Psalm 113 – Transcendence and Imminence Meet
TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)
Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD.
2. Let the name of the LORD be blessed from this time through forever.
3. From the rising of the sun through its setting, praised is the name of the LORD.
4. Elevated above all nations is the LORD; above the heavens is His glory.
5. Who is like the LORD our God, Who ascends to be seated.1
6. Who descends to see, in the heavens and in earth.
7. Elevating the poor one from the dust, from the refuse heap He exalts the needy one,
8. to seat him with noblemen, with the noblemen of his people.
9. He seats the childless woman at home as the happy mother of children.
1. Probably implies a throne.
Tightly structured and clearly stated, Psalm 113 celebrates the greatest of paradoxes: a God who is above all, but Who cares most for the suffering individual. The psalm unfolds by degrees. It is a celebration and a call to praise, bordering on prayer in its description of God. Given its subject and the legitimacy of borrowing in the ancient literary world, it is not surprising that its phrases are found in many other texts, and yet its weave is unique.
I here note the tone of the psalm’s metaphors and descriptions and then proceed to the integrated structures and highlighted paradoxes. I end with a few comments on the psalmist’s technique, and an added note on liturgy.
Psalm 113 rests on the description of extremes, which are presented not as opposites, but as end points of continua: one end is always related to the other and there is contact and movement between them. The text constantly recalls these end points: servants of the Lord/Lord; this time (now)/forever; rising sun/setting; ascends/descends; heaven/earth; poor-needy/noblemen; childless/mother; man/woman. These are supplemented by verbs of transformation in the last verses. The connectedness of the end points is further emphasized by an unusual doubling pattern of prepositions: “from… through” (vv. 2–3), “above” (v. 4), “in” (v. 6), “from” (v. 7), and “with” (v.8).
Structure and Paradox: I
Interpreters have proposed two base structures for Psalm 113 and they usually choose one or the other. Both hold.
There is a threefold division of three verses each. The first section (vv. 1–3) introduces (as Abravanel pointed out) what would seem to be a call to praise, laying out subject (the "servants of the LORD," who are variously seen as all Israelites, those presents in worship, all people who can accept God, or only a levitical choir), object, time (v. 2), and place (v. 3). Most interpreters, however, also see verse 3 as time (dawn and evening), a parallel to verse 2, making the opening section a ringing emphasis on eternity. The section is marked by triple repetitions of “name of the LORD,” and the word “praise” itself, which together define the purpose of the psalm. (I am assuming that the opening “Hallelujah,” which also means “praise,” is not integral to the original composition.) After reading the first section, one presumes that God’s glory lies in His eternity.
The second section (vv. 4–6) is framed by “heavens,” and indeed tends to speak of the greatness of God, whose glory then takes on a geographical as well as a temporal dimension.
The third section (vv. 7–9) radically transforms the previous two, the broad strokes now detailed as support for the downtrodden. The text carefully repeats terms from the second section. God, Who is “elevated” (v. 4), now “elevates” the poor; He Who is “seated” on high (v. 5) now reseats the needy and the barren. Thus terms previously used to describe the ultimate now are applied to human needs.
This structure reflects one of the psalm’s basic messages. In other biblical texts God looks down from heaven―here (vv. 4, 6) He looks down upon heaven! God is above all―hence the incredible movement from one end of the world to the other. As opposed to the beginning of the psalm, which focused on God’s glory above, focus is now placed on His detailed care of the lowly and unfortunate. Transcendence and imminence meet.
For those hearing or reading the psalm, such a message could be all important, either for dealing with their own sad fates or for acting properly with the less fortunate, in imitation of God.
Though clearly delineated, the sections are carefully bound together. Thus verse 3, the end of the first section, first understood as time, can also be read, according to Abravanel and others, as place (east to west). As so often, both are probably meant, so verse 3 flows smoothly into verse 4 (the former being the horizontal, the latter the vertical). Similarly, the third section picks up not only on the terminology of the second, but also reflects an antiquated verb form used twice there (see more below), again establishing a smooth flow from observation (v. 6) to action (vv. 7–9).
Structure and Paradox: II
A second structure also echoes content. The beginning of Psalm 113 focuses on the Lord in broad strokes, whereas the end centers on individuals. Through verse 5, God seems above it all, and indeed that section (vv. 1–5) includes all six mentions of the proper name “LORD,” rounded out to a perfect seven by the added “our God.” Once again, however, there is a smooth transition, for the second half must be read minimally from the second half of verse 5. After “our God,” all divine references are only by pronoun, as the focus shifts to earth. Only the second section has the antiquated verb forms noted above, and indeed all the action verbs are confined to this second section, focused on God’s deeds. These begin with the action at the end of verse 5, His ascending to sit. Thrones in antiquity were built above steps. The verse indicates that God, perhaps previously too far removed (above the heavens), now ascends the throne, taking on the proper role of king, which begins with sitting and continues with taking note of the situation (“see,” v. 6).
Here again, form highlights a paradox inherent in the text. God’s proper name is particular to
, as is the phrase, “our God.” The detail of His beneficence, however, as many have pointed out, is the relief of human suffering. Here is no national agenda, but a human one, and indeed, there is no reference in this psalm to the variety of specific Israelite references often found in Psalms: Israel , king, Jerusalem , wars, laws, etc. Temple here sees its God as the Divinity Who cares for all those who suffer, an impressive mark of internationalism. Israel
Although paradoxes inherently bear within themselves the seeds of tension (if considered logically), it is also worth noting that here both paradoxes are only celebrated.
Turns of Phrase
Verse 2 and on might be the continued words of the speaker, or could be the response of the "servants of the LORD" who are invited to praise in verse 1. "Let" (v.2) is a form of "to be" and is a pun on the Tetragrammaton, the "LORD" (based on "to be"), approximately, "Let He Who causes to be, be praised."
There is a harmony to Psalm 113 that goes beyond the repeated prepositions and beyond the “opposites” that really define a continuum or interrelationship. As in most psalms, there are several repetitions: “praise,” “name,” “Lord,” “elevate,” “heavens,” “noblemen,” and “seat.” Further, the second half the psalm makes use of an ancient grammatical form that adds an “ee” sound to a participle in the construct state, creating a rhyming effect in its five appearances (one of which actually adds this sound to what moderns would call an infinitive, contrary to the norms even of ancient grammar, presumably as the poet got carried away with the rhyme). The archaic tone adds depth, implying that this is God's pattern from of old. There is an assonance effect through several words using the sh-m combination: “name” (shem, vv. 1, 2, 3); “sun” (shemesh, v. 3); and “heavens” (shamayim, vv. 4, 6).
A word is due on the childless woman as a symbol. Certainly this is a metaphor, but, as Brueggemann points out, it also points to historical verity. An ancient Israelite would be familiar with the childbearing delays and difficulties of the first foremothers: Sarah (Gen. 11:30), Rebecca (Gen. 25:21), and Rachel (Gen. 29:31), and the psalmist also had Hannah in mind, for there is close similarity between this psalm and Hannah’s thanksgiving hymn after she bore a child (compare vv. 7–9 with I Sam. 2:8 and 5). The citation, then, recalls specific historical "fact" (as does the use of this image in Isaiah 54:1; 66:8).
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Additional Comment: Liturgy
Psalm 113 is the first of a series of psalms (through 118) known since Talmudic times as the Egyptian Hallel (the latter term means “praise”) recited on major Jewish festivals and some other occasions. It is also recited as part of the evening Passover liturgy over a meal (the seder), so it is assumed to be the “hymn” recited by Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper (Matt. 26:30; Mark ), which was a seder. This and two other psalms from Hallel were adopted into the Easter liturgy.
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 : 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 email@example.com.
(א) הַלְלוּיָהּ הַלְלוּ עַבְדֵי יְהֹוָה הַלְלוּ אֶת שֵׁם יְהֹוָה:
(ב) יְהִי שֵׁם יְהֹוָה מְבֹרָךְ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם:
(ג) מִמִּזְרַח שֶׁמֶשׁ עַד מְבוֹאוֹ מְהֻלָּל שֵׁם יְהֹוָה:
(ד) רָם עַל כָּל גּוֹיִם יְהֹוָה עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ:
(ה) מִי כַּיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ הַמַּגְבִּיהִי לָשָׁבֶת:
(ו) הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי לִרְאוֹת בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ:
(ז) מְקִימִי מֵעָפָר דָּל מֵאַשְׁפֹּת יָרִים אֶבְיוֹן:
(ח) לְהוֹשִׁיבִי עִם נְדִיבִים עִם נְדִיבֵי עַמּוֹ:
(ט) מוֹשִׁיבִי עֲקֶרֶת הַבַּיִת אֵם הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה הַלְלוּיָהּ: