Saturday, December 24, 2011

Psalm 56

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 56 and some of its interpreters. I will copy and paste the Psalm in the King James Version (which is in the public domain), then I will comment on select verses.

1To the chief Musician upon Jonathelemrechokim, Michtam of David, when the Philistines took him in Gath. Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; he fighting daily oppresseth me.

"Jonath-em-rechokim" has to do with a silent dove of distances, which may imply that the silent dove is distant. It may be a simple melody, or it could relate to the rest of the superscription: David in Gath while he was fleeing from Saul. Many have noted that the superscription differs from the story in I Samuel 21-22 because the superscription says that the Philistines took David, whereas I Samuel 21-22 narrates that David went to Gath during his flight from Saul (implying that David voluntarily went there rather than being taken). But some suggest that the two overlap, for the fact that David had to feign madness before Achish to make himself repulsive to the Philistine king indicates that David felt trapped and was seeking some way to escape from the Philistines. Regarding the silent dove who is distant, the Jewish commentator Rashi says that David was like a silent dove during that incident. Rashi may be trying to highlight David's vulnerability on that occasion, and also his silence while he was pretending to be crazy.

The Targum applies the silent dove who is distant to the Jews in exile, and the Septuagint similarly says that the term concerns people who were away from the sanctuary. The Targum treats David's experience in Gath as analogous to Israel's exile. David, I will note, felt somewhat alienated from God during his flight from Saul, for he was cut off from God's sanctuary (I Samuel 26:19).

2Mine enemies would daily swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most High.

The Hebrew word that the KJV renders as "O Most High" is "marom", which relates to height. The second clause literally states that "they fight to me height." There are debates about what exactly this means. Some understand the clause as the King James Version does, that God is the one who is in a high location, for God dwells on high. Others claim that the clause means that the Psalmist's enemies are fighting him proudly, for "marom" conveys arrogance in Psalm 73:8. Keil-Delitzsch say that the clause affirms a point that occurs throughout this Psalm : that the Psalmist's enemies are mere men. For Keil-Delitzsch, the point of the clause within the Psalm is that the Psalmist's enemies have no right to be arrogant, for they are powerless before God. And then there is another interpretation of the clause: that its means that beings from on high are fighting for the Psalmist, indicating that angels are fighting on the Psalmist's behalf.

3What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.

It's human to be afraid, but the Psalmist addresses his fear by trusting in God.

4In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.

What is God's word that the Psalmist will praise? It may mean that the Psalmist will praise God's promise to deliver him, for God's word is his promise of deliverance in Psalm 130:5. In Psalm 56:10, the Psalmist says that he will praise "word" (the "his" is not in the Hebrew, for that verse), and interpreters have had other ideas about what that means. Erhard Gerstenberger says that the Psalmist is saying that he will sing his tale of how God delivered him. And Christian John Gill applies it to praising God the Word, Jesus Christ. In any case, the Psalmist, both in v 4 and v 11, affirms that he will praise a word "in God", which may be saying that the Psalmist can only get to the point where he praises the word through divine aid or guidance (according to Marvin Tate).

I found the Septuagint's translation interesting. It said for v 4 that "in God I will praise my words". This stands out to me because the very next verse says that the Psalmist's enemies are twisting his (the Psalmist's) words. Could the Psalmist in vv 4-5 be saying that he will praise his own words, even when people twist them around and pervert them against their meaning? Is the Psalmist affirming his good intentions, against those who accuse him of being sinister? I think of Jesus, who told his disciples in John's Gospel to destroy the Temple, and in three days he will raise it up (John 2:19). Jesus was speaking of his bodily resurrection, but his accusers twisted his words to mean that Jesus was planning to destroy the Temple himself and to raise it up in three days (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58). Reading the Septuagint intertextually with Jesus, perhaps we can say that Jesus affirms and rejoices in the truth of his own words (i.e., that he will rise again), even when people misunderstand or distort them.

5Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil.

6They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps, when they wait for my soul.

7Shall they escape by iniquity? in thine anger cast down the people, O God.

"Shall they escape by iniquity?" is just one way to translate that clause. Another way is how the Septuagint understands it: that the wicked will on no account escape, or be rescued. Literally, the clause means "on-aven escape/deliverance to them", and "aven" can mean wickedness or "nothing". "Al-aven" can mean "by iniquity" or "on no account".

8Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?

In the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Daniel 7:10; Malachi 3:16) and the ancient Near East, there was a notion that a deity records people's deeds in a book. ("He's making a list...") I like that, when it means that God cares about me and takes note of the good things that I do. I have issues, however, with how some preachers apply God's record-keeping: that God will some day play people's weaknesses on a big movie screen so that everyone will see them. But, come to think of it, if I saw a person's misdeeds on a big movie screen, why should I judge that person harshly? We're all human. We all make mistakes.

9When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me.

10In God will I praise his word: in the LORD will I praise his word.

In the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, I read the view of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that the Psalmist here is saying that he will praise God's decree, whether that entails justice or mercy for the Psalmist. Whether God chastises the Psalmist or delivers him, the argument runs, the Psalmist will rejoice because God knows best. Rabbi Hirsch's interpretation is based on the rabbinic notion that the name "Elohim" for God connotes his justice, whereas the name "YHWH" pertains to God's mercy. This does not consistently work, for there are places in Scripture where the tetragrammaton is associated with God's judgment (i.e., Deuteronomy 31:2). So why would v 10 repeat the same point with different names for God? Keil-Delitzsch states that this sort of repetition is just something that the Elohistic Psalmist does, as in Psalm 58:6: "Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O LORD."

11In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.

12Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee.

13For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?

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