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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — The Art and Force of Psalm 119:1-8: Part 1

Categories Hebrew and You

"Hebrew and You" is a new monthly column by Dr. Lee M. Fields, a Hebrew scholar and Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University, serving as a guide to biblical Hebrew. Read Fields' first column, here.

The NIV of Psalm 119:1 reads, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.” Many versions are similar (KJV, NRSV). Even the Septuagint (LXX; the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) renders this way, μακάριοι οἱ ἄμωμοι οἱ πορευόμενοι ἐν νόμῳ κυρίου, “Blessed are the blameless, those who walk in the law of the Lord.” The ESV also follows this path, but differs in punctuating the verse with an exclamation point at the end. The NASB tacks differently by beginning the verse with “How.” If you check the NASB with a Hebrew Bible, regular or interlinear, there is no Hebrew word behind the English “how.” Why did the NASB translators add it? Why these subtle differences among all the versions, and what is the significance?

Answering these and other questions about Ps 119:1-2 is highly instructive for understanding and appreciating God’s message to us. In this post I mainly want to look at clauses in only these two verses. Later we will look at case use and poetic features in vv. 1-8, the first stanza of the psalm. All of these features are more readily and accurately seen by studying the Hebrew text.

Clauses vs. Phrases

It is useful to distinguish a clause from a phrase. We will define a clause as the combination of a subject and a predicate and a phrase as lacking these. This means that a clause has a finite verb (expressed or assumed). Non-finite verbal forms (participles and infinitives) are phrases, not clauses. 

A well-known feature of Hebrew is the use of noun clauses, also called verbless clauses. They are not really verbless; the verbal idea is assumed. Here is the grammar: when the predicate of a clause consists of the verb to be and the time frame is clear from context, Hebrew typically does not express the verb. For example, 1 Chr 13:4 reads, “the thing was right ….” In Hebrew this is simply יָשָׁר הַדָּבָר (yāšār haddābār), literally, “upright the thing.” This is an adjective followed by a noun with the article, the article marking the subject. English must add the verb was; in Hebrew the verb was, הָיָה (hāyâ), is not needed.

Ps 119:1

If one who knows about Hebrew verbless clauses were to predict how the Hebrew of Ps 119:1 reads based on most English versions, one might guess that “blessed” is an adjective, “are” is not present in the Hebrew, and “those whose ways are blameless” is the subject, similar to 1 Chr 13:4. Such a prediction would be incorrect. Let’s look at the Hebrew for Ps 119:1:

אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי־דָרֶךְ

  ʾšrê temîmê-dārek

הַהֹלְכִים בְּתוֹרַת יהוה׃

   hahōlekîm betôrat yhwh

In the first line of Ps 119:1, all three words are nouns. The first two are both plural and in the construct state forming a single construct chain. Therefore this is not at all a simple verbless clause as we saw in 1 Chr 13:4.

A formal rendering would be (using a hyphen to unite multiple English words used to render a single Hebrew word), “blessings-of perfect-of way.” In English this doesn’t make a lot of sense, until we realize that this is an exclamation. Adding the word oh! to mark the exclamation and the articles that English requires yields, “Oh, the blessings of the perfect of way!” 

The second line is not a clause either. It consists of a participle with the article, used as a noun, “those who walk,” modified by a prepositional phrase that includes two nouns in another construct chain, “in the instruction of the Lord.” The participle is in apposition to “the perfect.” This means that the whole verse is a single exclamation with two parts.

Ps 119:2

Ps 119:2a is another exclamation parallel to 1a, but the second half changes the construction.

אַשְׁרֵי נֹצְרֵי עֵדֹתָיו

ʾašrê nōṣrê ʿēdtāyw

בְּכָל־לֵב יִדְרְשׁוּהוּ׃

bekol-lēb yidrešûhû

Most of the versions render 2b as having the same force as 1-2a. So NASB renders v. 2, “How blessed are those who observe his testimonies, Who seek them with their whole heart.” This understanding is possible. However, notice two things in the Hebrew of v. 2b. First, there is no Hebrew word standing behind the relative pronoun “who,” nor is it a substantival participle rendered in English with a relative clause as occurred in v. 1b. Second, unlike 1-2a, v. 2b has a finite verb. A formal rendering would be: “Oh, the blessings of the keepers of his testimonies! With a whole heart they seek him.” 

The first three lines are all exclamations. The first and third both begin with the word אַשְׁרֵי, which forms an inclusio. Since 2b is the only line of the four that has a finite verb, perhaps it was meant to be read differently. The fourth line is a simple indicative statement without any introduction by a conjunction. The poet leaves it to the reader to figure out how 2b relates to 1-2a. Perhaps 2b gives the reason why these people are filled with joy, or perhaps it gives the ultimate motive behind the activities in the three exhortations: they pursue the Lord. Then 2b becomes an encouragement to the readers or hearers to pursue the Lord, who is the source of this joy.

So What?

There are two benefits. First, we can understand the differences between the versions. The ESV and the NASB sought in different ways to mark the exclamatory force. Second, we can read these verses with a more dynamic understanding that matches the psalmist’s intent. 

One of the advantages of knowing Hebrew is that one can more accurately appreciate the art and hear the emotion. There is no way the English can exactly match the terseness and poetic force of Hebrew poetry. But in our devotional lives we can become more aware, and in our teaching and preaching we can bring out the proper meaning and emotion to our listeners. 

Here is a formal rendering of Ps 119:1-2 reflecting what we have observed from the Hebrew:

Oh, the joys of the perfect of way,
Of those who walk in the instruction of the Lord!
Oh, the joys of the keepers of his testimonies!
With a whole heart they pursue him.

The first three lines are not laid-back, flat assertions; they are strong, ringing exclamations of joy! The fourth line still has the joy, but as we have described it, also has a hortatory force, subtly inviting the audience to pursue the Lord, who has given a way, instruction, and testimonies to humankind. Reading this way, whether in private or in public, brings a liveliness and aids in catching the sense that the author was trying to convey.

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Lee_fieldsLee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.

Learn more about Lee's innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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