This blog continues the present series of translations with comment of Psalms 42-72.
For the choir leader. On stringed instruments. A maskil for David
Hear my prayer, O God
and do not turn away from my entreaty.
Pay attention to me and answer me
for I am restless in my complaint;
I am disturbed by the sound of the enemy
by the clamour of criminals.
For they they bring down lies upon me;
they bear a bitter grudge against me.
My heart writhes within me
and mortal terror descends on me.
Fear and trembling come upon me
and horror overwhelms me.
”If only I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away to find rest;
Yes, I would take flight into the distance
and roost in the desert.
I would hurry to take shelter
from the rushing wind and the storm.”
Consume them Lord!
Confuse their tongues
for I see violent controversy in the city.
Day and night they perambulate its walls;
misfortune and mischief are within it.
Destruction is within it:
Oppression and fraud are resident in its markets.
“Were it an enemy who taunted me,
I could bear that;
were it an adversary who demeaned me
I could hide myself from him;
But you, my comrade, my friend, my dear friend,
Together we enjoyed sweet conversation
And walked in the crowd within God’s house.”
May Death demand they pay their debt;
May they go down alive into the Pit
for evil is amongst them in their dwellings.
But I will cry out to God, and Yahweh will rescue me.
Morning, noon and night I howl my complaint
and he will hear my voice.
He will deliver my soul safely from the battle
for there are many ranged against me.
God will hear and answer them,
-God enthroned from the beginning-
They do not change their ways
because they have no fear of God.
”He lifted his hand against me, his companion,
Breaking the bonds of friendship.
His tongue was smoother than butter
but his heart was hostile;
His words seemed softer than oil
but they were daggers drawn.”
Throw down your load on Yahweh
and he will carry it for you;
for he will not allow
a good person to be shaken.
But you, God, you will throw them down to the deepest pit;
men of blood and deceit will not last half their days;
but I will put my trust in you.
This psalm is designed as a dramatised complaint to God by someone whose former friend is assisting destructive slander against him. I have put the most personal verses as direct speech, since that is what I think the writer intended. The book of Jeremiah with its outbursts may have been a model. Of course the whole psalm is written in the voice of a complainant, but the most personal elements allow a contrast between the conventional language of complaint and the fresher language of personal emotion.
The city of Jerusalem is depicted as a hotbed of opposing groups and vicious slander- a picture common enough in the Bible, as well as today. But the psalmist is not content with such generalities, dramatising an intimate betrayal of one friend by another. The hurt of the betrayed person is portrayed in the wish to have the wings of a dove which would enable flight to a solitary place, far from the city and its evils.
The psalmist sees the city itself as a locus of wrongdoing, especially wrong speaking, which threatens the welfare of its citizens. But the second piece of personal verse insists on the peculiar bitterness of being betrayed by a friend – the specific detail of their sweet conversation is unusual in the bible and effective in suggesting a real relationship.
The Hebrew verb which I have translated, “demand they pay their debt” imagines evildoers as borrowing time from Death in order to carry out their crimes, only to find that Death won’t wait for payment. The psalmist is not ashamed to pray for misfortune and an early death for his enemies. The human desire for revenge is passed on to God, as indeed scripture requires . (Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay.) Anyone who has suffered from lies and bullying will identify with the words of this psalm, which makes a howled complaint acceptable to God.
The third section of personal verse dramatises the contrast between outward friendship and hidden malice: words are smooth and soft but the intention is hard and pointed. The personal sections of the poem allow reader to approach and appropriate the anger of the victim, fastening us firmly to the reality of betrayal. The psalmist does this because he/she knows that the essence of Yahweh’s relationship with his people is a vowed friendship, a covenanted love, and although there is no explicit mention of this in the psalm, the acute reader can imagine God speaking the words of hurt.
The words of comfort near the end of the psalm are plain and tender, “Throw down your load on Yahweh and he will carry it for you.” How is it that we often come to love our loads and our complaint about them so much that we cannot respond to this invitation? Unloading on to God is not easy even when we want to, but once we have imagined doing so, we must have faith that it is no longer on our shoulders.
The psalm ends with a robust declaration of God’s punishment of the bullies and of renewed faith.