Psalm 127 – “Wisdom Homily”

lt354Hebrew-English Text

I. Summary
Psalm 127 contains two pieces of wisdom: the first communicates the necessity of God’s cooperation in order for human endeavors to succeed, and the second extols the benefits of having male children.

II. Photo

V. 1 says that “unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it.”

III. Outline
1a. Superscription
1bc. Didactic statement
2. Exhortation
3. Didactic statement
4. Simile
5. Beatitude

IV. Comment
Psalm 127, which is found amongst the 15 shir hama’alot psalms, is one of the two psalms attributed to Solomon (cf. Ps 72:1). The reason for this unusual superscription might be the fact that Solomon is credited with building the first temple in 1 Kings 5-6;8, and v. 1 mentions “building a house.” Yet, scholars such as Gerstenberger view the superscription as a “late theological interpretation”; the “house” mentioned in v. 1 refers to building a family, not the temple. Let us now see why.

Verse 1 speaks of both a house and a city. While there are many places in Tanach where the words “house” and “city” serve as synonyms for the temple in Jerusalem (cf. Jer 26:6,9,12; 1 Kings 8:44,48), all those occurrences have the definite article hey. This means that they speak of “the house” and “the city” as opposed to “a house” and “a city.” It seems unlikely that verse 1, which lacks the definite article, would be speaking of the house (i.e. the temple) or the city (i.e. Jerusalem). Rather, it is likely speaking about a regular house and a regular city, and its message is simple: human endeavors can only succeed with God’s approval.

What does the first part of the psalm have to do with vv. 3-5 which praises those who have male children? It is possible that the “house” in v. 1 refers to a “family,” much like the references to “houses” and “building” in Gen 16:2; 30:3; Ps. 113:9 and possibly Ex. 1:21. Thus, the psalm’s second lesson is intertwined with the first: the benefits of progeny can only come about with God’s blessing. The theology behind this lesson can be seen in Gen. 30:1-2: ”When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” This passage shows how children were viewed to be God’s gift.

The form and meaning of psalm 127 is closely related the genre of “Wisdom.” For instance, the message and vocabulary of vv. 1-2 can be found in Prov. 10:22, “It is the blessing of the LORD that enriches, and no toil [‘etzev, as in our v. 2] can increase it..” The basic structure of v. 1 is also related to Eccl. 10:10-11. Yet, the question arises, “what is wisdom literature doing in the psalter?” While Allen considers this psalm somewhat of an anomaly, Gerstenberger points out that “didactic instruction” can be found interspersed throughout other genres, especially hymns (e.g Ps 33: 16-19). It therefore seems likely that Psalm 127 had a cultic setting like most – if not all – of the psalms. It was probably recited by a leader in a congregational setting.

The beatitude in v. 5 requires explanation: “Happy is the man who fills his quiver with them [i.e. sons]; they shall not be put to shame when they contend with the enemy in the gate.” While the quarrel at the gate might be a militaristic reference (which would fit well with “defending a city” in v. 1), it is most probably referencing a local dispute (we know from elsewhere that the city gate was a place where judicial disputes were settled ). It likely means, “the man who has many sons is less likely to be taken advantage of,” as opposed to the widow or orphan who had no family to protect him (cf. Isa 1:23).

V. Important Verses
v. 1: “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it; unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain.”

Psalm 126 – “Communal Hymn/Petition”

wadiHebrew-English Text

I. Summary
Psalm 126 is a Communal Hymn with a Petition:  it praises God for restoring Israel’s fortunes (v. 1-3),  asks God to revive and reinforce his favor (v. 4), and ends with a joyous metaphor about a farmer (vv. 5-6).
It seems to be referencing the early Second Temple period, a time when Judah underwent significant restoration (ca. 540-440 BCE).

II. Photo

V. 4 asks God to “restore our fortunes… like a wadi in the Negev.”
III. Outline
1a. Superscription
1b-3. Salvation Hymn
4. Petition
5-6. Analogy: a farmer’s harvest

IV. Comment
Psalm 126 is the subject of much scholarly debate. The first question is, “Is Psalm 126 a recollection of the past, a prayer for the future, or both?” The question stems from the enigmatic relationship between vv. 1-3 and v. 4: vv. 1-3 begins with an initial temporal clause and then uses perfect verbs to describe the “restoration of fortune,” and v. 4 uses an imperative asking God to “restore fortune.” While Hebrew verbal forms in poetic texts do not necessarily indicate time levels or time sequences, the verbal dissonance seems to indicate two sections: the psalm begins by recollecting the initial stages of salvation and then asks for that process to be completed. Thus, Psalm 126 – in its current form –  seems to be both a Hymn and a Petition.

What do the words shuv, shivat zion, shevuteinu (“restoration of fortunes” or “to bring back captives”) in vv. 1,4 refer to? The phrase appears elsewhere in Tanach, sometimes in regards to Zion (cf. Ps 14:7; Isa 52:8) and sometimes not (cf. Job 42:10; Hos 6:11). It most likely refers to the restoration of Judah (cf. Jer 30:18; 31:23; Joel 4:1; Ezek 39:25-27), and might specifically be referring to the return of the exiles (cf. Ezra 1-2), the reconstruction of the temple (cf. Ezra 4-6), or the resettlement of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of its fortifications (cf. Neh. 3-6).

The hymn’s key phrase, “the LORD has done great things for us/them” has only one parallel in Tanach, Joel 2:20-21. This, and other textual similarities to the book of Joel (compare vv. 1,4 to Joel 4:1 and v. 1 to Joel 3:1) also hint of a postexilic date for this psalm.

What does the phrase “we were like dreamers” in v.1 mean? The answer depends on a previous question: is  vv. 1-3 a recollection of the past or a prayer for the future? If it is a prayer, then the “dream” is something that did not yet occur, much like Isa. 29:8: “Like one who is hungry and dreams he is eating, but wakes to find himself empty; and like one who is thirsty and dreams he is drinking, but wakes to find himself faint and utterly parched…” Yet, if it is a reference to the past, it most likely means “we were in disbelief, as if in a dream.”

Psalm 126 ends with what might be labeled a “farmer’s song”: “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.” What is this doing here? One possibility is that Psalm 126, which is found in the shir hama’alot section of the Psalter, was said by pilgrims during the festivals, and that is why the psalm ends with an agricultural song. Yet, it is more likely that the song served as a metaphor: it illustrates by analogy “the difficulties and utter relief of exilic existence. This appendix also serves to demonstrate the continuing struggle, in spite of [the Lord’s] saving interventions of the past.” (Gerstenberger)

V. Important verses
v. 4: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like watercourses in the Negeb.”

Psalm 124 – “Communal Hymn/Thanksgiving”


Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Psalm 124 is a hymn which was recited in a communal setting. Its praise, which takes the form of a “double negative,” basically says “thank you God for not abandoning us, things could have been much worse.”

II. Outline
1a. Superscription
1b-2. Summons to praise
3-5. Account of hypothetical trouble
6. Blessing and account of hypothetical trouble
7. Account of salvation
8. Praise

III. Comment
While many scholars categorize Psalm 124 as a Communal Thanksgiving (it contains an account of trouble and salvation in vv. 3-8), it has a strong affinity to the Communal Hymn. This is due to the facts that (1) there is no mention of an offering, (2) the account of trouble is itself introduced as a hymnic praise (vv. 1-2), and (3) the details of the trouble are vague. While its plural language indicates a communal recitation, Allen believes that Psalm 124 was said by a leader in front of a community. Indeed, he classifies Psalm 124 as an Individual Thanksgiving, but his reasons are not altogether convincing.

The summons to praise, yo’mar na’ yisra’el “let Israel now declare” (1c) seems to have been a formulaic phrase (cf. Ps. 118:2-4). The praise takes a “negative” form in vv. 1-2: “were it not for the LORD, who was on our side…” While similar “negative praises” are found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Gen. 31:42; Isa. 1:9), the summons to praise found in the other Hymns are “positive.”

The “negative” praise continues in vv. 3-5 with a description of “what could have been.” The psalm then shifts into a blessing of God (the form “Blessed is the LORD” occurs some 15x in the Psalter, e.g. 72:18 and 135:21). There is then a metaphor which serves as an account of trouble and salvation, and a final praise.

Psalm 124 has three prominent literary features: repetition, chiastic structures, and metaphor/simile. In terms of repetition, vv. 1-2 repeat “Were it not for the LORD,” and the word ‘azai “then” is found 3x at the beginning of verses 3-5. In terms of chiastic structures, vv. 4-5 has an ABB’A’  makeup: mayim, ‘al nafsheinu, ‘al nafsheinu, mayim. Verse 7 also has an ABB’A’ makeup: nimlat, pach, pach, nimlat. Metaphor and simile pervade the psalm: the enemies “swallow” (v. 3, see Prov. 1:12 for similar wording in reference to she’ol), overtake like flowing waters (vv. 4-5), and eat their victims like prey (v.6). Verse 7 gives a simile of salvation: “We are like a bird escaped from the fowler’s trap; the trap broke and we escaped.” This simile is used often in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Ps. 91:3; 141:9; Eccl. 9:12).

Allen believes that the literary features in Psalm 124 point to a late date of composition. The word ‘azai (vv. 3-5) – which only appears in our psalm – is probably an emphatic form of ‘az from late Biblical Hebrew (it was found in a letter from Qumran dating to 135 BCE). Also, there is the use of the shin participle instead of ‘asher in v. 6 (for use of ‘asher in similar blessings see Gen. 24:27; Ex:18:10).

IV. Important verses
6-7: Blessed is the LORD, who did not let us be ripped apart by their teeth. We are like a bird escaped from the fowler’s trap; the trap broke and we escaped.

Psalm 122 – “A Pilgrim’s Hymn to Jerusalem”

Hebrew-English text

I. Outline

1a. Superscription
1b-5. Joyous recollection
    1b-2. Account of pilgrimage
    3-5. Praise of Jerusalem
6-9. Hymn to Jerusalem

II. Comment

Ps. 122 is a two part Hymn to Jerusalem, said by an individual and addressed to a congregation (see the 2nd person plural address in v. 6a). Due to its language and placement in the shir hama’alot unit (Ps. 121-134), it was probably said by a pilgrim on his journey to – or arrival at – Jerusalem. The psalm contains two sections: (a) a joyous hymnic recollection of previous pilgrimages, and (b) a hymn directed to Jerusalem itself.

The psalm begins with pilgrimage language in v. 1, “Let us go into the house of the Lord” (cf. Ex 3:18; Zech 8:21; Isa 2:3 for similar calls to worship), and continues with v. 2’s “Our feet stood in thy courts, O Jerusalem.” Verses 2, 6-9 address Jerusalem directly, a phenomenon found elsewhere in the psalter and in late prophetic literature (e.g. Ps. 87:3; 137:5; Zech 9:9; Lam 2:13-14).

The psalm has a few pronounced literary features. Verses 6-7 and 8-9 are both structured as parallel doublets, and there is a doubling of shevet in v. 4 and kisse’ in v. 5. There might be intentional alliteration of the letter shin in vv. 6-7 (occurs 6x), probably because of the shin found in the word “Jerusalem.” Some scholars believe that the psalm was created around an ABCB’A’ chiastic structure:

A. the house of the Lord (v. 1)
B. Jerusalem (vv. 2,3)
C. the house of David (v. 5)
B’. Jerusalem (v. 6)
A’. the house of the Lord (v. 9)

There is no consensus about the psalm’s date of composition. While the reference to the tribes ascent to Jerusalem in v. 4 might indicate an early preexilic date, it could also indicate a late date (i.e. it is a paean to the “glorious days of old”). Also, the particle shin, which appears in vv. 4-5 and is usually found in late Biblical Hebrew, might indicate a later date for Ps. 122.

A form-critical analysis of Ps. 122 might be able to explain two of its peculiarities. The city is referred to as “there” in vv. 3-4, and other “Zion psalms” use the same language (e.g. Ps 87:6; 133:3). Also, while the second section is primarily a hymn to Jerusalem, v. 6a contains a 2nd person plural imperative, “Pray now for the peace of Jerusalem.” This correlates to other “Zion psalms” which have 2nd person plural imperatives towards their ends (e.g. Ps. 48:12-14; 76:12).