Good guys or bad guys?

I’ve been studying Psalm 16 lately. It is one of the only places where the idea of someone being rescued from Sheol occurs:

You will not abandon me to Sheol;
you will not allow your faithful follower to see the Pit.

Psalm 16:10, NET (See 49:15 for the other)

But today I was struck by the very different renderings of Psalm 16:2-4

Here’s the KJV:

2 O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee; 3 But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight. 4 Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god: their drink offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into my lips.

What’s really interesting here is the connection between “the saints” in verse 3 and those that “hasten after another God” in verse 4. Are they the same people or different?

If they are different, then the people in verse 3 are the good guys. And those mentioned in verse 4 are the bad guys. Translations that take this interpretation include NIV, NLT and ESV.

If they are the same, then the people in verses 3 are “bad guys,” that is they are going after another god. Translations that take this interpretation include NET, WBTC and KJV.

This is one of those fabulously difficult passages to interpret in the Old Testament. I don’t think the phrase level grammar can actually help you out here. Poetic form might give us some clues. Bob had a look at it here: Psalm 16 – the pleasure and the right hand. Maybe John would like to give it a try at Ancient Hebrew Poetry.

What’s your take?

18 thoughts on “Good guys or bad guys?

  1. arthad says:

    David, I would disagree that KJV is identifying “the saints” and “the excellent” in v. 3 with the people mentioned in v. 4, who “hasten after another god.” V. 4a in KJV is an antiquated way of saying “The sorrows of those who hasten after another god shall be multiplied”; the translation does not imply that the two groups are the same. ESV is just a more modern way of saying the same thing. KJV and NET are not in the same camp on this issue; rather, ESV, KJV, NIV, and NLT interpret it the same, as opposed to NET.

  2. bobmacdonald says:

    The good guy-bad guy axis is certainly an issue. One of my questions overall is ‘to what extent does the psalter undermine our tendency to objectivize the enemy’. The understanding of the mind of the enemy reveals our own mind. So I say I admire the saints who have gone before and are now ‘in the earth’ – why? Because they were good guys or because I now realize how they struggled as I do. As for this poem or any other, there are verses where you wonder what the poet elided over without telling you. This is one such verse. I am reminded of how I might behave – not as the holy ones, but as one who nurses a grudge, or wallows in self-justification, or remembers things best forgotten. Forgetting is difficult – especially if you made an enemy in whatever thing you are remembering. “I will not put their name on my lips” – but at the same time the thought is not captive to the Anointed One.

    So these are different groups and the ones who ‘hasten behind’ are my contemporaries, not the holy ones who have gone before. As in many situations, the ‘solution’ is to be present to the Holy One of Israel, and express the hope that this psalm expresses.

    I notice the repetition of surely here – assurance that is played with in a sixfold repetitive stroke in Psalm 62 which I was looking at last night. A little word, but a strong reminder.

  3. John Radcliffe says:

    I was beginning to think the NET Bible was on its own here (like arthad, I also put the KJV in the “majority” camp) until I checked out the NAB (New American Bible):

    “2 I say to the LORD, you are my Lord, you are my only good.
    3 Worthless are all the false gods of the land. Accursed are all who delight in them.
    4 They multiply their sorrows who court other gods. Blood libations to them I will not pour out, nor will I take their names upon my lips.”

    Unfortunately, the NET Bible’s notes don’t directly address the alternative “majority” interpretation, so they don’t give a reasoned argument for the NET rendering.

    The thing I see in its favour of the NET and NAS renderings is that other “good people”, aren’t mentioned elsewhere in the Psalm. However, judging purely from a literal rendering, I find the “majority” view a more convincing way of reading v3, even if we have to understand something like “As for …” at the start of v4. But I could well be wrong.

  4. David Ker says:

    @John, good find!

    Here’s the WBTC version I mentioned:

    3 But you have also said about the gods of
    this land,
    “They are my powerful gods.
    They are the ones who make me happy.”
    4 But those who worship other gods will
    have many troubles.
    I will not share in the gifts of blood they
    offer to their idols.
    I will not even say their names.

    The jury’s still out on this one for me.

  5. John Radcliffe says:

    Also add the NJB:

    2 To Yahweh I say, ’You are my Lord, my happiness is in none
    3 of the sacred spirits of the earth.’ They only take advantage of all who love them.
    4 People flock to their teeming idols. Never shall I pour libations to them! Never take their names on my lips.

    The NJPS rendering also has a slightly different take (I can’t find it on-line). I have it in print (but not to hand) in the “Jewish Study Bible”, where the notes just say that verses 3 and 4 are some of the most obscure in the Psalter.

  6. David Ker says:

    “where the notes just say that verses 3 and 4 are some of the most obscure in the Psalter.”

    Love it! I’d challenge everyone to a blog storm but a lot of Bible bloggers are obsessed with SBL at the moment.

  7. JKG says:

    “where the notes just say that verses 3 and 4 are some of the most obscure in the Psalter.”

    Here are excerpts from translator Robert Alter’s notes on Psalm 16:

    v1. “What sort of composition is indicated by this term remains uncertain.”

    v2. “The textual difficulties of this whole segment of the poem begin here, because the Hebrew bal=’aleikha is unclear.”

    v3. “Any translation here is guesswork. These terms might refer to local deities, as many interpreters have supposed, or….”

    v4. “Again, the translation is conjectural…. The translation assumes, with other interpreters, that … and that …, but neither reading is certain.”

  8. JKG says:

    then the people in verse 3 are the good guys.
    then the people in verses 3 are “bad guys,”

    we have a lot of people translating an uncertain source text.

    Well, she’s not one of the good guys, isn’t a bad guy either, but Pamela Greenberg, one of the people, translates Psalm 16 as follows. Notice its uncertainty as a target text too (and also its ambiguities) especially the them and the Their and those and the repeated-but-different all, this deixis and that back reference and the other, that make the transition of v.3 and v.4. Notice where she, the translator, ends that self-referential quotation of the Psalmist, with his own quotation marked “In the past” and their quotation marks arranging the self-quotation as a whole, but divided, block. It’s her placing David placing himself “With the holy ones buried… and the mighty.” But then Greenberg herself has admitted, in a personal way, “all translation is part interpretation” and “bringing one’s own ideas to the psalms is inevitable”:


    Watch over me, God, for it is in you I have taken

    In the past I said, “You are my Creator,
    but you do not look out for my good.

    With the holy ones buried in the earth,
    and the mighty, in them I have placed all
    my hope for protection.”

    Their sadness multiplies, all who rush after futility,
    those who chase after empty gods.

    I won’t pour out to them blood libations,
    won’t lift their names in blessing upon my lips.

  9. Bob MacDonald says:

    In my next pass on the psalms, I have not yet got to Psalm 16. Maybe a few months from now. The translation from JKG, from whom I always delight to hear, includes “but you do not look out for my good.”

    This is quite contradictory to the end of the Psalm – and contradictory in a different sense from the usual lament. How does she get there from כָּל חֶפְצִי בָם? Literally ‘all my delight in them’. Foot me a note please.

  10. JKG says:

    This is quite contradictory to the end of the Psalm – and contradictory in a different sense from the usual lament.

    Good point, Bob. Seems to me Greenberg is leaving much open to the reader / audience, in English as it also might be left open in Hebrew. Below here is her end of the Psalm; but first let’s ask your question this way: “How does she get there [to the end] from ‘in them I have placed all / my hope for protection.’?” She certainly moves things forward by rendering two repetitions; both are repeated across her quotation marks: the now easy but once-difficult-and-unclear בַּל, and the בָֽם/הֶם/תָם. She has David (after quoting himself) saying, “I won’t pour out to them… “; here’s where we see the repetitions: the English “*n’t” and the “them.” But to whom does the “them” now refer? Here’s how this continues on (“won’t lift their names in blessing upon my lips”), to the end there:

    God is the measure of my portion and my cup.
    You uphold my destiny.

    Blessings have fallen upon me in pleasant meadows,
    wonders and beauty have been my inheritance.

    I will praise God, who has given me good counsel.

    Even when my fears torment me at night,
    I will keep the Eternal always before my eyes.

    For when you are at my right arm,
    I do not stumble.

    My heart leaps up,
    the place of my innermost glory rejoices.
    Even my flesh rests secure.

    For you won’t abandon my life to the underworld;
    the Holy One will not relinquish the kindhearted
    to witness destruction.

    Make known to me the pathway of life
    until I overflow with joy at your presence,

    the lasting contentment that comes from your right hand.

  11. Bob MacDonald says:

    Thanks JKG – I see I pulled the wrong Hebrew into my comment – sorry about that.

    The footnote belongs with the prior phrase in the psalm. Verse 2 has another crux in it as well – pronoun confusion. Who is the subject of this sentence? You / or I said to יְהוָה You are my Lord. I know people amend the text. So what is the meaning of ‘you do not look out for my good’? Is it that the particular knows that the God cannot really be bothered? Hardly. Or is it a recognition that good is a bigger thing than ‘my good’? maybe. So perhaps I can twist it back into my framework.

    (Would I admit to doing such a thing!?)

    I am going into hibernation for a while. How deep I am not sure. But Psalm 16 is scheduled for sometime late in January, early February 2011. If I learn something I will try to remember to return to this post and write – hopefully accurately, at least with what I will have intended to say.

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