Psalm 41

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 41 and its interpreters.  In this Psalm, the Psalmist is on his sickbed, and his enemies predict and look forward to his death.  Even his friend, whom he trusted, plots against him.  The Psalmist says that those who consider the poor are blessed, and that the LORD will deliver them in the day of evil.  The Psalmist asks God for deliverance, and then he affirms that God indeed will uphold him.

I have four items:

1.  V 3 (in the KJV) states that God will strengthen the sick person (who has helped the poor) on his sickbed.  A couple of people I read assert that this sort of thing is not found in other religions.  Charles Spurgeon says: “How tender and sympathising is this image; how near it brings our God to our infirmities and sicknesses! Whoever heard this of the old heathen Jove, or of the gods of India or China? This is language peculiar to the God of Israel; he it is who deigns to become nurse and attendant upon good men.”  And Calvary Chapel pastor Chuck Smith states: “Now, this is an interesting concept concerning God, and is certainly far from the pagan concepts of their gods. Can you imagine this being said of Jove? Or of Jupiter or of Buddha or whatever? That he will take care of you when you’re sick in bed. And yet, we think of God in these beautiful, intimate kind of relationships, of even watching over us when we are sick.”

I am usually skeptical when people say that the Bible, Judaism, or Christianity has some positive feature that other religions lack, for I do not know everything about other religions (and I doubt that those making such a claim do, either), I have seen overlap between biblical and pagan religions, and I have learned that pagans have a conception of goodness and benevolence. As far as a god helping a sick person in an intimate manner goes, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, on page 95 of In the Absence of Goddesses, quotes a late second-early first millennium B.C.E. litany to the god Marduk: “To heal the sick.  It rests with you, Marduk, to give healing and life.  to lift up the fallen—it rests with you, Marduk, to give healing and life.  to take the weak by the hand—it rests with you, Marduk, to give healing and life.”  (The source is Surpu IV 16-18, which is in Surpu—a Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations.)  So Marduk heals and takes the weak by the hand.  I guess the Bible is not the only source in which a god intimately cares for the sick!

But, while I disagree with Chuck Smith on this issue, I did enjoy his own story about how God took care of him on his sickbed:

“Couple of years ago I was back in Pennsylvania speaking in some special services back there, and I got hold of some bad tuna that they served for dinner and I got food poisoning. And after the service that night when I came back to my room, I was sick! Oh, I was sick. I couldn’t sleep. My stomach was just churning, burning, crazy food poisoning. And as I lay there in misery, a beautiful chorus, worship chorus came to me. I never heard it before, just inspiration, just a song of worship and praise to the Lord. And I started to sing it, and I sang it over and over and over again. A song in the night, of worship, of praise, of thanksgiving to the Lord. And I thought, ‘Oh, that is a beautiful chorus. I better get up and write it down. I can maybe slip downstairs and pick out the tune on the piano and write it down, because I don’t want to forget this. I want to teach this to everybody. Oh, such a neat chorus to worship the Lord, you know.’ And I thought, ‘Well, if I were plunking on the piano at this hour of the morning and I should awaken my host, they will think that I was crazy or something. Maybe I better not go downstairs.’ But, really, I was too sick to get out of bed and just turn on the light and write the thing down. So I just kept singing it over and over. And I thought, ‘Oh, no, I will never forget this. This is just beautiful.’ And I finally sang myself to sleep. In the morning when I awakened, I was healed; the Lord had touched me. I was feeling fine, except that I couldn’t remember the chorus. It’s sort of like the lost chord, you know. I’ve searched. Done my best to try and remember it. And I said, ‘Oh Lord, please help me to remember it.’ And He said, ‘No, that was just the song for the night. My song to get you through that rough night.'”

I’ve never experienced something quite like this, but I have had times when I have been sick in bed, and a feeling of peace and relaxation washes over me.  Who knows how many people throughout the world have been comforted by God on their sickbeds, whether or not they even recognized God as the one who was comforting them?

2.  V 1 says that God blesses those who regard the poor.  I agree with Peter Craigie that this is said in Psalm 41 to affirm that we are not just to be takers, but givers as well.  I myself do not know if God will only heal those who have been mindful of the poor or the sick, but I do think that God doesn’t want us just to think about ourselves and our own afflictions, for he desires that we consider the misfortunes of others, as well.

But I found different interpretations of v 1, which I found to be interesting.  Rashi related it to visiting the sick, since dal (which many English translations regard as “poor”) means some manner of sickness in II Samuel 13:4 (where David’s son, Amnon, is dal because he loves his half-sister, Tamar).  Ibn Ezra and Malbim maintain that the point of Psalm 41:1 is that, by contemplating the experiences of those who are poor and sick, we can draw strength from the realization that God cares for them, and thus will care for us when we are poor and sick.  The medieval Midrash on the Psalms contains the idea that the poor in v 1 is the good inclination, the one who (according to the opinion in the Midrash) offers sound advice in Ecclesiastes 9:14-15, yet is not remembered.  And Augustine asserts that v 1 is a blessing on those who understand the poor one, namely, Jesus Christ (who was poor, according to II Corinthians 8:9).  I can find value in all of these interpretations, and I also have reservations about some of them.  (For example, does God always deliver the poor and the sick?)  But I prefer the view that we should not just be takers, but givers, as well.

3.  The Midrash on the Psalms also referred to a puzzle: How could David have enemies, when II Samuel 8:15 affirms that all Israel loved him?  The answer was that David’s enemies were those who were hastled by David because they were defrauders or wrongdoers.  Another possible explanation (which the Midrash on the Psalms does not mention) is that all Israel loved David then, but Psalm 41 was written at a later point in time, when David was on the run from his son, Absalom.  Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 106b, for instance, refers to the view that the trusted friend who betrays the Psalmist in Psalm 41:9 is Ahithophel, David’s wise adviser who joined Absalom’s side, perhaps because he did not like how David treated his granddaughter, Bathsheba (see the story in II Samuel 15-17, and compare II Samuel 11:3 with II Samuel 23:34).

But the puzzle in the Midrash on the Psalms intrigued me, for it reminded me of David’s scholarly detractors, such as Baruch Halpern in David’s Secret Demons, who note tensions in the story of David.  If David was so widely-loved by Israel, for example, how did Absalom win the allegiance of a vast bulk of the Israelites (II Samuel 15:6; 16:15b)?  Halpern’s answer was that David was not widely loved, for he was a bloodthirsty thug.  The Midrash on the Psalms wrestles with a similar question, but its answer is different in that it regards David as a hero.

4.  The use of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament pertains to Psalm 41, for John 13:18 applies Psalm 41:9 to Judas, who would betray Jesus.  But there are differences between Psalm 41:9, and how John quotes it.  Psalm 41:9 states (in the KJV), “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.”  John 13:18 quotes it as, “He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me.”  John 13:18’s quotation lacks the part about the Psalmist trusting his familiar friend.  E.W. Bullinger states this is because John 2:24-25 says that Jesus did not commit himself to those who believed in him on account of his miracles because he knew what was in them, and in human beings in general.  If Jesus had this ability, then he wouldn’t make the mistake of actually trusting Judas, and so “in whom I trusted” would not apply to him.

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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