For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 35 and its interpreters. Here are three items:
1. Psalm 35:15 says (in my translation), “And in my stumbling they rejoiced, and they gathered together; nuchim gathered together against me, and I did not know; they tore, and they did not cease.”
The Hebrew word nuchim means “broken” or “stricken”. The use of this word in Psalm 35:15 is odd, for the passage appears to be saying that the Psalmist’s persecutors are broken or stricken. Why would the text say that, when its whole point seems to be that the Psalmist is the victim, not his persecutors?
Other versions have something different. The Septuagint says that “mastiges were gathered together against me”, and the meaning of mastiges is “whips”, “scourges”, or “afflictions”. The Vulgate has the same idea. In these versions, Psalm 35:15 means that the Psalmist’s persecutors rejoiced at his stumbling and brought him afflictions, not that they themselves were afflicted.
W.O.E. Oesterley’s approach is to emend the text. Instead of nuchim, Oesterley says we should read ke-nochrim, which means “like strangers”. The text would then read, “And when I stumbled they rejoiced and gathered together, like strangers whom I know not”. Oesterley’s idea may be that the Psalmist felt a certain kinship with his persecutors, for Psalm 35:13-14 says that he mourned for them when they were sick, as one mourns for a friend, brother, or mother. But, notwithstanding the close relationship, the Psalmist’s persecutors in v 15 were acting like strangers to him, as they rejoiced at his stumbling and gathered against him. The Psalmist felt betrayed. Peter Craigie similarly goes the emendation route, but he emends nuchim to a Hebrew word that means “oppressors”.
Other interpreters—such as Rashi, Charles Spurgeon, John Gill, and Keil-Delitzsch—have tried to derive some meaning from the Masoretic Text as it stands, with the word nuchim. Such interpretations include: nuchim was a word of mockery that David was using for his persecutors; the Psalmist was saying that his persecutors deserved to be beaten; David’s persecutors mock the limping Psalmist, even though they themselves are lame or have been smitten by God; nuchim is related to the Arabic word nawicka, which means “injured in mind”, meaning that David was saying that his persecutors were crazy; and David used nuchim because he regarded his persecutors as the dregs of society, as Job was snobbish in Job 30.
I personally am not committed to any version, emendation, or interpretation, but I want to propose an idea. In vv 13-14, the Psalmist says that he fasted and prayed when his enemies were sick, but that his prayer returned to him, which may mean that his prayer was unanswered. Could v 15 be continuing that idea by saying that the Psalmist’s enemies are nuchim because they are still sick, and yet they continue to mock and conspire against the Psalmist? Even God afflicting them does not hold them back from their wickedness.
V 16 is another puzzling verse. It says (in my wooden literal translation), “With the profane of the mockings of cake, grinding against me his teeth.” Oesterley emends la-age maog (“mockings of cake”) to la-agu la-ag “they mocked a mocking”, which doesn’t sound far-fetched. But I encountered many interpreters who try to do something with the Masoretic Text as it stands. The most common interpretation that I found was that there are jesters at a banquet, who make fun of people or things to receive food (a cake). These profane jesters are mocking the Psalmist at banquets. Some apply this to David’s flight from King Saul: While David was on the run, jesters at Saul’s royal banquets were making fun of him.
2. This brings me to the reference-points of Psalm 35. Many have related this Psalm to David, but there are other interpretations, as well. The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia says that David is prophesying the feelings and experiences of Jeremiah, who, like the voice in Psalm 35, was repaid evil for good (Jeremiah 18:20), was slandered (Jeremiah 37:11-14), and wished for disaster to befall his persecutors (Jeremiah 23:12). Others have applied Psalm 35 to Jesus Christ, for Psalm 35:19—they “hate me without a cause” (KJV)—is related to Jesus in John 15:25.
In the orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, I read the view of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that Psalm 35 is about Israel in exile: Even though the Jews’ presence in other nations has influenced God to bless those nations, Israel’s captors continue to oppress them. The ingratitude of the Psalmist’s oppressors in Psalm 35:13-14 is read in light of Israel’s Diaspora experience. Similarly, Sigmund Mowinckel presents a national interpretation of Psalm 35: When v 20 states that the villains are treacherous against the quiet of the land, that means that Israel’s neighbors and oppressors scheme against her. And others hold that the quiet of the land are pious Jews within Israel, who are afflicted by other Jews.
Peter Craigie interprets Psalm 35 in light of an international treaty, which other kings are breaking. Vv 13-14 uses family language when it says that the Psalmist fasted on behalf of his persecutors as one would for a brother, or a mother, and international treaties contain familial language. J. Gerald Janzen, however, states that the Psalmist feels a special kinship with those who are now persecuting him, as if his oppressors are fellow Israelites, towards whom the Psalmist has been loyal in the past.
Something that has puzzled some scholars is that part of Psalm 35 uses military language, whereas other parts use court-room language. But the Psalmist could have drawn on different metaphors to express his experiences at the hands of persecutors. The Psalmist needs defense from his enemies, as well as wants God to punish them. And the Psalmist also desires vindication on account of those who have slandered him.
3. Psalm 35:10 mentions the bones speaking to God, and E.W. Bullinger launches a discussion about bones in the Psalms. Bullinger then says, “His heart broken (69.20); so our hearts (34.18); but not ourselves (John 10:27-29).” John 10:27-29 is about how God preserves believers, even after death. But I wonder if Psalm 35 is consistent with a belief in an afterlife, for, in v 17, the Psalmist asks God to preserve his soul or life, yechidati, which probably means “my only one”. The King James Version translates that word as “my darling”, perhaps because the uniqueness of the Psalmist’s soul or life makes it special to him. But Theodore of Mopsuestia says that the Psalmist is asking God to preserve the only life he has.
Perhaps the Psalmist did value this life because he thought that it was the only life he had, for the experience of the dead in Sheol did not count as a full “life”. I think that I can learn from the value that the Psalmist placed on his life, even if I believe in an afterlife.