“Sacred” Texts pt 2: Psalm 23

KJV of 1611 (Psalms 23:1,2): Occurrence of &qu...

KJV of 1611 (Psalms 23:1,2)
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Along with the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 is the best known text in the Bible, even among those not in the church. It is a passage of hope and comfort, especially in the darkest of times. For many, hearing or speaking the words is not just soothing, it is bringing life to someone in desperation. Thus, Psalm 23 carries with it the weight of a “sacred text” (not that the whole Bible is not sacred); Psalm 23 carries the personal, emotional, and liturgical freight far beyond other texts.

I remember at seminary 30 years ago, one of the professors commented, it doesn’t matter which translation we used in the parish as long as we took a copy of Psalm 23 in the KJV and read from that. He understood well the significance that Psalm 23 conveys to a Christian.

So, what do we do with translations of Psalm 23? Is it acceptable for a translation to mimic the KJV? What about memorization? (I will address this topic in a separate post). What does this mean to the members of the congregation who have memorized it and meditated on it for years or decades? Let’s see how the four translations handle this:

Psalm 23

NIV 2011

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

ESV

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

HCSB

1 The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
2 He lets me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.
3 He renews my life; He leads me along the right paths for His name’s sake.
4 Even when I go through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

6 Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD as long as I live.

GW

1 The Lord is my shepherd. I am never in need.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside peaceful waters.
3 He renews my soul.
He guides me along the paths of righteousness for the sake of his name.
4 Even though I walk through the dark valley of death,
because you are with me, I fear no harm.
Your rod and your staff give me courage.

5 You prepare a banquet for me while my enemies watch.
You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.

6 Certainly, goodness and mercy will stay close to me all the days of my life,
and I will remain in the Lord’s house for days without end.

Some Observations

My observations here are not so much how each word/phrase is translated relative to Hebrew, but rather how the English strikes the person reading or listening to it. For those with church and/or Bible background, ESV seems a natural fit. ESV reads and follows the cadence of the KJV. Thus, it would be a comfortable fit for use in ministering to people with that background. NIV 2011 and HCSB seem to offer a close feel although the cadence is different for both. Due to the longer use of NIV 1984, many people have grown up with it, and so NIV 2011 would seem comfortable to them.

GW, as expected, does not just reiterate past translations. For those raised in the church or at least biblical tradition, it presents a challenge. But for those who are coming to the Bible from no church background, GW appears to offer a viable translation and with readable English.

Perhaps some phrases that reflect these differences:

In v.1 I shall not want (ESV, KJV, NKJV, etc.) is contrasted with “I lack nothing” (NIV 2011), “there is nothing I lack” (HCSB) and “I am never in need” (GW). Interestingly, GW offers a closer parallel to the KJV tradition; that is, the “never in need” is a present reality, with an expectation for the same in the future. In my thinking, GW is perhaps the best of all the translations at this point.

In v. 4, “through the valley of the shadow of death” (ESV) follows the KJV tradition. NIV 2011 and HCSB are identical: “through the darkest valley.” GW offers a mediating point: “through the dark valley of death.” For those interested, you can check the literature regarding whether the ESV rendering is the best or NIV 2011/HCSB. For purposes of readability, GW seems to the most complete and understandable., and does put it into the context of death.

In v. 6 HCSB has “Only goodness and faithful love” which in English is more restrictive than the Hebrew. The Hebrew word(אַ֤ךְ) seems to emphasize the certainty of the statement, not the restrictive nature of what is said. In other words, in English this can be understood that “goodness and faithful love” are the only two attributes of God that follow (“pursue”?) the believer. I think the totality of the Psalms speak against such a restrictive sense. And even in this Psalm v. 4 brings more to the Psalmist than these two attributes. “Pursue” seems like an odd choice in this context. Yes, the Hebrew word can carry that connotation, but it often carries a negative sense (even persecute), whereas in this Psalm, the sense is not a negative but positive. Thus, in English the use of “pursue” is left hanging as to understanding. And that lack of comfort goes contrary to the entire Psalm.

Psalm 23 in Use

So, it can be challenging for users to read a “sacred text” when it doesn’t match stored memory. I think the critical aspect of this is that each translation needs to be given time to see how it works in practice. For my own practical use as a pastor, I use whichever translation fits with the background of the person I am ministering to. That is, if the person has a traditional “church” background, then I will use ESV or NKJV. If the person has grown up in the church using the NIV for the past 30 years, then NIV 2011 makes sense. If someone doesn’t have that background, then I use GW.

And yes, I keep all three translations handy for pastoral/hospital visits.

An image of Psalm 23, frontispiece to the 1880...

An image of Psalm 23, frontispiece to the 1880 omnibus printing of The Sunday at Home. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
This entry was posted in Old Testament, Translations. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Sacred” Texts pt 2: Psalm 23

  1. Dean says:

    It is a revelation of sorts that I consider having many different translations available to me for visitations, and use them based on the individual, their needs, background, and familiarity with Scripture. I never considered that before. Thanks!

    Like

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