Psalm 42 translation and comment
For the choir leader. To “Lilies” A maskil of the Korahites, a love song.
My heart is bubbling with a good word;
I will speak my composition to the King;
my tongue is the stylus of a quick scribe.
You are the loveliest of Adam’s sons;
kindliness flows from your lips;
so God has blessed you forever.
Bind your sword to your thigh
warrior, great in vigour and majesty!
Ride out victoriously
for the cause of truth
and the justice of gentle people.
Let your right hand guide you
in terrible deeds.
Your shafts are sharp
– nations fall under your attack-
in the hearts of your enemies.
Your throne, Divinity, is forever and ever;
a rod of justice is the rod of your rule.
You love right and hate wrong:
Therefore God your God has anointed you
from among your companions, with festive oil.
Myrrh and aloes and cassia
Cling to all your clothing;
from ivory hallways
stringed instruments have delighted you.
King’s daughters are amongst your treasures;
at your right, in gold of Ophir, stands your bride.
”Listen, my girl, consider, take my advice:
Forget your people and your father’s household
And the king will desire your beauty.
Since he is your master, let him have his way.
The city of Tyre is here with gifts;
Our landowners solicit your favour.”
All splendid the royal lady sits in her room
Her clothing interwoven with gold.
In many – coloured robes she is led out to the king
with the virgins, her retinue;
her companions are brought to her.
With gaiety and gladness they are led out
And go into the halls of the king.
”Your majesty will have sons in the place of fathers
You will make them rulers over all the land.
I will make your name a memory for all generations
so that the peoples will praise you for all time to come.”
There are problems with the text of this Psalm especially in the last eight lines, making any translation a bit conjectural. Out of fear of not selling their product to fundamentalists, many bible publishers conceal the textual problems. How could human beings decide the wording of the inerrant Word of God?
I don’t have any issues with textual reconstruction as for me there is only one Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth, and I’m not sure that he was inerrant either.
There is an interpretive tradition that this psalm is about the marriage of the messiah and his people. By and large this is mince, although it’s right to remember that all Jewish kings were “mashiach” that is, anointed in God’s name, and were expected to rule in God’s way. It’s impossible to tell how serious this psalm is in its praise of the king and his consort. We have no date of composition and therefore no indication of which royal couple is being celebrated.
We have recently seen here how a minor royal wedding can be accompanied by noble words about its significance from an American bishop. What he really thought about the overblown ceremony is unknown. In the same way, we may recognise eloquence in this psalm, while suspecting that some of it is ancient cliche or hard-worked rhetoric. For example, what ancient king or modern government ever went to war for any other purpose than to defend “truth and the justice of gentle people?” God forbid that it should be to defend lies and oppress gentle people!
The opening description of the king as blessed by God with qualities of body, soul and spirit to do God’s will, may be conventional, but it brings the power of monarchy within the law of God. If the king can be persuaded of the truth of his anointing by God, he will be a better leader of his people. The king is told that God has anointed him because of his convictions about right and wrong. He is left in no doubt that ethics are at the heart of kingship. The praise song is setting out the parameters of just rule.
But the psalmist also has to praise the king as a bridegroom. It is interesting that he can take a female view of the king’s good looks, his scented clothes, his accompanying music, his harem of beautiful women. Stern warrior and just ruler, he is also a good catch.
The bride is a king’s daughter but she is coaxed in traditional words to forget her own family and submit to her bridegroom who desires her. After all he is her “adon” master or lord, a powerful word in Hebrew. The bride is told that as Queen she will be courted by powerful people as a way into the king’s favour.
The bridal procession is described briefly before the psalmist refers to the main purpose of the marriage: children, and male children at that! The bride better be fruitful with sons so that the king can strengthen his rule by placing princes throughout his territory.
That’s what the psalm says. It shows how the priestly bureaucracy of Israel tried to keep its monarchy within the norms and practices of the ancient covenant between God and the people, which existed before any monarchy, and was in the eyes of priests and prophets, more important than any one king.
In the thoroughly secularised society of modern Britain religious communities may ask themselves how their cherished norms can be brought to bear on its government.
Arranging the liturgy for a royal wedding no longer cuts the mustard.