Psalm 13

I will be taking the space of this paper to examine, interpret, and analyze Psalm 13.  The writer of Psalm 13 is greatly distressed by a very eminent threat.  It seems like he has been dealing with this threat for a while and has cried out to God for help, but has been met with no response.  As such, the writer begins with indignation with God’s apparent neglect to his situation.  He then appeals to God again to engage in this situation and bring them relief, because without him he doesn’t have any other recourse for salvation.  The writer then is able to end in a state of submission and praise to God.

This psalm caught my attention because of its rawness.  In this psalm, the writer doesn’t pull any punches.  The writer tells God exactly how they feel, and he feels like God has been treating him inappropriately.  The audacity to read a human accusing God for being wrong in a situation is powerful.  It opens up a whole new avenue for engaging with God.  For me this has come at a time where I am experiencing quite similar emotions with God.  This has let me approach God in a more authentic and meaningful way.  As a result, I have been able to process my emotions in a godlier way and grow my relationship with God.

There is much learning that will come from this text.  There are theological implications about who God is, and how we should relate to him.  There are also theological implications about the nature of human beings, and how we should act because of that.  Psalm 13 tells us that we must bring every grievance and distress to God, even when our issue is with God himself[1].  It also implies that sometimes we have a legitimate charge against God.  In bringing our frustrations to God in all their vulnerabilities and rawness, we are able to move past the feelings of our emotions, and praise God for who he is and not just for how he makes us feel.

When looking at the structure of the texts, there are very natural breaks and transition of ideas which makes it simple to construct clear units within the text.  We will start by looking at verses 1-2 as a unit.  Then verses 3-4 will be our next unit.  Lastly, verses 5-6 will be our final unit.  We will let each verse function as a sub-unit and then will further break each individual verse down into an ‘a’ and ‘b’ part.  This is also the standard way most scholars have gone about breaking up this text as well.  This will help us speak about specific portions of the text, especially when comparing translations.  When looking at translations from ESV, NIV, CEB, and NRSV I found the most significant and important differences in translation around verse 2a, 3a, and 6b.  We will use NIV as the base translation for our journey through Psalm 13.

In contextualizing this text, the first thing to note is the nature of the Psalter.  The book of Psalms was being added to throughout Israel’s ancient history.  This means that it wasn’t created all at once and has multiple different, unnamed authors.  The compilation project of Psalms suggest that it is beyond just an anthology of hymns, but rather an anthology of anthologies[2].  As such, it’s extremely difficult to give an exact date of individual Psalms[3].  Sometimes the best we can do is speculate to what time period the Psalm would have come from.  The book of Psalms contains a variety of genres of hymns and psalms.  These categories and genres are mainly constructed from the content of the Psalm, since all of them have a musical implication by virtue of being a psalm.  Psalm 13 is a prototypical example of a lament or petition psalm.  In this genre, we see that the psalm goes from plea/petition to praise[4]. We will examine this process as we go through the exegetical work.

When looking at Psalm 13, we find that it is in the first part of the Psalter.  This portion of the Psalter is focused on establishing the Davidic Kingdom and as such, it comments on the nature of suffering extensively[5].  Being in this portion of the Psalter, it has traditionally been attributed to David and has even been speculated that David is either running from Saul or Absalom at the time of this psalm[6].  This though is hard to say for certain, especially because there is little content within the psalm itself to help with dating it.  That being said, it’s language and sentiments can be assumed to be quite old and make it reasonable to suggest it was written in the early part of the Hebrew monarchy[7], which would be at the time of David. As we move forward then, we will be interpreting this passage loosely holding to the position that it was David who wrote it himself, knowing this is hard to demonstrate.

With most of the background and introductory information covered, we can now get into the text itself.  We will start with the first unit and look at verses 1-2.  We will analyze the unit as a whole first, and then begin to examine it at the sub-unit level.

1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

The first thing that grabs my attention is the anaphora with the phrase “How long”.  This unit contains the longest series of consecutive questions in the Psalms[8]. The psalmist opens up with honest questioning and heartache.  This is the petition portion of the process.  It’s important to notice that these are not rhetorical questions.  The writer is sincerely asking for God to give a response to these questions as we will see in verse three.  This intensifies the cries we see here as each different question builds up the tension[9].  He is asking God real questions and really needs a definitive answer, because he doesn’t know how much longer he can keep going.   It’s also important to see that in using the phrase “How long” the writer is assuming that eventually God will come through.  Questions are necessarily about asking if God will act, but more asking when will he act.

Another startling feature of this passage is the accusatory tone directed at God.  In verse one, our psalmist is essentially accusing God of forsaking him.  In the psalmist’s culture, a deity hiding their face is metaphor for them showing either displeasure or indifference.  The audacity!  Who is this human writing to the perfect creator of the universe and charging him with acting in error? Moreover, there is no mention of sin or guilt in this passage. So, it doesn’t seem like this trial is the result of some sort of error by the psalmist[10].  If anything, it legitimizes the psalmist’s charge against God.  This unit gives us permission to address God in the midst of all our fiery emotion, from the perspective of our emotions[11].  For in a crisis a proper response is unmitigated self-disclosure rather than being bogged down by theological precision[12].  This welcoming of such vivid and aggressive emotions tells me something about humans and our relationship of God.

As humans, we aren’t meant to bottle up emotions, psychology can attest to the havoc this will wreak on a person.  As such, we need a safe space where we can be vulnerable and brutally honest.  God is telling us through this psalm that he is this place for us, he can handle it.  Rather than seeing accusatory language as blasphemy or somehow a distrust in God, we need to begin to see this a true relationship, where we have freedom to speak what’s on our hearts and minds[13]. This needs to be fundamental to our outlook on this psalm.  The writer here is writing this psalm precisely because of his understanding of what his relationship with God is supposed to be[14].  He doesn’t feel like God is acting as he has promised to act, and so this has sparked these overwhelming feelings of despair.  We are to confront things that offend our sense of justice and love, even when that means confronting God.  Even though we may hold that theologically God does no wrong, this doesn’t mean that in our real experiences, we don’t feel like God is wrong sometimes.  In these moments, we are to bring them before God requiring an answer, knowing that in the end we will be left trusting in his unfailing love.

As we move into the second sub-unit, I want to take a look at the diversity of translations of verse 2a.  We will look at four different translations here.

ESV verse 2a: How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
NIV verse 2a:  How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
CEB verse 2a: How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily? How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
NRSV verse 2a: How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

When looking at the differing translations here, it’s important to review the original Hebrew here.  In Hebrew, עֵצ֡וֹת translates most literally into ‘counsel’ and יָג֣וֹן most literally means ‘(having)sorrow’.  On a word for word analysis, it would seem that the ESV has the most appropriate translation.  Translation however, is more than just translating word for word because words can take on a different sense or meaning depending on the words surrounding them.  Obviously, translations need to be faithful to the original language and so word for word translation is necessary.  For this reason, I’m not too drawn to the CEB translation as it seems to be adding a bit more to the text than what is actually there.  However, when I look at the pain being expressed in verse one, I find the ESV translation lacking in that same expression of emotion and distress.  I tend to be drawn to the NRSV translation of this verse.  To me, there is a good balance between staying close to the literal translations of the words, but also capturing the sense of the urgency of the plea with the emotional distress.

We now will turn to examine our second unit of this psalm. This unit continues down our path from plea to praise.  In this unit, we see our psalmist get to the stage known as submission.  After exploding with confusion and emotion, the writer is able to begin to move past the feelings they are experiencing and submit to Yahweh as his God.

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

 

To begin our analysis of this unit, I want to start by looking at verse 3a.  Here, I again would like to look at differing translations.

ESV verse 3a: Consider and answer me, O Lord my God

NIV verse 3a:  Look on me and answer, Lord my God
CEB verse 3a: Look at me! Answer me, Lord my God!
NRSV verse 3a: Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!

Looking back to the original Hebrew again, we see that the Hebrew word here הַבִּ֣יטָֽה most literally means ‘consider’.  As such, ESV and NRSV seem to be favorable in the translation here.  However, we can see that this unit is repeating a grammatical form found in the first unit.  Beyond that, there is matching of questions in the first unit with requests in the second unit[15].  In matching the question with the request, we see that lament is meant to move us to prayer.  Lamenting without praying is pointless[16].  With these considerations, it may be more appropriate to use the translations that are demanding that God “look” at him in contrast to “hiding his face”.

As we move toward the end of the verse 3a, the psalmist calls Yahweh “my God”.  The pronoun ‘my’ indicates identification and connection with God still[17].  So, even though in the preceding unit our author leveled serious charges of neglect on God’s end, he still identifies himself as in relationship with Yahweh.  This is the beginning of the submission process.  Yahweh isn’t just a god out there to our psalmist, but Yahweh is his God and protector and his well being is in Yahweh’s hands.  The psalmist’s appeal to God in this way is showing that he has no other savoir besides Yahweh.  This is why our psalmist must bring this petition to Yahweh in such an urgent manner.  If God doesn’t respond, then our psalmist has no other recourse.

Following verse 3a, we see in 3b that our psalmist sees Yahweh as his only option of rescue.  As seen in the first unit, it was God’s absence which brought so much dismay to our writer.  If God’s absence is what has brought about this calamity, then only God’s presence can rectify the problem and rescue him[18].  Our psalmist has a profound understanding of their inability to save themselves and need of divine intervention.  His situation is so grave that if God doesn’t intervene, he will experience death.  This conditional statement in verse 3b works as an expression of grief, yet also as a motivator to get God to move[19].  As we move into the second sub-unit, verse four tells us there is more at stake than just the psalmist’s death.  Our writer wants God to know that there is a real chance that injustice itself will taste victory if God stands by idle[20].

In detailing the possibility that, “my foes will rejoice when I fall”, our psalmist is reminding God that his problems are not just his own.  The nature of how God makes relationships with people is so intense that he is thoroughly involved in the details of their life.  As such, the writer is telling God that his problems are God’s problems as well[21].  If the injustice embodied in our writer’s enemy prevails over him, it would be as if injustice has prevailed over God himself.  If our writer’s suffering isn’t enough to motivate God to save him, the claim that his fall will also represent God falling to injustice should do the trick.

When looking at all of verse four, it is unclear exactly who our writer is threatened by.  One thing to pay attention to is that the word ‘enemy’ is singular, while ‘foes’ is plural.  This has led some to suggest that the word enemy is actually referring to death itself, while foes may be referring to humans who are threatening him[22].  Others maintain that the structure of verse 4 has a parallelism where ‘enemy’ and ‘foes’ should be identified as the same party.  From this view, they argue that the threats are other humans and not some abstract reference to a personified death[23]. I tend to be convinced of the latter position as it would be natural for an enemy to rejoice after over coming a foe.  Either way, the point to be taken away is that our psalmist will be overcome if God doesn’t show up.

We now are entering into our last unit.  In this unit, the psalm culminates in praise and worship of God.  Our writer has gone from plea, to submission, and now to praise.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

 

The rapid transition here is quite astounding.  The first four chapters were filled with confusion, frustration, and fear.  Now starting in verse five, there’s a complete change in demeanor and perspective where despite the feelings of hopelessness, our psalmist has now begun to trust God and sing him praises.  What happened?           There are many speculations.  Some argue that in between verses 4-5 the psalmist received counsel and prayer from a priest, while some argue that verses 5-6 were later additions to the psalm after the crisis had been averted[24].  Still others propose that the author has been consoled by his prayer itself as God’s grace comes through to give them a sense of deliverance[25].  This last suggestion seems to be the best explanation.  The first two appear much too speculative.  This last proposal seems to be in line with much of the point of lamenting in the first place.  Also, this coincides with my experience of lamenting.  Experience is subjective and so it’s the most definitive piece of evidence.  However, through my walk with God, the moments I have felt deliverance and peace in a storm came through the act of praying and lamenting over the situation.

The first sub-unit here tells us about our writer’s relationship with God.  This must not be the first time our psalmist needed saving.  How else could he trust in God’s unfailing love and rejoice in God’s salvation if he hasn’t been saved yet or hasn’t actually been feeling and experiencing God’s unfailing love?  He must have experienced God’s grace and love some other time in his life to have such a conviction and confidence in the hope of God’s salvation[26], as verse 6b indicates.  Here our writer doesn’t let his current situation define his conception of Yahweh, but lets other experiences speak to Yahweh’s character.  This is probably a large reason why our writer is in such turmoil.  God has always been so faithful and good, but now he doesn’t seem to be acting this way now.  The psalmist’s decision to confront God about this though is his way to avoid slipping into the hopelessness of despair[27].  As we have seen, this initial outcry has allowed him to stay committed to a covenantal relationship with Yahweh and moved him to trust and praising of Yahweh in this unit.

The other significant point to notice about this unit is that our writer had to make a choice to trust and rejoice in God.  The word ‘But’ in the beginning of verse 5a displays a decision to change his perspective, even if his circumstances remain the same[28].  Everything that the psalmist is experiencing should lead him to reject Yahweh.  The external world is going against him and his internal emotions have left him questioning the only thing that brings him hope.  Despite these factors, the writer says I will continue to trust who I know my God to be regardless of my situation.  This is a beautiful picture of submission to God and the experience of peace and praise resulting from it.  I can’t stress enough though; the psalmist didn’t get there without going through the first two units.  I think sometimes Christians want to get to the truth and beauty of this unit to quick, and don’t take the time to lament in a real way.  Without a sincere and unmitigated lament, I think we get to place of fake submission which results in half hearted praise and peace because we still harbor unaddressed bitterness that we didn’t bring to God.

We will end our examination of Psalm 13 by comparing again different translations of verse 6b and seeing what sort of light this sheds on the verse.  I choose to look at this part of verse because this is what this whole unit rests on.  It is on account of God’s past goodness that our writer can trust in God’s unfailing goodness and rejoice in his salvation.  God’s consistent goodness is what moves him to sing praises to Yahweh while in this troubling time.

ESV verse 6b: because he has dealt bountifully with me
NIV verse 6b: for he has been good to me
CEB verse 6b: because he has been good to me.
NRSV verse 6b: because he has dealt bountifully with me.

When looking at the translations here, there isn’t much variance.  In fact, the Hebrew word here גָמַ֣ל means ‘has dealt bountifully’.  I myself am drawn to the translations of ESV and NRSV because of the expression of the original word, but even more so because of how it shows a heart of humility and gratitude.  Not only does our psalmist recognize that God has been good to him, but God has been abundantly good, generously good.  To have this perspective on what God has done for you, and to let that move you to worship in such trials is astonishing.  As indicated earlier though, the psalmist didn’t just magically appear here.  He had to fight for it and make a deliberate decision to pursue his knowledge of who he knows God to be over his current feelings.

After this deep dive into this chapter it would be good to summarize some of the theological insights and implications for our walk with God.  The first is the proclamation that Yahweh will be who he says he is.  When confronting the incomprehensibility and incoherence of life, we can and should always hold to the fact that God has unfailing love and salvation we can rejoice in.  Our circumstances may challenge this, but God will always show this to us in time.  The next insight is that this conviction should give us hope and reason to rejoice.  We should rejoice to the point that we begin to sing and worship our God.  We can do this because how God has proven himself to us in the past and we can trust that he will remain the same.

We also explored the reality that we need to be unashamedly transparent with God.  We need to do this for many reasons.  One, just being a human requires us to do this to appropriately deal with our emotions.  As finite humans who don’t understand everything, we need a space to process our emotions in all their jaded ugliness.  We also need a safe space to do this where our emotions won’t be discounted and appreciated and addressed for what they are.  But we also need a space that doesn’t keep us stuck in our emotions but allows us to move out and passed them.  God is the place where we can do all these things.  The process of lament here shows us that going to God in this place lets us deal with our heartaches head on without letting them destroy us. Lastly, going though this process of lament is what lets us stay in a position of praise and trust in God.  Life will come at us and bring struggles that will shake us to our core.  We must not be constrained to think faith means never experiencing serious and possibly even crippling doubt.  Those are characteristics that just come with being human[29].  What faith does is it lets us confront that grief head on, knowing that God will meet us where we are at to move us to peace and joy on the other side.

We couldn’t conclude this paper without noting the importance of this psalm to believers.  In being a psalm, this piece of scripture is written in such a way that it can apply and speak to so many people in so many different situations.  Psalms hymnal and poetic nature lend them to being great examples of how to pray[30].  Matitiahu Tsevat has studied the psalms and concluded that there are words that are unique enough to the psalms and rare enough outside the psalms that we should constitute them as psalm language[31].  If there is language unique to the psalms and the psalms can instruct us on how to pray and talk to God, we also should be praying the psalms since the language in them must be important to prayer.  So, not only does this psalm give us insight on how to handle difficult emotions with God, but it also should function as a prayer while experiencing those emotions.

In conclusion, Psalm 13 is a prototypical lament that shows how we are to move from petition to praise with God.  This psalm has aligned with the class in the many ways it has challenged some of my preconceived notions about the bible and how we interact with God.  This psalm, as has much material in this class, plays close attention to the human condition and how that impacts how we interact with God and how God interacts with us.  It also declares that for us to be a part of the redemptive process God is working on, we must lay everything at his feet.  We won’t be able to declare and live in the love of God if we leave issues and problems unresolved with him.  I know it can be scary and almost seem wrong to be angry with God or accuse him of wrong, but God is big enough to handle it.  He invites us to have those conversations and screaming outbursts when they being to overwhelm and consume us.

 

 

[1] DeClaissé-Walford, Nancy L., Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner. The Book of Psalms. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

[2] Coogan, Michael David, and Cynthia R. Chapman. A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament:     The Hebrew Bible in Its Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[3] Coogan. A Brief Introduction. 373

[4] Brueggemann, Walter. “The Costly Loss of Lament.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 11, no. 36 (October 1986): 57–71. https://search-ebscohost            com.fuller.idm.oclc.org/ login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN
=ATLA0000967888&site=ehost-live. 57

[5] Beckett, Joshua. “Lament in Three Movements: The Implications of Psalm 13 for Justice and            Reconciliation.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 9, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 207–18.
https://search-ebscohost-com.fuller.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN
= ATLAn3989442&site=ehost-live. 210

[6] Grogan, Geoffrey. Psalms. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI:           William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008.

[7] Craigie, Peter C., and Marvin E. Tate. Psalms 1-50. World Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2004.

[8] Grogan. Two Horizons Commentary

[9] DeClaissé-Walford. New International Commentary.

[10] Craigie.  World Biblical Commentary

[11] Mays, James Luther. “Psalm 13.” Interpretation 34, no. 3 (July 1980): 279–83. https://search-
ebscohost-com.fuller.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0000778
167&site=ehost-live. 281.

[12] Beckett. Lament in Three Movements. 212

[13] DeClaissé-Walford. New International Commentary.

[14] Mays. Psalm 13. 279

[15] DeClaissé-Walford. New International Commentary.

[16] Craigie.  World Biblical Commentary

[17] Mays. Psalm 13. 280.

[18] DeClaissé-Walford. New International Commentary.

[19] Beckett. Lament in Three Movements. 213

[20] Beckett. Lament in Three Movements. 213

[21] DeClaissé-Walford. New International Commentary.

[22] Craigie.  World Biblical Commentary

[23] Grogan. Two Horizons Commentary

[24] DeClaissé-Walford. New International Commentary.

[25] Beckett. Lament in Three Movements. 213

[26] Mays. Psalm 13. 280.

[27] DeClaissé-Walford. New International Commentary.

[28] Craigie.  World Biblical Commentary

[29] Mays. Psalm 13. 282

[30] Ibid. 281.

[31] Tsevat, Matitiahu. A Study of the Language of the Biblical Psalms. Philadelphia, PA: Society of  Biblical Literature and Exegesis, 1979.

 

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