Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (vv. 2, 4-6, 8, 10, 12); 4QPsq (vv. 1-14, 16-18)
This Psalm is a hymn of praise to YHWH, recognizing Him as Creator and Ruler of the universe. It tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon format, especially in the opening lines, and through the second half of the composition. Thematically, it can be divided according to the following outline:
Interestingly, the MT contains no superscription at all; however, the Qumran manuscript 4QPsq has a customary superscription, marking the Psalm as a musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.
“Cry (for joy), (you) righteous (one)s, in YHWH,
(give, O) straight (one)s, a shout (most) beautiful!”
As noted above, the opening and closing sections of the Psalm are an exhortation for the righteous. By this term is meant the faithful ones among God’s people, loyal and devoted to Him (and to the covenant), characterized by the adjectives qyD!x* (“just, right[eous]”), and rv*y` (“straight”). The exhortation is a call to praise—giving out a cry (vb /n~r*) or shout (hL*h!t=) to God. The modifying adjective hw`an` (“beautiful, lovely”) can also connote something that is fine or “fitting”. Probably the prefixed lamed (l=) of <yr!v*y+l^ should be understood in a vocative sense, “O, (you) straight (one)s” (cf. Dahood, p. 201).
“Throw (praise) to YHWH with (the) harp,
with a box of ten (strings) make music to Him!”
One way to praise God is through music (making music, vb rm^z`), on instruments such as a (ten-)stringed harp (roNK!) or lyre, further defined as a hollow box, in the shape of a vase/bottle, to which strings are attached.
“Sing to Him a song (that is) new,
give good playing with a burst (of joy).”
The musical praise, naturally, also involves singing; and the song of praise should be fresh and “new” (vd*j*) each time, done well (vb bf^y`, i.e., with skill and beauty), and with a “burst” of joy.
The first main section of the Psalm addresses YHWH’s authority over the universe (as Creator).
“For (the) word of YHWH (is) straight,
and all His deeds (are done) with firmness.”
According to the Genesis Creation account, God created the universe, and set it in order, through the idiom of the spoken word. For YHWH, speech and action (vb hc*u*) are essentially the same thing—i.e., God speaks, and it comes to be (Gen 1:3ff). This couplet thus establishes the Creation theme of the section, which continues, and is developed, in vv. 5-9.
The word (rb*D*) of YHWH is “straight” (rv*y`), and so too are the righteous ones (v. 1)—i.e., the people of God reflect the character of God Himself. Parallel with the idea of “straightness” is firmness (hn`Wma$), which also connotes faithfulness, reliability, security, etc; it is frequently used in a covenant context.
“He loves rightness and (sound) judgment,
(and with the) goodness of YHWH (the) earth is filled!”
Again there are allusions to the Creation account in view here, including the central idea that the ordered universe, as created and established by YHWH, reflects His own character, will, and purpose. In the Genesis account, we find the repeated refrain that the Creation, made according to God’s purpose, was “good” (bof); similarly, here is expressed the idea that the world is everywhere filled with the “goodness” (ds#j#) of YHWH. The term ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness” or “kindness”, but it also often connotes “faithfulness” or “loyalty”, especially when used in a covenant context. Along with ds#j#, two other comparable characteristics are mentioned in the first line: hq*d*x= and fP*v=m!.
The first of these (hq*d*x=) literally means “rightness, justness”, i.e., that which is right and just; typically translated “righteousness”, it can also denote “justice” and “faithfulness”. The second term (fP*v=m!) is usually rendered “judgment”, often in the (judicial) sense of delivering or establishing justice, especially when used of God. Both of these terms may be referred to as ‘attributes’ of YHWH, and are characteristic of his authority and rule over Creation.
Just as verse 4 pointed back to v. 1, with its use of the adjective rv*y` (“straight”), so also the noun hq*d*x= (“right[eous]ness”) here alludes to the opening verse, and the characteristic of the faithful ones among God’s people as “righteous [one]s” (<yqyD!x^).
“By (the) word of YHWH, (the) heavens were made,
and by (the) breath of His mouth, all their army.”
The “breath” (j^Wr) of God also features in the Genesis Creation account (1:2), and serves as an appropriate counterpart to His “word” (rb*D*), both coming out of His mouth (hP#). Here the focus is on YHWH’s creation of the ‘upper half’ of the universe—the “heavens” (cf. Gen 1:1, 6-8, 14ff). The sun, moon, and stars—all of the entities which populate the heavens—are conceived of as a great “army” (ab*x*); in particular, for the multitude of the stars, as they appear in the night sky, the metaphor of an ‘army’ was natural and obvious. The expression “army of the heavens” (<y]m^V*h^ ab*x=) occurs frequently in the Old Testament (Deut 4:19, et al), and the ancient title toab*x= hwhy (“YHWH of [the] armies”), while somewhat obscure in its origins, clearly refers to YHWH’s role and Creator and Ruler over the universe (esp. the heavens). It has been suggested that the title is an abbreviated form of a longer sentence-appellation, which preserves the original verbal force of the divine name hwhy—i.e., “El, the (One who) causes the armies (of Heaven) to be” (cf. Cross, pp. 69-71); this is as good an explanation as any.
“He collects (the) waters of (the) sea as a mass,
giving (its) depths in(to many) store-houses.”
The parallel with the “heavens” in v. 6 suggests that in v. 7 here we are dealing with the ‘lower-half’ of the cosmos—the “earth”, and the seas which are found on (and within) it. However, in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the entire universe (“heaven and earth”) was itself surrounded by the dark primeval waters. As part of the establishment of the created order, the deity (in Near Eastern cosmological myth) was often seen as subduing the primeval waters, gaining control and exercising authority over them. This control was manifest, especially, in the rains and floodwaters which were released, in their proper season, and in the proper measure, to maintain fertility on the earth (for agriculture, etc). In ancient Israelite and Old Testament tradition, YHWH is similarly depicted in this cosmological role of the sky/storm deity who subdued the waters and rules over them; for more on the subject, cf. my article on the “Conflict with the Sea”.
There is no question that YHWH is seen as exercising control over the Sea (and its waters) here in v. 7; indeed, the primary theme being expressed is God’s authority over the universe and the created order. Even so, it seems probable that the direct reference here is to the ‘gathering of the waters’ on the earth in the Genesis account (1:9-10), rather than the separation of the cosmos from the primeval waters (1:6-8). In the Psalm, the action described in the two lines should probably be taken as synonymous—that is, a single process of ‘gathering/collecting’ (vb sn~K*) the waters, to form the various seas (oceans, lakes) and rivers, etc., on the earth. These various allocations of water are the “storehouses” (torx*a)), all under God’s control, like the store-rooms of a king’s palace.
The Masoretic text of line 1 reads “He gathers as a heap [dN@K^]”, which evokes the episode at the Reed Sea in Israelite tradition (Exod 15:8; Josh 3:13ff; Psalm 78:13). However, the LXX here has the word a)sko/$ (“skin, bag”), which suggests the corresponding Hebrew dan), rather than dn@ (“mound, heap, mass”). Interestingly, at this point in the Psalm, the Qumran manuscript 4QPsq contains an extra line with a similar reading: “He made the waters, [they stood firm like] a skin”; from a critical standpoint, this would appear to be a secondary expansion, possibly a conflation of two versions of the text, or involving a marginal note which made its way into the text. Dahood (p. 201) suggests that the initial –K is not the preposition (K=) at all, but that dnk is cognate with Ugaritic knd (= Akkadian kandu), meaning “jar, pitcher”. In this case, the meaning of the first line of v. 7 would be roughly the same as that of the LXX reading, even though it involves slightly different vocabulary.
“May there be fear from YHWH (over) all the earth,
may they be afraid from Him, all inhabitants of (the) world!”
As the first half of the Psalm comes to a close, the focus shifts to the inhabitants of the earth, setting the stage for the theme of the second half: YHWH’s authority over the nations. The parallelism of this couplet is synonymous and straightforward, utilizing two verbs with comparable meaning (ar@y`, rWG III)—both of which denote “fear, be afraid”. This fear (i.e. the reason for fear) comes from (/m!) YHWH Himself. Since He is the Creator of all, Creation itself should stand in awe of Him.
I have resorted to a less literal, more conventional translation in the second line, in order to preserve as much of the poetic rhythm as possible. The expression lb@t@ yb@v=y) is actually rather difficult to translate literally; in particular, the noun lb@T@ practically defies clear translation in English, as no comparable word exists which captures its range of meaning. Fundamentally, it refers to a region (or domain) where things move from one place to another; the noun itself tends to connote the production/activity that occurs on the earth, sometimes specifically the activity of human beings who live and work on the land. In many instances, we could paraphrase lb@T@ as “the inhabited world”, and that is essentially the meaning here.
“For He said (it), and it came to be,
He gave (the) command, and it stood (firm).”
The Creation account (Gen 1:3ff) is again summarized here in the closing couplet, reinforcing the theological doctrine, central to Israelite religion, that YHWH is the Creator Deity, otherwise identified by the name/title El (“Mighty One” [= Elohim]) in the Semitic world. The Genesis Creation account uses the common intensive plural <yh!l)a$ (Elohim), identified with YHWH at 2:4b. In verse 9 of our Psalm here, the pronoun aWh (“he”) is used, emphatically, in both lines—i.e., He (YHWH) is the One who did this, He is the Creator. And, so, for this reason, all of humankind should honor and revere YHWH, and the righteous ones of His people should praise Him.
References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
References marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).