Bow your heavens… Psalm 144:5 (ESV) #1mwESV

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.

One month with the ESV…

In May the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia decided to adopt the English Standard Version (ESV) as a preferred translation of the Scriptures.

At the time I did not think it was such a great decision. I am no New Testament scholar, so I find it hard to engage with the discussion at that level. I am a preacher, however, and I have the weighty responsibility of opening the Scriptures weekly and exposing its message to God’s people. I have an interest in making that process as clean, efficient and as accessible as I can. My prior use of the ESV had indicated that it was slightly more difficult to use in a public setting than my preferred translation (the 2011 version of the NIV). So I was inclined to stick with the NIV2011.

Even so, I respect the solid work of the CRCA’s Bible Translation Committee, and I recognise the ESV as having an edge in the accuracy department. This is because it is a more ‘word for word’ translation, while the NIV is more ‘thought for thought’. This may in part explain why in my view the NIV works better in a public setting. If it’s easier to follow, people will engage with it more readily. On the other hand, with the ESV being a more ‘word for word’ translation it may carry a closer understanding of the original languages.

The other impression I have of the ESV is that, for reasons unknown to me, the translators have sometimes opted for what appear to be somewhat archaic English. For something that purports to be contemporary English, I don’t get this. I don’t want to go into examples of this now, but may draw attention to some of these cases as time goes on.

It has occurred to me that my dislike for the ESV is more subjective than anything, arising out of the fact that I have been reading the NIV for the last 40 years. Maybe I like it more because I am so used to its form and cadence.

So I decided to use the ESV in my private reading and study for a whole month – starting tomorrow. I typically read from the Revised Common Lectionary – Daily Readings (RCL), which give plenty of variety as to genre and and style. I use the RCL with Logos Bible Software.  From time to time I will write a short blog about my experiences. If you are reading the RCL, you might like to read and well and contribute to the discussion. It can be helpful to share our thoughts.

Thanks for journeying with me.