4 O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us an object of contention for our neighbors,
and our enemies laugh among themselves.
Psalm 80:4-6, ESV
There’s a crazy little mind-bender in this translation involving pronominal reference. In verse 4, the active participant is “prayers.” It is the object of the verb “be angry with.” Then when you move on to verse 5, you hit a pronoun, “them.” In English a pronoun refers back to the most logical referent in a previous phrase. So, the word, “you,” obviously is referring to “O Lord God of hosts” since it is the only noun referred to in the second person. But “them” points back to “prayers” instead of “your people.” Many English translations have a tough time keeping all the pronouns straight in this passage. One strategy is to harmonize them all: “us” instead of “them.” REB, NRSV, and NIV also get the pronouns fumbled up here.
Another funny sounding thing here is the “bread of tears.” Any suggestions on what that means or how you might translate it?
Forgive me for doing a little copy-editing here. I’m going to try to clean up the passage above. See if my version is an improvement.
4 O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry when your people pray?
5 You have fed them with tears instead of bread
and given them tears in abundance to drink as well.
6 You make us a source of quarrelling for our neighbors,
and our enemies laugh at us among themselves.
Psalm 80:4-6 ESV, edited
To be honest, I’m not sure what “You make us an object of contention for our neighbors” is supposed to mean. Our neighbors argue about us? We cause fights with our neighbors? I would have to study the original language to try to understand this. There’s no footnote on the text so it must have been deemed comprehensible by the translators.
I quite like the TEV translation of this passage. It’s clear without being pretentious or unimaginative:
4 How much longer, LORD God Almighty,
will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have given us sorrow to eat,
a large cup of tears to drink.
6 You let the surrounding nations fight over our land;
our enemies insult us.
That seems quite gracefully translated. The pronominal stuff has been straightened out. And the parallelism of tears has been handled nicely without being awkward. The translators interpreted verse six to mean that “surrounding nations fight over our land.” I can at least understand that. Whether that’s a good translation or not I’ll leave for interpreters of the Hebrew text.
Well, those are just some of my own jumbly thoughts about this jumbled passage. Had I been reading a natural language translation I might not have noticed these interesting bits of the translation. So maybe Biblish is helpful if it makes you slow down and think through a complex passage that you otherwise would have just sailed through.
By the way, our family is in Durban, South Africa for the next few days. Tonight we went to Spur and they fed me with the bread of steak. It was delicious. They also gave me water to drink in full measure because I was quite thirsty after a long drive through the hot Transkaai. Who got to sit where in the car on the way home was an object of contention for our children. My wife and I just had to laugh among ourselves.