Psalm 149 – “Hymn to God and His Faithful Warriors”

metal_chainHebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Psalm 149 begins with a call to praise God amidst the “congregation of the faithful.” It then praises God’s warriors who praise God and enact revenge on the enemy.

II. Photo
The psalmist praises the warriors who carry out God’s decree against the foreign kings: “[they] bind their kings with shackles, their nobles with chains of iron.” (v. 8 )
III. Important Verses
v. 1: Hallelujah. Sing to the LORD a new song, His praises in the congregation of the faithful.
vv. 5-9: Let the faithful exult in glory; let them shout for joy upon their couches, with paeans to God in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to impose retribution upon the nations, punishment upon the peoples, binding their kings with shackles, their nobles with chains of iron, the doom decreed against them. This is the glory of all His faithful. Hallelujah.

IV. Outline
1a. Superscription
1b-3. Summons to praise
4. Hymnic rationale
5-9b. Praise of God’s warriors
9c. Postscript

V. Comment

Psalm 149, like many hymns, begins with a call to “sing to the Lord a new song” (cf. Ps. 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; Isa 42:10). The hymn’s setting is beqehal chasidim “in the congregation of the faithful.” The faithful – who are soldiers too – are the main subject of the psalm, appearing in vv. 1, 5, and 9.

The psalm contains a wish in v. 2: “Let Israel rejoice in its maker; let the children of Zion exult in their king.” Expressions to be glad and rejoice come up often in the psalter, e.g. Ps. 5:12, 9:3, 14:7, 31:8, etc. The next line, “Let them praise His name in dance; with timbrel and lyre let them chant His praises” is also standard for the hymn genre: see Ps. 135:3, 146:2, 147:1, 105:2-3 which all use the words hll “praise” and zmr “sing.”

What makes Psalm 149 unique is its turn in vv. 5-9: instead of praising God, or even Zion, the psalm praises God’s warriors (here called chasidim “the faithful”). They serve God “with paeans to God in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to impose retribution upon the nations, punishment upon the peoples, binding their kings with shackles, their nobles with chains of iron, the doom decreed against them.” (vv. 6-9) While the “nations” are not spelled out, divine revenge pervades the entire second half of this psalm.

While the brutal outlook of this psalm can be seen in a number of Biblical passages, a few stand out. For example, 2 Chr. 20:20-30 describes a mixture of war and hymn singing:
Early the next morning they arose and went forth to the wilderness of Tekoa. As they went forth, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Listen to me, O Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: Trust firmly in the LORD your God and you will stand firm; trust firmly in His prophets and you will succeed.” After taking counsel with the people, he stationed singers to the LORD extolling the One majestic in holiness as they went forth ahead of the vanguard, saying, “Praise the LORD, for His steadfast love is eternal.” …  All the men of Judah and Jerusalem with Jehoshaphat at their head returned joyfully to Jerusalem, for the LORD had given them cause for rejoicing over their enemies. They came to Jerusalem to the House of the LORD, to the accompaniment of harps, lyres, and trumpets. The terror of God seized all the kingdoms of the lands when they heard that the LORD had fought the enemies of Israel. The kingdom of Jehoshaphat was untroubled, and his God granted him respite on all sides.

The psalm speaks of carrying out the decree against the foreign kings: “binding their kings with shackles, their nobles with chains of iron, executing the doom decreed against them.” The decree is probably that written in Deut 20:10-13:
and when the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive. No, you must proscribe them — the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites — as the LORD your God has commanded you, lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before the LORD your God.
These exhortations were read literally: many biblical passages describe the killing of captured kings (e.g. Num 31:8) and the killing of prisoners of war (e.g. Judg 8:18-21, 2 Sam 8:2, etc.). One harsh example is Josh 10:24-27:
And when the kings were brought out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and ordered the army officers who had accompanied him, “Come forward and place your feet on the necks of these kings.” They came forward and placed their feet on their necks. Joshua said to them, “Do not be frightened or dismayed; be firm and resolute. For this is what the LORD is going to do to all the enemies with whom you are at war.” After that, Joshua had them put to death and impaled on five stakes, and they remained impaled on the stakes until evening. At sunset Joshua ordered them taken down from the poles and thrown into the cave in which they had hidden. Large stones were placed over the mouth of the cave, [and there they are] to this very day.”

When was this psalm composed? Gerstenberger believes that psalms were written for a current and practical reason: “Disinterested eulogies to [God] are imagined by interpreters rather than met in the Psalms. Ancient hymn singing grew out of contemporaneous contexts of belligerence, oppression, and divine violence.” (p. 456) Based on the fact that the community calls itself ‘anawim “the lowly” in v. 4 he speculates that the psalm is postexilic (a time in which foreign forces controlled the region). Allen concurs, “Linguistic and thematic links with Isa 40–66… indicate a postexilic origin for this psalm. Kraus… envisioned the period of Nehemiah as suitable for what he regarded as a cultic representation of the ancient tradition of the attack of the nations on Jerusalem in anticipation of an actual attack. A Maccabean dating, once prevalent, is now generally abandoned.” (p. 401)