< November 03, 2019 >

Commentary on Psalm 149

 

Psalm 149 is the fourth of the five “Final Hallel” psalms (Psalms 146-150) that form the closing doxology of the Hebrew Psalter.

It begins and ends with “Praise the LORD!,” as do the other four Final Hallel psalms; but it seems somewhat out of place in this collection of psalms, since its focus is on God’s vengeance on the nations in defense of God’s people. In The Message of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann states simply, "I do not know what to make of this, for it is quite unexpected in the hymns.” 1

The tone of the first four verses of the psalm is much in keeping with the tone of the other Final Hallel psalms. In Psalm 149:1, the psalm singer calls on the “assembly of the faithful” to “sing to the LORD a new song.” The word translated “faithful” is hasidiym, formed from the word hesed, which refers to the covenant faithfulness between God and the people of Israel. Those who honor the covenant established between Israel and God are thus called to “sing.” The call to sing a “new song” occurs as well in Psalms 96 and 98, and in each instance of its occurrence, seems to refer to some sort of new beginning or new insight into the relationship between God and the people.

Psalm 149:1-3 are filled with images of singing, celebrating, and dancing—“a new song” and “praise” in verse 1; “glad” and “rejoice” in verse 2; “praise,” “dancing,” “making melody” in verse 3. Singing and dancing were common parts of cultic activity in the ancient Near East. In Exodus 15, Miriam “took a tambourine in her hand” and all the women followed, “with tambourines and with dancing.” In 2 Samuel 6:14, we read that when the ark of the covenant was being brought into Jerusalem, “David danced before the LORD with all his might.” According to 1 Chronicles 25:4-6, David appointed temple musicians like the sons and daughters of Heman, who were “under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God.”

Psalm 149:4 announces the two-fold reason for praise. First, the LORD takes pleasure (rasah) in his people. The word means as well “be favorable to, be well disposed toward.” Second, the Lord “adorns (pa’ar) the humble with victory.” The word comes from an Egyptian loanword that means “headdress, head wrap,” and is used to describe the head coverings of upper class women of Jerusalem in Isaiah 3:20; priests in Exodus 39:28 and Ezekiel 44:18; and of a bridegroom in Isaiah 61:10. Here is a wonderful picture of God rewarding the humble (the Hebrew word is also used to describe the “poor”) with the trappings of victory over those who oppress them. One commentator writes, “YHWH chooses the “poor,” that is the despised, the oppressed, the powerless, and the degraded in order to reveal his glory in them and so to give them ... honor and dignity.” 2

Psalm 149:5-6 resume the call to praise begun in verses 1-3 and summon the faithful to “exult” and “sing for joy,” with the “high praises of God in their throats.” But in the middle of verse 6 comes a radical and disturbing shift in the tenor of the psalm. Along with the praise of God in their throats, the faithful are to have “two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations.”

The word translated “vengeance” is from the Hebrew root naqam, and may be defined as "an invocation of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one's enemies, or the enemies of God." While it is used in the biblical text in reference to human revenge, most often in speaking about the vengeance of God upon those who violate the basic order and balance of the created world. In Psalm 149 this divine prerogative is meted out to the “faithful.” Verse 9 gives the reason for the vengeance outlined in the previous verses: “to execute on them the judgment decreed.” The word translated “decreed” is “written” in Hebrew, likely referring to the instructions written in the Torah regarding right living in relation with others and God. The idea of vengeance is difficult for many twenty-first-century Christians to embrace. James Mays reminds us that the vengeance called for in Psalm 149 is not “the emotion of a hate reaction but in the sphere of legal custom. Vengeance was an act to enforce or restore justice where the regular legal processes were not competent or had failed.” 3 And the Old Testament tells us repeatedly that vengeance is not the prerogative of the people, but belongs to God (see Deuteronomy 32:35-36; Jeremiah 46:10; and Psalms 94:1 and 99:8). The end of verse 9 declares that the “judgment decreed” upon the nations, peoples, kings, and nobles is the “glory” for the faithful.

The words of Psalm 149 have been used to incite and justify war against those deemed to be the enemies of God. It was used to provoke the Peasant Revolt in Germany in the sixteenth century and to call the Roman Catholics to a holy war against the Protestants, beginning the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. The author of the book of Hebrews writes, however, that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). As Christians today seek God’s justice in the world, words can be a powerful weapon in the hands of the “faithful” against those who cause or allow others to suffer injustice.


Notes:

1 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), p. 166.

2 Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3, Hermeneia, ed. Klaus Baltzer, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 650.

3 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation : A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James L. Mays (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 302-3.