Psalm 125: A Proverbial Psalm

Dear Reader,

Background:

God’s Word is living and it is deep. We can come to it again and again and find new meaning. I do not claim that my way of approaching the Psalms is the only way or the best way. My aim is merely to give a perspective that I think is often missing when we read the Psalms in translation. My contention throughout this series has been that the form of the Psalms conveys meaning. Though our English translations often obscure this deeper level of meaning and beauty, we do not all need to learn Hebrew to begin to see and appreciate the Psalms on a deeper level. What we need are, first, good translations that take into account the structure of the Hebrew and its word choice, and, second, a few detection skills which can easily be learned. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here.

As we slowly wind our way through the Psalms of Ascent, we are now up to Psalm 125. Last time we saw that Psalm 124, in contrast with its predecessors, seemed to be more of a deliberate composition. Psalm 125 is also a well-thought-out Psalm, but with a different purpose and genre. Here is my translation of it:

Translation of Psalm 125  [1]

A Song of Ascents 

  1. Those trusting in the LORD [are] like Mount Zion —
  2. It will not be moved;
  3. Forever it will abide.
  4. Jerusalem — mountains surround her;
  5. And the LORD surrounds his people
  6. From now unto forever.
  7. For the rod of wickedness will not rest
  8. Over the lot of the righteous
  9. Lest the righteous stretch out in injustice their hands.
  10. The LORD will do good to the good
  11. And to the upright in heart,
  12. But those who extend their crookedness the LORD will make go with doers of iniquity.
  13. Peace upon Israel. 

Notes on the Translation:

Numbers are provided for the sake of discussion and do not correspond to verse numbers. 

Analysis

As always, you should spend some time with the Psalm before reading my thoughts. This time I would recommend thinking about what the Psalm is saying and how it says it. How would you divide it into sections and how do those sections fit together?

I found four main sections within Psalm 125. As I have laid it out they are lines 1 through 3, 4 through 6, 7 through 9, and 10 through 12. Line 13 provides a kind of conclusion and blessing to wrap up the Psalm.

Stylistically, the four sections are much like proverbs. Proverbs often pose a kind of riddle. They equate two things that one might not ordinarily think to compare and then provide an explanation of how they are alike. Psalm 125 contains four of these proverbial sayings. As in the Book of Proverbs, there are loose connections between them that perhaps led to their being grouped together. The inclusion of this little collection here in the midst of the Psalms of Ascent is no doubt due to the content of the first two sections. The Psalms of Ascent were to be sung as the pilgrims made their journey to the holy city of Jerusalem to worship. As in Psalm 122, we find here mention of the nation and of specific geographic locations.

Lines 1 through 3 give us the first proverb. We are lured in line line 1 with a kind fo brain teaser: “Those trusting in the LORD [are] like Mount Zion.” The Hebrew does not need the “to be” verb so that the two parties being compared, those trusting in the Lord and Moutn Zion, are perhaps even more juxtaposed. I feel a kind of crescendo and then a fall when I read this structure. It is as if the psalmist is saying:  “Those trusting in the LORD [are] like Mount Zion — wait for it –– he will not be moved . . .” There is some ambiguity in who the subject of the verbs “not be moved” and “abide” are. In Hebrew “it will not be moved” is the same as “he will not be moved.” Though those trusting in the Lord is plural, Hebrew is more comfortable with switiching between singulars and plurals so we could read “he (the one who trusts in the Lord) will not be moved.” In context, we know that the psalmist is saying that just as the mountain will not move so the one who trusts in the Lord will not move and will abide so in truth it is both the person and the Mount which will abide and this, of course, is the point of the comparison.

The second section, lines 4 through 6, makes a very similar kind of comparison between Jerusalem and the people. This time there is less of a riddle to it; we know from the start what the point of comparison will be. Just as Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains so the Lord surrounds His people.

In the second two proverbs we have a switch in topics. We have moved away from Zion and Jerusalem; no the subject is the righteous and the wicked, a popular theme in wisdom literature. The rod in line 7 is a symbol both of discipline or punishment and of authority. I am reminded here of 1 Corinthians 10:13 — “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (ESV). The idea seems to be that the rod of punishment will not be extended over the righteous to such an extent that he is driven to do injustice. Lines 10 through 12 give the flip side: The Lord will do good to the good. The idea of extending or stretching out is repeated. The righteous will not extend his hand to injustice (line 9) but the wicked who do extend their crookedness will get the fate of the unjust.

Conclusions

Psalm 125 is a short Psalm is the style of Proverbs. Its inclusion here among the Psalms of Ascent seems to be based on the mention of Jerusalem and Zion. It divides nicely into fours proverbs in two pairs. The first pair focusing on Jerusalem/Zion and the second on the righteous and the wicked. The Psalm wraps up with a brief blessing on Israel.

Nebby

[1] You can also find a Google docs version of this translation here. If you use it outside your home, please give me credit.

 

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