Saturday, February 16, 2013

Psalm 116

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will post Psalm 116 in the King James Version (which is in the public domain) and comment on select verses.

1 I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications.

Literally, the verse can be translated as, "I loved, for the LORD will hear my voice, my supplications for favor."  That looks rather awkward, for the Psalmist is saying "I loved" without specifying whom or what he loved----though we know that he loves because he is confident that the LORD will hear his voice and supplications for favor.  The KJV tries to solve this problem by making the LORD the object of the Psalmist's love, but I have problems with this from a grammatical perspective.  For one, there is not an et before the LORD, and et in biblical Hebrew is often supposed to come before a definite direct object, which the LORD is in the KJV's translation of the verse.  Second, in the Hebrew, we have "I loved", followed by "he will hear", followed by "the LORD".  If the LORD were supposed to be the direct object of "I loved", then I think that "the LORD" would immediately follow "I loved", rather than that another word ("he would hear") would be standing in between "I loved" and "the LORD".  Often in biblical Hebrew, the subject immediately follows the verb, and "the LORD" immediately follows "he will hear".  Therefore, my belief is that the verse should be translated as "I loved, for the LORD will hear my voice, my supplications for favor."

So we have "I loved" dangling there in the front of the verse, all alone.  How have interpreters dealt with that?  Brenton's translation of the Septuagint renders the verse as "Alleluia. I am well pleased, because the Lord will hearken to the voice of my supplication."  Brenton translates "I loved" as "I am well pleased."  Augustine simply understands the verse to be saying "I loved, since the Lord will hear the voice of my prayer" (see here).  Rashi understands the verse to be saying "I wished that the Lord would hear my voice [in] my supplications" (see here), seeing "I loved" as "I wished", as if the Psalmist were saying that he would love for God to hear his voice and his supplications!

Perhaps what happened was that the direct object (which may very well have been "the LORD") dropped out of the text in the process of transmission.  But I'd like to offer a homiletical application of the verse as it currently stands: in a sense, the Christian's confidence that God will deliver her is an inspiration for her to love, both God and other people.  When we are no longer afraid of people because we are secure as a result of our trust in God's care for us, we are free to love them.  But, for some, such as myself, this is easier said than done.  How can it be done?  In my life, it could perhaps be done as I remind myself continually of God's love for me, through prayer, through church, through fellowship, etc.  Part of the challenge for me, though, is taking the insight that God loves me and using it to inspire me to love other people.

2 Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.

The Psalmist does not simply ask God for deliverance, receive an answer to his prayer, and go on his merry way, forgetting all about God.  Rather, the Psalmist stays in relationship with God for the rest of his life.

 3 The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.
 4 Then called I upon the name of the LORD; O LORD, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.
 5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.
 6 The LORD preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me.

What is the meaning of "simple" in this verse?  In many places of the Bible, particularly the Book of Proverbs, "simple" (or, in Hebrew, petayim) is a bad thing to be, for to be simple is to lack sense (Proverbs 7:7; 9:6; 14:18; 27:12).  Why are they the object of God's care in Psalm 116:6?  I'd like to present three ideas.  First of all, some preachers I heard said that Psalm 116:6 is glorifying those who have a simple trust in God.  Interestingly, the Septuagint for this verse has a Greek word for "infant" or "child" in place of "simple", and that reminds me of Jesus' statement in Matthew 18:3 that we should convert and become like little children (though Matthew 18:3 uses a different Greek word for "children" from what the Septuagint for Psalm 116:6 has).  Second, there are a couple of places in the Hebrew Bible where hope is offered to the simple.  Psalm 19:7 affirms that God's Torah makes the simple wise, Proverbs 1:4 says that wisdom gives prudence to the simple, and Proverbs 8:5 and 9:4, 16 invite the simple to learn wisdom.  While simple people in Proverbs tend to botch things up with their foolishness, one who identifies himself or herself as simple is perhaps more inclined to learn from God's Torah and from wisdom than one who thinks that he or she has all the answers.  Could Psalm 116:6 be saying that God looks out for those who are humble enough to recognize that they are simple and need God's guidance?  Third, Leslie Allen says in his explanation of Psalm 116 that God protects those who are unable to "cope by themselves".  In light of this view, maybe Psalm 116:6 is saying that God looks out for those who are vulnerable because they are not particularly savvy.

As long as the first two insights are not taken in a fundamentalist anti-intellectual direction, I can see value in them.  Regarding the third insight, perhaps there are times when God takes care of those who aren't savvy.  I can't say what God is or isn't doing in certain situations, for I don't know enough about either God's activity or the situations to make that judgment.  I do believe, however, that we should take care to be prudent so that we are not easy prey to those who may want to take advantage of us, and that the government should make and enforce laws against practices that take advantage of people's ignorance.

7 Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee.

Vv 7, 12, and 19 have Aramaic characteristics.  This may indicate that Psalm 119 was composed in Israel's post-exilic period, when Aramaic was dominant.  Some have argued, however, that ancient Israelite authors could have drawn from Aramaic in earlier periods.

8 For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.
 9 I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living.
 10 I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted:

This verse is quoted in II Corinthians 4:13, which states (in the KJV): "We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak".  Paul in II Corinthians 4:13 uses Psalm 116:10 to affirm that he expresses his faith verbally.
Is that true to the original intent of Psalm 116:10, however?  The KJV may indicate that sort of message: the Psalmist believes in God's goodness, and therefore he proceeds to speak the words of vv 10-19, which are about God's goodness; similarly, Paul, according to II Corinthians 4:13, spoke out his belief in God's goodness.

But not every interpreter goes that route, for two reasons.  First, there is the question of how to understand the Hebrew word ki in this verse.  The KJV translates it as "therefore", but (as far as I can see) ki does not mean "therefore" in the Hebrew Bible, though it can mean such things as "that", "because", "for", "when", "indeed", "truly" "rather", and "on the contrary" (I draw from the Holladay entry on my BibleWorks, but I also checked my BDB).  Keil-Delitzsch affirm that ki does not mean the same thing as the Greek word that the Septuagint used for ki in its rendition of Psalm 116:10, which is what Paul quotes in II Corinthians 4:13: dio, which means "therefore".  At some point, it was believed that ki could mean "therefore".  We see that in the Septuagint, and also in rabbinic literature (according to Jastrow).  But, as far as I can see, ki does not mean "therefore" in the Hebrew Bible.   

Second, a number of interpreters believe that the words that the Psalmist speaks (according to v 10) are "I was greatly afflicted", and that's it!  The KJV appears to interpret the words that the Psalmist spoke to include vv 11-19, which amount to an expression of a conviction that God is good.  But suppose that the words that the Psalmist speaks, according to v 10, are only the words "I was greatly afflicted".  How would that be an expression of the Psalmist's belief in God's goodness?  It appears rather negative!

There have been different interpretations of Psalm 116:10.  Brenton's translation of the Septuagint has "I believed, wherefore I have spoken: but I was greatly afflicted."  Augustine applies the Septuagint by saying that those who speak their faith are often afflicted by persecution.  Rashi applies Psalm 116:10 to events in II Samuel 16: David believed Ziba's lies about Mephibosheth, therefore David spoke by giving Ziba Mephibosheth's property, but then David humbled himself (or was afflicted) when he realized that Ziba was lying.  The Targum appears to ignore the part of Psalm 116:10 about the Psalmist being greatly afflicted, for David Cook's translation of the Targum (which I checked with the Aramaic on Bibleworks) states: "I have believed, therefore I will speak; in the assembly of the righteous I have sung much praise."  These interpretations treat ki as "therefore", as they try to understand how the part about the Psalmist's affliction relates to his verbal expression of his faith.  (The Targum is the exception to this, for, while it understands ki as "therefore",  it seeks to bypass the problem of the Psalmist's affliction in the verse by ignoring it.)  The NRSV, however, understands ki as "even when", which it can mean within the Hebrew Bible, and the NRSV manages to smoothly integrate the Psalmist's faith with his experience of affliction: "I kept my faith, even when I said, 'I am greatly afflicted'".

11 I said in my haste, All men are liars.

I heard sermons that said that we can only trust God, since people will let us down.  I've felt this way at times in my life, since there have been times when I have felt alone and isolated on account of my Asperger's Syndrome, which entails social deficiencies on my part.  I'm all for trusting God, but I also believe that there is a place for practicality: for learning ways to make contacts, for putting my name out there, etc.  In my opinion, I need faith so that I don't beat up on myself or lose hope when I fail, or when things look bleak.  But faith should not be an excuse for me to get out of the game, for I should do what I can do to help my own situation.  The same goes with how I relate to the situations of others.  I think of James 2:16: "And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?"  Sure, I can claim that I am trusting God to take care of the poor and use that as an excuse not to help them, but that's not what God wants me to do; rather, I'm supposed to help the poor, when I can.

12 What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me?
 13 I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
 14 I will pay my vows unto the LORD now in the presence of all his people.

I heard one sermon that emphasized the value of paying one's vows before the LORD in the presence of God's people.  Its idea was that, when we testify about how God has delivered us, that can give encouragement to others.  Is that the case when others tell me their testimony?  It depends on the setting, and if I can interpret their "deliverance" in a manner that does not involve God, meaning that I can think of a natural cause for their deliverance.  Speaking for myself, I'm hesitant to tell others that God has or has not done certain things in my life, for I cannot prove that God was the one who did them.  I'm not about to say that people should adopt some fundamentalist or evangelical religion because I had an experience, for I have often resented testimonies that did precisely that.  But I personally appreciate the experiences that I consider to be God's deliverance of me, and my "thank you" is between me and God, not me, God, and other people.  If I ever have an experience where there are so many "coincidences" that it appears that God's hand was involved, however (and I have heard such testimonies), then I'd probably be more inclined to tell others about it.  That sort of testimony would bring people encouragement!

 15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

This is a hard verse.  Psalm 116 is about God delivering the Psalmist from death.  Why, then, would v 15 suggest that the death of God's saints is somehow precious in God's sight?  The Hebrew word translated as "precious" can mean "rare" or "valuable".  Although that is often a good thing, I doubt that it always has to be.  I like how Keil-Delitzsch understand "precious" in this verse: "The death of His saints is no trifling matter with God; He does not lightly suffer it to come about; He does not suffer His own to be torn away from Him by death."  In God's sight, the death of God's saints is a serious matter, which is why God does not allow it lightly.

 16 O LORD, truly I am thy servant; I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid: thou hast loosed my bonds.

The Psalmist perhaps was born into servitude to God, for his mother was God's servant (Artscroll).  This could simply be a figure of speech (see here), yet Keil-Delitzsch say that the Psalmist's mother was pious.  What did it mean to be God's servant in these days?  Perhaps the Psalmist's mother was God's servant in the sense that she was faithful in giving her tithes and offerings to God, observing the festivals, and keeping other commandments about the love of God and neighbor.  She passed on that heritage to her son, which (in my opinion) is a beautiful thing.  It's also interesting that, while the Psalmist presents a relationship with God as a master-servant relationship, v 16 also says that God loosens bonds.  This is a master who sets people free from their afflictions.   

 17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.
 18 I will pay my vows unto the LORD now in the presence of all his people,
 19 In the courts of the LORD'S house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. Praise ye the LORD.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for drawing my attention to this psalm today. אָהַבְתִּי what will we do, do we do, have we done with Hebrew tenses? I think I like the continuous present - what do we do? So I render this as 'I love'. [correctly as you imply without any object.] The use of love without an object also occurs in 1 John 4:19. ἠγάπησα is close to the word used there. This is the word for love used in the farewell discourse e.g. John 15:9, 12.

    Re v15 precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his חסיד (xsyd). The precious is τίμιος related to the name Timothy. Holy comes from the LXX ὁσίων (used in the NT only in 1 Thess 2:10) where Paul testifies of his approach to them.

    I have not paid much attention to the LXX till the last 2 months. Big study - many words - so many opinions...

    This verse 116:15 is right in the centre of the 3rd section of the psalm - and it has no words in it that recur in that section - but note the contrast with verse 8: death - eyes [of the poet] - eyes - death [of Yhwh].

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Bob! I'm sorry that it took me a while to publish it. I've been in Indiana and away from good internet access (though my scheduled posts continue to appear). That's an interesting point about I John 4:19. When I read your chapter on Ps. 116, I thought you were saying that "I love" is like an expression of the Psalmist's emotions, but it seems you're saying that it's a way of life.

    Anyway, I'll be away from the Internet for a couple of more days, so, if you comment and the comment is not published, that will be why.

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