This blog continues my series of translations with brief commentary of Psalms 42-72
To the choir leader. A Psalm for David. A song.
Let God rise up;
Let his enemies be scattered;
Let God- haters run away from his face.
Let them be dispersed like smoke!
Like wax melting before a fire,
let the criminals expire before God!
But let good people be glad;
let them triumph before God;
let them ring out their happiness!
Sing to God, make music to his name,
raise a song to the rider of clouds
-Yah is his name-
Be joyful before him!
Father of orphans, guardian of widows,
this is God in his holiness.
God gives the sojourner a home to dwell in;
He brings the captives out into plenty,
but the rebels live in a dry land.
God, when you stepped out before your people,
when you marched through the waste land,
the earth trembled, the heavens dropped water,
before the face of God, the God of Sinai
before the face of God, the God of Israel.
Generous rains O God you made fall down
Restoring your estate when it was exhausted.
Your living souls settled there;
In your goodness, God, you supplied the needy.
The Lord gives the word:
a multitude proclaims the news;
“The kings and their armies, they run, they run away!”
The women of the household divide the booty.
Even if some “loiter in the sheepfolds”
the wings of Israel the Dove are being covered in silver
her feathers in green gold.
When the Almighy routed the kings there
Israel shone like snow on Mount Zalmon.
Godlike mountain, mount of Bashan,
mount of the summits, mount of Bashan-
why do you watch jealously, mount of the summits,
the mount that God desires as his dwelling
where Jahweh will stay forever?
With divine chariotry twice ten thousand, thousand upon thousand,
God came from Sinai to the Holy Place.
You ascended the height, you took captives;
You received tribute from mortals, yes even from rebels,
that Yah – God might have a dwelling.
Blessed be the Lord
who carries us day after day, our rescuing God!
Our God is a God of rescues:
Emigration from death is ruled by Lord Yahweh.
But God will smash his enemies’ heads
the long- haired heads of the long-term offenders,
The Lord has said:
I will fetch them from Bashan;
I will fetch them from the depths of the sea;
so that your feet may paddle in blood
so that your dogs’ tongues may get their treat from the enemy.
Your festive processions have been seen, O God
the processions of my God and King into the Temple-
– in front the singers, behind the musicians,
betweeen them the girls playing tambourines.
They bless God in Assemblies:
“Yahweh from the foundation of Israel!”
There was Benjamin the youngest in front;
Judah’s princes in bright-coloured robes;
the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.
Command your might, O God;
Re-enforce yourself as you have for us before
from your Temple in Jerusalem!
May kings bring you their gifts:
Bring to heel the Beast of the Reeds
that Herd of Bulls, that People of Calves,
who bow down to pieces of silver;
smash the people who take pleasure in war;
Let princes be brought from Egypt,
Let Cush reach out her hands to God!
Kingdoms of the earth, sing out to God;
make melody to the Rider in the Skies, the skies of old,
Listen! He calls out with his voice, his voice of power.
Acknowledge that power belongs to God
whose splendour is upon Israel,
whose strength, in the clouds.
How terrifying Is God in his sanctuary,
who gives strength and power to his people!
May God be blessed!
This is one of the most obscure psalms in the collection, in both vocabulary and meaning, There are numerous words used only here, whose meaning can only be guessed, while there are also many instances where the official text makes no sense and needs emended. The sequence of its sections is also not obvious, so much so that one eminent scholar suggested that it was not a psalm, but rather a psalmist’s collection of fine phrases.
I can make no claim to scholarly expertise, but my present project has perhaps given me a sense of what has happened to the text of psalms over their long history from composition to inclusion in the worship book of the second temple. In this case I think that an old psalm celebrating the victories of Yahweh has been edited and extended by a second temple composer, perhaps for a particular festival. The God of Sinai is connected to the God of the Exodus from Egypt (and perhaps from Babylon) and both are connected to the God worshipped in Zion, in the Temple. The focus on Egypt towards the end may point to to the defeat by Egypt in 320 BCE and the transportation of many Jews to that land. So it is a composite psalm in my opinion, retaining an ancient vigour in its phrasing while meeting a more recent need.
The first section calls for God to be active in his cause and that of his people, while the people are called to celebrate the character of their God, especially for his concern towards the widow, the orphan and the sojourner. These characteristics remind the psalmist of God’s mighty rescue of Israel and his gift to them of the land, a land which is well-watered and fruitful in comparison to the desert through which they have been led. The images are vivid and the rhythm of the language is forceful.
The next section seems to be based on victory or victories over kings in the settlement of the land, such as the story of the victory over Sisera in Judges chapter 5, which is suggested by the phrase about “loitering in the sheepfolds” used by the author of Judges to rebuke the clans that did not join the battle. The “wings of the dove” have aroused endless interpretation, but I agree with those who consider it applies to Israel and have so translated. The Dove/Israel gains splendour through victory. I have also made explicit my view that the image of snow on Mount Zamon should also be applied to Israel.
The image of mountains triggers the next and most obscure section. No scholar seems to know anything relevant about Mount Bashan and its many summits. The psalmist characterises it as a proud mountain which is therefore put out by God’s selection of the presumably smaller Mount Zion as his new residence. There is no biblical account of an assault on Zion with chariots, and indeed against such a bastion they would be little use; so I take the chariots as belonging to God, of the kind revealed to Elisha, when they were swinging low. The heavenly armies accompany the God of Sinai in his relocation to Mount Zion. King David’s conquest of the originally Jebusite city of Jerusalem is taken up in Yahweh’s conquest and settlement of it.
A new section begins with an eloquent blessing on the God who carries his people. Death’s realm is threatening but God is in charge of its borders and helps refugees escape. My translation may seem fanciful but it comes from recognising that the Hebrew “tôtsôth” refers to edges, borders and outgoings. Those who escape death do so via Yahweh who controls its borders.
Readers will note here again that the psalms are never shy in representing God the Thug, who gets stuck into his opponents with no apology. I remain unsure if God promises to fetch Israel back from the depths in order to wade in its enemy’s blood; or whether the unfortunate enemy may be brought back so that Israel can enjoy this pleasure. Either way, the psalmist indicates that no one should mess with this God.
The next section without warning transports us to the Temple and a festival where Yahweh is honoured by singers and musicians, including as far as I know, the only mention of female musicians. Only four tribes of Israel are mentioned by name and this may reflect a story in 2Chronicles 30, in which Judah’s King Hezekiah summons the Northern tribes to a Passover but only a few respond. If so, that may give a date for the original composition of the Psalm, c 710 BCE.
Then we have the section which is taken up with an enemy described as the Beast of the Reeds, which in view of what follows, may be Egypt, to which Jews were deported c 320 BCE. This may give us a date at which the psalm was extended and edited. If so, we are dealing with a text which was in composition for over 400 years. The culmination of the petition to God is that Egypt would look to Israel for mercy.
The last section resumes the language of the warrior God who rides in the skies. The emphasis is on the otherness of the holy God which arouses fear but gives strength to his people. Perhaps the meaning of the whole psalm can be summed up in the couplet:
Acknowledge that power belongs to God
whose splendour is upon Israel.