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PSALM 74: A LITERARY-STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS
GRAEME E. SHARROCK
Ps 74 is not an easy psalm to translate or interpret. This article
approaches the task through an inductive analysis of the structure
of the text, in the process of which a fresh translation is also
provided. It then focuses on the significance of the structure for
three themes: religious rhetoric in times of national crisis; the self-
identity of the community; and concern for the name of God.
1. The Literary Structure of the Psalm
My investigation of the structure of the psalm as given herein
will include these steps: determining the basic structure, analyzing
the relationship between structure and content, and then interpret-
ing the role of structure for the total meaning of the psalm.
Determining the Basic Structure
By structure1 I mean the "inherent framework"2 of the psalm
which arises to the reader's view from a close analysis of the text.
Such a framework may or may not be evident at first reading. It can
seldom be reduced to a mere "outline," as is attempted by most
commentaries.3 The emergent pattern must be multi-dimensional;
1 This approach is to be differentiated from both form-critical and structuralist
approaches. The form-critical scholar is primarily interested in correlating texts
with pre-supposed social situations from which the literature may have arisen. The
newer structuralist method focuses on binary structures of the mind and their
manifestation in the text. My concern is rather the literary-structural shape of the
2 Rolf Knierim, "Old Testament Form-Criticism Reconsidered," Int 27 (1973):
3 Although many commentators consider it too problematical to give an outline
for our psalm, some have tried. L. Sabourin, The Psalms: Their Origin and
212 GRAEME E. SHARROCK
pathos and movement must be charted along with the more static
elements of the text.
How do we begin to describe the structure of a text? The first
step is familiarity, achieved both by reading and by hearing the text
read. Certain features—figures, ideas, metaphors, metre—will be-
come evident. The observant reader will be alert to the presence
and placement of words and phrases, along with variations in the
pace and intensity of the text. Particular attention should be given
to the verbal pattern, because the action words in any language
carry both meaning and movement.
In analyzing structure, it is important to recognize that various
types of pattern are possible. The interpreter must take care not to
superimpose a pattern that is alien to the text itself, and then try to
compensate for the ill-fit by emending the text and restructuring
In the following examination of Ps 74, it is the verbal pattern
that will first claim our attention. Not only do the verbs dominate
by their position and power, but they can be easily divided accord-
ing to tense into five consecutive groups. With attention to the
primary or initial verb of each line, we can group the verses of
Ps 74 in this way:
1-3 Imperatives (apart from introductory complaint)
4-9 Perfects (with supplementary imperfect in vs. 9)
12-17 Perfects (with supplementary imperfect in vs. 14)
18-23 Imperatives (and supporting jussives, etc.)
If we reduce the pattern to main verbs only, the possibility of a
chiastic or mirror-structured psalm emerges:4
enemy. C. Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms
tetrastichs—, but relies heavily on the presence of supposed glosses. E. J. Kissane,
The Book of Psalms (
1-5, 6-11, 12-17, 18-23.
4 For discussion and examples of chiastic literary constructions in biblical
literature, see, e.g., N. W. Lund, "The Presence of Chiasmus in the Old Testament,"
AJSL 46 (1930): 104-126;
idem, Chiasmus in the New Testament (
1942). On the psalms, see the studies of Robert L. Alden, "Chiastic Psalms: A Study
PSALM 74 213
The result is an inverted symmetrical structure in which the
imperative paragraphs (A and A') introduce and conclude the
psalm, the perfect verbs (B and B') develop some concrete actions
in the psalm, and the central verses (C) form the central axis,
pointing back to the earlier sections and forward to the subsequent
In the next stage we examine the fit between the verbal
structure and the contents of the psalm.
Relationship of Structure and Content
If we overlay the linguistic features and content of the psalm
on the skeleton above, the result is a symmetrical but dynamic
structure in which individual features can be seen as contributary
to the whole. The composition is complex and yet clearly co-
ordinated, with minimal interplay between motifs until the final
paragraph and climax.
We now translate and examine each paragraph, noting its theme,
subjects, and mood. Between each paragraph lies the significant
literary device of a "hinge" which formally links part to part.
A: Vss. 1-3
JsAxAl; lyKiW;ma1 A Maskil of Asaph
Hcan,lA TAH;nazA Myhilox< hmAlA Why, 0 Elohim, are you perpetually
:j`t,yfir;ma NxcoB; j~P;xa Nwaf;y, angry?5 Why do your nostrils smoke
against the sheep of your pasture?
in the Mechanics of Semitic Poetry in Psalms 1-50," JETS 17 (1974): 11-28, and
sequels JETS 19 (1976): 191-200; 21 (1978): 199-210.
5 A study of this word in its Qal form does not support the usual rendering, "to
reject, spurn, abandon." Most OT uses are intransitive like the Akkadian verb zenu,
referring to a state, not an action requiring an object. See R. Yaron, "The Meaning
of ZANAH," VT 13 (1963): 237-239.
214 GRAEME E. SHARROCK
Md,q, tAyniqA j~t;dAfE rkoz; 2 Remember your congregation, acquired
j~t,lAHEna Fb,we TAl;xaGA of old! Redeem your inheritance, Mt.
TAn;kawA hz, NOy.ci-rha
Hcan, tOxwu.mal; j~ym,fAP; hmAyrihA 3 Lift up your feet6 toward the perpetual
:wd,qo.Ba byeOx frahe-lKA ruins! Every evil doer is in the sanc-
The initial approach to Elohim is in question form, and serves
as an introduction to the whole psalm. The tone then quickly
moves with the urgent imperatives—"Remember! ... Redeem! .. .
Lift up! . . ." —to the most direct form of address possible. The
subjects of the plaint are the people of God and the place of sacred
presence, a dual motif which extends throughout the psalm. The
first paragraph thus introduces all the characters and emotion of
the drama, with a plea for intervention.
The final colon (vs. 3b) thematically links the first and second
paragraphs by juxtaposing the offenders and the plaintiffs and
announcing the subject of the second paragraph.
B: Vss. 4-9
j~d,fEOm br,q,B; j~yr,r;co UgxEwA 4 The adversaries roared in the middle
:tOtxo MtAtOOx UmWA of your assembly; they set up their
ensigns (for signs).7
hlAf;mAl; xybimeK; fdaUAyi 5 They slashed like a man who goes up
:tOm.Dur;qa Cfe-j`bAsEBi with an axe into a thicket of trees;8
dHayA. hAyH,UTPi TAfav; 6 and then all its carved work they
:NUmlohEya tPolaykev; lywi.kaB; smashed with hatchet and axes.
6 The Hiphil imperative "Lift up!" is clear, but the object is debated. Dahood
assumes the addition of the yodh due to the unfamiliarity of the Massoretes with pa
as a conjunction. F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms (Edinburgh,
1873) 2: 329, paraphrases, "May God then lift His feet up high ... i.e. with long
hurried steps, without stopping, move towards His dwelling-place that now lies in
ruins, that by virtue of His interposition it may rise again."
7 The second colon is generally considered corrupt and untranslatable. Weiser
refuses to translate the final word and all of vss. 5-6. Dahood redivides the
consonants and translates "emblems by the hundreds." See P. R. Ackroyd, "Some
Notes on the Psalms," JTS 17 (1966): 392.
8 The verses here are considered as being among the most difficult in the entire
PSALM 74 215
j~w,DAq;mi wxebA UHl;wi 7 They have burned your sanctuary com-
:j~m,w;-NKaw;mi Ull;.Hi Cr,xAlA pletely;9 they desecrated the dwelling-
place of your name.
dHayA MnAyni MBAlib; Urm;xA 8 They said in their hearts, "We will
:Cr,xABA lxe-ydefEOm-lkA Upr;WA utterly destroy!" They burned all the
assemblies of El in the land.10
dOf-Nyxe UnyxirA xlo UnytetoOx 9 Our signs" we have not seen; there is
xybinA no one among us who knows "Until
:hmA-dfa fadeyo UnTAxi-xlov; when?"
The attention of Elohim is now directed to the enemies who
have ravaged the sanctuary. The citation of destructive acts is not
Psalter, with no definitive translation possible. The difficulty begins immediately
with yiwada’, a rarer form from the verb "to know." However, the context provides
no object, and the concept of knowing is not congruent with the sense which would
favor an act, preferably violent. Here we follow Bardtke's text in Biblia Hebraica,
where he emends to yigde'u, "they smash/break in pieces."
The phrase "who goes up" from the Hiphil fem. sing. Part. poses a problem of
gender, but the meaning is clear. See J. A. Emerton, "Notes on Three Passages in
Psalms Book III," JTS 14 (1963): 2. Also cf. Jgs 9:48; Neh 8:15; Isa 40:16.
The second colon contains a hapax legomenon where the clearest member is
"tree." I understand the bicolon as a simile in which a man goes up a hillside into a
thicket of trees with axes to chop them down. In Zech 11:2ff. the felling of trees,
sounds of lions roaring, and the misfortune of the flock are again combined. See
also Isa 10:33-34 and Jer 46:22.
9 The literal rendering is "to the ground"—an idiom meaning "completely" or
10 Dahood reads, ". . . let all their progeny be burned, all the divine assemblies
in the land," but this assumes some equation between "progeny" and "assemblies."
D. Erdman, The Hebrew Book of Psalms
"all the younger generation, the offspring of the oppressors, will believe that all the
places of assembly of El have been burned up." This would require the fusion of
two cola into one, and force an unnecessary future sense upon the text. As Delitzsch,
p. 329, notes, the Qal fut. of sargu equals the Hiphil hunah "to force, oppress." See
also Num 21:30 and Exod 24:19.
11 Although straightforward in the MT, this verse is a crux interpretum. The 3d-
person masc. pl. suffix on "signs" is not to be overlooked, as is done by some
interpreters. "Our signs" is to be contrasted with "their signs" in vs. 4. See J. J. M.
Roberts, "Of Signs, Prophets and Time Limits: A Note on Psalm 74:9," CBQ 39
216 GRAEME E. SHARROCK
merely an indictment of the violent invaders; it is designed to incite
Elohim to avenging action; it is his sanctuary and assemblies that
have been harried.
Vs. 9 serves both as a verbal and dramatic link to the next
paragraph. Not only is there already a transition from "they" to
"we," but the single phrase "Until when?" is immediately repeated
at the start of C.
C: Vss. 10-11
rcA Jr,HAy; Myhilox< ytamA-dfa 10 Until when, 0 Elohim, will the adver-
:Hcan,lA j~m;wi byeOx CxenAy; sary revile? Will the enemy deride your
j~d;yA bywitA hmA.lA 11 Why do you draw back your hand,
:hl.eka j~q;vHe br,q,.mi j~n,ymiyvi even your right hand from the middle
of your assembly?12
The pivotal paragraph of the psalm refocuses the major issue
by the use of direct questions which recall both previous para-
graphs (A and B). The subjects there are now presented in the light
of a new motive: Elohim's possible concern for his own name. This
move from the extrinsic to the intrinsic requires reflection on part
of the deity, heightening the psychological engagement of the
psalm. The threat to reputation is presented as a greater danger
than the accomplished destructions, as a more urgent basis of the
appeal for salvation.
This section itself is the hinge of the whole psalm in its
synthesis of prior arguments and its anticipation of A'. However,
the simple waw at the beginning of vs. 12 acts as a paragraph
connector—a rare occurrence in this psalm.
12 The first colon is clear, but the middle word of the line could be placed in
either colon. Does God keep his hand in the fold of his garment instead of laying it
upon his enemies in destruction (cf. Exod 4:6ff; Isa 52:10; Lam 2:8), as most
translations suggest? The LXX and versions misread or emend huqka to mean
your bosom." See also Ezra 8:18, Ps 80:18, and Isa 50:2 in support of "hand" in a
PSALM 74 217
B': Vss. 12-17
Md,q,.mi yKil;ma Myhiloxve 12 Yet, 0 Elohim, you have been my13
:Cr,xAhA br,q,B; tOfUwy; lfePo king from of old; performing deliver-
ances in the middle of the land:
MyA j~z.;fAb; TAr;raOp hTAxa 13 You split14 Yam with your strength;
:Myim.Ah-lfa Myniyni.ta ywexrA TAr;Bawi you shattered the heads of Tanninim
upon the waters.
NtAyAv;li ywexrA TAc;ca.ri hTAxa 14 You15 crushed the heads of Leviathan,
Myyi.cil; MfAl; lkAxEma Un.n,T;Ti and gave them as food to the people
of the desert.
lHanAvA NyAf;ma TAf;qabA hTAxa 15 You cleaved spring and stream; you
:NtAyxe tOrhEna TAw;baOh hTAxa dried up the perennial rivers.16
hlAy;lA j~l;-Jxa MOy j~l; 16 To you belongs the day, yet more to
:wm,wAvA rOxmA tAOnykihE hTAxa you belongs the night; you established
luminary and sun.17
13 The suffix is changed to "our king" in the Syriac, but reflects the commu-
nity's later use of the psalm rather than any textual variant.
14 The translation of porreta is hotly disputed. Some have seen here the division
reading has strongly influenced commentators. Although "divide" is the common
translation, the root means "to cleave/break." The object is yam, a surprising form,
when the poetic use is more often plural, as in the second colon. It is probably a
personification, hence my translation.
15 The emphatic personal pronoun is used seven times to emphasize the subject
of the actions.
16 "Cleaved" is used of the dividing of the Sea in Exod 14:16, Ps 78:13, Isa 63:12,
etc., but whether it is to be used so here is unclear. The context and other parallels
(Ps 89:11; Isa 51:9; Job 27:12-13) suggest rather a hostile action. However, is "spring
and stream" a suitable object? The parallelism of cola suggests a reference to the sea,
perhaps the ocean currents and subterranean channels from which the forces of
chaos rush up, as in Gen 7:11. See H. Gunkel, Genesis (
132. Emerton, "'Spring and Torrent' in Psalm LXXIV.15," VT, Suppl. Volume du
Congres Geneve, 1965, suggests instead that "the whole of Ps. Ixxiv.15 describes the
removal of the primeval waters from the earth. God cleft open springs so that the
water might descend through them."
17 "Luminary" probably refers to moon. God thus establishes his dominion over
both light and dark zones at creation. See Isa 40:26ff.
218 GRAEME E. SHARROCK
Cr,xA tOlUbG;-lKA TAb;ca.hi hTAxa 17 You appointed all the boundaries of
:MTAr;cay; hTAxa Jr,HvA Cyiqa the earth; summer and winter—you
What a transformation of tone! God is now addressed with the
emphatic pronoun; his "deliverances" are recited in an ancient
hymn; the very initial vocative erases the previous tone of com-
plaint—an affirmation of faith in the context of perplexity. The
psalmist wishes to stimulate confidence in Elohim's present ability
to defeat the enemies of the nation.
A subtle but deliberate link between B' and A' is provided by
the word play upon horep, "winter" in vs. 17 and herep, "revile"
in vs. 18.
A': Vss. 18-23
hvAhy; Jr,He byeOx txzo-rkAz; 18 Remember this!19 The enemy has re-
:j~m,w; UcxEni lbAnA Mfav; viled Yahweh; and a foolish people
has spurned your name.20
j~r,OT wp,n, tya.Hal; NTeTi-lxa 19 Do not give the life of your dove to a
:Hcan,lA HKaw;ti-lxa j~yy,.nifE ty.aHa wild animal; Do not forget the soul of
your afflicted ones!
Uxl;mA yKi tyriB;la FBeha 20 Consider your covenant,21 for the dark
:smAHA tOxn; Cr,x,-yKewaHEma places of the land are full of violent
MlAk;ni j`Da bwoyA-lxa 21 Do not let the ashamed sit oppressed!22
:j~m,w; Ull;hay; NOyb;x,v; ynifA Let the afflicted and miserable praise
18 This is a classic chiastic construction in which the very sounds of the words
create an aesthetic balance—a fitting conclusion to the sevenfold paeon. Perhaps the
verse reflects a polemic against the season-based Baal cycle.
19 The initial verb is to be repointed as an imperative, as in vs. 2.
20 This synonymous parallelism forms an inclusio or envelope around the hymn
(B') with the same idea in vs. 10.
21 Dahood redivides the syllables, replacing "covenant" with "temple," but this
seems unnecessary. The real difficulty is with the rest of the verse, where the syntax
is unclear and the metre undefined. I assume that the subordinate clause is designed
to provide a motive for God to "Consider the covenant."
22 The command is either "Do not (let) return" or "do not (let) sit, dwell." The
Syriac seems to be correct in interpreting the practice as part of a mourning ritual.
23 The second colon is parallel to the first, but states the thought positively. The
PSALM 74 219
j~b,yri hbAyri Myhilox< hmAUq 22 Arise, 0 Elohim, and plead your
:MOy.ha-lKA lbAnA-yni.mi j~t;PAr;H, rkoz; case!24 Remember that your insult
comes from the foolish one daily!
j~yr,r;co lOq HKaw;Ti-lxa 23 Do not forget the voice of your adver-
:dymitA hl,fo j~ym,qA NOxw; saries, the uproar25 of your opponents
which arises continually!
The abrupt movement from the hymn of acclamation in B' to
the intense appeal for deliverance in A' is striking. No room
appears to be allowed for denial of the urgent pleas of the psalmist.
The direct entreaty recapitulates the previous appeals and synthe-
sizes the incentives. In the structure it corresponds to A (note the
use of "Remember!" as the initial imperative), but it also in-
corporates thematic threads from B ("Enemy"/"enemies," "roar"/
"uproar") and C ("adversary"/"adversaries," "your name,"
"enemy," "revile"/"scorn," etc.). Elohim's anticipated reaction is a
response to blasphemies of the oppressor, the pleadings of the
oppressed, and the dishonor done to the divine name.
The Role of Structure for the Total Meaning of the Psalm
The third step in describing the structure of the psalm ex-
amines the less obvious but integral movements within the psalm
which further endorse our proposed analysis and suggest an inter-
The general structure outlined above highlights five distinct
but related paragraphs. Each exhibits its own predominant verbal
tense, mood, and sentence type; yet, assisted by the editorial link-
ages, the psalm moves toward a crescendo of intensity.
chiastic construction of the verse demonstrates the anticipated movement from
depression to delight:
Do NOT LET sit . . . ashamed, oppressed;
Do LET praise your name.
24 The verb and noun cognates ribah ribeka have no English equivalent, but the
theme is familiar to OT readers as the legal idiom of the lawsuit. Yahweh's response
is conceived to be shaped by the covenant procedures, hence the appeal in vs. 20.
25 "Uproar" may be compared with "roared" in vs. 4 on onomatopoeic as well
as lexical grounds.
220 GRAEME E. SHARROCK
The chiastic structure of the psalm suggests a mode of inter-
pretation in which the paragraphs may be seen as wholes in
relation to other sections. If we first examine A, C, and A', we
detect a common form of plaintive address that is not shared by B
and B'. Here the main thread of the psalm centers around the
religious, political, and psychological consequences of the work of
the enemy. The direct appeal to Elohim employed here is rare in
the OT; the urgent imperatives are near the edge of the human
capacity of language. The interrogatives of C advance into cries of
desperation in A'. Although A' recapitulates the imperatives of A,
the intensification is obvious.
The two intermediary paragraphs B and B' serve a contrasting
purpose. Each group of six verses is a catalog of actions in the
perfect tense, yet these stand in antithetical relation to each other:
the enemy's acts of destruction are "answered" by Yahweh's de-
liverances. Although the verbs in each paragraph are clearly strong
and active, not one of the actions of the enemy is predicated of
Yahweh, or vice versa. J. P. M. van der Ploeg notices this contrast,
but concludes that it is not certain whether in the psalmist's mind
this was intentional."26 However, the structural opposition of B
and B' forces us to favor deliberate construction.
The hymn of Yahweh's deliverances in B' may then be seen as
a negation of the account of the enemy's work. In so doing, it is
first of all a statement of faith—transcending present religious
bewilderment by recourse to the supra-historical understanding of
God as "King"—which attends the entreaty sections, A, C, and A'.
It is also a sermon (we assume the psalm was composed and
communicated to the community in public prayer) in which the
psalmist seeks to alleviate religious anxieties by recalling traditions
which preceded the existence of the sanctuary. Finally, the hymn as
addressed to God himself urges the Divine One to demonstrate
again his superiority over all evil and mortal sacrilegious forces, to
pitch his creative power in a radical demonstration of antithesis to
the destructive rampages of the enemy.
26 J. P. M. sin der Ploeg, "Psalm 71 and Its Structurce," in Travels in the World
of the Old Testament:. Studies Presented to Professor M. A. Beek on the occasion of
His 65th Birthday (Asses. 1974). p. 209.
PSALM 74 221
With this foregoing overview of the structure in relationship
to the total meaning of the psalm, we are ready to note further the
three themes mentioned earlier—religious rhetoric in times of
national crisis, the self-identity of the community, and concern for
the name of God.
2. Prominent Themes in the Psalm
What I have stated above about B and B' reveals that these
sections serve a distinctly rhetorical purpose, especially as the
hymn in B' simultaneously speaks hope to the worshippers and
elicits help from God. Once the hymn is stated, the psalmist
returns to the present crisis, but is now himself reinforced with a
stronger sense of both the urgency and the possibility of Elohim's
response. His questions are replaced with a holy courage that
relentlessly pushes the psalm to a crescendo—and then a severe
Thus, the placement of paragraphs B and B' serves a clear
rhetorical function in the total address: In the mind of the congre-
gation, Elohim's salvations now displace the destructions of the
enemy; but, recited as a hymn to Elohim, they also appeal to God
to "live up to his name."
Self-Concept of the Community
Our second theme examines the status and self-concept of a
community bereft of their house of worship and ritual apparatus
and oracles—and hence, also of their national and religious con-
fidence. The petition is much more than a mere personal com-
plaint, as the "we" continually indicates. Several figures are used
for the community's self-designation, but the animal imagery—
"sheep" and "dove"—is the most vivid.
In A and A' the movement within this imagery is most
marked. The sheep metaphor is the conventional rural image of the
relation between God and people immortalized in David's Twenty-
third Psalm.27 There the leadership of God is expressed, but here,
27 See also Ezek 34.
222 GRAEME E. SHARROCK
in A (vs. 1) Elohim seems to snort at, rather than succor, the flock.
The counterpart in A' only partly resolves the question. The
people no longer see themselves as a domestic herd resting "in
green pastures ... beside the still waters" under the watchful,
benevolent care of a divine shepherd. Rather, they are the innocent,
defenseless, and pathetic dove about to fall prey to vicious carni-
vores: "Do not give the life of your dove to a wild animal!" The
people, like the bird, are "your" possession as King of creation, as
the one who had power to crush Leviathan (vs. 14) and the Sea
Monster (vs. 13).
In this way, the intervening hymn has transformed the image
of God from shepherd of the domestic flock to Lord of the total
animate creation. The self-designation of the community is like-
wise adjusted. The metaphor is heightened, the appeal made more
The Name of God
Our third theme for interpretation in light of the psalm's
structure is the "name" of God. Far more than mere appellation,
the name is a metonym for the total character, presence, reputation,
and authority of God. As the sanctuary in
acclaimed "dwelling-place of your name" (vs. 7), so the attack
upon it by the invaders was an attack upon the character, credi-
bility, and honor of God
himself. In B,
dwelt" (vs. 2), becomes "the sanctuary ... the dwelling place of
your name" (vs. 7). Here begins the drawing of Elohim's self-
concern. The central section of the plea is explicit in its question-
ing, "Will the enemy deride your name forever?" (vs. 10). The same
theme is taken up immediately after the hymn, "a foolish people
has spurned your name" (vs. 18), suggesting that the hymn is
recited in the ears of Elohim to remind him of his reputation.
Then the final use of the name offers the possibility that, if God
acts in harmony with his past actions and delivers his people, then
even "the afflicted and miserable [will] praise your name" (vs. 21).
In this interpretation, the destructive acts of the enemy in B
provide a negative incentive for Yahweh to act, especially when
linked in C with the direct verbal taunts of the blaspheming
invaders. The positive incentive in reminding Elohim of his repu-
tation in history and creation (B') is linked in A' with the prospect
PSALM 74 223
of praise instead of ridicule and derision. If indeed C is the axis of
the petition, then the primary theme of the psalm is the status of
God's name and reputation. The flanking paragraphs work to
heighten the issue and prompt God to an act of salvation for the
Each of the three themes provides a pattern of development in
which the chiastic structure of the psalm is demonstrated as being
basic. This is particularly so with regard to the thematic opposi-
tion, yet functional co-operation, between B and B', and the
pivotal position of C.
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