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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Some Notes on Psalm 138

Though Psalm 138 is described as a psalm “of David” we cannot be certain that he wrote it. The Hebrew preposition translated here as “of” could also mean “for” or “in the style of.” Biblical scholars are uncertain when the psalm was written. Some suggest an early date, others place its composition in the post-exilic years. Some copies of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation add the inscription “a psalm of Haggai and Zechariah,” which would seem to fit with tradition that the prophet had written it for use during the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon. (Taylor 709).

If it was, in fact, a psalm of David, the reference in verse 2 to the “holy temple” is a little strange. There was no permanent temple during the time of David.

The psalm can be divided into 3 parts: I – An Expression of Thanks and Praise (vs. 1 – 3) II – The Reaction of Heathen Kings (vs. 4 – 6) and III – A Reflection on God’s Help in the Past and a Plea for Help in the Future (vs. 7 – 8). 

Nancy deClaissé-Walford, alternately, divides it as psalm of thanks before three different audiences: before the gods (vs. 1 – 3), before the kings of the earth (vs. 4 – 6), and before the psalmist’s enemies (vs. 7 -8).

The psalmist begins by declaring that he will sing a song of praise and thanksgiving to God with all his heart in the presence of “the gods.” This is another example of that fancy, college word: Henotheism. We spoke a little bit about this in our sermon on Psalm 82; in the Old Testament /Hebrew Bible, especially the older parts of it, there is the idea that there are, in fact, a great many gods.  The Israelites chose from among all these gods to worship only Yahweh.

But the Hebrew word “the gods” (elohim) is translated in a variety of ways in the many different translations and commentaries.

It is “angels” in the Greek LXX, the Latin Vulgate, and in St. Augustine’s commentary, as well as in the Contemporary English Version (CEV) and Eugene Peterson’s The Message.

It is translated as “heavenly beings” in the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) , and as“the heavenly assembly” in the New English Translation (NET) 

Other translations seem to recognize that it means “gods” but want to be careful to distinguish these “gods” from the one God, Yahweh. The International Children’s Bible (ICB) and the God’s Word Translation (GW)  translate it as “the false gods” –adding an English word that isn't in the Hebrew text to their translation to give clarity to their particular interpretation. 

The New International Version (NIV) also seems hesitant about translating it simply as “the gods” and so includes scare quotes around the word: I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart; before the “gods” I will sing your praise. 

Some recognize the word as a reference to other (lesser) gods but still dismiss it as a bit of poetic fancy:“The gods, in our psalmist’s flight of imagination, form an entourage of the Lord, and so must listen to the Psalmist’s words” (Taylor 710).

Verse 3 is interesting. The sense of it seems to be that the psalmist is thanking God for emboldening him, giving him courage. But the various ways that this expression is rendered is what grabs my attention. I especially like Mitchell Dahood’s translation for the Anchor Bible series: “When I called you granted me triumph, you helped me storm with my ardor strong” and the translation found in the footnote of the New Revised Standard version, “you made me arrogant in my soul with strength.” 

The idea of arrogance comes back again in verse 6 though here it is not the psalmist's soul that is arrogant, but  the kings of the earth: “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.” (NRSV) While most translations seem to follow this track, Mitchell Dahood and the Jewish Publication Society take a slightly different approach. Instead of applying the adjective gaboah (translated as “haughty” in the NRSV) “as the antithesis of sepal, ‘the lowly one,'" they take it as “synonymous with ram, “the exalted” – that is, as another epithet for Yahweh (Dahood 279). Dahood’s translation reads: “Though Yahweh is the Exalted, he regards the lowly one, and though the Lofty, he heeds even from a distance.” Similarly the JPS reads: “High though the LORD is, he sees the lowly; lofty, he perceives from afar.”

The French medieval rabbi, Rashi, translated the verse as “For the Lord is high but He sees the lowly, and He chastises the haughty from afar.” 

Dahood, Mitchell. Psalms III 101 – 150: Introduction, Translation and Notes with an Appendix: the Grammar of the Psalter. Garden City: NY, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970. Print.

deClassé-Walford, Nancy. "Commentary on Psalm 138: 1 - 8." Weblog post. Working Preacher. N.p., 24 Aug. 2014. Web. 20 July 2016.

Taylor, William R. “Psalms: Exegesis” The Interpreters Bible Volume IV. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1955. Print.

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