Psalm 54

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 54 and its interpreters.  I have three items:

1.  The superscription of this Psalm (in the King James Version, which I will use in this post unless otherwise indicated) states: “To the chief Musician on Neginoth, Maschil, A Psalm of David, when the Ziphims came and said to Saul, Doth not David hide himself with us?”  The people of Ziph betray David to Saul on two occasions, in I Samuel 23 and 26.

I enjoyed some of the thoughts in the Midrash on the Psalms on the relationship of Psalm 54 to I Samuel 23.  In Psalm54:1 (according to the numbering in the English, which I will use in this post), the Psalmist asks God to judge him in God’s strength.  According to the Midrash, God’s strength here is the Torah, for Proverbs 8:14 associates strength with wisdom, which the rabbis identified with the Torah.  The Midrash on the Psalms affirms that David is drawing strength from Deuteronomy 23:16, which says that Israelites are not to return an escaping slave to his master.  The Midrash says that, if this is true of a slave—-who was at one time an idolater—-then how much more must it be true of David, who is a descendant from the Israelite prince, Nahshon (Ruth 4:20-22).  The idea of the Midrash here is that the Ziphites were transgressing the principle of Deuteronomy 23:16 when they were revealing David’s whereabouts to Saul, in order that Saul might capture David and return him to Saul’s court (which was an unsafe place for David, since Saul tried to kill him there).  David, therefore, was asking God to judge his situation according to the principle of Deuteronomy 23:16.

Psalm 54:3 states: “For strangers are risen up against me, and oppressors seek after my soul: they have not set God before them. Selah.”  According to the Midrash, this means that the Ziphites did not set their minds on God’s Torah, for they ignored God’s curse in Deuteronomy 27:24 on smiting one’s neighbors in secret, a sin that the Ziphites were encouraging when they betrayed David’s whereabouts to Saul.  Rather than setting their minds on God’s Torah, the Midrash says, the Ziphites chose to set their minds on Saul’s blessing of them in I Samuel 23:21 after they told Saul that David had hidden among them: “Blessed be ye of the LORD; for ye have compassion on me”, Saul told them.  But Saul’s blessing of the Ziphites was ineffective because the Torah in Deuteronomy 27:24 cursed the sort of thing that they were doing.

2.  Psalm 54:3 (“For strangers are risen up against me, and oppressors seek after my soul: they have not set God before them. Selah.”) is a much discussed verse on account of its reference to strangers, or zarim The Hebrew word is often used for foreign enemies of Israel (i.e., Isaiah 25:2; Ezekiel 31:12), but the Ziphites were from Judah (Joshua 15:55), so why are they called zarim

Different solutions have been proposed.  One solution is that of Benjamin Weiss, whose interpretation of Psalm 54:3 appears in Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s Treasury of David.  Weiss connects zarim, not with the Hebrew verb zur (being a stranger), but rather with the Hebrew verb z-r-h, which means to scatter, disperse, or sift.  According to Weiss, the word is being used figuratively in Psalm 54:3 to mean sifting out, investigating, or spying.  The idea is that the verse is accusing the Ziphites of being spies on behalf of King Saul.  The vast majority of the time, the verb z-r-h does not mean to investigate or to search, but just scattering.  But Psalm 139:3 may be an exception, and here I will use the New Revised Standard Version: “You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”  The word translated as “You search out” is zerita, which is from z-r-h.  For this, the Septuagint of Psalm 139:3 (if it is translating the Masoretic here) uses the verb exichniazo, which means exploring, or searching out.  Perhaps Weiss is correct that z-r-h can have a figurative meaning of searching out.

Another solution is to say that zarim is not only a term for foreigners, but can refer to other kinds of strangers as well.  In Leviticus 22:10, it refers to non-Aaronides (Israelite and non-Israelite), and I Kings 3:18 (which is in the story of Solomon and the two women) appears to use the term for a stranger in general, without regard to the stranger’s ethnicity.  Some appeal to Isaiah 1:4, which uses the verb zur to convey the Israelites’ estrangement from God.  Some say that the Ziphites are called zarim because they are estranged from God, but I like what the orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary says: that the Ziphites are from David’s tribe (Judah), yet they act as strangers to David through their lack of sympathy for him.

The third solution is to say that the word in Psalm 54:13 should be zedim, not zarim Zedim means insolent or presumptuous ones, and some Hebrew manuscripts have this for Psalm 54:13, plus the Targum holds that the verse concerns arrogant people who are rising against the Psalmist.

The fourth solution is to disassociate Psalm 54 from the story in I Samuel 23 and 26.  I do not know the extent of the fourth century Christian Theodore of Mopsuestia’s knowledge of Hebrew, but he interprets Psalm 54 in reference to the Assyrians’ attempt to conquer Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah.  In that interpretation, the zarim actually are foreign enemies.  Some modern interpreters, however, have a problem with zarim in Psalm 54:3, even if they do not associate Psalm 54 with David or the story in I Samuel 23 and 26.  The verse says that these villains do not set God before them, and critics have stated that this cannot refer to Gentiles, for Gentiles in ancient Israelite thought were not expected to worship the God of Israel, since they had their own gods.  But I liked what Theodore said: that Psalm 54:3 is criticizing the Assyrians because they did not fear God’s wrath in their assault on God’s people.  In my opinion, the fact that God in the Hebrew Bible often seeks to vindicate himself before the nations indicates that a prominent strand of ancient Israelite thought believed that the Gentiles should have at least some reverence for the God of Israel, whether or not that reverence led to full-fledged worship.

3.  Psalm 54:6 says, in my literal translation: “Behold, God [is] a helper to me, the Lord in the supporters of my soul”.  What does “the Lord in the supporters of my soul” mean?  Some understand this to mean that God is with or among those who are supporting the Psalmist.  The Targum says that the verse concerns God being among the Psalmist’s supports.  But Gesenius, Keil-Delitzsch, and Marvin Tate have a different understanding of the phrase.  They contend that what we see here is an example of the beth essentiae, in which the preposition be (often translated as “in”) functions as “is”.  When Exodus 18:4 states (literally) “for the God of my father in my help”, for example, it actually means that the God of my father is my help.  If the phrase in Psalm 54:6 is using a beth essentiae, therefore, it is saying that the Lord is the Psalmists supports.  Why say that the Lord is the Psalmist’s supports (plural), rather than support (singular)?  Gesenius points to examples in which a plural of excellence or majesty is used for God (i.e., Elohim), and he thinks that’s what is going on in Psalm 54:6. 

Genenius, Keil-Delitzsch, and Tate may be right, and the Septuagint does translate the phrase in Psalm 54:6 to mean that the Lord is helper.  But I’d like to play a little bit with other ways to understand the verse, whether or not they reflect the intention of the person who wrote it.  First, there’s the view that God is among the Psalmist’s supports.  Some conservative Christians (not all) think that we should rely on the Lord alone, and so we shouldn’t seek out the help of therapists or doctors.  But why not hold that God is one of our supports, not the only support?  In my opinion, it’s not a sign of a lack of spirituality to seek help from human beings, whether they be professionals or simply good friends.  Within the New Testament, the church is presented as a support system.  And perhaps God can use other human beings to help us.

Second, I’d like to play with translating Psalm 54:6 to mean that God is in those who support us.  I doubt that the ancient Hebrews believed that God could dwell inside of human beings, but such an idea does appear in the New Testament, as Paul affirms that Christ or the Holy Spirit lives inside of believers.  This understanding can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it can help me to appreciate those who have helped me as people who have God inside of them.  On the other hand, it can make me bitter that more Christians have not helped me or loved me.  Why didn’t they reach out to me, if they have Christ inside of them?  Does that mean that Christ does not like me?  Perhaps I should not draw those conclusions, though.  Christ being inside of a person does not mean that the person is perfect.  But Christ being inside of Christians means that they have some ethic guiding them, whether they consistently follow that ethic or not.

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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