Literary analysis of Psalm 30 – “You have turned my lament into dancing for me”

ריקוד photo Song 30 presents a puzzle in its opening verse: “song for the dedication of the house” (v. 1). The “house”, commentators have long assumed, is the temple. And yet the temple was built not by David but by Solomon. It would seem, then, that David composed the song for the temple he envisioned, so that though he himself would not enter it, his words and melody would fill its space.

Literary analysis of Psalm 29

voice photo  Click here to read “Psalm Twenty-nine: Translation of the Song”

 

Song 29 is a symphony of words: verses 1 to 9 compose a crescendo of sound; verses 10 and 11, a diminuendo rather than a resolution.

Literary analysis of Psalm 28 – I will thank Him with my song.

voice photoThe dominant imagery of Song 28 is, appropriately enough in a praisesong, that of sound:

                                                      To You, Adonai, I call.
                                                                                My Rock, do not be deaf to me….(v. 1)
                                                      Hear the sound of my pleading
                                                                                when I cry out to You…. (v. 2)
                                                      …. [the wrongdoers] who speak peace to their fellows (v. 3)
                                                      Blessed is Adonai
                                                                                for He has heard the sound of my pleading (v. 6)
                                                                           .... and with my song I acclaim Him (v. 7)
The song has four sections: the first, verses 1 and 2, is the singer’s plea to God to hear his prayer. The first verse contains a paradox — God, Whom the singer calls “My Rock”, is asked, “do not be deaf to me” — the solidity and impassiveness of a rock seemingly at odds with any sort of perception; certainly with the physical one of hearing. And yet the plea honours God to Whom it is addressed, for it  recognizes that, while God has the strength of rock, God, more essentially, hears –has understanding– a capacity that a rock, of course, cannot have.
The singer’s pleading rises upward, just as his hands “lift up” toward God’s “holy Shrine” (v. 2). The upward movement is countered by the stark image of the singer’s fate should God not listen to his prayers: “Lest….I be like those gone down to the Pit” (v. 1). And the sound itself of the singer’s cries has its contrast in the silence of God should God not heed his call: “Lest You be mute to me” (v. 1). The implication, however, that the singer will be heard is inherent in the order of the verses’ imagery: while the first verse depicts the bleak fate of the singer should God refuse him, the second verse consists of the singer’s prayers; the motion of his hands, uplifted in unison with his song, counters the image of the abysmal Pit.
The second section, verses 3 to 5, describes the hypocrisy of the wrongdoers whose fate the singer prays will not be his:
                                                      Do not pull me down with the wicked,
                                                                              and with the wrongdoers,
                                                      who speak peace to their fellows
                                                                              with foulness in their heart. (v. 3)
He hopes that their wickedness will not only defeat them but will rebound upon them, so that they will suffer just as they have caused their victims to. “Pay them back” is the twice repeated entreatment of verse 4, its insistence giving a sense of urgency to the request. The “acts” of the wicked (v. 4) oppose the “acts of Adonai” (v. 5). “Their handiwork” (v. 4), the nihilistic opposite of “His handiwork” (v. 5). Their destructiveness is directed not only toward their fellows, and their denial not only that of God, but their enmity extends toward all creation:
                                                      For they understand not the acts of Adonai
                                                                                and His handiwork they would destroy and not build. (v. 5)
They are, then, the inhabitants of the Pit the singer fears in v. 1; the verb “pull down” of v. 3 echoing the “gone down to” of v.1, so that both words and ideas, structure and content, make clear the connection between the wrongdoers and the abyss.
Verses 6 and 7, the song’s third section. change both its focus and mood. The past tense of the verbs –“He has heard” (v. 6)*; “I was helped” (v. 7)– states that, in the space between the sections, the singer’s prayers were answered.  His gratitude is expressed in the present tense –“In Him my heart trusts …. and I acclaim Him” (v. 7); the juxtaposition between the two tenses, past and present, infers that his gratefulness to and trust in God will define his future as well:
                                                     Adonai is my strength and my shield.
                                                                           In Him my heart trusts.
                                                    I was helped and my heart rejoiced,
                                                                           and with my song I acclaim Him. (v. 7)
Even the sound of the singer’s praise is magnified by the word chosen by the singer to describe it:  to the Hebrew word for “praise”, “o-de-nu”, the singer adds the letter “hey” (ה), changing the word to “ah-ho-de-nu”, “acclaim”, thus creating the sense of sound reverberating, echoing and re-echoing in the very air. The “hey”, in effect, creating a resonance box.
And the singer’s song does, in effect, peal out in its last section, verses 8 and 9, as he transcends his individuality to join the people Israel. God, Who, in v. 7, is the singer’s “strength” and “shield”, his “rock” in v. 1, is now “His people‘s strength” and his protection their “stronghold of rescue” (v. 8). The idea of rescue secured rectifies the threat of the Pit in v. 1; the “stronghold” re-imagines the image in v. 2 of God’s “holy shrine” by adding to it the connotation of protection. What the singer had pleaded for himself –to be heard, to be rescued– is now granted all of God’s “estate” (v. 9): just as the singer had acknowledged “Blessed is Adonai” in v. 6, so now, at the song’s closing sound, God’s blessing enhances the nation.
The last line of the song turns the idea of “rescue” into a vision of tender care:
                                                         Rescue Your people
and bless Your estate.
Tend them, bear them up for all time.
Robert Alter, whose translation of the Hebrew into English I quote in this analysis,  explains in his footnote to v. 9: ” The first of these two verbs [‘tend them, bear them up’] is the one used for a shepherd’s looking after his flock. It is likely, then, that the second verb, ‘bear’ or ‘lift up’ (the same word used for the hands in prayer in verse 2), also refers to a pastoral context — the act of a shepherd bearing a lamb in his arms.” (Robert Alter’s translation of “The Book of Psalms”, p. 97)
David, while envisioning the protection God extends to His people — while, in fact, asking God for that sanctuary (“Rescue Your people”)– does, at the same time, distance himself from them. He asks God to tend not “us” but “them”. The verse preceding gives the explanation for his doing so: Adonai is “His anointed‘s stronghold of rescue”. David, anointed by Samuel, is Israel’s ruler (1Samuel 16:13) By seemingly distancing himself, then, he is neither arrogant nor disdainful. Rather, he is identifying himself as king, and his people, in his care. He begins his song imaging himself as helpless, fearful both of God’s turning from him and of his enemies; he ends with the identification of himself as God’s anointed. The last line of his song is, accordingly, the king’s prayer for his people. His care of his people is the obligation of kingship’s term; God’s, he recognizes and affirms, is “for all time’.
* V. 6, “for He has heard the sound of my pleading”, echoes v. 2, “Hear the sound of my pleading” but for the verb tense.
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Literary analysis of Psalm 26 – But I walk with sincerity; redeem me and be gracious to me.

baby photoAlthough it is certainly a praisesong, Song 26 seems intended to be spoken, rather than sung. Probably because it is a self-defense, as if it were being argued in a divine court (“the abode of Your house”, v.8), before the judge, Adonai. No prosecutor; simply the closing arguments of the defendant. That argument is framed by two verbs that sound, clarion, a plea — “Judge” in v. 1; “Redeem”, v. 11.

Literary analysis of Psalm 25 – “To You, O Lord, I will lift up my soul”

missing photoSong 25 makes an intruder out of its reader or listener. The sense is of overhearing an intensely intimate prayer.* And yet, paradoxically, the frame of the song, that which determines its structure, is formal — each line begins, in Hebrew, with a letter of the alphabet, in their proper order. Perhaps the contradiction between such an ordered structure and so personal a prayer can be explained by the very fact that the singer is using the format of the alphabet: the Kabbalists believed that the Hebrew letters “are the structural elements, the stones from which the edifice of Creation was built” (Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, p. 168). Though there are over 2000 years between King David and the Kabbalists, certainly as a poet –and, afterall, David’s Praisesongs are songs in words– he would know that the letters of the alphabet are the writer’s only means of embodying thought. The singer’s central theme in Song 25 is of his own unworthiness and of his hope for redemption. If, then, the letters are essential to compositions in words, what more appropriate way to express his theme than by using the alphabet format? That is, the very letters that underlie creation –be it of the universe or of individual writings– reveal David’s attempt, to re-create, re-form, himself, so that he will be worthy of redemption.

Literary analysis of Psalm 24 – Who shall go up on the mount of ADONAI

The sound and the sense of Song 24 suggest a pageant. In contrast to the personal tone of Song 23, Song 24’s is formal, dominated by rhetorical questions and answers, as though two voices, or, more probably, two choruses are meant to sing the roles of questioner and responder.

בית המקדש photo

The song begins with a declaration of allegiance: all of earth belongs to its creator —
                                        The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness (v. 1)
The very word “fullness” connotes creativity, abundance.
The verse following explains the reason for the fullness; its source is God who “on the seas did found it, and on the torrents set it firm” (v. 2)  — a re-iteration of the description in Genesis of God’s creation of the earth, of the initial separating of the firmament and the waters. The song’s concern is not with the act of separation or with the waters, but with the firmness of the earth; though its foundation is the torrents, it is, nonetheless, solid and its characteristic of stability the opposite of the churning motion of the waters.
Having established the undissolvable connection between God and the earth, the song adds a second theme — one melody leading to another. Verses 3 to 6 describe the qualities that the individual must possess in seeking God’s presence:
                                         The clean of hands and the pure of heart,
                                                                 who has given no oath in a lie
                                                                                 and has sworn not in deceit. (v. 4)
Those qualities are three: hands and heart, both must be pure; the “and” making clear that action and intent are joined, one the equivalent of the other. The stipulation to give no oath “in a lie”, nor “in deceit”, gives the third essential element –mouth; speech, acts, thoughts, all must correspond.
The image of the mountain in verse 3 introduces the theme that will dominate the rest of the song, that of humankind ascending, and God descending; their meeting-point possible only through those pure enough to be counted among the generation of seekers who venerate Jacob, he who is, afterall, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel:
                                      Who shall go up on the mount of the Lord,
                                                              and who shall stand up in His holy place? (v. 3)
Those pure ones will receive God’s blessing and reward:
                                       This is the generation of His seekers,
                                                                those who seek out His presence, O Jacob. (v. 6)
The final four verses of the song add a third theme, a melody in which the chorus divides into questioner and responder. The symbols of gates and portals join that of the mountain; indeed, earth, in its fullness, shows its readiness to rise up to greet Adonai: the Creator, the Ruler, the Warrior  — all aspects of sovereignty —   is hailed, proclaimed, beseeched to enter:
                                       Lift up your heads, O gates,
                                                             and rise up, eternal portals,
                                                                            that the king of glory may enter. (v. 7)
“Lift”, “rise” are the verbs of the earth’s greeting; “may enter”, the bounty that the king of glory bestows  — the “may” expressive of the singer’s humble hopefulness.
Song 24 is recited during Monday, Thursday and Sunday services, when the Torah is returned to the Ark. The praisesong chosen for its appropriateness, for the Ark, the repository of God’s teachings, is the material embodiment of the gates, portals and mountain, the symbols of the people Israel’s responsiveness to God. Accordingly, it is also the praisesong sung in the High Holidays along with the prayer for sustenance.
A midrash from Talmud Shabbat   (p. 30) emphasizes how essential a place this praisesong must have, not only in Jewish prayer, but, indeed, in its religious pageantry: when King Solomon prepared to open the gates of the Temple –the first Temple, his construction — to allow the Ark to enter for the first time, the gates refused to lift. Only when he recited his father’s song, song 24, verses 7 to 10, did the gates rise up, permitting the bearers of the Ark to bring it into the Temple.
בית המקדש photo

Literary analysis of Psalm 23

Shepard sheep photo  Click here to read “Psalm Twenty-three: Translation of the Song”

Literary Analysis of Psalm 22

Two visions create Song 22; one perceives the present and one, the future. Each describes an extreme state of being and each is the polar opposite of the other.

The song opens with the voicing of an anguish so intense that, more than a cry, it is, in the singer’s words, “roars”, the image suggestive of a lion (v. 2). Yet no aggression, but rather despair, issues such sounds; the singer’s terror at being abandoned by God: “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” His roar of words receives no answer, its noise diminished by an invasive silence:

Literary Analysis of Psalm 21

Both the structure of the praisesong and its themes are complements. Each describes the singer’s feeling of certainty; his sureness of God’s protection and his gratitude for it. No wonder, then, that the most striking repetition in the song is the word “Indeed”, that begins verses 4, 7, 8, 12 and 13, for it denotes certainty.
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The king, David, is both the singer and the subject of the song. He is sure enough of God’s bounty that he describes how God has appointed him king, how God has “set upon his head a crown of fine gold” (v. 4). His kingship becomes, accordingly, the mark of God’s favour. And yet, God’s beneficence to him causes him not to boast but to rejoice: the glory and majesty that God has bestowed upon him reflects, the singer emphasizes, God’s own strength and splendour. So proclaim verses 1 through 7.

Verse 7 is somewhat problematic:
                                                             Indeed You set for him blessings forever,
                                                             gladden him with the joy of Your face.
The “forever” echoes the “everlasting” of verse 5:
                                                             Life he asked of You;
                                                             You have granted him length of days, everlasting.
The singer may be referring to his faith having rewarded him a portion of eternity, but the song’s sphere is this world, not the possibility of the next; and if his descendants are to secure his immortality in human memory, they too have no mention in his song. “The joy of Your face” is even more puzzling. Does the singer mean that God, in blessing the king, looks upon him with joy? Or is the joy the singer’s own, as he declares his gladness for having been blessed? Or is he acknowledging that all the blessings that he, the king, has received, are due to the joyful face God has turned towards him? Probably all are valid. But the Hebrew adds a dimension the English translation lacks: it omits the preposition “of”, so that the line reads, “gladdens him with the joy, Your face”. The blessings transform, in this description, into the revealing –so much more than merely reflecting– of God’s face.

The most powerful stanza of the poem, the very centre of it both in placement (verse 8 out of 14) and statement, declares,
                                                              Indeed the king trusts in Adonai,
                                                              and through the faithfulness of the Most High, he is not shaken.

Having expressed his gratitude for God’s beneficence in verses 1 to 7, the singer describes, in verses 9 to 13, God’s defeat of the king’s enemies. If the king has been granted days everlasting, blessings forever, his enemies, in contrast, have not only been defeated, but have, in effect, been obliterated:
                                                             You destroy their offspring from the earth,
                                                              their progeny from among men.
                                                                                                                        (v. 11)
But it is in the juxtaposition of the word “face” that the awfulness of the enemies’ fate is exposed: verse 7 describes the “joy, God’s face”; verse 10 imagines the “fiery furnace when Your face appears” as, in anger, God destroys those who hate the king, “and fire consumes them”. Moreover, the very faces of the enemies are, in verse 13, the object of God’s attack: “You aim at their faces with Your bows”.
The peacefulness of the song’s first half has given way to violence, in the second half. But it is an assault their own hatred of God has brought upon the enemies.

Verse 14 is the resolution, the calm restored:
                                                              Be exalted, Adonai, through Your strength;
                                                              we sing and chant the praises of Your mighty acts.
The opening of the verse, “Be exalted”, recalls the beseeching “Arise” in Psalms 9 and 10. The Hebrew for “arise” is “kumah”; for “exalt”, “rumah”. The near exactness of the two words indicates their connectedness. The singer, as though recognizing the connection, gives the name “Most High” to God (v. 8). God has, David believes, raised him to kingship (v. 4); he, in turn, acknowledges and exalts God’s kingship. Now, however, the king’s voice is joined by those of his people. The pronoun “we” is used for the first and only time in the song. What they together praise are God’s “mighty acts”: the adjective “might” echoes the phrase “through Your strength”, the phrase that ends the song as it begins it. Might, the song realizes, is God’s; it is God’s strength that David identifies as the defeater of his enemies. But it is “we”, the people Israel, who, in sounding allegiance to God, exalt the “Most High”.

Literary analysis of Psalm 27 – One thing I ask of Adonai

For the entire month of Elul, leading into Succot, this Psalm is traditionally read at both morning and evening services. Perhaps because its last stanza –“Hope in Adonai; be strong and of good courage!”`– may fortify those who recite it, as they face the Days of Repentance and Judgement. Perhaps because the first line of the song itself suggests both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “Adonai is my light and salvation” — that quality of God recognized in Rosh Hashanah is light; that sought for in Yom Kippur, salvation