Psalm 57

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 57 and its interpreters.  I’ll post the entire Psalm in the King James Version (which is in the public domain) and comment on select verses.

To the chief Musician, Altaschith, Michtam of David, when he fled from Saul in the cave.

“Al-Tashchith” means “Do not destroy”.  This could simply be a tune to which the Psalm is to be played, or it may serve to highlight that David (to whom the superscription relates the Psalm) is asking God not to kill him, but rather to deliver him from his oppressors.

1Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in thee: yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast.

Jewish interpreters have sought to explain why the Psalmist says “Be merciful unto me” twice, since there was a view among many Jews that the Psalms were divinely-inspired, and they did not believe that God would be redundant and repeat himself without good reason.  Rashi says that the first “Be merciful to me” is the Psalmist’s hope that God would help him not to kill someone else in his affliction, whereas the second “Be merciful to me” is the Psalmist asking God to protect him (the Psalmist) from being killed.  The Midrash on the Psalms offers a couple of more interpretations.  According to one view, the first “Be merciful to me” is the Psalmist asking God to keep him from stumbling into transgression, whereas the second “Be merciful to me” was the Psalmist’s request that, if he did transgress, he might return to God in penitence until the calamities that expiate his sins have passed.  According to another view, the first “Be merciful to me” is asking for God to protect Israel and the Temple, whereas the second “Be merciful to me” expresses hope that God will protect Israel in exile from the hostile kingdoms.  I like Rashi’s interpretation the best because it not only asks for God to protect us from harm, but also requests that we might not harm others.

 2I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me.

The Hebrew root that the KJV translates as “performeth” is g-m-r, which means “complete” or “bring to an end”.  What is the significance of this word in v 2?  In the orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, the opinion of Metzudos is cited, and it states that v 2 is saying that God will fulfill his promise that David will succeed Saul, for “complete” and “fulfill” are rather synonymous.  Mitchell Dahood argues that g-m-r means to “avenge”, perhaps because God is perfecting or completing the rhythm of life when he punishes a wrongdoer or gets rid of oppression.  The Septuagint understands v 2 to be saying that God deals bountifully with the Psalmist.  The Septuagint may be translating a manuscript that has g-m-l rather than g-m-rG-m-l means to reward, and the word is used with the preposition al elsewhere in the Book of Psalms (i.e., 13:6; 103:10; 116:7; 118:17).

3He shall send from heaven, and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up. Selah. God shall send forth his mercy and his truth.

A literal translation of the Hebrew is “He will send from heaven and he will save me he reproached the ones panting after me Selah.”  The KJV translates chereph, “he reproached”, as a construct noun, “the reproach of”.  But it’s a verb.  The KJV may have a reason for its translation, for Rashi understand the verse similarly.  But others have sought to treat chereph as a perfect verb, which is what it is in the Masoretic.  Some contend that the verse is saying: “He shall send from heaven and save me.  He that pants after me reproached.  Selah.  God shall send forth his mercy and truth”.  Others, however, say that God in the verse is the one reproaching, which means that the verse says: “He shall send from heaven and save me.  He reproached one panting after me.  God shall send forth his mercy and truth”.  Keil-Delitzsch go with the view that the oppressor is the one reproaching, for God in the Hebrew Bible is often the recipient rather than the giver of reproach.  But the Septuagint and the Targum understand God to be the one who is reproaching—-God reproaches the oppressor.

 4My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.

This verse may simply be comparing the Psalmist’s enemies to lions, but I liked what Keil-Delitzsch had to say.  For Keil-Delitzsch, David is saying that he is close to lions while he hides from Saul in the cave, and David feels safer around them than he does around human beings!  You can at least reason with human beings, but they also take their aggression to more devious levels than animals do.  In my opinion, humans are harder to deal with than animals.

But the verse may just be calling the Psalmist’s enemies “sons of men” to highlight that (however dangerous they may seem) they are mere mortals and thus are powerless against God, as Psalm 56 emphasizes.  This is the view of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Erhard Gerstenberger.

 5Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens; let thy glory be above all the earth.

 6They have prepared a net for my steps; my soul is bowed down: they have digged a pit before me, into the midst whereof they are fallen themselves. Selah.

 7My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise.

 8Awake up, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early.

“I will awake early” literally says “I will stir dawn”, as if the Psalmist himself is bringing about the dawn.  There are different views as to what this mean.  E.W. Bullinger essentially goes with the King James Version, and he treats the phrase as figurative for the Psalmist getting up early, as if the Psalmist is waking up the dawn by getting up before the dawn comes.  Rashi takes this a step further by saying that David playing his instruments in praise of God will wake up the dawn.  Another view is that the Psalmist is bringing about the dawn by praying for it, and “dawn” is understood here as God delivering the Psalmist from his afflictions (Psalm 46:6; 90:14; 143:8).  Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that the verse means that people can use their spiritual resources to turn the night of affliction into the dawn of a new day.  Hirsch may be saying that we can feel better amidst harsh circumstances by using our spiritual resources, or that we can actually change those harsh circumstances for the better through our spiritual resources.  The latter sounds rather Word-of-Faith-ish, but I would not be surprised if there are biblical voices that accord with that sort of view.

 9I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people: I will sing unto thee among the nations.

 10For thy mercy is great unto the heavens, and thy truth unto the clouds.

 11Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens: let thy glory be above all the earth.

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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