Studying Psalm 9 1-12

For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.

Psalm 9:18

Psalm 9:18 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It’s utopian, in the sense that it asserts the possibility of a world that is otherwise than the current one with its “realistic” options. We are studying Psalm 9:1-12 for Sunday, October 10, but be forewarned: we might need to read through to the end, so we can read 9:18. In the meantime, here are a few notes on Psalm 9:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our second in a series of five texts from the book of Psalms. In one sense, the book of Psalms provides context: we know it is a collection of texts from the worship life of ancient Israel, during the time of the first and second Temples. We know some of the recurrent psalm-forms. We know these are works of poetry, and specifically, of Hebrew poetry, with its two-line patterns that begin with an image and then repeat, or modify, or intensify it.

But in another sense, the book itself doesn’t provide much context. It doesn’t have a plot. It seems to raise more questions than it answers. The psalms themselves don’t even have titles.

They do have “superscripts,” and those sometimes give a clue or two about the circumstances of a psalm’s composition, but only if we can decipher those clues. In this case, the meaning of the superscript is not exactly clear. The “muth-labben” notation might be a tune title, and might be “the death of the son,” but it might refer to something else. Rashi thinks it means “to brighten the youth.” Or it might be a reference to a musical instrument. In other words: the people who know the most do not know.

Psalm 9 itself seems to have a relationship to Psalm 10. At one time, the two may have been a single psalm. That psalm seems to have been an acrostic – that is, a psalm that made use of the properties of the Hebrew alphabet, starting every other line with a new letter of the alphabet. “At one time,” because what we have now is not in good acrostic form – many letters are missing. Robert Alter offers a reasonable theory about what could have happened to account for the form of the text at this point: damage to a manuscript, then later an attempted reconstruction, without attention to the acrostic form, then even later, at the time of chapter divisions, separation because the text was no longer recognized as a single composition.

In the end, we have the Bible we have.

Psalm 9 on its own is a psalm of thanksgiving, praising God (YHWH) for a deliverance that the psalmist interprets as justice. If we consider it together with Psalm 10 the picture gets more complex. Most of Psalm 10 decries the apparent impunity of the wicked. In Psalm 9 + Psalm 10 we seem to have a thanksgiving for deliverance, followed up by a plea for further deliverance, in “this” circumstance, with a concluding expression of confidence that God will do “this time” what God has done before: “hear” the oppressed, and right the wrongs that stalk the earth.

Psalm 9 begins in, and returns to, first-person voice. That always poses a special challenge in poetry. The world of poetry is deceptively universal, simultaneously self-contextualizing and perpetually out-of-context. Whenever we enter it, the problem of the intrinsic ambiguity of the poetic “I” becomes our problem, too.

Our text overlaps with the lectionary’s Psalm for the 12th Sunday in ordinary time in year B, Psalm 9:9-20. It complements the story of David defeating Goliath. It also makes Psalm 9:1-8 something you won’t know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary – although to be fair, it sounds a lot like other psalms of thanksgiving, so you might feel like you know it anyway.

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CLOSER READING: The Psalmist opens with a declaration of praise, and “telling” YHWH’s “being-wonderfuls” or “wonderful doings.” The verb translated “tell” is literally “recount.” “Tell” can mean this in English, too. Think of “tellers” in banks. In this case, narration is also enumeration.

The text emphasizes justice. In v4, God makes (maintains) the Psalmist’s justice (right) and cause – we might think of a “cause of action” or “case” – by sitting on the divine throne judging in justice / righteousness. In vv7 & 8, after an interlude about the defeat of the enemies, God is again establishing the divine throne for justice, judging the world justly / righteously, and executing justice equitably.

God is just.

This is what makes God a refuge (v9) for the oppressed and in trouble. The word for refuge suggests a high and reinforced place, like a fortress. God is solid, and safe – or rather, a place of safety.

God’s justice has a contrasting impact on the enemies and on “the crushed” or oppressed (v9). The enemies turn back, stumble and fall, and then are effectively erased from memory (vv5-6).

This dramatic annihilation of the enemy from memory introduces a recurrent theme of forgetting and remembering. The enemies, the nations, the wicked, the oppressors are those who forget God. They in turn will go to Sheol, the realm of forgetting and being forgotten (v17).

God, on the other hand, is mindful of (remembers) the oppressed (“them” seems to refer to “the crushed” and those who “seek” God, from v9-10) – and does not forget the cry of the afflicted (v12). These are the people who themselves have not forgotten, but rather trust and seek God, and know God’s name, and tell God’s story – recounting God’s wonderful deeds (v1) and God’s dread deeds, too (v11). Dread to the enemies, that is.

In v12, God “seeks” blood (vengeance) on behalf of those who themselves seek God (v10). The repeated verb resonates across the verses.

In this thankful vision of God, God’s action on behalf of the needy, the humble, those who put their trust in God and seek God, springs from God’s commitment to those who remember and seek God. These know that God is the permanent highest authority, and that God’s justice is for the benefit of those who are being “crushed.” That very vision confounds the enemies, when they come face to face with it.

So as readers of Psalm 9, we are left to assess our own position. Who are we – forgetters, or rememberers? Crushers, or crushed? Refugees, who seek the Holy One, or who flee from the seeker? We know who we need to be to really share the spirit of this psalm of thanksgiving.

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Image: Illuminated Psalter, Lionel Allorge, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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