Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

What Does the Psalmist Ask for in Pslams 39:5 and 90:12?

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

What Does the Psalmist Ask for in Pslams 39:5 and 90:12?

Article excerpt

The consensus of commentators is that the sufferers in Psalms 39 and 90 are asking for a deeper sense of the transience of life, especially of their own life, in order to face their present tribulation with equanimity and faithfulness. There are substantial reasons, however, to question the consensus. This article proposes an alternate interpretation of Pss 39:5 and 90:12 and points out the implications for the poetic logic of the psalms.

I. Psalm 39:5

Commenting on Ps 39:5-6a, K. Seybold explains: "The ill pray-er has his end in view and laments that his life has come to an end so soon. He prays about the remaining number ('measure') of days and notes that his life has been short: only 'handbreadths' of days were begrudged to him. He feels he is too young to die."1 Other commentators differ in nuance but agree that the prayer is for awareness of the brevity of life, in particular of the psalmist's own life.2 The interpretation is reflected in the major translations.

5LORD let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. [NRSV; similarly JPSV]

5LORD, let me know my end, the number of my days, that I may know how frail I am. [NAB]

This interpretation-that the request is to know the number of days left to the psalmist-is found already in the LXX (Psalm 38): Bell & Howell Information and Learning Foreign text omitted.

SIxt me know, LORD, my end and the number of my days, what it is, that I may know what I am lacking [of my allotted number].

The Peshitta and the renderings of Jerome follow the interpretation of the LXX.

Though widely held, the interpretation runs into considerable semantic and lexical problems, which seem to have escaped the notice of commentators. For one thing, it is strange that the psalmist, who eloquently expresses the transience and fragility of life in w. 6-7 and 12c, asks in v. 5 for awareness of the very same thing. It is also not clear why knowing one's life span makes it easier to bear suffering.

The vocabulary in v. 5 does not support the common explanation. Hebrew in v. 5a refers to a definite term or boundary, not general shortness of time. The unique phrase MIX rin, "measure of days," is illuminated by the semantically similar MIMI "IMO,3 "the number of days," which means a set period of time in Exod 23:26; Qoh 2:3; 5:17; 6:12. The idiom MID, "IM, "to count the days," occurs in Lev 15:13, 28; 23:16; Ezek 44:26 in the sense of counting off or noting a predetermined time period. The phrase MI?31 n-in thus is simply a set period of time, not an undetermined period. The rendering of the adjective 57 in v. 5 as "fleeting@14 is ad hoc, for it is otherwise unattested in this meaning. The other occurrences of the adjective @-rt are in Ezek 3:27 (a negation of the previous verb) and Isa 53:3 (lit., "ceasing from human beings" = "less than human" or "ceasing from human companionship"). To judge from the cognate verb (Bell & Howell Information and Learning Foreign text omitted.) "to cease to do; to stop," the adjective means -ceasing; end." The meaning of the adjective is thus "how I am ceasing [from my tribulation]," which makes a suitable parallel to the preceding two cola. The traditional translation of the third colon, "let me know how frail/fleeting I am," is not a logical transition to vv. 6-7, where the psalmist is already conscious of the transience of his life, "Behold, you have made my days a handbreadth!"

These semantic and lexical problems are resolved if one interprets v. 5 as a request to know the term of the psalmist's affliction rather than the term of the psalmist's life.5 The psalmist expresses the very human desire to know how long the divine wrath will last. J. J. M. Roberts has abundantly demonstrated that the "idea that there were predetermined limits to the periods of divine wrath which the gods might reveal through omens or oracles was widespread in the ancient Near East. …

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