Psalm 11 - Voices―Confidence in the Distant God
1. For the leader. Of David.
In the LORD I take refuge. How can you say to me, 1-"Flee, bird to your mountain"-1
2. For look, the wicked bend the bow, they set their arrow on the string to shoot from the shadows at the upright of heart.
3. 2-When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous one do?-2
4. The LORD is in His holy palace; the LORD – His throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His gaze examines mankind.
5. The LORD examines the righteous and the wicked, and loathes one who loves violence.
6. He will rain down on the wicked blazing coals and sulfur; a scorching wind will be 3-their portion.-3
7. For righteous is the LORD; righteous deeds He loves; the upright will behold His face.
1. Meaning of Hebrew uncertain; lit., "your (plural) hill, bird." Septuagint, with a different letter division reads "Flee to a mountain like a bird."
2. Or "For the foundations are destroyed; what has the Righteous One done?"; or "If the foundations are destroyed, what has the righteous one accomplished?" See commentary.
3. Lit., "the portion of their cup."
Confidence from a Distance
Psalm 11 is not a prayer, but is rather an expression of confidence. Looking forward, the speaker knows only conviction and belief. Nor does he, as do several psalmists, approach his subject from a background of suffering from, or even frustration with, the success of the wicked. Here the evildoers are only at an advanced stage of preparation. They are on the cusp of their evil acts—and it is in light of this preparation that the speaker expresses his confidence.
The drama of the poem is first achieved by the poet putting the readers on the defensive. “How can you say to me,” the speaker asks an undefined “you.” Lacking an articulated alternative, the readers hear themselves (“you” is in the plural) addressed. They are accused!
Let us put ourselves into the shoes of the readers. What is it that we are accused of saying to the speaker? The opening section is clear enough: the speaker is told to flee because the evildoers are preparing to bend their bows. (There is a beautiful continuity within verses 1 and 2, as the eventual hail of arrows would be aimed both at the speaker as a human being and at the metaphoric bird to which he was compared in verse 1.)
Verse 3, however, can be read in at least three ways, each a separate claim to which the speaker will respond.
a. “For when the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous one do?” The claim would seem to be that society has descended to a point where the righteous have no alternative but to flee for their lives. A critique of society is implied.
b. “For the foundations are destroyed; what has the righteous one accomplished?” Here we hear a frustration at the lack of benefit to, or effect of, the life style of righteousness. After all this effort, the evildoers are still there, preparing to bend their bows. Of what value was all that righteous behavior?!
c. “For the foundation are destroyed; what has the Righteous One done?” Here the challenge is to God in His conduct of the universe, an understanding that befits the use of “Righteous” as a term for God in verses 5 and 7. (It is also reflected in a classic midrashic interpretation of the psalm, Midrash Psalms, Shochar Tov, on this verse: “O Righteous One of the world, what deed have You done?”) It is, of course, the most striking of the challenges.
As always, it is best to assume that the poet saw all possible meanings. The reader of the poem thus must ask himself or herself, as the party responding to the speaker of the poem, whether one, two, or all three of these challenges represent a statement that he or she would make.
The voice of response is heard in verses 4–7. Using repetitions of terms, the poet (through the speaker) makes his point that God will reverse the situation. The “wicked,” who prepared their bows (2), now will be drowned in blazing coals (6). The “upright,” previously targeted (2), are now loved (7). God “beholds” the situation (4) and ultimately will be “beheld” by the righteous (7). You told my person (soul – nefesh) to flee (1), an unnecessary act because God’s person (nefesh; 5) hates such evildoers. (The use of nefesh, "person," is not reflected in the translation.)
However, apart from the general reassurance, there is another tone of note. The speaker locates God far away: He is in heaven, in His holy palace. This is an implied partial response to the situation that has developed. God has not noted it because He is simply too far off. Nevertheless, from that remote height, He will “rain down” blazing coals, and so on. Both the distance and His intercession are emphasized. One might say by implication that the response reflects the view that God’s normal intervention in this world is not at every instant, but rather on occasion.
The psalm, then, is not just a “psalm of confidence,” as labeled by many modern interpreters. There is dialogue here, with levels of challenge, each to be judged as to whether the speaker’s response to the situation is sufficient. The speaker has averred that God has acted and does act justly, that good deeds will have their reward, and that the righteous should act, not flee. We, the readers, have been placed among those who told the speaker to flee. We, the readers, are left at the end of the psalm with his response to us. The poet leaves the reader at this point, as he or she ponders whether to react further to the speaker's claim.
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An Additional Thought: The Final Verse—in Defense of the LORD
The last verse (7) provides a good example of how psalmists use word repetition. I suggest that the psalmist articulated the last verse in light of what went before, as follows. The LORD is “righteous” and loves “righteous” deeds (in response to verse 3, “What has the ‘righteous man’ achieved”); He “loves” righteous deeds, as opposed to the wicked, who “love” violence (5); He reveals His face to the “upright,” the same who were hunted by the evildoers (2); His face is “beheld” by the righteous, a result of His having “beheld” humankind (4). Indeed, the term “LORD” is the enclosure of the poem (1, 7): whatever the plotting and plans of the evildoers, in the beginning and the end, it is the LORD Who is present, that LORD Who is defined by the comparisons of this final verse.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.