Thursday, July 4, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 60

Psalm 60 is the last of David's “Miktam” psalms. Further research into the Hebrew word “Miktam” has revealed a variety of potential meanings. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), "Miktam" is translated "stelographia," which means something like "pillar inscription." Various rabbis have noted that "Miktam" is derived from the Hebrew word "kethem," meaning "gold." Some scholars wonder, therefore, if perhaps these six "Miktam" psalms had at some point been inscribed in gold and displayed prominently in the Temple. Other scholars, focusing on the value of gold, emphasize that these are "golden psalms," which are "artistic in form and choice in contents" (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia). B.D. Eerdmans, on the other hand, thinks that “Miktam” might refer to covering the lips in secrecy and wonders if these psalms were originally silent prayers that David could not pray out loud because of his situation. Still other scholars wonder if "Miktam" was originally "Miktab," a word found in Isaiah 38:9 that means simply "writing" or "song" or "poem." Even if that is the case, the word's variation was probably intentional in order to provide it a new and deeper meaning and give the six “Miktam” psalms a special emphasis. 

As with most of the other “Miktam” psalms, the instruction/inscription of Psalm 60 offers a specific context: “To the leader: according to the Lily of the Covenant. A Miktam of David; for instruction; when he struggled with Aramnaharaim and with Aramzobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” By this time, David was already the King of Israel. Saul was dead. David had subdued his internal enemies. His reign over the twelve tribes of Israel was secure, but the surrounding Gentiles were nervous about David's power. They could see his strength and authority, and they didn't like it. They felt threatened, so they went on the offensive and attacked on several fronts. These battles are described in 2 Samuel 8, 1 Chronicles 18, and 1 Kings 11. While David struggled against enemies from modern-day Syria in the north (Aramzobah) and from the west (Aramnaharaim), the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites attacked Judah from the south. In the midst of this chaos, in the face of this dangerous situation and the potential destruction of Israel, David wrote Psalm 60, expressing both his intense distress and his relentless trust in God.

Before we examine the psalm, let's take a look at two more elements in the inscription. First, the psalm is labeled “according to the Lily of the Covenant.” This is probably a musical notation indicating that the psalm is to be sung to the tune of “Lily of the Covenant.” It is interesting, however, that the word “covenant” is used here. Could David be reminding himself that God does indeed have a covenant with His people Israel, a covenant that lasts forever even when times are tough and destruction seem imminent? Second, the psalm is also labeled “for instruction” or, in Hebrew, lâmad. This is a psalm that is meant to offer a lesson to the Israelites and to every generation to follow. What is that lesson? Let's explore the psalm.

Verses 1-3 set the scene. Israel is in trouble, attacked by the Gentiles on all sides. Victory seems uncertain, perhaps even impossible. Defeat and ruin loom. David cries out, “O God, You have rejected us, broken our defenses; You have been angry...” He continues, “You have caused the land to quake; You have torn it open...” And further, “You have made Your people suffer hard things; You have given us wine to drink that made us reel.” David feels abandoned by God. The people are suffering and scattered, terrified and broken, staggering about like drunken men, unable to function. The very earth shakes beneath them, either literally or figuratively. Life is falling apart for Israel. God seems absent, or worse, hostile. The situation is dire. 

In the midst of his laments, however, David prays. “[N]ow restore us!” he calls to God. The Hebrew construction here might also indicate God's turning back to Israel. Pay attention, God, David cries. Listen! Turn around! See our danger! Come back to us! Lift Your heavy hand! Remove these perils from us! In the next verse, he asks God to “repair the cracks” in the land, for it is tottering, about to fall. This might be literal (if there was indeed an earthquake in addition to the war) or figurative (Israel itself is broken and about to tumble). Only God can heal the land. Only He can make things right. 

In verse 4, David grasps some hope. “You have set up a banner for those who fear You, to rally to it out of bowshot.” Israel's battle flag is God. He is the One Whom the defenders of Israel will rally around for safety and encouragement. The Hebrew words are actually somewhat ambiguous here. Another possible translation of the verse reads “Thou hast given a banner to them that fear Thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth” (KJV). The truth is that God has made a covenant with Israel. He may allow hardships for a while, but He will come to rescue His people, defend them from their enemies, and give them victory.

Indeed, in the next verse, David prays, “Give victory with Your right hand and answer us, so that those whom You love may be rescued.” David has faith in God's love even in the worst of circumstances. He can notice the signs of hope, the action of God, and pray for the victory that he trusts God to bring. God loves His people, even when His people cannot see evidence of that love. Even in the midst of danger and trial and fear and distress, God loves His people. He has a purpose for them. He knows what they need. He sometimes allows the hurt, but He will always rescue them in the end. David trusts in this. 

David knows what God has promised, and he even quotes God in verses 6-8. God says that He will rejoice as He divides up the Canaanite lands from Shechem, a primary town in the west, to the valley of Succoth in the east. The Hebrew word for “divide” is châlaq, which also means to distribute or apportion. These were the lands that God promised to Abraham so many years before. God again vows to joyfully distribute them to His people Israel that they may settle peacefully in the “Promised Land” they had longed for over so many years. God assures David that Gilead and Manasseh belong to Him, that Ephraim is His helmet and Judah is His scepter. These are all territories of Israel. God is in control over them, and He will use them to claim His victory even in the face of danger. Notice here, too, that God says that Judah is His scepter. The Hebrew word, châqaq, can also mean lawgiver or governor. King David was of the house of Judah, and so was Jesus Christ. Judah is indeed the ruling house of Israel, both temporally and eternally. God also indicates what He will do to Israels enemies, Moab, Edom, and Philistia. He will make Moab His washbasin. This is an extreme statement of contempt; Moab will be completely subjected to Israel by God's power. On Edom, God will hurl His shoe. In other words, He will make Edom a slave, also subject to Israel. Finally, God will triumph over Philistia. This is a promise made by God in His holiness. He will not go back on His word. 

Even knowing this, David asks, “Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom? Have You not rejected us, O God?” David has heard God's promises. He knows what God intends to do. But in the midst of his situation, he wonders; he questions; he longs for reassurance. With his enemies surrounding him on all sides and defeat seeming imminent, he feels like God has rejected His people. He feels like he is floating without a leader, without support, without God. “You do not go out, O God, with our armies,” he complains. Where are You, God?

Yet even in the midst of His questions, David trusts God. First he prays that God grant them help against this foe that is attacking from all sides. He recognizes that “human help is worthless.” Only God can save Israel. The situation is far beyond what men can cope with on their own. Divine intervention is necessary, and David believes that it will come. “With God we shall do valiantly;” he concludes, “it is He Who will tread down our foes.” With God's power, David's army will be brave and strong. They will face the enemy with valor even when victory seems hopeless, and in the end, God will come through for them. He will trample their enemies underfoot. God will take action. God will defend His people. God will gain victory for them. 

And God did. David and his men defeated their attackers on every front, not through their own strength but through God's. Israel's enemies were not only driven back; they were destroyed. Israel was again at peace. David's trust in God was rewarded. God had saved His people.

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