Understanding Psalm 17:14

Recently, a reader asked me to explain Psalm 17:14 and whether the ones who receive God’s blessings are the wicked or the righteous. Since any explanation of this passage requires discussion and exegesis of the Hebrew text and an evaluation of how the translations have approached the text, I have decided to write a short post trying to make sense of the words of the psalmist.

In order to understand the meaning and the message of the text, I will cite the original Hebrew and how different versions translated the verse.

The Hebrew text reads:

ממתים ידך יהוה ממתים מחלד חלקם בחיים וצפינך תמלא בטנם ישבעו בנים והניחו יתרם לעולליהם

Here is how some of the English Bibles have translated the text:

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSV): “With Your hand, LORD, save me from men, from men of the world, whose portion is in this life: You fill their bellies with what You have in store, their sons are satisfied, and they leave their surplus to their children.”

English Standard Version (ESV): “from men by your hand, O LORD, from men of the world whose portion is in this life. You fill their womb with treasure; they are satisfied with children, and they leave their abundance to their infants.”

God’s Word to the Nations (GWN): “With your power rescue me from mortals, O LORD, from mortals who enjoy their inheritance only in this life. You fill their bellies with your treasure. Their children are satisfied with it, and they leave what remains to their children.”

King James Version (KJV): “From men which are thy hand, O LORD, from men of the world, which have their portion in this life, and whose belly thou fillest with thy hid treasure: they are full of children, and leave the rest of their substance to their babes.”

The Septuagint (LXX): “because of the enemies of thine hand: O Lord, destroy them from the earth; scatter them in their life, though their belly has been filled with thy hidden treasures: they have been satisfied with uncleanness, and have left the remnant of their possessions to their babes.”

New International Version (NIV): “O LORD, by your hand save me from such men, from men of this world whose reward is in this life. You still the hunger of those you cherish; their sons have plenty, and they store up wealth for their children.”

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “from mortals– by your hand, O LORD– from mortals whose portion in life is in this world. May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them; may their children have more than enough; may they leave something over to their little ones.”

Jewish Publication Society (Tanak): “from men, O LORD, with Your hand, from men whose share in life is fleeting. But as to Your treasured ones, fill their bellies. Their sons too shall be satisfied, and have something to leave over for their young.”

It is clear from these different translations of verse 14 that scholars differ in their understanding of what the psalmist was trying to communicate to his readers. There are two important issues of interpretation that make the proper translation of verse 14 difficult.

First, in order to solve the double occurrence of the expression “from men” in the verse, many scholars have decided to emend the text. For instance, Hans-Joachim Kraus (p. 244) translates v. 14 as follows:

May a cruel death at your hand, O Yahweh,
a cruel death put an end to their portion in life!

Michael Dahood (p. 93) translates the verse as follows:

Slay them with your hand, O Yahweh,
slay them from the earth,
Make them perish from among the living!

I do not think it is necessary to emend the text to gain the proper meaning of the text. If one takes v. 14 as a continuation of the argument advanced in v. 13, the text makes sense without radical emendation:

13 Arise, O LORD! confront them, overthrow them! Deliver my life from the wicked by your sword, 14 [deliver me] from men by your hand, O LORD, from men whose portion in life is of the world.

Thus the psalmist is asking the Lord himself to deliver him from the power of the wicked. The expression “deliver me” in v. 13 should also be understood at the beginning of v. 14.

Another possibility is to take the duplicate occurrence of the expression “from men” in its consonantal form and repoint the two words as a Hiphil Participle from מות (kill). This alternative follows the translation present in the Septuagint. This is the view taken by Dahood (see above) and Craigie (p. 160):

Kill them by your hand O Lord,
Kill them from the world.

Both options make good sense in the context of the whole psalm. I prefer to retain the reading of the Hebrew Bible without reponting the text.

The second issue that complicates the translation of verse 14 is whose belly is being filled by God. The decision of whose belly is being filled depends on whether the translation follows the Kethib or the Qere.

Translators that adopt the Kethib understand that the belly that is filled is the belly of the wicked:

“May their belly be filled with what thou hast stored up for them” (NRSV).

Translators who adopt the Qere, understand that the belly that is filled is the belly of the righteous:

“But as to Your treasured ones, fill their bellies” (TNK).

God’s people are called “Your treasured ones” (וצפונך), thus the translation that sees God blessing the righteous may be a better understanding of the text. Thus, Psalm 17:13-14 should be translated as follows:

13 Arise, O LORD! confront them, overthrow them! Deliver my life from the wicked by your sword, 14 [deliver me] from men by your hand, O LORD, from men whose portion in life is of the world. As for your treasured ones, you will fill their belly. Their children will have more than enough.

Psalm 17 is the prayer of an individual aware of his righteousness before God who was being oppressed and persecuted by wicked people. This individual approached God in prayer and asked to be vindicated. The psalmist asked for protection against wicked people whose reward is in this world. In his declaration of praise, the psalmist recognized that God blesses the righteous and provides for their children.

REFERENCES:

Peter C. Craigie. Psalms 1-50. Waco: Word Books, 1983.

Dahood, Micahel. Psalms 1-50. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

Kraus, Hans-Joachim . Psalms 1-59: A Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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9 Responses to Understanding Psalm 17:14

  1. James Pate says:

    >Hi Dr. Mariottini. You say that the “psalmist asked for protection against wicked people whose reward is in this world.” That sounds like the Psalmist believed in the afterlife: Sure, the wicked prosper in this world, but the righteous will prosper in the next. But a lot of scholars deny that the Psalmist had a rigorous concept of the afterlife. He talks about going to Sheol, which isn’t exactly a place of reward. When he asks God to deliver him from the pit, he means he wants God to save him from his enemies, not resurrect him.Any thoughts on this?

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  2. >James,This is a good question. Many scholars take the expression “when I awake” in verse 15 to mean “when I awake in the morning.” This interpretation would understand Psalm 17 to contain a prayer made at night. However, since the people of Israel described death as “sleep,” it is possible to understand the psalm as being post-exilic and thus reflect a belief in the resurrection of the dead. Such interpretation is possible since the psalmist is saying that the wicked’s reward is in this life.There is another possibility. The Hebrew literally says about the wicked: “their portion [is] in life.” This could then be interpreted to mean that the wicked’s reward is what they have in this world but that the righteous’ reward is God.I take the view that the psalmist believed that he would enjoy God’s presence after death. It is quite possible that belief in the afterlife developed in Israel before the exile.Thank you for your comment.Claude Mariottini

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  3. Blake Walter says:

    >Since I’m the one who asked about it — thanks! I was well over my head when it came to trying to parse out who was making the best sense of the Hebrew.In regards to the afterlife, I also felt that the psalmist (David? It is traditionally ascribed to him and seems to be consistent with other psalms ascribed to him.) was deliberately evoking more than just a literal interpretation of awake. But I thought it was a case of both/and. It seems to me that the psalmist expected the presence of God here and now, and God’s divine presence did much to sustain him even when he was surrounded by his enemies. I think too often we expect God to make things better in Heaven, but we don’t really expect Him to do much on this earth!

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  4. >Blake,I do not disagree with your argument. The psalmist believed that God would bless him here and now because he said that the children of the righteous would be blessed in this life. But I believe more is at stake here.If the psalmist expected his reward to be only his fellowship with God during the night or in the morning, then his hope was somewhat limited. As a righteous person, he already enjoyed fellowship with God. Although he was a righteous person, he would wake up in the morning and face the same problems he had faced on the previous day. I believed he wished for fellowship with God in this life and beyond.Claude Mariottini

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  5. Anonymous says:

    >Dr. Mariottini,My husband has turned from God, and is going through a bipolar downturn simultaneously. I worry so much about our 2 young boys, that they will experience the bipolar disorder that has plagued 3 generations of my husband’s family..and I intercede for my husband continually. This morning while praying for both situations, this verse address came to me. I immediately looked it up (in NIV, which has the positive translation for the righteous) and felt the peace of God. However, I have made practice of exegeting Scripture that speaks to me and was so disheartened by the conflicting scholarly opinions. Your explanation was extremely helpful to me. I believe that the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of Comfort. God used you to confirm that comfort to me by confirming an appropriate translation of His Word.

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  6. >Dear Friend,It is a sad situation when a loved one turns from God. This situation together with the bipolar situation of your husband can cause your life to be very difficult.You are doing the right thing. Keep on praying for your husband because God is still on his throne; he is sovereign and he can perform a miracle in the life of your husband.Your Christian life and your positive influence can affect the life of your children more than the disease of your husband.Make sure that your husband gets professional treatment and that he takes his medicine. God will use the doctors and medicine to accomplish his work.I prayed for you and your family today and asked God to pour his grace on you and your family. God’s love and God’s grace are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

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  7. Anonymous says:

    >Thanks for the help on this difficult passage. It can be difficult to argue for the truth of scripture when such contradictory translations are possible.How common is it for such differences to exist?How do you answer skeptics who would use situations like this to discount our current understanding of scripture. I think I know but would be interested to hear your answer. Brian Metzger

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  8. >Brian,Thank you for your comment. There are many difficult passages in the Hebrew Bible and scholars try hard to communicate the message of the writers in ways that make sense to readers who do not know Hebrew. This is the reason translations differ. However, this problem does not take way from the message of the Bible.People who do not accept the message of the Bible will use any reason to criticize the Bible. Our faith is not based on how one verse is translated. Our faith is based of the whole work of God and what he has done in Christ.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

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  9. siehjin says:

    >hi Dr. Mariottini,the earlier version of the NIV followed this positive translation:"You still the hunger of those you cherish;their sons have plenty,and they store up wealth for their children"but the latest version of the NIV, copyrighted 2011, has changed to the negative translation:"May what you have stored up for the wicked fill their bellies; may their children gorge themselves on it, and may there be leftovers for their little ones. "do you have any comments on this change in translation? why do you think they have opted for the negative version? do you have any stronger arguments for the positive version than what you have presented so far?i'm doing a part-time Masters in Christian Studies. i haven't learnt any hebrew yet, but if i understand you correctly, it hinges on the translation of וצפינך. it can either be "God's treasured ones" or "treasure" with which God fills the bellies of the wicked. is there any way we can know with greater certainty which translation is the correct one?God bless,siehjin

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