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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields - Understanding English Ps 37: Part 2

Categories Hebrew and You

Westminster_Psalter_DavidThis post concludes a post begun last month on the verbs from the root חרה. Of interest is Ps 37 where it is translated three times with fret. Since the English word is not used much, it forms an interesting object of study.

Most major versions use the word fret in Ps 37 (NIV, NASB, ESV, NRSV, KJV). Fret means “devour, eat, rub, chafe,” and then metaphorically “to cause to suffer emotional strain,” or “to become vexed or worried” (Miriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition).

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

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

Three Other Stems

In the previous column we looked at the 82 occurrences of the verbal root that appear in the Qal stem. In this column we will look at the remaining 6 occurrences that occur in three stems before looking at the four occurrences in the Hithpael.

The Niphal occurs twice. In Isa 41:11 and 45:24 the participle is the passive of the Qal meaning “those angered against you.” Notice in addition, though, that in the Niphal, the subject is personal rather than “nose,” as it is in the Qal.

The Hiphil occurs twice, only in Neh 3:20 and Job 19:11. Translations of Job 19:11 differ slightly. The NIV, for example, reads “His anger burns against me,” indistinguishable from the Qal. The ESV has, “He has kindled his wrath against me,” which takes the Hiphil as causative, as distinct from the Qal. Abraham Even-Shoshan, Millim Even-Shoshan [in Hebrew], 2:605, also defines it in a causal sense. The Hiphil might instead be understood to be active like the Qal, except that the subject is personal rather than “nose.”

Nehemiah 3:20 is difficult. The MT (Masoretic Text, i.e., the Hebrew text preserved by the Masoretes, scholars working during the years AD 500–1000) reads הֶחֱרָה (heḥĕrâ), which is a Qatal form 3rd masculine singular. Instead of rendering the word as a finite verb, the NIV translates it as an adverb, “zealously”: “Next to him, Baruch son of Zabbai zealously repaired another section ….” The NASB also renders it “zealously,” and KJV is similar with “earnestly.” These translations seem to be reading the word as the Infinitive Absolute הַחֲרֵה (haḥărēh), which can function as an adverb. This makes sense, but definitely puts a positive spin on a word always understood elsewhere to refer to the “heat (of anger).” Certainly “angrily” does not work. Another possible translation might be “frantically,” if the metaphorical use of “heat” for some sort of emotional turbulence is in view. Note that the NET Bible does not translate the word. Apparently they are following the reading of a few Hebrew manuscripts and the original Greek translation that do not have הֶחֱרָה. The note in the BHS (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) suggests that the letters החרה are a dittography (a copying error involving writing the letters twice). It is best to retain the more difficult reading, the inclusion of the word, if any sense can be made of it. It is precarious to make any argument on a disputed reading.

The third stem is the Tiphal. It is disputed whether this actually exists. The only occurrences are in Jer 12:5 and 22:15 and perhaps in Hos 11:3 (“teach to walk,” derived from the noun for “foot”; see Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley, §55h, and Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament on Hos 11:3). In Jer 12:1–4, Jeremiah is complaining to the Lord about why he allows the wicked to prosper. The Lord responds in v. 5 that if Jeremiah has run with men and they have wearied him, he rhetorically asks Jeremiah, “how will you tĕtahăreh with the horses?” The contrast is with running. If we continue the metaphorical meaning of heat, the question put to Jeremiah is how run “hotly” with horses. Our word in Jeremiah is typically rendered “compete with” or “contend with.”

In Jer 22:15, the Lord warns the wicked king Shallum, who ruled after the righteous Josiah. The Lord predicts doom for any king who rules wickedly and seeks rule only for the luxury it brings as symbolized by cedar-paneled quarters. He asks, “Are you a king, because you metaḥăreh in cedar?” The idea seems to be to pursue cedar “hotly,” as though this is what makes a real king.

The Hithpael and Ps 37

To summarize thus far, חרה in the Qal and the Niphal always refers to having anger. In the Hiphil the meaning is causing anger or is a different idiom meaning the same as the Qal. In the Tiphal examples, anger does not seem to be in view, but some aggressive emotional agitation.

Finally, we are left with the four examples, all prohibitions, in the Hithpael in Ps 37:1, 7, 8, and Prov 24:19. The fact that these are in a stem different from the Qal suggests some distinction in meaning. In Ps 37:1, 7 the verb is parallel to being jealous over the success of the wicked. Some notion of feeling anger fits the context. In v. 8 the prohibition is parallel to commands to put away anger, and the action results in evil. For the Prov 24:19 example, Even-Shoshan, 2:605, defines as “to be provoked, be jealous as in wanting the same thing.” Leon Wood suggests that the Hithpael carries a reflexive idea, and translates, “do not kindle yourself” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 322).

The English word fret means emotional agitation, but often connotes anxious or fearful inner turmoil. The Hebrew root חרה also indicates emotional agitation, but seems to be narrower. The clear biblical contexts all are describing an aggressive emotion, such as anger, rather than a fearful one.

For Psalm 37 (and Prov 24:19) an aggressive sort of emotion fits well. The godly person should not work himself or herself up into an enraged or irrational state, but wait for the Lord to make everything right (Ps 37:7). There are two reasons for this patience. (a) The success of the wicked is only temporary (Ps 37:2), and God, not we, will bring about their demise (vv. 7, 9). (b) Our self-enragement only leads to evil (v. 8)—perhaps even caused by us! In such a state, we typically make wrong judgments and act in wrong ways (cf. Jas 1:20). May we instead walk in the wise ways of God.

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