Surely you set them in slippery places; you cast them down into ruin. How they are brought into desolation in a moment, utterly consumed with terrors! Psalm 73:18-19 Hebrew World translation
Terrors – What does Asaph have to do with the prayer of Jabez? You will have to read both in Hebrew to know the answer. Maybe it’s coincidence. Maybe not. But what Asaph says about the end of the wicked can be illuminated by paying attention to something in the prayer of Jabez. Let’s look.
The prayer of Jabez includes this sentence, “so that it might not bring me pain.” We noticed that the negation is unusual, employing the Hebrew word belet. That word for “not” comes from a root word (bala) that means “to become old, worn out.” Jabez asks God to not let his efforts wear away, to protect him from the decay of this life.
Asaph doesn’t use this same word, but he uses a word that is very similar. He chooses the word balah. The only difference between the two is the sound of the final consonant. Both words are spelled exactly the same way. While Jabez uses a derivative of bala, Asaph uses a derivative of balah. Asaph’s word is ballahot. This is the plural of ballaha, and ballaha is a word that merely doubles the second and third consonants. Instead of B-L-H, it reads B-L-L-H-H.
So you say, “Interesting, but so what?” Perhaps the significance of this doubled structure is Asaph’s insight into the double whammy of the wicked. The first terror is that everything they have can be lost in an instant. In fact, the longer they live, the more likely something bad will happen. That’s the actuarial table of the world. The second terror is that even if I am lucky enough to avoid all the bad stuff, I still die! In fact, the only guarantee of the wicked is death. Everything else is a roll of the dice. Maybe, just maybe, Asaph communicates this double terror by choosing a word that means “worn out” and doubling it up.
Bala is the consonants Bet-Lamed-Hey. The picture is, “Behold, control of the house.” What controls the house? Well, certainly wearing away takes control of every household of Man. His body, his family, his possessions, his community, even his legacy – all wear away. Now look at ballaha. We have a single house but twice the control and twice the “Behold.” Do you think that Asaph is pointing us toward the realization that the wicked live in a single house with two masters? They fight divine control built into the fabric of the universe by asserting their own control. While the righteous let God lead, the wicked attempt to lead themselves. No man can serve two masters, but he can try!
Asaph’s poetry is linguistic genius. I expect him to incorporate another layer of meaning in the structure of the poem. Meaning within meaning. Asaph teaches us something about the wicked. Self-control is a beast with two heads – and it cannot be tamed.
Topical Index: terrors, ballahot, balah, bala, worn out, Jabez, Psalm 73:18-19