The New Year and Psalm 37:4 - Part 2

Morning has always been the most positive time of the day for me. I feel most productive in the morning. The thought of beginning a new day with all its potential, not knowing what the day might bring, is exciting to me. With the New Year off to an interesting start, I guess new beginnings and future potential have become somewhat of a theme this past week. And what could be more appropriate to the beginning of another year than discussing relationship with God and the desires of the heart?

So here I sit this morning with my coffee in hand, having worked through the various translational issues regarding Psalm 37:4, ready to tackle the writing process of the second half of my diptych study of this verse. Part two has been an enjoyable archaeolexical journey, and one where I found myself asking certain questions that I did not expect to be asking. So without further ado, I will share that journey with you now.

The Desires of Your Heart

This second part of the study deals with what I referred to earlier as the fruit of the proper and joyful connection between God and man. This is communicated in the phrase “and He will give you the desires of your heart” - desire being the key word. There are hundreds of passages in the Bible with a variety of different Hebrew verbs and nouns where, in many of these passages, the single English word desire has been chosen as the most appropriate word in translation. I suspect this is because desire is a flexible term and especially pliable in poetic texts, as it can be used in a variety of different ways to convey both negative and positive forms of wanting or longing. However, I wonder if it is appropriate to simply use desire in the translation of so many biblical passages that use so many different words, albeit semantically related words, to communicate more specific ideas.

As you can imagine, listing all these words and the many passages where they occur would probably be a little overwhelming and would certainly detract from the goal of this short study. Suffice it to say, Psalm 37:4 is one example where I feel desire is not the most suitable choice for translating the Hebrew word in question, as there is an aspect of the Hebrew word that seems to require something of a more literal translation. 

The word is משאלה/mish’alah, meaning “request, petition” (BDB, p. 982). It is a feminine noun derived from the verb שאל/sha’al, meaning “ask, inquire” (BDB, pp. 981-982). In this form it occurs only twice in the Hebrew Bible (Psalms 20:5 & 37:4). With only two occurrences of the word in this form, you would think then that it should refer to something quite specific, and that a translation should reflect this as well. In this case, I believe the example of Psalm 20, specifically verses 4 and 5 (verses 5 and 6 in Hebrew), provides the answer.

Firstly, there is something interesting about Psalm 20 in its entirety. If you have a quick read of this psalm, you’ll notice that there is a slight theme running through it: answering and fulfilling. In verse 1 we read (ESV, italics added by me) – “May the Lord answer you”; in verse 4 – “May He… fulfil all your plans”; in verse 5 – “May the Lord fulfil all your petitions”; in verse 6 – “He will answer him from His holy heaven”; and in the final verse – “may He answer us when we call”.

You will also notice that verses 4 and 5 are paired together as a couplet, and structurally, they form the middle section of this psalm. Interestingly, verse 4 actually refers to the “desires” of the heart, but there is no word in the Hebrew text to translate as desire. Instead, the Hebrew literally reads “May He give to you according to your heart”. In this instance there is a special Hebrew conjunction כאשר/ca’asher, meaning “according to that which, according as, as” (BDB, p. 455), abbreviated and added as a prefix to the word for “your heart”. It must be assumed then by the reader and translator that this refers to the “desires” or “longings” of the heart. And most English translations, apart from three that I’m aware of, add the word desire in this passage. In any case, it is not until the end of verse 5 where we read the only other occurrence of our noun from Psalm 37:4, משאלה/mish’alah, in the phrase “May the Lord fulfil all your petitions”. I believe this is important because this theme of answering and fulfilling in Psalm 20 strongly suggests that משאלה/mish’alah should be understood as specifically referring to a request or petition. This is especially so because Psalm 20:5 contains the only other biblical occurrence of this word.

To further support this understanding I have also turned to the other ancient versions of the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, the Septuagint or LXX (3rd century BCE – 132 BCE), which is the Koine Greek translation, and the Vulgate, which is the 4th century Latin translation. To translate משאלה/mish’alah in Psalm 37:4 and 20:5, The Vulgate uses the Latin word petitiones, which is clearly “petitions”; and the LXX uses the Greek word αιτημα/aitema, meaning “request” (Frederick William Danker Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 30). Now, the reason why the LXX is particularly important is that this translation was done by a committee of Jewish Scholars for the Greek speaking Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt. It represents an ancient Jewish understanding and therefore helps to further illuminate the meaning of the Hebrew.    

So, now that we have determined that משאלה/mish’alah distinctly means “request/petition”, we have to decide which English word is most suitable in a translation. From a reader’s perspective, the words “request” or “petition” do not sound very poetic alongside the beauty of the first part of Psalm 37:4, as we have it so far: “Take exquisite pleasure together with the Lord”. To use desire then is neither incorrect nor inappropriate, as the concept of the requests of one’s heart implies a form of desire according to an English understanding of that word. To use desire even sounds good in the context of the sentence. However, as the Hebrew word in question is quite specific, and the ancient consensus favours “request/petition”, I feel it is best to render משאלה/mish’alah with a word that better conveys its actual meaning.

As I was pondering this, a thought came to me: “consider the origin of the word desire”. And it turns out that desire was adopted into English from French. Then immediately another thought occurred to me: “English is related to German”. So the next logical step was to check out Martin Luther’s German translation of Psalm 37:4, and he uses the word wunsch, which in fact means “request”, but it also means “wish”. The equivalent in Old English is the word wyscan, and comes down to us in modern English as wish (as I don’t have the resources, I had to use Wicktionary for this). So given the fact that the word wish encompasses the meaning of request, as well as desire, and is suitable poetically, I have chosen wish to translate משאלה/mish’alah. So finally, here is my complete translation of Psalm 37:4:

Take exquisite pleasure together with the Lord, and He will gift unto you the wishes of your heart

Of course, you can be less archaic by saying “and He will give to you the wishes of your heart”, but for the sake of beauty I like “gift unto”. In my mind, it also lends itself well to the idea of this relationship with God being reciprocal; He takes pleasure in His children and is a giver of gifts. I do hope you have enjoyed the journey through this verse as much as I have. Thank you for reading, and I hope for you all that in 2012, He will indeed give to you the wishes of you heart. - SDG


  1. Ah, I'm first! :)

    This was truly incredible. I loved how you siphoned off the exact meaning of the word desires. I also like the 'gift unto' version. Not only is it more poetical, it does make me think more of how my God is a God who delights to bring pleasure into my life- even through the hard times.

    Keep going Seth- this is powerful stuff and it really is enlightening!


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