Syntactic Structures of Psalm 54 (Daniel Hoàng)

Psalm 54
O God, through your name save me.
And through your might vindicate me.
O God, hear my prayer.
Give ear to the words of my mouth.
For foreigners stand against me,
And the ruthless ones seek my life.
They do not set God before them. 
Behold, God is a helper for me,
The Lord is the supporter of my life.
He returns evil to my foes.
In your faithfulness, wipe them out.
By freewill, I will sacrifice to you.
I will praise Yhwh, because it is good;
For he has delivered me from all troubles, 
So that my eye gazed upon my enemies.

In memory of my teacher Dr. Michael P. O’Connor, 

Daniel Hoang, Ph.D.


Psalm 54 contains no lineation difficulties that can affect its surface structure.  The poem is heavily syntactically corresponded; all of the lines in this psalm as presented by the MT are delineated within the expected syntactic constraints of biblical Hebrew verses.  The majority of the lines contain one predicator, two to three constituents, and two to three units. 

Similar to other individual laments in the Hebrew Psalter, the prefix and suffix second-person singular, third-person singular (referring to the Deity), and third-person plural verbal forms and the singular imperatives with first-person singular suffixes are used throughout the entire poem, constructing the dialogue of the tripartite “I,” “You,” and “They” parties (with the background listeners).  Psalm 54 is a direct address to the Deity and the background listeners (third-person singular forms in vv. 4a, 6a−b, 7a, and 9). I divided this fifteen-line poem into two paragraphs. 

The First Poetic Paragraph of the Poem:

The first paragraph, vv. 3−5, consists of seven lines.  The opening line begins with the vocative אלהים and immediately followed by a petition consists of an imperative הֹושׁיענִי and a motivation phrase בּשִׁמך. 

The second line, v. 3b, is syntactically paralleled to the first (prepositional phrase + verb; each line has one clause predicator, two constituents/arguments, and two words [with the vocative is treated as an independent clause]):

 3a בְּשִׁמְךָ֣ הֹושִׁיעֵ֑נִי
3bוּבִגְבוּרָתְךָ֥ תְדִינֵֽנִי

Verse 4 repeats the Summons and Petition mode of speech; it forms another syntactic parallelistic entity.  The vocative is an independent clause; the two lines in verse 4 are an exact syntactic match (verb + prepositional phrase; each line consists of one clause predicator, two constituents, and two words). 

4aשְׁמַ֣ע תְּפִלָּתִ֑י
4bהַ֝אֲזִ֗ינָה לְאִמְרֵי־פִֽי

The two causal clauses in verse 5 (5a and 5b) followed by an independent clause serving as parenthetical statement (5c) are syntactically dependent on verse 4.  Note also the syntactic match of the two causal clauses, 5a and 5b (subject + verb + prepositional phrase with object suffix // subject + verb + object; each line has one clause predicator, three constituents, and three words):

5aכִּ֤י זָרִ֨ים קָ֤מוּ עָלַ֗י
 5bוְֽ֭עָרִיצִים בִּקְשׁ֣וּ נַפְשִׁ֑י
5cלֹ֤א שָׂ֨מוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְנֶגְדָּ֣ם סֶֽלָה

The tropes of syntactic dependency and syntactic matching unified the seven lines in vv. 3−5, constructing the first half of the poem.  This first half focuses on the calling for help and stating the reasons why the divine intervention is necessary.  In this section of the poem, the petitioner addresses the Deity directly:

  1. Summons/general petition for saving act through God’s name (v. 3)
  2. Summons/call to God’s attention to words of prayer (v. 4)
  3. Motivations and descriptions of foreign enemies (v. 5).

Like many of the “I” prayer psalms, the imperatives dominate opening lines (save, listen, give ear).  The repetitions of the imperatival clauses indicate the petitioner’s urgent and earnest plea to the Deity.  What stands out in the opening lines is the reference to the name of God, “by your name,” as the means for the saving act of God.  The association between “your name” and “your might” invokes the Exodus covenant tradition of the divine name in these two opening lines, i.e., God’s name is God’s might that saves and judges (Deut 12:5, 11, 13, 14, 18, 21, 26).

The name of God is often associated with God’s power (cf.  Pss 20:1b, 5a, 7b; 106:8; Jer 10:6, 16:21).  The association of the terms בְּשִׁמְךָ֣ “by your name” and וּבִגְבוּרָתְךָ “in your might” is clear.  Jeremiah 10:6 contains an example in which the combination of “name” and “might” occur in a single phrase:

מֵאֵ֥ין כָּמ֖וֹךָ יְהוָ֑ה

גָּד֥וֹל אַתָּ֛ה וְגָד֥וֹל שִׁמְךָ֖ בִּגְבוּרָֽה׃            

There is none like you, O Yahweh.

You are great, and great is your name in might.

 Verse 5.  The petitioner identifies the enemies as זָרִ֨ים (foreigners) and עָ֭רִיצִים (dreadful ones/terrible ones); they are the cause of the petitioner’s suffering.  A closest parallel to Psalm 54:5 is Psalm 86:14, but there it reads זֵ֘דִ֤ים (insolent ones) instead of זָרִ֨ים (foreigners):

אֱלֹהִ֤ים זֵ֘דִ֤ים קָֽמוּ־עָלַ֗י

וַעֲדַ֣ת עָ֭רִיצִים בִּקְשׁ֣וּ נַפְשִׁ֑י

וְלֹ֖א שָׂמ֣וּךָ לְנֶגְדָּֽם׃

O God, the insolent rise against me.

The council of the ruthless ones have sought my life.

They do not set you before them.

However, if Psalm 86:14 is a reworking of Psalm 54:5, then the paleographical error between ד and ר might have occurred.  Further, זֵדִים does not occur with עָרִיצִים anywhere else except here in Psalm 86:14.  The combinations of  זָרִ֨ים and עָרִיצִים can be found in Ezekiel and Isaiah.  In Ezekiel 31:12a, this combination occurs in a single line:

וַיִּכְרְתֻ֧הוּ זָרִ֛ים עָרִיצֵ֥י גוֹיִ֖ם וַֽיִּטְּשֻׁ֑הוּ

The foreigners – the most ruthless nations, have cut it down and left it.

Also in Ezekiel 28:7:

לָכֵ֗ן הִנְנִ֨י מֵבִ֤יא עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ זָרִ֔ים עָרִיצֵ֖י גּוֹיִ֑ם

Thus, I will bring the foreigners upon you, the most ruthless of the nations.

Another example is Isaiah 25:2−3:

כִּ֣י שַׂ֤מְתָּ מֵעִיר֙ לַגָּ֔ל קִרְיָ֥ה בְצוּרָ֖ה לְמַפֵּלָ֑ה

אַרְמ֤וֹן זָרִים֙ מֵעִ֔יר לְעוֹלָ֖ם לֹ֥א יִבָּנֶֽה׃

עַל־כֵּ֖ן יְכַבְּד֣וּךָ עַם־עָ֑ז

קִרְיַ֛ת גּוֹיִ֥ם עָרִיצִ֖ים יִירָאֽוּךָ׃

For you have made a city into a heap,

A fortified city into a ruin;

A palace of foreigners is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.

Therefore a strong people will glorify you;

Cities of ruthless nations will revere you.

A clear example is in Isaiah 25:3 where the noun phrase combination of זָרִ֨ים and עָרִיצִים is separated into two component parts and set in adjacent lines:

כְּחֹ֣רֶב בְּצָי֔וֹן שְׁא֥וֹן זָרִ֖ים תַּכְנִ֑יעַ

חֹ֚רֶב בְּצֵ֣ל עָ֔ב זְמִ֥יר עָֽרִיצִ֖ים יַעֲנֶֽה׃

Like heat in drought, you subdue the uproar of foreigners;

Like heat by the shadow of a cloud, the song of the ruthless ones is  silenced.

Likewise, another example is Isaiah 29:5:

וְהָיָ֛ה כְּאָבָ֥ק דַּ֖ק הֲמ֣וֹן זָרָ֑יִךְ

וּכְמֹ֤ץ עֹבֵר֙ הֲמ֣וֹן עָֽרִיצִ֔ים

וְהָיָ֖ה לְפֶ֥תַע פִּתְאֹֽם׃

But the multitude of your foreigners will become like fine dust,

And the multitude of the ruthless ones like the chaff that blows away;

And it will happen instantly,

The above-cited passages give strong arguments for the retaining of the MT זָרִ֨ים reading.  The identity of the enemies in this psalm may play an important factor in the interpretation of the classic Individual Lament genre of the present psalm. 

The first half of the poem concludes with the description of the זָרִ֨ים  in verse 5c. The poet depicts the enemies as those who do not worship God.  In the first half, the petitioner prays to God for help to remove the serious danger presented by the most ruthless foreigners who have sought to take his life, i.e., those who do not worship God,

The Second Poetic Paragraph of the Poem:

The shift in the direction of speech marks a structural break in the poem.  A pair of syntactically matching verbless clauses in verse 6 referring to God in third-person singular sets off the second paragraph from the first.  The advantage of taking the line as the basic poetic building block is noted in vv. 6−7a where linguistic correspondence extends beyond the two lines/bicolon of verse 6 and splits the next two lines in verse 7.  These three lines, vv. 6−7a, cannot be separated since v. 7a is in apposition to “the supporter of my life” in v. 6b and “the helper” in v. 6a. 

6הִנֵּ֣ה אֱ֭לֹהִים עֹזֵ֣ר לִ֑י
 6bאֲ֝דֹנָ֗י בְּֽסֹמְכֵ֥י נַפְשִֽׁי׃
7aיָשִׁ֣֯וב הָ֭רַע לְשֹׁרְרָ֑י

Without a shift in focus, the speech changes direction back to address God directly in the next two lines, vv. 7b−8a.  These two lines together form a syntactic entity; they are conditional clauses; v. 7b is a request (independent clause, protasis) and v. 8a is a promise to return the favor if the request is granted (dependent clauses, apodosis):   

7bבַּ֝אֲמִתְּךָ֗ הַצְמִיתֵֽם׃
8aבִּנְדָבָ֥ה אֶזְבְּחָה־לָּ֑ךְ

Again, the standard Lowthian cola system does not hold in this case as syntactic links uniting the concluding two lines, v. 9a−b, to the preceding line v. 8b.  These causal clauses subordinate to the preceding line 8b; they serve as the conclusion of the poem:

8bא֤וֹדֶה שִּׁמְךָ֖ יְהוָ֣ה כִּי־טֽוֹב׃
9aכִּ֣י מִכָּל־צָ֭רָה הִצִּילָ֑נִי
9bוּ֝בְאֹיְבַ֗י רָאֲתָ֥ה עֵינִֽי

The second half of the poem reiterates the supporting arguments for the requests.  In this section, five out of eight lines address the background listeners.  The thematic progression of the second half of this poem is as follows:

  1. Statement of confidence in God as the helper and protector (vv. 6−7a), addressed to the background listeners.
  2. Petition for God to silence the enemies (v. 7b), addressed to God
  3. Promise of thanksgiving to God’s name and voluntary sacrifice (v. 8), addressed to God.
  4. The petitioner declares victory because the prayer is heard (v. 9), addressed the background listeners.

My lineation of the second paragraph of the poem, vv. 6−8, agrees with the MT and BHS.  This paragraph consists of eight poetic lines.  The petitioner  continues to address the background listeners, beginning in v. 5c, speaking about the Deity.  The demonstrative particle הִנֵּ֣ה (behold) sets off two verbless clauses in  verse 6 that express the petitioner’s confidence in God.  In contrast to the enemies who “do not set God before them,” the petitioner considers God as the עֹזֵר (helper) and סוֹמֵך  (sustainer).  These motivation statements are immediately followed by the petition for God to destroy/silence the enemies.  The poem concludes with the promise of sacrifice and praise, which coupled with two causal clauses (syntactic dependency), expressing the petitioner’s confidence that the prayer was heard. 

[1] Following Mss, Targum, and Ps 86:14, NRSV prefered the reading of זֵדִים (insolent men).  I retained the MT reading in light of LXX (κραταιοὶ); cf. Isa 25:2−3; Isa 29:5; Ezek 28:7, 31:12.  So did  NAS, NIV, NKJ, NLT, ESV, and NJPS.

[2] Some Mss read יהוה; but LXX reads ὁ θεὸς.

[3] I prefer the reading of third-person singular, jussive, יָשֹׁב taking אֲ֝דֹנָ֗י as the subject.  Many Mss and LXX read as Qere Hiphil imperfect third-person sing יָשִׁיב.  Syriac and Jerome read the imperative הָשִׁיבָה.

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