March 2, 2010


Psalm 3 – Living with Contradictions


 TEXT

1. A psalm. Of David, when he fled from Absalom, his son.

2. O LORD, my foes are so many! Many are they who rise against me;
3. many say of me, "There is no deliverance for him through God."     Selah
4. But You, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, Who holds my head high.
5. With my voice I cry to the LORD, and He answers me from His holy mountain.     Selah.
6. I lie down and sleep. I awake, for the LORD sustains me.
7. I have no fear of the myriads arrayed against me round about.

8. Rise, O LORD! Deliver me, O God! For You slap all my enemies on the cheek; the teeth of the wicked You break.
9. Deliverance is the LORD's; Your blessing be upon Your people!     Selah.

COMMENTARY

Psalm 3 was composed in a period of crisis by one who, at an earlier time, had felt saved—hence its appeal. I comment on two aspects of the poem, which will be relevant to many of the psalms we study hereafter. The first of these, “The Contrast,” relates to the odd mix of attitudes in the psalm. The second, “The Ascription,” reflects both on ascriptions throughout the Book of Psalms, and the cited historical reference as a gateway to deeper understanding of this poem. I end with additional comments on specific words and phrases in this psalm.

The Contrast

The dynamic of Psalm 3 is the tension between the rather desperate situation of the speaker and a coexistent trust in God’s salvation. Interpretation is made difficult by the structure of tenses in ancient Hebrew – "perfect" spanning our past and present, and "imperfect" spanning our present and future. The mix of tenses here, spiced with many gerunds and nouns, challenges translators. Above, I translate into our present tense as do NJPS, NRSV, Alter and many others. In any case, without arguing each term, one can decipher stages of experience. The speaker faces severe present problems, and these are placed within a much larger time framework, contrasted with previous divine support, his own immediate determination not to fear, his present prayer, and his insistent belief that he will enjoy support in the future.

The term “deliverance” (yeshu’ah) appears three times, moving from what "many" say the speaker lacks (verse 3: “there is no deliverance for him”), to a request (verse 8: “deliver me”), to a reaffirmation of God’s general abilities and support (verse 9: “deliverance is the Lord’s”). The difficulties, on the other hand, are emphasized by the four repetitions of the root r-v, “many,” each describing his foes (three times in verses 2 and 3, and once in verse 7, there a complex form of the word, meaning “myriads”). The desire to reverse that situation is gently implied through the use of the same two letters in reverse in verses 8 and 9 within the Hebrew words for “break” (the enemy’s teeth) and “your blessing.” The emphasis on "many" highlights the isolation of the speaker and his sole reliance on God.

Throughout, contrast dominates. The dire situation of verses 2 and 3 is opposed to the prayer of verses 8 and 9, reflected not only through the terms “deliverance” and “many” in both sets of verses, but also through the contrasting use of “LORD,” “God” and “rise”: in verses 2 and 3 the enemies "rise" and the speaker is told that there is no "deliverance" in God; the same God is later asked to "rise" and "deliver" him (verse 8), for "deliverance" is His (verse 9).

The experiential times in this poem are the present (his problems, his prayer) and the remembered past (and ongoing) salvation. The problems do not go away, and the prayer of petition inherently reflects an uncertain future. It is precisely that uncertainty that invests the psalm with its tension—here is an individual experienced in salvation, but forced to request it again. Verse 6 and 7 reflect such great confidence in salvation that one wonders whom he is reassuring and if, in fact, the audience is not himself. The readers are certainly left to confront their own certitude of salvation and perhaps a coexistent lack of confidence. The appeal of the psalm rests heavily on the portrait of a man saved in the past, professing faith, yet facing another trial. As we shall see in studies, many commentators do not sufficiently appreciate the coexistence of contradictory feelings. They often replace the tension of poetry with a didactic of catechism, as if the psalms were written simply to reconfirm that all is right with the world. All readers are the poorer for those efforts.

The Ascription

Most psalms are “attributed,” and in the first section of Psalms (the five sections are usually labeled “books”), almost all are attributed to King David. There is wide consensus that the ascriptions do not necessarily reflect authorship (and some could not possibly do so), and many were added later. It is conceivable that any particular ascription might be accurate, including those that list a specific historical circumstance (such as Psalm 3). However, it is only after the content has been studied independently that one can judge the possible accuracy of the ascription. As we noted in our introduction to this project, most psalms cannot be dated.

In Psalm 3, the ascription is tantalizingly apt. In the circumstance cited, David, then a most successful king, faces a significant challenge in the internal uprising led by his son, Absalom, which forces him to flee his capital (II Samuel 15). How well this befits this psalm! (Note that in fleeing from Absalom, David returns to the very spots to which he fled earlier, when pursued by the first King, Saul. His past returns to him, which sheds light both on the depth of his problem, and his confidence.) As a result, numbers of scholars are willing to consider the attribution’s accuracy, some citing by way of support the many enemies and the national blessing at the end. Ultimately, of course, the point is moot. The present ascription, even if apt, could easily reflect a later editor’s ability to assign the poem to an appropriate circumstance.

In any case, one can certainly appreciate how David’s situation concretizes and thus further dramatizes the psalm, and we are thus enriched by the ascription. It certainly makes some sense of the last phrase, which we have not yet discussed – "Your blessing be upon Your people!" This surprising phrase, for which the psalm (detached from the ascription) does not prepare the reader, would in any case independently raise the possibility of a royal context. (How many a modern leader, at the end of a speech, concludes with a call to God to bless his or her country!) Recall that the psalm to that point speaks in terms allowing the reader to easily associate with the speaker. In "discovering" that the speaker is the king, the surprised reader finds a regent with concerns that do not different from his own. Reconsidering the psalm as the words of a king also moves what was thought to be an internal reflection toward a didactic, the "royal" statement inherently being a model. Thus the dialogue between king and God, with its reflection on their relationship, is possibly, in the end, even though the speech of a king, very much about the reader as well.

Still, the poem can be read independent of the ascription, in which case the final phrase changes. Unlike the interpretation offered above of the last phrase (words of the king), Hacham has suggested that both phrases in verse 9 (the other is “Deliverance is the Lord’s”) are words soldiers would shout out before going into battle. If so—or even if that only applies to the last phrase—the reader might find him or herself “fed” a line, that is, no longer listening but responding, by being led to enunciate the reply to all that went before! In short, the line could be attributed either to the speaker, to his presumed audience, or to the reader, or to all. This is a remarkable conclusion to the psalm.

* * * * * * * *

Additional Notes

1. There is a very effective beginning of verse 4, the speaker having used the word “many” three times for the enemy, which is then dramatically compared to the one God—“But You…”

2. Psalm 3 begins as an overheard conversation between the speaker and God (verses 1–4), but the reader then finds statements by the speaker not addressed to God. The reader is in the position of eavesdropper on someone speaking to himself (verses 5–7) and verse 9a, particularly, as a response to verse 3, sounds like a final self-reassurance. (Even if the sentences are heard as addresses to an outside audience, they could be motivated by an inner need.) However, the words might also be heard as directly addressed to the reader, an effective poetic turn of phrase.

3. Schaefer notes the appropriateness of God’s reaction in verse 8—almost literally a fistfight, damaging the mouths of the wicked enemies, who spoke (with their mouths) the earlier derisive words (verse 3).

4. Here for the first time in our studies we encounter “Selah” (at the end of verses 3, 5 and 9). It occurs in thirty-nine psalms and in chapter 3 of Habakuk (a psalm-like text). The noun form is unique in Biblical Hebrew. Despite later Jewish interpretation (and rabbinic usage) that the term might roughly means "so be it," context often does not allow for that interpretation. Most see it not as part of the text, but as a musical instruction (possibly added for liturgical use). Even so, intuitively, one looks for a uniform implication (for interpretation), but there is no single accepted approach. We also do not know enough of how the psalms were sung and/or accompanied to be able to guess at the specific musical instruction (though the term may be related to a root meaning "lift up," or "high").


The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at psalmblog@gmail.com.

3 comments:

  1. Perhaps "Selah" סלה can be understood as identifying the immediately preceding statement as a quotation of a phrase or line fom another source, either from another Psalm (known to us or otherwise) or from a standard liturgical statement or response?

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  2. Response of B. Segal to anonymous, March 5 - We sometimes have to be patient with ourselves. Centuries of effort have yet to come up with a convincing theory that holds for all uses of Selah. The use of "borrowed" texts is so common in Psalms that were "Selah" to so indicate,it would have skipped over 90% of the occurances. We must continue to look - hence your comment is most appreciated - but you should understand that you confront a long unsolved mystery.

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  3. Several years ago in a casual discussion with a Catholic priest, he asked if I knew the Christian tradition that angels, sitting heaven,strum their harps and recite the book of Psalms. He then asked,"What do they say when they break a harp string?" I had no answer. He said that they in frustration and anger say, "SELAH".

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