I stumbled upon Psalm 20 yesterday in my worship time and found it to be quite relevant to some of the issues that are are going on in my life. Surprise, surprise. God seems to always have just the right word for me at just the right time.
What chiefly caught my eye, however, is the discrepancy between how most English versions translate the chapter, and how the Hebrew puts it. In most English versions (in fact, perhaps all), David implores God, he beseeches and invites and requests of Him. Thus, he writes,
May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble;
May the name of the God of Jacob defend you;
May He send you help from the sanctuary,
And strengthen you out of Zion;
May He remember all your offerings,
And accept your burnt sacrifice.
May He grant you according to your heart’s desire,
And fulfill all your purpose (vv. 1-4)
This is, to be sure, a beautiful prayer and a beautiful Psalm.
The thing is, translators have taken the Hebrew and translated all the verbs as “jussive” verbs. Without getting too technical and boring, a jussive verb – which we don’t really have in English – is “used to express the speaker’s desire, wish, or command” (Page H. Kelley, Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar, p. 131). It’s why the translators utilized the word “may” at the beginning of each clause. It’s David imploring God and making requests of Him.
The challenge comes – again, not to bore you – with the fact that the jussive has no unique form. That is, it looks exactly like the imperfect tense in Hebrew – and thus, there is nothing about a jussive verb that jumps out and says, “I’m a jussive.” It is only based on the context that one can decipher when a jussive is being used, rather than a straight-up imperfect.
So what does all this mean? It means that all of Psalm 20’s verbs can just as easily – and perhaps, should be – translated as imperfect verbs.
I wouldn’t, of course, claim to be more enlightened than all the brilliant Hebrew scholars that have translated just about all the versions of Psalm 20 as jussive in nature, but it does give me pause – and there certainly doesn’t seem to be anything obvious that would lead one to conclude the context necessitates the verbs be translated as jussives rather than imperfects.
The significance of translating these verbs as imperfects is significant: instead of David imploring God to act, he is instead declaring that God has, is, or will act (to further complicate things, imperfect verbs can be translated either as past, present, or future in tense – again, all determined by context). Therefore, instead of the Psalm being incomplete, tentative, potential, David is declaring confidence in God’s actions. He knows that God will act; he’s not “double-minded” as to whether He will.
Thus, David doesn’t merely say “May God grant you according to your heart’s desire,” He is saying, “God will grant you according to your heart’s desire” (incidentally, when the same verb for “desire” is used in Psalm 37:4 – also in the imperfect/jussive form – the translators translate it as an imperfect, thus rendering it: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart”).
Doesn’t such a thought change everything? I don’t have to wonder about whether God will answer me in the day of trouble; I don’t have to wonder if He will defend me or send me help from the sanctuary or strengthen me from Zion. I don’t have to merely beseech Him, leaving the result tentative and unknown. I can have confidence that He will – or perhaps even already has, or is presently – attending to my needs and desires.
And such a thought makes a huge difference.