Psalm 4: Comparisons

And now we’re jumping back to Psalm 4. There’s two waves to my reading of Psalms at the moment – I’m going through and doing my own close readings, and then I’m following along comparing my NSRV version to a translation I’ve found by one Mitchell Dahood. If you’re familiar with Old Testament studies, you’ll know that Dahood is (was) a big name in the field, but his translation of the Psalms is controversial. Basically he’s got a particular philological agenda in his translation – it’s not bad, it’s just controversial. But it’s controversial at the sort of level that’s not really worth talking about, because it’s way over my head (and probably yours too). Anyway: just appreciate that this alternate translation might not be legit and then enjoy the ride. 

Psalm 4 – NSRV Psalm 4 – Dahood
Answer me when I call, O God of my right! When I call, answer me, O God of my vindication;
You gave me room when I was in distress. in distress, set me at large;
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. Have pity on me and hear my prayer. 
How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? O men of rank, how long must my Glorious One be insulted? 
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? How long will you worship inanities or consult idols?
But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; And recognise that Yahweh will work wonders for the one devoted to Him, 
the Lord hears when I call to Him. Yahweh will hear me when I call to Him.
When you are disturbed, do not sin; Be disquieted, but do not sin,
ponder it on your beds, and be silent. examine your conscience,
Offer right sacrifices, upon your beds weep.
and put your trust in the Lord. Offer legitimate sacrifices and trust in Yahweh.
There are many who say ‘O that we might see some good! Many keep saying, ‘Who will show us rain?’
‘Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!’ ‘The light of your face has fled from us, O Yahweh.’
You have put gladness in my heart Put happiness in my heart;
more than when their grain and wine abound. now let their wheat and their wine increase.
I will both lie down and sleep in peace; In His peaceful presence, I shall lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety. For you alone, O Yahweh, make my repose secure. 

The key distinction here is in the fourth stanza, where “O that we might see some good!” is translated as “Who will show us rain?” It’s super interesting, because it actually changes the whole meaning of the Psalm. If Dahood is right (and I’m not qualified to tell you that he is), this is a prayer for rain. It’s a prayer for a good harvest. There are other, smaller changes in the poem, but by and large I don’t really care about them. The only other interesting one, to me, is the shift from the speaker being insulted to God being insulted in the second stanza.

There’s two ways to read that shift. Either God is angry and He’s cutting off the rain because people are being naughty, or the water was already gone at the start of the psalm, and the stanza tells us that people are acting badly in the light of the lack of water. Instead of trusting that God’s going to deliver it, they turn to idols and are generally unfaithful. Thus, in the third stanza, the speaker tells people “Be disquieted, but do not sin.” Basically: ‘Look, I know there’s no rain. It’s fine. You’re allowed to feel worried, but for fuck’s sake stop praying to idols.’ As a whole, I think Dahood’s translation makes more sense as a cohesive progression. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the NRSV.

So let’s assume that it’s a prayer for rain, just for the sake of the exercise. The speaker begins by asking God to fix things, and then turns to the people (having just asked God) and tells them to stop being stupid, because God will come through. It ends by bringing the two together: many have asked why everything is shit, but God will provide. Everything will be fine; I’ll just take a nap. There’s also multiple ways to read the rain imagery. We can take it as a simple agricultural panic, which at some point it probably was. There’s other evidence suggesting a literal lack of rain was a punishment for sin: in 1 Kings 8:35, we read “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray…”. Alternately, in Deuteronomy 28:24, one of the punishments for sin is that “The Lord will change the rain of your land into powder.” So yes, there’s plenty of ground for a literal interpretation.

However, we’ve also noted the metaphorical function of rain/water in the Bible. We’ve already talked about Jesus as living water, noted how in Psalm 1 the righteous are like “trees planted by streams of water” – also Dahood’s got a note referring us to Jeremiah 17:8. It’s basically the same thing again: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” We can read it on the historical level, as a cry for literal rain, or we can read it on a second level as a cry for God’s voice. You can imagine a parallel with when Moses went up Mount Sinai and all the Israelites were milling around on the ground outside. Eventually they get fed up with waiting, and build the golden calf – it’s a similar progression of events. The psalm is a call to wait on God when it seems like God is not present. Also note that the two levels aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. We can validly read the psalm on the metaphorical level without rejecting the literal or historical level – assuming it is historical, which is possible, that doesn’t bind us to only the historical interpretation. It can be revelatory in multiple ways.

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