A study in the Psalms

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psalms-11q5The Psalms are a beautiful and majestic testimony of the heart and soul of the ancient people of Israel and God’s never ending love for them but, in order to truly understand that testimony, we need to remember that these ancient people looked at life and understood language very differently than we do today. When we begin to understand the ways in which we see life differently, it allows us to begin to see these wonderful works of poetry through the eyes of the people who wrote them. One of the biggest differences we need to overcome is the tendency to focus on the details of each word. Our modern western languages have very robust vocabularies and there is often as much said by the words we have not used as there is in the words we have chosen to use. In order to really understand the works of modern writers, it is sometimes necessary to grasp minute differences in the meanings of the words they chose to use; however, the Ancient Hebrew writers were far less focused on the minute details in meaning of each word they used and if we he hear their words with our modern ear, we will likely “miss the forest for the trees.” For example, when a modern reader looks at Psalms 1:1 there is a tendency to see three different groups of people (or three different kinds of sin) described by the three different words used in this verse i.e. the wicked, the sinners, and the scoffers but the Ancient Hebrew author did not choose these different words to distinguish between different groups (or different sins), he used this repetition to describe one group of wicked people.The ancient Hebrews were focused on communicating the beauty of the whole forest while we too often focus on each individual tree. When we study the Psalms, we need to remember to take a few steps back and not get so lost in the details that we fail to see the beauty and majesty of the whole picture these ancient authors have painted for us.

 

Index to the Psalms

 

Psalm 124

11QPSa-col-IVA song of the assent for David

 

If the Lord had not been for us ….

Let Israel say, if the Lord had had not been for us when men rose up against us

our lives would have been swallowed in their burning anger for us.

the flood waters would have overtaken us,

torrents of water would have passed over us.

raging waters would have passed over us

Bless the Lord who did not make us prey for their teeth.

Our souls were like a bird that escaped from the hunters net

The trap was broken and we escaped.

Our help is in the name of the Lord

Maker of heaven and earth

Psalm 123

Ps123-11QPSa

a song of David for the accent[i]

 

It is to you that I carry my gaze[ii],

to the one who dwells[iii] in heaven.

As surely the eyes of servants look to the hands of their masters,

or the eyes of a servant girl look to the hand of the Lady of the house[iv],

We will direct our eyes to the Lord our God

in anticipation of his favor[v].

Lord be gracious to us, be gracious to us

because we have had our fill of contempt

Our souls cannot bear[vi] any more mockery from the arrogant,

or contempt from the prideful.

 


[i] 11QPSa attributes this Psalm to David “דויד למעלות[שיר ]”

[ii] Lit. “I carry my eyes”

[iii] The construct form of ישבי is grammatically difficult and, while treated as a singular in parallel to “you” from the first part of this verse, is plural in form. It likely reflects a copyist error because the form (היושב) in 11QPSa is grammatically correct.

[iv] Lit. “her Lady,” this is most frequently translated as “her mistress” but “mistress” has become increasingly understood in English as “the other woman” in an adulterous affair which is almost completely opposite in meaning to the word used here.

[v] Lit. “Thus our eyes to the Lord our God until he will show is favor on us.” This is a continuation of the thought begun in the prior verse i.e. as a servant or a maid looks to their employer as the source of their provision, we should eagerly expect that our God will provide for us.

[vi] Lit. “our souls have been greatly filled with it.”

Psalm 122

A song of the Ascent for David

 

Ps122-11Qpsa

11QPSa Col. III. Psalms 121:1-8, 122:1-9, 123-1-2

I was happy when they said to me

“we will go to the house of the Lord.”

Here we stand[i] at the gates of Jerusalem

(Jerusalem, a city built for fellowship[ii])

It was there that the tribes go up

the tribes of the Lord

As a testimony for Israel

they confess the Name of the Lord

There sits the seat of judgment,

the throne of the house of David[iii]

Ask for the peace of Jerusalem

those who love you will be at rest[iv]

There will be peace within your walls[v],

tranquility within your towers

For the sake of my brothers and my friends

I will declare peace in you

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God

I will seek what is good for you

 


[i] Lit. “our feet are standing…”

[ii] The phrase “יְרוּשָׁלִַ֥ם הַבְּנוּיָ֑ה כְּ֜עִ֗יר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּ֥הּ יַחְדָּֽו” is difficult to interpret. A literal translation would be “Jerusalem was built as a city united to it[self], together.” While a number of translations have understood this to be a physical description of Jerusalem, this does not seem to fit well with the context of this Psalm which seems much more focused on the intangible qualities of this city i.e. as a place that brings joy (vs.1), a place where the tribes of the Lord come and worship (vs. 4), a place of justice and of David’s throne (vs. 5), a place of peace and tranquility (vs. 6-8), a place of goodness (vs. 9). The verb חבר (joined/united) can refer to both people and things and the noun form of חבר means friend. There is a word play in the Psalms Misdrash draws out this relationship, it says this verse is describing a time “when all Israel will be friends” (עוד שהיא עושה כל ישראל חברים).  The LXX translation reads “Jerusalem is built as a city whose fellowship is complete.” Both of these sources suggest that the focus of this verse was much more upon the uniting of the people within Jerusalem’s walls than it was on the physical aspects of the city itself.  The NET translation notes suggest that this is “a reference to Jerusalem’s role as a city where people congregated for religious festivals and other civic occasions” or in other words a place of “fellowship” which seems far more fitting to the context of this Psalm.

[iii] In the MT “seat” is plural but it is singular in the 11Qpsa; unfortunately the singular or plural designation of the seat(s) of judgment cannot be determined in 11Qpsa because the text in near the margin was lost. In its singular form there is a strong picture of Jerusalem as the place where our final king, judge, and Messiah sits on his throne.

[iv] To be at rest (שלה) is used here synonymously with being at peace (שלום). This parallelism is again repeated in the following verse.

[v] The Hebrew word חיל can refer to a stronghold, like a walled city, the army that defends the city, or even the wealth of the city. In this usage, it refers to a place of strength paralleling the reference to the towers which are also a reference to a physical stronghold.

Psalm 121

A song for[i] the assent

 

I gaze towards the hills[ii]

Where does my help come from?

My help is from the Lord

The maker of heaven and earth.

The one who guards you will not let your foot slip,

He never sleeps.

He never sleeps nor slumbers,

The one who guards Israel

The Lord is your guard[iii],

The Lord is your protection at your right hand[iv].

The sun will not harm you by day,

Nor the moon at night.

The Lord will keep you from every evil,

He will guard your soul.

The Lord[v] will watch over you when you come and when you go,

From this moment until forever more.


[i] In the MT, this Psalms stands alone with the title “song for the assent (שיר למעלות)”; the other Psalms in this group all have the title “song of the assent (שיר המעלות).” This variant is not found in the DSS (11QPSa), the LXX, or the Aramaic Targums and so may not be original; however, it is far more likely that an ancient scribe would have corrected this to harmonize it with the remaining Psalms in the group than to change it in a way that makes it makes it different from the others in this group. Because this kind of textual error would be so easily identified, it is much more likely that the MT reading is original and the other texts reflect an emended text.

[ii] lit. “I carry my eyes to the hill”.

[iii] 11QPSa reads “the one who guards Israel will not sleep in the night” or “In the night the Lord is your Guard.” Flint and Ulrich prefer the latter division of the text but the text itself seems to favor the former. The text reads “ולא יישן שומר ישראל בלילה יהוה שמרכה”

Ref: 11QPSa in the DSS digital library (left column, 4th line)

[iv] 11QPSa reads “Your protection (or shade) is over your right hand”

[v] 11QPSa reads “He will watch over you”

Psalm 120

A song of accent

 

In my distress, I called out to the Lord and he answered me.

Lord deliver my soul[i] from those with lying lips and deceitful tongues.

What is given to you and what will be gained by a lying tongue?[ii]

Only the sharp arrows of mighty men and the burning embers of their fire.

Woe is me because my stay has been prolonged, I continue to dwell in the tents of gloom[iii].

For too long my soul has remained with those who hate peace.

I am peace[iv] but when I speak, they are ready for war.



[i] Lit. Snatch away my soul.

[ii] While most versions see Yahweh as the agent, it is equally possible that the lying tongue is the agent; the latter provides better continuity with vs. 2. See “Baker commentary on the Psalms, Vol 3”

[iii] John Goldingay notes that Kedar and Meshek are very different places, in the opposite directions from Canaan. Meshek is in Turkey, to the northwest. Kedar is a nomadic shepherding tribe in the Arabian Desert, to the east and south of Canaan. These two peoples were not thought of as more warlike or hostile to Judeans than many others. Additionally, In Hebrew it is sometime difficult to know when a proper name is intended because most names are composed of words that form the normal everyday Hebrew vocabulary. The LXX translation of this verse gives us a hint that a proper name may not have been intended, it reads“my stay has been prolonged, I have lived among the tents of Kedar” suggesting that at least Meshek was understood as something other than a proper name at a very early point in History. The context itself suggests that the author many not have intended to name specific places but instead wanted to speak of the gloom that confronted those in the diaspora.

[iv]  Most Hebrew Mss. Read “אני שלום” (I am peace) but BHS notes that two Mss. read “אני לשלום” (I am for peace). The LXX differs here significantly and reads as follows “with those hating peace, I am peaceful.”

Psalm 137

On the River of Babylon, there we lived[i]

And we wept as we remembered Zion.

In the midst of the willow trees we hung our lyre

Because our captors[ii] required us to sing a song

Our tormentors[iii] were happy; they commanded us to sing a song from Zion.

 

How can we sing a song about the Lord in a foreign land?

If I forget you Jerusalem

Let my right hand be unable to play Zion’s songs[iv]

Let me be unable to sing[v] if I do not remember you

If I do not consider Jerusalem more important than my own happiness[vi].

 

Lord remember the sons of Edom

They cried out: destroy her! On the day Jerusalem was laid waste.

Oh daughter of Babylon who will be destroyed.

Happy are they who repay you for what you are owed for what you have done to us.

Happy are those who seize your children and smash them on the rocks

 


[i] Lit. “there we sat.” In the OT, this is a very common idiom for describing the place one lives. In Ge. 4:16 “Cain sat in the land of Nod”, Ge. 11:31 “The came to the land of Haran and they sat there,” Ge. 14:12 “and he sat in Sodom.” In most versions of the bible these verses are translated with words like “dwell,” “live,” etc… but the word is the same as is used in Ps. 137:1.

[ii] This word carries a sense of “captivity” or “captors” i.e. the ones who caused our captivity.

[iii] This is assumed to be oppressors but the meaning is uncertain. This is the only occurrence in the OT.

[iv] This entire phrase is composed of only two words in Hebrew i.e. תשכח ימיני or lit. “my right will forget”; the meaning of this idiom is uncertain and has been translated various ways. “Let my right hand whither,” “May my right hand be crippled,” “May my right hand forget its skill,” “Let my right hand forget how to play the harp.” In context, I believe the Psalmist is trying to express the idea that one cannot play (vs. 5) or sing (vs. 6) the music of Jerusalem.

[v] Lit. ”let my tongue be glued to my cheek.” Figuratively this expresses the inability to sing the “songs of Zion”

[vi] Lit. “if I do not cause Jerusalem to go above the top of my happiness”

Psalm 126

A song of accent

When the Lord returned Zion’s captives[i],

it was like a dream[ii].

At that moment our mouths were filled with laughter

and our tongues with shouts of joy.

Then the nations said “The Lord has done great things for these people”

The Lord has done great things for us, we were happy.

Lord return our fortunes

as streams flowing in the desert[iii].

The ones sowing seed with tears

Will gather the harvest with shouts of joy.

They went away in tears, carrying bags of seed.

They will return, with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.



[i] This psalm has traditionally been understood as a celebration of the people of Israel who were returning from captivity. Some translators have suggested amending the text from שיבת (captive/sojourner) to שבות (captivity, captive, adversity, fortune) with an understanding of God returning the fortunes to the people (NIV 2011, ESV, TNK, NRSV); however, there is little textual support for such an emendation. Both the Aramaic targums and the LXX suggest that the understanding of “captives/captivity” is original. Some have suggested this should be understood as “a turning” as it is used in Aramaic. In this translation I have followed the traditional understanding (KJV, NIV 1984, JPS, NKJV, NASB)

[ii] Lit. “we were as ones dreaming”

[iii] The challenges to understanding this verse are similar to verse 1 except that written form here is שבות (captivity/captives/adversity/fortune); however, there is a marginal note in the MT that amends this to  שבית (captives/captivity). The Aramaic Targums and the LXX support a reading of captives/captivity aligning with the marginal notes of the MT. Some versions translate this very literally i.e. “restore our captivity” (NASB) but the meaning of this phrase (even in English) is unclear and does not seem to fit the context. The key to understanding this verse is likely in its comparison to “the streams in the Negev” but unfortunately the significance of this imagery is itself unclear. What is well understood is that the Negev is a very dry and arid place that receives very little rain. Most water comes from rain that comes to the higher mountain regions and flows in torrents into the lower desert regions of the Negev; the force of these torrents is frequently so powerful that it reshapes the landscape (even today it is not uncommon for these torrents to wash away modern roads in the Negev). In ancient times, survival in the Negev required one to store these waters in cisterns during these infrequent torrential flows, so that there would be water when the streams were dry. If the author of this psalm is alluding to the restoration of Israel’s wealth, the imagery could invoke the life sustaining blessing of these streams of water, a blessing that was needed for their very survival. The author could also be alluding to either the returning of Israel’s captives or its wealth with the imagery being seen as the captives (or wealth) of Israel to returning like the flood waters return to the Negev each year.

 

Psalm 100

A song for thanksgiving

Shout[i] to the Lord all the earth

Serve the Lord with gladness

Come before him with shouts of joy![ii]

Know that the Lord he is God

it is who He made us, we did not do it[iii].

We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

Come into his gates with thanksgiving

And his courts with praise.

Praise him

Bless his name

For the Lord is good

His Love endures forever

From generation to generation he is faithful.

 


[i] רוע conveys the idea of shouting when using the voice or the sounding of a trumpet.

[ii] רנן conveys the idea of shouting or loud singing (almost always joyful shouting).

[iii] When scribes identified errors in the text of the OT, they would place corrections in marginal notes because they did not want to change any of the text itself. Most of these marginal notes reflect minor changes to the written text i.e. spelling changes, grammar corrections, etc… When these corrections exist, the text of the bible is referred to as written text and the correction in the margin is referred to as the read text. In this verse, the written text is corrected from לא to לו. These are phonetically identical but the written text means “no” or “not” and the read text means “to him” or “for him.” The difficulty is that there appears to be a missing occurrence of the word “we” in the Hebrew text. It reads something like “He made us and not we are his people” and is difficult to determine if “we” belongs with the first part or the latter. The Massorites changed the “not” to “for him so that it would become part of the latter half of the phrase. The LXX reading suggests that an additional “we” likely existed in the text at an earlier point in history. Skipping duplicate words in a text is a very common copyist error and may be the cause of the difficult reading in this verse. The different readings for this verse stem from the choice of either following the marginal correction or trusting that the LXX reflects an earlier text that contained the redundant “we.”

Psalm 1

Happy[i] is the man who has not walked [ii]in the counsel of the wicked

And in the way of sinners he has not stood,

And in the seat of scoffers he did not sit.

Rather his delight is in the law of the Lord

And in his Law he meditates day and night.

And he will be like a tree planted near steams of water

Which gives its fruit in its season[iii]

And its leaf does not wither.

All that he does will prosper.

 

Not so the wicked; instead they are life chaff which the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not raise up in judgment,

Nor will sinners be in the assembly of the righteous.

Because the Lord knows the way of the righteous

But the way of the wicked will perish.



[i]  אשרי (ashrey) conveys a sense of feeling happy or feeling blessed.

[ii] Hebrew verb tenses can be ambiguous at times (especially in poetic passages). The written forms used in this passage for “walked,” “stood,” and “sat” are all perfect forms but the context permits the idea of an incomplete action. Different translations vary on the tense used in English to translate these verbs.

[iii] Lit. “in its time.”