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The Psalms (Part One).

There are a hundred and fifty psalms, of which I will begin with a handful. The first psalm is a Wisdom psalm. It focuses on good and evil, and the good consequences that will flow from a life dedicated to the good. It is short, so it is possible to present a translation in full.

Happy is the man who doesn't follow the counsel of evildoers, neither does he stand in the sinners' road nor sit in the scoffers' seat.

Rather his delight is in the Lord's law and on that law he meditates day and night,

He is like a tree planted on streams of water; his fruit will grow in its season and his leaf shall not wither, and all that he does will prosper.

Not so are the evildoers, but they are like the chaff the wind scatters.

Therefore the evildoers won't rise up in court nor will habitual sinners [stand] in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord looks after the way of the righteous, while the evildoers' way will perish.

Note the theology (also examined and contested by the book of Job); the pious will prosper and the wicked will suffer for their sinning ways. Note also that at psalm's end it is the evildoer's way that will be lost or perish, not the evildoer in person. This contrasts with the previous image of "the chaff the wind scatters" and sentiments like Proverbs 12:7, "Evildoers are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand." The last verse in the psalm perhaps presents an approach to Ezekiel 18:23, "Do I truly delight in the death of the evildoer -- says the Lord God -- but rather that he turns from his ways and lives."

The Hebrew of Psalm 1 is extremely beautiful and the English cannot match its beauty.

Psalm two dates probably to the time of the prophet Isaiah, somewhere around 700 BCE. It reflects the theology of God's holy mountain, Mt. Zion, and bears comparison to Isaiah 2. It reflects a feeling of Israel's isolation among the nations, as the sole nation to worship YHWH, the God of Israel. It and Psalm 3 express a splendid mood of defiance, caught in Psalm 3:7: "I will not fear the tens of thousands of people who have besieged me from all sides."

Psalm 2 begins, "Why are the nations restless, and the peoples plotting in vain? The kings of the earth consult among themselves (or set themselves up), and the princes take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed."

The next verse (v.3) is in direct speech, and although it has been interpreted as the speech of the foreign kings, it makes more sense as Israel's defiant speech directed at the nations: "Let us break their chains apart, and let us hurl their fetters away from us." It was the nations, especially Assyria and the Arameans, who posed a threat to Israel during Isaiah's lifetime. Israel did not pose a threat to its neighbors, except for a short time during David's reign.

Moreover, verse four refers to the nations in the third person plural just as verse three does. Verse four reads "The One who dwells in the heavens laughs; the Lord mocks them." Thus three and four should logically be read together, with no sudden disconnect between them. "Let us break their chains apart, and let us hurl their fetters away from us. The Dweller in the heavens laughs; the Lord mocks them." Then comes verse five, "Then He will give utterance to them in His rage and in His wrath and frighten them."

In other words, the argument of the psalm is that Israel (probably reduced by the Assyrians to the kingdom of Judah; the Northern kingdom was wiped out in 722 BCE) has been subject to the antagonism of the nations, but despite their depredations, the God of Israel will rise up in wrath and frighten the nations into submission. This defiant attitude towards the nations is also found in 2 Kings 18:7, which says, "The Lord was with him [King Hezekiah]; whenever he went forth (to battle), he achieved success. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him." In the face of the disaster Hezekiah's rebellion brought upon Judah, with tens of towns utterly destroyed and only Jerusalem left intact, 2 Kings 18:7 exhibits the same spirit of defiance that Psalms 2-3 display. Another reason why it would seem Psalm 2 reflects the situation of only Judah being left to face the hostility of foreign nations is the use of "anointed," in verse two, which in context can only refer to a Davidic king, that is, a king of Judah.

Thus, in our interpretation, Psalms 2 and 3 are deeply embedded in the history of the embattled people during the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah.

Psalm 3 purports to be from the time of David, when he fled before his rebelling son, Absalom, but scholars believe that this heading was added long after the poem was composed, and hence can be safely disregarded in trying to arrive at the original setting of the psalm.

There is another striking passage in Psalm 2. God says, "I have anointed my king on Zion my holy mountain," and God says further to the king, "You are my son. I have just today given birth to you."

This linkage between God (YHWH) and king was very rare in ancient Israel, and one can only see such a picture with a couple of Judean kings, Hezekiah and Josiah, both of whom are rated highly in the book of Kings. It seems more likely to this writer that the king referred to in the psalm is Hezekiah. He cleaned out the idols from the Temple and centralized worship in Jerusalem, as the book of Deuteronomy advocates, He also defied the might of Assyria, as mentioned above.

There is a difficulty in the text in the last verse of Psalm 2, which reads, "kiss the son lest [God] grow angry and you [the nations] lose your way for [God's] wrath is easily kindled; happy are those who seek refuge in Him."

Some conjecture that "kiss the son" is a corruption of an original text "kiss His feet" but that runs against the usual syntax of the verb, which takes a different preposition than the one postulated for "kiss His feet." It is better to stick to the text, which uses Aramaic "bar" for Hebrew "ben" used earlier in the Psalm. In this case "bar" would be an Aramaism, like Proverbs 31:2, which uses "bar" three times. The son referred to would naturally be the son featured earlier in the psalm, the Davidic king. It would be an exhortation for the nations to pay homage to the king that God had anointed on Mt. Zion. However it may be, the psalmist is confident that with YHWH, the Lord, on Israel's side, the nations will suffer if they follow a policy of hostility to Zion.

We skip now to Psalm 8, which is just too good to overlook. It starts and ends with a sentiment that was used for the liturgy of sanctification in the festival Musaf (additional service). "O YHWH our Lord, how magnificent is your name in all the earth."

Verse four of the psalm takes an unexpected turning in what is a famous passage.
 When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the
 stars you have established, [I wonder] what is man that You are mindful of
 him, human beings that You remember them? For You have made them little
 less than divine, and crowned them with glory and majesty. You have made
 them rule over your handiwork; you have placed all things under their
 feet....


This exalted view of the human race contrasts vividly with the psalms of lament -- the many psalms in which the poet is in dire straits. It goes on to say that God has made people master over all the beasts, domesticated and wild. This is in keeping with Genesis, where Adam names the animals and Noah conducts them into the Ark. In 1 Samuel, David the shepherd fights off the bear and the lion and safeguards his sheep. In Psalm 23, the psalmist puts himself in the place of a sheep following the rod and staff of the divine shepherd. This imagery occurs also in prophetic passages such as Isaiah 40:11. Yet elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible a real fear of wild animals comes into play. (Genesis 37: 20, 33, Ezekiel 14:15,21)

It is hard to find another passage in the Bible that appraises the human race in such optimistic and laudatory language, even though Genesis says that humans were created in the image of God. The psalmist looks at the vastness of space -- and before the invention of the electric light the night sky was really a show -- and puts the human race a little lower than God. The poet uses beautiful language to express an exalted view of humanity.

Quite a different tone is set in Psalm 22, which begins with the lament, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" This is a verse of considerable historical interest, since, in the Christian scriptures, both Matthew and Mark cite this verse in Aramaic and then translate it into Greek. Actually, Matthew begins in Hebrew and then switches to Aramaic, while Mark cites the verse in Aramaic all the way. In both gospels, the quotation is given as the last words of Jesus. If these were indeed Jesus's last words, the verse becomes even more interesting. Was Jesus's intent to portray himself as forsaken by God, as one might think from the gospels' texts, which translate the Aramaic into Greek and do not go beyond the first verse? Or was this Jesus's way of saying that he trusted in God despite his crucifixion? For after the initial lament in the psalm, the psalmist points to how God has delivered Israel in the past (22:4), even though he continues to paint himself as a wretch. In verse six he goes so far as to say, "As for me, I'm a worm, not a man...." Nevertheless, the psalmist ends the poem with a paean to the greatness of God. Psalm 22:29 reads, "For yours is the kingdom and you have dominion over the nations." The psalm ends with "They will come and tell of His justness [that is, God's setting things to rights] to children yet to be born, for He has acted."

So was Jesus thinking of the body of the psalm, and thinking of himself as a "worm," or did Jesus on the cross want to say that despite everything, he believed in a God who would set things to rights? A Christian might have an answer to this question, but a Jew can only contemplate this psalm and wonder why Jesus chose to refer to Psalm 22; was he expressing doubt or faith? The original poet saw himself as being in a pretty pickle, but he put aside his troubles to praise the God who created the people Israel.

And so we reach the most famous and beloved psalm of all, Psalm 23, which begins "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." In a note published in the scholarly journal, Vetus Testamentum, several years ago, I proposed that the Canaanite background to the psalm was a bloody passage from Ugaritic literature called by one scholar "the Bloodbath of Anat." Anat was the Canaanite goddess of war and love. Psalm 23 is notable for its serene trust in God, and it speaks of an afterlife where David may dwell in God's heavenly house forever. Therefore those who say that the Hebrew Bible has no afterlife but Sheol, the underworld, are mistaken; and they have missed the most obvious proof text of all.

PHILIP STERN is a Biblical scholar and freelance writer whose range embraces fiction as well as ancient and modern subjects.
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Author:Stern, Philip
Publication:Midstream
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Words:2021
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