Before we continue with David’s history in ספר שמואל, I want to look at two פרקים of תהילים that look at his state of mind. This seems like a good point to do so, since I need more time to learn שמואל, and we are at one of the nadirs of David’s life. He has just been finally and absolutely exiled from the royal court; all his potential, the anointing by Samuel, all is lost.
As we said before, למנצח implies teleology, a look at the ultimate reasons for the happenings in this world. לדוד at the end of the כותבת implies the רוח הקודש inspired him after the perek itself was written, that the perek was written under stress and later became part of כתבי הקודש. But what does עבד ה׳ mean?
It appears in the כותבת of one other perek, יח, which is שירת דוד. There, the מדרש שוחר טוב connects it to David’s תשובה:
We will have to see how this fits in with our perek
The text of the perek itself grabs you with the first line; נאם פשע לרשע בקרב לבי. The Koren translation is “Transgression speaks to the wicked within his heart”, taking the final י of לבי as a poetic syllable, like (תהילים קיג:-ט) להושיבי עם נדיבים…מושיבי עקרת הבית. The JPS 1917 translation, based on the King James which follows רש״י, is “methinks”, taking בקרב לבי as an independent phrase meaning “I know in my heart”. But this doesn’t convey the personal nature of the rest of the perek. I would translate like the מלבי״ם, ”Sin proclaims to the רשע in my heart“; this perek reflects David’s experience of what we call the יצר הרע.
This is David hearing the voice of sin in his own heart. As Hirsch explains, נאם doesn’t just mean “say”; is is the voice of prophecy: נאם ה׳, ”Thus saith the L-rd“. The יצר הרע is described as החליק, literally “smooth-talking”. מלבי״ם takes the second half of פסוק ג as a rhetorical question, “Who will see your sin, to hate it?” I might take it as an example of the tools of the יצר הרע: making us feel too guilty to have hope of repentance. "to point out his sin, to make him hate [himself]. As Rabbi Eisemann says:
There is no point to being good; חדל להשכיל להיטיב; להשכיל we explained means “using common sense”, “practical intelligence”. It (the יצר הרע, the personification of my thoughts) is always thinking of sin, when I’m lying down, when I’m walking along, in a painful irony to the שמע, ודברת בם בשבתך בביתך ובלכתך בדרך ובשכבך ובקומך.
Then the tone of the perek changes completely, speaking of ה׳'s חסד. Many תהילים are like that; they seem to be two independent but complementary poems that are tied together thematically at the end; compare תהילים קמח: הללו את ה׳ מן השמים for the first 6 psukim and הללו את ה׳ מן הארץ for the next 7. This structure acts as a the equivalent of musical counterpoint. The two halves are meant not to be heard simultaneously (that would be impossible) but to be thought about simultaneously. In our perek, one can imagine the stereotypical angel on one shoulder and devil on the other, pushing David in opposite directions.
Often, the split between the two halves of such a perek uses a three-part parallelism rather than the usual two parts, as in our perek: (1) און יחשב על משכבו (2) יתיצב על דרך לא טוב (3) רע לא ימאס. One might imagine that there is some musical significance to that, though we do not know how תהילים were actually sung.
The positive side of the perek addresses ה׳ in the second person; David sees the speaker as more really “himself” as opposed to the voice of פשע. The מלבי״ם looks at the significance of the terms used in the parallelism: השמים refers to the sky of physical world and שחקים (as in (דברים לג:כו) וּבְגַאֲוָתוֹ שְׁחָקִים) refers to the spiritual Heavens. פשע claims that ה׳‘s חסד is only in שחקים, it can never affect the world we live in. That is ruled by the laws of nature; what we call ה׳’s אמונה. But the truth the the opposite; reward and punishment (as symbolized throughout תנ״ך by the rain from שמים) do manifest in this world.
But they manifest in two different ways; The מלבי״ם interprets ה׳‘s צדקה as the נסים גלוים, obvious as the mighty mountains but few and far between. Most of ה׳’s providence is as משפט, the נסים נסתרים that are hidden but are actually deeper than the mountains are high. The reason for this is אדם ובהמה תושיע ה׳: the world exists for the ultimate good of mankind, who is an amalgam of the physical (בהמה) and the spiritual (אדם). In order to allow the אדם to have free will, reward and punishment cannot be immediate and inevitable. Man can therefore make moral choices, giving פשע to claim אין פחד אלקים.
But there is a point to doing מצוות; there will be a point where בצל כנפיך יחסיון (written in the future tense).
David then makes his choice in the third part of the perek, which brings the first two themes together, and here I will use the interpretation of Hirsch. David will go with ידעיך even though he knows that he can only ask that His חסד be granted with the term משך, which indicated a drawn-out process. He prays that he is not pulled on the path of גאוה and that the actions of the רשעים not sway him. שם they will fall; the “there” there is the success and power of the רשעים that will actually be their downfall. Hirsch adduces (דברים ז:י) ומשלם לשנאיו אל פניו להאבידו; לא יאחר לשנאו אל פניו ישלם לו. As we have said before, the message of תהילים is that David is willing to accept the צדיק ורע לו since he knows גם זו לטובה.
We see a similar structure, of two complementary themes in one perek that are finally brought together at the end, in a perek that we say over a hundred times a year. (This analysis is mostly from Rabbi Yitchak Etshalom.)
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
This is a לדוד: as close to נבואה as we get in תהילים. In fact, it seems to be two independent תהילים; verses 1-6 are a celebration of David’s victories and 7-13 are a plea for help. David starts addressing his audience/reader (ה׳ is in the third person) saying how close ה׳ is: from a visible אור to a ישועה at his side to his very מעוז חיים within him. So he has nothing to fear, not from מרעים who wish him ill, not from צרים who oppress him, not from איבים who fight against him. His confidence is always building up; he will not be afraid of a מחנה or even a מלחמה.
This confidence allows him to pursue his one desire, to build the בית המקדש, and that also builds up in three phrases: לשבת, to just sit there; לחזות, to see it; and לבקר, which I think is best translated as “investigate”, as in (ויקרא יט:כ) בקרת תהיה.
As an aside, the meaning of לבקר in Mishnaic (and modern) Hebrew, “to visit” is not, as far as I can tell, found in תנ״ך. But there’s a lovely דרש from the Ponovicher Rav using it: David wants to be in the בית המקדש every day, but not get jaded. He wants to retain that feeling of being a first-time visitor.
And the reason that he can concentrate on his religious goals is that ה׳ is protecting him, sheltering him in His סכה. So now that ה׳ has raised him over all his enemies, he can spend his time offering sacrifices and singing ה׳'s praises.
This connection between victory and the building of the בית המקדש is not coincidental. It is an absolute prerequisite:
And we will later see how important this law is in the life of David.
Ain’t No Valley Low Enough
The tone of the perek abruptly changes. Most notably, David now addresses ה׳ directly, in the second person. He is turning his back on his audience. And his address to ה׳ is now a prayer that ה׳ pay attention to him. The triumphant victory of the first half is gone. The three-fold intensification is now שמע ה׳ קולי—חנני—ענני.
It’s unclear what לך אמר לבי בקשו פני means; JPS 1917 translates לך as “For You”; “on Your behalf, my heart says, ‘seek My face’”. I would take it literally, "to You my heart says, ‘seek my (David’s) face’; David is asking that ה׳ look for him, even as he looks for ה׳.
The irony of the next line makes it more powerful; in the first half סתר is a sign of ה׳'s providence, now it is a sign of His indifference. Before, ה׳ is ישעי and David is not afraid, now that same אלקי ישעי is being begged not to abandon him.
The next pasuk, כי אבי ואמי עזבוני וה׳ יאספני, is in the third person again. I think it is a aside to the audience, a stage whisper that they should not give up hope. Even if my family abandons me, ה׳ will not.
The next psukim repeat the prayer, then the aside, as an aposiopesis: “Listen, audience. It may sound bad, but if I hadn’t had faith that G-d would be good to me, even in this world…”
There is more irony in the contrast between the first part, when David proclaims that all he wants is to sit in the house of the L-rd. Now all he can ask for is to be placed on the right path; achieving a goal is beyond his imagination.
To Keep Me From Getting To You
The final line ties the two parts together. Whether one is celebrating victory or staring into the jaws of defeat (note the repetition), קוה אל ה׳, anticipate ה׳'s providence. In good times, it’s easy to forget ה׳, and in bad times it’s easy to despair that ה׳ even cares. Either way, חזק ויאמץ לבך, be strong enough to hold on to that truth.