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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Concepts from a Different Culture.


If the culture of Israelite society and the meaning of some common terms used by the psalmists are not appreciated, there is a danger that the psalms will be misread. Out of a large number of words and concepts which might be considered, three are of special importance: enemies, the poor, and life after death.

2. Enemies.

No reader of the psalms can fail to notice how often the psalmists complain to God about their enemies. Several different Hebrew words are used, as well as longer descriptions of their actions. A term found in thirteen psalms (Ps 5:5; 6:8; 14:4; 28:3; 36:12; 53:4; 59:2; 64:2; 92:7, 9; 94:4, 16; 101:8; 125:5; 141:4, 9 ) was formerly translated ‘workers of iniquity’ but modern translations favour ‘evil-doers’. Outside the Psalter it is limited to Isaiah, Hosea, Job, and Proverbs. Mowinckel (1921; 1962 ) argued that it referred to sorcerers, but few have followed him completely, although several accept that in some of the psalms this may be the connotation.


To understand why there should be so many references to enemies and who these enemies are is difficult. A useful approach is to note where the terms occur.


In hymns, laments, and other psalms of the community the enemies are obviously foreign nations or kings (e.g. Ps 44:10; 74:3–8 ). In royal psalms the enemies are the king's foes, either actual or ritual (e.g. Ps 2:1–3; 45:5; 110:1, 5–6 ; some think that 21:8–10 is addressed to the king rather than to YHWH), and since the king is the representative of his people, his enemies are also the nation's.


In some psalms the enemies are described as the enemies of YHWH (e.g. 66:3; 83:2; 92:9 ), and are linked with mythological actions (e.g. 89:10; cf. 74:12–17 ).


The majority of references to enemies, however, are found in individual laments and thanksgivings, and this causes the greatest difficulty. Those who attribute many of the individual laments to the king naturally treat the enemies as foreign nations or rebels within the king's own people. This is supported by the fact that in some psalms of the individual (e.g. 3:6; 27:3; 55:18; 56:1; 59:3; 62:3 ) they are depicted as an attacking army, but this is not totally convincing for all the psalms that have been claimed as ‘royal’.


If some of the psalms are prayers by men who believe themselves to be wrongly accused, the ‘enemies’ will be their accusers.


A group of psalms remains, however, where sickness and enemies occur together. Here the enemies might be those whom the psalmist believes to have resorted to sorcery. Alternatively, or perhaps in different psalms, the enemies may be those who condemn the psalmist as a sinner and hold that his illness is God's punishment for his sin. Even so the vehemence of the psalmist's reaction to his enemies seems extreme, the way he describes them as actively attacking him rather than engaged in a whispering campaign, or refusing to consort with him, and many of the metaphors which are used to describe the actions of the enemies (laying snares, lying in wait, attacking him like dogs and wild animals, sharpening their teeth) hardly seem suitable to apply to those who, after all, are only expressing the orthodox belief in the connection between sin and suffering.


Perhaps, therefore, these psalms are intended for use by many different individuals, and the troubles from which they seek God's deliverance are deliberately expressed in general terms that can be applied to a variety of situations. Even so, the wide extent of the references to enemies (they are absent from relatively few psalms), and the presence of illness and enemies in many psalms, is curious. (DCH provides an analysis of ᾽ōyēb and ‘doers of iniquity’; Kraus 1988: 95–9 has a good discussion of ‘enemies’.)

10. The Poor.

The psalmists frequently refer to themselves as ‘poor’. Several different Hebrew words are used for the poor, translated with various English synonyms (four of them occur in Ps 82:3–4: ‘weak’, ‘lowly’, ‘destitute’, and ‘needy’; for ‘lowly’ REB substitutes ‘afflicted’, and NJB ‘wretched’; NIV has ‘weak’, ‘poor’, ‘oppressed’, and ‘needy’). The Hebrew word used most frequently in the Psalter for ‘poor’ possesses active and passive forms, but whether these signify any distinction between ‘humble’ and ‘humbled, oppressed’ is doubtful. Even if it does, the text is ambiguous in many places, and sometimes the qĕre and kĕtîb record the active and passive forms.


There has been much debate about the meaning of these terms. Outside the Psalter they normally refer to those materially poor, who, in the same way as widows and the fatherless, are likely to be oppressed by wealthy and more powerful members of the village society (cf. Am 2:6; 4:1; 8:4, 6 ). This may be the meaning in many of the psalms (e.g. Ps 112:9 ), especially when they are found together with widows, the fatherless, and the resident alien (Ps 94:6, cf. 10:17–18 ), but the interpretation is complicated by two things: the poor are commonly regarded as ‘righteous’ (even in Am 2:6 ), and there is evidence both in the OT and in the other countries of the ancient Middle East that ‘poor’ possessed overtones of ‘pious’. Thus an Egyptian votive stele describes the god Amun as ‘lord of the humble man’ who listens to the voice of the ‘poor’, and a Hittite king prays to the god Telepinus as father and mother of the oppressed and the lowly.


Certainly YHWH is expected to protect the poor and defend the oppressed (e.g. Ps 140:12 ), and the king, as his vicegerent, does the same (e.g. Ps 72:2–4, 12–14 ). But equally it has to be kept in mind that ‘poor’, and even ‘oppressed’ may be part of the language of piety, without any implications that the psalmist is destitute (e.g. Ps 37:14 places side by side the ‘poor and needy’ and ‘those who walk uprightly’; while Ps 40:17; 86:1 , and many other psalms use ‘poor and needy’ much as in the Egyptian prayers). In ancient Israel the poor would also be illiterate; it is surely doubtful whether those who composed and wrote down the psalms intended them as the prayers of those who were destitute. If many of the laments are the king's prayers the language is even more likely to refer to religious piety rather than economic poverty. On the other hand, there are those who remain firmly confident that the poor in the psalms are indeed the poor (Kraus 1988: 92–5).

13. Life after Death.

Despite the weakening of classical culture upon modern society, most people today probably think of human beings either as no different from the animals or as possessing a material body and a spiritual ‘soul’. Ancient Israel was closer to the first than the second. Human beings were seen as animated bodies, physical beings into whom God breathed life (cf. Gen 2:7–8 ). At death the unit of life was broken up and the individual became ‘like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up’ (2 Sam 14:14 ). Although a few scholars (Schofield 1951; Dahood 1966–70 ) have argued otherwise, it seems almost certain that for most of the period of the OT no happy life after death was envisaged. It was only with the Maccabean martyrs and the apocalypses that hopes of a resurrection appeared (cf. Dan 12:2 ). Certainly within the Psalter the normal belief was that the shades of the dead went down to Sheol (corresponding to the Greek Hades, and Babylonian concepts of the ‘land of no return’, cf. Job 8:9–10; 10:21; 16:22 ). This was pictured as a cavern under the earth, or more exactly under the waters beneath the earth, which stood upon pillars (Ps 18:4–5, 69:1–2, 14–15; Jon 2:2–9 ; for the cosmology see Ps 24:2; 75:3; 136:6 ). There the dead continued a weak existence in a region of darkness, dust, silence, and forgetfulness, unable to praise God, and beyond his power (Ps 6:5; 88:3–6, 10–12; 94:17; 115:17; Job 3:13–19 . Ps 139:8 does not necessarily contradict this view of Sheol, since it may be a figure of speech describing the power of YHWH and his care for the psalmist.). Three other terms are found for this land of the dead, all translated in NRSV by ‘the pit’ (Ps 28:1; 30:3; 40:2; 88:4, 6; 143:7; 16:10; 30:9; 55:23; and 69:15 ). This is the background to all the psalms. It is possible that occasional leaps of faith in a future life are found in Ps 16:9–11; 49:15; 73:24 , but these do not constitute an established belief and their interpretation is uncertain.


This comes as a shock to many Christians, who have taken it for granted that the Bible teaches life after death. The dominance of the resurrection of Jesus in the NT has often made it difficult to realize that Israelite worshippers of YHWH had a very different belief. The limitation of life to this world was probably one reason for the importance of retribution being worked out before death and the devising of a satisfactory theodicy. Christian use of the psalms, of course, has imposed Christian ideas upon them, so that beside the messianic interpretations have come readings which see in many phrases beliefs in resurrection, immortality, and life after death, while ‘soul’ came to be understood in the Graeco-Christian sense of that part of the human being which survived death (cf. Peter's quotation of Ps 16:8–11 in Acts 2:24–32 ).

15. Soul.

As has been mentioned, alongside these beliefs about life and death went a particular understanding of human personality. The older translations, with their frequent mention of ‘soul’, give the impression that the Israelites thought in terms of body and soul. This is plainly incorrect, as Gen 2:7 shows: when God breathed life into the little clay man that he had made, the man ‘became a living being’ (Heb. nepeš). Often ‘soul’ (nepeš) is used for a person's inner being or vitality, virtually the equivalent of ‘life’ or ‘individual’. Commonly ‘my soul’ is a way of saying ‘I myself’. The Hebrew word nepeš can also express emotions, such as greed, desire, and courage. In addition, many think that in a few places it carries the physical meaning of ‘neck, throat’, as the cognate word does in Akkadian, and this has been adopted by most modern translations in Ps 69:1; 105:18 , and by REB in 7:2 (and 31:9 marg.) in addition. It may have this meaning in Ps 63:5; 107:9, 18 and a few other places. (For a full discussion see Johnson 1964 .)


NRSV often retains ‘soul’, especially when it is the subject of a verb or is in the vocative (cf. Ps 42:1–2; 103:1–2 ). REB has ‘soul’ in only seven psalms, presumably where the English would otherwise be awkward or synonyms for parallel words needed to be found (Ps 19:7; 42:4; 74:19; 103:1, 2, 22; 104:1, 35; 130:6,146:1 ). Various methods are adopted by modern translations to avoid using ‘soul’. The most common is to have the simple pronoun (e.g. Ps 3:2 ‘to me’; 124:7 ‘we have escaped’; the practice is much more common in REB than in NRSV). Alternative concepts are sometimes adopted, such as ‘life’ (e.g. Ps 35:4; 38:12 ); ‘heart’ (Ps 10:3; 78:18 ); and ‘will’ (Ps 27:12 , where REB has ‘greed’ and NIV ‘desire’; 41:2 ). Short phrases sometimes represent the sense, again more often in REB (Ps 35:25 ‘we have got our wish’ REB; 105:22 ‘at his pleasure’; 107:26 ‘courage’; 138:3 ‘bold and strong’ REB). This is to return to the meanings which the psalms had in ancient Israel. Whether Christians are justified in retaining the ‘soul’ of AV and BCP in their use of the psalms in worship, interpreting it as the immortal part of the individual, is another question.

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