“You are the one Israel praises” (Psalm 22:3–5): The Artful Hebrew Bible
In the previous post we introduced three basic principles of studying Hebrew poetry: poetic lines, parallelism, and rhythm. Let’s continue looking at the poetry of Psalm 22. Two quick reminders: (1) we are following primarily the Hebrew versification and (2) in the transliteration below hyphens (-) join multiple English words when they represent a single Hebrew word. An equals sign (=) marks the Maqqef joining multiple words into one “beat.”
In these verses we will also notice some alliteration that enhances the beauty of the psalm. For those of you interested in reading more on this, please see Elizabeth H. P. Backfish, “The Function of Alliteration in the Prosaic and Poetic Accounts of the Deborah Cycle,” JSOT44/4 (2020): 551–62.
Analyzing Psalm 22:4–6(E 3–5)
Recall that the Hebrew verse numbering is off by one in this psalm because in the Hebrew Bible the ancient psalm titles are numbered, whereas in English versions do not count them. Longer titles may become one or more separate verses resulting in the different count. Since we are looking at the Hebrew, we will follow the Hebrew versification and give the English in brackets.
|יוֹשֵׁב תְּהִלּוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
|yôšēb təhillôt yiśrāʾēl
|בְּךָ בָּטְחוּ אֲבֹתֵינוּ
|bəkā boṭḥû ʾăbōtênû
|אֵלֶיךָ זָעֲקוּ וְנִמְלָטוּ
|ʾēlêkā zāʿăqû wənimlāṭû
|בְּךָ בָטְחוּ וְלֹא־בוֹשׁוּ׃
|bəkā boṭḥû wǝlōʾ=bôšû
3 But-you (are) holy,
the-one-inhabiting the-praises-of Israel.
4 In-you our-fathers trusted
they-trusted and you-granted-their-escape.
5 To-you they-cried-out and-slipped-away
in-you they-trusted and-they-had-no-embarrassment.
Observations and Inferences
As in vv. 2–3(E 1–2), all these verses are bicola. The rhythm of the first two verses (2-3, 3-2) connects these two and the variation 3-3 in v. 6(E 5) forms a climax. This relationship is borne out by the first words of each of vv. 4–6. Notice that 4a and 5a both begin with pronouns (one the subject pronoun and one a pronominal suffix) referring to the Lord and in 6a and 6b both lines begin with the pronoun in prepositional phrases.
4(E3) This verse offers a strong contrast to what one might infer from the Lord’s apparent silence in the previous verse. It begins with וְאַתָּה (wǝʾattȃ), “but you.” There is no emphasis on the pronoun; line 4a is normal (or “unmarked”) word order. The Waw, however, connects v. 4 to the previous verses and the pronoun abruptly shifts the attention from the “I/me” of the psalmist to “you” of the Lord. So, the Waw is translated with “but” to indicate the contrast.
The two lines simply offer two affirmations of the Lord: (1) that he is holy, and (2) that he is “inhabiting the praises of Israel.” Holy is an adjective and the one inhabiting is a Participle (Ptc), which is a verbal adjective (see Hebrew for the Rest of Us, ch. 17). These two descriptors are right next to each other and in the center of the line. These qualities of the Lord are the highpoint of the line. The grammar of the Ptc may be analyzed in two ways: either (a) as a verbal Ptc in the absolute state describing what the Lord is doing, namely, “inhabiting,” and taking “the praises of Israel” as the direct object of the Ptc: “inhabiting the praises of Israel,” or (b) as a substantival Ptc in construct with “the praises of Israel” and definite because the last word of the chain is definite (see Hebrew for the Rest of Us, ch. 11): “the one who inhabits the praises of Israel.” The English translation renders the latter. In either case, the juxtaposition of “holy” and “inhabiting/inhabitor” are an elegant, poetic terse expression.
The first affirmation functions as a profession of trust, lest the hearer get the wrong idea from vv. 2–3 that the psalmist was placing blame on the Lord. The second affirmation, “inhabiting,” presents a nearness of the Lord and Israel. The clear inference is that Israel praises the Lord, but since “praises” is not the verb, neither the praises nor Israel is the focus; rather the Lord as the One who inhabits those praises is the focus, and the “habitation” of the Lord implies that the Lord is not really far from his people.
5(E4) This verse is a bicolon with three and then two elements. The prepositional phrase “in you” is the fronted element and focuses on the Lord rather than on Israel or the psalmist. This parallels the “But you” that began the previous verse. “Trusted” is repeated twice in this verse and once more in the next (and the root occurs again in the Hifil stem in v. 10). This repetition produces a stair-stepping pattern in the second line. The second element of the second line is a Wayyiqtol verb giving the result of their trust: the Lord rescued them.
Notice also the shift from the individual lament in vv. 2–3[1–2] to the nation of Israel in v. 4 and Israel specifically to the “fathers” or ancestors of Israel. This refence to the people of Israel at all times is continued with the plural verbs in vv. 5–6[4–5].
The repetition of “trusted” marks emphasis of Israel’s trust and produces a stairstep relation between the lines. The terseness of the two conjoined verbs in the second line sharpens the point of the Lord’s deliverance and reliability.
6(E5) The repetition of “in you they trusted” is stair-stepped again: whereas in v. 5 the phrase is followed by the grammatical subject, “our fathers,” in v. 6b the phrase is followed by the result, namely that they were not put to shame. This negative assertion is what the Greeks called litotes (a three-syllable word, by the way), a literary device in which a negative statement is used as an understatement to emphasize the opposite.
The third repetition of the trusting emphasizes the behavior of Israel at their best, serving both to encourage the trusting and bolster the flagging, and the focus is on the Lord’s deliverance. Further, the absence of shame in the people is a result of the Lord’s deliverance and contributes to the understatement. Their trust is not misplaced.
Notice the alliteration in 5a and 6b. Each word of both lines has a b sound at or near the beginning: bəkā boṭḥû ʾăbōtênû and bəkā boṭḥû wǝlōʾ=bôšû. The first two words of these lines also have the related sounds of the Kaf and the Ḥet following the Bet: bəkā boṭḥû. Beside the artfulness, this alliteration serves to identify the beginning and ending of lines (remember that these poems were meant to be heard!), and the combination of repetition and alliteration at 5a and 6b serves as bookends (called an inclusio), which join the two verses and prepare for a new section of the poem afterward.
The Israelites did not have an unspotted history of obeying the Lord. The sense of the distance from God might be due to sin and being punished for it. It is important to realize, however, that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering. Suffering can happen for any of a number of causes not of our own doing. In Isa 49:1–5 with the captives in view, the Servant has the task of bring Israel near. But in times of trouble, Israel did have a history of crying out to the Lord and, based on the truth of the holiness of the Lord (v. 4), they trusted him to help. In fact, their crying out to him demonstrated their trust, even if he seemed far away.
The nearness of God even to Gentiles, even though they may not sense it, is taught by Paul in his speech to the Athenians in Acts 17:27–28. This is especially good news for the Gentiles. And this also was the work of the Servant in Isa 49. In vv. 6–7 the nations will come near. This is a theme we will return to later in Ps 22.
In the course of every human life bad things happen. These are not and cannot be distributed evenly among individuals. Our suffering can cloud our thinking and make us feel like God is not listening or even close enough to us to pay attention. What we must remember is that the Lord is absolutely holy. Because this is so, he is absolutely trustworthy. When we suffer, we can praise the Lord for who he is, cry out to him for what we think we need, and trust him no matter what befalls us on earth.
Those raised in believing households have a legacy of believers in their families whose examples can sustain and build our faith in difficult times. Those new to the faith may not have those examples in their families. But once they join the family of God, there is a whole history of people who have also suffered and have trusted in and cried out to the Holy God. And this chain of “fathers” goes back to the faithful of all generations since the beginning (e.g., Gen 15:6; Heb 11; 2 Tim 1:5). May we imitate the faith of our fathers. May we live lives of faithful trust so that we leave the same legacy to our families, both physical and spiritual. For the Lord is truly not far from us, even—or especially—when we feel like it.
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