June 7, 2011

Psalm 68 – Marching with God to a Greater History

TEXT (Hebrew text at end)

Note: The text is difficult. More extensive comment is included within the Commentary.

1. For the leader. Of David. A psalm. A song.

2. Let God arise, and His enemies shall be scattered; those who hate Him shall retreat before Him.
3. Disperse them as smoke disperses; as wax melts before fire, may the wicked perish before God.
4. But the righteous shall joyously exult before God; they shall be jubilant with joy.
5. Sing to God, chant psalms to His name; lift up a melody to1 Him Who rides the clouds2; with LORD as His name. Exult before Him,
6. father of orphans, defender of widows, God, in His holy habitation.

7. God returns home the lonely, brings out the imprisoned in celebration: but the rebellious must abide in a parched land.

8. O God, when You went out before Your people, when You marched through the desert,      Selah,
9. the earth quaked, and yes, the heavens poured down before God – even Sinai –before God, the God of Israel.
10. You release a bountiful rain, O God; when Your inheritance languished, You sustained it.
11. Your tribe has settled there; O God, in Your goodness You sustain the needy.
12. The LORD imparts a word; the women who bring good news are a great host:
13. “The kings and their hosts they flee, they flee; home dwellers divide the spoils;
14. indeed when you lie among the sheepfolds – wings of a dove covered in silver, its pinions in finest gold.”
15. When the Almighty scattered the kings there, there was snow in Zalmon.3
16. O god-like mountain, Mountain of Bashan; O jagged mountain, Mountain of Bashan;
17. why gaze in enmity, O jagged mountains, toward the mountain God desired as His dwelling? Indeed the LORD shall abide there forever.4
18. God’s chariots,5 twice ten thousands, thousands multiplied, the Lord among them, (as) Sinai in holiness.
19. You went up to the elevated place. You captured captives, You received tribute of men, even the rebellious, in order to abide – LORD, God.

20. Blessed is the LORD. Day by day He, the Deity, heaps upon us our deliverance.      Selah,
21. The Deity is for us a delivering Deity; the LORD, the Lord, possesses ways out from death.
22. However, God will smash the head of His enemies, the hairy crown of him who walks about with his sins.
23. The LORD gave word, “I will retrieve from Bashan, I will retrieve from the depths of the sea;
24. that your feet may smash through6 blood; that the tongue of your dogs may have its portion of the enemies.”

25. They see Your processions, O God, the processions of my Deity, my King, in holiness.7
26. First come singers, last musicians; in the middle, maidens playing timbrels.
27. In assemblies bless God, the Lord, from the fountain of Israel.
28. There is Benjamin, the young one, who rules them; the princes of Judah, assembled; the princes of Zebulon; the princes of Naphtali.
29. Your God has ordained your might; might, O God, which You displayed for us
30. from Your temple over Jerusalem. To You kings bear tribute.
31. Rebuke the beast8 of the reed thicket, the herd of bulls with its calves; who trampled on peoples while lusting for silver. Scatter the peoples who delight in wars!
32. Nobles9 come from Egypt; Cush shall hasten to lift its hands to the Deity.

33. O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God; chant psalms to the Lord,      Selah,
34. to Him Who rides in the ancient heaven of heavens, Who imparts His voice, a mighty voice.
35. Impart might to God, Whose majesty is over Israel, as His might is in the skies.
36. Awesome, O God, in Your holy places! The God of Israel – it is He who gives might and power to the people. Blessed is God.

1. Alternatively, “pave a path for.”
2. Alternatively, “through the steppes.”
3. Unclear reference.
4. Same root as “leader” in verse 1.
5. Same root as “ride” in verses 5 and 34.
6. Same term as in verse 22, but may mean “turn crimson from,” a metathesis of a root found in Isaiah 63:1 (so Kimche).
7. Or “into the holy sanctuary.”
8. Homonym of “tribe,” in verse 11.
9. Unknown term. This translation follows medieval commentators. Others, “men bearing tribute.”

Due to the length and difficulty of Psalm 68, I first comment here on the text (its complications and timing, followed by verse-by-verse observations) and then proceed to content (the view of history, the procession, and an appreciation of the author's emphases). In the latter section I shall detail my contention that the psalmist, even as he emphasizes battle, abandons the primacy of might in favor of other values.

Introduction to the Text

Psalm 68 is widely acknowledged to be the most difficult psalm to translate and to interpret. It includes thirteen terms found only here in the Bible, historical “references” otherwise unknown, and phrases which read awkwardly at best.

Assumptions that the psalm was composed much later than the time of David have further complicated interpretation, for the context of the psalm is then not clear. Indeed it has been dated in practically every century across 1000 years (in almost every case, assuming that at the time of composition, there was an armed conflict on the horizon which was being referred to at the beginning). Others have posited that the opening "Let God arise" is not a call for help in war, but rather part of a cultic pageant, with assigned roles for recitation.

The assumption of a later timing, however, is unnecessary, as is the speculation of a ceremony not articulated. Nothing in Psalm 68 points beyond the time of the United Kingdom (David, and his son, Solomon) and in fact the psalm includes forms that recall the earliest biblical poetry (and reflect earlier Canaanite literature). One can view the psalm either as written by David or by a later poet conceiving of the words David (or perhaps his son, Solomon) might have said. I so interpret below.

That said, the difficulties noted above must reduce expectations to a general rather than very specific understanding of the poem.

Comments by Verse

3 – God is subtly pictured as fire, not by labeling but by results (smoke, wax melting).

6 – The verse effectively combines the low (the downtrodden) with the high, God’s home in the greatest heights. (Note Ps. 138:6, “High though the Lord is, He sees the lowly.”) Here, the two are one continuum.

7 – The opening phrases constitute a two-level description, both of God’s essence and His taking the Jews out of Egypt.

8 – As often noted, we do not understand the placement of the apparently musical notation “Selah.” Although it often comes at the conclusion of a section, in Psalm 68 all three appearances (vv. 8, 20, and 33) come after the first line of a new section.

12 – Here women are the messengers who bring the news of victory (cf. Isa. 40:9, where a woman announces from the hills the return of the Jews from the exile).

13 – “Kings and their hosts” is literally “kings of hosts,” evidently implying a negative comparison to the “LORD of hosts.”

13–14 – There may be a degree of irony here, for the phrase “lie among the sheepfolds” is used as a condemnation of those who did not respond to the call to battle in the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5:16). In Psalm 68, all share in the spoils, even the non-combatants. There is much dispute on the implication of the adorned birds. This translation accepts them as descriptions of booty. Other interpretations include (to the opposite effect) a condemnation – “will you stay in the sheepfolds like an adorned bird?” Alternatively, it could be a metaphor for approaching peace and prosperity.

15 – The location Zalmon is noted once in the Bible, but there is no record of a battle there. Interpreters differ as to whether there was an unknown battle in that area or in another place of the same name. Some suggest that this is not a place, but rather a term for “darkness,” a metaphor here of precipitation so heavy and encompassing that one could not see.

16 - There is no record of Bashan being a center of sanctity. The reference could be to the national battle against those residents (for one recollection, see Num. 21:33), or a reference to the nearby towering and majestic Mount Hermon ("Bashan" being used to indicate a broader area).

17 – The reference would seem to be to Jerusalem, David's "city," in which Solomon built the Temple.

19 – "Elevated place" can be used for Jerusalem and for heaven. The former seems implied here (and not a height where victory took place), wherein God chooses to "abide."

21 - “Ways out from death” is a much disputed phrase, and interpretations include redemption after death, escape from death, and ways to bring death upon enemies. The Hebrew is too unclear to allow for any theological implications.

22 – Presumably, warriors grew long hair.

23 – I translate as pursuit of the enemy, but some take it as rescue of Israelites.

24 – Dogs eating a body was considered a particularly horrendous fate (cf. I Kings 21:19–24).

26 – Women are cited several times in connection with biblical celebratory processions, song, and dance (cf. Exod. 15:20f.; Judg. 5; Judg.11:34; I Sam. 18:6f.).

27 –”The fountain of Israel” is a disputed reference. Interpretations range from a term for a forefather to literal references to wells, where celebrations may have occurred.

28 – The list of the four tribes seems to reflect two considerations. On one hand, Benjamin was the tribe of the first king, Saul, and Judah of the second, David. The other two would symbolize tribes from the north of Israel, possibly chosen because they were the tribes who sent troops to fight with Deborah’s general, Barak, against Sisera (Judg. 5:18). On another level, the four individuals for whom these tribes were named were the descendants, one son each, of Jacob’s four mates (two wives, two concubines), lending a comprehensive tone to the group. All interpretations point to the early writing of the psalm, when the tribes were still a living memory.

31 – “Beast of the reed thicket” is taken to be a hippopotamus, a symbol for Egypt. This, and the opening, both indicate that enemies are still to be considered, at least in the future.

32 – “Cush” in modern Hebrew refers to Ethiopia. In the Bible it is Nubia (South Egypt and North Sudan). Note that at the end of the psalm foreigners “come,” whereas they were “scattered” at the beginning.

Content, Part 1: The History

Psalm 68 spans generations, tracing God’s march with the emergent Israelite people (from Egypt), and then evolving into a march of triumph into Jerusalem. It opens by paraphrasing Moses’ words when the Ark preceded the people (Num. 10:35), the context of which is peaceful (the movement of the camp through the desert) but the content of which is military.

The psalm presents itself in two halves. If one takes verses 1–6 as a general introduction to both halves, then verse 19 at the end of the first half would contain two enclosures with verse 7, “rebel” and “abide.”

That first half is a reflection of Israel’s long march to freedom, possibly noting the exodus from Egypt (v. 7, and possibly use of short form of "LORD" in v. 5, reflecting Exod. 15:2), through the desert wanderings and conflicts (including Sinai), into the Promised Land (v. 11), through the wars of occupation (the defeat of kings, Bashan and the many references to the Song of Deborah, which will be noted below), up to and possibly including the earliest monarchy, into David’s Jerusalem. With the use of terms drawn from early literature, particularly Deborah’s war against Sisera (Judg. 4 and 5), this half ends by celebrating the dominance of God’s chosen mountain.

Throughout, there are several references from Moses’ last speech (compare vv. 5, 18, 20, 21, 27, and 34 to Deut. 33:2, 26–29) and the Song of Deborah (see the next subsection). There may be references to events now no longer understood (e.g., v. 15). Historical echoes reverberate through the second half as well, such as “Egypt,” and “might” (Exod. 15:2, cited above, reads “LORD is my Might”).

There can be little doubt that the poet intended an epic perspective. In such cases, a reader is always advised to note the interpretation of history carefully, for it is the historiography (or, in less heavy terms, the "narrative") which is as important as the citations. I comment below on that narrative in reviewing the emphases of the psalmist.

Content, Part 2: The Present (Second Half)

The second half (vv. 20–36), framed by “bless,” is more concerned with current conflict, with a celebration and with drawing enemies into the orbit of those who acknowledge and bring tribute to the one God. The earlier march of history is mirrored here by a procession into God’s presence, and the scope of the first half is transformed into a wide-ranging confrontation with enemies, from Bashan (present-day Syrian heights) to the (Mediterranean) Sea and stretching south into Africa (Egypt and Cush, which is approximately present day Sudan). Both halves end with a six-fold term repetition: the first half, “mountain” and the second half, “might.”

There is a stirring tone to the psalm. As Kirkpatrick has pointed out, it has inspired and served religious combatants, zealots, and martyrs across the centuries. (He cites Crusaders, Savonarola, the Huguenots and Cromwell. The Huguenots called it the "Song of Battles.")

Content, Part 3: An Appreciation of Emphases

I first proceed to comment on aspects of the poem that are either scattered throughout the psalm or represent a major section thereof.


Again, Psalm 68 opens with implicit references to the departure of the Ark from the Israelite camp. Although the tone of the verse from Numbers suggests the military, the context there is not necessarily so. Nevertheless, we know that in one early war the Ark indeed was sent into battle (I Sam. 4:4), at which time it was captured. The reference to the ark indeed prefigures the particular focus on war in the psalm, often in graphically bloody terms (vv. 13–16, 18–19, and 22–24).

One particular set of references to war stands out quantitatively, that is, paraphrases from the victory poem of Deborah over the Canaanite general Sisera (see vv. 5, 8, 9 13, 14, 19, and 28 compared to Judg. 5: 3–5, 12, 14, 16, 17, and 30). That victory, which took place approximately half the time between the Exodus and the reign of Solomon, clearly inspired the psalmist.

Today’s reader might be somewhat less than enthusiastic about the psalm’s militant (and bloody) emphasis. Partially, this reservation may be ameliorated by the simple understanding of the occasional necessity of war (perhaps even today) and the reality of enemies who seek to destroy. The psalm, however, has a more complex relationship to war, as I show below.

Other Peoples

Other nations appear in Psalm 68, through verse 24 in contexts of war and after verse 30 in contexts of acknowledgment of God. (The latter emphasis accounts, perhaps, for numerous messianic interpretations of the psalm.) The large number of allusions indicates that other peoples are a major concern of the speaker, who continues to reflect (as do other psalms) both the exclusivity of the one God (of Israel) and the hope that all will accept Him.

A Righteous God of Battle

Woven among all these verses of war are several references to a God of justice and righteousness. It is the wicked who will perish and the righteous who will exult (vv. 3, 4). God cares for orphans and widows (v. 6). The metaphor of the Exodus (v. 7) rests on God’s care for the suffering. Further, He provides sustenance (rain), specifically to the needy (vv. 10–11). Particularly striking is the implication of verse 31, which emphasizes God as a hero of defensive wars. Here, in the midst a poem of war, there is no delight in battle!


There is much celebration in this poem. There are two calls for song and psalms (vv. 5, 33) and an extended procession (anonymously seen by “them”) beginning in verse 26. This successfully reflects a time of victory and/or domination, appropriate to the time of David and Solomon. We have here a continuation of the earlier biblical demand, that history is to be celebrated.

The Opening Verse

In light of all the above, verse 2 becomes ever more important. “Let God arise, and His enemies shall be scattered, those who hate Him shall retreat before Him.” In fact, it may be that Psalm 68 is an attempt to give that verse from Numbers new content and emphases.

Just as themes are repeated through the psalm, so the Ark also remains at center stage, even as it is never named per se (not even in the opening verse). Verses 17 and 30 evidently refer to the Solomonic Temple, the place of the Ark in Jerusalem (though the terminology could be stretched back to David's time), the place of the Ark in Jerusalem.

In Numbers, the Ark precedes the people to ensure that the enemy will flee, either from fear or from having been vanquished in war. That picture, although unchanged, is reframed. The historical horizon has moved forward from entry into (or conquest of) the land to eventual acknowledgment of God by the enemies. Although these nations remain enemies, slowly the focus shifts from war to acceptance, and in the end, their shortcoming is summarized as the love of war, presumably as opposed to God. God’s presence is effective not only because the Ark is there, but rather owing to the nature of this God, Who so cares for the downtrodden. The emphasis of the poem is now on celebration, its increased scope indicated by those called to sing and offer psalms—in verse 5, Israel; in verse 33, all the nations. In short, the presence of God among the Israelites is redefined in broader and more ethical terms. The first verse when reread after finishing the psalm is no longer a restatement of Numbers, but, if not quite a redefinition (for even in the earliest literature, God is merciful), it is a reconsideration. God is certainly mighty, as emphasized repeatedly at the end. Of even greater import, however, is that this might serves a purpose, as reflected in God’s loving kindness. The God of power is the God of the powerless.

Psalm 68 seems to imply some discomfort, then, with the simplest understandings of the Ark’s impact. Even if the rephrasing sounds more a matter of natural evolution than polemics, the change remains a challenge to readers both in terms of the original verse in Numbers and the proposed new balance of considerations.

* * * * * * * *
Additional Notes

Structure - Psalm 68 is incredibly diverse, not only in references but also in its enallage, the frequent change of speaker and/or addressee. Unlike many psalms, here these changes do not seem to have specific implications, but simply represent a stylistic preference.

Unity is reflected in the frame words noted above, the parallel ending of the two halves (six repetitions each) and the flow of the psalm. In addition, the poet tends to repeat words in close proximity throughout. There are over twenty cases of root and/or phrase repetition within five words of each other. (The proximity is meaningful. Extending the range to fifteen words instead of five, for example, would only increase the number of cases of close repetition by eight.) All of this does not include a great emphasis on repeated appellations for God: “God” twenty six times; “the Deity” (El, a shorter form), five; “the Lord,” seven; “the LORD” (full proper name), twice; LORD (Yah, a brief, poetic form of His name), also twice; and “Almighty,” once.
Finally, the terms of the opening phrase ("sing," "psalm") are echoed in verses 5 and 33, verses almost identically distant from the beginning and the end.

A Later Development – Later Jewish liturgical history reflects an additional step in the evolution of the verse from Numbers. It came to be recited when the scroll of the Pentateuch ("Torah") is removed from the ark, there combined with other verses referring to the eventual spread of Torah. The "flight of enemies" is thus transferred from military to religious terms.

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.

(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר שִׁיר:
(ב) יָקוּם אֱלֹהִים יָפוּצוּ אוֹיְבָיו וְיָנוּסוּ מְשַׂנְאָיו מִפָּנָיו:
(ג) כְּהִנְדֹּף עָשָׁן תִּנְדֹּף כְּהִמֵּס דּוֹנַג מִפְּנֵי אֵשׁ יֹאבְדוּ רְשָׁעִים מִפְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים:
(ד) וְצַדִּיקִים יִשְׂמְחוּ יַעַלְצוּ לִפְנֵי אֱלֹהִים וְיָשִׂישׂוּ בְשִׂמְחָה:
(ה) שִׁירוּ לֵאלֹהִים זַמְּרוּ שְׁמוֹ סֹלּוּ לָרֹכֵב בָּעֲרָבוֹת בְּיָהּ שְׁמוֹ וְעִלְזוּ לְפָנָיו:
(ו) אֲבִי יְתוֹמִים וְדַיַּן אַלְמָנוֹת אֱלֹהִים בִּמְעוֹן קָדְשׁוֹ:
(ז) אֱלֹהִים מוֹשִׁיב יְחִידִים בַּיְתָה מוֹצִיא אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת אַךְ סוֹרְרִים שָׁכְנוּ צְחִיחָה:
(ח) אֶלֹהִים בְּצֵאתְךָ לִפְנֵי עַמֶּךָ בְּצַעְדְּךָ בִישִׁימוֹן סֶלָה:
(ט) אֶרֶץ רָעָשָׁה אַף שָׁמַיִם נָטְפוּ מִפְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים זֶה סִינַי מִפְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
(י) גֶּשֶׁם נְדָבוֹת תָּנִיף אֱלֹהִים נַחֲלָתְךָ וְנִלְאָה אַתָּה כוֹנַנְתָּהּ:
(יא) חַיָּתְךָ יָשְׁבוּ בָהּ תָּכִין בְּטוֹבָתְךָ לֶעָנִי אֱלֹהִים:
(יב) אֲדֹנָי יִתֶּן אֹמֶר הַמְבַשְֹּרוֹת צָבָא רָב:
(יג) מַלְכֵי צְבָאוֹת יִדֹּדוּן יִדֹּדוּן וּנְוַת בַּיִת תְּחַלֵּק שָׁלָל:
(יד) אִם תִּשְׁכְּבוּן בֵּין שְׁפַתָּיִם כַּנְפֵי יוֹנָה נֶחְפָּה בַכֶּסֶף וְאֶבְרוֹתֶיהָ בִּירַקְרַק חָרוּץ:
(טו) בְּפָרֵשׂ שַׁדַּי מְלָכִים בָּהּ תַּשְׁלֵג בְּצַלְמוֹן:
(טז) הַר אֱלֹהִים הַר בָּשָׁן הַר גַּבְנֻנִּים הַר בָּשָׁן:
(יז) לָמָּה תְּרַצְּדוּן הָרִים גַּבְנֻנִּים הָהָר חָמַד אֱלֹהִים לְשִׁבְתּוֹ אַף יְהֹוָה יִשְׁכֹּן לָנֶצַח:
(יח) רֶכֶב אֱלֹהִים רִבֹּתַיִם אַלְפֵי שִׁנְאָן אֲדֹנָי בָם סִינַי בַּקֹּדֶשׁ:
(יט) עָלִיתָ לַמָּרוֹם שָׁבִיתָ שֶּׁבִי לָקַחְתָּ מַתָּנוֹת בָּאָדָם וְאַף סוֹרְרִים לִשְׁכֹּן יָהּ אֱלֹהִים:
(כ) בָּרוּךְ אֲדֹנָי יוֹם יוֹם יַעֲמָס לָנוּ הָאֵל יְשׁוּעָתֵנוּ סֶלָה:
(כא) הָאֵל לָנוּ אֵל לְמוֹשָׁעוֹת וְלֵיהוִֹה אֲדֹנָי לַמָּוֶת תֹּצָאוֹת:
(כב) אַךְ אֱלֹהִים יִמְחַץ רֹאשׁ אֹיְבָיו קָדְקֹד שֵׂעָר מִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּאֲשָׁמָיו:
(כג) אָמַר אֲדֹנָי מִבָּשָׁן אָשִׁיב אָשִׁיב מִמְּצֻלוֹת יָם:
(כד) לְמַעַן תִּמְחַץ רַגְלְךָ בְּדָם לְשׁוֹן כְּלָבֶיךָ מֵאֹיְבִים מִנֵּהוּ:
(כה) רָאוּ הֲלִיכוֹתֶיךָ אֱלֹהִים הֲלִיכוֹת אֵלִי מַלְכִּי בַקֹּדֶשׁ:
(כו) קִדְּמוּ שָׁרִים אַחַר נֹגְנִים בְּתוֹךְ עֲלָמוֹת תּוֹפֵפוֹת:
(כז) בְּמַקְהֵלוֹת בָּרְכוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲדֹנָי מִמְּקוֹר יִשְׂרָאֵל:
(כח) שָׁם בִּנְיָמִן צָעִיר רֹדֵם שָׂרֵי יְהוּדָה רִגְמָתָם שָׂרֵי זְבֻלוּן שָׂרֵי נַפְתָּלִי:
(כט) צִוָּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עֻזֶּךָ עוּזָּה אֱלֹהִים זוּ פָּעַלְתָּ לָּנוּ:
(ל) מֵהֵיכָלֶךָ עַל יְרוּשָׁלִָם לְךָ יוֹבִילוּ מְלָכִים שָׁי:
(לא) גְּעַר חַיַּת קָנֶה עֲדַת אַבִּירִים בְּעֶגְלֵי עַמִּים מִתְרַפֵּס בְּרַצֵּי כָסֶף בִּזַּר עַמִּים קְרָבוֹת יֶחְפָּצוּ:
(לב) יֶאֱתָיוּ חַשְׁמַנִּים מִנִּי מִצְרָיִם כּוּשׁ תָּרִיץ יָדָיו לֵאלֹהִים:
(לג) מַמְלְכוֹת הָאָרֶץ שִׁירוּ לֵאלֹהִים זַמְּרוּ אֲדֹנָי סֶלָה:
(לד) לָרֹכֵב בִּשְׁמֵי שְׁמֵי קֶדֶם הֵן יִתֵּן בְּקוֹלוֹ קוֹל עֹז:
(לה) תְּנוּ עֹז לֵאלֹהִים עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל גַּאֲוָתוֹ וְעֻזּוֹ בַּשְּׁחָקִים:
(לו) נוֹרָא אֱלֹהִים מִמִּקְדָּשֶׁיךָ אֵל יִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא נֹתֵן עֹז וְתַעֲצֻמוֹת לָעָם בָּרוּךְ אֱלֹהִים:

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