Due to my moving from Cincinnati to upstate New York and the process of becoming situated into my new home, I wasn’t able to devote all of my Sabbaths to my weekly quiet time in Psalms over the past couple of weeks. But I’ve still done my reading and my listening to sermons whenever I’ve found the time, and my write-ups on Psalms 5-7 will hopefully reflect that I’ve done some study and thinking about the text, as well as its interpreters.
Here are some issues that I encountered in my study of Psalm 5:
1. Psalm 5 is said in v 1 to be upon “Nechilot,” and—as is the case with many of the intriguing terms that we will encounter in the Psalms’ titles—there is debate about what this term actually means. One option is that it comes from the Hebrew root ch-l-l (to pierce, bore) and refers to flutes or pipes (since those who make flutes or pipes pierce holes into wood). And, sure enough, chalil is a Hebrew term for “flute” (I Samuel 10:5; I Kings 1:40), which can be used in times of joy (Isaiah 30:29) or sadness (Jeremiah 48:36).
Another option is that Nechilot is related to the Hebrew word nachalah, which means “inheritance.” The Septuagint goes with this interpretation. So do the rabbis in the medieval Midrash on the Psalms. How does that relate to the message of Psalm 5, which is about the Psalmist’s wish that God will deliver him from his enemies? E.W. Bullinger doesn’t believe that there is a connection between the term Nechilot and Psalm 5, and so he ties it to Psalm 4. (He does this a lot in his treatment of the superscriptions of the Psalms—he ties them to the previous Psalm, as if they belong at the end rather than the beginning.) Psalm 4:6-7 says that the light of God’s countenance and the gladness that God puts in the Psalmist’s heart are better than the corn and wine of harvest; Bullinger believes that this coincides with the biblical message that God is the inheritance of his people (Psalm 16:5; cp. 73:26; 119:57; 142:5; Jeremiah 10:16; Lamentations 3:24). For Bullinger, Nechilot serves to indicate that Psalm 4 is rejoicing that God is such a good inheritance for his people.
But can Nechilot be connected with the message of Psalm 5? The fourth century Christian interpreter Theodore of Mopsuestia (of the literalist Antioch School) and rabbis in the Midrash on the Psalms say that the Psalm is about God punishing the Babylonians, who removed Jews from their land. They do not say this explicitly, but perhaps—in their minds—they relate Nechilot to Psalm 5 in that Psalm 5 expresses the Israelite hope that God will punish Israel’s oppressors and restore Israel to her inheritance, the Promised Land. Or maybe the message, at least for the rabbis, is that God and the Torah are Israel’s inheritance, even when the Jewish people are oppressed and in exile. (For such interpreters, Psalm 5:7 does not mean that the Psalmist at that time is worshiping in the temple, for they hold that the Psalm speaks of a time when the Temple has been destroyed. Rather, they think that the verse means that the Psalmist will worship God in the temple, or it expresses the hope that God will restore the Israelites from exile so that they can worship God in the temple. And the verbs are future in v 7.)
2. An issue that keeps coming up in my study of Psalm 5 and other Psalms is that the Psalmist wishes for disaster to come upon his enemies, and this troubles religious interpreters, for the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 23:4; Proverbs 24:17; 25:21) and the New Testament (Matthew 5:43-48; Acts 7:60; Romans 12:20-21) both contain the principle that people should love their enemies. This is an issue that I will probably revisit in future posts, for, as I said, it keeps cropping up! E.W. Bullinger’s treatment of this problem is to say that David lived in another dispensation, and what may have been tolerated in his day is not acceptable in the present dispensation. St. Augustine, however, states that David in v 10 is not cursing his enemies—expressing a wish that God will cast them down—but rather is prophesying about what God will do. For Augustine, v 10 is a prediction, not a curse flowing from any ill-will on David’s part. Apparently, Augustine believes that imperatives (i.e., “judge” in v 10) can express a prophecy, not always a wish!
On a related note, Psalm 5:5 is controversial because it says that God hates workers of iniquity, and hyper-Calvinists appeal to this verse to argue that God hates those who are not believers. The solution to v 5 that I encountered a lot in my study of this Psalm is that workers of iniquity are those who are especially bad—they try to hurt others consistently, and they enjoy doing so. That coincides with what we see in Psalm 5: these people are boastful, bloody, and deceitful. They flatter, but they do so to undermine others—like they’re stabbing their victims in the back, while being nice to their face. (That’s my impression.) Their mouths are like an open sepulchre, which (according to Peter Craigie) means that they cause destruction, and that their harmful and duplicitous activity with their mouths adds a stench to the atmosphere. For the Psalmist, God needs to punish these people to encourage those who are faithful to him—the victims of these evildoers.
Is this talking about your average non-believer? Paul in Romans 3:13 applies Psalm 5:9—the part about the evildoers’ tongue being an open sepulchre—to all of humanity. I myself find Paul to be extreme in his assessment of the human condition, but a couple of Christians have offered me the suggestion that Paul is talking about humanity as a mass, not each and every individual. When we look at humanity in a big-picture sense, we see a lot of corruption—including deception and bloodshed. But not every individual is evil and devoid of at least some redeeming qualities.
I disagree with any notion that God hates non-believers. There are non-believers who are more moral than believers, some of whom are ready to deceive and stab people in the back (like the wicked of Psalm 5). But that’s not the point. I’d like to think that God loves everyone, the good and the bad. I agree that God may need to chastise or discipline the bad to maintain order in society. But I hope that God loves the bad while he does so, and is chastising them so that they can learn their lesson. (I admit—I’ve been around Christian universalists a lot lately!)
3. Psalm 5:3 says that God will hear the Psalmist’s cry in the morning. Many preachers conclude from this that God wants us to have a morning quiet time. Some have said that Psalm 4 is for the evening, and Psalm 5 is for the morning. I don’t dismiss this—which is not to say that I feel compelled to have a morning quiet time. I try to pray each morning, but I don’t assume that God dislikes me if I fail to do so.
But Patrick Miller in the HarperCollins Study Bible has another idea: that the Psalmist mentions the morning because morning is the time when God comes to help (Psalms 17:15; 46:6; 90:14; 143:8; I Samuel 11:9). That would mean that the Psalmist is not so much advocating a daily quiet time, but rather is expressing his hope that God will deliver him in the morning.
Then there’s Sigmund Mowinkel’s proposal that boqer means that the Psalmist is searching for omens! Surely the Psalmist is not that naughty!