Psalm 7

For my weekly quiet time today, I’ll be writing about my study of Psalm 7, which is a Psalm of deliverance. I’ll be looking at four issues: the meaning of Shiggaion, the identity of Cush, the kidneys of Psalm 7:10, and textual criticism of Psalm 7:11.

1. Psalm 7 is called a Shiggaion of David. (Even E.W. Bullinger applies this superscription to Psalm 7, rather than to Psalm 6, contradicting his usual practice of relating the superscription to the previous Psalm.) What is a Shiggaion? As with many of the terms in the Psalms’ superscriptions, there are various ideas about the meaning of the term Shiggaion. We’ll look at two of them. The first interpretation of Shiggaion is that it comes from the Hebrew root sh-g-h, “to go astray,” or “to reel.” What’s that have to do with Psalm 7? One proposal is that sh-g-h relates to Psalm 7 in that the Psalm wanders and meanders in its message and style, as an expression of worry and anguish. Another proposal is that it concerns the moral state of the world or the circumstances of the Psalmist, both of which are unstable. A Jewish idea, which I encountered in the medieval Midrash on the Psalms and also in Rashi, is that a Shiggaion is about a mistaken prayer that was made in haste. Either it’s the mistaken prayer itself, or it’s a prayer designed to counteract a mistaken prayer that was made. In the Midrash on the Psalms, Rabbi Hinena says that Psalm 7 was a mistaken prayer of David, in that it was made impulsively. The reason it was mistaken was that David rejoiced over the fall of Saul, when Proverbs 24:17 prohibits people to rejoice at the fall of their enemies. Rashi, however, says that Psalm 7 was David’s attempt to counteract a mistaken prayer that he had made: David said that he preferred to fall into enemy hands than for his dynasty to end, and Psalm 7 was David saying that he didn’t really mean that—that, come to think of it, he could actually use God’s deliverance!

The second interpretation of Shiggaion is that it relates to crying out in anguish. E.W. Bullinger says that the term is from the Hebrew word sha’ag, “to roar.” And Sigmund Mowinckel ties Shiggaion to the Akkadian word shegu, which is a Psalm of lamentation. The idea is that Shiggaion means that the Psalmist in Psalm 7 is crying out in anguish, or lamenting, which he is.

2. The superscription of the Psalm states that it concerns Cush, the Benjaminite. Who was Cush? Here, we’ll look at three proposals. The first view is that Cush was Saul, which means that Psalm 7 is David’s prayer that God might deliver him from King Saul, who is pursuing him. This interpretation is big in Jewish treatments of Psalm 7. According to David Braude’s note in the Midrash on the Psalms, the idea is that David is calling Saul “Cush” “as a circumlocution for King Saul because of the danger in cursing the king by name.” (Braude doesn’t cite Exodus 22:28, which prohibits Israelites from cursing rulers, but I wonder if it is relevant.) Some Jewish interpreters say that David chose the name “Cush” for Saul because David was comparing Saul to a Cushite, or African: a Cushite (or an Egyptian) woman slanders Joseph in Genesis 29, and Saul slanders David in I Samuel 22:8; Jeremiah 13:23 says that a Cushite cannot change his skin-color, and Saul cannot change his hatred of David; a Cushite has dark skin, and Saul does dark deeds; Moses’ wife Zipporah was called a Cushite in Numbers 12:1 when she really wasn’t because, “just as a Cushite woman is different in that her skin is black, so Zipporah was different in that her deeds were good.” Similarly, Saul stood apart from other men because he was so good looking, which was why the ladies of I Samuel 9:11-13 were talking to him at length rather than getting to the point in answering his question: they wanted to keep looking at his beauty!

The second view on the identity of Cush is that he was a Benjaminite named Cush—pure and simple! David had Benjaminite enemies, who were upset that David had replaced Saul, a Benjaminite (II Samuel 16:5; 20:1). Charles Spurgeon proposes that Cush was a Benjaminite who was telling King Saul that David was disloyal to him, when David was actually loyal to King Saul. Many modern scholars (who are not homilists, as Spurgeon was) agree that Psalm 7 is about a person who is falsely slandered as having broken a covenant, for, in Psalm 7:4, the Psalmist emphatically denies that he has repaid his friend with evil or helped his enemy (who is probably his friend’s enemy, for, in covenants, the friends of your friends were your friends, and the enemies of your friend were your enemies). Spurgeon proposes a setting in which such a statement could have been made: David was in covenant with Saul, and David was being accused by Cush of breaking that covenant.

The third view on the identity of Cush is that he was Chushai, the person in II Samuel 15-17 who helps David out when Absalom revolts against him; basically, Chushai infiltrates Absalom’s camp and gives Absalom some bad advice, which Absalom follows (to his downfall). Augustine and Theodore of Mopsuestia are Christian exegetes who relate Psalm 7 to the incident of Absalom’s revolt against David, as well as Ahithophel’s treachery against the king. Remember that the superscription says that the Psalm concerns the words of Cush: it doesn’t say whether Cush was David’s friend or enemy! That ambiguity allows Augustine and Theodore to view Cush as a friend of David—as Chushai.

3. In Psalm 7:9, the Psalmist says that God tests the minds and hearts (according to various English translations). The word translated as “hearts” or “minds” is kilayim, which refer to the kidneys. An orthodox Jewish commentary, the Artscroll, remarks that “In Biblical imagery, the kidneys are the seat of human counsel.” I wonder how the orthodox Jewish author of this note deals with that, since many orthodox Jews are very conservative in their interpretation of the Bible: does he believe that the Bible is errant on this point, or that v 9’s spiritual truth is valid, even though its literal truth is false? Or does he see the kidneys as a figure of speech, denying that the Psalmist is meaning kilayim in its literal sense? Incidentally, one of the eighteenth century commentators whom Charles Spurgeon features says that the Psalmist means that his emotions are affecting his kidneys, which I take to refer to the bad stomach pains we get when we’re sad, worried, or mad (which the Psalmist clearly is). But the point of Psalm 7:9 is that God tries the kidneys, not that his emotions are affecting them: the Psalmist wants God to look at his innermost self and see that he is innocent of the charges of which he is being accused.

4. The Hebrew of Psalm 7:11 states that God is angry every day, whereas the Septuagint of the verse says that he does not inflict wrath every day. I think that the difference is due to how the text is being pointed. The Masoretes are pointing the Hebrew a-l as “El,” “God” (thus “God is angry every day”), whereas the Septuagint is treating the word as “al,” “not” (thus “he is not angry every day”). Is the Psalmist in Psalm 7:11 expressing the hope that God will punish his enemies, or is he trying to assure himself that God will have mercy on him, notwithstanding his sins, and will thus deliver him from his oppressors? A friend of mine suggested that the Septuagint may have been going with the “patient God” rather than the “wrathful God” in its interpretation of v 11 in order to appease the Gentiles, who were subjugating Israel, and didn’t want to hear about a God who would defeat them. Against my desires, I tend to go with the “wrathful God” interpretation because the following verses, vv 12-17, express the confidence that God will punish the Psalmist’s enemies. Moreover, I don’t really see anything about divine forgiveness of sins in this particular Psalm, for the Psalmist is confident that God will find him innocent of the accusations against him, which would imply that he doesn’t need forgiveness— unless he’s concerned about other things that God might discover when God tries his kidneys!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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