July 11, 2011


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Psalm 73 – Toward a Knowing Naiveté

TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)

1. A psalm. Of Asaph.

Yes, God is good to Israel, to the pure of heart1.
2. But as for me, my feet had almost strayed, my firm steps an instant from collapse;
3. for I envied the wanton ones, as I observed the well-being of the wicked:
4. that there is no agony2 to their death, and their body is healthy;
5. that the vexation of mortals is not theirs, and they are not afflicted along with the rest of humankind.
6. Thus their necklace is pride, a garment of lawlessness enwraps them.
7. Beneath fat their eyes have disappeared; they have exceeded the heart’s hidden desires3.
8. They scoff and speak evil; from on high they speak oppression.
9. They direct4 their mouth throughout the heaven, and their tongue parades throughout the earth.
10. 5-Thus His people is repeatedly pounded, all their waters6 flowing.-5
11. And they say, “How could the Deity know?’ or “Is there knowledge with the Most High?”
12. Behold, these wicked and ever complacent ones amass wealth!
13. Yes, it was for nothing that I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence,
14. for I have been afflicted all day long, and I am punished every morning.

15. Had I decided so to relate, behold, I would have betrayed a generation of Your children;
16. so I applied myself to 7-know the meaning-7 of this, but it was a vexation in my eyes,
17. until I entered 8-the Deity’s Sanctuary-8 and I understood their destiny!

18. Yes, You set them on slippery places; You pushed them down to devastation.
19. How they are ruined in an instant, totally swept away in terrors,
20. as a dream when one awakes. O Lord, so when you arise, You dismiss their image.
21. As for me9, when my heart was embittered, and my conscience10 pierced,
22. I was a dolt, without knowledge; I was like cattle with You.
23. Now as for me, I am always with You, You have held my right hand;
24. You guide me by Your counsel and lead me to destined glory.
25. Whom else have I in heaven? And being with You, I wanted no one on earth.
26. Though my body and heart fail, God is the rock of my heart and my portion forever.
27. For behold, those distant from You perish; You have annihilated anyone who goes whoring from You.
28. But as for me, nearness to God is good to me; I have set the Lord, the LORD as my refuge, to relate all Your works.

Notes
1. Biblical “heart” is a center of thought and intention (vv. 1, 7, 13, 21, 26).
2. Literally, “bonds, fetters.”
3. Literally, “chambers.”
4. Literally, "set" (same term as vv. 8 and 18).
5. Alternatively, verse 10 is said by the wicked, who mock God Who does not act as they challenge Him to do: “Let Him return His people here, and let full waters [i.e., rain] flow for them.”
6. That is, tears.
7. Same root as “know” and “knowledge,” verse 11.
8. Literally, “the Deity’s sanctuaries” which might alternatively even imply pagan (“deities’“) sanctuaries!
9. Moved forward from verse 23 for clarity's sake.
10. Literally, “kidneys,” a biblical seat of thought and conscience.
 
COMMENTARY

Introduction

The honesty of Psalm 73 is searing: the wicked thrive, and the speaker suffers, every day. The pressure to abandon his ways is great.

Too often, however, Psalm 73 is categorized as dealing with theodicy, the vindication of God’s justice in light of evil. Although partially true, this description misses the essence of the psalm, which is an intensely internal confrontation. The speaker’s pain derives both from the success of the wicked and his own suffering. He shares his personal struggle. The appeal of Psalm 73 is in some measure due to its honesty: “The psalm confesses what we are afraid to admit” (Broyles).

Psalm 73 unfolds by degrees, and I follow the psalm’s lead, interpreting section by section. I then turn to some of the effective poetry of the psalm.

Psalm 73 as It Unfolds

The opening verse: As so often in Psalms, the opening verse announces the focus. It is the continuation that converts this firm statement of belief into a matter of controversy.

The second section (vv. 2–14) breaks sharply in a counter direction. With the opening “but as for me” the speaker sets himself in conflict with the first verse. The subject is now the speaker and the wicked. (God is mentioned only to be dismissed by the latter.) The gross behavior of these others is encompassing, a damning picture that would elicit no admiration. The speaker is, frankly, revolted. However, the success, riches, and well-being of these wicked make for a different story, which, the speaker honestly confesses, he envies. That perhaps would not have been enough to cause a crisis, were it not for his antithetical fate, for the speaker suffers constantly (v. 14). Thus the end of the section clarifies the opening: he is on the verge of changing his course.

One might question the speaker’s revulsion, as it was not strong enough to keep him from thinking about straying. He is attracted to the “rewards” of evil, as many others would be including, in all generations, numbers of readers, who, like him, possibly could integrate the articulated condemnation with a concomitant jealous attraction.

The middle section (vv. 15–17) traces two reasons for the speaker’s change of heart. Far too many interpreters have concentrated on only one, the revelation of truth (v. 17). However, there is a no less vital role played by the collective, “the generation of Your children,” in verse 15. Without fanfare, the speaker had twice before (vv. 1, 10) taken note of the people as a whole. Now they become his reason for silence and reconsideration. He is evidently a leader who is loath to disappoint his followers. (This implied leadership role intensifies the conflict he feels!) The import of this group is further highlighted by this verse being the first address to God, the terms being relational and protective (“Your children”). The speaker must be moved by his own articulation, which so strongly emphasizes responsibility to the future. He undertakes a process of deep thought.

As Schaefer points out, as in other biblical tales (e.g., Elijah in the desert and Jacob wrestling with the angel), truth is revealed to the speaker in a one-on-one confrontation. Unfortunately, the locale of the revelation (the Deity's sanctuary) is somewhat unclear (see v. 17 and note 8).

Whatever the revelation, it leads to “understanding” as opposed to the previous “observation” (compare vv. 3 and 17), as “sight” is possibly designated as a source of misinformation (“in my eyes,” v. 16). The content of the revelation is clarified in the next section, but there is a first hint here. “I understood their destiny” (v. 17) paraphrases Deuteronomy 32:20 ("I will see what their destiny will be"). There the phrase is a threat to Israel for disobeying God and it appears within a long poem emphasizing God’s control of history, which may be the implication here.

The pivotal nature of this middle section is also captured in two repetitions: to “vexation” at the beginning (vv. 4, 16) and to "relate” at the end (vv. 15, 28).

The last section (vv. 18–28), unexpectedly, does not proceed monolithically or smoothly. Although the speaker returns to God, it is implied that this is by degrees, God’s intimate personal name (“LORD”) appearing only at the end. The speaker again recalls his backsliding. The “instant” punishment (v. 19) contradicts the description of the first half, and there is another hint (v. 20) that, for a time, God slept.

It is difficult to categorize the message received: an "answer," a "response," or a "deeper understanding." Two factors are at play: first, a confirmation of reward and punishment (the previous problem was his “sight” versus his “understanding”) and, second, his being “with” God. The latter status undergoes a change: he was “with Him” even while stubbornly rebelling (v. 22), but now the phrase indicates comfort, reassurance and ultimate security (vv. 23–28), and even more. The personal relationship to God overcomes the attractions of evil. Indeed, the enclosing term of the psalm, "good" (vv. 1, 28) can be read even more strongly in the final verse, through a secondary translation, "Nearness to God is for me, 'Good.'" (I note that some interpreters try to find a hint of reward and punishment in a next life in this psalm, but that is a later development in religious thought. Most conclude, as I do, that it is not present here.)

The first verse thus also becomes retrospectively the conclusion of the psalm, but “it is a different statement when it is conclusion than when it is premise.” (Brueggemann). Its terms clearly have evolved to imply all that the speaker stated in the poem. It is not a blind faith, but a complex “understanding” that rises above what the speaker “sees.” The doubts remain part of the psalm, and indeed the struggle is the essence. If Psalm 73 strikes a chord of sympathy with readers, it is not primarily because problems are dissipated, but rather because it reflects honest and painful human grappling, with a revealed framework that allows the speaker to continue on. It is a moving human document, on one hand confessing “what we are afraid to admit” (the jealousy of “their” success) and on the other suggesting a response of reorientation. Brueggemann summarizes: “Psalm 73 is an assault on any naïve faith. It arrives tortuously at a second, knowing naiveté.” (He credits Paul Ricoeur for this last phrase.)

In short, Psalm 73 traces a journey from honest confusion through sober confrontation to a complicated deeper understanding. Not surprisingly, this psalm did not find a place within Jewish liturgy. It is deeply contemplative (many commentators compare it to Job), another indication that any definition of Psalms as solely liturgy is misleading.

The Poetry of Psalm 73

As so often in Psalms, repetitions are the primary poetic technique of the psalmist, supplemented here by word plays and antonyms, with several striking metaphors. I comment on some literary usages not already cited.

The opening phrase (with the word following) includes five terms repeated in other parts of the poem. “Good” and “God” are the inclusio of the psalm, terms that underlie all the text. Two other terms are repeated several times, each emphasizing the changes and dynamism involved: “Yes” (vv. 13, 18) and “[But] as for me” (vv. 22 [appears in English in verse 21], 23, 28). As Buber points out (Right and Wrong – London, SCM press, 1982, pp. 37f), another term, “heart,” is the core word of the psalm (six repetitions, vv. 1, 7, 13, 21, 26), which he sees as a heart-felt meditation.

Other repetitions compare situations: he is “afflicted” whereas they are not (vv. 5, 14); “set” (vv. 9, 18, 28) compares the wicked, God, and the speaker (and echoes a homonym “garment,” in v. 6); “heaven and earth” distinguish the wicked from the speaker (vv. 9, 25), as does “destiny” (vv. 17, 24). Another pun based on homonymic roots (in Hebrew, ch-l-k) achieves a similar contrast through “slippery places” (chalakot, v. 18) and “my portion” (chelki, v. 26).

The literary contrasts are clear. He almost faltered, but God sets the wicked on slippery places and then pushes them to devastation (vv. 2, 18); distance is set against the nearness (vv. 27, 28); and the frame word “good” is possibly set against “evil” (v. 8).

Metaphors punctuate the poem. The wicked are bedecked in their pride and violence; their gross overeating is effectively encapsulated as their eyes disappearing into the fat (v. 7), and their evil tongue are said to “parade through the earth” (v. 9). Less original, but no less striking, is the use of whoredom for disloyalty (v. 27). As the Israelite faith uniquely conceived the relationship between people and God as loving and contractual, this image became an oft-repeated one for abandonment of God.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *
Additional Technical Note

Hebrew readers without extensive background in biblical studies may be puzzled by some of the translations in this psalm. The biblical imperfect mode of verbs, which usually implies either our present or future tenses, at times reflects completed actions, a phenomenon encountered more often in poetry than in prose. It appears in several instances in this psalm (vv. 3, 17, 21, 22). The accepted understanding is that this reflects early linguistic influence from other languages.
 
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) מִזְמוֹר לְאָסָף אַךְ טוֹב לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אֱלֹהִים לְבָרֵי לֵבָב:
(ב) וַאֲנִי כִּמְעַט נטוי {נָטָיוּ} רַגְלָי כְּאַיִן שפכה { שֻׁפְּכוּ}אֲשֻׁרָי:
(ג) כִּי קִנֵּאתִי בַּהוֹלְלִים שְׁלוֹם רְשָׁעִים אֶרְאֶה:
(ד) כִּי אֵין חַרְצֻבּוֹת לְמוֹתָם וּבָרִיא אוּלָם:
(ה) בַּעֲמַל אֱנוֹשׁ אֵינֵמוֹ וְעִם אָדָם לֹא יְנֻגָּעוּ:
(ו) לָכֵן עֲנָקַתְמוֹ גַאֲוָה יַעֲטָף שִׁית חָמָס לָמוֹ:
(ז) יָצָא מֵחֵלֶב עֵינֵמוֹ עָבְרוּ מַשְׂכִּיּוֹת לֵבָב:
(ח) יָמִיקוּ וִידַבְּרוּ בְרָע עֹשֶׁק מִמָּרוֹם יְדַבֵּרוּ:
(ט) שַׁתּוּ בַשָּׁמַיִם פִּיהֶם וּלְשׁוֹנָם תִּהֲלַךְ בָּאָרֶץ:
(י) לָכֵן ישיב {יָשׁוּב} עַמּוֹ הֲלֹם וּמֵי מָלֵא יִמָּצוּ לָמוֹ:
(יא) וְאָמְרוּ אֵיכָה יָדַע אֵל וְיֵשׁ דֵּעָה בְעֶלְיוֹן:
(יב) הִנֵּה אֵלֶּה רְשָׁעִים וְשַׁלְוֵי עוֹלָם הִשְׂגּוּ חָיִל:
(יג) אַךְ רִיק זִכִּיתִי לְבָבִי וָאֶרְחַץ בְּנִקָּיוֹן כַּפָּי:
(יד) וָאֱהִי נָגוּעַ כָּל הַיּוֹם וְתוֹכַחְתִּי לַבְּקָרִים:
(טו) אִם אָמַרְתִּי אֲסַפְּרָה כְמוֹ הִנֵּה דוֹר בָּנֶיךָ בָגָדְתִּי:
(טז) וָאֲחַשְּׁבָה לָדַעַת זֹאת עָמָל היא {הוּא} בְעֵינָי:
(יז) עַד אָבוֹא אֶל מִקְדְּשֵׁי אֵל אָבִינָה לְאַחֲרִיתָם:
(יח) אַךְ בַּחֲלָקוֹת תָּשִׁית לָמוֹ הִפַּלְתָּם לְמַשּׁוּאוֹת:
(יט) אֵיךְ הָיוּ לְשַׁמָּה כְרָגַע סָפוּ תַמּוּ מִן בַּלָּהוֹת:
(כ) כַּחֲלוֹם מֵהָקִיץ אֲדֹנָי בָּעִיר צַלְמָם תִּבְזֶה:
(כא) כִּי יִתְחַמֵּץ לְבָבִי וְכִלְיוֹתַי אֶשְׁתּוֹנָן:
(כב) וַאֲנִי בַעַר וְלֹא אֵדָע בְּהֵמוֹת הָיִיתִי עִמָּךְ:
(כג) וַאֲנִי תָמִיד עִמָּךְ אָחַזְתָּ בְּיַד יְמִינִי:
(כד) בַּעֲצָתְךָ תַנְחֵנִי וְאַחַר כָּבוֹד תִּקָּחֵנִי:
(כה) מִי לִי בַשָּׁמָיִם וְעִמְּךָ לֹא חָפַצְתִּי בָאָרֶץ:
(כו) כָּלָה שְׁאֵרִי וּלְבָבִי צוּר לְבָבִי וְחֶלְקִי אֱלֹהִים לְעוֹלָם:
(כז) כִּי הִנֵּה רְחֵקֶיךָ יֹאבֵדוּ הִצְמַתָּה כָּל זוֹנֶה מִמֶּךָּ:
(כח) וַאֲנִי קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים לִי טוֹב שַׁתִּי בַּאדֹנָי יֱהֹוִה מַחְסִי לְסַפֵּר כָּל מַלְאֲכוֹתֶיךָ:
 

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