Bible blog 2159

This blog continues my translation of Psalms 42-72 with commentary.

PSALM 59

To the choir leader. To “Do not destroy” A miktam for David, when Saul sent men to watch his house, to kill him.

Snatch me away from my enemies, O God,

From my attackers, hide me on high!

Snatch me away from evildoers,

From men of bloodshed, rescue me!

For see, they lie in ambush for my soul;

Thugs ganging up against me

for no fault or offence of mine, Yahweh.

I’m not guilty but they rush to ready themselves:

Stir yourself to help me and watch over me!

Yes, you, Yahweh, God of armies, Israel’s God

Get up and punish all the foreigners!

Show no mercy on any malicious traitor!

They return each evening,

snarling like dogs

circling the city

See, the drool from their mouths

the sharp points from their lips,

”Who hears us?” they ask.

But you, Yahweh, you laugh at them,

you hold all peoples in contempt.

My Strength, I will honour you

for you are God my fortress.

God’s faithfulness will go before me;

to let me look down on my enemies.

Don’t kill them in case my people forget,

Shake them by your power and pull them down,

Lord Yahweh, our shield!

Arrest them in their arrogance

For the sin of their mouths, the syllables of their lips

for the curses and and lies they speak.

Destroy them in anger, destroy and finish them off

so that all may know God rules in Jacob

to the ends of the earth.

Each evening they return

Snarling like dogs

circling the city

They prowl for food,

They growl if they are not filled.

But I will sing of your power

In the morning I will sing for joy of your faithful love

for you have been my fortress and my refuge

in the day of my distress.

Yes, my Strength, I will sing psalms to you,

For you are God my fortress, my God of faithful love.

This psalm has puzzled many scholars, because of its repetitions, which I have printed in italics, and its apparent contradictions: God is asked not to kill the enemies, so that their survival will remind people of God’s punishment, but then he is asked to wipe them out, for the same reason.

I would defend the repetitions as a kind of refrain, a technique which is used in other Psalms. The contradiction is harder,  but I think if we assume that the psalmist is not asking for the death of his enemies but only for their spectacular downfall, we can interpret the prayer for destruction as an angry exaggeration – “Get rid of them, God, reduce them to nothingness!”

There is also a puzzle about interpreting the foreign peoples or nations on this psalm. Are they Israel’s enemies? Does the psalmist live in a gentile city? Or is his native city occupied by foreigners? I incline to the last of these in this case, while also wondering if sometimes “goyim” is used as an abusive term for treacherous Israelites.

The evil of which the psalmist complains is again mainly a matter of words. In a society where honour is a treasurered possession, loss of honour through slanderous lies is disaster, which must be prevented or revenged. Loss of a believer’s honour also puts in question the honour of his/her God. This double question about honour is the issue of many Psalms, because it is the obvious issue for any person or society that believes in a God of justice: why do the good suffer, the wicked prosper, the powerful laugh, the powerless weep?

In this psalm no direct answer is given but rather a powerful outpouring of the grief and anger of the victim, which reminds him/her of the God to whom the complaint is being made, so that, in the end, trust in the power and justice of God becomes its own answer, although there is no objective change in the situation.

The slanderous enemies are described as a pack of wild, or feral dogs which patrols the night-time city for food. This positions the powerful enemies as parasitic on decent society, while depicting their ability to create fear and loathing. The repetition of the descriptive lines may indicate that the evildoers are not yet destroyed.

Because this is so, we are compelled to take descriptions of God like, “strength, fortress and refuge,” as expressions of love and hope rather than markers of what God has been seen to do in the psalmist’s world. This makes his/her faith, more rather than less interesting to the reader, including the reader whose experience of prayer is similar to that of the psalmist. “My God of faithful love” would be powerful coming from a person whose enemies had been defeated; how much more powerful from one who is still in trouble.

 

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