Psalm 91:3 says, “For he himself shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence.”
Though Ps. 91:3 consists of only seven Hebrew words, at least four call for comment. I suppose I should add a fifth to that with the little word הוּא (hu, “he”), which in this case functions as an intensifier, “he himself. . .” What will “he” (i.e., God) do? First, he “will deliver” (verb is נָצַל, natsal) you. The verb נָצַל appears frequently in the Bible, as it figures not only in acts of divine deliverance but of desperate prayers for help. An example from the last words of Deut. 32:39 neatly illustrates its use: “I myself heal and there is none who can deliver from my hand.” אֲנַי (ani, “I myself”) is new. The verb for healing is quite useful: רָפָא (rapha). When used in conjunction with waters it can mean “to purify,” but often it relates to both physical and psychological/spiritual healing. “There is none” is the very useful little word אַיִן (ayin). Then “deliver” is natsal (though in this case the Hiphil participle matsil), with hand being the little word יָד (yad). So many of these words seem utterly basic, almost a waste of time to “stoop” to learn but both the discipline and the actual mastery of the words yield enormous dividends.
Back to Ps. 91:3. In this case one is delivered from the “snare” of the “fowler.” The “snare” is פַח (pach). It appears 27x in the Bible, though several of its appearances yield another meaning: “metal sheets” (that have been hammered). This makes Biblical Hebrew very challenging, yet the major use of pach is as a “snare.” We have a wonderful collection of words for snares and traps, etc. in Josh. 23:13. Various nations in the Holy Land shall be a hindrance for Israel. More specifically, they shall be “snares” (pach) and “traps” (מוֹקֵשׁ, moqesh) and “scourges/whips” (שֹׁטֵט, shotet) in your “side” (צַד, tsad) and “thorns” (צָנִין, tsanin) in your “eyes” (עַיִן, ayin). This particular word for “thorn” (tsanin) only appears one other time in the Bible, and in that case it is thorns in the “side” (tsad).
Back to the notion of the “traps.” The word moqesh is derived from the verb יָקשׁ (yaqash), which means to “set a snare” or “lay a trap.” A “fowler” (in 91:3) is a יָקוּשׁ (yaqush). So, the entire world of snares and fowlers and laying a snare is generated by the three letters of יָקשׁ; one just has to be sensitive to which word, in which context, is required. So, we have the pach of the fowler in Ps. 91:3 and the yad of the fowler in Prov. 6:5; the word for “fowler” only appears one other time (Jer. 5:26).
Not only will God deliver (natsal) from the pach of the yaqush, but He will also deliver from the “perilous plague.” I will only mention “plague” here (דֶּבֶר, deber)— to be distinguished from dabar and its wide-ranging meanings. Often the word “plague/pestilence” appears with the word “sword,” such as in Ex. 5:3, where Pharaoh will be urged to let the people of Israel go to sacrifice to their God, “lest ( פֵן, pen) God fall upon/approach (פָגַע, paga) us with deber and חֶרֶב, chereb (“sword”)."
This verse has nine words, but at least four of them are already under our belts. Here is a translation: “With his feathers he will cover you, and under his wings you shall take refuge. His truth shall be your shield and buckler.” We have had “you” (liy) and “under” (tachath) and “wings” (kanaph) and “seek refuge” (chasah). The word for “buckler” is an OT hapax, and I don’t want to introduce it here. This leaves only four words to study in the verse: “feathers” and “cover” and “truth” and “shield.” Let’s say a word on each.
The word for “feathers” or “pinions” is אֶבְרָה (ebrah), and is a synonym of kanaph. It only appears three other times in the OT. One is Deut 32:11, where God “carried”—nasa—which we have seen—them on his pinions; another is Job 39:13, an elegant poetic passage. Finally, it appears in Ps. 68:13. It is a gateway to a more sophisticated language of things that wings do (i.e., “glisten” or “flap joyously”) and thus invites us for a later visit.
Then the verb “cover” is the 27x-appearing סָכַךְ (sakak). In Ex. 40:3, when the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the wilderness Tabernacle, Moses is told to “cover” or “screen” or “hide” (sakak) the “ark” (אָרוֹן, aron). In this passage it is called the “Ark of the Testimony” (עֵדוּת, eduth), though we already have seen the word ed for “witness.” In one of the most richly evocative passages of Scripture, God is said to have “covered” (sakak) the Psalmist in the womb (בֶּטֶן, beten) of his mother (אֵם, em).
Then, the word for “truth” is the common and very useful אֶמֶת (emeth). Emeth is a word that fills the Scriptures, even if most of the time we aren’t sure what exactly it means. It may also be translated as “right” or “faithful/faithfulness.” The classic passage where emeth appears is Ex. 34:6, where God is described, among other things, as “great/abounding” (רַב, rav) in goodness (chesed) and emeth. It is comforting, and not a little encouraging, to begin to see words that we have seen, and which have a significant theological meaning.
Finally, we look briefly at the notion of a “shield.” We have already seen a magen, but here it is צִנָּה, tsinnah, and we don’t properly know what to call it. It appears 22x and sometimes appears to be a defensive weapon with hooks (Am. 4:2). On a few occasions, it is used together with magen, which led translators to render the tsinnah as “buckler” (Jer. 46:3; Ezek. 23:24). It isn’t bad to be learning words whose precise definition is unclear to us. Much of ancient literature provides translation and interpretive conundrums that are glossed over in smooth-sounding translations. Learning a difficult word like this is a comfort of sorts, since it gives us a “realistic” picture of the language.
Well, another 25-27 words. We are learning common and rare words, though the primary focus so far has been on nouns. Much more to come.