June 28, 2012

Psalm 68

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

I have prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
By David.
A psalm.
A song.

Let God arise; let his enemies scatter;
And let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is blown away,
May you blow them away.
As wax melts before fire,
May the wicked perish before God.
And the righteous — may they rejoice;
May they exult before God;
And may they be glad with rejoicing.

Sing to God; psalm his name;
Prepare a way for the Rider in the Deserts
By Yah, his name —
And exult before him.
Father of orphans and judge of widows
Is God in his holy abode.
God makes the solitary dwell in a house;
He brings forth the prisoners into prosperity;
But the rebellious inhabit a parched land.

God, when you went forth before your people,
When you marched through the wilderness (Selah),
The earth shook;
The heavens too dripped before God,
This Sinai
Before God, the God of Israel.
A rain of gifts you showered, God;
Your inheritance — and it is weary — you yourself establish.
Your host dwelled in it;
You prepared it in your goodness for the lowly, God.

My Master gives the word;
The messengers are a great army.
The kings of armies flee; they flee;
And she who abides in the house divides the spoil.
If you lie down between the sheepfolds,
The wings of a dove are covered with silver,
And her pinions with the yellow of gold.
When the Almighty scattered the kings there,
It snowed in Zalmon.

Mountain of God, Mount Bashan,
Mountain of ridges, Mount Bashan,
Why do you look with hostility, mountains of ridges?
The mountain God desired for his dwelling,
Yes, Yahweh will settle there lastingly.

The chariots of God are twice ten thousand,
Thousands repeatedly;
My Master among them;
Sinai, in the holy place!
You ascended on high;
You captured a captivity;
You took gifts among men —
And even rebels —
In order that Yah, God, would abide.

Blessed be my Master, day after day!
He bears burdens for us — the Mighty One of our salvation. Selah.
The Mighty One is for us a Mighty One of salvations,
And to Yahweh belong escapes from death.
Yes, God will crush the head of his enemies,
The hairy crown of the one who walk in his guilt.

My Master said, “From Bashan I will bring back,
I will bring back from the depths of the sea,
That you may crush, with your foot in blood,
That the tongue of your dogs from your enemies may have its portion.

They saw your processions, God,
My Mighty One’s processions, my King into the holy place.
The singers went first; the string-players after;
In the midst, maidens playing timbrels.
In assemblies, bless God,
Yahweh, from the fountain of Israel.
There is Benjamin, the little one, who dominates them;
The princes of Judah, who stoned them;
The princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.

Your God has ordained your strength;
Be strong, God, who works for us.
Because of your temple, over Jerusalem,
To you the kings will bring tribute.

Rebuke the beast of the reeds,
The congregation of strong ones among the calves, the peoples,
Prostrating himself with pieces of silver;
He dispersed peoples that delighted in wars.
Envoys will come from Egypt;
Cush will make its hands hasten to God.

Kingdoms of the earth, sing to God;
Psalm to my Master, (Selah)
To the rider in the heavens of heavens of old;
Look! He utters with his voice, a voice of strength.
Ascribe strength to God;
Over Israel is his loftiness,
And his strength in the clouds.
Fearful are you, God, from your holy places!
The Mighty One of Israel — He gives strength and powers to a people.
Blessed be God.

Many, many, many comments about this psalm, and I could multiply them. Of this psalm, Spurgeon says, “The Psalm is at once surpassingly excellent and difficult. Its darkness in some stanzas is utterly impenetrable.” Adam Clarke writes:

I know not how to undertake a comment on this Psalm: it is the most difficult in the whole Psalter; and I cannot help adopting the opinion of Simon De Muis: “In this Psalm there are as many precipices and labyrinths as there are verses or words. It may not be improperly termed, the torture of critics, and the reproach of commentators.” To attempt any thing new on it would be dangerous; and to say what has been so often said would be unsatisfactory. I am truly afraid to fall over one of those precipices, or be endlessly entangled and lost in one of these labyrinths. There are customs here referred to which I do not fully understand; there are words whose meaning I cannot, to my own satisfaction, ascertain; and allusions which are to me inexplicable. Yet of the composition itself I have the highest opinion: it is sublime beyond all comparison; it is constructed with an art truly admirable; it possesses all the dignity of the sacred language; none but David could have composed it; and, at this lapse of time, it would require no small influence of the Spirit that was upon him, to give its true interpretation.

So here are a few comments:

Line 11: The verb here is often rendered “extol,” but there is little support for that interpretation.  It is used in exactly this form in Isaiah 57:14 and 62:10 to refer to the preparation of a highway (cf. Alter: “Pave the way”).  Granted, in both of these passages in Isaiah, the word for a path or way appears in the context, so the verb itself may refer only to heaping or lifting something up (a highway in the desert being higher than the rest of the land around it).  In Prov 4:9, a different form of the verb seems to mean “exalt,” and elsewhere the verb simply refers to raising something up (e.g., Job 19:12; 30:12).  But that still doesn’t justify taking it to mean “extol.”  “Exalt” might be sufficient, but it doesn’t take into account the l– prefix on what follows: This is not exalting God but exalting/lifting up for God.   Preparing a way in connection with the deserts seems most fitting here.

Line 11: The word translated “deserts” here is the normal word for a desert or a wilderness (arabah), and later on in the psalm we hear about God leading Israel through the wilderness and providing for her there.  Several commentaries, however, suggest that this phrase might be parallel to the Ugaritic rkb ‘rpt, “Rider of Clouds,” an epithet applied to Baal.  On this suggestion, arab(h)ot(h) would be a variant form of arap(h)ot(h), with the substitution of b for p, which is possible, and arap(h)ot(h) would be an otherwise unattested Hebrew word cognate with the Ugaritic ‘rpt, “clouds.”  Well, maybe.  But that seems pretty tenuous to me, and given the desert context in this psalm I’m going to stick with what it looks like.

Line 12: I am not sure what to do with the b– prefix here, which makes it look as if it should read “In Yah” or perhaps “By Yah.”  Hengstenberg, following Ewald, seems to think that this could just be “Yah is his name.”

Line 17: The last word, here translated “into prosperity,” appears only here in Hebrew.  The usual suggestion is that it is a form of ks(h)r, which has to do with pleasure or success or prosperity.   “He brings forth the prisoners in(to) prosperity” also maintains a parallel with the preceding line: From a bad situation to a good situation.  Tate, drawing on what he thinks is a parallel in Ugaritic, suggests “with music.”

Hirsch, on the other hand, draws on the parallel between ks(h)r and qs(h)r, the latter of which means “bonds.”  (See also Hirsch’s commentary on Gen 2:7 for a fascinating discussion of gs(h)r, ys(h)r, ks(h)r, and qs(h)r).  The idea, he says, is that at the time the prisoners were brought out, they were still “in bonds; they hadn’t freed themselves, but owed their freedom entirely to God.

Line 25: A rain of gifts: The word translated “gifts” here normally refers to freewill offerings or to one’s free inclination (e.g., Ps 54:8).  This phrase is often rendered “a bountiful rain” (Alter) or “a good rain” (Tate) or something like that, but here I’m following Hirsch, Delitzsch, Hengstenberg, and Alexander in taking it more metaphorically, as a rain consisting of generous, gracious gifts.  After all, what “rained” from heaven on Israel in the wilderness was manna and quail, not water.  Perhaps, retaining the sense of freedom here and noting that the word translated “rain” is not in construct with the word for freewill offerings, we ought to render the latter adverbially: “Rain you freely showered….”

Line 27: Literally “your creature(s),” but this term is used for a troop or army in 2 Sam 23:11, 13 (cf. Hengstenberg).

Line 33: Like line 32, this is perhaps an allusion to Judges 5 (as Alter and others suggest).  “Sheepfolds” is a guess.  Its appearance in a similar phrase — lying between these things — in Gen 49:14 and Judges 5:16 doesn’t make things much clearer, nor does its appearance in Ezek 40:43.  Holliday suggests “saddlebags” — but why? — and Tate thinks that, since Genesis presents Issachar as a donkey “lying down between the whatnots,” the phrase refers to being lazy.  When Reuben “lies down between the thingamagigs” in Judges 5:16, then, he is being lazy and not going out to battle as he should.  And so, Tate says, this verse refers to the men of Israel who were too lazy to go to battle.  I’m not persuaded.  It seems to me that it could be an image of peace.  Why take Genesis 49:14 as a negative image? Why not take Judges 5:16 as saying that Reuben preferred peace to (necessary) war?  Why not take Psalm 68 as referring to the peace Israel has after battle, lying down between the whatnots again to divide the spoil?

Line 35: The last two words are particularly obscure.  The word rendered “yellow” is used for the greenish/yellowish spots associated with the skin affliction we often (wrongly) call “leprosy” in Leviticus, and here probably refers to a greenish or yellowish tint of the gold.  Tate has “green-gold” which may be okay, but sounds odd.  The last word has to do with sharpness (cf. Hirsch) but is also used for gold (Zech 9:3).  BDB thinks the root has to do with being yellow.

Line 40: The word rendered “look with hostility” occurs only here, and no analogous form appears elsewhere in the Bible. Alexander and Delitzsch point out that the cognate word in Arabic refers to a beast lying in wait and to watching someone with hostile intent.  It is often translated “look with envy” and perhaps that’s the sense here, but I wonder whether the Arabic parallel really justifies importing the idea of envy: the beast lying in wait is hostile toward his prey but not envious.

Line 43: “thousands repeatedly” is clunky.  The word does seem to have to with repetition (from s(h)nh, “to do again, repeat”: Alexander, Delitzsch; cf. s(h)nn, “repeat, say again and again” [Deut 6:7); cf. also s(h)ny: “second,” i.e., something repeated). But Holliday suggests “archers” (see Tate for grounds, though Tate goes with “warriors”).  Hirsch thinks that s(h)n’n is “probably tantamount” to s(h)’nn and also compares it to ts(h)’n, concluding that it has to do with splendor and “blessed exaltation.”

Line 45: “Sinai, in the holy place” is pretty obscure.  It could be “in holiness,” but that isn’t clearer.  Alter takes it as an address to Sinai (“O Sinai in holiness!”).  It’s possible that “Sinai” is short for “The God of Sinai” (cf. earlier in the psalm), who is now in the Holy Place.  But it’s also possible that it should be a declaration that Mount Sinai is now in some sense in the Holy Place (cf. Hirsch, who notes that Ezek 43:15 calls the upper part of the altar “the Mountain of God”).  Dunno.

Line 52: The verb here can be used for imposing a burden or for carrying one.  In the former case, the preposition is ‘al (“upon”), but here it’s l- (“to, for, with reference to”) and probably refers to carrying a burden.   The word for a burden isn’t in the original, but I supplied it because it’s implied and “He carries/bears for us” doesn’t communicate well.  Sometimes it’s taken as meaning that God loads us (with blessings, but that’s not in the text) or that other people burden us but God is still our salvation.

Line 60: Very obscure.  “The tongue of your dogs” is clear enough, as is “from your enemies.”  But there’s no verb, and the last word is especially hard to reckon with.  It could be “from him,” and that’s certainly what it looks like.  So Alexander renders it is “from your enemies, [especially] from him [i.e., the wicked man referred to earlier in the psalm].” But usually people guess that the word comes from mn, “portion,” and that’s what I’ve gone with for now.  Perhaps, more or less following Hengstenberg and retaining the sense of “from him/it,” we could understand it this way: “The tongue of your dogs [drinks] from you enemies, from it [= the blood].”

Line 67: The verb here is obscure. It looks like a Qal participle from rdm, except rdm appears only in the Niphal and means “enter deep-sleep” (cf. tardema, “deep sleep,” in Gen 2, 15, etc., where it refers to a coma state close to — and in some passages identical with — death). Maybe, just maybe, it could refer to putting others into deep-sleep (= death), but that’s unattested elsewhere and no one but me has ever suggested it.

Usually, it’s taken as rdh + 3p suffix: “To tread/rule/subdue/govern/have dominion over them.”  Then there are two questions: What is the nature of this rule? And who is them? The answers range from “Benjamin is keeping the people in the procession in order” (which requires us to believe that, for some reason, Benjamin is leading this procession) to “Benjamin is subduing the enemies” (Alexander).  I’m inclined toward the latter, given that rdh is often used for suppressing and ruling over enemies and hostile forces; see the discussion below.

Line 68: The noun rigmatam here appears to be a feminine noun, rigmah, with a 3p suffix of possession (“their”), derived from rgm, which means … “to stone.”  Most commentators immediately reject that reading and either emend the text (so that some end up with a reference to clothing: “The princes of Judah in their raiment,” Alter) or  suggest that the noun here refers to a heap of stones and then, by extension, to a crowd of people, yielding the translation “The princes of Judah and their throngs.”  There is, however, no evidence of this usage elsewhere.  The LXX, by the way, thinks this word has something to do with leaders: “The princes of Judah with their leaders.” Tate jumps to the Ugaritic rgm, which means “to speak,” and the Akkadian ragamu, which means “to shout,” and suggests that the phrase identifies Judah’s princes as “their noisy leaders.”

But why not “to stone”? It is true that this verb is always used in the context of judgment and punishment (i.e., stoning the criminal) and not in the context of slingers in battle, but I don’t know that that’s a strong objection. My translation follows Alexander and Hengstenberg, who alone (it seems) maintain that rdm refers to dominion in line 67 and rgm to stoning in line 68. (Note that Hirsch takes rdm in line 67 to mean “to overcome,” which may be a stretch, and then thinks that verb is implied in line 69, too, so that it should be understood as follows: “Little Benjamin overcomes them; the princes of Judah [overcome] their stonings” — that is, the stones thrown at them by the enemy.  That’s possible, I guess, but it seems more likely to me to see Israel as the one stoning the wicked and not the other way around.)

Benjamin’s dominion, it seems to me, is not a reference to him being the leader of the procession.  Why would he be?  In fact, what procession is this?  It seems most likely that it is the ascension of the Ark to Mount Zion.  After all, it opens with the words Moses said when the Ark set forth in Numbers, it has to do with one mountain being chosen and not others, and it culminates in this procession into that place.  In that procession, Benjamin certainly wasn’t having dominion over all the other tribes.  Rather, it seems to me, the reference is to Saul (from Benjamin) leading Israel to defeat the enemies.  And it’s Saul, after all, who points out to Samuel how little Benjamin is.

Then comes David (Judah) who defeats the Philistines, thereby bringing about the peace which makes possible the moving of the Ark to its resting place on Zion.  And how did David initiate that conquest which led to peace?  By killing Goliath.  Specifically, by stoning him (and it does seem to me that we ought to connect the judicial stoning prescribed in the law to the stoning of Goliath).

Perhaps the references to the princes of Zebulun and Naphtali here are related to the story of Deborah and Barak, which is alluded to so often in this psalm. But if so, that would suggest that the idea here is not dominion in a procession or fine garments worn in the procession but victory in battle. The ones in the procession are the victors.

Line 75: “the calves, the peoples”: these two terms are probably in apposition and epexegetical.  It is not “the calves of the peoples” — that is, belonging to the peoples — but “the calves, [namely] the peoples.”

Line 78: “Envoys” is a guess.  This is a hapax legomenon.  One more in a psalm filled with them.

Line 79: “Make its hands hasten” is an awkward expression. But it is not “lift up hands” (in prayer), nor is it “stretch out hands” (toward God, asking for assistance) or something like that.  Rather, it refers to hurrying to God with hands full of gifts (Hengstenberg).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:31 pm | Discuss (0)

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