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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Psalm 37:23 - Who delights in whom?

Many years ago I memorized Psalm 37:23 from the KJV:
The steps of a [good] man are ordered by the LORD: and he delighteth in his way.
This verse is one of many which have been set to music and I have often sung this verse. Sometimes the scripture chorus runs through my mind. It has been my desire to be the kind of person whose steps are ordered by the Lord.

Somewhere along the line--I can't remember when--I noticed that the antecedents of the pronouns of this verse are unclear. I realized that I could not tell from the English translation who delights in whose way. And from the little study I have done, it appears that this ambiguity is part of the original Hebrew.

Most translations teams have felt that the more likely original meaning intended is that God delights in the way (life) of a person whose steps are directed by God. The following versions make this meaning clear:
The LORD guides us in the way we should go and protects those who please him. (TEV)

The steps of a man are from the LORD, and he establishes him in whose way he delights (RSV)

Our steps are made firm by the LORD, when he delights in our way (NRSV)

The steps of a man are established by the LORD, And He delights in his way. (NASB)

A man’s steps are established by the Lord,and He takes pleasure in his way. (HCSB; the potential ambiguity in the NASB and HCSB is removed by their capitalization of pronouns for deity)

It is the LORD who directs a person's steps; he holds him firm and approves of his conduct. (REB)

If the LORD delights in a man's way, he makes his steps firm (NIV)

The steps of the godly are directed by the LORD. He delights in every detail of their lives. (NLT)

The LORD grants success to the one whose behavior he finds commendable. (NET)

When a person's steps follow the LORD, God is pleased with his ways. (NCV)

A person's steps are directed by the LORD, and the LORD delights in his way. (GW)
The CEV and TNIV translation teams have chosen the interpretation that the person whose life is directed by God takes delight in God's way:
If you do what the LORD wants, he will make certain each step you take is sure. (CEV)

The LORD makes firm the steps of those who delight in him (TNIV)
Some versions are worded in a way that we are not able to tell which of the two interpretations their translation teams felt was more likely. In other words, the English wording displays the same ambiguity that the Hebrew text does. Among these versions are:
The steps of a [good] man are ordered by the LORD: and he delighteth in his way. (KJV)

The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way (ESV)
Now, there are some who would say that when the original biblical language text is ambiguous, our translation of it should also be ambiguous. This is a reasonable position. However, it does not take into account that fact that humans often produce ambiguous language when their intended meaning is not ambiguous. Sometimes it is possible to guess, with varying degrees of certainty, what meaning an original author intended.

Please note that in this case it is entirely possible that the translators of the KJV and ESV believed that the psalmist intended to be saying that God is the one who takes delight in the life of a person who submits to God's directions. It is possible that the ambiguity in the KJV and ESV was not intended by their translators. We cannot know the intentioned meaning of the KJV translators who are all gone. We may be able to find out from the ESV translators if they intended one of the options for who takes delight in whom in Psalm 37:23.

My own personal preference in cases where it is not fairly clear from the context that ambiguity was intended is that a translation not display ambiguity. Having ambiguity in translation wording indicates to me either that the translators overlooked an ambiguity which they did not intend to communicate, or that they felt they needed to preserve an ambiguity in the biblical language text which may or may not have been intended by its author. (Some word plays in the biblical text clearly demonstrate intentional ambiguity.)

I like the approach taken in this and many other cases in the NET Bible. Its translators chose the interpretation they felt most likely to be that of the biblical author, but then they footnoted a wording which gives an alternative translation:
Heb “from the Lord the steps of a man are established, and in his way he delights.” The second line qualifies the first. The man whose behavior is commendable in God’s sight is the one whose ways are established by God. Another option is that the second line refers to the godly man delighting in God’s “way,” namely the lifestyle which he prescribes for men. In this case one might translate, “The Lord grants success to the one who desires to obey his commands.”
I like such transparency in translation. This approach, that of making translation choices guided by sound exegesis, based on lack of certainty that an original ambiguity was intended, but allowing the reader to know other translation options seems to me to be ideal for most English Bible readers. Most such readers do not have the background that well trained exegetes do to be able to determine which of several possible interpretations is most, or more, likely to have been the meaning intended by the biblical author.

I fully realize that others claim to prefer to leave all exegetical uncertainties in the translation text itself. And this is, as I stated earlier, a reasonable position. I cannot dismiss it. Of course, in actuality, even those who prefer to leave exegetical choices to the reader make many choices for their readers.

Do you think that the psalmist more likely wanted to communicate that God delights in the lives of those who submit to his direction, or that it is more likely that those who delight in God's directions have their lives specially helped by God?

And do you prefer Bible versions to leave all possible biblical language text ambiguities ambiguous in translation whether or not the biblical authors intended that ambiguity?


At Wed Sep 20, 02:35:00 PM, Blogger Adam said...

Funny, I never read that with any ambiguity to what it meant! I always read it as "The Lord orders a good man's steps and The Lord delights in the good man's way"

But now I am not so sure...

I think where there is ambiguity (perceived or real) in the original language it should be left ambiguous in the translation.

Thanks for another thought provoking post Wayne!

Grace and Peace,

At Fri Sep 22, 06:45:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Good post, Wayne.

The trouble with leaving something ambiguous is that a reader often doesn't realize there is an ambiguity like adam mentioned above.

At Fri Sep 22, 06:13:00 PM, Blogger Dana said...

Perhaps not until he chews on it a bit.

What about both? It seems to me quite reasonable not only that God would take delight in the life of one who obeys him, but also that someone who obeys God would find that obedience brings delight.
Poetry is often used to explore conundrums like these.

This also brings up the question of just what it means for Scripture to be "god-breathed." Whether or not the human who wrote that psalm intended ambiguity, ambiguity is what we ended up with.

I'm just SO glad that English is my native language, because there are just so many rich resources out there that aren't available in others! :D

Speaking of ambiguity: In 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul addresses his letter. Did he intend it (a) for the Corinthian church and all others at the time, knowing that letters got passed around; (b) for the Corinthian church only, the second phrase describing the first and the third referring to "holy" (as in, "all those everywhere are also called to be holy"); (c) for all believers across space and time. Or possibly another alternative I've missed!


At Fri Sep 22, 06:51:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

First, I do not understand why there is no reference to the translation note that appears to this verse in the KJV.

What translation note?

I wasn't even aware that there were translation notes in the KJV, other than those added by later commentators, such as Scofield or R.C. Sproul.

I'm curious; please share that translation note with us here. Thanks.

At Sat Sep 23, 10:46:00 PM, Blogger bulbul said...

I agree with our anonymous friend in that the verse 23 should be read in conjunction with verse 24 and it becomes clear that it is the just/good man, who delighteth. But the ambiguity does not disappear there and the question of "whose way" remains. Knowing the composers of the Psalms, I suspect it is intentional, though I am not aware of this trope being used in ancient Hebrew (North-West Semitic?) poetry. It would be interesting to see whether there are similar cases elsewhere in the Psalms or other books of the Hebrew scriptures.
As for the translation, I believe it should reflect the ambiguity, as long as it is an ambiguity.


I'm sorry, I own a facsimile of the 1611 edition of KJV and the only translation note available for this verse (23 in that numbering) is for "ordered" - Or, "established". Could you please copy it to the comments provided

However, if I believe that the Biblical text has treasures which require thought and meditation to reveal
I cannot help but wonder what those hidden meanings may be.

In this way, I have a greater chance of discovering what the text actually represents
I wonder whether there is any translation strategy which would satisfy this requirement. Verbatim translation might perhaps comes closest (and indeed such translations existed and were used). But even then, a lot of the "original" would be lost, due to the obvious typological differences between the original languages and, say, English. It seems your only choice is to learn Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

rather than what the translator thought the text represented
That is why I believe a translator should be an exegete.
Besides, 'thought'? I might *think* I have a rare tropical disease, but my doctor *knows* I don't, having studies the diseases and run all the necessary tests. Same goes for translators (even if they are not exegetes): they don't just 'think', they must be pretty sure.

If you simply look to the "expert" to explain Scripture to you, why read Scripture at all?
The main reason that is there is a difference between "interpretation" and "reading". While those two activities seem to be - and are often treated as - identical, they are not. Both require a distinct (though often overlapping) set of strategies and skills.
Let's try a more handy explanation: we've all read "Animal Farm" by George Orwell. Imagine we didn't know anything about the political phenomena which inspired it. Would we still read it? I'm sure we would, because of its great prose and esthetical and moral value. But only with the help of an 'expert' with the knowledge of the period would we come to fully appreciate its depth. Same applies to the Bible, only in a much more complex way.

At Sun Sep 24, 08:15:00 AM, Blogger bulbul said...

Were exegesis an exact science, or even a science at all
So this is where we disagree: I consider exegesis, hermeneutics and semiotics (and aren't they are but one discipline known under different names) a 'real' science. But my insistence on translators being exegetes is not meant to assure exegesis is a part of the translation. Quite the contrary. To translate a text properly, one must understand it as well as one can. Exegetes with all of the knowledge they have acquired are best suited to the task. Please note that by exegete I do not mean a person with the appropriate degree, but rather a person with the required knowledge.

and even the humblest Chumash (Pentateuch) will include Targum Onkelos and Rashi.
Indeed. But I suspect that the inclusion of Targum Onkelos is more a basic issue of linguistics than exegesis.
It is appropriate that you mention the Jewish tradition, since it was the diaspora that saw the phenomenon of šarḥ, a literal translation of the Scriptures into Jewish vernaculars like Arabic, Persian and Karaim. This particular type of translation closely followed the Hebrew (and occasionally Aramaic) syntax and thus allowed the reader to follow the original text at, although the expense of style and even intelligibility at times.

The most impressive example of Jewish mystical commentary is certainly the Zohar
Indeed it is. Yet I cannot help but notice that Zohar relies heavily on gematria, the very concept of which does not allow the Holy Scriptures to be translated, for the "hidden meaning" would be lost.

At Sun Sep 24, 12:55:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anonymous wrote, "I might be inclined to agree ... that translations should incorporate exegesis". And perhaps you might be inclined to agree that 2 + 2 = 4. But the fact is that it is impossible to translate without doing exegesis, i.e. understanding the meaning of the text to be translated. And, whether you are inclined to agree or not, that is an objectively true fact - also one which is clearly demonstrated by the failure of machine "translation".

At Sun Sep 24, 10:17:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Anonymous, here is a short definition of "exegesis" which I have had posted in my glossary of translation terms for several years:

"Exegesis is the analysis of a Biblical text to determine its meaning. Before one can translate a Biblical text, he must exegete it to know its meaning. See Hermeneutics."

IMO, exegesis for Bible translation does not extend to matters such as the "meaning" of the symbolic language in the book of Revelation. I see exegesis as a more limited exercise in which one determines "linguistic meaning" of a text so that it can be accurately translated to another language. Continuing with the book of Revelation as an example, I am of the opinion, for instance, that when the Greek text of Revelation chapter 20 refers repeatedly to χιλια ετη (chilia ete) we exegete only as far as determining that those two words mean '1000 years.' We leave it for commentators to mention various interpretations of what the "1000 years" might refer to, whether it is a literal 1000 span of time, etc.

At Mon Sep 25, 04:34:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Well, Anonymous, I think the problem is indeed that your understanding of the word "exegesis" is entirely different from mine. Wayne has given his definition, and I agree. This definition is from the American Heritage Dictionary:

Critical explanation or analysis, especially of a text.

The following is from Encyclopaedia Britannica (same link):

Scholarly interpretation of religious texts, using linguistic, historical, and other methods. In Judaism and Christianity, it has been used extensively in the study of the Bible. ...

See also this Wikipedia article.

I would consider this word to be in complete contrast with doctrinal exposition. I would agree with you that translations should not incorporate doctrinal exposition, although translators do need to be aware of doctrinal issues (and thus theologically trained) to avoid certain doctrinally significant translation pitfalls. As a simple example of this, translators who were unaware of the theological controversy about the mode of baptism might translate baptizo as "immerse" (on the basis of its use in secular Greek) and then find themselves accused of taking one side on a theological issue.

At Tue Sep 26, 06:14:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

This comment thread has become confused because "Anonymous" has deleted his comments, to which many of the other comments are replies.

At Tue Sep 26, 03:24:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Dana asked:

What about both? It seems to me quite reasonable not only that God would take delight in the life of one who obeys him, but also that someone who obeys God would find that obedience brings delight.
Poetry is often used to explore conundrums like these.

Yes, Dana, it is logically possible that the writer of this psalm intended both. But we would need to do very careful analysis of the text and its context to try to determine as closely as possible what was the author's mostly likely meaning. In the absence of some clues that word play or poetic double meaning is intended, it is usually safest to assume that such ambiguity was not intended. This is the way human communication works. For most of us, most of the time, ambiguity is not intended. We can assume the same of the biblical writers, except for those places where they give enough clues in the context and genre that ambiguities are intended.

This gets us to a question which I've had for some time:

"Should we translate meanings that we, the readers and/or analysts, can find possible in a text or should we translate authorial intent? Now, some people claim that there is no use discussing authorial intent when we do not have access to the original authors. But I disagree. We do, I believe, have quite a bit of access to the original authors in what and how they wrote. We know that the author of John's Gospel loved abstract word plays and metaphors (Door, Shepherd, Bread, Vine, etc.). So we can be on the lookout for such multiple meanings in John's Gospel.

Other authors do not write in a style where we would expect multiple meanings.

We, of course, never have full access to authorial intent, but I believe that if we totally disregard the concept and go completely the other way, toward postmodern reader-oriented interpretation of textual meaning, we become so subjective that it nearly becomes impossible to translate anything, at least if we still believe that the words and other grammatical forms have any meaning at all.

Difficult questions, yes, but I don't think we need throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think there is much that we can know.

Sorry for the longwinded answer to your shorter question. :-)


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