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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Some Problems in Psalm 51

My wife was reading from Psalm 51 on Sunday evening when I noticed two problems (or perhaps two symptoms of one problem.) The Psalm is usually attributed to King David and described as being a response to his awareness of his guilt in the Bathsheba/ Uriah scandal. 

In verses 16 – 17 the author is speaking to God and says:

For should you be pleased,
a sacrifice indeed I would offer;
but you would not accept a holocaust  [burnt offering],
the finest sacrifices are a contrite spirit:
a heart contrite and crushed
O God, do not spurn.[i]    

But this idea is immediately contradicted, in verses 18 - 19 where we read:

In your benevolence make Zion beautiful
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then will you wish legitimate sacrifices,
holocaust [burnt offerings] and whole offering;
then will young bulls mount your altar.

So does God want animal sacrifices or not?  In verses 16 – 17 –the answer seems to be “No.”  But in verses 18 – 19, “Yes” – but only after the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt.

Wait… what?  After the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt?  When in David’s lifetime were they torn down?  They weren’t, of course.  They were torn down by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  

Not all translations use the word “rebuild;” some say, “may it please you…to build up the walls of Jerusalem,” as in the NIV for instance. 

I didn’t check every English version – but here’s a quick comparison:

Anchor Bible
God’s Word Translation
21st century KJV
Common English Bible
Good News Translation
American Standard
The Message
New American Standard
The New Century Version
Wycliff Bible
New Living Translation
Young’s Literal Translation
English Standard Version
New Jerusalem Bible

First  problem – build or rebuild the walls?  My armchair amateur scholar inclination would be to go with “rebuild.”  The translations that I trust most use rebuild.  

Which would mean that this psalm was most likely written during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the Jewish people had returned to Israel from their Babylonian exile and found the city in ruins and the walls torn down.  This makes sense of the plea for the walls to be rebuilt so that sacrifices can be safely offered at the (rebuilt) altar.

This cuts against years of tradition that has said this psalm was written by King David himself.  But though it is described in verse 1 as a “Psalm of David” that preposition can mean a Psalm about David or a Psalm for David. 

But that still leaves the other problem (or the other symptom of the same problem): Does God even want these sacrifices?   Coming from a Christian tradition, my answer tends to be drawn from the earlier verses – no – God doesn’t require blood sacrifices.  But this Psalm doesn’t really answer the question in and of itself.

[i] Anchor Bible Translation – Mitchell Dahood

1 comment:

  1. I think that it's important to take the whole psalm into context. The entire thing is about the despair the writer feels about being in the wrong before God. He is "sinful" and "crushed" before God--compare that to the walls of Jerusalem (remember that this is poetry, so a metaphor is not unreasonable here). If all it would take is to bring a sacrifice, then he would do it, but he knows that an empty sacrifice without a changed heart is meaningless to God. So, he asked God to "cleanse me with hyssop", "wash me", "create a clean heart," etc. Once those things have happened (the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt, i.e. the writer's life restored to rightness with God), then the writer can make a sacrifice that actually pleases God.



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