Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 59 (Part 2)

Psalm 59, continued

As noted in the previous study, there are two stanzas to the poem (miktam) of Psalm 59, each of which contains a common refrain (vv. 7-11a, 15-18). The poetic and thematic structure is as follows:

    • Stanza 1 (vv. 2-6 [1-5])—A prayer to YHWH for protection and deliverance from the Psalmist’s enemies, with a contrast established between the wicked and the righteous
      • Refrain (vv. 7-11a [6-10a])
    • Stanza 2 (vv. 11b-14 [10b-13])—Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
      • Refrain (vv. 15-18 [14-17])

Stanza 2: VV. 11-14 [10-13]

Verse 11bc [10bc]

“(The) Mightiest shall go before me,
He shall let me look on (those) watching me.”

The opening verses of the second stanza follow a different meter—a 2-beat (2+2) rather than 3-beat (3+3) couplet. As discussed in the previous study, the traditional verse division here is incorrect, and the first line of verse 11 [10] (a) belongs with v. 10 [9].

The theme of the second stanza—God’s judgment on the wicked (i.e., the Psalmist’s adversaries)—is established here in the initial couplet. The Psalmist expects (and anticipates) that YHWH will answer his prayer (stanza 1), acting to protect and deliver him from his enemies. The first line expresses this clearly and concisely: “the Mightiest shall go before me,” using the verb <d^q* in the sense of “go first, go ahead,” so as to meet the Psalmist’s enemies and strike them.

The verb in the second line is ha*r* (“see”); the nuance of this common verb in the hiphil stem (“make/let me see”), in this context, is tied to the idea of the judgment/punishment of the wicked. I have translated it here as “let me look on (them)” —that is, look on their punishment (indeed, with some satisfaction). The enemies are described as “watchers” (from the root rWv [II]), that is, they watch his every move, with wicked intent, waiting for a chance to strike. There is thus a bit of semantic wordplay here, with the Psalmist looking on those who have been watching him.

Verse 12 [11]

“Mighty (One), slay them, lest my people wither;
stagger them with your strength,
and bring them down!
(You are) our protection, (O) my Lord.”

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 71) in vocalizing the initial word as la@ (“Mighty [One],” El, i.e., ‘God’), rather than the negative particle la^. Asking God not to slay his enemies makes little sense in context. Also reading the divine title la@ here provides a fitting parallel for the related <yh!l)a$ in the first line of the prior couplet (cf. above).

Quite possibly, the reference to “my people,” which otherwise seems somewhat out of place here, is a vestige of the royal background we see in many such Psalms. The king represents the people and serves as their protector; an attack on the king ultimately affects the people as well. The verb jk^v* is best understood in the specific sense of “wither” (rather than “forget”); this particular meaning may derive from a separate root jkv (II).

Military imagery is utilized in the second line, indicating that YHWH will defeat the Psalmist’s enemies. The two verbs (in the hiphil imperative) are u^Wn (“shake, waver, stagger”) and dr^y` (“go down,” hiphil “make go down, bring down”). To “go down” here carries the specific added meaning of going down to the realm of the dead (Sheol), i.e., being killed. The imperfect verb form in the first line is to be read with jussive force, matching the imperatives in the second line.

The specific motif is of YHWH (“my Lord”) as the Psalmist’s protection, drawing upon a covenantal theme that occurs frequently in the Psalms; the noun used is /g@m*, literally “place of protection”.

The rhythm of this expanded couplet is 3+3+2.

Verse 13 [12]

“(By the) sin of their mouth and pestilence of their lips,
may they be captured!
In their rising (up) and cursing and lying,
may they be counted!”

The meter of this verse also is irregular (loosely, a 4-beat couplet). One might be inclined to emend the text (along with that of v. 12) and reorder (or redivide) these lines to achieve metrical consistency (i.e., 3-beat couplets); cf. Kraus, p. 539. Indeed, the only way both stanzas of the Psalm could (originally) have been sung to the same melody, is if they had the same meter. Unfortunately, such consistitency is practically impossible to recover now (if it ever truly existed). It must be said that the poetic structure of v. 13, as we have it, seems to demand a 4-beat couplet format.

Each line ends with a niphal imperfect with jussive force:

    • Wdk=L*y] (“may they be captured”)
    • WrP@S*y] (“may they be counted”)

I follow Dahood (II, p. 73) in reading wrpsy as a niphal form, rather than the piel of the Masoretic vocalization (WrP@s^y+). The idea of being “counted” should be understood as being judged (by God) as wicked. The root rps can relate to the act of recording—i.e., of a person being written down. Quite plausibly the intended image here is of the wicked being recorded as destined for death (and Sheol); cp. Jeremiah 17:13. This is parallel to the image of the names of the righteous being recorded in God’s book [rp#s@] ‘of life’ (Exod 32:32-33, etc). To be “captured” (vb dk^l*) in this context means to be captured by death and the grave.

The behavior of the wicked that results in their punishment (and death) is defined in terms of the evil that they speak. In the first line are the twin expressions “sin of their mouth” and “pestilence [rbd] of their lips”; in the second line, these are matched by the collective (verbal) nouns hl*a* (“cursing”) and vj^K^ (“lying”). There is a bit of wordplay in the first line with the word rbd, since rb*D* generally means “word,” while rb#D# means “pestilence” —i.e., the pestilence of the wicked is in their evil/sinful speaking.

Verse 14 [13]

“Finish (them) in your hot (anger), finish (them),
and may they no longer (be)!
Then they shall know that (the) Mightiest is ruling in Ya’aqob,
(even) to (the) ends of the earth.”

This is another long 4-beat (4+4) couplet, followed by an extra 2-beat line; the last line fits uneasily, and may be a secondary addition to the stanza.

The Psalmist’s call for judgment on his enemies reaches a high pitch in this final couplet, repeating the imperative hL@K^ (“finish [them off]!”). It is almost as though the protagonist is attempting to stoke the flames of YHWH’s hot anger (“heat,” hm*j@) himself. The extreme nature of this imprecation is indicated by the concluding word “may they no longer (be)”. This act of judgment, however, also has a higher purpose, beyond simply punishing (and putting to death) the wicked—it will demonstrate, in the most dramatic terms, that YHWH (the Mightiest, <yh!l)a$) is indeed the King and Judge over all the earth.

Refrain: vv. 15-18 [14-17]

This refrain matches that of the first stanza (vv. 7-10a [6-9a]); however, the wording is not identical. Only the points of difference will be noted below; for the remainder of the refrain, cf. the previous study.

Verse 15 [14]

“They sit until evening,
they howl like a dog
and go around (the) city.”

Essentially identical with v. 7 [6] (discussed in the previous study).

Verse 16 [15]

“Howling, they wander (about for something) to eat,
(and) if not satisfied, they do (not) stop for the night.”

This couplet holds the same place as v. 8 [7] in the first refrain, but differs entirely in wording (and emphasis) from that earlier couplet. Here the action of the wicked fits much better, contextually, with the image of a pack of hungry dogs roaming the city at night. Indeed, v. 16 continues the imagery of v. 15. I follow Dahood (II, p. 73f) in reading the initial word hmh as a verbal element (from the root hmh, “cry [out], howl, growl,” same as in v. 15), rather than the pronoun hM*h@ (“they”). Also (with him) I recognize an implied (second) negative particle in the second line.

Verse 17 [16]

“But I, I will sing of your strength,
and will ring out your goodness in the morning;
for you have been (the) place high up for me,
and a place to flee in (the) day of distress for me.”

This pair of couplets corresponds to the couplet in v. 9 [8], but they are altogether different, both in form and content. The lines here are more fitting for the conclusion of the Psalm as a whole, emphasizing the aspect of public praise and worship that we find frequently at the close of Psalms. The first couplet expresses this theme of praise, in traditional/conventional terms. The strength (zu)) of YHWH is praised in tandem with His goodness (ds#j#); the latter noun often connotes faithfulness and loyalty (in the context of the covenant-bond), and frequently so in the Psalms.

The second couplet returns to the central theme of YHWH as the Psalmist’s protection. Two locative nouns are used, in parallel, to express this: (1) bG`c=m! (“place high up”), and (2) sonm* (“place [to which] to flee”, i.e., place of refuge).

Verse 18 [17]

“My Mighty (One is) my strength—
thus shall I be guarded;
for (the) Mightiest (is) my (refuge) up high,
my Mighty (One is) my loyal (guard).”

These lines are essentially identical with those of vv. 10-11a [9-10a] which close the refrain of the first stanza (cf. the previous study). In the second line of v. 10, the verb is rm^v*, while here it is rm^z`, but the meaning is certainly the same (“guard”). If rmz is correct here, then it would seem to be a stylistic variant, with no difference in meaning. It may reflect an older/archaic meaning of the root rmz (zmr), attested, it would seem, by the Ugaritic cognate root (¼mr).

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 “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 58

Psalm 58

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This Psalm is another prayer-Psalm with lament characteristics, similar in many respects to those in the ‘Elohist Psalter’ that we have recently studied (cf. the previous study on Ps 57). Indeed, Psalm 58 has the same musical direction as Ps 57, designating it as a  <T*k=m! (miktam, cf. the study on Psalm 16) sung to the melody “Do not destroy” (or “May you not destroy”), tj@v=T^-la^, apparently the name of a well-known lament (the phrase itself probably is an allusion to Deuteronomy 9:26).

However, if both Psalms were to be sung to a common lament-melody, it is worth nothing that the meter of each poem is different; Psalm 58 contains longer verses, predominantly 4-beat (4+4, or 4+3) couplets.

The thematic structure of the Psalm may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 2-6 [1-5]: Descriptive lament regarding the wicked
    • Verses 7-10 [6-9]: Imprecation-prayer to God, calling for judgment on the wicked
    • Verses 11-12 [10-11]: The reward of the righteous (contrasted with the fate of the wicked)

VERSES 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“Are you firm, mighty (one)s, (in) justice (when) you speak?
You should judge (with) straightness (the) sons of men.”

These opening line is probably best read as a rhetorical (and accusatory) question. The MT <l#a@ should be parsed as a defective form of <yl!a@, “mighty ones;” alternatively, it could be a plural of ly]a^ (“leader, ‘ram’ [figurative for a human noble or ruler]), with defective spelling (<yl!ya@ > <yl!a@). Clearly, the Psalmist is referring to those powerful men who are supposed to be leading and ruling the people; when they are corrupted by wickedness, society becomes oppressive, characterized by lawlessness and perversion of justice. The emphasis here is thus on speaking (vb rb^D*) with justice (qd#x#), and on rendering judgment (vb fp^v*). The concept of being firm (root /ma) in justice (line 1) is parallel with the idea of judging in a straight (rvy, i.e., fair and right) way (line 2).

Verse 3 [2]

“Yet, in (your) heart you act (with all) crookedness,
in (the) land your hands balance (the scales with) violence!”

The wickedness of the situation here is contrasted with what it should have been (v. 2). The first line strikes a formal (contrastive) parallel with the first line of v. 2:

    • “…(with) justice | you (should) speak” (v. 2)
    • “…(with) crookedness | you act” (v. 3)

The plural form tl)ou (lit. “crooked/perverse [thing]s”) may perhaps be intended as an intensive or comprehensive plural. On the other hand, the plural could be understood in the judicial sense of “crooked judgments”. Dahood (II, p. 58) suggests that this spelling represents a Phoenician dialectal form of the Hebrew singular hl*w+u^. The noun lw#u* (“crookedness, perversion”) is often used in the specific socio-legal sense of injustice, and, given the context of v. 2, the idea of a perversion of justice is certainly in view.

The verb in line 2 is sl^P*, which specifically refers to weighing something out on the balance-scales; here it can be understood in the sense of the ‘scales of justice’. Injustice and corruption among the rulers in society inevitably leads to lawlessness, oppression, and violence (sm*j*).

Verse 4 [3]

“Perverse (are the) wicked (one)s, from (the) womb they stray,
(and) from (the) belly (they are) speakers of lie(s)”

This couplet has something of an awkward structure with an off-beat (4+3) rhythm, which may well be intentional, as if expressing poetically how the wicked stagger and stray (vb hu*T*). They are said to be perverse and deceitful (“speakers of lie[s]”) from birth. Again, the primary idea is of the perversion of justice brought about by the wicked leaders, and the corrupting effect this has on the whole of society.

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“The hot poison of them (is) like that of a (venomous) snake,
like that of a deaf adder (which) closes its ear,
which does not listen to (the) voice of (those) whispering,
(the) binding of (those) binding (who) are (so) wise.”

These two verses should be taken together as a pair of 4+3 couplets that form a quatrain. The syntax of each couplet is a bit uneven. It would seem that the second occurrence of construct noun tm^j& in the first line ought to be omitted, in order to preserve the meter (cf. Kraus, p. 534). The image itself is straightforward: the deceit, perversion, and violent impulse of the wicked is like the venom of a poisonous snake. In particular, the figure of an adder is used,one which is “deaf,” a motif clarified (in v. 6) as referring to a snake that cannot be rendered harmless by the sounds of a snake-charmer. This person who “whispers” (vb vj^l*, resembling the ‘hissing’ of a snake) the charms represents the vain and futile wisdom of the world, which is unable to curb the wickedness in society.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

Verse 7 [6]

“O Mightiest, break down their teeth in their mouth!
(The) fangs of (the) young lions, pull down, YHWH!”

The tone of the Psalm shifts here from a lament, describing the wicked, to a call for YHWH to bring down judgment on them. There is thus an imprecatory character to the Psalmist’s prayer here.

These lines have a chiastic syntax spread over the eight (4+4) beats:

    • O Mightiest [Elohim]
      • break down
        • their teeth
          • in their mouth
          • (the) fangs
        • of the young lions
      • pull down
    • [O] YHWH

The image is of the wicked as a group of ravenous lion-whelps, with their deadly and oppressive teeth/fangs. The plural noun touT=l=m^ is apparently the same (by metathesis) as touL=t^m=, referring to the devouring teeth/bite of an animal.

Verse 8 [7]

“Let them flow (away) like waters (that) go to their (place);
like (the) <grass> (on which) one treads, may they wither!”

The second line of the MT as we have it makes little sense. Here we are very much in need of a reliable Dead Sea manuscript to offer clarity, but, alas, nothing of Psalm 58 survives. A reasonably sound line can be achieved by a small emendation of the text (cf. Kraus, p. 534), reading ryx!j* (“grass”) instead of wyX*j! (Qere, “his arrows”). The motif of the grass that is worn down on the path (ird) is a suitable parallel with the flowing waters in line 1, preserving the nature-imagery of the couplet. This also fits the verb in the second line, which I take to be ll^m* (III), “wither, languish, fade”; also possible is ll^m* (IV), “cut off”. My translation above of the second line requires a reordered text (with the one emended word) that reads:

Wll*m)t=y] Er)d=y] ryx!j* omK=

Verse 9 [8]

“Like a <miscarriage> dissolving, may they go (away);
(like the) failed birth of a woman, may they fail to see (the) sun!”

Instead of the MT lWlB=v^, I am inclined to read lWKv* (or loKv*), which is a less significant emendation than it might at first appear, since some manuscripts read lwlkv instead of lwlbv. The image of a miscarriage provides a suitable parallel for the motif of a failed birth (lp#n#, i.e., stillbirth or abortion) in line 2 (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 77f).

Verse 10 [9]

“Before thorn-bush(es) can <produce> their thorns,
(the) Living (One in His) burning anger, shall sweep them away!”

The MT of this verse makes very little sense, and is doubtless corrupt. Again, one wishes a reliable Dead Sea manuscript of the Psalm had survived, as it likely would have clarified the situation; but unfortunately that is not the case. Any reading or reconstruction of these lines will have to remain hypothetical and speculative. I have adopted the following changes, so as to produce a relatively clean 4+3 couplet that makes decent sense:

    • Following at least one Hebrew MS, I read <h#yt@r)ys! with the third-person suffix (“their thorns”)
    • I follow Kraus (p. 534) in reading WbWny` (“they bear [fruit],” “they produce”) in place of MT Wnyb!y`.
    • I omit the two occurrences of the suffixed preposition omK= in the second line; these probably crept into the text at this point due to their presence in the prior lines.

Here we have an announcement of YHWH’s coming judgment on the wicked, with the Psalmist anticipating God’s answer to his imprecatory prayer.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

Verse 11 [10]

“The righteous shall be glad when he sees (the) vengeance;
(with) his footsteps, he shall wash in (the) blood of (the) wicked.”

The contrasting fates of the wicked and the righteous are presented in these closing verses. The scene, in spite of the promise of rejoicing, will doubtless strike modern readers as unduly harsh and gruesome. Very few Christians, I think, would find any enjoyment in the idea of washing our feet in the blood of the wicked who have been slaughtered. However, there can be no denying that the terrible death and destruction of the wicked is an integral part of the tradition of the (end-time) Divine judgment inherited by early Christians. It is depicted vividly enough in the book of Revelation (6:10ff; 14:14-20; 16:3-6; 19:2, 13).

Verse 12 [11]

“And man will say, ‘Surely (there is) fruit for the righteous!
Surely there is a Mightiest (One) making judgment on the earth!'”

The eschatological dimension of the Judgment is expressed here rather clearly, as humankind (collectively) is forced to admit that God exists, and that YHWH is the true God (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”). He has the power and authority to act as Judge over the entire world (“making judgment on the earth”). By contrast to the imagery in verse 10 [9] (cf. above), where the wicked are depicted as thorn-bushes that are swept away in the wind, the righteous are presented as plants that produce a rich and succulent fruit. This is part of a well-established Wisdom tradition that was inherited by the Psalms, and which exerted a significant influence on many of the compositions. The same basic contrast is featured in the famous Psalm 1 (vv. 3-4) at the beginning of the collection.

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 “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 56 (Part 1)

Psalm 56

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (v. 4 [3])

This Psalm has an interesting bipartite structure, with two parts (vv. 2-7 [1-6] & 8-14 [7-13]), each of which contains a pair of stanzas separated by a central refrain (vv. 5, 11-12). This refrain is an expression of trust in YHWH, in the midst of a lament. The lament-character of Psalm 56 is stronger in the first division. 

Like Psalm 16 (cf. the earlier study), this Psalm is described in the heading as a <T*k=m! (miktam), a term whose meaning remains uncertain. It has been related to the word <t#K# (“gold”), and to a separate root <tk that only occurs once elsewhere in the Old Testament (Jer 2:22). The Greek Septuagint and Aramaic Targums translate it as referring to an inscription on a stone slab or pillar (Grk sthlografi/a).

In addition to this term, we have the musical direction that the Psalm is to be performed on (lu^, according to) “Doves of (the) distant terebinths[?],” which was apparently a well-known melody. The meter of the Psalm is irregular, though a three-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to dominate.

The superscription marks it as another Psalm “belonging to David”, associating its composition with the David tradition narrated in 1 Samuel 27.

VERSES 2-7 [1-6]

Verse 2-3 [1-2]

“Show favor to me, Mightiest, for men gasp (after) me,
all the day (long) their jaws press (on) me;
they would trample me, (those) watching me all the day,
for many (are those) fighting against me!”

These opening couplets show that we are dealing with another prayer-Psalm, characterized as a lament. That is to say, the Psalmist laments his current suffering to YHWH, asking God to deliver him in his time of distress. There are several points of wordplay in these couplets, which are lost completely if one is not careful to preserve the nuances in translation. First, we have the verb [a^v*, for which there are two separate roots, one (I) meaning something like “gasp, pant (after)”, and the second (II) meaning “trample, crush”. In my view, the first meaning is intended in v. 2, depicting the image of a hostile pursuer, like an animal pursuing after its prey. In verse 3, it is the second meaning, viz. that the pursuer intends to crush/trample the protagonist.

The second wordplay involves the consonants <jl. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 42) in reading <jl in v. 2 as a contracted form of the dual <h#yj@l= (> <j@l#), “their (two) jaws”. The idea of jaws pressing on the Psalmist fits well the imagery in v. 2 of an animal chasing after its prey. In verse 3, however, we have the root <j^l*, “fight”, as an active participle characterizing the enemies (plural) of the Psalmist, parallel with the verbal noun rr@ov, “(one) watching,” in the hostile sense of laying in ambush, eying something to devour, etc.

Metrically, verse 2 is a 4+3 couplet, while v. 3 is in the regular 3-beat (3+3) format. The use of <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim, i.e., ‘God’), presumably in place of an original hwhy (YHWH), marks this Psalm as part of the ‘Elohist’ Psalter.

Verse 4 [3]

“O (Most) High, (on the) day I am afraid
I will seek protection in you.”

A proper 3-beat (3+3) couplet is achieved by including the last word of v. 3 (according to the standard verse division) at the beginning of v. 4. While the noun <orm* can be understood as a locative (place) noun, meaning a “high/exalted place,” it is best read here as a Divine title, “High/exalted One”, i.e. “(Most) High”. The verb jf^B*, as we have seen, occurs frequently in the Psalms; it fundamentally denotes seeking (and/or finding) protection, but it also connotes the trust that one has in such protection. Given the possible locative meaning of <orm* we should understand by it the idea of YHWH as a place of protection for the righteous. A place situated high up, on an inaccessible location, is especially secure.

Verse 5 [4]

“In (the) Mightiest, (in) whose word I boast,
in (the) Mightiest I find protection!
I shall not be afraid—
what can flesh do to me?”

This central refrain, essentially repeated in vv. 11-12, is an expression of trust in YHWH, even in the midst of the Psalmist’s lament over his suffering. Again the verb jf^B* is used, but here perhaps with the nuance of finding protection (rather than seeking protection, v. 4). The first line is a bit difficult, but it is probably best to read it in a straightforward and conventional sense: “In (the) Mightiest I praise/boast (in) His word”. This can be rendered better poetically by treating the o– suffix on orb*D= (“his word”) like a relative pronoun, i.e., “(in) whose word”.

The meter of this quatrain is irregular, but has a certain symmetry—3+2+2+3. The language in the last two lines is simple and direct.

Verse 6 [5]

“All the day they cause me pain with (their) words,
upon me all their thoughts (are) for evil.”

Following the central refrain in v. 5, a second short lament-stanza follows in vv. 6-7. The same basic theme, of the Psalmist lamenting his suffering at the hands of his enemies, picks up from vv. 2-3. There is a clear bit of contrastive wordplay between the word of God (“his word”) in v. 5, and the words of the wicked here in v. 6. The Hebrew (MT) literally reads “my words”, but it is much preferable to read the y– suffix as an object suffix—i.e., their words against me. This meaning is virtually required by the parallel with “their thoughts” in line 2. Both the words and the thoughts (i.e., intention, plans, designs) of the wicked are directed against the righteous. The verb bx^u* (I) in line 1 denotes causing pain (or sorrow).

Verse 7 [6]

“They gather and hide themselves, they (do),
my heel-tracks they watch as (I) walk,
they lay in wait for my soul!”

Though there are admittedly difficulties in this verse, it is possible to make sense of it, following the MT and with no real emendation. Metrically, I read it as a tricolon, an expansion of a 3-beat couplet with an additional 2-beat line included for dramatic effect, as befits the close of the first part of the Psalm.

The two verbs in line 1 form a proper pair: (1) WrWgy` (vb rWg, I/II), “they band/gather together”; and (2) WnyP!x=y~ (vb /p^x*), “they hide themselves”. Clearly the image is of a group of conspirators laying in wait for an attack/ambush. The pronoun hM*h@ (“they”), assuming that is the correct reading of the text (cf. Dahood, II, p. 44), is emphatic (placed in final position).

I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 44) in repointing MT rv#a&K^ as rv@a)K=—Qal participle of the verb rv^a* (“walk, go straight”) with prefixed preposition. This gives a clear and vivid sense to the line: “they watch my heel-tracks [i.e. footsteps] as (I am) walking”. The short final line gives the climax, pointing out the hostile (and violent) intention of the wicked: “they lay in wait [vb hw`q* I] for my soul!”

The second half of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study) follows the same basic format as the first half, though the tone of lament gradually gives way to the hope and expectation that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer and deliver him from his distress.

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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 3)

Psalm 55, continued

We conclude our study of this Psalm with an examination of the third and final section:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in Part 1, the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf, was studied last week in Part 2; now we proceed to the final section, in which YHWH’s answer to the Psalmist’s prayer is anticipated, with the expectation of deliverance.

VERSES 17-24 [16-23]

Verse 17 [16]

“(And) I, to (the) Mightiest I called,
and YHWH saved me.”

This initial couplet has a 3+2 meter, generally returning to the metrical pattern of the first (lament) section. The answer to the Psalmist’s prayer in this section, balances the opening lament. Though Ps 55 is categorized as an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, in which the term/title <yh!l)a$ (Elohim, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e., God) is used in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH), here both of the ‘names’ are used. The imperfect verb forms are used to express past action, as is often the case in Hebrew poetry.

Verse 18 [17]

“(At) sunset and daybreak and mid-day,
I muttered and I moaned,
and He heard my voice.”

The 3+2 meter continues here in v. 18, though, apparently, the couplet has been expanded into a tricolon (3+2+2) with the inclusion of an extra line. The extended rhythm heightens the tension and provides a dramatic effect.

The extent of the Psalmist’s suffering is summarized by the three periods of the day: the setting of the sun (br#u#, i.e., evening), the breaking through of daylight (rq#b), daybreak, i.e., morning), and a point between the two (halves) of day (dual <y]r^h(x*, i.e., mid-day, noon). All this time (i.e., all day long), he makes his lament and prayer to God. This activity is summarized by the two verbs in line 2, which I translate concisely as “I muttered and I moaned,” in order to capture the rhythm of the line. Both verbs, however, have a relatively wide semantic range and can be difficult to translate. The verb j^yc! generally refers to the act of going over a matter (repeatedly), either in one’s mind or in speech; often an agitated state of mind is implied, and it can specifically connote the act of complaining or even repenting. The second verb (hm*h*) is more intensive, denoting the primal act of moaning, roaring, howling, etc, like an animal.

Verses 19 [18]

“He ransomed my soul in fullness from (the) approach against me,
for with many they were standing (against) me.”

The MT as it stands appears to be an elongated 4+3 couplet. However, some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 519) view the text of vv. 19-20 as corrupt and requiring some measure of emendation. Essentially the verse describes the nature of how YHWH answered (or is expected to answer) the Psalmist’s prayer. God rescues the soul of the Psalmist from his enemies.

This rescue is described using the verb hd*P*, which refers to the making of a payment to achieve the transfer of ownership; it can be used in a more general or figurative sense for the deliverance of someone out of bondage or oppression, etc, and the English “ransom” captures this all fairly well. Based on this ransom/payment idea, there likely are three aspects of meaning for the noun <olv* that are involved here: (1) the soul has been rescued in its fullness (i.e., completely safe/intact), (2) the ransom was paid in full, and (3) the soul is allowed to go free/safe in peace.

There is indeed a military context to the imagery. The Psalmist’s soul is rescued “from (the) approach” (br*Q&m!) of his enemies, and the noun br*q= can specifically refer to a hostile encounter or battle. Moreover, the crowd of “many” (<yB!r^) enemies suggests the image of an attacking army.

Verse 20 [19]

“(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them,
even (He the) Ancient (One) sitting, [Selah]
in that there is no changing for them,
and they do not fear (the) Mightiest.”

The lines of verse 20 are admittedly difficult, and may be corrupt; the situation is complicated by the odd placement of the hl*s# (Selah) marker apparently in the middle of the verse. If the Masoretic text and verse division is correct, then we have a quatrain—a pair of irregular, but conceptually (and syntactically) related, couplets. This may explain the curious placement of the Selah-marker—i.e., the pause is intended to make clear the shift in subject/person between the second and third lines. This, if correct, strongly increases the likelihood that the second line does not refer to the enemies of the Psalmist, but to YHWH.

The meaning of the second line is thoroughly obscure and ambiguous (at least to us). The noun <d#q# could have several different meanings in context here:

    • It could refer to a confrontation, either from the enemies of the Psalmist set against him, or by YHWH against his enemies.
    • It could refer to sitting in the front/first position
    • It could indicate a geographic location, in the east (sitting/dwelling in the east)
    • It could be a temporal designation, i.e., times long before, in old/ancient times.

In my view, the latter is correct, and <d#q# should be read as a divine epithet of El-YHWH, meaning something like “the Ancient (One)”, as in Deut 33:27. Probably the participle bv@y) (“sitting”) should be understood literally, in reference to God sitting in judgment.

If the word-division of the MT in the first line is correct, and if the suffix <– on the second verb is an object suffix (3rd person plural), then this may explain the placement of the Selah-marker. The first line would read “(The) Mighty (One) heard and answered them“. After the second line, which further describes God sitting in judgment (by which he ‘answers’ the wicked), the final two lines refer back to “them” (i.e., the wicked). The Psalmist (or a later editor) may have wished to avoid any possible (grammatical) misunderstanding, which could happen if these four lines were read/recited together quickly; the pause helps to clarify the situation being described.

The wicked will not repent or change their ways (“there is no changing for them”), primarily because they have “no fear of God”. They are thus deserving of the severe punishment they face from YHWH in the judgment.

Verse 21 [20]

“He sent out his hands on (the) bonds of peace,
he broke his binding (agreement).”

The shift in subject from YHWH (“He”) to the friend (“he”) who betrayed the Psalmist can be confusing at first glance, and raises the possibility that the the Selah-pause marker was intended to be placed at the end of verse 20 (rather than in the middle, cf. above). A pause at that point would help to clarify the shift in subject. This friend-turned-betrayer was introduced in vv. 13-15 [12-14] (cf. the discussion in Part 2).

The word wym*l)v=B! is almost impossible to translate with precision in English and still preserve any sense of the poetry. As discussed above, the noun <olv* has a wide range of meaning. Fundamentally, it means “fullness, completion”, but it is often used specifically in the context of a covenant bond, and that is certainly the case here, where <olv* is parallel with tyr!B= (“binding [agreement]”, i.e., covenant). Here <lv denotes one who is obligated to fulfill the terms of the agreement, establishing a bond of unity, welfare, and peace between those bound by the same agreement. For lack of a better alternative, I have translated the plural above as “bonds of peace”. By betraying the Psalmist, this person broke the binding agreement between them and violated the ‘bond of peace’.

Metrically, this verse returns to the 3+2 couplet pattern of the section.

Verse 22 [21]

“Smooth from cream were (the words of) his mouth,
but a (hostile) encounter (was in) his heart;
soft (indeed) were his words from oil,
but they (were) open (sword)s.”

My translation distorts somewhat the meter of these lines, which in the Hebrew are a pair of metrically similar 3+2 couplets (following the pattern of this section). The two couplets also exhibit similar antithetical parallelism, contrasting the smooth words (i.e., friendly and alluring) of this person with the hostile and wicked intention of his heart.

Grammatically, the preposition /m! (“from”) is used, in the first line of each couplet, in a comparative sense; in English idiom, the lines would properly read:

“Smoother than cream were (the words of) his mouth

(indeed) softer than oil were his words…”

The same sort of military imagery is used here (including the noun br*q=, “approach, encounter”), as in v. 19 [18] (cf. above). Probably this imagery is figurative, used in a general sense for the ‘attacks’ of the wicked; however, the royal background of many Psalms also allows for the possibility that an actual political-military rebellion is involved (i.e., against the king).

Verse 23 [22]

“Throw upon YHWH that given (to) you,
and He will hold you (up);
He will not give, (even) into (the) distant (future),
(any) shaking for the righteous.”

The sudden inclusion of a proverbial exhortation here in v. 23 may seem peculiar, but it is important to remember that the Psalms have been influenced considerably by Wisdom traditions. Besides this, in a good many Psalms, the closing verses show signs of adaptation to a communal worship setting, a likely indication that an original composition has been adapted for use in public worship.

The two couplets are parallel, with the first line of each playing on the concept of giving—using the different (but conceptually related) roots bhy and /tn. The noun bh*y+ literally means “something given”, but here the implication is that it refers to something placed upon a person as a burden. The exhortation is to “throw” this burden onto YHWH, and he will hold it for you (meaning also that he will hold you up, i.e., sustain/support you, in the process).

This idea of firm support is expressed in the second couplet in a negative sense, as a lack of any shaking (fom, i.e., slipping, faltering). Not only does YHWH support the righteous, but He also will not do (lit. will not give [vb /t^n`]) anything that will cause the righteous to slip and fall.

For a different way of reading these lines in detail, cf. the discussion in Dahood, II, pp. 37-8.

Verse 24 [23]

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
to (the) Pit of destruction,
(these) men of blood and deceit!
They will not reach half their days,
while I find protection in you!”

Verse 23 [22] is best viewed as an parenthetical aside, if not an editorial insertion (cf. above); verse 24 [23] properly continues the thought from v. 22 [21]. The Psalmist expects that, in answering his prayer, YHWH will bring judgment upon his enemies (the wicked), including the friend who betrayed him. This judgment entails an untimely death, as is clear from the directional verb dr^y` (in the Hiphil, “bring down“) and the expression “pit of destruction” (tj^v^ ra@B=, cf. Psalm 7:16; 9:16; 16:10; 30:10; 35:7; 49:10).

This verse has a complex (and dramatic) poetic structure. It begins with a triad (3+2+3 meter), perhaps best viewed as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet expanded with an intervening 2-beat line (for dramatic effect). The intervening line consists of the terse expression “pit of destruction”, qualifying what it means for YHWH to “bring down” the wicked (i.e., where it is that He brings them). The syntax is clear from the surrounding couplet:

“But you, O Mightiest, will bring them down
(these) men of blood and deceit!”

The pairing of blood (i.e., violence) and deceit is a typical characterization of the wicked, and provides a neat summary of their wicked behavior. The plural <ym!d* (lit. “bloods”) is used for acts of violence, even when there is no actual shedding of blood. For the interpretation of <ym!d* here as a reference to images (idols), derived from the root hm*D* I (“be like”), cf. Dahood, II, p. 39 (and I, pp. 31f).

The Psalm concludes with a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet, contrasting the fate of the wicked and the righteous. The wicked will meet with an untimely death, expressed by the idea of reaching only half (vb hx*j*) of their days. This should not be read in an overly concrete sense, as if it were limited to a shortened life-span here on earth; it can also be understood in terms of missing out on a blessed afterlife (with God), doomed simply to dwell in the realm of the dead. By contrast, the righteous finds protection (vb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms) in YHWH, and so has his/her life preserved and kept safe, even into the Age to Come (i.e. the blessed afterlife).

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 “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 55 (Part 2)

Psalm 55, continued

Here is a reminder of the three-part structure of this Psalm:

The first section (the lament) was discussed in the previous study (Part 1); here we turn to the second section, in which the Psalmist prays to YHWH, asking God to act on his behalf.

There is an interesting dramatic structure to this section. The prayer takes the form of an imprecation, in which the Psalmist would bring a curse down on his enemies. The imprecation frames the section in vv. 10-12, 16; however, in vv. 13-15 the protagonist focuses on a specific enemy, addressing him directly, as a supposed friend who has betrayed him.

VERSES 10-16 [9-15]

Verse 10 [9]

“Confuse (them), my Lord,
bring division to their tongue;
for I have seen (much) violence
and strife in the (great) city.”

The Masoretic text as it stands suggests a pair of 2-beat (2+2) couplets. Each line of the first couplet begins with an imperative, by which the Psalmist calls on YHWH to act. In the second line it is gL^P^, from the root glp (“split, divide”); in which case, the matching imperative uL^B^ in the first line would have to derive from a second root ulb II, meaning “confuse, confound,” rather than ulb I (“swallow”). This second root is similar in meaning to llb, which which it would be related. If the MT is correct, then we would seem to have here a poetic allusion to the Tower of Babel tradition; and the Psalmist’s prayer-curse calls upon YHWH to repeat his action in the Babel episode (Gen 11:7ff).

Dahood (II, p. 33) takes a different approach, reading glp as the noun gl#P# (“split, division”), and as the object of the line (reading the first two lines of the verse as a single 4-beat line):

“Swallow [i.e. destroy], O Lord, (the) split of their tongue [i.e. their forked tongue]”

Kraus (p. 519) finds an even more serious problem with the MT and adopts a more radical emendation of the text. The city motif that is developed in vv. 11-12 tends to support the MT, with its apparent allusion to the Babel scene—Babel (= Babylon) being symbolic of the wicked city, as we see elsewhere in Old Testament tradition (and cf. Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21).

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Day and night they go around her,
upon her walls (are) both trouble and toil;
in (the) midst of her (evil)s befall,
in (the) midst of her it never departs,
in her wide street, oppression and deceit!”

A 3-beat (3+3) couplet is followed by a slightly irregular 2-beat tricolon. These lines pick up from verse 10, and presumably the subject of the first line (“they go around her”) is the pair of “violence [sm*j*] and strife [byr!]” from v. 10. They “go around” (vb bb^s*) the city, functioning as watchmen; and they are joined by the pair of “trouble [/w#a*] and toil [lm*u*]” who stand guard on the walls. Thus the wicked city is governed and patrolled by wickedness.

Adding to this image of the wicked city is the double emphasis that great evils are in the midst of her, and that they never depart (vb vWm). The plural noun toWh^ is derived from the verb hw`h* I, and refers to some evil or calamity that falls upon (befalls) a person; I have translated the plural noun here with intensive verbal force. The expression “her wide/broad (street)” is generally synonymous with “in the midst of her” —we should understand a central square or main street. Both oppression (implying violence) and deceit—two fundamental characteristics of the wicked—are present, and especially active, in the heart of the wicked city.

Verse 13 [12]

“For (it was) not a hostile (one)
(who) brought on me (the) scorn that I bear,
nor (was it one) hating me
(who) brought great (slander) on me,
that I should hide myself from him.”

Both the meter and structure of this verse are difficult and problematic. However, the first four lines clearly form a pair of parallel couplets (with loose/uneven 2-beat meter). This specific opponent of the Psalmist is identified as neither a “hostile (one)” (vb by~a*) nor “(one) hating” (vb an@v*) him—that is to say, he was not obviously or openly an enemy.

The second line of each couplet is rather difficult. In the first couplet, the difficulty is syntactical, with the MT reading “he reproached me and I bore (it)”. However, the relationship with the first line indicates that the phrase should be translated as a relative clause: “…who reproached me and I bore (it)”. The poetic sense of this line is improved if we treat the w-conjunction on the second verb like a relative particle (cf. Dahood, II, p. 34): “…who brought the scorn on me that I bear”.

In the second line of the second couplet, the difficulty lies in the specific meaning of the verb ld^G` (Hiphil stem, “make grow, make great”) in context. Literally, the phrase would be “he made great over me” (or possibly, “he grew over me”). However, as in the first couplet, this second line also should be read as a relative clause, with a wicked act implied (such as slandering someone), i.e. “…who brought great (slander) over me”.

The final line (“that I should hide myself from him”), as a coda to the two couplets, relates to the idea that this person was not an obvious enemy (at first) to the Psalmist, implying that we was a friend of sorts, so that the Psalmist would not have felt the need to protect himself from this person.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“But (it was) you, a man of my (own) order,
my companion and (one) being known by me,
(so) that as one we had sweet intimacy,
in (the) house of (the) Mightiest,
we walked in (the) surging (crowd).”

Verses 14-15 make clear what was implied in v. 13—viz., that this enemy was a man previously considered by the Psalmist to be a friend. He was of the same social rank (lit. “order,” Er#u@) as the Psalmist, both a companion ([WLa^) and someone well-known to him.

The second couplet, expanded into a tricolon, indicates that the Psalmist and this man had some measure of intimacy in their friendship. The noun dos connotes intimate conversation, and the verb qt^m* refers to the fact that the two men had a number of “sweet” moments together. These moments are specifically located in the “house of God”, which suggests the occasion of religious festivals. If the Psalm preserves a royal background, they it could also refer to the king and his court (with his loyal vassals) attending religious festivities in the Temple. The motif in the final line, of walking together in a crowd, certainly suggests a festival and/or ritual occasion.

Verse 16 [15]

“May death take over them,
may they go down (to) Sheol living!
For evils (are) in their dwelling-places.”

Having addressed the friend who betrayed him, the Psalmist returns to the imprecation, asking God to bring a curse (of death) down upon his enemies. This imprecatory language naturally makes Christians and modern readers uncomfortable, but it was very much part of the ancient Near Eastern tradition, and many examples can be found in the Old Testament. This section allows Psalm 55 to be counted among the imprecatory Psalms.

Most commentators (correctly) follow the Qere, parsing the first word of the MT (Kethib) as two words: tw#m* yV!y~. Dahood (II, p. 34) would derive the verb form yV!y~ from the rare root hvy, otherwise attested (only) in the noun hY`v!WT (Job 12:16, etc); the basic denotation would seem to something like “advance, succeed”. The verb used together with the preposition lu^ could fairly be rendered “take over” (overtake): “May death [tw#m*] take over them”. Parallel with death is loav= (Sheol), the realm of the dead. To be taken alive into Sheol would be an especially stunning and miraculous form of death, only to be achieved through the power of God. Here, however, it is probably simply an exaggeration, as befits the curse-formula.

The final line hearkens back to the “wicked city” motif in vv. 10-12 (cf. above). Great evils (plur. tour*), passing through the wicked city, find lodgings in it. They are temporary lodgings—indicated by the noun rWgm*, derived from the root rWg, typically denoting a stranger who comes to live/reside within a population. Evil will only dwell in the city for a short time, since the wicked population will soon face death (viz., the Psalmist’s curse). That the wicked of the city would give lodgings to Evil is altogether proof of their wickedness.

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 “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 53

Psalm 53

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1); 4QPsa (vv. 4-5, 7 [3-4, 6])

This Psalm can be described as an ‘Elohist’ version of Psalm 14. The relationship between Pss 14 and 53 continues to be debated, but most likely they represent two separate (independently transmitted and preserved) editions of the same underlying composition. As this composition was discussed in the earlier study on Psalm 14, here we will focus on the unique elements of the version in Ps 53.

The principal theme of the composition is YHWH acting to bring justice against the wicked (and on behalf of the righteous), consisting almost entirely of a description of the wicked. There is an implicit contrast with the righteous at work which is generally characteristic of Wisdom tradition. Structurally and thematically, the Psalm may be divided into three sections:

    • Verses 2-4 [1-3]: A description of the wicked as those who disregard God
    • Verses 5-6 [4-5]: The actions of the wicked against God’s people (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones)
    • Verse 7 [6]: A call for YHWH to act, bringing justice/deliverance for His people

The superscription of Psalm 14 simply refers to it as a composition “belonging to David” (dw]d*l=), while Ps 53 includes the following musical direction: lyK!c=m^ tl^j&m*-lu^. On the term lyK!c=m^ (ma´kîl), which occurs in the heading of 12 other Psalms, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 32. The meaning and significance of the term tl^j&m* is quite unknown. The use of the preposition lu^ suggests that it could refer to a specific melody or mode/style of performance (i.e., “according to…”); it could also conceivably indicate an intended musical instrument for performance (“on…”). The term occurs again in the heading to Psalm 88.

VERSES 2-4 [1-3]

Verse 2 [1]

“A foolish person says in his heart (that)
‘There is no Mightiest (One)!’
They are decayed and show detestable perversion
there is no (one) doing good!”

The initial two couplets are identical with verse 1 of Psalm 14 (cf. notes) with one notable difference: it has lw#u* (“crookedness, perversion”) in the third line, instead of hl*yl!u& (“deeds, actions, works”) in Ps 14.

Verse 3 [2]

“(The) Mightiest looks out from (the) heavens
(down) upon the sons of man,
to see—Is there any (one who is) discerning,
(any one) seeking the Mightiest?”

Verse 3 [2] is essentially identical with Ps 14:2 (notes), the only difference being the Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ (Elohim) for the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) in the opening word.

Verse 4 [3]

All of them have turned back, corrupted as one—
there is no (one) doing good, there is not even one!”

Identical with Ps 14:3 (notes), except for the opening two words, with no real difference in meaning:

    • Ps 14: “They all have turned aside” (rs* lK)h^)
    • Ps 53: “All of them have turned back” (gs* oLK%)

The variation between the similar verbs rWs and gWs illustrates how easily differences and variations can crop up during the transmission of an ancient text.

This verse can either be read as four 2-beat lines (2+2+2+2) or two 4-beat lines (4+4); it is easier to present it visually as the latter.

Verses 5-6[4-5]

Verse 5 [4]

“Do they not know, (the one)s making trouble—
(the one)s eating up His people (as) they eat bread—
(is it) not (the) Mightiest they confront?”

Again, this verse is virtually identical with that of Psalm 14 (v. 4, notes), except for the particle lK* in the first line in Ps 14 (i.e., “all [those] making trouble” vs. “[those] making trouble”). We also have the typical Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ for hwhy in the third line.

Metrically, I view this verse as another 3+2 bicolon that has been expanded, with a parenthetical statement (second line), into a tricolon.

Verse 6 [5]

Verse 6 is markedly different from the corresponding vv. 5-6 of Psalm 14 (notes). This presents an insoluble textual problem for those wishing to isolate the definitive original composition. Almost certainly, something was corrupted during the course of transmission. Here is how Ps 14:5-6 reads:

“There—(see now) the fear (that) they should fear ,
for the Mightiest (is) in the circle of the just;
(and so) the council of the oppressed will bring him [i.e. the wicked] to shame,
for YHWH (is) his [i.e. the righteous’] place of shelter.”

It must be said that the MT of Ps 53:6 [5] seems, at this distance, to be most difficult; some commentators would regard it is as more or less unintelligible (and likely corrupt). Here is how one might conceivably render the lines:

“There—(see) the fear, the fear they would bring!
(But) there was not (any) fear,
for (the) Mightiest has scattered (the) bones of (those) surrounding you,
(and) you put them to shame,
for (the) Mightiest has rejected them.”

Another way of rendering the opening lines is:

“There [i.e. then] they feared a (great) fear,
(such) fear (as) there has not (ever) been”
(cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 35)

It is possible that these two versions (Ps 14 and 53, respectively), each have attempted to make sense of an original text which, at this point, either came to them corrupt or with archaic poetic language that could no longer be understood. Unfortunately, the fragmentary Qumran manuscript 4QPsa provides no help (the text of Psalm 14 in 11QPsc also has a lacuna at this point).

It would probably simplest to opt for Psalm 14:5-6 as representing something close to the original text of the composition, since it would mean that the textual problem (and the corruption) can be located in the garbled text of Ps 53:6. As an example, it is possible to see how the letters of rdb (“in the circle”) could have been misread as rzp (“he scattered”); similarly, note how one might confuse txu (“[the] council of”) with tmxu (“[the] bones of”). There are other words similar in sound or appearance—e.g., –nu* vs. –nj); –shm vs. –sam).

A related theory is that Psalm 14 here was modified (intentionally) to fit within a different socio-religious or literary context (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 38f).

Psalm 14 here emphasizes how the wicked oppress the righteous, and how YHWH, acting as Judge, will ultimately vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. In Psalm 53, a very different line of imagery is found: the wicked are presented as an army besieging God’s people, but their attack will fail and they will meet with a humiliating (military) defeat (perhaps the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib is in mind). In both scenarios, the focus is on the protection YHWH provides for His people (the righteous).

VERSE 7 [6]

“Who will give salvation (to) Yisra’el from (out of) ‚iyyôn?
(It is) in (the) Mightiest turning back the turning back of His people
(that) Ya’aqob will (dance) around (and) Yisra’el will find joy.”

After the radical differences between Psalm 14 and 53 in the previous lines, here verse 7 [6] is virtually identical with Ps 14:7 (notes). The only difference is the Elohist substitution of <yh!l)a$ for the Divine name hwhy in the second line.

The final verse is best read as a 4-beat tricolon, which stands as a final declaration of hope and promise for God’s people. As the rather stilted translation above indicates, it is rather difficult to render literally the syntax and wording of these long (4-beat) lines into readable English.

References above 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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 52 (Part 1)

Psalm 52

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 5-11 [3-9])

This Psalm, like the prior Psalm 51, is part of the so-called ‘Elohist’ Psalter (cf. below), and is also a Davidic Psalm, being attributed in the superscription to David. The historical setting assigned (v. 2) is, however, rather puzzling, referring to events narrated in 1 Samuel 21:8 and 22:6ff. There is little about that narrative background that would apply to the thoughts expressed in the Psalm.

The heading designates Psalm 52 as a lyK!c=m^; the prior Psalms 32, 42, 44, and 45 were similarly described. The precise meaning of this term remains uncertain, but it is 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.

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3+2 couplet format, though here in the first part a 3-beat (3+3) couplet is actually more common.

In terms of a poetic and thematic structure, I am inclined to divide the composition into two parts. The first part (vv. 3-7 [1-5]) contains a polemic diatribe directed at the wicked with their false and deceitful profession of trust in God; this part concludes, it would seem, with an imprecation against the wicked (see below on v. 7). The second part (vv. 8-11 [6-9]) declares the fate of the wicked, and also presents a familiar contrast between the wicked and the righteous—those who are truly faithful to YHWH. The Psalmist, of course, counts himself among the righteous.

Wisdom themes tend to dominate, centered around the contrast between the righteous and the wicked (and their fates). There are also prayer elements in the Psalm, related to the covenant appeal setting that we find in many of the compositions. By emphasizing the faithlessness and deceit of the wicked, the Psalmist uses this point of contrast to affirm his own loyalty to YHWH.

An interesting rhetorical aspect to this Psalm is the juxtaposition of the terms la@ and <yh!l)a$ as Divine titles. la@ (°E~l) occurs in the first part of the Psalm, in connection with the wicked, while <yh!l)a$ (°E_lœhîm) occurs in the second part, connected with the righteous. As an ‘Elohist’ Psalm, many commentators believe that the Divine name hwhy (YHWH) was used in the original composition, but was later replaced by the title <yh!l)a$. This would mean that, originally, the Divine names la@ and hwhy were juxtaposed. There are two ways of explaining the specific association of the title la@ with the wicked here:

    • The wicked have, at best, a nominal and superficial faith in ‘God’ (used as a general designation), rather than a true faith in YHWH and covenant loyalty to Him.
    • The false character of the religion of the wicked is indicated by its association with the Creator El (as understood by the Canaanites), in contrast with a true faith in El-YHWH, the God of Israel.

Israelites and Judeans, having become increasingly familiar with Canaanite religion and culture over the centuries, must have been aware of certain clear differences between the Canaanite conception of the Creator El and the Israelite understanding of El-Yahweh. Interestingly, however, there is scarcely a trace of this sense of conflict in the Old Testament. For the most part, YHWH was identified simply with the Creator (El), and the title la@, though relatively rare, almost always refers to the God of Israel. Here, in Psalm 52, we have one of the only instances in the Old Testament where the title is used in a negative context, being contrasted with the name YHWH (here as Elohim).

For readers who might be new to these studies, a brief explanation of the titles El (la@) and Elohim (<yh!l)a$) may be helpful. The word la@ is a fundamental (and primitive) Semitic term for deity. While the precise meaning and derivation is not entirely certain, the basic meaning would seem to be something like “mighty” —as a divine title, “Mighty (One)”. The plural of la@ is <yl!a@, “mighty (one)s”, but this is only rarely used in the Old Testament; much more common is the plural form <yh!l)a$, which is an expanded form to match the triconsonantal pattern of words (i.e., hla instead of la) that is more common in Classical Hebrew. As a divine title, <yh!l)a$ would literally mean “Mighty (One)s”, rendered generally as “Gods” (or “gods”); however, as applied to El-Yahweh, in an Israelite monotheistic context, the plural form is best understood as an intensive (or possibly comprehensive) plural—i.e., “Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier studies on the names El and Elohim.

Verses 3-7 [1-5]

Verse 3 [1]

“(For) what do you give shout with evil, O strong (one),
(you) ‘loyal’ of (the) Mighty (One), all the day planning disasters?”

The polemic begins with a sarcastic tone, describing the wicked person by the descriptive titles “strong (one)” (roBG]) and “good [i.e. loyal] (one) of °E~l.” As indicated above, I translate the name la@ (°E~l) according to its fundamental meaning, “Mighty (One)”, which is loosely parallel in meaning here to roBG] (“strong [one]”). However, la@ refers to God, to the Creator Deity (El-Yahweh). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 13) in vocalizing dsj (MT ds#j#) as dys!j& (spelled defectively). The expression la@ ds!j& means “loyal one of El”, which may have a double-meaning here: (1) it is used in a sarcastic sense for the false religious devotion of the wicked, and/or (2) the loyalty of the wicked corresponds to the corrupt/idolatrous understanding of the Creator God by the Canaanites (El vs. YHWH).

Part of the “shout” (vb ll^h*) given by the wicked likely involves a boast regarding his own religious profession of faith and loyalty to God. The actions of the wicked belie his/her supposed faith and prove it to be false. It is made “with evil” (hu*r*B=), probably best understood as “with evil (intent)”. Whatever the wicked person may say or claim, he/she intends to bring about disastrous things. The noun hW`h^, here in the plural, literally means “(down)fall”. The verb bv^j* reveals the true intention of the wicked, the planning/plotting of evil.

With some reluctance, I have included the first two words of v. 4 [2] as part of the opening couplet (cf. Dahood, p. 12-3), yielding a 4-beat (4+4) bicolon.

Verse 4 [2]

“Your tongue, like a sharpened razor,
is (busy) working treachery.”

With this second couplet, the normative 3-beat (here 3+2) meter of the Psalm begins. The deceitfulness and false religious confession of the wicked person is described more pointedly here, with the image of a tongue that is sharp like a razor (ru^T^). With his speech, the wicked person is working deceit and treachery. The noun hY`m!r= (“deceit”) can carry the stronger meaning of “treachery” —that is, against the covenant, showing disloyalty to YHWH and intending evil against the righteous.

Verse 5 [3]

“You love (what is) evil more than (the) good,
falsehood more than speaking (what is) right.”

This couplet well-summarizes the character of the wicked, and also, implicitly, establishes the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The comparative use of the preposition /m! (“from”) essentially has to be translated in English as “more than”. The noun rq#v# (“[acting] false, falsehood, deceit”) is contrasted with speaking “(what is) right” (qd#x#), a specific manifestation of the more general contrast between “evil” (ur*) and “good” (bof). Again the focus is on the speech of the wicked, with the relation between what is actually spoken (which may seem good) and the underlying intent (which is evil). That is why the deceitfulness of the wicked continues to be emphasized.

Verse 6 [4]

“You love all (those) words devouring (the truth),
(with your) tongue of treachery!”

The deceitfulness and treachery (hm*r=m!) of the wicked person’s speaking is here colorfully summarized as “all words of devouring” (ul^B# yr@b=D!-lK*). The root ul^B* (I) refers to a mouth that opens up and swallows something. This language is often used in Biblical poetry, applied to the ravenous mouth (and appetite) of Death, and this same allusion is probably also intended here. The deceit of the wicked person leads to death—both for his victims, but also, more importantly, for himself. The immediate point of reference, however, is probably to the idea of the wicked person’s mouth/speech ‘devouring’ all truth and rightness.

Verse 7 [5]

“(So) also (the) Mighty (One) will bring you down to the end,
He will take hold of you and tear you away from your tent,
and will (up)root you from (the) land of (the) living.”

This first part of the Psalm concludes with a dramatic declaration, in a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, of the fate of the wicked. The death of the wicked was already alluded to in v. 6 [4] (cf. above), but here it is described clearly and graphically. Such references in Old Testament poetry tend to have a double-meaning: both the ordinary sense of physical death, and the idea of a death that is permanent and final (with no hope of a blessed afterlife).

The initial particle <G~, “(so) also”, allows the Psalmist to express the idea that the fate of the wicked person (in death) will correspond to his/her wicked conduct (in life). Just as, through deceitful words, the wicked would “swallow (down)” what is right, so also, in the end, God will “bring (them) down” (vb Jt^n`) to the realm of Death. The two-fold aspect of death, noted above, is expressed through the final two lines:

    • The ordinary aspect of death—i.e., being torn away from one’s “tent” (home and, figuratively, one’s body)
    • The second/final aspect of death—being torn up (lit. uprooted) from the “land of the living”, from the possibility of any future life.

Gunkel (Die Psalmen [1926], p. 230) claimed that the imperfect verb forms here in v. 7 are not simple declarative statements about what will happen, but are precative—expressing a wish for something to happen (cf. also Dahood, p. 14). There are many such imprecatory sections in the Psalms, which essentially serve as curse-formulas; following this sense, the force of the translation would be: “May (the) Mighty (One) bring you down…[etc].” Such a curse-formula would be fitting to the polemic of the Psalm, and would make for an appropriate conclusion to the first part.

The reference to the “Mighty (One),” °E~l (la@), matches the earlier reference in v. 3 [1] (cf. above), thus framing the first part of the Psalm. The first occurrence of la@ seems to been intended to highlight the false religious confession of the wicked; however, in terms of the judgment rendered against the wicked, here la@ functions in a manner consistent with the true God (YHWH). To be sure, in Israelite religious thought, la@ and hwhy are different names for the same God, though, as noted above, la@ is the more general title, used throughout the Semitic world, and could also apply to a false/distorted view of God (as with the Canaanite conception of the Creator El).

The first part of the Psalm closes with a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker. However, the presence of the marker itself really cannot be used to determine the structure of the Psalm (note the earlier occurrence of the marker after v. 5 [3]). In any case, the precise purpose and significance of these markers remains uncertain, other than that they relate to the performing tradition of the Psalms, and seem to indicate a musical pause or (possibly) a shift in tone or key, etc. They do not appear to have been applied consistently, nor is it particularly likely that they have been consistently preserved in the text as it has come down to us.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms II: 51-100, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 17 (1968).


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 50 (Part 2)

Psalm 50, continued

The Oracle, Part 2 (vv. 16-23)

In the second part of the prophetic oracle that forms the core of Psalm 50 (cf. the previous study for discussion of the introduction and Part 1), YHWH turns His address to those among the people who are the cause for Him bringing this accusation and charge against Israel. The principal accusation is that many people perform the requirements of the covenant (as outlined in the Torah), fulfilling the letter of the Law, even though their thoughts and actions are otherwise wicked.

Verse 16

“And to the wicked (the) Mightiest says:
What (use is it) for you to recount my engraved (law)s,
and (that) you take up my agreement upon your mouth?”

The people whom YHWH is addressing are characterized as “wicked” (uv*r*). We do not know what percentage of the population fits this description, and/or to what extent it applies to the Israelite people as a whole. The judicial setting of the Psalm makes clear that YHWH has called the entire people into judgment; at the same time, v. 15 would seem to establish a contrast between righteous and wicked persons. In the Old Testament Scriptures, one often cannot draw a definite line between the individual and the wider community—the action of the individual affects the community as a whole.

The “engraved (law)s” (<yQ!j%) are essentially identical with the regulations and statutes of the Torah, in a comprehensive sense—beginning with the “ten words” (Decalogue) which, according to the traditional narrative, were actually engraved in stone. A person who “recounts” them (vb rp^s*) knows them well enough to quote or recite them, and thus has the terms of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, or ‘covenant’) “upon” (lu^) his mouth. YHWH declares that there is little value in the wicked person knowing the Torah and fulfilling its requirements (esp. in terms of the sacrificial offering)— “what (good is it) for you…?”

Verse 17

“Indeed, you have hated (my) instruction,
and threw down my words behind you!”

The initial w-conjunction, if original, should be understood as emphatic—i.e., “indeed, you have…”. Even though the wicked may recite the Torah, such a person actually hates (vb an@v*) the instruction from YHWH. The verbal noun rs*Wm is used (from the root rs^y`), emphasizing the idea of corrective education and discipline, but is more or less synonymous with hr*oT (Torah, the “Instruction”). In reality, the wicked person “throws down” (or “throws away,” vb El^v*) God’s words in back of him, thus disregarding them completely, even as he may fulfill certain of the requirements accurately enough.

Verse 18

“When you see a thief, even (so) you are pleased with him,
and with (those) committing adultery, you would (have) a part.”

The way in which the wicked “throws away” the words and instruction of YHWH is described here in v. 18. The irregular 4+3 rhythm creates a certain kind of poetic tension that is appropriate to the moment. The wicked person does not necessarily commit the crimes mentioned here (theft, adultery); indeed, the wording in v. 17 suggests that the person may actually avoid such crimes in practice, but in his heart he is pleased by them, indicating that he would perhaps be willing to do the same. There is thus wickedness in one’s heart and intention, even if the regulations of the Torah are being fulfilled.

The opening particle (<a!) is usually translated in a conditional sense, “if…”, but here “when…” is more appropriate to the context.

Verse 19

“You mouth casts (forms) in evil,
and your tongue joins together deceit.”

In addition to the condition of his heart, the wicked person demonstrates his true nature through evil speaking. This couplet (returning to the 3+3 meter) actually builds upon the prior (v. 18), by indicating how through speech (mouth and tongue) a person can give shape to the evil in the heart. The verb jl^v* means “send (out)”, but Dahood (p. 309) notes a separate root, attested (albeit rarely) in Ugaritic, meaning “forge, cast (in metal)”. I have tentatively adopted his suggestion, based on the idea that seems to be expressed here, viz. of giving shape to evil.

The verb in the second line, dm^x* (“join, bind”) fits with this same line of imagery, even to a possible allusion to metal-working (forming a necklace or bracelet, etc). The sense would be that, through speaking, a person “joins (welds?) together” pieces of evil, giving them a distinct and insidious form. The deception (hm*r=m!) brought about by the wicked person could be taken as including the deceptive and hypocritical way that he fulfills the Torah regulations, all the while his heart is full of evil.

Verse 20

“You sit with your brother (and) speak (evil),
with (the) son of your mother you give (out) blame.”

In the first line of the MT (supported by the Qumran MS 4QPsc), there are two verbs: “you sit…(and) speak”. This perhaps captures the sense of deception and hypocrisy of the wicked person, who sits with his neighbor (apparently as a friend) and yet speaks evil to and/or about him. The evil nature of the speaking has to be implied from the context, since the verb is simply rb^D* (“speak”). It has been suggested (e.g., by Kraus, p. 487-8) that MT bvt (bv@T@, “you sit”) is a corruption (through reversal of letters) of original tvb (tv#B), “shame, shameful thing”); this is certainly possible, and, if correct, results in a more precise parallelism for the couplet:

“Shame(fully) with your brother do you speak,
with (the) son of your mother you give (out) blame.”

The parallelism of “brother…son of mother” may be intended to include both one’s neighbor (“brother” in a generic sense) and actual blood-relative.

Verse 21

“These (thing)s you did, and should I keep silent?
You imagine (in your) fallen (way)s (that) I am like you,
but I will prove you (wrong) and lay (it) out before your eyes!”

This tricolon, with loose 3-beat (3+3+3) meter in the MT, is fraught with certain difficulties, though the general meaning is clear enough. The second line, in particular, is problematic, with the odd construction hy#h=a# toyh$ at the center. Possibly it is intended as an instance of the cognate infinitive + imperfect used in an emphatic sense; the meaning would thus be something like:

“(Do) you imagine (that) I am at all like you?”

The use of a construct infinitive to achieve this would be curious. Dahood (p. 310) offers the intriguing suggestion that toyh should be read as toYh^ (rather than MT toyh$), as an orthographic variant of toWh^, plural of hW`h^ (“desire”, a byform of hw`a*), cf. Job 6:2; it would thus mean “(evil) desires”. However, the noun hW`h^ more properly denotes a “falling”, i.e., falling into an evil condition, etc. Perhaps the clearest parallel is in Ps 52:11[9], where the idea of wicked/evil heart is in view; such wicked persons have fallen into evil ways and are on the path to destruction (on hW`h^ in this sense, as characteristic of the wicked, cf. also Prov 10:3; 11:6; Mic 7:3).

In the final line, the judicial setting of the Psalm comes more into focus, as YHWH indicates that He will prove his case against the wicked, laying out (vb Er^u*) all the facts right in front of them (“before your eyes”).

Verse 22

“Discern this, you (who are) forgetting (the) Mightiest,
lest I tear you off (and there) be none snatching (you back)!”

The harshness of this couplet is expressed, in part, by its irregular (and rather awkward) 4+3 meter. The wording/phrasing also is cumbersome, giving to the whole verse a kind of poetic tension that reflects the coming judgment. The implication is that YHWH has now made His case (cf. the last line of v. 21), and the judgment against the people (the wicked, in particular) awaits.

At this moment, the prophetic oracle urges the people to repent, indicating that there is still time to experience a reprieve from the sentence of judgment that is about to be handed down. There is hope that the wicked (“[those] forgetting the Mightiest”) will come to understand (vb /yB!, “discern”) what YHWH Himself has presented to them, and act appropriately, repenting of their evil ways. If they do not repent, then God will “tear them off” (vb [r^f*); possibly the allusion is to being “torn apart” by a wild animal, etc, but I think the primary motif is being ripped out, like a flower or plant plucked out of the ground. There is a bit of conceptual wordplay involved here with the verb lx^n`, which has a similar denotation (“pull out, snatch [away]”), but here (as often) in the sense of “rescue”. If YHWH “tears out” the wicked soul, there will be no one who can then “pull out” the condemned person from His hand. The judgment (and punishment) is irrevocable, and results in the ultimate death/destruction of the soul of the wicked.

Verse 23

“(The one) slaughtering (with) a declaration will be honored by me,
and (the one) <complete> (in the) path I will make him drink
from (the) salvation of (the) Mightiest!”

These concluding lines of the Psalm return to the theme from the first part (discussed in the previous study)—how the performance of the sacrificial offerings is of no value if the ritual is not accompanied by a pure and upright heart. This is a relatively common theme in the Prophets, the most noteworthy example being in Isa 1:12-15, but even more striking as a message of judgment is the harsh polemic in Jeremiah 7 (v. 11 is alluded to by Jesus in the Synoptic version of the Temple ‘cleansing’ scene, Mk 11:17 par).

Here in Part 2 of the oracle the focus was on the Torah regulations in general, but we can fairly assume that observance of the ritual offerings is primarily in view. This is also the emphasis in Jeremiah: the sacrificial offerings will not be accepted by YHWH while the land is full of wickedness and injustice. Even though the wicked will face their own (individual) judgment, their behavior also corrupts (and brings judgment upon) the community as a whole.

In verse 14, YHWH made clear that the kind of sacrifice (lit. “[ritual] slaughter”, vb jb^z`) He truly wants is not the slaughtering of animals in blind observance of the ritual, but rather a declaration (hd*oT) of faith and devotion that comes from the heart. The same wording is repeated here. Only the person who fulfills the Torah obligations with a pure heart (and right intention) has truly been faithful to the covenant and will be accepted by God. I follow Dahood (p. 310) in reading ynndbky as a passive (Pual) verb form: “…will be honored by me”. The faithful and loyal vassal is honored by his Sovereign.

This show of honor includes the traditional imagery of feasting at the Lord’s table. I tentatively follow Dahood also in pointing wnara as a (Hiphil) imperfect from the rare root ary II (= hry), “pour, water” —i.e., WNa#r=a), “I will give (to) drink” (cf. Prov 11:25). The idea of drinking from God’s salvation is quite appropriate given the idiom of the “cup of salvation” in Ps 116:13 (cp. Isa 12:3). The feasting-motif also plays on the concept of the sacrificial offerings as something that God would consume.

There is a two-fold significance to the honor shown by YHWH to his faithful/loyal servants. On the one hand, the covenant blessings apply to this life (cf. Deut 28:1-14, etc), and include fruitfulness and plenty (food and drink, etc); at the same time, feasting at YHWH’s table certainly alludes to the blessed afterlife. The later tradition of the eschatological (and Messianic) banquet simply shifts the focus of the blessed feasting from the afterlife (in heaven) to the end of the current Age.

One final textual note: the first two words in the MT (confirmed by 4QPsc) read Er#D# <c*w+, apparently to be understood as “and (he who) sets (his) path (in order?)”. The wording is rather awkward, and it has been suggested that the text should be emended to Er#D# <t*w+, “and (the one) complete (in the) path” (cf. Kraus, p. 488). This seems preferable, given the Wisdom parallels in Job 4:6; Prov 13:6, etc, with the expression as characteristic of the righteous and denoting those who are faithful to the covenant with YHWH. The term <T* also connotes purity, integrity, and blamelessness, and is used (along with the related verb <m^T*) rather frequently in the Psalms.

By all accounts, the last two words of v. 23 do not fit the metrical pattern. It has been suggested that the final <yh!l)a$ is secondary and should be omitted (cf. Kraus, p. 488). To be sure, the excessive length of the final line would be alleviated if a reading “…my salvation” were adopted in place of “…(the) salvation of (the) Mightiest [i.e. God]”. However, this would still leave an irregular and cumbersome 3+4 couplet. It is perhaps best to treat the final two words as a short (2-beat) supplemental line (to the 3+3 couplet), which, while it disrupts the rhythm of the couplet, serves to punctuate the Psalm, bringing it to a close, with the recognition that all salvation and blessing comes from God (YHWH).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 1)

Psalm 37

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 18-19); 11QPsd (vv. 1-4)

This is another acrostic Psalm (cf. the earlier studies on Pss 9-10 and 34), and wisdom-poem. Many of the Psalms have wisdom-elements, or were influenced by Wisdom tradition; however, here the couplets of Ps 37 essentially take the form of individual proverbs. These are grouped together by subject and theme, but are otherwise only loosely connected, much as we see in the book of Proverbs.

The central theme of this Psalm is the traditional contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The wicked are treated here in more general terms, and not depicted so much as hostile adversaries of the righteous, the way they are in many of the Psalms.

The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another composition “belonging to David”.

Verses 1-11

In the first section of the Psalm, which I demarcate as covering verses 1-11, the Psalmist functions as a sage or philosopher (i.e., man of wisdom) who gives wisdom instruction to the righteous. The instruction deals with how the righteous should respond to the apparent prosperity of the wicked in this life. This is a common motif in wisdom literature, the flip side of the question regarding why the righteous suffer. Both the suffering of the righteous and the success/prosperity of the wicked are incongruous with the justice of God, and, indeed, would seem to call that justice into question.

The Psalmist instructs the righteous not to respond to this with anger or resentment; rather, they should be patient, and continue to trust in YHWH. In good time, the justice of God will be realized; eventually, the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished—even if only through their death. This latter point suggests an afterlife that awaits for the righteous, in which they will experience the blessings of God.

Verses 1-2

a “Do not [la^] burn (with anger) at the (one)s causing evil,
(and) do not (bur)n with desire at (the) doers of wrong;
for like (the) green (grass) they will soon wilt,
and like (the) green sprout they will wither.”

These two couplets make for a fine proverb, drawing upon a familiar illustration from nature (cp. Matthew 6:30 par; James 1:10-11; 1 Peter 1:24 [citing Isa 40:6-8]). The wicked who prosper in this life are like the luxurious green grass, etc, of the field, which, in its time, will wither and die. For this reason, the righteous should respond to this situation with neither anger nor jealousy.

Stylistically, we see how the poet is able to express the same idea with slightly different vocabulary and syntax. Note, for example, the two different kinds of verbs in v. 1: “burn (with anger)” (hr*j*) and “(bur)n with desire” (an`q*). Or, note the variation in the parallel participles used to characterize the wicked: “(one)s causing evil” (<yu!r@m=) and “doers of wrong” (hl*w+u^ yc@u)). Similarly, in the second couplet, the idea of “green grass” is expressed two ways, first with a single word (ryx!j*) and then with a word pair (av#D# qr#y#); to balance the number of words in the first line, an adverbial modifier (hr*h@m=) is added.

Verses 3-4

b “Place (your) trust [jf^B=] in YHWH and do (what is) good,
dwell (in the) land and graze (on its) abundance;
and look for (all) your delight(s) upon YHWH,
and He will give to you (the) requests of your heart.”

If the first proverb (in vv. 1-2) instructs the righteous on what they should not do, the instruction here in vv. 3-4 tells them what they should do. Rather than concern themselves with the success enjoyed by the wicked, they should focus on enjoying all that YHWH provides. The first line of each couplet has a covenant theme, emphasizing how the righteous, as loyal/faithful servants of YHWH, will be rewarded with good things. The verb jf^B* brings this out, since it signifies both the seeking of protection, as well as the placing of one’s trust in that protection; this verb has been used a number of times in the Psalms we have studied (cf. 4:6; 9:11; 13:6; 21:8; 22:5-6, 10; 25:2; 26:1; 27:3; 28:7; 31:7, 15; 32:10; 33:21).

The “land” (Jr#a#) refers to the blessing of this life, and also alludes to the blessing (for the righteous) in the life to come. On the motif of grazing/feeding (vb hu*r*), blending the herding imagery with the covenant theme of eating at the Lord’s table, cf. especially how this is expressed in Psalm 23.

I am inclined to read MT hnwma, as an alternate form of hnwmh (vocalized, hn`omh&, “abundance”); on this, cf. the discussion by Dahood (p. 228), who cites the variation /omh*//oma* in 2 Kings 25:11; Jer 52:15, as well as the LXX translation here in v. 3 (plou/to$, “riches”).

Verses 5-6

g “Turn [loG] your path upon YHWH,
place (your) trust upon Him
and He will make (it good);
He will bring out your justice like the (sun)light,
and your judgment like the double-bright (noon).”

The meter of these verses as they stand is irregular; vv. 5-6 would have to be read, apparently, as a 3+2+2 tricolon followed by a 3+2 couplet. In any case, the sense of the proverb builds upon the two previous (cf. above). By trusting in YHWH, the righteous will ultimately experience His justice—expressed through the nouns qd#x# and fP*v=m!. By “justice” here is meant the resolution of the incongruity whereby the wicked prosper in this life, while the righteous experience a measure of suffering and deprivation (cf. the characteristic “oppressed” in v. 11, below). The justice is established on the righteous person’s behalf (“He [YHWH] will bring out your justice”). It will be made to shine out brightly, just like the great light (roa) of the sun when it is at its “double-bright” point (<y]r*h&x*) in the noon-time sky.

Verse 7

d “Be silent [<oD] before YHWH and turn (with longing) for Him;
do not burn at (the one) making his path break through,
at (the) man making his plan (come to pass).”

This tricolon proverb essentially restates the message of the first two proverbs (in vv. 1-2, 3-4)—the righteous should be patient, trusting in YHWH, and not concerning themselves with how the wicked may prosper in this life. The motif in the first line (7a) is not entirely clear; the combination of the verbs <m^D* (“cease, rest, be quiet”) and lWj (“twist, turn, whirl”) is curious. Perhaps the idea is that the righteous should trust in YHWH at all times, both in their resting and in activity (the ‘twists and turns’). On the other hand, since lWj can refer to the twisting/writhing of a woman in labor, the combination may be intended to suggest the behavior of a dutiful wife, whose desire and attention is constantly focused on her husband (and the covenant bond of marriage).

Verses 8-9

h “Let go [[r#h#] from (the flaring) nostril and leave (that) burning,
do not let (yourself) burn, (or) surely (it will lead) to doing evil;
for (the one)s doing evil shall (all) be cut off,
but (the) callers on YHWH, they will possess (the) land.”

The fundamental message of vv. 1-11 is repeated here again, but with a sterner warning for the righteous not to be drawn into anger at the apparent injustice of things. Here the “burning” (hm*j@, vb hr*j*) clearly refers to anger, expressed as it is through the traditional idiom of the flaring “nostril” ([a^). The righteous are to “let go of” (vb hp*r*) any such impulse to anger, and must “leave” it behind (vb bz~u*). To follow through on the angry impulse will surely (Ea^ [note the wordplay with [a^]) lead to the righteous committing evil (and thus becoming evil-doers themselves).

On the theme of the righteous possessing the land, cf. below on verse 11. The participle <yw]q) can be understood as either “waiting” (i.e., hoping, trusting) or “calling” (on YHWH), depending on which verbal root hwq is discerned here. Either meaning would fit the context, but the expression “callers (i.e., those who call) on YHWH” seems more appropriate as a defining characteristic of the righteous. For more on the linguistic question, cf. Dahood (pp. 121-2, 228) and the earlier study (on Ps 19:5).

Verses 10-11

w “But again [douw+] a little (time) and (the) wicked will not be,
and (if) you think on his place of standing, no one will be (there);
but (the) oppressed (one)s will possess the land (instead),
and shall take delight upon (the) extent of (their) fulfillment.”

The two couplets in this proverb are among the most difficult to translate of the entire Psalm. However, the message is clear enough, for it states emphatically that the wicked will ultimately perish. This need not mean anything more than that they will die in their time; on the other hand, it may imply a violent, unusual, or otherwise untimely death. The Psalms variously refer to both fates for the wicked, indicating that, in either case, it represents the enactment of God’s judgment. The negative particle /y]a^ is used twice in verse 10, emphasizing that the wicked will no longer be (i.e., will not exist). If an untimely death is meant, then it is their place on earth that becomes empty, to be taken over by the righteous. If, on the other hand, the reference is to death itself, then the contrast (i.e., what the righteous inherits) implies existence in a blessed afterlife.

Probably the latter is intended, in which case, the context of the afterlife Judgment is primarily in view. Wisdom tradition drew upon the ancient background of the afterlife Judgment-scene in a number of important ways. For this fundamental background in the Psalms, cf. my earlier study on Psalm 1, and the related articles in the series on the Beatitudes. Indeed, in Jesus’ Beatitudes, he makes a declaration quite similar to that here in v. 11a; one might even say that Matt 5:5 is a quotation of the LXX of this verse:

    • oi( de\ praei=$ klhronomh/sousin gh=n
      “but the meek (one)s will receive (the) earth as (their) lot” (v. 11a LXX)
    • oi( prai=$klhronomh/sousin th\n gh=n
      “the meek (one)s…they will receive the earth as (their) lot” (Matt 5:5)

The adjective wn`u* (“pressed [down], oppressed”) is translated by prau+/$ (“meek, mild, gentle”), in the sense of being “low(ly)”. The Hebrew term wnu/ynu is frequently used to describe the righteous; and, while such an identification of the righteous with those who are oppressed may seem overly simplistic to modern readers, it is very much part of the Old Testament tradition. Early Christians were greatly influenced by this °A_n¹wîm (<yw]n`a&) piety, and we can see traces of it throughout the New Testament (especially in the teachings of Jesus, and at many other points in the Gospels).

Justice will be made complete (<lv) for the righteous when they come to possess this “land” as their inheritance. The root <lv has a rich and extensive semantic range, which cannot be reduced (as it often is) to the concept of “peace”. The primary meaning of the noun <olv* is “completion, fulfillment”, and is often used in the context of the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel (the righteous ones). Each side is obligated to fulfill the terms of the binding agreement; for Israel, this means continued loyalty to YHWH (primarily through obedience to the Torah), while YHWH is obligated, as long as Israel remains faithful, to provide them with His blessings and protection. This covenant-fufillment concept informs the afterlife picture here in the Psalm. This is especially so, since one of the principal benefits conferred by the sovereign (i.e., YHWH) to his most trusted vassals (i.e., the righteous) involves a patrimonial property—a piece of land which the person inherits, and which then comes to be passed down within his family, from one generation to the next.

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





Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 36

Psalm 36

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 1, 3, 5-7, 9 [1-2, 4-6, 8]); 11QPsd (v. 13 [12])

This Psalm contains many of the themes we have encountered in these studies, deftly blending Wisdom-elements (esp. in the opening verses, vv. 2-5) with those of a prayer-Psalm, mixing praise and lament—thanksgiving to YHWH for deliverance, and a plea made to God by the Psalmist in the face of danger from the wicked. Thematically, the Psalm may be outlined as follows:

Clearly the hymn section in vv. 6-11 makes up the core of the Psalm, with the wisdom sections in vv. 2-5, 12-13 functioning as a prologue and epilogue, respectively, to the hymn. Those sections emphasize the conduct (and fate) of the wicked, contrasted, implicitly, with that of the righteous.

The meter of the Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, with a few irregularities. The superscription marks the Psalm, in typical fashion, as a composition “belonging to David”. The added phrase “to/for (the) servant of YHWH” is presumably intended as an epithet of David; why it is included for this particular composition is not clear (cp. Ps 18:1).

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“An utterance of rebellion (comes) to (the) wicked
in the midst of his heart;
(and) there is no fear of (the) Mightiest
at the front of his eyes!”

The opening verse is comprised of a pair of 3+2 couplets; it establishes the wisdom-theme of contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The contrast is implicit, with only the behavior of the wicked being described here in vv. 2-5. It is a powerful statement regarding the condition of the wicked person’s heart (bl@), how it is inspired to commit rebellion (uv^P#) against YHWH. By this is meant violation of the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel. The noun <a%n+ (“utterance”) is often used in a prophetic context, and would seem here to allude to a kind of evil inspiration. The suffixed noun yB!l! should be read as preserving the older y– 3rd person singular suffix—i.e., “his heart,” rather than “my heart”.

The parallelism in the couplets is:

    • evil inspiration of rebellion | in his heart
    • no fear of God (“the Mightiest”) | in front of his eyes

Rebellion against YHWH is thus related to the lack of proper fear (honor, respect, etc) that the vassal should show to his sovereign, who, in this instance, happens to be the Creator and Ruler of the universe.

Verse 3 [2]

“He makes (it seem) smooth for him in his eyes,
yet his crookedness is found to be hateful.”

The contrast in this couplet is between the crookedness (/ou*) of the wicked person’s behavior, and the smoothness (vb ql^j* II) with which he regards it. A kind of self-deception (or self-delusion) is involved, no doubt a result of the evil ‘inspiration’ (<a%n+) that has taken hold in his heart and mind (v. 2). There is a bit of alliterative wordplay here between /y]u^ (±ayin,”eye”) and /ou* (±¹wœn, “crookedness”).

Verse 4 [3]

“The words of his mouth (bring) trouble and deceit,
he refuses to act sensibly, to do (what is) good.”

This is a fine wisdom couplet, juxtaposing the words of the wicked person and his actions. The parallel may be summarized as follows:

    • his words (lit. “…of his mouth”) lead to
      • “trouble” (/w#a*) and “deceit” (hm*r=m!)
    • his actions (implied by the hiphil verbs in the line) are brought about by his refusing to
      • “act sensibly” and “do (what is) good”

The verb ld^j* (I) has the basic meaning of “stop (doing something)”; it can be used in the relatively soft sense of “fail, be lacking”, or in the harsher sense of “neglect, forsake, refuse (to do something)”. The latter connotation is more appropriate as a characterization of the wicked. Dahood (p. 219) points to the separate root ld^j* (II), meaning “be fat, plump, thick”; fatness can function as an idiom for being unintelligent, dull, etc; in English we might say that person is “too thick to realize” something.

Verse 5 [4]

“He plans trouble upon his place of laying (down),
he takes (his) stand upon a path of no good,
(the way of) evil he does not reject!”

This opening section of the Psalm concludes with a slightly irregular 3-beat tricolon. The first two lines exhibit an interlocking synonymous parallelism with contrasting images—i.e., “laying down” | “standing”, “place of laying” | “(place of) stepping” (i.e., path). The synonymous aspect is brought in the negative character of the wicked person’s behavior: “plans trouble” | “path of no good”. An additional (synonymous and synthetic) parallelism is created between the second and third lines:

    • he stands on a path of no good
    • he does not reject (the way of) evil

Verses 6-11 [5-10]

Verses 6-7 [5-6]

“YHWH, in the heavens (is) your goodness,
your firmness (is) unto (the) clouds;
your justice (is) like (the) mighty mountains,
your judgments (like the) great deep!
Man and beast (alike) you keep safe!”

I have isolated vv. 6-7 as a unit, comprised of two parallel (3-beat) couplets, followed by a climactic line that emphasizes YHWH’s providential care over creation. Each of the first four lines exalts a particular attribute of YHWH, relating it to a geographic/cosmic point of reference. The first two attributes emphasize God’s faithfulness and loyalty; the last two His justice.

The first two corresponding geographical points refer to the heavens (that is, the expanse of the sky) above; the last two points represent the furthest limits/boundaries of the earth below—the high mountains and the depths of the sea. The expression la@ yr@r=h^ literally means “mountains of (the) mighty”, and could be rendered as “mountains of God [i.e., the Mighty One]”; however, in this case, “mighty mountains” better fits the geographic context, as well as the parallel with “great deep”.

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH, how precious (is) your goodness!
(The) mighty (one)s and sons of men (alike),
they find shelter in the shade of your wings.”

These three lines follow the five lines of vv. 6-7, and are similar in focus. Once again the “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH is extolled, praising his faithfulness and loyalty, and alluding to his providential care over creation. The adjective rq*y` denotes something of great worth and value, indicating especially that it is deemed precious by others.

I follow commentators such as Dahood (p. 221) who take the divine name YHWH (hwhy) as belonging to the start of v. 8, rather than to the end of v. 7 (above). This division is much to be preferred, both in terms of the rhythm and thematic integrity of the lines. Similarly, I would assign the plural noun <yh!l)a$ to the start of the second line, paired with the construct plural <d*a* yn@B= (“sons of man”). In this case, it would seem that <yh!l)a$ should be read as a true plural (“mighty [one]s”), and not as the intensive plural used as a title for YHWH (“Mightiest [One]”, i.e., “God”). In verse 7, the parallel was “man and beast” (i.e., humans and animals); now, in v. 8, we have a comparable parallel, “mighty ones and sons of men”, which could mean either (a) “chieftains/leaders and the people at large”, or (b) “heavenly/divine beings [i.e. Angels] and human beings”. The latter, I think, is more likely, and is in keeping with the typical meaning of the Semitic root la.

There are a number of passages in ancient Hebrew poetry where El-Yahweh is described as a bird. While originally this imagery came from a general association of God with the expanse of the sky (i.e., a bird in flight with outstretched wings), and, secondarily, with the deity’s control over the sky (esp. the storm/rains), the Old Testament passages tend to focus on the protective aspect of a (parent) bird, guarding its young and keeping them safe in the protection of its wings. That is very much the idea expressed here (cf. also Exod 19:4; Deut 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; 57:1; 61:4; 91:4, etc). The reference from the Song of Moses (Deut 32:11) is interesting in that it shares with verse 8 here the context of a juxtaposition between heavenly and human beings (Deut 32:8-9 LXX and 4QDeutj).

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“They are watered from (the) fat of your house,
and (the) stream of your delights you make them drink;
for with you is (the) fountain of life,
(and) in your light we shall see (the) light.”

The righteous enjoy the blessings and reward of drinking from the table of their Sovereign, YHWH, in His house. This motif draws upon the covenant idea, but also incorporates agricultural and nature-imagery, of plants and animals drinking (i.e. being watered) from the rainfall and rivers. This same combination of images can be seen in Psalm 23:2-3, 5. The richness that God provides in his house is referred to here as “fat” (/v#D#), though the English term does not quite convey the proper (positive) sense of the Hebrew word. This richness means that the righteous (along with the heavenly/divine beings) who ‘eat and drink’ in God’s house are fully satisfied; the verb hw`r* denotes being saturated with liquid.

The first line of the couplet in v. 10 continues this motif of drinking from the house of God, adding the expression, familiar from Wisdom literature, of a “fountain of life” (Prov 10:11; 13:14; 14:27; 16:22). While the expression in those passages refers to wisdom, the basic image of a life-giving fountain came to be used in an eschatological sense in the later Prophetic writings (Joel 3:18; Zech 13:1). Jesus draws upon this line of Old Testament and Jewish tradition in John 4:13; 7:37-38, and the eschatological aspect is featured prominently in the closing vision of the book of Revelation (22:1-2).

The final line is more difficult to fit in the context of vv. 9-10, with it sudden shift to a light-motif. However, both water and light imagery are used frequently in Wisdom literature, and in the Psalms, and they are natural representations of the life-giving power of God, and are characteristic of the divine/heavenly realm. In all likelihood, the sudden emphasis on light and seeing reflects the strong influence of Wisdom-tradition on the Psalms.

Verse 11 [10]

“Draw out your goodness for (the one)s knowing you,
and your justice for (the one)s straight of heart!”

This couplet concludes the central section of the Psalm with a dramatic request for YHWH to extend (“draw out,” vb Ev^m*, i.e., continue to demonstrate) his goodness and faithfulness to the righteous. The righteous are described here in traditional terms as the “ones who know” YHWH, and as the “straight of heart”. The first expression emphasizes religious adherence to the covenant-bond, while the second emphasizes the ethical/moral aspect. The Psalmist, of course, would identify himself with the righteous ones, those who are faithful and loyal to YHWH.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

Verse 12 [11]

“May (the) foot of (the) high (and mighty) not come (upon) me,
and (the) hand of (the) wicked (one)s, let it not shake me!”

The wicked (<yu!v*r=) are often characterized as being (or thinking of themselves as) “high” (root ha*G`), meant in a decidedly negative or pejorative sense; in English we might use the expression “high and mighty”. The noun hw`a&G~ can specifically connote arrogance and pride (i.e., ‘haughtiness’). The Psalmist’s prayer here relates to the protection that YHWH provides for those who are faithful/loyal to him (cf. on vv. 7-8 above).

Verse 13 [12]

“See! (the one)s making trouble (shall) fall—
being thrown down, they will not be able to rise!”

The final couplet should be seen as an imprecation, continuing the theme (in the opening and closing sections, vv. 2-5, 12-13) of the wicked, in contrast to the righteous, both their conduct and their ultimate fate. Here the expected fate of the wicked is clear enough: they will fall (vb lp^n`) thrown down (vb hj*D*) by God (into the Pit), from whence they will not be able to rise again. The perfect verb form (of lpn) in the first line probably should be read as a precative perfect—that is, what the Psalmist expects (or hopes/wishes) will happen, in terms of something that has already occurred.

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