Grammar of Biblical Hebrew

In his Syntax of the Verb in Classical Hebrew Prose, 9, Alviero Niccacci describes his struggle as a budding scholar and professor to come to terms with the syntax of the biblical Hebrew verb. He states:

While looking for a solution which I could offer my students I came across two review articles by E. Talstra … and, in consequence, the work he reviewed. This was W[olfgang] Schneider’s grammar, an unpretentious class text book which has gone almost unnoticed by scholars. … The truth is that Schneider has opened the way for an approach to the problem which I believe to be correct.

31LkBzSvziLDuring my doctoral studies, I was introduced to the work of Wolfgang Schneider, Grammatik des biblischen Hebräisch. As I moved into teaching biblical Hebrew and began to work through the standard textbooks in English, I found that I continually wanted to expose my students to Schneider’s text-linguistic approach. Therefore, I worked to translate his grammar, beginning with the section on syntax and eventually working through the whole volume. The resultant text has now been published by Peter Lang as the first installment in its Studies in Biblical Hebrew monograph series. You may find it here or here (among other places).


Schneider’s grammar is a reference grammar, so it is not necessarily intended to be used by simply beginning with section 1 and continuing through the text. I found it helpful to create accompanying worksheets to help the students; if you are interested in seeing what I put together (or have any other questions), please let me know. I have also made several posts regarding Schneider’s work on the tenses and clauses.

Psalm 122

The significance of Jerusalem stems from the presence of the house of Yhwh in its midst. In this Song of Ascents, David will express excitement that should be inherent to any who go to Jerusalem, for the thrones of the house of David and house of Israel’s God reside there. As such, this psalm perpetuates the hope in a restored Jerusalem and a restored Davidic kingdom. Moreover, the psalmist provides the ways by which the reader can respond to this hope, namely, by praying for the peace of the city of peace.

AlthougSONY DSCh there is some disagreement on attributing the psalm to David,[1] the title at least expects the reader to hear the speaker as David.[2] Thus, when the psalm opens, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”, the “I” and “me” should be understood as David. This provides an interesting perspective for the psalm, because the psalm reflects on the importance of Jerusalem for both the worship of the people at the house of Yhwh and the judgment that would take place in the house of David. The psalm highlights the importance of the house of Yhwh by virtue of a literary device called inclusion, whereby the psalm opens with a reference to the house of Yhwh (v. 1) and closes with it (v. 9). Yet, during the lifetime of David, only the kingdom was residing at Jerusalem. The house of Yhwh had not yet been built, and the city had not yet taken on the status of “the city.” As a result, the psalm takes on a note of anticipation and hope for the fulfillment of what Yhwh had promised to David. In other words, David could only hope to go to the house of Yhwh in Jerusalem as an anticipation of a future fulfillment of the Davidic covenant (see 2 Samuel 7). This fact accentuates the larger scheme within the Songs of Ascents in which after the exile, the Songs interpret eschatologically the promises made to David.


In the greater context of the Psalter, this psalm (1) joins the resounding voice of expectation for the coming King and (2) provides an important hermeneutical clue for a proper reading of the Songs of Ascents. The former has been established in the Psalter by Psalms 1 and 2; the latter will be confirmed among other places in Psalm 132, a psalm about David and his kingdom. Subsequent readers, then, join David’s hope for God’s faithfulness to these promises, specifically in establishing a kingdom of David’s Son in a peaceful, worshiping Jerusalem.

V. 2 elucidates our understanding of v. 1 as David’s anticipation of going to the house of Yhwh in Jerusalem: “Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!” Moving from singular to plural brings corporate implications to the psalmist’s words. Joy can be found by the congregation as they simply stand within Jerusalem’s gates.[3] On the one hand, the help and security hoped for in Psalm 121 at the hands of Yhwh, their keeper, would be tangibly realized in Jerusalem’s walls and spiritually enjoyed by the presence of God in her midst. On the other hand, joy in Jerusalem would also be found in the presence of the monarchy, as vv. 4–5 make clear.

Once again, the writer connects vv. 2 and 3 through step parallelism, where v. 2 ends with Jerusalem and v. 3 begins with it. The first person hope and recollection of vv. 1 and 2, respectfully, gives way to a general description of Jerusalem’s importance and status among the nation.[4]

First, Jerusalem is described as being “built as a city that is bound firmly together” (v. 3). This is another difficult verse to understand or translate exactly, but the focus seems to be on the compactness or security of the city as it was built. Thus, the poet highlights the hope that comes as being found within the gates of this well-built, secure city.

Mt of Olives 012Second, Jerusalem is described as the place “to which the tribes go up” (v. 4). The place to which the nation would go to worship Yhwh was anticipated in Deuteronomy 12; it was confirmed to be Jerusalem at the end of 2 Samuel. Interestingly, v. 4 uses the verb for “go up” that is also used within the titles of the Songs of Ascents. The general conclusion can therefore be made that these songs were perhaps intended to speak of the congregation’s going up to Jerusalem. At the same time, this may have not just a physical understanding of returning to Jerusalem as part of the nation’s responsibility during the feasts, but it may also join in the larger hope of the Psalter for the culmination of David’s kingdom by the Son, in whom the nation and the nations will find their refuge (see Ps 2:12).

However, the immediate purpose for going up to Jerusalem is to fulfill a decree that Israel was to be a nation that came to Jerusalem for the purpose of giving thanks to Yhwh. V. 4 speaks of Jerusalem as the city “to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.” The pattern established for God’s people was to travel to the central location where Yhwh would be worshiped. Although not specifically decreed in a particular passage, this expectation of giving thanks was centered on “the name of Yhwh,” a phrase that is often used of David’s and Solomon’s building of a house “for the name of Yhwh” (see e.g. 1Kgs 8:17; 1Chr 22:7).

Third, Jerusalem was the place where thrones of justice were established. V. 5 states, “There thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David.” By using poetic parallelism in which the first line is further described by the second, the thrones for judgment are identified as the thrones set up for the house of the David. Here, David anticipates a series of kings, a series of thrones, as part of his house. An important responsibility of those who would sit on those thrones is to administer justice (see Psalm 72 and Isaiah 11). In the prophetic promises regarding the kingdom of David and his sons, Jerusalem would be the place where Yhwh judges the nations (see e.g. Isaiah 2). This continues the pattern that David sees established in his days and in the days of his sons.

In that David describes in vv. 3–5 the security, the true worship, and the administration of justice to be found in Jerusalem, this provides the proper basis from which to make the requests of vv. 6–7:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! “May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls and security within your towers!”

David beckons the readers to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and he provides the words that they should pray.[5] For Jerusalem to be this haven of rest, it must be characterized by peace, a theme that has already been established in the Songs of Ascents (see e.g. 120:6–7). As such, Psalm 122 joins the chorus of reflection on the Priestly Blessing in expressing peace from Yhwh as specifically related to Jerusalem and the security (or perhaps prosperity) that she provides.

David closes his psalm with two commitments. First, in v. 8 he calls upon himself to speak: “For my brothers and companions’ sake I will say, ‘Peace be within you!’” Peace in Jerusalem will mean security not just for the future of his kingdom, but also for those who are his brothers and friends. Second, in v. 9 he calls upon himself to seek the good of the city: “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.” So David, the king, commits himself (1) to promote peace and (2) to work for the good of Jerusalem. Moreover, he focuses on those who populate his kingdom and the house of Yhwh, the God who is personally related to David’s people (“our God”).

In essence, then, Psalm 122 gives us a clearer picture of the expectations of the Davidic kings and of the Son of David to come. There existed (and would exist) a close relationship between the king and the worship of Yhwh at Jerusalem in the house of Yhwh. Both the king and the congregation would work toward that end. The former would administer justice as part of a reign that promoted peace and goodness; the latter would pray for the peace of the city within which they would gives thanks to the name of their God. Thus, the hope that David had in the establishment of the central sanctuary of worship and justice becomes the hope of all who subsequently read this psalm. “To pray for the peace of Jerusalem (v.6) is to pray for the coming of the Promised Seed of David, the Messiah.”[6]


[1] For example, a couple Hebrew manuscripts do not contain it, as well as the Septuagint and Targums.

[2] Zenger points out that Psalm 122, the middle psalm in the first 5, has a reference to David in the title, as does the middle psalm in the last 5 (Psalm 132). Moreover, the title of Psalm 127 refers to Solomon.

[3] Zenger, 458: “Dass der Psalm nicht den Gottesberg Zion als den mythischen Thronsitz des Weltkönigs JHWH, sondern die Stadt Jerusalem mit dem ‘Haus JHWHs’ in seiner Mitte beschreibt, ist typisch für seine nachexilische Entstehung.” That the psalm does not describe Zion, the mountain of God, as the mythical throne of the king of the world, Yhwh, rather the city of Jerusalem with the “house of Yhwh” in its midst, is typical for its post-exilic origin.

[4] Zenger, 458: “Der zweite Teil V 3–5 nennt drei Gründe, die die Stadt Jerusalem zu einer besonderen Stadt und zum ‘Realsymbol’ der Gegenwart JHWHs in einer feindlichen Welt machen.” The second part in vv. 3–5 gives three reasons that make the city of Jerusalem a significant city and the “real symbol” of the presence of Yhwh in a hostile world. He goes on to say that Jerusalem was not just any city of Israel, rather took on the title of “the city,” especially in post-exilic texts (see 1Kgs 8:44, 48; Jer 8:16; Lam 1:19; 2:12; Ezek 7:23; 9:4, 9; Mic 6:9).

Zenger, 460: “Nur wenn und insofern JHWH selbst Jerusalem ‘baut,’ kann und wird es seine ‘Stadt-Funktion’ erfüllen können.” Only when and if Yhwh himself “builds” Jerusalem can and will it be able to fulfill its “city-function.”

[5] Although the repetition of the words “peace” and “secure/security” can be seen, an element of the poetic artistry is missing in the English. Six of the ten words in the verse have the consonantal sounds “sh” and “l” in order. This has been observed by Allen, 158, as a play on the name of Jerus(h)alem, describing here as a city of peace (see Hebrews). Zenger, 452, also notes the alliteration and assonance in vv. 6–9.

[6] Sailhamer, 218.

Psalm 121

In vv. 1–2, Psalm 121 begins with an individual in need of help, in much the same way that Psalm 120 expresses the plea of an individual in dire circumstances. Yet, unlike the previous psalm, here the psalmist declares a desire to look to the mountains and recognize whence personal help comes.[1]

Mt of Olives 011
View from the Mt. of Olives

Eyes Lifted to the Creator (vv. 1–2)

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Once again, as in 120:6–7, the poet binds these two verses together with step parallelism. The final word of v. 1 (“my help”) becomes the launching point for v. 2 (“my help”).[2] As such, the first two verses focus on identifying the psalmist’s help, namely, Yhwh, the Maker of heaven and earth.[3] The psalmist’s help comes from the covenant, creator God. The one who is there with the speaker is the same one who demonstrated his power by creating all things. The writer’s “hope is not in the mountains (v.1), but in the One who made the mountains.”[4] In another of the Songs of the Ascents, the congregation as a whole will echo this claim: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (124:3).

SONY DSCAs the Creator, Yhwh has the authority and ability to do what the psalmist claims in the rest of the psalm, as it moves from a first person wish to a description of Yhwh’s work on behalf of the one addressed as “you” in the next six verses.

Your Keeper (vv. 3–8)

The remainder of the psalm focuses on Yhwh’s relationship to Israel as her protector. In vv. 3–5, Yhwh is described as her “keeper,” while in vv. 7–8 the psalmist expresses confidence that Yhwh “will keep.” As discussed in the comments on Psalm 120 (part 2), there is a close relationship between the Songs of Ascents and the Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6:24–26. The use of the word for “keep” in Psalm 121 highlights this connection (“Yhwh bless you and keep you”).[5]

Poetically, the author has used the verb “to keep” to structure the parallelism of these verses. In vv. 3–5, there is a 3-fold use of the verb as a participle (“the one who keeps”). In vv. 7–8, the root is again used as an imperfect verb (“he will keep”). What is more, v. 5 makes two statements about Yhwh, placing his name in first position, as also occurs in vv. 7, 8. Structurally, then, this leaves v. 6 as the odd man out. However, in v. 6, the poet uses another literary device that is not readily obvious in English versions. The structure of the verse could be shown like this:

A          By day
B          the sun
C         it will not strike you
B’         and the moon
A’         by night.

This is a common Hebrew poetic device known as chiasm, which is frequent in the Psalter but otherwise not used in this psalm. Normally, the focus of the chiasm is the middle element(s), which in this case would again be on the personal protection that Yhwh offers an individual, a theme upon which the psalm brings focus. This is true because Yhwh is not just the protector of Israel (v. 4: “he who keeps Israel”); his protection extends to the individual, as the constant repetition of “you(r)” indicates. Ten times in these six verses the psalmist uses a singular form of “you”:

  • He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. (v. 3)
  • The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. (v. 5)[6]
  • The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. (v. 6)[7]
  • The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your (v. 7)[8]
  • The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. (v. 8)

Far from being an impersonal creator, Yhwh is a personal protector.[9] And this is a message that the psalm sounds like a constant drumbeat, reminding the readers (or hearers) of Yhwh’s protecting hand.


Summarizing the message of the psalm: For the psalmist and also for subsequent readers, confidence in help comes from embracing these facts:

  1. Help comes from Yhwh, the one who is present, who is there, and is in covenant with Israel.
  2. Help comes from the Creator of all things, the all-powerful God.
  3. Help comes from the one who, therefore, has the ability to keep (or protect) Israel. V. 4 is the only verse in vv. 3–8 that is not personalized to “you.”
  4. Help comes from the one who personally protects those who are his.
  5. Yhwh’s help extends from the present into the eschaton.

As such, the individual can take these second-person truths to his or herself; the “you” can become “me.” At the same time, the declarations of vv. 7–8 regarding Yhwh and the protection that he offers are by no means just hoping that he will protect. Rather it seems that these verses declare something that Yhwh does as part of who he is. In v. 7 and v. 8, the name Yhwh is given first position in the sentence, meaning that what is being said in these verses is stated about Yhwh.[10] They could be translated as follows:

As for Yhwh, he will keep you from all evil.
As for Yhwh,[11] he will keep your soul.
As for Yhwh, he will keep your going out and coming in.

Yhwh provides protection and preservation. Moreover, because Yhwh is the maker of heaven and earth (v. 2), he by authority and ability is one who can fulfill his promised protection. As such, this psalm gives an important commentary on (or exposition of) the Priestly Blessing: Saying “Yhwh bless you and keep you” is not just an empty saying expressing a petitioner’s wish. No, it is a blessing based on the unchangeable nature of their creator, covenant God. In other words, these are not just powerful wishes but divine promises of such blessings. Furthermore, according to the psalmist, Yhwh’s personal protection extends from the present into the eternal future (v. 8 “from now until forever”).[12] The psalm, in keeping with the theme of the Songs of Ascents, interprets the Priestly Blessing as extending from creation to the eschatological rebuilding of the Davidic kingdom.

The reader can thus look with certainty toward the Keeper of Israel as the journey toward Jerusalem, the city of David, continues. The adjoining of Psalm 121 with Psalm 122 highlights this connection. Going to Jerusalem is a good thing because the house of Yhwh and the throne of David are there. Therefore, the peace sought by the speaker of Psalm 120 and the hope sought in the protection of Yhwh of Psalm 121 find their answer in the journey toward Jerusalem of Psalm 122.



[1] There is much disagreement over how this verse should be understood. Do the mountains represent a source of danger? Are the mountains seen negatively as sanctuaries of foreign gods? Are the mountains to be seen positively as the place where God is enthroned (123:1)? Is the reference to the mountains of Jerusalem or mountains along the path back to Jerusalem? I think the volitional use of the imperfect in v. 1 helps determine the intention. The psalmist expresses desire to lift his eyes to the hills, which appears to me to be a positive intention. Why would someone express desire to lift one’s eyes to an imminent threat? Perhaps Allen, 150 has an adequate translation: “I look up to the mountains to see where my help is to come from.”

[2] The English word order doesn’t allow this to be conveyed adequately. A more literal translation might be, “From where does it come, namely my help. My help comes ….”

[3] Zenger, 439, writes: “Die in Ps 121 gegebene Kombination von Schöpfungstheologie (V 1–2) und Geschichtstheologie (V 3–8)—deren Interdependenz ist typisch für das Gesamtkonzept der Priesterschrift—begegnet ebenso in Jes 40–55!” The combination of creation theology (vv. 1–2) and theology of history (vv. 3–8)—whose interdependence is typical for the entire program of the Priestly strand—is encountered as well in Isaiah 40–55!

[4] Sailhamer, 218.

[5] Quote Liebreich here on Psalm 120.

[6] This verse needs more explanation.

[7] This verse needs more explanation.

[8] The clearer statements of v. 7 shed light on the metaphorical ones in vv. 5–6.

[9] Note the interplay of the personal name of Yhwh and his designation as Creator in v. 2.

[10] Specifically, we have examples of compound nominal clauses in which the statements about Yhwh are nominalized.

[11] Although not there, it is implied in the parallelism of v. 7.

[12] The phrase “from now until forever” occurs in the Songs of Ascents in 125:2 and 131:3. The only other places it occurs are Pss 113:2; 115:18; Isa 9:6 [7]; 59:20–21; Mic 4:7. Each of these passages shares other connections with the Songs of Ascents. Interestingly, in Mic 4:7, it is Yhwh reigning on Mount Zion “from now until forever,” which echoes a theme inherent to the Songs of Ascents, as well. Mic 4:7 follows the clear eschatological hope of a return to a restored Zion where Yhwh dwells (quoted from Isaiah 2). It includes the phrase “the last days” (4:1), giving it eschatological implications. The context of Isaiah 9:6 also complements the Songs of Ascents in that it speaks of the king who sits on the throne of David “from now until forever.” This should be highlighted in the comments on 131:3, where Psalms 131–133 bring the role of David to attention. Also, Zion, a theme of the Songs of Ascents, appears in the context of the Isaiah 59 passage. Finally, the passages in Psalm 113 and 115 occur within the context of a call for blessing Yhwh.

Psalm 120 (part 2)

SONY DSCIn a previous post, I discussed how Psalm 120:1-2 lays the theological foundation for this individual psalm as well as the collection of Songs of Ascents. According to v. 1, the speaker has called to Yahweh in the past and received an answer. Thus, he calls once again to Yhwh for deliverance from a specific enemy: deceptive lips (v. 2). The rest of the psalm will show the speaker’s expectation of Yhwh’s response and how the speaker responds from the midst of distress.

Addressing the Tongue of Deceit (vv. 3–4)

3 מַה־יִּתֵּ֣ן לְ֭ךָ וּמַה־יֹּסִ֥יף לָ֗ךְ לָשׁ֥וֹן רְמִיָּֽה׃
4 חִצֵּ֣י גִבּ֣וֹר שְׁנוּנִ֑ים עִ֜֗ם גַּחֲלֵ֥י רְתָמִֽים׃

3 What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?
4 A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree! (ESV)

The phrase, “tongue of deceit,” with which v. 2 ends, also is the last phrase in v. 3. However, as the speaker transitions from addressing Yhwh to addressing his enemies, the phrase clarifies to whom the psalmist speaks in v. 3.[1] While v. 2 addresses Yhwh, v. 3 addresses the wicked one directly, raising the specter of what should be done to him. Most English versions follow the LXX and translate the verbs of v. 2 in the passive. However, as an alternative, the Masoretic Text implies Yhwh as the subject of the verbs, as translated by the NIV: “What will he do to you, and what more besides, you deceitful tongue?”[2] Since vv. 2 and 3 are tied closely with their balanced parallelism and the repetition of deceitful tongue, it would seem that the speaker understands the fate of the deceitful speakers comes from Yhwh. Thus, perhaps the active verbs convey this more appropriately.


Either way, v. 4 provides the answer to the question: “A warrior’s sharp arrows, with glowing coals of the broom tree!” Leaving the difficult details of the broom tree aside, the point seems to be figurative, as Yhwh responds in kind to the deceitful speaker (see Ps 2:5 as a possible background to this). On v. 4, Allen states, “The reference to weapons presupposes their metaphorical usage for slander, as in 52:4 (2); 57:5 (4); Jer 9:2, 7 (3, 8). Cf. especially 64:4, 8 (3, 7) where arrows of divine retribution are promised to arrowlike words.”[3]

Woe to Me (vv. 5–7)

5 אֽוֹיָה־לִ֭י כִּי־גַ֣רְתִּי מֶ֑שֶׁךְ שָׁ֜כַ֗נְתִּי עִֽם־אָהֳלֵ֥י קֵדָֽר׃
6 רַ֭בַּת שָֽׁכְנָה־לָּ֣הּ נַפְשִׁ֑י עִ֜֗ם שׂוֹנֵ֥א שָׁלֽוֹם׃
7 אֲֽנִי־שָׁ֭לוֹם וְכִ֣י אֲדַבֵּ֑ר הֵ֜֗מָּה לַמִּלְחָמָֽה׃

5 Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
6 Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war! (ESV)

In v. 5, the text returns to the first person with the attention getting, “Woe to me!”, which introduces a further description of the psalmist’s plight, echoing the cry with which the psalm begins: “the distress that came to me.” On the one hand, the cry is, “I sojourn in Meshech”; on the other, “I dwell among the tents of Kedar.” The identity of these two references is difficult, not least of which because they are not the same place. It seems to be that the psalmist speaks of two separate places in order to focus attention on the vastness of the suffering. In other words, the point is not so much to describe a literal residence in Meshech and Kedar,[4] but rather to describe how the psalmist has often resided with those who in Scripture are identified as having military prowess.[5] This interpretation fits the military metaphors of vv. 4 and 7 quite well. In addition, reference to Meshech and Kedar identify the psalmist’s residence as outside the land.

Despite the ambiguity that the Meshech and Kedar references raise, the parallelism extending into v. 6 clarifies what the psalmist intends to convey. The picture painted in v. 5 receives a direct explanation in v. 6: “Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.”[6] These verses are connected by the verb “dwell” and the preposition “with.” In a sense, the phrase “tents of Kedar” parallels “those who hate peace,” giving the impression that the tents of Kedar were characterized by lack of peace (or perhaps propensity for war). As such, the poetic parallelism brings about the comparison: Like one who dwells outside the land among the tents of my enemies, so I have dwelled too long with those who are against peace. The point is not so much where the one praying is found, but how the one praying is found (see Ps 61:2–3).

And with the mention of peace (shalom), the author gets to a vital aspect of the prayer, as the importance of the concept is highlighted by poetic parallelism. Characteristic of the Songs of Ascents is a literary device called step parallelism, in which a word or phrase that concludes one line is taken up at the beginning of the next.[7] Not only does this bring focus upon this word or phrase, but it also functions as a binding element between lines. Here, then, the author uses several poetic features to connect vv. 5–7, which are an extended expression of the speaker’s dire circumstances.

In addition, a greater concern seems to be at play here in the larger context. Peace is one of four words that connect the Songs of Ascents with the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:24–26):[8]

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Each of the highlighted words comes to the forefront of the theology of the Songs of Ascents. In this particular case, peace plays an important role (as the parallelism highlights) and will later be connected to the future of Jerusalem.[9] In this way, the Songs of Ascents, beginning with the first one, act as a virtual commentary on what the enacting of this blessing looks like as well as how to pray in light of it.

Brought to the front of v. 7 is the personal pronoun, “I,” giving the literal understanding, “I am (for) peace.” In the second half of v. 7 is the personal pronoun, “they,” with the understanding, “they are for war.” Yet, the phrase, “but when I speak,” falls between these two phrases, causing an issue for translation and interpretation.[10] Whatever the case, v. 7 brings focus on the distinct contrast of the words of the psalmist with that of his enemies, who are personified as “lying lips” and “a deceitful tongue” (v. 2).[11] The psalmist, like the priests commissioned to speak a blessing on the people of Yhwh, speaks of and for peace. As such, his words not only reflect the pattern of speaking of peace as a blessing of Yhwh but also as a hope for that blessing. Yhwh desires to bless his people with peace as his name is spoken over them (Numbers 6); the exiled psalmist speaks of that peace as well, longing for the time when such peace would banish ongoing distress.

Thus, the psalm ends with this contrast between speaking peace and speaking war. Despite the peace-speaking of the psalmist, a lack of peace (i.e., the presence of distress) still exists. One cannot help but feel that the psalm is somewhat incomplete. Yes, the psalmist believes that Yhwh hears his call and therefore prays for deliverance. And yes, the psalmist recognizes explicitly the punishment needed upon those who speak falsely. Yet, the psalm never shows the response. Two explanations can elucidate this.

Perhaps, first, as the gateway to the Songs of Ascents, the writer pens a psalm intended to be timeless and always applicable to those who long for and are seeking refuge back in the land. God’s exiled people should always call out to him wherever they find themselves. There is at the beginning, then, a pattern by which all the faithful of subsequent generations might appeal to God’s faithfulness in answering their cry for help until the eschaton.

But perhaps, second, the psalm simply begins a path toward peace subsequently paved by the rest of the Songs of Ascents. In other words, the situation of God’s displaced people, as represented by the individual psalmist (the lost sheep from Psalm 119) who seeks peace, serves as the foundation from which to understand the rest of the Songs. Moreover, the answer to the psalmist’s plea for deliverance from Yhwh finds an answer in lifting one’s eyes to a powerful helper who keeps his people, i.e. the helper described in Psalm 121. If this proves to be the case, then the answer to the psalmist’s prayer would not be found in the person of the suppliant (or in any other human’s efforts for that matter), even if the answer to what will be given to the wicked one is war. Rather, the help needed is not so much from a warrior, as depicted metaphorically (or not?) in Psalm 120, but from Yhwh, the one who secures the psalmist’s (and listeners’) feet.


[1] There is some debate over whether this phrase in v. 3 is a gloss. However, I believe it is a necessary element to show who the “you” of v. 3 actually is. The reason this is needed is because of the change in address from Yhwh to the wicked. So while it certainly lies outside the strict, grammatical parallelism of the rest of v. 3, it certainly applies these phrases to the deceitful one the writer addresses. Moreover, the phrase causes vv. 2 and 3 to be balanced.

[2] Zenger states that Yhwh is the subject of the verb “to give” as in “what more shall he [Yhwh] give” (408–409). In this, he is following the MT, as the NIV does.

[3] Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, 146.

[4] Although there would probably be exiles in both, therefore the statement would be universally applicable. This highlights the conclusion later that this is intended as a timeless prayer for all who find themselves outside the land.

[5] On Meshech, see Ezek 32:26; 38:2–4; 39:1–3. On Kedar, see Isa 21:16, 17. Like those described in the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, the psalmist’s enemies are “for war” (v. 7). Although, see Goldingay, Psalms, 3:452: “These two peoples were not thought of as more warlike or hostile to Judeans than many others. They are simply alien, mysterious, far-off peoples. They might then simply stand for typical places where Judeans might live as a scattered people as a result of ‘the’ exile.”

[6] Regarding poetic parallelism, v. 6 demonstrates how the poet writes about similar (synonymous?) thoughts using a variety of expressions. In this case, the writer could have simply continued the verbal forms from v. 5 (“I sojourn” and “I dwell”). Yet, instead v. 6 begins with an adverbial modifier and expresses “I dwell” with the more literal and complex “my soul makes its dwelling.” On the one hand, this breaks what could be redundancy from v. 5; on the other hand, it begs the question of why this occurs. From a poetic side, by using this phrase, the poetry seems to make even more clear that the phrases “with the tents of Kedar” and “with those who hate peace” should be read in parallel, because v. 6a balances the verse (see the Hebrew text and accenting) with the expression “for I sojourn in Meshech.” As such, it sets v. 6 in a position as dependent (or following from) the introductory phrase “woe to me” of v. 5. Could be set in parallel like this:

Woe to me,
that I sojourn in Meshech, that I dwell      among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling                among those who hate peace.

So, whereas “I sojourn” and “I dwell” are clearly the same tense and therefore call for asking why they are put in parallel, the author seems to have done more by using a more complex parallelism across vv. 5–6. This is also highlighted by the similarity in the sounds in Hebrew of “tents of” and “who hate.” And this extends via step parallelism into v. 7. It is fascinating, the way that poetry allows the writer to make such intricate and subtle expressions.

[7] Another example is the use of “help” in 121:1, 2.

[8] See Liebreich, “The Songs of Ascents and the Priestly Blessing,” JBL, 33.

My thought: The Songs of Ascents are an eschatological (or royal?) interpretation/application of the Priestly Blessing based upon the psalmists’ hope in Yhwh’s faithfulness to fulfill the promises of the Davidic Covenant. Building off of Zenger’s notion of the purpose of the first 5 Songs of Ascents, this group would contribute to this larger purpose by connecting lament and cry for help from their souls with the trusting search for “blessing” (cf. 124:6; 134:1). Psalm 121 certainly helps cement the relationship to the Priestly Blessing with the use of “keep.”

Question to ask, Where is the eschatological emphasis in these first 5 psalms? See 121:8; 125:2; 131:3, where in each case the phrase “from now to forever” occurs. Cf. also 2Chr 36:23 (go up, house for Yhwh, Yhwh with him) as a parallel passage speaking of an eschatological return from exile.

This quote from Hutchinson makes a good point regarding the whole Psalter: “[T]here is an eschatological or teleological thrust to the book of Psalms, as signaled right from the start by the introductory and programmatic Ps. 2. The community of Israelites into whose hands the Psalter first came may have been back in the land, but they were still liable to be bewildered by Yahweh’s apparent cancellation of his promises to David. The Psalter insists that the king of Ps. 2 will appear – an absolutely supreme righteous ruler who will be greater than Solomon (Pss. 45; 72), in whom the Abrahamic promises will find fulfilment (72:17b), a ‘horn . . . for David’ (132:17) whose coming will prove that Yahweh has not renounced his commitment to the Davidic covenant. Book V couches this glorious prospect in the imagery of a return from exile (Ps. 107), a new exodus (Pss. 114; 135–136) and a journey to Zion (Pss. 120–134); yet post-exilic worshippers, despite being physically present in Jerusalem, must await the fulfilment of these realities.” (97–98) In James Hely Hutchinson, “The Psalms and Praise,” Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches.

Thus, adding these thoughts to my thesis above, the eschatological fulfillment of the Davidic covenant provides the basis for understanding the journey to Zion that is painted in these psalms not as a simple, historical pilgrimage theme but as a journey toward an idealized Zion in the eschaton (consider the relationship with Isaiah 2). Some points of emphasis about this: (1) 124:8, (2) Psalm 126 and the desire for Yhwh to do what he did when he brought them back to Zion before [thus the return from exile is still future], and (3) 131:3; 133:3.

[9] Consider 122:6–9; 125:2, 5; 128:5–6.

[10] Most English versions simply take it as a contrast with v. 7b: “But when I speak, they are for war.” Michel’s translation would be represented by the English translation, “When I begin to speak peace, they are for war.”

[11] Also, as Zenger (411) notes, v. 7 is a tricolon (unique within the psalm), which lends particular weight to the verse. He also makes the point that the psalm would have 15 colons, which would mirror the 15 psalms of the collection. Is this something to consider significant?

Psalm 120 (part 1)

SONY DSCA great while ago, I posted a short entry about the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134). I thought I might follow this up with some thoughts about some of these psalms, beginning with Psalm 120, which I will break into two posts. The first will discuss vv. 1-2 and use them as a springboard to discuss some larger compositional observations within the Songs of Ascents and the Psalter.

I Call, Yahweh Answers (vv. 1–2)

1 אֶל־יְ֭הוָה בַּצָּרָ֣תָה לִּ֑י קָ֜רָ֗אתִי וַֽיַּעֲנֵֽנִי׃
2 יְֽהוָ֗ה הַצִּ֣ילָה נַ֭פְשִׁי מִשְּׂפַת־שֶׁ֑קֶר מִלָּשׁ֥וֹן רְמִיָּֽה׃

1 In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.
2 Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue. (ESV)

The first psalm in the Songs of Ascents opens with a declaration of certainty that Yhwh hears the call of the one who speaks peace (see v. 7) in the midst of a time of distress. The speaker goes nameless, as there is no name given in the title, so the only way to identify this one is to consider the context of the psalm. In this, there are at least two elements at work.

First, by virtue of the context of the psalm within the Psalter, the connection to Ps 119:176 (“I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.”) identifies the speaker as one who loves the torah of Yhwh and continues to heed it but at the same time is found wandering in a precarious situation and therefore seeks shepherding from Yhwh.[1] As seen in 120:5, the speaker of Psalm 120 sojourns in a most unwelcome place and seeks the help of Yhwh, just like the writer of Psalm 119.[2] Second, considering the structure of the present psalm, in v. 7 the speaker identifies himself as one who speaks peace in the midst of those who hate it. The peace-speaking psalmist contrasts himself sharply with those with whom he dwells, namely, those with a tongue of deception (v. 2) who hate peace (v. 6) and speak of war (v. 7).

Thus, the identity of the speaker as the one who wanders like a lost sheep amidst those who fight against peace highlights the nature of the Songs of Ascents. Throughout these 15 psalms, the speaker(s) long and hope for return to the land (specifically Zion) as part of a fulfillment of the promises made to David. Finding themselves in the midst of unrest, they hope for the peace, blessing, grace, protection, redemption, and security of the kingdom of Yhwh as administered by the son of David (see Psalm 132). With this hope, they often call out to Yhwh with the confidence that he will hear their prayers and grant them deliverance (or salvation). Ps 120:1 is a model of this expectation and sets the stage for the rest.[3] In this light, it is significant that the psalm itself as well as the whole collection begins with the prepositional phrase “to Yhwh,”[4] declaring from the beginning that the prayer of this psalm and the hope of those praying the psalms in this collection are directed toward Yhwh and Yhwh alone. He and He alone has been the God who hears and answers.[5] Psalm 120:1 is the gateway to the collection of Songs of Ascents in much the same way that Psalms 1 and 2 are the gateway to the Psalter.


In 120:1, the psalmist uses an important pattern of verbal tenses to make clear the basis of this hope. Calling out to Yhwh and waiting for his answering is expressed quite a few ways in the Psalter and throughout the poetry of the Old Testament. But the poetry used in 120:1 enhances the certainty of the hope, for here a perfect tense verb (“I called”) is immediately followed by an imperfect consecutive (“and he answered me”).[6] While in English this may not be too elucidating (or exciting), in Hebrew such a pattern highlights how the second action results from the first. In other words, the phrase may be translated, “I called, and as a result (of my calling), he answered me.”[7] So in v. 1 the speaker—an example to those who would hear his words—reminds the reader that Yhwh is one to whom his followers should pray and from whom his followers should expect deliverance and protection (as will become apparent in Psalm 121). For in this case, the psalmist declares that he has experienced the resultant answer of a cry to Yhwh.

Although the details are not specified, the psalmist at some point was found in a personally desperate situation. The speaker brings focus upon the personal distress and upon the personal answer from Yhwh (“my distress … I called … answered me”). Just as the pain hit closely to home, so did the answer from God. In this verse, the speaker makes the observation that from personal experience it can be said about Yhwh that he is a God who hears and answers the prayers of his people (see 81:8; 99:6–8) and the prayers of individuals (as here in this psalm). In his example, the psalmist implies an answer to the question, “Why should a cry for help be directed toward Yhwh? Because when I have cried out to him, he has answered me.”

Thus, the speaker points to a distressing situation of the past, which fittingly has an interesting parallel to a desperate situation of a prophet, namely Jonah, and his plight in the belly of the fish. There are a number of specific details in both 120:1 and Jonah 2:3a (“I called out to Yhwh, out of my distress, and he answered me”) that highlight this relationship:

  • both use a poetic form of expressing “my distress,” which is found only in these two places,[8]
  • both have the prepositional phrase “to Yhwh” specifying to whom the call is addressed,
  • both use the same verbs for calling and answering, and
  • both use the same tenses for those verbs, which highlights the action of calling and the resulting action by Yhwh of answering.

The two verses vary only in their ordering, in the preposition used on the noun for “distress,” and in the form of the noun that Ps 120:1 uses.[9] It could be reasonably concluded that Jonah’s difficulty gives a narrative example of what calling/answering looks like. In the very least, Jonah’s prayer provides further content prayers of desperation by the readers.

mt-arbel-108.jpgSo the psalm begins with a recollection: “I have called out to Yhwh in the midst of my desperate situation in the past and he answered me.” Thus, the speaker turns in v. 2 to make a plea based upon that foundation. Because Yhwh has answered in the past, perhaps he might (or perhaps more confidently, “will”[10]) provide salvation from the present distress. So the psalm turns from recollection about speaking to Yhwh to actually addressing Yhwh directly. The psalmist calls out, “Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.” Using a figure of speech called a synecdoche in which a smaller part is used for the whole, the speaker calls out to Yhwh for deliverance from the one who speaks lies. The description of the wicked in v. 2 as those who sin with their lips enhances the contrast made at the end of the psalm where the peaceful speech of the psalmist is contrasted sharply with those of war (v. 7).

[to be continued]


[1] This assumption is based on the hermeneutical principle that the psalm as well as the Songs of Ascents have been purposely placed after Psalm 119, and that this is not just a result of coincidence. See the Introduction to the Songs of Ascents (to be written).

[2] Zenger (422) comments on the connection between Psalm 119 and the Songs of Ascents: “Beide entwerfen Modelle jüdischer Identität, zum einen mit der Tora als dem entscheidenden Medium der Begegnung mit JHWH and zum anderen mit dem Tempel als dem Ort der Gottespräsenz.” Both outline models of Jewish identity, on the one hand with the Torah as the distinct medium of the encounter with Yhwh and on the other hand with the temple as the place of the presence of God. As such, there is a coming together of Torah theology and Temple theology. See K. Nielsen, 57, 66.

Zenger, 423: “Am naheliegendsten ist allerdings die Nebeneinanderstellung von Ps 119 und Ps 120–134 im Horizont der von der Redaktion in Ps 107–136 gezeichneten Wiederherstellung und Erneuerung Israels als die Betonung komplementärer Lebensweisen zu begreifen (Tora und Zion).”

On connections between Psalm 119 and 120, see 119:145 and 120:1; 119:170, 175 and 120:2. Consider also the description of enemies (Ps 119:29, 86, 104, 118, 128). Also, “help” from Yhwh (119:173, 175 and 121:1f.; 124:8).

[3] Zenger (410) states: “Da V 1 der Anfang der Sammlung Ps 120–134 ist, entwirft der Vers so zugleich einen hermeneutischen Horizont, der für die in Ps 120–134 vollzogene Gebetsbewegung insgesamt bedeutsam ist.” Since v. 1 is the beginning of the collection of Ps 120–134, the verse thus outlines at the same time a hermeneutical horizon, which is altogether significant for the progression of prayer carried out in Pss 120–134.

[4] Despite the fact that this is not reflected in the English translations.

[5] See Zenger, 414. He makes the connection here to Ps 115:4–7 and the post-exilic theological statements regarding this. He also points to the example of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. This is also quite explicit in the Davidic psalms of the first book of the Psalter (e.g., Pss 3:5; 4:2; 17:6; 18:7f.; 20:2, 10; 22:3, 22; 23:7).

Zenger, 415, states, “Dass JHWH der Gott ist, der antwortet, wenn er gerufen wird, ist das Thema des ‘Heilsorakels’, das in Ps 91,14–16 im tempeltheologischen (!) Kontext entfalten wird.” That Yhwh is the God who answers when he is called on, is the thema of the “salvation oracle,” which is developed in Ps 91:14–16 in the temple-theology (!) context.

And again, “Dieses Vertrauensbekenntnis proklamiert die Erhörungsgewissheit, auf der Ps 120 aufruht und die zugleich der hermeneutische Horizont der Sammlung Ps 120–134 überhaupt ist.” Of this confession of trust it proclaims the certainty of hearing, on which Psalm 120 rests and which is in general at the same time the hermeneutical horizon of the collection of Pss 120–134.

[6] The fact that a perfect occurs here is not too elucidating. There is much disagreement regarding this translation or sense of this formation (perfect – imperfect consecutive). While there are some (e.g., Duhm and Gunkel) who would adjust the imperfect consecutive into a simple imperfect form, it seems best to leave the text as it remains and determine how to translate the perfect (see Michel for reasons). Two options exist: (1) present translation and (2) past translation. Michel prefers a present translation; Zenger (408) a past translation. Interestingly, Zenger has missed (or at least not supported) Michel’s point about the wayyiqtol following a perfect as a result. I have tried to reflect this in my comments.

[7] There is some precedent for translating these verbs in the present tense in English (see the NIV and NRSV), which would highlight even more the certainty of the speaker. However, I have chosen to follow other English versions in understanding v. 1 as reflecting on the past as the basis for the hope that Yhwh will respond to the imperative (“deliver my soul”) of v. 2. [On understanding the tenses in this way, namely that a an imperfect consecutive following a perfect shows results/consequence, see Diethelm Michel, Tempora und Satzstellung in den Psalmen, § 1.]

[8] Specifically, they use the noun followed by the prepositional phrase “to/for me” to express possession. This is in contrast to other places where the psalmist simply uses the pronominal suffix on the noun (e.g. Ps 142:3).

[9] Ps 120:1 uses a unique form of the noun “distress, need.”

[10] even though Psalm 120 does not resolve the present situation