Literary analysis of Psalm 33 “For He did speak and it came to be”

creation photoSong 33 celebrates creation –the creative process, that is, worked by speech and eye; together comprising perception divinely inspired but possible to the human imagination. Appropriately, then, the song divides into 7 parts; though, interestingly, those parts involve different verses, depending upon whether the divisions are according to theme (to the qualities unique to divine and to human creativity) or to a description of God’s attributes alone. In either case, the division is into 7 parts. Dividing the song into those verses which give a particular word or phrase in praise of God, describing altogether 7 attributes, the result is: verses 4 and 5 (God’s virtues); 6 and 7 (God’s word); 8 to 11 (eternal God); 12 (God’s choice of Israel); 13 to 15 (all-seeing God); 16 and 17 (God’s majesty); 18 and 19 (God’s mercy to the faithful). In this division, the 7 attributes of God are framed by the opening verses (1 to 3) and the closing (20 to 22). Even the opening three verses, moreover, compose a 7-fold march of verbs: “sing” and “praise” (v. 1); “acclaim” and “hymn” (v. 2); “sing”, “play”, and “shout” (v. 3) –each verb directing the choir to joyously proclaim Adonai. Number seven in Jewish mystics symbolizes ‘Nature’.

My analysis, however, of the song, will look at a thematic division and discuss the song’s description of perception. To begin: the song’s opening verses, 1 to 3, are the singer’s address to, most likely, a choir, or, perhaps, to all of his listeners or readers. His counsel is that of a choir-master, exhorting and encouraging, that his choir may be inspired to new heights of creativity:
                                                        Sing Him a new song,
                                                                                play deftly with a joyous shout. (v. 3)
That the singers are accomplished musicians is made clear by the adverb “deftly” –the choir is skillful enough to accompany its song by the sound of a lute so that the voices of singers and their instruments will blend in jubilation. The exact number of strings is specified for the lute, 10: made up of two digits, 1 and 0, the number indicates divine completion, the unity of God, coupled with a circle (or the oval shape of an egg), representing the cycle of creation, the promise of renewal. Perhaps the number also hints at the Ten Commandments, the moral imperatives that the choir would know and practice, for they are called “righteous” by the singer:
                                                      Sing gladly, O righteous, of Adonai,
                                                                                 for the upright, praise is befitting. (v. 1)
Verses 4 to 9, the song’s second part, describe the “kindness” of God for whom the new song is to be sung; kindness manifested in the act of creation itself. Recounting the creation of the heavens, the sea, and the earth, the emphasis of the verses is that the creative act is tooled by the word of God; the singer does not simply retell the account in Genesis, but certainly his images reflect its perception:
                                                     By the word of Adonai the heavens were made,
                                                                               and by the breath of His mouth all their array. (v. 6)
                                                     For He did speak and it came to be,
                                                                                He commanded, and it stood. (v. 9)
Intriguing that the singer makes a distinction between the creation of the heavens –fashioned by God’s word– and of its array (presumably the stars, moon, sun, planets) — fashioned by God’s breath. Perhaps the array is more fittingly formed by the breath, the force propelling words; that is, intent is sufficient to create what is described as an ornamentation to the heavens. But the word, the outward manifestation of intent, is needed to direct the primary element.
The metaphors describing the formation of the waters are also puzzling: God “gathers like a mound the sea’s waters” (v. 7). The image of water shaped into mounds is made comprehensible by its implicit recall of the two instances in the Torah when the waters of the sea were made to stand, paradoxically, as if mounds of liquid: God’s division of waters, depicted in Genesis, in the initial act of separating the dry land and the waters; the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus to ensure the Israelites’ escape from their Egyptian pursuers. The mounding of the waters in verse 7 precedes the singer’s description of the earth, in the verse following, so that it would seem to be a portrayal of their containment so that the earth too might stand. The imagery of containment continues in the depiction of God’s placing of the depths of the waters into storehouses –“puts in treasure houses the deeps” (v. 7)– a confinement that honours the waters (“treasure”) while allowing the earth existence.
The difference between God’s creativity and that of human beings is starkly announced in the song’s third section, verses 10 and 11: the “counsel of nations” and “the devisings of people” are defined as transitory and insufficient; in contrast, God’s counsel is “eternal”, God’s devisings “serving all generations”.
An explicit distinction between nations and peoples and the one nation, the one people, chosen to be an “estate for Him” is declared in verse 12. Indeed, the distinction is of such importance to the singer –who, after all, is ruler of Israel– that it is set off from the rest of the verses, its two lines forming the fourth section of the poem. Just as Israel stands apart, so too is this verse a separate thematic whole: its subject, that the nature of its relationship with God bestows happiness upon Israel, contrasts to the depiction of “all the world’s dwellers” in verse 8, for they “dread Him”. That verse 12 begins with the word “happy” gives emphasis to the privilege accorded Israel.
Verse 13 to 15, the song’s fifth part, add the second component essential to God’s creativity –perception. God first speaks, then sees –then, that is, gives definition to what God has created:
                                                       From the heavens Adonai looked down,
                                                                                 saw all the human creatures. (v. 13)
God’s perception is clearly one with God’s judgement:
                                                       He fashions their heart one and all.
                                                                                  He understands all their doings. (v. 15)
Just as God looked upon creation and judged its worthiness in Genesis, so God, in the singer’s description, comprehends all that human beings “do” –all their actions and intentions. And, as in Genesis, God first fashions, then judges.
Making subtle comparison to the creative power of God, verses 16 and 17 –the song’s sixth section– denigrate the might of creatures; be those creatures as exalted as kings, as powerful as warriors, or as strong and serviceable as horses, their prowess is declared a “lie”. Nor does the singer allow any boastfulness of human might — it is as vulnerable as that of the animals that serve it. Moreover, that physical strength alone is not the basis of comparison, but, rather,  comprehension, is indicated by the three repetitions of “surfeit”: no matter the abundant abilities of creatures, those capabilities are inadequate, ineffective, in comparison to their creator’s.
The closing verses of the song, 18 to 22, describe human creativity. Indicatively, the first word of these verses is “look”: the creative tools of the human –perception, then speech — reverse, while imitating, those of God. That perception is not the unique possession of humankind is immediately brought out by the phrase “the eye of Adonai” that follows upon the opening admonition to look:
                                                       Look, the eye of Adonai is on those who fear Him,
                                                                                    on those who yearn for His kindness. (v. 18)
Those who fear and who yearn for God are asked to look upon God –not, perhaps, to perceive merely their own reflections. The verb “fear” may very well recall that of “dread” in verse 5: that is,all who seek God are asked to be aware of, if not to meet, God’s gaze. The “kindness” that characterizes God in verse 5, that “fills the earth”, is reaffirmed. The vulnerability and fragility of God’s creatures is poignantly emphasized as those requests asked of God by the fearful and the yearning are declared in verse 19: “to save their lives from death and in famine to keep them alive”. Verses 20 to 22 sound those yearnings in song. They compose the “new song” the singer asked of his chorus in verse 3 –and so the song’s end meets its beginning. The pronoun “we” announces that it is the chorus who is singing; their song itself attesting to their righteousness, praised by their leader in the opening verse. Again, human creativity echoes and imitates the divine: in song “the upright” compose their praise of God whose “word” is “upright” (v. 4).  Together, chorus master and  chorus “wait” for God’s blessing, look to God’s gaze; they “trust” in God’s “kindness” –the word’s third repetition in the song– the kindness that shows itself in God’s “help” and “shield” (v. 20). The final chords of the song –voices and lutes pealing– proclaim,
                                                         May your kindness, O Adonai, be upon us,
                                                                                      as we have yearned for You. (v. 22)
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