June 15, 2010

Psalm 17 - (Hearing and) Seeing Is Believing

TEXT (Hebrew text appears at end of commentary)

1. A Prayer. Of David.

Hear, O LORD, what is just; heed my supplication, give ear to my prayer, uttered without deceit.
2. From before Your face1 my vindication will issue forth; Your eyes will behold what is right.
3. You have probed my heart, visited me at night; You have tested me and found nothing amiss; I resolved that my mouth should not transgress.
4. As for the deeds of man, by the word of Your lips I have kept from the ways of the lawless.
5. My steps have held to Your paths; my feet have not stumbled.

6. I call on You, for You will answer me, God; incline Your ear to me, hear what I say.
7. Wondrously display Your faithfulness in steadfast love, O deliverer of seekers of refuge from those who rise in enmity,2 by Your right hand.
8. Guard me like the apple of the eye; in the shadow of Your wings hide me
9. from the wicked who despoil me, my life-enemies who surround me.
10. They have fatted themselves over3; their mouths speak arrogance;
11. our steps they now hem in; they set their eyes roaming over the land.
12. He is like a lion longing for prey, a king of beasts lying in ambush.

13. Rise, O LORD! Go forth to meet him. Bring him down; save my life from the wicked by Your sword,
14. from men―O LORD, by Your hand―from men whose share in life is fleeting. But Your treasured ones, fill their bellies. Let their sons be satisfied, and leave over something for their young.
15 Then I, justified, will behold Your face; awake, I shall be sated with the vision of You.

1. Usually, “from before You.” I translate the word “face” literally to allow readers to hear the echo in verse 15.
2. That is, assailants. God is to “rise” against them, verse 10.
3. Uncertain. - Literally, “closed their fat.” Covering with fat elsewhere symbolizes foolishness, stubbornness and/or impudence. Dahood effectively translates: “They are clogged with blubber.”


The speaker of Psalm 17 is confident, certain that by either set of judgment criteria, absolute or comparative, he is considered just. This in turn leads him to a goal or expectation that is quite extreme.

Psalm 17 has a number of difficult passages. I first explore the structure of the psalm and its literary techniques, allowing for later interpretation of the difficult passages. We shall find a psalm in two tightly joined parts.

The Structure and Literary Techniques

The outstanding structural element in Psalm 17 is a double enclosure, which creates two halves. The speaker opens with a double request to God: to hear and to see. The latter, “seeing,” forms the grand inclusio of the psalm, three terms (“behold,” “justified,” and “face”) that appear again in the last verse. The other element, “hearing,” forms an internal inclusio, the terms “hear” and “ear” appearing again in verse 6. Verse 6, then, ends the first section, which deals with the speaker’s judgment before God: his righteousness is held to be the prime reason for God to accept his prayer (that God protect him), a prayer that is detailed in the second half. The only two parties in the first half are the speaker and God, whereas the second half, the body of the prayer itself, also deals with those who rebel against God.

A second element of style is isolated repetition (i.e., two or three uses of the same term or root). In more than half the cases, the repetition is a comparison: for example, the speaker’s “mouth” and the mouths of the wicked (verses 3, 10); the LORD “rising” against those who “rise” against Him (verses 7, 10); God’s “eye” and the eyes of the evildoers (verses 8, 11); the evildoer’s “life” (Hebrew nefesh) as opposed to the life of the speaker (9, 13); and so on.

A third element of style is a marked focus on bodily references. If one includes the two terms for “step” (pa’am, which can mean foot, and ashur) and the two uses of nefesh (“life,” noted above) there are nearly twenty such terms.

What the Poem Is Not

I first note what the poem is not. The emphasis on hearing and seeing has led some commentators to conclude that it was written for recitation in the Temple, where one could “see” and hear (or be heard by) God. This is another example of prosaic reading of poetry (Whitehead’s “misplaced concreteness”), as if it were devoid of metaphor and symbol. Apart from this seeing–hearing “indication,” there is no hint here of the Temple, priesthood, sacrifice, or the like. The theory is best ignored, leaving the reader free to appreciate the metaphors of hearing and sight.

The Two Halves

The first six verses of Psalm 17 are a direct appeal for judgment by one sure of his righteousness. Although there are differing interpretations of a few of the words, the overall message cannot be doubted: the speaker feels that he has been tested and asks God to hear his prayer. The rest of the psalm—the speaker’s prayer—includes several very difficult verses, but the prevailing theme remains clear: the speaker as opposed to the evildoers. He seeks God's protection and his intervention against the wicked.

I note one factor which might puzzle readers who consult other translations. Differences in understanding (of verses 7, 11, and particularly 14) lead to disagreement as to whether yet other parties are mentioned, that is, other righteous people whom the speaker venerates and wishes well. I have included them in the translation above, but there is a legitimate understanding that other righteous people are not referred to in this psalm One would, as some medieval commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, read verse 14 as follows: “Rescue me from men whose portion of life is [only that which is] transient, Your treasures [serve only to] fill their bellies, to satisfy their sons, to leave something for their little ones.” The speaker then goes on to compare himself and his spiritual emphasis to these others. Thus verse 15, “I am filled with the vision of You,” is in contrast to the “filled” bellies of the evildoers in 15:14. Again, either interpretation is legitimate, but both fit well with the other matters we cite here.

Three Comments on Content

1. The evildoers vs. the speaker – Psalms often contrast the good person and the wicked, here accomplished by the use of identical terms, as indicated. The sense of comparison is heightened by the split text: the opening section focuses almost exclusively on the speaker and his being tested, a preamble to his prayer, whereas the second section, the request, dwells on the comparison with the wicked. One should also take note of the tone. It is no small achievement that the speaker does not seek revenge or even the downfall of those others. He seeks only protection. This goal is in reach. Certainly in this detail the poet has created a speaker worthy of attention, consideration, and appreciation.

2. How does the speaker view his own situation? He is satisfied with himself. He has been successful in living the Godly life and in avoiding the life style of the evil. He feels threatened and seeks protection. Since he is righteous, however, that protection is all that is needed for him to reach his ideal goal (which I consider separately below).

3. Before proceeding to his goal, I pause to consider the terms of the body: step, feet, lip, heart, ear, right hand, fat, limb (= wing), life (or “soul,” twice), face, mouth, and eye. Combined with the dual enclosure of seeing and hearing, the poet thus creates an interesting paradox for those who translate verse 14 as Ibn Ezra (above), attributing the earth-bound orientation specifically to the evildoers. The terms used by the speaker, on the one hand, are corporal and immediate, and yet they are set against his rejection of the evildoers’ accentuation on the physical and his own emphasis on a kind of spirituality. The reader is challenged to make sense of the speaker’s chosen terminology. What does it reveal?

The Ultimate Goal

Last verses are often a surprise in Psalms, and that is most certainly the case here. The ultimate goal of the speaker is so ambitious and audacious that one might be shocked were it not for his earlier positive self-evaluation. In the opening, he has asked God to hear and “behold,” and in the last verse his goal is that he, the speaker, might “behold” His (God’s) face in justice (echoing “face” and “justice” in the first two verses). The term for “behold” is a powerful one (ch-z-h). Its uses in the Bible include physical sight, understanding, seeing with gratification, perception, and prophetic visions. The significance of the broad range of the word "behold" is clarified by the final phrase, “Awake, I shall be sated with the vision of You.”

It is difficult to translate that final phrase. It includes three elements: (a) I will be (or am) filled (sated); (b) awake (either “while awake,” or as some interpret it, “when I awake”); and (c) Your form (vision, likeness). This goal seems extreme, to say the least, within the biblical range of relationships with God. Moses is described as uniquely having had the experience of seeing the Lord’s “form” (same word, Numbers 12:8, as "vision" here). Indeed, at the grand revelation in the desert, the people were not allowed to see God’s “form” (same word, Deuteronomy 4:12). The extreme nature of the goal surfaces, along with an appreciation for the strong word for “behold” used here. The speaker looks forward to the fulfillment of seeing God’s form, the highest conceivable level of interaction with Him!!!

It is true that there are biblical verses that note seeing God or his “face” (or the beauty of His face; Psalms 11:7, 27:4, 63:3). Moreover, in another version of the great theophany, the elders do see God and are not harmed (Exodus 24:10). However, the word “form” (“t’munah”) as used in Psalm 17 is never found in these passages. That term applies only to the exclusive sight granted to Moses, as noted above. (Also note the striking use of “sated” in the psalm).

There are two possible readings of this final verse. One is that the verse encapsulates all that was asked before and that the speaker is making the remarkable claim that if his prayers are answered (the evildoers are punished, the just are given their due, and so on), it will be the equivalent of the fullest knowledge of the LORD! The second is that this is the final, ultimate request―to go beyond all that he has asked and, on the basis of his record (verses 1–5), to experience God to the fullest. As ever, I tend to trust that the poet also saw multiple possibilities in the text and meant them to be there. Both are extremely challenging. In the first case, the speaker almost mocks his prayer to that moment, saying it is as likely to be achieved as his seeing God directly. In the second case, he asks for something that should not be requested.

It is possible that discomfort with this powerful last phrase explains its later omission from general use in Jewish liturgy, where one would have expected to find it. Perhaps it is too strong. On encountering it, the reader is immediately rereads the poem to try to fathom the speaker’s experiences and self-understanding. Whence comes his assurance? The articulation at the end is both so beautiful and so frightening that the reader might be equally drawn and repelled. The poetry is all the more powerful for that. Can one feel himself or herself that close to God? Even if this be hyperbole, has the articulation crossed a line that should not be crossed? This is the point at which the poet leaves further thought to the reader.

* * * * * * * * *

Additional Note

There are commentators, both medieval and modern, who find in this psalm a comparison between evildoers with their eyes on “this” world and the speaker (and righteous fellow travelers, if they are mentioned) whose focus is on the next world. In modern scholarship, there is ongoing debate over the degree (if any) to which a “next-world” concept is reflected in the Bible. In my interpretation above, I have not moved in this direction, which reflects my understanding that the “next world” is not a major biblical motif.

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.

Hebrew Text

א  תְּפִלָּה, לְדָוִד

שִׁמְעָה יְהוָה, צֶדֶק הַקְשִׁיבָה רִנָּתִי הַאֲזִינָה תְפִלָּתִי בְּלֹא שִׂפְתֵי מִרְמָה
ב  מִלְּפָנֶיךָ מִשְׁפָּטִי יֵצֵא עֵינֶיךָ, תֶּחֱזֶינָה מֵישָׁרִים
ג  בָּחַנְתָּ לִבִּי פָּקַדְתָּ לַּיְלָה צְרַפְתַּנִי בַל-תִּמְצָא זַמֹּתִי  בַּל-יַעֲבָר-פִּי
ד  לִפְעֻלּוֹת אָדָם בִּדְבַר שְׂפָתֶיךָ אֲנִי שָׁמַרְתִּי אָרְחוֹת פָּרִיץ
ה  תָּמֹךְ אֲשֻׁרַי, בְּמַעְגְּלוֹתֶיךָ בַּל-נָמוֹטּוּ פְעָמָי
ו  אֲנִי-קְרָאתִיךָ כִי-תַעֲנֵנִי אֵל  הַט-אָזְנְךָ לִי, שְׁמַע אִמְרָתִי
ז  הַפְלֵה חֲסָדֶיךָ מוֹשִׁיעַ חוֹסִים מִמִּתְקוֹמְמִים בִּימִינֶךָ
ח  שָׁמְרֵנִי כְּאִישׁוֹן בַּת-עָיִן בְּצֵל כְּנָפֶיךָ תַּסְתִּירֵנִי
ט  מִפְּנֵי רְשָׁעִים זוּ שַׁדּוּנִי  אֹיְבַי בְּנֶפֶשׁ יַקִּיפוּ עָלָי
י  חֶלְבָּמוֹ סָּגְרוּ פִּימוֹ דִּבְּרוּ בְגֵאוּת
יא  אַשֻּׁרֵינוּ עַתָּה סבבוני (סְבָבוּנוּ) עֵינֵיהֶם יָשִׁיתוּ לִנְטוֹת בָּאָרֶץ
יב  דִּמְיֹנוֹ כְּאַרְיֵה, יִכְסוֹף לִטְרֹף  וְכִכְפִיר יֹשֵׁב בְּמִסְתָּרִים
יג  קוּמָה יְהוָה קַדְּמָה פָנָיו הַכְרִיעֵהוּ פַּלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי מֵרָשָׁע חַרְבֶּךָ
 יד  מִמְתִים יָדְךָ יְהוָה  מִמְתִים מֵחֶלֶד חֶלְקָם בַּחַיִּים  וצפינך (וּצְפוּנְךָ) תְּמַלֵּא בִטְנָם ִישְׂבְּעוּ בָנִים  וְהִנִּיחוּ יִתְרָם לְעוֹלְלֵיהֶם
טו  אֲנִי--בְּצֶדֶק אֶחֱזֶה פָנֶיךָ אֶשְׂבְּעָה בְהָקִיץ תְּמוּנָתֶךָ

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