Introduction: This comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [To see the full Mechon Mamre text, please click here.]
Psalm 68 is quite long at 36 verses. It is attributed to David and can be divided into 2 major themes. It begins with prayers against G-d’s enemies and in favour of Israel. The 2nd theme encapsulates many sub-parts, including poetically alluding to the Israelite journey from Egypt, through the wilderness to Mt Sinai, and then into the Land of Canaan. Overall, it expresses ‘the triumphant march of G-d through the past history of Israel’ and the hope that in future all humanity will recognise the Almighty’s authority over the earth.
Following Chapter 67 which had a Messianic focus, this Psalm too lends its interpretation to the same. Commentators disagree on when it was written but the dominant view is that King David wrote this to mark the occasion when the Ark was moved from the house of Obed-edom into a more permanent tent dwelling in Zion/Shiloh.
Metaphorically, some see this Psalm standing … ‘as a monument to the invincible faith and inextinguishable hopes of Israel, and as a prophecy of spiritual glories in part realised, in part to come.’ (The Psalms, A. Cohen p. 209)
The introductory verse echoes the prayer recited in most Ashkenaz synagogues when the ark is opened and the Torah is taken out to be read. It proclaims that the enemies of G-d should be scattered. And when the righteous perceive the equity of G-d’s dominion, they will rejoice.
יָקוּם אֱ-לֹהִים, יָפוּצוּ אוֹיְבָיו; וְיָנוּסוּ מְשַׂנְאָיו, מִפָּנָיו. Let G-d arise and scatter our enemies; let them that hate flee before [G-d]. (Psalms 68:2)
שִׁירוּ, לֵא-לֹהִים- זַמְּרוּ שְׁמוֹ: סֹלּוּ, לָרֹכֵב בָּעֲרָבוֹת– בְּיָ-הּ שְׁמוֹ; וְעִלְזוּ לְפָנָיו. Sing unto G-d, sing praises; extol [G-d] who rides upon the skies, whose name is the LORD; be exalted. (Psalms 68:5)
This next section alludes to Israel’s experience receiving the Torah at Mt Sinai and during the conquest over Canaan. David also seems to make a veiled reference to Jerusalem, ‘the mountain which G-d desired’.
אֶרֶץ רָעָשָׁה, אַף-שָׁמַיִם נָטְפוּ– מִפְּנֵי אֱ-לֹהִים: זֶה סִינַי– מִפְּנֵי אֱ-לֹהִים, אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. The earth trembled, the heavens also dropped at the presence of G-d; even Sinai trembled at the presence of G-d, the G-d of Israel. (Psalms 68:9)
מַלְכֵי צְבָאוֹת, יִדֹּדוּן יִדֹּדוּן; וּנְוַת-בַּיִת, תְּחַלֵּק שָׁלָל. Kings of armies flee, they flee; and she that tarries at home divides the spoil. (Psalms 68:13)
לָמָּה, תְּרַצְּדוּן– הָרִים גַּבְנֻנִּים: הָהָר–חָמַד אֱ-לֹהִים לְשִׁבְתּוֹ; אַף-יְ-הוָה, יִשְׁכֹּן לָנֶצַח. Why look askance, you mountains of peaks, at the mountain which G-d desired for an abode? Yes, the LORD will dwell therein for ever. (Psalms 68:17)
This final section reflects that events of the past formed a vision for the present and future. It suggests the world’s powerful nations would come in solemn procession to the Mishkan, giving thanks and paying tribute to the Divine Presence. It reassures Israel that G-d is in their midst and will perform miracles that inspire awe and reverence throughout the Earth.
בָּרוּךְ אֲ-דֹנָי, יוֹם יוֹם: יַעֲמָס-לָנוּ–הָאֵ-ל יְשׁוּעָתֵנוּ סֶלָה. Blessed be the Lord, day by day who bears our burden; G-d who is our salvation. Selah (Psalms 68:20)
בְּמַקְהֵלוֹת, בָּרְכוּ אֱ-לֹהִים; אֲ-דֹנָי, מִמְּקוֹר יִשְׂרָאֵל. Bless G-d in full assembly; the Lord, from the fountain of Israel. (Psalms 68:27)
יֶאֱתָיוּ חַשְׁמַנִּים, מִנִּי מִצְרָיִם; כּוּשׁ תָּרִיץ יָדָיו, לֵא-לֹהִים. Nobles shall come from Egypt; Ethiopia will hurry to stretch out her hands to G-d. (Psalms 68:32)
תְּנוּ עֹז, לֵא-לֹהִים: עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל גַּאֲוָתוֹ; וְעֻזּוֹ, בַּשְּׁחָקִים. Ascribe strength to G-d whose majesty is over Israel and whose strength is in the skies. (Psalms 68:35)
נוֹרָא אֱ-לֹהִים, מִמִּקְדָּשֶׁיךָ: אֵ-ל יִשְׂרָאֵל– הוּא נֹתֵן עֹז וְתַעֲצֻמוֹת לָעָם; בָּרוּךְ אֱ-לֹהִים. Awesome is G-d from Your holy places; the G-d of Israel who gives strength and power to the people; blessed be G-d. (Psalms 68:36)
In the prayer liturgy of the Spanish & Portuguese community and others, this Psalm is sung on Shavuoth eve. Some individual verses are found in other parts of our liturgy, including Verse 20 in U’Ba LeTsion and Verses 35-36 in Pisukei DeZimra.
The Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975), who claimed descent from the Solomonic Dynasty, used the latter half of verse 32 in his Coat of Arms and as Ethiopia’s national motto.
CIVIL WAR IN SYRIA – 6 YEARS: Even though in the Talmud there’s a statement ‘Mi Shenikhnas Adar Marbim BeSimha‘ (when Adar arrives, Joy increases), it would be inappropriate to omit commenting on the latest horrifying escalation of violence in Syria. Now in its 6th year of civil war, the government of Bashar al-Assad which is fighting against ISIS-affiliated terrorists and its own citizens, this week began bombardment of a civilian neighbourhood in Damascus putting nearly 350,000 lives at risk. There’s worldwide condemnation and moral outrage. Let’s hope it will put a stop to the killings.
REMEMBER BAGHDAD – THANKS: Next, we offer sincere thanks to David Dangoor, Edwin Shuker and Dartmouth Films for enabling us to screen the film Remember Baghdad in Borehamwood this past Monday. Those who attended were emotionally moved by the sense of loss the film depicted. All the more reason to admire Edwin’s efforts to reclaim for his children and grandchildren (and all of us) a connection to their former home.