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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Tricky, Difficult Miktam

Just about everything in Psalm 16 is problematic.  Go ahead and read it in any translation and, even after the translators best work it still doesn’t scan well.  It is difficult to make sense of many of the individual lines, and as a whole it hangs together only barely…

To begin…

It is described as a “Miktam of David.”  What is a miktam?  Exactly.  We don’t know.  Only 6 of the Psalms are described as Miktams  (psalms 16 and 56 – 60). Some have suggested that the word has something to do with the theme of these 6 psalms – in which case it may mean something like lament.  Others connect it to inscriptions in stone.  Another suggestion links Miktam to the word ketem which means “gold”  - making these “golden psalms”  but that isn’t really clear either.

And each of these is linked to King David – but don’t be fooled by that preposition “of.”  This doesn’t necessarily mean that David wrote them.  In Hebrew this preposition can mean of, or about, or for, or to… There is nothing in Psalm 16 that connects specifically to any of the events of David’s life.  This isn’t to say that he didn’t write it or that he couldn’t have – but there’s nothing in it that clearly connects it to David’s hand.

Verse 2 is difficult.  Check out the variety of ways it’s been translated.   My good (or welfare) is not beyond (or additional to) you.  Well, that’s very well and good, but what does it mean? 

And while we’re being difficult, verse 3 is tricky as well.  Who are the holy ones in view here?  Are they Canaanite deities?  Or are they Israelite saints?  Opinion is divided.

Is the “multiplied sorrows” of verse 4 intended as an echo of the curse placed upon the woman in Genesis 3? 

In verse 7 it is literally the psalmist’s “kidneys” that is instructing him, but this is only a difference of idiom. We don’t literally believe that our “heart” is the center of our thinking and deliberation.

But it is verse 10 that will probably give us the most difficulty.  Ever since Peter and Paul used this chapter in their apologies recorded in The Acts of the Apostles it has been the Christian understanding that this is prophecy – a prediction of Jesus’ resurrection.  But that wouldn’t have been the Psalmists first intent.  In fact, resurrection probably wasn’t even in his mind.

It comes down to the question Is this verse about being preserved from death or being preserved out of death – two similar but very different propositions. 

Peter and Paul interpreted it to mean that God would not allow his faithful one (that is, Jesus) to stay dead after being crucified – that he would be preserved out of death.    But the resurrection of the dead wasn’t a feature of Judaism until long after King David’s time (assuming that David wrote it, after all).

What seems more likely is that the Psalmist is thanking God for preserving him from death – that is, protecting him from an untimely death.

Mitchell Dahood, in his Anchor Bible Commentary on the Psalms, suggests that the Psalmist believed that he would be taken up to God’s presence without having suffered death – like the heroes Enoch and Elijah.  But this, too, is very different than the traditional Christian interpretation of resurrection of the body.

From start to finish it’s a tricky, difficult Miktam.

(and even though it may be problematic, that doesn't mean we can't sing it...)

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