Monday, December 28, 2009

The grammar of Psalm 117

 הַלְלוּ אֶת יְהוָה כָּל גּוֹיִם
Praise יהוה all nations
שַׁבְּחוּהוּ כָּל הָאֻמִּים
congratulate him all the peoples
כִּי גָבַר עָלֵינוּ חַסְדּוֹ
for his mercy has prevailed against us
וֶאֱמֶת יְהוָה לְעוֹלָם
and the truth of יהוה is forever
הַלְלוּ יָהּ
Praise Yah
I had a dream in the early morning and I should have immediately written it down because I forgot its clarity though not its intent. The intent is to do for the shortest psalm what I am in the process of doing for Ruth - grammar, letter by letter, word by word, phrase by phrase, meaning, textual allusions, structural form, and whatever else I can find out as I move from my native tongue to the Hebrew thought that the NT presents in translation on behalf of the Gentiles.

Structurally, the psalm opens and closes with a varied pair of brackets. The opening bracket also plays a second structural role in the first of two bi-cola. Congratulate? I chose this term to stop a mindless quick read of praise or laud. It is better if it is more like 'well done, my love.' The second 'parallel' is also surprising. The reason given for congratulations is stronger than God's desire for mercy. It has prevailed - past, completed, as in the flood waters prevailing over the earth. There seems a finality in the promise of mercy that cannot be undone. This truth is faithful in all respects and in all ages. It's a bi-colon, but not a parallel of similarity, or even of tense. Instead our reason for believing can encompass what is both complete and continuing for ever.

Psalm 117:1 is picked up by Paul (Romans 15:11) as justifying his 'Gospel to the Gentiles'. I see in the Comparative Psalter (Kohlenberger) that the LXX translators chose truth rather than faithfulness for the translation of verse 2. Verse 2 alludes to Exodus 34:6. So the psalm recognizes a universal aspect of God's mercy and lovingkindness as revealed to Moses. As Luther commented somewhere, the entire Gospel is contained in the Psalter. This Psalm implies that the mercy is universally available. Paul recognizes that universal aspect of the revelation in the Scriptures as fully expressed and realized in Jesus, son of God (Romans 1:4).

This psalm has only 17 words - so we can see them all at once. There also seems to be a remarkable foreshadowing of Psalm 118 that I just noticed - only three words are shared between these two psalms (excluding the name and some shorter words) all nations, his mercy, for ever. A curious accident of my now aging algorithm for comparing psalms.

Now here are its letters in two (three) piles - Of 62 letters, only 9 are from the non-grammatical group of 11. Of the remaining 52 letters, 17 are written in grammatical roles (omitting the prepositions from the count) leaving 36, if I haven't miscounted, of the grammatical letters acting as consonants. (Green is for grammatical, Blue for the group of letters that does not play a role in forming prefixes and suffixes, and Orange for the letters of the grammatical group of 11 that are behaving like consonants in this word.)
א



 הַלְלוּ אֶת יְהוָה
Praise יהוה
hallu et hashem

כָּל גּוֹיִם
all nations
col goyim

שַׁבְּחוּהוּ כָּל הָאֻמִּים
congratulate him all the peoples
shavxuhu col ha'umim

ב



כִּי גָבַר עָלֵינוּ חַסְדּוֹ
for has prevailed against us his mercy
ci gavar `lenu xesedo

וֶאֱמֶת יְהוָה לְעוֹלָם
and the truth of יהוה is forever
ve'emet hashem l`olam

הַלְלוּ יָהּ
Praise Yah
hallu Yah

א



הַלְלוּ
Praise
2nd person plural imperative, root הלל

אֶת
יְהוָה
יהוה
direct object market followed by tetragrammeton

כָּל
גּוֹיִם
all
nations
all as adjective
plural


שַׁבְּחוּהוּ
כָּל
הָאֻמִּים
congratulate him
all
the peoples
3rd person singular suffix הוּ following second person plural imperative, root שבח (and I cannot stay with my prodding first translation - be free in him).
הָאֻמִּים is plural with definite article הָ and the root word is what? It's rare (Numbers 25:15, and Genesis 25:16) - it is not the usual root for people which would be with an ayin עַם. And though it looks a lot like the word in Psalm 2, וּלְאֻמִּים apparently it is distinguished by all my sources, English, Latin, and Hebrew as different. It is said to be derived from mother - so perhaps all who are born of woman.

ב



כִּי
גָבַר
עָלֵינוּ
חַסְדּוֹ
for
it has prevailed
towards us
his mercy
for - acting as conjunction of purpose
strong - towering (Net Bible) root גבר perfect third person singular
first person plural pronoun with preposition
third person singular pronoun



וֶאֱמֶת
יְהוָה
לְעוֹלָם
and the truth of
יהוה
is forever
Truth (LXX) preceded by connector
with construct implied making 'the' truth
- definite of proper name
verbless clause, preposition, a word meaning to the age or forever



הַלְלוּ
יָהּ
Praise
Yah
closing the opening bracket

7 comments:

Gary said...

Very well done!

Quick question, though: shouldn't it be "you peoples?" This seems to be a case where the definite article is marking a vocative address.

Also, I don't know if prevailed against would be the author's intent here. Is the psalmist happy that he was defeated by Adonai's chesed? Perhaps prevailed "for us," "over us," or "on our behalf." Dative idea of advantage?

I'm more versed in Greek than Hebrew, so please respond so I could learn. Thanks!

-- Gary

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for the comment, Gary. It is just this kind of question and comment that I too will learn from. Isn't it funny that I have been 'translating' for three years and I still am just learning grammar - and I haven't written the essay on 'he' yet or dared to read the 6 columns in BDB. I had better get busy on them - it will come up soon on that other blog where I am writing about each letter in its turn and what functions it tips us off about. I don't see anything with a quick scan of BDB on the vocative, but I do see hints of it in other articles and certainly other translators do render these as you nations (without the article) and you peoples - almost as if the second part of the verse demanded a reconsideration of the force of the first part.

I am beginning to enjoy grammar. I promised when I started that I would learn as a child learns, by repetition and that later I would learn grammar. Well - later has arrived.

Bob MacDonald said...

Gary - I just scanned three grammar books - no mention of vocative in Cook and Holmstead or in Lambdin. Some limited mention in Putnam - but nothing about this being a function of the definite article.

In this psalm, the 'you' might be a reflection of a particular mode of English imperative. I.e. it comes from the verb not from the form of the nouns as it would in Latin.

Gary said...

I'll quote Seow's grammar at the beginning of lesson VI: "The definite article may also rarely be used to indicate a vocative." BDB use 1.i. notes its vocative use, and gives as an example 1 Sam 17:55 "As thy soul liveth, O King, I do not know."

Interestingly, this carries over into Greek in John 20:28. Greek, honestly, is where my focus is.

Gary said...

Also, since we're on the subject: Here is an excellent video of Psalm 117 sung by Sons of Korah.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks Gary - I see the BDB usage now. Re the 'prevailed against', I know it seems over the top, but the sense is possible. Translating Chesed is helped by this sense of determination on the part of the Lord.

Bob MacDonald said...

Here's a detailed note on this verse - essentially denying the assertion in BDB that 'he' can signal vocative.