Posts Tagged ‘Psalm 120’

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.”

Analysis

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:

IMG_2501

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.

Conclusions

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.

Nebby

[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. 

Analysis

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:

IMG_2430

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).

Conclusions

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.

Nebby

[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.