Article Information

Gert T.M. Prinsloo1

1Department of Ancient Languages, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence to:
Gert Prinsloo

Postal address:
Private Bag X20, Hatfield, Pretoria 0028, South Africa

Received: 01 Apr. 2013
Accepted: 28 May 2013
Published: 05 Aug. 2013

How to cite this article: Prinsloo, G.T.M., 2013, ‘Reading Habakkuk 3 in the light of ancient unit delimiters’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 69(1), Art. #1975, 11 pages.

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© 2013. The Authors. Licensee: AOSIS OpenJournals.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Reading Habakkuk 3 in the light of ancient unit delimiters
In This Original Research...
Open Access
   • The structure of Habakkuk 3: Modern critical opinions
   • The structure of Habakkuk 3: Ancient perspectives
      • General orientation
      • The Greek Minor Prophets from Nahal Hever
      • The Twelve Prophets Scroll from Wadi Murabba at
      • Masoretic Manuscripts and the Biblia Rabbinica
   • Structural patterns and dominant motifs in Habakkuk’s הלפת
      • Inclusio as dominant structural pattern
      • Communication patterns
      • YHWH the warrior and personal prayer or confession as focal points
   • Competing interests
Addendum 1

Habakkuk 3 is one of the most controversial texts in the Hebrew Bible. Diverging opinions have been expressed on literally every facet of the text. Quite surprising though, interpreters are virtually unanimous in their opinion about the structure of the pericope. Apart from a superscript (3:1) and subscript (3:19b) four units are normally demarcated: a prayer (3:2), a theophany (3:3–7), a hymn (3:8–15) and a confession of trust (3:16–19a). Unit delimiters in ancient Hebrew manuscripts demarcate two (3:1–13 and 3:14–19) or three (3:1–7; 3:8–13;3:14–19) units. This study evaluates this evidence and reads Habakkuk 3 in the light of the units demarcated in ancient manuscripts. It raises awareness of interesting structural patterns in the poem, calls for a rethinking of traditional form critical categories, and opens avenues for an alternative understanding of the pericope.


Habakkuk 31 is a controversial text and presents exegetes with challenging interpretational problems covering the whole range of Hebrew Bible methodological issues.2 Apparently insurmountable text critical problems,3 as well as literary critical, redaction critical and composition critical issues cause much controversy.4 The relationship between Habakkuk 3 and other Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern texts has been debated intensely.5 Ever since the rise of modern critical scholarship these issues have been discussed in a constant stream of publications, but consensus on any one of them seems to be unattainable.

Given the wide range of opinions on all the problem areas indicated above, it is quite surprising that scholars are virtually unanimous in their opinion about the overall structure of the chapter. It is exactly on this issue that ancient Hebrew manuscripts are virtually unanimous in their disagreement with this consensus. The conspicuous disagreement between ancient unit delimiters and modern paragraph divisions in Habakkuk 3 forms the focus of this study. The research question asked in this study is: Would it influence the interpretation of Habakkuk 3 if it is read in the light of the ancient unit delimiters?

The structure of Habakkuk 3: Modern critical opinions
A mere glance at a number of influential commentaries and other studies on Habakkuk 3 makes two things clear: firstly there is a wide consensus about the structure of the pericope, secondly the consensus is largely influenced by traditional form critical classifications of the identified subunits in the pericope. Broadly speaking the chapter is approached from one of two perspectives – either a literary-critical and redaction-historical perspective or a literary perspective.6 Adherents of the former approach recognise various later additions to the chapter whilst adherents of the latter emphasise its literary unity. The result in terms of the description of the structure remains largely the same, summarised as follows by Pfeiffer (2005):

Läßt man zunächst die psalmenartigen Rahmenelemente V.1.19b nebst Sela-Einwürfen (V.3.9) außer acht, so gliedert sich Hab 3, 2–19a in ein durch die Thematik von Theophanie und Kampf (vgl. Jdc 5 [Judges]; Dtn 33, 2–5.26–29; Ps 68) bestimmtes Korpus (V.3–15) und einen von der Ich-Rede des Propheten dominierten Rahmen V.2.16–19. (p. 151)

A typical example of the demarcation of the structure of the text from a redaction-historical perspective is provided by Avishur (1994:111–205).7 Departing from the notation in 1b he classifies Habakkuk 3 as a national lament displaying all the characteristics of the genre, namely:

a lament about the people’s present plight, accompanied by an invocation or supplication to God to deliver the people from their distress. Incorporated in such lamentations after the invocation to God is a hymn describing God’s mighty deeds … which contrasts the glorious past with the tribulations of the present. (Avishur 1994:113)9

The difference between Habakkuk 3 and comparable laments is that the quoted hymn is extraordinarily long (Avishur 1994:113–114). According to Avishur (1994:114) verses 2 and 16 form a ‘framework of prayer and lamentation’ bound together by the repetition of the verb I have heard’ (2a; 16a) and the root (cf. ‘in anger’10 in 2d; ‘and it trembled’ in 16a; ‘I tremble’ in 16c).11 The hymn consists of two units ‘which differ from one another thematically and structurally, despite their common theme, God’s mighty deeds’ (Avishur 1994:118). The theme of the first (3:3–6) is the divine revelation at Sinai and is reminiscent of texts like Deuteronomy 33:2–3; Judges 5:4–5 and Psalm 68:8–9. It begins and ends with a reference to mountains (cf. the mountain of Paran’ in 3b and ‘the everlasting mountains’ in 6c). The theme of the second (3:8–15) is YHWH’s battle against the sea and rivers. It too, displays a broad chiastic pattern, beginning and ending with references to the sea and horses (cf. ‘rivers’ in 8ab, ‘sea’ in 8c, ‘your horses’ in 8d; ‘sea’ in 15a, ‘waters’ in 15b, ‘your horses’ in 15a; cf. Avishur 1994:118–119). Habakkuk 3:7 should be transposed between 3:13a and 13b (Avishur 1994:120). Habakkuk 3:17 and 3:18–19 are both secondary additions which do not fit into the original chiastic pattern of the poem (Avishur 1994:120–121). Habakkuk 3:17 is reminiscent of Joel 1:7, 10 and 18 and describes a famine, a theme foreign to the rest of the book (Avishur 1994:196–198). Habakkuk 3:18–19 is parallel to Psalm 18:33–34 and 47 (and parallel verses in 2 Sm 22) and was added to give the psalm a positive conclusion (Avishur 1994:201).

From a literary perspective Habakkuk 3 is commonly regarded as a theophany (3:3–15) in two parts (3:3–7 and 3:8–14)12 encapsulated by a first person singular prayer (3:2) and confession of trust (3:16–19a).13 A separate superscript (3:1a) and musical notations (3:1b, 3b, 9b, 13d & 19b) might be regarded as later additions.14 The study of Hiebert (1986:59–80) serves as a typical example. He emphatically rejects the view that Habakkuk 3 can be described as either a lament or a vision (1986:81)15 and classifies the poem as a ‘song of victory’ (1986:82).16 Hiebert (1986:59) identifies the poetic device of inclusion as the major stylistic feature of the poem. Prominent features constituting the device of inclusion between 3:2 and 3:16–19 are the occurrence of the verb (3:2a, 16a) and the repetition of the root (3:2d, 16a, 16c; cf. Hiebert 1986:64). Habakkuk 3:16 is an intensification of 3:2, especially of the motif of fear present in 3:2a. Both sections are written from a first person perspective (Hiebert 1986:65). Habakkuk 3:17 should not be regarded as a later addition, but as an expansion of the motif of ‘in turmoil’ in 3:2.17 In similar fashion 3:18–19 complements the content of 3:2 by the prominent occurrence of the divine name (cf. 3:2a, 18a, 19a) and first person singular verbal forms (Hiebert 1986:67). Two stanzas can be demarcated in the theophany in 3:3–15. Habakkuk 3:3–7 describes the appearance of God from the southeast and nature’s response to the appearance by means of third person verbal forms (Hiebert 1986:71). The unit has a ‘perfect cyclic, inclusive structure’ (Hiebert 1986:69)18 with geographical names forming the framework for the description of God’s theophany (cf. 3:3 and 7). Habakkuk 3:8–15 describes the preparation of the divine warrior for battle and the battle itself (Hiebert 1986:73), this time by utilising second person verbal forms (Hiebert 1986:75). Again inclusion is present via the repetition of ‘sea’ and ‘your horses’ (cf. 3:8 & 15).19

Three recent studies on Habakkuk, all approaching the book from a literary perspective, have a slightly different view of the poem’s structure.20 Andersen (2001:261–264)21 identifies seven units. A title (3:1) and colophon (3:19b) frames a poem consisting of five strophes. An opening invocation (3:2) and closing response (3:16–19a) ‘are more personal and more subjective’ (Andersen 2001:261) and frame a theophany (3:3–15) that can be divided into three strophes. The ‘first account of mighty deliverance (vv. 3–7) is a recital in the third person,’ has the Exodus as historical background, but the ‘stage is cosmic in its expanse’ (Andersen 2001:261). ‘In the middle strophe (vv. 8–11), the mode of address changes to apostrophe in the second person’ and is concerned with YHWH’s combat with ‘cosmic elements,’ evoking ‘memories of stories of creation, but also of the Exodus and the battles of the early days’ (Andersen 2001:262). ‘In the third strophe (vv. 12–15) God is involved in history. The setting is the world (v. 12); the purpose is deliverance (v. 13); the enemy (unnamed) is almost represented as an individual (v. 14)’ (Andersen 2001:262).

Nogalski (2011) classifies Habakkuk 3 as ‘a theophany report put into the framework of a prayer and a prophetic affirmation of trust’ and argues that the:

passage divides readily into four parts: Habakkuk’s second superscription (3:1); a prophetic prayer and theophany report of God’s advance from the south (3:2–7); a theophany regaling YHWH for his victory over chaos (3:8–15); and a prophetic response (3:16–19). (p. 679)

Nogalski thus combines 3:2 and 3:3–7 into a single strophe, but still retains the form critical distinction between ‘theophany’ (3:8–15) and ‘prophetic response’ (3:16–19).

Mathews (2012:85) engages in a ‘performance approach’ to the book of Habakkuk and consequently provides a ‘dramatic division of the book of Habakkuk into acts and scenes’. Following many modern commentators,22 she classifies Habakkuk 3 as the second major part in the book (‘Act Two – Faith’) consisting of a ‘prelude’ (3:1) and ‘postlude’ (3:19b). She maintains the traditional division of the poem proper into three major parts (3:2; 3:3–15; 3:16–19a) in her identification of ‘Scenes’. She admits that her division is ‘in fact similar to many literary divisions made by commentators.’

The brief overview illustrates the consensus amongst modern interpreters as far as the basic building blocks of Habakkuk 3 are concerned. It also confirms the initial observation that the consensus is based upon the form critical classification of material in the text.

The structure of Habakkuk 3: Ancient perspectives

General orientation
Careful analysis of a number of ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, especially in the intertestamental and early medieval tradition, reveals a different understanding of the structure of Habakkuk 3. It is clear when ancient paragraph markers (petuchot and setumot) are taken into account. Noteworthy is the fact that the units demarcated by the ancient scribes transcend the form critical ‘borders’ set by modern interpreters. Ancient scribes evidently had a different approach to Habakkuk 3.

The Greek Minor Prophets from Naḥal Ḥever
The Greek Minor Prophets scroll found in a cave in Naal ever (8ḤevXIIgr; cf. Tov 1990) dates from the middle of the first century BCE23 and was probably written for Jewish readers (Oesch 1979:304). Unfortunately the text is fragmentary. In the case of Habakkuk 3 petuchot can be identified with certainty before 3:1 and 3:14. The Greek scroll by and large agrees with the Masoretic tradition.

The Twelve Prophets Scroll from Wadi Murabba ‘at
The Twelve Prophets’ scroll from Wadi Murabbaʽat (Mur88; cf. Benoit, Milik & De Vaux 1961:199–200 and Plates LXVIII–LXVIX) dates from circa 135 CE.24 The fragmentary state of the text makes reconstruction of all the petuchot and/or setumot once present in the Book of Habakkuk impossible. In the case of Habakkuk 3, though, setumot occur before 3:1; 3:8 and 3:14. In this respect Mur88 agrees with the Masoretic tradition.25 As will be agued in the next section it has important implications for the delimitation of units in and the interpretation of Habakkuk 3.

Masoretic Manuscripts and the Biblia Rabbinica
Comparison of a sample of Masoretic manuscripts confirms that ancient Jewish tradition had a different conception of the structure of Habakkuk 3. Although the tradition is not unanimous,26 a clear picture of their understanding of the structure of Habakkuk 3 emerges (cf. Table 1):

TABLE 1: Open and closed sections in Habakkuk 3 in a sample of Jewish manuscripts.

From Table 1 it is clear that there are variations as far as the location of delimiters is concerned. In CP and CA no delimiter occurs before 3:8. There are also variations as far as the type of delimiter is concerned. Before 3:1 CL has a petuchah whilst the other manuscripts have a setumah. Before 3:8 CUrb has a petuchah whilst CL, CC and BibR have a setumah. Before 3:14 CL, CP and CUrb have a petucah whilst CA, CC and BibR have a setumah. Nevertheless, the location of the paragraph markers indicates that ancient Masoretic scribes demarcated two (3:1–13 and 3:14–19; cf. CP, CA) or three (3:1–7; 3:8–13; 3:14–19; cf. CL, CC, CUrb, BibR) units in the chapter. It defies the modern form critical demarcation of four units.

The petuchot and/or setumot in Habakkuk 3 demarcate large textual units that can be subdivided into smaller units.27 Noteworthy is the fact that the boundaries of the three sections differ from the traditional demarcation of sections in modern commentaries and other studies. Unit delimitation in the ancient manuscripts under discussion poses serious questions to the traditional interpretation of Habakkuk 3.

In Addendum 1 I provide the text of Habakkuk 3, a parallel translation and criteria for unit delimitation.28 Data in ancient Hebrew manuscripts suggest that three major sections can be demarcated in Habakkuk 3, namely 3:1–7; 3:8–13 and 3:14–19. Corroborative data in manuscripts of the Septuagint indicate that 3:1ab can be demarcated as a superscript.29 It displays the characteristics of a typical ‘superscript’ in the Psalter.30 Habakkuk 3:19d is more problematic. The phrase has parallels in superscripts in the Book of Psalms,31 but it never appears as a subscript in the Psalter. The Septuagint (followed by the other ancient versions) did not understand 3:19d as a subscript, but read it in conjunction with 19c.32

In the light of ancient unit delimiters the following sections can be demarcated (cf. Table 2):

TABLE 2: Major sections in Habakkuk 3.

Structural patterns and dominant motifs in Habakkuk’s
Ancient scribal practices suggest a delimitation of sections with important implications for the interpretation of the text. Contra form critical arguments for the demarcation of two petitions (3:2; 3:16–19) framing a theophany in two parts (3:3–7; 3:8–15), ancient scribes read Habakkuk 3 as a single ‘prayer.’33 Read through their eyes three important characteristics of the text should be noted.

Inclusio as dominant structural pattern
The importance of inclusio as poetic strategy in Habakkuk 3 has been recognised in the overview of existing approaches to Habakkuk 3. When delimitation criteria in ancient manuscripts are taken as point of departure, the phenomenon becomes the dominant textual strategy in the poem.

Section 1 (3:1) and Section 5 (3:19c), a superscript and subscript respectively, frame the poem proper. Both contain information typical of the superscripts in the Book of Psalms. The phrase ... ‘a prayer of ...’ occurs elsewhere only in superscripts to psalms.34 ‘prayer’ characterises the content of the poem in a special manner and includes the whole chapter in the classification. The ‘author’ of the prayer is called ‘Habakkuk the prophet.’35 The following ‘on ‘Shigyonoth’ (1b) is reminiscent of psalm superscripts with a note about the poem’s melody and/or accompanying musical instrument.36 is a hapax legomenon, often regarded as the plural of (cf. Ps 7:1). Many associate it with the Akkadian noun šigû ‘cry of lamentation,’ and regard it as an indication of the poem’s genre, and consequently classify Habakkuk 3 as a lament (Van der Woude 1978:60).37 However, the combination + noun in psalm superscripts are not associated with the poem’s genre and the content of Habakkuk 3 hardly lends itself to be classified as a lament (Roberts 1991:130). The exact intent of ‘to the conductor, on my stringed instruments’ in 3:19d remains an enigma. Similar phrases are known from the Psalter, but always in superscripts.38 It is a liturgical notation, but its exact implication is no longer clear to modern readers.39

In spite of uncertainties regarding the interpretation of individual words, the notion that Habakkuk 3:1 classifies the content of the entire chapter as a should be taken seriously. In psalm superscripts the content of a carries undertones of thankfulness, joy and trust in spite of dire circumstances (Bratcher 1985:226–227). In its current literary context Habakkuk 3:1 marks a change in the mood of the book from 1:1’s with its undertones of prophetic protest and divine response in Habakkuk 1–2 to unconditional trust and faithful devotion in Habakkuk 3 (Prinsloo 1999:520).

The three sections of the poem proper (2 [3:2–7]; 3 [3:8–13]; 4 [3:14–19]) are characterised by elaborate inclusios. In Section 2 (3:2–7) 1 singular qtl verbal forms in 2a ‘I heard’; ‘I feared’) and 7a ‘I saw’) constitute the first inclusio and frame the observation of God’s appearance from the south-east, described in 3:3–7. The object of the verbs in 2a is God’s ‘repute’ and his ‘work’ , whilst the object of the verb in 7ab is the ‘tents of Kushan’ and the ‘tent curtains of the land of Midian’ – and they are ‘under iniquity’ and ‘trembling’ . Careful observation of God’s triumphant march from the south-east leads to a change in the perspective of the poet, from the ‘turmoil’ [2d]) he is experiencing to the ‘trembling’ [7b]) of the dwelling places of the enemy. The repetition of the root in 2d and 7b constitutes a second inclusio. Reference to place names associated with the south-eastern regions of Palestine in 3:3 and 3:7 constitutes a third inclusio:

A fourth inclusio is constituted by temporal phrases in 3:2 and 3:6. The phrase ‘in the midst of years’ occurs twice in an urgent prayer (cf. 3:2bc). God should ‘call to life’ and ‘make known’ his ‘repute’ and ‘work’ (cf. 3:2cd). The poet heard about it and feared (cf. 3:2a), but he does not observe it in the reality of his present circumstances. By recalling God’s mighty appearance from the south-east as warrior (3:3) clouded in brilliant light (3:4) amongst his heavenly retinue (3:5), and especially by recalling it as ‘age-old ways for him’ (6e), the poet actualises God’s mighty deeds of the past in the present. God’s ‘age-old ways’ stand in sharp contrast to the temporary dwellings of the enemy in 7ab – the ‘tents of Kushan’ and the ‘tent curtains of the land of Midian.’

Section 3 (3:8–13) is characterised by the following inclusios: The first inclusio is constituted by the repetition of the root in 3:8 and 3:13. The similarity between the actions of YHWH described in 3:8 and 3:12–13 constitutes a second inclusio. Apart from ‘salvation,’ 3:8 contains two other motifs, namely ‘anger’ and ‘riding upon:’

Habakkuk 3:12 repeats the motif of ‘anger’ and ‘trampling upon’ and 3:13 answers the rhetorical questions of 3:8 – the actual purpose of YHWH’s coming is the ‘salvation’ of his people and the destruction of the wicked:

to lay bare the foundation to the neck.

third inclusio is constituded by the repetition of the noun in 3:9 and 12. In 3:9 YHWH ‘cleaves the earth with rivers’ and in 3:12 he tramples ‘the earth in indignation.’ YHWH’s acts of salvation thus have an effect upon and become apparent on earth.

Section 4 (3:14–19) is characterised by two inclusios. The first is constituted by the 1 singular pronominal suffix in 3:14 and five 1 singular suffixes in 3:19:

The contrast between the situation of the prophet in 3:14 and 19 is especially apparent in this inclusio. A second inclusio is formed by the 1 singular verbs and suffixes in 3:16 and 18, all again framed by the 1 singular suffixes in 3:14 and 19:

Again the contrast between the situation of the prophet in 3:16 and 18 is emphasised by the inclusio.

Inclusio is a dominant feature in the overall structure of the poem. It is especially apparent in the repetition of the verbal form ‘I heard’ in Section 2 (3:2a) and Section 4 (3:16a) and the repetition of the root in Section 2 ‘in turmoil’ in 3:2d; ‘they are trembling’ in 7b) and Section 4 ‘my body trembled’ in 3:16a; זגרא ‘I tremble’ in 3:16c).

Communication patterns
If Habakkuk 3 is read as a single an interesting pattern in the text’s flow of communication becomes discernible. In Section 2 (3:2–7) there is a ‘two-way’ and ‘mixed’ communication pattern. In the introductory prayer (3:2), the pattern is ‘I Ò you’: two 1 singular qtl verbal forms introduce the section,41 whilst no less than five 2 masculine singular forms are used in the prophet’s direct address to YHWH.42 In the description of God’s triumphant march from the south-east (3:3–7) the communication pattern is ‘he Ò I’ with strong emphasis on 3 masculine singular forms referring to God. He is the subject of five verbal forms and eight 3 masculine singular suffixes also refer to him.43 A single 1 singular verbal form ‘I see’ in 7a) involves the poet in the awesome appearance of YHWH from the south-east and recalls the 1 singular forms in the introductory prayer, thus framing the third person description of God’s ‘coming’ in 3:3–6.

In Section 3 (3:8–13) the communication pattern is ‘one-way’ and ‘singular.’ The focus is entirely on YHWH’s actions and the effect it has upon creation and the description is entirely in the second person. It is illustrated by seven 2 masculine singular verbal forms and ten 2 masculine singular pronominal suffixes.44 This ‘singular’ pattern, framed by two sections with a ‘mixed’ pattern, ensures that 3:8–13 receives special emphasis.45

In Section 4 (3:14–19) the flow of communication is again ‘two-way’ and ‘mixed.’ In a short introductory description of YHWH’s attack on the enemy (3:14–15) the flow of communication is ‘you Ò I’: YHWH’s actions against his enemies are described by means of two 2 masculine singular verbs and one 2 masculine singular pronominal suffix.46 The actions of the enemies are directed against the poet, referred to by means of a 1 singular pronominal suffix ‘to scatter me’ in 14b). This introductory section is reminiscent of the opening prayer (3:2) and of the 2 masculine singular forms in Section 3 (3:8–13). In the longer prayer and expression of confidence (3:16–19) the flow of communication is ‘I Ò he’ with emphasis upon the poet’s reaction upon YHWH’s victory over the wicked. It is expressed by means of five 1 singular verbal forms, ten 1 singular pronominal suffixes and one 1 singular independent personal pronoun.47 Twice a positive action of YHWH towards the poet is mentioned by means of 3 masculine singular verbal forms.48 Thus 3:16–19 is reminiscent of the communication pattern in 3:3–7, there with emphasis on YHWH’s action, here with emphasis upon the poet’s reaction.

Communication patterns in Habakkuk 3 enhance the dominant occurrence of inclusio in the poem in general and it’s various building blocks in particular. In 3:2 and 3:8–15 YHWH is addressed directly in the second person, whilst he is addressed indirectly in the thirrd person in 3:3–6 and 3:16–19, thus creating an abab pattern in addressing YHWH or God in the poem. However, first person forms referring to the poet, transforms the parallel pattern in addressing YHWH to an intricate chiastic pattern framing 3:8–13. Section 2 (3:2–7) is framed by 1 singular forms in 3:2a and 3:7a. Section 4 (3:14–19) is framed by 1 singular forms in 3:14b, 3:16 and 3:18–19. In Section 2 the 1 singular forms frame a short prayer addressed to YHWH in the second person (3:2bcd) and a long description of God’s triumphant march from the south-eastern desert (3:2–6). In Section 4 the 1 singular suffix in 3:14b links up with the 1 singular verb in 3:7a. In 3:7 the poet ‘sees’ the dwelling of the enemy ‘under iniquity’ and ‘trembling’. In 3:14 the enemy is destroyed by YHWH as they ‘storm to scatter me,’ whilst the first person forms in 3:16 and 18 express a confession in the ultimate power of YHWH framing 3:17, expressing the most dire and precarious living conditions. Section 3 is the only section without any first person references, the only section exclusively reserved for 2 masculine singular forms referring to YHWH, and the section where it becomes clear that YHWH and his retinue (3:2–6) is actually marching from the south-east to destroy the enemies of his people. Habakkuk 3:8–13 thus becomes the heart of the poem, culminating in the complete destruction of the wicked in 3:13.

YHWH the warrior and personal prayer or confession as focal points
If Habakkuk 3 is read as a single the motif of YHWH as warrior becomes the dominant focal point present in all three main sections of the poem,49 whilst first person prayer and/or confession becomes a second focal point in 3:2–7 and 3:14–19. In 3:2–7 the prayer motif is present in the poet’s urgent prayer that YHWH’s ‘fame’ and ‘work’ should be made a reality in his present dire circumstances. The poet proceeds to do just that when he recalls the great theophany of God in the south-eastern desert when Israel was born as a nation (3:3–7). Habakkuk 3:7 makes it clear, though, that the poet is involved in reminiscing this salvific appearance of God in the distant past, because he ‘saw’ the dwelling places of Israel’s enemies ‘under iniquity’ and ‘trembling,’ remembering God’s theophany at Sinai as his ‘age old ways’ (3:6e). It is God’s ‘nature’ to get into motion, to travel his when his people are in trouble. Inclusio and communication patterns artfully create two focal points in 3:2–7. The framing of God’s triumphant appearance from the south-east (3:3–6) enhances the dominant motif of God as warrior. The first person singular frame (3:2 and 7) at the same time focuses attention on the poet’s present plight, urgent prayer, and certainty that ultimately God’s is the guarantee that his people will be saved again.

In 3:8–13 the motif of YHWH as warrior becomes a clear reality in a direct address, an eyewitness report of YHWH’s triumphant victory over the wicked. The poet disappears into the background and YHWH and his great salvific deeds are described in the second person. Here a frame is created by rhetorical questions in 3:8 and the clear answer to the questions in 3:12–13 – YHWH’s anger is directed against the ‘the head of the wicked house’ (3:13c) and his intervention is ultimately, aimed that the salvation of his people. The centre (3:9–11) confirms YHWH’s victory over all powers of chaos past and present (Nogalski 2011:685).

In 3:14–19 the theophany motif is briefly present in 3:14–15, again as an eyewitness report referring to YHWH’s deeds in the second person. Habakkuk 3:14–15 links up with the mythological language in 3:8 with references to (3:8c, 15a) and ‘your horses’ (3:8d, 15a), thus ensuring a strong link between Sections 3 (3:8–13) and 4 (3:14–19). However, the first person motif of Section 2 returns in 3:14b, where it becomes clear that the speaker is experiencing dire circumstances, because the enemy is storming ‘to scatter me’ and rejoicing ‘as one who devours the poor in hiding’ (3:14c). In those circumstances, as the poet recalls the triumphant march of God the warrior from the south-east (3:2–6) and the annihilation of the enemy by YHWH the warrior (3:8–13) ‘in the midst of years’ (3:2b, 2c), urgent prayer evolves into a great confession of unconditional trust in YHWH in spite of dire living conditions (3:16–19).


Unit delimitation in ancient manuscripts prompts the interpreter to reconsider the traditional form critical approach to Habakkuk 3 (Prinsloo 2009:218). Ancient unit delimiters transcend the neat borders between units demarcated on form critical grounds and indicate that Habakkuk 3 can be read as a single prayer containing the dominant theme of YHWH the warrior, coupled with a second theme, namely the personal involvement of the poet in the events of his day, expressed by means of urgent prayer (3:2), careful observation (3:7), negative experience (3:14) and, in the end, deferential awe and joyful confidence in the presence of YHWH (3:16–19).

Reading Habakkuk 3 as a single has important implications for the interpretation of the poem in the context of the book of Habakkuk. In a previous publication (Prinsloo 2001) I focused on intertextual links between the poem and other hymnic passages in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Ex 15:1–18; Dt 33:1–3; Jdg 5:4–5; Pss 18:8–16; 68:8–9; 77:17–20; 144:5–6). I argued that 3:3–6 and 3:8–13, 15 might contain archaic hymnic passages incorporated by the poet in 3:2, 7, 14, 16–19 in a new composition. Theophanies hinting at the Sinai and exodus experiences of Israel’s distant, mythical past are applied to the poet’s present circumstances. The focus of the present study does not allow for a detailed exposition of this observation. Others, however, argued that the insertion of so-called ‘ancient’ hymnic passages in different contexts of the Hebrew Bible are indicative of the interpretation of surrounding material by later exegetes. Mathys (1994) remarks that:

mit den Psalmen, die sich am Ende von Prophetenbüchern finden, habe die Gemeinde auf deren Verlesung geantwortet… Das hieße auch, daß der Prozeß ihrer Kanonisierung eingesetzt hat … Diese fassen die Bücher, in denen sie stehen, zusammen und interpretieren sie … Interpretation, Verallgemeinerung, Zusammenfassung, Kanonisierung – dafür eignen sich Gebete, Psalmen und Doxologien in besonders ausgezeichneter Weise. (p. 318)

Reading Habakkuk 3 as a single hints at the possibility that this text can be interpreted as a later generation’s appropriation of Habakkuk 1–2 into their present circumstances.

The reference to ‘the poor’ (3:14) and ‘who are attacking us’ (3:16) points to the poet of Habakkuk 3 being a member of a specific social group in the late Persian and/or early Hellenistic period who regarded themselves as the true Israel and as the actual recipients of YHWH’s salvific intervention in and promises to his people.50 The poet appropriates YHWH’s promise to the prophet Habakkuk at the time of the Chaldean onslaught on and devastation of Jerusalem to his own predicament as a marginalised ‘poor’ in a wicked and hostile environment. For him the:

Theophanie aus Edom/Seir wurzelt in der Vorstellung vom Jahwe-Gericht über Edom, die hier so verdichtet ist, dass ‘Edom‘ nur noch als Chiffre für das Gericht verwendet wird … Die Edom-Gerichts-Tradition ist bereits trandensiert. Jes 63, 1–6 liegt im Rücken. (Pfeiffer 2005:259–260)51

In Habakkuk 3 unit delimitation indeed ‘calls for a profound re-evaluation’ of the chapter’s structure and ‘the classification of sections and indeed the interpretation’ of the pericope (Prinsloo 2009:219).


Competing interests
The author declares that he has no financial or personal relationship(s) which may have inappropriately influenced him in writing this article.


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1. This study forms part of a larger research project in the field of unit delimitation in the Book of Habakkuk. Cf. Korpel (2000:1–50) for a general orientation of the method. In a previous study (Prinsloo 2009) it has been argued that unit delimiters (notably petuchot and setumot) in ancient Hebrew manuscripts pose serious questions to modern critical scholarship’s understanding of the Book of Habakkuk. The implications of unit delimiters for the interpretation of Habakkuk 1 have also been addressed in a previous publication (Prinsloo 2004:621–645). I dedicate this study to Prof. James Alfred Loader who had an immense influence on my formative years as an academic in the field of ancient Near Eastern languages and cultures. His professionalism made an indelible impression and his lectures on structural patterns in Hebrew Bible literature (cf. Loader 1979) forever influenced the way I read texts.

2. Cf. Dangl’s (2001:131–168) overview of research on the book. He reserves a special section for Habakkuk 3 (2001:144–151) because it can be regarded as a ‘distinct text within the text’ (2001:144). Clark and Hatton (1989:114) regard Habakkuk 3 as ‘quite different from the rest of the book in both form and content.’

3. Some regard the text as corrupt and propose numerous emendations (cf. Roberts 1991:128–144; Pfeiffer 2005:128–135); others defend the essential trustworthiness of the Masoretic text (Anderson 2001:264–268). In a previous study I defended the second position (Prinsloo 2002:83–111, esp. 88–98). I now propose alternative demarcation for a number of cola in the light of my research in the field of Unit Delimitation.

4. Dangl (2001:145–147) identifies two areas of concern: the question whether Habakkuk 3 has originally been part of the composition given its absence in 1QpHab, and the question whether Habakkuk 3 itself displays internal unity. In recent publications Albertz (2003:9–10) and Pfeiffer (2005:164) answered the questions in the negative and proposed elaborate redaction-critical processes behind the book. Markl (2004:104) defends the basic unity of the book and states: ‘Hab 3 nimmt aufgrund der eigenen Überschrift V. 1 und seiner besonderen Gestalt gegenüber den ersten beiden Kapiteln eine relativ eigenständige Position ein. Gleichzeitig ist der Psalm mit dem vorangehenden Text auf vielfältige Weise verbunden und erfüllt eine komplexe funktion im Buchzusammenhang.’

5. Dangl (2001:147–149) identifies two areas of concern: on the one hand scholars wrote extensively on the relationship between Habakkuk 3 and other texts in the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand there has been intense debate on the question whether Habakkuk 3 should be read against a Babylonian, Syro-Palestinian or Egyptian mythological background (cf. Avishur 1994:124–142 for a discussion of these issues).

6. Cf. Prinsloo (2002:84–87) and Pfeiffer (2005:117–128) for overviews of the chapter’s research history.

7. I use Avishur as example because he has a relatively ‘mild’ view on the growth of the text and focuses on its overall structure.

8. Avishur (1994:112, n. 6) associates and the related in Psalm 7:1 with the Akkadian šigû ‘lament’.

9. Avishur (1994:113) classifies Psalms 74, 77 and 89 as communal laments quoting from ancient hymns and Psalms 44 and 79 as laments alluding to hymns praising God.

10. Avishur’s (1994:114) translation. Hiebert (1986:4) translates ‘in turmoil’.

11. Avishur (1994:115–116) perceives similarities between 3:1, 16 and communal laments (cf. Pss 44:2; 77:3–13).

12. Cf. Kaiser (1992:178).

13. Cf. Kaiser (1992:190).

14. I expressed similar views in previous publications (Prinsloo 1999:525–526, 2001:478–483, 2002:98–102). Research in the field of Unit Delimitation convinced me to propose an ‘alternative’ view on the text in this study. I already hinted at the possibilities of such an alternative reading (Prinsloo 2009:217–218).

15. Cf. Hiebert (1986:119–120).

16. Hiebert (1986:118) defines it as ‘a song celebrating an Israelite military victory as triumph of Yahweh, the divine warrior.’ The same genre is present in a number of songs dating from Israel’s early history, notably Exodus 15:1–18, Judges 5, Deuteronomy 33:2–5, 26–29 and Psalm 68.

17. Hiebert (1986:111–115) points to the alternation of perfect and imperfect forms characteristic of the poem as well as the presence of chiastic patterns to explain his reading of 3:17 as an expansion of 3:2. References to images from nature in this verse should be regarded as part of the devastating influence of YHWH’s theophany.

18. For the detailed discussion of repetitive motifs, cf. Hiebert (1986:69–70).

19. Achtemeier (1986:53–60) identifies the following units: 3:2; 3:3–15; 3:16; 17–19. She considers the possibility that 3:16 might have been displaced and should be read together with 3:2 (Achtemeier 1986:54). According to her Habakkuk 3 then consists of an autobiographical framework (3:2 and 16) encapsulating a hymn (3:3–15) followed by a confession (3:17–19). The superscript and postscript indicate that the chapter has been used independently in the cult at some stage.

20. Cf. also Bliese (1999:62–66) who identifies seven ‘poems’ in Habakkuk 3 (3:2; 3:3–4; 3:5–6; 3:7–13a; 3:13b–14; 3:15–16; 3:17–19).

21. Cf. also Andersen’s translation of Habakkuk 3 (2001:6–8).

22. Cf. Széles (1987:7); Sweeney (1991:229).

23. Cf. the discussion in Fuller (1999:87–88) and García Martínez (2004:103–106).

24. Cf. the discussion in García-Martínez (2004:105–106).

25. Oesch (1979:288) indicates that in the case of the Twelve Prophets Mur88 by and large agrees with the Masoretic tradition with one exception. It has an open space before Haggai 3:14 not attested in any of the Masoretic codices.

26. It should come as no surprise. During the long process of the transmission of texts scribes made mistakes (Korpel 2000:5–6). Furthermore allowances should be made for the personal preference of individual scribes. Tov (2000:324) remarks: ‘… scribes must have felt free to change the sense divisions of their Vorlage and to add new ones in accord with their understanding of the context.’ Oesch (1979:363) concludes that petuchot and/or setumot were transmitted with greater care in the Torah than in the rest of the books.

27. For corroborative evidence four manuscripts of the Septuagint have been consulted. All agree that a new section begins at 3:1. In Codex Alexandrinus (1936) and Codex Vaticanus (1907) the transition between 2:20b and 3:1a is marked by a line left open and in Codex Sinaiticus (1922) by a double dot. All four manuscripts also write 3:1ab as a separate superscript. Codex Alexandrinus (1936) and Codex Sinaiticus (1922) mark 3:2a as the beginning of a new section by a ‘large’ letter and ekthesis respectively. In both Codex Alexandrinus (1936) and Codex Marchalianus (1890) Habakkuk 3 is written ‘stichometrically’ (every colon begins on a new line, in Codex Alexandrinus marked with a ‘large’ letter). In Codex Vaticanus (1907) and Codex Sinaiticus (1922) the subdivisions of Habakkuk 3 are determined by the occurrence of in the Hebrew text (cf. 3:3b, 9b, 13d). is represented in the Greek by διάψαλμα. In each case it is written in the middle of the column, thus dividing Habakkuk 3 into five sections (3:1ab; 2a–3b; 3c–9b; 9c–13d; 14a–19d).

28. It falls outside the scope of this paper to discuss the text critical difficulties in the text. Major problems have been discussed elsewhere (cf. Prinsloo 2002:88–98).

29. Cf. the remarks in the previous note.

30. Cf. Psalms 6:1; 8:1; 9:1; 12:1; 22:1; 45:1; 46:1; 53:1; 56:1; 62:1; 69:1; 77:1; 81:1.

31. Cf. Psalms 4:1; 6:1; 54:1; 55:1; 67:1; 76:1.

32. Cf. the discussion in note 35 of the Addendum.

33. The purpose of the present study is not to provide a detailed exegetical analysis of Habakkuk 3. In two earlier studies (Prinsloo 2001, 2002) I engaged in more detailed exegetical analysis, albeit within the framework of the ‘traditional’ demarcation of units. In a recent publication (Prinsloo 2013) I provide a brief exegetical analysis of Habakkuk 3 following the demarcation of units proposed in the current study.

34. Cf. Psalms 17:1; 86:1; 90:1; 102:1. Andersen (2001:268) remarks: ‘The term tĕpillâ is a general word for prayer. It appears … in the title of several psalms, most of which represent personal supplications in times of distress.’

35. Cf. Habakkuk 1:1. Exegetes should honestly acknowledge that this is all that can be said about the prophet (Huwyler 2001:248, n. 56) Cf. Sweeney (1992:1–2) and Nogalski (2011:645–649) for speculations about Habakkuk’s identity in Jewish tradition.

36. Cf. Psalms 6:1; 12:1 ‘upon an eight-string lyre’); 8:1; 81:1; 84:1 ‘according to “Gittith”’); 9:1 ‘according to “the Death of the Son”’); Psalms 22:1 ‘according to “the Doe of the Morning”’); 45:1; 69:1 ‘according to “Lilies”’); 46:1 ‘according to “Alamoth”’); 56:1 ‘according to “A Dove on Distant Oaks”); ‘according to “The Lily of the Covenant”’); 61:1 ‘upon stringed instruments’); 62:1; 77:1 ‘according to “Jeduthun”’); 88:1 ‘according to “Mahalath Leannoth”’). For the difficulties in the interpretation of these terms see the discussion ad loci by Hossfeld and Zenger (1993, 2005).

37. Cf. Andersen (2001:268–273) for a critical discussion of the alleged relationship between and various possible derivates of the Akkadian root šegû.

38. ‘to the conductor’ occurs in 55 psalm superscripts and only in Habakkuk 3:19d outside the Psalter. For the difficulties in the interpretation of the term, cf. Hossfeld and Zenger (1993:60). ‘with stringed instruments’ occurs in seven psalm superscripts, always following directly upon (cf. Psalms 4:1; 6:1; 54:1; 55:1; 61:1; 67:1; 76:1). A pronominal suffix is added only in Habakkuk 3:19d. Andersen (2001:350) suggests the translation ‘for the conductor in my string ensemble.’

39. Nogalski (2011:681) points to the fact that the liturgical notations in Habakkuk 3:1 and 19d show similarities with superscripts predominantly present in Books I–III of the Psalter. It also applies to the liturgical notion in Habakkuk 3:3b; 9b; 13d. It appears 17 times in 9 of 39 psalms in Book I (Pss 3–41); 30 times in 17 of 31 psalms in Book II (Pss 42–72); 20 times in 11 of 17 psalms in Book III (Pss 73–89); it is absent in Book IV (Pss 90–106) and appears only 4 times in 2 of 39 psalms in Book V (Pss 107–145). The majority of occurrences are thus in Books I–III, with the highest frequency in Book III.

40. The single occurrence of a 1 plural pronominal suffix in the entire poem points to the poet being a representative for a group of people, identified in 3:14c as ‘the poor in hiding’.

41. Cf. (2a).

42. Two pronominal suffixes, cf. (2a); (2b) and three modal forms, cf. (2b); (2c); (2d).

43. For the verbal forms, cf. (3a); (6a); (6b). For the pronominal suffixes, cf. (3c); (3d); and (4b); (4c); (5a); (5b); (6e).

44. For the verbal forms, cf. (8d); (9a); (9c); (12a); (12b); (13a); (13c). For the pronominal suffixes, cf. (8b); (8c); (8d); (8e); (9a); (10a); (11b); (11c); (13a); (13b).

45. The second person forms of course imply the involvement of the poet, but as a mere spectator, a reporter on the events transpiring before him. Mathews (2012:151) remarks that the poet ‘does not express his emotions but merely reports the events.’

46. For the verbal forms, cf. (14a); (15a). For the pronominal suffix, cf. ךיסוס (15a).

47. For the verbal forms, cf. (16a); (16c); (16d); (18a); (18b). For the pronominal suffixes, cf. (16a); (16b); and (16c); (18b); (19a); (19b); and (19c). For the independent personal pronoun, cf. ינאו (18a).

48. Cf. (19b); (19c).

49. Cf. Miller (2006) and Pfeiffer (2005) for detailed discussions of the motif.

50. Cf. Ro (2002) for a detailed discussion of this movement. Cf. also Levin (2003, esp. 331–333).

51. Cf. also Nogalski (2011:683) for a discussion of possible intertextual links between Habakkuk 3 and the anti-Edom utterances in Isaiah 34:5–7 and 63:1–6.

Addendum 1

TABLE 1a: Habakkuk 3: Text, translation and delimitation.

1.The Septuagint SBAQW and some manuscripts of the Vulgate demarcate 3:1ab as a separate superscript.

2.Cola and lines are demarcated according to the major disjunctive Masoretic accents. Cf. De Hoop (2000a, 2000b) and Renz (2003:7–12, 37–40, 49, 54–55 and esp. 57–80) for a discussion of the system and a critical evaluation of the function of the accents. In Habakkuk 3:1–19 the end of cola are demarcated by:

Sillûq: 1b; 2d; 3d; 4c; 5b; 6e; 7b; 8e; 9c; 10d; 11c; 12b; 13d; 14c; 15b; 16e; 17f; 18b; 19d.

ʼAtnāḥ: 1a; 2c; 3b; 4b; 5a; 6d; 7a; 8c; 9b; 10b; 11a; 12a; 13b; 14b; 15a; 16c.

Segôltâ: 2a.

Zāqēp parvum: 2b; 3a; 3c; 4a; 6b; 6c; 8a; 8b; 9a; 10a; 10c; 11b; 13a; 13c; 14a; 16b; 16d; 17b; 17c; 17e; 19a; 19b.

Rebîaʽ: 6a; 16a; 17a.

Sixty-six cola which combine to form 29 lines can be demarcated. Eight of the 29 lines are tricola (4abc; 6cde; 8abc; 9abc; 11abc; 14abc; 16abc;

19abc = 28%), 1 line is a monocolon (19d = 3%), the remaining 20 lines (67%) are bicola. Of these lines 3:1ab and 3:19d can be regarded as a super- and subscript respectively. The poem proper thus consists of 27 lines, 8 tricola (30%) and 19 bicola (70%).

3.All Hebrew manuscripts consulted regard 3:1–7 as a section.

4.All Hebrew manuscripts consulted regard 3:1–7 as a section.

5.In Habakkuk 1 and 2 corroborative material in 1QpHab and manuscripts of the Septuagint aid modern interpreters in the endeavour to combine lines to form strophes. As already indicated, manuscripts of the Septuagint differ in their treatment of Habakkuk 3, writing the text either ‘stichometrically’ or using the apparently musical notation הלס (translated in Greek as διάψαλμα) as the main delimitation criterion. 1QpHab does not, of course, contain Habakkuk 3. Using especially the criterion of parallelism, and taking 3:1ab as a separate superscript and 3:19d as a subscript, 18 strophes can be demarcated, corresponding in each case with the Masoretic verse. Note that in Biblia Rabbinica every Masoretic verse is followed by a space. It confirms the observation by Korpel (2000:41) that the soph pasuq acts as a fairly reliable guide to demarcate strophes. In 2a the emphasis upon הוהי at the beginning of the colon confirms that a new strophe commences.

6.The Masoretic accents are followed in the demarcation of the four cola in 3:2. It differs from the traditional demarcation in virtually all commentaries:

Cf. Hiebert (1986:60–63) for a discussion of this ‘traditional’ delimitation. Renz (2003:114) follows the Masoretic accentuation in his analysis of Habakkuk 3.

7.The change of subject is indicative of the beginning of a new stanza.

8.In 3a the emphasis upon הולא at the beginning of the colon confirms that a new strophe commences.

9.In 4a the unusual syntax confirms that a new strophe commences.

10.The change of subject is indicative of the beginning of a new stanza. Some manuscripts of the Vulgate also mark 5a as the beginning of a new section.

11.In 5a the unusual syntax confirms that a new strophe commences.

12.In 6a the occurrence of two verbal forms at the beginning of the colon confirms that a new strophe commences.

13.In 7a the unusual syntax confirms that a new strophe commences.

14.The demarcation and translation of the colon is controversial. It is often read together with 6e and translated by ‘those are his ancient ways as punishment for iniquity’ (cf. Rudolph 1975:234–235; Van der Woude 1978:62). Renz (2003:46–48) argues that ןוא תחת should be read together with the following phrase and that the zāqēp parvum should, in this instance, be ignored. It is confirmed by De Hoop (2000b:86) who maintains that a zāqēp parvum, when marking the second word in a colon ‘while the preceding (first) word bears a conjunctive accent’ does not mark the end of a colon.

15.All Hebrew manuscripts consulted regard 3:8–13 as a section.

16.The change of subject is indicative of the beginning of a new stanza.

17.In 8a the interrogative particle at the beginning of the colon confirms that a new strophe commences.

18.In 9a the emphatic repetition of the root רוע at the beginning of the colon confirms that a new strophe commences.

19.The change of subject is indicative of the beginning of a new stanza.

20.In 10a the occurrence of two verbal forms at the beginning of the colon confirms that a new strophe commences.

21.In 11a the unusual syntax confirms that a new strophe commences.

22.The change of subject is indicative of the beginning of a new stanza.

23.In 12a the unusual syntax confirms that a new strophe commences.

24.In 13a the occurrence of Perfect verbal forms following upon the Imperfect forms in 12ab suggests the beginning of a new strophe.

25.Hebrew manuscripts consulted regard 3:14–19 as a section. It is also the case in the Septuagint SBAQW.

26.The change of subject is indicative of the beginning of a new stanza.

27.In 14a the unusual syntax confirms that a new strophe commences.

28.In 15a the unusual syntax confirms that a new strophe commences. Some manuscripts of the Vulgate mark 15a as the beginning of a new paragraph.

29.The change of subject is indicative of the beginning of a new stanza.

30.In 16a the occurrence of two verbal forms at the beginning of the colon confirms that a new strophe commences.

31.The change of subject is indicative of the beginning of a new stanza.

32.In 17a the occurrence of the deictic particle יכ confirms that a new strophe commences.

33.In 18a the occurrence of the pronoun ינא in an emphatic position at the beginning of the line confirms that a new strophe commences. Some manuscripts of the Vulgate mark 18a as the beginning of a new paragraph.

34.In 19a the emphasis upon הוהי at the beginning of the colon confirms that a new strophe commences.

35.Ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts do not regard 3:19d as a separate unit. The Septuagint did not regard it as a subscript but relates it to the preceding 3:19c, evidently relating the Hebrew חצנמל to חצנ ‘conquer,’ a meaning not attested in Biblical Hebrew. In the Septuagint Habakkuk 3:19cd reads as follows:

ἐπὶ τὰ ὑψηλὰ ἐπιβιβᾷ με 19c He mounts me upon high places

τοῦ νικῆσαι ἐν τῇ ᾠδῇ αὐτου 19d that I may conquer by his song

It is demarcated as a separate section here because of parallels in the Book of Psalms where it clearly functions as part of the superscript.

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