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Psalm 33 - A Verse-by-Verse Analysis (Yahweh controls the world in two principle ways...)

Tehillim תְהִלִּים (Praises)

Psalm (Tehillah) 33

This information is compiled predominantly from an anthology of Orthodox Jewish commentary, written and arranged by Rabbi Avroham Chaim Feuer from the Artscroll Tanach Series Tehillim Volume 1. Some of the original text has been modified and expanded to include reference to Yahshua HaMoshiach. This and other additional material has been added for a Nazarene Israelite (Natsarim) perspective by Jason Jordan. Additional Tehillim translation by Rabbi Hillel Danziger.


The Sage Malbim introduces this psalm by saying that Elohim controls the world in two ways. 1) Through the laws of nature which are pre-ordained and unchanging; 2) through Hashgachah, His personal supervision and intervention. The manner of Hashgachah changes constantly, for it is totally dependant on the deeds of man, for better or for worse.

The laws of nature serve to conceal the true supervision of the Creator. One who perceives only this external cloak, sees an arbitrary, capricious world without justice or mercy. The challenge of mankind is to penetrate the mist and see the internal order dictated with precision by the Almighty.

All who truly seek this revelation will be elevated. The wicked will become good and the good will become better. They will all rejoice with musical instruments, because the symmetry and coordination of all the forces in the universe resemble the harmony and precision of superbly tuned instruments playing a well orchestrated symphony.

Psalm 33

1. “Sing joyfully, O righteous, because of YHWH; for the upright, praise is fitting.”

“Sing joyfully…” Let your voices be heard! (Ibn Ezra)

Hirsch notes that this phrase can also express sadness as in ‘Arise, cry out at night’ (Lamentations 2:19). Generally, this implies the articulation of powerful emotions and thoughts evoked by some external stimulus. Therefore this denotes a form of bursting forth of emotions.

“…O righteous…” Malbim explains: the upright, straight, man is on a higher level than the righteous man, because in his mind Elohim’s control over the universe is straight, i.e., plain and obvious. Consequently, he sees his own path in life clearly, i.e., to follow in Elohim’s ways. Therefore the upright one, never deviates. However, the righteous one has not yet attained that level of stability. In his mind there still exist doubts to be resolved. In his heart, conflicting emotions and desires are still at war. Nevertheless, to his great credit, he disciplines himself rigidly and so his external deeds are in complete conformity with the divine dictates.

“…because of YHWH…” Because of the words of [the Torah] (Targum). Let only YHWH be your joy and praise, nothing else (Radak).

“…praise is fitting.” Praise is appropriate for them because they neither pursue nor glorify mundane, material things (Radak).

2. “Thank YHWH with the Kinor, with the Neivel Ossor sing to Him.”

“…with the Kinor…” [Although there are many opinions concerning the exact translation of ‘Kinor’ most commentaries agree that it is a type of harp.]

The Psalmist refers to the use of instruments in praising Elohim because music arouses the inner spirit of the intellect and enhances its faculties (Radak).

Shiltei Hagibborim (Chapter 9) cites Berachos 3b: A ‘Kinor’ was suspended over David’s bed. At midnight the north wind would blow through its strings and it would play by itself. “At midnight I will rise and give thanks to you” (Psalm 119:62).

"Rabbi Shim'on Hasida said: 'David hung his harp above his bed and when midnight would arrive the north wind would blow upon the harp (vibrating the strings) and causing music to emanate. David would immediately rise and begin studying Torah. He would continue his studies even as the first light of dawn appeared in the sky.'" (Talmud Tractate Berachot 3:b)

The only known instrument whose strings can be strummed by the wind is a harp. The author goes onto say that the name ‘Kinor’ is derived from the Hebrew word for straight (see 1 Kings 7:31), because the harp strings are positioned with great precision. Its name also carries the meaning base (Exodus 38:8), referring to the wide base of the harp which provides stability for this heavy instrument. Kinor also symbolizes the soul because its Hebrew letters can be rearranged to form the Four-Letter Name and the word ‘flame.’ As Proverbs 20:27 says “A flame of YHWH is the soul of man.”

Harps have many uses within Scripture. They include:

(1) To assist with prophecy

(1 Samuel 10:5, 1 Chronicles 25:3, Isaiah 23:16)
(2) Confusing and driving away Evil Spirits

(1 Samuel 16, 16-23)
(3) To accompany the singing of Elohim’s praises

(Psalm 33:1, Psalm 147:17, Isaiah 98:5)
(4) To praise Elohim

(Psalm 43:4)
(5) Narrating wisdom through proverbs and mysteries
(Psalm 49:4)
(6) For a sweet sound

(Isaiah 81:2)
(7) For declaring Elohim’s work by loving kindness and faithfulness

(Psalm 92)
(8) To raise sounds of joy

(Chronicles 15:16)
(9) For victory

(Revelations 15, 2-4)

Evoke a manifestation of the Holy Spirit

(2 Kings 3:15-18)

“…with the Neivel Ossor sing to Him.” Rashi comments that neivel and ossor are both descriptive names for the same instrument, i.e., a neivel-instrument which produces ten different tones. Targum describes it as having ten strings. Rabbi Moshe quoted by Ibn Ezra says it was a wind instrument with ten holes.

However, Ibn Ezra himself holds that the neivel and the ossor are two separate instruments, the proof being, “On the Ossor and on the Neivel’ (Psalm 92:4). Elsewhere, Ibn Ezra agrees that although the neivel and ossor are not identical, still the neivel also had ten holes.

The Talmud (Arachin 13b) says that the harp, of the Temple had seven strings, in the Messianic times it will have eight, and in the World to Come, ten. It derives the last fact from our verse and explains it thus: ‘That which is now a seven-stringed kinor will then become a ten-stringed ossor, of a beauty rivaling that of the hitherto unsurpassed neivel.

Rashi says that the neivel derives from a leather wine bag (filled with air and squeezed to produce sound).

3. “Sing Him a new song, play well with sounds of deepest feeling.”

“Sing Him a new song…” Continue to compose new songs of praise at all times (Radak).

Rashi (Arachin 13b) quotes the Midrash notes that throughout Scripture the Hebrew word for song is in the feminine form, for in this world of misery, after every song of joy, a painful birthing process begins, just as a female gives birth to one child after another. But in the World to Come the word for song is in the masculine form because this will be the final song after which no more misfortunes will be birthed.

“…play well with sounds of deepest feeling.” The Hebrew word for sound is teruah[1] and here it implies short sounds similar to the anguished sighs of tearful whimpers of people who cannot catch their breath (Rosh Hoshanah 26b). The Midrash tells us that it symbolizes the person broken of affliction and pain as in, ‘You have smashed them with a rod of iron (22:9).

In this world it is difficult to sing joyfully over shattered affliction, but in the future, when the divine plan of history will be revealed, men will see the purpose of even the worst pains and they will make happy music (i.e, a new song) to Elohim even out of the teruah blast.

Revelation 5:9; “And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for Elohim with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

4. “For upright is the word of YHWH, and His every deed is done with trust.”

“For upright is the word of YHWH…” Elohim’s decrees are all upright and just, therefore, the righteous rejoice over His every deed, for better or for worse (Radak).

“…and His every deed is done with trust.” This refers to the natural forces which Elohim set up to guide the world. They are reliable and unchanging so that one need not live in constant fear of upheaval and disaster (Malbim).

5. “He loves charity and justice, the kindness of YHWH fills the earth.”

Elohim sometimes exercises charity and at other times strict justice (Radak).

“…the kindness of YHWH fills the earth.” Charity is a limited form of mercy for it is restricted within the bounds of justice (Sforno). [However kindness, knows no bounds, it fills the earth.]

Elohim’s relationship to mankind is based on the three traits enumerated in this verse. He utilizes each in the proper time and hopes that mankind will follow His example. As the prophet says: “For I am YHWH who performs kindness, justice, and charity on the earth, for it is these that I desire [man to imitate Me] (Jeremiah 9:23) (Radak).”

Eitz Yoseif explains this verse with the words of Yalkut Shimoni (Ki Sisah): Ilfah (a Talmudic sage) explained why Elohim’s attribute of abundant kindness precedes that of strict truth (Exodus 34:6). This may be likened to a man who owed a king a great sum of money but could not pay. The king was merciful and placed the entire amount into a purse and secretly threw it into the debtor’s house. Just as the debtor was beginning to rejoice over his new found fortune, the king sent his guards to demand immediate payment of the long outstanding debt. The man was left poor as before, but at least his debt was paid. So, too, a person commits a sin for which the heavenly penalty is death. But Elohim is kind and does not exact payment immediately. He waits until the man marries and bears children, then the Lord snatches the life one of the children to pay for the man’s sin. This man has discharged his debt to heaven in a most painful manner, but he at least survives to repent and improve himself.

Our verse conveys the same message. Elohim loves to do charity. Yet, there are times when a man’s deeds are such that Elohim must punish him with justice. Nevertheless, YHWH is compassionate. First, He showers an abundance of kindness upon him. Then, He exacts punishment by snatching away His very kindness. The sinner is disappointed, but, in truth, he is now no worse off than he was initially.

6. “By the word of YHWH the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host.”

Hebrews 11:3; “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of Elohim, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.”

As we find throughout the story of Creation, YHWH spoke the various phases of creation into existence (Radak).

[The word of Elohim refers to the Torah which has been transmitted to Israel. Without the constant study of Torah, the universe would cease to exist as the prophet said, ‘If not for my covenant of day and night [i.e., the constant study of Torah] I would not have set up the order of heaven and earth’ (Jeremiah 33:25). This process of creation continues, for the word of Elohim, in the form of Torah continues to perpetuate creations.]

“…and by the breath of His mouth all their host.” From this verse the Talmud (Chagigah 14a) derives: ‘Each word which went forth from Elohim’s mouth as Creation, brought another ministering angel into being.’ [Every physical creation on earth on earth has a spiritual force above which controls it.]

Radak finds allusions in these verses to the four basic elements of creation. Fire is the basis of the heavens (and the luminaries). Air is the breath of Elohim’s mouth. Water is in the seas and deep waters (next verse). Earth is where Elohim’s kindness abounds (v.5).

7. “He assembles like a mound the waters of the sea, He places in vaults the deep waters.”

Similarly, in reference to the Splitting of the Sea, the constrained water is described as a mound: they stood upright like a mound [Exodus 15:8] (Rashi).

Originally, water covered the face of the entire earth. Afterwards, Elohim gathered the waters into the sea, where He commanded that they remain. There is sufficient water in the seas and ocean to cover the entire face of the earth, but Elohim keeps it confined as if the water were piled up in an immovable mound (Radak).

“…He places in vaults the deep waters.” The waters of the sea should inundate the dry land, but Elohim’s rules of nature keep them as if in vaults. The waves and the tides furiously thunder upon the shore but then subside and dare not go beyond their boundaries (Radak).

Rashi refers this to the waters deep beneath the earth’s surface. In the subterranean world there are both sweet-water and salt-water pools, yet Elohim stores them so that they never mix (Bamidbar Raddah 18:22). Alshich also notes that if the tremendous reservoirs of underground water should ever erupt and shoot to the surface, they would flood the earth [Succah 51b]. It is Elohim who keeps them pent up.

8. “Fear YHWH, all the earth; of him be in dread, all inhabitants of the world.”

Elohim in His wisdom, fashioned the world in such a way that man should never feel totally secure and complacent. Every man must be humbled by the fact that there exists forces of nature which are beyond his control. Therefore, the seas where made in such a way that it should be plain that only a miracle keeps the mighty, endless waters from overwhelming the earth. This instills fear in the hearts of man (Alshich).

“…of him be in dread.” Malbim explains that there is fear of the external threat, but this fear described as ‘dread’ is a much more powerful emotion for it is man’s inner dread when he trembles lest he be punished for his deeds. [Even animals can experience fear, but only the human inhabitants of the world, can feel pangs of conscience and fear of punishment.]

9. “For He spoke and it became, He commanded and it stood firm.”

Creation came into being at His word and exactly as He commanded. This can also be interpreted as a prologue to the succeeding verses: the plans of the nations are doomed to frustration because they go counter to His will (Radak). [This reflects the first of Miamonides Thirteen Principles of the Faith: The Creator, Blessed be His Name, creates and rules all creations and He alone made, makes and will make all works.]

“…He commanded and it stood firm.” [When Elohim created the world it spread out and expanded like the threads stretching out through the loom until Elohim roared and the earth stood firm (Chagigah 12a). This is why Elohim is called Shaddai [lit. it is enough] because it was He who halted the expansion of the world by roaring ‘enough!’

Since Elohim is perfect and complete, everything He creates should be fully developed and complete. However, the Creator ordained that the world remain imperfect in order to provide mankind in general and Israel in particular with the task of completing and perfecting the world (Beis HaLevi, Lech Lecha).]

10. “YHWH annuls the counsel of peoples, he balks the designs of nations.”

Now that we understand that the command of Elohim stands firm and invincible forever (v. 9) we realize that every effort to challenge Him is futile and will be nullified (Ibn Ezra).

Isaiah 8:10; "Devise a plan, but it will be thwarted; State a proposal, but it will not stand, For Elohim is with us."

Isaiah 19:3; "Then the spirit of the Egyptians will be demoralized within them; And I will confound their strategy, So that they will resort to idols and ghosts of the dead And to mediums and spiritists.”

Specifically, this refers to the coalition of all the peoples of the earth who planned to build the Tower of Babel as a challenge to Elohim (Genesis 11:1-4). They came together and adopted a simple counsel. Not only the physical structure of the Tower of Babel collapsed, but also the intellectual faculties which designed it were hampered. Elohim confused the minds of its builders and deprived them of common speech and the power to communicate with one another (Sforno).

“…he balks the designs of nations.” Malbim explains that annulment applies to something which has already come into existence whereas foiling, means preventing its ever taking effect.

11. “But the counsel of YHWH stands forever, the designs of His heart for all generations.”

The designs of the nations are bulked, but the designs of YHWH endure eternally (Ibn Ezra, Radak).

Proverbs 19:21; “Many plans are in a man's heart, But the counsel of YHWH will stand.”

This means that after all of man’s own personal designs, Elohim will implant in his mind His advice and counsel, that will be the one that will eventually win out over the rest.

Isaiah 55:8; "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," declares YHWH.

Job 23:12; "I have not departed from the command of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food.

12. “Praiseworthy is the people whose Elohim is YHWH, the nation He chose for His own estate.”

Any person who puts his faith in Elohim is praiseworthy, for then YHWH would provide him with His supervision (Malbim).

“…the nation He chose for His own estate.” But Israel is even more fortunate than just any person. For not only has Israel made YHWH their Elohim, but He has also chosen them for His nation. He reveals Himself to them with miraculous Providence (Malbim).

Exodus 19:5; 'Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine;

13. “From heaven YHWH looks down, seeing all of mankind.”

In this verse and the next the Psalmist discusses the two forms of divine super-vision. This verse, in describing Elohim ‘looking down,’ implies that He is distant and relatively uninvolved in earthly affairs. This supervision through nature, i.e., the law of nature by which heavenly forces exercise control over the universe within a set of fixed laws (Malbim).

Job 28:24; "For He looks to the ends of the earth And sees everything under the heavens.”

14. “From His dwelling-place He oversees all inhabitants of the earth.”

The Psalmist changes to the more intense ‘oversees’,’ which implies individual supervision, of all inhabitants of earth. Elohim observes each, not from the distant heavens, but rather from His dwelling place, i.e., where He sits in judgment on each individual according to his unique situation (Malbim).

1 Kings 8:39; “then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive and act and render to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know, for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men.”

15. “He Who fashions their hearts all together, Who comprehends all their deeds.”

Because He alone fashioned their hearts, only He can truly understand them

[Although He made them all together, each has a unique personality and must be understood according to his particular characteristics. As the Sages teach: just as no two faces are alike so are no two personalities alike (Berachos 58a).

Elsewhere Elohim is praised: A man mints many coins with one form and they all emerge alike, but the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, minted all of mankind with the mold of Adam, yet no man looks exactly like his neighbour (Sanhedrin 37a).]

“…Who comprehends all their deeds.”

2 Chronicles 16:9; "For the eyes of YHWH move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His. You have acted foolishly in this. Indeed, from now on you will surely have wars."

Job 34:21; "For His eyes are upon the ways of a man, And He sees all his steps.

16. “A king is not saved by a great army, nor is a hero rescued by great strength.”

History furnishes ample proof of Elohim’s intervention on behalf of His chosen ones. By the laws of nature and logic, the mighty army should always crush the tiny one, yet many a king has been defeated despite the superiority of his forces. For example, King Sennacherib [2]of Assyria conquered almost all of the inhabited world, and he arrogantly blasphemed Elohim and besieged Jerusalem. Then in a single night, the angel of YHWH smote the entire Assyrian army of 185,000 men (Radak).

2 Kings 19:35; “That night the angel of YHWH went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning--there were all the dead bodies!”

17. “A sham is the horse, for salvation; despite its great strength, it provides no escape.”

Proverbs 21:31; “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, But victory belongs to YHWH.”

A horse’s might emanates from Elohim who can deprive a rider of it at will (Radak).

Furthermore, it is often difficult to manoeuvre the powerful steed and thus the rider is vulnerable to enemy attack, whereas the foot soldier exercises greater control over his own movements (Alshich).

Often a frenzied horse will carry its rider right into the camp of the enemy instead of galloping in the direction of escape. Or a horse terrified by battle will throw and trample its own rider. Thus, its strength can be a curse instead of a blessing (Alshich).

18. “Behold, the eye of YHWH is on those who fear Him, upon those who await His kindness.”

The Midrash observes: When Israel performs according to the will of Elohim, He looks at them with two eyes, as it says, ‘The eyes [plural] of YHWH are upon the righteous ones (34:16)’

Peter 3:12; "For the eyes of YHWH are toward the righteous, and His ears attend their prayers, but the face of YHWH is against those who do evil."

But when they do not perform according to His will, He looks only with one eye, as in our verse, ‘Behold, the eye of YHWH is on those who fear Him (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 8:12).’ The commentaries explain the superiority of the righteous of 34:16 to those who fear Him of our verse. One may fear Elohim but serve Him only half-heartedly to avoid punishment and acquire reward, as this and the next verse continue: ‘upon those who await His kindness, to rescue their soul from death, sustain them in famine.’

However, the Zohar (Naso) interprets the supervision with one eye as the highest level of divine attention. When two eyes are watching, the right one symbolizes mercy, and the left one strict justice. But he who ascends to the highest level is supervised by but one eye, that of mercy.

Ramban, in his commentary to Job (36:6) explains the verse, ‘He does not withdraw His eyes from the righteous.’ He describes the truly devout who train all of their thoughts upon Elohim without interruption. Commensurate with the intensity of their concentration on Elohim, He trains His eyes on them and elevates them to a lofty sphere of existence, totally insulated from the chance happenings of life; as it says in Psalms: ‘the eye of YHWH is on those who fear Him.’

19. “To rescue from death their souls, and sustain them in famine.”

Radak interprets this verse as referring to Israel’s evacuation and necessary provision during a time of war.

Job 5:20 "In famine He will redeem you from death, And in war from the power of the sword.

YHWH will provide sustenance when general provisions are lacking.

20. “Our soul longed for YHWH – our help and our shield is He.”

Because we saw that those who fear Elohim and await His help are answered, we too look to Him for help (Ibn Ezra).

Isaiah 8:17; And I will wait for YHWH who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob; I will even look eagerly for Him.”

21. “For in Him will our hearts be glad for in His Holy Name we trusted.”

When He will save us from all the evils which threaten us, we will rejoice in the knowledge that our salvation stems from Him (Radak).

Zechariah 10:7; "Ephraim will be like a mighty man, And their heart will be glad as if from wine; Indeed, their children will see it and be glad, Their heart will rejoice in YHWH.”

John 16:22; "Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”

22. “May Your kindness, YHWH, be upon us, just as we awaited You.”

[This re-emphasizes the concept that Elohim’s beneficence rests upon man in proportion to his sincere trust in Elohim.]

By virtue of this man’s confidence in Elohim’s ability to protect, Elohim will cause him to be fed even in times of severe famine (Radak).

[In Job 5:20 we read, ‘Through famine He redeems you from death.’ Malbim explains: When the All Merciful decrees that a country is about to be destroyed by an earthquake or a similar holocaust, what does He do? He visits a devastating famine upon the land, forcing the inhabitants to flee in time to escape the catastrophic upheaval of the earth. Thus, the harsh curse of famine was truly a blessing in disguise, for it limited the extent of the later catastrophe.

Based on this we may render our verse as, and sustain them, i.e., save their lives, through famine.]

[1] As in Yom Teruah, this means ‘the day of blasts’ as in shofar blasts.

[2] The Biblical account of Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem begins with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria. This is how the ten northern tribes came to be known as the Ten Lost Tribes, because as recorded in II Kings 17, they were carried off and settled with other peoples as was the Assyrian policy. II Kings 18-19 (and parallel passage 2 Chronicles 32:1-23) details Sennacherib's attack on Judah and capital Jerusalem. Hezekiah had rebelled against the Assyrians, so they had captured all of the towns in Judah. Hezekiah realized his error and sent great tribute to Sennacherib. But the Assyrians nevertheless marched toward Jerusalem. Sennacherib sent his supreme commander with an army to besiege Jerusalem while he himself went to fight with the Egyptians. The supreme commander met with Hezekiah's officials and threatened them to surrender; while hailing insults so the people of the city could hear, blaspheming Judah and particularly YHWH. When the King Hezekiah heard of this, he tore his clothes (as was the custom of the day for displaying deep anguish) and prayed to YHWH in the Temple. Isaiah the prophet told the king that YHWH would take care of the whole matter and that he would return to his own lands. That night, the angel of YHWH killed the entire Assyrian camp consisting of 185,000 troops. Jewish tradition maintains that archangel Gabriel (along with Michael in the Targum's version) was the angel sent to destroy the Assyrian troops, and that the destruction occurred on Passover night. Sennacherib soon returned to Nineveh in disgrace. Some years later, while Sennacherib was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisroch, two of his sons killed him and fled. Some [who?] suggest that Psalm 46 was composed as a Song of Deliverance that was led by the Korahite Levitical singers and accompanied by the Alamoth (maidens with tambourines) and sung by the inhabitants of Jerusalem after their successful defense of the city from the siege.

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