Psalm 5: A Morning Devotional Prayer or Something Else?

Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my meditation. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King and my God: for unto thee will I pray. My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up. (Psalm 5:1-3, KJV)

My Zondervan KJV Reference Bible (a product of the mid to late 90s) prefaces Psalm 5 with the subtitle, “A morning prayer.” Indeed, based on verse 3, that’s the way the KJV rendering of Psalm 5 originally sounded to me – like a general purpose morning prayer. But a careful reading of Psalm 5 makes that categorization unlikely, and reading it in Hebrew makes it impossible. It is perfectly fine to recite this psalm in the morning, but some parts of it may seem overly specific, out of place, or even incongruous if that is the main thing you are using Psalm 5 for.

For example, consider the transition from verse 3 to verse 4. Up through verse 3, the psalm may sound like a general purpose expression of devotion for the morning. But then suddenly verse 4 shifts gears and says, “For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee.” There’s nothing strange about this sentiment, but how does it follow organically from a general purpose expression of devotion to God? To me, that creates a jarring shift here. Now, if we read the rest of the psalm, we see that the subject from verse 4 onward is protection from wicked and deceitful people. Now that might be an appropriate thing to pray about some mornings but not necessarily every morning. So that makes me reconsider verses 1-3 in several ways. What really is going on in these first verses? Does the psalm really present itself as a morning prayer?

Many other English translations can give us a better idea of what is going on in verses 1-3. The ESV is, unfortunately, not one of these. In fact, I consider the ESV rendering, if anything, even less helpful than the KJV’s rendering. Verse 3 in the ESV reads, “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.” Not only does the ESV’s rendering of the first three verses not shed any new light on how these verses are connected to the obvious subject of verses 4-12 (i.e., protection from wicked people), the choice to render ʾeʿĕrāk ləkā as “I prepare a sacrifice for you” (which is rendered by the KJV as “I will direct my prayer unto thee”), is, in my opinion, highly questionable. It adopts this rendering from the RSV, its parent translation and one of my favorite Bible translations, but this is one of the RSV’s idiosyncratic readings that really should have been left behind rather perpetuated in the ESV, especially against the grain of scholarly opinion, because I can find no other translation that follows the RSV in this choice other than the ESV. Translations that predate the ESV already had rejected translating ʾeʿĕrāk as “I will prepare a sacrifice” and chosen a far more likely rendering, including the ESV’s sister translation, the NRSV, which is also derived from the RSV. The Message appears to have the sacrificial idea in mind but reads it metaphorically – “Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend”. The result is an interesting but unlikely conflation of ideas.

Where does the RSV/ESV rendering of ʾeʿĕrāk ləkā as “I prepare a sacrifice for you” come from? Well, Hebrew ʿārak communicates a variety of ideas having to do with arranging or setting in order. It is often used in the OT the describe the act of arranging the elements of an altar or a lamp or of preparing a sacrifice. Genesis 22:9 is a famous example:

They came to the place of which God had spoken to him, and Abraham built there the altar and arranged [Hebrew wayyaʿărōk] the wood. Then he bound Isaac his son and set him upon the altar on top of the wood.

It is noteworthy, however, that when this verb is used this way, it is always transitive, meaning a direct object accompanies the verb – something is explicitly said to be arranged (see, for example, Exod 27:21; 40:4, 23; Lev 1:7, 8, 12; 6:5; 24:3, 4, 8; Num 23:4; Jos 2:6; 1 Kgs 18:33; Isa 30:33.). But in Psalm 5:3, there is no direct object. It literally says, “I will arrange to you”. This means that the occurrence in Psalm 5:3 would be utterly unique in the Hebrew Bible if it intended to communicate the arrangement of cultic or sacrificial materials.

So why did the RSV choose the sacrificial translation anyway. Well, another important reason the RSV translators chose to render Psalm 5:3 as a reference to sacrifice has to do with trends in Psalms scholarship that were current in the early to mid 20th century when the RSV was translated. You see, Psalms scholars of the early 20th century tended to assume that every psalm ultimately had an original cultic setting (that is, a setting in Temple worship). More recently, this assumption has been revisited and challenged. It is no longer a foregone conclusion that the Psalms must be interpreted as an accompaniment to the cultus (meaning sacrifices and things) for us to understand them to the fullest extent, but the RSV translators took this assumption to the extreme and read cultic connotations into language that maybe did not necessarily need those connotations. So this rendering is understandable for the RSV. In my opinion, it is significantly less understandable for the ESV, which was released in the early 2000s.

On the other hand, the verb ʿārak can also be used to talk about arranging other things, including more abstract concepts such as words or the points in a legal argument (as in “to lay out one’s case” or “to order one’s argument”). When it is used this way, the verb is often used intransitively, that is without a direct object expressed, as here in Psalm 5:3. This is why you will discover that quite a lot of English versions translate this verse in a way that evokes a juridical context.

“I plead my case to you.” – CSB
“I will plead before you.” – NASB
“I will set forth my case to you.” – LEB
“I will present my case to you.” – NET2
“I plead my case to you.” – NRSV

These renderings all make clearer what is actually going on in the first three verses of this psalm. This is not a morning prayer of general Yahwistic devotion, but a legal appeal to Yahweh for vindication and protection, and a careful examination of the Hebrew behind the rest of verses 1-3 validates this conclusion.

The second half of verse 1 uses a verb that is somewhat uncommon as a synonym for “Give ear” (Heb. Hiph of ʿāzan) or “pay attention” (Heb. Hiph of qāšab) or “listen” (Heb. šāmaʿ). Instead, we have this odd phrase, bînāh hăgîgî, “Consider my meditation” or perhaps “Understand my groans”. The first word, bîn, is more famously associated with Wisdom contexts as one of the synonyms for ḥākam or śākal, both essentially meaning to be wise or clever, but its uses in the Hebrew Bible reveal that it can encompass quite a range of meanings associated with mental activity: perceive, understand, consider, discern, and remember. Moreover, these activities can occur in many different contexts, but one of those contexts is that of a logical argument – the one with whom one is arguing (one’s opponent) or before whom one is arguing (one’s judge) can be called on to “understand” (bîn) one’s argument (in fact, in Psalm 50:21-22, we find bîn used in this way in close proximity to ʿārak used in the intransitive sense laying out one’s case). So in the semantic field of disputation, bînāh hăgîgî (“consider my meditation” or “my utterances”) and ʾeʿĕrāk ləkā (“I will lay out my case to you”) may be related phrases, and the context of the psalm begins to look like that of a legal argument or an appeal to a judge.

Verse 2 makes this context even clearer. The KJV translates this verse as “Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King and my God, for unto thee will I pray.” And that is not a bad translation, but it doesn’t quite fully capture the connotative force of the Hebrew. “Hearken unto the voice of my cry” can also be translated “Pay attention to the sound of my cry for help.” Hebrew šawʿî, which the KJV translates as “my cry” is not just any cry, meaning any loud sound, but specifically a cry for help. There is an implied context and therefore an implied significance for this cry. The psalmist is crying out for help. Then, in the second half of verse 2, which the KJV translates “For unto thee will I pray”, the verb is ʾetpallāl. The base meaning of pālal is “to intercede”. In the Hitpael, which is the stem in our text, it can become a synonym for English “pray”, but it seems to me that it is most similar to “pray” in a more antiquated sense, because English “pray” historically was not simply a general word for talking to God but was a synonym for “ask” or “appeal” or “request”. In other words, it was talking with God that had an inherent purpose, that is, to ask for God to intercede on behalf of the one praying. And that, I think, is the best way to understand ʾetpallāl – not as a general word for talking to deity (for which Hebrew tends to use the basic words for “speak”, such as ʾāmar), but specifically as an appeal (here, to deity) to intercede on behalf of the one speaking.

So, taken all together, the first three verses prove to be not a general prayer to God expressing basic devotion that one could recite every morning in all circumstances, but rather a targeted beginning with a specific meaning that sets the stage for the rest of the psalm. The psalmist is, from the very beginning, appealing to Yahweh to hear his case and to intervene on his behalf. Moreover, the psalmist expresses an intention to bombard Yahweh with his case on a daily basis and to look up expectantly for a rescuing answer from him. The psalmist is positioning himself as the woman from Jesus’ parable who persistently confronts the unjust judge and asks for justice until finally she receives it. Jesus’ concludes that parable by saying in Luke 18:7-8 – “Will not God most certainly execute justice for his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you that he will execute justice for them quickly. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the earth?”

The psalmist believes as Jesus does that God will most certainly execute justice in the world on behalf of his chosen one. That is why he says in verse 3, “And I will look up”. This verb is not really about lifting one’s glance upward, but more about looking out and keeping a careful watch with expectation. The psalmist believes that God’s answer could come at any moment. What is his basis for this expectation? He knows that Yahweh is a good and righteous God, and that means that Yahweh will not – indeed he cannot – allow wickedness to persist indefinitely. That is where we get the connection between verses 1-3 and verse 4: “For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness; neither shall evil dwell with thee.” This is a confession of God’s uncompromising righteousness. The word translated “dwell” literally means “to sojourn”. In other words, evil doesn’t even visit with God. It receives no hospitality from God. It does not sojourn with him, let alone own property near him. God cannot coexist with evil.

So Psalm 5 is not a general prayer of devotion meant to be recited in the morning, but rather an appeal to Yahweh to listen to his case and to protect him from a world filled with foolish, untrustworthy, and wicked people who mean him harm. To be honest, it’s still a pretty good prayer to pray in the morning, especially if you read the morning news.

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