Psalm 7, Verses 11-13:
In the film “Up in the air” the main character, Ryan Bingham, hears the air-hostess ask: “Would you like the cancer?” Shocked and dumbfounded he looks at her. Only after the third time she asked the same question, he understood what she really was asking: “Would you like the can, sir?” Not hearing or considering even something as small as a comma can cause a complete misunderstanding of the intended message. Could this be true of Ps.7:12?
Though most Versions agree on this verse, there are translations that differ substantially.
Most versions translate the first part of verse 12 as an appeal to the enemy of David to repent and evade the wrath of God, the Righteous God.
Let us consider the RSV:
Ps.7:11-13: “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day. If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.“
This version agrees with the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, commonly used during the lifetime of Jesus. Most Bibles, old and new agree with this version. It is also endorsed by Ridderbos, Craigie and others. (I could find 49 verses, having the verb “yashub” in the Old Testament. Except for Ps.7:12, the meaning of repentance is found in only two other verses. In both cases they are supported by the context and additional words. Ezekiel 18:21: “But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed…” Joel 2:13: “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful…”
In the Message we have a different version, without a call to repentance.
The Message: Ps.7:11-13: “God in solemn honor does things right, but his nerves are sandpapered raw. Nobody gets by with anything. God is already in action— Sword honed on his whetstone, bow strung, arrow on the string, Lethal weapons in hand, each arrow a flaming missile.”
We find this version also in the German translation prepared by Martin Luther as well as a few other versions. It is endorsed by Gunkel and Van Uchelen. According to Van Uchelen the contrast with verses 4,5 gets lost in the common translation. It also causes the verb yashub to erroneously get the meaning of repentance. The thought of repentance of the enemies is not found in the book of Psalms. (Only the repentance of Israel in Ps. 78:34.)
In this psalm we are confronted with a difficult grammatical construction. There are three grammatical aspects to take into consideration.
1.) The first two words of the sentence (im loh) “if not” are connected with a marker called a maqqef. This construction is sometimes used as an emphatic expression meaning “definitely” or “surely”. It is commonly used in an oath-formula, like in Isaiah 5:9: “The LORD Almighty has declared in my hearing: “Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants.” and Job 1:11: “But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” There are no less than 30 examples in the Old Testament.
2.) The division marker (like a comma) is not found after the verb (jashub) translated with “repent”, but after the next verb “sharpen”. This causes “repent” to rather function as an adverb defining “sharpen”. It then has the meaning of “again” or on the point of acting. Hence the translation: “God is already in action— Sword honed…” This rendering also supports the parallelism in verse 13a and 13b: “God already sharpens his sword; he bends and strings his bow.
Lethal weapons in hand, each arrow a flaming missile.“
3.) The third grammatical indication is the changing of the subjects of the verbs without any indication. God is the subject in verse 11 and could also be in verse 13. There is no grammatical indication why the subject of the first verb (repent) in verse 12 should refer to the enemy of verse 1-4 while the subject of the following verbs in that sentence, “will whet” “has bent” and “strung” should then be God.
If, however, one would indeed make the enemy of verse 1-4 the subject of this verb (repent) one could just as well have it the subject of all the verbs up to verse 16, which would also make perfect sense.
According to these indications in grammar, there are three possibilities:
1. Ignore the connection marker (maqqef) as well as the peculiar position of the division marker (comma) and translate each word as standing on its own. Then alternate the subject of the verbs at will between “the enemy” and “God” in verse 12. This brings us to the version found in most English Versions.
2. Take the connection marker as well as the peculiar position of the division marker as a clear indication of the emphatic use of this construction, and God as the subject of all the verbs in verse 12. This would then correspond with the version found in The Message.
3. Take the connection marker as well as the peculiar position of the division marker as a clear indication of the emphatic use of this construction. Consider the enemy as the subject of all the verbs in verse 12, and even the following verbs up to verse 16.
This could then be rendered as follows:
Psalm 7:10-17: “ My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart.
11 God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day.
12 But surely the enemy already sharpens his sword; he bends and strings his bow.
13 He (the enemy) has prepared his deadly weapons; he makes ready his flaming arrows.
14 He (the enemy) who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment.
15 He (the enemy) who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made.
16 The trouble he (the enemy) causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head.
17 I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High.”
Each of these divergent versions stands on sound grammatical basis, though the first version ignores two important grammatical indications.
The question is which version gives a true rendering of what really had been written in the original Hebrew?
Let us then take the context into consideration. It is clear that David calls to God to judge and punish his enemies! (vs.6, 9, 11) Why then would he call for an escape from this judgement in verse 12? As was mentioned above, the concept of repentance of the enemy is not found in the corpus of the Psalms.
One should ask oneself: Do I prefer a version rendering the original correctly, or one that supports my dogma? Should my dogma determine my choice of translation, or should a correct translation determine my interpretation and application of Scripture?
It is understandable that, coming from the New Testament, we would like to have a version offering a chance to repentance. But if repentance is not an aspect of this, or any other Psalm, this important aspect of the mercy of God should be found in the many other Scriptures where it is found indeed.
I thank Professors Francois Malan, Phil Botha en Gert Prinsloo for their valuable insights and contributions to this interesting dilemma in Psalm 7.