructive judgment upon his adversaries. This is expressed in traditional terms, referring the burning anger of God. The noun <u^z~ refers to this anger simply, while, in the second line, the more colorful idiom of God’s burning nostrils (lit. “burning of your nostril[s]”) is used, presumably drawing upon the idea of an angry bull, etc, snorting out a hot wind. The idiom was so common that the noun [a^ came to signify “anger” generally, derived from the more concrete image of burning/flaring nostrils (or the burning anger visible in one’s face).

Verse 26 [25]

“Let their row (of dwellings) be (made) desolate,
(and) in their tents let there not be (anyone) sitting!”

Because of God’s judgment on the wicked, there will literally be no one “sitting” (i.e., dwelling) in the tents; the entire encampment (lit. row [of tents]) will be made desolate (vb <m@v*).

Verse 27 [26]

“For the one whom you struck they have pursued,
and tell about (the) anguish of (he) whom you wounded.”

This is a difficult couplet, in terms of its syntax. The basic sense, however, seems clear enough. The Psalmist’s adversaries are deserving of punishment because they persecuted and mocked (or slandered) a righteous individual who was suffering. Here, the suffering is best understood as a physical illness, brought about by God. The Psalmist acknowledges that it was YHWH who “struck” him with this suffering, ‘piercing’ him (figuratively speaking). This suggests that the reproach (“scorn,” hP*r=j#) by the adversaries (cf. above) may have involved casting blame upon the Psalmist, to the effect that he was deserving of suffering because he committed certain kinds of sins or crimes. Such a focus on the wicked slandering the righteous would be in keeping with descriptions we have seen in earlier Psalms. In this regard, the verb rp^s* (“give account, recount”) here should probably be understood in the negative/pejorative sense of “telling tales” about someone.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 163) in vocalizing hta as ht)a) (direct object marker with 3ms suffix) instead of MT hTa^ (2ms pronoun); the combination rv#a& hta thus means “he who” or “the one who”. The parallelism of the lines would require that ;yl#l*j& involve a similar expression; this is achieved (again following Dahood) by reading a genitive form with an instrumental suffix (i.e., “by you”), viz. “(he) of your piercing”, i.e. “he whom you pierced”.

Verse 28 [27]

“Give crookedness upon their crookedness,
and (so) may they not come in(to) your righteousness.”

Here the Psalmist’s imprecation (beginning in v. 23, cf. above) reaches its harshest point. The first line is a bit difficult to translate. The noun /ou* literally means “crookedness,” indicating a state of being crooked, twisted, perverse, often specifically in an ethical-religious sense. The Psalmist asks God to put (lit. give) further “crookedness” upon the wicked who are already “crooked”. The second line makes clear that this is to be understood in the literal sense of taking a twisted path. The wicked already walk in a twisted/crooked way, but the Psalmist, by his request, wants to ensure that they are unable to find their way into God’s “righteousness”. By this, probably, is meant the way into His righteous dwelling-place (i.e., His blessed abode in Heaven). If verse 26 implies the death of the wicked, here we seem to have the idea of a more permanent perishing, with the wicked unable to have any life after death. This is confirmed by what follows in verse 29.

Verse 29 [28]

“May they be rubbed (out) from (the) account of (the) living,
and with (the) righteous let them not be written!”

The idiom of a “(written) account” (i.e. book or scroll) of the “living” is traditional, referring to an account that God keeps, specifically recording those who are righteous, and thus have a deserving place in the blessed afterlife (cf. Exod 32:32-33; Psalm 56:8; 139:16; Dan 12:1; Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5, etc). The Psalmist asks that his wicked adversaries be “rubbed (out)” (vb hj*m*) from this book. Christians today doubtless will find this sort of imprecatory language and thinking disturbing, but it is very much a part of the ancient Near Eastern worldview.

Possibly there is a bit of wordplay here between the noun rp#s@ (“account”) and the related verb rp^s* in v. 27 (cf. above). By ‘telling tales” and giving slanderous accounts of the Psalmist’s suffering, the wicked will end up being blotted out of the account (i.e. book) of life.

Verse 30 [29]

“But I (am) oppressed and in anguish—
may your salvation, Mightiest, set me (up) high!”

The imprecation reached its climax in verse 29, and now the Psalmist returns to the main line of his prayer and petition, again lamenting his current condition. He is apparently experiencing genuine physical and emotional suffering, which has been exacerbated by the abuse of his opponents. The pronoun yn]a& (“I”) with the prefixed conjunction is emphatic and could be translated “But as for me, (I am)…”

Two terms are used to describe the protagonist’s condition. The first is the adjective yn]u* (“oppressed”), an adjective that occurs frequently in the Psalms (29 times, out of 73 OT occurrences). It characterizes the righteous—as people who tend to be poor and oppressed (spec. by the wicked). The second term is a verbal noun (participle), ba@oK, denoting a state of “being in anguish”; the use of a participle suggests that it refers to a present and continuing condition.

In the final line, the Psalmist closes his prayer with an expression of trust in YHWH, using the traditional motif, frequent in the Psalms, of God as a place of safety and protection for the righteous. This is the fundamental significance of the word hu*Wvy+ (“salvation”) here. The protagonist expects that God will answer his prayer, and will deliver him from his suffering, and, at the same time, will rescue him from the threats and abuse of his wicked adversaries. It is expected that YHWH will take him to a safe and protected place “up high” —that is the basic meaning of bg~c*, a relatively rare verb which occurs with some frequency in the Psalms (7 out of 20 OT occurrences).

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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 69 (Part 2)

Psalm 69, continued

In the previous study, I mentioned a number of variant reading in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa. Typically, what survives of a particular Psalm in the Qumran MSS is too fragmentary to allow for any substantial textual comparison. The situation is rather different in the case of Psalm 69, where much of the first half of the Psalm (vv. 1-19) has been preserved in 4QPsa (frag. 19 col ii–frag. 20 col. iii). This includes more that a dozen points in the surviving text where the Qumran reading differs from the Masoretic Text [MT]. I thought it worth surveying these, before continuing on with an exegesis of the remainder of the Psalm. Many of the readings occur in vv. 2-13—that is, in the first part of the Psalm, discussed in the previous study. I did not address these in the prior exegesis.

Comparison of MT with 4QPsa

Verse 3 [2]

“I have sunk in mire of (the) deep (sea),
and there is no place to stand;
I have come in(to the) depths of (the) waters,
and (the) swirling (flood) engulfs me!”

The MT as I have translated it is presented above; the words in italics represent the points where the text differs from 4QPsa. The main difference is that, in line 1, the Qumran MS reads /yb (apparently the preposition /yB@, “between”), rather than /wyb, which the MT vocalizes as /w@yB!—the noun /y@y` (“mire”) with the prefixed preposition B= (“in”). At the beginning of the 2nd and 4th lines, the prefixed –w conjunction is not present in 4QPsa. Translating the Qumran text of this verse yields:

“I have sunk between (the) deep (sea),
there is no place to stand;
I have come in(to the) depths of (the) waters,
(the) swirling (flood) engulfs me!”

The MT is to be preferred, particularly with regard to the 4QPsa reading of /yb, which is most likely either a scribal error, or a ‘correction’ of a somewhat difficult construct expression (“in [the] mire of [the] deep [sea]”).

Verse 4 [3]

“I am exhausted by my crying,
my throat is (all) parched,
(and) my eyes are finished,
from waiting for my Mighty (One).”

In the third line, 4QPsa reads ynv (“my teeth”), rather than MT ynyu (“my eyes”). In the fourth line, instead of ljym (“from waiting”), the Qumran MS has lyjb (“in writhing,” i.e., in anguish). Also, 4QPsa apparently includes the word [lar]cy (“Israel”), the portion in square brackets representing a suggested restoration of the fragmentary text. If that Qumran reading is correct, then a word has dropped out of the MT, and yhlal would be vocalized as part of a construct expression— “for (the) Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of Israel” —rather than the noun with a possessive suffix (“my Mighty [One]”). The Qumran version of the verse would be translated:

“I am exhausted by my crying,
my throat is (all) parched,
(and) my teeth are finished
in writhing for (the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael.”

Verse 5 [4]

“Many (more) than (the) hairs of my head…”

Here the difference is one of gender. In the first line of v. 5, 4QPsa has a masculine plural construct form (yrucm), rather than the MT feminine form (twrucm). Both the masculine noun ru*c@ and the feminine hr*u&c^ are attested in Hebrew; both mean “hair”, though the feminine noun (in the plural) would specifically refer to the individual hairs (cf. GKC §122t), and thus would be more appropriate to the context of counting hairs.

Verse 6 [5]

“Mightiest, you (indeed) know of my foolishness,
and my faults, from you they are not concealed.”

Instead of the MT reading ytlWal, which essentially means “(belonging) to my foolishness,” i.e., what I have done in my foolishness, 4QPsa has ytywl awl, which appears to be a nonsense reading (“not my wreath[?]”), and is presumably reflects a scribal error.

Verse 7 [6]

“May they not be ashamed by me,
(those) looking to you, my Lord,
O YHWH of (the heavenly) armies!
May they not be disgraced by me,
(those) seeking you, Mighty (One)
of Yisrael!”

In the parallel lines 1 and 4, the Qumran MS omits the suffixed preposition yb (“by me”).

Verse 9 [8]

A stranger I have become to my brothers,
and (one) foreign to (the) sons of my mother.”

At the beginning of the first line, 4QPsa has rz ym instead of MT rzwm. In the MT, the expression is “I have become (one who is) estranged [rz*Wm]”; the Qumran reading (if it is not a nonsense reading from scribal error) presumably would mean something like “Who [ym!] made me to be a stranger [rz]…?”

As in v. 3 (cf. above), the Qumran MS omits the initial –w conjunction.

Verse 11 [10]

“When I poured out my soul with fasting,
it even came to be as scorn toward me.”

In the MT, the initial word of the first line is hkbaw, which I vocalize as hk*B)a#w`, from the verb Eb^n` (= Ep^n`), meaning “pour (forth)”. By contrast, 4QPsa has iaw, apparently reading the verb hk*n` (“strike”),  rather than Eb^n`—i.e., “when I struck my soul with fasting…”

Verse 12 [11]

“And I gave rough cloth for my garment,
and I became for them as a byword.”

In 4QPsa, the first word of the second line is yhtw (“and it [fem.] became”), rather than MT yhaw (“and I became”). If the feminine form is original, or was intended (as such) by the scribe of 4QPsa, then presumably the subject is still “my soul” from v. 11; more likely, it reflects a scribal error influenced by the second line of v. 11.

Verse 13 [12]

“About me they rehearse, (those) sitting (at the) gate,
even songs strummed (by those) feasting on drink.”

The text of the first line in 4QPsa is the same, but with a different word order. In the second line, the verb /g~n` (“strum,” i.e. play on stringed instrument) is used (wngny, “and they strummed”), rather than the related noun hn*yg]n+ in the MT, which refers to the song/music that is strummed.

Part 2: Verses 14-30 [13-29]

Verse 14 [13]

“And (as for) me, my prayer (is) to you, YHWH.
Now (may you show) favor, Mightiest,
in your abundant goodness, answer me,
in (the) firmness of your salvation!”

This verse marks the beginning of a new section of the Psalm, as the author moves from lamentation to delivering a prayer/petition (hL*p!T=) to YHWH, as stated clearly here in the first line. Dahood (II, p. 159) proposes that tu@ be read as hT*u^ (“now”), and, as it happens, that is the reading in 4QPsa, which I adopt here. The precise meaning of the syntax is uncertain, however; it could mean “now (there is) favor (from you)”, but I prefer to see an implicit imperative at work, i.e., “now (may you show) favor…”. Dahood would emend the text to read an imperative here: yn]x@r=, “show favor to me”.

For poetic concision, I have translated the third line “in your abundant goodness,” whereas the more literal rendering would be “in (the) abundance of your goodness”, which parallels the syntax of the fourth line. As I have pointed out numerous times, the noun ds#j# (“kindness, goodness”) often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, i.e., in a covenantal context, which is typically present in the Psalms.

Metrically, and syntactically, the verse is best understood as comprised of an initial 3-beat line, followed by a 3+2+2 tricolon.

Verse 15 [14]

“Snatch me out from (the) mud,
and do not let me sink (down);
let me be snatched from (those) hating me,
and from (the) depths of (the) waters!”

This verse echoes the thought and imagery from the opening (vv. 2-3) of the first part of the Psalm (cf. above, and in the previous study). The deep waters, and the mud/mire existing in them, threaten to engulf and pull down the Psalmist. As in the first part (cf. verses 5ff), the waters symbolize the danger posed by the Psalmist’s enemies, those wicked persons who threaten and attack the righteous. Here, as is frequently the case, the enemies are specifically designated by the verbal noun (participle) “(those) hating me”. The idea of YHWH rescuing the Psalmist is expressed by the verb lx^n`, which fundamentally means “snatch/tear away,” i.e., out of danger; it is used here emphatically, twice, in lines 1 and 3.

The Qumran MS 4QPsa contains an additional line that is absent from the MT, yielding a tricolon rather than a couplet:

“Snatch me out from (the) mud,
and do not let me sink (down),
(nor) let (the one) seizing me take me

The watery mire functions like a person seizing the helpless Psalmist, blending together the two motifs. There are two other small variants in 4QPsa: (1) instead of the passive verb form (“let me be snatched”) in line 3 of the MT, the same Hiphil active form (from line 1) is repeated; and (2) the –w suffix at the beginning of the final line in the MT is absent (cf. above for similar examples of this).

Verse 16 [15]

“Do not let (the) swirl of waters engulf me,
and do not let (the) deep swallow me,
and do not let close over me
(the) pit—her mouth!”

Metrically, I parse this verse as a 3-beat couplet followed by a short 2-beat couplet; the latter, however, could also be read syntactically as a long 4-beat line: “and do not let (the) pit close her mouth over me!” The imagery from v. 15 continues here, most vividly. The initial line essentially echoes the final line of v. 3 (cf. above), with its use of the noun tl#B)v! (denoting a swirling/whirling flood) and the verb [f^v* (“flow/rush over, engulf”).

The specific image in line 2, of a “deep place” swallowing (vb ul^B*) the Psalmist, draws upon ancient mythological tradition, depicting death (and the realm of the dead) as a being with a ravenous appetite—and possessing a giant mouth with which it devours all people. The deep waters frequently symbolize both death (and the danger of death) and the realm of the dead. For more on this line of tradition, cf. my earlier note on the Sheol motif. Here, specifically, the “Pit” (ra@B=) threatens to close up “her mouth” over the Psalmist. The Qumran MS (4QPsa) here reads “my mouth” (yp), which makes no sense whatsoever, and is certainly a copyist’s mistake.

Verse 17 [16]

“May you answer me, O YHWH,
for good (is) your faithful kindness;
according to (the) abundance of your love,
turn (your face) unto me!”

This verse is comprised a pair of short 2-beat couplets, which is difficult to capture in translation; the rhythm is better preserved by a looser rendering:

“Answer me, O YHWH,
for good (is) your kindness;
in your abundant love,
turn (your face) to me!”

If verses 14-16 comprise the substance of the Psalmist’s plea, he now calls on YHWH to answer (vb hn`u*) his prayer, and thus to rescue him out of the danger he faces from his enemies. Conceptually, lines 1 and 4 are parallel, as God “turning” (vb hn`P*) His face to the Psalmist means the same as answering the prayer. On the noun ds#j# connoting covenantal faithfulness and loyalty, cf. above. In this regard, the noun <j^r^ is comparable in meaning, essentially referring to a deep feeling of love and compassion toward another person. The suffixed plural form here may be rendered as “(depth)s of your love,” which would fit well with the earlier motif of the deep waters that threaten the Psalmist (cf. above).

Verse 18 [17]

“And do not hide your face from your servant,
for (there is) distress (now) for me—
(please) be quick and answer me!”

The opposite of God turning his face toward the Psalmist would be for Him to hide (vb rt^s*) His face, or to turn it away. Dahood (II, p. 160; cf. also I, p. 64) would parse rT@s=T^ as a form of the verb rWs (“turn [away]”); whether the verb is rt^s* or rWs, the basic sense of the line would be much the same. The Psalmist designates himself as a faithful “servant” of YHWH, meaning that he is loyal to the covenant bond.

Metrically, this verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon; the terse 2-beat lines capture the sense of the Psalmist’s desperation: “there is distress for me [i.e. I am in distress] / be quick [vb rh@m*] and answer me!”

Verse 19 [18]

“Come near to my soul (and) redeem it;
from (the) lair of my enemies, ransom me!”

By turning to the Psalmist, in response to his prayer, God acts to rescue him out of danger from his enemies. This is expressed here, poignantly and powerfully, with the idea of YHWH “coming near” (vb br^q*) to the soul of the Psalmist. God enters right into the midst of the danger, into the deep ‘waters’, coming right up next to the faithful/righteous one and so to snatch him out of the grasp of death. The verbs la^G` and hd*P* each refer, in different ways, to the idea of freeing someone from bondage by making payment on their behalf. In particular, la^G` typically signifies payment that is made by a near-relative or kinsman. Both terms, however, can also be used more generally, in the sense of freeing someone from danger, etc.

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 161) in vocalizing /uml as /u)m=l!—that is, the noun /oum* (“dwelling-place”) with the prefixed preposition –l—rather than MT /u^m^=, with its general meaning “in response to, on account of, because of”. The noun /oum* can specifically refer to the lair/den of predatory animals, which would certainly fit the setting here—viz., of YHWH freeing the Psalmist from the power of his enemies, and from the domain of wickedness and death.

(The remainder of this Psalm will be examined in the next study.)

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 69 (Part 1)

Psalm 69

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1-19 [18])

It is generally acknowledged that this Psalm, in comparison with the previous Ps 68, is in much better textual condition. Despite being comparable in size, the MT of Ps 69 presents far fewer textual and interpretive difficulties. Even so, its length and complexity remain challenging for commentators. In particular, there a number of different theories regarding the composition of the work. It seems likely that some measure of development and expansion took place, by which the current Psalm grew into shape, from a simpler/shorter original composition. The three-stage development posited by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 176) is worth citing as a plausible hypothesis:

    • Stage 1: A pre-exilic psalm of lament, consisting of vv. 2-5, 14c-19, 31; the structure of this Psalm follows a familiar pattern of lament-petition-praise.
    • Stage 2: The primary psalm was expanded, according its three structural elements: lament (vv. 6-14b), petition (vv. 20-30), praise vow (vv. 32-34).
    • Stage 3: The call to praise, mentioning the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem (vv. 35-37), was added to the end of the psalm; this last portion certainly comes from an exilic (or post-exilic) setting.

In terms of analyzing the structure of this lengthy Psalm, it seems best to keep things relatively simple, following a broad 3-part division that, I think, can be discerned rather clearly:

    • Part 1: Lament to YHWH (vv. 2-13)
    • Part 2: Prayer to YHWH (vv. 14-30)
    • Part 3: Praise to YHWH (vv. 31-37)

Metrically, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominates; however, this is far from consistent. As one might expect, in a poem of such length and complexity, the meter varies considerably. Notable rhythmic departures from the 3+3 pattern will be mentioned in the notes.

The short heading to the Psalm simply marks this as another Davidic composition (“[belonging] to David”). The musical direction indicates that the lyric of the poem should be performed to the melody “Lilies” (<yN]v*ov); the same direction occurs in Psalm 45 (cf. also Ps 60:1; 80:1).

It should be mentioned that a significant portion of this Psalm, though fragmentary, survives in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsa, covering vv. 1-19. This includes an interesting number of variant readings, compared with the Masoretic text. Some of these will be touched upon in the next study.

Part 1: Verses 2-13 [1-12]

Verse 2 [1]

“Save me, O Mightiest,
for there have come
waters up to (my) neck!”

The initial verse, which I read as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, presents, in sharp and vivid detail, the danger facing the protagonist of this Psalm. There are a number of instances (always in poetry) where the word vp#n#, usually translated “soul”, should be understood in the concrete physical sense of “neck, throat”; this is certainly one such instance. The image (symbolic of mortal peril) is of the Psalmist in water up to his neck, and the implication is that the waters are still coming. In other words, he is in danger of being submerged, and drowning.

Verse 3 [2]

“I have sunk in mire of (the) deep (sea),
and there is no place to stand;
I have come in(to the) depths of (the) waters,
and (the) swirling (flood) engulfs me!”

This verse expands the imagery in v. 2, expressed through a pair of 3+2 couplets. The first line in each couplet depicts a similar idea:

    • I have sunk in the mire of the deep (sea)
    • I have come in(to) the depths of the waters

Two different words are used to express the idea of deep water, watery depths: hl*Wxm= and qm*u&m^; both words essentially mean “deep place”. The noun /w@y` adds the motif of “mud, mire” to the portrait of the surging and swirling (lbv) waters.

The second line of each couplet is also parallel. The idea of having no “place to stand” (dm*u(m*) is followed by the more dramatic image of the waters “engulfing”(vb [f^v*) the Psalmist.

Verse 4 [3]

“I am exhausted by my crying,
my throat is (all) parched,
(and) my eyes are finished,
from waiting for my Mighty (One).”

Following the idea of being submerged by water, in vv. 2-3, the image now shifts to one of being dried out. The Psalmist’s throat (/orG`, cf. the parallel with vp#n# in v. 2, above) is literally “burned” (vb rr^j*), best understood in the sense of being “parched,” i.e., dry (and scorched) as in the desert. His throat is parched from all his “crying (out)” to God; this constant outcry has exhausted (vb ug~y`) him, and weakened him so that his eyes fail (lit. are finished). The parallelism in these couplets is chiastic:

    • I am exhausted crying out (to God)
      • my throat is burnt
      • my eyes are finished
    • (I have been) waiting for my God

That is, the Psalmist has been waiting for YHWH to answer his cry for help. Dahood (II, p. 156f) would read the prefixed –l on yh*l)al@ as a vocative— “…from waiting, O my Mighty (One)”. This is certainly possible; it would preserve the direct address to God throughout.

Metrically, in this verse we have a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. The terse rhythm captures the urgency of the situation.

Verse 5 [4]

“Many (more) than (the) hairs of my head
(are those) hating me for nothing,
strong (those) putting an end to me,
my enemies (acting with) deceit.
That which I did not strip away,
must I then return (it)?”

Here it becomes clear that the imagery of being engulfed by deadly waters was figurative of the danger facing the Psalmist. In its place is the familiar idiom of the danger posed by hostile enemies and opponents, expressed through the regular verbal nouns (in the plural), “(one)s hating” (vb an@c*) and “(one)s being hostile” (vb by~a*). Their force is characterized by the verbs (in emphatic position) “be many” (bb^r*) and “be strong/mighty” (<x^u*). They are more numerous than the hairs on the Psalmist’s head (note the use of the preposition /m! [“from”] in the comparative sense, “[more] than”). In light of this expression, some commentators would emend the MT of the third line slightly, reading yt!M*x^m! (“from my locks[?]”) instead of yt^ym!x=m^ (“putting an to me”, vb tm^x*). This would create a parallelism with the first line:

    • “they are more numerous than the hairs of my head” /
      “they are more mighty than the locks (of) my (hair)”

For the possible meaning of hM*x^ as “lock(s of hair),” cf. the context of its use in Isa 47:2; Song 4:1, 3; 6:7.

The meter of v. 5 (as it stands) is irregular: a 3+2 couplet, followed by a 2+2 couplet. An additional 2-beat couplet seems to express the nature of the enemies’ action:

“That which I did not strip away
must I then return (it)”

Apparently the protagonist is accused of theft, expressed in terms of violent robbery, using the verb lz~G` (“pluck off, strip away, take [by force]”). The idea of having to return what he did not steal suggests the possibility of a legal action.

Verse 6 [5]

“Mightiest, you (indeed) know of my foolishness,
and my faults, from you they are not concealed.”

After the terse rhythm of vv. 2-5, the meter changes suddenly here, to a longer 4+3 couplet; then, for the remainder of this part of the Psalm, a 3-beat (3+3) couplet pattern becomes regular. The sense of danger and pleading is replaced by a more reasoned petition to YHWH. It expresses the traditional religious idea that a person’s sins and faults are known to God (the All-knowing), and cannot be kept away from Him.

Verse 7 [6]

“May they not be ashamed by me,
(those) looking to you, my Lord,
O YHWH of (the heavenly) armies!
May they not be disgraced by me,
(those) seeking you, Mighty (One)
of Yisrael!”

The repeated prayer by the Psalmist here functions as an affirmation that he would conduct himself in a manner worthy of the righteous/faithful ones. It is an expression of his heart’s desire and intention. He would never willingly do the sort of thing of which his enemies accuse him.

The meter of this verse, as we have it, is truly unusual. It consists of a pair of uneven couplets—2+2 and 2+3; an extra 2-beat line is added to the first couplet, producing a 2-beat tricolon. The couplets are parallel in concept, and could be seen as 2-beat couplets with expanded honorifics applied to YHWH; I have tried to illustrate this with the poetic arrangement of the lines above.

The righteous are characterized as those “looking for” (vb hw`q* I) God and “seeking” (vb vq^B*) Him.

Verse 8 [7]

“For (it is) over you (that) I have carried blame,
(and) humiliation has covered my face.”

The Psalmist expresses here the real reason for the attacks by his wicked adversaries. It is because of (lit. “over”) his righteous devotion to YHWH (“over you”). It is for God’s sake that he is facing blame and disgrace from his accusers.

Verse 9 [8]

“A stranger I have become to my brothers,
and (one) foreign to (the) sons of my mother.”

His righteous conduct and devotion to YHWH has effectively made the Psalmist a stranger to his own people. This idea is expressed through two roots: (1) rWz and (2) rk^n`. I follow Dahood (II, p. 157) in separating the prefixed –m from rzwm, and attaching it (as an enclitic suffix <-) to the last word of the previous verse. This yields a smoother syntax. The first word of v. 9 would then be vocalized rz`w+.

Verse 10 [9]

“Indeed, ardor for your house consumes me,
and (the) scorn of (those) scorning you
has fallen upon me.”

Metrically, this verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, though this is a bit difficult to capture in translation. The noun hP*r=j# is the same as in v. 8, where I translated it “blame”; here the same idea is expressed through the harsher rendering “scorn” (with the connotation of insult, mockery, contempt). The plural of the noun would be properly captured in English by “insults”. The related verb [r^j* is used side by side with the noun, for emphasis and dramatic effect.

The noun ha*n+q! in line 1 is also a bit tricky to translate. It essentially denotes a strong attractive emotion; the typical translations, “zeal” and “jealousy” are perhaps too precise, and can be misleading. I have translated it above as “ardor,” implying an intense, faithful devotion to the things of God. The “house” could refer specifically to the Temple, or to the more general idea of God’s ‘household’. I translate the initial yK! here as an emphatic particle (“indeed…”). The line is cited in John 2:17, where the context certainly is the Jerusalem Temple (though given a unique Christological interpretation in that passage).

Verse 11 [10]

“When I poured out my soul with fasting,
it even came to be as scorn toward me.”

The idea seems to be that the Psalmist was mocked and abused for his intense religious devotion, expressed in terms of fervent fasting. Since fasting can effect a person’s mood and physical appearance, it may be this that is the brunt of his enemies’ ridicule.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 158) in repointing hkbaw as hk*B)a#w`, from the verb Eb^n` (= Ep^n`), meaning “pour (forth)”; cf. the noun Eb#n# (“spring [of water]”) in Job 28:11; 38:16. This seems to make better sense of the line.

Verse 12 [11]

“And I gave rough cloth for my garment,
and I became for them as a byword.”

This verse essentially expresses the same idea as v. 11. The Psalmist’s religious devotion, so intense as to verge on an extreme asceticism, was a source of mockery to people. The noun lv*m* has a relatively wide range of meaning, and is not easily translated; there is not really an English equivalent. The basic connotation here is that the Psalmist becomes an example of foolishness, the butt of insulting jokes that are spread around. The translation “byword,” though not common in English, perhaps is closest to the mark; however, one should not exclude the idea of the Psalmist becoming a kind of ‘proverbial’ figure, in the sense of being a (comical or pathetic) example of the foolishness of religious devotion.

Verse 13 [12]

“About me they rehearse, (those) sitting (at the) gate,
even songs strummed (by those) feasting on drink.”

The Psalmist as a source of mockery, as an example of silly religious devotion, extends even to devising catchy ditties and songs sung at drinking feasts. The verb j^yc! here should be understood in the sense of “rehearse” —that is, of going over a little song in one’s head. Probably the idea is that mocking songs devised by people “sitting at the gate” eventually come to be sung by boisterous drinkers at feasts. The noun hn`yg]n+ properly denotes a song (or musical composition) performed on a stringed instrument.

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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 57

Psalm 57

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar to a number of the Psalms we have studied recently (cf. the previous study on Ps 56). In this instance, the hl*s# (Selah) pause markers seem to provide an indication of the structure of the composition: two stanzas (vv. 5-7, 8-12) preceded by an opening prayer (vv. 2-4). However, the meter could suggest a different structural division, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format dominating in vv. 2-6 and 11-12, and a 3+2 meter in vv. 7-10.

Psalms 56-60 are each designated as a <T*k=m! (miktam), a term whose meaning remains uncertain (cf. the previous study, as well as the earlier study on Psalm 16). One characteristic of these mitkams is that they seem to be poems without music (words only), which are then sung to an existing melody. This may be compared, for example, with the many Psalms designated as a romz+m! (mizmor), which are musical compositions (words and music). This particular miktam is sung to the melody “Do not destroy” (or “May you not destroy”), tj@v=T^-la^, apparently the name of a well-known lament. The miktams of Psalm 58 and 59 are sung to the same melody. The phrase itself probably is an allusion to Deuteronomy 9:26.

The superscription marks it as another Psalm “belonging to David”, associating its composition with the David tradition(s) narrated in 1 Samuel 22:1ff and 24:1ff.

VERSES 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“Show me favor, Mightiest, show me favor,
for in you does my soul seek refuge,
and in (the) shade of your wings I take refuge,
until (the) falling (calamity) passes over (me).”

These opening couplets show that we are dealing with another prayer-Psalm, with lament characteristics. The Psalmist prays to YHWH (Elohim, “Mightiest”) for protection and deliverance from a “calamity” (hW`h^) that threatens him. This is best understood here in the concrete sense of the root hwh, referring to something falling (down). YHWH provides protection for the righteous from this ‘downfall’, using both the motif of shade/shadow (lx@, i.e. protection from heat, etc) and the protective wings of a bird (on this aspect of the ‘wings’ of YHWH, cf. Deut 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; 36:7; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4, etc). The similar imagery in Psalm 91 suggests that the “calamity” here could refer to disease or plague. The plural toWh^ is perhaps best understood as an intensive plural.

Here the verb used (twice) for seeking/finding protection is hs*j*; elsewhere in the Psalms, the more common verb used to express this idea is jf^B*.

Verses 3-4 [2-3]

“I will call to (the) Mightiest, (the) Highest,
to (the) Mighty (One) completing (the bond) over me;
(the) <Mightiest> will send (help) from heaven,
and will save me (from the) scorn of (those) panting after me!”

The tone of prayer (a direct plea) in the first two couplets (of v. 2 [1]), shifts to a dramatic description, depicting the Psalmist’s prayer and anticipating YHWH’s answer. Verse 3 [2] describes the prayer, as the Psalmist “calls” (vb ar*q*) to God. The use of the title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “[the] Mightiest [One],” i.e. ‘God’) is typical of the Elohist Psalms; almost certainly, it replaces the Divine name YHWH (originally in the Psalm) throughout. Retaining the Divine name here would yield much better poetry:

“I will call (out) to YHWH (the) Highest,
to (the) Mighty (One)…”

The participle rm@G), used as a descriptive title of YHWH, must be understood in the context of the covenant. The verb rm^G` fundamentally denotes finishing or completing something; here it is roughly synonymous with the more common root <lv, referring to the completion/fulfillment of one’s covenant obligations, which, in turn, completes the covenant bond. YHWH completes His covenant obligation over (lu^) the righteous by providing protection in time of need.

This covenant loyalty (an important theme in the Psalms) means that the Psalmist can be confident that YHWH will answer his plea, and will provide salvation (vb uv^y`) for him. In v. 2 [1] the specific nature of the “calamity” facing the Psalmist was unclear; I had mentioned how the parallel in Ps 91 suggested disease or plague, but here in v. 4 [3] we are clearly dealing with the familiar motif of attacks by the wicked. The verb [r^j* has a relatively wide range of meaning, but the primary idea is of throwing blame (or scorn, reproach, etc) on a person; slanderous accusations and insults are characteristic of the wicked in the Psalms. The verb [a^v* means “pant (after),” and evokes the image of a ravenous animal chasing after its prey; it was used, in a similar context, in Psalm 56:2-3 [1-2].

In any case, verse 4 [3] describes YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. In order to maintain a consistent 3-beat (3+3) meter, I have emended the first line of v. 4, adding another <yh!l)a$, though there is no real textual support for this. Along these lines, it may well be that the final line of v. 4 in the MT (following the Selah-marker) is essentially a duplication of the first line (possibly an explanatory gloss) that could be omitted; I have done so in the translation of v. 4 above. The line, if it were to be retained, reads:

“(The) Mightiest will send (with) His goodness and His firmness”

Verses 5-7 [4-6]

Verse 5 [4]

“My soul (is trapped) between lions,
I lay (amid those) raging at (the) sons of men;
their teeth (are) spears and arrow-points,
and their tongue a sharpened sword.”

The Psalmist returns to his lament in this stanza, describing the wicked who threaten him as ferocious lions. The participle <yf!h&l) in the second line literally means “blazing”, but perhaps is better rendered here in the more general sense of “raging” (i.e., a raging fire), which would better suit the image of a lion (cf. Dahood, II, p. 52).

Verse 6 [5]

“(Your) height is over the heavens, Mightiest,
your weight over all of the earth!”

The lament is interrupted, curiously, by this declaration of YHWH’s majesty and glory; it is identical with the closing lines of the Psalm (v. 12 [11]), where it makes more sense. The opening word, hm*Wr is typically parsed as an imperative (“be high/exalted…!”), however Dahood (II, p. 53f) makes a reasonably compelling argument for reading it as a substantive (verbal noun), parallel with dobK* (“weight, worth,” i.e., honor), noting the occurrence of hm*Wr as a proper noun (place name) in 2 Kings 23:36. The couplet is a declaration of YHWH’s sovereignty over all of creation (heaven and earth); as Creator and King of the universe, He is certainly able to act as Judge on behalf of the righteous.

Verse 7 [6]

“A net they have set up for my foot-steps,
(and) a noose for my throat;
they have dug a pit before my face—
(that) they would fall in (the) midst of it!”

The lament returns here in v. 7 [6], the meter now shifting to a 3+2 format, giving the lines a terse and more dramatic feel. The menacing and threatening actions of the wicked are again described, but in terms of crafty human hunters, rather than fierce lions (v. 5 [4]), going after their prey. I follow Dahood (II, p. 53) in explaining the word [pk in light of the Akkadian kippu(m), meaning a curved noose or snare. This provides a fitting parallel with tv#r# (“net”) in line 1; and note the similar conceptual pairing in Job 18:8-9. Occasionally the noun vp#n# (usually translated “soul”) carries the more concrete physical meaning of “throat”; such instances are limited to the poetic idiom, as here, where it does seem to fit the context.

I also follow Dahood in understanding the perfect verb in the final line (“they have fallen”) as a precative perfect—i.e., the Psalmist describing what he wishes to occur as something that has already happened. Here it has imprecatory force, as a kind of curse, calling down the judgment of God on his wicked adversaries. The idea of the wicked falling into the very trap they constructed occurs frequently in the Psalms, and is part of the imprecation.

Verses 8-12 [7-11]

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“Set firm (is) my heart, O Mightiest,
set firm (is) my heart—
I will sing and make music!
Awaken, my <liver>, awaken!
(with) the lyre and harp
I will awaken (the) dawn!”

The lament of the prior stanza now gives way to an expression of praise, anticipating YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer. As is fitting for the Psalmist, as a poet and musical composer, this praise relates to his artistic inspiration. These two verses have an off-beat structure, consisting of two 3+2+2 tricolons. The first line of each emphasizes the Psalmist’s inspiration, referring to his inner organ (i.e., the source of thought and feeling/emotion), located specifically in the “heart” (bl@) and “liver” (db@K*, rather than MT dobK*). This inspiration leads to singing and music-making (esp. on the lyre or harp [roNK! / lb#n@]).

Verse 10 [9]

“I will throw you (praise) among the peoples, Lord,
I will make music to you among the nations.”

A more conventional expression of praise by the Psalmist, promising to make public what YHWH has done for him; this also refers to the dissemination of the Psalmist’s work as an artist and musician.

Verse 11 [10]

“For great unto (the) heavens (is) your goodness,
and unto (the) vapors (of heaven) your firmness!”

This couplet marks the beginning of Psalmist’s praise to YHWH. The deliverance which he expects to receive from God (in response to his prayer) is described as being related to the characteristic “goodness” (ds#j#) and “firmness” (tm#a#, i.e., trustworthiness) of YHWH. Both terms must be understood primarily in terms of His faithfulness and loyalty to the covenant. This pairing of nouns also occurred in the third line of v. 4, which probably should be viewed as an explanatory gloss (cf. above).

Verse 12 [11]

“(Your) height is over (the) heavens, O Mightiest,
(and) your weight over all of the earth!”

If the greatness of YHWH’s attributes extends even beyond the heavens (v. 11), this is because He Himself is greater than the heavens. These lines are identical with v. 6 [5] (cf. above), but they make more sense here, and their inclusion at the earlier location could conceivably be the result of a secondary interpolation. In any case, the lines here make for a fitting conclusion to the Psalm, as a declaration of the sovereignty of God over the entire universe.

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 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).