Saturday, June 22, 2013

Psalm 119: Ayin

For my blog post on Psalm 119: Ayin, I will focus on v 128.

My literal translation of the Masoretic Text for this verse is: Therefore all precepts of all I made straight; every way of deception I hated.

The phrase "all precepts of all" is rather awkward.  Keil-Delitzsch interpret this to mean that the Psalmist declares to be right every single commandment of God, whatever that commandment may concern.  Maybe that works.  I wouldn't be surprised if there are some religious interpreters who regard "all precepts of all" to be an affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture: all of God's precepts are relevant to every situation and contain all that we need for a fulfilling and righteous life.  I think of II Timothy 3:16: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:  That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (KJV).  The thing is, I don't believe that Scripture is necessarily sufficient for a fulfilling and righteous life, though it does contain good principles.  Some people may need medication, or guidance from a human being.  Even in Scripture, there is a view that there is more out there than the Scriptures to profit us: there is the church, for example.  And, even in Psalm 119, the Psalmist wants more than Scripture: he desires God's direct guidance and God's deliverance of him from peril.

Leslie Allen refers to an idea that was proposed by Mitchell Dahood and J.H. Eaton regarding "all precepts of all."  The Hebrew word for all is "kol", which contains the Hebrew letters kaph and lamed.  If you take the kaph and attach it to the end of "all precepts of", what you have is "All of your precepts."  What do you do with the lamed, then?  The lamed goes in front of the following verb, yisharti, and serves as an emphatic lamed.   This may work.  An emphatic lamed can come before a verb (see here).  I should also note that the Septuagint for Psalm 119:128 does not have "all precepts of all."

How should one interpret the Hebrew word yisharti in Psalm 119:128?  My literal translation renders it as "I made straight", and the reason is that the piel of y-sh-r (which is what the verb is in Psalm 119:128) often means to direct, or to make straight (see Proverbs 3:6; 11:5; 15:21; Isaiah 40:3; 45:13).  But this doesn't seem to make much sense in Psalm 119:128 because what exactly would the Psalmist make straight or direct?  God's precepts?  Why would God's precepts need to be made straight?  They are already straight, aren't they?  Or is there a sense in which God's precepts become straight when they are applied----when they are brought from the abstract into the concrete and thus can manifest their straight nature and their straightening abilities?

Keil-Delitzsch say that yisharti means that the Psalmist is declaring God's commandments to be right, or straight.  Perhaps that works, but isn't there a difference between declaring something to be straight, and actually making it straight?  Maybe.  Yet, to go postmodern here, there is a sense in which perception is reality: that something is truly straight when people recognize and regard it as such.  If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  If a commandment is straight and nobody recognizes that, is it really straight?  Well, one could perhaps argue that it's straight in God's eyes!

The Midrash on the Psalms says that the idea in Psalm 119:128 is that David is shedding light on God's commandments before God's children.  This interpretation may be saying that David makes straight God's commandments by teaching people what they are: people are more likely to find God's commandments to be straight when they learn what they are and how to follow them.  In a similar vein, Edward Cook's translation of the Targum on the Psalms for Psalm 119:128 says that "I have harmonized all the commandments whatsoever."  The commandments may look confusing and contradictory, but the Psalmist makes them straight by harmonizing them.

I should note that the piel of y-sh-r does not always mean to direct or to make straight, even though it mostly does.  Proverbs 9:5 refers to passengers who go straight on their ways, using the piel of y-sh-r.  Perhaps Psalm 119:128 is not saying that the Psalmist is making anything straight, but rather that his walk is straight----meaning right.

The Septuagint for Psalm 119:128 has the verb in the middle, which would mean that the Psalmist directs himself, or makes himself straight or right.  Augustine says that the Psalmist is made straight or right because he loves and clings to God's precepts.  By loving what was right, Augustine contends, the Psalmist becomes straight, or right.

2 comments:

  1. It is possible to render יִשָּׁרְתִּי as I straightened or I make upright. Thus each one who reads becomes one with the acting (do/deal) of HaShem - as in Psalms 111,112. This unity anticipates the work of Jesus. Have you considered the recurrence structure - so careful here with words that repeat 3 times and 2 times - and the first circle around the first occurrence of servant. So the final verse focuses the all-all-all? (See page 393 of Seeing the Psalter.

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  2. I like your translation of that verse----specifically what you do with the second all.

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