Your Bible study group is really enjoying your brilliant expositions of the Psalms. You, of course, cannot tell the group how many hours you spend pouring over your Hebrew Bible to assure them that you really do know what you are talking about. This week has been a tough one, however. Your family required extra time, your job moved into “extra innings,” your professors refuse to delay the mid-term exams. Your preparations for the study group been inadequate. You have no choice; you will have to “wing it” on Psalm 56. Hopefully there will not be any “land mines” in the way of another successful evening of fascinating your Bible study group!
Then came verse 1 (English text) . . .
(NIV) ”Be merciful to me, 0 God, for men hotly pursue me all day long they press their attack.”
(NKJV) ”Be merciful to me, 0 God, for man would swallow me up; Fighting all day he oppresses me.”
(NASB) ”Be gracious to me, 0 God, for man has trampled upon me; Fighting all day long he oppresses me.”
SUE: “My Bible says ‘men hotly pursue me;’ Tom’s says ‘man would swallow me up;’ yours says ‘man has trampled upon me.’ How can it mean all of these things. Don’t they imply different things?”
TOM: “Right. Also, the NIV places the event in the present; the NKJV, as a possible future event; and the NASB, a past event. When did this happen? Is there a single best translation? Is there a single meaning?”
YOU: “Be merciful to me, 0 God!”
PROFESSOR: Thank you for contacting me after that troublesome Bible study! Reflect on the following matters regarding your understanding of Hebrew:
- Hebrew and English do not communicate in the same way. English sentences focus the verbs on time (past, present, future); Hebrew finds the time element in the context not in the verb (with a few exceptions). The Hebrew verb focuses more on complete (not completed) actions and incomplete or ongoing actions. These kinds of actions can occur in any time frame depending on the context. Of course, not all verbs are action words. Some are state of being verbs (called statives) but the same time issues exist. So Tom was right in his observation of the different time frames in the various translations.
- This brings us to the second key point to understand. Translations from Hebrew into another language such as English are all secondary interpretations and translators do not interpret the contexts (historical, grammatical, etc.) the same resulting in the differences such as noted by Tom and Sue in your study group between the NIV, NKJV, and NASB. There is some degree of loss in all translations.
- A third point of interpretation involves poetry. Yes, I did say POETRY! Nearly 50% of the Old Testament is poetic, and Hebrew poetry is vastly different from English poetry! Whereas much English poetry depends largely on rhyme and meter, Hebrew poetry depends more on sense than on sounds though it does have a degree of both rhyme and meter (more accurately stated as length of poetic lines). The most prevalent aspect of Hebrew poetry is parallelism and balance (among many other poetic devices). Psalm 56:1 (verse 2 in the Hebrew Bible) has both. In parallelism of two lines in a poem, for instance, the second line may relate to the first line in a number of ways to expand the meaning or simply to restate it for emphasis or focus. Psalm 56:1 has two lines beginning with “for.” We must look at the second line as it relates to the first line. Using line 2 of the above-mentioned translations, a couple of things are clear:
- These phrases, “all day long they press their attack” (NIV) and “Fighting all day he oppresses me” (NKJV, NASB), say the same thing with the NIV choosing to paraphrase the idea in easily-understandable English.
- The main idea in the single Hebrew verb of line 1 is variously reflected by these translations: “hotly pursue” (NIV), “swallow me up” (NKJV), “trample upon me” (NASB). The Hebrew verb (שׁאף) means “to pant after” or “to hound” or “to crush” or “to trample on.” Clearly “to pursue,” to “swallow up,” and “to trample” relates well to the Hebrew word and in the process expand and interpret the sense or, at the very least, make the Hebrew verb more expressive. Sue was correct in this regard. There are differences.
But SURPRISE! There is another poetic aspect here! Psalm 56:2 parallels verse 1 and interprets it with three expressions using the same Hebrew words. (Repetition is another common aspect of Hebrew poetry.)
- (NIV) “in hot pursuit” parallel with “pursue me” in verse 2.
- (NKJV) “swallow me up” parallel with “hound me” in verse 2.
- (NASB) “trampled upon me” parallel with “trampled upon me” in verse 2.
- (NIV, NKJV. NASB) “all day long” parallel with “all day long” in verse 2. (NKJV omits “long”)
Of course, Psalm 56 :2 (English) has two parallel lines as well, but suffice it here to say that what I explained in verse 1 will hopefully satisfy you, Sue and Tom, and through you inspire others to want to understand more of the wonderful and challenging world of Hebrew language and poetry!