Psalm 99 – The Mysteries of Hebrew

Psalm 99 Bible with Theo Orange Dark Chocolate

Today’s Chocolate: Theo Orange 70% Dark Chocolate

Today’s PassagePsalm 99

This is a weird scenario. It’s 5 AM on Saturday. I haven’t finished this post, and I was planning on waking up in a few hours to put it all together. But my muscles ache from ocean swimming yesterday, and I’m having trouble getting back to sleep while I wait for the Ibuprofen to kick in. So: it’s still dark outside, let’s blog about the Bible.

Florida ocean shallows - Palm Beach
“Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it.” (Psalm 98:7)

My initial thought upon reading Psalm 99 was “I need to learn Hebrew,” because right off the bat there’s something weird in the grammar. The line “He is enthroned above the cherubim” (99:1)? In the original Hebrew, the word “above” isn’t there at all. It’s just the verb for “he sits” and the word “cherubim,” and we’re apparently left to infer for ourselves where God is sitting in relation to these “cherubim.” Further, if you were hoping to learn from this psalm what cherubim are, you’re up a praising creek without a paddle. He simply drops them into his introduction to say that God is enthroned proximal to them, then moves on.

If you’re curious what a cherub looks like, maybe you can glean something from Ezekiel’s descriptions, especially if you are heavily medicated.

But the first verse of this psalm isn’t the only spot where I want to get into the Hebrew. Verse 4 reads: “And the strength of the King loves justice; You have established equity.” However, my margin notes add an alternate possible translation: “You have established in equity the strength of the King who loves justice.” Now, the alternate rendering doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of difference in your theology. You’ve got the strength of the King loving justice, and you’ve got God establishing equity, and the relationship between these two facts of life isn’t the cornerstone of the psalm’s lyrical meaning. It’s a song about God reigning in power and holiness over the earth! But I want to get into the details. I want to know what makes the line so ambiguous, and I want to think about what might favor one rendering over another.

And then, as the psalmist shifts to talk about the priests of God from Israel’s history–Moses, Aaron, Samuel–another peculiar line comes up. The psalmist says, “O Lord our God, You answered them; You were a forgiving God to them, and yet an avenger of their evil deeds” (99:8). In the original Hebrew, “yet” and “evil” aren’t actually present. The line is just “and an avenger of their deeds,” and the NASB translator inferred that it specifically meant God executing the consequences for his priests’ sins. Strong’s Concordance could probably help me here, providing additional information on the Hebrew words rendered “avenger” and “deeds,” and perhaps I’ll lurk in this verse a little longer on Monday before moving on to the next psalm. And I feel that I may have missed the point, because here we have God answering the call of his priests, intervening for them and forgiving them and still upholding justice, yet I’m fixated on the minutiae of the grammar.

But there is stuff going on in the original Hebrew here, and I want to understand it. My soul thirsts for Hebrew.

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