Psalm 135 Translation and comment

Bright music for Yah! Sing the name of Yahweh,

Sing praise you slaves of Yahweh

Who stand in the house of Yahweh

In the courts of the house of our God!

Give praise to Yah for he is good;

Sing to his name for it is sweet.

Yah has picked out Jacob for himself,

Israel as his dear possession.

Oh I have grasped that Yahweh is great

That our master is more than all gods:

All that he desires, he does

Up in the sky and down on the earth,

In the oceans and all the great deeps.

He makes clouds rise from the margins of earth

Looses lightning bolts into the rain

And fetches the wind from his fastnesses.

He slaughtered the first-born of Egypt

Both humans and beasts.

He sent portents and prodigies into your midst, Egypt,

Against Pharaoh and all his slaves.

He put down many peoples

And killed mighty kings-

Sihon, king of the Amorites

Og, king of Bashan

And all the kingdoms of Canaan.

He handed over their land as an inheritance

An inheritance for Israel his people.

Your name, Yahweh, is for ever

Your celebrity lasts over generations.

For Yahweh pleads the cause of his people

He shows compassion to his slaves.

The gods of the nations are silver and gold,

The work of human hands;

Mouths they have but cannot speak,

Eyes they have but cannot see;

Ears they have but cannot hear;

No breath at all can cross their lips:

May those who make them become like them –

-All who put their trust in them!

You house of Israel, bless Yahweh!

You house of Aaron, bless Yahweh!

You house of Levi, bless Yahweh!

You that fear him, bless Yahweh!

Blessed be Yahweh from Zion,

For he dwells in Jerusalem.

Bright music for Yah!

This psalm is an anthology of phrases from other psalms and books of the Bible, but it is creative in its use of them and in its own worship of Yahweh. This and the next psalm are known to the Jewish people as the “Great Hállel” reflecting their theme of praise. Hallel can be translated as “praise” but that takes no account of the connotations of music and light which belong to the word. It is used three times at the outset of this psalm and I have translated each differently in an attempt to do justice to it. It needs to express something a little more enthusiastic than the singing of a Presbyterian psalm.

The psalmist wants to emphasise that Israel is Yahweh’s dear possession. Then he reminds himself that Yahweh is the creator God who has made the world and its creatures, and that his choice of Israel involved the marvels of the exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Yahweh,it turns out, is an advocate for his people in the face of mightier nations- at least he is in my translation which picks that meaning of the Hebrew “DYN”. This active God is then compared with the inert idols of other nations by adopting a scornful rhetoric invented by Isaiah and others. The psalm ends with repeated commands to praise Yahweh.

We should recognise in the psalmist’s references to Yahweh’s marvels on behalf of his chosen, a pretty big time lapse, possibly going back a millennium from the time of composition. Since that time Israel has been mugged by every big empire in the region. Given that the holy books were constructed in the this same period of defeat, we may guess that their writers invented the glorious past and the deeds of Yahweh as a kind of reverse eschatology, a “primatology” which somehow gave confidence for the future, which no evidence of Yahweh’s lack of action could dent.

My analysis suggests the poignancy of psalms such as this.

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