This blog continues my translation of Psalms 42-72, with a brief commentary.
A psalm for David, when he was in the Judaean desert.
O God, you are my God alone;
At dawn I long for you;
my throat thirsts for you,
my body trembles for you,
as in a dry and thirsty land
of no water.
Oh I have gazed upon you in the temple
To know your splendour and your power.
Because your love is better than life
my lips will give you praise.
Oh I will bless you while I live;
I will lift up my hands in your name.
As with marrowfat you feed my soul;
my lips are joyful and my mouth sings praise.
If on my bed I am reminded of you
I muse upon you through the hours of night
for you have been my help;
and under the cover of your wings
I sing for joy.
My soul keeps close behind you;
your right hand holds me fast.
Those who seek out my life to destroy it,
they will go down to the depths of the earth.
They will be given over to the sword’s edge
They will be food for jackals.
But I the king will be happy in God;
All who swear by Him will triumph,
and the mouths of liars shall be shut.
The final section is often thought difficult to understand and perhaps a later addition to the psalm. I think the pslams often combine the intimacy of trust in God with the bloody fate of enemies. In the third last line I have added the “I” which identifies the king as the speaker of this psalm, although this is unclear in the Hebrew.
The Hebrew word “nefesh” usually translated as soul or life, originally meant the “throat”, through which the breath of life passed. In the opening metaphor of the desert land, it seemed to me that the original meaning is very near the surface and I have used it. The language of the psalmist’s intimacy with God is very physical: the yearning for God is compared to the terrible thirst of the desert traveller; praise is offered by the lips; blessing is made by lifting up the hands; God’s nourishment is like marrowfat; trust is shown by staying close to God, while God’s protection is the grasp of his right hand. In the context of this concrete language, the abstract simplicity of “Your love is better than life” is especially effective.
Again it is clear in this psalm, as in many, that the centre of faith is the experience of God in the temple. A king in the midst of troubles and responsibilities might well remember the profound joy of temple worship. The nourishment God gives to the soul of the musing king is probably the Torah, the great teaching which guides the nation and its leaders.
When this psalm was used as part of worship in the second temple, it would have encouraged the worshipper to develop the same intimacy with God, by extending the joy of the temple into faithful obedience to the Torah, and turning her “desert experiences” into opportunities to seek God.
The vigorous depiction of the fate of enemies is a means of giving confidence to the faithful. In the USA of the present day, when the ruler himself is a liar, the last line of this psalm is surely a welcome promise.