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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — O God of Whose Righteousness? Psalm 4:2 [E 1]

Categories Hebrew and You

The first line of Ps 4:2 [E 1] reads, “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!” This translation is by far the most common and is found in KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJV, LEB (Lexham English Bible). But to translate the last phrase in the traditional way, “O God of my righteousness,” may easily lead the reader into confusion. Is the psalmist actually talking about his own righteousness? If so, how is God the God of the psalmist’s righteousness?

Syntax

The Hebrew student learns early on about the construct state. When two nouns are joined together, e.g., דְּבַר־הַמֶּלֶךְ (debar hammelek), “the-word-of   the-king” (I have joined by hyphens multiple English words used to render a single Hebrew word) the head noun, in this case דְּבַר (debar), “the word of,” is in the construct state and may have any case function, Nominative, Genitive, Accusative, or Vocative. The tail noun, in this case, הַמֶּלֶךְ (hammelek), “the king,” is in the absolute state and is in the Genitive case. In English, the Genitive case is often indicated by the preposition of. One thing to bear in mind is that Hebrew changes the form of the head noun and the “of” concept is therefore part of the structure of the first noun (by the way, Greek changes the form of the tail noun). On the other hand, in English of is a preposition and is bound to its object and joins that object to another word.

The phrase “O God of my righteousness” reads in Hebrew:

אֱלֹהֵי צִדְקִי&nbsp ʾelōhê ṣidqî

The head noun, אֱלֹהֵי, “God of,” is of course in the construct state. It is in the Vocative case, marked in English with “O.” The tail noun, צִדְקִי, is in the Genitive. It may be less obvious, though, that within צִדְקִי itself, the pronominal suffix, the י attached to the second noun צִדְקִי, is actually the tail of another construct chain and is a second Genitive. The construct structure in Ps 4:2 rendered literally is “O God of the righteousness of me.”

Semantics

Once the structure is understood, one still must figure out what this phrase means. In other words, the reader must ask how each Genitive is functioning. Grammarians assign semantic category names. These are just a shorthand for labeling the meaning of the Genitive function. Paraphrasing is a longer, valuable way to clarify and teach—we will do that, too.

Two possibilities for relating צֶדֶק to אֱלֹהֵי are what we might call an attributive Genitive, in which the tail noun describes the head noun, and a Genitive of action, in which the tail noun is the implied action done by the head noun. If the Genitive is attributive, the tail noun is functioning like and adjective and the phrase is roughly the equivalent of “God of righteousness” is that God is characterized by the quality of righteousness. This meaning is reflected in the NIrV “faithful God” and NIV84, NIV, and TNIV “righteous God.” If it is a Genitive of action, the tail noun is understood to imply some verbal notion, and the idea is not simply that God has this quality, but that he acts in ways that are just and right. This meaning is reflected in the NCV, “God who does what is right” and in the NET, “the God who vindicates.”

The second Genitive is the one often overlooked, the pronominal suffixי , the “[of] me.” Again the first inclination is to take the me to modify the immediately previous word, “righteousness of.” If the Genitive me is an attributed Genitive, in which the head noun describes the tail noun (the opposite of an attributive Genitive), then righteousness is a quality that the psalmist possesses. This meaning is easily inferred from the traditional translation and is possible, but then the psalmist’s plea for the Lord to listen would seem to be based on his own righteousness. Connecting the whole chain together, “O God of my righteousness” makes the first Genitive difficult to understand. Furthermore, if the first Genitive is either a quality God has or the nature of the actions he takes, the attributed Genitive meaning for “of me” would seem to be out of the question.

Another option is to recognize צֶדֶק as a noun of action as we suggested before. The Genitive of me might be understood either as subjective, in which case the psalmist is claiming to do just action. Better is to take it as an objective Genitive, in which the psalmist is the direct object of the action implied in the noun צֶדֶק. The subjective Genitive has the same objections as the attributed Genitive. The objective Genitive idea makes excellent sense. Compare NLT “O God who declares me innocent” and NET “O God who vindicates me.”

There are other legitimate ways of understanding the phrase אֱלֹהֵי צִדְקִי. A well-known parallel construction is found in Isa 1:11: הַר קָדְשִׁי (har qodšî), “the mountain of the holiness of me.” In this case, the suffix is modifying the entire unit “holy mountain,” and the entire expression is best rendered as most versions do, “my holy mountain.” If we followed the same procedure in Ps 4:2, the result would be “O my righteous God.” This also makes good sense in context. The Genitive of me would be not so much possessor (the notion is not that we own God), but one ruled, i.e., the psalmist is acknowledging the fact that God is the ruler over him. This is how the NIV and NIV84 take it.

Significance

Putting together the two conclusions above yields the paraphrase, “O God, who acts justly toward me.” This understanding fits also well with the context. Psalm 4:2 [E 2] is an appeal for God to hear the psalmist’s prayer. Verse 3 [E 4] is a general statement of the problem: he is being dishonored and shamed, and it appears that God honors the disingenuous. Then v. 4 [E 5] is a profession of trust in the true nature of God: God does set apart the godly and the psalmist has confident expectation that God hears him. The basis for his confidence was already present in the affirmation in the appeal of v. 1; it was not the psalmist’s confidence in his own righteousness, but his confidence in the nature of God. God acts justly toward his people. He always does, for as God, he cannot do otherwise. No matter how circumstances appear, we too can rest in that confidence.

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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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