Literary Analysis of Psalm 7

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The Sages identified the ‘address’ / opening verse of Psalm 7, as King David who talks about King Saul: “A shiggayon of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning Cush the Benjamite.” (Psalm 7:1). King Saul’s line goes all the way to Jakob’s youngest son, Banjamin. The description ‘Cush’ mentioned only in this verse, nowhere else in the Bible. The Midrash Sifree explains that the meaning is Unique – King Saul who was a unique individual in character and deeds. (An opposite explanation given, is that ‘Cush’ means ‘different’ or ‘strange’. Unique in a negative sense. If that is so, ‘Shigayon’, the name of the instrument used for this Psalm describes the mischiefshigayon of King Saul rather than of King David)

Strange that David, after declaring in verse 1 that his Praisesong arises specifically out of his relationship with King Saul, should, in v. 2, use the plural form of “pursuers”. Perhaps he does not want to identify Saul as his sole adversary; perhaps he is referring both to Saul and his supporters; or perhaps he is exposing his own ambivalent feelings of self-blame and self-justification, feelings that colour the song he is composing. Even the opening verse reflects David’s mixed emotions — the song is labelled “Shiggayon”, suggesting a serious offense or mistake, though an unintentional one (Hebrew: שגגה). And it is clear that it is a mistake of David’s, not of Saul’s; indeed, it concerns David’s attitude or actions towards Saul: “A Shiggayon of David, which he sang to God, concerning Cush, a Benjaminite” (v. 1).

Verses 2 and 3 plead for refuge — not physical safety but, rather, refuge in God (v. 2: “in You I have taken refuge”). The plea turns, in verse 3, to dramatic urgency as the singer envisions his fate should his foe (now in the singular) overcome him. The similie is powerful and savage: “lest he, like a lion, rend my soul, and tearing it apart, with no-one to save me”. Surely the image of a lion, the king of beasts, has a physical immediancy — afterall, a lion’s intent is to devour his victim. But the singer fears not for his body but for his soul. Verse 6 emphasizes this fear even more fully: the fear that “the enemy” might “pursue my soul”, might “lay my honour in the dust”.
David deems himself deserving of such a horrific fate only “if” he has been guilty of wrong-doing (v. 4) or “if” he has “dealt evil to my ally or plundered my foe without cause” (v. 5) — if, in short, he has acted unjustly. His use of “if” in verses 4 and 5 is rhetorical. In stating his willingness to be punished for unrighteousness, he is, in fact, defending his own guiltlessness. He is declaring that he has committed no deed that would warrant him to be dishonoured.
His argument is that, since he is innocent of wrong-doing, he should be protected by God. He creates, in his arguments, a court of law. Pleading his own case, he acts as both the accused and the defense counsellor. The judge he appeals to is God. In his own defense, he not only depicts himself as falsely accused but, at the same time, he declares his accuser, his pursuer, to be the one who is guilty and unjust. Providing his pursuer with no defense, he makes certain that the judge will rule unequivocally in his own favour. Indeed God will become his champion, thwarting “the fury of my foes” (once again plural) with God’s own anger. God’s fury will enforce His judgement upon those who threaten His favoured one (v. 7). Though the judge is God, the accused appears to be convincing his own self as well as he argues his case.
Verse 8 is ambiguous. Two interpretations are possible, one the opposite of the other: A league of nations will gather about God and, presumably, do so in acceptance of God’s judgement. Or, the nations will side with the wicked and thereby oppose God and God’s favoured. Verse 9 appears to give validity to the latter interpretation in its assertion that God “will bring peoples to trial”.
Verse 9 is also the defendant’s final plea and summation: he asks God to judge him “for the personal righteousness and blamelessness that are mine”. So sure is he now of his own blamelessness, that he presents what is actually his own self-judgement as God’s verdict: “Let the evil of the wicked come to an end” (v. 10). Not only does he predict God’s anger against the wicked and His favour towards the righteous (v. 12), but he trusts that God will also act as both his, the singer-defendant’s,”refuge” and “shield”. That is, God will both shelter his soul and protect his body.
Verses 13-17 mark a change in emphasis in tone and perspective: the defendant, his case won, turns to berate his foe (now singular); taunting that his iniquities and lies (v. 15) will backfire and that all his plots — be they served by sword, bow and arrow, or the digging of pits — will harm and defeat only himself. The imagery is intensely physical: the foe will hatch iniquity by conceiving mischief and giving birth to lies. That the resultant birth is both unnatural and repellant is made even more apparent in verse 17: “His mischief will return back on his own head, and his lawlessness will descend upon his skull.” The head, afterall, is the receptacle of thought. The singer had feared for his own soul, at the beginning of his song; now his foe’s reasoning and viewpoint will be ravaged by his own wickedly conceived plots and actions.
The repetition of certain words in the song emphasizes the singer’s intent, acting as the dominant chords of a particular melodic theme. Thus verses 1 to 6 (the voicing of his plea) contain repeats of “soul” (v. 3, v. 6), “Adonai my God” (v. 2, v. 4), “save” (v. 2, v. 3) and “pursue” (v. 2, v. 6). Whereas verses 7 to 12 (the arguments as if in court) repeat the word “judge” and its varied forms (v. 7, v. 9, v.12), “righteousness” (v. 9, twice in v.10, v.11), and “heart” (v. 10, v. 11). And verses 13 to 17 (wickedness rebounding upon itself), “mischief” (v. 15, v. 17), “fortifies”(v. 13, v. 14), “return back” (v. 13, v. 17).
The final verse of the song is again an abrupt change from all the previous verses. The Praisesong’s resolution is of calm restored, a soaring acclamation of God, of God’s righteousness.

shigayon

 

 

 

 



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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