Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 80 (Part 2)

Psalm 80, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

Each of the stanzas of Psalm 80 begin with a similar refrain; here in verse 8 we have a slight expansion of the refrain in verse 4 (cf. the previous study). Some commentators would emend v. 4 to read “Mighty [One] of the armies”, as here in v. 8. For the expression “YHWH of the armies”(toab*x= hwhy), see the note on v. 5 in the previous study. As Creator, YHWH has command of the armies of heaven—the divine beings and the heavenly/celestial phenomena they inhabit/control; these armies fight on behalf of His people Israel, when God so wills it.

Verse 9 [8]

“A vine you did pull out from Egypt;
you drove out (the) nations and planted her.”

This second stanza summarizes the chief event(s) of the formative Israelite history—the Exodus and the conquest/settlement of the Promised Land of Canaan. This is done via the illustration of a vine to represent the nation of Israela proverbial motif that came to be well-established in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:22; Judg 9:12-13; Isa 5:1-7; 27:2ff; Hos 10:1; Joel 1:7; Jer 2:21; 12:10; Ezek 15:1ff; 17; 19:10-14). The Exodus is clearly referenced here within the illustration: YHWH pulls the vine out (vb us^n`) of the ground in Egypt, uprooting it, and planting it in a new land. In order to plant the vine in this land (of Canaan), the peoples (nations) living there were driven out (vb uf^n`). There is both conceptual and alliterative (assonance) wordplay between the verbs us^n` (n¹sa±, “pull out”) and uf^n` (n¹‰a±, “plant [in]”). The idiom of YHWH planting Israel in the land of Promise can be found already in the Song of Sea (Exod 15:17).

I translate literally the feminine morphology and suffixes connected with the vine (/p#G#), treated in the Psalm as a grammatically feminine noun.

Verse 10 [9]

“You (work)ed (its) face before her face,
and made her roots take (deep) root,
and she filled (the entire) land.”

This verse breaks from the general 3+3 metrical pattern, reading as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The settlement of Israel in the Promised Land is described here in terms of the vine-motif. The ground is turned (vb hn`P*), i.e., tilled, prepared for the planting. I have translated this as working the “face” of the land (i.e. the ground, soil), so as to preserve the etymological wordplay between the verb hn`P* (“turn, face”) and the prepositional expression h*yn#p*l= (“before her face”). There is comparable wordplay in the second line, between the verb vr^v* (“[take] root”) and the suffixed noun h*yv#r*v* (“her roots”). Once the vine took root, it began to grow abundantly (as grape-vines tend to do), spreading out and filling the land. This refers to the continual conquest and settlement of the land by the Israelite people, and to their flourishing there. Eventually, of course the confederate nation would grow into a great kingdom (and regional empire), reaching its peak during the reign of Solomon.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The) hills were covered by her shade,
and (by) her branches (the) mighty cedars.”

This verse (returning to a 3+3 meter), expounds the final line of v. 10, and the idea that the vine spread out to fill the land. The vine grew so tall and great that its “branches” (tendrils) covered and cast shade over even the cedar trees on the hills. The construct expression “cedars of might” (la@ yz@r=a^) simply means “mighty cedars”. Conceivably, the reference to the “hills” here may allude to Israelite settlement of the hill-country.

Verse 12 [11]

“She sent forth her tendrils unto (the) Sea,
and to (the) River her (many) young shoots.”

The extent of the vine is here described a different way, clearly alluding to the boundaries of the Israelite kingdom at its greatest extent (under Solomon), reaching from the (Mediterranean) Sea in the west to the (Euphrates) River in the east. Like [n`u* in verse 11, the noun ryx!q* means “branch”; however, the extent of the vine’s spread should probably be understood in terms of the fresh grape-bearing tendrils at the end of the branches, parallel with tq#n#oy (“suckling”, i.e., [young] shoot) in the second line. The vine’s growth is so prodigious that there is an abundance of fresh tendrils spreading out in every direction.

Verse 13 [12]

“For what (reason then) did you burst her hedges,
(so) that all (those) passing by (the) way may pluck her?”

The motif of the vine’s great size and growth has here shifted to the idea of it being protected behind “hedges” (<yr!d@G+). It is not clear whether this refers to the Divine protection provided by YHWH, or to the nation’s own kingdom structures and defenses. In either case, YHWH has allowed the hedges to be “burst/broken through” (vb Jr^P*); the specific action-reference may be to YHWH breaking down the protective hedges. The destruction of the hedges allows anyone passing by to “pluck” the fruit from the vine. This use of the verb hr*a*, along with the feminine aspect of the vine-language (i.e., “pluck her [fruit]”), is suggestive of aggressive/violent sexual activity. Indeed, the implication is that the passers-by are acting with hostility and violence toward the vine (Israel). The conquests (by the Assyrians, etc) are being foreshadowed through this language.

Verse 14 [13]

“(The) boar from (the) forest cuts her to pieces,
and (the) moving (things) of (the) field feed on her!”

The idea of military conquest is more clearly alluded to in this climactic couplet. The “wild boar” from the “forest” could refer to any foreign invader; but probably the Assyrian conquests (of the northern territories) in the second half of the 8th century are specifically in view (cf. the discussion on the historical setting of the Psalm, in the previous study). The odd verb form hN`m*s=r=k^y+ probably should be related to the root <sk (“cut/tear off, shear”, cp. Akkadian kas¹mu, “cut to pieces”), as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 259). Once the vine has been torn down and cut apart, everything that moves (zyz]), i.e., every living creature, in the field can come and feed on it.

The Masoretes drew special attention to the word ru^Y`m! (“from [the] forest”) by writing the letters ru above the line (the so-called littera suspensa). The precise significance of this is not certain; several possibilities are mentioned in the note by Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 309.

Stanza 3: Verses 15-19 [14-18]

Verse 15a [14a]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, please return!”

A shortened version of the refrain begins the third stanza (cf. the note on v. 8 above). Instead of the request “return to us”, the terser “please return”, with the particle of entreaty (an`), is used.

Verse 15b-16 [14b-15]

“Look down from (the) heavens and see—
and may you attend to this (your) vine,
and (so) secure what your right hand planted,
and (watch) over (the) son you yourself made strong.”

The call is for YHWH to pay attention to the condition of His ravaged vine—the nation/kingdom of Israel (esp. the northern territories, v. 2)—and so to respond with help and protection in its time of need. The wide-ranging verb dq^P* probably should be understood here in the basic sense of “attending to” something, exercising oversight, etc.

The couplet in verse 16 expounds what YHWH’s care for His vine entails. The initial word should be understood as a form of the verb /n~K* I, related to /WK, meaning “be firm”, parsed as an imperative with a paragogic (energic) h– suffix. The wish is that YHWH would keep His vine secure, preserving it, in the midst of further (and continuing) threats. The reference to a “son” in the second line seems a bit odd, the Psalmist appearing to mix his metaphors. The reference could be to the people of Israel (collectively) as YHWH’s “son”, or to the king as their representative; cf. on verse 18 below.

Verse 17 [16]

“They (who) have burnt her with such a scouring fire,
from (the) rebuke of your face may they perish!”

The Psalmist’s prayer in this verse takes the form of an imprecation against the hostile enemies of Israel, those who threaten to continue ravaging her. As noted above, it is presumably the Assyrian threat against the northern kingdom that is in view. The first stanza made clear that Israel had experienced great suffering and hardship, with military conquest being alluded to here in vv. 13-14 (cf. above). Such action is now made explicit, with mention of the enemy having burnt the vine (i.e. Israel) with fire.

The first word in the MT needs to be repointed as a plural form with an accusative h– feminine suffix (h*p%r*c=, “they have burnt her”, cf. Hossfeld Zenger, p. 310); Dahood (II, p. 260) suggests a plural participle, h*p#r=s). The final word of the first line, in the MT, hj*WsK= is also problematic. It is perhaps best explained as an emphatic –k preformative (= yK!) attached to a verbal noun from the root hj*s* (cp. jWs), meaning “scouring”; here it would refer to a fiery blaze that sweeps things away.

This fire of judgment is expressed in the second line in terms of the burning anger that comes from YHWH’s face. It is a “rebuke” that will destroy the enemies of Israel.

Verse 18 [17]

“May your hand be over (the) man of your right (hand),
over (the) son of (the) man you yourself made strong.”

This verse expounds upon the statement in the second line of verse 16 (cf. above). The Israelite king may well be in view, as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 260). YHWH’s “hand” refers to the protection He provides, as part of His covenant obligation.

Verse 19 [18]

“For (see,) we shall not (ever) turn back from you:
(so) restore us to life, that we may call on your name!”

Here the Psalmist identifies himself with the righteous/faithful ones of Israel—and identification which, in large part, serves as the basis of his prayer to God for help. Based on the covenant bond, YHWH is obligated to give help and protection to those who remain loyal to Him. The protagonist in the Psalms frequently makes his petition with this idea of covenant loyalty in mind. The imperfect verb form in the first line can be translated a number of ways: (1) as a past tense (“we have not turned away”), (2) as a future tense (“we will not turn away”), or (3) as an emphatic jussive (“we shall not [ever] turn away”). I have opted for the latter, with the initial –w conjunction also as an emphatic, heightening the emphasis.

The verb form of hy`j* (“live,” Piel stem) in the second line also can be understood different ways—i.e., “keep us alive”, “preserve our life”, “restore us to life”. I have chosen the last of these (cf. also Dahood, II, p. 261).

Conclusion: VERSE 20 [19]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

The introductory refrain found in each stanza (vv. 4, 8, 15) is repeated here, in its fullest form, at the conclusion of the Psalm. It serves as a final call, and prayer to God, for salvation.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).