Literary Analysis of Psalm 13

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

The singer’s anguish in Song 13 is so acute that the four repetitions of “how long” in verses 2 and 3 sound a scream rather than a lament. The source of the singer’s grief is the seeming absence of God — “How long, ADONAI, will You forget me? Eternally? How long will You hide Your face from me?” (V. 2) — and the certain presence of his enemies — “How long will my enemy be raised up?” (v. 3). The Hebrew words for “how long” — עַד אָנָה — imply a place or location, unlike the English which concern time alone. Thus the Hebrew conveys the singer’s sense of dislocation, without the anchoring presence of God, while the English can only suggest the plea for his own endurance.

The answer to the singer’s question is in the song’s closing verse. Trusting in God’s faithfulness, the singer voices not a scream but a melody — “I will sing to Adonai” (v. 6). His words of verse 3, “grief in my heart all day long”, transform to the song, “my heart will rejoice in Your deliverance” (v. 6). And the absent or hidden God, rather than turning from the singer (v. 2), becomes the singer’s benefactor whose “face”, hidden in verse 2, is seen in the very bounty He has provided: “He has bestowed favour upon me” (v. 6). The exultation of the singer’s foes in verse 5 (“my tormentors will rejoice in my stumbling”) is silenced in verse 6 by the exultation of the singer’s heart’s song. Even the phrase “over me” with which the singer describes his foes’ stature in verse 3 is nullified by the “upon me” of verse 6 as he realizes God’s bounty.
More poignant than the English, the Hebrew for “bestowed favour upon me” — כִּי גָמַל עָלָי — connotes a caregiver’s carrying or holding close of an infant. Thus God’s beneficence becomes that of a parent, the tenderness in this image tempering that of the one the singer previously sought — of a protector, guarding the singer from his aggressors.

The key line in the song — “send light to my eyes. If not, I will sleep the sleep of death” (v. 4) — is both chilling and heartwrenching. This is the bounty the singer asks of God — to free him from the darkness of death by granting him visionary light. If verse 6 is indeed God’s answer, then the song, as a whole, transforms. Not only in tone and mood, but, more powerfully, in its perception: seeing with closed eyes, the eyes that sleep the sleep of death, the singer perceives only the looming threat of his enemies. Seeing with eyes lit up, opened, the singer recognizes the constant presence of God. The location implied by the Hebrew in the opening and repeated cry, “How long”, the singer reaches by his trust in God’s “compassion” (v. 6) — a place of time and space combined in God’s constancy.

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

The literary analysis of this Psalm is written by Dr. Victoria Rosenberg. The analysis is a product of the discussions between Rabbi Amram Maccabi and Dr. Rosenberg who weekly study a particular Psalm which inspires the analysis then posted on the website. Victoria Hammerling Rosenberg holds a PhD in English literature and has taught at Dalhousie and Mount St. Vincent universities.

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