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).

April 28: Isaiah 53:6

Isaiah 53:6

“All of us, like a flock (of sheep), we have wandered,
a man to his (own) path, we have turned,
and (yet) YHWH has made it hit on him,
(for) the crookedness of all of us.”

Verse 6 is the climax of the description (in vv. 3-6) of the Servant’s suffering. The strands of this description are brought together here, giving us the cause of his suffering, and its effect.

The first two lines make use of traditional herding imagery, with the figures of the herd (the people) and the herdsman (the leader). This was a common and familiar motif in the ancient Near East. Kings were frequently referred to as ‘shepherd’, emphasizing two aspects of the herder’s role: (1) nurturing and guidance, leading the flock/herd to grazing land, and (2) protecting it from danger. David’s origins as a shepherd led to this line of imagery being applied to the idea of the royal (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Jeremiah 23:1-6). However, Moses also served as a herdsman in Midian (Exod 2:16-21; 3:1ff), before filling the same role, in a figurative sense, as leader of the Israelite people during the Exodus. The shepherd-motif thus can be applied to prophetic leadership as well (cf. Zech 10-11).

Following this traditional imagery, a people without effective leadership can be described as a flock/herd without the guidance of a herder; and, without such guidance, the animals can wander off, becoming vulnerable to various dangers. Ezekiel 34 gives us the most detailed exposition of this motif, but it can be found in numerous other passages (e.g., Psalm 119:176; Jer 50:17; Zech 13:7). The idiom ‘sheep without a shepherd’ was well-established in Old Testament tradition (1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chron 18:16); most notably, it features in the Moses/Exodus traditions, where Joshua is appointed to take Moses’ place as the inspired/prophetic leader over Israel, so that God’s people would not be like “sheep that have no shepherd” (Num 27:17).

Interestingly, here in verse 6, it is the behavior of the people, acting like sheep without a shepherd, that has led to the Servant’s suffering. Their ‘crooked’ and rebellious actions (and attitudes) are like those of sheep that have wandered off (vb hu*T*). Each animal (i.e., each person) turns (vb hn`P*) and follows his/her own path. As a result, the unity and identity of the flock/herd itself is broken, no longer following the common path provided by the shepherd. This concept fundamentally applies to the people of Israel/Judah violating the covenant bond with YHWH—understanding YHWH as the true Shepherd of Israel.

Even though it is the people (the sheep) who have rebelled and gone astray, the corrective punishment falls upon the Servant (the shepherd). YHWH has made this punishment hit on the Servant (vb ug~P* in the Hiphil causative stem). It is their crookedness (/ou*), a bending or twisting away from the true path of God, that brings about the Servant’s suffering. The people bear the collective responsibility for this, as indicated vividly by the occurrence of WnL*K% (“all of us”) at the beginning and end of these four lines. Taken as a whole, vv. 3-6 function as a confession of guilt, an admission of error by the people, in how they dealt with the Servant.

Following the type-pattern of Moses for the figure of the Servant, it is possible to read v. 6 in light of the scene in Numbers 27:12-14ff. The wording used in those opening verses, and the association of ideas, is significant. Because of the rebellion of the people (in the episode of the ‘waters of strife [Meribah]’, Num 20:1-13), Moses was provoked to act/speak in a way that resulted in the judgment of YHWH being brought down on him. He would suffer the same punishment as the rest of the adult population: he would die without ever entering the Promised Land. Moreover, his departure would potentially leave the people in disarray, like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (27:17).

And, indeed, in verses 7-9, the focus shifts from the Servant’s suffering to his death. We will begin to examine this in the next daily note.

April 27: Isaiah 53:5

Isaiah 53:5

“But he was pierced from our acts of breaking (faith),
crushed from our (own) crooked deeds,
(the) correction (for) our wholeness was upon him,
and with (the) binding of his (wound)s there is healing for us.”

The four lines of verse 5 build upon v. 4 (discussed in the previous note), combining together two key themes being emphasized in the description of the Servant’s suffering: (1) his suffering was the result of his bearing the burdens of the people, and (2) it was a manifestation of YHWH’s judgment. These two themes are presented most vividly here, with the idea of judgment/punishment drawing upon the motif of being wounded (as in battle).

This wounding is expressed, in the first two lines, by two verbs—ll^j* and ak^D*. The first of these literally means “dig/bore a hole,” i.e. “pierce,” presumably in the sense of being struck by a sword or spear. However, there is another semantic domain for llj, usually recognized as a separate root in the lexicons (llj, II), with the meaning “profane, defile,” etc. It has been suggested by some commentators (e.g., Baltzer, p. 410) that this second root/meaning is in view here, in which case the line would read something like:

“But he was defiled from our acts of breaking (faith)”

This could conceivably be correct, yet the parallel with the verb ak^D* (“crush”) makes the meaning “wound/pierce” of llj (I) a better fit.

As the Prophetic account of Israelite (and Old Testament) history makes clear, the judgment brought by YHWH on a people often involved military attack and conquest. In this regard, the punishment surely could be considered “crushing”, and might indeed entail people being wounded and put to death by the sword. Perhaps the terminology is being used more in a figurative sense here, but, in any case, the scenario has certainly intensified—from being “pressed down” (v. 4) to being “crushed”.

The cause of the punishment is also noted, using the preposition /m! (“from”) to indicate the source. The noun uv^P# is often translated as “sin, transgression, wickedness”, but this can be a little misleading in its generality and moral emphasis; the term properly refers to the breaking of a bond (of trust, etc), and can even indicate, more forcefully, an act of rebellion. In other words, the covenant bond, between Israel and YHWH, is primarily in view when uvp is used in the Old Testament. And, here, the plural (<yu!v*P=), specifically refers to acts (by the people) that break the bond,  that break faith with YHWH.

The term /ou*, on the other hand, is used to capture the moral and (general) religious aspect. It is best translated as “crookedness”, indicating something that has been “bent” or “twisted” (i.e., perverted). The plural tonou& is parallel with <yu!v*P=—sinful/corrupt behavior along with acts of disloyalty (and even rebellion) against YHWH.

What is especially emphasized here, however, is that the Servant is the one punished for the people’s deeds. This striking contrast is established by setting the pronoun aWh (“he”) in emphatic position—i.e., he was punished for our deeds.

The last two lines shift the focus slightly, from the punishment itself to the purpose for the punishment, and what results from it. The penalty inflicted by YHWH in judgment is not merely punitive; especially in the case of His people (Israel/Judah), there is also a corrective purpose. This is indicated in the third line by the (verbal) noun rs^Wm, from the root rsy, which captures the fundamental idea of “discipline, instruction, correction”. Thus, the punishment, however severe it may be, is intended also to provide instruction for the people, correcting their behavior, and as an example for future generations.

Here, the intercessory role of the Servant works in the opposite direction: he receives the correction (rs^Wm), but the corrective effect is realized by the people. In the wording of the third line, the correction was for “our wholeness” (Wnm@olv=), i.e., to make us whole. The noun <olv* is often translated flatly as “peace”, but the fundamental meaning has to do with being full, complete, whole.

The fourth line is parallel to the third, and so the terms used must be understood in this light:

    • “(the) correction…upon him” //  “(the) binding of his (wound)s
    • “our wholeness” // “healing for us”

The precise meaning and force of the noun hr*b%j^ (plur. torb%j^) requires comment. The basic meaning of the root rbj is “join, bind, unite”; however, the rather wide semantic range suggests that the Hebrew root, as it occurs in the Old Testament, may represent a convergence of several different Semitic roots. The noun hr*b%j^ seems to isolate one particular idea, that of a visible wound, parallel in meaning to ux^P* (which more properly means “wound”); it may be related to Arabic µbr (distinct from —br), indicating a bright color (like the shining red of a fresh wound).

In this regard, hrb%j^ is relatively rare in the New Testament, occurring just 7 times. One important occurrence (and the only other instance in the Prophets) is in Isaiah 1:6, also in the context of YHWH’s judgment on Israel/Judah. Much of the terminology in vv. 3-5 here can be found in 1:5-6. The people’s sinfulness and breaking of the covenant bond with YHWH has led to their being struck and wounded, and their continuing rebellion means that their wounds continue to get worse. The message is that, if they were to repent, their wounds would be treated and bound up—that is, there would be healing for them. There is likely a basic cognate relationship between the roots rbj and vbj—both sharing a common meaning of “bind”. In Isa 1:6, the wound is the hrbj, while the binding of the wound is hvbj. I believe that the fourth line of verse 5 here alludes to the same dual-concept: both the wounds of the Servant, and the binding of them, and I have tried to capture both aspects in my translation above.

Again, the most important point is that the binding of the Servant’s wounds brings healing for the people, not for himself. In this regard, the effect of the suffering is akin to its purpose—it applies, vicariously, to the people, rather than to the Servant himself. The vicarious aspect of his suffering will be discussed further, in the next note on verse 6.

At this point in the description of the Servant, the parallels with the Moses type-pattern seem to break down. Even if we interpret the wounding and “crushing” here in a figurative sense, it is hard to find any clear parallels in the  Moses traditions. While Moses, on at least one occasion, in his intercession for the people, does ask God to punish him on their behalf (Exod 32:32), there is only one instance when the punishment for the people actually falls upon him as well. This is the episode of the “waters of strife [Meribah]” in Numbers 20:2-13. The rebelliousness and lack of trust among the people provokes Moses to act (and speak) in an impetuous way that does not give full and proper honor to YHWH; as a result, Moses meets with the same punishment as the rest of the adult generation of the Exodus—he would die without being able to enter the Promised Land.

References marked “Baltzer” above (and throughout these notes) are to Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55, translated by Margaret Kohl, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2001).

April 26: Isaiah 53:4

Isaiah 53:4

“Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses,
and our sorrows, he has carried them;
but we considered him (to) be touched,
struck by (the) Mightiest and oppressed.”

Verse 4 continues the description from v. 3 (cf. the previous note), emphasizing the reason for the Servant’s sorrow and suffering—it is primarily due to his empathic and intercessory role in relation to the Israelite/Jewish people. He identifies with their suffering and takes it upon himself, carrying/bearing it on their behalf. In the previous note, I mentioned the importance of Exod 3:7 and the related Moses traditions. Indeed, Moses’ role as YHWH’s servant was closely tied to the suffering of the people, as well as to their deliverance from suffering.

The same words—yl!j( (“weakness, sickness”) and ba)k=m^ (“sorrow”)—from verse 3 are repeated here in the first two lines. This makes clear that the “sorrows” and the apparent “weakness” of the Servant, mentioned in v. 3, are those of the people themselves. The Servant has taken their weakness upon himself.

Two verbs are used to express this: ac^n` (“lift [up]”) and lb^s* (“carry, bear”). The latter verb is relatively rare in the Old Testament, while the former is the common verb used for lifting/carrying something. It can also be used in a figurative sense for the burden of leadership, etc. Following along with the Moses-pattern for the figure of the Servant, the episode in Numbers 11 should given special consideration. Moses feels the weight of his special role of leadership over the people, which puts him in the middle of any conflict between them and YHWH. The wording of his complaint in vv. 11ff would seem to be relevant to the portrait of the Servant here:

“And Moshe said to YHWH, ‘For what [i.e. why] have you caused evil [i.e. hurt, trouble] for your servant? And (why) have I not found favor in your eyes, for (you) to put upon me (the) burden [aC*m^] of all this people?'”

The noun aC*m^ is derived from the root acn, and literally means “lifting, (something) being lifted”. Moses, in his beleaguered state, views this burden (of leadership) as a kind of affliction by God. In the narrative, YHWH responds to Moses’ complaint and relieves some of the burden by having it be shared by other leaders among the people.

In the final two lines of verse 4, the focus shifts back to the how the people have viewed the Servant. It demonstrates how the people have misjudged the Servant, considering the burden of his mission as a personal weakness. Here, this misunderstanding is taken a step further: his weakness and suffering is (erroneously) viewed as a punishment by YHWH. Three verbs, all in passive participle form, are used to express this:

    • ug~n`, “touch” —u^Wgn` (“being touched,” i.e., “he was touched”)
    • hk*n`, “strike” —hK@m% (Hophal participle), “being struck, having been struck”
    • hn`u*, “press down, oppress” —hN#u%m= (Pual participle), “being pressed down, oppressed”

The passive form in these cases is clearly an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), where God is the implied actor. In the Old Testament idiom, to be “touched” by God often has a negative implication—i.e., experiencing some evil or misfortune. To be “struck” by God is even more forceful, indicating a plague or other serious (or disastrous) situation. Being “pressed down” indicates the result or effect of the Divine action, and the punishment that YHWH brings down upon a person.

At the time, the people (apparently) did not realize the nature of the Servant’s suffering (his weakness and sorrow)—that it was the result of his intercessory role. The wording and context of the description indicates that now they do understand this, and recognize their error; indeed, it is part of their testimony now on the Servant’s behalf.

Between verses 3 and 4, there is a dramatic progression in this description of the tension (and conflict) between the Servant and the people. As it turns out, the Servant’s suffering is brought out by YHWH’s judgment—only it is judgment that was intended for the people, but which instead fell upon the Servant, who intercedes for them. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on verse 5).

April 25: Isaiah 53:3

Isaiah 53:3

“He was disregarded and forsaken by men,
a man of sorrows, being known by weakness,
and we hid our faces (away) from him,
he was disregarded, and we did not think (anything of) him.”

This verse builds on the last lines of verse 2 (cf. the previous note), with the basic sense that the people did not think much of the Servant; certainly he did not have a particularly impressive or attractive physical appearance. In the ancient world, such physical characteristics were often thought to mark a person as a gifted leader (cf. the notice regarding Saul in 1 Sam 9:2). However, as verse 3 indicates, this general disregard of the Servant (his appearance) touches upon a deeper conflict with the people.

The verb translated above as “disregard” is hz`B*, which fundamentally signifies considering something (or someone) to be of little worth. We might translate the verb here more forcefully as “despise”, though in some ways “disregard” provides a better transition from verse 2. In any case, the verb is repeated in the fourth line, and so brackets the entire quatrain. Parallel with hzb is the root ldj (“leave, forsake, reject”), here as an adjective (“forsaken”); the two terms indicate the attitude of the people (“men”) toward him. The parallel verb in the last line is bv^j*, which fundamentally indicates what one thinks (about something).

Between the first and fourth line, the focus shifts from the general view of people toward the Servant to the specific view of those who are providing the description (“we”). The people—some of them, at any rate—appear to be giving testimony on behalf of the Servant in the heavenly court. They admit that they did not think much of the Servant—they disregarded (or even despised) him. Central to this rejection is the characterization we find in the second and third lines:

“a man of sorrows, being known by weakness,
and we hid our faces (away) from him”

The expression “man of sorrows” (toba)k=m^ vya!) indicates that the Servant is characterized by sorrow. We do not know the reason for this. It is unlikely that it is to be considered the result of physical suffering (as from an illness). Given the influence of the Moses traditions upon the portrait of the Servant-figure, it is possible that Exod 3:7 is in view here:

“And YHWH said: ‘Seeing (it), (yes,) I have seen (the) oppression of my people that are in Egypt, and their cry I have heard from (the) mouth of (the one)s (op)pressing him, for I know their sorrows.'”

The sorrow here relates to the experience of the Israelite people (in Egypt). And this is the context of Moses’ particular role as the servant of YHWH—a role that began when Moses saw the suffering of his people (Exod 2:11). The idea seems to be that the Servant, like Moses, takes on the burden of the people, and so suffers (and experiences sorrow) in a sympathetic (or empathic) way. In other words, he identifies with the suffering of the people. This theme will be developed in the following verses, and it must be considered an important aspect of the “sorrows” that characterize the Servant.

Ironically, while the Servant identifies with the suffering of the people, the people, for their part, turn away from him. Literally they “hide” (vb rt^s*) their faces from him. It is the very suffering/sorrow of the Servant that prompts them to turn away. This suffering is defined here by the word yl!j(, which fundamentally means “weakness”, but can also denote “sickness, illness, disease”. It is often translated here as “sickness”, but in my view “weakness” is more accurate and appropriate. The Servant’s role in carrying the burden of the people’s suffering/sorrow takes a profound a toll on him, both physically and emotionally, and this can appear to the casual (and callous) observer as an unattractive weakness.

Indeed, the Servant is known by this weakness, meaning that it is a primary characteristic and a principal way by which people think about him—i.e., a man of sorrows and weakness. A passive participle of the common verb ud^y` is used here (u^Wdy+, “being known”). Again, this may reflect the commission of Moses at the burning bush, with the wording in Exod 3:7 (above): “…I know their sorrows”. It follows that Moses, as the servant of YHWH, in identifying with his people’s sorrows, would himself come to be known by that very suffering. This empathic character of the Servant’s mission will be discussed further in the next daily note, on verse 4.

April 21: Isaiah 52:14-15

Isaiah 52:14-15a

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you—
so destroyed from (that of) a man (was the) sight of him,
and (the) appearance of him from (that of the) sons of man
—so will he sprinkle many nations.”

There are four lines here in vv. 14-15a, the second and third of which represent a parenthetical descriptive statement. It is the first and fourth lines that provide the principal declaration:

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you,
so will he sprinkle many nations.”

The shift from 2nd person to 3rd may seem awkward or confusing to us, but it is not at all uncommon in Hebrew poetry (including the Prophetic poems). In the initial line, the Servant is being addressed. Based on the context of verse 13 (discussed in the previous note), the scene of vv. 14-15ff would appear to be the heavenly court of YHWH, the Servant having been exalted and elevated to a heavenly position. If so, then it is the court/council of YHWH—if not YHWH Himself—who addresses the Servant.

The verb <mv* denotes “devastation, desolation,” etc. The seeming obscurity of why “many (people)” would be “devastated” by the sight of the Servant helps to explain the parenthetic lines 2-3, which serve to clarify the situation. The “devastation” is a reaction to the “destruction” (tj^v=m!, from the root tjv) of the Servant. It is specifically his visible appearance that has been destroyed (i.e., marred, disfigured); the two nouns used to express this are ha#r=m^ (“seeing, something seen, sight of [something]”) and ra^T) (“shape, form, outline”). The latter word implies that his physical form has, in some way, been destroyed.

The extent of the physical/visible destruction is defined by the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) in a comparative sense (i.e., more than). His appearance/form has been destroyed more than that of an ordinary human being—parallel terms “man” [vya!] and “sons of man” [<d*a* yn@B=]). The parallelism here is both synonymous and emphatic, with the double-reference used for dramatic emphasis.

Clearly, the Servant has endured considerable suffering (which may have led to his death, cf. the discussion in the previous note), though no indication is given here of the exact nature of this suffering, nor the reasons for it. However, it establishes the important theme, of the Servant’s suffering, that will be developed in the remainder of the poem.

The most difficult part of vv. 14-15a is the use of the verb hz`n` (“sprinkle”) in the final line. It is said that the Servant (“he”) will “sprinkle many nations”. This provides a comparative parallel with the first line (cf. above):

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you
|| so will he sprinkle many nations.”

This suggests that the “sprinkling” is related in some way to the devastated reaction over the Servant’s appearance. But what, precisely, is the significance of this “sprinkling”?

[It should be noted that some commentators, following the LXX translation qauma/sontai (“they will wonder [at]”), would explain the verb hz`n` in the sense of “spring/leap up”, possibly to be identified with a separate root hzn (II) with this meaning, posited on the basis of evidence in Arabic. This seems to me quite tenuous, being introduced by commentators almost entirely for the purpose of explaining the odd mention of “sprinkling” here in v. 15. However, if valid, the lines above would need to be translated as:

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you
|| so will he cause many nations to leap [i.e., with amazement].”

This supposed use of hz`n` is unattested anywhere else in the Old Testament, compared with the regular use of the verb in the sense of “sprinkle, spurt”; this, combined with the introduction of the theme of purification (cf. below) in the prior vv. 11-12, strongly argues for retaining the meaning of “sprinkle” here.]

The verb hz`n` occurs 24 times in the Old Testament, almost always in connection with purification rituals, sometimes associated specifically with the consecration and service of the priesthood. 15 of the 24 occurrences are in the book of Leviticus; cf. also Exod 29:21; Num 8:7; 19:4, 18ff. The verb is used once more in the book of Isaiah (63:3), but that is the only other reference in Prophets. The usage in Isa 63:3 is significant in that it departs from the traditional association with purification; instead, it is serves as a powerful image of judgment—the end-time judgment by God against the nations. In this case, the sprinkling (or better, splattering) of blood is compared with the image of the ‘blood’ of grapes that is pressed/poured out in the harvesting and production of wine. This harvest imagery, used as a motif of the end-time Judgment, is also found in Joel 3:13ff, and was picked up also in the Last Judgment visions of the book of Revelation (14:8-10ff, 17-20; 19:15, etc).

However, the context here in our passage suggests rather that the more common, positive sense of purification is in view (cf. on the initial verses 11-12, in the previous note). While it is not possible to make a definite assessment at this point in our study, the reference here seems to evoke an important Deutero-Isaian theme—namely, that the new covenant established with Israel will, in the New Age, ultimately be extended to the other nations as well. The Servant and “Anointed One[s]” of YHWH will play a key role in this eschatological ‘mission’ to the surrounding nations. This is a point that was discussed in the earlier article on Isa 42:1ff, and will be elaborated further as we continue in our analysis of 52:13-53:12. Based on the immediate context of verses 14-15, it is not at all clear just what the Servant’s role will be, or what is involved in his “sprinkling” the nations, beyond the general association with purification (cf. above). Again, we should be able to gain greater clarity on this point as we proceed through the passage.

In terms of an early Christian application of vv. 14-15 to the person of Jesus, one can easily see how it would have been applied to his suffering and death. The severe marring of his physical appearance would have fit in quite well with the historical reality of the crucifixion (including the whipping/scourging that preceded it). Even though the visible, physical affects of this punishment are barely mentioned at all in the Gospel narratives (being treated with considerable reserve), many Christians at the time would have been aware of it. Another Deutero-Isaian reference, which would have been more applicable to the (physical) mistreatment/abuse of Jesus, prior to (and apart from) the scourging, is 50:6 (cp. Mark 14:65; 15:19 pars; John 18:22-23).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 38 (Part 1)

Psalm 38

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 3, 5, 7, 9-11, 13, 17-24)

This Psalm has 22 verses, which suggests an alphabetic pattern, even though it is not an actual acrostic poem; this could, however, explain why it follows Ps 37, which is an acrostic (cf. the previous studies). The 22-verse format came to be associated specifically with poems of lament (cf. the poems in the book of Lamentations), and that is certainly the case here.

The Psalm has a rather clear two-part structure: in the first part (verses 2-11), the Psalmist describes his suffering from a serious illness, while the second part (vv. 12-17ff) presents the response of people to his condition. In the final portion of the second part (vv. 18-23), all the main themes of the poem are summarized and recapitulated, closing with a plea to YHWH for healing and deliverance.

In terms of its poetic rhythm, the Psalm generally follows the 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. Any significant deviations will be mentioned in the notes.

The superscription marks this as another musical composition (romz+m!) “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 70.

Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Verse 2 [1]

“YHWH, in your displeasure do not decide (against) me,
and in your hot (anger) do (not) discipline me!”

The initial couplet involves a plea to YHWH, that He would not act in anger against the Psalmist. Illness was often viewed as the result of the deity’s anger or displeasure against humankind, and, in a monotheistic context, this specifically means the anger of the Creator Deity El-YHWH. The two verbs are jk^y` and rs^y`; the first implies the handing down of a legal judgment (“decide [against]”), while the second refers to a punitive or corrective action (“chastise, discipline, rebuke,” etc). The parallelism of the lines is filled out by a pair of modifying prepositional expressions: “in your fierce (displeasure) [[x#q#]” and “in your hot (anger) [hm*j@]”. The experience of illness by the protagonist leads to the realization that YHWH may be angry with him, and he hopes to forestall any (further) judgment that might come as a result of the Divine anger.

The meter in this opening couplet is 3+2; however, the addition of a second negative particle (la^), attested in some manuscripts, would balance things somewhat in the second line.

Verse 3 [2]

“For your arrows have come down in(to) me,
and (so) your hand has come down upon me.”

Assuming the repetition of the verb tj@n` (“go down, descend”) in both lines is original (cf. Kraus, p. 410), it is meant to give double emphasis to the Psalmist’s experience of suffering (from illness). The image of “arrows” shooting into a person is a fitting metaphor for the coming of pestilence and disease, and occurs frequently in ancient Near Eastern thought (e.g., Deut 32:23; Job 6:4, etc). In the setting of Israelite monotheism, these “arrows” have to come from YHWH, even if by way of divine intermediaries (i.e., Angels/spirits with authority to bring disease). In Job 16:12-13, God is said to send “archers” against the person, shooting the arrows of illness. In Canaanite (Ugaritic) tradition, the personification of burning plague (Ršp, cp. Hebrew [v#r#) is similarly referred to as an archer (cf. Dahood, p. 235).

In the second line, it is clear that it is YHWH who is acting against the Psalmist, with “your hand” parallel to “your arrows”. Moreover, it is the hand (and forearm) that is specifically in focus when the archer draws back his bow. Strength of hand/arm is required, and it is YHWH’s divine power that creates and brings pestilence and disease upon humankind.

Verse 4 [3]

“There is no completeness in my flesh from (the) face of your curse,
there is no fullness in my bones from (the) face of my sin.”

The couplet has an expanded 4-beat (4+4) meter which gives to it a special weight, and may be intended to express, poetically, the burden that the Psalmist feels. The parallelism is precise, with each line beginning with the negative particle /ya@ (“there is no”), functioning in a verbal (or adverbial) sense. There is also the common prepositional expression yn@p=m! (“from [the] face of,” i.e., before), emphasizing the reason for the protagonist’s suffering. Let us consider the main points of parallelism:

    • “there is no [/ya@]
      • completeness [<t)m=]
        fullness [<olv*]

        • in my flesh [yr!c^b=B!]
          in my bones [ym^x*u&B^]
      • from (the) face of [yn@p=m!]
        • your curse [;m#u=z~]
          my sin [yt!aF*j^]”

The pair of nouns <t)m= / <olv* denotes wholeness, completion, health. Since there is none of this in the Psalmist’s body, he is clearly in a state of physical weakness and debility. The noun <x#u# literally refers to the strength in a person’s limbs; however, in the plural it often specifically connotes the bones, and so I have translated it conventionally here, as a proper parallel with “flesh” (i.e., flesh and bones).

There are two reasons cited for the Psalmist’s illness. The first relates to God: “your <u^z~.” The noun <u^z~ is difficult to translate here in context, while still preserving the poetry of the line. It fundamentally  refers to an angry reaction, and, specifically, something spoken; it would best be rendered here as “denunciation”, but the makes for awkward poetry. The translation “curse” fits the rhythm of the line much better, and provides a straightforward parallel with “sin”.

The second reason, indeed, for the Psalmist’s illness is sin: “my sin“. In the ancient world, disease and illness were often thought to have come about because of something wrong (i.e., sinful) that a person had done (cf. John 9:2, etc). From a traditional religious (and theological) standpoint, God’s anger is aroused by human sin, and the heat of this divine anger is often seen as manifest in the burning effects of disease and pestilence (cf. on the term [v#r#, above).

Verse 5 [4]

“For my twisted (deed)s have gone over (upon) my head,
like a heavy burden they are (too) heavy f(or) me.”

This couplet also has an expanded meter (properly 3+4) that, again, suggests poetically something of the burden (aC*m^) that the Psalmist feels. In verse 3[2], the protagonist felt the weight of God’s hand upon him; now it is the weight of his own sins that he experiences (note the parallelism in v. 4[3] above). He claims that they are “heavy from me”, which, translated into English idiom and comparative syntax, means “too heavy for me (to bear)”.

Verse 6 [5]

“My wounds come to stink (and) are ooz(ing),
from (the) face of my foolishness!”

Here the protagonist’s sins are characterized ruefully as “foolishness” (tl#W#a!). The same prepositional expression (“from the face of”, i.e., in the face of, because of) from v. 4[3] is used again to express the reason for his suffering. The image of festering wounds may be meant to depict the symptoms of an actual illness, or it may simply be a general point of reference that includes the idea of punishment (i.e., bruises, stripes) for sin (cp. Isa 1:5-6). The meter of this couplet is 3+2, providing an interesting counterbalance to the irregular 3+4 rhythm of the previous verse.

Verse 7 [6]

“I am bent, bowed down, until (I reach the) very (end),
all the day (long) I walk about dark (with mourn)ing.”

The complete and all-encompassing experience of suffering is described vividly in this couplet. In the first line, he bends over and goes down (presumably from pain), practically to the very ground. The general expression da)m=-du^ (“until [the] very [last/end, etc]…”) is intentionally open-ended, and is meant to convey an intense and extreme situation.

In the second line, the man is upright, and able to walk about; however, he has the demeanor and appearance of someone in mourning, looking dark and ashen-faced. This may be meant to imply a condition that places him in danger of death. In any case, like a mourner, there is no joy of life for the Psalmist in such a condition.

Verse 8 [7]

“For my loins are filled with roasting (heat),
and there is no completeness in my flesh.”

The second line repeats the statement from the first line of verse 4[3] (cf. above), referring to a lack of physical health. This is juxtaposed with the specific (and demeaning) point of suffering described in line 1: a burning, fever-like condition that is located in the loins. The root hl*q* can signify a drying out, due to heat (i.e., the translation “roasting” above), possibly with the specific idea of the genitals shriveling and withering. This may be a particularly shameful way of indicating a lack of health and vitality.

Verse 9 [8]

“I am weakened and broken until (the) very (last),
I moan, groaning (deep in) my heart.”

The Psalmist’s weakened and debilitating condition (vb gWP) has left him “crushed” (vb hk*D*), in his spirit as much as in his body. With apparently little hope, he is left to moan/groan deep in his heart. The reading in the Qumran MS 4QPsa of the first word in line 1 (agpn) is unclear and may represent a scribal error (cp. MT ytwgwpn). By comparson, the LXX here reads “I am ill-treated” (e)kakw/qen), so there does seem to be some textual uncertainty at this point.

Verse 10 [9]

“My Lord, all my longing is (there) in front of you,
and my sighing (surely) is not hidden from you.”

The Psalmist points out the obvious: that YHWH is aware of his suffering. Indeed, this must be so, since God has brought about the very illness that has led to his debilitating condition. However, by drawing attention to this situation, the Psalmist hopes to gain the sympathy and favor of YHWH.

Verse 11 [10]

“My heart moves, my strength has left me,
and (the) light of my eyes it also is no more to me.”

The verbal form rj^r=j^s= is peculiar; if it derives from the root rj^s* (“move/go around”), then the idea may be that the sick man’s heart is fluttering or palpitating. Parsing this as a rare Pealal form would tend to confirm such an image, since it can be used to describe quick/rapid and repeated movements (cf. GKC §55e). For a different explanation, see Dahood p. 236.

Based on the parallel with the phrase “my strength has left me”, perhaps the proper sense is that the man’s heart has moved away from him. In any case, the usually stout heart is no longer stable or a source of strength. Similarly, the strength of his vision (“light of my eyes”) is also gone. The manner of expression here is a bit awkward, but this may be intentional, with the wordiness of the line perhaps meant to convey the sense of affliction—i.e., the awkwardness of visually disabled person groping about. Again the negative (privative) particle /ya@ is used to emphasize the lack of health: “it is no more for me”.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 30

Psalm 30

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (vv. 9-13 [8-12])

This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from death (possibly due to an illness), and thus has a setting similar to several other Psalms we have examined thus far (e.g., the opening portion of Ps 28, and see especially the earlier study on Ps 6). The poetry of this composition has been particularly admired by commentators. Its meter is irregular, with a 4-beat (4+4) couplet tending to dominate; there are also 4+3 and 3+3 couplets, and at least one 2-beat tricolon. The lines thus tend to be ‘heavier’ (longer) allowing for more detailed imagery and a richer mode of expression.

The superscription marks this Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. It also adds the detail that it is (to be) used for the “dedication of the house” (ty]B^h^ tK^n%j&)—that is, the celebration of the rededication (or consecration) of the Temple, better known as the festival of Hanukkah (transliteration of the noun hK*n%j&). This may be an indication of the relative date of the superscriptions (i.e. after 165 B.C.), long after most of the Psalms themselves had been composed. The reason why this particular Psalm would have been applied to the occasion of the Temple-dedication festival is not at all clear.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

In the opening stanzas, the Psalmist sings out to God in praise for his deliverance.

Verse 2 [1]

“I will raise you (high), YHWH, for you drew me out,
and did not (let) my enemies take delight from me.”

There is a parallel built into the opening line that is easily obscured in translation. The Psalmist says that he will “raise” God up high (through his praise); this is in response to YHWH lifting him up. The latter verb (hl*D*) specifically refers to drawing up water, lifting it up out of a (deep) well; it is a proper symbol for God delivering the Psalmist out of the “pit” of suffering and death.

As is often the case in these Psalms, the attitude of the Psalmist’s enemies and adversaries plays a role in how and why the protagonist prays to God as he does. It is not always clear whether these nameless enemies are to be taken as real or imagined, actual persons or literary and proverbial figures. Generally, those Psalms which evince a stronger royal background are more likely to refer to actual adversaries; on the whole, they appear to be generalized figures, representing the wicked in contrast to the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist). The Psalmist’s enemies naturally would take delight in his suffering, even as the wicked may do, in various ways, toward the righteous.

Verse 3 [2]

“YHWH, my Mighty (One),
I called to you for help
and you have healed me.”

The meter of this verse can be discerned roughly as 2+2+2, or a 2-beat tricolon (compared with the 4+3 couplet of verse 2 [1]). It summarizes the situation of the Psalm:

    • Line 1: He calls out (in praise) to YHWH, his God (lit. “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”)
    • Line 2: In his suffering he had previously called to God for help (vb uw~v*)
    • Line 3: God responded to that prayer and healed him (vb ap^r*), making him whole again
Verse 4 [3]

“YHWH, you made my soul come up from She’ol,
you gave me life (in) my going down (to the) Pit!”

The meter of this couplet (4+3) generally matches that of verse 2 [1] (above). It builds upon the idea expressed in the last line of the tricolon in verse 3 [2]—of how God responded to the Psalmist’s prayer and healed him, presumably from an illness that had left him at the point of death. His soul was on its way down to the realm of death (and the dead), called here by the noun loav= (š®°ôl, cf. the earlier note on the meaning and background of “Sheol”) as well as roB (“pit”). The “pit” is equivalent to the deep place from which the Psalmist was lifted up, like water from a well (in the first line of v. 2 [1], cf. above).

The preformative mem [m] of the Masoretic yd!r=Y`m! (qere yd@r=oYm!) is problematic. Dahood (p. 182) suggests that it should be regarded as an enclitic mem [<] and attached to the previous word. Along these lines, it may be that the MT kethib yd!r=y` is correct, read as a form of the singular participle, i.e. “(in) my going down”. The sense of the line is that YHWH gave life to the Psalmist as he was going down to the Pit.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

The next section of the Psalm addresses the power YHWH has over life and death. It is right and proper to trust that He will act to bring (and restore) life to those who are faithful to Him.

Verse 5 [4]

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His good (and loyal one)s,
and throw (praise) to (the) remembrance of His holiness!”

This 3-beat  (3+3) couplet is somewhat difficult to translate literally in English; a certain awkwardness is the result, with the rhythm of the lines better captured as follows:

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His loyal (one)s,
and throw (praise), remembering His holiness!”

The adjective dys!j* (related to the noun ds#j#) has the fundamental meaning “good, kind”, but in the context of the covenant-bond often connotes faithfulness and loyalty. Those who are faithful/loyal to YHWH will praise Him for His own goodness and faithfulness. Beyond this, there is the religious context of recognizing what sets YHWH apart from all others, as Israel’s God and the true Creator and Deity over all. This is expressed by the idiom “remember(ing) His holiness [vd#q)]”, which we might paraphrase as “recognizing that He is the Holy One”.

Verse 6 [5]

“For (there is) violence in His anger, (but) life in His pleasure;
at (the) setting (sun) weeping lodges, but at (day)break a cry (of joy).”

This is the first of several long 4-beat (4+4) couplets, tense and full of rich imagery. The contrast is between God’s harsh/violent anger and the grace/mercy he shows to the faithful ones. Even those loyal to YHWH may experience something of His anger—like the protagonist of the Psalm in his suffering and illness—but this does not affect the life that ultimately comes to them in the end.

The parallelism of the first line requires that the noun ug^r# is to be related to <yY]j^ (“life, living”). The problem is that there appear to be several different roots ugr; the noun ug^r# is typically thought to denote a short space of time, something which happens quickly (the sense of ugr I being “act quickly”). However, in a passage such as Job 26:12, ug^r* clearly refers to a violent act, something which is both harsh and decisive, and this appears to be the connotation of ugr here (whether or not ug^r# is the correct vocalization). The noun [a^ literally means “nose, nostril(s)” but is a regular Semitic idiom for anger, presumably drawn from the image of an angry, snorting bull, etc. I have translated it above in the more abstract sense of “anger” so as better to highlight the parallel with God’s /oxr* (“delight, pleasure, favor”).

The comparative contrast between sunset/sunrise and weeping/crying-with-joy is both natural and poignant. It expresses a message of hope and trust that is virtually universal to religious experience among human beings. Even if one has to endure a “night” of suffering, there will be a time of deliverance and release in the “morning”.

Verses 7 [6]

“And I said, in my tranqil (security),
‘I shall not slide for (the) distant (future)!'”

The sense of this couplet is not entirely clear. Presumably, it expresses the idea that the Psalmist’s trust in his own security (given to him by God) was misplaced. That is to say, just because he lived in faithfulness to YHWH, with the security and protection that brings, it did not mean that he would never experience suffering. This issue of the ‘suffering of the righteous’ has a long history in religious thought, being found frequently in ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature; it is, of course, the subject of the great discourse-drama in the book of Job. The Niphal (passive/reflexive) form of the verb fom connotes being “made to slip/slide”; the (misplaced) confidence expressed by the Psalmist can be accurately paraphrased as “nothing will ever make me slip” (i.e. slip from this peaceful and secure life).

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH, by your pleasure you made me stand for [i.e. like] a strong mountain;
(but) you hid your face (from me), and I was (suddenly) disturbed.”

The illness experienced by the Psalmist is presented as something that came upon him suddenly and quite unexpectedly. Yet now he realizes (and acknowledges) it is a simple fact of the sovereign power of YHWH; all He has to do is turn away His “face”, even for a moment (and for whatever reason or purpose), and suffering is the result. This may happen even to the righteous. As long as the protagonist experiences the pleasure and favor of God, he stands firm and strong like a mountain. The prefixed l= preposition is correctly read here as a lamed of comparison (lamed comparativum, Dahood, p. 183). Dahood also suggests that the verb form T*r=T^s=h! is of a t-infixed (i.e. Hishtaphel) stem of the root rWs (“turn [away]”), rather than a Hiphil form of the root rt^s* (“hide”). The basic meaning would not be too different in either case.

Verses 9-13 [8-12]

In the third (and final) section of the Psalm, the focus reverts to that of the first section (cf. above). Now, instead of addressing YHWH with praise and thanksgiving, the Psalmist prays for future deliverance—that is, to be delivered from any similar (life-threatening) illness and suffering in the future.

Verse 9 [8]

“(It is) to you, YHWH, (that) I call,
and to (you), my Lord, do I ask for favor.”

Here the prayer (vb ar^q*, “call [to]”) is petitionary, with a request that God show favor (lj@) to him (by answering the petition); the verb /n~j* here has the sense of “ask for favor”.

Verse 10 [9]

“What (is) bit off by my tears, in my going down (to) destruction?
Shall (the) dust throw (praise), shall it put your firmness up front?”

This is another instance of a long (4+4) couplet that is packed tight with imagery. In the first line, the idea is that nothing is to be gained by the sorrow and suffering of the Psalmist (i.e. the righteous) if it ends in death. The root ugb denotes “cut off, cut out”, but it can be used figuratively for unjust (or ill-gotten) gain; a comparable idiom in English might be “bite off”, “take a bite”. I follow Dahood (p. 183) in reading ym!D* as derived from <md II (“weep”), rather than the noun <D^ (“blood”). The idea of weeping (i.e. “tears”) better fits the context here (cp. Psalm 4:5). The rhetorical question of lament in the second line is similar to that in Psalm 6:6 [5], to the effect that the dead are no longer able to give praise to God. The noun tm#a# is best understood in the fundamental sense of “firmness” (i.e. faithfulness); to put the faithfulness of YHWH “up front” or “out front” (the basic sense of dgn) means to declare or make it known to others.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Hear (me), YHWH, and show me favor!
YHWH, may you be (One) giving help to me!
(May) you turn my wailing over to whirling for me,
open my loose (garment) and bind me (with clothes) of joy!”

The initial 3+3 couplet, expressing again the Psalmist’s desire to experience God’s favor in the future (by keeping from another bout of severe illness and suffering). The second couplet is yet another long 4-beat (4+4) bicolon, the imagery of which can be difficult to render clearly in English. To begin with, we have the perfect forms of the principal verbs. As the context involves a prayer for future deliverance, it is perhaps best to read these as precative perfects—expressing a wish for what will (or should) happen as though it is something that has already occurred. Unfortunately, this is rather difficult to convey in English syntax, i.e. “O, that you would have turned…”, which is admittedly awkward. The simple translation as a wish, “(May) you turn…”, etc, is perhaps the best solution.
Note: the Qumran manuscript 4QPsr reads the verb forms in verse 11 [10] also as (precative) perfects.

The contrast in the second couplet is between mourning and joyful celebration. The idea of mourning is obviously conveyed by the verbal noun dP@s=m! (“wailing”), but also by the loose/coarse garment (qc^, i.e. ‘sackcloth’) which is worn as a sign of mourning. By contrast, the prayer is that God would turn “wailing” into “whirling” (a similar verbal noun lojm*),  that is, dancing around joyously. In a comparable way, the loose mourning garments are to be replaced by tight-fitting clothes of joy.

Verse 13 [12]

“In response, my inner (parts) will make music to you,
and will not be silent, YHWH, my Mighty (One)—
into (the) distant (future) I will throw (praise) to you!”

The Psalm closes with a tricolon of irregular meter, in which a dual promise of (future) praise to YHWH (lines 1 and 3) bracket a central declaration regarding YHWH as the Psalmist’s God (“Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”). Such a theological confession may seem obvious, but it was central to the ancient covenant-bond established between YHWH and Israel as His people. YHWH is identified as the true “Mighty One” (indeed, “the Mightiest”), the Creator of heaven and earth. The verb in the central line, <m^D*, is somewhat ambiguous, as both of the main roots (denoting “be silent” and “weep”, respectively) are applicable to the context. The contrast between mourning and joy in the prior couplets (cf. above) would tend to support the latter, but the force of the promise (to praise YHWH) here favors the former—i.e., the Psalmist declares that he will praise God continually, and will not be silent. Perhaps a bit of dual-meaning wordplay is at work.

The two verbs for expressing praise to God are rm^z` (“make music”) and hd*y`, the latter literally meaning “throw” but often used in the sense of throwing/casting praise toward someone. The Masoretes have almost certainly mispointed dbk as dobk* (“weight, worth”, i.e. honor, glory), whereas db@K* is doubtless correct, referring to the liver, i.e., in a figurative sense as the location of deep feeling and emotion (equivalent to the “heart” in English). Some would derive it from the root dbk in the sense of the “heavy” (i.e. large/thick or deep) organ, but this is far from certain. In any case, “liver” sounds most strange in context here, as rendered in English translation; I have opted for the more generic “inner (parts)”, i.e. “inner (organ[s])”, which conveys something of the Hebrew term when used in this way.

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




Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 2

Psalm 22, continued

Verses 12-23 [11-22]

In this portion of the Psalm, the distress and misfortune experienced by the Psalmist (cf. the previous study on vv. 2-11 [1-10]) is defined in terms of attacks by his adversaries and opponents. Often in the Psalms, this line of imagery relates to the royal background and theology of the ancient poems (i.e. referring to opponents of the king and his kingdom). Admittedly, this aspect is less prominent here in Psalm 22, but we must still take it into account. The adversaries of the protagonist are never specified, though they are characterized generally as wicked and faithless/disloyal to the covenant with YHWH.

Verse 12 [11]

“Do not be far away from me,
for distress is near (to me),
for there is no (one) helping (me)!”

The section begins with a 2+2+2 tricolon, in which the Psalmist calls out urgently to God, as he faces “distress” (hr*x*), an abstract term which should be understood in the concrete sense of hostile opponents who are attacking (or who would attack). The substantive participle “(one) helping” (rz@ou) refers to human aid, perhaps in the practical sense of military assistance; since there is no one available, the Psalmist has to turn to YHWH for divine aid.

Verses 13-14 [12-13]

“Many (strong) bulls surround me,
(the) mighty (one)s of Bashan enclose me;
they open their mouths upon me,
tearing and roaring (at me as) a lion!”

The two 3+3 couplets in these verses describe the Psalmist’s enemies in the traditional imagery of fierce and powerful animals (bull / lion). They are compared with bulls (<yr!P*) in the first couplet, the parallelism filled in by the local idiom of cattle-herding in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan (“mighty ones of Bashan”). In the second couplet, the lion (hy@r=u^) is in view, with its deadly mouth that roars and tears at its prey.

Verses 15-16 [14-15]

“Like water, I am poured out,
all my bones are separated;
my heart is (become) like wax,
it melts in the midst of my tissues;
my strength is dried up like (baked) clay,
and my tongue has been stuck to my jaws—
and (all this) has set me toward the dust of death!”

In the face of such danger, the Psalmist can feel himself on the verge of death. The strength of his limbs (and his heart) dissolves, melting all over. This liquid metaphor is replaced (in v. 16 [15]) with the opposite idea of drying—his strength drying up like the tongue in his mouth. The figurative anatomical references give way to a climactic exclamation in the final line, an exclamation, however, which is a bit difficult to interpret. The verb form, yn]t@P=v=T!, appears to be a second person singular imperfect form, suggesting a sudden switch to a direct address to YHWH by the Psalmist, perhaps blaming God for the situation he now faces—i.e., “and (so) to the dust of death you have put me!”. Dahood (p. 140), following the earlier analysis of W. F. Albright, suggests instead that it should be read as a third person feminine (collective), perhaps in the sense that ‘all these things’ (“they”), together, have set me toward the dust of death. I have tentatively followed this interpretation above. The image of “dust” (rp*u*), of course, fits the motif of drying out in v. 16.

Verses 17-19 [16-18]

“For (these) dogs have surrounded me,
a pack of (those) doing evil has gone about me,
digging (into) my hands and my feet—
I count all my bones (that are left)!
They, they give a look,
they take sight at me;
they divide my clothes among them,
and upon my garment they cast a pebble.”

These difficult (and irregular) couplets represent the violence of the attack made upon the Psalmist. Perhaps it is what he envisions happening, rather than something which, whether real or figurative, has actually taken place. In any case, the animal imagery from the prior lines continues, with the adversaries now depicted as a pack of savage dogs. They are characterized as “(one)s doing evil” (<yu!r@m=), and, in keeping with the imagery of the couplet, I have rendered the common noun hd*u@ (“appointed [gathering], assembly”) colloquially as “pack” (cf. Dahood, p. 140).

The second couplet (v. 17b/18a) is particularly difficult, evidenced by the misplaced verse division. With many commentators, I read the initial word yrak as a verbal form (infinitive) from the root hr*K* I (“dig”), with an ‘intrusive’ aleph [a]. It is often translated here as “pierce”, perhaps to give greater relevance to the subsequent (Christian) application to the crucifixion of Jesus (i.e., piercing his hands and feet, cf. Luke 24:39). However, the original context of the Psalm had nothing to do with crucifixion; rather, it would seem, the idea is of dogs digging their sharp teeth into the legs and arms (i.e. ‘hands and feet’) of the protagonist. It is a vicious attack that leaves the victim in a debilitated state; and, it is in this light that I understand the second line of the couplet, as a bit of grim irony—the Psalmist is able to count the few intact bones he has left!

Rhythmically, following this pair of 3+3 couplets, there is a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet in the remainder of verse 18. The sense is not entirely clear, but I believe that the idea involves the attackers pausing to look at the body of their victim. This would seem to be confirmed by what follows in verse 19 (again a 3+3 couplet). Having left their victim dead (or near death), they strip him of his clothing, dividing the garments between them, casting lot to see who will receive the choicest garment (his robe/tunic). This detail, of course, features in the Gospel Passion narrative (Mark 15:24 par), the Psalm being understood as a prophecy of Jesus’ death, as the direct citation in John 19:24 makes clear.

Verses 20-23 [19-22]

“But you, YHWH, do not be far (away) from me!
My strength, you must hurry (here) to help me!
Snatch my soul away from the sword,
my (life) intact from (the) hand of (the) dog!
Save me from the mouth of (the) lion,
and answer (to rescue) me from (the) horns of wild (oxen)!
(Then) will I recount your name to my brothers,
in (the) midst of (the) assembly, I will shout (praise to) you.”

The plea of the Psalmist in verse 20 [19] repeats that of v. 12 [11] at the beginning of the section (cf. above). The depiction of violence in vv. 13-19 is thus best understood as a portent of what could (and may well) happen to him, if YHWH does not come to his aid. God is literally referred to here as the Psalmist’s strength ([tW]ly`a$), in the (military) sense of protection and the ability to fight off attackers. Verses 21-22 [20-21] clearly capture the sense of imminent, impending danger, associating the three savage, attacking animals of the prior verses—dog, lion, and wild bull/ox—with the sword.

The second line of v. 21 is a bit obscure, especially the apparent use of the adjective dyj!y` (signifying being one or united) in a substantive sense (with possessive suffix). The parallel with “soul” (vp#n#) suggests that the meaning may be something like “my only (life)”; I prefer the emphasis on being united, and tentatively translate above “my life (intact)”. Dahood (p. 141) would read blk (MT bl#K#, “dog”) as related to the root [lk (i.e., twplyk, “axe”), comparable to the word ab*l=K% in Aramaic and the cognate pair býK= and [l%K@ in late Hebrew (all meaning “axe”). Even though “axe” makes a suitable pairing with “sword” in the couplet, the earlier specific use of “dog” (bl#K#), and the same triad of animals (bull/ox, lion, dog), renders such a reading less likely.

If YHWH answers the Psalmist’s plea, saving him from danger (and death), then he will be able to recount God’s saving action to others, giving praise to Him and His name (v. 23 [22]). This includes the context of public worship in the “assembly” (lh*q*), and may indicate a specific ritual or liturgical setting for performance of the Psalm. The similar pairing of the verbs uv^y` (“save”) and hn`u* (“answer, respond”) in Psalm 20 (vv. 7, 10 [6, 9], cf. the earlier study), suggests that the royal background of military action (and God’s role in aiding the king, His faithful/loyal vassal) underlies the imagery here in v. 22. In any case, it is an appeal to the honor of YHWH’s name, such as we find frequently in Old Testament poetry. The closing couplet of this section also prepares the way for the next (vv. 24-32 [23-31]), the conclusion to the Psalm, which focuses on the praise that is due to YHWH for His power and goodness—the implication being that God will deliver the Psalmist in his time of need.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 22 – Part 1

Psalm 22

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 3-8, 14-20); 4QPsf (vv. 14-17)

Psalm 22 is a lengthy lament, which I would divide into three main sections:

    • Vv. 2-11 [1-10]—A lament to God by the Psalmist in regard to his suffering and the deplorable situation he faces
    • Vv. 12-23 [11-22]—This situation is described in terms of attacks by his adversaries
    • Vv. 24-32 [23-31]—Praise to YHWH for his power and goodness, anticipating that God will bring deliverance

The meter is irregular, with 3+3 couplets dominating; however, 4+4 couplets are found, especially in the concluding praise section, along with 2 beat tricola (2+2+2). In an ancient poem of this length and complexity, it is not surprising to find many metrical irregularities and inconsistencies; some of these, at least, may be intentional and part of the original composition, without necessarily reflecting textual corruption.

The superscription indicates that this is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to” David. It also provides the specific musical direction (in the MT) rj^V^h^ tl#Y#a^ lu^, which would mean “upon (the) hind/doe of the dawn”, though there is some uncertainty regarding the form tlya, which the Greek versions (LXX, Symmachus) and Targums apparently understood as tWly`a$ (“strength, help”), as in verse 20 [19]. The expression then could mean something like “strength/help that comes with the dawn”, the implication being that the Psalmist is facing a ‘dark night of the soul’, but that the sunrise of deliverance from YHWH is coming. In the context of the musical direction, it may refer to a particular melody or style, the preposition lu^ (“upon”) indicating that the poem is to be performed according to that musical standard. It may be comparable to the many ‘parody’ works by medieval and Renaissance composers, based on previously existing melodies and compositions.

This Psalm is especially significant for Christians, due to its use in the Passion narrative of the (Synoptic) Gospels, with details from the poem effectively being enacted (fulfilled) in the narrative. In the Synoptic tradition (Mark-Matthew), Jesus quotes the opening line while fastened to the stake (Mk 15:34 par), and it may have been that historical tradition which prompted early believers to turn to the Psalm, where they recognized certain parallels with the events of his death. The Gospel writers clearly were aware of these details, and take care to highlight them, though the Psalm is cited directly only at Jn 19:24. In addition to the words uttered by Jesus, three elements of the Psalm were seen as related to the circumstances of his death:

Section 1: Psalm 22:2-11

Verse 2 [1]

“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me,
(be)ing far removed from my (cry for) help, (the) words of my groaning?”

This opening 4+4 couplet establishes the Psalm as a lament, in which the protagonist cries to God in the midst of his suffering. It is an example of synthetic parallelism, with the second line building upon the first. The verb bz~u* (“leave, [set] loose, abandon”) in line 1 is picked up by qojr* in line 2, which I parse as a verbal noun (from qj^r*, “be far [removed], distant”). Not only does the Psalmist feel that God has left him, but He has gone far away. The parallel suffixed nouns yt!u*Wvy+ (“my [cry for] help”) and yt!g`a&v^ (“my groaning”) in the second line further add to the intensity of the scene. The root ga^v* more properly denotes roaring—i.e., a roaring cry of suffering and distress. On the use of v. 2a in the Passion narrative, cf. above and the special note at the end of this study.

Verse 3 [2]

“My Mightiest (One)—
I call by day and you do not answer (me),
and by night, and (there is) no calm for me.”

The initial address to God (“my Mightiest”, yh^ýa$), if original, rather distorts the meter of the verse, though it does provide a fitting parallel to the opening of v. 2 (“my Mighty [One]”, yl!a@, repeated). To preserve the clarity of the couplet, I have rendered the initial address as a partial line which adds a moment of tension and suspense to the rhythm of the two couplets of vv. 2-3 [1-2] when read together. The parallelism of the couplet here is obvious, being more conceptual than formal. The noun hY`m!Wd can specifically mean “silence”, emphasizing that the Psalmist cries out continually (and is not silent), or it could indicate that there is no calm or stillness for him (i.e. no rest or respite from his suffering); the latter sense is to be preferred.

Verses 4-6 [3-5]

“And (yet) you are sitting (in the) holy (place),
the shining (splendor) of Yisrael!
In you our Fathers trusted (for safety)—
they trusted, and you made escape (for) them;
to you they cried out and were rescued,
in you they trusted and were not disgraced!”

These three couplets provide a contrast with the Psalmist’s situation. Since YHWH rescued and delivered the people of Israel in times past, why will he not deliver the protagonist now? In some ways, this anticipates the praise section in vv. 24-32, but here the recollection of past action of God on behalf of his people only serves as a bitter irony. There is a hint of rebuke in the opening couplet, contrasting the Psalmist’s deplorable condition on earth with YHWH sitting in splendor on his throne in heaven; it could perhaps be rendered “…and yet, there you are, sitting in the holy place!” The contrast between God and the human condition is further developed, most vividly in the verses that follow.

The threefold use of the verb jf^B* in vv. 5-6 may seem overly repetitive, but effectively makes a theological point: God will deliver those who trust in him. The root jfb often connotes trusting in someone for safety and protection, and is occasionally rendered “seek refuge [in]” —i.e. God as a place of protection. In spite of this threefold affirmation, implying that the Psalmist, too, is trusting in YHWH, there is as yet no deliverance from suffering.

The rhythm of these lines is terser than the couplets of vv. 2-3, the verbal repetition giving a staccato-like quality to the strophe, with a pair of 3+2 bicola followed by a 3+3 couplet (v. 6).

Verses 7-9 [6-8]

“And (here) I (am) a worm, and not a man,
(the) scorn of mankind, and contempt of (all) people!
All (those) seeing me bring derision to(ward) me,
they let out (laughter) with (the) lip and wag (their) head:
‘He circled (with joy) to YHWH, so let Him (now) bring escape!
let Him rescue him, (seeing) that he finds delight in Him!'”

The contrast of the Divine and human condition is a frequent theme in Old Testament poetry, the human side often expressed by the parallel “man…son of man”. Here, however, the contrast is made even more graphically—the Psalmist’s condition is that of a worm, something even less than a man! By this is meant, primarily, the disgrace that he experiences from the rest of humankind (or, so it seems to him). The first couplet, a 3+3 bicolon with rhythmic tension in the second line, provides a synthetic parallelism, where the idea of being a “worm” is defined specifically in terms of the scorn (hP*r=j#) and contempt (hz)B=) he experiences from other people.

Even allowing for poetic exaggeration, to be sure, it is interesting to consider just what it is which brings about such treatment by the people at large. The only evidence provided here is that the protagonist has been struck by severe misfortune, which seems to run contrary to his faithful devotion to YHWH. In other words, if he has been faithful and loyal to YHWH (i.e. trusting in Him, cf. above), then how is it that he is now trapped in such a deplorable situation? This is a natural religious sentiment, felt my many devout persons at various times, and was a frequent theme in the ancient Wisdom literature (indeed, it runs throughout the entire book of Job). His sense of disgrace is only heightened all the more by the mockery he receives from the faithless in society. This is presented most vividly in vv. 8-9 [7-8], including a representative taunt expressed by the populace; this taunt, clearly reflected in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 15:29-32), as noted above, occurs in the climactic couplet of v. 9, with both synonymous and chiastic parallelism:

    • The Psalmist circles (with joy) unto YHWH
      • so let God bring escape for him
      • and let (God) deliver him
    • since he finds delight in (YHWH)

The Masoretic pointing of the first verb (lG)) suggests that it is a form of the root ll^G` (“roll”); equally possible is derivation from lyG] (“circle around”), in which case it should probably be vocalized lG`. The meaning would not change much, though the derivation from lyG], with its connotation of rejoicing (i.e. circling with joy), seems to fit better the parallelism of the couplet.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]

“(Yet it is) that you brought me forth from (her) belly,
making me trust (in safety) upon (the) breasts of my mother;
upon you was I (then) thrown out from (the) loving (womb)—
from (the) belly of my mother you are my Mighty (One)!”

The vulnerability of the human condition is again emphasized here, with the basic image of childbirth. The child is thrust harshly out into the world, away from the loving care (symbolized by the natural motifs of the “breasts” and “womb/bosom”) of its mother. Yet the Psalmist counts himself among those (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones) who, removed from the state of childhood (trusting in the mother), come to trust wholly on God (YHWH) instead. The same verb jf^B* is used here in verse 10, echoing its earlier threefold usage in v. 5-6 (cf. above).

Thus, this section of the Psalm, in spite of its character as a lament, closes with an affirmation of trust in YHWH. It is a trust that remains, despite the suffering and misfortune that may be experienced, at the lowest point of the human condition; this test of faith and trust in God is a golden strand that runs through the Psalm, leading into the final praise-section of vv. 24-32. In this regard, Psalm 22 has a stronger wisdom emphasis that many of the Psalms we have recently studied; the royal theology and covenant-background is less prominent, though it does come more into view in the second section of the Psalm, as we shall see in the next study.

Psalm 22:2[1] in the Synoptic Passion Narrative

As mentioned above, most Christians are familiar with this Psalm through certain details of the Passion narrative in the (Synoptic) Gospels; most notably, in the Markan narrative (followed by Matthew), Jesus quotes the first line (v. 2a) of the Psalm as he is fastened to the stake. The Synoptic tradition preserves this in transliterated form, though with some confusion regarding whether it is a transliteration of the Aramaic or the Hebrew. This confusion runs through the manuscripts, to the point that there is no way of being sure whether, at the historical level, Jesus would have made such an utterance in Aramaic or Hebrew. Typically, however, such (Aramaic) transliterations preserved in the Gospels are seen, on objective grounds, as a mark of historical authenticity.

Generally, it would seem that the transliteration preserves an Aramaic form, with the most common difference involving a modification of the initial address to God to reflect the Hebrew. The Hebrew of Psalm 22:1 (cf. above) reads:

yn]T*b=z~u& hm*l* yl!a@ yl!@a@
°E~lî °E~lî l¹mâ ±¦za»t¹nî
“My Mighty (One), my Mighty (One), for what have you left me?”

The best form of the Markan reading (in Mk 15:34), as presented in the Nestle-Aland critical text (unaccented), would seem to be:

elwi elwi lema sabaxqani
which transliterates the Aramaic
yn]T^q=b^v= am*l= yh!l*a$ yh!l*a$
°E_lohî °E_lohî l®mâ° š®»aqtanî

In Mark, this is subsequently translated as:

o( qeo/$ mou o( qeo/$ mou ei)$ ti/ e)gkate/pile/$ me;
“My God, my God, unto what [i.e. why] have you left me down in (this place) [i.e. left me behind]?”

The verb form e)gkte/pile$ follows the LXX translation, and is a more or less accurate rendering of the Hebrew verb bz~u* (“leave [behind], abandon”). Matthew’s translation uses the vocative address qee/ mou… (“O my God…”), but otherwise is closer to the LXX. Matthew’s Greek transliteration similarly differs by having the opening address in Hebrew (hli hli = yl!a@ yl!a@), while the rest is Aramaic, making it a composite (bilingual) citation, such as would be fitting for a popular adaption of Scripture among the largely Aramaic-speaking population of the time. Of many such examples of this bilingualism, one need only note the shifting between Hebrew and Aramaic (apparently without any comment) in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Daniel.