Scribal Kingdom

Living in the light of the Kingdom of God

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Category: Biblical Studies (page 1 of 2)

Some Observations on Psalm 23

As I was thinking over Psalm 23 today, I noticed two things which I never had before pertaining to its form, flow, and characteristics that I think are worth sharing. Before commenting, I will share the ESV’s translation here for reference:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

Psalm 23 (ESV)


First observation: While there is not necessarily a chiasmus of content, there is one of indirect address and direct address:

A – Verses 1–3 — Indirect address / confession
   B – Verse 4 — Direct address / confession
   B’ – Verse 5 — Direct address / confession
A’ – Verse 6 — Indirect address / confession

The reason I separated verses 4 and 5 instead of lumping them together as a single segment of direct address is explained by and leads into my second observation.

Second observation: During the brief two verse span in which David turns to address Yahweh directly (“you”, “your”) he switches from images of dwelling outdoors (using animal imagery for himself) to images of dwelling indoors (using human imagery for himself).

I will briefly expand on the significance of these observations with a few notes here.

Even though David turns from indirect confession in verse 3 (“he leads me”) to the first instance of direct confession in verse 4 (“you are with me”), the theme and imagery has not changed. Verse 4 continues the thought of verse 3 of walking in paths (cf. “paths of righteousness”) by describing more path-walking (yet through a very dark valley) in God’s presence.

When we come to verse 5 we see the theme of God’s presence and provision persist, but the imagery noticeably switches to that of tables, cups, and anointing (more human and often indoor imagery). I think that these images proleptically look forward (in verse 6) to a new setting for dwelling: inside Yahweh’s house. What do you do inside a house? Eat, drink, and cleanse/anoint the body. The direct address then drops off again after verse 5, and in verse 6 reverts to the kind of indirect confession that the Psalm began with.

While in verse 2 the sheep dwells outdoors in green pastures, the psalmist in verse 6 now dwells inside a house. The mention of dwelling in verse 6 I believe mirrors a similar picture of “dwelling” (lying down and being beside) used earlier, where it is the psalmist in pastures (with still waters) that was in view there. Even if the terminology in verse 2 is more descriptive (as poetry is wont to do) of “dwelling” rather than actually using the word, I believe it still describes the same essential reality of abiding in God’s presence wherever it may be (in pastures or in a sacred house) and the blessings that attend that abiding.

There is possibly another kind of parallelism between the ideas of being beside still waters (if this signifies a source of quenching thirst) and the indoor imagery of the cup overflowing, although that association is less certain and structurally linked.

One of the most interesting parts of the above observations though is the function of the “bridge” verses of 4–5 in that they turn directly to Yahweh and also serve as the transition point of the metaphors employed. I think if we notice that convergence point through direct confession it helps us conceptually and thematically tie the whole Psalm together, even though the imagery changes.

Bonus observation:

If you remove the English word “will” (signifying future action) from most common translations of Psalm 23 in two places then you can see the more immediate effect of the indirect confessions:

  • I lack nothing (currently) — Hebrew Professor Dr. Bill Barrick of The Master’s Seminary drew my attention to translating it this way.
  • Goodness and lovingkindness follow me all the days of my life (currently)
    (Note: Indeed “all the days of my life” gives the sense a forward look into the future as well, but we must not override the present sense which is there.)
  • For the third statement though the verb’s aspect is different and signifies the future: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

So much to meditate on in Psalm 23!

Jesus the Blasphemer, or Blasphemed?

I discovered what I think is a notable insight from the Gospel of Luke when I was reading through it in Greek. An attentive reader of a translation could also pick up on this, but reading it in Greek just made it jump out to me more — as I find so often happens. This is the text that initiated my observation:

καὶ ἕτερα πολλὰ βλασφημοῦντες ἔλεγον εἰς αὐτόν. (Luke 22:65)

“And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him.”

I noticed that Luke the Evangelist does something remarkable in telling the story of the trial of Jesus before his crucifixion compared to the other Synoptic Gospels. Bear with some relevant observations below.

In Matthew and Mark they tell how the High Priest, upon hearing Jesus’ own testimony during his first “trial” before the Jewish leadership where he claimed that he was the Son of Man, tore his garments and said: “What further witness do we need? You have heard his blasphemy (τῆς βλασφημίας). What is your decision?” (Mark 14:63b-64a); cf.He has uttered blasphemy (Ἐβλασφήμησεν). What further witness do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy (τὴν βλασφημίαν). What is your judgment?” (Matthew 26:65b-66a).

Keep in mind here that the text reports to the reader that Jesus is the one being accused of blasphemy.

It is clear from context that the Jews here are picturing blasphemy as an offense specific to God as its recipient. While there are occurrences of blasphemy elsewhere in Scripture which are simply directed toward another human or even angelic beings (Jude 8), the context tips the balance here in favor of understanding this to be blasphemy of the divine. They were premising their accusation on Jesus’ identification with the divine Son of Man (Matthew 26:64), and calling for judgment on the basis of the Law of Moses which declares that those guilty of the specific crime of blasphemy against God should be killed (Leviticus 24:16).

Note then what Matthew says in a proximately connected account, which we will then compare to Luke: “They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” (Matthew 26:66b-68).

Let us then note the amazing reversal that occurs in Luke in both parallel passages to Matthew! He omits something Matthew includes in 26:65, but also includes something Matthew did not in 26:66-68.

Firstly, observe what is absent as Luke reports a summary of the agreement of what all of Christ’s accusers said (“they said” vs. 71), instead of the words of the High Priest: “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips” (Luke 22:71).

No mention of Caiaphas’ accusation of blasphemy is given here, as Matthew had reported.

But secondly, look where we notably do find an indictment of blasphemy in his account. Luke adds a comment that Matthew did not: “They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him (βλασφημοῦντες)” (Luke 22:64-65).

Luke has intentionally reported his account, I think, in such a way that it is shown that Jesus is clearly not the blasphemer but rather the Jewish leaders. This importantly has one further major implication: Jesus is God! Blasphemy against the Son of Man (Luke 22:22, 48, 69) denotes speaking against God. It was Jesus’ very identification with the Son of Man before Caiaphas that led him to accuse Jesus of blasphemy (Matthew 26:64), because of that title’s association with divinity. Yet in Luke we see a total reversal of the assertion of blasphemy.

I don’t think I had ever seen this passage as a testimony to the divinity of Jesus, yet as I examine it closely: there it is. This is a remarkable thing for Luke to highlight that is worth pondering on when considering whose claims truly dishonored, offended, and misrepresented God during Jesus’ passion.

Hebrew Bible Reflections: Take Hold of the Gates

While listening to Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis I encountered a coincidental but interesting conceptual parallel. I would say terminological parallel but the verbs are different, though they have some semantic overlap.

Genesis 22:17:
וְיִרַ֣שׁ
 זַרְעֲךָ֔ אֵ֖ת שַׁ֥עַר אֹיְבָֽיו (va’yirash)

“Your offspring shall possess (Alter: “take hold of”) the gate of their enemies.”

Genesis 24:60:
וְיִירַ֣שׁ
 זַרְעֵ֔ךְ אֵ֖ת שַׁ֥עַר שֹׂנְאָֽיו (va’yirash)
“And may your descendants possess (Alter: “take hold of”) the gate of those who hate them.”

“Take hold of” along with “gate” is what sparked a memory association with the story of Samson, who quite literally took hold of the gates of the enemies of Israel in Gaza:

Judges 16:3:
וַיֶּאֱחֹ֞ז בְּדַלְתֹ֤ות שַֽׁעַר־הָעִיר֙ (va’yehoz)
“and took hold of the doors of the city gate”

Where אָחַז (cf. va’yehoz), in Judges, can mean either to take hold of or to possess. The word יָרַשׁ (cf. va’yirash), in Genesis, however, seems more narrow, with the meaning of to possess or inherit, but is not literally (despite Alter’s translation) “take hold of” – so far as I can tell.

Nonetheless, it is quite interesting to muse whether God had a mighty but flawed man such as Samson in mind even partially among the promised “seed” who would take possession of the gates of Israel’s enemies.