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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