A peek at some (exegetically significant) discourse features in Ps 103


Psalm 103 is a beautiful piece that I always come back to when my thoughts wonder to God's graciousness in light of our missteps, intentional or not. Lately, I am particularly drawn to vss. 9–13.

9 He does not always accuse, and does not stay angry.

10 He does not deal with us as our sins deserve; he does not repay us as our misdeeds deserve.

11 For as the skies are high above the earth, so his loyal love towers over his faithful followers.

12 As far as the eastern horizon is from the west, so he removes the guilt of our rebellious actions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on his faithful followers. (NET)

After the descriptive motif of vs. 8 is given, four parallel declarations are made that flesh out precisely how God is רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חָסֶד. Peculiar to these four assertions is the placement of a constituent between the verb and negative particle לֹא (see below). While it's not unusual for a constituent to be preposed before the verb, it is definitely more unusual whenever the verb is negated, since typically (as far as I've seen) the verb and negator are stuck together like glue.

 לֹא־לָנֶצַח יָרִיב וְלֹא לְעוֹלָם יִטּוֹר

 לֹא כַחֲטָאֵינוּ עָשָׂה לָנוּ וְלֹא כַעֲוֹנֹתֵינוּ גָּמַל עָלֵינוּ

So what's the effect of this? Well I'm glad you asked—it's something I'm wondering too! My gut instincts tell me that לֹא is negating the entire clause, and not just the immediately proceeding fronted constituent (which is sometimes the case, e.g. Gen 45.8; BHRG 44.2.1[ii]). If this is the case, we still must account for whatever effect is called forth because of the fronted constituents. And the most likely reading is that the positioning of these constituents amounts to them being marked as the focus of the utterance—specifically with the effect that the extent of the duration of God's anger is confirmed in vs. 9 and the nature of God's behavior towards us is confirmed in vs. 10 (cf. BHRG 44.2.3).

Through this arrangement of word order, the psalmist is able to indicate that "forever" and "according to our sin" are the parts of these utterances that "cannot be taken for granted at the time of speech" (Lambrecht 1996:207). They are the meaningful components that "make[s this] utterance into an assertion" (ibid.). In other words, they are the 'focus' of the proposition.

Following these four assertions in vss. 9–10 is a triple-peat simile, all marked by the particle כְּ, that sustains this lengthened reinforcement of the preceding argument. The strengthening nature of these attributions is made explicit by the particle כִּי, which although only stands before the sentence of vs. 11, carries through vs. 13. So, the poet cries, "It's not forever, it's not forever! There's no karma, none at all!!"—and goes on to prove this by rattling off a number of immeasurable comparisons.

Surely the height of the skies cannot be measured, yet God's חסד challenges this expanse. Surely the distance from sunrise to sunset, as far as one can see, cannot be measured, yet it is this far that our sins are separated from us. And surely a father's love for his children cannot be measured in mere words, yet God's love for us rivals this fatherly compassion (רחום). Tackling both the vertical and horizontal field, as well as the depths of a deep relationship, the psalmist makes his case for his comments in vss. 9 and 10.

‏כִּי כִגְבֹהַּ שָׁמַיִם עַל־הָאָרֶץ גָּבַר חַסְדּוֹ עַל־יְרֵאָיו׃

 כִּרְחֹק מִזְרָח מִמַּעֲרָב הִרְחִיק מִמֶּנּוּ אֶת־פְּשָׁעֵינוּ׃

 כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל־בָּנִים רִחַם יְהוָה עַל־יְרֵאָיו׃

Notedly, in the Hebrew text, there is consistently one element of this comparative triad that stands out against the rest. Normally in a simile, the concrete reference comes before the thing it is compared to (e.g. he stayed awake through the night, just like a bat). But in these utterances, we have the reverse.

NOT: God has compassion on his faithful ones, just like a father has compassion on his children

BUT: Just like a father has compassion on his children, so too does God have compassion on his faithful ones

The effect of this fronting is not to mark the initial utterance as most important, but to establish this comparative frame of reference in the minds of the reader. Once the picture has been painted, the event which inspired the painting can be revealed. And certainly in a string of comparative frames the poet does not want to lose the reader in the images that he casts; so he establishes them initially, and then drives home his main point, leaving the hearer—not with an image to reflect upon—but a reality to accept.

I hope some of these insights from a discourse perspective can help you appreciate some of what linguistics can bring to the table when study a text in the original languages. If you got any questions, feel free to ask. I'm learning too!