Psalm 61

For my weekly quiet time, I will comment on select verses of Psalm 61 in the King James Version, which is in the public domain.

To the chief Musician upon Neginah, [A Psalm] of David.

1Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer.

 2From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

According to Marvin Tate, the end of the earth refers to a distant place (Psalm 19:5; 46:10; 135:7; Deuteronomy 13:7; 28:49, 64; Isaiah 5:26; etc.).  What is the setting for the Psalmist crying out to God from a distant place?  One view is that Psalm 61 is about David’s flight from Absalom: David (as king) is away from his home and from God’s sanctuary in Jerusalem because he is fleeing from Absalom, and so David cries out to God from where he is—-a distant place—-with the hope that God will lead him back to Mount Zion, the rock that is higher than David.  A second view is that Psalm 61 is about a king who is at war, away from his home.  The king either is sacrificing at Jerusalem in anticipation of his time away from home, or he is crying to God at the battle site.  Tate notes that the Egyptian king Rameses II prayed to a god while he was on a distant campaign in Kadesh, and Sigmund Mowinckel appeals to I Samuel 14:33ff.—-in which Saul builds an altar during a battle—-to demonstrate that a king could call out to God in a cultic fashion even when he was far away from the official sanctuary.  A third view is that Psalm 61 is by Jewish exiles, who are distant from their homeland and who want for God to restore them to the land of Israel as well as re-establish the Davidic monarchy.  A fourth view is that the “end of the earth” is metaphorical for distance from God: the Psalmist cries out to God even when he feels far away from God.  And a fifth view is that the “end of the earth” relates to the netherworld, and that the Psalmist is crying out to God while he is on the brink of death.  Mitchell Dahood holds to the netherworld interpretation.

What is the “rock that is higher than I”?  One view is that the Psalmist is asking for God to help him to overcome obstacles that are impossible for him to surmount by himself, which means that the higher rock is an obstacle.  Another view is that the higher rock refers to God, who is called a rock throughout the Psalms (Psalm 18; 28:1; 42:9; etc.), and that the Psalmist here is expressing his faith that God is higher and stronger than he is, which is why the Psalmist is depending on God.  A third view is that the Psalmist is saying that he is drowning and that he needs a rock that is higher than he is—-since a higher rock is where he can be safe from the waters.  The Septuagint has something different: in the rock you did lift me up.  According to Tate, the Septuagint’s understanding of that verse lacks mimmenni (“than I”).

 3For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy.

 4I will abide in thy tabernacle for ever: I will trust in the covert of thy wings. Selah.

 5For thou, O God, hast heard my vows: thou hast given me the heritage of those that fear thy name.

 6Thou wilt prolong the king’s life: and his years as many generations.

The Hebrew that the KJV translates as “as many generations” is kemo dor va-dor, which literally means “as generation and generation”.  As Tate notes, dor va-dor often means “a succession of generations with no defined end” (Psalm 10:6; 45:18; Joel 2:2; 4:20).  So is the Psalmist asking God that the king might live forever?  But the Davidic king was a mere mortal, so how could he live forever?  Different explanations have been proposed.  One explanation is that the ancient Near East used larger-than-life language about kings.  Kings were told to live forever (I Kings 1:31; Nehemiah 2:3; etc.), for example.  Marc Brettler in the Jewish Study Bible states that the description of the king’s life as perpetual may reflect the notion that the king was close to being divine (Psalm 45:7).  A second explanation is that the king is hoping that his dynasty might last forever, meaning that v 6 is about the king’s dynasty rather than the king himself.  The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia goes with this solution, and he relates this verse to the hope of the Jewish exiles that God will re-establish the Davidic dynasty such that it is perpetual, so that they would no longer have to fear or experience captivity.  A third explanation is that David is conflating himself with his descendant, Jesus Christ, who lives eternally. A fourth explanation is that David is asking that his example might be known for many generations, even after he dies.  And a fifth explanation is that v 6 concerns David’s hope for an afterlife.

The Targum for Psalm 61 maintains that v 6 is asking God to give a king a life that lasts for many generations.  Because it does not believe that God is redundant in repeating the word “generation” in the phrase “as generation and generation”, it maintains that the two generations are referring to different things.  According to the Targum, the Psalmist is saying that the Messiah’s years will be like the generations of this age and the generations of the age to come, meaning (it seems) that the Messiah will live for a very long time.  The Jewish exegete Rashi, however, goes a different route, for Rashi says that David is hoping that his years will be as long as a generation, seventy years, meaning that Rashi believes that David is asking here, not for an unrealistically long life, but rather for God to rescue him from pre-mature death so that he can live a full life—-a life that is as long as a generation.  At the same time, in his interpretation of v 4 (“I will abide in thy tabernacle for ever”), Rashi says that David is hoping to praise God in this world and in the World to Come, meaning that Rashi is bringing the afterlife into his discussion of v 4.

I’ll discuss briefly a relevant point: Did Judaism believe that the Messiah would live forever?  The Targum appears to say so, and, in John 12:34, some Jews tell Christ that the law says that the Christ abides forever, which is why they are baffled by Jesus’ statement that he will be lifted up.  The Book of Jeremiah, however, does not seem to envision a single Davidic monarch who will live forever, but rather it envisions the restoration of the dynasty itself, which will have more than one king (Jeremiah 33:26).  At some point, a belief in a restored and perpetual Davidic dynasty was replaced by a belief in a restored and perpetual Davidic individual.  (Or things may have been more complex than that, since perhaps different people had different ideas.)

Because the king is referred to in the third person in Psalm 61:6, interpreters have wondered if the king is saying this Psalm about himself, or if other Israelites are speaking about the king.  Tate says that the king could speak about himself in the third person, for we see that in Jeremiah 38:5 and in fifth century B.C.E. Phoenician inscriptions.  But Tate is open to the possibility that other Judahites are asking God to prolong the king’s life.  A possible setting for that would be the events right before the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., when people of Judah asked God to protect their king—-Zedekiah, and Jehoiachin, the king in exile.

 7He shall abide before God for ever: O prepare mercy and truth, which may preserve him.

The Septuagint has something different for the second clause, namely, “Who will seek out his mercy and truth?” (Brenton’s translation).  According to Tate, the Septuagint is taking the word translated in the KJV as “prepare” (man, from m-n-h) as the Aramaic particle man, which can mean “who?” or “what?”.  My guess is that the Septuagint may be understanding the word that the KJV translates as “may preserve him” (which is from the root n-ts-r) to refer to seeking out because n-ts-r can mean watching, or observing.  According to Theodore of Mopsuestia, the Psalmist is asking who will seek out God’s mercy and truth that the Israelites might be restored to their land.  The MT, however, may be saying that mercy and truth uphold the king’s throne, either because God’s mercy and solidity keep the king reigning, or because the king’s reign is rooted in upholding goodness and truth, or perhaps both.

 8So will I sing praise unto thy name for ever, that I may daily perform my vows.

In Charles Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, William Gurnall says that prayers without vows are blank, for we should praise God for his mercy that he shows us, or serve God (in some manner) with what he grants us.  I personally do not make vows before God, for I hope that he will help me out of his love and pity for me, not because I make promises.  Moreover, I would not tell God to (say) give me an academic position in religion and offer in return to defend God’s truth of conservative Christianity because I don’t believe that conservative Christianity is the full truth—-or, more accurately, I prefer for scholarship to be open rather than forced into a conservative Christian mold.  But I can see Gurnall’s point that we should somehow honor God in our prayers—-that we should do more than ask God for stuff.

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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