June 6: Hebrews 12:5ff

Hebrews 12:5ff

In the closing chapters of Hebrews, the author provides a general exhortation to believers, rooted in a call to remain faithful to Christ even in the face of suffering and persecution. As is typical in early Christian writings of the period, this exhortation includes ethical-religious instruction, though presented here in a generalized way. The most notable section of ethical-religious instruction is 12:3-17, framing the matter in terms of believers’ “struggle against sin”, using the verb a)ntagwni/zomai (“struggle against”).

Such struggle, which, as most believers can attest, is often difficult (and even painful), is compared by the author to the forceful kind of chastising discipline that a parent must, at times, employ when raising a child. The noun typically translated as “discipline” is paidei/a, from the verb paideu/w, which basically means “raise a child [pai=$]”, but often refers specifically to the instruction and training that a parent gives to a child. Drawing upon this idiomatic language, the author has introduced the traditional motif of God’s people as His children.

In the prior notes dealing with this theme—viz., believers as the sons (or children) of God—we have explored the Scriptural background of the motif, along with important examples in the Pauline letters, and elsewhere in the New Testament. The most recent note covered the sonship-theme as it was introduced earlier in Hebrews (2:10ff). In that passage, the emphasis was primarily Christological, while here, in 12:5ff, the focus is ethical-religious. However, the Christological aspect is still present, as vv. 1-3 make clear; the exhortation for believers is based upon the example we have in Jesus Christ, who himself suffered in the flesh just as we do, enduring both temptation (toward sin) and persecution by hostile forces.

The sonship-theme is reintroduced in verse 5, in the context of the “struggle against sin” being understood in terms of the discipline a child receives from his/her parents. The author presents this by way of a quotation from Scripture, introduced as follows:

“Indeed, have you forgotten about the calling alongside [para/klhsi$] which speaks through to you…?”

The noun para/klhsi$ comes from the verb parakale/w (“call alongside”); a person calls one alongside (or is called alongside), usually for the purpose of offering help of some kind. This help or assistance can take the form of emotional-spiritual comfort or exhortation, as is the case here. The verb diale/gomai means “gather through”, usually in the specific sense of “say/speak through”, according to a regular meaning of the verb le/gw. The preposition dia/ (“through”), in this context, can imply a conversation or discussion that is thorough, going ‘back and forth’. Certainly, this aspect of instruction and training (discipline) is very much in view here.

The Scriptural citation in vv. 5b-6 comes from Proverbs 3:11-12. In that passage, the Wisdom instruction is framed as teaching given by a father to his son (Prov 3:1ff). This is a common feature of ancient Wisdom literature; however, in vv. 11-12, the pattern is applied to the traditional religious theme of God (YHWH) as Father, and His people (esp. the righteous) as his children (or “sons”), cf. above. The human father continues to address his son, but emphasizes that it is also YHWH who acts to bring training (and discipline) to the child. By quoting these verses, the author of Hebrews takes on the role of the speaker/protagonist of Proverbs 3:

“My son, do not have little regard (for) [i.e. do not disregard] (the) child-rearing [paidei/a] of (the) Lord, and do not loosen out [i.e. become lax/weak] under His admonishing; for the (one) whom (the) Lord loves, He trains as a child [paideu/ei], and He flogs every son whom He receives alongside.”

The training/rearing of a child may include corporal discipline (here ‘flogging’, vb mastigo/w), which, though increasingly less common (or accepted) in modern times (especially in Western countries), was very much part of the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu. Yet it is this more ‘painful’ aspect of discipline that the author wishes to emphasize here—indeed, it is central to his exhortation. The struggle against sin may be painful, but God allows His faithful ones (i.e., believers) to experience the impulse (and temptation) toward sin, along with opposition coming from the sinful world, as part of His parental discipline. It is part of being raised as a son/child of God, and every believer must accept the struggle as part of his/her identity as God’s child. This is the point made in vv. 7-8, urging believers to endure (lit. “remain under”, vb u(pome/nw) the discipline given to us by God.

If one remains faithful, even in the midst of our struggle against sin, then the discipline will produce its natural and proper result. We will come to be raised and trained as true children of God, reflecting His very nature and character. This is how the author concludes this part of his exhortation, in vv. 9-11. By willingly submitting to the child-rearing discipline of “the Father of spirits”, we shall live (v. 9)—that is, shall obtain eternal life. Another result is that we will come to share in the holiness of God (v. 10). Finally, this training will also bring forth the “fruit of righteousness” (v. 11), terminology which brings to mind Paul’s famous discussion of the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:16-24 (vv. 22-23).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 94 (Part 1)

Psalm 94

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsb (vv. 1-4, 8-14, 17-18, 21-22); 1QPsa (v. 16)

This Psalm, typical of many in the Psalter, consists of a lament by the protagonist, along with a prayer to YHWH for deliverance. The Wisdom elements, integrated and situated prominently at the heart of the composition (vv. 8-15), are also typical of the influence of Wisdom tradition on many Psalms. In addition, the Psalmist anticipates that YHWH will answer his prayer, and will act on his behalf; the prayer thus also serves as an expression of trust in God. The protagonist in the Psalms is regularly presented as one of the righteous, and, as a faithful/loyal servant of YHWH, he can expect God to fulfill His side of the covenant bond and provide protection in the time of need.

There are no definite indications of a date for the composition of the Psalm (at any stage), though the extensive inclusion of Wisdom elements suggests perhaps an exilic (or post-exilic) date, at least for the final work as it has come down to us. Without the inner wisdom-sections (vv. 8-15), considered (perhaps) as a subsequent addition, it would be easier to view Psalm 94 as a pre-exilic composition. There is no attribution of authorship in the MT (or the Qumran manuscripts), but the LXX has a superscription attributing it to David and also indicating that it is to be performed on the “fourth day” of the week (cp. the heading of Ps 92).

On the relation of Psalm 94 within the collection of eight (93-100), grouped according to the theme of YHWH’s kingship, see the brief discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 453, 455-6) and the study by David M. Howard, The Structure of Psalms 93-100, Biblical and Judaic Studies 5 (Eisenbrauns: 1997).

There is a well-developed, sectional structure to this Psalm, which also is chiastic in nature:

    • Invocation—the protagonist calls on YHWH to render judgment (vv. 1-2)
      • Lament with a Wisdom emphasis: ‘Why are the wicked allowed to go unpunished?’ (vv. 3-7)
        • Wisdom couplets—addressed to the foolish/wicked (vv. 8-11)
        • Wisdom couplets—addressed to the wise/righteous (vv. 12-15)
      • Prayer for deliverance—to rescue the righteous from the wicked (vv. 16-21)
    • Declaration of YHWH’s judgment, vindicating the righteous and punishing the wicked (vv. 22-23)

The meter of this Psalm is somewhat irregular, but a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format tends to dominate.

For its relative length, the Psalm is extensively preserved in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsb. In this regard, it is worth noting that, in the portions which survive (without requiring reconstruction), there are ostensibly no textual variants; the text is essentially identical with that of the MT.

Invocation (vv. 1-2)

Verse 1

“O Mighty (One) of vengeance, YHWH,
Mighty (One) of vengeance, shine forth!”

In this opening couplet, the Psalmist calls on YHWH to appear, in his role as Judge, and render judgment. The nature of this judgment is indicated by the repeated attribute of hm*q*n] (“vengeance, revenge”), which can be rendered in the judicial sense of “retribution”. As Dahood mentions (II, p. 346), the root <qn connotes the idea of vindication (for the righteous) as well as punishment (for the wicked)—both aspects are unquestionably in view.

The repetitive parallelism of the couplet, with an a+b+c / a+b+d format, is characteristic of Canaanite poetry (cf. the tricola in Ps 93:3-4, discussed in the previous study):

    • Mighty (One) of | vengeance | YHWH
    • Mighty (One) of | vengeance | shine forth

The verb form, as vocalized by the MT, uy~p!oh, is most naturally read as a (Hiphil) Perfect, even though an imperative seems to be called for; an imperative, attested by some Versions, would be clarified by the form (with paragogic h-), hu*yp!oh (see Ps 80:2[1]). The MT could, however, be read as a precative perfect, which carries much the same force as an imperative. The verb up^y` means “shine”, often in the basic sense of “be visible, appear”; in the Hiphil causative stem, this becomes “make shine”, “cause to shine (forth)”, here understood reflexively of YHWH (“make [yourself] shine forth”).

Verse 2

“Lift yourself, (you the One) judging the earth,
turn (their) dealing (back) on (the) high (one)s!”

YHWH’s role as Judge is specified here in the second couplet, utilizing the verbal noun (participle) fp@v), “judging”, i.e., the one who judges, who renders a (legal) decision. YHWH is the Judge of the entire earth, a theme found frequently in the Psalms, and corollary to His identity as King (Sovereign) over the universe (cf. the previous Psalm 93).

The Psalmist specifically asks that God “turn back” onto the “high (one)s” (<ya!G@)—in English idiom, we might say the “high and mighty” —their lWmG+, referring to how one deals with other people, for good or evil (in this case, evil). In such a judicial context, it term implies a kind of recompense, in a decidedly negative sense—i.e., a punitive penalty that corresponds to one’s (wicked) behavior.

Indeed, the adjective ha#G@ (“high”) typically connotes a negative sort of “high-mindedness” —prideful arrogance, boasting, and the like—which is very much characteristic of the wicked. In other words, the Psalmist is asking YHWH to bring punishment upon the wicked, paying them back for their own wickedness. Their “highness” indicates, not only arrogance, but also a genuinely high (i.e., powerful) status in society, obtained, in large part, as a result of their wicked conduct (as the lament in vv. 3-7 makes clear).

Lament (verses 3-7)

Verse 3

“Until when (shall the) wicked, O YHWH,
until when shall (the) wicked shout (for joy)?”

The theme introduced in v. 2, regarding the “highness” of the wicked, is developed here in the lament. It deals with a subject familiar from Wisdom literature: why are the wicked allowed (by God) to prosper in this life? Here, this is posed as a comparable question: “Until when will the wicked clamor (triumphantly)?” The verb is zl^u*, which basically indicates a loud noise (like a shout, etc), made joyfully, sometimes specifically connoting the idea of triumph. The wicked shout joyfully and clamor about because they seem to triumph in this earthly life. The verb could also be rendered “exult”, which would provide continuity with the motif of being “high, lofty”. The imperfect verb form, as with the imperfects in vv. 4-7 (see below), is probably meant to express regular (and recurring) behavior.

Again, the same repetitive parallelism (a+b+c / a+b+d) from verse 1 (see above) is used here:

    • Until when | (the) wicked | O YHWH
    • until when | (the) wicked | shall clamor
Verse 4

“They gush (and) speak (many) a far-ranging (boast)—
they speak of themselves, all (these) makers of trouble!”

It is specifically the speech of the wicked that is in focus here—i.e., the high and mighty things they say, all their (boastful) shouting and clamoring. This evil speech gushes forth (vb ub^n`, Hiphil); in English idiom we might say that they “spout off”. The arrogance and insolence of their speech is indicated by the noun qt*u*, a word that is difficult to translate but which generally refers to something that “goes past” what is right and proper, etc—a sense of surpassing distance, in the arrogance of the wicked, that is comparable to their “highness” (v. 2).

Indeed, this is selfish, boastful talk, as the wicked “say (things) about themselves”, an emphasis indicated by the use the reflexive (Hitpael) of the verb rm^a*. Such people are literally “makers of trouble” (vb lu^P* + noun /w#a*), an idiom, as a characteristic of the wicked, which occurs with some frequency in the Psalms—5:6[5]; 6:9[8]; 14:4; 28:3; 36:13[12]; 53:5[4]; 59:3[2]; 64:3[2], etc.

Verse 5

“Your people, O YHWH, they do crush,
and your inheritance they oppress;”

Verses 1-4 were all 3-beat (3+3) couplets; now, in vv. 5-6, the rhythm suddenly shifts to shortened 3+2 couplets. This is perhaps intended as a poetic accompaniment to the dramatic description of the “trouble” (/w#a*, v. 4) caused by the wicked. In particular, they cause trouble for God’s people—meaning, ostensibly, the righteous ones of Israel. Thus, the familiar contrast between the righteous and the wicked—and of the suffering of the righteous at the hands of the wicked—is here established. This is a basic Old Testament theme, particularly prominent in Wisdom tradition, and found frequently throughout many Psalms.

The wicked “crush” (vb ak^D*) and “press down” (vb hn`u*), i.e., oppress, the righteous. Again, this is traditional terminology, the latter verb alluding to the common designation of the righteous as “pressed down, oppressed, lowly” (yn]u*, wn`u*).

Verse 6

“(the) widow and stranger they do kill,
and (the) orphans they smash—”

The description of the cruel and oppressive behavior of the wicked continues from verse 5, with the same 3+2 meter. In the Psalms, the righteous tend to be identified with the poor and lowly—in contrast with the “high” position of the wicked. Here, however, the Psalmist has in view also the practical matter of what we would call social justice—protection (and justice) for the weak and vulnerable members of society.

This includes, naturally and traditionally, widows and orphans, but also the rG@, referring to a person who leaves his home(land) to reside in another place. Such resident “strangers”, who are often displaced, seeking shelter from famine, disease, war, etc, are to be shown special care and treated as protected citizens. The Prophetic writings are particularly harsh in their condemnation of the oppression that exists in society, resulting in suffering for the weak and vulnerable; the Psalms frequently evince this social justice emphasis as well.

Verse 7

“and (yet) they say, ‘YH(WH) does not see (this),
nor does He discern (it), (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!'”

This mode of overconfident (and boastful) thinking is traditionally attributed to the wicked. Particularly egregious (and foolish, see below) is the idea that YHWH does not see what such people are doing. This kind of characteristic declaration has a two-fold purpose here: (i) it expresses the arrogant ‘high-mindedness’ of the wicked; but (ii) it also attests to the troubling incongruity that is at the heart of the particular wisdom tradition—viz., why are the wicked left unpunished and allowed to prosper in this life? Does God not see what wicked things they do?

Wisdom Couplets (verses 8-11)

Verse 8

“Discern (this), (you) brutish (one)s among the people!
and (you) fools—when will you show understanding?”

Verse 8 picks up on the use of the verb /yB! (“understand, discern”) in v. 7 to introduce this set of four Wisdom-couplets, addressed to the wicked—who are also fools. Indeed, they show themselves foolish by the way they act and speak, thinking that YHWH does not see what they do, and will not judge them for it. The verb lk^c* I, “be wise, understanding, skillful”, overlaps in meaning with /yB!, both verbs being very much part of the Wisdom-vocabulary.

Verse 9

“The (One) planting (the) ear, does He not hear?
or (the One) forming (the) eye, does He not observe?”

This extended 4-beat (4+4) couplet addresses the foolish thinking (and speaking) expressed in v. 7 (see above). Of course YHWH hears and sees everything the wicked says and does, since He is the One who made the ears and eyes of created beings in the first place. If He can give people the ability to see, then surely He Himself is able to see what the wicked are doing!

Verse 10

“The (One) disciplining nations, can He not bring rebuke?
the (One) teaching mankind, is He lacking knowledge?”

This couplet follows the pattern of verse 9, only with an irregular 4+3 meter, suggesting the possibility that a word has dropped out. The ability of YHWH to hear/see (the things people say/do) was emphasized in v. 9, now it is His ability to render proper judgment on their words and conduct. The universal scope of this ability is expressed, reflecting YHWH’s position as Judge of the entire world (see v. 2, above). The term “nations” (<y]oG) has a comprehensive and general meaning here, referring to all (hu)mankind (<d*a*). YHWH is certainly able to correct and rebuke human beings, giving discipline and punishment as needed, teaching all people the truth about what is right.

As mentioned above, the 4+3 meter of the second line allows for the possibility that a word has dropped out; the Qumran manuscript 4QPsb is unfortunately fragmentary at this point, so a determination cannot be made on this textual point. Regardless, the parallelism of the couplet requires that the implied phrase be “lacking in knowledge [tu^D*]”. Dahood (II, p. 348) offers the clever suggestion that the final <– on <d*a* does double-duty, and that we should essentially read, for the final two words, tu^D*m! <d*a*. The prefixed /m! preposition (“from”), taken in a privative sense, would carry the meaning “lacking of”, “without”.

Verse 11

“YHWH (is the One) knowing (the) thoughts of man,
how they (are all but) an (empty) breath!”

The irregular 4+3 meter of this final couplet adds support for the idea that the same meter in v. 10 (MT) is correct, and that the verse has come down to us intact. Not only does YHWH hear/see what all human beings say/do, but He even knows all the thoughts which a person thinks. This includes, most importantly, the person’s intention. The thoughts of human beings, in general, are empty and vain—how much more so the thoughts of the wicked! The noun lb#h#, denoting a breath, or vapor, often is used in a derogatory sense—i.e., a mere breath, a puff (of air), etc—and is a keyword in the vocabulary of Wisdom literature. It occurs most frequently in the book of Qohelet/Ecclesiastes (beginning in 1:2, 5 times), but also appears a number of times in the Psalms, as evidence for the influence of Wisdom-tradition on the Psalter.

The second half of Psalm 94 will be examined in the next study.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 92 (Part 2)

Psalm 92, continued

The Hymn: Verses 5-12 (cont.)

Verses 10-12 comprise the second part of the central hymn; for the first part (vv. 5-9), cf. the previous study. Each part begins with the emphatic particle yK!.

While many Psalms evince a royal background, this aspect is particularly prominent here in vv. 10-12, where the protagonist seems rather clearly to represent the king, and certain aspects of the royal theology are vividly expressed. Given the archaic features in these verses (cf. especially below on v. 10), it seems quite possible that the lines, if not those of the entire hymn, were composed in the kingdom period.

Verse 10 [9]

“For, see, (those) hostile to you, O YHWH,
for, see (those) hostile to you shall perish—
shall be scattered, all (those) making trouble!”

This three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon builds upon the Wisdom-theme in the first part (in vv. 7-8f) alluding to the destruction of the wicked. Here in vv. 10-12, the wicked are presented as hostile enemies of the (royal) protagonist, against whom he calls to YHWH for protection. As a faithful servant of God, and a representative of God’s people, the king’s enemies are also God’s enemies, as this verse clearly expresses.

Scholars have long recognized the similarity of verse 10 to a tricolon from the Ugaritic Baal Epic (Tablet II, column iv, lines 8-9):

ht ibk b±lm
ht ibk tm—s
ht tƒmt ƒrtk

“Now your enemy, O Ba’al,
now your enemy may you strike,
now may you silence your foe!”

The first two lines of each are quite close, following an a+b+c / a+b+d pattern.

Sarna (p. 160ff) cites the parallel in support of his proposal that the hymn draws upon ancient cosmological mythic tradition, whereby the victories of YHWH (over His enemies) refer primarily to those which took place at the time of creation. In bringing forth the ordered universe out of the dark and watery chaos of the primordial time, God is depicted as subduing monstrous adversaries. For more on this ancient mythological tradition, and its application to YHWH in Hebrew poetry, see my earlier article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

In light of this background, it is possible to read the imperfect (yqtl) verb forms as describing past events (cf. Dahood, II, p. 337). However, almost certainly, any cosmological allusions are being applied here to the context of the hymn—namely, the expectation that YHWH will use His great power to protect His people, defeating their adversaries even as He did the primordial opponents. The verb dr^P* in the third line means “separate, divide”; here, in reference to the defeat of enemies, it can mean “scatter, disperse”, or, more cruelly, “take apart” (i.e. dismember).

Verse 11 [10]

“While you lift high my horn like (the) bull,
you make me wet with luxuriant oil.”

The initial w-conjunction establishes a contrast with v. 10: while YHWH’s enemies are defeated (and destroyed), His faithful servant (the king) is exalted. The image of the horn (esp. of a bull or ox) as a symbol of strength and vitality is traditional, as is the specific application of the motif as a reference to royal power and prestige—cf. Psalm 18:2 [2 Sam 22:3]; 74:4-5; 89:17, 24; 112:9; 132:17; 148:14; Jer 48:25; Ezek 29:21; Dan 7:8ff; Mic 4:13; Luke 1:69. The derivation of the noun <a@r= remains uncertain, as does the precise animal intended by the term (wild bull, buffalo, antelope, etc); a bull is most appropriate to the royal context.

The second line probably refers to the anointing of the king, however the use of the verb ll^B* for this is unusual. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, it is used in the context of mixing together oil; however, in Akkadian the cognate verb can mean “moisten”, and this may be the basic sense here—a person made wet by having oil poured (or rubbed) on him. The MT form and/or vocalization is problematic; it should rather be vocalized as a passive form (yT!L)B%,
“I have been made wet”), or, perhaps, emended to read yn]t^L)B^ (“you have made me wet”). I have opted for the latter.

It has also been suggested that the text should be emended to read instead the verb gl^B* (“be bright, glad, cheerful”), so that the line reads something like “I shine with fresh oil”; cf. Thijs Booij, “The Hebrew Text of Psalm XCII 11,” Vetus Testamentum [VT] 38 (1988), pp. 210-4.

While the idea of a royal anointing may be implicit, the immediate context suggests that strength and vitality (and blessing from YHWH) is the primary idea being expressed (cp. Ps 23:5). The adjective /n`u&r^ literally means “green”, but often in the sense of “fresh, luxuriant”. The protagonist is honored by being anointed (or rubbed) with luxuriant oil.

Verse 12 [11]

“My eyes shall look on (those) watching me,
of (those) standing against me my ears shall hear.”

The final verse of the hymn is the most difficult. The irregular and seemingly overloaded lines suggests a corruption—perhaps a gloss has made its way into the text. As it stands, the MT is best parsed as an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon. However, the parallelism is better served by omitting the word <yu!r@m= (“[those] doing evil”) as a gloss, resulting in a cleaner, though still slightly irregular (4+3), couplet. The participles of the verb rWv (“watch” [i.e., with hostile intent]) and <Wq (“stand up” [in opposition]) serve as fitting descriptions of the protagonist’s enemies. According to the royal background of these verses, the verbs may refer specifically to traitors plotting against the king, even to the point of (armed) rebellion against his rule.

Based on vv. 10-11, the implication is that these adversaries have been defeated (or will be so). It is in this condition that the protagonist looks upon them and/or hears reports about them.

Conclusion: Verses 13-16

Verse 13 [12]

“(The) righteous, like (the) palm tree, will sprout,
like a cedar in the white mountains he grows tall.”

The conclusion of the Psalm is comprised of a sequence of couplets that draw heavily upon Wisdom tradition. Taken in relation to vv. 7-8 (cf. the previous study), the familiar theme contrasting the righteous and the wicked—and the correspond fate of each—is expounded. The fate of the wicked was dealt with, however briefly, in vv. 7-8, while here in vv. 13-16 the fate of the righteous is described.

The tree-motif, utilized here, is better known from its use in Psalm 1:3; the context is the same—contrasting the righteous and the wicked (and their fates). The righteous will flourish like a tree planted next to the life-giving waters. Here, the righteous will similarly flourish, sprouting and blossoming like a palm tree, and growing tall (vb hg*c* [ag*c*]) like the cedars of Lebanon (lit. the “white mountain[s]”).

Even though the Wisdom-orientation of these closing verses is quite different from the setting of vv. 10-12 (cf. above), the two sections are related according to the general concept of the exaltation of the righteous (v. 11). The growth of the horn parallels the image of the growth of the tree.

Verse 14 [13]

“Having been planted in (the) house of YHWH,
in (the) enclosures of our Mighty (One) they sprout.”

In verse 14, the location of the “sprouting” (vb jr^P*) of the righteous, like a tree, is given. They will be planted (as shoots) in the dwelling (“house”) of YHWH. The expression “house of YHWH” can, of course, refer to the Temple, but that is not the point of reference here. Rather, it is a reference to the heavenly dwelling of God. The blessed afterlife is being expressed, just as in the beatitude setting of Psalm 1 (cf. the earlier study).

Verse 15 [14]

“Still they will bear fruit (even) in old age—
(full of) fat and luxuriant they will be!—”

The promise of long life has two-fold significance in Israelite and Old Testament tradition. On the one hand, the present life on earth is intended; on the other hand, this sense of duration also extends to the idea of the blessed afterlife (cf. above)—dwelling with God in heaven. In any case, the image is clear enough: the righteous while still be vital and full of life, able to “bear fruit” (vb bWn), even in old age. This vitality is expressed here by the traditional motif of “fatness” (i.e., richness); as the adjective /v@D* can also mean “juicy”, possibly the specific idea of a tree still full of sap is intended. The adjective /n`u&r^ was used earlier in verse 11; as noted, it literally means “green”, but often in the sense of “fresh” or “luxuriant”.

Verse 16 [15]

“(able) to put out front how straight YHWH (is),
my Rock, and (how there is) no deviation in Him!”

The final couplet of the Psalm returns to the worship-context of the introduction (vv. 2-4, cf. the previous study), even repeating the use of the verb dg~n` (Hiphil), “put in front” —that is, show or declare publicly the faithfulness of YHWH (v. 3). Here the characteristic of faithfulness is expressed by the attribute of “straightness” (adj. rv*y`, “straight, level”), which is also a traditional Divine attribute—parallel with qyd!x* (“right[eous]”). Being straight, there is no deviation (lw#u*, hl*w+u^) of any kind in Him. Both rvy and lwu are frequently used in an ethical-religious sense, with rvy connoting personal integrity, honesty, and “upright” conduct; conversely, lwu can connote injustice, sin/iniquity, and (moral) perversion.

The traditional motif of YHWH as a rock (rWx) is another way of expressing the idea of His faithfulness (hn`Wna$, v. 3, lit. “firmness”).

Syntactically, verse 16 should be seen as a continuation of v. 15.

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 “Sarna” are to Nahum M. Sarna, “The Psalm for the Sabbath Day (Psalm 92),” Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 81 (1962), pp. 155-68.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 92 (Part 1)

Psalm 92

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsb (vv. 4-8, 13-15 [3-7, 12-14]); 1QPsa (vv. 12-14 [11-13])

This particular Psalm has a composite character, drawing upon a number of well-established genres and traditional themes.

The central body of the Psalm (verses 5-12) consists of a hymn to YHWH, but one which incorporates two very disparate and distinct lines of tradition. These correspond, more or less, to the two parts of the hymn. The first part (vv. 5-9) is centered on the Wisdom lines in vv. 7-8, drawing upon several key themes from Wisdom literature: the foolishness of humankind, the presence (or lack) of knowledge and understanding, the brevity of human life, the vegetation/sprouting motif, and the contrast between the righteous and wicked. The second part (vv. 10-12) emphasizes the salvation provided by God, in rescuing the protagonist from his hostile (wicked) adversaries. This is a genre-theme found frequently in the Psalms, and reflects the royal background of many Psalms, whereby the protagonist is (or takes on the role of) the king, calling upon YHWH for help in overcoming his opponents and enemies. The king functions as a loyal servant to YHWH, representing the people, in a specific way, within the covenant bond (between YHWH and His people). In protecting and rescuing the king, YHWH confirms his rule over the kingdom.

The hymn is preceded by an introductory section (vv. 2-4) which establishes a worship setting, possibly indicating something of the liturgical setting in which the Psalm itself was performed. These verses form a distinct unit, as is clear from the fact that, syntactically, they comprise a single sentence. Following the hymn, there is also a closing section (vv. 13-16), which again draws heavily upon Wisdom-tradition, developing several themes and motifs from vv. 7-8ff.

The hymn unquestionably contains the oldest layers of the Psalm, and probably, in some form, represented the core composition, to which the opening and closing sections were added. The age of the Psalm, and even of the central hymn, is difficult to determine; however, verses 10-12, with its royal background clearly preserved, may well date from the kingdom period

The heading of the Psalm, in addition to designating it as both a musical composition (romz+m!) and a “song” (ryv!), mentions that it is “for the day of resting [tB*v^, i.e. Sabbath]”. This is the only Psalm with such a designation; indeed, this is the only occurrence of the word tB*v^ in the Psalter. It presumably means that the Psalm was to be performed, or had come to be performed, during the Sabbath service, as part of the liturgy. How ancient this association was is impossible to say. For more on this subject, cf. the article by Nahum M. Sarna, “The Psalm for the Sabbath Day (Psalm 92),” Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 81 (1962), pp. 155-68.

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are numerous departures from this meter.

Introduction: Verses 2-4

Verse 2 [1]

“(It is) good to cast (praise) to (you, O) YHWH,
and to make music to your name, Most High—”

As noted above, the opening couplets of the Psalm emphasize the worship of YHWH, and may allude to a liturgical setting for this composition. In this regard, verses 2-4 may have been composed or added later than the main body of the Psalm (vv. 5-12). The pairing of the verbs hd*y` (“throw, cast”, i.e., ‘throw’ someone praise) and rm^z` (“make music”) is natural, and occurs in a number of Psalms (e.g., 33:2). The prefixed –l in the first line can be read as a vocative (“O YHWH…”), or, similarly, a second person address can be understood as implied (“to [you,] YHWH”).

In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represents and embodies the person, in a quasi-magical sense. This is no less true in a religious setting, where the name of God is involved—YHWH’s name represents the nature and character (and presence) of YHWH Himself. Thus, to make music to YHWH’s name essentially means the same thing as making music to YHWH. Possibly, a specific reference to the Temple is intended, particularly if the opening lines share the same religious-theological outlook as the Deuteronomic works, where it is particularly the Jerusalem Temple which YHWH has chosen for His name to reside. Cf. the recent series of notes on 1 Kings 8.

Verse 3 [2]

“to put out front in the daybreak your devotion,
and your firmness in the night (watch)es—”

This second couplet builds upon the idea expressed in the first, elaborating the praise (in music) that the Psalmist would give to YHWH. He would “put in front” (vb dg~n`) of everyone (that is, express publicly) the loyalty of YHWH. The familiar pairing of nouns—ds#j# and hn`Wma$—is used to express this idea of YHWH’s covenant loyalty; cf. the frequent use of them in Psalm 89. The noun ds#j# means “goodness, kindness”, but often (and nearly always in the Psalms), it connotes loyalty and faithfulness (i.e., to the covenant); here it is rendered as “devotion”. The parallel noun hn`Wma$ (like the related tm#a#) literally means “firmness,” in the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, etc.

YHWH’s goodness and faithfulness is such that He is worthy of being praised all day long—from the first “break (of day)” (rq#B)) in the morning, and then all through the night. The plural tolyl@ (lit. “nights”) is used, and probably refers to the ‘watches’ of the night (Ps 134:1, cf. Dahood, II, p. 336; I, p. 90).

The meter of this couplet is 3+2. Syntactically, vv. 3-4 represent the continuation of sentence beginning in v. 2. I read verse 3 as parenthetical, between vv. 2 and 4.

Verse 4 [3]

“on (the) ten-strings, even on (the) harp,
on (our) murmuring with (the) lyre!”

As mentioned above, verse 3, despite the centrality of its position, is parenthetical within the opening. Verse 4 properly continues the immediate thought of v. 2, elaborating the music-making that the Psalmist intends. Three different terms for a harp/lyre are used: rocu* (denoting an instrument with ten strings), lb#n`, and roNK!; we should not infer from this poetic variation that three different instruments are specifically meant. The music-making is done with the strings of a harp.

Similarly, the preposition lu^ (in the form yl@u&) occurs three times; it can be rendered “(up)on” —that is, the praise is sung to music played on the harp. The noun /oyG`h! denotes a low sound, such as the growl of an animal, or the “murmuring” of a person talking low/quietly; here it refers to music that is played—a ‘murmuring’ on the strings.

Metrically, verse 4 is best parsed as an extended 4+3 couplet; it could also be divided as an irregular 2+2+3 tricolon, each line consisting of a prepositional phrase (beginning with yl@u&).

The Hymn: Verses 5-12

Verse 5 [4]

“For you have made me glad, YHWH, by your deed,
and by (the) works of your hands I sing out.”

This couplet begins the main body of the Psalm, a hymn of praise to YHWH for the faithfulness which He has shown (v. 3) to His loyal servant. This faithfulness is demonstrated by specific actions. The noun lu*P* in the first line denotes something which YHWH has done, the singular probably intended in a comprehensive sense. The plural of hc#u&m^ (with basically the same meaning as lu*P*) is used in the second line. What YHWH has done on behalf of the protagonist has made him glad (vb jm^c*, Piel), and spurs him to “ring out” (vb /n~r*) praise in music and song.

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb apparently has a third person (passive) form of the verb /nr (/nry), “it rings out”, rather than “I ring out” (MT /N@r^a&). The same manuscript also reads a singular, rather than plural, form of the noun hc#u&m^.

Verse 6 [5]

“How great are your works, O YHWH,
(how) very deep are your thoughts!”

The things done by YHWH correspond to his purposes. There is a formal parallel here between the nouns hc*u&m^ (“work, deed, act”) and hb*v*j&m^ (“thought, purpose, plan”). The things which YHWH plans, and carries out,  are both “great” (ldg, implying height) and “deep” (qmu); the greatness is dynamic, expressed through action—the verbs ld^G` and qm^u* are used.

For a different way of understanding da)m= (“much, very”), at the beginning of the second line, cf. Dahood (II, p. 335), who treats it as a Divine title or epithet.

Verse 7 [6]

“A man (who is) brutish does not know,
and a stupid (person) does not discern this.”

The deep thoughts of God are contrasted with the brutish stupidity of human beings. The Psalmist almost certainly is not referring here only to particularly brute-like (ru^B^) or stupid (lsk) people; rather, this extreme language is used to characterize humankind generally, in comparison with God. Only those faithful ones, who are willing to devote themselves to the Wisdom of God, can truly understand or have any real knowledge. The influence of Wisdom-tradition on vv. 7-8 is clear, as also on the closing verses of the Psalm (13-16).

The Qumran manuscript 4QPsb in the first line has a w-conjunction before the negative particle (alw), thus giving a slightly different reading: “the man (who is) brutish and does not know”.

Verses 8 [7]

“With (the) sprouting of (the) wicked like grass,
even (though) all (those) making trouble blossom,
(it is) for them to be destroyed forever!”

The relevance of this Wisdom-verse, within the context of the hymn, is not immediately apparent. It clearly builds upon the thought of v. 7 (cf. above), alluding to the brutishness and lack of knowledge among (most) human beings. Here, the focus shifts to the wicked, a popular emphasis in the Psalms (as in Wisdom literature), whereby the wicked are typically contrasted with the righteous. The apparent success and prosperity of the wicked, undeserved as it may be, is also a common theme in Wisdom literature, and can be found in a number of Psalms. This particular vegetation/sprouting imagery was used, in a similar context, in Psalm 90 (vv. 5-6ff); cf. the earlier study.

The wicked are characterized as people who make trouble and do evil/unjust things, combining the verb lu^P* with the noun /w#a*, a traditional idiom (cf. Psalm 5:6[5]; 14:4; 28:3, etc). Their actions are altogether opposite (and opposed) to what YHWH does (cf. the same root lup used in v. 5); the righteous, who follow God’s example, have their actions similarly contrasted with those of the wicked.

The idea of the destruction of the wicked anticipates the theme in vv. 10-12, while the sprouting/flowering motif is picked up again in vv. 13-16.

Verse 9 [8]

“But you (are the One) on High,
into the distant (future), YHWH!”

This verse, which serves as the climax to the first half of the hymn, is difficult, both in terms of its rhythm and syntax. Returning to the praise expressed in v. 6 (cf. above), it also clearly is meant to contrast with fate of the wicked (emphasized by the Wisdom verses 7-8). While the wicked ‘sprout’ up and flower for a brief time, only to be destroyed “forever”, YHWH remains exalted forever. Two different ways of expressing this idea, of a period of time lasting (indefinitely) into the future, are used in vv. 8 and 9.

First, there is the expression du^-yd@u&, an alliterative doubling of related words from the root hd*u* (“go on, pass [by]”): (1) the preposition du^ (in the form yd@u&), “until, as far as,” etc, and (2) the noun du^, meaning something like “perpetuity” (i.e., continual, lasting time). The doubling can imply a certain circuity, possibly alluding to the sense of futility that attends the brief flourishing of the wicked. Second, in v. 9, is the more common <l*oul=, which literally means “(in)to the distant (future)”, but often in the generalized or abstract sense of “forever”.

The locative noun <orm* (“high place”), probably refers to YHWH’s eternal dwelling in Heaven; however, it could also be viewed as a Divine title, something like “(the One) on High”.

Metrically, the verse can be viewed as a single 4-beat line, or as a terse 2-beat (2+2) couplet; I have opted for the latter division.

The remainder of the Psalm, consisting of the second half of the core hymn (vv. 10-12) and the closing section (vv. 13-16), will be discussed in next week’s study.

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 90 (Part 1)

Psalm 90

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This vigorous and highly creative Psalm contains a lament, but also a prayer to YHWH for deliverance (indeed, it is designated a hL*p!T=). On this basis, it may be divided into two main parts—the lament (vv. 3-10), and the prayer (vv. 11-16). The lament is preceded by a hymnic invocation to YHWH (vv. 1-2), and the prayer is concluded by a benediction (v. 17).

The lament draws heavily upon Wisdom tradition, dealing particularly with theme of the shortness of human life, a theme that continues into the beginning (vv. 11-12) of the prayer section. In this regard, Psalm 90 resembles the lament portion of the prior Psalm 89 (vv. 39-52), with its strong Wisdom-emphasis in vv. 47-49 (see the earlier note on these verses).

For a discussion of the possible dating of this Psalm, and its relation to the formation of the Psalter (and the fourth book), cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 418-21. Dahood (II, p. 322), noting the parallels with Deuteronomy 32, and certain archaic aspects of the language, suggests a much older dating for this composition, possibly in the 9th century.

Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses in the superscription: “A prayer of Moshe, the man of (the) Mightiest [i.e. man of God]”. This attribution is likely due to certain allusions to the Song of Moses (Deut 32), and also the Blessing of Moses (Deut 33), found in the Psalm. These will be noted at relevant points in the exegesis. The Psalm is called a hL*p!T=, that is a prayer—emphasizing its aspect as plea or supplication made to YHWH. This properly characterizes verses 13-16, but can apply to the entire composition. The same term designates Pss 17, 86, and 102.

The meter of this Psalm is irregular, but it tends (more often than not) to follow a 3+3 couplet format.

Invocation: Verses 1b-2

Verse 1b

“My Lord, a source of help
you have been for us,
(even) from cycle to cycle!”

The meter of this initial verse is problematic, parsed as an irregular 2+3+2 tricolon. One might be inclined to eliminate the pronoun hT*a^ (“you”) in the second line, and thus obtain a cleaner 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. In any case, the verse functions as an invocation to YHWH (“my Lord”, yn`d)a&) by the Psalmist. YHWH is declared to have been a /oum*, a locative noun which most translators and commentators derive from /Wu, “cover”, i.e., a place of cover, where one dwells protected. This would certainly fit the traditional motif of YHWH as a “place of refuge” (hs#j&m^), occurring frequently in the Psalms. However, the thematic emphasis seems to favor deriving /oum* from a separate root /wu denoting “(give) help”, cognate with Arabic ±wn; /oum* would then mean “source of help” (or, generally, “help, assistance”), and would correspond to Arabic ma±¥nat. Cf. HALOT, pp. 610, 799; Dahood, II, p. 322.

YHWH has been a source of help for His people “in cycle and cycle”, better expressed in English as “from cycle to cycle”. The noun roD has the basic meaning “circle”, usually in the temporal sense of a cycle of time, but sometimes also in specific reference to the people living turning a particular period (i.e., a “generation”). In English idiom, we would say, “from age to age”, or “from generation to generation”. The reference is primarily to the periods/generations of Israel’s history.

Overall, the language of this verse seems to echo Deut 33:27; cf. also (possibly) 32:7a, with the use of the expression rodw` roD.

Verse 2

“Before (the) mountains were given birth,
and you writhed (bearing) earth and land,
even from distant (past) unto distant (future),
you (are the) Mighty (One)!”

This second part of the invocation has a hymnic quality. The focus has shifted from Israel’s history to the entire cosmos, and YHWH’s role as Creator of the universe. In the first couplet, God’s act of creation is described in female terms—viz., of giving birth. The passive form of dl^y` (“give birth”) is used in the first line, while a Polal (MT Polel) form of the verb lWj (lyj!) is used in the second line, in the familiar sense of  (a woman) “writhing” (in labor). It is somewhat unusual to apply such imagery to YHWH, but the same pair of verbs occurs in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:18), a verse that is almost certainly being echoed here (cf. above).

At first, it is the “mountains” that are mentioned, as a dramatic point of reference for YHWH’s act of creation—i.e., before even the mighty and enduring mountains were produced. In the second line, the pair of terms Jr#a# and lb@T@ are used, widening the scope of the creation. The noun Jr#a# (“earth”) refers to the lower half of the cosmos (containing the flat earth-disc and all that is below), while lb@T refers to the productive land that is cultivated and inhabited by humans.

YHWH’s pre-existence (i.e. prior to creation) is implied in the first couplet; however, in the second couplet, His eternal existence is declared, with the temporal expression <l*ou-du^ <l*oum@, “from (the) distant (past) unto (the) distant (future)”. This expression is parallel with rd)w` rd)B= in verse 1 (cf. above). Here, we are not dealing with the cycles (or periods) of time, but of the entire scope and extent of time itself. The final line could alternately be translated “you, (the) Mighty (One), are!”, further emphasizing YHWH’s eternal existence.

Metrically, verse 2 is comprised of a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by a 2-beat (2+2) couplet.

Lament: Verses 3-10

Verse 3

“You make humanity return unto powder,
and say, ‘Return, O sons of mankind!'”

The two aspects of the invocation—YHWH’s relation to His people (v. 1b) and to all Creation (v. 2)—are here combined in the Wisdom-lament of vv. 3-10. All human beings (including Israelites) ultimately die and “return” (vb bWv) to the dust of the earth, a process that is controlled by the sovereign authority of YHWH (as Creator).

This statement introduces the familiar wisdom-theme of the brevity of human life, and of lamenting that fact. The idea of human beings ‘returning to the dust’ is, of course, ancient and traditional (Gen 3:19; Psalm 104:29), and is found in the Wisdom literature (Job 10:9; 34:15; Eccl 3:20); however, here the rare noun aK*D^ (“powder”) is used, rather than rp*u* (“dust”). Since aK*D^ denotes something that is “crushed” (i.e., pulverized), the emphasis would seem to be on YHWH’s creative act (by the spoken word, Gen 1:3ff) that reduces human beings to powder.

Verse 4

“For a thousand years, in your eyes,
like a day, yesterday, so they pass by,
even (as) a watch in the night.”

The blending of the human and cosmic aspects of creation continue here, as the brevity of human life (v. 3) is related to the brevity even of the vast life-cycles of the cosmos, when compared with YHWH’s eternal existence. As YHWH looks on (“in your eyes”), as Creator and Sovereign of the universe, a thousand years “pass by” (vb rb^u*) like they were merely a single day. The thought expressed in this verse was utilized, famously, in 2 Peter 3:8.

Verse 5

“You put a stop to them (in) sleep—
they come to be, with the break (of day),
like (the) grass (that) moves along.”

The thoughts expressed in vv. 3-4 are condensed here, with a new image in verse 5. The death of human beings is framed in the context of a day that “passes by”. Death is described by the traditional idiom of “sleep” (hn`v#), which also entails wordplay with the noun “year” (hn#v*) in v. 4. The first line is ambiguous: it could mean that death comes ‘like sleep’, or that it comes during the night while a person is asleep; probably both aspects of meaning are intended. The verb <r^z` I take as deriving from a root (meaning “halt, stop”, cf. Arabic zarama, zarima) separate from <rz II (denoting “storm, thunder, pour rain”).

The end of the short human life comes like sleep (or in/with sleep), after which, at daybreak (rq#B)), the person’s life/existence simply “moves along” (vb [l^j*), i.e., “passes away”. It is compared with the grass (ryx!j*), an image that continues into the next verse.

Verse 6

“With the break (of day), it flowers and moves along,
(then) at the evening it is withered and dries up.”

The imagery from verse 5 continues here, but with a slight shift of emphasis. Instead of death coming during the night, putting an end to a person’s life, here the span of person’s life seems to identified with the brief time of morning (during the day)—i.e., it “flowers” (vb Jyx!) briefly, and then “moves along” (same verb, [l^j*, as in v. 5). By the evening, the dead (cut?) grass has withered (vb ll^m* I) and become dried up (vb vb^y`).

Verse 7

“So we are finished (off) by your anger,
and (how) your burning horrifies us!”

Death can be seen as a natural product (and result) of God’s judgment and anger. Here, the emphasis of the lament shifts from the language of Wisdom tradition (vv. 3-6) to the judgment idiom that is so common in both Scriptural narrative and poetry (including in the Psalms). The noun [a^ denotes the nostril(s), but frequently is used to express the idea of anger more abstractly, this sense presumably being derived from the colorful image of an angry, snorting bull, etc. Another frequent idiom for anger is that of something hot and burning (hm*j@). God’s anger is so powerful as to completely “finish off” (vb hl*K*) a mere human being. Humans should rightly be “horrified” (vb lh^B*, Niphal) by such a fate.

Verse 8

“You set our crooked (deed)s right in front of you,
our hidden (sin) before (the) light of your face.”

YHWH’s anger and judgment are the result of sin and “crooked (deed)s” (/ou*, plural). As Creator and Sovereign of the universe, YHWH also functions as all-seeing Judge (cf. an allusion to this motif in v. 4, “in your eyes”). The sin of all human beings is right there “in front of” (dg#n#) God, both the blatant misdeeds and other less obvious (“hidden”, <lu) sin. Even that which hidden is exposed before the light of God’s face.

Verse 9

“So have all our days turned, in your crossing (rage),
(and) we finish (up) our years like a moan.”

This tricky couplet is rife with wordplay, echoing the wording in several of the prior verses. To begin with, there is a continuation of the “day” (<oy) motif from vv. 4-6 (cf. above), but here it is further informed by the immediate reference to light in v. 8b. The “days” of a human being have turned (vb hn`P*, playing on the related <yn]P*, “face”, at the end of v. 8); this could mean “turned away” (i.e. passed [away]), or “turned dark (i.e. to night)”, the latter being somewhat more likely, given the night-motifs in vv. 4-5 and the reference to light in v. 8.

The noun hr*b=u# here is difficult to translate. Literally, it means a “crossing (or passing) over”; but often it is used in the sense of a ‘boiling over’ of anger, i.e., an outburst or ‘overflowing’ rage, especially in the context of the anger of YHWH. Here it reflects the thought expressed in verse 7 (cf. above), but there is also a wordplay-echo from the verb rb^u* in verse 4—referring to the years that “pass by” so quickly (like a single day) in God’s eyes. This obviously relates to the theme of human death (and brevity of life) that comes as the result of YHWH’s all-seeing judgment.

The phrase “we finish [vb hl*K*] our years” similarly echoes the wording from earlier verses (vv. 4f, 7). The end comes “like a moan [hg#h#]”, capturing a sense of suffering, frustration, and emptiness.

Verse 10

“(The) days of our years—
in them (are) seventy year(s),
and if in (full) strength, eighty year(s),
yet (the) pride of them (is) toil and trouble—
how quickly it is cut off, and we fly away!”

The lament closes with a more prosaic (and practical) assessment of the brevity of a human life (“[the] days of our years”). At most it will last seventy years; on rare occasions, a person in the fullness of strength (hr*WbG=, intensive plural) may live eighty years, but almost never any longer. Regardless of how many years a person lives, the “pride” (bh^r)) of them—i.e., even the prime years of a person’s life—consist largely of toil (lm*u*, i.e. wearisome labor) and trouble (/w#a*), the latter term often connoting pain, sorrow, grief, etc.

I take the initial yK! particle of the final line to be emphatic, marking an exclamatory declaration (“How…!”). The rather bitter sounding, yet poignant exclamation makes a fitting end to the lament, dominated as it is by the Wisdom-theme of the shortness of human life.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).
Those marked “HALOT” are to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Brill: 1994-2000).

January 4: Psalm 89:47-49

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:47-49 [46-48]
Verse 47 [46]

“Until when, YHWH, will you hide yourself?
Will it burn to the (very) end,
like fire, your hot (anger)?”

It is proper to view vv. 47-49 as a distinct poetic unit within the division vv. 39-52. The Selah (hl*s#) pause-markers, after vv. 46 and 49, confirm this point. These verses follow the main strophe of vv. 39-46 (discussed in the previous two notes), and are parallel with the subsequent vv. 50-52. Indeed, one may treat vv. 47-49 and 50-52 as two short strophes, or as two units within a single strophe.

The distinctiveness of this unit is indicated by the metrical shift at v. 47. I parse this verse as an irregular (3+2+2) tricolon. It functions as a response to the situation described in vv. 39-46, where YHWH has (apparently) renounced His covenant with David, allowing the kingship (and the kingdom) to come to a destructive and shameful end. Clearly, the conquest of Judah is in view, and the Psalm (certainly the third division of it) is written from the standpoint of the Exile (or the post-Exilic period), when the kingdom (and thus also the Davidic line of kings) has ceased.

The Psalmist asks the plaintive question hm*-du^ (“Until when…?”, i.e., “How long [will this last]?”), which also occurs, equally painfully, in Ps 79:5 (cf. also 74:9). He describes the current situation of exile (and/or post-exilic poverty), which apparently has lasted now for a considerable time, in traditional terms—viz., of YHWH “hiding Himself” (vb rt^s*, Niphal stem) from His people. Dahood (II, p. 320) would parse the verb form as deriving from the root rWs (“turn aside/away”), but the meaning is much the same, in either case. For similar usage of rt^s* in the Psalms, cf. 13:1; 27:9; 44:24; the motif of God hiding His face signifies a situation where He is seemingly not responding to prayer (e.g., 55:1; 69:17; 88:14; 102:2; 143:7), and thus not giving help to His people in their time of distress.

In the second and third lines, the present suffering of God’s people is expressed in the traditional judgment-language of the “burning” (hm*j@, vb ru^B*) of His anger. As long as YHWH’s hot anger burns, the shame and ruin of the current situation will continue.

Verse 48 [47]

“Remember my trouble, (and) how short (is) life!
For what emptiness did you create (the) sons of man?”

This couplet, clearly drawing upon Wisdom tradition, seems to have been inspired by the reference in verse 46 (cf. the previous note), to the king’s “days of youth” having been “cut short”. The focus now shifts to the individual circumstances of the author-protagonist, much as we see in the majority of the lament-Psalms. The first line highlights two points frequently emphasized in the Wisdom texts—viz., (1) that a person’s life is (often) all too brief, and (2) is typically filled with toil and trouble.

I follow the suggestion of Dahood (II, p. 320) that MT yn]a* (“I”) in the first line should be revocalized as yn]a) (= yn]oa, “my trouble,” or “my sorrow”). The noun dl#j# is difficult to translate, though the basic meaning, as it is used here, seems clear enough—viz., a reference to the short/fleeting duration of a person’s life (Ps 39:6; cf. also 17:14; 49:2; Job 11:17; Isa 38:11). The “emptiness” (aw+v*) of life, particularly in terms of human pursuits and ambition, is also a frequent theme in Wisdom literature, though not typically expressed by the noun aw+v* which tends to have the more harshly negative connotation of wicked falsehood, deceit, idolatry, etc (but see its use in Job 7:3).

Verse 49 [48]

“Who (is the) strong (one who) lives
and does not see death?
Can he (truly) rescue his soul
from (the) hand of Še’ôl?”

Metrically, I parse this verse as a pair of short 2+2 couplets, patterned after the second and third lines of v. 47 (cf. above). It continues the Wisdom-orientation of v. 48, with the emphasis on the shortness of human life, in its mortality, and the inevitability of death as the common fate. Is there any human being, in the strength and vigor (rbg) of his youth, who can somehow avoid (“does not see”) death? The answer to this rhetorical question is an obvious “no”. No human being is able to rescue his soul—that is, enable it (somehow) to escape (vb fl^m*, Piel)—from the power (“hand”) of Death.

On loav= as a poetic term for death (and the realm of death), cf. my earlier note.

Comments for Christmas

The Wisdom-emphasis of these verses is generally absent from the Gospel Infancy Narratives; however, the idea of human mortality is present, to some extent. I would note two passages, in particular. The first is the narrative arc in Matthew 2, in which Herod, troubled by the prospect of losing his kingship (a theme relevant to vv. 39-46 of the Psalm), seeks to kill off the true king, the Messiah, born in Bethlehem. The Gospel’s poignant treatment of the death of the infants (vv. 16-18), with its citation of Jer 31:15, provides a powerful illustration of the brevity of human life (the infants truly had “the days of their youth cut short”, v. 46 of the Psalm).

The second passage to mention is the episode involving Simeon in Luke 2:25-35. The aged Simeon was keenly aware that his life was reaching its end, but the time of his death was related to his seeing the Messiah—the one who will fulfill the promise of the Davidic covenant, and thus bring about the restoration for God’s people (vv. 25-26). The encounter, with the aged Simeon holding the infant Jesus, is one of the most beautiful of the portraits in the Lukan Gospel, graced as it is by the canticle (“Nunc dimittis”) in vv. 29-32, which begins with a memorable statement regarding the acceptance of death (and human mortality) by a faithful believer:

“Now, may you loose your slave from (his service), O Master, according to your word, in peace…”

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 73 (Part 2)

Psalm 73, continued

The first section of the Psalm (vv. 1-12) was discussed in the prior study.

VERSES 13-17

Verse 13

“Truly, in vain have I cleansed my heart,
and washed with clear (water) my palms.”

Like the first section of the Psalm (cf. the previous study), this second section begins with the affirmative particle Ea^ (“surely, truly…”). The initial couplet here establishes the protagonist’s struggle with the wisdom-question—viz., as to why God allows injustice to prevail in the world, and the wicked to prosper. He feels that he has devoted himself to righteousness “in vain”; if the wicked can flourish in this life, then what is the value of living in an upright and devout manner? The Psalmist’s active righteousness is described by the parallel idiom of cleansing/washing (vb hk*z` / Jj^r*) one’s heart and hands (lit. “palms”). The idiom draws upon the idea of ritual purity, but is also used in a figurative (ethical-religious) sense—cf. 18:20, 24; 24:4; 26:6; 51:2, 7; Prov 20:9; Isa 1:16; Jer 4:14, etc.

There is also a bit of conceptual wordplay in these lines, as both the root qyr (noun qyr!) and hqn (noun /oyQ*n]) denote the idea of emptying. Here the noun qyr! refers to “emptiness” in the negative sense of worthlessness or vanity (“in vain”); while /oyQ*n] captures the idea of something made clear through “pouring out”, specifically here of being made clean/pure through the pouring of water. I have preserved the scope of this imagery by translating /oyQ*n] above as “clear [i.e. pure/purifying] water.”

Verse 14

“For I have been touched all the day (long),
and (then) endure rebuke in the morning.”

Here we have a clear allusion to the suffering of the righteous, which forms the flip-side to the wisdom-problem of the prosperity of the wicked. The Psalmist has been “touched” (vb ug~n`) by misfortune (from YHWH), perhaps in the form of a physical ailment or disease (a frequent motif in the Psalms). After enduring this “all the day (long),” he then has to face accusation and rebuke in the morning. This rebuke (vb jk^y`) can be understood as either coming from God, or from the Psalmist’s wicked adversaries; the latter is a regular theme in the Psalms. On the parsing of ytjkwt as a verb form, cf. Dahood, II, p. 191.

Verse 15

“If I had said ‘I will give account thus,’ see!
I would have betrayed (the) circle of your sons.”

To give voice to his doubts in public (vb rp^s*, “give account, recount”) would be an act of treachery (vb dg~B*) against the covenant bond uniting the children of Israel (as YHWH’s ‘sons’, “your sons”). The root dgb denotes acting in a deceitful or unfaithful manner, sometimes in the harsher or dramatic sense of “treachery” or “betrayal”. The noun roD is typically translated “generation”, but properly means “circle”; here, as often in the Psalms, the assembly of the righteous—whether envisioned literally (in corporate worship) or in a figurative/symbolic sense—is intended. The righteous are God’s faithful children (“sons”).

Verse 16

“And (yet when) I gave thought to know this,
it (seemed like) hard labor in my eyes,”

Rather than express his own doubts publicly, the Psalmist seeks to understand (vb ud^y`, “know”) the matter better. Yet as he began to ponder it (vb bv^j*), it seemed like hard and wearisome labor (lm*u*), suggesting the intractable difficulty of the wisdom-question he faces. Indeed, it is a question (of theodicy) that has long provoked (and perplexed) wise and learned persons throughout the centuries, providing a thematic staple of ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature.

Verse 17

“until I came to (the) holy place of (the) Mighty (One),
(and) discerned (the thing)s following for them.”

These lines continue the thought from v. 16. It is only when he comes to the “holy place” of God—i.e., the Temple precincts in Jerusalem—that the protagonist is able to find an answer to the wisdom-question that has plagued him. The plural <yv!D*q=m! (lit. “holy places”) may refer to the Temple precincts as a whole, or may indicate a single sanctuary; cf. Dahood, II, pp. 111, 192, on the Canaanite practice of using plural forms for buildings and dwelling-places.

The “holy place” of El-YHWH ultimately refers to His cosmic/heavenly dwelling, after which the local mountain on earth (including the Temple locale on mount Zion) is patterned, serving as its symbolic and ritual representation. There is likely an allusion here to God’s abode in Heaven (cf. Dahood, II, p. 192), which introduces the afterlife Judgment idea that is featured in the final section of the Psalm (cf. below).

The suffix <t*– (“them”) of the final word refers to the wicked. The Psalmist comes to understand (vb /yB!) the things that await (lit. “follow”) for the wicked.

Verses 18-28

Verse 18

“Truly, in the (land of) ruin you set (a place) for them,
you make them fall into (the) place of destruction.”

The parallel plural nouns toql*j& and toaWVm^ are rightly understood as intensive plurals. The first word is typically rendered “smooth [i.e. slippery] place(s)”, i.e., on which the wicked slip and slide down to destruction. However, Dahood (II, p. 192; cf. also I, pp. 35, 207, 211) makes a convincing argument that toqlj here is to be derived from a separate root qlj (III), related to Ugaritic —lq—a root with a relatively wide semantic range (“perish, disappear, be[come] ruined, wear out”). I have thus translated toql*j& here as “(place of) ruin”, which makes a proper parallel with toaWVm^ (“place of destruction”) in the second line. Clearly, the dual-reference is to death (and the grave) as the ultimate fate for the wicked.

As in the first two sections of the Psalm, this final section begins with the affirmative particle Ea^ (“surely, truly”).

Verse 19

“How they are (brought) to ruin in a moment,
swept away and finished by (the) terrors!

The noun hM*v^ (“desolation, ruin”) is more or less synonymous with the two earlier nouns in v. 18 (cf. above); they all refer to the realm of death and the grave. The exclamation Eya@ (“how…!”) reflects a certain wonderment by the Psalmist, as he realizes the terrible fate that awaits the wicked. It is not merely the fact of death, something which every human being faces, but an experience accompanied by frightening “terrors” (tohL*B^); the terrors of death overwhelm them as they perish. The verb pair WMt^ Wps* “(they are) swept away (and are) finished” can also be read as a hendiadys—i.e., “they are completely swept away”. The verb [Ws can mean, generally, “come to an end”, being thus synonymous with <m^T* (“[be] finish[ed]”); however, given the meaning of the related noun hp*Ws (“storm-wind, whirlwind”, cf. Isa 5:28; Hos 8:7), it is proper to translate [Ws here as “(be) swept away”.

Verse 20

“Like a dream from (which) one awakes, O Lord,
in (the) rousing (from it) you despise their shadow.”

The couplet is somewhat awkward, and there have been different attempts re-parsing/vocalizing the second line (cf. Dahood, II, p. 193; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 223). Conceptually, however, it seems possible to retain the MT without emendation. The “shadow” (<l#x#) of the wicked is compared to a dream from which one awakes. YHWH, in being “roused” (i.e. from sleep), casts off the shadow of the wicked, now deceased, as an insubstantial and lifeless ‘dream’. The implication is that there is no real afterlife for the wicked; they exist only as shadows in the realm of the dead.

Verses 21-22

“Then (when) my heart had become sour,
and my kidneys were hit by sharp (pain),
(so) also I (was) brutish and did not know,
(like) a dumb animal was I with you.”

The wisdom and insight gained by the Psalmist in the previous verses, suddenly disappears as he is struck (again) by a physical ailment (i.e., sharp pain inside), which also has emotional and psychological effects (“my heart became sour [vb Jm@j*]”). Cf. verse 14 (above) for an earlier allusion to physical (and emotional) suffering by the protagonist. His understanding is gone and the Psalmist feels like a dumb animal now in the presence of YHWH (“with you”). Apparently, as is often the case for mortal human beings, physical distress overpowers insight and rational thought.

Verse 23

“And (yet) I (am) continually with you,
you grab hold of me by my right hand.”

The Psalmist, in his distress, may feel like a mere animal in God’s presence, but he is still in God’s presence. And the first line is a declaration of faith and trust in YHWH’s abiding presence; the righteous can say: “I am continually [dym!t*] with you”. YHWH gives help and support to the righteous, through the motif of grabbing hold of his (right) hand. The idea of Divine protection and deliverance for the righteous, a frequent theme in the Psalms, is implied.

Verse 24

“With your counsel may you guide me,
and then with honor take me to (you).”

I follow Dahood (II, p. 195) in reading the imperfect verb form in each line as having the force of an imperative. The Psalmist is requesting YHWH to guide him in the remainder of his life (even as death nears), and then to bring him into His presence, in the blessed heavenly afterlife. The noun dobK* literally means “weight,” often in the sense of “worth, value”; when applied to God, it regularly connotes “honor, splendor, glory,” much as I translate it here; the heavenly afterlife context makes the translation “honor” particularly fitting. YHWH will receive the righteous/faithful one with honor, taking him to Himself. This fate for the righteous clearly contrasts with that of the wicked; the righteous-wicked contrast is a common element in Wisdom-tradition, and features notably in many Psalms (famously in Psalm 1, etc).

Verse 25

“Who (else is there) for me in the heavens?
Even with you I desire no(thing else) on earth.

The syntax of this couplet is somewhat cryptic, but the basic idea seems to be that YHWH Himself is the Psalmist’s ultimate delight and desire, in heaven, just as it has been on earth. The blessedness of the afterlife, for the righteous, rests in being continually in the presence of God; this builds upon the earlier thought in vv. 22-23 (cf. above), with the repeated use of the expression ;M=u! (“with you”).

Verse 26

“My flesh and my heart may cease, O Rock,
(but) my heart and my portion, Mightiest, (is) forever.”

This difficult verse makes most sense when divided as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet. By this division, rWx (“rock”) is to be taken as the familiar Divine epithet (“[my] Rock”), parallel here with <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest,” Elohim, ‘God’); cf. Dahood, II, p. 195f). The syntactic structure of the couplet is clear, but complex:

    • “shall cease/end
      • my flesh and my heart
        • O Rock
      • (but) my heart and my portion
        • O Mightiest
    • (shall be) for ever”

The expression <l*oul=, which I here translate (for poetic concision) as “forever”, properly means “for/into (the) distant (future),” i.e., lasting into the distant future. The dual-positioning of the word bb*l@ (“heart”) indicates that here the heart represents the point of contact between the earthly and the heavenly, the mortal (human) and the Divine. The heart paired with “flesh” signifies human life and existence on earth, while heart paired with ql#j@ (“portion”) signifies that which is allotted to the righteous as their heavenly inheritance (in the blessed afterlife).

Verse 27

“For, see! (those who are) far from you shall perish;
you destroy every (one) having intercourse (away) from you!”

The fate of the wicked is reiterated here, in simpler and less colorful terms. They are fundamentally “far away” (qj@r*) from YHWH, in contrast to the righteous who are “with” (<u!) Him (vv. 22-23, 25). The verb hn`z` basically denotes illicit sexual intercourse, for which there is no good English equivalent. Here the verb signifies in what sense the wicked ones have ‘gone away’ from God—viz., off in pursuit of wicked (i.e., immoral) and idolatrous ways (hnz frequently connotes idolatry and/or worship of any deity other than YHWH).

Verse 28

“But I, (the) nearness of (the) Mightiest (is) good for me;
I have set my Lord YHWH (as) my place of refuge,
(so as) to give account of all your works.”

The Psalm concludes with a four-beat (4+4) couplet, in which the Psalmist again expresses his trust and devotion to YHWH. As in verse 25 (cf. above), he declares that being in the presence of God is his greatest (and only real) delight. Here he defines what he considers as the greatest good (bof) for him: “the nearness [hb*r*q=] of God”. The righteous trust in YHWH as their protection and “place of refuge” (hs#j&m^); this is a frequent theme in the Psalms, with the verb hs*j* (and the related noun hs#j&m^) used frequently to express it; the locative noun occurs 12 times in the Psalms, more than half of all OT occurrences (20).

The short final line, with its sudden shift back to second person address, could be viewed as a secondary addition. It is typical of many Psalms that they close with a reference to giving praise to YHWH, declaring the greatness of His deeds, etc, in a public/corporate worship setting. For other examples of a similar shift from third person to second person (direct) address in the same verse, cf. 22:26; 102:16[15] (Dahood, II, p. 197).

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 73 (Part 1)

Psalm 73

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is a Wisdom-Psalm—that is, a Psalm in which wisdom-elements and theology dominate the composition. We have seen throughout these studies how many Psalms have been strongly influenced by wisdom-tradition; by all accounts, this influence is relatively late, with evidence that wisdom-tradition helped to shape the redaction of certain poems, as those Psalms were edited for use in the Community worship. The particularly heavy Wisdom-emphasis in this Psalm likewise suggests a relatively late date, perhaps in the 5th century. Linguistic and thematic similarities with the book of Job have been noted (cf. the article by J. Luyten, “Psalm 73 and Wisdom,” in Maurice Gilbert, ed., La Sagesse de l’Ancient Testament, Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium 51 [Peeters: 1979], pp. 58-91). Cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 225-6.

Another possible indication of a relatively late date is the highly regular meter, with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. The few exceptions to this consistent rhythm will be noted.

This is the first of a series of eleven Psalms (7383) associated with the figure of Asaph ([s*a*). According to 1 Chron 6:39, Asaph was one of three priestly (Levite) officials who were put in charge of the “service of the song” by David (cf. 25:1; 2 Chron 5:12); he also served as “chief minister” before the Ark in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:4-5; 25:5). He is said to have been a “seer” (hz#j), 2 Chron 29:30), and his sons apparently also functioned as prophets (1 Chron 25:1-2). The musical tradition associated with Asaph (and his descendants) is confirmed by the notices in Ezra 2:41 and Neh 11:22. On the association of Asaph with prophecy, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50.

Structurally, Psalm 73 is best seen as comprised of three sections, each of which begins with the affirmative particle Ea^, usually rendered as “surely” or “truly”. In the first section (vv. 1-12), the Psalmist’s initial expression of trust in the goodness and faithfulness of YHWH is put to the test by his recognition of the injustice that seems to prevail in the world. This reflects a perennial Wisdom-question: how can a righteous Creator God allow injustice to flourish in His creation? Here, in particular, the Psalmist focuses on how the wicked seem to enjoy success and prosperity, in spite of their wickedness. The flip-side of this theme involves the affliction and suffering of the righteous, as it occurs often at the hands of the wicked. The suffering of the righteous is not specifically emphasized, but the idea is surely implicit throughout. This is part of the righteous-wicked contrast, a fundamental Wisdom-element that occurs frequently in the Psalms. The wicked, flourishing in their injustice, are vividly described in these verses.

In the second section (vv. 13-17), the Psalmist shows how he struggles to make sense of this basic contradiction, regarding the prevailing presence of injustice in the world and the prosperity of the wicked. The answer is given in the final section (vv. 18-28), focusing on the ultimate Judgment (in the afterlife and/or the end-time), when YHWH will finally make right what He had left undone during the lifetime of the wicked (and the righteous).


Verse 1

“(See) Truly, (how) He is good to Yisrael,
(the) Mightiest, to (the) pure of heart.”

Commentators have long suggested emending MT la@r*c=y]l= (“to Israel”) to la@ rv*Y`l^ (“El to the upright”); this would yield the following (admittedly appealing) parallelism:

“Truly, (the) Mighty (One) is good to the upright,
(the) Mightiest to (the) pure of heart.”

However, the ancient versions follow the MT, which argues strongly in its favor. Dahood (II, p. 188) reads the prefixed –l as a vocativel (i.e., “O, Israel”), which would certainly be fitting to the opening line of the Psalm, with its communal setting. By retaining the MT, the couplet establishes the dual-aspect for God’s people—i.e., the people Israel, but specifically the holy/righteous ones of the people, designated here by the expression “pure of heart” (bb*l@ yr@B*). If rv*y` (“straight, upright”) is read in the first line (cf.  above), then the religious-ethical emphasis would be even more clear.

Verse 2

“Yet (as for) me, but a little did my feet turn aside,
with no (strength), they poured out (in my) steps.”

The precise syntax of this couplet is problematic, mainly due to the verb forms in each line, for which there are Masoretic (kethib/qere’) variants. It is also one of the few metrically irregular verses (4+3 couplet) in the Psalm, expressing, in poetic terms, the near stumbling of the protagonist.

With the initial pronoun (yn]a&, “I”), the Psalmist identifies himself as being among the righteous Israelites, those who are “pure of heart”. And yet, something has very nearly (“according to a little [bit],” fu^m=K!) caused his feet to bend/turn (vb hf*n`) from the path. The negative/privative particle /y]a^ (with the prefixed preposition K=) at the start of the second line should probably be understood in the sense of “as with no (strength)” —i.e., his legs/feet were suddenly without any firmness or strength as he stepped. His legs “poured out” (vb Ep^v*) like water under him in his steps (rV%a^ plur.). Dahood (II, p. 188) suggests that the h– ending of the verb form hk*P=v% (kethib) represents the archaic third person feminine dual/plural ending, which would correspond to the the plural yr*v%a& (“my steps”).

Walking straight, with feet firmly planted on the ground, is a basic religious-ethical idiom for upright behavior and conduct. What was it that nearly caused the Psalmist to stumble and stray from the path? He describes this in verses 3ff that follow.

Verse 3

“For I was (made) jealous by the boasting (one)s,
(when the) well-being of (the) wicked I saw,”

The particle yK! here has explanatory force, describing the reason why the Psalmist nearly stumbled from the right path (cf. above). He became jealous (vb an`q*) of those “boasting”. The verb ll^h* II literally means “shout,” in a negative (arrogant or boastful) sense. The participle indicates regular behavior that characterizes such people (i.e., boasting/boastful ones); here it is a characteristic of the wicked, cf. also 5:6[5]; 10:3; 49:7[6], 14[13]; 52:3[1], etc.

The Psalmist is particularly provoked to jealousy and envy when he sees the well-being of the wicked. In spite of their wicked ways, they seem to have considerable prosperity and success, happiness, etc, in this life. The noun <olv* properly means “fullness, completeness”; in English idiom, we would perhaps translate it here as “a full/complete life”; for poetic concision, I have rendered it more generally as “well-being”. Quite possibly, the wicked are boasting specifically of their prosperity and well-being.

Verse 4

“that there are no struggles for them—
full and fat, (indeed, is) their strength!”

I view verse 4 as a continuation of the thought in v. 3; the initial particle yK! thus has a slightly different emphasis than in v. 3. The well-being (<olv*) of the wicked is manifested by their lack of any struggles. The exact derivation and meaning of noun hB*x%r=j^ is uncertain; the only other occurrence is in Isa 58:6 where it is used parallel to the idea of a heavy burden, and of the yoke that is placed on a beast of burden. Dahood (II, p. 189) would relate it to Ugaritic —ƒb (“slay”, or, more generally, “fight”); cp. Hebrew bx@j*, “cut, hew, dig”. In any case, the basic idea seems to be that the wicked, in their prosperity, are free from burdensome labors, which I have generalized in my translation (following Dahood) as “struggles”.

Most commentators are in agreement that MT <t*oml= (“in their death” [?]) needs to be separated and revocalized as <T* oml* (“for them / complete”). The adjective <T* (“complete”) relates conceptually to the noun <olv* (“fullness, completeness”) in v. 3. Because they are free from burdensome labor, their physical strength (lWa), and their earthly life as a whole, is “full” (<T*) and “fat” (ayr!B*).

Verse 5

“Nothing of the toil of humankind is there (for) them,
and with mankind(‘s trouble) they are not touched.”

The syntax of this couplet is a bit awkward (I have tried to capture something of this in my translation), but it clearly gets across the idea, from v. 4 (cf. above), that the wicked, in their prosperity, are relatively free from the toil and trouble that burdens other (less fortunate) people—that is to say, most of humankind. The noun lm*u* (“hard work, labor, toil”) in the first line should be read as implicit in the second line as well.

Verse 6

“Thus (an evil) exaltation adorns their neck,
(and) a covering of violence is set for them.”

In their prosperous strength, the wicked are spurred on to (further) wickedness and acts of injustice (against others). A prideful exaltation (hw`a&G~) adorns their neck (denom. verb qn~u*, from qn`u&, “neck[lace]”), and a garment of violence (sm*j*) covers their body. The syntax of the second line is rather difficult to translate; literally it would read: “a setting of violence is a cover(ing) for them”. I have reworded this slightly, so as better to capture the idea of a garment of violence being put (root tyv) around their body. Here the idea of wickedness is clearly connected with the image of worldly wealth and luxury (expressed through clothing and jewelry, etc).

Verse 7

“Their eyes (stand)ing out (whit)er than milk,
(the) images of (their) heart go (yet) beyond.”

For the first line, I tentatively adopt the vocalization of the MT proposed by Dahood (II, p. 189), reading the infinitive ax)y` (“going out”), and vocalizing bljm as bl*j*m@ (“from milk”), with the preposition /m! in the comparative sense of “(more) than”; as a comparison of beauty, cf. Gen 49:12; Lam 4:7. The brightness/whiteness of the eyes of the wicked can perhaps be understood as expressing two aspects of meaning: (a) a vibrancy of physical health and beauty, and (b) eyes wide open alluding to a covetous desire for riches and the things of this world. The latter aspect is suggested by the second line, describing how the heart of the wicked, within them, imagines still more things; the verb rb^u* literally means “go/cross over”, perhaps in the sense of going further—i.e., in one’s desire for wealth and luxury, etc.

Some commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld-Zenger) would emend omn@yu@ (“their eyes”) to omn`ou& (“their guilt”). However, this is inappropriate; body parts are emphasized throughout vv. 6-9, and thus it is fitting to focus on the eyes of the wicked, especially as a parallel with the ‘inner’ vision of the “heart”.

Verse 8

“They bring mocking and speak with evil (tongue);
(indeed,) oppression from on high they speak.”

The impulse and desires of the heart (v. 7) leads the wicked to speak evil (ur^). The verb rb^D* (“speak”) is used twice, once in each line, for double-emphasis. They begin with mocking (vb qWm) and end with more serious abuse against others, bringing oppression (qv#u)) from their lofty position (“on high,” <orm*).

Verse 9

“They (even) set their mouth against the heavens,
and their tongue goes against the (whole) earth.”

The motif of the high/exalted position of the wicked in v. 8 leads to the idea that they even speak (“set their mouth”) against the heavens. The motifs of daring to exalt oneself to heaven, and of speaking against God Himself, are features of the “wicked tyrant” motif in Old Testament and Jewish tradition; for more on this, cf. Part 1 of my study on “The Antichrist Tradition”.

Here the preposition B= has the specific sense of “against”; however, it is not as clear that this is intended in the second line (i.e., “against the earth”) as well. Possibly, the idea of “going about in (i.e. throughout) the whole earth” is intended, just as it is said of the Satan in Job 1:7; 2:2 (“going about in it”). However, I think the overriding theme of the wicked acting in an abusive and oppressive manner favors the sense of speaking “against” in both lines.

Verse 10

“So (the) people turn back this way (to) them,
and waters of (the) full (sea) are brought to them.”

This is a difficult couplet; the first line, in particular, is problematic, and may be corrupt. Dahood (II, p. 190) would emend MT oMu^ byv!y` (“his people return” [?]) to Wub=c=y] (“they filled/satisfied [themselves”) + enclitic <– suffix. This would certainly fit the theme in v. 9, of the mouth/tongue of the wicked extending out to encompass the heavens and the earth.

If the MT is at all correct, then presumably the first line relates to the oppressive character of the wicked. Through their power and position, they are able, acting unjustly, to compel people to behave a certain way. As a result, people “turn back” to the wicked, providing a measure of service to them on their behalf. One is reminded of the influence the evil Sea Creature (and his servant the Earth Creature) has on the peoples of earth in the book of Revelation (chap. 13). The image of  the “waters of the full (sea) [?]” is likely intended as a general (and comprehensive) metaphor for the worldly wealth that has come to the wicked.

Verse 11

“And they say, ‘How can (the) Mighty (One) know?’
and ‘Is there (any) knowledge in the Most High?'”

The exalted position and arrogant thinking of the wicked even leads them to question the knowledge of God. Probably this question should be understood, at another level, in terms of the principal Wisdom-question posed by the Psalm: viz., how can the righteous Creator allow injustice to prevail on earth, and allow the wicked to prosper? Does God even realize what the wicked are doing? The idea that the wicked might think their deeds are hidden from God is expressed relatively often in the Old Testament; for examples of this motif elsewhere in the Psalms, cf. 10:11; 94:7. Yet, again, the Wisdom-focus of the Psalm also raises the question, even for the righteous, of whether YHWH sees (and knows) what the wicked are doing; if He does see, then why does He not punish the wicked?

Verse 12

“See, these (are the) wicked (one)s;
forever at rest, they increase (in) strength.”

The Psalmist ends his description of the wicked with this declaration: “these (are the) wicked (one)s”. The problematic Wisdom-question addressed by the Psalm is summarized in the final line. The adjective wa@v* means “at rest,” and thus the wicked are characterized by those who are “at rest” (vv. 4-5, cf. above). The noun <olu* presumably is used in the typical sense of the “distant (future)”; to avoid cluttering the translation at this climactic point, I have rendered it in the more figurative (and dramatic) sense of “forever”. However, the alternate interpretation of Dahood (II, p. 191) merits consideration. He understands wa@v* (and the root hl*v* I, “be at rest”) in the negative of sense of being careless/heedless; when used in combination with <olu* as a Divine title (i.e., Eternal One), the line would read:

“heedless of the Eternal (One), they increase (their) strength”

This reading certainly accentuates the Wisdom-question of the Psalm. How can the wicked ignore/neglect YHWH, and yet still prosper, increasing in wealth and worldly power? In the second and third parts of the Psalm (to be discussed in next week’s study), the author begins to provide an answer to this question.

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, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, 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 62 (Part 2)

Psalm 62, continued

The first two stanzas of Psalm 62 were discussed in the previous study. Those stanzas are roughly similar in structure, with opening lines that are very close. The third section, however, is quite different, and functions as a coda in relation to the first two sections. It is didactic, containing proverbial material; there had been wisdom-elements in the first stanza (verses 4-5, cp. vv. 8-9), but they are much more prominent in the final stanza. In our studies, we have seen how Wisdom-traditions shaped many of the Psalms, giving a new (communal) framework to the ancient royal/covenant themes. Often this wisdom-influence features notably in the closing section of a Psalm, and this is very much the case in Psalm 62.

The wisdom-elements in vv. 4-5 introduce the familiar theme of the contrast between the righteous and wicked. There is also an implied contrast established, in the first two stanzas, between the person who is without YHWH’s protection (vv. 4-5), who is thus vulnerable to attacks by the wicked, and the righteous/faithful one who is under God’s protection (vv. 8-9).

Stanza 3: VV. 10-13 [9-12]

Verse 10 [9]

“Indeed an empty (wind) (are the) sons of men,
(and) a deception, the sons of a (great) man;
(as) weight in the balances, they are to go up,
all together, (light)er than an empty (vapor).”

The Wisdom-theme of the final stanza is indicated here by the use of the noun lb#h# in the first two couplets. Denoting something that is empty (spec. a wind or breath), lb#h# is a keyword in Old Testament Wisdom literature, occurring 4 times in Job, 3 times in Proverbs, and 38 times in Ecclesiastes; the 9 occurrences in the Psalms (cf. earlier in 31:7; 39:6-7, 12) attest to the influence of Wisdom traditions on the Psalter. As a wisdom term, lb#h# signifies how insubstantial and fleeting human existence is, emphasizing, at the same time, the foolishness and vanity of many people in the world (esp. the wicked).

The expressions <d*a*-yn@B= and vya!-yn@B= are essentially equivalent, both meaning “sons of man” (i.e., human beings); however, if a distinction is intended, the singular vya! could imply a noteworthy person (i.e., great/prominent men), compared with the ‘ordinary’ human beings of the collective <d*a*.

The third line, as it reads in the MT, is a bit awkward. Dahood (II, p. 93) would explain twlul as a plural form of the noun hl#u* (“leaf,” i.e., “leaves”), with the prefixed preposition l used in a comparative sense (i.e., “[light]er than leaves”), comparable to comparative /m! in the next line; the couplet would then be:

“(a weight) in (the) balances (light)er than leaves,
all together (light)er than an empty (vapor).”

The first couplet has a synonymous parallelism, while in the second couplet the parallelism is synthetic. It is also possible to view the thematic structure of the verse as a chiasm:

    • Human beings are an empty wind [lb#h#]
      • They are a deception, characterized by deceit [bz`K*]
      • They are proven false when weighed in the scales (of God’s Judgment)
    • All human beings are an empty vapor [lb#h#]
Verse 11 [10]

“Do not trust in oppression and tearing away,
do not (rely) on the emptiness of strength—
that it should bear fruit, do not set your heart (on it)!”

The verb jf^B* in line 1 appeared earlier in v. 9, and occurs frequently in the Psalms, in the context of the protection YHWH provides. The righteous trust in that protection, seeking it from God. By contrast, the wicked trust in their own power and wealth—both of which are summarized by the noun ly]j^ (“strength”). It is implied here (in line 1) that the wealth of the wicked is obtained through oppression and robbery. The first of these (noun qv#u)) can also connote the use violence (or threats of it) and deceitful practices, and may be rendered “extortion”. The second (noun lz@G`) typically refers to tearing or stripping away, usually in the context of violent robbery or plunder. Even if such actions seem to lead to success and prosperity for the wicked, even if a person’s worldly power and wealth seems to prevail (vb bWn, lit. “bear fruit”), it is still only a deceptive vanity, and should not be relied upon (“do not set your heart [on it]”).

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

“Once (the) Mightiest has spoken,
(and) this twice I have heard:
that strength (belongs) to (the) Mightiest,
and to you, my Lord, goodness,
that you make complete (the judgment)
for a man, according to his deed(s).”

In contrast to the strength (ly]j^) of human beings (v. 11), the righteous trust in the strength (zu)) of YHWH. Unlike human beings, whose power is often obtained through wickedness, God’s power is joined to His attribute of goodness (ds#j#)—which, as I have noted often in these studies, is typically used in the Psalms in the context of the covenant-bond, connoting faithfulness and loyalty.

YHWH can also be trusted because He is the Sovereign and Judge over all the universe. The setting of the great Judgment was alluded to in verse 10 (cf. above), and is referenced again here, at the end of the Psalm, in the final couplet. The verb <l^v* (“complete, fulfill”) also tends to be used in the Psalms in relation to the covenant. God is faithful and will fulfill His part of the binding agreement (with His people); the only question is whether humankind will complete their side of the agreement. This is the crux of the Wisdom-contrast between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous are faithful to the covenant, while the wicked are not. And YHWH, as the supreme Ruler and Judge, will respond as is appropriate, completing the agreement by paying back what is due to each person—good or bad, reward or punishment—according to what they have done (verbal noun hc#u&m^).

The opening couplet makes use of the so-called ‘numeric ladder’ device, using a numerical sequence x / x+1, which is a poetic device that occurs frequently in both Canaanite and Hebrew poetry, and features in Wisdom literature (see esp. its use in the book of Proverbs). Here the sequence is “once / twice,” or “one thing / two things” (tj^a^ / dual <y]T^v=). Cf. Dahood, II, p. 94.

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 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).