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Psalms 56-60: A Packet–The Superscriptions
Psalms 56-60 in the Septuagint (LXX in Greek and LXE in Brenton’s English translation) form a packet that tells a story. Demonstrating the coherence of these psalms as a unit, then developing the story they tell, will require more than one post. This first post will focus on the superscriptions of these psalms as an indication of their coherence.
What Is a Superscription?
As regards the Psalter, a superscription is the writing (script) above (super) the first verse. It could be thought of as a title, or sub-title, an overview, or a description of the purpose or contents of the psalm. In the Hebrew Bible, they are often thought to carry musical directions. Not every psalm has a superscription, but most of them do. Those who follow my blog regularly will know that I frequently ignore the superscriptions. Scholars generally agree that the superscriptions were added by an editor or editors some time after the psalm itself was written, perhaps when the psalms were gathered and arranged in one or more collections (1). As additions, they are not part of the psalm proper. For purposes of shining light on the presence and voice of Christ in the Psalms, rather than on any specific, historic occasion in the Old Testament, I find that many of the superscriptions are a distraction, rather than an aid. For this reason, I most often do not mention them in my comments. This time, however, I find that the superscriptions of Psalms 56-60 help tie these psalms together.
The Superscriptions above Psalms 55-61
I am including the psalms just before and after our packet to show that those in our packet have elements in common unique to themselves. Here are the superscriptions for Psalms 55-61 from Brenton’s Septuagint English translation (LXE).
Psalm 55:1 For the end, among Hymns of instruction by David. (LXE)
Psalm 56:1 For the end, concerning the people that were removed from the sanctuary, by David for a memorial, when the Philistines caught him in Geth. (LXE)
Psalm 57:1 For the end. Destroy not: by David, for a memorial, when he fled from the presence of Saul to the cave. (LXE)
Psalm 58:1 For the end. Destroy not: by David, for a memorial. (LXE)
Psalm 59:1 For the end. Destroy not: by David for a memorial, when Saul sent, and watched his house to kill him. (LXE)
Psalm 60:1 For the end, for them that shall yet be changed; for an inscription by David for instruction, when he had burned Mesopotamia of Syria, and Syria Sobal, and Joab had returned and smitten in the valley of salt twelve thousand. (LXE)
Psalm 61:1 For the end, among the Hymns of David. (LXE)
Three Elements in Common
There are three repetitive elements in the superscriptions: 1) “For the end,” present in every psalm listed; 2) “by David” or “of David,” present in every psalm listed; and 3) “for a memorial,” or “for an inscription,” present only in Psalms 56-60.
For a Memorial: A Unique Phrase
The complete phrase “for a memorial” (εἰς στηλογραφίαν, pronounced “ice stylographian”) is present only in the superscriptions of Psalms 56-60, while Psalm 16:1 (LXX 15:1) bears in its superscription just the word translated “writing” (στηλογραφία), without an article or preposition. The Greek word στηλογραφία (stylographia) only occurs anywhere at all in the Bible in these six psalms: 16, 56, 57, 58, 59, and 60. It occurs nowhere else. Because the entire phrase, “For a memorial,” occurs only in these five psalms, the conclusion is that the phrase “εἰς στηλογραφίαν, ice stylographian” ties these five psalms, 56-60, together.
The word στηλογραφία (stylographia), “a memorial,” has three parts: 1) style, 2) logos, and 3) graphia. A style in Greek (στήλη) is a block of stone or a slab often used as a buttress to a wall, as a monument, or as a pillar. (See Genesis 35:20 and Joshua 4:5-7). It may contain writing, as on a gravestone or tablet recording military victory, a treaty, dedication, or decree (2). Logos in Greek means “word” (see Matthew 8:8), and graphy means “writing” or “a thing written.” Putting these parts together, a stylography is a writing of words on a stone monument or pillar.
Isaiah 19:19 In that day there shall be an altar to the Lord in the land of the Egyptians, and a pillar to the Lord by its border. 20 And it shall be for a sign to the Lord for ever in the land of Egypt…(LXE)
As a superscription in a psalm, “for a memorial” indicates that the psalm is to function as though it were written in stone as a sign to be remembered by a future generation. (3)
For the End: An Infrequent Three Word Phrase in Scripture
The three word phrase “For the end” in English (4), which is “εἰς τὸ τέλος” in Greek, pronounced “ice-toe-telos,” is relatively rare in Scripture, when compared to all uses of τέλος, either alone or in prepositional phrases. Just counting the word τέλος itself, it occurs 146 times without the Apocryphal books, and 176 times with the Apocrypha, while the phrase, “εἰς τὸ τέλος” occurs 59 times, including the Apocrypha. Of these 59 occurrences of the three word phrase, “εἰς τὸ τέλος,” all but three occurrences are found in the superscriptions of various psalms. That is, Scripture uses these exact three words only three times apart from psalmic superscriptions. What are these three occurrences?
- The end of a river of water
LXE (Septuagint) Joshua 3:16 then the waters that came down from above stopped; there stood one solid heap very far off, as far as the region of Kariathiarim, and the lower part came down to the sea of Araba, the salt sea, till it completely failed (ἕως εἰς τὸ τέλος ἐξέλιπεν); and the people stood opposite Jericho.
ESV Joshua 3:16 the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho. (ESV)
NET Joshua 3:16 the water coming downstream toward them stopped flowing. It piled up far upstream at Adam (the city near Zarethan); there was no water at all flowing to the sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea). The people crossed the river opposite Jericho. [NET translation note: “Heb ‘the [waters] descending toward the sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea) were completely cut off.’”]
Notice that all three translations place the focus upon the ending of the flow of the water, “and the lower part [of the waters] came down…till it completely failed LXE.” The point of the narrative is that at some time and place the water quit flowing, and that’s when and where the people crossed over. While we might say a phrase such as, “The water completely stopped flowing,” the visual focus is where the water stops and the dry ground begins, because that’s where Joshua and the people crossed over.
In Joshua 3:16 “εἰς τὸ τέλος” (ice-toe-telos) refers to the time and place where the river quit flowing.
- The end of a set time of years
LXE Daniel 11:13 For the king of the north shall return, and bring a multitude greater than the former, and at the end of the times of years an invading army shall come with a great force, and with much substance. (based upon Theodotian’s Septuagint Daniel)
ESV Daniel 11:13 For the king of the north shall again raise a multitude, greater than the first. And after some years he shall come on with a great army and abundant supplies.
NET Daniel 11:13 For the king of the north will again muster an army, one larger than before. At the end of some years he will advance with a huge army and enormous supplies.
Notice that the above verse is a prophecy, and its focus is upon its occurrence. When will the invading army come? The answer is that it will take place at the “end” of a set time of years. Implied, of course, is that the full period of time will have been “completed;” however, the point of the passage is that the king of the north will come at the end of this time.
In Daniel 11:3 “εἰς τὸ τέλος” (ice-toe-telos) means the end of a period of years.
- The end of the visible glory on Moses’s face
ESV 2 Corinthians 3:13 not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. [Based upon the narrative of Moses bringing down the two Tablets of the Covenant from the mountain, found in Exodus 34:29-35]
NIV 2 Corinthians 3:13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. [Personally, for simplicity and clarity, I prefer this translation.]
NET 2 Corinthians 3:13 and not like Moses who used to put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from staring at the result of the glory that was made ineffective. (5)
For those who might want to see the Greek: 2 Corinthians 3:13 καὶ οὐ καθάπερ Μωϋσῆς ἐτίθει κάλυμμα ἐπὶ τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ πρὸς τὸ μὴ ἀτενίσαι τοὺς υἱοὺς Ἰσραὴλ εἰς τὸ τέλος τοῦ καταργουμένου. (Bibleworks GT)
Paul’s thought throughout 2 Corinthians 3:6-18 is not necessarily easy to follow. Yet notice that the point of the phrase “εἰς τὸ τέλος” in verse 13 is that the glory on Moses’s face was fading away (τοῦ καταργουμένου), and Moses didn’t want the sons of Israel to gaze “upon the end” of that fading, that is, to see it finally disappear. In this case, I believe that the NIV gives the more literal translation and that this literal understanding is preferable to others which seek to pack too much nuance into too small a space. I believe Paul’s point was that the Old Covenant, as represented by the shining on Moses’s face, was passing away. Those who veiled their own hearts in Paul’s day were the ones refusing to recognize this change.
In 2 Corinthians 3:13 “εἰς τὸ τέλος” (ice-toe-telos) refers to the end of the process of fading away–i.e., the termination–of the visible shining on the face of Moses.
Application of “for the end” to the Titles of the Psalms
Based upon the consistency of meaning in the above three verses, which once again are the only places other than psalmic superscriptions in all of Scripture where εἰς τὸ τέλος (ice-toe-telos) in this exact three word phrase occurs, I propose that εἰς τὸ τέλος in the superscriptions of 56 Septuagint psalms means the ending of something that had formerly continued. In Joshua 3:16, a flowing river quit flowing, in Daniel 11:13 a certain period of time ended, and in 2 Corinthians 3:13, a visible glowing on Moses’s face gradually faded and ended. What is it that ends in the psalms that bear this superscription? That is a topic to be explored in a future post(s) as we continue unfolding this “packet” of related psalms, Psalm 55-60.
By David: A Common Element in Messianic Psalms
Apart from the psalm titles (the superscriptions), David is mentioned in very few places in the Psalter. The psalmic superscriptions ascribe David as author 73 times. While David may have written many psalms, and while some superscriptions describe events in his life, the Psalter is not about David–it writes about Christ (see Acts 2:25-36). Therefore, the historical information given about David in the titles of some of the five psalms being considered as a packet (Psalms 56-60) will not be treated here.
A superscription is not part of a psalm proper, although these titles or notes have been present above many psalms for a very long time. Nevertheless, the superscriptions of Psalms 56-60 have unique features that bind them together. Two unique or rare phrases have been discussed above. The presence of these two phrases and the attribution to David in each of Psalms 56-60 helps confirm the proposal that they belong together and may be considered as a packet.
1 See, for example, C. Hassell Bullock, who writes, “While some of the titles, perhaps most, may have been added long after the composition of the Psalms, they nevertheless must not be viewed as a haphazard exercise.” (Bullock, C. Hassell. Encountering the Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001, 24.) Jennifer Dines, writing specifically about the Septuagint superscriptions in comparison with the Hebrew, states that, “There are a number of additional or expanded headings. Some of these are liturgical, but most are historicizing, especially about David. Some scholars think that the ‘historical’ expansions are subsequent to the original translation. On the whole, the translator [by which she means the one who translated from Hebrew to Greek] follows his source-text closely…Some scholars, however, demonstrate that the translation is less literalistic than often thought and that it contains many interpretational elements as well as stylistic devices that reveal a sophisticated rather than a mechanical approach to translation.” (Dines, Jennifer M. The Septuagint. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004, 19.)
2 Information taken from Bibleworks Septuagint Supplement.
3 In Hebrew, the word that corresponds with stylographia is Miktam. The NET translation note (Psalm 59:1) states that the meaning of this word is uncertain, but “HALOT 582-83 s.v. defines it as ‘inscription.’” Miktam occurs only in Psalms 16 and 56-60.
4 I am aware that NETS (New English Translation Septuagint) translates “εἰς τὸ τέλος” as, “regarding completion.” After much study with the lexicons and concordance, I find that “for the end” most faithfully captures the complete meaning of the phrase. The Orthodox Study Bible, which also presents a modern translation, similarly writes, “for the end.”
5 The reader can decide for him or herself if the NET translation or note brings any clarity to this verse: “27 )tn Or “end.” The word τέλος (telos) can mean both “a point of time marking the end of a duration, end, termination, cessation” and “the goal toward which a movement is being directed, end, goal, outcome” (see BDAG 998-999 s.v.). The translation accepts the interpretation that Moses covered the glory of his face with the veil to prevent Israel from being judged by the glory of God (see S. J. Hafemann, Paul, Moses, and the History of Israel [WUNT 81], 347–62); in this case the latter meaning for τέλος is more appropriate.”
Contra this unnecessarily complex interpretation, consider that BDAG itself (2nd edition, p 811) places this verse under the primary meaning of τέλος, meaning: “1. end–a. in the sense of termination, cessation…the end of the fading (splendor) 2 Cor 3:13.” Another verse BDAG lists for the second meaning in the quoted section above is 1 Timothy 1:5, “…the preaching has love as its aim.” “But the aim of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.”
Note that in the two examples given by BDAG the differences are clear and simple. The verse from 2 Corinthians refers to a literal, concrete termination of a physical phenomena (the glowing on Moses’s face), while the verse from 1Timothy nicely illustrates BDAG’s second meaning of “end, goal, outcome.”