SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.28 issue3Psalm 56 read within its literary context in the Psalter and its connections with King DavidNot free while nature remains colonised: A decolonial reading of Isaiah 11:6-9 author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand



Related links

  • On index processCited by Google
  • On index processSimilars in Google


Old Testament Essays

On-line version ISSN 2312-3621
Print version ISSN 1010-9919

Old testam. essays vol.28 n.3 Pretoria  2015 

Suffering as separation: Towards a spatial reading of Psalm 11



Gert T. M. Prinsloo

University of Pretoria





Every human being inevitably experiences illness, loss, failure, and disappointment. When it happens to a perceived-to-be "righteous " person, the problem of theodicy arises, the question whether it is just when deities allow righteous human beings to suffer. The existential crisis caused by severe suffering is a central theme in the Psalter. This study departs from the working hypothesis that suffering can be described in spatial terms and illustrates it with reference to Ps 11. Ultimately suffering implies separation from YHWH and his saving presence at-centre (Ps 11:2-3). In the universe as imagined by the poet there is but one solution: to take refuge in YHWH (11:1) at-centre. That confession, amidst the crumbling of personal security and comfort (11:2-3), draws the eyes of the poet to YHWH in his holy temple and in heaven. In 11:4 the poet's imagined space transports him from שאל. to שמים. There, in the presence of YHWH (11:7), he arrives at-centre, convinced that the wicked will finally be destroyed.




Suffering can be described as "the universal experience of the human race."1Every human being at some stage, inevitably, experiences illness, loss, failure, and disappointment. When it happens to a perceived-to-be "righteous" person, the problem of theodicy arises, the question whether it is just when deities allow righteous human beings to suffer.2 For Walter Brueggemann it is "the ultimate, inescapable problem of the Old Testament" because the HB insists that "God's world is morally coherent and assured by God's rule."3 The assertion "does not square very well with lived reality."4 Hence the theme of the suffering of the righteous is prevalent in the Bible,5 and as far as the HB is concerned,6 prominent in the prophetic literature,7 in Job,8 the Psalms,9 and Lamentations.10 Human beings' reaction to suffering is as universal as the experience of suffering. It "brings disjunction and discordance, and in the existential crisis which follows severe suffering, human beings - both individually and in community - struggle to construct meaning."11 The existential crisis associated with suffering is a central theme in the Psalter.12

In this study I argue that spatial concepts lie at the heart of suffering human beings' struggle to construct meaning. Taking cognisance of a text's spatial dimensions can aid us in understanding the psalmists' struggle to construct meaning in the disjunction and discordance brought about by suffering. I investigate this premise via a spatial reading of Ps 11. I argue that the poem is structured in such a way that the centrally located v. 4 invites us to read "from centre." I will briefly argue that this reading from centre has implications for the interpretation of Pss 3-14 as a psalm group as well.13



The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan emphasised that human beings' sense of place and space is intricately linked to personal experience.14 My presupposition is that the spatial references in the Psalter have been filtered through the experience(s) of their authors/redactors and reflect the real-life experiences of these group(s). Adherents of critical spatiality remind us that space is a three-dimensional concept.15 The French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre argued that ultimately space should be regarded as a social phenomenon.16 It is produced in the interaction between human beings and their environment.17 Space is at the same time a physical, mental and social construct.18 The American geographer Edward W. Soja uses the terms Firstspace, Secondspace and Thirdspace to describe this trialectic of spaces.19 He emphasizes that Thirdspace (or lived space) is "the terrain for the generation of 'counterspaces,' spaces of resistance to the dominant order . . . to lived space as a strategic location from which toencompass, understand, and potentially transform all spaces simultaneously."20

According to Leonard L. Thompson mankind in the HB is presented from two perspectives: "man at-center properly orientated to his world, or man off-center in chaos and disorientation."21 In the book of Psalms one encounters an "I" - a 1st person narrator - using language that "embodies the beliefs of the society in which it arose"22 and describes "typical situations" easily recognisable as "existential situations" that are "experienced by many differentpeople."23In depicting this "I" and his world, "two types of situations recur: either the 'I' is at the center, the desideratum of human existence; or he is off-center, in a state of distress and disequilibrium."24

In the spatial imagination of the authors/redactors of the HB the Jerusalem temple is the centre of their universe.25 It is "the 'place' where the 'I' in distress desires to be."26 At-centre/off-centre can be experienced on two planes.27 Horizontally, the binary pair "far/near" expresses this experience. To be "far" from the temple implies to be off-centre, in distress, far from Yhwh and his saving presence. Vertically, the binary pair "ascend/descend" expresses the same concept. To "descend" implies to be off-centre, to leave the saving presence of Yhwh, to disappear into the depths of Še'ôl.28 Approaching (horizontally) and ascending (vertically) to Jerusalem/Zion at the centre of the universe has real significance in the cosmic imagination of the authors/redactors of the HB. The cosmic centre symbolises order, structure, salvation, and life. The outer limits, whether horizontally (the waters of chaos) or vertically (the depths of Se'ôl) symbolise chaos, disorientation, persecution, and death.29 To be at-centre implies to be in the presence of Yhwh, to live in harmony with Yhwh and the covenantal community, to experience , indeed, to be in heaven.30

In the "world of words produced by the text" the poets of the Psalms provide readers with a "point of view/focus/spatial perspective" which reveals their "ideological stance."31 Simply stated that ideological stance can be summarised as the belief in Yhwh, the Creator-King, as "the universal God of heaven" who "determines whether one is off- or at-center."32 The "root-metaphor" of Yhwh as Creator-King allows the poets to imagine a new reality, a 'counterspace' as space of resistance to a "real" world where they were confronted by suffering and oppression.33 Metaphors are intrinsically related to the world of words produced by the text as we "use metaphors all the time in order to say something about things we know little about."34 Metaphors allow us to "use the conventional wisdom associated with one context to serve as the screen or grid through which we see the other context," hence "metaphor belongs more in the realm of faith and hope than in the realm of knowledge."35Through the grid of the "Yhwh as Creator-King" metaphor the poets of the Psalms could imagine the temple in Jerusalem as the centre of their universe, the meeting point between heaven and earth, the place where one can truly be at-centre. They invite us to read "from centre" and expect us by doing so to arrive "at centre."36

Suffering in the Psalter is described in spatial terms. Causes of suffering can be enumerated,37 but ultimately it implies separation from Yhwh and his saving presence at-centre. The vertical and horizontal symbolism with Jerusalem/Zion as the centre of the universe "refers to an existential perspective rather than a geographical location,"38 to a lived experience "imagined" by the poet rather than a "physical" place or "abstract" space. Poems create a world of words that is related to the "real" world, but not identical to it. Bernd Janowski used the metaphor of a house to indicate that the Book of Psalms in the end can be regarded as a house or temple "nicht aus Steinen, sondern aus Worten (templum spirituelle), mit dem Proömium Ps 1-2 als weitem 'Eingangsportal' . . . und mit dem Schlußhallel Ps 146-150 als klangvollen 'Schlussstein.'"39

For a number of reasons Ps 11 is an excellent case study of the spatial ideology of the Psalter in general and Pss 3-14 as the first deliberate collection of poems in the Book of Psalms in particular. First, it contains spatial terminology on both the horizontal and vertical levels.40 Second, the poem oscillates between movement between spaces and quiet confidence in space.41 Third, the binary pair "off-centre/at-centre" is present in several verses.42 Fourth, the poem is not a lament where "separation" terminology is to be expected, but a confession of faith (11:1). I will argue that a spatial reading provides a key to unravel also this poem's interpretational challenges.43 Fifth, the psalm illustrates the direct spatial link between Jerusalem/Zion/temple on the one hand and Yhwh's kingship on the other hand (11:4).44 Psalm 11:4 occurs at the centre of the poem and invites us to read "from centre" in a reality where "the foundations" are being destroyed (11:3) and suffering is never far from the poet's mind (11:2).



Psalm 11 is a "marginal" poem that received little attention in the history of Psalms research.45 Compared to the lingering beauty of Pss 8, 19 or 23 it seems to be "just another psalm, rather conventional and in no way outstanding in thought, form or literary merit."46 Psalm 11 confronts exegetes with difficult textual and interpretational problems.47 Text critical problems in vss. lc and 6a gave rise to imaginative reconstructions of the text.48 Interpretational problems abound. In lb a group of people advise the poet to flee. He quotes them in Id, but it is the quote restricted to Id or does it run through to 2c or to 3b?49 Is the quoted advice given by friends or enemies?50 What is the meaning of the rare noun "the foundations" in 3a? Does in 3a and 5a refer to Yhwh or a righteous person?51 The poem is classified as a prayer of confidence or trust,52but its Sitz im Leben is difficult to determine. Under what circumstances do the first person speaker who associates himself with the "righteous" (3b; 5a) and the "upright at heart" (2a; 7b) utter the poem?53

In this study I argue that the centrality of the related concepts temple/heaven that permeate the Psalter lies at the heart of the poem (cf. 11:4).54Separation from this centre, whether real or imagined, implies suffering. A reading from this centre (11:4) elucidates the contrast between the poem's beginning (11:1-3) and end (11:5-7). The poet's imagined proximity to Yhwh in his temple and thus in heaven determines his ability to imagine a new reality, a "counterspace" as space of resistance to a "real" world where he is confronted by suffering.

2 Psalm 11: Text and Translation





3 Psalm 11: Textual and Exegetical Notes

A number of cola in the text and translation represented above need elucidation. I discuss textual and interpretational problems of those cola before I turn to a holistic interpretation and spatial reading of the poem.

1b With Yhwh I took refuge

qal "to take refuge" occurs 42 times in the HB, 25 times in the Psalter.55Jerome F. D. Creach argues that the high frequency of occurrences of the word and related terms in the Psalter indicates "that the Psalter contains a 'refuge piety,' in which dependence upon Yahweh is the supreme virtue."56 Refuge can be taken with people (Judg 9:15; Isa 30:2; Prov 14:32), but especially with Yhwh. The verb is used in conjunction with the metaphor of Yhwh as rock ( Deut 32:37; 2 Sam 22:3; Ps 18:3), shield (; 2 Sam 22:31; Ps 18:3; Prov 30:5), stronghold (; Nah 1:7; Ps 144:2). One can take refuge under Yhwh's "wings" (; Ruth 2:12; Ps 36:8; 57:2; 61:5; 91:4) or at his "right hand" (Ps 17:6). "Zion" (; Isa 14:32), "my holy mountain" ; Isa 57:13) and "the name of Yhwh" (; Zeph 3:12) are locations where refuge can be found. Most often the psalmist simply states that he takes refuge in Yhwh (2:12; 5:12; 7:2; 11:1; 16:1; 25:20; 31:2, 20; 34:9, 23; 37:40; 57:2; 64:11; 71:1; 118:8, 9; 141:8). In Ps 11 refuge is to be found in the temple (11:4ab). Creach argues that "communicates an attempt to acquire shelter, and thus, was perhaps best suited to express the security provided by the temple."57

1d "Flee your mountain, little bird!"

A Ketîb-Qerê' variant occurs with the verb "to sway, be aimless, be homeless" (, i.e. qal impv. 2 masc. pl.; , i.e. qal impv. 2 fem. sg.). There is a discrepancy in person, gender and number between the 2 masc. pi. suffix ( "your mountain") and the fem. sg. noun TISS "bird." The Septuagint translates μεταναστεύουέπιταορηώςστρουθίον "you (masc. sg.) must flee to the mountain like a bird." Many commentators emend the Hebrew to read