October 10, 2011

Psalm 86 – Entreaty, Refined

TEXT (Hebrew text at end)

A prayer. Of David.

Incline Your ear, O LORD, answer me, for afflicted and needy am I.
2. Preserve my soul1, for I am steadfast; deliver, O You, my God, Your servant who trusts in You.
3.  Be merciful to me, O my Lord, for to You I call all day long.
4. Bring joy to Your servant's soul, for to You, my Lord, I lift up my soul.
5. For You, my Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in loving kindness to all who call on You.
6. Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; heed the voice of my pleas for mercy.
7. In the time of my trouble I call on You, so that You will answer me.

8. There is none like You among gods, O LORD, and there is nothing like You have created.
9. All the nations that You have created will come to bow down before You, O my Lord, and they will glorify Your name.
10. Indeed, great are You and creator of wonders; You are God, You alone.

11. Teach me Your way, O my LORD; I will go forward with your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart to fear Your name.
12. I will praise You, O my Lord my God, with all my heart, and I will glorify Your name forever.
13. Indeed, Your loving kindness toward me is great, and You will save my soul from the depths of Sheol.

14. O God, arrogant men have arisen against me; a band of ruthless men seek my soul―men without regard for You.
15. But You, my Lord, are the Deity Who is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in loving kindness and faithfulness.
16. Turn to me and have mercy on me; grant Your strength to Your servant and deliver Your maidservant's child.
17. Create for me a miracle2, for good, that those who hate me may see and be put to shame, for You, O LORD, have helped me and comforted me.


1. "Soul" here and in verses 4, 13, and 14 implies "life force," but not the modern understanding of a spiritual side of being as opposed to "body."
2. Others' "sign"


We overhear Psalm 86, an address from the speaker to God. The proximity is extreme. There are over 55 direct connective references to God, including six uses of the pronoun "You" as subject (an uncommon emphasis), many other uses of "You" (as a prefix or suffix of another term, as subject, object or possessive), imperatives addressed to God, and "my God" or "my Lord."

Using terms found in many other psalms (R. B. Culley calculates that almost half of the psalm is composed of formulaic words and phrases), the speaker articulates a clear dependence on God, using "Your servant" three times, with prominence given to the term "my Lord" (that is, my Master), used seven times, a "full" biblical number. ("LORD," God's proper name, is used four times, including as part of the enclosure of the psalm, but that term is augmented by three of references to "Your name," for a total of seven, possibly a parallel to "my Lord".) This is a vassal speaking to his master.

The inclusio consists of “LORD,” "deliver," and "mercy/merciful." The last term is also used as part of an enclosing pun, wherein "answer me" ('aneini, v.1), is parallel to "have mercy on me" (chaneini, v. 16). Sections are formed both by subject and word repetitions. (There are a many word repetitions, all reflected in the English.)

Structure and Meaning

The structure of Psalm 86 is basic to meaning, for its fascination lies not only in its consistency but also in its subtle change. The psalm begins and ends as an entreaty, but the internal progress alters that request ever so slightly. I proceed by sections, noting both literary structures and subject matter, leading to the final entreaty.

The first section (vv. 1–7) is marked off by its own inclusio. Beginning and end, God is asked to "answer me," to incline and give His "ear." His proper name, LORD, appears in verses 1 and 6.

This section is filled with requests, each justified by a reason, usually preceded by "for." In three consecutive verses (2–4) the speaker turns "to You," the justification focusing on the speaker himself: his character, actions, loyalty and obeisance. Only toward the end of the section does the speaker recall God's mercy.

The remainder of the psalm also has its enclosure, here translated "create" (vv. 8, 9, 10 and 17, 'sh, often translated "make," "act," or "do"). This portion, however, is further divided into three: two middle comments on God's relations with others, with a final section echoing and expanding the earlier entreaty.  

The second section (vv. 8–10), the first of two focusing on the Deity, is structured as two chiastic verses, verses 8 and 10, around a middle statement. The elements of the chiasm are the uniqueness of God and the distinctiveness of His acts, while His universal rule is emphasized in the middle verse. Here the scope is worldwide, a ringing assertion of God's exclusivity and incomparability. "Create" appears in each verse.

The third section (vv. 11–13) refocuses on the connection between God and the speaker. It is structured as two opening parallel verses, both including "heart" and "Your name," with a final summary verse.  Here, all is in God’s hands, and now even the speaker's ability to pray is subject to God's instruction. The salvation is attributed to God's grace alone, not to the speaker’s deeds.

These second and third sections, both concentrating on the Deity, are connected. The last verse in each begins with "for," and uses "great." The early emphasis on the unique nature of God may be reflected in the later phrase "give me an undivided heart" (v. 11), and one could guess that that the speaker learns to glorify God's name from his vision of what the nations will do, just as the speaker's acknowledgment of God being "great" to him might derive from his seeing that God is "great" to the nations.

The final section (vv. 14–17) is a renewed entreaty, but with marked differences. The sole internal repetition is "mercy," and this is no longer an unspecified call for help, but a request for salvation from enemies. (They would seem to be internal enemies, an ironic stark contradiction to the previously mentioned nations, who do acknowledge God). While the use of terms parallel to the first section ("mercy," "deliver," "your servant") indicates that it is the same entreaty, the focus is ever so slightly new. The emphasis at the beginning was on the speaker's turning "to You," but now he asks God to turn "to me." Paraphrasing God's loving attributes (Exod. 34:6), this section is about God, His acts, and His qualities. The opening section had a certain automatic tone to it, the speaker "qualifying" and therefore expecting help from the forgiving God. The restated entreaty seems more a matter of requested grace from the gracious God, picking up on an element mentioned only once in the opening request.

One wonders what led to the shift in emphasis. The speaker is consistently pious, as he is close to God. Still, the focus evolves. Does the speaker’s very participation in prayer lead to less emphasis on his own worth and more on grace? Is part of that a self-doubt that emerges as He prays? (Perhaps he is not as good as he thought.)

Other Aspects of the Poetry of Psalm 86

Apart from items cited above, I note the following usages of interest.

The poet includes a number of puns. As in four other instances in the book of Psalms, the psalmist in verse 1 echoes 'ani ("afflicted") and ani ("am I"), but that is only part of a "growing" pun, for the two terms together ('ani... ani) echo "answer me" ('aneini) from the first part of the verse. "Answer me" is then also echoed by "be merciful to me" (chaneini, vv. 3, 16), which is part of the psalm's inclusio. (That echo is also found in other psalms, such as 4 and 27.)

Through another citation, Psalm 86 builds on the servant-master relationship with God. The use of "afflicted and needy" (v. 1) evidently cites Deuteronomy 24:15, where God warns not to oppress such people. Thus the speaker says to God, as it were, that by His own commandment, God dare not oppress him!

Verse 8's "there is none like You," is possibly a "response" to the rhetorical question of Exodus 15:11, "who is like You?"

Ibn Ezra sees verse 5 as comprehensive: God is "good" to the righteous, "forgiving" to the sinners, and "abounding in loving kindness to all."

The unique phrase "give me an undivided heart" has kindled the imagination of many commentators. I cite a number of interpretations: that I should not have financial challenges diverting me from my spiritual quest; that all my body's energy be directed to the heart; that the physical be subject to the spiritual; that I have no other problems diverting my attention; and that I worship you with both the stringent and merciful sides of my personality.

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) תְּפִלָּה לְדָוִד הַטֵּה יְהֹוָה אָזְנְךָ עֲנֵנִי כִּי עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן אָנִי:
(ב) שָׁמְרָה נַפְשִׁי כִּי חָסִיד אָנִי הוֹשַׁע עַבְדְּךָ אַתָּה אֱלֹהַי הַבּוֹטֵחַ אֵלֶיךָ:
(ג) חָנֵּנִי אֲדֹנָי כִּי אֵלֶיךָ אֶקְרָא כָּל הַיּוֹם:
(ד) שַׂמֵּחַ נֶפֶשׁ עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי אֵלֶיךָ אֲדֹנָי נַפְשִׁי אֶשָּׂא:
(ה) כִּי אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי טוֹב וְסַלָּח וְרַב חֶסֶד לְכָל קֹרְאֶיךָ:
(ו) הַאֲזִינָה יְהֹוָה תְּפִלָּתִי וְהַקְשִׁיבָה בְּקוֹל תַּחֲנוּנוֹתָי:
(ז) בְּיוֹם צָרָתִי אֶקְרָאֶךָּ כִּי תַעֲנֵנִי:
(ח) אֵין כָּמוֹךָ בָאֱלֹהִים אֲדֹנָי וְאֵין כְּמַעֲשֶׂיךָ:
(ט) כָּל גּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ יָבוֹאוּ וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְפָנֶיךָ אֲדֹנָי וִיכַבְּדוּ לִשְׁמֶךָ:
(י) כִּי גָדוֹל אַתָּה וְעֹשֵׂה נִפְלָאוֹת אַתָּה אֱלֹהִים לְבַדֶּךָ:
(יא) הוֹרֵנִי יְהֹוָה דַּרְכֶּךָ אֲהַלֵּךְ בַּאֲמִתֶּךָ יַחֵד לְבָבִי לְיִרְאָה שְׁמֶךָ:
(יב) אוֹדְךָ אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהַי בְּכָל לְבָבִי וַאֲכַבְּדָה שִׁמְךָ לְעוֹלָם:
(יג) כִּי חַסְדְּךָ גָּדוֹל עָלָי וְהִצַּלְתָּ נַפְשִׁי מִשְּׁאוֹל תַּחְתִּיָּה:
(יד) אֱלֹהִים זֵדִים קָמוּ עָלַי וַעֲדַת עָרִיצִים בִּקְשׁוּ נַפְשִׁי וְלֹא שָׂמוּךָ לְנֶגְדָּם:
(טו) וְאַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת:
(טז) פְּנֵה אֵלַי וְחָנֵּנִי תְּנָה עֻזְּךָ לְעַבְדֶּךָ וְהוֹשִׁיעָה לְבֶן אֲמָתֶךָ:
(יז) עֲשֵׂה עִמִּי אוֹת לְטוֹבָה וְיִרְאוּ שׂנְאַי וְיֵבֹשׁוּ כִּי אַתָּה יְהֹוָה עֲזַרְתַּנִי וְנִחַמְתָּנִי:

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