Literary analysis of Psalm 35 – All my bones say, ‘Adonai, who is like You?’

magen david photo  Song 35 is a wail more than a song, one rising out of the singer’s hurt and frustration at having been not only betrayed but vilified by the very friends he had supported and believed in. The idea inspiring the song is not difficult –the singer calls on God for support and rescue and asks, in closing, for God’s blessing upon himself and his supporters. But the structure which puts forth –indeed, animates– the idea is intricate and complicated, made up of intertwining images. The song is composed of a thrice-repeated pattern, each of the three repetitions formed of two distinct parts: the singer’s depiction of his enemies’ attempts to destroy him; followed, somewhat abruptly, by his praise of God Whom he extols as his rescuer and protector. Thus: the despair and pleas of verses 1 to 3 are followed by the praises of verses 9 and 10; of verses 11 to 17, by verse 18; of verses 19 to 26, by verses 27 and 28. And, remarkably, though the mood of the song is bitter and certainly not one of joy –the singer, after all, is seeking redress– nonetheless, the word most often repeated throughout the song is “rejoice”  — the vengeance of his opponents ultimately transfigured into the exultation of the just.

The song opens with three verses of military imagery: verse 1 pleads,
                                                                   Take my part, Adonai, against my contesters,
                                                                                            fight those who fight against me.
The very noun, “contesters”, rather than, say, “enemies”, adding to the suggestion of a battle or even a contest between warriors. Verses 2 and 3 give specific instructions as to exactly what the aid should be that the singer asks of God: God is to “steady the shield and the buckler” (v. 2) and “unsheathe the spear to the halt” (v. 3). Shocking requests. Blasphemous, seemingly. The singer is asking God to serve as his servant or page. For this service, the singer will, of course, offer grateful praise, but not quite yet. First come the verses of description, his depiction of what he wants the consequences of his enemies’ assault to be:
                                                                   Let them be shamed and disgraced,
                                                                                            who seek my life.
                                                                   Let them retreat, be abased,
                                                                                            who plot harm against me. (v. 4)
Moreover, his imagery goes on to deny his enemies their humanity itself. In verse 5 they are to be “like chaff before the wind”; verse 6 asks that “their way [be] of darkness and slippery paths”. They are, in short, to be denied stability and vitality; denied, that is, the very life that they would take from him.
Verses 7 and 8 both end with the same word with which they begin –v. 7, with “unprovoked”; v. 8, “disaster”. The structure thus acting out his hope that his enemies’ unjustified attack will meet the disastrous end they had plotted for him –the pit  they dug and the net they set will ensnare themselves alone.
Only at this point does the singer pause to extol God Who has saved him:
                                                                 But I shall exult in Adonai,
                                                                                            shall be glad in His rescue. (v. 9. Underline mine)
The “but” contrasts his own exultant and victorious state with that of his entrapped and entombed enemies.  The singer’s praises pour out of his entire being –“All my bones say, ‘Adonai, who is like You?’ ” (v. 10. Italics mine)– the word “bones” falling jarringly on the listener’s ears. Yet the imagery in the preceding verses has actually given it a context, one that emphasizes the aridity of the enemies and that transfers their vital strength to the singer. Thus, the Hebrew word for the shame that the singer wishes his enemies to feel has, as its root, the verb “to be dry”, just as does the Hebrew for “be abased” (v. 4). And the “chaff” that the singer compares them to, in v. 5, means, in both Hebrew and English, the dry and rootless covering that is no longer of use to the sprouting seed. In contrast, the bones of the singer not only provide his body’s structure, they become the signifiers of his vitality as they sound their praise of God.
The explanation for the singer’s rebuke of “unprovoked” composes the next 6 verses: he had grieved for his trusted friends, when they endured illnesses and sufferings, with an intensity as deeply felt as if he were mourning his mother (v. 14) –the image of mother connoting both nourishment and safety. (His bent body contrasting with the vibrancy of his singing bones, thereby giving assurance of a happy outcome to his own suffering.) And yet, despite his sympathy for, his loyalty to, his friends, they turn upon him when he is in distress:
                                                                    Yet when I limped, they rejoiced, and they gathered,
                                                                                             they gathered against me,
                                                                    like strangers, and I did not know,
                                                                                              Their mouths gaped and they were not still. (v.15)
This verse, 15, begins two image patterns that dominate the song from this point on until its close –of the bodily organ, the mouth; and of its action of rejoicing. His enemies encircle him as do beasts their prey: verse 15 repeats “gathered”; their mouths gaping open (v. 15) and their teeth bared (v. 16). Indeed, verse 17 proclaims them “lions”. Theirs is the rejoicing –they delight in the singer’s suffering.
And, just as verses 9 and 10 interrupt the singer’s depiction of his struggles with his opponents to offer thanks to God, so verse 18, following upon his depiction of their maliciousness,  asserts his gratitude to God his protector; moreover, his acclamation of God will not be in silent prayer, within his bones, but will sound before “a great assembly”, before “a vast crowd”. And just as his bones, in their praising, contrasted with his enemies’ aridity, so too the singer’s life, so violently threatened, will be restored and his “very being” –in Hebrew, the word names the highest level of the soul (יְחִידָתִי)– saved from the savagery of his attackers:
                                                                   O Master, how long will You see it?
                                                                                           Bring back my life from their violence,
                                                                                                          from the lions, my very being. (v. 17)
Again the singer asserts how “unprovoked” are his enemies’ assaults and how they “rejoice” over his defeats (v. 19). But, with verse 20, the singer is no longer alone among men. “The poor and the needy” he counted himself among in verse 10 are now his supporters; they are “the earth’s quiet ones” who, unlike their enemies, “speak peace” (v. 20). The gaping mouths of their attackers now shout their triumph (v. 21) –a tumult in contrast to the quiet of the peace-makers– but the singer introduces the imagery of seeing to combat their strident “Hurrah”: their “eyes have seen” what they take to be the singer’s defeat (v. 21); in answer, the singer pleads with God to “wake for my cause” (v. 23), to act to thwart what “You, Adonai, have seen” (v. 22). “Do not be mute” (v. 22), he urges — God’s eyes will prompt His voice to “rouse” itself and curb the “contemptuous mocking chatter” of the unworthy friends (v. 16), silencing their slander and stopping their “devouring” mouths (v. 25). God’s “justice” will rule against them: “let them not rejoice over me” (v. 24). Verse 26 re-iterates the notes sounded in verse 4: “Let them be shamed and abased”.
Verses 27 and 28 end the song by transforming the images of destruction into those of triumphant creativity: the gaping mouths (v. 15), the malicious chattering (v. 11,16), that make up the rejoicing of the enemies (v. 15, 19, 24, 26), give way to the glad songs and rejoicing of those who, emulating God, desire justice: “May they sing glad and rejoice, who desire justice for me” (v. 27). And verse 28 strengthens by repetition, “and my tongue will murmur Your justice”. Thus the images of the mouth and the tongue, of the enemies’ chattering slander and of their unwarranted, idle rejoicing, become the images of gladness and rejoicing belonging solely to the peace-lovers and seekers of justice. The apparent blasphemy of the opening verses is nullified: the evocation of God as “Master” in verse 17 is again affirmed in verse 27, “Great is Adonai Who desires His servant’s well-being” (italics mine), making clear that the singer and his allies are God’s servants; their allegiance to God alone and their battles in God’s service. The praises of the singer and his supporters are, moreover, not of the moment –they will sound “all day long” (v. 28). The daylight makes vivid not only their creativity but their openness. Theirs is the praisesong of their entire being –bones to mouth– to be sung throughout the days of creation; days, that is, of life.

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