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Friday Bible Blogging - Psalms 41 to Psalms 50

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleOne aspect of the book of Psalms that I hadn't mentioned yet is its organization. It's divided into five sections or books. To quote Wikipedia, "these divisions were probably introduced by the final editors to imitate the five-fold division of the Torah". Chapter 41 is the final chapter of Book I, and Chapter 42 begins Book II. I was pleasantly surprised this week, with some of the psalms being a bit more thought provoking than the ones I've read so far.

Psalms, Chapter 41

This was the final psalm of the first section, and was titled, "Assurance of God's Help and a Plea for Healing". It began in a way that reminded of the Beatitudes (similar to passages I've discussed previously).

Happy are those who consider the poor;
   the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) notes that the final verse of the chapter was not part of the psalm, but a doxology to close out Book I.

Psalms, Chapter 42

This first psalm of Book II gives us a new credited source - the Korahites. If you'll recall from Numbers 16, Korah had the audacity to challenge Moses's authority, and was subsequently punished for it by God rather severely, "The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households--everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods." Now, from the way that chapter read, it sounded like Korah and his entire line had been annihalated. But, according to one of those boring geneaology sections that I only skimmed through, Numbers 26:11, "Notwithstanding, the sons of Korah did not die." So I went back and read Numbers 18 more carefully, and while there's a bit of ambiguity about who all was swallowed up by the earth, but it still seems inconsistent with the later chapter from Numbers.

Psalms 42 and 43 use similar language, with a certain refrain even being repeated throughout the two psalms. It was clear that they were connected, which the footnotes of the NOAB confirmed. The heading to Psalm 42 was, "Longing for God and His Help in Distress", and the psalm followed about like you'd expect for that title - a mixture of wondering where God was in this time of distress, but also trusting that God would set things right eventually.

Psalms, Chapter 43

Psalm 43 had the heading, "Prayer to God in Time of Trouble", and continued on in much the same vein as Psalm 42.

Psalms, Chapter 44

This psalm was a "National Lament and Prayer for Help". It was almost bitter, accusing God of abandoning his people.

The opening verses caught my eye.

We have heard with our ears, O God,
 our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
   in the days of old

I find this interesting because of our skewed perspective of the past. We tend to lump the past together in our minds - all that stuff that happened way back then. You'll even her people talk about back in 'Biblical times'. But this psalm is talking about things that happened 'in the days of old'. All the miraculous stories from the Pentateuch were already ancient history to the writer of this psalm. If this was one of the psalms from the post-Exilic period, it's from no earlier than around 500 BC, but the traditional view of the Exodus is that it occured around 1300 BC, and the other stories were supposed to have happened even earlier. That's at least 700 years prior to this psalm. If you go back 700 years from the present day, that puts you at the tail end of the medieval period. That's a long time ago.

The other thing that struck me about those verses is that they're describing a situation that still exists today. People don't witness any real miracles, certainly nothing on the scale of Biblical miracles, but they hear all these stories of miracles God performed in the past. It seems that the present day is rather mundane compared to all the divine intervention that was going on previously. But that's exactly how it seemed to the writer of this psalm (with good reason, from an atheist's perspective). Miracles were things that happened 'in the days of old'.

Another verse caught my eye for its brutal imagery.

You are my King and my God;
   you command victories for Jacob.
Through you we push down our foes;
   through your name we tread down our assailants.

When I read that, I was reminded of Mesoamerican art showing rulers trampling their opponents (example & another).

Like I mentioned above, this psalm seemed rather bitter towars God. Here was one of the most bitter passages.

Because of you we are being killed all day long,
   and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

Immediately following that was a petition asking the Lord for help.

Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
   Awake, do not cast us off for ever!

Like I mentioned last week, this seems consistent with the idea from that region and period that gods would rest, and weren't constantly vigilant of the Earth.

Psalms, Chapter 45

Psalm 45 is an "Ode for a Royal Wedding". According to the NOAB, it appears that this psalm was originally written for a wedding between a king and a foreign princess, and later took on Messianic interpretations, both in Jewish and Christian traditions.

Depending on how verse 6 is translated, it takes on an interesting meeting. The translation shown in the main body was, "Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever. / Your royal sceptre is a sceptre of equity..." According to the NOAB, if this is an accurate translation, it's the only time a king is referred to as a god in the Bible. However, the translation notes of the NRSV give an alternate possible translation, "Your throne is a throne of God". But the end of the psalm closes with praise for the king that would typically be applied to God.

I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
   therefore the peoples will praise you for ever and ever.

Some references do get lost over the generatoins. Verse 8 mentions, "your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia." I didn't think much about that verse when I read it, other than that it might have been describing expensive luxuries. But according to the NOAB, "Myrhh and aloes and cassia, evoke a sensuous and erotic mood".

Psalms, Chapter 46

This is the first of a group of three psalms praising God, with the type of language you'd expect. There are two points I want to make about this chapter. The first was my own observation. The closing of this particular chapter mentioned Jacob.

The Lord of hosts is with us;
   the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Something about the way this was worded made me think of a thought I had while reading the Pentateuch. The writer called God 'the God of Jacob'. Why didn't he refer to him as 'the God of Abraham'? The feeling I got when reading the Pentateuch (and I'm sure this was influenced by footnotes in the NOAB, so don't take this to be original scholarship on my part), is that there were originally at least two separate groups who came together to form Israel. Each group had their own origins myths. In the one group, Abraham was the mythical patriarch and founder. In the other group, the Exodus story was key foundational myth. For an example of a more scholarly version of this idea, read this review of Genesis and the Moses Story: Israel's Dual Origins in the Hebrew Bible. Another example of competing sects influencing the Bible can be found in the article, Priests and Priesthood in the Hebrew Bible.

The other point I wanted to make about this chapter comes from the NOAB. This chapter described God's "holy habitation". According to the NOAB, "The psalmist trusts in Zion, which many Israelites believed was the center of the world and residence of the Lord, which reamins unshaken through the earth "totter" (NRSV change) and plunge into pre-creation chos."

Psalms, Chapter 47

This was another psalm of praise, similar to the previous one. This one also included a mention of Jacob.

He chose our heritage for us,
   the pride of Jacob whom he loves.

Psalms, Chapter 48

Another psalm of praise in the same vein as the previous two. This one was back to the theme of Zion. The NOAB had several interesting footnotes on this chapter. The first was, "Comparable Near Eastern texts describe how a particular god became the most high god by defeating chaos and then, after receiving the acclaim of the other heavenly beings, constructed a palace to memorialize the victory."

Another interesting note concerned verse 2. Where the NRSV stated "Mount Zion, in the far north", 'the far north' would have been better translated as 'the heights of Zaphon'. This is relevant because Zaphon was the home of a competing storm god, Baal. It means that the Lord, the God of Jacob, had defeated Baal and conquered his domain.

Another footnote in the NOAB concerns verse 7, stating that 'an east wind' was "the weapon of hte storm god."

Psalms, Chapter 49

There were many parts of this psalm that I quite liked. It was a sobering reminder that death comes to us all. Consider this passage.

For the ransom of life is costly,
   and can never suffice,
that one should live on for ever
   and never see the grave.

Immediately following those verses about the inevitability of death came these verses about death being the great equalizer.

When we look at the wise, they die;
   fool and dolt perish together
   and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes for ever,
   their dwelling-places to all generations,
   though they named lands their own.
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
   they are like the animals that perish.

Towards the end of the chapter came these verses.

For when they die they will carry nothing away;
   their wealth will not go down after them.

But, this chapter did offer some hope of a less dreary afterlife, at least for a select few.

Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
   Death shall be their shepherd;
straight to the grave they descend,
   and their form shall waste away;
   Sheol shall be their home.
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
   for he will receive me.

According to the NOAB, the Hebrew word translated as 'receive' in that last line was elsewhere translated as 'take', and used to describe God lifting people up to heaven (such as Genesis 5 or 2 Kings 2.

Psalms, Chapter 50

This psalm presented an interesting message in contrast to much of what I've read in the previous books. Consider how prevalent animal sacrifice has been in the Bible up to this point, all the rules in Leviticus, all the sacrifices at temple consecrations and coronation ceremonies, and, well, just about every meaningful event. But now read this.

I will not accept a bull from your house,
   or goats from your folds.
10 For every wild animal of the forest is mine,
   the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the air,
   and all that moves in the field is mine.

'If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
   for the world and all that is in it is mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
   or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
   and pay your vows to the Most High.
15 Call on me in the day of trouble;
   I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.'

Note that sacrifices of thanksgiving were mostly consumed by the people, not wasted like burnt offerings. This passage certainly seems like a much more reasonable position for an all powerful deity - what could the point of animal sacrifice be?


I liked some of the psalms this week better than last week. There was a bit more than just the typical praise and platitudes. Some of these psalms actually presented ideas worth thinking about.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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