Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 13

Psalm 13

This Psalm is among the shortest and simplest of the collection, though still not without certain textual difficulties. It is comprised of two strophes, which seem to follow a general metrical pattern. The first strophe clearly is that of a personal lament. Most of the Psalms we have thus studied have characteristics of a lament, effectively functioning as a prayer to YHWH for deliverance. These can either reflect the vantage point of the Psalmist (or protagonist of the poem), or that of the people generally. Here it is almost exclusively a personal, private lament. Many of these such Psalms were associated with a particular historical situation; here however there is no mention of any traditional setting in the superscription. Nor is there any musical direction, other than the standard indicator that it is a composition “belonging to David”.

The two strophes have an interesting structure: a 4+4 bicolon, followed by a 4+3 bicolon, and concluding with a single 4-beat line. The second strophe includes an additional 3+3 couplet before the final line.

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Until what point, YHWH, will you forget me? (To the) last?
Until what point will you (continue to) hide your face from me?
Until what point shall I lay (up) thoughts (of despair) in my soul
(and there be) pain in my heart daily?
Until what point shall my enemy lift (himself) high over me?”

Four of the five lines begin with the compound particle hn`a*-du^, “until where”, i.e. “until what point”, usually understood in a temporal sense: “until when”, “how long”. The three components to the strophe—4+4 bicolon, 4+3 bicolon, and single 4-beat line—each ask the question from a different vantage point. The first is addressed to YHWH, the second refers to the Psalmist himself, and the third to the Psalmist’s ‘enemy’.

The plea to YHWH in the first couplet brings out two emphases: (1) impatience that the suffering has lasted so long (line 1), and (2) the Psalmist’s feeling that YHWH has turned away from him (line 2). The substantive noun jx^n@ that ends the first line fundamentally refers to something that is strong, enduring, lasting, sometimes also denoting that which is clear or complete. I render it above as an emphatic follow-up to the Psalmist’s question. The phrase “will you hide your face” (;yn@P*-ta# tyT!s=T^) is usually understood to involve the verb rt^s* (“hide”); but it is also possible that it preserves older usage of the reflexive infixed-t stem, in which case the verb would be rWs (= rWc), “turn [away/aside]” (cf. Dahood, pp. 64, 76). The phrase would then be “will you turn (away) your face”, which also corresponds to the LXX translation. The sense of the line is roughly the same either way.

The word toxu@ in the first line of the second couplet creates considerable difficulty. It is usually read as a plural of hx*u@ (“plan, purpose, counsel”), but this ill suits the context, where the parallelism of the couplet indicates that toxu@ should be comparable in meaning to /ogu* (“pain, suffering”). Dahood (p. 77) suggests that it may be cognate to Ugaritic n²ƒ (“shake, tremble”), corresponding to a Hebrew root Ju^n` (n¹±aƒ), otherwise unattested. Kraus (p. 212), on the other hand, suggests that the Hebrew hx*u@ may occasionally have the nuance of “sorrow(s)”, citing the context of Prov 27:9. Other commentators would emend the text to read tobX*u^ (“pains”). I have tentatively translated toxu@ as “thoughts (of despair)”, in an attempt to preserve the conceptual parallel at work in the line.

The “enemy” (by@a)) or adversary of the Psalmist is otherwise unidentified. Generally the ‘adversaries’ in the Psalms are figurative for the wicked and/or forces of evil and suffering present in the world. This sense of conflict is central to the emotional rhetoric and imagery of the Psalms, and scarcely needs to be related to any concrete historical situation. Some poems which evince a strong royal theology and background, likely do draw upon certain kinds of political events and patterns (cf. on the second strophe below).

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“Look at (me and) answer me, YHWH my Mighty One!
Give light to my eyes so that I should (not) sleep the (sleep of) death,
(and) so that my enemy should (not) say ‘I had power (over) him’,
(and) my adversaries go round (happy) that I am shaken.
And I (do still) trust in your kindness (to me)—
may my heart go round (for joy) in your salvation!
I will sing to YHWH, that He has dealt (out benefits) over me.”

As in the first strophe, the focus in the lines moves from an address to YHWH, to the situation of the Psalmist himself, and then to the vantage point of his enemy. The plea in the first strophe is turned into a more direct petition here in line 1. The Psalmist feels that YHWH has forgotten him, and the sequence of verbs is meant to get God’s attention. What he prays for specifically is stated in the second line: “give light to my eyes”. The context suggests an illness of some sort that has left the protagonist at the point of death (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 6). Twice here he uses the particle /P#, presumably related to the verb hn`P* (“turn”), which signifies the wish to avert (i.e. turn away) something from happening. The cleanest translation of this particle in English is “lest”, but that is seldom used, and normal English usage today would require a construction with a negative particle (“that [it] should not…”, etc).

The first thing he hopes to avert is his own death, with the expression “sleep the death”, probably meaning “the sleep of death”, i.e. to ‘sleep’ and never wake up, with sleep as an idiom for death. The second thing he wishes to avert is expressed in the second bicolon (v. 5); that his enemies/adversaries would not rejoice and boast following his illness (and death). Instead of them “going around” (vb lyG]) happy, the Psalmist hopes that it will be his own heart “going around” (same verb). The language of the covenant and royal theology appears, however faintly, in this strophe, with the Psalmist (David, according to the superscription) approaching God as the sovereign Benefactor who demonstrates loyalty through acts of kindness (ds#j#) and bestowing rewards/benefits (vb lm^G`) on His faithful vassal (i.e. David/the king). Thus the conflict in this Psalm is not, as in the prior Pss 9-12, the wicked generally, but rather personal adversaries. They blend almost imperceptibly with the grave illness of the Psalmist, as if personifying his physical and emotional suffering. It would perhaps not be too far off the mark to identify the symbolism as related to the realm of Death, a common enough idea in the ancient world, ruled by a sovereign (a rival to YHWH and His king), with other personified (demon-type) figures manifest in various diseases, etc. The vague and shadowy adversaries are a suitable reflection of the conflict experienced in human suffering. Here they function as a corollary to the nameless/faceless wicked ones in society who oppress the righteous and the weak/poor, etc (see esp. Ps 9-10, and the earlier study on it).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 12

Psalm 12

This week we examine Psalm 12, another prayer-composition with the character of a lament, such as we have seen in a number of those studied thus far (cf. the previous studies on Pss 9-10 and 11). Here the meter and structure is more consistent, with 4-beat (4+4) bicola in vv. 2-7a, followed by 3-beat (3+3) couplets in the closing vv. 7b-9. In spite of a certain tension in vv. 6-7, the rhythm is generally maintained, and there are relatively few obvious textual difficulties. The musical direction in the heading is tyn]ym!V=h^-lu^ (“upon the eighth[?]”), as in Psalm 6 (cf. the earlier study); the precise meaning of most such directions in the Psalter remains uncertain, other than that they relate to the performance tradition.

There is a fairly simple outline of the Psalm, according to a four-part structure, each part generally corresponding to a bicolon pair (4-lines); the third part climaxes with an extra couplet, transitioning to the 3-beat meter of the fourth part:

    • Plea for YHWH to help the righteous—vv. 2-3 [1-2]
    • A call for YHWH to act (as Judge) against the wicked—vv. 4-5 [3-4]
    • YHWH’s declaration that He will act, with a comment of the Psalmist—vv. 6-7 [5-6]
    • Concluding strophe expressing assurance that YHWH will act—vv. 8-9 [7-8]

The Psalmist utilizes the common themes of the suffering of the righteous/innocent at the hands of the wicked, along with the judicial (and covenant) setting of YHWH as sovereign whose role it is to establish justice.

Strophe 1: Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Deliver (me), YHWH, for the good (man) has come to an end,
(and all) firmness has disappeared from the sons of men!
Empty (words) they speak, a man with his (close) companion,
(their) smooth lips speak with (one) heart and (then) a(nother) heart.”

The substantive adjective dys!j* often refers to one who is loyal (i.e. “good”), both from a social and religious standpoint; such language reflects the binding-agreement (covenant) concept which pervades the theology and thought-world of the Psalms. This loyalty is expressed also by the root /ma (often paired with dsj); here the form <yn]Wma$ is best understood as an intensive (and abstract) plural adjective, which I translated here as “(all) firmness”, this “firmness” reflecting that of a faithful and loyal friend. The disappearance of such faithfulness and loyalty among people who should be (or claim to be) close companions (noun hu*r*), is a sign of the overall condition of society. The parallel use of the verbs rmg` and ss^P* (or perhaps the related sp^a*), reinforces the idea that loyalty is no longer to be found among human beings. It is possible that there is a play on words with the adjective ql*j*. This is usually thought to derive from the root (qlj, µlq) indicating smoothness (parallel to aw+v*, “emptiness”), and when used of lips, tongue, etc, often signifies false or deceptive speech; however, there is a separate[?] Semitic root (Ugaritic —lq) which has the basic meaning “be lost, ruined, ‘dead'”, and so the destructive character of this speech may be emphasized here as well (cf. Dahood, p. 73). Still, the overall idea seems to be that of false and empty words, among those whose speech should reflect the bond of friendship and loyalty; this duplicitous behavior and ‘double-dealing’ is expressed by the idiom “with a heart and a(nother) heart”, i.e. with two hearts or minds.

Strophe 2: Verses 4-5 [3-4]

“Cut off, YHWH, all (these) lips of (deadly) smoothness,
(every) tongue speaking (such) twisted (word)s!
(Those) who say, ‘By our tongue we are made strong,
our lips (are) our (streng)th!—who (else) is Lord for us?'”

This second strophe follows the pattern of the first, with an imperative address to YHWH: “Deliver (me), YHWH…!”, “Cut off, YHWH…!” However, while the basic form and subject matter is the same, the thrust of this part is quite different, shifting from a plea for help to a more forceful call for God to act. The behavior of the wicked ones is described differently as well. In the prior strophe the emphasis was on false and double dealing, treating bonds of loyalty as empty words; here, the words that are actually spoken reflect an attitude that shows no real fear of God, but instead evince worldly ambition and self-centered desire. The expression from the previous couplet, “lips of smoothness”, now takes a sharper turn with the parallel “tongue speaking twisted (word)s [told)G+]”. The adjective ld*G` is typically translated “great”, but here it may be derived from a (presumed) separate root ldg indicating something twisted, or woven together. This image, involving the wordplay with the (more common) root meaning “strong, great” is an effective way of transitioning from their deceptive speech to the impious boasting that characterizes their essential attitude. That boast, as such, is described in the second couplet (v. 5), however the a precise rendering of the phrasing is a bit difficult. The couplet begins with the relative particle rv#a&, something not altogether uncommon in Hebrew poetry; since the first couplet has the speech of the wicked as the subject (“lips, tongue”), the relative particle serves to shift the focus to the person who so speaks this way. Again the parallelism features both “lips” and “tongue”, the actual parallel being embedded in a syntax that it somewhat awkward, perhaps intentionally so; we may illustrate this as a chiasm:

    • (These are the ones) [i.e. the false/wicked] who say… (5a)
      • ‘By our tongue we are made strong (5b)
      • our lips (are) our (streng)th!’ (5c)
    • …’Who is Lord for [i.e. over] us?’ (5d)

These persons trust in their own skill and cleverness, symbolized by their speech, rather than YHWH, as the source of their strength. The last line is particularly difficult, especially as involving the word WnT*a!, usually understood as the particle ta@ with a 1st person plural suffix. If so, it is likely that ta here should be read in its earlier/original sense as a substantive noun, meaning something like “essence, substance”, which I translate loosely above as “strength”. Dahood (pp. 73-4) prefers to derive it from the root tta, as the derived noun ta@, rare in the Old Testament, indicating a cutting tool or weapon(?)—”our lips (are) our weapon”.

Strophe 3: Verses 6-7 [5-6]

“From the breast of the oppressed, from the groaning of the (one)s in need—
Now I will stand up!’ says YHWH,
‘I will place in safety he (who) pants for it [i.e. for help].’
—(and) the sayings of YHWH are pure sayings,
(like) silver melted (down) in a rising (fire),
refined from (the) earth (even) seven (time)s.”

At the heart of this strophe is the declaration by YHWH, announcing that he will now act on behalf of those who are in need, those oppressed (“pressed/beaten down”) by the wicked. It is not entirely certain whether this declaration properly begins with the second line or extends to include the first; I prefer to read the first line as a dramatic setting for YHWH’s announcement. The noun dv) here is typically understood as coming from ddv, meaning “violence, assault, destruction”; however, it is here perhaps better identified with the word meaning “breast” (with the form dv), as in Isa 60:16). This keeps the parallelism of the line consistent, with a subjective genitive relationship for the substantive plurals “(one)s beaten down [i.e. oppressed]” and “(one)s in need”. The breast is essentially the source of the “groaning, crying” (hq*n`a&), and, admittedly, yields a female image, perhaps intentionally drawing upon the traditional motif of the woman (i.e. widow, pregnant mother, etc) as a poignant symbol of human suffering.

YHWH’s announcement that he will act on behalf of the oppressed is sudden and dramatic: “Now I will stand up!”. The nature of this action, described in the third line, is clear enough (“I will set/place [him] in safety”), but the syntactical relationship of this phrase with the remainder of the line is rather ambiguous. The final two words are ol j^yp!y`, literally “he breathes for him/it”, but which could be read two different ways in context: (1) “he [i.e. the wicked] breathes/blow after him [i.e. the oppressed]”, or (2) “he [i.e the oppressed] breathes/pants [i.e. longs] for it”, that is for help from YHWH. The latter seems better to fit the overall sense of the strophe—it is the suffering of the oppressed that is primarily in view, not the action of the wicked.

The “sayings” (torm=a!) of YHWH carry important nuances here, namely that of a promise—i.e., that what YHWH says he intends to do will be done—and also, as a demonstration of his justice and care for the righteous; this latter connotation perhaps stems from the earlier/original meaning of rma, “make visible, show”. This is essentially a comment by the Psalmist regarding YHWH’s declaration, affirming that God will indeed act to bring justice and deliverance to the righteous who are oppressed. The final line of the second couplet also serves to introduce a third couplet (3+3 meter) which further expounds the assurance that YHWH will act. It utilizes a familiar and traditional motif of precious metal (“silver”) refined and purified in fire. However, the actual wording used to express this image is a bit difficult, and it is possible that the text may be corrupt at this point.

The difficulty lies in the two words at the end of line 5 and the beginning of line 6. The noun lyl!u& occurs only here in the Old Testament; the context suggests it should mean something like “furnace”, but the derivation is quite unclear. It may be better to read it in light of the root hlu (“go up, rise”), frequently used of fire (including sacrificial offerings), in which case the form would presumably be yl!u& (“rising”), with the final lamed (l) an instance of dittography. The word Jr#a*l* at the beginning of the next line has also proven problematic; however, the preposition l= has a relatively wide range of meaning, and I read it here in the sense of “from the earth”, perhaps in the sense that the “earth” represents the impurities which are burned away in the refining process.

Strophe 4: Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“You, YHWH, (shall) guard them,
you watch (over) him from this cycle into (the) distant (future);
(for) all around (the) wicked (one)s walk about,
(and) they dig {ruins} for the sons of men.”

Following the last two lines in strophe 3, these couplets continue the 3-beat (3+3) meter. The first bicolon is clear enough, as the Psalmist gives further assurance that YHWH will both guard and keep watch over the righteous for all time (“into the distant [future]”, <l*oul=). The protection is said to be “from this cycle” (Wz roDh^), the noun roD referring to the current Age (“life-cycle”), or “generation”, emphasizing the general wickedness and faithlessness of the current time. This is characterized by the rather ominous statement “all around [i.e. surrounding us] the wicked ones walk about”.

Unfortunately, the final line of the Psalm is quite difficult, and any attempt at translation must be hypothetical. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer no help, since the verse is scarcely preserved in the two MSS containing Psalm 12. The noun tWLz% occurs only here in the Old Testament; it presumably derives from the root llz (II), generally indicating something that is worthless. The prior word (MT <r%K=) is practically unintelligible in context. I am inclined, perhaps, to view it as a third-person plural form of the verb hr*K* (“dig”, WrK* “they dug, they dig”) with an enclitic < to fill out the rhythm of the line. But how this verb would relate to the noun tWLz% is still unclear; I tentatively translate it above as “ruins”, possibly in the sense that they dig (i.e. take furtive, hostile action) so as to bring people to ruin. If we retain the Masoretic pointing of <r%K=, as a form of the verb <Wr (“be high, rise, raise”) with the prefixed preposition K=, then the last two lines could conceivably be translated something like:

“all around (the) wicked (one)s walk about,
(even) as worthless (thing)s are raised up for the sons of men.”

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10 (continued)

Psalm 9-10, continued

Last week’s study examined the first part (9:2-17 [1-16]) of the acrostic Psalm 9-10; today we will explore the ‘interlude’ (9:18-21 [17-20]) and second part (Ps 10). In terms of the structure of the composition, it is noteworthy that the musical direction hl*s# (selâ, “Selah”) occurs at the end of verse 17 [16], and again after v. 21 [20]. The precise meaning of this term remains unknown, but it would seem to indicate a pause and/or (musical) transition of some sort. Furthermore, at the end of v. 17, hl*s# is preceded by the word /oyG`h! (higg¹yôn), apparently another musical direction, but only used (as such) here in the Psalms. Elsewhere the word occurs in Ps 19:15 and 92:4 [3] (and also Lam 3:62); it presumably derives from the root hg*h*, which fundamentally signifies a low moaning, growling, etc, sound such as an animal makes, but for humans also a kind of muttering, murmuring, etc, sometimes in the deeper sense of the intention or motivation from inside a person (i.e. utterance from the heart). In Psalm 19:15 the word is used in this latter sense, while in Ps 92:4 it refers specifically to a sound made on a harp (roNK!). This would seem to justify the idea that the word here marks a kind of musical pause (‘meditation’) and interlude in the composition. Along these lines, it is also likely that the second “Selah” marks the end of the interlude, and a transition to the next part of the composition (Psalm 10) with a different tone/style/tempo[?], etc.

The ‘Interlude’: Psalm 9:18-21 [17-20]

I divide these four bicola (8 lines) as follows: (1) two bicola (vv. 18-19 [17-18]) which continue the acrostic pattern (letters y and k), and a second (separate) pair of bicola (vv. 20-21 [19-20]) which specifically call on YHWH to act.

y They shall turn [WbWvy`], (shall the) wicked (one)s, (back) to Sheôl,
the nations (hav)ing forgotten the Mightiest (shall) come to an end.
k For [yK!] (it is) not to (be) lasting (that the) needy are forgotten,
(and) what (the one)s beaten down wait (for) does not perish for (all time) passing.

These two couplets admirably encompass and restate much of what was expressed in the first part (cf. the previous study), here presented as a precise contrast between the fate of the wicked and the hope of the righteous (i.e. those suffering in the present). This will also be the juxtaposition that dominates the thought of the second part (cf. below). Once again, the “wicked” (adj. uv*r*) are identified with the “nations” (<y]oG), and here defined more clearly as those who have “forgotten” (root jkv) God (“the Mightiest”, <yh!ýa$ Elohim), probably in the sense that they are unaware of Him. On the term loav= (Sheol), in the context that it is used here, cf. my earlier article. The verb bWv here echoes its use back in verse 4 [3], with the Psalmist’s expectation that YHWH’s act of judgment would “turn (back)” his enemies; now the idea is expressed more generally, that the wicked would “turn (back), return” to Sheol (the realm of death and the grave). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 58) in emending Masoretic ÁlK* (i.e. “all the nations”) to read the related verb form WLK* (i.e. “the nations [shall] come to an end“), as this perhaps better fits the parallelism of the line. In the second couplet there is some parallel wordplay with the root jkv (“forget”)—while the wicked may have “forgotten” God, He will not “forget” (i.e. abandon) His people. The temporal expressions indicating future permanencejx^n#l* (“for[ever] lasting”) and du^ (“[all time] passing”)—where also used earlier in the first part, but of the fate of the wicked rather than the suffering righteous.

Stand up, YHWH, man(kind) shall not (remain) strong—
(the) nations shall be judged upon [i.e. before] your face;
set, O YHWH, (that) fearfulness on them—
(the) nations shall know (that) they (are only) (hu)man!

This is a powerful theological (and anthropological) declaration, given in parallel couplets. The first line of each mentions the divine name YHWH, calling upon God to demonstrate his authority over humankind, using the collective noun vona$ (“[hu]man[kind]”, also in the closing line). YHWH in his “standing up” (vb. <Wq), i.e. for judgment, has two related effects on human beings: (1) they shall not “be strong” (vb zz~u*) anymore, i.e. they will lose their strength, and (2) fear (reading MT hr*om as ar*om) is placed on them; another possibility for the third line is to read hr*om from the root hr*y` in the sense of something by which people will be directed or controlled (i.e. under the power of YHWH). By contrast, the second line of each couplet mentions the nations (<y]og), specifically who will face judgment in God’s presence (lit. “upon [i.e. before]” God’s face). The wicked, in their brazen and oppressive actions, imagine that they, in their own way, are God-like, possessing great power; however, in the face of YHWH’s terrifying judgment, they will come to realize that they are “only human (vona$)”.

Second Part: Psalm 10

The second part of the acrostic composition (Ps 10), as noted above, takes on more the character of a lament—the Psalmist cries out to YHWH on behalf of the poor and oppressed in society. The structure of this half is relatively straightforward:

    • An initial plea to YHWH, in the form of a question (v. 1)
    • A description of the Wicked, their actions and attitudes, esp. in relation to those they oppress (vv. 2-11)
    • A call for YHWH to act against the Wicked, demonstrating His power and authority (vv. 12-16)
    • A final plea for YHWH to act on behalf of the poor/oppressed (vv. 17-18)

In the context of the Psalm, the initial question raised by the Psalmist gives to the composition the character of theodicy—the longstanding philosophical and theological issue of why God allows evil and suffering in the world, why the wicked apparently flourish without being punished (by God) in the present.

Verse 1

l For what [hm*l*, i.e why], YHWH, should you stand in a far(-off place)
(and) conceal (yourself) from (our) times of (being) in distress?

The final construct phrase is difficult to render in English, with the prefixed preposition B= on the articular noun hr*X*h^ (“the distress”); despite the awkwardness of syntax in translation, I have rendered it quite literally. As it happens, there is a parallelism in the way each line closes, as each word represents a spatial/temporal prepositional phrase with B=, a preposition with an extremely wide range of meaning:

    • qojr*B=, “in a far (off place), at a distance”
    • hr*X*B^, “in the distress”

The parallel is contrastive—when we are in times of distress, how can our God (YHWH) be standing far off, at a distance from our suffering? This certainly is how things seem, at times, for God’s people, who are oppressed and suffer at the hands of the wicked. This striking question, phrased almost as a challenge to YHWH, frames the entire section, and is essentially repeated at the end.

Verses 2-11

The lengthy description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is a dramatic tour de force, at once vivid and colorful, capturing their attitude and mindset, both in terms of their callous disregard of YHWH and their hostile (and even violent) actions against the innocent. The acrostic pattern is almost entirely lost (to be picked up again at verse 12), likely indicating corruption in the text, which would seem to be confirmed by apparent confusion at several points (cf. below). Unfortunately, neither the Septuagint nor the Dead Sea Scrolls offer any real help in clarifying the situation; the only Dead Sea MS containing Psalm 10 (5/6„evPs) is fragmentary, with nothing preserved prior to verse 6.

Verses 2-3:

In the rising of the wicked affliction burns,
they take hold on this purpose they devise;
for the wicked makes a shout upon the desire of his soul,
and cutting off <?> he bends the knee to <…>.

The LXX does not offer much beyond a generalized rendering of what we have in the MT:

“(in) that [i.e. because] the sinner gives praise upon (himself) in the impulses of his soul,
and the unjust (one) gives a good (word) on (his own) account [i.e. blesses himself]”

In Hebrew, the idiom “bend the knee” (vb Er^B*) means to give homage, worship, bless, etc, and is presumably intended to be taken parallel with ll^h*, “shout, praise, boast”. Similarly the participle u^x@b), “cutting off”, is meant to describe the character of the wicked—i.e. one who gains for himself through violence (cutting/breaking [off]).

Verse 4-5a:

n He spurns [Ja@n]] YHWH, (does) the wicked (saying)
‘As (for) the Exalted (One), his (burning) nostril(s) he hardly seeks (to satisfy)!’
(It seems) there is no Mighty (One) (to hinder) all his (evil) purposes—
his paths (of wickedness) remain firm in all time(s).

Again, it is likely that something has dropped out; the text is barely intelligible as it stands, and commentators divide and interpret it in a variety of ways. There would seem to be present an expression of the wicked’s thoughts, but it is by no means certain where the ‘quotation’ begins or how far it extends. I follow Dahood (p. 62) in reading hbg as H^b)G` as a divine title “High/Exalted (One)”, though I am less confident about emending the prefixed preposition K= to the particle yK!. If the Masoretic text and pointing is retained, then it is likely that oPa^ Hb^g)K= refers to the wicked, rather than YHWH:

“The wicked spurns YHWH by the lifting high of his nose (i.e. face)”

The Hebrew/Semitic word [a^, “nose, nostril, face”, is frequently used as an idiom for anger, especially the anger of God (YHWH)—i.e. the burning/flaring of His nostrils, presumably drawing upon animal imagery (of the snorting bull, etc). In this regard, it seems likely that the phrase vr)d=y]-lB^ (“he does not search/seek [out]”) relates back to the anger of God; in other words, the wicked, by their actions and attitudes, have no fear that YHWH will seek to satisfy His anger by punishing them for their wickedness. Above, I treat the end of verse 4 as a summary comment by the Psalmist, further emphasizing the apparent way the wicked person is able to act and behave with impunity. The position of the first line of verse 5 is unclear, but it would seem to belong as part of this description of the apparent success of the wicked in this present life.

Verses 5b-7:

From high (up) your judgments (are far) from in front of him,
(out of) all his inner (recess)es he puffs at them.
He says in his heart, ‘I (can) hardly be moved—
for cycle a(fter) cycle, happiness with no(thing) bad (for me)!’
(With) cursing his mouth is filled, a(lso) deceit and oppression,
(from) under his tongue (comes) trouble and weariness.

This ‘strophe’ expands on the prior (vv. 4-5a), giving a fuller picture of how the wicked “spurns” YHWH; it may be divided into three distinct components, one for each couplet:

    • 5b: The wicked is far removed from the judgments of God which are “from high (up) [<orm*]”; this must be understood at two levels:
      (a) apparent distance from the standpoint of his own attitudes and character, and
      (b) real distance, the lowness of his wicked nature compared to the exalted holiness, righteousness, etc, of God
    • 6: In his own heart, the wicked imagines that he will continue to prosper in his wicked ways
    • 7: As he speaks, expressing his wicked character, thoughts, and intention, all sorts of harmful things come out

In the last line of the first couplet (v. 5b), the word wyr*r=ox is typically translated as “his adversaries, (one)s hostile to him”. However, this does not fit the context or parallelism of the lines, in which the wicked is responding to the judgments of God; therefore, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 63) in deriving it from a separate root rrx, referring to the (narrow) inner organs or spaces within a person. This makes a fitting contrast between the high/wide space of heaven (where God dwells), and the narrow confines inside the wicked. If the description in vv. 5b-7 relates to the thoughts and word of the wicked, that in vv. 8-10 relates to his evil actions.

Verses 8-10:

He sits, lying in wait (among the) settlements,
in the hidden places he slays (those) free (of guilt)—
his eyes conceal (what he intends) for the unfortunate.
He lies waiting in the hidden place, like a lion in (the) thicket,
he lies waiting to catch (one to be) beaten down—
catches (the one) beaten down, by dragging him (off),
(caught) in his possession, and broken, bowed (over),
the unfortunate (one)s fall in(to) his <power>.

The actions of the wicked are represented by a single basic scenario, described using repetitive language, and building by way of an overlapping step-parallel approach. The wicked lies in wait, like a vicious hunter, looking to capture one whom he will “beat down”, the basic meaning of the term yn]u*. This word is often translated “poor”, “oppressed”, but here it does not necessarily mean that he is preying on the poor or weak (though that may be true enough); rather, the emphasis is on the role of the wicked in oppressing and ‘beating down’ his victims. What we do know about these victims is that they are innocent, in the sense of being free of any guilt that would justify a violent attack (for revenge, etc). In a general sense they are righteous—and thus make a precise contrast with the wicked themselves—and all those who are righteous and loyal (to YHWH) will identify with these victims of oppression, as the Psalmist does. The final line is especially difficult, due to the word wym*Wxu&B^, the meaning of which in context is unclear. Literally, the MT as we have it would be “his mighty (one)s”, but this does not fit very well with the image of a wicked predator, unless, collectively, a gang of the wicked is now to be envisioned. Possibly the reference is to the strength of the trap or prison which now holds the oppressed person(s) in the possession (tv#r#, often understood as a hunter’s net, etc) of the wicked. Dahood (p. 63) suggests that it derives from a separate (and rare) root meaning to “dig”, as in a pit, which would generally fit the context, but otherwise rests on extremely slim evidence. I have translated very loosely above as “power”, recognizing the possibility the MT may be corrupt, or that something has dropped out of the text at this point.

Verse 11:

He says in his heart, ‘(The) Mighty (One) forgets,
he hides his face (and) scarcely sees for (the) duration!’

This closing couplet repeats the basic idea expressed in verse 4 (cf. above)—that the wicked acts as though YHWH will not respond to punish his evil and harmful behavior. This underlying attitude would seem to be confirmed by the fact that, in the present, the wicked seem to prosper, often facing no justice or proper punishment for their actions. This, indeed, is at the heart of the Psalmist’s lament, and it leads into the call for YHWH to act, in vv. 12-16.

Verses 12-16

With this section, the acrostic pattern comes back in full, for the remainder of the Psalm—letters q, r, ?, t, each for a clear pair of couplets (bicola).

Verse 12-13 q:

q Stand (up) [hm*Wq], YHWH, Mighty (One), lift your hand,
you must not forget the (one)s (who are) beaten down—
upon what [i.e. why] (should) the wicked spurn the Mightiest,
(and) say in his heart ‘You will not seek (to punish)’?

Some commentators would eliminate la@ (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God) from the first line, but it may well be a relic of Israelite religious expression that is preserved, specifying something long understood—that YHWH is to be identified with the high Deity and Creator °E~l (la@). A summary of vv. 2-11 is provided in verse 13, establishing the attitude and behavior (of the wicked) that the Psalmist wishes YHWH to address and punish. I have translated yn]a* throughout as “(one who is) beaten down”, to capture the concrete idea of what the wicked is doing to their victims. Other common renderings, such as “oppressed”, “afflicted”, etc., are fine and generally capture the idea as well.

Verse 14 r:

r For you (must surely) see [ht*a!r*] (all) the trouble and (what this) provokes,
you will (certainly) look to give (justice) with your hand!
Upon you the unfortunate (one) places (his trust),
(and) the fatherless—you are (his) helper.

The noun su^K^, parallel with lz`u* (“trouble”), is difficult to translate accurately here; it has the basic meaning of provoking to anger, and it may be a subtle way for the Psalmist to stimulate God’s own anger, provoking him to act. The perfect tense in the first line is perhaps to be understood as a precative perfect, with the Hiphil imperfect in line 2 following, to express the wish (and hope/expectation) of the Psalmist. In the second couplet, YHWH is reminded that He is the only one whom the weak and unfortunate in society can go to for help; again the purpose is to sway God to take action by this appeal. There is a bit of alliterative word play between the verbal root bz~u* (II, “place, put, set”) and rz`u* (“help”).

Verses 15-16 ?:

? Shatter [rb)v=] the arm of the wicked and evil (one),
seek (out) his wickedness—you can scarcely (fail to) find (it)!
YHWH (is) King (for) the distant (future) and (all time) passing–
(and so) may the nations perish from the earth!

Here the section concludes with a fierce and lively imprecation, using the familiar ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) idiom of breaking/shattering the bodily limbs of the wicked. In particular, the arm (u^orz+) symbolizes the wicked person’s strength and ability to act—he stretches out his arm to do violence and injustice to others. The second line of this strophe is the most difficult, due to its peculiar syntax and metrical tension; it is made up of two construct phrases:

    • ouv=r!-vorD=T!—”you shall seek his wickedness”
    • ax*m=T!-lb^— “you will scarcely find (it)”

The verb vr^D* (“seek, search”) has a two-fold meaning: (a) the basic sense of seeking to find something, but also (b) the more specific sense of seeking something out so as to address it or deal with it. This latter meaning has been used more than once in the Psalm already, including earlier in v. 13, where the wicked expresses the thought the God will not “seek (out)” his wicked behavior, i.e. to avenge or punish it. The particle lb^ usually indicates negation, but often in the sense of failure, i.e. being unable to do something. Here the nuance of the expression perhaps is “you will scarcely (fail to) find it”, that is to say, there is so much wickedness around, and the wicked person acts so brazenly and repeatedly, that YHWH will have no trouble finding evidence of it.

The final line (v. 16b) again makes the standard identification of the wicked with the nations—i.e. all the surrounding (non-Israelite) nations. For generations, this would be a common way for Israelites and Jews to reference wickedness—immorality, and false/improper religious behavior, etc. Of course, it is predicated on the fundamental idea of the unique covenant bond between YHWH and Israel; any Israelites who violate the covenant and act wickedly, are behaving, not as God’s people, but in the manner of the surrounding nations who are not His people.

Verses 17-18 t

t The wish [tw~a&T^] of the (one)s beaten down, YHWH, you shall hear,
you make firm their heart, you incline your ear,
to judge (for) the fatherless and broken (ones)—
(then the wicked) will no longer continue
to make man(kind) tremble from the earth.

It is possible to read the < of <B*l! as an enclitic (cf. Dahood, pp. 66-7), in which case it refers to YHWH’s heart (“you make firm [your] heart”); however, the parallelism of the couplet suggests rather that it relates to the “wish/desire of the afflicted ones”, representing YHWH’s answer to their plea. The awkward syntax and metrical tension of the final verse opens the possibility that it should be read/divided as a tricolon (3 lines), as I gave generally done above. The referents of this last declaration are not entirely clear, but the basic point is, I believe, that the wicked will scarcely be able to act as they have been doing, once YHWH chooses to act and judge/punish their behavior. The actions of the wicked are described by the verb Jr^u* (“[make] tremble”), which sounds similar to the word Jr#a# (“earth, land”), creating a bit of wordplay in the final line.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10

Psalm 9-10

As nearly all commentators recognize, Psalms 9 and 10 likely were originally a single composition. This is seen primarily from the fact that there is a single acrostic (i.e. the first letter of each line/strophe in alphabetic order) pattern running through them. The Greek Septuagint, followed by the Latin Vulgate tradition, treats them as a single Psalm, resulting in the number of the Psalms being offset (by one) between the Greek/Latin and the Hebrew. The use of the acrostic technique in poetry seems wholly artificial and contrived to most readers today; however, the number of surviving acrostics in the Old Testament—seven other Psalms (25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145), as well as Proverbs 31:10-31 and Lamentations 1-4—is evidence of its popularity. Apart from any artistic concerns, the device served as an aid to memory, especially for lengthier compositions. Undoubtedly the most famous acrostic is Psalm 119, with the alphabetic structure being indicated in many modern English Bibles. The alphabetic arrangement of the Lamentations was preserved in Roman Catholic liturgical tradition (the settings for Holy Week). The acrostic structure of Ps 9-10 is incomplete (discussed in the notes below), suggesting that the text may be corrupt (esp. in the first half of Ps 10); however, any attempt at reconstruction, to restore a complete acrostic, is highly speculative and scarcely worth the effort.

This Psalm is another Davidic composition following the superscription pattern we have encountered thus far throughout Pss 2-8. The specific musical direction (indicated by the preposition lu^ “upon…”), like most in the Psalms, remains obscure to us today. It clearly relates to performance tradition, but beyond this, it is often unclear whether it refers to (a) instrumentation, (b) musical mode/key, (c) melody, or something else entirely. Here the direction is /B@l^ tWml=u^ (±almû¾ lab¢n), the meaning of which is quite uncertain (cf. also in Psalm 46). The pattern of these directions suggests that twmlu be parsed as tWm-lu^ (“upon [the] death [?] of…”), which scarcely seems intelligible. One plausible suggestion is that the preposition has dropped out, and that the text originally read toml*u&-lu^, indicating, perhaps, that the composition was to be sung by female voices (hm*l=u^ fundamentally referring to a young woman who has recently become mature). The significance of the following /B@l^ (“for a son” [?]) would still be unclear; a direction for male treble voices is possible.

As would be expected for a composition of this length and (textual) complexity, the meter in the Psalm as we have it is inconsistent, and there are a number of questions regarding the division of lines and strophes, especially where the acrostic pattern appears to have been disrupted. I will indicate this Hebrew alphabetic pattern throughout the notes. Generally a new letter is introduced for each pair of bicola (4 lines). I tentatively divide the composition, as it has come down to us, into two main parts (9:2-17 [1-16], and 10:1-18), with an ‘interlude’ at 9:18-21 [17-20]. The first part has a more confident tone, the second more in character of a lament, with urgency in the Psalmist’s prayer for YHWH to act.

Part 1: Psalm 9:2-17 [1-16]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]a

a I will give out [hd#oa] (praise), YHWH, with all my heart,
I will (re)count all your wondrous (deed)s;
I will rejoice and rise up (with joy) in you,
I will make music (to) your name, Most High!

This initial strophe is one of praise to YHWH, as in the opening of Psalm 8 (cf. the study last week); however, the composition overall is not a hymn of praise, but rather a prayer (with lament characteristics), drawing upon the same themes of the justice/judgment of YHWH, in the context of the Psalmist’s opponents/adversaries, that we saw, especially, in Psalm 7 (cf. the study). This comes immediately into view in the following couplets.

Verses 4-5 [3-4]b

b (For) with the turning [bWvB=] (back) of my enemies behind (me),
they (shall) have fallen and been destroyed from your face.
(O) that you (will) have made judgment and ruled (for) me—
you (who) have sat on the covered (seat) judging (with) justice!

The prepositional phrase that opens the bicolon in v. 4, “with (the) turning [bWvB=] of my enemies”, could be seen as continuing the thought of v. 3 (Dahood, p. 53, 55), however it seems preferable to regard it as establishing the setting for what follows. It begins a precatory section, describing, in this Prayer-composition of the Psalmist, what he wishes YHWH will do. As such, I would tend to agree with commentators who read the perfect-tense verb forms as precatory perfects—stating what the author wishes would happen, in terms of what YHWH has already done. This comes out most clearly in the second bicolon (v. 5), for which I read the initial yK! particle as emphatic, heightening the entreaty: “O, that you (would) have…”. It is important to understand how these lines relate in the mind of the Psalmist:

    • The turning back of his enemies behind him—God’s action realized in terms of a life situation (line 1)
      • The concrete manifestation of this—the falling/failing and death/destruction of the persons hostile to him (line 2)
        • yK! “O, that…” – the petition of the Psalmist
      • This reflects God judging and ruling on his behalf (judicial setting) (line 3)
    • And, because God rules (over all) as Judge, His judgment (i.e. what happens to the enemies) is right and just [qdx] (line 4)

The verb bv^y` (“sit”) here implies YHWH sitting on the ruling seat (i.e. throne), as both King and Judge, over the entire world. The “face” of God signifies his manifest Presence and Power—here also in the specific context of facing God in his role as Judge.

Verses 6-7 [5-6]g

g (O, that) you (shall) have called out [T*r=u^G`] (against the) nations (and) destroyed (the) wicked,
their name you have rubbed (out) for the distant (future) and until (the end).
The enemy, (that) they (would) be finished—dried (out ruin)s lasting for (all time)—
and (even) the guarded (place)s you have torn up (so that) memory of them is destroyed!

These two couplets continue the same theme (and the Psalmist’ request), but framed in a global, cosmic sense, reflecting YHWH’s rule over all people (all the “nations”). Here the “nations” (<y]og) are treated as synonymous with the “wicked” (collectively, uv*r*). The verb ru^g`, a bit difficult to translate in English, essentially refers to preventing someone from acting, often by means of a forceful word or command; it is generally synonymous with bWv (“turn”) in v. 4, YHWH stopping the Psalmist’s enemies and turning them back, away from him. It is a manifestation of YHWH ruling as Judge, executing judgment on the Psalmist’s behalf; this is also so of the verb db^a* (“[make] perish, ruin, destroy”, also used in v. 4), which is here parallel with ru^g`—the divine Judgment involves the death/destruction of these enemies, an idea that is most difficult, even repellent, to modern day Christians. Moreover, in these lines the permanence of this judgment—not just death for those persons involved, but perpetual ruin and disgrace, their very memory being “rubbed out”—is most clearly expressed. The idea of future permanence of this judgment is conveyed through several expressions, each of which closes a line:

    • “for the distant [<l*ou] (future)” and “until [du^] (the end)” (line 2)
    • “for(ever) lasting” [jx^n#l*] (line 3)
    • “their memory [rk#z@]” will perish (line 4)

All of this ultimately reflects the power and authority YHWH possesses—His rulings as Judge last forever. As an interesting side note, I have translated the plural noun <yr!u* here literally as “guarded (place)s”, which, in most instances, generally means “cities”, i.e. walled/fortified towns, sometimes guarded with watchtowers, etc. The emphasis here, I believe, is that even the fortified, guarded sites of the wicked are to be destroyed, left as desolate ruins, as part of YHWH’s judgment. However, Dahood (p. 55f) reads the plural in a different sense, as “watchers, protectors”, i.e. referring to the ‘gods’ of these people (the nations), drawing upon a use of this root attested, for example, in Aramaic and Syriac—ryu! = “watcher, (one) watching, guarding”, specifically a heavenly being or ‘Angel’ (cf. Daniel 4:10, 20). I do not find this very convincing, in terms of the immediate context and imagery in the line, though I agree that there may be a bit of dual-meaning wordplay involved here.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]h

In the acrostic pattern, there is no strophe present for the letter d, skipping from g to h. Possibly a portion has been lost; however, in the only relevant Dead Sea manuscript (11Psc), a corresponding d-strophe is also absent, the text generally matching that of the MT. If a strophe has dropped out, it must have occurred by the first century B.C. The apparent confusion surrounding the final word of v. 7, hmh, which, it would seem, properly begins the couplet of v. 8, suggests that the text here may well be corrupt.

h Behold [hmh], YHWH has sat (ruling) from the distant (past),
He set firm His covered (seat) for judgment,
and He judges the productive land with justice,
and rules for the tribes (of earth) with straight (decision)s.

Metrical considerations, along with the acrostic pattern of the Psalm, would seem to require that the last word in MT verse 7, hM*h@, begin the couplet of v. 8; in which case, a slight emendation and/or repointing of the text is likely needed, though the proper solution remains unclear. Dahood (p. 56), on the basis of Ugaritic evidence, posits an interjection (<h, hmh) similar to hN`h!, “see, look, behold!” Kraus (p. 190) would repoint hmh as hm#h), “roaring”, but it seems inappropriate to apply the verb to God in this way; it may, indeed, be the underlying Hebrew read by the Greek Version (met’ h&xou, “with [a] noise”), but the LXX relates it to the end of v. 7 (referring to the destruction of the wicked), not the beginning of v. 8. For lack of any better solution, I tentatively follow Dahood, or, at least, I assume a Hebrew equivalent of hmh => hN`h!; in any event, such a reading fits the tenor of the strophe, which depicts YHWH ruling, from His heavenly throne, since the most distant past. The word <l*ou can refer to either the distant past or distant future; in verse 6, the latter was meant, here it seems better to understand it in the former sense. Both aspects, taken together, connote the idea of “eternity”, God’s “eternal” rule in Heaven. The noun lb@T@ is difficult to translate in English; basically, it refers to the productive parts of the land (i.e. fertile, able to bring forth produce), and thus the areas (of the earth) that are inhabited by human beings, though occasionally it can signify the world as a whole (as understood in the ancient Near East). In any case, here it is the entire inhabited earth that is in view—YHWH rules as King and Judge over all human beings everywhere.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]w

w And (indeed) is [yh!yw]] YHWH a high place (of refuge) for (those being) crushed,
a (safe) high place for times (when they are) in distress;
and they shall be secure in you, (the one)s knowing your name,
for you do not abandon (those) seeking (refuge in) you, YHWH.

The primary image in this strophe is of YHWH himself as a citadel—the fortified city. Ancient Near Eastern cities were rather small in terms of area, comprised primarily of the temple and palace complexes where ruler (and his family, etc) dwelt. They were walled, fortified spaces, set on a hill, or otherwise elevated as a result of being built upon successive occupation levels. Most of the population did not reside within the city walls, being farmers and herders, but would seek refuge there in times of “distress” (warfare, invasion, etc). The specific word used here is bG`c=m!, literally a high, elevated place. It draws upon the idea of YHWH seated high up (above the heavens) on his throne; those faithful and loyal to Him will seek refuge in the place where He is. This proximity to YHWH is defined, in ancient religious-cultural terms, as “knowing [vb ud^y`] His name”. On the significance of this idiom, cf. my earlier Advent/Christmas season series “And you shall call his name…” (esp. the articles on the Names of God). The promise is that God will not abandon or forsake the one who remains loyal to Him, meaning, in the context of the Psalm, that God will answer his prayer. The verb jf^B*, which I translate above as “be secure (in)”, could also be rendered generally as “trust (in)”; as for the verb vr^D* (“seek [out], search [for]”), I have likewise translated with the idea of God as a place of security and refuge in mind (“seek [refuge in]”).

Verses 12-13 [11-12]z

z Make music [Wrm=z~] to YHWH, (to the One) sitting (over) ‚iyyôn,
put His deeds (out) front, (there) among the peoples;
for (He is) seeking (out the one)s wailing, He remembers them,
He does not forget the cry of (the one)s being beaten down.

With this strophe, the Psalm shifts from a petition within a judicial setting to that of a personal appeal or lament by the Psalmist. The exhortation to praise in verse 12 is parallel, in certain respects, to that which opens the Psalm (v. 2). In the second bicolon, God’s faithful ones are described as those who suffer, weeping/wailing/groaning (vb <md) and having been beaten down (vb hnu)—the latter verb denoting a position of lowness and affliction, not necessarily as a result of violent action. As in the prior strophe, the Psalmist expresses confidence that YHWH will not abandon his people when they are in distress. It is interesting how this personal appeal blends so deftly together with an appeal on behalf of the people—i.e. Israel, the faithful among them. The localization of Zion places God’s rule directly in relation to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Israel/Judah.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]j

j Show favor to me [yn]n@n+j*], YHWH, see my beatings down by (the one)s hating me,
(and) raise me up from (the) gates of Death!
In response, I would (re)count all (the) shouts (of praise) for you,
in the gates of Daughter ‚iyyôn will I go round with (news of) your help!

Again, in this strophe the personal merges with the idea of the people (the righteous) as a whole. It is safe to say, I think, that in this Psalm, more than any other we have yet examined, the Psalmist represents the people—the righteous ones loyal to YHWH—and stands for them. Rather than referring to a specific situation of distress for an individual—whether an historical figure (i.e. David) or literary protagonist—it is that of the people generally that is in view. This perhaps explains why the idea of the Psalmist’s enemies/opponents now shifts so decidedly toward the “nations” and the “wicked” in a more general, universal sense. At any event, the suffering of the righteous is still expressed in terms of the Psalmist’s own, in the first bicolon (v. 14). The plea for YHWH to rescue him and “raise” him up from the point of death is presented most vividly, using mythological-poetic imagery to describe death and the grave as a great kingdom (with gates) ruled by a king (Death, personified). On this motif, cf. the discussion on Psalm 6 and also the separate article on “Sheol”. The basic idiom “gates of Death” is preserved in the Greek of the New Testament as “gates of the Unseen [a%|dh$, hád¢s] (realm [i.e. of the dead])” in Jesus’ famous declaration to Peter (Matt 16:18). There is an intentional parallel to “gates of Death” with “gates of Daughter Zion” in the second bicolon (v. 15); the latter is a personification of Jerusalem, as the place where God’s people dwell (and thus opposite of the realm of death and the wicked). The Psalmist promises that, if delivered from his distress, he will spread the praise of YHWH, and news of the help given by Him, throughout all of Jerusalem—that is, to all of God’s people.

Verses 16-17 [15-16]f

f (O, that) they (would) be sunk [Wub=f*], (the) nations, in the ruin they made,
this trap hid to possess (others will) have captured their (own) feet!
(Yes) YHWH (shall) be (made) known (by) the judgment He makes—
with (the) works of his (own) palms is the wicked (one) struck down!

The final strophe of this part shifts to an imprecation (perfect vb. forms again read as precative perfects) against the “nations” (plural) who, as a whole, are synonymous with the “wicked” (singular). YHWH’s judgment against the wicked is notable in that it draws upon humankind’s own evil intent, described three ways:

    • “the ruin [i.e. with connotations of death/decay] they made”, possibly meant to convey the idea of digging a grave
    • “this trap hid to possess (others)”, probably to be understood as an ensnaring net
    • “the works of his (own) palms”, here “palms” being a more concrete and visceral synonym for “hands”

The wicked are buried, ensnared, and/or struck down by their own devices. This is a popular motif in the Psalms and wisdom literature, one which we have already encountered in Ps 5:10-11 [9-10] and 7:15-17 [14-16].

The remaining ‘interlude’ of 9:18-21 [17-20] and the second part (Psalm 10) will be discussed next week, along with a summary discussion of the composition as a whole.

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

March 16: Matthew 6:13b (continued)

(This Monday Note on Prayer continues the current series of daily notes on the Lord’s Prayer.)

Matthew 6:13b, continued

In the previous note, I discussed the adjective ponhro/$ (“evil”) and how it is used in the Gospel of Matthew, and, especially, in the Sermon on the Mount. This helps us to understand better its significance here in the Prayer. I laid out five possible lines of interpretation, each of which requires that we take full account of the contrastive parallel between peirasmo/$ (ei)$ peirasmo/n, “into testing”) and ponhro/$ (a)po\ tou= ponhrou=, “from the evil”). These lines of interpretation encompass three basic semantic domains for the word ponhro/$ in the context of the Prayer (and the Sermon):

    • The evil we (i.e. Jesus’ disciples) experience generally, in various ways, during our daily life; this includes sin, misfortune, mistreatment, and persecution (on account of our faith).
    • Specifically the sin and wickedness to which we are tempted by “the Evil One”.
    • The evil which dominates the current Age, manifest especially in the coming suffering and distress (for Jesus’ disciples) at the end-time.

Arguments can be made for all three spheres of meaning:

    • The use of ponhro/$ in the Sermon favors the first option, as it tends to characterize the evil of humankind generally, and the wicked/evil things they do.
    • The common sense of peirasmo/$ as “temptation” (i.e. to sin) would favor the second option, along with the translation of o( ponhro/$ here as “the Evil (One)”, supported by 13:19, 38, and (possibly) 5:37 in the Sermon.
    • In a prior note (on v. 13a), I argued that peirasmo/$ here is best understood in terms of the (eschatological) suffering and distress which Jesus’ disciples will (or may) have to endure. The Synoptic parallels with Jesus’ words in the garden during his Passion strongly point in this direction, as do the eschatological aspects of the Prayer (discussed previously).

Is it possible that ponhro/$ here has a broad significance encompassing all three ranges (or areas) of meaning? While such a possibility ought to be considered, I would still tend to favor the third option above, for a number of reasons:

    1. The eschatological aspect, or dimension, of the Prayer is preserved
    2. It makes better sense of the idea of God bringing believers “into testing”, especially in light of the parallels with Jesus’ words in Mk 14:36, 38 par
    3. It also provides a better context for the idea of God rescuing believers and very much corresponds with the New Testament (esp. Pauline) use of the verb r(u/omai (cf. below)
    4. Its climactic position in the Prayer requires something which matches the Kingdom of God the Father, etc, in the opening petitions.

This line of interpretation is, I believe, clinched by an examination of the verb r(u/omai used in the phrase. While often translated “deliver”, it more properly means “protect”, sometimes in the more active (and dramatic) sense of rescuing one from harm or danger. Unfortunately, it hardly occurs at all in the Gospels; indeed, it is only found here in the sayings and teachings of Jesus. The only other Gospel occurrences are in Luke 1:74 (the Hymn of Zechariah) and in Matthew 27:43. That latter reference, being from the Gospel of Matthew (and the only other occurrence in Matthew), is significant and must be given serious consideration. It is part of the taunts directed at Jesus (by the priests and elders, etc) while he is on the cross:

“He trusted upon God, (so) let Him rescue [r(usa/sqw] him now if He wishes—for he said that ‘I am (the) Son of God’!”

The context clearly is the same as that of Jesus’ Passion prayer in the garden (Mk 14:36ff par), and the idea is that God might rescue Jesus from his moment of suffering (and death). The reference in Luke 1:74 touches upon the more concrete idea of being rescued from the control of one’s enemies. While this differs from the immediate situation in Matthew, it fits the language and imagery used by Paul in his letters, where the majority of occurrences of the verb are to be found—12 instances, including several in letters sometimes considered pseudonymous by critical commentators (Colossians, 2 Timothy). The verb is used two primary ways in the Pauline letters:

  1. References to Paul (and his fellow missionaries) being rescued (by God) from his enemies and opponents, persecution, dangers and perils on the way, etc—Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 1:10 [3 times]; 2 Thess 3:2; also 2 Tim 3:11; 4:17f.
  2. In a soteriological sense—i.e. of God rescuing believers from the power of evil that is at work in the world; this is expressed several ways, with different points of emphasis:
    (a) Rom 7:24: From the power of sin that currently dominates humankind, residing in the flesh—”who will rescue [r(u/setai] me out of this body of death?”
    (b) Rom 11:26: From the wickedness and ungodliness in the world, which currently envelops Israelites along with the rest of humanity (citation of Isa 59:20f): “the (one) rescuing [r(uo/meno$] will arrive out of Zion…”
    (c) 1 Thess 1:10: From the coming (end-time) Judgment by God upon the world (in its wickedness): “…Yeshua, the (one) rescuing [r(uo/meno$] us out of [i.e. from] the coming anger (of God)”.

The last two references have a strong eschatological and Messianic emphasis, shared by both early Christians and many Jews of the period: that the Anointed One (Messiah, according to several figure-types) will appear at the time of Judgment to rescue the faithful of God’s people from both the wickedness in the world and God’s Judgment upon it (see also 2 Pet 2:7, 9). Paul had a very unique way of expressing this idea, which he develops in Galatians and (more fully) in Romans (cf. especially chapters 5-8). Through the person and work of Jesus, God has rescued humankind (believers) from the power of sin (and evil) which currently dominates the world. Two additional passages, reflecting this outlook, are especially relevant to the wording in the Lord’s Prayer:

1. In Col 1:13, Paul refers to God the Father as the One

“who rescued [e)rru/sato] us out of the authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness and set us over into the Kingdom of his (be)loved Son”

The identification of evil with “darkness”, as a kind of kingdom in opposition to the Kingdom of God, matches the language and thought of both the Lord’s Prayer and the garden scene of Jesus’ Passion (cf. the previous note). In the Lukan parallel of the garden scene, Jesus’ declares the situation surrounding his Passion (and impending death) in exactly these terms: “…this is your hour and the authority of darkness” (Lk 22:53). According to the earliest Christian thought, the death and ultimate departure of Jesus ushers in an (eschatological) period of suffering and distress, which precedes the coming Judgment. It will be a time of significant suffering and persecution for Jesus’ followers (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc).

2. In 2 Tim 4:17-18, the idea of Paul (and other missionaries) being rescued from wicked people and opponents (v. 17, and cf. above) is broadened to include the end-time deliverance in general, expressed in v. 18 as follows:

“The Lord will rescue [r(u/setai] me from every evil work and will save [i.e. preserve] me into His Kingdom upon [i.e. above] (the) heaven(s).”

The italicized words are very close to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer:

    • “(may you) rescue us from the evil [a)po\ tou= ponhrou=]”
    • “(he will) rescue me from every evil work [a)po\ panto\$ e&rgou ponhrou=]”

There is one other passage in the New Testament which may shed some light on Matt 6:13—namely, John 17:15, where we find another prayer by Jesus to God the Father. This time it is a petition to the Father on behalf of Jesus’ disciples; it is also set prior to Jesus’ Passion (on this context, see above and the previous note). He prays for his disciples as follows:

“I do not ask that you should take them out of the world, but that you should guard them out of [i.e. from] the evil [tou= ponhrou=].”

The genitive substantive (tou= ponhrou=) is the same as we have in the Lord’s Prayer; here, too, it is often translated “the Evil (One)”, but this does not seem correct to me. More appropriate in context would be “the evil (that is in the world)”, since the contrast is with “the world” or “world-order” (ko/smo$). Believers are not to be taken out of the world itself, but protected from the evil that is in it.

In summary, I would argue that it is best not to translate the substantive ponhro/$ in the Lord’s Prayer as “the Evil (One)”, but to adhere to the more literal rendering “the evil”. The reference, in my view, is primarily to the evil that dominates the current Age, the experience of which is to intensify as the end-time Judgment comes near. This idea of evil certainly includes the figure of the Satan/Devil/Belial, as the world-ruler who exercises dominion over the current wicked Age. This worldview, and its eschatological/Messianic dimension, is expressed in dozens of texts from Qumran (where the Prince/Spirit of Darkness is called “Belial”), and was more or less shared by Christians in the first century A.D. The prayer for protection/rescue from the power of evil in the world unquestionably means protection from the Evil One who is the effective world-ruler of the current Age of darkness. Much of this worldview, admittedly, is lost for Christians today; this does not change the fact that it governed much Jewish and early Christian thought at the time, and needs to be recognized in any serious study of the New Testament today. How it relates to current/modern views of eschatology is a separate issue, but one which also is vital as a point of discussion.

This study of the Lord’s Prayer will be concluded in the next daily note.

Birth of the Son of God: Jn 16:21; 18:37; Rom 8:22-23

As part of this series of notes on the “Birth of the Son of God”, today I will be looking at Jesus’ birth in terms of the suffering and pain associated with childbirth. The severe pains accompanying the birth process go back to the very beginnings of human history (cf. the ancient tradition in Gen 3:16ff), and are often used as a symbol, representative of human suffering and misfortune as a whole. Prior to modern times, childbirth could be quite dangerous as well, often resulting in the death of the child or the mother. The suffering it signified also could be connected with sin in various ways, as in the narrative of Genesis 3. For traditional Old Testament imagery of labor pains related to human suffering and sin, see Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Hos 13:13; Mic 4:9-10; to this should be added the expression “born of a woman” to indicate the human condition in its suffering (Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4; also Gal 4:4 [cf. below]). Sometimes birth pains are contrasted with the joy and relief experienced when the child is born (Gen 35:16-17; John 16:21, cf. also Isa 65:23; Mic 5:3). The pain of childbearing was such that birth without pain could serve as an image of God’s special blessing or as characteristic of an idealized future age (cf. Isa 66:7-8). Painlessness has been ascribed to Jesus’ birth in Christian tradition (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa’s Homily on the Nativity [late 4th cent.]), sometimes connected with the idea of the virgin birth in partu (already indicated in the mid-2nd cent. Protevangelium §19-20); however, there is no evidence for this in the Gospel accounts themselves. On historical and literary grounds, we may fairly assume that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the ordinary pains of childbirth, though it does raise an interesting Christological question regarding the extent to which Jesus participated in the human condition (see esp. Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3; 2 Cor 5:21).

In the New Testament, labor pains are used to symbolize two related ideas:

  • The suffering associated with the end-time Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; 1 Thess 5:3), drawn from Old Testament imagery related to the Day of YHWH (Isa 13:8, etc). In Jewish tradition, the time of distress preceding the (Messianic) restoration/redemption of Israel came to be referred to as “the birth-pains of the Messiah” (jyvmh ylbj).
  • The suffering of believers (John 16:21—also the imagery in Gal 4:19; Rom 8:22-23)

These two aspects were already combined in the Qumran hymn 1QH 3 [1QHa column XI lines 7-18]. The distress of the Community is compared with that of a woman in labor, who eventually gives birth to a ‘Messianic’ figure called the “wonderful counsellor” (after Isa 9:5). This birth is contrasted with another woman who bears a wicked “viper” (hupa)—the fate of this latter offspring is destruction. The Community of the Qumran texts appears to have applied eschatological imagery, just as early Christians did, to their own situation.

The Synoptic narrative framework sets Mark 13:8 par (the Olivet/eschatological discourse) generally in the context of Jesus’ own suffering and death—note also the sayings in Mark 14:21b par and John 16:21 (cf. below) as well as the eschatological imagery in the saying of Luke 23:28-29 on the way to the cross. Suffering is not specifically mentioned of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament (Gal 4:4 is the closest, cf. above); however, as I have demonstrated in several prior notes, there a number of points of contact between Jesus’ birth and death within the Gospels (including the Infancy narratives). In this regard, it is worth examining briefly an interesting parallel between John 16:21 and 18:37.

John 16:21; 18:37

Within the structure of the Gospel, both of these passages occur shortly before Jesus’ death and must be understood in that context:

  • John 16:21—part of the great series of discourses (Jn 13:31-17:26) set between the ‘Last Supper’ (13:1ff) and the arrest of Jesus (chapter 18); the immediate context of 16:16-24 refers to the sorrow which the disciples will experience at Jesus’ death/departure.
  • John 18:37—part of Jesus’ first dialogue with Pilate (Jn 18:33-38) set during the Roman ‘trial’ (18:28-19:16) on the day of his crucifixion (cf. the recent discussion on 18:37).

Let us look at the main points of similarity:

Jn 16:21:

  • gegnnh/sh| “she causes to be (born) [i.e. gives birth to] the child”
  • e)gennh/qh…ei)$ to\n ko/smon “a man comes to be born into the world

Jn 18:37: e)gw/ w($ tou=to (“unto this I…”)—statement of ultimate purpose:

  • gege/nnhmai “I have come to be (born)
  • “I have come into the world [ei)$ to\n ko/smon]”

—this verse refers primarily to the birth and incarnation of Jesus; however, note two additional details which relate to the overall idea of “the birth of the Son of God”:

  • “every one being [i.e. who is] out of [i.e. from] the truth…”—parallel to the spiritual birth of believers (Jn 3)
  • “…hears my voice”—allusion to resurrection (Jn 5), i.e., ‘birth’ from the dead

Another passage related to the “birth” of believers (as sons/children of God), specifically involving labor pains, is Romans 8:22-23:

Romans 8:22-23

“…all creation groans together [sustena/zei] and is in pain together [sunwdi/nei]; and not only this, but also (we our)selves, holding the beginnings from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also groan [stena/zomen] in (our)selves, looking to receive from (God) placement as son(s) [ui(oqesi/an]—the ransom/redemption of our bod(ies)”

Here we have the idea, also expressed (in similar terms) in Galatians 4:4-7, the “adoption” (lit. setting/placement as son) of believers, i.e. as sons (or children) of God. Clearly, this is connected ultimately with the salvation/redemption at the end-time—which occurs by way of the (physical/bodily) resurrection. This must be understood along with two other verses from Rom 8:18-30:

V. 19—Creation eagerly “looks to receive from (God) the uncovering [i.e. revelation] of the sons of God

V. 29—”the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked (out) [i.e. appointed/determined] before(hand) (as being) in form together (with) His Son, unto his being [i.e. so Christ might be] the first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Believers, then, are sons (together) with Christ, here principally in terms of the resurrection—i.e. Jesus as “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5).

Lastly, it is necessary to discuss (however briefly) the famous and enigmatic vision of the woman with child in Revelation 12.

Revelation 12

Interpretation of the complex and colorful visions of the book of Revelation is notoriously difficult, varying greatly—from the contextually plausible to the outrageously fanciful (and everything in between). One major problem is that the author makes use of many multivalent symbols—that is, different images and traditional elements are combined into a single scene or figure—and commentators make a grave mistake when they try to limit interpretation to a single corresponding meaning. The woman of Rev 12:1ff may perhaps best be summarized or described as the “Daughter of Zion”, generally representing the People of God, but presented in an exalted manner using cosmic symbolism. The narrative vision of this woman can be divided into two parts:

  • Verses 1-6—here I take the woman to represent Israel leading up to the birth (and death/resurrection) of Jesus; she is described as pregnant and in severe labor pains (v. 2), indicative of both the suffering of the people and the (eschatological) distress presaging the end (cf. above). The messianic character of the male child she delivers is clear from the allusion to Psalm 2:9 in verse 5.
  • Verses 13-17—here the woman (with her offspring) is best understood as representing the Christian Community, forced to dwell in the wilderness for a period of 3 1/2 years (or 1260 days), which I take to be generally symbolic of the period between the earliest days of the Church (characterized by persecution, cf. Acts 4-8) and the imminent/impending end time (marked by the last judgment and return of Christ).

In both sections, the woman (and her child/children) is threatened by the great serpent/dragon, identified with Satan (v. 9). In between (vv. 7-12) there is a interlude depicting a cosmic battle between two sets of angels in heaven—one group led by Michael, the other by the Dragon. The imagery of this scene is drawn from Jewish tradition, influenced largely by Daniel 10-12. There is a chiastic quality to this triptych:

  • Israel and Christ (the Son of God) threatened by the Dragon (vv. 1-6)
    • Victory of the Sons of God (Michael and the Angels & the Saints) in heaven over Satan (vv. 7-12)
  • (Spiritual) victory of believers (sons of God) over the Dragon/Satan (vv. 13-17 [verse 17b])

The central scene in heaven serves as a source of hope and encouragement for believers facing persecution.