Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 3

Psalm 18:21-31

Verses 21-31 [20-30], function as a distinct unit within the Psalm. Many commentators would view it as the closing portion of the first half—or the first of the two original poems that make up Ps 18 / 2 Sam 22—and this would seem to be correct (cf. below). It is also possible to view these verses as intermediary, forming a bridge between the poem of deliverance (discussed in Parts 1 and 2) and what follows in verses 32-46, as a hymn giving thanks for (military) victory. The worthiness of the Psalmist is emphasized in vv. 21-31, from two thematic standpoints: (1) a judicial setting, stressing action that is in accord with justice, and (2) the idea of covenant loyalty, i.e. between a vassal and his sovereign. Both of these aspects are frequent in the Psalms, and reflect, to varying degrees, their royal theological (and ritual) background. The royal background is especially strong in the discernibly older poems, including those (such as Psalm 18) which may genuinely go back to the time of David.

Verses 21-25

It is possible again to divide verses 21-31 [20-30] into two parts, with vv. 21-25 [20-24] as they stand forming an inclusio, v. 25 essentially repeating the declaration in v. 21. The middle three couplets (vv. 22-24) most clearly evoke the judicial setting, as the Psalmist demonstrates his claim from verse 21/25.

Verses 21 [20]

“YHWH (has) dealt with me according to my justice,
according to (the) cleanness of my hands he returned (it) to me.”

In the context of the preceding verses, the Psalmist here states the reason why YHWH has heard his cry for help and acted to rescue him. It was because of “my justice” (yq!d=x!), that is, because the Psalmist has acted in a just and upright manner. The parallel in line 2 is the “cleanness [rb)] of my hands”. The basic idea of the root rrb seems to that of a substance (such as metal) that is clean and shining, free from impurities, etc. Clearly it is used here in an ethical sense—i.e., to be free from sin and guilt, with the idiom of “clean hands” being natural (drawn from the idea of ritual purity), and attested variously in the Scriptures, especially within the Wisdom traditions (e.g., Psalm 24:4; 73:13; Job 17:9; 22:30, etc).

Metrically, yq!d=x!K= is to be preferred over yt!q*d=x!K= in 2 Sam 22, which has the more abstract noun hq*d*x= instead of qd#x#. The rhythm of the 3+3 couplet is better preserved here in Ps 18.

Verses 22-24 [21-23]

“For I have guarded the ways of YHWH,
and have not done wrong (against) my Mighty [One];
(in) that all His judgments are th(ere) in front of me,
and His inscribed (decree)s I did not turn (away) from me;
I have been complete(ly straight) with Him,
and guarded myself from (any) crookedness (with) Him.”

In this trio of 3+3 couplets, the Psalmist, as in a judicial setting before YHWH, demonstrates his claim to justice in v. 21. It involves three instances of synonymous parallelism—one in each couplet—by which his loyalty and faithfulness to YHWH is affirmed. Here, we are dealing more properly with the idea of covenant loyalty, and this is expressed three ways, corresponding to the three couplets.

The first couplet generally refers to the “ways of YHWH”, a kind of blanket reference to God as a sovereign exercising authority over a vast domain (the Er#d# can refer fundamentally to a territory). The Psalmist, as a subordinate (vassal), declares his faithfulness with the dual-aspect motif of “guarding” (vb rm^v*, repeated in v. 24b) the covenant bond, along with avoiding the opposite (i.e. doing wrong against his sovereign). The syntax of the second line is a bit uncertain, as the MT reads yh*ýa$m@ yT!u=v^r* aýw+ (“and I have not done wrong from my Mighty [One]”). However, the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) after the verb uv^r* is somewhat awkward and unexpected. Cross and Freedman (p. 27) propose that the text be emended to an original þm ytuvp, reading the verb uv^P* instead of the more general uv^r*. This is an attractive solution, as the verb uv^P*, which can distinctly connote the breaking of a covenant relationship, even to the point of a rebellion/revolt, can also be used with the preposition /m! (cf. 2 Kings 8:20, 22), i.e., “break (away) from”, “rebel from (the authority of)”.

In the second couplet, the focus is on the royal decisions and decrees of YHWH. The noun fP*v=m! (“judgment”), preserves the overall judicial context of the passage, but also refers specifically here to the idea of the sovereign as ultimate lawgiver and adjudicator. The noun hQ*j%, provides the parallel, emphasizing the written (authoritative) decrees of the sovereign. For the people of Israel generally, this refers to the decrees and regulations inscribed in the Torah, the written document(s) that preserve the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) with YHWH. The ruler (and the ruling family/dynasty) has his own related binding agreement, as a vassal king under YHWH, the ultimate sovereign. Here the Psalmist’s conduct has to do with not turning (i.e. setting) aside (vb rWs) the very terms of the covenant that are right there in front (dgn) of him; the implication in the first line is that he has kept God’s decrees in front of him, an indication of his faithfulness. The expression “from me” (yn]M#m!) is parallel to “from my Mighty One [i.e. God]” in the first couplet, and would seem to confirm that the prefixed –m there is indeed the preposition (and correct, contra Dahood, p. 111).

The 3+3 meter in the third couplet is less secure, in the text as it stands (the second line has two beats). The longer form of the initial verb in 2 Sam is more likely to be original (with or without the w-conjunction, cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 28). There is also a difference in the preposition in the first line: ol (“to[ward] him” 2 Sam) vs. oMu! (“with him” Psa). There is presumably little difference in meaning, since both would refer to the covenant bond between the Psalmist and YHWH, but the reading in Ps 18 (oMu!) should perhaps be preferred on metrical grounds. While it is possible that a word has dropped out of the second line, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 112) in reading yn]ou&m@ as preserving an archaic 3rd person singular (object) suffix, “perversion/crookedness [i.e. acting crookedly] (with) Him”. This establishes the parallel with the first line—the Psalmist’s complete (<mt) loyalty and integrity means that he never bends or twists, so as to act crookedly toward his Sovereign.

Verse 25 [24]

“And (so) YHWH has returned to me according to my justice,
according to the cleanness of my hands in front of His eyes.”

This effectively restates the declaration in v. 21, having been proven and affirmed by the evidence presented in vv. 22-24. The Psalmist’s covenant loyalty has been confirmed before God in this judicial setting. The verb in this regard, in both vv. 21 and 25, is bWv (“[re]turn”)—since the Psalmist has proven himself just, YHWH returns justice to him, based on the covenant bond, acting to rescue and protect him in his time of need.

Verses 26-31

The second portion functions as a hymn of praise to YHWH, for His faithfulness and justice. Even the Psalmist declared it on his own behalf in vv. 21-25, now he affirms the same of His Sovereign. It is thus a fitting conclusion to the first half of the Psalm, and prepares the way for the hymn of victory that follows in vv. 32-46.

Verses 26-27 [25-26]

“With (the) loyal, you (yourself) are loyal,
with (the) complete, you (yourself) are complete;
with (the) pure, you (yourself) are pure,
but with (the) crooked, you (yourself) are twisted!”

These two couplets form a gnomic (proverbial) pair, which affirms the covenant faithfulness of YHWH, in terms of the extent to which the other party (i.e. the vassal) has been faithful. This reflects a perfect kind of justice, since God’s response mirrors that of His human vassal (the lex talionis principle). The first three statements are synonymous, with the goodness (loyalty, ds#j#) of the faithful servant expressed by two other characteristics previously mentioned in vv. 21-25 (cf. above)—complete integrity (<mt) and purity (rb), both of intention and conduct. The fourth line indicates the opposite, the other possibility—i.e., disloyalty and lack of integrity—and the initial w-conjunction should be read in an adversative sense (“but…”). The idea of crookedness, of bending away from covenant loyalty, was previously expressed by the noun /ou*, but here by the adjective vQ@u!, indicating something that has been distorted. Here, too, YHWH responds in kind; if the person is crooked, distorting the covenant bond, then He also will be twisted toward him. The verb used is lt^P*, which can connote the twisting that occurs as one grapples/wrestles with another.

Verse 28 [27]

“For you, you save (the) people bent down,
but (the) eyes raised high you bring (down) low!”

This couplet continues the motifs from v. 27, including the image of bending, here expressed in terms of the result of the crookedness/perversion of the disloyal (wicked), who oppress the populace. Built into this is the same contrast from v. 27—God is faithful to the righteous, but opposes the wicked. In each instance, there is a reversal of fortune—the oppressed are raised (saved/rescued), while those with worldly ambition (“eyes raised high”) are humbled. The reading of this verse in Ps 18 more accurately reflects the original (cf. the discussion in Cross and Freedman, p. 28).

Verses 29-30 [28-29]

“For you are my (shining) light, O YHWH,
my Mighty [One] makes bright my darkness;
for with you I run strong of limb,
and with my Mighty [One] I (can) leap a wall.”

These two 3+3 couplets, like that of v. 28 [27], begin with the particle -yK!. The implication seems to be that the promise of salvation for the faithful is here being applied personally by the Psalmist. I.e., what you do for those loyal to you, YHWH, when they are oppressed, may you do (now) for me. This theme of deliverance, so central to the earlier sections of the Psalm (cf. Parts 1 and 2), is here expressed through two different motifs: (1) light to see by, and (2) strength of limb (for battle, etc). The first motif is more general, common to many different religious and wisdom traditions. The reading of Ps 18 in this line appears to be conflate, with the variant readings(?) rn@ and ra) combined (2 Sam has only rn). Both words essentially mean “light”, though rn@ more properly indicates a shining/burning light (or “lamp”). Otherwise, the reading of Ps 18 is to be preferred over 2 Sam.

The motif in the second couplet involves physical strength, which foreshadows the military imagery in vv. 32-46 (to be discussed in the next study). Somewhat difficult is the exact meaning of the word dwdg; I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 114) in relating it to the root dyG, generally denoting strong limbs (i.e. muscles, sinews). Elsewhere, the noun dWdG+, presumably derived from ddg (“cut [through]”), seems to refer to an attacking military force. That may also be the sense here; the parallelism could be: “I rush through an army // I leap over a wall”.

Verse 31 [30]

“The Mighty (One)—His way is complete,
the word of YHWH is (as) pure (metal),
He is protection for the (one)s taking shelter in Him.”

The final verse is a 3+3+3 tricolon, the first line of which echoes early poetic language such as in Deut 32:4, while the latter two lines seem to reflect (later) Wisdom tradition (being very close in wording to Prov 30:5). As I have already mentioned several times in these studies, many Psalms, in their closing portions, appear to have been influenced by Wisdom traditions. This was a natural by-product of the adaptation and use of earlier poems for a wider audience, giving to the ritual and royal-theological setting a wisdom application for the people as a whole. A possible explanation for the tricolon form of v. 31 is that an early couplet was modified in light of Prov 30:5 (or a similar Wisdom tradition), the second line being ‘replaced’ by an additional wisdom-couplet which would close the poem (cf. Cross and Freedman, p. 29). If so, it would confirm that verse 31 marks the end of the first of two poems that eventually came to make up the Psalm, and may have circulated independently for a time, before being joined with the second poem (vv. 32ff).

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.

 

 

 

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 3

Psalm 3

This is the first entry in the Psalter (following the customary order) which begins with a superscription, which for the Psalms typically contain an indication of subject/author and a musical instruction. According to the Hebrew verse numbering, the superscription counts as the first verse, while in most English versions it is regarded as part of the verse. In such instances, I will be utilizing the Hebrew numbering, but with the English numbering in parentheses.

Verse 1

The superscription marks this work as romz+m! (mizmôr) which simply means a musical composition, often specifically one that is sung. It is also said to be dw]d*l= (l®d¹wid), which would be “(belonging) to David”, either in the sense of being written/composed by him or, that he is considered to be the subject of the work. This setting of the song (according to the superscription) is David’s flight during the rebellion by his son Absalom (cf. 2 Samuel 15-18). The historical reliability of these traditional notices is disputed by commentators; generally, it does seem that they reflect attempts to place a particular Psalm into the context of a specific Scriptural narrative, one which fits the overall mood and tone of the work. Critical scholars regard the superscriptions as traditional, but quite secondary to the Psalms themselves; even among traditional-conservative commentators, few would treat the superscriptions as part of the original (inspired) text.

Verses 2-3 (ET 1b-2)

The tone of lament, which, of course, would suit the situation of David indicated in the superscription, comes through clearly in the opening lines, in which the root bbr (“to be many”) appears three times. This sets the lone Psalmist against his “many” opponents and enemies; whether this reflects an historical reality or poetic hyperbole is impossible to say. In any case, it is to God (YHWH) that the Psalmist raises his lament to ask for deliverance:

“YHWH, how many they are [WBr^], the (one)s hostile to me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s standing up against me,
(how) many [<yB!r^] (the one)s showing (hostility) to my soul!
—There (seems to be) no help for him with the Mightiest [i.e. God]!”

The sense of these lines is straightforward, with one notable exception which affects the specific meaning (and translation) of the passage. In the third line, we have the participle <yr!m=a), from the verb rm^a*, which is typically translated “say, speak”. Following this standard interpretation, the fourth line reflects what the “many” say to the Psalmist (to “his soul”), as a taunt: “There is no help for him with God!”. However, the original, fundamental meaning of the Semitic root rma had more to do with making something visible (“shine, show”), from which came the idea of making something known through speaking. Admittedly, this earlier meaning of rma is not attested much in the Hebrew of the Old Testament; however, poetry often preserves older/archaic usage, and that may be the case in a number of Psalms. Dahood (p. 16) cites examples where he feels rma has the meaning of “see, look (at)” rather than “say”; perhaps the most relevant example is from Ps 71:10, where rma is set parallel to rmv (“watch”) in a construction very close to that here in Ps 3:

“My enemies say/show [Wrm=a*] to me, and the (one)s watching my soul [yv!p=n~ yr@m=v)] take counsel as one [i.e. together]”

This suggests that, in these instances, rma may indeed have the sense of looking at someone (with hostile intent). I have tried to capture both possibilities by rendering the participle <yr!m=a) as “(one)s showing (hostility)”. According to this interpretation, the fourth line would not necessarily record the words of the “many”, but could simply reflect the apparent hopelessness of the situation.

Verses 4-5 (ET 3-4)

In these lines, the Psalmist’s hope is restored by reflecting on the character of YHWH—as a Ruler who has proven that he will protect and reward his loyal vassals. It begins with an address to YHWH (v. 4 [3], continuing from vv. 2-3 [1b-2]), then shifts to an objective declaration of His character:

“And (yet) you, YHWH, are (my) Protection (round) about me,
my Honorable [lit. Weighty] (One), and (the one) lifting my head (up) high.
(When) I should call out with my voice to YHWH,
(then) indeed he answers me from (the) mountain of his Holiness.
Selah

Verse 4 (3) utilizes three idioms related to the language of royalty and suzerain-vassal relations:

    • /g@m*, a noun derived from the root /ng (“surround, protect”); it is often translated “shield”, but is better rendered according to its basic meaning (“protection”), perhaps as an honorific attribute of the ruler (i.e. Protector, Defender)
    • dobK*, a noun derived from db^K*, fundamentally referring to something with weight, i.e. value, worth, etc. It refers to the honor (and honorable/noble character) of the ruler, including the authority he possesses to bestow honor on others (cf. Psalm 84:12 [11]). The specific epithet “(my) honorable (one)” as a Divine title, is found in Pss 4:3 [2]; 62:8 [7]; 66:2 (Dahood, p. 18).
    • yv!ar) <yr!m@ (“[the] one lifting/raising my head high”)—to “lift the head” or “lift the face” is an ancient Near Eastern idiom, referring to one in a position of authority who shows favor to a subordinate.

If the Psalmist affirms YHWH’s status as a trustworthy and honorable Ruler in verse 4, he publicly affirms His faithfulness again in v. 5. I would agree with commentators who take this as a conditional sentence, one which demonstrates YHWH’s faithfulness. When a person calls out to YHWH (as the Psalmist is doing), He will answer, responding to the request. We ought to read here the same Ruler-Vassal language of v. 4 and understand the condition as referring to the request of a loyal vassal (e.g. David, in the purported setting of the Psalm). Moreover, the wording “call out with my voice” is presumably meant to indicate the intensity of the situation—the earnestness of the Psalmist, as well as his desperation. The sacred-mountain locale of the Deity is common, especially in the Semitic world where the Creator God °El/Ilu was typically seen as dwelling on (or in) a great Mountain-Tent. The Canaanite sky/storm deity Haddu (i.e. “Baal”) also had a mountain dwelling. Typically, a specific mountain which came to be associated with the deity was based on actual geographic circumstances—but any mountain could fill this role, even a modest hill such as that of Zion/Jerusalem. The mountain was foremost the dwelling place of God (El/YHWH).

This is the first Psalm (in the standard Psalter) with the musical notation Selah (hl*s#). Both the etymology and technical meaning of this term remain uncertain; presumably in the Psalms it refers to some kind of musical refrain, either instrumental or choral.

Verses 6-7 (ET 5-6)

The assurance of the Psalmist in verse 5 [4] receives even greater expression in these lines, with the answer/response of YHWH cast in more personal terms, according to the needs of the Ruler’s loyal vassal (the Psalmist/David):

“(When) I should lie down and sleep, (then) I wake (again), for YHWH rests (his hand on) me.
I will not fear from the multitudes of people placed around against me.”

Verse 6 [5] is probably best read as another conditional sentence, on the pattern of v. 5 [4]; it shows that YHWH’s protection extends even to the times when his vassal is asleep. We should assume here a setting of sleeping/waking in the midst of being surrounded by enemies, a situation which is made clear again in the following line. The verb Em^s* (“lay/lean [on], hold, support”) here is a bit tricky to translate; probably the sense is twofold: (a) of God laying his hand down on the sleeping Psalmist (as protection); and (b) as support under and around him. The idea of full protection all around is implied; indeed, this is the reason why the Psalmist does not fear the enemies surrounding him. The noun hb*b*r= (“multitude”) is related to the same root bbr used in vv. 2-3 (cf. above). However, there is a separate roor bbr which means “shoot (arrows)”, and it is possible that here the expression <u* tobb=r!m@ means something like “(groups of) arrows of the people” which surround the Psalmist. We see this idiom elsewhere in Scripture, most notably in Job 16:13, but there may also be two occurrences in the Psalms. In Psalm 89:51 [50], we read:

“Remember, my Lord, the scorn of your servants,
I carry (with)in my chest the <yB!r^ of the peoples”

Here <yB!r^ as “arrows” (i.e. things shot at him) makes much more sense than “many/multitudes”. Also worth noting is Ps 18:44 [43]:

“You have brought me out (away) from the <yb!yr! of the people”

Here, in the Masoretic text, the noun in question appears to be derived from the root byr! (“strive, contend, dispute”), with the expression <u* yb@yr!m@ meaning something like “from the strife/disputes of the people”. However, again the reading “from the ‘arrows’ of the people”—i.e., the scorn/taunts as something “shot” like arrows by the people—would make equally good sense, and would only require a general repointing of the consonental text. Cf. Dahood, p. 19.

Verses 8-9 (ET 7-8)

Verse 8 [7] the Psalmist returns to the immediacy of his dire situation, calling out to YHWH to act on his behalf:

“Stand up, YHWH, save me, my Mighty (One) [i.e. God]!
That you (would) have struck all my enemies (on the) jaw,
(and would) have broken the teeth of (the) wicked (one)s!”

The verbs in the first line are imperative forms, urging YHWH to take action. The verbs in the next two lines are perfect forms, and are almost certainly to be understood as precative perfects—i.e. what the Psalmist would have God do as though it already has been accomplished. The request is made in graphic, almost gruesome terms—breaking the jaws of the enemies and shattering their teeth—symbolic of a humiliating defeat at YHWH’s hands. According to Israelite (royal) theology, even if the defeat occurs through military action, it is still seen as God’s own work on behalf of his people, and his loyal vassal the king (David). The closing line of the Psalm serves as a final refrain, calling on God (YHWH) to save his people:

“Salvation, O YHWH!—Your blessing be upon your people.”

The prefixed preposition (l) may serve as a vocative marker (hw`hyl^, “O YHWH”), and that is how I have translated it here; otherwise the phrase would mean “Salvation (belongs) to YHWH”. It seems more likely that here it is a general call to YHWH for salvation/deliverance. Actually the petition is two-fold:

    • bring salvation (to the Psalmist) in his time of need, and
    • bring blessing (hk*r*B=) to the people as a whole

This second line, especially, forms a doxology to the Psalm which is quite similar to that of Psalm 2 (cf. the previous study):

“(The) happiness of all (the one)s taking refuge in Him [i.e. in YHWH]”

The general pattern which this establishes between the first two Psalms (2 and 3) is instructive. In each instance, we have a poem/song which draws upon Israelite royal tradition and theology. The first (Psalm 2) is rooted in the tradition of the coronation/enthronement of the new king; the second (Psalm 3) purports to come from a setting in the life of David (as king). However, each utilizes royal language and imagery which expresses the idea of the king as the faithful vassal of YHWH, ruling under His favor and protection. By the time these Psalms took on definite written form, and certainly by the time the Psalter was put together, the royal traditions had been re-interpreted and applied to the Israelite/Judean people as a whole. Most likely this took place under the influence of Wisdom traditions, such as those expressed in the opening Psalm 1 (cf. the initial study). Long after the monarchy effectively ceased to exist, Israelite and Jews—collectively and individually—could identify with the Psalmist. All of the themes and motifs from the earlier royal theology take on new meaning—trust in YHWH, the favor and protection he provides, deliverance from surrounding enemies, etc.—these all now apply more directly to the people‘s relationship with God. We will see this dynamic repeated numerous times as we proceed through these studies.

Interestingly, despite the royal/Davidic setting, there is no real evidence that Psalm 3 was ever interpreted or applied in a Messianic sense; this differs markedly from Psalm 2, as we saw.

Also, for those interested, I made no mention above of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the simple reason that Psalm 3 is not preserved among the surviving manuscripts of the Psalter. This is unfortunate, as it may have elucidated one or two textual points discussed above.