October 5, 2010

Psalm 33 - When Do We Respond?

TEXT (Hebrew text at end)

1. Chant joyfully, O you righteous, to the LORD; praising befits the upright.
2. Acclaim the LORD with the lyre; with the ten-stringed harp intone hymns to Him;
3. sing Him a new song; play skillfully with shouts of joy.

4. For the word of the LORD is upright; His every deed is faithful.
5. He loves what is right and just; the earth is filled with the LORD’s loving care.
6. By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, and by the breath of His mouth, all their host.
7. He gathers the ocean waters like a mound, placing the deep in storehouses.
8. Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world revere Him.
9. For He spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm.
10. The LORD has frustrated the plans of nations, has brought to naught the designs of peoples.
11. The plan of the LORD endures forever, His heart’s designs, for generation upon generation.
12. Happy is the nation whose god is the LORD, the people He has chosen to be His inheritance.
13. From heaven, the LORD looks down; He sees all humankind.
14. From His dwelling-place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth;
15. He who fashions the hearts of them all; he who understands all their deeds.
16. Kings are not rescued by a great force; warriors are not saved by great strength;
17. horses are a false hope for rescue; and in their great power they provide no escape.
18. Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, who yearn for His loving care,
19. to save their soul1 from death, to keep them alive in famine.

20. Our soul1 awaits the LORD, He is our help and shield;
21. for in Him our heart2 rejoices; for in His holy name we trust.
22. May we enjoy, O LORD, Your loving care, as we have yearned for You.

1. “Soul” does not imply separate existence from the body, but the essence of living. The use of the singular may imply a group unity or simply a collective noun.
2. Again, the singular may imply a group unity or simply a collective noun.



Psalm 33 is all about “us.” The only individual here is the presumed speaker. The group is addressed, and then the group speaks. This is not an insignificant detail. In the final analysis, the first-person plural, “we,” ostensibly audience-then-speaker, becomes the very subject the poet would have us consider.

Psalm 33 would seem to present no great difficulties. All commentators see herein a hymn of praise, though some would relate it to a given (but unknown) specific instance of national salvation, whereas others see it as a general view of Creation and salvation.

The psalm proceeds smoothly. There are many repetitions, but these are uniformly (apart from God’s name) used only two or three times (usually twice) and most often so close together that they primarily serve to bind separate parts in succession. Indeed, this befits the psalm, which moves from one focus to another, not concentrating on one central theme and not returning to previous points. It is almost a quilt-work psalm, the various parts held together by single threads that bind one section to another. These repetitions are a clear indication that it is one psalm, but also that it is to be appreciated more in its flow than in terms of one major focus.

I list the repetitions (verse numbers in parentheses):”right” (1, 5), “upright” (1, 4), “sing”(3, 3), “word of the LORD” (4, 6), “deed/make” (4, 6, 15), “loving care” (5, 18, 22), “earth” (5, 8), “heavens (6, 13), “fear” (8, 18), “inhabit” (8, 14), “endure” (9, 11), “plan” (10, 11), “designs” (10, 11), “heart” (11, 15, 21), “great” (16, 16, 17), “rescue” (16, 17), “save” (16, 19), “yearn” (18, 22), “soul” (19, 20).

Three Sections and Their Relationship

Psalm 33 has a threefold division, which many commentators have noted, as follows: (a) the call to a group (in the plural) to praise God in song (1–3); (b) a presentation of His virtues (with some comparison to humans) (4–19); and (c) a statement by the group (20–22). Too often unnoticed is the exact nature of the last section. It is not praise, but a request and, moreover, a very self-centered one. The speaker is “we,” and the concern is for “us.” Indeed, the first-person plural (we, our, us) appears precisely seven times in the three lines, seven often being an indication of particular emphasis in biblical poetry. “We,” the speakers, are the very concern of the speakers!

The implication of this concentration can be radically different depending on how one reads the middle section, the presentation of God’s virtues. If the narrator of those lines is the original speaker and the group only responds in verse 20 and on, the self-concern is blatant, even disturbing. The members of the group would have heard the speaker’s request that they praise the LORD from the beginning, but they are actually moved to do so only when they hear that God rewards those who fear Him by providing His faithful care.

As if to reinforce this reading, two terms (“yearn” and “His faithful care”) in verse 18, which announces that the LORD rewards those who fear Him, are repeated in the final verse of the group’s request. The repetition hints at the motivation of the group’s prayer, approximately: “Now that we hear that You reward those who hope in You by providing Your faithful care, we clarify, we DO hope in You, so grant us Your faithful care.”
If this is the reading, then despite various commentators’ understanding that in this psalm the group is called upon to, and then does, praise God, what in fact happens is that the group declares its loyalty and requests protection, but only when it sees that this is in its own self-interest.

There is, however, an alternative or complementary way to read the three sections. Verse 4 begins with the Hebrew term “ki,” usually translated “because” or “for,” explaining the call to praise God. However, the term can also mean “indeed,” allowing the interpretation that the group begins to speak not at verse 20, but at verse 4. In this reading it is indeed the group, the “we,” that immediately responds to the call to praise with actual tribute, and it is this praise that ultimately, and quite naturally, flows into its own request.

Psalm 33, while laying out a detailed praise of God, His works, and His abilities thus sets a major question before the reader: When do we respond to the call to praise God, and for what reason?

There is a third possible reading, namely that the whole poem is the statement of some religious leader. In the final verses, the group would not be responding, but rather, this leader presumes the prerogative of speaking for the group, a technique one witnesses from time to time, even to this day. This third reading brings another set of challenges with it concerning the passivity of the audience, the effectiveness of the speech, and the prerogatives assumed by the leader.

No Doubt

Whoever the speakers of each section are, Psalm 33 exhibits a rare certainty. There seems to be no doubt concerning statements which elsewhere are challenged. While this may reflect any number of considerations (for example, the context of use as opposed to the world view of the author), it is of interest to note that the psalm is built in a descending order. Following the introductory call to praise (which may be reflected in the psalm itself) and broad general statements, the progression moves from creation to history, and then on to the individual—fear of God as the basis of success in war and in life. The progression is from the broadest scope to the most immediate, and in itself this order may be imply a response to questions which are not articulated. Still, the closest that the psalm comes to an enclosing term is "loving care" (verses 5, 18, 22), which is in fact the general tone of the work.
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Additional Points of Interest

1. There are twenty-two verses in Psalm 33. Many commentators note that this is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet and suggest that like Chapter 5 of Lamentations and some other psalms, the poet may have chosen this number of verses purposely, possibly to reflect a “full” statement.

2. An insight of Hacham is worth repeating. Verses 4, 5, and 6, describing God’s acts in Creation, appropriately focus, in succession, on the sky, the land, and the sea.

3. Psalm 33 has an international tone to it. Although the reference is to the LORD, the divine name that is specifically Israelite, and there is a celebration of Israel’s acceptance of the LORD (verse 12), the scope is nevertheless universal, the Bible’s monotheism shining through (see particularly verses 13–15). There is, however, a subtle return to differentiation in the end, when, on returning to the people, the speaker abandons the plural ("hearts," verse 15), for the singular ("soul," "heart," verses 20–22).


א  רַנְּנוּ צַדִּיקִים בַּיהוָה לַיְשָׁרִים נָאוָה תְהִלָּהב  הוֹדוּ לַיהוָה בְּכִנּוֹר בְּנֵבֶל עָשׂוֹר זַמְּרוּ-לוֹג  שִׁירוּ-לוֹ שִׁיר חָדָשׁ הֵיטִיבוּ נַגֵּן בִּתְרוּעָהד  כִּי-יָשָׁר דְּבַר-יְהוָה וְכָל-מַעֲשֵׂהוּ בֶּאֱמוּנָהה  אֹהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט חֶסֶד יְהוָה מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץו  בִּדְבַר יְהוָה שָׁמַיִם נַעֲשׂוּ וּבְרוּחַ פִּיו כָּל-צְבָאָםז  כֹּנֵס כַּנֵּד מֵי הַיָּם נֹתֵן בְּאוֹצָרוֹת תְּהוֹמוֹתח  יִירְאוּ מֵיְהוָה כָּל-הָאָרֶץ מִמֶּנּוּ יָגוּרוּ כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי תֵבֵלט  כִּי הוּא אָמַר וַיֶּהִי הוּא-צִוָּה וַיַּעֲמֹדי  יְהוָה הֵפִיר עֲצַת-גּוֹיִם הֵנִיא מַחְשְׁבוֹת עַמִּיםיא  עֲצַת יְהוָה לְעוֹלָם תַּעֲמֹד מַחְשְׁבוֹת לִבּוֹ לְדֹר וָדֹריב  אַשְׁרֵי הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו הָעָם בָּחַר לְנַחֲלָה לוֹיג  מִשָּׁמַיִם הִבִּיט יְהוָה רָאָה אֶת-כָּל-בְּנֵי הָאָדָםיד  מִמְּכוֹן-שִׁבְתּוֹ הִשְׁגִּיחַ אֶל כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץטו  הַיֹּצֵר יַחַד לִבָּם הַמֵּבִין אֶל-כָּל-מַעֲשֵׂיהֶםטז  אֵין-הַמֶּלֶךְ נוֹשָׁע בְּרָב-חָיִל גִּבּוֹר לֹא-יִנָּצֵל בְּרָב-כֹּחַיז  שֶׁקֶר הַסּוּס לִתְשׁוּעָה וּבְרֹב חֵילוֹ לֹא יְמַלֵּטיח  הִנֵּה עֵין יְהוָה אֶל-יְרֵאָיו לַמְיַחֲלִים לְחַסְדּוֹיט  לְהַצִּיל מִמָּוֶת נַפְשָׁם וּלְחַיּוֹתָם בָּרָעָבכ  נַפְשֵׁנוּ חִכְּתָה לַיהוָה עֶזְרֵנוּ וּמָגִנֵּנוּ הוּאכא  כִּי-בוֹ יִשְׂמַח לִבֵּנוּ כִּי בְשֵׁם קָדְשׁוֹ בָטָחְנוּכב  יְהִי-חַסְדְּךָ יְהוָה עָלֵינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר יִחַלְנוּ לָךְ

I have termed the two readings as complementary even though they lead to radically different views of the group―in the former case, fundamentally self-concerned, whereas in the latter, humble servants. I suggest that the readings are complementary in that the poet might have wanted us to ask the question of ourselves, the readers: which “we” are we? (As noted in other contexts, I suggest that if we see two possible interpretations of the text that we assume that the poet was aware of them, not that he or she meant only one.)

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