November 22, 2011


Psalm 92 – Toward the Essence of the Sabbath

TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)

1. A psalm. A song. For the Sabbath day.

2. It is good to acclaim the LORD, and to sing hymns to Your name, O Most High,
3. to declare Your loving kindness at daybreak, Your faithfulness every night,
4. with a ten-stringed instrument and with a harp, with voice1 and lyre together.
5. For You have made me glad by Your deeds, O LORD; I sing for joy at Your handiwork.
6. How great are Your works, O LORD, Your designs are very deep.
7. A brutish man does not know, nor can a fool understand this.
8. When the wicked flourish like grass and all evildoers blossom, it is toward their eternal destruction.

9. 2-But You – Height, O LORD, for all time.-2

10. For, behold, Your enemies, O LORD, behold, Your enemies perish; they are scattered, all the evildoers.
11. You have raised my horn, like a wild ox; I am doused in fresh oil.
12. I have seen the defeat of my watchful foes; when the wicked rise against me, my ears hear [their downfall].
13. The righteous person will flourish like a date-palm; he will grow like a cedar in Lebanon;
14. planted in the house of the LORD, they3 will flourish in the courts of our God.
15. In old age they will still produce fruit, full of sap and freshness,
16. declaring that the LORD is upright, my rock, in Whom there is no wrong.

Notes
1. Possibly indicates musical sound, based on Psalm 9:17.
2. See Commentary for interpretation of verse 9.
3. Hebrew has plural verb, evidently treating "righteous person" as collective or symbol.

COMMENTARY

Psalm 92, an impassioned acknowledgment for the grandeur of the physical world and the moral order, is strikingly original. Its title, “A Psalm for the Sabbath Day,” is the only attribution to one of the days of the week in Psalms, but there is no apparent reference to the Sabbath within the text. Although somewhat far-fetched connections have been suggested across the centuries (I survey several in my added comments), I here propose that the title in fact reflects the original intention of the author. To support that contention I survey the structure of the poem, which points toward the Sabbath, and then explore the central message. Thereafter, I touch on several of the poetic flourishes in the psalm and offer some additional comments. (Throughout, I proceed on the assumption that the title verse is accurate but is meant as a separate title for the text, an assumption that the interpretation bears out.)

Structure and Meaning

The Grand Chiasmus

There is a complex structure of chiasmus in Psalm 92, A-B-C-D-E-D-C-B-A. (A) At the beginning and the end, God is spoken about in the third person, whereas through the rest of the psalm, He is addressed directly, in the second person. This encloses the psalm. (B) "Declare" also appears, beginning and end (vv. 3, 16). (C) Moving toward the center from both ends, one finds Temple references, articulated at the end (v. 14) and hinted at in the beginning (the musical prayer service, v.4). (D) More toward the middle, one encounters verses 8 and 10, the only two verses with three parts each. Both include a reference to “evildoers,” and both offer the same insight—the evildoers are present, but only for an instant, as they are scattered/destroyed. As opposed to the many psalms in which the evildoers are an immediate cause of turmoil, here calm and assurance dominate. (E) All this is built around the central verse 9, a most unusual, terse presentation that lacks any verb.

Numbers

The numerical counts of Psalm 92 are basic to its understanding.

The LORD (God’s name) is repeated seven times. Of these, three uses precede verse 9 and three follow, with one in that verse itself.

The central verse 9 is framed by the same number of verses before and after—also seven! (Although the verse division postdates the Bible by many centuries, the specific division here seems compelling.) One should not be surprised, then, to discover that verse 9 (again, apart from the title verse) is also surrounded by the same number of words before and after—fifty two.

This use of seven (as in the seven days of creation and the seven days of the week) and fifty-two (as in the weeks of the solar year) in a psalm titled for the Sabbath day is arresting. (The Bible, which uses the lunar calendar, suggests an awareness of the solar calendar. See additional notes below.) Together these indications are decisive: this psalm was written for the Sabbath.

The Confrontation

However, one is still faced with the question of the content that the poet would associate with the Sabbath. Structure again points the way. All is centered on verse 9.

This verse is among the shortest in the Bible. It has just four words, and (if one needs further indication of its uniqueness) each word has four letters. This seems purposeful, as one of the words, “forever,” (l’olam), almost always appears in the plene spelling in Psalms, which would have required five letters. Moreover, asstaed, verse 9 lacks a verb. (Alter further comments: “This verse… does not scan in the Hebrew.”)

The message is neither trite nor simple. The grammar is strange, to say the least, and presents a prodigious challenge to translators. As it now reads, there is a pronoun that is followed by a noun meaning “height” (which is used elsewhere for exalted place, but not as a name for God, the Exalted One); then we have the term “forever,” and then God’s name. Had the verse meant to imply that God is “on high” (as some translate), it is missing a letter. As an adjective (exalted) from this root, a four-letter form is available (muram instead of marom). I conclude that the poet purposely joined the four terms in an awkward fashion.

The reader seems challenged to confront these four terms, and it is unclear whether the challenge would properly be termed blending, understanding, probing, confronting, or something else. The “Psalm for the Sabbath Day” leads to deep contemplation, extending beyond words. Here is no struggle; here is no doubt; here is no request. Here words are used to move the reader to nonverbal thinking. Just as the laws of the Sabbath take one away from the normal hustle and bustle of life, so does this poem suggest a meeting with the Divine through reflection rather than through philosophy.

This is an intense demand. I cite three reactions I have encountered. One interpreter (A. Cohen) finds here four words in ascendance, each reaching higher. One student shared with me that here he finds four variations of God’s name (but, said another student, each slightly different). A third reader detected a chiasm in the verse itself―the two external terms, “You” and “LORD” bespeaking intimacy, the two internal terms bespeaking transcendence (one in place, one in time). In any case, the confrontation leads beyond words. As is often the case in distinguished poetry, the reader is not given some unambiguous message, but is challenged to find greater depth.

Poetic Flourishes

Seen in the Translation

Two repetitions of “work” (vv. 5, 6) and three each of “do/deed” (vv. 5, 8, 10) and “flourish” (vv. 8, 13, 14) are subtle reminders of the creation.

Parallelism, the most common trait of biblical poetry, is particularly evident and exciting in Psalm 92. Quite often, the second half’s restatement of the first half of a verse adds significantly, creating a new combined understanding. Sometimes this is nuanced (e.g., verse 3, where “loving kindness,” implying grace, is supplemented by “faithfulness,” implying keeping the covenant, a common biblical combination); sometimes balancing (e.g., the combative and relaxing metaphors in verse 11), and sometimes progressive (e.g., verse 12, where the opposition watches and then rises). Note also how verse 2 is carried forward by halves: 2a in verse 3 and 2b in verse 4.

The metaphors of verses 13–16, the cedar and the palm are particularly enticing. They are both tall plants and very long-lived, but they are also different, and their separate qualities are cumulative. The cedar is extremely resistant to damage, it is majestic, and it supplies beautiful strong wood. The date palm is lovely in flower and bears valuable fruit. The metaphor moves toward application by degree, as the terms move in an intertwined fashion from the trees to the righteous people.

The speaker twice enters the psalm in the first person (vv. 5, 11f.). The first instance might refer to an enjoyment of creation, but the second clearly cites personal salvation, probably adding that tone to the first as well. It is unclear why the speaker includes reference to his own salvation. It may be that the calm and positive air of the psalm requires one whose personal circumstances are secure. Alternatively, the positive air of the poem could lead the speaker to evaluate his life positively.

Hebrew Based

The poet enjoys wordplays. Among these are “most high” and “with” (vv. 2, 4 – ‘elyon, ‘alei, the first three consonants being identical); “sing for joy” and “fresh” (vv. 5, 11, 15 – aranen, ra’anan); “You have raised… like a wild ox” (v. 11 – vayarem kireim); and “watchful foes” and “upright” (vv. 12, 16 – shurai, yashar).

Verse 12 is built on puns. In “I have seen the defeat of my watchful foes” the term for “foes” has a root that is also related to seeing (hence the translation). This pun occurs elsewhere in the Bible, unlike the next pun, which evidently takes its inspiration from the first. “The wicked…my ears will hear” borrows the known usage wherein seeing one’s enemies implies their defeat (used several times in the Bible), and seems to imply that hearing also implies their downfall (as the translation has in parentheses). Further, “the wicked” has a homonym that would mean “those who make noise,” a parallel pun (approximately, “hear my noisy enemies”) to the first half. Adding further depth to the verse is a second possibility, since “hearing… the downfall” is unique to this verse. The verse could also be read without their “downfall,” and what the speaker “hears” would then be the last four verses of reassurance when he confronts the wicked. (This reading would end verse 12 with a colon, with quotation marks around the last four verses.)

The poetry is embracing, spanning day and night (v. 3) and great and deep (v. 6). In the Hebrew (not reflected in the English), there are three instances when the author uses the well-known structure of beginning with a singular reference and continuing with a plural parallel, creating a feeling of expansion: morning/nights (v. 3); doings/handiwork  (v. 5); a single righteous person followed by plural verbs and adjectives (v. 13).  

The Locale

The poet writes against the background of the flora of the land of Israel. To clarify: the rain-dry cycle means that grass, always green in many parts of the world, is a fleeting, seasonal phenomenon. If the evil springs up as grass, there may be an indication of breadth, but the primary implication in Israel is of a short life. Residents of Israel would also be likely to know that a date palm lives for more than 100 years and begins to bear fruit only after 10 years. One would scarcely know the longevity of the cedar, given its ability to survive 2000 years, but it certainly would be known in Israel as long-lived, perhaps as close a living picture of eternity as one could choose.

*           *           *           *           *           *          
Additional Comments

1. A well known midrash cited by the medieval commentator Rashi connects the Sabbath to the psalm by referring to that wonderful day “which is entirely Sabbath,” a reference to the world to come, when the righteous are to receive the reward pictured in the final verses of this psalm. An imaginative tradition, reflected in the Jewish Saturday morning liturgy, suggests that the psalm was actually recited by the original Sabbath day, at the time of Creation. Seeking further options, Ibn Ezra and Kimchi both comment that only on the Sabbath does one have the time to meditate on matters such as those raised within the psalm. Indeed, they may have been on the right track, for the implied contemplation does require a certain withdrawal from worldly concerns.  

2. Among modern interpreters, Nahum Sarna has suggested that Psalm 92 is connected to creation―not to the text of Genesis, but rather to the international myth, also known in Israel, of creation resulting from the victory of the Lord over other gods in battle. The tone of this psalm, however, is totally other than battle, and there is no reason to connect the number seven, which is the framework of the story in Genesis,  to the battle myth.

3. Subsequent to the canonization of Psalms, but before the Greek translation, other psalms were assigned for specific recitation on each day of the week in the Temple. These associations are noted in the Greek and in the later Mishna. One presumes that this practice evolved from the earlier attribution of Psalm 92 to the Sabbath, which was based on content. There is no obvious connection of the other six psalms to the respective days of their recitation.

 4. Nahum Sarna has noted the seven verses before and after verse 9, and Bazak has noted the fifty-two words before and after verse 9 (although he did not note the connection to the weeks of the year).



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 שִׁיר לְיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת:
(ב) טוֹב לְהֹדוֹת לַיהֹוָה וּלְזַמֵּר לְשִׁמְךָ עֶלְיוֹן:
(ג) לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ בַּלֵּילוֹת:
(ד) עַלֵי עָשׂוֹר וַעֲלֵי נָבֶל עֲלֵי הִגָּיוֹן בְּכִנּוֹר:
(ה) כִּי שִׂמַּחְתַּנִי יְהֹוָה בְּפָעֳלֶךָ בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶיךָ אֲרַנֵּן:
(ו) מַה גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהֹוָה מְאֹד עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ:
(ז) אִישׁ בַּעַר לֹא יֵדָע וּכְסִיל לֹא יָבִין אֶת זֹאת:
(ח) בִּפְרֹחַ רְשָׁעִים כְּמוֹ עֵשֶׂב וַיָּצִיצוּ כָּל פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן לְהִשָּׁמְדָם עֲדֵי עַד:
(ט) וְאַתָּה מָרוֹם לְעֹלָם יְהֹוָה:
(י) כִּי הִנֵּה אֹיְבֶיךָ יְהֹוָה כִּי הִנֵּה אֹיְבֶיךָ יֹאבֵדוּ יִתְפָּרְדוּ כָּל פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן:
(יא) וַתָּרֶם כִּרְאֵים קַרְנִי בַּלֹּתִי בְּשֶׁמֶן רַעֲנָן:
(יב) וַתַּבֵּט עֵינִי בְּשׁוּרָי בַּקָּמִים עָלַי מְרֵעִים תִּשְׁמַעְנָה אָזְנָי:
(יג) צַדִּיק כַּתָּמָר יִפְרָח כְּאֶרֶז בַּלְּבָנוֹן יִשְׂגֶּה:
(יד) שְׁתוּלִים בְּבֵית יְהֹוָה בְּחַצְרוֹת אֱלֹהֵינוּ יַפְרִיחוּ:
(טו) עוֹד יְנוּבוּן בְּשֵׂיבָה דְּשֵׁנִים וְרַעֲנַנִּים יִהְיוּ:
(טז) לְהַגִּיד כִּי יָשָׁר יְהֹוָה צוּרִי וְלֹא עלתה }עַוְלָתָה{ בּוֹ:


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