A preacher’s near blunder


Well, I preached Psalm 11. For what it’s worth, you can find a somewhat sloppy manuscript somewhat sloppily inserted into the comments of my previous post.

I made the mistake of assuming that the ESV text, which I used, would be fine. It was, except that the NIV text—which was the preferred Bible translation at the church I was visiting—departed ever so slightly from the ESV at two significant points.

Firstly, in the second half of the verse in Psalm 11:2, the NIV did not have enemies “shooting in the dark” (as in the ESV) but enemies shooting “from the shadows”. This ruined one of my sub-points and an illustration. I had some fine purple prose ready to flow forth about how the enemies, unlike God, were just as much in the dark about what they were shooting at, as their righteous target was in the dark about where the enemies were shooting from.

Sadly, my Hebrew is virtually non-existent,1 but my handy-dandy Accordance Bible software (which shows me English and original languages side by side on the screen, together with mouse-over translations) assures me in verse two that the Hebrew bemo-‘ophel is literally ‘in darkness’. So I think the ESV is correct here (if not better—I am not really in a position to make that call2).

Secondly, in the second half of verse 4, the ESV translation has the rather spooky phrase “[the LORD’s] eyelids test the children of man”, which I blogged about. The NIV, however, has translated the same phrase as “his eyes examine them”. Once again, the Accordance software leaps to the rescue and assures me that the Hebrew word af’appayim (meaning ‘eyelids’) is most definitely in the original text. So the ESV appears to have the better of the NIV in this instance. Even so, this slight difference in the NIV junked up a fittingly scary illustration about the judge in a lawcourt not being asleep, but able to scrutinize defendants even with his eyes closed.

My point here is not to dismiss the NIV while boosting the ESV, although the ESV tends to do better generally at translating words that are actually there in the original (at least in the Greek New Testament, where I do have some chance to compare easily with the original Greek). Also, anyone who claims that the distinctions between English translations means that the Bible is riddled with translational errors can see that in this example—as elsewhere—the difference in meaning is minuscule, fading to non-existent.

But the fiddly and tiny differences were enough to nearly mess up one sub-point and two illustrations in a brief three-point sermon. Had I not checked and compared the two translations ahead of time (by about five minutes!), both I and the congregation would have managed to thoroughly confuse ourselves, without really understanding where the problem had arisen.

The moral for preachers: work from original languages where possible, and check what Bible translations your congregation members have in their hands.

The moral for congregation members: trust your translation, and if your preacher isn’t making sense, gently inquire if you can have a quick look at his Bible.

1 Fixing a serious Hebrew deficiency is the next major academic project on the to-do list, but as it took 21 years to finish a lowly (though longish) essay in church history, please do not hold your breath, dear reader.

2 See note 1.

5 thoughts on “A preacher’s near blunder

  1. Don Carson, fluent in French and English, found that he could make some points from the Louis Segond French version, but not from the King James Bible. And vice versa.

    He decided to only make points which could be made from both versions.

  2. Also, I think might be more of an issue as more people get the 2011 edition of the NIV, which is then mixed with lots of the 1984 edition. The ‘84 version is everywhere and it’ll take decades for them to fall out of circulation even though they have stopped printing them.

  3. Gordon
    Good points. But my usual complaint with observations on these texts is the disregard for literary structural allusion. Genesis 1, Lev. 23 (Feasts), the Tabernacle and the Covenant Treaty structure are all parallel patterns. Psalm 11 is working its way through this “matrix.” Hence the “secret darkness” of Passover/firmament, the burning eyes of the Lampstand (Day 4) and the cup of Covenant sanctions at Atonement due to the broken oath. Revelation follows the same structure, hence the starry rulers in the centre and the harlot and cup towards the end. A lot of the Psalms use this structure. Without it, a lot of the Bible is like watching Shrek with no knowledge of nursery rhymes. Lemme know if you’d like a copy of my book which lays this out. Hebrew is helpful, but the Bible is an autostereogram. You often have to read it cross-eyed to get the full picture.


Comments are closed.