Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 103 (Part 1)

Psalm 103

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (v. 1); 4QPsb (vv. 1-6, 9-14, 20-21); 2QPs (vv. 2, 4-6, 8-11)

This Psalm is a carefully structured hymn to YHWH, calling on people to praise and give thanks to God for all that he has done. The focus is both individual and corporate. This is indicated by the parallel call to bless YHWH (using the verb Er^B*) that brackets the Psalm (vv. 1-5, 20-22). The opening blessing comes from the standpoint of the ‘inward parts’ of the individual worshiper (represented by the Psalmist/protagonist). This inward focus is balanced by the cosmic orientation of the concluding blessing—as the Psalmist calls on all created beings everywhere (human and angelic) to praise YHWH.

The main hymn (vv. 6-18) emphasizes the love, compassion and forgiveness of YHWH, and is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 33-34. The division of the hymn into four stanzas (cf. Allen, p. 29f) seems to be most reasonable. The stanzas are each composed of three couplets (vv. 6-8, 9-11, 12-14), with the fourth (concluding) stanza having an expanded form (vv. 15-18). There is a didactic aspect to the hymn, designed to instruct the Community, and to exhort them to remain faithful to the covenant. The Wisdom-elements in the final stanza are part of this emphasis.

The date of the Psalm is difficult to determine. The use of the second person feminine (yk!-) suffix has been thought to indicate Aramaic influence (cf. GKC §91e), and thus to reflect an Exilic (or post-Exilic) date. Similarly, vv. 15-16 have been considered to be dependent upon Isa 40:6-8. Such a time-frame for the Psalm is certainly possible; however, it may be that use of the yk!– suffix is primarily stylistic and poetic, intended for assonance with the imperative yk!r&B* (cf. Allen, p. 26).

Metrically, Psalm 103 consistently follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, with only a few exceptions. The superscription simply attributes the Psalm to David (dw]d*l=, “[belonging] to David”).

The Psalm is relatively well-preserved in two Qumran manuscripts—4QPsb and 2QPs—with only a handful of minor variant readings.

Introduction: Vv. 1-5

Verse 1

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and all my inner parts, His holy name!”

In this opening couplet, the Psalmist calls on everything within him to bless YHWH. The verb Er^B* essentially means “greet with praise/blessing”, usually in a religious (ritual) context, implying a consecrated setting. The precise relationship between this verb and the noun Er#B# (“knee”) is still debated, as kneeling certainly would serve as a gesture (and position) for blessing and worship.

The “middle parts” (i.e., inner parts), <yb!r*q=, are parallel with vp#n#, a noun usually rendered as “soul”, but which specifically denotes the mouth/throat and what passes through it (esp. the breath). This is particularly significant for the Psalmist as a singer; it is naturally that he would begin with the mouth/throat, and his breath, the sound and vibrations which pass through to form music of praise to God. Yet, it is the inward aspect of his life-breath (“soul”) that is being emphasized. His ‘inner parts’ (“all my inner parts”) function as microcosm which will be matched by the macrocosm of all things (outwardly) in creation (vv. 20-22).

The plural form of the noun br#q# occurs only here in the Scriptures; in this context (of a person’s insides or inner-organs), the dual (<y]b^r*q=) is regularly used.

In the second line, the literal expression is “(the) name of His holiness”; for poetic concision, I have translated this conventionally as “His holy name”.

Verse 2

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and do not forget all His dealings—”

The first line of v. 1 is repeated here, and again serves to conclude the Psalm (v. 22c). By the repetition, emphasis is put on the Psalmist speaking to his soul (and inner parts), exhorting and urging himself—and, by extension, all worshipers—to honor YHWH by remembering the things He has done. The act of remembering here is framed in negative terms (viz., as not forgetting, vb jk^v*). As for what God has done, this is expressed by the noun lWmG+, from a root (lmg) with a relatively wide range of meaning. The basic verbal sense is of something being completed, often in the context of an interaction between people, and frequently emphasizing how one treats or deals with another, either in a positive (beneficial) or negative (harmful, punitive) way. Here the sense of the plural noun is “all the ways YHWH has dealt with His people”.

Verse 3

“the (One) forgiving all your deviations,
the (One) healing all your sicknesses,”

A sequence of participial phrases follows in vv. 3-5, the articular verbal noun (participle) in each instance capturing a definitive attribute of YHWH, a regular action that he performs on behalf of His people, reflecting His nature and character as God, and demonstrating His devotion to the covenant-bond. The formulation is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 34:6-7ff, and expresses here much the same thought as in that famous passage. The idea of YHWH forgiving the “crookedness” (/ou*) of the people is similarly found in Exod 34:7, but using the verb ac*n` (“lift/take [away]”), rather than jl^s* (which does occur in v. 9). The noun /ou* implies a bending away from what is right, but also could be understood in terms of a crooked and twisted (i.e., perverse) character.

The healing of sickness/disease is naturally paired  with the forgiving of sin; in the ancient world, particularly, sickness and ailments of various kinds tended to be viewed as the result of sin (and Divine punishment of sin). When YHWH forgives the people’s sins, the healing of illness and disease follows.

The second person feminine suffix (yk!-, “your”) refers back to the feminine noun vp#n# (“soul”).

Verse 4

“the (One) redeeming your life from (the) Pit,
the (One) encircling you (with) devotion and love,”

The verb la^G` (“redeem”) is generally parallel with jl^s* (“pardon, forgive”) in v. 3. Human crookedness and sickness, if not forgiven and healed, naturally leads to death and destruction, which here is represented by the noun tj^v^. This noun properly refers to a hole (or pit) dug for a grave, and thus also connotes the death and decay which belongs to the grave. Like the verb tj^v*, the noun can be understood in this associated or abstract sense of “destruction, ruin”. The root lag refers to the ancient Near Eastern social context of a relative who (through payment) ‘redeems’ his kin (and/or their property) from servitude, etc; it can also encompass the idea of protecting (or rescuing) someone from danger, etc.

Redemption from the Pit (i.e., death/grave) can be understood in two different ways: (i) rescuing a person when the danger of death (and the grave) threatens, or (ii) actually bringing a dead person out of the grave. The latter instance would imply an afterlife setting (cf. Dahood, III, p. 26).

The verb rf^u* properly means “encircle, surround”, though in the Piel (and Hiphil) it tends to have the more specific (denominative) meaning “crown” (from the noun hr*f*u&). Either translation (“encircling” or “crowning”) would be valid, though I prefer the meaning “encircle” here, as it captures the important aspect of being “surrounded” by YHWH’s love and protection.

The noun ds#j#, which occurs frequently in the Psalms, has been much discussed in these studies. It has the basic meaning “goodness, kindness”, but in the context of the covenant-bond between YHWH and His people, it carries the connotation of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. The noun <j^r^ denotes a deep love; the plural here could indicate the many acts (and/or feelings) of love/compassion by YHWH, but it could also be understood as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, i.e. great love/compassion.

Verse 5

“the (One) filling your long (life) with good,
(so that) your youth is renewed like the eagle!”

Having brought the righteous/devoted one’s soul out of the Pit, and then surrounding (or crowning) it with love, YHWH proceeds to give to it long life—but a life that is also perpetually new and youthful, even as it lasts long into the future. This idiomatic language is best understood in an afterlife context, i.e., with God in heaven (see above), though it could conceivably apply to a blessed life on earth as well.

With other commentators (Dahood, III, p. 26; Allen, p. 26), I revocalize (and emend slightly) the MT Ey@d=u# (“your ornament[?]”) to yk!d@u), as suffixed form of the noun dou (du)), meaning “duration”, in the sense of “long life” or “(ever)lasting life”. On the eagle soaring as a motif of the renewal of life and strength (i.e., youthfulness), cf. Isa 40:31.

The Hymn: Verses 6-18

First Stanza: Vv. 6-8
Verse 6

“The (One) making right—(it is) YHWH—
and (true) judgment for (the) oppressed.”

The pattern of substantive participial phrases (vv. 3-5) continues into the hymn, where the Psalmist makes clear again that YHWH is the One doing all these things. The focus in the hymn shifts from the individual soul of the devout/righteous worshiper to the people as a whole. Indeed, the theme of individual salvation (from sin and death) gives way here to a social (corporate) sense of righteousness and justice.

YHWH makes things right, i.e., does what is right (hq*d*x=), for His people—and especially for those who are oppressed. Acting as Judge, he renders right (and beneficial) judgments on their behalf.

Verse 7

“He made known His ways to Moshe,
and to (the) sons of Yisrael His deeds.”

This couplet summarizes what YHWH has done for His people (Israel) during their history, and especially during the formative (Mosaic) period of the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai. The making known of His ways to Moses refers primarily to the revelation (of the Torah) at Sinai, but it also alludes to the subsequent revelation to Moses (associated with the restoration/renewal of the covenant) in Exod 33-34 (see below).

Verse 8

“Loving and showing favor (is) YHWH,
long of nose and abundant in devotion.”

This verse is essentially a quotation of the Divine declaration to Moses in Exod 34:6 (see above). While it declares YHWH’s essential character, it also epitomizes His covenant relationship with His people. Four different (but related) attributes are presented here, two in each line. In the first line we have the adjectives <Wjr^ (“loving, compassionate”) and /WNj^, the latter defining YHWH as one who “grants/bestows favors”.

In the second line, the expression “long of nostrils” (or “long of nose”) is an idiom for being slow to anger, i.e., the opposite of being ‘short-tempered’ (“short of nose”); in certain respects the expression is parallel to the adjective <Wjr^ in line 1. The second expression “abundant of devotion” utilizes the familiar noun ds#j# (on which, see verse 4 above). This also is parallel with the second adjective of line 1—both terms referring principally to YHWH’s loyalty and devotion to the covenant-bond.

There is a subtle bit of alliterative wordplay, between the adjective br^ here in v. 8 and the verb byr! in v. 9.

Second Stanza: Vv. 9-11
Verse 9

“Not to the end shall He contend (with us),
and not for ever shall He keep (angry).”

This second stanza of the hymn illustrates and expounds the principle laid out in verse 8, regarding the devotion and loyalty YHWH shows to His people. When He is angry (because of the people’s lack of faithfulness) and “contends” (vb byr!) with them (i.e., punishes them), His anger does not last forever. Once discipline and punishment has been meted out, anger is replaced by mercy and compassion.

Two common temporal expressions are used, each of which conveys the sense of a duration of time lasting far into the future (i.e., everlasting). The first, jx^n#l*, means something like “to (the) utmost”, properly in the sense of “continuing in force” (or “…with [full] strength”); the simple rendering “to (the) end” is used above. The second expression, <l*oul*, occurring many times in the Psalms, means “(in)to (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here as “for ever”.

Verse 10

“Not according to our sins does he act to(ward) us,
and not according to our deviations does he deal with us.”

Though YHWH may punish sin, He does not deal with His people as their sins deserve. Even in His severe judgment against His people, His actions are tempered by mercy.

Verse 10 represents the first divergence from the regular 3-beat (3+3) meter of the Psalm; the longer lines read 4+4.

Verse 11

“But like (the) height of (the) heavens over the earth,
(so) His devotion is strong over (those) fearing Him.”

Through it all, YHWH’s loyalty and devotion (ds#j#) remains firm, strong and mighty, towering over the faithful ones (“[those] fearing Him”). There is a bit of wordplay here, between the verbal noun H^b)G+ (vb hb^G`, “be high”) and the verb rb^G` (“be strong/mighty”). An allusion to a strong tower is likely (cf. Allen, p. 26). The all-encompassing strength and height/breadth of YHWH’s devotion is like the great arching dome of the heavens over the earth. It is spread out over His people, just as the dome of the heavens spreads over the earth.

The remainder of the Psalm will be discussed next week, in Part 2.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).

Notes on Prayer: Colossians 1:3; 4:2-3, etc

We conclude our series of studies on the references to prayer in the Pauline letters with a survey of the remaining letters—beginning with Philemon and Colossians, and then turning to consider the references in the disputed letters of Ephesians and 1 Timothy.

Philemon 4-6, 22

The letter to Philemon was, of course, written to an individual rather to the collective believers of a city or territory. Even so, the references to prayer follow the same pattern of the other letters addressed to congregations. The references occur in the introduction (thanksgiving) and closing (exhortation) sections of the letter-body, and are framed specifically in terms of the relationship between Paul and his audience. The prayer references in the thanksgiving (vv. 4-7) could have easily been lifted right out of one of the other Pauline letters.

“I give thanks to my God for (His) good favor, always making mention of you in my (time)s of speaking out toward (Him) [proseuxai/], hearing of your love and trust which you hold toward the Lord Yeshua and (directed) to all the holy (one)s, so that the communication of your trust might come to be working in (the) knowledge about every good (thing) that (is) in you for (the sake of the) Anointed…” (vv. 4-6)

Several of the features here we have seen repeatedly:

    • Paul refers to making mention of the believers (here, Philemon) to God regularly during his times in prayer
    • He gives thanks because of their faithfulness in response to the Gospel (as it has been reported to him)—trusting in Jesus, demonstrating love, growing in faith and virtue and understanding
    • He expresses the wish that they continue to remain faithful

But Paul’s prayers are only one side of the relationship that he holds (as an apostle) with the congregations—they are also asked to pray for him. And so Paul would request this of Philemon as well, just as he does at the close of the letter:

“…but also make ready for me a place (of lodging) for the stranger, for I hope that, through your speaking out toward (God) [proseuxai/], I shall be given to you as a favor (from God).” (v. 22)

The middle-passive verb xari/zomai means “show favor, give (something) as a favor”; in the passive, it refers to the gift or favor itself. It is related to the verb eu)xariste/w in v. 4, which, in a religious context, refers to the favor shown by God, and the gratitude or thanks that we show to Him (in response) for this favor. Here, the favor God will show, through the cooperation of Philemon in his prayers, is to allow Paul the opportunity to visit him.

Colossians 1:3, 9

The prayer references in Colossians follow the same Pauline pattern. The first references occur in the introduction (exordium), which may be divided into two sections—the first containing the thanksgiving (1:3-8), and the second, Paul’s exhortational prayer-wish for the Colossian believers (1:9-14). The opening reference to prayer in the thanksgiving (v. 3) is virtually identical to the statement in Philemon 4 (cf. above). Notably, the statement in Colossians is given in the first-person plural: “We give thanks to God for (His) good favor…always over you, speaking out toward (Him) [proseuxo/menoi]”. In Colossians, Paul gives particular emphasis to his co-workers and fellow missionaries, and so the plural here is significant (cf. verse 7, and further below).

As is typical for Paul, his thanksgiving effectively takes the form of praise for the faithfulness of the believers he is addressing. Specific mention is made of their trust and love, remaining firm in the truth of the Gospel (vv. 4-5), as also of their growth in virtue and understanding (vv. 6-7), and of unity in the Spirit.

The second prayer-reference in the introduction, correspondingly, comes at the opening of the exhortational prayer-wish in vv. 9ff:

“Through [i.e. because of] this we also, from the day on which we heard (this), do not cease speaking out toward (God) [proseuxo/menoi] over you…” (v. 9a)

Paul’s wish (as a prayer to God) is for the Colossians to continue in faith and virtue, growing further in spiritual knowledge and understanding, etc.:

“…and asking (Him) that you would be filled (with) the knowledge about His will, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (v. 9b)

The remainder of the prayer-wish—also to be characterized as an intercessory request—is phrased in the typical manner of early Christian ethical instruction and exhortation, of which there certainly are a number of Pauline examples:

“…(for you) to walk about (in a manner) up to a level (worthy) of the Lord, into everything (that is) pleasing (to Him), bearing fruit in every good work, and growing in the knowledge of God, being (em)powered in all power, according to the might of His splendor…” (vv. 10-11a)

Also typical of Paul, is the eschatological aspect of this exhortation—a theme that is developed throughout the letter—but nuanced here with a strong dualistic Christological emphasis:

“…(the Father), (hav)ing made us fit for the portion of the lot of the holy (one)s in the light, (and) who rescued us out of the power [e)cousi/a] of darkness and made (us) stand over into the kingdom of His (be)loved Son—in whom we hold the loosing from (bondage), the putting away of sins” (vv. 12-14)

On the Christological hymn (‘Christ hymn’) that follows in vv. 15-20, cf. my earlier series of notes.

Colossians 4:2-3, 12

The Pauline pattern continues with the prayer-references in the closing (exhortation) section of the letter (4:2-6). Typically, in these sections Paul emphasizes the other side of the prayer relationship between himself and the congregations—namely, that they should regularly be praying for him. He leads into this with a general exhortation for the Colossians to remain firm in prayer:

“In speaking out toward (God) [proseuxh/], you must be firm toward (it), keeping awake in it with thanks for (His) good favor” (v. 2)

The verb proskartere/w (“be firm/strong toward [something]”) is a key word characterizing the unity of believers in the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:42, 46; 6:4; 8:13; 10:7). Paul also uses it in Romans (12:12; 13:6), and the prayer context of its use in 12:12 is comparable to what we find here. The noun eu)xaristi/a corresponds to the related verb eu)xariste/w in 1:3 (cf. above), emphasizing again the relationship between prayer and the favor God shows to us. As Paul makes clear, there are two aspects to this relationship: (1) we give thanks for the favor God has shown, and (2) we ask that He will continue to show us favor, and that we will act in a manner that is worthy of His favor.

The prayer-emphasis shifts in verse 3:

“…at the same time, also speaking out toward (God) over us, that God would open up for us a door for the account [lo/go$], to speak the secret [musth/rion] of the Anointed, through which I have been bound”

The prayers believers are to make on his behalf typically relate specifically to his missionary work, defined in terms of preaching the Gospel. Here, two key terms are used, in a technical sense, for the Gospel:

    • lo/go$, “account,” that is, a spoken account, shorthand for the expression the “account of God” (Acts 4:31; 6:2, et al)—viz., the account of what God has done through the person of Jesus.
    • musth/rion, “secret” —on this usage, cf. the recent discussion on Rom 16:25-26, as well as my earlier word study series. The Gospel of Christ is a “secret,” hidden throughout all the ages past, and revealed only now, at the present time, through the kerygma (proclamation) by the prophets and apostles of the early Christian mission.

This is a regular theme in Paul’s prayer-references—that believers work together with him (and his fellow missionaries), through their prayers. We have seen repeatedly in our studies the importance of praying for the needs of others, rather than simply for our own needs. It is a key New Testament principle that such selfless and sacrificial prayer is assured of being answered by God.

As in the introduction (cf. above), Paul uses the first-person plural. Sometimes he does this in his letters as a rhetorical device, but here he is specifically including his fellow missionaries and co-workers with him. In the closing that follows in vv. 7-17, Paul mentions ten different persons, among them Epaphras in vv. 12-13. He was mentioned earlier in 1:7, and also in Philemon 23 (both in the context of the prayer-references, cf. above). Epaphras apparently was an apostolic missionary in his own right, and one who would have had much more frequent contact with the congregations of the region. Paul refers to him much as he does to himself, as a “slave” (dou=lo$) of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1). In 1:7 the word is su/ndoulo$ (“slave together with [me/us]”), while in Philem 23 he is called “one taken captive [lit. at spearpoint] together with (me)” (sunaixma/lwto$), i.e. “co-prisoner, fellow prisoner”.

Like Paul, Epaphras’ role as an apostolic missionary led him to pray frequently (and fervently) for the believers of that area. Paul describes this here in v. 12 as “struggling over you in his speaking out toward (G0d) [proseuxai/]”. The verb is a)gwni/zomai (“struggle”), used, viz., in athletic competitions; it is something of a Pauline term, as 6 of the 8 NT occurrences are in the Pauline letters (elsewhere, 1 Cor 9:25; Col 1:29; 1 Tim 4:10; 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7). The occurrences of the substantive (verbal noun), a)gw/n, used in a similar context, should also be noted—1 Thess 2:2; Phil 1:30; Col 2:1; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7. In Paul’s usage, the verb alludes to believers (esp. missionaries) laboring—and enduring suffering—for the sake of the Gospel.

 

 

 

Notes on Prayer: 1 Thessalonians 1:2; 3:9-10, etc

For the remainder of 2022, the Monday Notes on Prayer studies will focus on references to prayer in the letters of Paul. I have decided to treat these reference in something like a chronological order, based on when the letters were likely (or plausibly) written. Most scholars would place 1 and 2 Thessalonians as the earliest of Paul’s letters that have come down to us. It should be noted, however, that a fair number of critical commentators regard 2 Thessalonians as pseudonymous, and as such, it would probably have to be dated somewhat later than other genuine Pauline letters. I do not personally find such claims for 2 Thessalonians to be very convincing, and, for the purpose of these studies, I will be including it among the authentic letters.

Assuming that 2 Thessalonians was actually written by Paul, the two letters were likely written at around the same time. Most commentators would hold that 1 Thessalonians came first, but a reasonably strong argument can be made that 2 Thessalonians is the earlier letter (cf. Wanamaker, pp. 37-44ff). Without making any determination regarding the sequence, I will begin our studies here with the references in 1 Thessalonians.

1 Thessalonians 1:2; 3:9-10; 5:17, 25

The first reference occurs in the introduction (exordium) to the letter (1:2-10). Following the epistolary prescript (address/salutation) in verse 1, Paul begins:

“We give (thanks) to God for (His) good favor, always, over you all, making mention (of it) upon [i.e. at/during] our speaking out to (God), without leaving off…”

This initial reference demonstrates a number of aspects of prayer as it was viewed (and practiced) by Paul, and, we may assume, his fellow missionaries. Indeed, the importance of prayer for the early mission-work is brought into focus here rather clearly. Two specific aspects of prayer are highlighted in verse 2:

    • That prayer involves giving thanks to God, and
    • That prayer is to be a continual act (and process) in the life of believers—and no less so for those appointed/called as ministers.

The verb eu)xariste/w is commonly used for expressing the idea of giving thanks (to God). It occurs rather frequently in the Pauline letters (24 of the 38 NT occurrences), concentrated in the openings and closings of the letters. Implicit in the religious (and Christian) use of the verb is the idea that we, as believers, are giving thanks to God specifically for the good (eu)) favor (xa/ri$) that He has shown to us. The noun xa/ri$ is commonly translated “grace”, and, even though it more properly denotes “favor”, it can be understood here (as throughout Paul’s letters) in the specific theological sense of the salvation brought about (by God) through the person and work of Christ.

Thus, when Paul says that he gives thanks to God “over you all”, he means this in the full context of his missionary work among the Thessalonians, proclaiming the Gospel to them—with the conversions to faith that result from it—and the founding of seminal Christian communities in their cities, etc. The fruit of this mission-work is indicated in verse 3, emphasizing the Thessalonians’ trust (pi/sti$) in the Gospel message, but also the transformative character of their lives and hearts that was produced by such trust:

“…remembering your work of trust, and (also) the labor of love, and remaining under [i.e. waiting with patience/obedience] for the hope of our Lord Yeshua…”

Their lives are characterized by faith and love, and also a commitment to remaining faithful (lit. “remaining under”, u(pomonh/) until the return of Jesus (“the hope of our Lord”). Paul mentions (“making mention [mnei/a]”) all of this specifically, bringing it to mind (related vb mnhmoneu/w) in his thanksgiving to God during his prayers. The implication is that Paul, in his thanksgiving, focuses on what God has done for others, rather than for himself.

The second aspect of prayer illustrated here is that it occurs, and should occur, continually. This is indicated by the use of the adverb pa/ntote (“every [time] when, [at] all time[s],” i.e., “always”). While this could be related to his giving thanks for the Thessalonians—that is, he always makes mention of them when he prays—it also alludes to the frequency and regularity of Paul’s praying. The subsequent adverb at the end of v. 2 brings this out more clearly: a)dialei/ptw$, “without leaving off”, or “without leaving (anything) out”. The prefixed a)– is privative (“without”), while the root verb dialei/pw refers to leaving a gap or interval within something.

At the close of the letter (5:17f), Paul makes clear that, in his mind, a life that essentially involves continual prayer is vital and important for every believer. It is significant that he uses the same wording (for the Thessalonian believers) as he does for himself here in 1:2:

speak out to (God) [i.e., pray, vb proseu/xomai] without leaving off [a)dialei/ptw$], in all (thing)s [e)n panti/] give (thanks to God) for (His) good favor [vb eu)xariste/w]…”

Between the beginning and end of the letter, the situation has been reversed—Paul begins with his prayers for the Thessalonians, and concludes with his expectation that the Thessalonians will similarly pray for him:

“Brothers, speak out to (God) [i.e. pray] [also] over us” (5:25)

The importance of prayer is indicated as much by its position at the close of the letter as by its reference at the very beginning. References to prayer frame 2 Thessalonians in a similar way (1:11; 3:1), which we will discuss in the next study. However, before concluding here, I would like to highlight one further key reference to prayer in 1 Thessalonians, occurring at the end of the first main section of the letter (the narratio, 2:1-3:10).

This narration portion, dealing with Paul’s relationship to the newly formed Thessalonian congregations—an autobiographical and historical survey of Paul’s mission-work among them up to that point—takes up a significant portion of the letter, primarily because he is not seeking to persuade the Thessalonians on major issues where a decision (or change of behavior) needs to be made. Rather, he is inclined, on the whole, to praise their exemplary behavior, and to exhort them to continue in that path.

Indeed, while certain issues are addressed in chapters 4 and 5, they do not involve points of divisive controversy such as we see in Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, and Romans. Rather, the exhortation tends to be more general in orientation, focused on the continued faithfulness of the Thessalonians, and what that means for the ministry of Paul and his fellow missionaries. He emphasizes how he is comforted, even during the moments of distress and suffering he might face, by the Thessalonians’ faith (“through your trust”, 3:7), stating even more dramatically:

“…(it is) that now we live, if you stand (firm) in (the) Lord” (3:8)

In 3:9-10, the focus on prayer shifts to the actual mission-work itself, and on Paul’s wish to return to the Thessalonian congregations and to be reunited with them:

“For what thanks to God are we able to give back in exchange over you, upon [i.e. for] all the joy with which we rejoice through [i.e. because of] you in front of our God, night and day, requests being made overabundantly th(at we might be able) to see your face…?”

These focus of these verses will be discussed further in the next study, along with a brief examination of the references to prayer in 2 Thessalonians (cf. above).

References above marked “Wanamaker” are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] (Eerdmans / Paternoster Press: 1990).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 40 (Part 1)

Psalm 40

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (verse 1 [only part of the superscription survives])

This Psalm is clearly comprised of two parts: (1) a hymn of thanksgiving to YHWH for deliverance (vv. 2-11 [1-10]), and (2) a lament in which the Psalmist describes his suffering/oppression and makes a plea to YHWH for help (vv. 12-18 [11-17]). The very different character of these two portions has led commentators to regard the Psalm as a combination of two prior (and originally separate) poems. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that vv. 12-18 [11-17] closely resemble Psalm 70. Still, the order of the compositions here is curious; we might rather have expected the thanksgiving to follow the lament (instead of the other way around).

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon (couplet) format. The superscription is common, designating the work as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

Verses 2-11 [1-10]

Verse 2 [1]

“Gathering, I gathered YHWH (with my voice),
and He stretched (down) to me,
and He heard my cry for help!”

The initial verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon, essentially an expanded form of a 3+2 bicolon with a doubling of the second line. The last two lines are in a kind of synthetic parallelism, in which the second line builds upon the thought in the line prior.

I follow Dahood (pp. 121-2, 245) in understanding the verb in the first line to be a form of hw`q* II (“gather, collect”) rather than the more common hw`q* I (“wait [for], hope, expect”). The Psalmist “gathers” YHWH in the sense that he calls Him with his voice (cp. Ps 19:5 [4]). The doubling of the verb—an infinitive followed by a perfect form—represents a bit of Hebrew syntax that is difficult to translate in English. I have rendered it here quite literally (“Gathering, I gathered…” = “Calling, I have called…”); but often it is used in an intensive sense–viz, “surely I have called…”, “I called repeatedly,” etc.

The Psalmist’s call “gathers” YHWH to him, and God “stretches” (or bends, vb hf*n`) down to him in response. Indeed, He has heard the urgent (and/or repeated) cry for help.

Verse 3 [2]

“And He brought me up from (the) pit of ruin,
and (up) from (the) muck of the mire;
and He made my feet stand upon (the) rock-cliff,
He fixed my steps (to walk) straight.”

This pair of 3+2 couplets continues the thought in verse 2 [1], describing YHWH’s response to the Psalmist—bringing deliverance/salvation for him, using the vivid imagery of a rescue out of a muddy bog. This “pit of ruin” (/oav* roB) is a traditional idiom for Death (and the realm of the dead). This indicates that the protagonist of the Psalm had been in danger of death when YHWH rescued him. Stuck in the mire, he was like a man trapped in quicksand, or in the midst of a deep and treacherous bog, threatening to engulf him. The nouns fyf! and /w#y` are more or less synonymous (each referring to mud/mire), and are joined together here for dramatic emphasis.

From this deep and muddy “pit”, the Psalmist is lifted out and placed on a high rock-cliff (ul^s#) with firm footing. The extreme contrast is intentional and meant to convey how completely YHWH has delivered him. There could not be a greater difference in location—i.e., deep muddy pit vs. high rock-cliff. The verb /WK (here in the Polel stem) refers to something that is established or fixed in place. It expands on the idea of the Psalmist’s feet being firmly planted on the rock-cliff: the dual yl^g+r^ (“my [two] feet”) is parallel with the plural yr*v%a& (“my walking/going [straight]”). The root rva denotes going straight toward something.

Verse 4 [3]

“And He gave [i.e. put] in my mouth a new song,
a shout (of praise) to our Mighty (One);
many shall see (this) and be afraid,
and shall seek protection in YHWH.”

The two couplets in this verse continue the course of action, describing the response by people to YHWH’s saving deed. For the Psalmist himself (lines 1-2), it leads him to utter a song (ryv!) and shout (hL*h!T=) of praise to YHWH; indeed, we may understand vv. 2-11 of the Psalm as this very song. For others who see (or come to know) what God has done on the Psalmist’s behalf, it will cause them to fear YHWH, and to seek His protection. The verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, denotes seeking (or finding) protection in someone or something; it also can refer specifically to the trust one has in that protection. It is often used in the context of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people—that is, to the protection that He is obligated to provide (so long as the people remain faithful).

Verse 5 [4]

“(The) happiness of the strong (one) who makes YHWH his place of protection,
and does not turn to (the) proud (one)s,
and (to the one)s swerving (to) lie(s)!”

This irregular tricolon contains (in its first line) a beatitude (on the use of yr@v=a^, “happy [thing]s of,” “[the] happiness of”, cf. the study on Psalm 1). It clearly draws upon the language of the previous verse, with the noun jf*b=m! (lit. “place of protection, protected place”) derived from the root jfb (“seek/find protection,” cf. above).

As in Psalm 1, the beatitude-form here is part of a Wisdom-contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous trust in YHWH, while the wicked turn to false deities (or to comparable unethical/immoral behavior). In the second line, the wicked are characterized as those who “turn to (the) proud (one)s”; in the third line, the expression is “(one)s swerving (toward) lie(s)”.

Both of these phrases can be understood in a religious and an ethical sense. The term bz`K* (“lie”) is often used in reference to idolatry and the worship of false deities, while the verb fWc, though extremely rare (cf. Ps 101:3), seems to have the sense of “turning away” (i.e., swerving, veering). At the same time, these expressions can also refer to the moral/ethical conduct of the wicked, with their tendency toward arrogance and pride (bh*r*) and toward speaking/believing lies.

Verse 6 [5]

“Many (are they that) you have done, YHWH,
your marvelous (deed)s, my Mighty (One),
and your thoughts to(ward) us—
there is none compared to you!
(If) I should put (them) up front and speak (them),
they would be great beyond numbering!”

This verse is comprised of three couplets, but the awkwardness and lack of a clear poetic flow suggests the possibility of textual corruption. However, there is (as yet) no satisfactory approach for emending or navigating these difficulties. For lack of any better option, I have retained the Masoretic text throughout.

The emphasis in the first couplet is on the wonderful/marvelous deeds that God has done. They are described as “many” (toBr^), but the same adjective can also indicate “greatness”. The Psalmist has included his own experience within the wider experience of God’s people. YHWH has done many great deeds (including miracles) during Israel’s history, and His deliverance of the Psalmist is one more such deed.

The second couplet is a bit obscure in meaning, but the focus is on thought, rather than action. It also creates a transition between what YHWH thinks of us (His people), and what we think of Him (our God). His thoughts toward us are loving and caring, expressed through the “marvelous deeds” He has chosen to do on our behalf. Conversely, our thoughts toward Him recognize that, because of such deeds, etc, YHWH is truly the “Mightiest (One)”, the true God, and there is no one like him. The actual wording here is “there is none compared to you”. The verb Er^u* literally refers to arranging things in a row—in this case, so that they can be compared one to another.

The final couplet turns again to the great deeds of YHWH, as the Psalmist recognizes that they are so many (<x#u#, lit. “strength, abundance”) that they are beyond being numbered—i.e., beyond anyone’s ability to count them all (cp. John 21:25).

Verse 7 [6]

“(Ritual) slaughter and gift you did not desire,
(instead) you cut (open the) ears for me,
rising (smoke) and (offering for) sin you did not request.”

This is a curious and difficult verse, again giving the impression that something may be missing here in the text. The basic sense is clear enough, reflecting a Wisdom-message, found frequently in the Prophets, to the effect that obedience to God is more important than the ritual duty of performing sacrificial offerings (summarized in lines 1 and 3). The wording in the middle line is difficult; literally it reads (apparently) “ears you cut (open) for me”. Possibly the cutting (vb trk) of the ears is meant as a contrast with the ‘cutting’ (i.e. ritual slaughter) of the sacrificial offerings. In this case, the action is taken by YHWH, rather than the Psalmist: He has opened the Psalmist’s ears, so that he can hear and understand, responding in obedience to God’s Word. Conceivably, there may also be an allusion to the idea of having one’s ears ‘circumcised’ (i.e., as an idiom for obedience, cf. Jer 6:10).

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“Then I said: ‘See, I come!
In (the) roll of (the) account it is inscribed upon me:
to do your pleasure, my Mighty (One), (so do) I delight,
and your Instruction (is) in the middle of my (in)ner parts!'”

Again, the poetic style and rhythm in this verse feels rather forced and awkward. Metrically, we have a pair of 3+3 couplets (but only loosely so); conceptually, it might be better to view the verse as a 3-beat quatrain (3+3+3+3). The poetry is subservient to the religious message, which can be summarized as a confessional statement that characterizes the righteous.

The first two lines are preliminary to this statement, and their precise meaning is not entirely clear. The idea seems to be that the righteous person (the Psalmist) is committed to acting/behaving in accordance with his identity (as a righteous/ faithful one). Another possibility is that the afterlife is in view—that is, the promise of blessed life in heaven (with God) for the righteous. In this latter context, the declaration “See, I come” could refer to the Psalmist’s readiness to enter the blessed afterlife. The beatitude context of verse 5 [4] would tend to confirm this interpretation. In any case, the “roll of the account” refers to the accounting (or ‘book’) of a person’s deeds, etc, recorded by God in heaven, which will be used in the afterlife judgment-scene. At the same time, it reflects the ultimate destiny of the person (cf. Job 13:26, etc); for the righteous, this is equivalent to being written down in the ‘book of life’ (cf. Exod 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; 139:16; Mal 3:16; Jubilees 30:19ff; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 21:27).

The last two lines record the confessional statement that defines the righteous. The destiny and purpose of the righteous is to do what pleases YHWH (or what He favors). The term /oxr* fundamentally refers to something that is received favorably, implying that a person finds pleasure in it and desires it, etc. In a religious and ethical context, it is used to express the will of God (i.e., what He desires that should be done). The delight (vb Jp@j*) of the righteous is to do God’s will, to do what pleases Him. And, what it is that pleases YHWH is stated clearly enough in the final line: it is to observe faithfully all of the precepts and regulations, etc, in the Instruction (hr*oT, Torah) that God has given to His people. Observance of the Torah is so much a part of the righteous person’s character and way of life that it resides deep within him (lit. “in the middle of my inner parts”).

Verse 10 [9]

“I have given the news of (your) justice in (the) assembly,
see! my lips have not refrained—
YHWH, you know (this)!”

The song and shout of praise that the Psalmist gives to YHWH (cf. verse 4 [3] above), recounting God’s great act(s) of deliverance (v. 6 [5]), is done publicly, in the assembly (lh*q*), the gathering of faithful ones. This refers to actual gatherings, but even more as a symbolic reference to the righteous (as a collective group). A characteristic of the righteous is that they “do not refrain” from confessing all that God has done (and continues to do). As noted above, the Psalmist includes his individual experience of deliverance as part of the wider experience of God’s people.

Verse 11 [10]

“Your justice I have not kept hidden in (the) midst of my heart,
your firmness and your saving (power) I have declared—
I have not kept back your goodness and truth from the great assembly.”

This portion of the Psalm concludes with yet another irregular tricolon, with the poetic style and rhythm stretched to fit the religious message. It continues the thought from verse 10 [9], emphasizing how the Psalmist makes known the greatness of YHWH in the (public) assembly of the righteous. The context of corporate worship is very much in view—the sort of setting in which a Psalm like 40:2-11 would be sung.

The themes of the prior verses are drawn together, combining the inward and outward aspects of righteousness. What is true within the heart of the righteous, is also proclaimed publicly. Here, the terms bl@ (“heart”) and hu#m@ (= inner organs, inner parts, v. 9 [8]) are synonymous. By declaring the marvelous deeds of YHWH one also exclaims His character and attributes. These include his “right[eous]ness” and “justice” (qd#x# / hq*d*x=), and also his “goodness” (ds#j#). Both of these terms are often used in a covenantal context—i.e., referring to faithfulness and loyalty to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people.

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 34 (Part 1)

Psalm 34

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 21-22 [20-21])

This is a thanksgiving-Psalm, written from the standpoint of someone who experienced deliverance from affliction, his prayer to YHWH having been answered. It thus contains and repeats many of the themes encountered in the Psalms we have studied thus far.

Structurally, the most important point to note is that this is an acrostic poem (cf. the earlier study on Ps 9-10), though not consistently so throughout, which may (or may not) indicate textual corruption. Unfortunately, virtually nothing survives of this particular Psalm in the Dead Sea manuscripts, so no help is available from that source. Metrically, the composition tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon pattern, though with a few irregularities.

The superscription marks the composition again as “belonging to David”, and adds the historical notice alluding to the episode in David’s life narrated in 1 Sam 21:11-16. However, in that narrative, the king at Gath is identified as Akhish, rather than Abimelech. This may represent an historical error/inaccuracy (on the part of an editor), though the tradition in Gen 26:1ff suggests that Abimelech could have been a common name/title used by the Philistine rulers. In any case, the reference makes a curious setting for the Psalm; certainly there is nothing in the composition itself to suggest such an association with that Davidic episode.

Following the acrostic pattern, I would divide the Psalm loosely into two parts: vv. 2-9 [1-8] and 10-22 [9-21], with the final couplet (v. 23 [22]) as a concluding declaration (in a separate meter [4+4]). These two parts have somewhat different thematic emphases. In vv. 2-9, the focus is on YHWH’s faithfulness in answering prayer, thus providing a reason for the righteous to continue trusting in him; the second half, vv. 10-22, containing a strong wisdom-orientation, represents an exhortation for the righteous themselves to remain faithful/loyal to YHWH.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

a “I will give honor [hk*r&b*a&] (to) YHWH in every moment,
a shout (of praise to) Him (will be) continually in my mouth.”

The synonymous parallelism of this opening couplet is straightforward, establishing the emphasis on praise and thanksgiving in the first half of the Psalm.

Verse 3 [2]

b “In YHWH [hw`hyB^] my soul will make its shout,
the (one)s oppressed shall hear (it) and be glad.”

The motif of praise continues in the second couplet, where it is said that the soul (of the Psalmist) will make a shout (of praise); this verb (ll^h* II) is the root of the noun hL*h!T= in v. 2 (cf. above), though the relationship is not always preserved in translation. The parallelism of this couplet is synthetic, rather than synonymous—i.e., the second line builds upon, and results from, what is stated in the first line. The communal aspect of the Psalm is introduced already in the opening lines, establishing a Wisdom-orientation at an earlier point than is typical in the Psalms. The righteous are identified as the “oppressed ones” (<yw]n`u&)—that is, those who are afflicted (by the wicked, etc), and yet who remain humble, devout, and loyal to YHWH in the face of their affliction.

The noun vp#n# in the first line has the common meaning “soul”, but sometimes, especially in the older/archaic poetry, it carries the more concrete denotation of “throat”, which here would make a suitable pairing with “mouth” in v. 2. In any case, it indicates a deeper location for the praise uttered by the Psalmist, coming not only from his mouth, but from deeper within him as well.

Verse 4 [3]

g “Declare (the) greatness [WlD=G~] belonging to YHWH with me,
and we shall raise high His name together (as) one!”

Here the Psalmist calls on the righteous to give honor and praise to YHWH together with him. This communal aspect in the Psalms tends to be reserved for the closing portion of the composition, but here it plays an important role from the outset. It draws upon Wisdom-tradition, as a line of tradition which has heavily influenced the shaping and development of the Psalms. It also reflects the corporate worship setting in which the poems came to be used. The parallelism in this couplet is synonymous, as can be seen by the use of the largely synonymous verbs ld^G` and <Wr in a transitive/causative sense—i.e., “make great” and “make high”, respectively. The sense of the verb in the first line, with the preposition l=, is best understood as “declare (i.e. through praise) the greatness belonging to” YHWH. The imperfect verb form in the second line, like those in the prior couplet (v. 3), has jussive/cohortative force (i.e., “let us…”), and should be read in light of the imperative in line 1.

On the significance of the name of God, cf. the previous study (on Ps 33:21). In the thought-world of the ancient Near East, a person’s name represented and embodied the nature and character of the person. Thus, to exalt the name of YHWH was the same as exalting YHWH Himself.

Verse 5 [4]

d “I searched [yT!v=r^D*] (after) YHWH, and He answered (me),
and from all (thing)s frightening me, He snatched me away.”

The idiom of seeking/searching after YHWH, expressed by the verb vr^D*, is a reference to prayer—i.e., the person makes a request of God, seeking for a response. In this case, YHWH has answered him, responding (positively) to his request. In a number of the Psalms we have studied, the context of such a prayer for deliverance would seem to involve a (life-threatening) illness, but there is little indication of that here. More appropriate to the setting in this Psalm, with the righteous described as “oppressed” (v. 3, cf. above), is some kind of affliction at the hands of the wicked. The noun hr*ogm=, denoting something frightening or fearful, is often used in reference to a human being with superior position or power. In any case, the idea of deliverance (from such fearful things) is expressed by the verb lx^n` (“snatch away”), occurring frequently in the Psalms (12 times in the prior Pss 7, 18, 22, 25, 31, and 33).

Verse 6 [5]

h “(So then) look [WfyB!h!] to Him and shine (brightly),
and <your> faces shall not (then) feel ashamed.”

The Masoretic text, as we have it (and as it is pointed), has 3rd person plural forms in the first line: “they looked to Him and shined (brightly)”. While this may be correct, and though such grammatical shifts in person are not uncommon in ancient Near Eastern poetry (or in the Psalms), the Versions (LXX, Aquila, Syriac, Latin Vulgate) indicate underlying Hebrew imperatives. Unfortunately, as noted above, the Dead Sea MSS can provide no help in deciding the matter; however, the overall thrust of the Psalm in these lines would seem to favor reading the verbs as imperatives.  This, in and of itself, would require no real emendation, and only a slight alteration of the MT in the second line (also supported by the Versions): <k#yn@P= (“your faces”) instead of <h#yn@P= (“their faces”).

The main point in the couplet is clear enough, and reflects an important principle that is expressed throughout many Psalms: the person who trusts in YHWH will not be put to shame as a result.

Verse 7 [6]

z “This [hz#] oppressed (one) called and YHWH heard,
and from all (the thing)s distressing him, He saved him.”

This couplet has an extended/irregular meter (4+3), which may be intended as a poetic expression of the tension, the “distress” (hr*x*) experienced by the protagonist. Again the idea of the righteous as “oppressed” (yn]u*) is present here (cf. verse 3, above), and the plural torx* (i.e., the things causing distress) should probably be understood in a personal sense (i.e. oppressors), as also for the plural torWgm= in v. 5 (cf. above). The prayer to God for deliverance is expressed by the verb ar*q* (“call [out]”); again, it is indicated that YHWH heard the Psalmist’s prayer and saved him—and the righteous can trust that He will do the same for them in their times of trouble.

Verse 8 [7]

j “He lays [hn#j)] (down His) tent, (the) Messenger of YHWH,
round about (the one)s fearing Him, and pulls them out.”

This couplet narrates the deliverance YHWH brings for the righteous, using the imagery of military assistance and protection. YHWH acts through His ‘Messenger’ (Ea*l=m^), a personal (or personified) divine being who functions as God’s representative among humans. This is a complex religious concept which cannot be addressed adequately in the short space allotted here. The “Messenger of YHWH” is not simply reduceable to an ‘Angel’; in many passages, it appears that YHWH Himself is acting, and that the expression is a kind of pious circumlocution to avoid depicting YHWH directly in personal, anthropomorphic terms. In any case, the important point to remember here is that the ‘Messenger’ of YHWH acts in place of YHWH Himself, as His representative. Through this Messenger, God “lays down” his tent—that is, his military encampment—in a manner that protects the righteous from the enemy forces. Perhaps it is better to see the encampment as part of a military offensive, surrounding the wicked ‘army’ that is attacking the righteous, and “pulling out” (vb Jl^j*, i.e., rescuing) the righteous from their grasp.

The righteous are specifically identified as those who fear YHWH (vb ar@y`), who show Him the proper honor and reverence, obeying Him faithfully as their sovereign. This is a typical characteristic attributed to the righteous ones, but it is especially prominent in Wisdom tradition. The “fear of God” is a motif that features significantly in the second half of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study).

Verse 9 [8]

f “Taste [Wmu&f^] and see how good YHWH (is)!
Happy the warrior (who) finds protection in Him!”

This irregular (4+3) couplet brings the first half of the Psalm to a close. It involves a mixing of metaphors, but the combination makes sense when one understands the covenant context at work here (and generally so throughout the Psalms). The faithful and loyal vassal is able to sit at the table of his sovereign, eating with him and sharing his blessing and bounty. The same vassal, by the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) with the sovereign, is under his Lord’s protection. The “goodness” (bof) of YHWH here must be understood in this covenantal sense.

The closing line is a beatitude, opening with the construct plural yr@v=a^, as in Psalm 1:1 and 32:1-2. This plural form, which literally would mean something like, “(the) happy (thing)s of”, is best understood in an intensive (and exclamatory) sense: “Oh, the happiness of..”, i.e. “how happy (he) is…!”. The noun rb#G#, while sometimes translated simply as “man”, more properly signifies one who is strong, mighty, vital, valiant, etc; here the connotation of a warrior is fitting to the context. The righteous person is a “warrior” who serves as a faithful and loyal vassal of YHWH (i.e., under the covenant bond), and who is under YHWH’s personal protection (cf. above).

With regard to the first line of the couplet, Dahood (p. 206) makes a reasonably compelling argument that the imperative War= should be derived from the root ar*y`, which he would define as “be fat, satisfied, drink (deep)” (cognate with hw`r*), rather than from ha*r* (“see”). He would distinguish this root (ar*y` II) from ar*y` I, a byform of hr*y`. As evidence, he cites Prov 23:31 and Psalm 91:16, in addition to Prov 11:25, as well as Psalm 51:23; Job 10:15, and Isa 53:11. If this interpretation were correct, then the two imperatives at the start of the line would be translated “taste and be satisfied”, or “taste and drink (deep)”, which would certainly fit the context of dining at the bounteous table of YHWH. Ultimately, I find his suggestion intriguing, but not entirely convincing.

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 32

Psalm 32

Dead Sea MSS: (Psalm 32 is not preserved among the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts).

This Psalm is akin to the prior Pss 30 and 31, blending the setting of prayer for deliverance (from illness, etc) with praise and thanksgiving to YHWH for having rescued his faithful follower. Psalm 32 is simpler in structure and more streamlined in its thought. The idea of repentance and forgiveness (from sin) also features more prominently, to the point that Ps 32 came to be counted as one of the seven “Penitential Psalms” in Catholic ritual and liturgical tradition.

The musical direction of the superscription indicates that this composition is a lyK!c=m^, a term of uncertain meaning, but presumably derived from the root lk^c* which characteristically occurs in the Hiphil stem (= lyK!c=h!). The root fundamentally indicates the use of reason and intelligence—i.e., wisdom, understanding, prudence, etc. As a poetic or musical term, it could refer to a harmonious composition, a work of great skill and artistry (or requiring skill to perform), a poem/song used for instruction, or something else entirely. Like most of the Psalms we have studied thus far, the superscription marks it as “belonging to David”.

As noted above, this Psalm is not present in the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts; there is no way to be certain whether this means the Psalm was unknown by the Qumran Community, or that its absence is simply an accident of survival.

I would divide the Psalm as follows:

    • Verses 1-2: Beatitude regarding forgiveness of sin
    • Verses 3-7: Prayer for healing/deliverance that includes confession of sin to YHWH
    • Verses 8-9: Response of YHWH instructing/exhorting the Psalmist
    • Verses 10-11: Closing exhortation to the righteous

The outer portions (vv. 1-2, 10-11) reflect the strong influence of Wisdom tradition on the Psalms (a point made numerous times in these studies). The inner portions (vv. 3-7, 8-9) form the dramatic heart of the composition, presenting the prayer for deliverance, along with God’s answer.

Verses 1-2

“Happiness of (he whose) violation (is) being lifted,
(whose) sin (is) being covered (over)!
Happiness of (the) man (when)
YHWH does not determine for him (any) perversion,
and (indeed) there is no deceit in his spirit!”

This section is comprised of a pair of beatitudes, the second of which is longer and more difficult (poetically) than the first. For this particular wisdom-form, with ancient roots in religious ritual and concepts of the afterlife, cf. the study on Psalm 1, as well as my earlier article (on the background of the beatitude form) in the series on the Beatitudes of Jesus. As in Psalm 1:1, these beatitudes begin with the plural construct form yr@v=a^; literally, this would mean something like “happy [thing]s of…”, but the plural actually should be understood in an intensive or superlative sense, with the force of an exclamation: “(O, the) happiness of…”, “How happy (is)…!”.

The first beatitude (v. 1) is a tight 3+2 couplet, though it is difficult to capture this meter in a literal translation, which requires glossing (cf. above). The parallelism of the couplet is precise, enhanced by its use of terse rhythm and rhyme:

uv^P# yWcn+
ha*f*j& yWsK+
n®´ûy peša±
k®sûy µ¦‰¹°â
“being lifted (the) violation,
“being covered (the) sin”

The noun ha*f*j& (“sin, error”) in the second line is set parallel with uv^P# in the first line, a term which, in the covenant setting, refers to a breach or violation of the binding agreement. In a more extreme connotation, uv^P# can even refer to the revolt or rebellion of a vassal against his sovereign. Given the religious dimension of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, any sin or transgression (whether from a ritual or ethical standpoint) constitutes a violation of the covenant. That person is truly blessed (i.e. “happy”) when God forgives such a violation—forgiveness here signified by the verbs ac^n` (“lift, carry [away]”) and hs*K* (“cover”).

The second beatitude (v. 2) is more complex, with an irregular meter. Here a specific individual is in view (“Happiness of [the] man…”), with the noun <d*a* used in this sense (rare in the Psalms). The short introductory line leads into the couplet proper, which defines the forgiveness of sin as an action performed specifically by God (YHWH). In point of fact, there are two aspects to the idea of forgiveness in this couplet:

    • What God determines (vb bv^j*) regarding the person—that he/she is not ‘crooked’ or perverse (/ou*); there is a judicial connotation here
    • What is truly in the person’s spirit—that there is no deceit (hY`m!r=), implying no intention toward perversion; the noun can also connote treachery or betrayal (in a covenant context).

Ultimately, what YHWH determines regarding a person reflects that person’s true nature and character (what is “in the spirit”); God simply makes a (judicial) determination to this effect. Even so, the divine decree of forgiveness is a cause for great happiness among the righteous.

Verses 3-7

Verse 3

“For I keep quiet, (yet) my substance is worn out,
in my roaring (that still occurs) all the day.”

The verb form yT!v#r^j#h# in the MT is problematic. It would seem to be derived from the root vrj II (“be silent, quiet), which occurs regularly in the Hiphil stem; but, if so, the sense of the parallelism in the couplet becomes difficult to determine. Perhaps, it reflects a sort of grim irony–even though the protagonist keeps quiet (i.e. says no words), the suffering he experiences in his body produces “roaring” that goes on all day long. Dahood (p. 194) suggests that the verb here should be taken as deriving from crj (“scrape, scratch, cut”), more or less identical in meaning with vrj I. The noun cr#j# refers to a shard of pottery, etc, used for scraping, and the noun occurs in Psalm 22:16 in an idiomatic context quite similar to what we find here: the Psalmist feels his “strength dried up like a shard (of pottery) [cr#j#]”. If this line of interpretation is correct, then the verse would need to be translated as a tricolon, something like:

“For I became a scraping(-shard),
my substance was worn out
by my roaring all the day.”

In both renderings, I have translated the plural of <x#u# in an abstract or collective sense that preserves the fundamental meaning of “strength, substance”; however, it also frequently alludes specifically to a person’s bones (as the strength/substance within the body).

Verse 4

“For day and night your hand was heavy upon me,
my <tongue> was turned up by (the) dry (heat) of summer.
Selah

As most commentators would point out, yD!v^l= of the MT in the second line is unintelligible, and would seem to require emendation. I tentatively follow the suggestion of Olshausen, adopted by other commentators (cf. Kraus, p. 367), of reading yn]v^l= (“my tongue”) instead. It entails the small correction of a single letter, and fits the imagery of the line (along with that of v. 3, above): that of the harsh heat of summer drying out a person’s tongue. The use of the verb Ep^h* (“turn over, turn about”) here may refer to the motion of the parched tongue in one’s mouth desperately seeking moisture. This oppressive heat is symbolic of the Psalmist’s suffering, recognized as coming from the “hand” of God. Most likely, this suffering is to be understood as stemming from an illness or disease of some kind (cf. the setting of Pss 30-31, discussed in the most recent studies).

Verse 4 concludes with the musical-poetic indicator hl*s# (Selah). The meaning and significance of this term remains one of the most persistently puzzling, if minor, elements of Psalm Studies. The term, as it occurs in the texts that have come done to us, often does not appear to be applied in a clear or consistent manner. Almost certainly it relates to some aspect of the performance tradition of the Psalms, presumably indicating a pause of some kind—marking a change or shift of tone, tempo, etc, perhaps even something like a musical key change. In any case, here the term occurs three times in close succession, and may carry a definite structural and thematic significance for the composition; note:

    • Vv. 3-4: The suffering of the Psalmist—Selah
      • V. 5: His confession of sin and forgiveness—Selah
    • Vv. 6-7a: The safety and protection for the Psalmist—Selah

The confession of sin (and forgiveness by YHWH) in verse 5 is central to this structure, providing the transition between suffering (in violation of the covenant, vv. 3-4) and security (back under the covenant protection provided by YHWH, vv. 6-7).

Verse 5

“My sin I made known to you,
and my perversion I did not cover;
I said, ‘I will throw (out) over me
my violation toward YHWH!’
and you lifted (away from me)
(the) perversion of my sin.”
Selah

There is a similar three-part structure to this central verse, involving each of the three pairs of couplets:

    • Repentance/recognition of sin (violation of the covenant) [5a]
    • Formal confession of sin, as being directed toward YHWH [5b]
    • Forgiveness of sin (restoration of the covenant bond) [5c]

The syntax of the middle couplet is a bit difficult; in particular, the expression hwhyl (“to YHWH”) is ambiguous, and may carry a double meaning: (a) he makes his confession “to YHWH”, but also (b) admits that his is sin is a violation directed “toward YHWH” (that is, in violation of the binding agreement with YHWH). Dahood (p. 195) suggests that the lamed (l=) here is vocative (“O, YHWH”), and this also is possible.

Note that the idiom of “covering” (vb hs*K*) sin here has the exact opposite meaning as it does in v. 1 (cf. above). When the sinful human being “covers” sin, he/she tries to hide it; when God “covers” that person’s sin, he removes it from consideration, wiping it away.

Verse 6

“Upon this shall he pray,
every loyal (one), to you—
for (in the) time of outpouring reaching,
through a flood of many waters,
they will not touch him (at all)!”

This is a most difficult verse, both metrically and syntactically. A two beat (2+2) bicolon is followed by three beat (3+3+3) tricolon. The overall idea is clear enough: the faithful/loyal (dys!j*) follower of YHWH will pray to Him in the manner described in v. 5, repenting and confessing any sin, and the covenant bond will be restored. At that point, the faithful one comes back under the covenant protection provided by YHWH, and he will then be kept safe from any danger or trouble that he might encounter (symbolized as a flood of “many waters”). The manner of expressing this matrix of ideas, in terms of the syntax of the verse, however, is quite difficult, at least in the text as it has come down to us. The main problem lies in the third line (the first of the tricolon), which in the Hebrew MT reads:

qr^ ax)m= tu@l=

The word qr^, as vocalized, would normally be understood as an adjective meaning “thin, weak”, which is often used (in prose) as a more generic adverb (with restrictive force), i.e., “only”. However, here qr more likely derives from the root qyr! (“pour out, draw out, empty”). This would fit the idea of an outpouring of water, as well as the violent/military aspect of the verb—i.e., drawing out the sword, an armed force pouring out (Gen 14:14), etc. This does not eliminate all of the syntactical difficulties (note the awkwardness in English of the literal translation above), but it at least provides a plausible framework for the verse as a whole.

Verse 7

“You are (the) covering for me,
from oppression you shall guard me,
(with) cries of deliverance you surround me!”

Here the protection provided by YHWH is more clearly emphasized. He serves as a “covering” (rt#s@), a “guard” (vb rx^n`), and one who “surrounds” (vb bb^s*) the righteous.

The precise meaning of the last line is a bit obscure. The verb /n`r* means “shout, cry”, i.e., making a piercing, ringing cry, like that of a bird. The use of the verb in Psalm 63:8 [7] suggests a similar connotation of protection that is otherwise not clearly attested elsewhere in the Old Testament. The allusion here may be precisely that of Ps 63:8—viz., the cry of bird protecting its young, surrounded by the parent’s wings. Also possible are the metaphorical “cries” of attackers against the shields (?) that surround and protect the righteous, or even the cries of soldiers holding the protective shields. The same verb is used, in a somewhat different sense, in the closing lines of verse 11 (cf. below).

Verses 8-9

Verse 8

“I will make you understand and give you direction in (the) way that you shall walk,
I will give you counsel, my eye (ever) upon you.”

With verse 8, the remaining lines of the Psalm become longer—here a 4+3 couplet. In vv. 8-9 YHWH responds to the Psalmist’s prayer. Even though God had already given answer by healing/delivering him, now He provides a direct (formal) response. It comes in the form of a promise to give understanding and direction to His faithful follower; we can see rather clearly here the influence of Wisdom-tradition, which is found quite frequently in the Psalms (especially the closing portions). The verbs are in the Hiphil (causative) stem, indicating what YHWH will make happen for the Psalmist:

    • “I will make you understand” (vb lk^c*), i.e., give knowledge, wisdom; see the note on the term lyK!c=m^ in the superscription, above.
    • “I will give you direction” (vb hr*y`), lit. “I will cast (the arrow) for you”, pointing the way, giving direction; this use of hry is often summarized as “instruct[ion]”, the proper translation of the derived noun hr*oT (Torah).

The main verb in the second line would appear to be Ju^y` (“counsel, advise, guide”), keeping with the same line of imagery. However, Dahood (p. 196) offers the intriguing suggestion that the form hx*u&ya! should be parsed as the verb hx*u* (“close, shut”, cf. Prov 16:30) preceded by the negative particle ya!, otherwise clearly attested in the Old Testament only at Job 22:30. I am very nearly persuaded by this analysis, which, if correct, would mean that the second line should be translated as “my eye upon you is not (ever) closed”.

Verse 9

“You must not be like a horse (or) like a mule, without understanding,
with muzzle and harness (needed) to curb its surging (nature)—
otherwise (there is) no coming near to you!”

This verse, an extended and irregular (4+4+3) tricolon, continues the address of YHWH to the Psalmist, following the Wisdom-aspect of this section with a colorful bit of proverbial instruction. There is some difficulty in the second line, particularly the meaning of MT oyd=u#. I tentatively follow Dahood here (p. 197), deriving it from a root ddu, rare in the Old Testament (cf. Job 10:17), but attested in Ugaritic as the cognate ²dd, with the meaning “swell (up), expand”. The illustration of the horse that needs a muzzle and harness to control it suggests a comparable meaning for wydu here—viz., a wild and untamed nature, that swells and surges and is difficult to control.

There is also some difficulty in determining the precise meaning of the third line. We would expect the third person singular, rather than the second person suffix of ;yl#a@ (“to you”); but this may simply indicate a sudden shift applying the proverb directly to the Psalmist. In this respect, the shorter third line functions as a warning: if you act in a reckless and heedless manner, ignoring the sound instruction and wisdom (from God), no one will want to come near you! Perhaps, the idea in view is that YHWH Himself will not wish to come near such a person.

Verses 10-11

In this brief final section, the Wisdom instruction is broadened, directed to the people of God, the righteous ones, as a whole. This is typical of the closing lines of many Psalms, as has been previously noted.

Verse 10

“Many (are the) afflictions (belonging) to (the) wicked,
but (the one) seeking protection in YHWH will have goodness surrounding him!”

Ultimately, the wicked will have “afflictions” (pl. of the noun boak=m^), or “pains”; the root bak can also connote sadness and sorrow. Probably this refers to the final fate of the wicked, the punishment which God has in store for (l=) them. By contrast, the righteous will continue to be surrounded vb bb^s*, used above in v. 7) by the covenant protection and blessing provided by YHWH. The loyal and faithful one both seeks the protection of God, and also finds it; this is the fundamental meaning of the verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, and, quite naturally, it also connotes the trust one places in YHWH. The common noun ds#j# means “goodness”, but often connotes faithfulness and loyalty, in the context of the covenant; here it signifies the blessing that comes to those who are loyal to YHWH. The contrast between the righteous and the wicked is a staple of Wisdom literature, and features in many of the Psalms (cf. especially in Psalm 1).

Verse 11

“Rejoice in YHWH, and spin round (with joy), (you) righteous (one)s,
and give a (ringing) cry all (you the one)s straight of heart!”

The final couplet is an exhortation for the righteous to praise God. The joyous twirling (spinning/dancing in a circle) of the righteous parallels the motif of the righteous being surrounded (vb bb^s*) by His protection (v. 7). The same verb /n`r* was also used in v. 7, referring to a ringing cry. There it seems to allude to the piercing cry of a bird protecting its young (cf. also Ps 63:8 [7], noted above). Here it is the protected ones (i.e. the righteous) who cry out, in joy. Those faithful and loyal to YHWH (and to the covenant with Him) are characterized in traditional terms as “just, right[eous]” ones (<yqyD!x^); like dsj, the root qdx can also connote faithfulness and loyalty. Another traditional expression is “straight of heart” (here bl@ yr@v=y]), which implies the faithfulness of one’s intention, which goes deeper than a practical observance of the covenant (i.e., the Torah).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 21

Psalm 21

Thematically, Psalm 20 and 21 belong together, with each having as its background the Israelite/Judean king and his army in time of war. An important aspect of the ancient Near Eastern covenant idea, in terms of political agreements, is that the binding agreement (tyr!B=) involves treaty terms for (military) assistance and protection. In agreements between equal parties, this means mutual protection; however, in the case of suzerain-vassal treaties, the emphasis is on the protection and aid provided by the sovereign, or superior party. From the standpoint of the Israelite/Judean royal theology, the king is a vassal of YHWH, and, insofar as he remains faithful and loyal to the covenant, he receives Divine aid and protection in time of need.

This royal theology underlies many of the Psalms, including these two (20 and 21) in particular, dealing with situations involving the need for military action and warfare. The setting of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study) is a communal prayer to YHWH for assistance that will bring victory for the king and his army. In Psalm 21, this has shifted to a declaration of praise and thanksgiving for the victory provided by YHWH.

The structure of Psalm 21 is similar to that of Psalm 20, and may be divided into two parts:

    • Vv. 3-8—the blessings given to the king by YHWH, reflecting the covenant bond between the two
    • Vv. 9-13—the aid given to the king, specifically, that allows him to be victorious in battle

These stanzas are bracketed by couplets of praise to YHWH (vv. 2, 14). The two parts have a joining transition point in vv. 8-9 which contrasts the faithfulness/loyalty of the king, binding him to YHWH, against the wickedness of his enemies/opponents and their helplessness before God.

The meter in the first half tends to be 4+4, while 3+3 in the second, though there are certain irregularities throughout. The superscription, with minimal musical information and direction, is the same as that of Ps 20 (and many other of the Psalms). Sadly, neither Psalm 20 nor 21 are preserved among the Dead Sea Scroll Psalms manuscripts.

Verse 2 [1]

“YHWH, in your strength the king finds joy,
and in your salvation, how great(ly) he spins (for joy)!”

In this opening (4+4) couplet, praising YHWH for the blessings shown to the king, the nouns zu) (“strength, might”) and hu*Wvy+ (“salvation, protection”) must be understood in terms of the assistance provided by God in time of war (cf. above). YHWH’s “strength” is what ultimately gives the king victory in battle—it is a Divine protection which keeps him safe from death and defeat. Compare this couplet with the closing praise in verse 14 [13] (cf. below).

Verses 3-8 [2-7]

Verses 3-4 [2-3]

“(The) longing of his heart you have given to him,
and (for the) desire of his lips you have held nothing back; Selah
for you put blessings of goodness in front of him,
you set onto his head a circle [i.e. crown/wreath] of pure (gold).”

Throughout these two Psalms the king represents the people as a whole, and the community identifies itself with the anointed ruler as the faithful one(s) of YHWH. Thus the prayer of the people (in Ps 20) blends into the prayer of the king (for victory in battle). This couplet confirms that the prayer—both of king and people—has been answered. The synonymous parallelism is clear, with the second line intensifying the theme of the first. The noun tv#r#a& in line 2 occurs only here in the Old Testament, from an unused root (vr^a*) that is, however, attested in other Semitic languages (such as Ugaritic). Both the context here, and the cognate usage, indicate that the meaning is something like “desire, wish, request”.

The lone occurrence of the musical indicator hl*s# (selah) after this couplet is difficult to explain. Under the basic assumption that it is meant primarily as a pause in singing/reciting the text, it may be intended to preserve the integrity of the couplet, in light of the conjunction (yK!) that begins the next line.

The encircling wreath (tr#f#u&) of gold signifies the honor that comes from victory in battle—a victory won through YHWH’s own strength. There may be an alliterative parallel intended between tr#f#u& (±¦‰ere¾) and the earlier tv#r#a& (°¦reše¾) in verse 3.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“(Year)s of life he asked from you, and you gave to him—
length of days (for the) distant (future and) until (the end);
great (is) his weight (achieved) in [i.e. through] your salvation,
(great the) honor and splendor you have placed upon him!”

These two couplets, with slight irregularities of meter, expound two different aspects of the honor given to king by YHWH:

    • the opportunity to live a long and full life, i.e. saved from death in battle; long life being especially valued as an ideal in ancient times, and here expressed two ways:
      • the plural noun <yY]j^ which signifies a (long) life; spec. the years of a person’s life(time), but perhaps also in an intensive or emphatic sense (i.e. full life)
      • “length of days”, the length(ing) of days being a common Semitic idiom for old age and a long life
    • the value and worth (lit. “weight”, dobK*) of his person is enhanced, marked by an honorific improvement of his appearance, using the alliterative expression rd*h*w+ doh (hô¼ w®h¹¼¹r, roughly “honor and splendor”)
Verse 7-8 [6-7]

“(So it is) that you set blessings for him until (the end),
you have made him look with joy at your face;
(for it is) that the king is (one) trusting in YHWH,
and in (the) kindness of the Highest there is no slipping (away)!”

The blessings of a long life of honor and splendor here climax with the idea of a future blessing that involves a beatific vision of God (i.e. to look upon His “face”). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 133) in reading the verb hd*j* as = hz`j* (“look/gaze at, behold”), which better fits the context of the line; it would be thus explained as a (Canaanite) dialectical form involving the familiar interchange of the consonants d/z (Heb d/z).

The final couplet emphasizes again the (covenant) loyalty of the king, characterizing him as one “trusting” in YHWH, using a participle form of a verb (jf^B*) which can specifically connote the idea of seeking protection. This loyalty is reciprocated by God’s own, showing goodness/kindness (ds#j#) and favor to the faithful vassal. The covenant bond is indicated by the closing phrase, “there is no slipping (away)” (foMy] lB^), reading the Niphal verb form in a reflexive sense—i.e., there is no falling away from the covenant bond with YHWH.

Verses 9-14 [8-13]

As noted above, a 3+3 meter dominates the second part of the Psalm, which describes God’s blessings to the king in terms of the aid/assistance given to him in time of battle.

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“Your hand found (its way) to all your enemies,
your right (hand) found (its way to the one)s hating you;
you set them as a fire-stove at the time your face (appears)—
with His nostril(s) He engulfs them, and (His) fire devours them.”

The mixing of 2nd and 3rd person forms is a bit confusing, but hardly unusual in Old Testament poetry. It is all the more natural here, given the close connection between the king’s military action and the strength of YHWH Himself that fights for the king (cf. above). More difficult is the extended/irregular meter of verse 10, suggesting that there may be one or more (secondary) accretions to the couplet. I tentatively emend the text to read as a 4+4 couplet, by omitting the first of the two occurrences of va@ (“fire”), in line 1, and the divine name hwhy in line 2. The addition of the name may be an explanatory gloss to clarify the identity of the 2nd person markers (i.e., “…your face, YHWH” ). It is perhaps best to understand YHWH as the subject throughout, referring to His actions on the king’s behalf.

The judgment of God on His enemies (= the king/Israel’s enemies) is expressed by the idiom of the face, according to the traditional religious idea that to see YHWH’s face means death for a human being. This fiery destruction from God’s “face” natural blends together with the common idiom for God’s anger—i.e., burning from the nostrils (as of an angry, snorting bull).

Verse 11 [10]

“Their fruit you made to perish from (the) earth,
and their seed from (among the) sons of man.”

This couplet suggests something more than the defeat of a nation or people in battle, though it may allude to the idea of a defeat so total that it would virtually deprive an entire generation of its young men. More likely is the notion that the military defeat of Israel/Judah’s enemies reflects a wider sense of their (ultimate) destruction that has been determined by God. The nouns “fruit” and “seed” of course are used figuratively for the children/offspring of a people.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

“(For it was) that they stretched out evil upon you,
they wove an (evil) plan, (but) were not able (to complete it);
(so it is) that you set them (to the) shoulder,
you fixed your (bow)strings upon their faces.”

There is a clear parallel  between the enemies of God “stretching” out evil strands upon (lu*) Him, and God, in turn, aiming His bowstrings upon (lu*) their faces. It is typical of the thematic imagery found in the Psalms (and other Old Testament poetry) in they way that the evil intent of the wicked is turned back upon them, so that they are essentially destroyed by the very thing they sought to accomplish. We have already encountered a number of examples of this sort in the Psalms we have studied thus far. The precise meaning of the idiom in the first line of v. 13 [12] is not entirely clear; I have rendered it quite literally: “that you set them (to the) shoulder”. It could indicate a person turning his back (to flee), or, perhaps, of bending/falling down in defeat (or submission). In any case, the defeat of God’s enemies—meaning also the defeat of Israel’s enemies—is clear.

VERSE 14 [13]

“May you rise up (high), YHWH, in your strength,
and we shall sing and make music in your might!”

This closing couplet is parallel to the opening couplet of the Psalm (v. 2 [1], cf. above), emphasizing both the strength (zu)) of YHWH that brought victory for the king, and also the praise of the people who rejoice together in that victory. The noun hr*WbG+ (“strength, might, vigor”) in the second line is virtually synonymous with zu) in the first. It alludes to the youthful vigor of warriors, only, for the Israelite/Judean army of the king faithful to YHWH, the normal strength of young men has been enhanced by the divine power of YHWH Himself. This is reflected in verse 8 [7] of Psalm 20 (cf. the previous study), with the contrast between those nations who trust in their (ordinary) military strength (of horses and chariots, etc), and those who rely instead on the person and presence (the “Name”) of YHWH the true God. Even for later Israelites, Jews, and Christians, for whom the original military setting of this Psalm has long disappeared, it is a contrast that all faithful believers can still appreciate.

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

 

 

Notes on Prayer: Luke 18:9-14

This is a special Thanksgiving Day edition of the Monday Notes on Prayer. When we speak of thanksgiving, it is usually meant in the sense of giving thanks to God. The Greek verb for this is eu)xariste/w (and the eu)xarist– word group). It properly refers to showing good favor (xa/ri$) toward someone; however, in a religious context, it is typically used in the sense of a person being grateful (or thankful) for the favor shown to them by God. The majority of occurrences of the verb (24 out of 38) are in the Pauline letters, most frequently in the opening greeting and introduction (exordium) of the letter. The verb is rare in the Gospels; apart from its use in the Last Supper scene (Mark 14:23 par), and in the similar context of the Miraculous Feeding episode (Mark 8:6 par) where there are also eucharistic overtones, it occurs just three times, twice in Luke (17:16; 18:11).

In these notes, we have been studying the teaching and example of Jesus regarding prayer, most recently in the sayings, parables and other details unique to the Gospel of Luke. There are two distinct traditions in 18:1-14—the parable and saying(s) in vv. 1-8 (discussed in the previous study), and the parable in verses 9-14. As it happens, the verb eu)xariste/w occurs in this passage (v. 11), as an example of the wrong way to give thanks to God.

Luke 18:9-14

The narrative introduction to this parable (v. 9) establishes the context for it, with the reason for Jesus’ telling of it. The setting of the illustration itself (v. 10) is simple and straightforward, and it specifically involves prayer:

“And he also said this (illustration) cast alongside toward some (of) th(ose) having persuaded upon [i.e. convinced] themselves that they were just [di/kaio$], and making the remainder (of people) out to be nothing: ‘Two men stepped up into the sacred place to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], the one (was) a Pharisee and the other a toll-collector.'” (vv. 9-10)

The Temple-setting of the parable is fully in accord with the role of the Temple in Luke-Acts, emphasizing it as a place for prayer and worship of God, rather than the (sacrificial) ritual of the Temple-cultus. For more on this, see Part 1 of the article “The Law in Luke-Acts”, and also Parts 6-7 of “Jesus and the Law”. The afternoon hour for public prayer (c. 3:00 pm), tied to the time of the evening sacrifice, features prominently in two narratives (1:10; Acts 3:1; cf. Mishnah tractate Tamid 5:1). As is typically the case, the idiom of prayer is expressed by the verb proseu/xomai, “speak (out) toward”, i.e. toward God.

The two contrasting figures in the illustration are a Pharisee and a toll-collector (telw/nh$). Pharisees are mentioned frequently in the Gospels as opponents of Jesus, or as those discussing/debating points of Law (Torah) with him; they are representative of the religiously devout and observant Jews of the time. The “toll-collector” was a local agent for the Roman administration in the provinces, collecting indirect taxes (i.e. tolls, customs fees, etc). As such, they were traditionally associated with corruption and exploitation, in addition to the ‘impurity’ related to their work on behalf of the pagan government; for faithful and observant Jews, the toll-collector became a stock figure-type representing “sinners” (Mark 2:15-16 par). The telw/nh$ is mentioned most frequently in the so-called “Q” material of Matthew and Luke, and other Lukan passages (Lk 3:12; 5:27-30; 7:29, 34 pars; 15:1; 19:2ff).

In the parable Jesus gives the prayer offered to God by each of these two men, continuing the contrast. The prayer of the Pharisee is as follows:

“The Pharisee, (as) he was standing, spoke out these (thing)s toward (God) toward himself: ‘God, I give (thanks) to you for (your) good favor, that I am not as the remaining (one)s of men—(those) seizing (things), without justice, (partner)s in adultery, or even as this toll-collector (here)—(for) I fast twice (during) the Shabbat-week, (and) I give a tenth from all (thing)s whatever I acquire.'” (vv. 11-12)

As is proper in prayer, the Pharisee gives thanks to God (using the verb eu)xariste/w, cf. above), in gratitude for the favor and blessings shown to him. However, the incorrect orientation of his prayer is indicated through a bit of wordplay that is lost in most translations:

pro\$ e(auto\n tau=ta proshu/xeto
“he spoke out these (thing)s toward (God) toward himself”

In conventional English, this would be rendered “he prayed these things about himself”, translating the first preposition pro/$ in the sense of “about, regarding”. However, the real implication, based on the actual wording, is that, while speaking toward God, the Pharisee is really speaking toward himself—i.e., the focus is not on God, but on himself. How is this done? First, he separates himself from the remainder (loipoi/, pl. “[one]s remaining”) of humankind; this reflects quite typical (and natural) religious thought—there are the devout and faithful ones, and then all the rest who do not show the same care or concern for God. A similar sort of prayer is recorded in the Talmud (b. Ber. 28b, j. Ber. 2.7d). The Pharisee rightly attributes his religious devotion to God, at least in terms of the form of his prayer (i.e. thanking God for His favor), and properly echoes the traditional idea of Israel (the faithful ones) as the chosen people of God. What is especially bad, in the context of the parable, is the way that he includes the toll-collector standing nearby as a “sinner” merely on the basis of his profession. On this point, compare the Zaccheus episode (19:7ff), and the Synoptic tradition in Mark 2:15-16 par.

The second aspect that is highlighted has to do with the Pharisee’s declaration of his religious devotion, marked by regular fasting and tithing of his possessions. This may be related to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-13), where charitable giving and fasting are two of the three typical religious activities (along with prayer) emphasized by Jesus. There, too, he makes a clear contrast between outward action and inner attitude, things done publicly and in secret. Jesus’ disciples are not to behave in these matters as many other religiously-minded people do. For more, see the earlier study on Matt 6:5-8. In spite of the Pharisee’s customary use of the verb eu)xariste/w, he appears to be emphasizing his own religious devotion rather than the favor (xa/ri$) of God.

The toll-collector’s prayer comes in verse 13:

“But the toll-collector, having stood far off, did not wish not even to lift up his eyes unto heaven, but (instead) struck his chest (as he stood), saying: ‘God, (please) you must be accepting to(ward) me a sinful (man)!'”

It should be noted both the similarities, but also the stark differences, between the Pharisee and toll-collector, in (a) their position as they pray, and (b) the content and focus of their prayer. First, their position. They both are said to be standing, using the same verb (i%sthmi), but described very differently:

    • For the Pharisee, a single word is used—aorist passive participle sta/qei$ (“was standing”)—with nothing, apparently, in his position or posture to indicate humility before God. The circumstantial passive form, rather Lukan in style, suggests that the Pharisee has placed himself in a prominent position.
    • For the toll-collector, an active perfect participle is used (e(stw/$), along with the modifying adverb makro/qen (“[from] far off”), presumably meaning that he stood in the back of the courtyard. Moreover, his attitude toward God is also described vividly in other ways—unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, and beating his chest (as a sign of sorrow). His posture is one of humility and repentance.

With regard to the description of the prayer itself, the situation is reversed: the Pharisee’s is lengthy (by comparison), and the toll-collector’s extremely brief (just three words). They both begin the same way, addressing God—o( qeo/$ (“[O,] God…”)—at which point the prayers diverge. The Pharisee declares his faithfulness and religious devotion. The toll-collector does not feel that he can offer anything comparable, but instead, refers to himself precisely as the Pharisee would regard him, as a “sinner”, or, to be more accurate, as a sinful person (compare Peter’s admission to Jesus in 5:8). Moreover, he offers no thanksgiving to God for the favor shown to him; rather, he fervently implores God to show favor. He uses an imperative form of the verb i(la/skomai, related to the noun i(lasmo/$. These words are extremely difficult to translate accurately, and consistently, in English. The basic idea is religious, and involves God being appeased so as to accept a person (their offering, etc) and treat them favorably. Essentially, the toll-collector is asking God to accept him, to be gracious and show favor to him, in spite of his sinfulness.

“I relate to you (that) this (one) [i.e. the toll-collector] stepped down into his own house having been made right (in God’s eyes), alongside the other (one who was not)—(for it is) that every (one) lifting himself high will be set (down) low, but the (one) lowering himself will be set (up) high.” (v. 14)

The conclusion of the parable is straightforward, and features a reversal-of-fortune motif common to many of the parables (as also in the Lukan Beatitudes, etc). Things were “made right” for the person considered to be a “sinner”, while the “just-ness” of the seemingly devout and faithful person was not confirmed. This reflects two sides of the dikaio– word group and the verb dikaio/w. Just as the two men “step up” into the house of God (Temple), so now they “step down” each into his own house, but with different results. For the toll-collector, things “have been made right” between he and God, while the Pharisee, who considered himself to be right and just (di/kaio$) in God’s eyes was not declared to be so, as a result of his action and attitude in prayer. The parable concludes with a proverbial saying also found, in a different context, at 14:11.

It seems likely that Jesus was not addressing this parable to other such Pharisees, but to his own disciples, instructing (and warning) them much as he does in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-13). The contrast in the parable is extreme—the humble and repentant “sinner” will be accepted by God over the person who is religiously devout—but the main point is actually quite simple: Jesus’ followers (believers) are to behave with humility before God, especially in prayer and other religious matters.

May 5: 1 Corinthians 1:4-9

1 Corinthians 1:4-9

Most of Paul’s letters contain, in the introductory section (exordium), a component of thanksgiving, in which he refers to his giving thanks (to God) for the believers to whom he is writing. The introduction, or exordium, follows the initial greeting (salutation), which almost always blends into a blessing formula (i.e., “grace and peace”)—1 Corinthians provides a good example of this format:

“(The) favor [xa/ri$] (of God) be with you, and peace [ei)rh/nh] from God our Father and (our) Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed {Jesus Christ}.” (1 Cor 1:3)

More than a simple wish, such blessings serve as a compact theological statement. The same may be said of the thanksgiving which follows in 1:4-9. There are two aspects of the thanksgiving which should be noted:

    1. Rhetorical—A common rhetorical device in the exordium (introduction) of the speech or letter was the so-called captatio benevolentiae (“capture of good-will”), through which the speaker/writer seeks to gain the audience’s attention and interest with complimentary words, or by offering praise. Paul often couches this praise in the context of his offering prayer to God.
    2. Theological/Spiritual—On the one hand, the thanksgiving genuinely reflects Paul’s care and concern for the believers in the regions where he had worked as a missionary, and for the churches he had helped to found. At the same time, his thanksgiving formulae also contain a seminal theological statement that unfolds out in a long sentence, with a distinct Christological (and often eschatological) emphasis. From a rhetorical standpoint, this focuses his audience’s attention squarely on their religious identity in Christ.

The thanksgiving begins with verse 4:

“I offer good words (of thanks) to my God always about you, upon [i.e. for] the favor of God th(at) was given to you in (the) Anointed Yeshua…”

The initial verb here is eu)xariste/w (eucharistéœ), “give/offer good (words of) favor”, or, more specifically, to offer words of thanks or gratitude for a favor which was shown. Paul repeats and spells out this favor (xa/ri$, cháris) precisely: “…the favor [xa/ri$] of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus”. The Christological emphasis could not be more clear—the favor (or “grace”) lies squarely in the person and (saving) work of Christ. In verses 5-7, the emphasis shifts to the Corinthian believers (in Christ):

“…in all (thing)s you are made wealthy in him [e)n au)tw=|] , in all (spoken) account(s) [lo/go$] and in all knowledge [gnw=si$]” (v. 5)

If verse 5 emphasizes the believer’s identity in Christ, verse 6 focuses on the other side of this identity, of Christ in the believer:

“even as the witness of (the) Anointed was made firm [i.e. confirmed] in you [e)n u(mi=n]” (v. 6)

Again, in verse 7, Paul cleverly positions his praise of the Corinthians in relation to Christ—in particular, the expected appearance of Jesus at the end-time:

“so that you are not to be left behind, not in any favor granted [xa/risma] (by God), looking out to receive from (God) the uncovering of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed” (v. 7)

This “uncovering” (a)poka/luyi$, lit. “taking the cover away from”) of Christ, refers specifically to his (impending) future appearance, as in 2 Thess 1:7, etc. The favors granted (xari/smata, charísmata) to the Corinthians—that is, their distinct spiritual “gifts”—along with their inspired words and (spiritual) knowledge (v. 5), come to be an important point of emphasis in Paul’s teaching throughout the letter (on the charismata, cf. especially chapters 12-14). Verses 4-8 comprise a single sentence in Greek, which closes on a strong eschatological note:

“who also will make you firm until (the) completion, without (anything) calling you in (to account) on the day of our Lord Yeshua [(the) Anointed].” (v. 8)

There is likely a dual-sense of the word te/lo$ (“completion”) here, referring to (a) the end of the current Age, and (b) the believer being made ‘perfect’ and complete. Note the elliptical outline of this clause:

    • (Jesus Christ) who
      —will make/keep you firm (i.e. stable, sure, strong) until…
    • the day of Jesus Christ

A second, shorter sentence in verse 9 summarizes and concludes the thanksgiving:

“Trust(worthy is) God, through whom you were called into (the) common-bond [i.e. community] of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, our Lord.”

Again, the emphasis is squarely on the believers’ identity in Christ, here defined in terms of being called by God.

After the thanksgiving, Paul turns to the main proposition (propositio) of the letter and his reason (causa) for writing. This is outlined in verse 10-17, with the propositio of verse 10 emphasizing the need for unity among believers, in the light of apparent divisions (and divisiveness) in the congregations. This lack of unity at Corinth had been reported to him by “the (people) of Chloe”, which could refer to the people of Chloe’s household, or to the house-church led by Chloe (meeting in her house, etc). In either case, she was clearly a prominent women in the Corinthian church. Her name is literally “Green” (Xloh/), presumably in the sense of “fresh, tender”, i.e., young and beautiful. It is worth noting her name here in light of the current series Women in the Church which I am presenting on this site. The next article (Part 4) of this series will focus on Romans 16:1-2ff, which features another prominent woman of Corinth—Phoebe, minister (dia/kono$, diákonos) in the Corinthian port town of Cenchreae.