Literary Analysis of Psalm 11- Against the arrows of evil speech, David refuge is on G-d


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Click here to read “Psalm Six – Translation of the Song”



Song 11 presents unsolvable puzzles to its interpreters. It begins by adding a stanza to the usual identification of its composer, in itself a divergency from the previous Songs 3 to 10. Moreover, the stanza refers to someone unseen and unnamed, but for the pronoun “you”. Following immediately upon David’s assertion, “In Adonai I sheltered” (v. 1), is David’s recounting, and questioning, of the advice he has been given by “you”: “How could you speak to my soul, ‘wander, from your mountain, bird’?” (v. 1). The “you” whose words David is repeating may simply be an observer, warning him of danger. But equally as probable, “you” may be, while not one of the conspirators plotting against David, nonetheless a taunter, one who questions, derisively, why David should be seeking refuge in God rather than hiding in the sure haven of the mountains.

And yet it is not David –neither the individual nor the king– who is addressed by “you”; rather, the question is to David’s “soul”, which “you” refers to as a “bird”. That a bird should become a symbol of the soul is most likely due to both their shared quality –the bird, fragility; the soul, intangibleness — and their nature —  the bird is migratory; the soul nests in its body but is capable of reaching higher spheres than its habitat. Thus that “you” refers to David’s soul as a bird is not necessarily derogatory, unless, of course, he means to emphasize its vulnerability. At any rate, his advice to flee certainly is derisive, because it infers that David will not be protected by God; that, on the contrary, David should not face his enemies but should fly from them. Indeed, since he is told to wander from his mountain – God’s domain – perhaps the taunt is that, without God’s shelter, he is defenceless, as easily brought down as a fragile bird.

Verse 2 describes those enemies –how they hide “in the very darkness” – in its very depth — their bows and arrows ready to ambush “the upright of heart”. The “For, behold”, which opens the verse suggests that this verse as well is the voice of “you”, giving the reason for his advice to flee. (The Hebrew is without question marks, so the translator must decide –and the reader also– who is speaking.)

The speaker in verse 3 is more difficult to determine:

                                               For when the pillars are ruined, the righteous one what can he do? (V.3)

The decision of whose words these are depends upon the meaning of “the pillars”: possibly they refer to the people Israel, whom David rules over; but, as validly, they might be the bedrock of faith itself, the foundation of the nation; or perhaps they refer to the righteousness, in tenets and actions, of the upright of heart. However, whatever the reference –and the song itself gives no source– the speaker’s claim is that the supporting pillars are in ruins. That, in other words, all stability has been shattered and all that is essential, destroyed. The continuation of the question –“the righteous one what can he do?” is even bleaker: is it asking of the righteous what they can do to rebuild the shattered foundations or is it contemptuously deriding David’s inability to act? Is the question accusing David, or all of the righteous, of a failure of will? Or is it blaming their very righteousness –asking of what value righteousness is, of what purpose or use, since it was unable to ensure them protection? All of these interpretations share the common characteristic of reproach: the righteous could not prevent the destruction of the foundations. Therefore, the only recourse is flight, and as quickly as possible.

It would seem, then, that verse 3 continues voicing the words of “you”. This is no helpful observer, hoping to provide wise counsel, but rather, a mocking goader who hides behind words instead of “darkness”.

Instead of turning away from or fleeing from his attackers, be they waiting to ambush him by arguments or by actual arrows, David offers his own rebuttal, offers what is his declaration of belief: God will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. What David describes, in his certain faith, is a vision: a metaphor of God dwelling on His throne in His holy palace in heaven (v. 4)  — distant from humankind , yet judging it, dividing it into the righteous and the wicked and dispensing verdicts accordingly (v. 5).  God, in David’s vision, transforms the elements of the earth  –coal, sulfur, wind– into weapons: “Upon the wicked He will cause coals to rain; fire and brimstone and burning wind shall be the portion of their cup” (v. 6).
Flames will not only reveal the enemies’ hiding places, razing them, but they also ironically expose the backfiring of the wickeds’ attempts at ambush: darkness cannot protect them against light, be that light the gaze of God or the destructive fires of God’s punishment.

David ends his song with his conviction and belief firm and unshakable:
                                                For ADONAI is righteous; He loves
righteousness; the upright shall behold His face. (V.7)

Thus does David rebuilds the destroyed foundations.

“Righteous” and its variant, “righteousness”, repeat throughout the song, acting as a chord sounding the quality of both God and the upright of heart. First used by “you” in his audacious question (v. 3), the word “righteous” is restored to its proper possessor in David’s vision (v. 5) and declaration of faith (verse 7 describes God as “righteous” and praises its quality, “righteousness”, in His followers). The verb “perceive” – the upright will discern God’s presence – echoes the act of God’s “eyes” in verse 4, which “perceive” – examine with understanding – all of humankind. The Hebrew in verse 7 can be read to mean that it is the perception of the righteous that draws them closer to God or, in a more exact mirroring of verse 4, it is God whose face looks upon the righteous. In either interpretation, the encounter between the upright and the righteous God is envisioned.

“Face”, in the original Hebrew, is, like all of the words of the Psalms, and of the Tanach, written without vowels. Accordingly, the word can also, rather startlingly, translate as “innards”. This reading would fit the idea of God’s perception of the upright – their innermost being is discerned and judged worthy.

The parallels between verse 7 and verse 4 explain the imagery of the latter: God’s “eyes” perceive, His “eyelids” discern. That is, God examines, closely scrutinizes, humankind through His eyes both opened and closed. It would seem that the direct gaze of God’s eyes would be too intense for mortals to endure. Accordingly, the righteous are able to behold God’s face only if, as in David’s vision, God’s gaze is covered. His song ends with the implication that righteousness will accord its possessors the ability to, if not meet, at least withstand, God’s gaze.

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  1. I am an Anglican, but am really enjoying the literary analyses of the Psalms. The close reading is revealing so much more to me (after all our Psalms are not much different). I appreciate the fact that it is difficult to be articulate about one’s beliefs, spirituality and what G-D really intended. Thank you!

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