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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields - Understanding English Ps 37: Part 1

Categories Hebrew and You

Westminster_Psalter_David

Fret is not a word people use very often, but in Ps 37 it appears three times: vv. 1, 7, 8. Most major versions use the word fret in Ps 37 (NIV, NASB, ESV, NRSV, KJV). Miriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, lists six different entries for fret. The one we are interested in is defined as “devour, eat, rub, chafe,” and then metaphorically “to cause to suffer emotional strain,” or “to become vexed or worried.”

These notions of the meaning of fret all fit the context of Ps 37:1 and 7, but v. 8 seems a little less appropriate. Verse 8 reads (NIV):

8 Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.

There are two difficulties with fret meaning “worried.” (1) The two nouns in the first half of the verse are “anger” and “wrath.” Since a key feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, “worry” is not exactly parallel. (2) If worry “leads only to evil,” then perhaps it is a much more serious sin than I have previously realized.

We need to do a word study. Due to the length of the treatment, we will break this into two posts. I beg your patience, and hope you will read both posts and find some fruit along the way.

Overview of the Verb

The verb comes from the root חרה (ḥrh). This root occurs more than 92 or 93 times in the OT, depending on how one counts Song of Songs 1:6. Song of Songs 1:6 is נִחֲרוּ, and some identify its root as חרר or נחר. See Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (TLOT) for references to grammatical studies. For now we will not include it; we will work from 92 occurrences.

Remember that when studying Hebrew verbs, each stem must be treated as a separate vocabulary item (you may wish to see more on this in the post from January 2015 on Isa 6:5). The verb appears in five different stems: Qal (82 times), Niphal (2 times), Hiphil (2 times), Hithpael (4 times), and the very rare Tiphal form (2 times; the only two times this stem occurs is with this verb, both in Jeremiah, 12:5; 22:15). The stem for the verb in Ps 37:1, 7, 8 is the Hithpael. The fourth occurrence is found in Prov 24:19a, which happens to be identical to Ps 37:1a, and therefore offers no new context.

The problem facing us here is there are too few contexts to do a word study on any of the stems except Qal. For this situation, let’s study all the occurrences in all the stems to discover a range of meaning for each stem. Then closely compare the uses of each stem looking for subtle differences in the contexts.

The Root חרח in the Qal

According to the lexicons, the basic idea of the root חרה is to be hot. However, the verb is never used with the concrete meaning of something having a high temperature. The lexicons derive this from looking at the root in cognate languages. See Hebrew Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT) and New International Dictionary of Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTTE). But other suggestions have been made. For example, NIDOTTE compares the use of the root in Jewish Aramaic with the meaning, “to fan (the fire),” and to Syriac, “to argue.”

It is most often used metaphorically of anger. The full expression is חָרָה הָאַף בְּ־, (ḥārâ hāʾap̄ be), literally, “The nose grew hot against …” as in 2 Sam 12:5 וַיִּחַר אַף דָּוִד בָּאִישׁ (wayyiḥar ʾap̄ dāwid bāʾîš), “and the nose of David grew hot against the man.” This full expression is often shorted with the word nose, אַף (ʾap̄) excluded. Sometimes the possessor of the “hot nose” is indicated with the preposition ל (l, the letter Lamed), as in 2 Sam 19:43, וַיִּחַר לוֹ (wayyihar lô), literally, “and it became hot to him,” or “his [nose] became hot.” All of the examples in the Qal follow this pattern, and this pattern in the Hebrew Bible always has the meaning of being angry.

There is an interesting variation in Ben Sirach 51:19. In the manuscript found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q5Psa, lines 15–16) the text reads חריתי נפשׁי בה (ḥryty npšy bh), “My soul was hot against her.” This appears to be a poem regarding the pursuit of wisdom. It is not the nose that becomes hot, but the nephesh, the soul. The meaning of the expression is not anger, but desire.

Where We Are Going

In the next post, we will look at the ten occurrences of the derived stems, i.e., those other than the Qal. We will find out what we can and examine some difficulties.

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