The New Year and Psalm 37:4 - Part 1
So 2011 is complete, and the horizon of 2012 is stretched out before us. Like anyone, I suppose, I have high hopes for this year. The opportunity to start afresh and do everything better than the previous year is part of what engenders this hope I believe, and is probably the very thing that inspires many of us to make New Years resolutions as well. Personally, I’ve never been very enthusiastic about making New Years resolutions, but nevertheless, in pondering the year ahead, along with my hopes and visions, I am reminded of a well-known verse from Psalm 37 (Quoting from the ESV - English Standard Version):
Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart - Psalm 37:4
To me, this is a beautiful idea, as I believe the psalmist wants us to understand the exhortation here as a depiction of true relationship with the Divine, along with the fruit of that relationship. Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be anything in this saying suggesting any form of legalistic exchange in order to appease God, such as the promise of reward for following rules accompanied by negative consequences for failing to do so. Rather, it is an illustration of the proper, joyful connection between the Creator and the creature. To get a clearer picture of what I’m getting at, you might imagine the psalmist instead referring to a marriage relationship: “Delight yourself in your spouse, and s/he will give you the desires of your heart”. As the Bible contains so many marriage analogies regarding the nature of the relationship between God and His people, this understanding is probably well justified. But what is the actual meaning of “delight yourself” in Hebrew, and what is that supposed to look like in relation to God?
Now, as I began writing this, it occurred to me that there would probably be too much to say in a single post. So, I have decided to split this study into two parts. In part 1, I want to discuss the phrase “delight yourself”, and in the next, I will discuss the following phrase “the desires of your heart”.
Firstly, a bit of grammar is always necessary, because I’m not just dealing with basic meanings of words but also with their form and usage in different contexts. Those of you familiar with poetry will understand that any given word can be used figuratively to convey a very wide range of meanings. And after all, we are dealing here with a Psalm.
So, the Hebrew verb being translated as “delight yourself” is ענג/aanag. Generally, this verb is understood as meaning “delight in/take delight”, which is correct for the most part, but I think it might be possible to extract a little more meaning out of it. The root or base form of the verb carries the meaning of “be soft, delicate, dainty” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 772). It occurs only ten times in the Hebrew Bible (Deut 28:56; Job 22:26 & 27:10; Ps 37:4, 11; Is 55:2, 57:4, 58:14 & 66:11; Jer 6:2). Nine of those occurrences are in a stem of the verb that specifically carries a reflexive meaning. What this means is, the action of the verb is being done on or for oneself. For example: the verb pinch used reflexively = “I pinched myself” or “he pinched himself” etc. The other thing to note about the use of this verb in Psalm 37:4 is that it is in the imperative form. That is, it functions as a command or exhortation. So the final conjugation or variation of the verb in Psalm 37:4 is: התענג/hitaanag. It is an imperative and reflexive, and this is why it is most often translated in Psalm 37:4 as “delight yourself”
The corresponding adjective with the same root ענג/aanog, means something like “pampered”, “refined” or “exquisite”, and is used only three times in the Hebrew Bible to describe both men and women in Deuteronomy 28:54, 56, and the virgin daughter of Babylon in Isaiah 47:1. All three occurrences of this adjective are coupled with another very closely related adjective: רך/rachk, meaning “tender, delicate, soft” (BDB, p. 940). Not a very tender sounding adjective, but that’s beside the point. Why I feel these references are important is that the two semantically related adjectives appearing together, reinforces the general meaning of the root ענג/aanag as tenderness, softness or exquisiteness. To further reinforce this understanding there are two corresponding nouns with the same root also: ענג/oneg, “daintiness” and תענוג/ta’anoog, “daintiness, luxury, exquisite delight” (BDB, p.772). It should therefore inform our understanding of the meaning and use of the verb in Psalm 37:4.
In English, to delight oneself in something or take delight in something is really to experience great pleasure in that something. To delight oneself in someone is even more meaningful because it implies a deep connection or relationship, and a pleasurable one at that. While the translation of התענג/hitaanag in Psalm 37:4, as “delight yourself” is more or less correct, it seems too matter-of-fact and somewhat dull in my opinion, because I feel the base meaning, as discussed above, makes the use of the verb in this psalm much more impassioned and flavourful.
Now, before I proffer an alternative translation, there is one last thing to discuss, and that is the preposition על/aal, which ties our verb to the name of God. So far we have read the verse as “delight yourself in the Lord”. However, the preposition in this verse often means something more like “upon, according to, on account of, together with, above, over”, as well as many other possible meanings. Context usually determines how it should be translated, and to use “in” is not necessarily wrong, but not entirely accurate either. My preference in this instance is to use something like “together with” or “on account of”, as I feel it is stronger and more specific to the notion of relationship.
So finally, here is my preferred translation: “Take exquisite pleasure on account of/together with the Lord”. This is not a perfectly literal translation, but that is not always the point of translation. Rather, the point of translation is communicating a message authentically by getting as close to the original or intended meaning as possible. And what I have tried to do here is provide a translation that conveys the deliciousness and joy at the heart of our special verb.