According to the superscription of Psalm 54 (verses 1-2 in the Hebrew text), David was hiding in the wilderness of Ziph located southeast of Hebron in southern Judah. While being pursued by King Saul some Ziphites betrayed his location. David complains to God about this situation and responds to events outside of his control. As such Psalm 54, though old (about 1005 BC), resonates with the 21st century social and political degradation of the United States and the world. Chaos is on the ascendency. Fear and anxiety follows and Christians need to know how God will help them weather these kinds of storms.
Psalm 54 (NASB)
1 Save me, O God, by Your name, And vindicate me by Your power. 2 Hear my prayer, O God; Give ear to the words of my mouth. 3 For strangers have risen against me And violent men have sought my life; They have not set God before them. Selah
4 Behold, God is my helper; The Lord is the sustainer of my soul. 5 He will recompense the evil to my foes; Destroy them in Your faithfulness.
6 Willingly I will sacrifice to You; I will give thanks to Your name, O Lord, for it is good. 7 For He has delivered me from all trouble, And my eye has looked with satisfaction upon my enemies.
Apart from the movement from prayer to promise to praise and the significant poetic aspects, the second line of verse 4 (verse 6 in the Hebrew text) reads differently in numerous versions. This constitutes the remainder of this article. Consider these 11 translations divided into two groups:
NASB–“The Lord is the sustainer of my soul.” NIV–“the Lord is the one who sustains me.” ESV–“the Lord is the upholder of my life.” NRSV–“the Lord is the upholder of my life.” HCSB–“the Lord is the sustainer of my life.” NIV–“the Lord is the one who sustains me.
NKJV–“The Lord is with those who uphold my life.” LEB–“The Lord is with those who sustain my life.” NET–“The Lord is among those who support me.” ASV–“The Lord is of them that uphold my soul.” YLT–“The Lord is with those supporting my soul.”
Of these 11 representative translations, two interpretations are evident:
- The Lord is the sustainer of David’s life (Group 1).
- The Lord is with those who sustain David’s life (Group 2).
Both interpretations are grammatically possible but only one is probable. The following discussion uses Group 1 and Group 2 to organize the discussion.
Line two of Psalm 54:4 reads literally “the Lord [is] with those who sustain my life” (אדני בסמכי נפשׁי). The controversy centers around the terms in bold font consisting of a preposition “among/with” (ב) attached to the plural participle “those who sustain” (סמכי). On the surface Group 2 appears to follow the Hebrew text closely while Group 1 seems to ignore the preposition and the plural participle. But this is not the end of the discussion!
Group 1 claims validity from Hebrew grammar. In the Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 51-100, p.45, Tate acknowledges the plural form of the word “sustainers” but suggests that it is an intensification used for the superlative meaning that the Lord is “the sustainer par excellence.” But what of the attached preposition? Here Tate refers to Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 379, wherein the idea of essence is attributed to the preposition with the sense of ascribing “to [the Lord] a similar character.” Gesenius translates line two “the Lord is one who upholds my soul” Thus Group 1 stands as grammatically valid translations. But the discussion does not end here!
Logically, Group 2 exhibits Occam’s Razor, the principle that prefers among competing hypotheses the one that makes the fewest assumptions to arrive at conclusions (Webster’s College Dictionary). In our text, Group 1 assumes that the plural does not refer to plurality and that the preposition “with/among” can be muted by introducing the idea of essence. Surely this is more complicated than simply taking the words at face value as seen in Group 2. Grammatically, no interpretive assumptions are required with Group 2; it can stand unchanged with clear understanding. But the discussion is not finished!
Viewing the passage from a theological standpoint, Group 2 resonates best with the biblical theology of both Old and New Testaments. No dispute exists regarding the truth that God helps His people as line one of Psalm 54:4 proclaims. But He typically gives help through His people as line two states when translated literally. Occasionally one can see God working independently, as in creating a dry path for the Israelites to cross the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14), or by feeding Elijah by ravens at the brook Cherith (1 Kings 17). But more often He meets the needs of His people with His people. Group 2, therefore, lays claim to God’s typical pattern for helping His people. It enjoys the greater probability for correct interpretation and practical application–The believer who prays for divine help should look to God and His people for support. The end of the discussion!