Saturday, April 21, 2012

Psalm 73

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 73.  I will focus on four verses: v 4, v 10, v 17, and v 24.

1.  In the King James Version, v 4 states: "For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm."  The New American Standard Version, however, translates the second half of the verse as "and their body is fat".  Both are understanding the words in the phrase u-vari ulam differently.

I can see merit in pieces of both translations of the verse.  I can understand why the NASB translates bari as "fat", for that is what the word most often means in the Hebrew Bible (see here).  The only place where the KJV translates it as "firm" is in Psalm 73:4.

But I can also understand why the KJV translates ulam as "their strength".  The word ul only appears in two places in the Hebrew Bible: in Psalm 73:4, and in II Kings 24:15, where it refers to the mighty in the land (and mighty equals strength).  As I checked the BDB and William Holladay's Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, I could not find a justification for translating ul as "body".  Keil-Delitzsch, however, noted the Arabic parallel allun, which they say means "body".  Perhaps the idea is that the body is strong because it is a structure.  In any case, even though I think that (from a linguistic standpoint) "their strength" makes more sense for ulam and "fat" makes more sense for bari, I have to admit that "their strength is firm" and "their body is fat" make more sense to me as an English reader than "their strength is fat".

But that's not why Psalm 73:4 stood out to me.  The reason that this verse caught my attention is that it affirmed that there are no bands when the wicked die.  The word translated as "bands" (which, in the Hebrew Bible, only appears in Psalm 73:4 and Isaiah 58:6, where it refers to the oppressive bands of wickedness) is understood by many translators to mean pain, their idea being that Psalm 73:4 is a lament that the wicked do not feel any pain when they die.  The Septuagint and the Targum, however, have a different idea: that the verse is saying that the wicked are not "dismayed and daunted" (to draw from Edward Cook's translation of the Targum) when they die.  Either way, Psalm 73:4 stood out to me because it appeared to contradict the overall theme of Psalm 73 as a whole: that the Psalmist is sad that the wicked prosper, but the Psalmist then learns that God will kill the wicked.  But why should the Psalmist be consoled that the wicked will die, when he says in v 4 that their death is not painful, or that the wicked do not even fear death?

There are at least two solutions to this problem that have been proposed.  One is that Psalm 73 is not about God's punishment of the wicked in this life, but in the afterlife.  I will look more into this viewpoint in my discussion of Psalm 73:24.  The other solution is that le-motam ("to their death") is actually lemo tam, which means "to them whole".  The idea here is that Psalm 73:4 should be translated as follows: "For there are no bands to them; whole and fat is their body."

2.  Psalm 74:10 says in the KJV: "Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them."  My literal translation of this verse is, "Therefore his people will return (or, in the kethib, will bring back) here, and waters of full will be found to them."

This is a difficult verse.  The Septuagint renders it (and here I am using Lancelot C.L. Benton's translation), "Therefore shall my people return hither: and full days shall be found with them."  The LXX's Hebrew manuscript must have ve-yemei ("and days of") rather than u-mei ("waters of"), and it has "my people" rather than "his people".  The LXX for this verse is probably affirming that, because the wicked have angered God, God will return his people Israel to the Promised Land and give them full days.
But what if Psalm 74:10 is about the wicked rather than God's people?  According to translators and commentators, the idea is that the people admire the wicked who are prospering.  Either the fullness of water refers to the prosperity of the wicked, or the phrase is indicating that people keep returning to drink up the wicked people's words, for they admire the wicked on account of their rich life.

I thought that some of the Christian sermons that I heard on this verse were pretty pathetic, to tell you the truth.  They applied this verse to celebrities and how people admire them and drink up their words, even when these celebrities (supposedly) don't know what they are talking about.  One preacher mentioned Harry Belefonte's criticism of the Iraq War, saying that Belefonte singing "Day-O" does not make him an expert on foreign policy, and that Scripture calls Belefonte a fool for speaking out without knowing all of the facts (as if the Bush Administration knew all of the facts when it launched the war in the first place).  And another preacher lamented that people were holding a vigil for Heath Ledger after his death, when he was in the pro-gay movie Brokeback MountainI found these remarks to be one-sided, judgmental, and ridiculous, for Belefonte is not wicked when he stands up for what he thinks is right, and there is nothing wrong with lamenting the death of Heath Ledger, who (by many accounts) was a decent guy.  But I still take from Psalm 74:10 the lesson that I should resist the temptation to admire the prosperous people who do what is wrong, as if their prosperity makes them worthy for me to emulate.

3.  Psalm 73:17 states in the KJV, "Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end."  This is a crucial part of the Psalm, for it is in the sanctuary that the Psalmist reverses his view that the wicked unfairly prosper and affirms that they will come to an end.  Why the Psalmist reversed his view is not stated.  Marvin Tate proposes three possibilities: that the Psalmist had a vision in the sanctuary of God in God's majesty, as Isaiah had in Isaiah 6; that the Psalmist heard from a temple prophet that the wicked would come to an end, the sort of message that we see in Isaiah 40:7-8; and that the Psalmist reached this conclusion in a state of meditation and quiet contemplation.  Tate observes that Psalm 73:16 indicates that the Psalmist was engaging in "strenuous intellectual effort" to understand why the wicked prosper, and his insight in the sanctuary may have been (at least in part) the fruit of this hard brain-work.

But Psalm 73:17 has a difficulty.  The word that the KJV translated as "understood" is in the cohortative, and the cohortative often carries the meaning of "let me" do such-and-such.  Moreover, the Septuagint uses the subjunctive for that word, and the subjunctive often means "may I" do this.  So must the word in Psalm 73:17 mean "let me understand"?  What sense does that make?

What is Psalm 73:17 saying?  There are people who agree with the meaning that the KJV sees in the verse.  Rashi was a medieval Jew who knew Hebrew, and he had no problem with interpreting Psalm 73:17 to mean that the Psalmist went into the sanctuary and understood the end of the wicked.  And there is grammatical justification for that point-of-view.  For one, there is such a thing as a "pseudo-cohortative" (to use Waltke-O'Connor's phrase), a cohortative that does not function as a cohortative.  We see this sort of thing in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Psalm 66:6).  And, second, although the verbs in Psalm 73:17 are in the future tense, scholars have argued that tense is not really significant in Hebrew poetry----that the future tense can be used to describe a past event.

But there are other ways to interpret Psalm 73:17.  One view is that the Psalmist is saying that he will understand the fate of the wicked only after God brings him to the sanctuary, for that will signal God's intention to vindicate the Psalmist and to punish the wicked.  The grammatical justification for such a reading is that cohortatives are used in conditionals.  Some suggest that the issue in this verse is the restoration of Israel from exile, but I suppose that an interpreter can make the case that it's applicable to David, who was away from the sanctuary during his flights from Saul and Absalom and wanted God to return him to it. 

Another view is that the Psalmist in Psalm 73:17 is expressing resolve, for a cohortative can indicate a firm resolution (as Waltke-O'Connor document).  In this case, the Psalmist is affirming that he will go into the sanctuary, with the express intent of understanding the true fate of the wicked.  This coincides with a sermon point that I heard: that we go to church to remind ourselves of what is right, and to conform our thoughts to the truth.  In the case of Psalm 73, according to this particular interpretation, the Psalmist thought that the wicked prospered, but he went to the sanctuary to remind himself of the truth that God is in control.

4.  Psalm 73:24 states in the KJV, "Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory."  Many Christian interpreters have understood the "glory" here as the afterlife.  Others, however, have argued that "glory" is never used for the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, and that Psalm 73:24 is about a glorious outcome that God would bring about in this life.  Keil-Delitzsch wrestle with this issue, and they bring v 25 into the equation: "Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. "  They say that we can only go to heaven with God, and that even heaven would not satisfy the Psalmist if God were not there.  In my opinion, the Psalmist in v 25 is not necessarily talking about an afterlife but is saying that----in the vast cosmos (heaven with its gods and earth with its people)----God is the only one he can fully count on.  But I don't mind Keil-Delitzsch's homiletical application of the verse.


  1. James - thanks for this delightful post in all its detail. Verse 5 and 10 seem to me to express the idea of exploitation of the labour resource
    5. In toil a mortal is nothing to them
    and they are not touched as earthlings
    10. "So! his people will return here
    where they can be fully milked."
    milked, מצה + מים, suck + waters, only here and in 75:9 in the Psalter, traditionally wring out, Judges 6:38, wringing out the fleece, Isaiah 51:17 Jerusalem drinking the dregs cup of fury and wringing them out.

    Verse 10 is a sneer from the rich who delight in exploiting the poor. Notice the mem in each word in 10b? Doesn’t it just mince itself along: u-mi ma-le yimatsu lamo? The repeated mem’s sound like the smacking of lips.

    The hinge verses are also important - even before considering the end of the wicked is the betrayal of a generation of your children.

    You are a good reader and you read extensively. I hired a young man, very intelligent, with Asperger's Syndrome, some years ago. He lasted fairly well with us, but other staff found him very difficult to relate to - though they did with patience. Feel free to say no - but if you are interested, I would be pleased to include you in my reviewers for my book on the psalms. It is completely laid out and in a long period of controlled review by several people. I am sure you would have some electrifying comments for me - Bob - how could you translate that way!

  2. Yeah, I could do that. Thanks for asking me!

    Thank you also for those fresh thoughts on v 5 and v 10. They're amazing!

  3. James - that's super. Please send me an email at stenagmois AT (new address since I have just changed my email) and I will email you the address of the current pdf version. I am adjusting it every day and reposting it every few days. If you have an I-Pad, the PDF looks really inviting on that surface.

    I am glad you like my identification of a possible idiom in 73:10 - I haven't had any response from the 'experts' yet. I have both the advantage of being independent in my research - I don't need tenure, but also the disadvantages - I have only a couple of Hebrew scholars who can give me feedback. (One of them is my publisher.) Publication is scheduled for first or second quarter 2013. So there is time to test and mature the now 510 pages I have laid out. The big advantage for me is that now at last I have in my hands the book I wanted so that I can really study the text of the psalms.

  4. I've taken Hebrew classes, but I'm not really at the level of expertise to critique your translations of those verses. But I could see how you were arriving them.

    I'll send you an e-mail, and I'll set aside time to look at the manuscript. If I find the task overly daunting, I'll let you know.


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