Literary analysis of Psalm 41- Blessed is Adonai, the God of Israel from all time past and for all time to come. Amen and amen

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 אשרי ashrai - psalm study - happinessAlthough the majority of verses of Song 41 recount the singer’s illness and his enemies’ gloating at his suffering, the imagery in the song is, nonetheless, powerful, physical, as though belying any weakness or infirmity in the singer while, at the same time, pointing out the enemies’ aggressiveness. Thus: “his enemies’ maw” (v. 3); “his heart spoke a lie” (v. 7); “[h]e gathered up mischief” (v. 7) –imagery all depicting the singer’s foes– is matched by “You…made me stand before You” (v. 13) — indicating the singer’s gratitude to God Who, he believes, will accord him the ultimate triumph. Even the English “devious”, describing his false friend, becomes, in the literal Hebrew, part of the implied contrast –“my confidant…has raised against me his heel” (v. 10). The raised heel, though used as a weapon, requires an arching of the body, in contrast to the upright posture of the singer as he stands erect at the song’s close.

The first verses of the song, 2 to 4, describe the happiness of the man who considers the poor; the singer asks for a benediction for him for such compassion: “May Adonai guard him and keep him alive” (v. 3). Yet the repeated mention of illness (verse 3’s “keep him alive” followed by verse 4’s “sustain him on the couch of pain”) suggest that the individual is not happy, is, indeed, ill and suffering. It is the last line of verse 4, however, that makes clear that the happy man’s health has, in fact, been restored, simply because the verb is in the past tense — “You transformed his whole bed of illness”.

The middle and longest section of the song, verses 5 through the close of 12, concerns the singer’s own illness. An illness caused, he suggests, by his moral offenses:

I said, ‘Adonai, grant me grace, heal me, though I offended You‘. (v. 5)

But the plea of the singer that his own strength be returned to him, framed, as it also is, in the past tense — “said”– suggests that this prayer too has been answered. It would seem, then, that the singer is himself one of the happy, for, as verse 7 declares, God has “made him safe”. Apparently the singer’s illness and that of the happy man of the first four verses are inter-twined; perhaps even one and the same. And, in turn, this connection between them adds another note of meaning to the concept of “poor” in verse 2 –the poor whom the happy man is rewarded for helping may well be not simply those in material need (for no further mention is made of them), but, rather, those wretched in spirit. Still, whether the wretchedness be of body, spirit, or both, certainly the singer himself ultimately exemplifies the happiness that is God’s reward for compassion.

In contrast to the compassionate are the singer’s enemies. Verses 6 through 11 recall the singer’s illness. Yet, what he remembers is not his physical pain; his recollection is solely of his friends’ betrayal of him. Of how, as they gathered about his sick bed, pretending to offer solace (v. 6 and 7), they were actually whispering against him and plotting his harm (v. 8). Even his trusted friend, “who ate [his] bread” –sharing both his provisions and his confidences– was “utterly devious” (v. 10). In return, the singer asks God that he be healed “that I may pay them back” (v. 11). His very return to health (“raise me up”) will itself announce their failure to harm him, yet surely he is hoping for a revenge that will cause them to suffer for their perfidy.
The phrase, however, “grant me grace” , at the beginning of verse 11, echoes exactly the phrase opening the section recounting his illness (v. 5). Certainly the concept of moral strength, of “grace”, is the antithesis to that of personal vengeance. Again, the root of the hebrew words are clarifying; “to pay back” in Hebrew shares a common root with the verb “to complete” (ש.ל.מ). In this way, the singer is envisioning a justice whereby his persecutors will become his advocates. Such an astonishing reformation would lead to a completion: both good and evil transformed into one and thereby transcending both. The verses of the singer’s illness end with the line, “that my enemy not trumpet his conquest of me” (v. 12), the trumpet sound contrasting with the direction of verse 1 that the “lead player” perform the song.  Presumably the words and melody of the song will crescendo, are crescendoing, over the blasting sound of his foes’ momentary victory.
And, indeed, verses 13 and 14 do ring out a jubilant crescendo. Verse 13 begins with the phrase “in my innocence” that seems to contradict verse 5’s “though I offended You”. It can only be that, should he be restored to health and strength — his plea “May I” answered– the singer feels he will also be absolved of his  offenses, purified of them as he has been of his illness. Or, to return to the implied sense of completion, the singer may be recognizing that his very ability to stand –to return to health– itself, metaphorically, acts out his integrity, his wholeness; exemplifies, that is, his adherence to moral uprightness; and so the verse closes, “[You] made me stand before You forever”. Thus does the song close, the close of Book One of the songs of praise:

                                                     Blessed is Adonai God of Israel
                                                                                  forever and forever,
                                                                                                amen and amen. (v. 14)

Standing forever before God, the singer, voicing the words of verse 14, forever. The repeated words themselves acting as chords of triumph and jubilation, of hope and of gratitude. Perhaps the “Amen” is sung by listeners to the song; perhaps by the body of the nation of Israel itself. It is not customary for the one who is praying to add the “Amen” of agreement to his own pleas. Again, the root of the Hebrew word clarifies: “Amen” (אמן) shares a common root with the Hebrew nouns “trust” (אמון), “belief’ or “faith” (אמונה), and “creator” (אומן). Appropriate, then, that the closing song of the first book of praisesongs should end in the one word that acknowledges the singer’s complete trust of and belief in his Creator. The song, eternally sung, blends all aspects of time together –past, present, future, all become one sound. The jubilation of the song –the song of the “happy” man– takes up, as both echo of and return to, the opening of Song 1 of Book 1: “Happy the man…”

אשרי ashrai - psalm study - happiness

 

 

 

 



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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