Psalm 76 – Pax Jerusalem
TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)
1. For the leader; with instrumental music. A psalm. Of Asaph. A song.
2. Renowned in
is God; in Judah , His name is great; Israel
3. His pavilion was in Shalem; His dwelling place in
4. There He shattered the fiery arrows of the bow, the shield and the sword―the war.1 Selah.
5. You are resplendent, more majestic than the mountains of prey.
6. The stouthearted were despoiled; they sank into their sleep; and none of the brave men could find their hands.2
7. From Your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both chariot and horse lay stunned.
8. You―You are awesome! Who can withstand You? Your rage is from antiquity.
9. From heaven You pronounced legal ruling; the earth was quieted with awe
10. at the rising of God to judgment, to save all the lowly of the earth. Selah.
11. Indeed, human wrath shall acknowledge You, and the last remnants of wrath You shall gird about You.
12 Make and fulfill vows to the LORD your God; all those around Him shall bear tribute to the Awesome One.
13. He 3-breaks the spirit-3 of princes; He is awesome to the kings of the earth.
1. Either war itself or implying the “weapons of war.”
2. “Hands” is a frequent biblical metaphor for power or prowess.
3. Alternatively, "cuts off the breath."
Psalm 76 is often labeled a psalm of
( Zion ), a celebration of victory, or an eschatological view of the Final Battle. All of these are true in part, but none fully describes the poem. Rather, using terms that span allusion, intimation, and suggestion the psalm weaves a portrait of past domination and present security. It is “Pax Jerusalem,” an isle of respite in a sea of historical conflict. Jerusalem
Its few repetitions delimit two sections, and the second half (v. 8 onward), enclosed by “awe” (all four of its appearances coming in the second half), includes all three uses of “the earth.”
I first explore the psalm’s view of God’s control of conflict, which is based on its two-part division, the choice of terms, and historical allusions. I then reflect on the proposed association of the psalm with the siege of
in 701 BCE and, finally, note the psalm’s subtle allusions and effective metaphors. Jerusalem
God’s Battle Plan
Even prior to appreciating the powerful metaphors of Psalm 76 (see below), it is clear that verses 2–7 depict an enemy disabled by the knowledge of God’s earlier victories. Two descriptions are presented as parallel interpretations of the past. On one level, one can see battles won. On another, one can see an enemy defeated even before the battle, disheartened by God’s reputation, unable to undertake military action: war is “shattered” (not won), as knowledge of God and His victories strips enemies of their spoils, destroys their weapons of war before they can be used, and puts them to sleep (the phrases “sank into their sleep” and “lay stunned” in verses 6 and 7 include three terms that apply to sleep). These battles are not won―they never take place! Reflecting this level in the second half of the psalm are the term “quieted” (v. 9) and the phrase “dissipation of wrath” (v. 11).
As pointed out by Schaefer, verse 4 depicts an enemy totally disarmed of long- and short-range offensive weapons (arrows and swords) and shorn of defensive armor (shields). The cause and effect is also reflected in a pun. God’s being “resplendent” (na’or, v. 5) is the source of His being the Awesome One (nora’, vv. 8, 13).
What specifically impressed itself on all these enemies? Here the text moves to subtle allusions. First, “Shalem” (v. 3) is an infrequently used pre-Israelite name for Jerusalem, but one that figures prominently in the only part of the Abraham narrative that pictures him as a warrior—his defeat of five kings (Gen. 14, especially vv. 17–20). It is a tale of Abraham’s neighbors acknowledging God’s victory! Second, “
,”, is a name for Zion that was widely used later on, but is also certainly associated with the capture of Jerusalem by David (II Sam. 5:7). Third, it may be that “chariot and horse” (rechev vasus, v. 7) recalls the “horse and its rider” (sus virochvo) thrown into the Jerusalem Red Sea during the Exodus (Exod. 15:2). “Your rage” (v. 8) is a common biblical term, but since it is associated here with antiquity, it may also recall the use of that term in the Song of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:8). In short, it is the history of God’s miraculous military victories against superior powers that has overwhelmed these new enemies.
Verbs in the imperfect mode (the tense that spans present and future) appear only in the second half, in verses 8 and 11–13. One then tends to read all the second half as referencing the future, immediate or more distant, with the past serving to reinforce confidence. As such, Psalm 76 reads almost as a noncombat plan in the present. God’s presence in
is the guarantor that the enemy will not attack. Jerusalem
If this is a ““Jerusalem Psalm,” it is so not because of focus on the city itself, but on
the capital, the symbol of the country and its power. Zion ( Jerusalem ) is mentioned by name only in verse 3. The psalm is about God protecting His people. The land as a whole (i.e., not only Zion ) is mentioned first (“ Jerusalem ” and “ Judah ,” v. 2); the reason given for salvation is not protection of the capital but concern for the lowly (v. 10); and the emphasis is on God’s word coming from heaven, not Israel (these are two alternative emphases in biblical literature). That said, the poem does refer to the capital, if subtly. The term here for tribute (shai, v. 12) appears only twice more in the Bible, Psalm 68:30 and Isaiah 18:7 (using the same verb, “bear” in all three verses), and in both of those cases the gifts are brought to Jerusalem . As the national scene expands to the international sphere (vv. 2 and 13), therefore, Jerusalem as capital remains the focal point of this “peace through fear.” Jerusalem
The Historical Context of Psalm 76?
The Septuagint associates Psalm 76 by subtitle with the events of 701 BCE, when Sennacherib’s army besieged
, but withdrew before attacking (see II Kings 18–19 and Isa. 36–37, as well as my comments on Psalm 48). Supporting such a contention would be both the “noncombat” victory (the second level of interpretation, above) plus the fact that in the account in II Kings, foreign monarchs send gifts to Jerusalem (perhaps reflected here in v. 12). However, although the history “fits,” there is no connection of terminology, which absence would imply no literary connection to the text in II Kings. Jerusalem
Furthermore, the proposed association is challenged by the parallel reference to
and Judah (v. 2). Historically, these two geo-political areas (“ Israel ” – south; “ Judah ” – north) became separate states after Solomon (920 BCE). Two hundred years later, in 721 BCE, Israel , the northern state, was attacked and conquered, and its population was exiled. Although the double reference “Judah and Israel” certainly survived that debacle as an anachronistic description of the whole country, it is hard to accept that in 701 BCE, only one generation after the fall of the north, one could write (v. 2), “In Israel, His name is great.” Israel
There is no certain answer to the question of historical connection. Fascinatingly enough, in the Middle Ages, Kimche records that he wrote a whole commentary associating Psalm 76 with those events and then totally changed his mind, interpreting the psalm as eschatology. (He does not detail why.) Some modern scholars skirt the question by saying that it is a mix of history, eschatology, and cult (see Weiser).
In appreciating the poem, it is probably best not to impose the historical association. The basic contention, in any case, remains that the enemy is on one level of interpretation cowed by God’s military reputation. If there is reference to 701 BCE, it is probably that it is simply another precedent of an astounding victory over superior force, added to Abraham, the Exodus, and David. In any case, historical victory is seen as the guarantor of “Pax Jerusalem.”
The Poetry of Psalm 76
To the previously cited allusions to prior battles, the repetitions and the connection of resplendence and awe, I add notes on the following interesting phrases.
“Pavilion… dwelling place” (v. 3) – These two terms are both at least double-edged. Both are used elsewhere for animal dens or lairs, implying an animal metaphor for God parallel to the comparison to mountains of prey (v. 5). However, both terms also appear (using an alternative form for the plural) as references to God’s locale, that is,
. ("Dwelling place" is also used as a metaphor of God's protection of the people.) I also note that the use of these terms rather than “ Jerusalem ” is an added antiquating touch. Temple
“Shattered… the war” (v. 4) – Although the metaphor of shattering the bow is used for victory in battle (see Ezek. 39:3), it is also used elsewhere (see Ps. 46:10) for stopping a war before it begins. One such verse (Hos. ), an eschatological look at the future, is quite parallel: “I shall break bow, sword and war from the land.” The final reference to “war” is often explained as “(weapons of) war,” but I suggest that the metaphor is much more powerful, referring to war itself, which is what God “shatters.”
“More majestic than the mountains of prey” (v. 5) – This suggestive simile allows for several interpretations. It might imply comparison to large and heavily forested mountains (where much game would be found) or be a hint about God as (more than) a beast of prey toward his enemies. The latter would also befit an alternative translation, “resplendent, majestic, from the mountains of prey.” The comparison might also imply that the invading enemies made camp in such mountains.
“None could find their hands” (v. 6) – Although the phrase sounds like an idiom (NJPS translates, “could not lift a hand”), it may be a much more challenging and startling metaphor. It is a striking picture of helplessness.
“To save the lowly” (v. 10) – Quietly and unobtrusively (where other psalmists might have used repetition), this poet grounds God’s involvement in concern for the lowly, gently and effectively making considerations of pride, power, and politics secondary.
“Wrath shall acknowledge You… remnants of wrath You gird” (v. 11) – The personification and subjugation of wrath, which is sharp and effective, is then followed by an even more striking image. This last, girding the “remnants of wrath” might be taken in several ways: gathering in the survivors of attack, reserving for the future some of the wrath He expressed in battle, and/or gathering unto Himself as new enthusiasts the enemies who survive His wrath. All are appropriate, but no one choice is obvious. Perhaps the poet was aware of (and meant) all of them.
“Around Him” (v. 12) – According to two of the interpretations as to whom God girds (places around Him) at the end of verse 11, it is wonderfully unclear if those “around” God are the survivors from among the Israelites or the enemies who have now become included in the people. (Both groups are noted in adjacent verses.)
"Fulfill" (v. 12) – This word in Hebrew (shalmu) echoes Shalem (i.e.,
) in verse 3, a possible inclusio of the psalm (which may in turn be echoed at the end of verse 12, within "tribute to the Awesome one," shai lamora). The root meaning is "complete" and it is homophonic with the term "well-being" or "peace" (shalom). Jerusalem
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 : 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Jerusalem
(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ בִּנְגִינֹת מִזְמוֹר לְאָסָף שִׁיר:
(ב) נוֹדָע בִּיהוּדָה אֱלֹהִים בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל גָּדוֹל שְׁמוֹ:
(ג) וַיְהִי בְשָׁלֵם סוּכּוֹ וּמְעוֹנָתוֹ בְצִיּוֹן:
(ד) שָׁמָּה שִׁבַּר רִשְׁפֵי קָשֶׁת מָגֵן וְחֶרֶב וּמִלְחָמָה סֶלָה:
(ה) נָאוֹר אַתָּה אַדִּיר מֵהַרְרֵי טָרֶף:
(ו) אֶשְׁתּוֹלְלוּ אַבִּירֵי לֵב נָמוּ שְׁנָתָם וְלֹא מָצְאוּ כָל אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל יְדֵיהֶם:
(ז) מִגַּעֲרָתְךָ אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב נִרְדָּם וְרֶכֶב וָסוּס:
(ח) אַתָּה נוֹרָא אַתָּה וּמִי יַעֲמֹד לְפָנֶיךָ מֵאָז אַפֶּךָ:
(ט) מִשָּׁמַיִם הִשְׁמַעְתָּ דִּין אֶרֶץ יָרְאָה וְשָׁקָטָה:
(י) בְּקוּם לַמִּשְׁפָּט אֱלֹהִים לְהוֹשִׁיעַ כָּל עַנְוֵי אֶרֶץ סֶלָה:
(יא) כִּי חֲמַת אָדָם תּוֹדֶךָּ שְׁאֵרִית חֵמֹת תַּחְגֹּר:
(יב) נִדְרוּ וְשַׁלְּמוּ לַיהֹוָה אֶלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל סְבִיבָיו יוֹבִילוּ שַׁי לַמּוֹרָא:
(יג) יִבְצֹר רוּחַ נְגִידִים נוֹרָא לְמַלְכֵי אָרֶץ: