Saturday, July 13, 2013

Psalm 119: Qoph

For my blog post today on Psalm 119: Qoph, I'll focus on Psalm 119:152.  This verse states in the King James Version:

"Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever."

The Psalmist knew of old that God founded God's testimonies forever?  I thought that Psalm 119:141 said that the Psalmist was young!  How could the Psalmist know something "of old" when he was still a young man?

Well, the word often translated as "young" in Psalm 119:141 can also mean "small," and so the Psalmist there may be highlighting his insignificance in others' eyes rather than his young age.  Fine, but there are plenty of interpreters and translators who maintain that the Psalmist in Psalm 119:141 is saying that he is young.  There are interpreters, therefore, who have said that Psalm 119 was written by David when David still was young: when he was despised as Samuel was looking for Saul's replacement as king, or when Saul despised him.

In Psalm 119:152, however, the Psalmist seems to be saying that he knew "of old" that God founded God's statutes forever.  And, believe it or not, there is at least one interpreter who contends that this shows that David wrote Psalm 119 as an old man: Charles Spurgeon.  I'm interested in attempts to locate the Psalms in certain phases of David's life, but I don't think that they're fool-proof.  As you can see, there are different ideas about the stage of David's life in which David wrote Psalm 119.  (And there are many scholars who would deny that David was the one who wrote it.)

That said, I came across a variety of interpretations of Psalm 119:152.  One referred to II Timothy 3:15, in which Paul (or, for many scholars, "Paul") said that Timothy from the time of his childhood learned about the Scriptures.  Could that be what Psalm 119:152 is saying: not so much that the Psalmist is an old man, but rather that the Psalmist knew about the eternity of God's laws from the time that he was a child?  I don't know.  The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as "of old" (qedem) does not have to refer to ancient times, though there are many cases in which it does.  In Job 29:2, it is used to refer to things that happened in months past.  Moreover, the Septuagint uses the word archas for qedem, and archas can mean "beginning."  Perhaps the Psalmist's point is that he has known about the eternity of God's testimonies for a long time, and this would be true even if the Psalmist were still a young man.

Another interpretation is that the Psalmist in Psalm 119:152 is talking about what he heard from past ages.  The Psalmist, according to this view, has heard the wisdom "of old," which has been passed down to him and his contemporaries from past generations, and which affirms the eternity of God's testimonies.  I'm not sure if this works, though, for the Psalmist says that he has known from old.  This seems to me to mean that he has known it for a very long time.  But, come to think of it, I can see the other side, too: the Psalmist has known "from old," meaning that he knows about the eternity of God's statutes from the old generations.  But couldn't the Psalmist put a min ("from") in front of qedem to make that clearer?  No, because that would ruin the acrostic: each verse in this section has to begin with the letter qoph.  The Psalmist has to work within certain constraints.

The Jewish commentator Rashi has an interesting interpretation.  According to Rashi, we should see the qedem as meaning "before," and the word indeed does carry that sort of connotation.  It can even mean "before" in the sense of "forward," as occurs in Job 23:8.  But Rashi contends that Psalm 119:152 is saying that, on account of God's testimonies, the Psalmist knows what will happen up to the end of the world, before the events actually happen.  Rashi notes that the Israelites had this prescience due to God's Torah, for they learned from it that they would inherit the Promised Land, before they actually did so.  This is an interesting interpretation, but it doesn't seem to me to fit the grammar of Psalm 119:152.  If the verse said "I have known before from your testimonies what thou hast founded forever," then Rashi's interpretation might work, but the verse instead appears to be saying that the Psalmist knew qedem that God founded God's testimonies forever.  One has to account for the ki and also the "them" at the end of "you founded."  (UPDATE: As I look at the passage with fresh eyes, it seems to me that Rashi's interpretation might work grammatically: because the Psalmist can know the future from the Torah, the Psalmist can know from the Torah that God's testimonies will last forever.)

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