by Skip Moen, D. Phil.
The Lord sustains all who fall and raises up all who are bowed down. Psalm 145:14 NASB
All – Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see this happening in my world. I don’t see YHVH sustaining those who fall and raising up those who are bowed down. I see chaos, agony, oppression and abuse, both personally and socially. I see the good ones taken advantage of and the bad ones prospering, or at least getting away with it. Even my personal experience challenges David declaration. When I fall, I fall. When I am discouraged, downhearted, rejected, no one arrives with good news for me. Maybe David is only providing a wish, not a statement about reality. Maybe he is one of those “friends” who tells you, “Things will be better in the morning,” when you are certain that they will notbe better.
Or maybe the translation is wrong.
First we should notice the group David has in mind: kol, a Hebrew word occurring 5400 times in the Tanakh usually in relation to the following noun, but in this case, in the absolute form (by itself). David certainly has everyonein mind. No exceptions. He isn’t writing about the righteous or the holy ones or those who deserve comfort. He’s writing about every single person on earth who fits the description, hanoplim ve-hakpupim.
But that’s the key to understanding David’s apparently outrageous claim. The two verbs, naphal (to cast down, to fall, to fail) and kaphaph (to bend, to submit oneself [Niphal]) are both participles. It isn’t those who “fall” or those who “are bowed down.” It is those who are falling and those who are being bowed down. David isn’t claiming that God rescues all who are at the bottom. He is claiming that God sustains and raises up those who are on their way to the bottom. That helps a bit, but even this doesn’t seem to correspond to reality. We have to take a look at the other verbs, the ones that describe God’s behavior.
The first is samak (to lean upon, to uphold, to support). “Sustains” isn’t the way I would translate this verb. “Sustains” implies maintaining some condition, as in “proper oxegen sustains fuel burn rates.” With that in mind, David could be saying that God keeps the ones who are falling in their state of falling. He sustains them. The verb, however, seems to me to imply that God alters their condition, that He upholds them. In other words, He changes their direction by offering His shoulder to lean on. If we are falling, God is able to turn us around by providing the support we need in our tumbling condition. It’s particularly important that this verb is the one used for “laying on of hands” in the sacrificial ritual. Something intangible is transferred from the person to the animal. The person “leans upon” the animal to remove his condition of defilement. Samak is the verb that describes what God does when we lean on Him. It is also a participle. He is changing our altitude.
Maybe the reason I thought David’s statements were so out of touch with observable reality is because I thought David was saying God’s action was already done. But now I see that David is saying that God is actively engaged in doing something, not that it is finished. He is changing the altitude of all who are falling. Even Paul says the same. We have all (kol) come short of the glory of God. We are all sinners and all sinners deserve death, but God is doing something about that. He is changing our direction.
The second verb is zaqaph. This verb is used only twice in Scripture (the other occurrence is Psalm 146:8). With such a limited range to examine for context, Gesenius suggests that it means “to raise” (literally) and “to comfort” (figuratively). Robert Alter suggests, “all who are bent stand erect.” But how do we know the meaning? TWOT makes no entry at all. We are left to fill in the meaning from the context.
David is writing Hebrew poetry. That means he is employing parallelism. The first idea is repeated in the second idea. So what God is actively doing to provide support for those who are falling is reflected in the second thought. God’s action in the first phrase is explained a second time in the second phrase. “Raising up” is the same as “offering support.” In this case, zaqaph is a synonym of samak. Are you being bowed down? The verb implies distress, submission and subjugation. There’s plenty of that going around. The action of being forced to bow down, whether from external authority or internal humiliation, is like falling. Once initiated, there’s no stopping until the end. Except that God is doing something about this, even while we are falling and being bowed down. We might not see what He is doing now, because right now we are still falling and we are still being bent, but David isn’t saying that God instantly and miraculously intervenes. He is claiming that God is in the processof offering support and comfort. Wait and see.
I feel better about David’s words. I feel better because I didn’t stop with the English and reject them as unconscionable silver-lining wishes. I feel better because God is doing something about my falling and my bending. And someday I will see the results.
Topical Index: all, kol, sustain, samak, raise up, zaqaph, Psalm 145:14
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