Friday, May 4, 2012

Psalm 75

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 75 and its interpreters.  I have three items.

1.  Psalm 75:2 says in the King James Version: "When I shall receive the congregation I will judge uprightly."  The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as "congregation" is moed, which can also mean an appointed time or place.  Consequently, there are different understandings of Psalm 75:2.  One is that moed here means God's appointed time to judge the wicked.  In this interpretation, God is affirming that he will seize the opportunity to judge the wicked at the appointed time.  God, in this scenario, is comforting his people with the idea that God will intervene and set things right, at a particular time.  All they need to do is wait.

Another interpretation treats Psalm 75:2 (or at least 2a) as the words of the Psalmist, not God.  Rashi says that the verse means that, when we take a festival day (a meaning of moed), we praise God with reference to that day.  For some reason, Rashi interprets "I will judge uprightly" in terms of praising God.  Perhaps Rashi is saying that praising God on the festival day is exercising good judgment, as opposed to engaging in "obscenity and levity" on festivals (to quote this translation of Rashi).

The Midrash on the Psalms understands the verse to mean that, when the Psalmist reaches the appointed time of God's redemption, he will declare God's acts of equity.  Theodore of Mopsuestia has a similar interpretation.

I do not understand how the Midrash on the Psalms gets the idea of declaring God's acts of equity from "I will judge uprightly."  Theodore of Mopsuestia's interpretation, however, makes sense to me because he is using the Septuagint.  The Hebrew Masoretic Text of Psalm 75:1b says "your wonders declared."  The LXX says something different, though: "I will declare all your wonders."  The LXX and Theodore are understanding Psalm 75:1b-2a to be saying: "I will declare your wonders, when I receive the appointed time."  And what does Theodore do with Psalm 75:2b, "I will judge uprightly"?  He says that the Psalmist is trusting that there will be a time when God will save him on the basis of God's promise of "I will judge uprightly".

I think that interpreting moed as God's appointed time of redemption makes sense, but I am also open to seeing it as a festival.  A festival interpretation would coincide with Sigmund Mowinckel's view that the festivals were about God's judgment and defeat of chaos.

2.  Psalm 75:3 says (in the KJV): "The earth and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved: I bear up the pillars of it. Selah."  There are different interpretations of this verse: that justice keeps society firm, as pillars support the earth; that the pillars are somehow related to justice (see I Samuel 2:8); that the earth melts when God judges; and that we can trust that there are moral absolutes even when the earth dissolves, in terms of lacking morality.

I especially liked an interpretation that I found in the Midrash on the Psalms, even though I don't think that it relates to the verse's original meaning.  The Midrash on the Psalms presents the view that the earth was quaking during the Sinai revelation out of fear that Israel would not accept the Torah, which would result in the earth plunging into chaos.  I'm intrigued by the notion that the Torah somehow preserves the cosmos, in Jewish thought.  So how did the world survive before the revelation of the Torah, in this view?  Perhaps the answer would be that it barely did, or that God tolerated the earth in its sinfulness before the Torah came and held people accountable, or at least held Israel accountable to be a light of righteousness to the world.

3.  The KJV translates Psalm 75:6: "For promotion [cometh] neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south."  In the Hebrew, however, the word for "promotion" is not in this verse, which reads: "for not from the east (lit. going forth) and from the west and not from the south (lit. wilderness of mountains)."  "Promotion" may be implied in Psalm 75:6, for the idea of Psalm 75:5-7 appears to be that the wicked should not be proud, for promotion and demotion come from God (who, as E.W. Bullinger notes, lives in the north, the only direction not mentioned in Psalm 75:6; Isaiah 14:12-14; see Job 26:7).  The Targum, however, does not include any idea of promotion in its interpretation of Psalm 75:6, for it affirms that the idea in that verse is that there is none like God anywhere.  I suppose that this, too, is a reason not to be proud!

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