Psalm 64 – Poetic Justice
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. For the leader. A psalm. Of David.
2. Hear my voice, O God, as I plead; from terror of the enemy, guard my life.
3. Hide me from a council of evil men, from a gathering of workers of iniquity,
4. who have whetted their tongue like a sword; they pulled back their arrow―a bitter material1―
5. to shoot the innocent2 from a hiding place; suddenly they shot him, with no fear.3
6. They fortify themselves with evil material; when they speak, it is to conceal traps; they think, “Who can see them4?”
7. 5-They seek crimes, totally seeking all that can be sought―one’s mind and heart are deep.-5
8. God shoots an arrow at them―suddenly―they are hit.
9. Their downfall is their tongue; all who see them shall shake.6
10. Then all men fear; they proclaim God’s work, and His action they comprehend.
11. The righteous will rejoice in the LORD, and find refuge in Him; all the upright in heart will exult.
1. That is, poison, as per the Targum.
2. Blameless and/or unsuspecting.
3. Fear to act and/or fear of God.
4. That is, who can see the evildoers, their acts and/or their victims.
5. Very difficult verse, interpreted in varying ways. See “Additional Note” below.
6. Whole body (in horror) and/or head (in pity).
One familiar with Psalms is comfortable with Psalm 64, which echoes themes and phrases found elsewhere. That echoing, however, is only one of several poetic decisions that evidence a very carefully structured poem in which terminology and form are used to great effect to carry the psalm’s secondary themes and contentions forward.
The psalm reads smoothly. This is the statement of a single speaker, laid out in pairs of verses: the speaker’s plea (vv. 2–3); the acts of the wicked (vv. 4–5); the thoughts of the wicked (vv. 6–7); God’s retribution (vv. 8–9); and the subsequent proper reaction of the righteous (vv. 10–11).
Psalm 64 includes many terms that have two meanings or that can be understood in more than one way. Four of these have been indicated in my translation as notes (2, 3, 4, and 6). Although I have used “and/or” in the notes, I suggest that one should assume that the poet meant to suggest both, for if we are cognizant of two meanings, the poet was probably also aware of both of them.
There is one group of double implications that are part of a larger pattern. A number of terms are connected to speech (in order of appearance): voice, plead, tongue (twice), speak, proclaim. To these one must add other terms that secondarily indicate speech (I list my translation first, with the verse and the second understanding in parentheses): “plead” (v. 2, also simply means “speak” or “muse”); “council” (v. 3, root implies “secret”); “gathering” (v. 3, “conspire”); and “material” (vv. 4, 6, “word”). Subtly, then, the speaker clarifies that the weapon of the wicked is speech. It is not clear which aspect is meant. (Broyles lists the options as: “gossip, slander, false accusation, mockery, temptation, and incantations.”) This emphasis sets the tone of the psalm as more contemplative than a matter of immediate personal threat, and this befits the first two verses, which are not very specific. Indeed, verse 3 talks of “a,” rather than “the,” council or gathering.
The emphasis on the speech of the wicked is found in many other psalms (e.g., 55:22; 57:5; and 59:8). The imagery of arrows, also found elsewhere, is particularly apt, as they do their damage from afar. The speaker relates to these evil words as real threats. Words, he seems to say, can (ultimately) kill.
One other double implication deserves specific notice. The final verse, 11, is in the biblical imperfect mode, which can be translated (among other options) as future or as a wish (“may the righteous” or “let the righteous”). I have translated in the future, understanding that the primary implication of verses 10 and 11 is what will definitely happen. However, it is quite possible that the poet was expressing both a hope and an assurance at the same time.
Fair Retribution (He Repeats)
“He has created a pit and dug it out, and he will fall into the trap he made.” So Psalm reflects on poetic justice. Psalm 64 takes this theme several steps further.
Most repetitions in Psalm 64 indicate that the wicked receive precisely the punishment they deserve. Four such terms appear in verses 8 and 9. God shoots (just as they shot, v. 5) an arrow (as they used, verse 4), suddenly (as they did, v. 5). Their tongue (which they had sharpened, v. 4) ultimately causes their own downfall. The point is not only justice, but also that the very actions chosen have the opposite effect.
Other repeated terms underline the difference between the speaker and those who plot against him. They are “workers” of iniquity (v. 3), but in the end, men praise God’s “works” (v. 10). The speaker asks that God “hide” him (v. 3) from these wicked who shoot from “hiding” places (v. 5). Their evil search of their “heart” (v. 7) gives way to the upright of “heart” (v. 11). Comparison is also effected by three near homonyms that are repeated: “see” (r’h), “fear” (yr’), and “shoot” (yrh). The last I have already noted. The wicked believe no one will “see” (v. 6) but all do (v. 9). The wicked do not now “fear” (v. 5), but eventually all do (v. 10).
Ultimately, their words (vv. 4, 6 – see notes) are dismissed and it is the speech of the upright (vv. 10, 11) that remains. What is left for them is their one triply repeated term, “seek” (v. 7). They are left behind, seeking out crimes.
The reader thus confronts a speaker who has a clear worldview. He hears the speech of the evil, and he relates most seriously to it, but is confident that God will bring about full poetic justice, the wicked plots engendering the opposite results. There seems to be no hint of doubt—only an indication that both disaster and salvation tend to come “suddenly.” Dialogue between psalmist and reader proceeds from that point.
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Additional Note – Verse 7
Verse 7 is simply unclear, and because one will find widely varying translations, I comment briefly. Difficult terms combine with uncertain relations between images and with one word that appears differently in manuscripts to create a wide variety of interpretations. Differences include the following:
First, are the crimes sought those that the wicked seek to do or things of which they wish to accuse the innocent?
Second, the term translated “totally” above is very hard to understand and in fact appears with different letters in certain manuscripts (including a manuscript that predates Rashi and is reflected in his commentary - the difference is between two letters that are both pronounced as "t"), from a root that would mean “conceal/” (the same term used in v. 6). Many interpretations therefore emphasize the clandestine aspect of the wicked acts.
Third, some interpreters see all or part of verse 7 as a continuation of a quote of what the evil doers say (the words taking on different implications in each case).
One should not, however, completely ignore the verse. There is general agreement that it indicates intense efforts on the part of the wicked to perform untoward acts. The present translation was chosen, among other criteria, on the understanding of two-verse stanzas, as indicated above.
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : 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.
(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד:
(ב) שְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים קוֹלִי בְשִׂיחִי מִפַּחַד אוֹיֵב תִּצֹּר חַיָּי:
(ג) תַּסְתִּירֵנִי מִסּוֹד מְרֵעִים מֵרִגְשַׁת פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן:
(ד) אֲשֶׁר שָׁנְנוּ כַחֶרֶב לְשׁוֹנָם דָּרְכוּ חִצָּם דָּבָר מָר:
(ה) לִירֹת בַּמִּסְתָּרִים תָּם פִּתְאֹם יֹרֻהוּ וְלֹא יִירָאוּ:
(ו) יְחַזְּקוּ לָמוֹ דָּבָר רָע יְסַפְּרוּ לִטְמוֹן מוֹקְשִׁים אָמְרוּ מִי יִרְאֶה לָּמוֹ:
(ז) יַחְפְּשׂוּ עוֹלֹת תַּמְנוּ חֵפֶשׂ מְחֻפָּשׂ וְקֶרֶב אִישׁ וְלֵב עָמֹק:
(ח) וַיֹּרֵם אֱלֹהִים חֵץ פִּתְאוֹם הָיוּ מַכּוֹתָם:
(ט) וַיַּכְשִׁילוּהוּ עָלֵימוֹ לְשׁוֹנָם יִתְנֹדְדוּ כָּל רֹאֵה בָם:
(י) וַיִּירְאוּ כָּל אָדָם וַיַּגִּידוּ פֹּעַל אֱלֹהִים וּמַעֲשֵׂהוּ הִשְׂכִּילוּ:
(יא) יִשְׂמַח צַדִּיק בַּיהֹוָה וְחָסָה בוֹ וְיִתְהַלְלוּ כָּל יִשְׁרֵי לֵב: