Psalm 93

Let me tell you what I like about this case, why I took it. First of all, it has no heading. Headings are like the first thing suspects and witnesses tell you about themselves. You completely ignore it because you’re not sure what it’s trying to do and it just confuses your analysis of the facts. More importantly, the poem has the brassiest example of enjambment in the whole Hebrew Bible. Of course enjambment — jamming your sentence across lines against the rhythm — is an in-your-face move already. But the example here is really in your face. The poem has a perfect rhythm going for a couple of lines, so you’re in that groove, just like Psalm 82 if you remember that case. And then, like a speeding train out of nowhere, comes a run-away sentence that just won’t stop. And its unexpected style, a comparison said in the reverse, stops you dead in your tracks. There are also a second case of enjambment, some puzzling words, strange interruptions, voice switching, a clue to the real meaning of “holiness”…

There I go running my mouth again. I better let the poem talk for itself. Look at this with your own two eyes, and I’ll explain after. But I’ll just say this: I used slashes to give you my sense of rhythm and pace, and I used progressive indenting to give a sense of stanzas (completeness of thought). Because you’re smart and you don’t trust me, I put the Hebrew right after the English.

Psalm 93

       Yahweh is king!  / In majesty he is robed! //

               Robed is Yahweh! / With toughness he has girded himself! //

                    Yes, the earth is firmed; / it cannot be shaken. //

2                        Firm is your throne since ever before; / of forever are you. //

3        The rivers have raised, O Yahweh! //

               The rivers have raised their voice; //

                    The rivers keep raising their pounding. //

4        More than the voices of the many mighty //

               Waters, the sea’s breakers, //

                     Mighty on high is Yahweh. //

5         Your decrees have been utterly reliable, //

                To your palace holiness is desirable, //

                     O Yahweh, for the length of days. //

תהילים צ״ג

א     יְהוָה מָלָךְ / גֵּאוּת לָבֵשׁ //

            לָבֵשׁ יְהוָה / עֹז הִתְאַזָּר //

ב               אַף־תִּכּוֹן תֵּבֵל / בַּל־תִּמּוֹט //

                      נָכוֹן כִּסְאֲךָ מֵאָז / מֵעוֹלָם אָתָּה //

ג      נָשְׂאוּ נְהָרוֹת יְהוָה //

            נָשְׂאוּ נְהָרוֹת קוֹלָם //

                 יִשְׂאוּ נְהָרוֹת דָּכְיָם //

ד     מִקֹּלוֹת מַיִם רַבִּים //

            אַדִּירִים מִשְׁבְּרֵי־יָם //

                 אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם יְהוָה //

ה     עֵדֹתֶיךָ נֶאֶמְנוּ מְאֹד //

             לְבֵיתְךָ נַאֲוָה־קֹדֶשׁ //

                  יְהוָה לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים //

This is another one of those short poems I like so much. It’s simple enough when you first look at it, then you discover little tricks that give it extra punch, so many little moves that are in play and all of them matter. Me? Give me a round of boxing 🥊 over four quarters of basketball 🏀 any day, I always say. And those three-day cricket tests? 🏏 Don’t get me started. Now, the file I put together here for you, that’s another story altogether. You better settle in.

There are two things happening in this poem at the same time, its structure and its content. You heard me right. In my underworld, structure and content happen. That’s why it takes sleuthing — to figure out what is happening, because it happens as you read, and usually you have to read it again for it to happen better than last time. Now the structure and content aren’t as deeply in sync as in Psalm 133 if you remember that case, but it takes some skilled surveillance to track the two of them at the same time, and then you see how the structure provides the platform for the content to happen.

I’ll start with the structure. There are four stanzas. The first stanza is the biggest, four lines, and each line is made of two balanced parts. The next three stanzas each have three lines, and each line has only one part. If you have a better hunch about lines and stanzas than me, you could say about the last three stanzas that each one is really a single line with three parts. I won’t argue with you. Either way, when you look at the Hebrew, you see that the first stanza pairs off: the first two lines are 2 words + 2 words and the next two lines are 3 words + 2 words. In the next three stanzas, all the lines are just 3 words each. That’s pretty tight as far as poems in the Bible go. It’s easy to spot in the Hebrew even if you don’t read Hebrew. Just scroll back up ☝︎ and scan 👀 the words. 

Look, it’s gritty, I know. But sleuths can’t just get the general picture. You have to see for yourself, get into the details, and count them up. Once you see the stanzas and lines, you see the patterns and you see what breaks the patterns. This is what sleuthing is all about. What are the rules and how are they being broken: it’s not just about finding rule-breakers, it’s about understanding them. There’s usually a story, a meaning, something to talk about.

For instance, once we see the stanzas, we can see that the voice of the poem goes back and forth between talking about Yahweh and talking to him. In the first stanza, the voice talks about him; in the second, to him; in the third, about again; and in the fourth, to again. And back in the first stanza, the only one with four lines (the rest have three), the fourth line switches early and leads into the voicing of the second stanza. A class act. (Yes, by the way, we can “see” “voices.” The Bible says so at Exod 20:18 וְכָל־הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹת. So get off my back about that.)

Now to the content. My bet is your sharp eye already took in the scene, that the first stanza and last stanza match each other (about kingship) and so do the second and third (about the waters). In the first stanza, the voice of the poem talks about Yahweh’s long-lasting kingship and his throne, and in the last, it talks about his long-lasting palace and decrees — it’s all royal stuff. In the middle two stanzas, it talks about how Yahweh is mightier than the waters, which is precisely what allowed him to make the inhabitable land, which is precisely why he is king and why people want to acknowledge it. A class act again.

It is the third stanza that is the brassiest instance of enjambment, with a comparison that goes backwards and a rephrasing thrown in in the middle (call it an appositive if you like):

     More than the voices of the many mighty

     Waters, the sea’s breakers,

     Mighty on high is Yahweh.

(It looks easy in this English translation, but the Hebrew trips up many sleuths.)

Now any Bible sleuth has seen this story a hundred times. It’s in every neighborhood of the city, if you know what I mean. Yahweh created the world, and he did so by controlling the waters: the waters started out covering the earth, he beat them back, and they always threaten to run back over it and swallow it up. In this poem, the waters go on making a real racket, as if they resent Yahweh and are about to come crashing over the land. But it’s an empty gesture. All that noise doesn’t add up to more than a whiny whimper, which, when you think about it, is really just a form of giving up, giving in, and admitting defeat before the new boss. Call that roaring whimper a hymn if you like. (Psalm 104, long but gorgeous, does this differently; the noises of the world are a symphony.) Anyway, the point is that in this poem, noise is a form of power. If you have children at home, you know exactly what that’s like (some adults stick with it). The waters clamor powerfully, but Yahweh is mightier than that. Like they’re yelling and swinging but he stiff-arms them on the head. If someone else were watching, the yelling would be alarming, but the stiff-arm would make the whole thing laughable.

What this poem also adds is how long things will stay this way. Again, the first and last stanza go together on this. In the first stanza, not only is Yahweh a king clothed in majesty, but he is girded with toughness (עֹז) — durability — and he and his throne are forever. Namely, Yahweh intends for his actions and his kingship to last. Those actions are keeping the waters back and keeping the land inhabitable. In the last stanza, his decrees are forever too. Those decrees are, again, to keep the world inhabitable. In modern terms, he is a master of the material sciences — especially oceanology, geology, and the climate, but also biology, botany, physics, and chemistry. What we call the laws of nature, in this poem, are Yahweh’s decrees. 

Now comes the hard part. Ready? In the last stanza, the voice of the poem says that what is also forever is the attraction of holiness to Yahweh’s palace (in English we usually call this a temple). It’s a strange idea. Why should holiness be attracted to anything, and what is holiness anyway? Many poems in Psalms and throughout the Bible describe Yahweh’s palace in particular as holy, not Yahweh himself, and a lot of years of running into holiness in different settings and jotting down notes on it each time have led me to a theory. It goes like this: Holiness is a combination of feelings and behavior towards something divine, feelings of awe and behavior that expresses hierarchy (self-debasing, other-glorifying). A palace, which is the proof and the symbol of all a god can do and has done, is precisely the setting in which one does holiness: visit from a lesser home, bring a token gift, give praise and thanks, request help, and do so in ways that are highly scripted and really clear in their meaning. 

Now to say that holiness is desirable to the palace is to say that holiness is a response that is drawn by the palace and comes from deep in the person. It is not voluntary, but neither does Yahweh himself dictate it. The palace, which is the proof and the symbol of Yahweh’s life-giving effort, exerts a pull on the living to acknowledge that. (In some other poems in Psalms, gods do the acknowledging and the performing of holiness too.) Now some of you sleuths out there may think the poem says that holiness is pleasant and appropriate to Yahweh’s palace. The idea is fine, but the Hebrew is not. If you want to see 👓 my notes on that 📜, scroll to the bottom ☟.

Okay, one last point to tie the whole together. The poem starts by declaring that Yahweh is king, and all kinds of royal images and ideas show up. Why? This is because in this region of the world (let’s call it the ancient Middle East), so often, kings promoted the idea that they civilize the natural world for humans, clearing space of wild animals and wild peoples, controlling resources, building roads and buildings, and establishing social order (access to goods and moral behavior), and that they have the wisdom it takes to do these things. They are strong and knowledgable in a way that makes them completely beyond all other people; they are inspired by the gods, like the gods, and even godly. So kingship is seen as the best way to describe one’s god. Gods are modeled on kings (as super-kings), then real kings are modeled on gods, and so on in a cycle of mutual mirroring. I could go on about this, but you either you know the story and it’ll bore you, or it’ll go on forever and kill you.

Now for those of you who trust no one — just as I always say — it is true, most sleuths think the Hebrew word נַאֲוָה is the adjective “pleasant, appropriate,” from נ-א-ה. But the extra consonant waw, the feminine form (when the noun קֹדֶשׁ is masculine), and the whole set of vowels don’t add up. If it’s an adjective, it ought to be formed very differently. But the word is nearly a perfect match for a Niphal verb formed from א-ו-ה, “attract, desire, crave,” just like the synonyms נֶחְמַד (perfect) and נֶחְמָד (participle) from ח-מ-ד and just like the word נֶאֳמְנוּ (perfect) from א-מ-ן (“reliable”) that comes earlier in the same line. The rub is — there’s always a rub — that נַאֲוָה ought to be נֶאֱוָה or נֶאֱוֶה. Here’s a conclusion you’re not going to like — look, that’s how it is with sleuthing, but then again, who knows? maybe you’ll love it — but if you check all the instances of נַאֲוָה in the Bible and what the dictionaries do with it, it seems like the Massoretes themselves — the people in early Medieval times who added the vowels — had trouble with the word. This is the kind of independent sleuthing I am willing to do. Buck all the trends. Go ahead, love it or hate it. I’m closing the file and hanging my hat up on this one for now.

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One thought on “Psalm 93

  1. Enjambment is my jam. This post is a delight.

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