BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Again, all things we know about Psalms will help us in reading Psalm 66. These are liturgical texts, like hymns or prayers, that we think were used in the worship life of the Second Temple – the Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt after its destruction by the Babylonians by the Judeans who returned from exile in Babylonia.
That post-exilic context may be relevant to verses 10-12 of Psalm 66 in particular.
The Psalms are also poetry, so what we know about poetry in general and Hebrew poetry in particular (imagery, allusion, parallelism) also applies to this text.
CLOSER READING: Probably the most noticeable feature of this psalm is the way it moves from universal to particular. From all the earth (vv1, 3) to peoples (v8) to all who fear God (v16) – this is traditionally (OK, by Rashi) understood to be “proselytes,” people who have associated themselves with the worship of the God of Israel – to me (v20).
This makes me wonder whether the reference to enemies in v3 sets up a parallel or incorporated movement – or at least, alerts us to something that’s going on in the psalm.
Because – who are God’s enemies?
In the context of vv1-3, they seem almost out of place. The whole earth is supposed to be worshipping God, singing praises to God.
In the context of vv6-7, or perhaps 6-9, it might be the nations – if the nations are rebellious … The act of turning the sea into dry land and making it possible to pass through the river on foot seems to be a clear reference to the Exodus from Egypt, and then to crossing the Jordan into Canaan (Exodus 14:21-30; Joshua 3:14-17). So the relevant “nations” might be Egypt, and the litany of Canaanite groups (“the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites”).
But perhaps it is more ambiguous than that, because the positioning of vv8-9, which invoke witnesses (O peoples) to God’s saving activity, seems like they may be pointing in two directions at the same time. Backwards to vv5-7, which recall God’s awesome (literally “to be feared”) deeds in the Exodus and entry into the promised land. But also forward to the exile and return – because verses 10-12, which recount rather harsh divine treatment, albeit harsh treatment with a happy ending (v12), seem consistent with that experience.
So God, who has kept us among the living, has maybe kept us among the living through the Exodus and Canaanite period, or maybe through the exile – if we read vv10-12 as referring to the exile and return, which I would – or, economically and poetically, both.
But notice, then, that the references to the nations, to rebellion, and to “letting people ride over us” might prompt us to think in a more complicated way about which nations are being helped and saved, and which nations are being treated like God’s enemies and are worshipfully acknowledging God’s mighty acts of power (recalling v2).
So now, as the psalm turns personal in v13, with “I” … who exactly is “I”? An individual? Or the nation, speaking in the first person?
Because the reference to the offering of bulls and goats in particular in v15 might – might – assume our awareness of the procedures for sin offerings outlined in Leviticus 4, in which the high priest has to offer a bull and the king has to offer a goat when a formerly hidden sin has been disclosed. The reference to fat at the beginning of the verse might strengthen this suspicion, since burning fat is an explicit part of those procedures.
The reference to not cherishing iniquity in my heart in v18 seems to fit with this context of sin offering as well.
[It would be possible to imagine a psalm like this being used in sin offering liturgy in the Second Temple period, eh? Something like the way a recitation of the mighty acts of God, in particular the ones relevant to the sacrament, are incorporated into the liturgical celebration of the sacraments today? So that the individual’s story is incorporated into and made sense of in light of the larger story of the religious community?
Notice, too, the appeal to the senses, perhaps of an assembled congregation – whether the “whole earth” or whoever is there – in vv5 (come and see) and 16 (come and hear). Again, we can sense the liturgical movement.]
So then v20 reads like an assurance of pardon.