Literary Analysis of Psalm 12

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

The structure of Psalm 12 mirrors its content exactly; their reflection, each of the other, parallel. The song consists of 9 lines, with verses 3, 6 and 9 explicitly exemplifying the intricate, intimate connection between form and idea; the numbers themselves indicating both a duality and a triad. The duality is immediately established in verse 2: the opposition between the “devout” and those who have supplanted them –have, indeed, eradicated them (“no more”, “no longer”) – the singer calls upon Adonai to resolve. And although Adonai thereby acts as the third element, in relation to the dual, nonetheless it is Adonai who is first named: “Deliver [me], Adonai …” (v. 2). The Hebrew verb, הוֹשִׁיעָה, “deliver”, lacks an object to complete it, but the clear implication is that the singer is defining himself as pleading for the needy.

 

Verse 3 describes the needy’s oppressors –their characteristics of mind embodied by their physical forms: “with smooth lip, and with two hearts, they will speak”. Their smooth lips are not only the essential tool of their dominance, but, indeed, their very words become the body of the gloaters. As if their physicality was, paradoxically, formed of words. Thus their self-praise, in verse 5, exults, “Through our tongues we will become greater; our lips are with us….” Their hearts are two in nature –one to inspire their words of falseness; the other, to hide their inner feelings. Even their truth –their true feeling – is deceitful.

 

The God Whom they flaunt –“who is master over us?” (v. 5) – will, the singer is convinced, blow away (v. 6) their very words of dominance, exposing them as empty air. (Their “empty” words of verse 3 thereby turned from duplicitousness to nullity.) In contrast to their lack of substance is the unalloyed purity of God’s speech:

 

The speech of Adonai pure speech,

silver refined, cleared of earth, purified sevenfold.

(v. 7)

The very quality of God’s speech reflects its creative power – it is refined sevenfold; seven, the number of the days of creation in Genesis.

 

The force of God’s breath has, in contrast to the braggarts’ words, substance: the singer imagines the voice of Adonai declaring, “I will set up deliverance”(v. 6. Italics mine.). The verb “set up” connoting solidity, a tangible thing, though its act is one of “blowing away”. What is difficult for the song’s reader or listener to ascertain, however, is the object who will feel the force of that breath – whether it be the braggarts who will be blown away (to oblivion?) or whether it be deliverance which God will bless the needy with, thereby transforming a quality, deliverance, into a substance, into something that can be actually delivered. The two interpretations work together; neither cancelling out nor opposing the other. That the duality occurs in verse 6 is appropriate, the number 6 being a combination of 2 and 3.

 

The ambiguity of verse 9, the song’s final verse, is, however, more problematic. Perhaps this is why the ambiguity occurs in verse 9; the number 9, afterall, is composed solely of 3: here, of an opposition seemingly unresolvable; its third element, Adonai, not mentioned in the verse. As though the very fact of 3, of resolution, is in question. Two interpretations are given in the translation: either the wicked encircle the needy, the remnant of “the children of Adam” not yet eradicated (their presence, “no more” and “no longer” in verse 2, merely echoing), or the wicked are themselves the defeated ones, gazing up at the needy they despise. In the first interpretation, the braggarts have lost their human form; they are “maggots”, feeding themselves upon those they have made corpses. The dead giving life to their death-dealers. In the second, the wicked walk in never-ending circles, which, unable to expand, can only, eventually implode. Thus, their very savagery –here they encircle their prey as do beasts—condemning them; their circle, an enclosure.  Rather than a symbol of infinity, the circle’s lack of a beginning or an end here imagines the wicked devoid of a past and, therefore, a future. Above them are the oppressed, rising as if the reflection of Adonai who declares “I arise” in verse 6, as if buoyed by the very breath of their deliverance. Adonai, the third element in relation to the duality, felt, if unseen.

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