So this is my first day into “One Month with the ESV” (#1mwESV). This morning’s reading was from Psalm 144, where David praises the Lord for his protection and provision, and calls out to this glorious Lord for continued intervention, for enemies still remain.
I was struck by the wording in Psalm 144:5
“Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down! Touch the mountains so that they smoke!”
I stopped at the word ‘bow‘ … I wondered what it might mean for God to ‘bow’ the heavens? In English, we have ‘bow’ as in ribbon, ‘bow’ as in showing deference, ‘bow’ as in bow and arrow, ‘bow’ as used with a violin, ‘bow’ as in bend under pressure, and ‘bow’ as in the piece of timber is bowed, or legs might be bowed if you’re talking about a classic moseying cowdude. Maybe it’s me, but I had to really process this, as none of the meanings really made sense in the Psalm’s context.
I turned to the Hebrew, and found that the root verb meant ‘to stretch, spread, lengthen, bend down, turn, turn aside, enlarge’ – with many of those contexts relevant to the image of a nomadic tent. I get that the ancients saw the heavens as a tent, a blue canopy stretched above the earth (see Isaiah 40:22, 54:2), but it still did not make a lot of sense as to why ‘bow’ would be such a good translation in Ps 144:5.
The NIV2011 has ‘part your heavens, Lord, and come down…’ which made a little more sense on first reading. It carries the idea that, with the heavens being seen as a tent, if someone (like the Lord) was going to leave the tent and intervene for King David, the natural thing to do would be to part the tent flaps. You would not expect someone to talk about ‘bowing the flaps’, or ‘bending the flaps’. You would more naturally talk about ‘parting the tent flaps’.
It looks like the ESV has carried a more traditional translation here. ‘Bow’ is found in the NASB, the RSV, and the KJV.
I also noticed Psalm 106:7
“Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.” (Psalm 106:7, ESV)
“Steadfast love” is an excellent translation of the Hebrew HSD (Hesed) alerting the reader to the ‘covenant faithfulness of the Lord. The Hebrew word is a linguistic signpost, often missed in English translations. Take the NIV for example, where this rich word is rendered ‘kindness’. It’s not a bad translation, but when Hesed refers to the Lord’s love and faithfulness to his covenant obligations, as Richard Laird Harris maintains (TWOT), it’s very helpful to have a consistent translation.
The ESV’s ‘steadfast love’ is really helpful here, and the NIV’s varied translations of the word tend to obscure the rich meaning of our Lord’s covenant love for his people.