Psalm Study: Psalm 70

Dear Reader,

I am trying to get back into doing Psalm study regularly. For an introduction to what this is and why and how we are doing it, see this post on Psalm 67. (If you have never read any of these posts, I do highly recommend reading the introductory material first.) As always, I will begin by giving you my translation of the Psalm. I recommend printing it out and taking a few minutes to read through it, preferably with some colored pencils in hand. Notice which lines go together and which elements in those lines parallel each other. Also look for bigger sectional divisions marked by shifts in either the Psalm’s structure or its content and for repeated words.

Psalm 70 (my translation):

To the leader, of David, to cause to remember

  1. God, to deliver me —
  2. LORD [1], to help me — hurry!
  3. Let them be shamed and abashed who seek my life;
  4. Let them turn back and stumble who desire my evil.
  5. Let them return because of their shame who say, “Aha, aha.”
  6. Let them rejoice and be glad in you all who week you;
  7. Let them say always “Great is God” who love your salvation.
  8. But I [am] poor and needy; God hurry to me.
  9. My help and my rescuer [are] you, LORD; do not linger.

One thing that is frequently lost in English is the word order of the original. This is really a translational issue and there is no good way around it. Word order is very important in English; for the most part is tells us what is the subject and what is the complement (“man bites dog” is a different sentence from “dog bites man”). Languages like Greek and Latin which have case endings rely very little on word order. While Hebrew doesn’t have quite the flexibility of Greek, it tends to play around with order more than English does, especially in poetry.

I tried to keep the word order of the Hebrew in my translation of Psalm 70 because I think it adds to the meaning. The way the Psalm reads there is a delay. In lines 1 through 7 you have to wait for key information. Lines 1 and 2 are parallel; they each begin with a name for God and the infinitive form of a verb plus “me” (the infinitive and the “me” together form one word in Hebrew). But we don’t get the main verb till the end of line 2. I used a little editorial license by supplying the exclamation point at the end of line 2. The Hebrew has no punctuation, but I think the exclamation conveys the emotion of what we have here. The short words in these first two lines convey a sense of urgency which the finite verb we finally get enforces — Hurry!!

The pattern of delaying information continues in lines 3 through 7. Each begins with a “let them” [2] and we don’t find out who the “they” is until the end of each line. Lines 3 and 4 are closely parallel. Line 5 seems to go with them; it too is negative and refers to the psalmist’s enemies. But it is not just a third parallel. Line 5 seems to sum up what has come before; it takes the idea of turning from line 4 and the idea of shame from line 3 and combines them. It also adds a new element which looks forward to line 7 (see below) — the enemy now speaks and what he says is a taunt: “aha, aha.”

Lines 6 and 7 are also parallel and have a very similar structure but the subject now is the godly, those who seek for God and love His salvation. Now the verbs are positive: rejoice and be glad. Notice that there is speech again in line 7. In line 5 the enemy spoke; now the godly speak. They don’t taunt; they give glory to God. This element of speech ties the two sets of lines, 3-5 and 6- 7, together.

Lines 8 and 9 change the pattern again. Notice the repeated words from lines 1 and 2: help, God, LORD, and hurry. Though there is a return here to the ideas of the first lines, there is something new too. The final lines of the Psalm don’t have the shortness and urgency of the first lines. These are long lines, almost too long. They take the first two lines but to add to them. What is added? The psalmist gives a reason why he needs help: he is poor and needy. And the he gives a reason to expect help: God is his help and deliverer.

When I step back again and look at the Psalm as a whole, what I see is transformation. Psalm 70 begins with a brief, urgent call for help. I don’t like to talk about rhythm a lot in Hebrew poetry (because I don’t think it is a major structuring device) but there is a pattern to the first 7 lines of this Psalm. In each information is delayed and the effect is as if one is holding one’s breath and then releasing it. There is tension here. It is as if the unusual structure of the sentences clues us in that something is not quite right with the psalmist himself.

But in the last two lines something has changed. There is still a bit of a delayed pattern perhaps but in the long lines it is not so pronounced. The psalmist returns to the words and ideas he began with but something has changed. He has changed. So what has changed between line 2 and line 8? The answer would seem to be lines 3 through 7. In content they are not unusual. This is pretty standard biblical stuff — the wicked are shamed and the godly rejoice– but my sense is that it has helped the psalmist. Nothing has changed in his physical situation, whatever that is, but by taking a moment and focusing on the truths he knows — the downfall of the wicked, the ultimate triumph of the godly — he has changed. He still calls for God to help but this time he does so with more words. He sees himself more clearly and he sees God more clearly.

There is never just one way to read a Psalm. That is the nature of a living book, and none is more living than the Word of God. What I have given you here is my observations and conclusions. While I think some of the details of what parallels what are fairly clear, my conclusions about what they mean is more subjective. You may see different things in this Psalm and come to different conclusions, as long as you can support what you say from the biblical text itself. If you do work through Psalm 70 on your own, I’d love to hear what you see in it.

Nebby

[1] “LORD” in all capitals letters is used to indicate the covenant name of God which He reveals to Moses in Exodus 3:15.

[2] There is no difference in Hebrew between “let them” and “they will” or “they shall.” I have used my translator’s license again here in translating “let them.”

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