Psalm 23

Dear Reader,

So we had relatives visiting last week and we took the week off school. And I also had less time to prepare for this week. So I thought I would pick something easy for our weekly psalm study. Psalm 23 is short, familiar, and doesn’t seem to contain any particularly hard concepts. So I thought it would fit the bill well. I can even recite it from memory (in Hebrew).

And then I looked at the psalm. It is not so easy as I expected. There is really quite a lot there that we could discuss. And some things in the translation that really need explanation. So this may end up being two posts, this first one on the translation itself and a later one on how we studied the psalm.

Here is the translation I came up with:

1 The LORD [is] my shepherd; I do not want.

2 In pastures green he makes me lie down.

3 By waters calm he leads me; My soul he revives.

4 He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

5 Although I walk in the valley of death’s shadow I do not fear evil.

6 For you [are] with me.

7 Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

8 You prepare before me a table opposite my enemies.

9 You anointed with oil my head;

10 My cup [is] overflowing.

11 Surely goodness and loving-kindness pursue me all the days of my life.

12 And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for long days.

The big issue I puzzled over in this psalm is the verb tenses. Biblical Hebrew does not have tenses  in the way English does. It has essentially two verb forms, an imperfect which expresses incomplete action and a perfect which expresses completed action. The latter would be used mainly for things that have happened in the past and are done with: Moses led, the people grumbled, God saved. The imperfect can be used for the future: We will go. But it can also be used for continuing or habitual action in the present: God leads. To complicate things further Hebrew narrative has forms that look almost like the other form but mean the opposite. These sometimes show up in poetry as well. Have I made you want to study biblical Hebrew yet? It’s actually not as hard as it sounds. There are a lot fewer verb forms than in most languages. I can’t help but think that what we have in the Old Testament is really more of a literary language and that they must have had other ways of saying things when they were actually talking to one another. I have trouble seeing how any language can work well day-to-day with no productive present tense. But I digress.

My point is that in Psalm 23 most of the verbs are on the imperfect, the form that indicates uncompleted action. The only ones that aren’t imperfect are “anointed” in line 9 and “dwell” in line 12. The latter probably has some other textual issues so I am not sure we can count it as evidence of much tense-wise in this psalm. It should be noted that in line 1 we have to supply a verb (“is”) in English, but Hebrew has no verb form (that lack of a present tense again). “Overflowing” in line 10 is also not a verb form strictly speaking in Hebrew but a participle which is how biblical Hebrew usually deals with the present.

So what are we to do with all these imperfects? There are a number of acceptable ways to translate them. They could all be futures: “I will not want”, “He will make me lie down.” They could be present tenses in English, showing ongoing actions: “I do not want”, “He makes me lie down.” The problem I had in translating this psalm is that the version in my head and most of the translations I looked up don’t pick one way to translate all these imperfects. They use legitimate translations but they are not consistent. Line 1 would be “I shall not want”, a future. But then even though the verb forms are the same, we tend to switch to a present tense, “He leads me” etc. By line 5, we go back to the future: “I will fear no evil.” The forms in Hebrew haven’t changed, but in English they appear to.

So my conclusion was that I wanted to use the same English tense for all these verbs. I don’t have a strong opinion on whether that tense should be the present or the future but I want to use one and not bounce back and forth from one to the other. I opted in the end for the present, mostly because it felt the most familiar. My feeling is these are all ongoing actions, not just something that will happen in the future.

Another thing that came across to me as a wrote out the translation is how lines 2 through 5 are structured. They all have phrases that go preposition-noun-describing word. In English we would normally use an adjective. We say, for instance, “in the gold cup,” using gold as an adjective. But in Hebrew it is normal to say “in the cup of gold” in which case gold is a noun but still describes the cup. There is not even a word for “of” in there in Hebrew. Instead they use a special form of the first noun called the construct form and they don’t need the “of.” So in Hebrew lines 2 through 5 all have this structure:

2 Preposition-Noun-of-Noun verb

3 Preposition-Noun-of-Noun verb  extra phrase

4 Verb Preposition-Noun-of-Noun extra phrase

5  Conjunction Verb Preposition-Noun-of-Noun extra phrase

Can you see how the parallelism is created by the grammatical structures? This doesn’t always come through so well in English. It also explains why I put “My soul he revives” in line 3. To give it its own line would disrupt the parallelism. But at the end of line 3 it balances out the phrase at the end of line 4, “for his name’s sake.”

“Death’s shadow” in line 5 is just one word in Hebrew by the way. It is kind of a funny one too. It is really the words shadow and death out together as we might make a new word like “cowboy” or “houseboat.” Only Hebrew does not usually make compound words like that. But now that we see the parallel structures in lines 2 through 5 this word makes sense here. The psalmist has combined the two to make one word so he will have the same “preposition-noun-noun” construction as in the previous lines.

Another thing that doesn’t come through well in translation is alliteration. It is hard to think of words to use in English that alliterate when the Hebrew does. In lines 3 and 4, the words for “lead” and “guide” sound very similar. But even lovelier to say in Hebrew is “I do not fear evil.” The last syllable of “fear” is the same as the word used for “evil” here. In Hebrew it is “lo ‘ira ra.”

So those are my textual notes. The meaning still remains to be discussed but I think I will save that for part 2.


One response to this post.

  1. […] covered my translation of Psalm 23 and some technical issues relating to it in an earlier post. Now it is time to discuss the meaning of the psalm. Here again is the translation I am working […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s