Essay / Theology

Psalm 28: Suddenly Frogs

Midrash Tehillim, the set of medieval rabbinic comments on the Psalms, sometimes delivers powerful and illuminating insights into the Psalms. Other times, it delivers powerful and illuminating insights into something else altogether –other parts of scripture, apparently unrelated except maybe by one verbal parallel. The rabbis knew how to do commentary on literal meaning, but this midrash tradition is about something else, like exploring “the seventy aspects” of each text. To say it midrashically: R. Moses of Kobryn said, “In each generation at least one man is given the means to understand the Zohar; but not even one man in a generation is capable of understanding Midrash, it being closed up and sealed … until the coming of Messiah.”

I turned to the Midrash Tehillim today for stimulation in understanding Psalm 28. I was expecting maybe some cross-referencing fun from verse 9, “Oh save your people and bless your heritage! Be their shepherd and carry them forever.” Either “heritage” or “shepherd” would be rich word studies, and just doing a concordance-drill for important occurrrences of those terms would be illuminating.

Instead I found frogs.

And here’s how they got into Psalm 28:

Hop to verse 3. It says, “Do not drag me off with the wicked.”

Hop to the root word in “drag me off” (be’alunu).

Hop to Isaiah 26:13, where the same root apparently also occurs in “other lords besides you have ruled over us.”

Hop to the rest of Isaiah 26:13, which goes on (in some translation), “even without thee we make mention of thy name alone.” That means, even when God did not do miracles of deliverance, his people were ready to die for the honoring of his name.

Hop to what that makes you think of: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego talking back to King Nebuchadnezzar: “Our God is able to deliver us; he will deliver us… and if not, be it known unto thee, we shall not serve thy gods.” So Nebuchadnezzar getteth sore wroth and stoketh the oven times seven.

Hop to: An imaginative extension of the story, the three young men throw themselves into the furnace. Why would they do such a thing?

Hop to: Exodus 8:3, “The river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into… thine ovens, and into thy dough.”

When is dough next to an oven? When the oven is hot. Oven, hot, get it? And I quote:

Accordingly this verse proves that frogs came and threw themselves into ovens in order to hallow the name of the Holy One, blessed be He. And how did the Holy One, blessed be He, reward the frogs? All other frogs in Egypt died, as is said The frogs died out of the houses, out of the courts, and out of the fields (Ex. 8:9), but the frogs which went into the ovens to fulfill the decree of the Holy One, blessed be He, did not die, because they were willing to be burnt. And so the frogs sprang up alive out of the ovens and went back into the river, for it is said They alone shall remain in the river (Ex. 8:7)

The Midrash Tehillim goes in a couple of other directions from here, including offering alternative explanations of what the three young men were thinking when they leapt into the fire. I know it’s crazy stuff. As far as I can tell, Messiah has come and we still can’t do much with some of the Midrash. But even here with the frogs, there’s some take-away value. I can think of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when reading this prayer. That helps me get a handle on the two-part structure of Psalm 28, which begins with a plea that God not be deaf to the speaker’s prayer (a point the Midrash does get to by way of Isaiah). I can connect it with the collective note struck suddenly in verse 9, “shepherd your people.” As usual, the Midrash is not exactly commentary, and a serious student would be sure to do some grammatical-historical work as the first order of business. But if your goal is to spend the day thinking about God and his ways, using Psalm 28 as your hopping-off point, the frogs don’t hurt.

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