Literary analysis of Psalm 36 – For with You is the source of life; in Your light we will see light.

דוד המלך photo  The opening line of the song juxtaposes the master or conductor of the musicians and the servant of God. This implied contrast contains no rebuke, no moral judgement. It simply denotes that even the most eminent among those who sing God’s praises are but servants of  their divine ruler. However, the contrast that follows, that makes up the remainder of the song, is indeed a reprimand: the wicked man, choosing to be controlled by malevolency, is not only contrasted with but is defeated by God Whose governance extends throughout the earth.

Verses 2 to 5 describe the wicked man who listens to the voice of a figure called Crime. The personified malevolence denies any fear of God, asserting instead hatred (v. 3), mischief and deceit (v. 4): “evil he does not despise” (v. 5). The wicked man hears the voice of Crime “within his heart”; sees his heresy “before [his] eyes” (v. 2), and, reflecting Crime’s point of view, ceases “to do good” (v. 4), choosing in its place “a way of no good” (v. 5). This choice he makes even in his sleep –so much is he ruled by his wickedness that “in his bed, mischief he plots” (v. 5). It has become part of his being –guiding his heart, his eyes, his mouth; fermenting his unconscious mind itself.

Verses 6 to 10 celebrate God, never the ruled but, rather, only the Ruler, Whose dominion is not limited by the physicality of a mortal being, but which extends from heavens and skies (v. 6) to “the unending mountains” and “the great abyss” (v. 7):  the limitlessness of Adonai and of Adonai’s qualities of faithfulness, kindness and justice (v. 6 and 7) are reflected in the characteristics of creation itself –without limits to its heights or depths. The images are creative and benevolent:
How dear is Your kindness, O Adonai,
                                                                                      and the sons of men in Your wings shadow shelter. (v. 8)
God provides sustenance to the sons of men:
They take their fill from the fare of Your house
                                                                               and from Your stream of delights You give them drink. (v. 9)
But it is verse 10 that makes clear that God is not merely the provider of bounty; is indeed the very source of life and, accordingly, light:
For with You is the fountain of life,
                                                                                         In Your light we shall see light.
Only in this verse does the pronoun “we” occur in the song: the singer is grouping himself with all those who see by God’s light; whose perception, that is, is directed by God. The contrast with the eyes of the figure of Crime and of his servant, the wicked man, is implicit but certain.

The song closes with prayer: first, the singer asks, on behalf of all of the upright of heart, that they be blessed with God’s kindness (v. 11); then asks, on his own behalf, that he not follow in or be directed by the ways of the wicked –that he be guided by neither “haughty foot” nor “hand of the wicked” (v. 12). The verb “repel” indicates, however, that the prayer has already been answered: no longer is he, if ever he were, attracted to the wicked; his guide is Adonai alone.

The last verse, describing the fate of the wicked, brings the song back to its beginning. And so the circular structure acts out the quality of infinity that is God’s. The verbs are in the past tense –that is, the wicked have already been “toppled”; they have fallen and cannot rise (v. 13). The surrender of the individual to evil urges and actions that began the song, results, ultimately, in the defeat of that individual –and of all “the doers of mischief”– a downfall that levels them to the ground; unable to rise, they assume the posture of beasts.

דוד המלך photo