Friday, January 14, 2011

“From Whence Cometh My Help?”

Psalm 54:4 (verse 6 in the Hebrew Old Testament) reads in the New American Standard Bible, NASB):

“Behold, God is my helper;
The Lord is the sustainer of my soul.”


The New International Version (NIV) and the English Standard Version (ESV) among others translate essentially the same.

But Psalm 54:4 in the New King James Version (NKJV) gives this rendition:

“Behold, God is my helper;
The Lord is with those who uphold my life.”

The different translations of line two constitute the burden of this article. Some translations that follow the NKJV are the King James Version, the American Standard Version, and Young’s Literal Translation. The Amplified Bible conflates the NASB and NKJV readings (“the Lord is my upholder and is with them who uphold my life.”) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible places the first reading in the text and footnotes the second. The NET Bible places the second reading in the text (“The Lord is among those who support me.”) and does not acknowledge the first option.

Both translation options are grammatically possible but only one is probable. The following discussion uses the identifications of 1st reading (i.e. NASB) and 2nd reading (i.e., NKJV) to organize the dialogue.

Line two of Psalm 54:4 reads literally in the Hebrew text “the Lord [is] among/with those who sustain my soul/life” (אדני בסמכי נפשׁי). The controversy centers around the terms in bold font consisting of a preposition “among/with” (ב) attached to the plural participle “who sustain” (סמכי). On the surface the 2nd reading appears to follow the Hebrew text closely while the 1st reading seems to ignore the preposition and the plural participle. But this is not the end of the story.

The 1st reading claims validity from Hebrew grammar. In the Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 51-100, p.45, Tate explains the grammar by acknowledging the plural form of the word “sustainers” but suggests that it is an intensification used for the superlative meaning that the Lord is “the sustainer par excellence.” But what of the attached preposition? Here Tate refers to Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 379, wherein the idea of essence is attributed to the preposition with the sense of ascribing “to [the Lord] a similar character.” Gesenius translates line two “the Lord is one who upholds my soul” Thus, the NASB, NIV, and ESV stand as grammatically valid translations. But, again, the story does not end here.

Logically, the 2nd reading enjoys the benefit of Occam’s Razor, the principle that prefers among competing hypotheses the one that makes the fewest assumptions to arrive at its conclusions (Webster's College Dictionary). In our text, the 1st reading assumes that the plural does not refer to plurality and that the preposition “with/among” can be muted by introducing the idea of essence. Surely this is more complicated than simply taking the words at face value as seen in the 2nd reading. Grammatically, no interpretive assumptions are required with the 2nd reading; it can stand unchanged with clear understanding.

From the perspective of Hebrew poetics, the 1st reading represents synonymous parallelism wherein the second line essentially repeats the first line. This makes a nice doublet. The 2nd reading involves synthetic parallelism wherein “one or more poetic lines not only repeat the basic idea of the first line in different words but also stress, intensify, or refine the thought in some way” (Sandy & Giese, Cracking Old Testament Codes, 225). With this definition, God (אלהים) is repeated in the term Lord (אדני), the pronominal phrase my soul is refined by my life (נפשׁי, Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 243), and helper is intensified by the term sustainer. This too provides a pleasant doublet while adding a third group of persons to the equation—the Lord, the Psalmist, and the Psalmist’s supporters.

Viewing the passage from a theological standpoint, the 2nd reading resonates best with the biblical theology of both Old and New Testaments. No dispute exists regarding the truth that God helps His people as line one of Psalm 54:4 proclaims. But He typically gives help through His people as line two states when translated literally. Occasionally one can see God working independently, as in creating a dry path for the Israelites to cross the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14), or by feeding Elijah by ravens at the brook Cherith (1 Kings 17). But more often He meets the needs of His people with His people. The 2nd reading of the verse, therefore, lays claim to God’s typical pattern for helping His own and overall claims the greater probability for interpretation.

The theological truth in both lines of this verse involves a practical orientation as well. The believer who prays for divine help should look in the direction of God’s people for support. “From Whence Cometh My Help?”—Thank God for His help; thank God for His people!