Ps. 51:17 -- Who sacrifices?
- The book that John is currently reading is on the coffee table.
- The book that John owns is on the coffee table.
- The book that John wrote is on the coffee table.
Similarly, many of the linguistic forms in the biblical languages are not found in English. English, for instance, does not have a genitive case, nor an instrumental case. When we translate a Greek genitive or instrumental to English we have to find some English translation equivalent for the meaning intended by that particular genitive or instrumental.
One of the greatest sources of confusion for readers of English Bibles is overuse of "of" prepositional phrases for translating the Greek genitive or the Hebrew status constructus forms. English does use "of" prepositional phrases. I naturally used three of them in the preceding sentence. But English does not use naturally nearly as many "of" phrases as are found in more "literal" Bible versions.
The use of so many "of" phrases in English Bibles creates potential ambiguities for English readers which were not ambiguities in the biblical texts, as their authors wrote that they intended to communicate. Just as the English possessive form has potential ambiguity, so do "of" prepositional phrases.
If I said "The revelation of John is the last book in the Bible", this could mean
- What John revealed is the last book in the Bible.
- The revelation about John is the last book in the Bible.
- The revelation that John owns is the last book in the Bible.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (NIV)This time, however, I noticed that the "of" phrase is ambiguous in English. Potentially, this verse could be referring to
- Sacrifices which God makes
- When God is sacrificed
I field tested the phrase with a number of people, including a group of linguists who do Bible translation. Some of the respondents said they got David's intended meaning which would be something like "sacrifices made to God" or "sacrifices which God desires." Others responded as I did and said the traditional English translation of Ps. 51:17 sounds like God is making sacrifices. Some pointed out that the preceding and following contexts for this test phrase clarify who is making the sacrifices. This is true, however, when it is possible for any phrase to be both accurate and clear, we should not have to depend on context to clarify an ambiguity which was not there in the original biblical text.
It is easy to find and use an English translation equivalent which does not create the problem of potential ambiguity or unintended meaning for Ps. 51:17. Several English versions are already unambiguous and clear, including some (Wycliffe, Bishop's, Douay-Rheims) which were produced centuries ago:
Better Bibles do not introduce ambiguities in translation which were not intended by the biblical authors.
- The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (RSV; note that ESV reintroduces the problematic traditional wording)
- The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (NRSV)
- The sacrifices God desires are a humble spirit – O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject. (NET)
- The sacrifice you want is a broken spirit. A broken and repentant heart, O God,
you will not despise. (NLT)
- The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. O God, you do not despise a broken and sorrowful heart. (GW)
- The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart. (HCSB)
- The sacrifice God wants is a broken spirit. God, you will not reject a heart that is broken and sorry for sin. (NCV)
- A sacrifice to God is a spirit troblid; God, thou schalt not dispise a contrit herte and maad meke. (Wycliffe)
- A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Douay-Rheims)
- Sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken, contrite heart you never scorn. (NJB)
- Sacrifices for God is a mortified spirite: O Lorde thou wylt not despise a mortified and an humble heart. (Bishop's Bible)