March 6, 2012



Psalm 107 – O Redeemed

TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)

1. Acclaim the LORD for He is good1; indeed, His steadfast love is eternal.
2. Let the redeemed of the LORD say that He has redeemed them from the hand of the adversary
3. and gathered them from the lands: from east, from west, from north, and from south.2

4. They strayed from their way in the wilderness, in the wasteland; they found no living town.
5. Hungry and thirsty, their spirit3 failed.
6. They cried to the LORD in their adversity, and He saved them from their distress.
7. He showed them the way, a direct way to reach a living town.
8. Let them acclaim the LORD for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind;
9. for He has satisfied the thirsty throat, the hungry throat he has filled with all good things.

10. Those living in deepest darkness, bound in agonizing irons
11. because they defied the decrees of God, spurned the counsel of the Most High—
12. He humbled their heart through hardship; they stumbled with no one to help.
13. They cried out to the LORD in their adversity, and He rescued them from their distress.
14. He extricated them out of deepest darkness, breaking their bonds asunder.
15. Let them acclaim the LORD for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind,
16. For He shattered the bronze doors; He split the iron bars.

17. Enfeebled4 ones, in agony from their sinful way and from their iniquities,
18. their throat rejecting all food, arriving at the gates of death.
19. They cried out to the LORD in their adversity, and He rescued them from their distress.
20. He sent His word and healed them: He delivered them from the Pit.5
21. Let them acclaim the LORD for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind.
22. Let them sacrifice thanksgiving sacrifices and tell of His works in joyful song.

23. Those who go down to the sea in ships, working their trade in the mighty waters—
24. they have seen the works of the LORD and His wondrous deeds in the deep.
25. By His decree He raised a storm wind that made its waves surge.
26. Mounting up to the heavens, going down to the depths, their 6-throat regurgitating-6 in their misery,
27. they reeled and staggered like a drunkard, all their wisdom to no avail.
28. They cried to the LORD in their adversity, and He extricated them from their distress.
29. He pushed back the storm to a whisper, as their waves were hushed;
30. they rejoiced when they grew calm, and He brought them to their desired haven.
31. Let them acclaim the LORD for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind.
32. Let them exalt7 Him among the congregated people, acclaim Him in the assembly8 of the elders.

33. He turns the rivers into a wilderness, fonts9 of water into thirsty ground,
34. fruitful land into a salt marsh because of the wickedness of those who live there.
35. He turns the wilderness into pools of water, parched land into fonts9 of water.
36. Setting the hungry to live there; they establish a living town,
37. sowing fields and planting vineyards, making a fruitful harvest.
38. He blesses them and they increase greatly; and He does not let their cattle decrease.
39. They decreased and were crushed by oppression, misery, and sorrow;
40. pouring contempt on great men, He makes them go astray in wastelands lacking all pathways.
41. But the needy He protects from agony, creating families like a flock.

42. The upright see it and rejoice; the mouth of all wrongdoers is stopped.
43. The wise man will take note of these things; they will consider the steadfast love of the LORD.

Notes
1. Or “it is good.” See note, Psalm 106:1.
2. Hebrew is “from the sea” (miyam), which elsewhere indicates west (Mediterranean). Context requiring the four directions, either this reference is to the (southern) Red Sea or the text should be emended by the addition of one letter to read from the south (miyamin). Both suggestions are made by numbers of commentators.
3. “Spirit” is same word as “throat,” verses 9, 18, and 26. The verse thus bears a second meaning, “their throat’s breath grew faint.”
4. The term means “fools,” but is translated by Saadiah Gaon (tenth century) as “the ill.” Medieval scholars offer explanations as to why “fools” implies sick men, and many moderns emend the word to read to “the ill.” Dahood, who suggests “enfeebled,” thinks that the Semitic root can be understood in this way.
5. Literally “pits,” possibly chambers of the underworld (i.e., death).
6. Can also mean “their spirit (life force) melting away.”
7. “Fonts” has the same root as “found,” verse 4.
8. Same root as “live” in verses 4, 7, 10, 34, and 36.
9. “Exalt” has same root as “surge,” verse 25.


COMMENTARY


Provenance and Message

The provenance of Psalm 107, the return from the Babylonian exile, reveals its intent and message.

This psalm includes a number of terms shared with the latter chapters of Isaiah (see below), the prophet who reassured the exiles in Babylonia of a return to the Land of Israel. Indeed, the opening address, to the “redeemed of the Lord,” is taken from Isaiah 62:12, a reference to the first group that returned from the Babylonian exile. They are the psalm’s contemporary audience.

The message is one of hope and encouragement, and the final verses declare so unequivocally. In those last two verses, the upright are said to “see,” a verb used only once earlier in the psalm to refer to “the works of the Lord” (v. 24), and they are said to “rejoice,” a verb used only once earlier when they “grew calm” and reached their “desired haven” (v. 30). The final verse ends with the inclusio of Psalm 107, “the steadfast love of the Lord” (see v. 1). Were the theme not otherwise obvious, the sevenfold repetition in the psalm, which has escaped the notice of most commentators, is from the root “settle,” translated here as “live” (see note 7).

Further cementing the supportive message of resettlement  is the encompassing nature of the three divisions of the psalm that precede the final prayer: the introduction (vv. 1–3), the examples of individuals saved and owing thanks (vv. 4–32), and the broad overview of history (vv. 33–40). All three are dominated by the number four. (I suggest that the number four symbolizes comprehensiveness, as in the four directions in Zechariah 6:1–8, the four kingdoms in Daniel 8:22, the heavenly creatures in Ezekiel 1:1–14, 10:9–22, and so on). The opening recalls the four directions. In the middle section, the four groups cover archetypical kinds of trials: occupation (seafaring), a life task (the desert trek, indicating moving, trade, or the like), an act from on high (illness), and oppression by other men (imprisonment). The historical overview at the end, quite different in style, also reads well as a group of four: from desert to wilderness and the reverse, and from prosperity to exile and the reverse.

This third section includes two other indications of comprehensiveness. First, the two reversals themselves tend to summarize life's vicissitudes. Second, this final overview can be read as a poetic survey of Jewish history from the Exodus through to the beginning of the return from the Babylonian exile. It all reinforces the basic message to those “redeemed of the Lord”: full salvation is nigh and thanksgiving is due.

Given its historical context, this message of encouragement is not trite. It is precisely at such moments of accomplishment that one encounters the greatest disenchantments, for immediately “achieved” salvation is usually accompanied by difficult problems. The need for reassurance is a burning one.

I now comment further on each section, provide a list of references to Second Isaiah, and add notes on translation and on the transmission of the text.

Opening Call (vv. 1–3)

Psalm 107:1 duplicates Psalm 106:1 and at the same time sets the tone for the fifth book of Psalms, which focuses on acclaim and praise. The mention of the four directions leads smoothly into the opening of the second section, which recalls those lost on their way through the wilderness.

Four Tales of Redemption (vv. 4–32)

Four tales of redemption make up the middle section.

The use of refrains is found in several psalms. On occasion, there are slight and meaningful changes in the refrain’s wording. In Psalm 107, one finds the most complex refrain, composed of two verses that are separated from one another, neither of which begins or ends the section. The first of these two verses notes that the named group called to the Lord out of adversity and He rescued them (vv. 6, 13, 19, and 28). This verse appears with slight variations of the verb of salvation, each appropriate to the particular group discussed, plus evidently unimportant variations between “cried” and “cried out.” The second verse, which is the same throughout, calls on those saved to praise the Lord (vv. 8, 15, 21, and 31).

The structure is similar in all four paragraphs. A group is named, their problem described, their call to God noted, followed by His positive response and the demand to praise God, followed twice by further reasons and twice by detail of how they should thank Him. The inclusiveness, indicated by the four types of groups, is reinforced by attributing the suffering of the two middle groups to moral shortcomings, whereas the first and last situations seem simply to have “just happened.” I also note that in a general manner of speaking, the choice of the four examples provides four effective metaphors for the suffering in exile and the trials and tribulations of the return. All, of course, end in salvation.

Just as the first and second sections are smoothly linked, so too the end of the second section bridges into the third, by listing last the seafarers who literally are thrown from the heights to the depths in their times of trouble. The third section then proceeds to deal with the ups and downs of history. Further, the third section is connected to the second through terminology, including “wilderness,” “water,” “thirst,” “hunger,” “wickedness,” “font” (see note 9), “a living town,” and “way.”

Four Epochs (vv. 33–40) and the Epilogue (vv. 42–43)

The third section is quite different and most often commentators summarize it as an essay on the vicissitudes of history. Although such a description is reasonable, the historical background and the possible applicability of the descriptions to the history of the people Israel (as Broyles points out) reinforces the tone of encouragement. One should also note that the ends of the two cycles in this section are positive, as the hungry find their home and harvest and the needy are settled and secure.

As noted above, the inclusio of Psalm 107 is the “steadfast love of the Lord,” and the two final verses recall God’s miracles. There remains, however, a bittersweet twinge as one senses a backdrop of great difficulties.

Reflections of Second Isaiah

Minimally, the following verses seem to reflect Second Isaiah, the prophet who encouraged the exiles in Babylonia: verse 1, “redeemed of the Lord” (Isa. 62:12); verse 3, the four directions (Isa. 43:5–6 and possibly the phrase “from the north and from the sea” from Isa. 49:12); verse 10, “living in darkness (Isa. 42:7); verses 33–35, the desert to water sources (Isa. 41:18).

It should be noted that this psalmist, dealing with suffering and extrication therefrom, often cites the Book of Job, with which he was clearly very familiar.

*          *          *          *          *          *
Additional Notes

Translation of Psalm 107 is complicated by the psalmist’s many uses of the imperfect mode to indicate a completed action, a device found elsewhere in Psalms, which is evidently based in pre-Hebrew Semitic usage. Translations differ concerning the tense of many verbs.

Psalm 107 includes seven special markings that apparently indicate some doubt at one point as to the placement or authenticity of the verses. (In the Masoretic text these appear before verses 23–28 successively and verse 40, although there is a degree of difference among manuscripts). There is no agreed or even widely accepted explanation. As is obvious, those verses cannot be excised without fatally harming the psalm.


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) הֹדוּ לַיהֹוָה כִּי טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ:
(ב) יֹאמְרוּ גְּאוּלֵי יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר גְּאָלָם מִיַּד צָר:
(ג) וּמֵאֲרָצוֹת קִבְּצָם מִמִּזְרָח וּמִמַּעֲרָב מִצָּפוֹן וּמִיָּם:
(ד) תָּעוּ בַמִּדְבָּר בִּישִׁימוֹן דָּרֶךְ עִיר מוֹשָׁב לֹא מָצָאוּ:
(ה) רְעֵבִים גַּם צְמֵאִים נַפְשָׁם בָּהֶם תִּתְעַטָּף:
(ו) וַיִּצְעֲקוּ אֶל יְהֹוָה בַּצַּר לָהֶם מִמְּצוּקוֹתֵיהֶם יַצִּילֵם:
(ז) וַיַּדְרִיכֵם בְּדֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה לָלֶכֶת אֶל עִיר מוֹשָׁב:
(ח) יוֹדוּ לַיהֹוָה חַסְדּוֹ וְנִפְלְאוֹתָיו לִבְנֵי אָדָם:
(ט) כִּי הִשְׂבִּיעַ נֶפֶשׁ שֹׁקֵקָה וְנֶפֶשׁ רְעֵבָה מִלֵּא טוֹב:
(י) יֹשְׁבֵי חֹשֶׁךְ וְצַלְמָוֶת אֲסִירֵי עֳנִי וּבַרְזֶל:
(יא) כִּי הִמְרוּ אִמְרֵי אֵל וַעֲצַת עֶלְיוֹן נָאָצוּ:
(יב) וַיַּכְנַע בֶּעָמָל לִבָּם כָּשְׁלוּ וְאֵין עֹזֵר:
(יג) וַיִּזְעֲקוּ אֶל יְהֹוָה בַּצַּר לָהֶם מִמְּצֻקוֹתֵיהֶם יוֹשִׁיעֵם:
(יד) יוֹצִיאֵם מֵחֹשֶׁךְ וְצַלְמָוֶת וּמוֹסְרוֹתֵיהֶם יְנַתֵּק:
(טו) יוֹדוּ לַיהֹוָה חַסְדּוֹ וְנִפְלְאוֹתָיו לִבְנֵי אָדָם:
(טז) כִּי שִׁבַּר דַּלְתוֹת נְחֹשֶׁת וּבְרִיחֵי בַרְזֶל גִּדֵּעַ:
(יז) אֱוִלִים מִדֶּרֶךְ פִּשְׁעָם וּמֵעֲוֹנֹתֵיהֶם יִתְעַנּוּ:
(יח) כָּל אֹכֶל תְּתַעֵב נַפְשָׁם וַיַּגִּיעוּ עַד שַׁעֲרֵי מָוֶת:
(יט) וַיִּזְעֲקוּ אֶל יְהֹוָה בַּצַּר לָהֶם מִמְּצֻקוֹתֵיהֶם יוֹשִׁיעֵם:
(כ) יִשְׁלַח דְּבָרוֹ וְיִרְפָּאֵם וִימַלֵּט מִשְּׁחִיתוֹתָם:
(כא) יוֹדוּ לַיהֹוָה חַסְדּוֹ וְנִפְלְאוֹתָיו לִבְנֵי אָדָם:
(כב) וְיִזְבְּחוּ זִבְחֵי תוֹדָה וִיסַפְּרוּ מַעֲשָׂיו בְּרִנָּה:
(כג) יוֹרְדֵי הַיָּם בָּאֳנִיּוֹת עֹשֵׂי מְלָאכָה בְּמַיִם רַבִּים:
(כד) הֵמָּה רָאוּ מַעֲשֵׂי יְהֹוָה וְנִפְלְאוֹתָיו בִּמְצוּלָה:
(כה) וַיֹּאמֶר וַיַּעֲמֵד רוּחַ סְעָרָה וַתְּרוֹמֵם גַּלָּיו:
(כו) יַעֲלוּ שָׁמַיִם יֵרְדוּ תְהוֹמוֹת נַפְשָׁם בְּרָעָה תִתְמוֹגָג:
(כז) יָחוֹגּוּ וְיָנוּעוּ כַּשִּׁכּוֹר וְכָל חָכְמָתָם תִּתְבַּלָּע:
(כח) וַיִּצְעֲקוּ אֶל יְהֹוָה בַּצַּר לָהֶם וּמִמְּצוּקֹתֵיהֶם יוֹצִיאֵם:
(כט) יָקֵם סְעָרָה לִדְמָמָה וַיֶּחֱשׁוּ גַּלֵּיהֶם:
(ל) וַיִּשְׂמְחוּ כִי יִשְׁתֹּקוּ וַיַּנְחֵם אֶל מְחוֹז חֶפְצָם:
(לא) יוֹדוּ לַיהֹוָה חַסְדּוֹ וְנִפְלְאוֹתָיו לִבְנֵי אָדָם:
(לב) וִירוֹמְמוּהוּ בִּקְהַל עָם וּבְמוֹשַׁב זְקֵנִים יְהַלְלוּהוּ:
(לג) יָשֵׂם נְהָרוֹת לְמִדְבָּר וּמֹצָאֵי מַיִם לְצִמָּאוֹן:
(לד) אֶרֶץ פְּרִי לִמְלֵחָה מֵרָעַת יוֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ:
(לה) יָשֵׂם מִדְבָּר לַאֲגַם מַיִם וְאֶרֶץ צִיָּה לְמֹצָאֵי מָיִם:
(לו) וַיּוֹשֶׁב שָׁם רְעֵבִים וַיְכוֹנְנוּ עִיר מוֹשָׁב:
(לז) וַיִּזְרְעוּ שָׂדוֹת וַיִּטְּעוּ כְרָמִים וַיַּעֲשׂוּ פְּרִי תְבוּאָה:
(לח) וַיְבָרְכֵם וַיִּרְבּוּ מְאֹד וּבְהֶמְתָּם לֹא יַמְעִיט:
(לט) וַיִּמְעֲטוּ וַיָּשֹׁחוּ מֵעֹצֶר רָעָה וְיָגוֹן:
(מ) שֹׁפֵךְ בּוּז עַל נְדִיבִים וַיַּתְעֵם בְּתֹהוּ לֹא דָרֶךְ:
(מא) וַיְשַׂגֵּב אֶבְיוֹן מֵעוֹנִי וַיָּשֶׂם כַּצֹּאן מִשְׁפָּחוֹת:
(מב) יִרְאוּ יְשָׁרִים וְיִשְׂמָחוּ וְכָל עַוְלָה קָפְצָה פִּיהָ:
(מג) מִי חָכָם וְיִשְׁמָר אֵלֶּה וְיִתְבּוֹנְנוּ חַסְדֵי יְהֹוָה:

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