This blog continues my translation of Psalms 42-72, with brief commentary.
The text of this psalm is so corrupt that any translation is guesswork. No major version of the bible admits this.
For the choir leader. To “The lily of the covenant”. A miktam for David, for instruction; when he struggled with Aramnaharaim and Aramzobah, and Joab came back and killed twelve thousand Edomites in the valley of salt.
God you have spat us out and ground us underfoot;
you have been furious; now restore us!
You have made the land tremble, you have split it open;
mend its fractures, for it is poised to collapse!
You have made your people see hard times;
Pouring us a wine that made us stagger.
You gave a signal to those who feared you
to guide them out of bowshot.
If your loved one is to be rescued-
help with your right hand and answer us!
God has sworn by his holiness:
“In my battle-joy I will divide up Shechem,
and parcel out the valley of Succoth.
Gilead is mine,
Manasseh is mine,
Ephraim is the helmet on my head
Judah my ruler’s rod.
Moab is my wash-basin;
Over Edom I will throw my sandal.
Are you still crowing your triumph over me, Philistia?
Who will bring me into the fortified city?
Who will lead me into Edom?”
But you, God, have you not spurned us?
You do not march out with our armies.
Please help us against the enemy
for human help is worthless.
With God we shall show courage,
for He will tread down our enemies.
This is a vivid psalm but the text is uncertain at various points and its logic is not aways clear. The above is no more than my guess as to how it should go.
The language is edgy and exasperated by God’s neglect. The metaphor of earthquake suggests catastrophic defeats which have left the nation struggling to survive. Readers over the centuries may have found these images mirroring their personal traumas. The moment when past wounds are still raw, and the person or society totters on the verge of extinction is well depicted here.
The text about the signal or banner is especially corrupt: I have gone with some modern translators who make a change in the received text from “truth” to “bow”, which allows me to interpret the signal as a summons to retreat from the field of battle. I am not totally convinced by this, but other alternatives seem even less convincing.
God’s first person reply is vivid, indicating his role as a war God, who enjoys the battle, claiming His own territory and conquering Moab which becomes a mere instrument of his personal freshness, and Edom, over which his sandal is cast as a mark of ownership as in Ruth 4: 7. The taunt directed at Philistia is ironic – equivalent to the supporters of the winning team chanting to the others, “you’re not singing any more!” The territories of Shechem and Succoth are to be resettled by God’s victorious soldiers.
This confident speech is the heart of the psalm, but it seems to me that it has to be understood as pointing to the past rather than the present in the pslamist’s experience, for his/ her response is to question God’s performance: “You do not march out with our armies.” This is to doubt the traditional designation of God as “Yahweh of armies”. The psalm ends with a tentative declaration of trust in God’s help.
I think the psalm is balancing a present crisis of national life against the traditional rhetoric of God’s leadership in the original conquest of the land and in the empire of King David. The vigour of the old time religion seems attractive, but the facts of defeat are also persuasive. The muted confidence with which the psalm ends expresses the honest faith-and-doubt of the author.