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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Imagery in the Psalms.


As has been seen, poetry is always seasick when it is ferried to another country. Translation cannot convey the rhythms, overtones, resonances, sounds, alliteration, and plays on words in the original. Metaphor and simile play a very large part in the appeal of the psalms, and the ultimate horror of the ability of translation to destroy the poetry is seen in GNB. ‘Steps’ and ‘path’ are frequent metaphors for life and conduct. The psalmist says that the ‘law of his God’ is in the good man's heart and ‘their [Hebrew ‘his’] steps do not slip’ (Ps 37:31 ; they ‘never depart from it’ GNB). For ‘nor have our steps departed from your way’, GNB has ‘we have not disobeyed your commands’ (Ps 44:18; cf. also 56:6; 73:2 ). The vivid concrete metaphor of Ps 73 : ‘But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped’, is replaced in GNB by abstract nouns: ‘But I had nearly lost confidence, my faith was almost gone’. The accusation against the wicked that ‘their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues’ is rendered ‘Their words are flattering and smooth, but full of deadly deceit’ (Ps 5:9 ), and the picture of God gathering the waters of the sea ‘as in a bottle’ becomes ‘into one place’ (Ps 33:7 ).

2. Animal Imagery.

One of the delightful features of the psalms is the very large number of references to animals. Not only are they God's creatures, who offer to him their own praise (cf. Ps 104; 149 ), but they provide images for many different human and divine characteristics and actions. God is pictured as a mother bird, sheltering his worshippers under his wings (Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4 ). The psalmist wishes he were a sparrow or swallow nesting within the temple (Ps 84:3 ). In his distress he likens himself to an owl in the wilderness, and a lonely bird on the housetop (Ps 102:6–7 ), and longs for wings like a dove to escape (Ps 55:6–8 ). God's goodness and forgiveness renews his youth ‘like the eagle's’ (Ps 103:5 ). His longing for God is like the deer's longing for flowing streams (Ps 42:1 ), and he urges his fellows to walk in God's way, and not to be like horses and mules which are restrained only with bit and bridle (Ps 32:8–9 ). Some of the most vivid similes are reserved for the psalmist's enemies. They attack him like lions (Ps 7:2; 10:9; 17:12; 22:13, 21; 57:4 ) and he asks God to tear out their fangs (Ps 58:6 ). They are like bulls (Ps 22:12 ) and the wild ox (Ps 22:21 ), like snakes, venomous and deaf (Ps 58:4–5; 140:3 ) and dogs (Ps 22:16, 20; 59:6, 14 ), and he wishes that they would dissolve into slime like snails (Ps 58:8 , if that is the meaning). The king, if it be the king, describes himself as surrounded by foreign nations as if by bees (Ps 118:12 ). In an elaborate simile which compares Israel to a vine, its attackers are compared to the wild boar (Ps 80:13 ). In a different image, the mountains skip like rams and lambs before YHWH's theophany (Ps 114:4 ).

3. Hunting.

A favourite way of depicting the enemies' actions is hunting. In Sumerian the sign for the hunt signified an enclosed space and originally meant ‘to surround’. Hunting in the OT was mainly practised with traps and snares. Frequently the psalmists speak of traps, nets, and pits (Ps 9:15–16; 31:4; 35:7–8; 57:6; 64:5; 69:22; 141:9–10; 142:3 ). In Ps 124:7 the Israelites describe their rescue from their enemies who ‘would have swallowed up us alive’ in the image of a bird escaping from a broken snare. Keel (1978 ) illustrates many of these similes from reliefs from the ancient Middle East.

4. Images of YHWH: Shepherd.

YHWH is described under a wide range of metaphors and similes. Despite the familiar ‘The LORD is my shepherd’, the image of a shepherd occurs only in Ps 23 and 80:1 , although his worshippers are referred to as sheep in a number of other places (Ps 74:1; 78:52; 79:13; 95:7; 100:3 ). Sheep also represent the weakness of the psalmists in face of their enemies (Ps 44:11, 22 ). The psalmist declares that he has gone astray ‘like a lost sheep’ (Ps 119:176 ), while in Ps 49:14 the shepherd is death, in grim contrast to Ps 23 .

5. Father, Rock, Fortress.

Not unexpectedly YHWH is never described as the mother of his people, but it is perhaps surprising that he is only rarely called father (Ps 68:5; 89:26; 103:13 ), though the king is his adopted son (Ps 2:7 ). More common metaphors are rock (Ps 18:2, 31, 46; 61:2; 71:3; 89:26; 144:1–2 ), fortress, strong tower, or stronghold (Ps 9:9; 18:2; 31:2; 61:3; 71:3; 91:2; 144:2 ), and shield (Ps 3:3; 28:7; 33:20; 59:11; 115:9, 10, 11; 144:2 ). YHWH is a warrior (Ps 24:8; 78:65–6 ), who takes up his shield (Ps 35:2 ) and fights for his people. Vivid imagery describes the theophany (Ps 18:7–15; 77:16–20; 97:2–5; 98:7–8 ). While not exactly a metaphor, the title ‘YHWH of hosts’ (Ps 24:10; 46:7; 48:8; 69:6; 84:3, 12 ; cf. ‘YHWH, God of hosts’, 59:5; 80:4, 19; 84:8, 89:8 ), is often linked with military language, although there is debate as to whether the ‘hosts’ are Israel's armies or the heavenly host (the stars). It seems to have been a special title given to YHWH in the Jerusalem cult.

6. The Righteous and the Wicked.

Other metaphors light up the character of the righteous and the wicked. The good man is like a flourishing tree (Ps 1:3; 52:8; 92:12 ), and Israel is depicted as a vine (Ps 80:8–13 ), while the wicked are like chaff which is blown away (Ps 1:4; 35:5; 83:13 ; two different Heb. words are used). The shortness of human life is but ‘a few handbreadths’ (Ps 39:5 ). The sick man shrivels as quickly as grass (Ps 90:5–6; 102:4; 103:15–16 ); the image is used as a curse on the psalmist's enemies (Ps 129:6 ). The days of human beings drift away like smoke (Ps 102:3 ), and their life is poured out like water (Ps 22:14; 58:7 ). The wicked are depicted as wearing their evil devices and dishonour like clothes (Ps 73:6; 109:18–19, 29 ).

7. Wife and Sons.

Finally in this selection of images, a man's wife, like Israel, is pictured as a fruitful vine, his children as olive shoots (Ps 128:3 ), while sons are like arrows in the hand of a warrior (Ps 127:4–5 ; providing Anthony Trollope with Mr Quiverful!).

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