Posts Tagged ‘biblical interpretation’

Book Review: Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood

Dear Reader,

I thought 2019 was my year to read books on gender-related issues but apparently the trend continues. When I heard about Aimee Byrd’s Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2020) I knew I had to add it to my list. I “know” Aimee Byrd from her work on the Mortification of Sin podcast and  I like a lot of what she has to say so I went into this book with a fairly positive attitude.

I had also heard two interviews with Byrd discussing the book before I began reading, one on Mortification of Spin and one on Theology Gals. From these I know that Byrd was encouraged by her editor to use the current title for the book (which is somewhat inflammatory) and to include a fair amount responding directly to the positions of Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and other more conservative complementarians. The result, in my opinion, is that this book really has two main thrusts, one related more directly to gender issues in the church and one focused more on discipleship in the church with an emphasis on the discipleship of women. From listening to her regularly I know that the latter is a particular interest for Byrd and I think that there is something valuable here that needs to be said. However, the overall effect of this two-pronged approach, for me as the reader, was to make it a bit of a disjointed book.

Byrd’s title, as I said, is provocative. It plays on the title of Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In the discussion of gender within the church, there are two main camps, the egalitarians and the complementarians. The former, as their name suggests, argue for equality in roles between the genders. That is, what men can do in the church (pastor a church, preach, etc.) women can do. The latter argue for a distinction in roles, saying that men and women while equal in value have different roles which complement each other. There is a wing of the complementarian camp which takes things a step farther and argues that the roles of men and women, being those of authority and submission respectively, are eternal ones. This applies in the here and now in the belief that all women should submit in some way to all men and is even read back into the Trinity in the belief that God the Son always submitted to God the Father. This is the position known as Eternal Functional Submission (EFS) or the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS). Because this wing has to a large extent taken over complementarianism, Byrd does not use the term for herself (p. 121). Neither is she an egalitarian. She does recognize separate roles within the church for men and women, reserving ordination for men. This is pretty much where I would place myself in the debate as well, both before and after reading this book.

Byrd’s second major thrust, and from my understanding her original purpose in writing the book, is to argue for the discipleship of women within the church. Personally, I have never experienced much in terms of being looked down upon for being female within the church so I don’t come to these issues from as raw a place as others might.  I understand, however, that this is an issue for others and I do think it is something we need to be conscious of. Byrd’s message — that discipleship is the work of the church (as opposed to the parachurch) and that women as well as men pass on their faith and need to grow in their faith and therefore need to be discipled is a good one (p. 161). I particularly liked a point she made that even in our own private study we interpret the Bible not on our own but within an interpretive community (p. 164). If we are not educated in our faith and in how to do this, how can we even begin to read our Bibles?

Looking at these two big issues, I may not like the way the book is put together and find their juxtaposition a little awkward, but I am mostly on board with Byrd’s opinions on both. The biggest problem I have with Recovering is not actually with either of the big points Byrd is trying to make but with her use of Scripture. I should say as we get into this section, in case you are not a regular reader here, that my own training is in biblical Hebrew [1].

The first part of the book addresses what Byrd calls “gynocentric interruptions” within the biblical text. There is not a clear definition given for this term. As Byrd uses it, it seems to refer to those passages and stories in which females are the main characters. There are a couple of assumptions behind this phrase. The first is that the majority of the Bible, because it was written by men and because men are the main characters, is androcentric. The second is that stories which prominently feature females give us a female point of view. For Byrd, these female-centered stories are interruptions in what is primarily a male-oriented book. Her thesis for this first chunk of the book is summed up as follows: “Scripture incorporates the female voice in an androcentric text” (p. 92).

I object two both halves of this statement. I do not think Scripture is inherently androcentric and I do not think that those texts which feature females interrupt in any way or necessarily give us the female perspective. It puzzles me quite a bit why Byrd seems to accept the premise that the Bible is androcentric. Yes, men wrote it but they did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Word more than man’s. And, yes, men are the major characters in most of the narratives, but again male characters does not automatically imply male perspective.

There is another assumption going on behind the scenes here. It is quite a modern one that says that I cannot know the experiences and feelings of someone from a different group. It is the kind of mindset that gives us phrases like “cultural appropriation.” I do not think that I cannot related to a story just because it features male characters. I do think that as human beings we are capable of putting ourselves in one another’s shoes and that is quite a wonderful thing.

Yet there is something to the idea that the stories featuring women stand out within the biblical text. The world of the Bible was a patriarchal one. That is a historical fact. Men had power and authority and status that women did not. So it should not surprise us that men are the primary actors in biblical narrative. In another book I reviewed recently, Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation, the author discusses how the Bible treats science. His argument is that the Scriptures accept the scientific understanding of the day and do not challenge it, a fact which is often disconcerting to us modern readers.  I think something similar is going on here: the Bible does not directly challenge the patriarchal traditions of the time in which it was written.  That does not mean that it accepts or approves those traditions but simply that its main goal is not to challenge and overturn them.

What is striking within all this is that there are so many stories in which women do play a pivotal role. I would argue that these stories do not stand alone, however, but are part of a larger dynamic. There are also quite a number of stories in which God works through others who would not have been seen by their society as the chosen few. We see this particularly in how God often chooses non-firstborn sons. Think of Jacob and Joseph and David. Again and again God shows us that He does not choose based on the world’s standards, that He sees things differently. Saul was one whom the world looked upon with favor but he turned out to be a bad king. David was the least of his brothers and the world would not have chosen him but God did. The role of certain prominent women in the Bible, I would argue, is not so much about their gender as about their unsuitability in the eyes of the world. In this they are not alone. Quite a number of men were also unsuitable and yet God also worked through them. The lesson for us in all this is that God does not see and the world sees and that God chooses the weak of the world to shame the strong and to show His power. Viewed in this way, the stories which feature women and not so much about the women themselves or their femaleness but about God and His electing will and His power. One could even say that God’s use of women, as well as that of foreigners and younger sons, confirms their unsuitabilty. He chooses them and works through them precisely because they are the means the world despises.

Though Byrd at times speaks of the Bible’s suitability as a means of instruction for both men and women (p. 51), she persists in this characterization of the text as primarily androcentric with gynocentric interruptions. In this I think she has accepted the premises of other groups from both ends of the spectrum who either dismiss the text as being irrelevant because it is patriarchal or who point to its androcentrism and a means of buoying up their own patriarchal ambitions. What we need is not to find the women’s voice in Scripture but to take the text as it is, as God’s Word to mankind, not just to man. It is the categories and divisions in our minds which are the stumbling block, not the next itself.

A second issue I have with Byrd’s way of using Scripture is her tendency to read into the text more than we are told. Now we all do this to some extent. We read and narrative and it is natural to imagine how the characters felt or what the larger circumstances might have been, but we need to be careful that the things we imagine don’t become Scripture to us. The nature of biblical narrative is that iftoften doesn’t tell us all we want to know. So we add to it, without perhaps even knowing we are doing so, and our additions shape how we read Scripture.

Many of the assumptions Byrd makes are about the role of women. She assumes, for instance, that when Phoebe delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans that this necessarily entailed some kind of interpretive authority (pp. 147ff). Paul, she tells us, “also must have picked up on her theological vigor and poured into her, equipping her well to answer questions the Roman church was sure to have” (p. 220). No doubt the commission was a prestigious one, but we are not told and I do not think we can assume what Phoebe did or was expected to do with regard to helping the church in Rome understand the letter. The role of women in passing on the faith seems to be a sticking point for Byrd so she also assumes that stories about women much have bee told by women. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is such an example (p. 82). Again, there is an assumption here that only women would have told or could accurately have told a story featuring female characters.

Byrd, following others, also assumes that women led the house churches which were usual in the early church. “‘[I]f Lydia didn’t lead the fledgling church in Philippi, who did?'” she asks (p. 191). Byrd says that she adheres to male-only ordination, and I believe that she does, but she is walking dangerously close to the edge of the cliff here. If one accepts that Lydia led her house church which met in her home, led in terms of leading  worship and explicating God’s Word, why should women not do the same today? On the other hand, if we read the passages about these house churches within the context of the rest of the New Testament, I think we must conclude that Lydia and other women did not lead in these ways. Paul makes quite clear elsewhere that this kind of authoritative leadership is reserved for men. Who did lead the church in Philippi? We don’t know; Scripture doesn’t say. But there are lots of details like this that we are not given and many servants of God who are not named. This need not disturb us.

Byrd is unapologetic for the way in which she thus reads into Scripture, quoting Richard Bauckham, she calls this “‘historical imagination'” (p. 223). While there may be a degree to which it is impossible for one to avoid using their imagination in reading the narrative of Scripture, I would not tout this as a good and appropriate way to approach God’s Word. We should be aware of our own tendency to imagine not so that we may do so and try to fill in details God has chosen not to give us but so that we can try to avoid doing so and to stick more closely to His Word.

As a side note here, I will add that I am concerned about Byrd’s sources, about the books she is reading and quoting. I have not taken the time to look into them but, judging a book by its cover of you will, based on their titles and on the quotes she selects, it seems like many if not most of the people whose interpretations she is following are from the liberal egalitarian camp. Which is not to say that they may not at times have valuable and true things to add to the discussion but the impression I get is that there is little balance here.

I’d like to end my discussion of Byrd’s use of Scripture where she ends the book (or close to it), with her take on the story of Eve. Early in the discussion, she quotes one P. Wayne Townsend who argues that Genesis is written in light of the exodus and conquest of the land as an apologetic for the nation of Israel (p. 207). “‘In this context,” Byrd tells us, quoting Townsend, ‘”the story of the Fall functions as a pretext for the exodus-conquest. Genesis 3 identifies the sources of evil that have led to the suffering of slavery. It also justifies the conquest . . . ‘” and so on (p. 208). Byrd goes on to tie the sin of eating the fruit in Genesis 3 to the Levitical laws about cleanliness and the dietary laws. For a new Israel, separation from the nations was important and Genesis 3 gives the justification be presenting the original sin as one of touching and eating what should not have been touched or eaten.

This argument is oddly like that which LeFebvre makes regarding Genesis 1 in The Liturgy of Creation (again, my review here).  Both tie a Genesis narrative to the presumed original audience — the nation of Israel — and therefore place the significance of the Genesis narrative in its meaning to that audience which is primarily assumed to be a justification for the practices they already know. That is, for LeFebvre Genesis 1 justifies the weekly calendar of work and Sabbath and for Byrd (and those she is relying on) Genesis 3 justifies the Levitical laws about cleanliness and food. There is a base assumption here which says that the meaning for the original audience is the primary meaning. The narratives of Genesis are not read for their truth value (Is this how God really created the world? Is this how mankind fell?) or for their place within the larger revelation of Scripture (What do these events say about mankind’s state before his Creator?) but as a kind of ancient Israelite propaganda. In neither interpretation does the Genesis narrative considered even give new information to its original audience. They are into taught about how man was created or how he fell but are only given justifications for practices they already know. I find this a very narrow and unacceptable way to read Scripture.

For Byrd, reading Genesis 3 in this way, Eve becomes a find of hero. As you may recall, God had told Adam not to eat of the tree and Eve adds “nor touch it.” This may be interpreted various ways. Some say Adam added to God’s law in repeating it to Eve and thus make adding to the law a kind of sin and place it on his shoulders. In Byrd’s interpretation (again following others), Eve adds “nor touch.” In doing so she makes the prohibition more like the Levitical laws and thereby gives us “the story behind the story” (p. 209). Eve is portrayed as a kind of prophetess and the original sin its nature and its implications, are largely undiscussed.

Byrd has some valuable ideas which the church needs to hear. I like how she speaks of siblingship within the church and the need to disciple all lay people, men and women.  I agree as well with her critique of the extremes of the complementarian movement. But I am very disturbed by some aspects of how she uses Scripture to make her arguments. We do not need to accept the categories others give us that the text must either be androcentric or gynocentric and that men and women can’t fruitfully read texts which are not about their own gender. And when we do read, we need to be careful who we follow and we need to resist our own urge to fill in details, particularly when we then use our own “historical imagination” as the basis for our biblical interpretation.


[1] I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Hebrew and was ABD (“all but dissertation”) in a Ph.D. program at a prestigious secular university.


Psalm 126: Captivity and Restoration

Dear Reader,


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.

Some times a Psalm is so familiar that it is hard to translate. I can’t read Psalm 126 without hearing the metrical version in my head. It doesn’t help that this Psalm has at least one big issue which needs to be decided from the outset. More on that in a moment. For now, read through the Psalm. Print it out and get out those colored pencils and see what you can notice about it. Look for parallel structures, repeated words, and major divisions within the Psalm. Think about the context a little too. What kind of situation do you think the psalmist was in as he wrote this? When in Israel’s history might it be set?

Translation of Psalm 126  [1]

A Song of Ascents 

  1. When the LORD restores the captive-band [1] of Zion —
  2. We were like dreamers — 
  3. Then will be filled with laughter       our face 
  4. And                       our tongue [with] a shout. 
  5. Then they will say among the nations: 
  6. “Great things the LORD did for these.”
  7. Great things the LORD did for us;
  8. We were rejoicing. 
  9. Restore, LORD, our captive-band
  10. Like streams in the desert.
  11. Those who sow     with tears
  12. With a shout          will reap.
  13. He indeed [2] goes weeping,             bearing a trail of seed;
  14. He will indeed come with a shout, bearing his sheaves. 


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

[1] The word for “captive-band” is slightly problematic. If it is not from the same root as “restore,” they do at least sound as if they are. It seems to be a collective noun thus my choice of “captive-band.”

[2] The construction in lines 13 and 14 is idiomatic. In Hebrew it reads something like “going he goes” and “coming he comes.”

Verb Tenses Make Me Tense

The big issue in Psalm 126 has to do with the verb tenses. Hebrew is a little fuzzy in tenses (from our perspective as English speakers). First off, there are really only two finite verb forms, one which roughly corresponds to the past and one to the future. Though it would be better to think of them as completed and non-completed actions. There is none of this “would have been” business and other such complexities. That’s the simple version of the story. To make it more complex, I could add that sometimes one verb form looks like the other and vice-versa.

It is clear in verse 4 (line 9 in my translation above) that the psalmist is asking for the Lord’s deliverance. The verb here is an imperative –“Restore!” — and in what follows we see his hope for the future. The problem is with the first half of the Psalm — is it a recounting of a past deliverance or a request for deliverance? The Hebrew actually has a mix of verb forms so that neither answer is completely satisfying. The first verb, “restores” in line 1, is not a finite verb. In Hebrew it would literally be “In the Lord’s restoring of the captive-band of Zion.” “We were like dreamers” and “we were rejoicing” in liens 2 and 8 respectively are past tense verbs. And I should add that Hebrew doesn’t often need or use “to be” verbs so perhaps it is significant that we see them here. But in lines 3 and 5 we have the future form  — will be filled, will shout. [2]

I went back and forth and back and forth on how to translate these verbs. How we take them depends on the context in which we think the Psalm is set. Are these completed past events or is the psalmist looking to a future deliverance? In the end, for the purposes of translation, I decided to leave the Psalm ambiguous as it is in the original.

However, taking the easy way out on the translation does not mean that we can leave the issue there. We still need to decide how to understand Psalm 126. Lines 9 through 14 are about the future. If we take the first half of the Psalm as being about a past event, then this Psalm is speaking fo two separate acts of deliverance, one completed and one looked for. If we take the first half as future, then there is one act under consideration and only one time frame to identify.

The biggest captivity in Israelite history is the Babylonian captivity which began around 586 BC. If there is one event being considered in this Psalm, then that is the natural one to look to and we would have to say that the psalmist is still in the midst of that period. Deliverance has not yet come. If, on the other hand, there are two captivities and two deliverances being contemplated, then either the psalmist is in the midst of the Babylonian captivity and is looking back to past deliverance as a source of hope for the future or he is living after the Babylonian captivity and the return from exile and is looking back on them as a source of hope as he looks for release from another kind of captivity, perhaps an eschatological one.

To sum up thus far:

Option 1:                                                                    Option 2:

Lines 1-8 are past tense                                             Lines 1-8 are future tense

Two captivities ate being considered                                   One Captivity is being considered

May be set during the Babylonian captivity                                             Most likely set during

OR may look back to the Babylonian captivity            the Babylonian captivity (586-530 BC)


We’ll circle back around the to issue of the tenses and setting of the Psalm. Now let’s look at some of the other structural elements of Psalm 126. Here is how I marked up this Psalm:


As we noted earlier, the imperative in line 9 — “restore!” — marks the beginning of a new section. Each half of the Psalm begins with the combination of related words, “restore” and “captive-band” (lines 1 & 9). Within the first section lines 2 and 8, both of which have “we were . . . “, form a kind of bookends. In the middle, lines 3 through 5 hang together and introduce lines 6 and 7 which also hang together. Notice the chiasm in lines 3 and 4. “Laughter” parallels “shout” and “face” parallels “tongue,” but the order is reversed so that when we draw lines between the parallel elements, we make an X (the Greek letter chi hence the name of this feature). Lines 3 and 5 are also connected by their first word: “then.” Lines 6 and 7 are nearly identical. In 6, it is the peoples speaking and in line 7 the sentiment is repeated by God’s people.

The second half of the Psalm, lines 9 through 14, contains 2 images. In line 10, the picture is of the dry river beds of Palestine. These dry beds, or wadis, are empty most of the year, but when the rains come they are all of a sudden full of the life-giving water that the land and people so desperately need. Lines 11 through 14 have one image, that of the farmer sowing his seed. He weeps to scatter the precious seed but will rejoice at harvest time. Though I have not divided it up this way, because line 10 contains a different image and is not directly connected to what follows, it is probably better to think of it with line 9, as one thought which introduces the second half of the Psalm.

Other than “LORD” which occurs four times in this Psalm, there is one word which is repeated in both halves of the Psalm. Did you notice what it is? It is “shout” in lines 4, 12, and 14.  The shout in this case is a good thing — it is the exultant cry of victory which comes when the people return from captivity (line 4) and when the farmer celebrates his harvest (lines 12 and 14).


The big question for Psalm 126 is the setting. When is the psalmist living and what is the restoration that he looks for? In the first half of the Psalm, lines 1 through 8, we get a few clues which point is to a historical setting. There is the mention of Zion (line 1) which ties us specifically to the nation of Israel. And there are the nations in line 5 who witness the restoration and see the doings of the Lord (line 6).

In the second half of the Psalm, there is surprisingly little that points to a specific historical crisis. The talk is of fairly ordinary events — the yearly rains and the agricultural cycle of sowing and reaping. Now I don’t want to diminish the importance  of these things and the anxiety they produce for an agricultural society dependent on the yearly harvest, but there is no big, unique situation that is called to mind.

Psalm 126, in the Hebrew and in my translation, has some ambiguity as to the verb tenses and the time frames. My suggestion is that the psalmist is looking back on a specific historical act of deliverance in which the Lord saved His people, most likely the Babylonian captivity, and that he is using this as an inspiration and source of hope for God’s continued provision and deliverance, even in relatively ordinary times. If there is one emotion or theme which dominates Psalm 126 I think it is found in that exultant cry which is repeated in both halves of the Psalm. Though it looks back to some very hard times, this is not a sad Psalm. It is a cry of victory because the Lord has granted, and will again grant, deliverance.


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

[2] If you are interested in exploring this issue further, here is a small selection of online articles I found on the verb tenses in Psalm 126:

Howell, James. “Commentary on Psalm 126,” from Working

“Psalm 126: We Were Like Dreamers,” from Rav Kook Torah 

Samet, Rav Elchanan. “Shiur 36: When the Lord Brought Back the Return of Zion: Psalm 126,” from





Psalm 125: A Proverbial Psalm

Dear Reader,


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. 


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.


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.


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


Psalm 124: Deliverance from the Lord of Creation

Dear Reader,


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.

We come now to Psalm 124. It is a little bit different from the other Psalms of Ascent which we have looked at this season.

Translation of Psalm  [1]

A Song of Ascents of David

  1. If the LORD had not been for us, let Israel now say;
  2. If the LORD had been for us when man* rose against us;
  3. Then alive they would have swallowed us when their anger burned against us;
  4. Then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the torrent passed over our soul**
  5. Then would have passed over our soul** the raging waters.
  6. Blessed [be] the LORD who did not make us prey for their teeth.
  7. Our soul** like a bird escaped from the trap of the fowlers;
  8. The trap was broken and as for us, we escaped.
  9. Our help [is] in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth. 

Notes on the Translation:

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

*Hebrew adam

**Hebrew nephesh may be translated as “life” or “soul.”


As always, you should spend some time with the Psalm before reading my comments. Look for repeated words and phrases. You may also want to think about the overall structure of this Psalm and its tone, especially as it compares to the other Psalms of Ascent we have looked at.

One of the first things that struck me about the Psalm is how stylistically different it is from the previous Psalms of Ascent. Those, as we saw, were filled with emotion. Psalm 120 was a lament, Psalm 121 an expression of confidence in the Lord’s deliverance, and Psalm 122 a kind of love song to the city of Jerusalem. In each case the structure of the Psalm helped to highlight the psalmist’s emotional state.

Psalm 124 is much less emotional and much more regular in its structure. Whereas those others seemed to be spontaneous utterances, Psalm 124 feels like a composition — something the psalmist took some time on and probably went over a few times to get it how he wanted it.

The first lines are long. I have not broken them up because I wanted to highlight their first words. Just as in English, in Hebrew the first two lines begin with the same word and then the next three also begin with the same word. “If” and “then” seem like small insignificant words to us perhaps, but I could think of no better way to translate them here. Psalm 124 starts then with these two “if”s followed by three “then”s. The thought is really not complete until we get all of them in. These expressions can be a bit idiomatic. The Hebrew of the first two lines reads something like “Unless the LORD who was for us . . .” The Hebrew also does not have the nuances of the “had been”s and “would have been”s that the English requires. So all in all the English feels a bit too polished, but as it is a more polished Pslam than its predecessors I guess that is okay.

We have talked a lot about parallelism as a structuring device in biblical poetry, but what we get here is some outright repetition. Looking at the first two lines, the psalmist begins his thought, then calls on Israel — the congregation of the people — to join with him before completing the thought in line 2. This seems very much a communal Psalm which perhaps helps to explain why it must be composed ahead of time (so everyone can learn it). Here in line 1, the nation is called to join in and then throughout the Psalm we find not “I”s and “me”s but “we”s and “us”s.

We find an exact repetition again in lines 4 and 5 with the words “passed over our soul.” The word “water” also appears in both lines. In lines 7 and 8 we find the words “trap” and “escaped” repeated. Throughout the Psalm the words LORD (4x) and soul (3x) are also repeated. A note on the latter: we have seen this word which may be rendered “soul” or “life” or even just “self” in other of the Psalms of Ascent.  In Psalm 124, we could just translate “the waters overwhelmed us” and “we escaped.” The psalms have a context beyond themselves, however, and I wanted to keep some consistency with how I translated this word in the previous Psalms. It is a little odd for us to say “our soul (singular)” but again this emphasizes the communal aspect of this Psalm (Hebrew generally has less discomfort with mixing up singulars and plurals).

Though there is a lot of repetition here, the psalmist keeps things fresh by mixing up the word order a little. In Lines 1 and 2, both lines begin identically with the same exact words. Line 4 ends with the words which are repeated at the beginning of line 5. And in lines 7 and 8 we have a chiastic structure. [2] Line 7 had “escaped” and then “trap” while line 8 reverses the order and has “trap” and then “escaped.”


One last translation note — In line 8 I have translated “as for us” which you may not find in other translations because the Hebrew includes the subject pronoun which (as in many other languages) is not required as it is already part of the verb form. Its use here emphasizes the subject.


What is actually happening in this Psalm? What is the danger from which the Lord has rescued His people? There seems to be a shifting of images. Lines 2 and 3 speak of human foes rising, but lines 4 and 5 speak of a natural enemy, the floodwaters. Line 6 calls to mind wild animals. Lines 7 and 8 make Israel, the victim, a helpless bird at the mercy of human trappers.

On one level, we can say that Psalm 124 is an all-purpose Psalm of deliverance.  As a communal Psalm, perhaps it is meant to recall not just one instance of the Lord’s salvation but many.

But I think there is also something else going on here. Let’s look at some of the words which are used. In line two it is man — Hebrew adam (=Adam) — who rises. Hebrew has another word for man and there are also many possible words which could have been used here (Hebrew has a lot of words for “foe,” for instance). Adam is a deliberate choice on the part of the psalmist and it immediately brings us back to creation.

In lines 3 and 4/5  there is an interesting contrast — burning (anger) and then flooding waters. These are the two big means of destruction, one which God used in Genesis 6-9 and one which we are told He will use at the end of the world (Mal. 4:1).

The waters in lines 4 and 5 also take us back to creation (Gen. 1:6-9). A lot could be (and has been) written on the waters as a part of creation. Israel’s neighbors would have viewed the waters as primeval gods to be conquered at creation. Israel itself was never very comfortable with the Sea. Throughout the Bible, waters and sea are forces of chaos which must be subdued in order to make an orderly creation (cf. Ps. 93:4; Job 38:8; Jer. 5:22; Rev. 21:1). The word torrent in line 4 also calls to mind a very real threat — the wadis (dry valleys) which could quickly become flash floods in the rainy season.

The (implied) wild animals and birds in lines 6 through 8 also remind one of creation. And finally, lest there be any doubt, the Psalm ends with “the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” This designation for God we have seen previously in Psalm 121, providing another link within this grouping of Psalms.


Psalm 124 has some connections to the other Psalms of Ascent, particularly the use of the word “soul” and the phrase “the maker of heaven and earth,” but it is also unique among those we have looked at thus far. It is less emotional and seems to be more premeditated. It is not an outburst but a composition. More than that, it is a communal Psalm. First-person plural pronouns occur in almost every line and the Psalm begins with a call for the congregation of Israel to join in.

This is a Psalm praising God for His deliverance but there does not seem to be one specific act of deliverance which the psalmist has in mind. Instead we get a series of images, almost all of which call to mind creation. There is some hint of things to come as well and of possible destruction in the juxtaposing of the images of flooding and burning. It seems to me a very fitting Psalm for the congregation to have sung as they made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, looking as it does back to creation and forward to the end of time while also acknowledging the Lord’s salvation in this in-between period we live in.


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

[2] As we have seen in previous Psalms, a chiasm is a structure which corresponding elements are reversed. If you draw lines between the elements with go together, they will cross, making an X which looks like the Greek letter chi.


Psalm 123

Dear Reader,


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.

We come now to the fourth of the so-called Psalms of Ascent. Psalm 123 is a compact little Psalm that is not too hard to understand. Still, a look at its structure can help us appreciate the artistry of this little gem.

Translation of Psalm 123 [1]

A Song of Ascents

  1. Unto you I lift my eyes,
  2.               One who sits in the heavens.
  3. Behold, like the eyes of servants           unto the hand of their lords*,
  4.              Like the eyes of a maidservant unto the hand of her mistress,
  5. Thus              our eyes                 unto the LORD our God
  6.           Until he will have mercy on us.
  7. Have mercy on us, LORD, have mercy on us,
  8. For greatly we are filled with contempt;
  9.        Great [is] the filling of our soul
  10. [With] the mocking of the arrogant,
  11.          The contempt of the proud.

Notes on the Translation:

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

*The word “lords” here is the ordinary Hebrew word for a lord or master. In Hebrew it is adonai. “LORD” (all capitals) in line 5 is the proper name of God as revealed to Moses. Interestingly, pious Jews did not pronounce this name for fear of misusing it and instead said adonai. It is clear here, however, that the “lords” of line 3 are ordinary human masters. The word for “mistress” in line 4 is from a word meaning “mighty one” or “warrior.” 


As always, I encourage you to print out the Psalm (printable Google doc version here) and to spend some time with it before reading my comments. Look for parallel lines (not too hard in this one) and repeated words.


This is how I marked up Psalm 123. Does it look anything like yours? It is pretty easy here to see which lines go together. Psalm 123 divides nicely into two big sections. Lines 1 through 6 and lines 7 through 11. In the first section the theme is “eyes.” It is all about who is looking at whom (more on this later). This section ends with a time reference: “Until he will have mercy on us” (line 6). The second section begins in line 7 by repeating this word [“(he will) have mercy on us” is one word in Hebrew] not once but twice. In this case the phrase in question is the reason for what follows. That is, the psalmist calls for God to have mercy for the reasons he lists in lines 8 through 11.

Throughout the Psalm we see the same kind of linking through repeated words that we saw in Psalms 120 and121. Line 1 through 5 are a section because they all have the word “eyes” and “hand” is also repeated in lines 3 and 4. Lines 8 and 9 both have some form of the words “great” and “fill.” The second section is additionally bound together by the use of “contempt” in lines 8 and 11. Lines 6 and 7 are connected to what comes before and after logically by the use of connector words (“until” and “for”) but they are tied to each other by the words they share (“have mercy on us”). These two lines in the middle of the Psalm thus form a bridge between the Psalms two sections. Coming as they do in the middle of the Psalm, linking its two halves together, and repeating the keyword not once but twice these lines stand out as a kind of crescendo, the high point of the Psalm. And what is the content of this high point? It is: “Have mercy on us.” This is the heart of what the psalmist wants to say as it stands here at the heart of the Psalm.

Looking now at the two halves of the Psalm, the first thing that strikes me as I read Psalm 123 is the connection to Psalm 121. Of course, Psalm 122 intervenes but the words in these first lines hearken back to the first line of 121: “I will lift my eyes to the mountains.” In Psalm 121, the psalmist lifted his eyes and asked where his help came from and an answer was given. Here the psalmist lifts his eyes and looks for help but salvation seems not so sure.

The “eyes” motif continues through this part of the Psalm. He is not, as in Psalm 121, listing his eyes to the mountains but to “the One who sits in the heavens” (line 2). An extended analogy is made, as male servants look to their lords and a maidservant looks to her mistress, so the psalmist looks to the LORD God. Note the posture and relationship here. The psalmist does not call on God as a child to a father but as a servant to a master. The word I have translated “sit” in line 2 (“the One who sits in the heavens”) can also mean “dwell.” I have chosen “sit” because the picture seems to be one of a lord who sits in a powerful position while the servant before him has to look up. This is an enthroned and powerful God, one who might give mercy but perhaps is not obligated to do so.

One gets the impression in lines 3 and 4 that the servants cannot look their masters full in the face. They look to their hands. This is perhaps because it is with the hand that one gives good things. But it could also be because they can look no higher. Physically perhaps the servant is too low down and in his lowliness perhaps an ancient near eastern servant would be unlikely to look full in the face of his master. Yet the word “hand” is conspicuously absent from line 5 in which God’s people look to Him. In terms of the structure of the verse the double designation “LORD  God” makes up for the absence of the word “hand,” keeping the versets at similar lengths. But perhaps there is more to it than this. Perhaps God’s people are able to look at Him in a way that servants cannot look at their masters.

In the second half of the Psalm, we find out why mercy is needed — the arrogant have been oppressing the psalmist, heaping scorn upon him. The word “great” stands out at the beginning of lines 8 and 9. This is the same word used in Psalm 120 line 13 (there I translated it “long enough!”). Again, it is as if the psalmist is crying out “enough!” I really, really wanted to translate the word that is “fill” here in lines 8 and 9 as “sate.” This is really the sense of the word — the psalmist has been sated with contempt. But I couldn’t find a way to make this meaning work in line 9. (“Great is the saying of our soul” sounds a bit awkward even for me.)


Psalm 123 is short and is not hard to understand. Yet I hope that an examination of its structure and organization is still able to give us more insight. We have seen that the height of the Psalm comes in lines 6 and 7 in the cry “have mercy on us.” We have seen as well connections to Psalm 121 and to a lesser extent Psalm 120, highlighting again that these little poems do not stand on their own but come to us as part of a body of literature. My thoughts on the significance of the posture of the servants and the psalmist relative to their respective masters and the significance of the word “hand” and its absence in line 5 are somewhat speculative but I rather like them myself 😉


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


Psalm 122: An Ode to Jerusalem

Dear Reader,


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.

Within the larger Book of Psalms are smaller collections. One of these is the Psalms of Ascent. These Psalms were sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to worship God at the Temple. Our subject today, Psalm 122, more than any other is an ode to that holy city from one eager to worship there.

Translation of Psalm 122 [1]

A Song of Ascents of David

  1. I rejoiced when they said to me,
  2. “To the house of the LORD* let us go.”
  3. Standing are our feet
  4. In your gates, Jerusalem,
  5. Jerusalem, built like a city which is compactly built,
  6. Where go up the tribes, the tribes of the LORD,*
  7. A testimony to Israel to praise the name of the LORD.
  8. For there dwell the thrones of justice,
  9. The thrones of the house of David.
  10. Ask for the peace of Jerusalem.
  11. May they be at ease who love you.
  12. May there be peace in your fortresses,
  13. Ease in your citadels.
  14. For the sake of my brothers and my friends
  15. I will speak now peace in you.
  16. For the sake of the house of the LORD our God
  17. I will seek good for you.

Notes on the Translation:

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

*”LORD” in all capitals usually represents the divine, personal name of God. This is the case in lines 2, 7, and 16 in this Psalm. In line 6, an abbreviated form of this name is used. 


There are a number of hurdles any translator faces. One that is perhaps unique to God’s Word is simply to get all the versions one has heard out of one’s head and to approach the text with a fresh pair of eyes. Another is to render one language into another. Translation is not just substituting one word for another. Between Hebrew and English one issue which arises is the number of words required to say something. Hebrew, for instance, often does not require “to be” verbs when English does. Sentences which seem incomplete or fragmentary to us are perfectly acceptable in Hebrew, especially in poetry. Word order is also a lot more flexible in Hebrew. A literal translation may end up sound a bit like Yoda-speak (Yoda-speak it may sound like).

Psalm 122 is more than anything else a love song to a city. One can picture the psalmist marching along with his family and friends, drawing ever closer to the place he longs to be. He is excited and he is singing. We must be ready to forgive him if his utterances are not always full sentences and if he rambles on a bit in describing his beloved. If my translation of Psalm 122 is a bit awkward, it is because I am trying to render a bit more literally what the Hebrew gives us, both for the sake of the structure and the tone.


As many Psalms do, Psalm 122 begins with a brief introduction which sets the scene and gives us an idea of what we are in for: “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘To the house of the LORD let us go.’”

When we looked at Psalm 121 we found lots of nice parallel sets of lines. Even Psalm 120 had fairly good use of parallelism. Psalm 122 takes a different approach. It is best viewed (after the introductory verse) as two big chunks. As I have laid them out, they are lines 3 through 9 and lines 10 through 17. Within these chunks, one gets the impression that the psalmist is doing a stream of consciousness thing, riffing off of a word which has caught his imagination and following his train of thought where it would go.

Having given his introduction (lines 1-2), the psalmist describes what he has so longed for: “Standing are our feet, In your gates, Jerusalem” (lines 3-4). His pilgrim band has reached the city. I can picture him just inside the city gates, pausing to take it all in. The last word he says here — “Jerusalem”, the name of his beloved city — captures him and is the impetus for the following lines. Lines 5 through 9 are all about Jerusalem. He repeats her name and begins to describe her — She is “built like a city which is compactly built” (line 5). This is “where go up the tribes.” [2] Which tribes? “The tribes of the LORD” (line 6). 

The next line –“A testimony to Israel to praise the name of the LORD” — is awkward in either language. It is likely your Bible translation does something different with that first word in particular. In addition to wanting to render the Hebrew as literally as possible, I decided to leave this verse as it, seeing it as a fragmentary description of the beloved again. As I have rendered it, it is Jerusalem that stands as a testimony to the rest of the nation of Israel to prompt them to praise the Lord. 

Jerusalem is not only the seat of religious worship but also of political authority. Lines 8 and 9 tell us that “there dwell the thrones of justice, the thrones of the house of David.” 

In this first big section, then, we are told four things about Jerusalem: she is a well-built city (line 5); she is where the tribes go up (line 6); she is a testimony to the rest of the nation inciting them to worship (line 7); and she is the seat of justice and political power (lines 8 and 9). 

In the second half of the Psalm, the psalmist turns for describing Jerusalem to wishing for her good. The name of the city is repeated for a third time to introduce this section. The good the psalmist calls for is defined above all as “peace,” a word which appears three times in this latter part of the Psalm. The Hebrew word here is shalom which conveys not just a lack of strife but also victory and prosperity.

Two words alternate in lines 10 through 13. They are “peace” and “ease.” A version we sing of this Psalm uses “prosperity” in the first instance where I have “ease.” I chose “ease” because I wanted a word that I could use in both lines 11 and 13 as the Hebrew uses the same word. The two words, peace and ease, sound very much alike in Hebrew, and I don’t think that there is a difference in meaning between them. In either case, the sense is that one can be at ease and can prosper because there is peace.

The psalmist’s good wishes extend to both the people (line 11) and the city itself (lines 12 and 13).

The Psalm ends with two verses that begin “for the sake of . . .” It is for the sake of his countrymen that the psalmist wishes for Jerusalem’s peace (lines 14-15) and it is for the sake of the temple (lines 16-17) which represents God Himself.

Word Choice

Hebrew poetry often makes use of repeated words. Psalm 122 takes this to extremes. We have seen already that some words are repeated immediately, as “Jerusalem” in lines 4 and 5 and “tribes” in line 6. “Thrones” in lines 8 and 9 has an intervening word but is also repeated nearly immediately.

There are a couple of clusters of related words within the Psalm. The first such cluster is of words which refer to the nation of Israel. They include: Jerusalem (3x), Israel, LORD (3-4x; see below), tribes (2x), and David. The second cluster are words with refer to structural elements, including: city, house (3x), gates, compactly-built, fortresses, and citadel. We could potentially add “thrones” (2x) to this list as well. In addition to these repetitions, there is also peace (3x) and ease (2x; see above).

That’s a lot of repetition in a fairly short Psalm.  It is interesting to note that there are four words which occur three times each: Jerusalem, house (used twice of the house of the Lord, aka the temple, and once of David’s house, aka the royal palace and/or the royal family), peace, and LORD. You may notice that in my translation “LORD” occurs four times. As the note on the translation explains, the full proper name of the LORD (YHWH in Hebrew) only occurs three times. At the end of line 6, a shortened form of the name occurs (YH).

There is another element to this Psalm that is nearly impossible to capture in translation. It is consonance (the repetition of a sound). In Hebrew the sh sound occurs throughout this Psalm. It is in peace (shalom; 3x) and ease  (2x) as well as in the name of the city Jerusalem (3x; the s sound here is an sh in Hebrew). It is in the word for gate and tribes (2x). It is in name, dwell, justice, ask, and seek. It is also in the word “there” and “which.” Altogether, the sh sound occurs 20 times in the Psalm. (There are a few  sounds as well and we cannot be completely sure what the differences in pronunciation would have been at the time.)



Psalm 122 is a love poem to a city, spoken by a pilgrim who has perhaps traveled a ways and who is at long last setting foot inside it. When we looked at Psalm 120, we saw a person in distress who used short, exclamatory utterances. Here we have one rapturously overcome who tends to run on a bit. The repetition of words gives one the impression he is speaking rather spontaneously as each word strikes him and gives rise to another concept. In the first half of the Psalm, he describes his beloved and in the second he wishes good for her. The clusters of repeated words show us what is on his mind: his nation and the physical city itself. Within these four words are repeated most often, three times, each and these seem to sum up his thoughts: LORD, Jerusalem, peace, and house.


[1] You can also find a Google docs version of this translation here which is useful for printing and sharing. If you use it beyond your own home, please credit me.

[2] This is an example of that awkward, Yoda-like word order. It would be less cumbersome in English to say “where the tribes go up,” but the Hebrew repeats the word “tribes” immediately and I wanted to capture this in English.



Psalm 121: Help from the LORD

Dear Reader,

This is a return to my series on the Psalms. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here

For a fairly gentle return to Psalm study, I have decided to begin with the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). We began last time with Psalm 120 and continue this time with 121.

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.

When we looked at Psalm 120, we found a psalmist in distress. He has troubles which are not resolved by the end of the Psalm. But these poems do not come to us in isolation and so we will see today that Psalm 121 seems to speak to the one that comes before.

Translation of Psalm 121 [1]

A Song of Ascents

  1. I will lift my eyes to the mountains.
  2. Whence will come my help?
  3. My help [is] from the LORD*,
  4.                         the maker of heaven and earth.
  5. He shall not give to stumbling your feet;
  6. He shall not slumber,                            your keeper.
  7. See! He will not slumber
  8.          Nor will he sleep,                  the keeper of Israel.
  9. The LORD [is] your keeper.
  10. The LORD [is] your shade   upon your right hand
  11. By day                   the sun               will not smite you
  12. Nor the moon    by night.
  13. The LORD   will keep you          from all evil.
  14.               He will keep your soul.**
  15. The LORD will keep  your going out and your coming in
  16. From now and forever more.

Notes on the translation:

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

*When rendered in all capitals, “LORD” represents the tetragram, YHWH, the personal divine name of God.

**Hebrew nephesh may be translated as “life” or “soul.”


Structure and Form

As always, I invite you to spend some time with this Psalm before you read my comments. Note which lines seem to go together and which words or ideas recur. I have tried to lay out this Psalm in such a way as to make the parallelism evident. [2] When looking at a pair of parallel lines, draw lines between the parts that correspond.

In Psalm 120, we found that the parallelism was often loose and that the lines came not just in pairs but in triads and even a quatrain. In Psalm 121, all the lines pair up (1 with 2; 3 with 4; and so on). The first two pairs and the last one (1&2, 3&4, and 15 &16) express complete thoughts. Their halves do not contain parallel elements as all the other pairs do. As such, they form a kind of bookends to the Psalm.

Within the bookends, we find five pairs of nice parallels. Having so many nice pairs gives us a chance to look at the ways parallelism can work in Hebrew poetry. Take, for instance, lines 7 and 8:

                    7. See! He will not slumber

                    8.           Nor will he sleep,                  the keeper of Israel.

It’s a little less obvious in English but line 7 has an extra word (“see!” or “behold!”) at the beginning. They both have the verb with the negative (“He will not slumber” is two words in Hebrew as is “Nor will he sleep”), but line 8 then adds “the Keeper of Israel,” telling us who the “he” is. “The Keeper of Israel” is the subject of both lines 7 and 8. The two lines maintain relatively equally lengths because while line 8 has “the keeper of Israel” at the end, line 7 has “see!” at the beginning. This kind of balancing is often used in Hebrew poetry. An element left out in one line is compensated for by another element in the parallel line. We see similar structures in lines 5 & 6 and lines 13 & 14.

This is not always the case, however, as in lines 9 and 10:

                             9. The LORD [is] your keeper.

                            10. The LORD [is] your shade   upon your right hand

Line 10 adds “upon your right hand.” There is no corresponding element in line 9. Thus even in a fairly regular Psalm, the psalmist manages to break up the rhythm a bit by varying his structure.

In lines 11 and 12, it is the first line of the pair that has the extra element, in this case the verb “will not smite you”:

                          11. By day                 the sun               will not smite you

                         12. Nor the moon    by night.

There is something else going on here as well. The structure we have in the beginning of the lines is called a chiasm. “Sun” parallels “moon” and “by day” parallels “by night.” If you draw lines between these elements they will cross, making an X which looks like the Greek letter chi, hence the name. Note as well that the terms used in parallel need but be synonymous, but can be opposites (sun/moon, day/night).

In Psalm 120 we noted that repeated words link the sections within the Psalm together and give the whole Psalm structure. The technique is continued here in Psalm 121. “My help” appears on lines 2 and 3, linking the pairs of 1&2 and 3&4. “Slumber” occurs in lines 6 and 7 linking 5/6 with 7/8. “Keeper” in lines 8 and 9 links 7/8 with 9/10.  Though its use here in Psalm 121 is not entirely consistent — it does not run throughout the whole Psalm — it is notable enough to provide a point of connection between Psalms 120 and 121. As we said above, Psalm 120 ends on a bit of a low note; there is no resolution within it. In terms of its content, Psalm 121 responds to Psalm 120 — it offers hope and help. But there is also a connection in form as well, the two use the same technique.  Thus the form also points is to the meaning, that Psalm 121 provides a kind of conclusion to Psalm 120.

A visual to show you how I mark up a Psalm:


Word Choice and Content

The latter part of Psalm 120 in particular betrays the psalmist’s distraught mood. He exclaims ”woe ie me!”, “long enough!” and he uses short utterances without verbs “I — peace . . . they– war!” The Psalm ends on this low note. If we read through the Psalms in sequence, as they come in our Bible, we might think that the psalmist is continuing in Psalm 121. “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains,” he says. “Whence will come my help?”  And then a statement of confidence: “my help [is] from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Note again that “my help” links these two airs of lines. There is no word which links lines 4 and 5. Perhaps this is intentional because we also find another kind of break here. In line 5, the psalmist switches to the second person (not “I” and “my” but “you and “your”).

From line 5 on, the words “you” and “your” occur frequently through the rest of the Psalm. There are other repeated words as well. “LORD” occurs five times in the Psalm. Some form of the word “keep” occurs six times. In fact, once the psalmist switches to the second person in line 5 “keep” occurs at least once in every pair of lines except for lines 11 and 12. As I mark up my text with repeated words, lines 11 and 12 stand out. The only word in them that is repeated elsewhere is “you” (which in Hebrew is actually a single letter suffix on the verb). I am struck by how these two lines stand out in the Psalm, both for their chiastic structure (see above) and for their lack of the words which define the rest of the Psalm. There is one small point of connection to what comes before, however — in line 10 we are told “the LORD [is] your shade.” A shade, perhaps, to protect us from the sun and moon. 

A few final, more minor points — In line 14 I translated “He will keep your soul.” The word for “soul” here can also simply mean “life” and I suspect that life is what is meant. But this word also occurs twice in Psalm 120. Since the two Pslams seem closely linked, I wanted to be consistent in how I translated the word so I used “soul” in all three instances.

At the end of line 1, many translations have “hills” instead of “mountains.” Either is an acceptable translation of the Hebrew word. The word used is the most common word for mount or mountain and as mountains are so significant in the Bible (think: Mount Sinai, Mount Zion and others) [3] I liked using “mountains” to call up those connections.


What struck me most as I read through Psalm 121 this time is how naturally it follows after 120. Psalm 120, as we have said, leaves us hanging. But Psalm 121 has connection with is in both content and form. Yet, at the same time, the connections are not complete. One does not get the impression that this is the same psalmist continuing but rather that Psalm 121 speaks to what came before. Lines 1 through 4 (as I have laid them out) continue in the first person but in line 5 we have a break (again supported by both content and form) with a switch to the second person. Here the psalmist of 121 can be seen to speak directly to that of 120, encouraging with lots of “you”s and “your”s. The word “keep” seems to also be quite significant to this psalmist. There is a kind of crescendo in lines 13 and 14 which are set off by their chiastic structure and their lack of the words so often used in the rest of the Psalm. They are oddly specific as well with their references to the sun and moon smiting, perhaps hinting at the original purpose or setting of the Psalm. Whatever its original context, as it stands Psalm 121 provides a much-needed note of hope and consolation after Psalm 120.


[1]  In order to highlight the structure of the Psalms and to accurately portray their word-choices, I always start by making my own translation. Numbers are provided for the sake of discussion and do not correspond to verse numbers. You can also find a Google docs version of this translation here which is useful for printing and sharing. If you use it beyond your own home, please credit me.

[2] For more on parallelism and how Hebrew poetry works, see this post.

[3] “[T]here are in Scripture, even more than in other ancient literature, many references to [mountains], far outnumbering references to the other leading aspect of nature, the sea . . . the Word of God is full of mountains . . . indeed the basic structure of sacred history might be related to the mountains of Scripture.”  — Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and The Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985) pp. 229-30.


Psalm 120: Woe is Me

Dear Reader,

This is a return to my series on the Psalms. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here

I have been slacking off on my work on the Psalms. In this age of quarantine, it seems like a good time to return to them.  I am inspired and convicted as well by some quotes from a favorite author. Frank Gaebelein [1] writes that “unity — unity of form and structure — is basic to truth in art” (p. 89) and again: “integrity [in art] demands that anything contrived merely for the sake of effect and not organically related to the purpose of the work be ruled out” (p. 91). The Scriptures also are art (p. 70), divinely inspired art at that, and we should expect no less of them. It has been my contention in this series that the form of the Psalms has a meaning to convey to us that we often miss. 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.

With this in mind, let’s look at the first of the so-called Songs of Ascent, Psalm 120:

Translation of Psalm 120 [2]

A Song of Ascents

  1. To the LORD in my distress
  2. I called
  3. And He answered me.
  4. LORD, deliver my soul*
  5. From lying lip[s]
  6. From deceitful tongue.
  7. What will be given to you
  8. And what will be added to you, deceitful tongue?
  9. The sharp arrows of the warrior
  10. With the coals of the broom-tree.
  11. Woe is me! for I sojourn in Meshech;
  12. I dwell with the tents of Kedar.
  13. Long enough! my soul* has dwelt
  14. With the hater of peace.**
  15. I [am for]*** peace** 
  16. But when I speak they [are]*** for war. 

Notes on the translation:

*Hebrew nephesh may be translated as “life” or “soul.”

** Hebrew shalom

*** The Hebrew here simply reads “I peace” and “They war.” Hebrew often does not require a verb where English demands one. 


As always, I invite you to spend some time with this Psalm before you read my comments. Note which lines seem to go together and which words or ideas recur.

Hebrew poetry is governed by parallelism. Sometimes this parallelism is very pronounced and at other times it is subtle or perhaps the Psalmist intentionally varies traditional patterns. Psalm 120 seems to fall in the latter category. There are units here, but they are not necessarily pairs of exactly parallel lines. The structure I see in this Psalm is as follows:

  • Triad #1: Lines 1 through 3
  • Triad #2: Lines 4 through 6
  • Quatrain consisting of two pairs: Lines 7+8 and Lines 9+10
  • Pair #1: Lines 11 and 12
  • Pair #2: Lines 13 and 14
  • Pair #3: Lines 15 and 16

Within this framework I also see a kind of break between the end of the quatrain (line 10) and what follows (line 11). This division is both structural and thematic. The first 10 lines fall into more tightly connected sets of lines. From line 11 on, the connections between the pairs are looser and the tone of the Psalm also changes a bit.

Though I divide up the Psalm in this way, what strikes me most about it is how its various parts are linked together. The Psalmist uses the repetition of certain key words to tie each section to the next and to link the whole Psalm together. Here is what I see:

  • “LORD” [3] in lines 1 and 4 links the two triads.
  • “Deceitful tongue” in lines 6 and 8 links the second triad with the quatrain.
  • “Dwell” in lines 12 and 13 links the first two pairs of lines.
  • “Peace” in lines 14 and 15 links the second and third pairs.

Note that there is no link between the quatrain and the first pair, a further argument that line 11 begins a new section of the Psalm. Nonetheless, there is a word that links the first half of the Psalm to the second: “my soul” occurs in lines 4 and 13.

If that all seems confusing, here is a visual of how I would mark up the Psalm, showing the sections within it and the repeated words:


What someone repeats often tells us a lot about them. This is even more true of a person in distress. So here the repeated words by themselves give us an idea of the meaning of the Psalm. LORD, my soul, deceitful tongue, dwell, peace — these are the words that spring to the Psalmist’s lips.

We may note as well the number of times speech is referred to in some way: called (line 2), lips (line 5), tongue (line 6), tongue (line 8), speak (line 16).

Lastly, I’d like to highlight the tone of the second half of the Psalm, beginning in line 11. The first half, as we have said, consists of more tightly linked sets of lines. In the second half, one gets the feeling that the Psalmist’s distress has mounted and that he is a little less coherent. In his distress, his utterances have become ejaculations. This half begins with “Woe is me!” (line 11)  — one (hyphenated) word in Hebrew. Often lost in translation is that the second pair in this section also begins with what sounds like a cry — “Long enough!” (line 13) as I have translated it.  The third and final pair of the Psalm does not have the same kind of exclamation but the words in Hebrew are quick as if the Psalmist is not able to put together full sentences. Most literally we could translate: “I — peace! But when I speak, they — for war!” (see “notes on translation” above).


There is perhaps no huge change in meaning that we miss when we read Psalm 120 in our usual translations, but I hope that you can begin to see that there are other things which a close, structural reading can give us —

  • An appreciation for the artistry of the Psalm, how it divides into parts and how these parts are yet linked together through the Psalmist’s use of repeated words;
  • Some insight into the Psalmist’s mood and mental state, particularly his distress which comes through so poignantly in the second half of the Psalm;
  • And, though we do not know the exact circumstances in which this Psalm was originally written, some idea of those things which are important to the Psalmist: he cries to the LORD; he longs for peace for his soul; he is concerned about his dwelling; and there is an emphasis on speech and particularly those with deceitful tongues.

Note that the Psalm does not end with deliverance. Yet, Psalm 120 has been placed in a literary context within the Sripoutees and so we look forward to next time and to Psalm 121.


[1]  Gaebelein, Frank. The Christian, The Arts, And Truth, ed. D. Bruce Lockerbie. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985.

[2] In order to highlight the structure of the Psalms and to accurately portray their word-choices, I always start by making my own translation. Numbers are provided for the sake of discussion and do not correspond to verse numbers. You can also find a Google docs version of this translation here which is useful for printing and sharing. If you use it beyond your own home, please credit me.

[3] When rendered in all capitals, “LORD” represents the tetragram, YHWH, the personal divine name of God.


Psalm 2

Dear Reader,

This is once again a revision of some work I had done previously. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here

Translation of Psalm 2

Below is my translation of Psalm 2. As always, I recommend that you print it out and spend some time with it before reading my comments. Notice which lines form parallel pairs. Are there sections within the Psalm? What words seem to recur?

  1. Why do nations rage
  2. And peoples devise vainly;
  3. The kings of earth take their stand
  4. And princes assemble together
  5. Against the LORD and against his anointed [1]?
  6. “Let us break his fetters
  7. And let us throw off from us his ropes.” [2]
  8. He who sits in heaven laughs;
  9. The lord [3] will mock them.
  10. Then he will speak against them in his anger
  11. And in his wrath he will terrify them:
  12. “But as for me I installed my king upon Zion, my holy mount.”
  13. I will recount the decree of the LORD.
  14. He said to me, “You [are] my son.
  15. I today begot you.
  16. Ask me and I will give nations [as] your inheritance
  17. And [as] your possession the ends of the earth.
  18. You will break them with a rod of iron;
  19. Like the vessel of a potter you will shatter them.”
  20. And now, kings, understand;
  21. And be chastened, judges of earth.
  22. Serve the LORD with fear
  23. And rejoice with trembling.
  24. Kiss his feet lest he rage
  25. And you perish [in the] way for his anger quickly will burn
  26. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.


[1] Hebrew: messiah

[2] The Hebrew text has no punctuation, whether commas or periods or quotation marks. I have used translator’s license to include them here.

[3] “LORD” translates the tetragram, the divine covenant name of God of which the consonants are YHWH. “Lord” (not all caps) here in line 9 translates the Hebrew word for “lord,” not the divine name. See postscript #2 for a further discussion of this.


The elephant in the room for this Psalm is “his feet” in line 24. Unless you read the Revised Standard Version, this is probably not what you expect. This is a big translational/text critical issue, but I don’t want it to sidetrack our whole study of the Psalm so I will put my explanation of it at the end of this post (see postscript #1).

Let’s Look at Some Parallelism

There are a lot of nice pairs of parallel lines in Psalm 2. I like to line them up and see what elements correspond. Lines 1 through 4, for instance, could be arranged thus:

  1. Why        do nations              rage
  2.               And peoples           devise vainly;
  3. The kings of earth              take their stand
  4.           And princes                   assemble           together

Actually, Hebrew can be more flexible with the word order so in reality what we would have is:

  1. Why        do  they rage            nations
  2.               And peoples           devise vainly;
  3. They take their stand         the kings of earth
  4.           And princes                   assemble           together

The difference is that in lines 1 and 3 the verb comes before the subject while in lines 2 and 4 the subject comes first. This forms a small chiasm. “Chi” is a Greek letter that looks like an “X.” If you were to draw lines between the corresponding elements in lines 1 and 2 and then lines 3 and 4, you would make x’s.

Line 5 stands on its own. Lines 6 & 7 and 8 & 9 are fairly straight-forward in their parallelism. In lines 10 and 11, we again get a small chiasm:

Then      he will speak           against them           in his anger

             and in his wrath                                  he will terrify them.

This variation is not terribly significant but it keeps the audience awake and keeps the parallelism from feeling too repetitious.

Line 12 again stands on its own. Lines 13 through 15 seem to overlap with 13 echoed by the beginning of 14 and the latter half of 14 and 15 forming a pair:

I will recount the decree of the LORD.

He said to me,                                           “You [are] my son.

                                                                       I today begot you.

Hebrew, like Spanish and many other languages, and unlike English, does not need to use the personal pronoun with the verb. The subject is inherent in the verbal form. This, in Spanish “hablo” means “I speak”; one does not need to say “yo hablo.” In lines 12 and 15 of Psalm 2, we do find the personal pronoun “I.” Because it is not necessary, its use tends to add emphasis. In line 12 I translated “as for me” to try to convey this. This would be a little more awkward in line 15 but we could also render this line: “As for me, today I begot you.”

In lines 16 and 17, we see another common feature of parallelism: not every element need be repeated:

Ask me and I will give      nations                   [as] your inheritance

                                       and [as] your possession         the ends of the earth.

“Ask me and I will give” applies to both lines. Note that we again have one of those little chiasms here in 16 & 17 and again in 18 & 19.

In lines 20 through 23, the parallelism is pretty straight-forward again.

Lines 24 and 25 are a little more tricky; it is not inherently obvious how we should divide them. The lines feel a bit unbalanced even in Hebrew (and more so in English) with the first half of the verse shorter than the second. I am inclined to make the division between “angry” and “and” for two reasons: 1) rendered this way each line ends with anger/wrath; and  2) “and” often introduces a new clause.

Kiss his feet                                               lest he rage

And you perish [in the] way         for his anger quickly will burn

Finally, line 26 stands on its own, as did 5 and 12.

Dividing up the Psalm

These three lines without parallels occur roughly evenly through the Psalm They could be seen to divide the Psalm into sections, each ending with a stand-alone line. If we accept this division, we would have three sections: lines 1 through 5, an introductory question; lines 6 through 12, the kings exalt themselves and God responds; and lines 13 through 26, God acts and the kings are subdued.

Another way to divide the Psalm is to consider who speaks. The Hebrew, you will recall, does not use quotation marks so we are being somewhat interpretive in deciding what words are spoken, but I don’t think there is much disagreement on this Psalm. If we view the direct quotes as ending sections, we have the following: lines 1 through 7, the kings rebel; lines 8 through 12, God responds; lines 13 through 19, God issues His decree; and lines 20 through 26, the kings are addressed again and the Psalm concludes.

Delving into Content

What repeated words and ideas did you notice in this Psalm? A few that stood out to me are “kings,” “nations,” and “anger,” each of which also has various synonyms in the Psalm.  We have kings and princes in lines 3 and 4; God’s king in line 12; and the kings and judges again in lines 20 and 21.

Nations, peoples, and earth occur in lines 1, 2 and 3 respectively. In lines 16 and 17, the nations and earth occur again, this time as the inheritance of God’s anointed.  And finally the earth is mentioned again in line 21.

Note that for both these clusters of words, the reference is initially to the nations and their rulers. In the middle of the Psalm, God appoints His own ruler and gives him charge of the earth, and in the end the nations’ rulers are humbled. The message seems clear: You, rulers, think the earth is your own, but I will appoint my ruler and the earth shall be his, and you shall be humbled before him.

Words for anger and wrath occur in lines 10, 11, 24 and 25. The picture of God given here is not a gentle one; He is a wrathful God.

A Messianic Psalm

Psalm 2 is clearly a messianic Psalm. The Hebrew word messiah, which means anointed, occurs in line 5. This king, who will inherit the earth and subdue the nations, cannot be found completely in any merely human king. But we also need to be careful not to read into this Psalm more than is there. I will refer you again to the postscript to this post in which I will explain why I chose to translate “his feet” in line 24 where others translate “son.”

Psalm 2 begins with the nations and their rulers. They stand opposed to the LORD (God’s proper name) and his anointed (line 5). In line 8 God is refered to as “he who sits in heaven” and , based on the parallelism, we can assume it is also God who is refered to by “lord” (little “l”; see postscript 2 below) in line 9. But in line 12 God appoints a king, his king, in contrast to the kings of the nations. I think it is reasonable to assume this individual is the same as the anointed in line 5, anointing literally being how one marks or coronates a king. It seems to be this anointed king who speaks in lines 13 through 19. Here he reveals that God has called him son. In lines 20 and following, the rulers of the earth are again addressed. They are told in line 22 to serve the LORD (that proper name again). And, as I have translated it, they are to kiss God’s feet — a sign of submission to a greater king — lest His (God’s) anger destroy them. Note that even without “son” in line 24, this is a very messianic Psalm, and there is still a reference to the anointed king being called son in line 14.


Psalm 2 begins with a bad situation: the nations and their rulers are defying God. This is no doubt troubling to God’s people on earth but we are given a heavenly perspective on the issue: God is sitting in heaven laughing at them.  They think they can throw off His authority and have power on and over the earth. He provides another solution: He anoints a king, whom He calls son. To this son He gives what they claim — power on earth. Note that from the perspective of the psalmist these are future events. As Reformed Presbyterians we would see this prophecy as having been fulfilled in the messianic kingship of Christ. For the time being these rebellious rulers are called to humble themselves, to kiss the feet of God (figuratively speaking of course) and to thereby acknowledge His rule and authority lest they be destroyed in His wrath.


Postscript #1: “His Feet” vs. “The Son”

The phrase in line 24 (verse 12 in your Bibles) which I have translated “kiss his feet” is rendered by most English translations “kiss the son” (the RSV and NRSV are exceptions; they translate “feet” as I have done). This is not how the Hebrew reads, however. The word in question is bar which does sound like the Aramaic word for son. It is not the Hebrew word for son ben which is used in line 14 (v. 7).  Even if we were to do so, we would need to play with the text as we have it a little.  “Son,” if we take it as such, has no article or possessive pronoun. Translations that go this way are supplying either “his” or “the” before son.

Instead, I have translated “kiss his feet.” This is assuming that the Hebrew line has been cut off and that the last few letters of the word “feet” are missing. This, to my mind, better fits the Hebrew text as we have it. It is as if had before us “kiss his fe” and we are supplying the end of the word, assuming it has been dropped off at the end of a line.

The main argument for reading “son” here is theological. We really like to see Christ in the psalter. And it is true that many, many psalms contain references to him, including an earlier verse of this Psalm. But we must always be careful to read what is in front of us and not to read our own ideas into the text, even good ideas or ideas we find elsewhere in the Bible.

To sum up:

Reasons to translate “son”–

  • There is a  reference to “son” earlier in the Psalm.
  • Reading “feet” we have to assume some letters have dropped out or that an abbreviation of sorts is being used.
  • It provides a clear reference to Jesus and to worship being given to Him.
  • Most English translations do so.

Reasons to translate “feet”–

  • The earlier reference to “son” uses the normal Hebrew word; this reference does not.
  • Even if we accept that this is the Aramaic word “son,” it is awkward with no possessive or article.
  • Enemies kissing one’s feet in obeisance would have been a normal practice and makes sense in context.
  • The pronouns which follow (“his anger” and “those who take refuge in him“) would then refer to God.
  • This reading has the support of the RSV and NRSV.

Note that whichever of these two readings we take, we are supplying something which is not in the Hebrew text as we have it.

Postscript #2: “lord” and “the LORD”

When God revealed Himself to Moses in Exodus 3, He gave him a name. The consonants of that name are YHWH. The Hebrew text was orginally written without vowels so the consonants are all we have of that name. The Jews were so reticent about using God’s name in vain that they would not say it aloud. Instead they said adonai which means “lord.”

Psalm 2 uses the divine name in lines 5 and 13 but also has the ordinary word adonai in line 9. The text-critical way to understand this woudl be to say that it is a scribal error. Because someone copying the text would have said adonai, he messed up in this one verse and wrote that instead of the divine name.

My default assumption in approaching the biblical text is that, however it got to be the way it is (and that process might involve multiple author and/or editors) that it is the text God wants us to have. So when I read adonai in line 9, I have to assume that God meant that word. If we read “lord” (little “l”) in line 9, how does that affect the meaning of this Psalm? The parallelism with “he who sits in heaven” in line 8 makes clear that this “lord” refers to God. Psalm 2 is more than anything about authority and who holds sway on earth. God is the LORD (that is his name) but He is also a lord; power and authority are His. Applying to Him here a title which might also be used of a human lord only serves to emphasize that He is the true ruler.

Psalm 5

Dear Reader,

I had done a translation of Psalm 5 a while back but realized I had not posted anything more than that. You can find all the Psalm studies I have done plus some background on how and why we do this here.


Here again is my translation of Psalm 5:

1 My utterances hear, Lord; understand my murmuring.

2 Listen to the voice of my cry, my king and my God.

3 For unto you I pray.

4 Lord, in the morning you will hear my voice.

5 In the morning I will recount to you and I will watch.

6 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;

7 Evil does not sojourn with you.

8 The boastful do not stand before your eyes;

9 You hate all workers of iniquity.

10 You destroy those who speak a lie;

11 A man of blood and deceit the Lord abhors.

12 But as for me, in the  greatness of your faithfulness I will enter your house;

13 I will worship in your holy temple in your fear.

14 Lord, lead me in your righteousness because of my enemies;

15 Make straight before me your path.

16 Because there is not in their mouth uprightness; their insides [are] destruction;

17 An open grave [is] their throat, [with] their tongue they flatter.

18 Hold them guilty, God. May they fall from their [own] devices;

19 In the greatness of their transgressions cut them off for they rebelled against you.

20 But all who find refuge in you will rejoice; forever they will exult;

21 For you will enclose them and those who love your name will be glad in you.

22 For you will bless the righteous, Lord;

23 Like a shield you will surround them [with] favor.

As usual, I recommend you print out the Psalm and get some colored pencils and spend some time with it on your own before reading my comments. Look for which lines go together and what elements within those lines correspond. I try in my translations to lay things out in a way that will help you see the structure of the Psalm (this is why I don’t use the verse numbers but line numbers) but there are, as in any translation, some executive decisions that need to be made. Are there other ways you could or would divide up this Psalm? Do you see sections within the Psalm? Any words or themes that are carried through the Psalm?


Poetic Structuring 

Psalm 5 is not long compared to some others but it is longer than many of the Psalms we’ve tackled thus far. This makes it a little harder to take in all at once. I’d like to begin by discussing how the Psalmist structures this (slightly) longer Psalm. This part is a little harder and less accessible in translation so bear with me.

Most of the lines, as I have them laid out, come in parallel pairs — 1 goes with 2; 4 with 5; 6 with 7; and so on through 22 and 23. One could divide the Psalm in various ways. On one hand, some of the pairs as I have them could be further subdivided. On the other, line 3, the lone standout among these parallel pairs, could be combined with another.

There are a few reasons why I decided to leave line 3 — “For unto you I pray” — on its own:

  • Line 3 gives the reason for what is said in 1 and 2, but it does not say the same thing.
  • Looking the other direction, line 4 begins with “LORD” (which also appears in line 1), seemingly introducing a new section within the Psalm.
  • Line 3 is a “for” clause, but lines 4 and 5 have their own “for” clause beginning in line 6.
  • Turning again to what comes before — a closer examination of the Hebrew shows that lines 1 and 2 have a tight structure. Line 3 stands outside of that structure.  Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that is almost impossible to carry over into an English translation. Note the word count in each of the lines:

1 My utterances hear,         Lord; (3 words)

understand my murmuring.           (2 words)

2 Listen to the voice of my cry,      (3 words)

my king and my God.                    (2 words)

The word counts here function something like a rhyme scheme in English poetry giving an ABAB pattern to these lines. This pattern ties lines 1 and 2 together but at the same times leaves out line 3.

If we leave it as it is, as the only line without a parallel, then line 3 becomes in some sense the focus of the Psalm. And what does this line say? “For unto you I pray.”  This gives us the content as much as the attitude of the Psalm — Psalm 5 is above all a prayer. It is the psalmist crying out.

The same kind of tight structure we saw in lines 1 and 2, can also be seen in other sections within Psalm 5. In lines 6 through 9 the organizing element is not the word count but the pronouns. Notice who is active (that is, who the subject is) in each line:

6 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; (you)

7 Evil does not sojourn with you.                                 (them)

8 The boastful do not stand before your eyes;            (them)

9 You hate all workers of iniquity.                                  (you)

Lines 1 and 2, as we saw above, have an “ABAB” structure. Here lines 6 through 9 have an ABBA structure. The structure comes not from  word count this time but from the content.

Likewise lines 16 and 17 can be subdivided into four shorter lines:

16 For there is not in their mouth uprightness;

                      their insides [are] destruction;

17                  An open grave [is] their throat,

                      [with] their tongue they flatter.

Notice that in the two halves of line 16, a body part comes first and then what it is (or is not). The first half of line 17 reverses this order but then it is back in the second half of the line. This gives this segment an AABA pattern. I don’t think there is necessarily deep hidden meaning in patterns like this. It simply shows that the Psalmist is trying to mix things up a bit. He is keeping the reader or listener on his toes and keeping the parallelism from feeling too repetitive.

As in the first lines, the word count also forms a pattern here. This is a little less obvious because if that little word “for” which begins it all. But if you are willing to take “for” as an added word or one that applies to the whole verse, then the word count for the rest of this section is, once again, 3 2 3 2 as it was in lines 1 and 2.

Finally, lines 18 and 19 contain the same you-them alternation in an ABBA pattern as we saw in lines 6-9:

18  Hold them guilty, God.  (you)

May they fall from their [own] devices; (them)

19 In the greatness of their transgressions cut them off  (them)

for they rebelled against you. (you)


One question I often like to ask of a Psalm is who does what? There are four actors in Psalm 5: the psalmist; God; “them,” that is, evil/godless people; and God’s people.

The things God does in this Psalm are: hear, understand, and listen (lines 1, 2 and 4); not delight, hate, destroy and abhor (lines 6, 9, 10 and 11); lead and make straight (lines 14 and 15); hold guilty and cut off (lines 18 and 19); and enclose, bless, and surround (lines 21, 22 ans 23).

The psalmist prays (line 3); recounts and watches (line 5); and enters and worships (lines 12 and 13). Notice that his action is confined to the first half of the Psalm and that it is all rather passive and concerns activities we would consider part of worship.

The evil people do not sojourn or stand (lines 7 and 8); they flatter (line 17); and they fall and rebel (lines 18 and 19). We get some additional description of them in lines 16 and 17 though these are not finite verbs in Hebrew.

While the psalmist disappears from the Psalm after line 13, the people of God, those who trust in Him, appear. They rejoice, exalt and are glad (lines 20 ad 21).

There are a couple of things we can deduce from all this. The psalmist is relatively passive. His part is to pray; it is God who acts. The godless people are not particularly active here either. They flatter but mostly their crime seems to be inherent to their nature. Lines 16 and 17 tell us that their very body parts are sources of evil. They cannot stand before God (line 8).

And in the end the congregation rejoices. Which brings us to the second point: there is movement in this Psalm from the individual to the body. We begin with the psalmist praying, a fact which is emphasized by line 3 standing on its own, as discussed above.  The individual prays; the Lord acts; and in the end the congregation rejoices. Psalm 5 begins in a solitary way, with one man praying, but it ends with the people of God who are all able to rejoice in His salvation.


I haven’t found Psalm 5 to be the easiest. A lot of what is there is hard to convey in English. Though Hebrew poetry does not use the same devices as English poetry, I hope you have seen that there is depth here. There is structuring that serves both an aesthetic purpose, varying the patterns to keep the audience at attention, and a more content-driven purpose, highlighting a key line.  Though there is not a lot of action in this Psalm, there is movement and the prayer of the individual ultimately leads to the rejoicing of the congregation.