Psalm 3

Dear Reader,

What strikes me about Psalm 3 is that it shows us a few things about Hebrew writing that may seem odd or incorrect to us English speakers. Jumping right in, this is how I would translate Psalm 3:

“Lord, how many [are] my adversaries, many those who stand against me.

Many [are] those saying to my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’

But You, Lord, [are] a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.

My voice unto the Lord I cry, and He answered me from His holy mount.

But as for me I lay down and slept; I awoke for the Lord sustains me.

I will not fear myriads of men who surrounding take their stand against me.

Arise, Lord; save me, my God.

For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; the teeth of wicked men you break.

Salvation is the Lord’s. Upon your people is your blessing.”

This psalm follows a very common pattern. The psalmist is in distress. He calls out to the Lord and then expresses confidence in the Lord’s salvation.

I debated how to translate the verbs strike and break in verse 7. Tenses are not so clear-cut in Hebrew as in English. Among translations, the ESV and NIV do as I did and use the present tense. The NASB and KJV use the past tense. The verb forms in Hebrew look like the past tense. But Hebrew has what we call converted verbs that actually change their tense, usually after the conjunction “and” but sometimes after other connecting words. And in poetry things are even more fluid. My sense here is that the psalmist has not seen his salvation but is expressing confidence in the Lord’s deliverance. So I have chosen the present tense to express this.

Another characteristic of Hebrew poetry that may not sit well with us is that is easily changes between a first, second or third person perspective (your English teacher would not let you write this way). We see this in the last verse which begins referring to God in the third person (“Salvation is the Lord’s”) and then quickly changes to the second (“Upon your people is your blessing”). We do not see it in this psalm but there is often a disagreement between the subject and verb that would make English teachers cringe too. Usually it is because they are separated a bit in the sentence of the subject is, for example, a singular noun which in the psalmist’s head seems plural, like “people” (which is singular in Hebrew).

Turning to the psalter versions, the first thing that strikes me is that I would like to see translations translate words consistently. For example, if Hebrew, which has many words which might be translated “poor” uses one word in one verse and another word in a later verse, then we too should use two different words. Conversely, if the Hebrew uses the same word, then we should use the same word, at least within a given psalm. In this psalm, the Hebrew begins by saying “many” a lot. In the second half of verse 1 and in verse 2, the word is identical, The first half of verse 1 has a slightly different form from the same root. I think psalm 3B captures this better than 3A.

I am not at all happy with what the versions do with verse 2. My translation read, “Many [are] those saying to my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.'” (I have translated “soul” here to be most literal but really the sense is just that they have said it “to me.” Discussing the word nepesh which is translated soul or life would be a good idea another time). In 3B, we read, “Many are those who say of me, ‘In vain he on his God relies.'” The word salvation has been completely left out. The other selection is even poorer: “They say of me, ‘He has no help, Though he on God relies.'” Salvation has become help and the second phrase is entirely added. Now the difference in meaning between salvation and help in this context may seem small. But “salvation”, coming from the same root as the name Jesus, seems to me a loaded word. I am just not comfortable with the change that has been made here. Notice that the same root is used in verse 7 when the psalmist calls on God to “save” him and again in v.8 when the psalmist makes his final statement of confidence that “salvation is the Lord’s.”

Turning to the last two verses of the psalm, we find a couple of additions. As I have read through the psalter, this seems to be a common pattern. One is more likely to find additions to fill out the psalm and complete the musical verse at the end of a psalm selection. In verse 7, both A and B add “For You subdue my foe!” (B actually says “every foe.”) In terms of meaning, this is perhaps a minor addition. In v. 8, however, 3A adds after “deliverance if of the Lord”, “To grant it as He will.” In 3B, “He works salvation–as He will.” To me inserting the idea of God’s will seems to be adding theological content. It may be correct theology but that doesn’t mean it is in this psalm.

If I have to pick one topic to emphasize in this psalm, it would be the Lord’s salvation. In Hebrew the same root, the root found in the same Jesus, is found three times in this psalm, in verses 2,7, and 8. The English psalm selections obscure this. Yet in Hebrew this repetition helps to hold the psalm together. First the psalmist laments that his enemies say he ahs no salvation in God. Then he cries to God for salvation, and finally he expresses confidence that the Lord is his salvation. It makes for a powerful psalm and helps move the action forward. In English, we have missed this.


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Not translating words consistently. I saw this in Psalm 3. It used the root for “salvation” (the same root as in the name Jesus) three times in […]


  2. […] posted once before on Psalm 3, but that was my individual study. This week the kids and I studied it in homeschool. I started by […]


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