Psalm 139

PS139For the music director, for David a song

 

You have searched me Lord,

and you know…[i]

You know when I sit and when I rise

From afar you understand my thoughts.

You know when I am wondering and when I am lying down[ii],

you are acquainted with all my ways.

Before there is even a word on my tongue,

O Lord, you already know everything.

The paths behind me and before me, you have chosen[iii].

You have put your hand on me.

This[iv] knowledge is too wonderful for me,

It is beyond my reach. I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?

Where can I flee from your face?

If I ascend to the heavens, there you are.

And if I lie in the depths[v], behold you are there.

If I am carried[vi] by the wings of the dawn,

If I dwell at the ends of the sea.

Even there your hand guides me.

Your right hand takes hold of me.

And I say, “Surely the darkness will conceal[vii] me

but the night is light around me.”

Even the darkness is unable conceal anything from you

And the night will shine like the day,

The darkness will be as light.

 

For you created[viii] my inner most parts[ix],

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I will thank you because you[x] are awesome

and marvelous wonders are your works,

You know[xi] well my soul.

My frame[xii], which was made in secret, was not hidden from you

I was formed in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed being,

and in your book all of the days ordained for me have been written

and there is not one day missing[xiii].

 

How precious to me are your friends[xiv] God.

They have become strong.

I count them, they are more than grains of sand

I awake and still I am with you[xv].

Will you slay the wicked, God?

Will you turn violent men away from me?

They speak deceitfully about you

Your enemies[xvi] lie.

God, those you hate I will hate

And those who rebel against you I will loath.

With a complete hatred, I will hate them.

They will be my enemies.

Search me God and know my heart,

Examine me and know the thoughts that trouble[xvii] me.

See if there is an idolatrous way within me.

And lead me in the way of eternity.

 

 


 

[i] Lit “and you will know” (ותדע), many versions have supplied the object but it is not in the text itself.

[ii] Lit. “my wondering and my Lying down” (ארחי ורבעי)

[iii] The LXX reads “The end and the beginning, you formed me (τὰ ἔσχατα καὶ τὰ ἀρχαῖα σὺ ἔπλασάς με)” indicating that the translators under stood the root to be יצר (to form) rather than צור (to enclose). NIDOTTE states “In Ps. 139:5, God hems the psalmist in on every side. This could be read negatively as a lament, complaining at God’s oppressive constraint. However, it might also be a positive assurance of his comprehensive care, or simply an affirmation of absolute sovereignty.” The context of the Psalm strongly supports the idea of positive assurance rather than negative lament. In spite of the textual challenges of this verse, the overall intent seems to be to describe God’s sovereign control over a person’s whole life from its beginning to its end.

[iv] The demonstrative pronoun “this” is added for clarification but it is not in the original text (פליאה דעת ממני).

[v] Lit. Sheol.

[vi] The verb נשא ‘to carry’ is active in form but appears to be passive in meaning. The NET translates this similarly as “If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn.”

[vii] The NET notes:  The Hebrew verb שׁוּף (shuf), which means “to crush; to wound,” in Gen 3:15 and Job 9:17, is problematic here. For a discussion of attempts to relate the verb to Arabic roots, see L. C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 (WBC), 251. Many emend the form to יְשׂוּכֵּנִי (yesukkeniy), from the root שׂכך (“to cover,” an alternate form of סכך), a reading assumed in the present translation. BHS, shows support for this emendation in Jerome’s, the Psalter according to the Hebrews.

[viii] NIDOTTE notes “The root קנה in the sense “create” is much disputed (Vawter; THAT, s.v.) but is to be maintained on the grounds of the comparative linguistic and religious evidence (De Moor for Ugartic; cf. KAI III 22a) and of its use and parallels in context (Ge. 14:19, 22; Deut 32:6; Ps 139:13; Prov 8:22; cf. Westermann on Ge. 4:1)

[ix] Lit. kidneys

[x] The MT reads “being feared (f. pl), I was wonderful”/“נוראות נפליתי”.  The feminine plural verb does not match the subject which is singular and makes the phrase ambiguous. In 11Qpsa this phrase reads “you are being feared”/ “אתה נורא” shifting the phrase to the 2nd person i.e. rather than speaking about me, this verse is speaking about God. This is echoed in the NET translation. The LXX and the Latin Vulgate both reflect an underlying Hebrew text that aligns to 11Qpsa. See “A favorite bible verse, misunderstood?

[xi] The change from “my soul knows it” (NIV, NASB, ESV) to “You know my soul” (NET), does not reflect a textual variation but only a change in vocalization. If we accept the shift to the 2nd person found in 11Qpsa, the LXX, and the Vulgate then this change of vocalization would be expected.

[xii] Lit. my bone.

[xiii] There are several variants that are all equally difficult. The MT reads “ולא אחד בהם”  but offers a marginal correction of “ולו אחד בהם”. 11Qpsa reads “ולו אח מהמה”

[xiv] רע is commonly used to convey the idea of friend/companion and was understood as “friend” by the translators of the LXX. “Friends” seems to fit the context better than the traditional translation of “thoughts” because the passage appears to be contrasting those who stand with God against those who have rebelled against God. Similarly, in James 2:23 Abraham is called a “friend of God” (φίλος θεοῦ) in recognition of his trust and allegiance with God, and Jesus calls believers,  who follow his commands, “friends” (φίλους) in Jn. 15:13-15.

[xv] This phrase is grammatically difficult. The MT reads הקיצתי ועודי עמך, but 11Qpsa reads הקיצותי ועוד עמכה.

[xvi] The NET translators’ note that “Heb “lifted up for emptiness, your cities.” The Hebrew text as it stands makes no sense. The form נָשֻׂא (nasu’; a Qal passive participle) should be emended to נָשְׂאוּ (nos®u; a Qal perfect, third common plural, “[they] lift up”). Many emend עָרֶיךָ (‘arekha, “your cities”) to עָלֶיךָ (‘alekha, “against you”), but it is preferable to understand the noun as an Aramaism and translate “your enemies” (see Dan 4:16 and L. C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 [WBC], 253).“ The LXX translators understood this to mean cities. In this verse the idea of “carrying to nothing” נשאו לשוא is used idiomatically to describe dishonesty, in Ps. 24:4 we see a similar example but in the negative, לא נשא לשוא.

[xvii] While many translations translate שרעף as simply “thought” it is better understood as a disquieting or worrying thought. This nuance is communicated in the NASB and NIV as “anxious thoughts” and the NET as “concerns”

A favorite bible verse, misunderstood? It is not all about ME!

PS139-14As I was reading through Psalms 139, I realized that one of the verses I knew well in English didn’t quite read the same way in Hebrew. The Hebrew was a bit broken and the translators had to smooth it out a little in order for it to make sense in English. In the English of the KJV, and similar to most English translations, Psalms 139:14 reads I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.” but the Hebrew text readsI will thank you because fearfully, I was wonderful. Wonderful [are] your works and my spirit knows [it] well (or “you know well my spirit”).” Sometimes, these kinds of textual difficulties are resolved when we look at another Hebrew text, like the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where a variant reading might read a little more smoothly, but in the case of Ps. 139:14 it only deepened the questions. In the primary Psalms scroll from the DSS (11Qpsa) there is a shift from the first person to the second person making this verse more about God and less about me. The text from the Dead Sea reads “I will thank you because you are magnificent. Wonderful and amazing [are] your works and you know well my spirit.” In my quest to understand which reading was original, I began by looking at some of the Ancient translations, beginning with the Greek Septuagint (2nd Century BC) and the Latin Vulgate (4th Century AD). These two texts were the primary texts used by the church during the first sixteen centuries and both texts followed the reading found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In translations of the Psalms the current reading of Ps. 139:14 doesn’t seem to have appeared until the Reformation period.

So why did the text change?
For centuries leading up to the reformation period, the primary text used by the church was the Latin Vulgate (a text that few understood). Often even the priests who were teaching the text could not read the text of the bible themselves. This opened the door to serious abuses of Scripture because few could challenge the claims made about its contents. In the 16th century, some of the few men, like Luther, Calvin, etc…, who could read the Scriptures became increasingly concerned with the disparity between what the church was teaching and what the Scriptures really said. In their quest to truly understand the Scriptures they began looking at the original Hebrew and Greek texts as well as the Latin text of the Vulgate. And they began to produce new translations for the people from these Greek and Hebrew texts in much the same way as St. Jerome had produced a Latin version in the common language of the people many centuries earlier based on the Hebrew and Greek texts he had.

The Hebrew text
In the 16th century, the earliest Hebrew manuscripts came from the 9th century; however, because of the strict controls the Jewish scribes who were producing these scrolls had developed, copies of the Hebrew text were remarkably accurate. Scholars generally considered variant readings of the Hebrew text in Greek and Latin translations to reflect mistranslations by earlier translators and readings from the Greek or Latin were usually only considered when the Hebrew text was difficult or vague. The translations produced in the 16th century reflect a reasonably accurate translation of the Hebrew texts that scholars had access to at that time. For centuries, very little changed with respect to the Hebrew texts to which scholars had access and the opinion that the LXX was a poor translation of the Hebrew prevailed. As we entered the 20th century, we began to discover ancient texts, like those found near the Dead Sea but it was not until the late 20th before these new discoveries began having an impact on bible translations. As scholars began to examine the Dead Sea scrolls, they began to have a deeper respect for the translation work of translators of the LXX because these scrolls revealed a Hebrew base text for many of its variant readings, like those in Ps. 139:14. In many cases these were not mistranslations but accurate translations of a variant text.

Is it “My spirit knows” or “You know my Spirit”
One of the translation differences in this verse doesn’t reflect any “textual variant” but only a change in vocalization. Hebrew was originally written without vowels and vowels were added to the text many, many centuries later. These are the dots and dashes that can be seen in the text of the MT below. The Masorites (who added these vowels) did so in a way that kept the parallelism from the first half the verse i.e. “I have been fearfully and wonderfully made” and “My soul knows it.” However, if we accept the authenticity of the earlier text then we would expect the vocalization to reflect the 2nd person i.e. “You are fearful and your works are wonderful” and “You know my soul.” Letter for letter, the text of this ending phrase is the identical, it is only the pronunciation that changes.

Does this mean that our bibles are unreliable?
Sometimes it is claimed that our bibles today reflect a text that has been translated from a translation of a translation of a translation, etc… and that the texts we have today no longer reflect the writings of the original authors. However, despite the variant readings found in these ancient witnesses, the overall picture we see in these ancient texts demonstrates that the text of Scripture has been remarkably well preserved. In fact the text of Scripture has been so well preserved that many scholars doubted the authenticity of these ancient witnesses for decades. To accept the authenticity of these ancient manuscripts meant these scholars had to abandon their theories about how Scripture had developed because these ancient manuscripts demonstrated that the text was far better preserved than their theories would permit. While there are occasions, like this one, where we need to re-evaluate our understanding of a verse, these are the exceptions and not the rule. And while some variants like this one do introduce slight nuances into the text, the overall message of the whole passage remains unchanged.

PS139 Version Table

 

 


 

NET Notes (Psa 139:14)

22 tc Heb “because awesome things, I am distinct, amazing [are] your works.” The text as it stands is syntactically problematic and makes little, if any, sense. The Niphal of פָּלָה (pala’) occurs elsewhere only in Exod 33:16. Many take the form from פָלָא (pala’; see GKC 216 §75.qq), which in the Niphal perfect means “to be amazing” (see 2 Sam 1:26; Ps 118:23; Prov 30:18). Some, following the LXX and some other ancient witnesses, also prefer to emend the verb from first to second person, “you are amazing” (see L. C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 [WBC], 249, 251). The present translation assumes the text conflates two variants: נפלאים, the otherwise unattested masculine plural participle of פָלָא, and נִפְלָאוֹת (nifla’ot), the usual (feminine) plural form of the Niphal participle. The latter has been changed to a verb by later scribes in an attempt to accommodate it syntactically. The original text likely read, נפלאותים מעשׂיך נוראות (“your works [are] awesome [and] amazing”).
23 tc Heb “and my being knows very much.” Better parallelism is achieved (see v. 15a) if one emends יֹדַעַת (yoda’at), a Qal active participle, feminine singular form, to יָדַעְתָּ (yada’ta), a Qal perfect second masculine singular perfect. See L. C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 (WBC), 252.

Psalm 131

11QPs-a Col VA song of the ascent for David

O Lord, my heart is not proud[i] and my eyes do not show conceit[ii].

I do not delve into things too great or wonderful for me.

Rather I have soothed[iii] and quieted my soul.

My soul is like a toddler[iv] carried[v] by his mother, like a toddler carried by me.

Israel wait expectantly for the Lord now and forever more.

 


[i] Lit. “my heart is not lifted up”

[ii] Lit. “my eyes are not raised”

[iii] שוה is used only 24 times in the OT and with a very wide semantic range of meaning i.e. “to compare, to make level, to smooth, to soothe, to conform.” The broad range of meaning accounts for the many variances in different translations.

[iv] Lit. “as one weaned;” children were weaned in the ANE at around the age of two. John Goldengay suggests that גמל might be better interpreted as not referring “to the actual weaning of a child but to its having come off the breast at the end of a feeding” but such an interpretation itself seems imaginative. Examples we have in Scripture (Ge. 21:8, 1 Sam 1:22, Ho. 1:8, etc…) use this word much as it is used in English thus suggesting a picture of a toddler rather than an infant as suggested by Goldengay.

[v] Lit. “on his mother;” the picture is that of a small child who is content in the arms of his mother. It is more than just being with his mother, but rather being held and comforted by her.

Psalm 129

11QPs-a Col VA song of the ascent

 

“Greatly they have oppressed me since my youth”

Surly Israel will say:

“Greatly they have oppressed me since my youth

but they were not able to prevail over[i] me.”

On my back the wicked[ii] plowed,

they made their furrows long.

 

The Lord is righteous.

He has cut the ropes of the wicked.

They will be shamed and they will retreat,

all those who hate Zion.

They will be like grass on the roof,

which, before it can be pulled, has already withered.

From which the reaper cannot fill his hand with grain[iii]

or the fold of his cloak with sheaves.

Those who pass by do not say,

“a[iv] blessing of the Lord to you,

We will bless you in the name of the Lord.”


[i] The Hebrew is very terse here, lit. “they were not able to me” (לא-יכלו לי)

[ii] The LXX and the 11Qpsa read “wicked” (הרשעים) but the MT reads “the ones plowing”  (חרשים); the difference is minor in Hebrew and could reflect either a misreading or an vorlage. The LXX includes the definite article, but the 11Qpsa does not.

[iii] Lit “cannot fill his hand”

[iv] Some versions read “the blessing” rather than “a blessing”; in Hebrew the “definiteness” of a construct phrase can sometimes be ambiguous because the definite article cannot be attached to a construct noun. In the absence of the particle, determination is made by context alone. Note: it was expected that people would offer a blessing for a good harvest to those they met during the harvest time, to withhold a blessing would have shown contempt or pity.

Psalm 130

11QPs-a Col VA song of the ascent

 

From the depths I call to you Lord.

my Lord[i] hear my voice,

let your ears be attentive to my pleading.

Lord, if you keep a record of iniquity,

who will be able to stand before you[ii], my Lord?

Because with you there is forgiveness,

for this reason you will be feared[iii].

I hope[iv] in the Lord,

My soul hopes in his word.

 

My soul, wait for my Lord[v],

much more than watchmen[vi] wait for the morning!

Israel wait for the Lord,

(because with the Lord there is compassion,

and even more, with him there is redemption[vii]),

and he will redeem Israel from her[viii] iniquity.


[i] ‘my Lord’ is אדוני (Adonai). Will it literally means ‘my Lord(s)’ it is frequently used as representative of יהוה (Yahweh). It is an established Jewish tradition to verbally substitute ‘Adonai’ for ‘Yahweh’ when reading biblical texts that contain the name of God.

[ii] Lit. ‘who will be able to stand’

[iii] We often associate God’s wrath with the fear of God but the psalmist here associates God’s forgiveness as a reason to fear him i.e. there is a sense of awe and wonder that would should feel because of God’s abounding love and forgiveness. Those who have truly begun to understand the magnitude of God’s love for us and the ransom he paid to redeem us, cannot ever again approach God irreverently.

[iv] The words קוה and יחל both have a sense of waiting with hopeful expectation. The meaning is so similar that some translations translate the first word as ‘hope’ and the latter as ‘wait’ while others reverse this. In English we often do not associate ‘waiting’ with ‘hopeful expectation’ but in Hebrew both of these words are inextricably tied to the idea of ‘hopeful expectation.’

[v] The text here follows 11Qpsa. There are some slight differences in this text that suggest different phrasing when compared to the MT. The MT reads ‘קותה נפשי ולדברו הוחלתי נפשי לאדני’ (My soul hopes, and for his word [is] my waiting, my soul for my Lord); the reading is a little difficult and seems to be much smoother in 11Qpswhich reads ‘קותה נפשי לדברו הוחילי נפשי לאדני’ (My soul hopes for his word, wait my soul for my Lord). The lack of the conjunction allows ‘for his word’ to be attach to the prior subject/verb and the change to the imperative allows the following verb to be begin the next phrase, giving each of the three phrases the same verb/subject/object structure.

[vi] The phrase ‘שומרים לבקר’ (watchmen [wait] for the morning] is repeated twice. In Hebrew, repetition is a common way to demonstrate emphasis, much like we use an exclamation point in English. While many translations include the repeated phrase here, repetition is a frequent feature of Hebrew that is commonly not translated into English.

[vii] והרבה עמו פדות, lit. ‘and more with him [is] redemption’

[viii] The pronoun is masculine because nations are typically masculine in Hebrew; however, in English we use feminine pronouns when referring to nations.

What is a “day” in Genesis one?

earth In Hebrew, like in English, the meaning of the word ‘day’ is dependent on the context in which it is used. It can refer to a 24 hour period of time, it can refer to a period of daylight, or it can refer to a long undefined period of time. In English here are some examples: “There are 30 days (24 hour periods) in June,” “The park is open only during the day (period of daylight),” “They didn’t use computers in his day (an undefined period of time).” The word ‘yom/day’ in Hebrew is used with the same broad range of meaning and in Genesis 1:1-2:4 we have all three different meanings for the word ‘day’ being used. Genesis 1:5 “God called the light, ‘day’ and Genesis 1:14 “let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide between the day and the night” are both clearly references to daylight; also in vs. 14 we also have a reference to 24 hour periods of time “they will be signs for the seasons, and for the days, and for the years.” In Genesis 2:4 “in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” is clearly a reference to a period of time longer than 24 hours. The question that remains is what was the intended in remaining eight occurrences? There are significant textual issues that make the interpretation of these remaining ‘days’ in Genesis 1 difficult. While some of these issues are glossed over in our English translations, they shouldn’t be ignored by those trying to understand the meaning of the ‘days’ in Genesis 1. These issues have always been a factor in interpreting this text and are some of the reasons that questions about the proper understanding of the ‘days’ of creation have always been a point of contention. Let’s take a look at a few of the textual issues found in this text that have puzzled people for thousands of years.

יום אחד – one day

While most translations translate ‘yom echad’ as “the first day,” there are several significant issues with this translation. First, “first day” in Hebrew is “יום ראשון” (yom rishon) and not “יום אחד” (yom echad). In every other place, except one, we find that “יום אחד” has been translated into English with phrases like “one day,” “a single day,” etc…, the other exception is a reference to “the first day of the first month” in Ezra.  Second, while the definite article (the) is included in most English translations, it is not included in the Hebrew text of the first five days.

Note: For those who would like to see how “יום אחד” is translated in other places in the bible, here is a list of the other places where this phrase appears: Gen. 1:5, Gen. 27:45, Gen. 33:13, Num. 11:19, 1 Sam. 9:15, 1 Sam. 27:1, Ezr. 10:17, Isa. 9:13, Jon. 3:4, Zech. 14:7.

יום שׁני – a second day

The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.

יום שׁלישׁי – a third day

The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.

יום רביעי – a forth day

The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.

יום חמישׁי – a fifth day

The definite article (the) is absent in the Hebrew text but included in many English translations.

יום השׁשׁי – day of the sixth

This is the first time that the definite article (the) was included in the Hebrew text. This difference shows that the author understood how to use the definite article and raises many questions about its absence in the first five days. One must wonder why the author chose to use a construct form only in this verse i.e. “day of the sixth” rather than “the sixth day.”

ויכל אלהים ביום השׁביעי מלאכתו – In the seventh day, God finish his work.

וישׁבת ביום השׁביעי מכל־מלאכתו – And he rested in the seventh day from all his work.

Twice we have the phrase “in the seventh day,” a phrase that includes both the definite article (the) and the preposition “in”; glaringly absent is any reference to the phrase “there was an evening and there was a morning” that closed each of the prior days. Both the author of the book of Hebrews and leaders of the early church recognized that these grammatical features implied that the seventh day has not yet ended.

ביום עשׂות יהוה אלהים ארץ ושׁמים – in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Here the text implies that God made the heavens and earth in a single day (note the exact same word ‘yom’ is used). If ‘yom’ should only be understood as a only a literal 24 hour period of time, then we have a significant conflict with the account of creation given in the prior 6 days.


Questions: 

  1. Why is the first day called “one day” and not “the first day?” Is this a clue that another day may have proceeded this day? Could there have been a “gap” between the real first day and the first day described in the account given in Genesis 1?
  2. Why is the definite article missing in the account of the first five days? Is this a clue that these days were not consecutive?
  3. If the missing definite article is insignificant then why is it included in the account of the last two days?
  4. What was the author trying to communicate by using the construct form in day 6?
  5. Does the lack of the closing phrase “there was an evening and there was a morning” in the account of the “seventh day” imply that day has not yet ended?
  6. If the all days in Genesis 1:1-2:3 are literal 24 hour days, why would the ‘day’ in Genesis 2:4 be figurative?

Interpreting the length and sequence of the days in Genesis 1 is not nearly as easy as some believe. There are many more issues involved than the few I have mentioned here. There is room for a number of different interpretations but no single interpretation is entirely without difficulties. It is important to remember that questions about the length of days in Genesis 1 have been raised long before questions about geology, evolution, or modern science ever entered this debate.Those who insist that the text of Genesis 1 clearly supports their view to the exclusion of all others, whether literal or figurative, have simply not done their homework.

 

Psalm 128

11QPs-a Col VA song of the ascent

 

Happy is everyone who fears the Lord,

who walks according to his ways.

It is by the work of your hands that you eat,

and are happy and prosper.[i]

Your wife is like a vine,

producing her fruit[ii] in the privacy[iii] of your home.

Your children are like shoots around an olive tree,

they will gather around your table.

Certainly he will bless the man who fears the Lord

 

The Lord[iv] has blessed[v] you from Zion,

See how Jerusalem has prospered all of the days of your life.

Look at your grandchildren[vi].

Peace on Israel.

 

 


[i] Psalm 127 drives home the point that prosperity and security come from God alone and now the psalmist reminds us that we are to enjoy the fruit of our labor while never forgetting that it is ultimately God who provides.  Knowing that it is God who ultimately provides does not excuse us from our obligation to work for our reward.

[ii] Psalm 127 declares that “the fruit of the belly is his reward” and this imagery is continued here in this verse where the reference to fruit is meant to invoke the image of children.

[iii] The phrase “בירכתי בביתך”   lit. “in the innermost places of your house” carries subtle sexual overtones that are lost in most English translations. The word ‘ירכה’ refers to the innermost recesses when in reference to places and to the loins (or groin) when referring to people. In Ex. 1:5 this is the word used for ‘loins’ in the phrase “these are all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob.”

[iv] The MT reads ‘YHWH’ (יהוה) but 11QPsa reads ‘Adonai’ (אדוני). The MT is likely the original reading and 11QPsa likely reflects the Jewish practice of verbally substituting ‘Adonai’ when reading ‘YHWH.’

[v] The tense is imperfect, but there is a sense of past blessing that continues into the future. This is punctuated by the command that follows “to see” God’s blessing that is already taken place.

[vi] Lit. ‘children of your children’

Psalms 127

11QPSa-col-IVA song of ascent[i] for Solomon

 

If the Lord does not build the house,

those who build it toil in vain.

If the Lord does not protect the city,

its guards watch over it in vain.

In vanity you rise up early and do not rest until it is late,

eating the bread of great toil.

Certainly the Lord gives his beloved sleep[ii].

 

Behold sons[iii] are an inheritance from the Lord;

the fruit of the belly is his reward.

Like arrows in the hand of the mighty warrior

are sons born in one’s youth.

Happy is the man with a full quiver

His sons will not be ashamed when, at the gate[iv], they speak[v] with his enemies.

 


[i] This Psalm is unique in that it is titled as a song of ascent but it doesn’t speak of a pilgrimage. The sense of the ascent in this Psalm may be in reference to ascending the steps of God’s house i.e. the temple built by Solomon. If so the progression of the Psalm begins with the building of God’s house and the protecting of the city and then moves to the building of a man’s house and the protection of his home.

[ii] Some of suggested that this might be better translated as the Lord provides while we sleep but that reading is difficult and it seems the sense being communicated is that we need not be anxious because the Lord will provide for our needs.

[iii] In Hebrew all nouns are masculine or feminine and masculine plural nouns are often used inclusively to refer to groups of mixed gender. In this example, the word בנים (sons) can refer to “sons” or it can refer to “children” i.e. a group of sons and daughters. It is the context alone that allows us to determine the intended meaning of the author. For example, if we read “You are to circumcise your sons on the eighth day,” it would be clear that the meaning referred only to male children. In this case, the meaning of the word is determined based on the context of the last verse. In ancient Israel, women had no legal rights to conduct official business nor were they permitted to fight in war. Because the last verse of this Psalm specifically addresses these roles, it makes it difficult to suggest that this instance had an original gender inclusive understanding. This is why versions like the 1984 NIV, NRSV, NET which almost always translate בנים (sons) as “children” have translated it as “sons” in this verse. It is important to note that lack of a reference to daughters in this verse does not suggest that daughters are any less valuable or any less of an inheritance or reward from God, it is simply not a topic that was addressed in this Psalm.

[iv] The city gate was the place were business and legal matters were conducted.

 
[v] This may be an instance of the rare verb (דבר ii)  meaning “destroy, drive away” rather than the common verb (דבר i) meaning “to speak”

 

Psalm 125

11QPSa-col-IVA song of the ascent

 

Those who trust in the Lord are like the mountain of Zion,

It is not shaken, forever it stands[i].

As[ii] the mountains surround Jerusalem,

the Lord surrounds his people now and forevermore.

The rod[iii] of the wicked will not touch[iv] the inheritance of the righteous

Otherwise the righteous might reach towards iniquity.

The Lord will do good for those who do good and whose hearts’ are upright

But the Lord will lead away those turning[v] to their perversion with all[vi] who act wickedly.

Peace be on Israel.

 


[i] The word picture in Hebrew is of a mountain that sits forever but in English we think of something that endures as standing not sitting.

[ii] The word “as” is not in the Hebrew text but the comparison is implied.

[iii] Or scepter

[iv] Or “rest on”

[v] 11Qpsa   reads “crookedly YHWH will lead away all who act wickedly” (את כל פעלי און עקלקולות יוליכם יהוה).

[vi] 11Qpsa “with all acting wicked” (את כל פעלי און), MT (את פעלי האון).

Should We Expect Unbelievers to Act Like Christians?

This was a question that was debated in my own church before and after the 2008 elections. On the ballot that year were two significant initiatives i.e. Prop 4 which required parental consent for minors seeking an abortion and Prop 8 which was an amendment to the California constitution that defined marriage as union between one man and one woman. To the dismay of many, our church said very little about either of these propositions and did not take an official stand on either issue. The heart of the debate about how the church should respond to these initiatives was focused on questions about whether we should we expect unbelievers to act like Christians in regards to the moral issues addressed by these ballot initiatives. Russell D. Moore raises many of the same questions in his recent article that were raised in the discussions that ensued after the 2008 elections in my church. In seeking to answer these questions, he begins where I believe every Christian should begin i.e. by looking to the examples we have been given in Scripture.

 


Should We Expect Politicians to Act Like Christians?

Recently I was asked whether John the Baptist lost his head for expecting a lost politician to act like a Christian. John, you’ll remember, was executed for telling Herod that it was not lawful for the king to have his brother’s wife.

This is an important question, not simply for understanding the background of this particular text. Christians often shrug off questions of public ethics because we say, “Why should we expect lost people to act like Christians?” I once heard a prominent preacher say that it didn’t matter to him if his neighbors went to hell as prostitutes or as policemen; it only mattered that they were going to hell.

In one sense, this is a good impulse. After all, Jesus never acted shocked or appalled by the behavior of the lost people. Jesus spoke with gentleness to the lost sinners around him, but with severity at religious leaders, hiding their sin behind religiosity and using their positions to serve selfish interests.

And the apostle Paul wrote that he didn’t judge “outsiders” but instead that it is those “inside the church whom you are to judge” (1 Cor. 5:12). The gospel didn’t come to achieve a society of morally straight people unreconciled to Christ.

But, if all that’s true, why does John persist in calling out this obviously unregenerate political leader for his sexual behavior? John isn’t incidental to the biblical story. Jesus calls him the greatest of the prophets.

Obligation of a King

This wasn’t really a question of merely personal behavior by an outsider. Herod was clearly a pagan internally, but he held an office instituted by God, an office with obligations for obedience to God. The rulership over Israel, after all, wasn’t the equivalent of the queen of England or the president of the United States. Israel was a covenant nation of priests. The king was to be of the house of David, and he was to model the line of Christ.

In the same chapter of Deuteronomy that the apostle Paul quotes to speak of internal church discipline, the law lays out the qualifications for king. He shouldn’t use the office to serve his appetites for things or for sexual gratification (Deut. 17:17), but ought to meditate on the Word of God and act according to it “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left” (Deut. 17:20).

Not Merely Private Morality

This was a question of public justice, not merely of private morality. Herod’s sin was multifaceted. Yes, it was a private act of sexual immorality, taking as his own a woman he shouldn’t have. But Herod was acting not just as a man but as a ruler.

Herod, of course, was a puppet king, acting as a client of the Roman Empire. He couldn’t have provided what he offered in his sexually ignited boast of giving Herodias’s daughter “up to half my kingdom” (Mk. 6:23). Herod didn’t have the same power as David, but it was the same principle at work. David’s taking of Bathsheba was more than just an immoral use of his private parts, but an immoral use of his public office.

We can all see what this means, even apart from divine revelation. One of the good things the feminist movement has brought to us is the way we deal publicly now with sexual harassment. An employer who pressures an employee for sexual favors isn’t just an immoral person; he is misusing power. When the CEO sleeps with an intern, his offense isn’t just against God and his wife, but is also an unjust abuse of power.

In line with all the prophets before him, John spoke out against the powerful misusing their privilege to exploit the vulnerable. Think of Daniel telling Belshazzar that the “writing is on the wall” for his prideful kingdom’s fall or Isaiah speaking truth to power to those who “rob the poor” and “make the fatherless their prey” (Isa. 10:2). Think of, after John, Jesus’ brother James denouncing the landowners who exploit workers with unjust wages (Jas. 5:4-6).

Judging Outsiders

John risked his neck to speak on this question not just to Herod as king but also to Herod as a man. Paul doesn’t “judge” the pagan outsiders, that’s true. He means that there is no means of holding those outside the church to the accountability of church discipline. But the church can still discern between good and evil. Even as Paul calls out the sin of the church member in Corinth, he compares it to the moral climate of the “pagans” on the outside (1 Cor. 5:1).

Jesus deals gently with tax collectors and sinners. He doesn’t, as he does with the religious leaders, call them whitewashed tombs or turn over their market tables. But he doesn’t refuse to speak to their sin. When he meets the woman at the well, he isn’t shocked by her serial monogamy, but he doesn’t leave it unquestioned either. He asks her, “Where is your husband?”

Those outside the church aren’t our battlefield but our mission-field, that’s true. We shouldn’t rail against them as though they are somehow different than we are, apart from God’s mercy in Christ. But the gospel is to be pressed on all creatures, on every human conscience. And the gospel is a call not only to faith but also to repentance. God now “commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed,” (Acts 17:31), Paul preached at Mars Hill.

We then speak to lost people not only of the historical truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and not only of his grace and mercy in receiving sinners. We also call them to turn from sin, and to agree with God that such sin is worthy of condemnation. Without this, there is no salvation. We speak then, as the apostle did to a pagan ruler, about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25).

Still Accountable

Our lost neighbors might be “pagan” in the sense that they are not part of the community of God, but they are still accountable before God. Their consciences are embedded with a law. John wasn’t the first to say to Herod that he couldn’t have his brother’s wife; this was hardly new information. Herod’s conscience already told him that much, and pointed him to his accountability on the day of judgment. John’s rebuke was an essential part of gospel preaching.

Christians often ping back and forth between extremes. The church of the last generation was often more concerned with a moral majority than with a gospel priority. In our attempt not to fall into that error, we could fall into an opposite, and just as dangerous, ditch. We could assume that all moral norms speak merely internally to the church, and we could fail to speak to unbelievers about such things. Such would be a refusal to love our neighbors, to warn them of what we will face at the judgment seat. But it would also be a refusal to preach the gospel. Without defining sin and justice, we cannot offer mercy. Guilty consciences don’t initially like those words. None of us did, at first. But that’s the mission we’ve been given. Some of us may wind up with our heads on silver platters. Jesus knows how to put heads back on.


Article by Russell D. Moore. He is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Originally posted on The Gospel Coalition Blog