Psalms 1-3: Drawing Some Conclusions

Dear Reader,

I have been approaching my analysis of the psalms and their versions in our psalter on a one-by-one basis, but I would like to take some time now to make some general comments on what I have seen so far. The following are changes we see in the psalm translations and why I think they matter:

1. Ignoring the parallelism. Parallelism is the most basic organizing principle of Hebrew poetry (rather than rhyme or rhythm as in English). In our translations, though, we often obscure the parallelism by conflating phrases (putting them together), omitting parallel clauses, or adding new ones. Now there may be times when I at least can not see a lot of meaning in the Hebrew structure, but there are also times when the parallelism is clearly used to communicate as well as to give the psalm shape. I tried to show this in Psalm 1. What changes between the first and second halves of parallel clauses may be significant. Or the overall structure may serve to point to certain words and phrases as key to the psalm’s meaning. It is like a painting in which the light and shadow serve to focus your attention on one object.

2. 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 different contexts. I think this added a lot of meaning to the psalm and helped move it forward. But our versions of psalm three did not translate this word the same every time it occurred and so this level of meaning was lost in the psalter.

3. Changing the subject of a verb. The psalter often seems to change around how a sentence is worded. For example, “God smashed them” might become “they were utterly destroyed.” This may not seem like a huge thing, but I think who does what if often important to the meaning of a psalm. Is God the primary actor? Is someone else? These are not insignificant questions. I tried to show this in Psalm 2.

Apart from these issues, all of which would fall under the heading “failure to appreciate the Hebrew”, there are just additions. I assume the point of most of these is to fill out the musical verse and make the meter come out right. They vary in how significant they are. Some bother me more than others. What bothers another person may be different (just as I may like a hymn you don’t and vice-versa).

Other things I hope to have shown about Hebrew poetry are:

1. Parallelism is the main organizing principle.

2. Hebrew often makes do without words (like forms of the verb “to be”) that we need in English. This sometimes leads to ambiguity, but given the constraints of English we must often make a choice of how to render things.

3. Hebrew also does not have punctuation marks. The edition I use (and which is most commonly used by scholars) is the Biblia Hebraica. It does have verse divisions and paragraphs and accent marks which serve to divide up the text but these all came much later than the text itself and so one cannot always rely on them completely. There is nothing like quotation marks to show speech.

4. Vowels were also not original to the text. (You know those jots and tittles one is not supposed to change? Those are the little vowel  marks which may look like specks on the paper.)

5. Verb tenses in Hebrew do not exactly correspond to tenses in English. We view things as past, present , and future. Hebrew seems to think more in terms of completed and uncompleted action. And it does not have the nuances of “he will have done” and the like. 

6. Changing from first to second or third person within a line does not seem to bother the psalmists. Neither does occasional disagreement between the subject and verb.

My goal here is to both give us a better understanding of the Psalms and their meaning and to begin a discussion about how we should be translating the psalms for singing. I don’t by any means have all the answers. I will continue to work through the psalter and hopefully bring out more issues.


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