Psalm 13 - “Hope Despairs and Yet Despair Hopes” (Martin Luther)
1. For the leader. A psalm. Of David.
2. How long, O LORD?! Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?
3. How long will I have cares in my soul, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy loom over me?
4. Look, answer me, O LORD, my God! Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death;
5. lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I stumble.
6. But I trust in Your faithfulness. My heart will exult in Your deliverance, I will sing to the LORD, for He has dealt bountifully with me.
(Initial note: Some English translations do not number the title verse and some split the final verse.)
Compact, dramatic and shocking, Psalm 13 manages to create in a few words a complexity that challenges and puzzles at the same time.
Based on obvious content, most commentators accept a three-tiered structure for Psalm 13. The Lord in fact is mentioned but three times, once in each section. Although it is the relationship among the three sections that is ultimately important, each merits its own attention.
The Opening Section (verses 2 and 3) – These lines, in their four-fold repetition of “How long?” are dramatic in the extreme. The desperation is palpable and blatantly painful, and the opening phrase “how long…will You forget me forever?” gains strength which each syllable. There is no request here—just an anguished cry. Overwhelmed and saddened, the reader wants to enter into the poem and help, but the dialogue is only between the speaker and his God. The desperation is two-fold—the apparent absence of God from the picture (verse 2) and the abiding concern and travail over the enemy’s ascendance (verse 3).
The Second Section (verses 4 and 5) – The speaker moves on to his request. The two problems previously articulated (God’s absence and enemy ascendance) are now separately transformed. God’s absence becomes the object of the request, which is simple, direct, and vague all at the same time: the plea is for God’s involvement, expressed as asking for attention and “lighting up my eyes,” significant but ill-defined actions. The enemy’s ascendance, previously rued, is now established as being a bi-product of the core problem, God’s non-intervention. The two results (“lest…” verses 4 and 5) are death and the victory of that enemy.
The speaker's isolation of God’s inattention as the core problem has the effect of radically focusing the “how long” of the first section to the addressee, God.
The speaker has not offered a justification as to why God should pay attention; rather, he assumes that one exists. Given that assumption, we now understand that to this point we have an accusation of no small proportions, well summarized by the opening refrain “How long?”
The Third Section – The pause before the third section is indeed marked. First and foremost, it is shouted out by the text, the first word of the third section being “But as for me” (one word in Hebrew, translated “But I”). Until now the speaker has been included not as an actor but as a sufferer. The change is underscored.
At this point, the text has reached a crescendo of both accusation and danger. The reader waits with bated breath. The drama is well expressed by Brueggemann: “Then the psalmist waits. It is a long wait, a wait in the darkness of death… One must simply wait until there is a response…. Then―and we don’t know how long the wait was—things are changed.” (I comment below on whether things "change.")
It is in this verse, beginning with "But I," that most commentators find an expression of unbridled faith, “the most eloquent expression” of invincible trust in God. (A. Cohen). The assumption of such an approach is that the last verse serves to overcome that which came before ("a turning point in mood, and perhaps genre, in this short poem" - Alter). Indeed, the speaker's heart exulting is a direct contradiction to the earlier-mentioned grief in his "heart" (3) and the "exulting" of his foes (5). As such, the psalm could serve as model, inspiration and means for moving from great distress to assurance. However, that interpretation alone does justice neither to the complexity of the poem nor to the multivalence of the last verse.
Here the speaker becomes assertive for the first time, and only here is there a verb in the perfect (spanning past and present) tense, "trust(ed)." The speaker is one who trusts (and/or has trusted) in God. He confirms that he delights in God and sings to Him (or "will delight" and "will" sing – these verbs are imperfect, spanning present and future, creating a challenging range of possibilities). I suggest that the text does not indicate a change of attitude, but the possibility of expressing mixed emotions. Indeed, the assumption that verse 6 replaces what came before also does not accord well with the intensity of the situation described through verse 5. Were this a depiction only of the past, the poet would have used a phrase like Psalm 116:11: “I said in my consternation.…” Instead, it reads as present pain. Thus the lament of the first five verses remains, while the speaker can still express his base belief, and his determination to praise (or hope to some day praise) God. (So Broyles interprets, looking back from verse six on the previous verses: "In fact it is this trust in God that allows for the expression of such protests in the relationship.")
The resultant interaction between verse 6 and what went before is complex. On one hand, verse six would provide the presumed justification for why God should reverse the situation. (The speaker trusted in Him.) On the other hand, there is no small element of accusation here. "As for me," the speaker says, I have carried out my role. I trust and praise. God, on the other hand, has not carried out His role. How long...?
Verse 6 then coexists with what came before, and the psalm, as an expression of the contradictions of life, becomes infinitely stronger. Yes there is change, but not an erasure, not elimination. The oft-assumed radical change would undo the psalm’s great challenge and cause it to reduce the psalm to a rather curious expression of piety overcoming all. It is, instead, a complex moment that somehow allows for survival based on a profound trust in the future, even as the present is marked by pain and fairly desperate prayer.
This psalm is an engrossing challenge. If we understand Luther’s quote (my title, “Hope despairs and yet despair hopes”) not as progression but as paradox, it is an accurate reflection of the strength of the poem.
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1. Some scholars suggest eliminating verse 6 as a later addition. I reject that suggestion. The verse is an integral third part, emphasized not only by the two comparative terms noted above (“heart” and “exult”) but also by a third term , good "to me" [Hebrew 'alay], the same word used at the end of verse 3—the enemy has an upper hand “on me.” (In note 5 below, I shall also point out another sound echo which frames the poem.)
2. The expression in verse 4—variously translated “enlighten my eyes” (Dahood) “lighten my eyes” (RSV), “restore the luster to my eye” (NJPS)—is not entirely clear, and there may be multiple primary readings. Over and above these, there could be two other possible secondary implications. It could also mean “granting health” (as Dahood, based on Ps 38:11), which counters the danger of death, and/or “waking one up,” referring to the “sleep” about to be mentioned (Hacham).
3. "Sleep death," verse 4, is a particularly stark description: see Jeremiah 51:57 for another use of sleep as death.
4. As one reader has pointed out, verse 4's "enlighten my eyes" may also be a bitter jibe, for the speaker is in fact trying to get God to open his eyes!
5. Hebrew readers can detect echoes that carry his poem forward. The fourfold opening use of "How long" (ana) is echoed by "I" (ani) in verse 6 (forming an inclusion). Two similar terms echo each other in verse 4, "answer me" ('aneni) and "my eyes" ('aynai). Similarly, "your face" (panecha, verse 2) is echoed by "lest" (pen) (verses 4, 5), while "death" (mavet, verse 4) may be echoed in "I stumble" (emot, verse 5). In biblical Hebrew, there was a sound similarity between the letter ayin (transliterated ') and gimel (g), resulting in an echo within verse six – yagel (will exult) with 'alay (to me).
6. Although I do not see this as the direct meaning of the text, I note that early midrashic literature and some medieval commentators (Rashi, Radak) related the whole psalm to the condition of the Jewish people in exile, looking forward to redemption. At certain times and places, it was an appropriate metaphor.
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 email@example.com.