Posts Tagged ‘Psalm 122’

Psalm 122: An Ode to Jerusalem

Dear Reader,

Background:

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

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. 

Analysis

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.

Structure

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.)

IMG_2502

Conclusions

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.

Nebby

[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.