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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Psalms - Introduction


Interpretation of the Psalms is not simple. This will surprise many people, for some of the psalms are the best loved parts of the OT. Poetry in every language, however, is less easily understood than prose. The formalized structure, the use of rare words, the many metaphors and other figures of speech, all contribute to the difficulty. The problems are increased when the language is not one's mother tongue, and it is not possible to be immediately aware of overtones of emotion and fine nuances of meaning in words and phrases. With the Psalms these difficulties become even more severe because of the nature of the Hebrew language and the forms of Hebrew poetry.


If several English translations of the psalms are compared, differences, sometimes quite startling, will quickly be found, and the reader may well wonder how learned scholars can arrive at such different interpretations of the meaning. NRSV translates Ps 12:4: ‘our lips are our own—who is our master?’ (cf. GNB: ‘We will say what we wish, and no one can stop us’), and REB: ‘With words as our ally, who can master us?’, but NIV marg., rather startlingly offers: ‘our lips are our ploughshares’. Instead of NRSV's version of Ps 58:7 : ‘like grass let them be trodden down and wither’, REB provides: ‘may he aim his arrows, may they perish by them’, and NIV: ‘when they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted’. In Ps 77:4 NRSV reads: ‘You keep my eyelids from closing (cf. GNB's banal: ‘You keep me awake all night’), while REB has ‘My eyelids are tightly closed’.


Like English, Hebrew possesses no case endings. In prose the word order and a particle which marks the object of the verb normally make the sense entirely clear. Hebrew poetry, on the other hand, is highly compressed. The poetic lines are short. The sign of the object is rarely used. Word order is varied. It means that often the three or four words in a line can be construed in more than one way. In Ps 143:10 the problem lies in knowing what is the relation between ‘your spirit’ and ‘good’, and what is the subject of the verb ‘leads me’. If the Hebrew accents are followed the meaning is probably as RV: ‘Thy spirit is good; lead me…’. To take the words as ‘Your good spirit’ involves unusual Hebrew syntax. The verb can either be the third person, ‘she will lead (she leads, may she lead) me’, or second person, ‘lead me’. Hence NRSV translates the phrase: ‘Let your good spirit lead me on a level path’ (following a few Heb. MSS in the last word rather than the main MT tradition), REB has: ‘by your gracious spirit guide me on level ground’, and GNB offers the paraphrase: ‘Be good to me, and guide me on a safe path’.


The meaning of some of the words which the poets use is occasionally uncertain. There are three aspects of this. First, some words appear only once in the whole Hebrew Bible. When this occurs it is not possible to compare different contexts in order to gain an insight into the exact meaning of the word, and recourse has to be had to such things as similar words in other related languages (Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Arabic are the main ones), how the ancient versions understood the word, and the meaning in Jewish tradition. In Ps 58:8 NRSV offers ‘snail’ for a word that is found only here in the OT, but REB derives it differently as meaning ‘an abortive birth’, which is certainly a better parallel to ‘stillborn child’ in the second line. Secondly, there are a large number of homonyms in Hebrew (words in the same form but with different meaning). Scholars are sometimes not sure which of two or more possible words was intended by the poet. Sometimes, indeed, a rare word may be the same in form and sound as a fairly common word, and the common word has driven out the rarer one. Only careful study of the related languages and the versions enables scholars to recover the lost meaning. The word which NRSV translates ‘company’ in Ps 24:6 is the normal word for ‘generation’. REB takes it to be a homonym with the meaning ‘fortune’. One reason why NEB contains so many novel translations is that a large number of new meanings of Hebrew words was adopted, many of them rejected by REB. Thirdly, no word has exactly the same meaning in any two languages. At most there is only a large area of overlap. This means that often a range of English words may be needed to express what the poet intended, and it is impossible to be absolutely certain that the correct one has been selected. When the poet uses the verb ‘to judge’, is the sense to pass a sentence on someone who is accused, or to vindicate him? NRSV translates it by ‘vindicate’ in three psalms (Ps 26:1; 35:24; 43:1 ), and in Ps 72:4 has ‘may he defend the cause of the poor’, but elsewhere it sticks to ‘judge’, ‘pass judgment’, ‘do justice’ or ‘try’. The other modern versions offer a somewhat wider range of translations. In each case the translators had to decide what the nuances of the verb were in each context, and they may have been right or they may have been wrong. ‘Righteousness’ is even more difficult, since it is almost entirely a churchy word in modern English. Although NRSV retains ‘righteousness’ in many places, REB prefers ‘justice’ and NJB has a number of synonyms, including ‘right’ and ‘upright’. Sometimes, however, the Hebrew word has a bias in favour of the helpless (Snaith 1944: 68–74; in post-biblical Hebrew it came to mean ‘almsgiving, benevolence’), and translators have tried to capture this. Hence Ps 65:5 : ‘deliverance’ and 35:28 : ‘saving power’, REB. Moreover, the meaning of the word also approached ideas of victory (cf. Isa 41:2 ), and NRSV translates it in this way in Ps 48:10 (REB adds Ps 65:5; 118:19; 119:123 ). Further the familiar ‘sacrifices of righteousness’ (Ps 4:5; 51:21 ) probably does not mean offering righteousness as a sacrifice and in place of an animal offering but sacrifices offered with the correct ritual or in the right spirit, or even such sacrifices as are YHWH's due, as most modern translations recognize. And the overtones of goodness must probably go from Ps 23:3 : the ‘paths of righteousness’ are simply ‘right paths’ by which the shepherd leads the flock to pasture.


The Psalms have been copied and recopied over the centuries, and although very great care was taken by the later Jewish scribes (the Masoretes) to ensure the absolute accuracy of the scrolls, errors had crept in earlier. Such textual corruptions sometimes make it impossible to determine the poet's meaning, and occasionally the Hebrew defies translation. At one time scholars resorted to wide-scale emendation of the text. Today this is much rarer, and normally support from the ancient versions is demanded for any changes that are made. Few would deny that some emendation is necessary, however, but all such changes introduce some uncertainty as to the poet's meaning. A stock example is Ps 49:11 , where all modern translations present the sense of NRSV: ‘Their graves are their homes for ever’ (transposing two Heb. letters), instead of the AV ‘Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever’ (the italics reveal how much had to be read into that translation). Usually the Eng. versions inform the reader that the text has been altered, and supply the support from the ancient versions, but not always (cf. Ps 27:8 , where NRSV makes several changes to produce: ‘ “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face”’, without any footnote; the Heb. appears to be lit. ‘To you (masc. sing.) my heart said, “Seek (masc. plur.) my face”’). Some passages are so corrupt that it is impossible to obtain any sense without emendation, and even then the meaning is doubtful.


Hebrew letters express only the consonants: the vowels are represented by various signs placed round or in the letters, and these vowel signs came in fairly late in the history of the text, although they express the traditional pronunciation. It is not always certain that the vowels were those intended by the poet, and alternative vowels can often produce a better sense. NRSV frequently makes such changes without drawing attention in a footnote and GNB hardly ever tells the reader.


An even greater difficulty in many of the psalms is the tense of the verbs. English possesses a very large number of tenses, simple and compound, most of which indicate the time when the action takes place, though some point to additional features, such as whether the action occurs only once at a single point in time or is continuous. Even in English, however, tenses do not always express the time or the aspect of the action that they appear to. The verb in ‘I am going to Scotland on Wednesday’ is present continuous, but means something like, ‘Next Wednesday I shall go to Scotland’ (or even ‘I intend to go’). Hebrew possesses only two main forms of the verb, which primarily express aspect rather than tense. The verbal system is highly complex, however, and no one would profess to understand it completely. In prose the context makes the sense relatively clear. This is far from the case in poetry. One of the most striking differences between the English translations of the Psalms is the way the verbs are translated. Is Ps 63:9–10 an expression of the psalmist's confidence in future destruction of his enemies, or a prayer (contrast NRSV/NIV and REB/NJB)? Should the verbs in 67:7 be past (NRSV/REB/NJB), future (NIV), or is the verse perhaps a prayer? Is Ps 120:1–2 a description of a prayer for divine help in the past (so REB), or part of the present petition (as NRSV/NIV)? On one view of the tenses Ps 8:5–6 should be translated: ‘But you have made him a little less than God, ǀ and you will crown him with glory and honor ǀ You will make him master over the work of your hands; ǀ you have set everything beneath his feet’ (Craigie 1983: 105).

This is possibly the most serious difficulty in interpreting the psalms. (For a brief account of the issues see ibid. 110–12.)


But no translation exists on its own. The translation is linked inextricably with the way the translator understands the whole background of the psalm—when it was written, how and where it was sung, whether it formed part of a cultic activity or was the work of a solitary poet, who it is written for or about, and many other questions. There is never a translation that is not at the same time an interpretation, and a large part of that interpretation depends upon the wider view of the place of the psalm in the life of ancient Israel. Indeed, translation and understanding of the entire religious life of ancient Israel are intertwined so intimately that they cannot be separated.


One further feature of modern translations should be noted. Every translation loses part of the richness of the original, but increasingly modern translations have sloughed off vital details. Hebrew verbs express gender as well as number and person. No English translation can represent this for the second person, since ‘you’ is used for both singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and this disguises important distinctions and changes of person in the Hebrew Psalms. Further, the attempts by NJB, NRSV, REB, and NIV Inclusive Language Edition to avoid sexist language have introduced a wide range of paraphrases which remove the reader even further from the original poet. Thus masculine singulars are very frequently translated by plurals, and even by ‘we’ or even more extensive modifications. Sometimes it is of little moment, as in Ps 1 where ‘those’ replaces ‘the man’, although it obscures the patriarchal society in which the psalm was written. Often, however, such rewriting distorts the original psalm. Most people today accept that women are fully equal to men, and that language can reflect and reinforce a male domination. What is more contentious is whether the Scriptures should be rewritten in order to eliminate such language. Ancient Israelite society was plainly patriarchal, despite the presence of some forceful women. In this it was even more extreme than some of the surrounding countries. For example, all the other law codes from the ancient Middle East that have been discovered include arrangements for inheritance of the property by widows. In ancient Israel widows could not inherit property from their husbands, and daughters could only do so if there were no sons. Within the Psalter, in Ps 45 the king's bride is told that her husband is her master and she must bow down to him. The masculine language found in all the psalms is a feature of that society. Sometimes, of course, male terms are used to include both men and women, as was common in English until recently, and in such places modern English requires the removal of purely masculine forms. On the other hand, most of the references to men were intended to apply to men alone, and a proper understanding of the psalms in their original context requires the retention of male terms there (cf. Gerstenberger 1988: 32). The use of patriarchal texts in modern worship is a quite different issue, and cannot be discussed here, vitally important though it is.

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