February 25, 2008

Psalm 56

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
On a silent dove among distant people.
By David.
When Philistines seized him in Gath.

Be gracious to me, God, because man pants for me;
All the day, fighting, he oppresses me.
My foes pant all the day;
Indeed, many are fighting against me proudly.

The day I fear,
I myself trust in you.
In God (I praise his word),
In God I trust; I do not fear.
What will flesh do to me?

All the day my words they twist;
Against me are all their thoughts for evil.
They assemble; they lurk;
They themselves watch my heels,
Just as they wait for my soul.

By trouble is there deliverance for them?
In anger bring down peoples, God!
My wanderings you yourself count.
Put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?

Then my enemies will turn back in the day I call.
This I know, that God is for me.
In God (I praise the word);
In Yahweh (I praise the word);
In God I trust; I do not fear.
What will man do to me?

Upon me, God, are your vows;
I will perform a Thanksgiving to you,
Because you have delivered my soul from death —
Have you not delivered my feet from falling? —
To walk before God
In the light of the living.

Some comments on the translation of this psalm, which, though brief, seems surprisingly difficult to translate:

(1) The title is literally “on a silent dove, distant ones.”  The “distant ones” may be distant lands or distant people; I’ve opted for the latter here.  Many take this to be the title of a tune to which the psalm would be sung or perhaps a setting for the instruments, but it strikes me that Alexander is right and that it may be a reference to David, who is like a dove (Ps. 74:19), suffering in silence in his exile among the Philistines.  On the other hand entirely, if the Thirtle thesis is correct and Habakkuk 3 gives us the pattern for how Psalm titles and postscripts work, then this line may be the postscript of Psalm 55, in which David wishes he had wings like a dove so that he could fly far away.

(2) Any guesses as to what mikhtam means?

(3) In line 1, the word for “man” (enosh) usually refers to mortal, frail man, in contrast to God.  Later on, in the question “What will man to do me,” the word is adam.

(4) In lines 1 and 3, the word translated “pant” is often rendered “trample.”  It appears also in Ps. 57:3, where the meaning is ambiguous.  In Amos 2:7 and 8:4, many commentaries render it “trample,” taking it as a variant spelling of the usual verb for trampling, but I’m not sure that these passages (or any of the passages in which this verb appears) clearly speak of trampling.  So, following Alexander and Kidner, I’ve stuck with “pant.”

(5) In line 2, the word for “fighting” can mean both “dining, eating” as well as “fighting, doing battle.”  Alexander renders it “devouring,” as he does also in Ps. 35:1.

(6) In line 4, the term translated “proudly” here generally refers to a high place or a high social position, and sometimes to heaven.  Nouns in Hebrew, however, can be used as adjectives or adverbs and in Ps. 73:8, this same word appears to describe the way the wicked speak (“They speak loftily”).  Other translators take this word as an indirect reference to God who is on high, and so they render it “Most High.”

(7) Line 10 can be rendered something like this: “All the day, my affairs they hurt.”  In that case, David would be saying that they cause him trouble all day long.  So are they twisting David’s words or harming his “things, matters, affairs.”

(8) In line 12, the word translated “assemble” (following Alexander’s suggestions and how the word seems to be used in some other passages) can refer to an attack or perhaps even to stalking (which is how the NET Bible takes it).  In Ps. 140:2, it appears to refer to assembling for war, and that’s the sense here, too, I suspect: David’s enemies are gathering in order to attack him.

(9) Line 13, “They watch my heels,” may mean “they watch my steps” (see the use of “heels” in Pss. 77:19; 89:51; Song 1:8).  Alexander points out that “they” is emphatic and that fits best with taking “heels” as a description of these people: hence he takes this term to be shorthand for “supplanters,” people who grab the heel, as he does also in Ps. 49:6. The word here is, of course, the same word that appears in Jacob’s name.  That leaves the verb without an object (“they watch”), though I suppose it could also be “they guard” (that is, they are surrounding David like guards) which is often what the verb means.  Still, it seems simplest here to translate it “They watch my heels.”

(10) I’ve translated line 15 as a question because taking it as a statement doesn’t make any sense to me (“On/by trouble, there is deliverance for them”). It may be David asking whether they the trouble they cause can deliver them or even whether they can be delivered in light of the trouble they’ve caused.  Alexander leaves it as a statement and admits it’s mysterious.  Others emend the text, adding a “not” to the statement, but that’s not my preferred option.

I have wondered whether this could be a prayer: “Unto trouble let there be deliverance for them” (that is, “Let them be handed over to trouble”). Or perhaps it could be a statement about birth, since that’s one way the term for “deliverance” is used in Scripture (hence something like “Unto trouble they have been brought forth”). That would make the statement the grounds for the plea in the next stich.  But I don’t know that the term used here can be understood as a reference to goal or purpose (“unto”).

(11) In line 27, the word for performing here has to do with fulfilling a vow.  It appears that the vow includes the presentation of a thanksgiving offering to Yahweh.  Is there a better term than “perform”?  “Pay” is one possibility, but it doesn’t seem particularly helpful, given the economic connotations the term has for us.

(12) In line 29, the word translated “falling” is a strong term that refers to being pushed or knocked down.  Any suggestions for a better translation?

Posted by John Barach @ 4:47 pm | Discuss (0)

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