Giving Up the Ghost

A Prayer of the afflicted when he is weak and pours out his complaint before the Lord.  Psalm 102 NASB

Weak – Amazingly, our word “weak” isn’t found in the languages of Europe until the 12th Century.  I guess before that people never knew what it meant to be physically exhausted (No, probably not.  There are other explanations).  We owe this idea to Proto-Germanic where the word originally meant “yield.”  It was applied to things that were soft and pliable, but I suspect you can easily see the military origin.  Those who yield in battle are weak.  The strong conquer.  The weak submit.

This raises an interesting inquiry.  If “weak” is a relatively new word (only about a thousand years old), then what does the Hebrew ʿāṭap actually mean?  After all, it is thousands of years old.  TWOT provides the following:

(ASV, RSV similar except the former prefers the word “overwhelm” while the latter uses “faint.”[1]

Not only can man be overwhelmed with physical exhaustion, his innermost being can also languish.  This term is descriptive of the individual when he observes his circumstances and then becomes aware of his separation from God. As a result he is overwhelmed. This was true of Jonah in the belly of the fish (Jon 2:7 [H 8]), of a lonely imprisoned man (Ps 142) and of a man totally crushed by his enemy (Ps 143). This recognition of weakness is invariably in a prayer when there is also a petition for divine assistance. The human resources of strength being exhausted, the psalmist petitions God for his help.[2]

Notice the implicit connection to divine assistance.  Maybe “weak” is about surrender in our world, but it appears that ʿāṭap in the Semitic world is about dependence.  It could, of course, have easily been associated with military surrender. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and others subdued one group after another, so there must have been words to describe this (like, for example, ʿānâ, which also appears in this introduction).  Forced submission, however, seems not to be associated with weakness.  In Hebrew, weakness is a God-related word.  The originating circumstances don’t matter too much.

Let’s consider the Paleo form (Ayin-Samech-Pey): Eye-Support (Staff)-Mouth (Speak).  The picture doesn’t look much like “overwhelmed” or “faint” or “surrender.”  It looks more like seeing support vocally, that is, visually recognizing that help comes from words spoken.  That reminds me of Genesis 1.  When God wants to do something spectacular, He speaks it into being.  Maybe Paleo-Hebrew helps us see that ʿāṭap is directly connected to the words of God.  In weakness is my strength—because the strength isn’t mine at all.  It’s His.

Topical Index:  weak, faint, overwhelm, ʿāṭap, Psalm 102

[1] Schultz, C. (1999). 1607 עָטַף. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 661). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Ibid.


This Saturday at 8AM Eastern time, we will start the next book study.  We will first look at the article by Bowley and Reeves on the Bible, then we will proceed with David Lambert’s book How Repentance Became Biblical.  You can join this study on my other web site

where you can sign up for the two session per week.