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Psalm 65: For you silence is praise

December 12, 2011

The opening line of Psalm 65 is routinely mistranslated (65:2 in the Hebrew, 65:1 in Christian English numbering) 

לְךָ דֻֽמִיָּה תְהִלָּה

Literally, this reads, “For you silence is praise,” and as such, is a statement of sublime profundity. 

Many readings of this psalm take a different approach.  The Hermeneia commentary (whose authors/editors/translators include Frank-Lothar Hossfeld, Erich Zenger, Klaus Baltzer, and Linda Maloney) explains the controversy in a footnote:

The vocalization of דמיה is debatable: with the MT as the noun, “silence,” or with the LXX as a feminine participle, דמה Qal, “be equal/be appropriate.” The LXX offers the lectio facilior and makes this text like that of its translation of 33:1*. However, the reading of the MT, which is preferable here, takes into account, in its closeness to 62:2–3*, 6–7*, the proximate context (cf. Seybold, 252; Spieckermann, “Alttestamentliche ‘Hymnen,’” 98 n. 3). The “silence” can either mean that, after the laments in Psalms 51–64, the cessation of lament is itself praise of God (cf. Millard, Komposition, 121 n. 267), or that silence is an attitude of confident expectation in the sense of the refrain of Psalm 62. Perhaps there may even be a reference here to the “quiet in the land” (35:20*).

Many standard study Bibles do not even note the issue, and simply substituting another term for דמיה .  The NRSV translates this as “Praise is due to you” and does not note the change in its footnotes, and two major NRSV study Bibles, the New Oxford Annotated Bible (4th ed.) and the HarperCollins Study Bible (2nd ed.) do not even make note of it.  (Similarly with RSV-based New Oxford Annotated Bible, 1st ed.)

Similarly, the NJPS translates this as “Praise befits You” (no footnote) and the Oxford Jewish Study Bible does not note the change in wording.

Among sectarian Bibles: the ESV uses the same translation as the NRSV, and the ESV Study Bible has no note explaining the change. 

NABRE, the new edition of the New American Bible, translates this passage as “To you we owe our hymn of praise.” 

————-

However, I was surprised that some study Bibles and translations that I think of as “down market” or less scholarly are actually much better on the issue.

The NIV11 translates the passage as “Praise awaits you,” but has a footnote next to “awaits” that says “Or befits; the meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain.  Even better the 2011 NIV Study Bible has an annotation explaining

awaits.  Or “is silent before” … Perhaps the imagery is that of praise personified as a permanent resident of the temple, lying quietly at rest, whom the people will awaken when the come to make good their vows.

The Message translates this as “Silence is praise to you.”

The “God’s Word” translation translates this as “You are praised with silence.”

The “easy-reading” Common English Bible (CEB) translates this passage as “to you even silence is praise.” (Which is not quite right, but is considerably closer in meaning.)

The HCSB has a footnote with the alternative translation “Praise is silence to You.”

The Darby Bible takes both options, and translates this passage as “Praise waiteth for thee in silence.”

And the NET Bible (which is not easy to characterize as either up-market or down-market) explains itself with a long footnote, as

tn Heb “for you, silence, praise.” Many prefer to emend the noun דֻּמִיָּה (dumiyyah, “silence”) to a participle דּוֹמִיָּה (domiyyah), from the root דָּמָה (damah, “be silent”), understood here in the sense of “wait.”

It is interesting to me that in this passage, the standard scholarly Bibles and study Bibles are not as good as other works in presenting the literal meaning of the Hebrew, and they do not even pause to note the change.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Russ permalink
    December 12, 2011 6:45 pm

    Hello Theophrastus:
    I just happened to have my New Jerusalem Bible handy and they translate as follows:

    “Praise is rightfully yours,” with the following footnote: Lit., ‘is due you’ versions; ‘silence (is praise)’ Hebr.

  2. Russ permalink
    December 12, 2011 7:01 pm

    Also, the NASB Study Bible has the following translation:

    “There will be silence ( text footnote 1 Lit., to) before You…”

    The explanatory footnote for 65:1 reads: “silence before You. Perhaps the imagery is that of praise personified as a permanent resident of the temple, lying quietly at rest, whom the people will awaken when they come to make good their vows (see 57:8).”

  3. Russ permalink
    December 12, 2011 8:01 pm

    I’m sure you have Robert Alter’s translation of the Psalms, but I thought I would refer to my newly purchased copy and post it here. His translation reads:

    “To You silence is praise”.

    His footnote is as follows: “To You, silence is praise. Despite many divergent interpretations of the Hebrew noun dumiyah, the most likely meaning, in view of other biblical occurrences of the verbal root it reflects, is “silence.” The speaker begins this psalm of praise – in a paradoxical gesture regarding speech and silence familiar in poetry in many languages, all the way to the early modernist French poet Mallarme – by affirming that the subject of the poem, God’s greatness, is beyond what language can express, so that silence alone is due praise. The poet, however, cannot remain silent, and he goes on to celebrate God’s goodness.”

    I’ve made a notation of this in my study bibles as well (the NISB NRSV, Harper Collins NRSV, Little Rock Catholic Study Bible NABRE). As you stated, none of these have footnotes reflecting this. As I do not know the original languages, it is “little” things like this that seem to fascinate me. Thank you.

    Also, I don’t have a clue who that French poet Mallarme is either! 

  4. December 12, 2011 8:58 pm

    Rosenberg and Zlotowitz have Praise silently awaits you + lots of notes. I have ‘to you mute praise’ – connects to ps 62 of course where mute is a frame as you note. I love these specifics.

  5. December 12, 2011 9:48 pm

    Russ and Bob —

    Thanks for the additional citations. I posted from work, and I don’t have all my library there — I should have checked each of the sources you mention.

    Russ, the one citation I don’t own is the NASB Study Bible you mention. Is that the one published by Zondervan? If so, I think that both it and the 2011-NIV Study Bible were adapted from an earlier edition of the NIV Study Bible published by Zondervan, so many of the notes are similar. (By now, I bet you have googled Mallarme — but if you’d like some more notes on him, I can make a post sometime.)

  6. December 13, 2011 1:33 pm

    “Thine, are silence and praise”: Rotherham Emphasized Bible

    “To You silence is praise”: Jay Green’s Literal Translation

    “Silence is praise to You”: Judaica Press Complete Tanach

  7. December 13, 2011 3:34 pm

    “Praise being silent to thee…”: Julia Evelina Smith‘s translation

    “To you silence is praise, O God in Zion,”: Pamela Greenberg‘s translation

    —-

    Robert Alter, in his translation of the Psalms, sometimes follows the MT and other times departs from it to follow the LXX. Clearly, for Psalm 65, he finds the MT version the most likely original meaning.

    Russ,

    Alter is referring to Stéphane Mallarmé, of whom in other contexts he has referred to as a trailblazer in poetry; most recently, in Alter’s translation of the wisdom books, he says: “There are poets in many literary traditions whose imagination and relation to language lead them to stretch the lexical limits of their medium — one might think of Shakespeare, Mallarmé, and Wallace Stevens — and the writer who fashioned the poetry of Job was clearly such a poet.”

  8. Russ permalink
    December 13, 2011 4:04 pm

    Thank you, J.K.

    I hadn’t gotten around to googling Mr. Mallarme last night. I don’t know if I should admit this or not, but the only poetry I’ve read (besides the ones found in the bible) are the ones found in The Tale of Genji.

    I was recently in the bookstore and came across Mr. Alter’s translation of the Five Books of Moses, and after spending about 5 minutes with it and reading the accompanying footnotes, I realized I needed that book…along with the Psalms. I’m currently making my way through his translation of Genesis, with the NABRE and NRSV next to me. I haven’t cracked open his book on wisdom literature yet…but I flip through it every time I’m in the bookstore.

    Theophrastus: Yes, it is the Zondervan edition that you mentioned. I figured you knew all of this to begin with, but my copy was handy and it gave me an oppurtunity to dig into the text myself.

    Thank you all.

  9. December 14, 2011 12:11 am

    Chuck and Kurk (and Russ and Bob): thank you for all the additional examples. I am a bit exhausted today; I should really go back and integrate your examples into my text. I think that my shock came from the fact that many of the commentaries I routinely recommend to students are so inadequate in this important example, while translations I might treat with trepidation (such as The Message) get it right.

    Russ: Wow, it impresses me that you have read Genji Monogatari. As you may know, many Japanese people have not read it, and I regard it as quite a difficult work.

  10. Russ permalink
    December 14, 2011 10:52 am

    I wish I could say that I have read The Tale of Genji in the original Japanese but I cannot. I have always struggled heavily with languages other than English (and I’m not too sure about that one and I’ve lived here in the States all my life). I was in the Army from 1984-1987 and during one 18 month period was stationed in northern Japan. My time spent there still has me thinking and reflecting on the Japanese people and their culture on an almost daily basis.

    My greatest memory is going to a cherry blossom festival at Hirosaki Castle in the Aomori prefecture in the spring of 1985. Thousands of cherry blossom trees in bloom, all against a deep, blue sky. (I won’t mention the amount of sake that was consumed that day!) The wooden castle is small and a tour was allowed. It is three stories and by looking out a window on the top floor you were afforded a spectacular view of snow-capped Mt. Iwate off in the distance.

    About seven years ago I was walking through Barnes and Noble and came across the book The Tale of Genji. Up to that point I had no idea the book even existed. As you probably know, there are two English translations that really stand out. The one by Edward Seidensticker, which has few footnotes, and the more recent translation by Royall Tyler, which has an incredible amount of commentary and additional resources to help a person such as myself “tackle” that book, and it is that translation that I purchased. (It also weighs about 5 pounds). It took me four months of non-stop reading to complete it, and I mean steady reading, because I knew if I stopped for just a day or two I would be lost and most likely, never finish it. And to be honest, there were times when I was lost, and if not for the helps provided by Tyler, I wouldn’t have completed it. There were many occasions I found myself going back and rereading a paragraph or a chapter.

    But what a fascinating read. I felt as if I had been transported to another world and another time, and I guess I had. It was a struggle at times but so worth it.

    A year or so later I met and became friends with a Japanese woman living on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu and somehow the Tale of Genji came up, and she said the same thing you wrote, that most Japanese haven’t read it. And then she giggled and said she hadn’t even read it.

    And just as an aside: I tried to read it again a few years later…it didn’t happen! I finished about two chapters, flipped through the rest, and said, “Did I really read this?”

    But the poems, if I remember correctly, were/are called “waka.” They are sprinkled throughout the whole story. I recently purchased a book on Kindle called “A String of Flowers , Untied…Love Poems From the Tale of Genji,” by Jane Reichold (here is the link at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/String-Flowers-Untied-Poems-Genji/dp/1880656620/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323877094&sr=1-1#_). She covers over 400 poems from –I believe—the first 33 chapters. Terrific reading!

  11. Mark Kamen permalink
    March 18, 2014 10:23 am

    though a few years later from the last post, a proper understanding would be “resignation” where we give up our cause (or perceived right) and allow Him to act on our behalf as He sees fit when He sees fit. When our will is resigned in silence, He answers.

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