Battle of the translations (Psalm 119:36)

Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish
gain! (Psalm 119:36).

If you don’t know Hebrew, it’s helpful to read an Old Testament verse in multiple English versions of the Bible in order to get a flavor of the different ways the Hebrew could be translated.  Quickly one realizes there are more options than one might feel comfortable with.  It’s also good to realize that Bible translation is complicated.  While I have English translations I like more than other, they all have strengths (see post, “I love them all“).  It takes a little more work to look at multiple versions, but it’s worth it.

In English, we have scores of good translations.  I typically use four translations: the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Standard (NAS), the New International (NIV), and the New Revised Standard (NRSV).  (Speaking of revised versions, did you see the cover of Sports Illustrated with LeBron this week: “King James, Revised“?  Clever.)

Psalm 119:36 has more variety among the translations than most other verses in the psalm.  So, let’s start the battle of the translations (I’ll keep track of the score).  There are three points of difference among the four translations worth noting here:

1) The request the psalmist makes of YHWH: two translations have “incline” (ESV, NAS) and two have “turn” (NRSV, NIV).  Either word works, but I prefer “incline” because the verb here literally means “cause to bend/stretch”.  Incline is a bit more subtle, but appropriate.  So the ESV and the NAS each have 1; NRSV & NIV has 0.

2) What the psalmist is supposed to incline toward: two versions have “testimonies” (ESV, NAS), the other two have either “decrees” (NRSV), “statutes” (NIV).  Whereas for number one, I preferred the ESV and NAS, “testimonies” doesn’t fit the context well.  How do you incline to testimonies?  Either decrees or statutes makes more sense.  You can incline to God’s statutes.  So, there’s a 4-way tie with 1 each.

3) What the psalmist is NOT supposed to incline toward: 3 versions have “selfish gain” (ESV, NIV, NRSV) and one has “dishonest gain” (NAS).  While “selfish gain” works here, I love the fact that the NAS puts “dishonest” in italics, since the word is really only implied in the Hebrew.  NAS puts in italics any word merely implied by the Hebrew.  So, if you add up the votes, the NAS defeats the other three versions, 2 to 1 in the battle of the translations.

Now that we’ve discussed the Hebrew, let’s focus on the content briefly.  The prayer of the psalmist in this verse involves heart re-inclination.  Toward God’s laws and away from selfish gain.  The psalmist realizes he’ll need help avoid to greed, but also realizes that the reward of statute inclination is worth the effort and it’s preferable to those potential selfish gains.

So, back to versions, what’s your favorite Bible translation?  Why? 

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4 comments

  1. I use the RSV, NIV, NRSV, NASB. I might refer to the NLT & Peterson to get a more dynamic view, too, now and then. I love the NIV & RSV and I suppose they would be a tie for my favorite. I’ve used them for years. Our church has the NRSV in the pews, so I use it on Sundays. It is classy.

  2. Having not grown up in a church-going family, I’ve been left to fend for myself in this battle with o inherited version. I use the Holman Christian Standard more often than not, and that’s my study Bible. I also keep the Oxford Annotated RSV handy because I like the Shakespeare-era second-person pronouns and especially the rhythm of its translation of 1 Peter 5:8.

  3. Having not grown up in a church-going family, I have been kind of left to fend for myself in this battlefield, without an inherited version to accept or rebel against. I read the Holman Christian Standard more often than anything else, and that’s the study Bible I have. I also keep an Oxford Annotated RSV handy because I like the Shakespeare-era second-person pronouns and the rhythm of its translation of 1 Peter 5:8. The Holman, by the way, translates that the Psalmist should not turn toward “material gain.” How does that score?

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