The Words of Psalm 146
Psalm 146 continues the praise Psalms of Israel, though soon we will have to retreat to “real life” as we move backwards in the Psalter. Praise will end and other themes will be different and more convoluted. Meals end with dessert, but we have decided to begin our consideration of the Psalms with the “praise dessert”—by starting at the end. This Psalm will give us many new words but, happily, it begins in the spaces of familiarity.
Verse 1 is simply an exhortation to praise (verb is halal). Verse 2 makes it more specific: praising God ‘while I live’ (chai) or singing praise (zamar) while I still exist (od). The od is grammatically hard to characterize—is it an adverb? some kind of substantive? It isn’t a particle. But it means “again” or “more,” so here it means that the author will praise God “in my being more/again” (i.e., while the author is still alive). Then, verse 3 tells us not to trust (batach) in princes (nadib), that is, a human in whom there is no help (תְּשׁוּעָה, teshua). We can see in teshuah all the trappings of “salvation”—with the underlying root being yasha. It can be rendered “help” or “salvation’ or “deliverance.” It is also a word used to describe a military victory (II Sam. 23:10). I like the phrase “arrow (chets) of victory (teshuah)” that is used a few times (II Ki. 5:1; 13:17). It can be used in hendiadys with amunah (“faithulness”) to describe God’s care (Ps. 40:10).
Verse 4 states the final course of human life in terse language: “His spirit departs, he returns to the ground.” Wow. Four words. It’s over. Then, the further result: “In that day, his plans (עֶשְׁתֹּנָה, eshtonah, hapax) go to die (abad).” Why is עֶשְׁתֹּנָה “plans”? No idea, but perhaps it is related to asah, or things you do. Verse 5 blesses God, even given the starkness of the preceding verse which talks about human mortality. “Blessed (esher; this comes from the verb אָשַׁר, ashar, which means “to bless” or “be happy” or “go straight on” or “advance”) is the one whose help (ezer) is in the God of Jacob, his hope (שֵׂבֶר, seber; שָׂבַר, sabar occurs 8x and usually is rendered “hope” or “look for/wait” (Esther 9:1; Ps. 104:27)) is upon Yahweh his God (elohim).
Let’s take a little detour on the verb ashar, “to be blessed/go straight.” It appears 16x, and one of the more memorable, though obscure, references is in Mal. 3:15. The prophet is excoriating (what else would he do?) people for their perversity. But the language is what we are after. He has just used ashar in 3:12 to talk about all the nations will call Israel blessed. There follows a section of chiding in 3:13-15. In verse 13 people speak strong words (chazak. . .dabar) against the Lord. Verse 14 has their words: “It is vain/useless (שָׁוְא, shav; the same word is used in the 10 Commandments to talk about taking the Lord’s name “in vain”—Ex. 20:7) to serve (abad) God. What profit (בֶּצַע, betsa, which can be used for both just and unjust gain; it is derived from בָּצַע, batsa, which means to get gain by violence or be greedy for gain or to cut someone off—isn’t Biblical Hebrew wonderful?) that (kiy) we have guarded/kept (shamar) his charge (מִשְׁמֶרֶת, mishmereth, obviously derived from shamar) that we have walked (halak) in darkness/as mourners (קְדֹרַנִּית, qedorannith, a hapax, from qadar, which we have seen) before the Lord? And now we ourselves call blessed (ashar) the presumptuous ones (זֵד, zed) also for those who do (asah) wickedness (rasha) are built up (banah, meaning unclear); they tempt/test (בָּחן, bachan) God and escape/go free (malat).” Twelve pleasant words so far, and each clause really invites us to more close and intimate consideration. Well, back to Psalm 146.
When we return to Psalm 146, we learn what God has been doing that makes God so worthy of all our praise. All the words are familiar at first: “He made (asah) the heavens (shamayim) and earth (erets) and the sea (yam) and all (kol) which is in them, and who keeps (shamar) truth (emeth) forever (olam). God does justice (mishpat) to the oppressed (ashaq); God gives (nathan) bread (lechem) to the hungry (רָעֵב, raeb; the verb for being hungry is also רָעֵב, raeb); Yahweh gives freedom (נָתַר, nathar, but this verb means “to jump” or “spring up” or “release”) to prisoners (asar is verb).” Just a ever-so-brief detour on “hungry.” The word appears in a fighting context in II Sam 17:29, where an assessment is being made of the people’s strength. The following things were available to feed them: “honey (דְּבַשׁ, debash) and curds/butter (חֶמְאָה, chemah) and sheep (tson) and cheese (שָׁפָה, shaphah, a hapax, whose meaning isn’t clear) of the herd (baqar) . . .” These goods were available for David and his people for they said, “The people (am) are hungry (raeb) and weary (עָיֵף, ayeph; this derives from the verb that looks the same, עָיֵף, iph, a hapax meaning “to be faint”) and thirsty (צָמֵא, tsame; the verb “to be thirsty” is צָמֵא, tsame) in the wilderness.” Many useful words in this paragraph.
Let’s continue with the Psalm. Verse 8 has Yahweh opening (פָקַח, paqach, 20x) the blind (ivver, a word that goes back to our first lesson; the text seems to assume that it is the “eyes” of the blind), Yahweh raises (זָקַף, zaqaph, a rare verb that only occurs here and in Ps. 145) those who are bowed down (כָּפַף, kaphaph; this verb only appears 5x). Yahweh loves (aheb) the righteous (tsaddiq).
Finishing the Psalm: Verse 10 is easy, but verse 9 is tough. Yahweh watches over (shamar) the strangers (ger) and fatherless (יָתוֹם, yathom). Then confusion enters with the verb ud, which seems to be associated with the widow (אַלְמָנָה, almanah), but probably also with orphans. The last clause is that God עָוַת, avath, “makes crooked/overthrows/thwarts” the way (derek) of the wicked (rasha).” But the NRSV and most translations render ud as “upholds,” though it doesn’t mean that. Ud means to “warn” or “call” or “testify” or to “admonish” or possibly “encircle” (Ps. 119:61), but the only places where it might mean “support” is here and the companion Psalm 147 (verse 6).
Thus, I complete my 50 essays available to the public with this Psalm, though I hope the essay have provided a means for one to master the vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew. We see the words in all their glory and frustration; 28 new words here, and more than 1300 in this “course” so far.
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