Jul 19

My First ESV Review: Psalm 51

Steadfast love…abundant mercy

I know this isn’t supposed to be a review of the NAB, but I
can’t help
but point out how awful it is sometimes. How is “goodness” an adequate
replacement for “steadfast love”? If you’re going to insist on a more
commonly used word, “unswerving”, “faithful”, or “enduring” would be
good picks. “Goodness” is an attribute (and an understated one at
that). “Love” is an action. “Steadfast love” describes an action that
can’t be stopped. Also, “compassion” is not the same as “abundant
mercy”. The former is a desire to relieve suffering. The latter is
clemency, that is compassion towards those under one’s power,
particularly the power of a sovereign or judge. Mercy is being
presented as an aspect of God, a just judge. Mere compassion does not
carry the same meaning.

Blot out my transgressions

All three agree on the use of the verb “blot”, but it strikes
me as a
bit archaic. When was the last time you heard/read it outside of
Scripture? I’m not sure what would be a good replacement. “Obliterate”?
“Hide”? “Obscure”? “Cover”? “Eclipse”?. None of these (and others I’ve
contemplated) feel quite right. Perhaps the translators ran into the
same problem and decided to use the traditional translation. As for
“transgressions”, it’s not a commonly used word and perhaps
“trespasses” would have been a better choice (ala the Lord’s Prayer).
Even the latter is a bit archaic, though. Still, there are better words
that are more powerful than the offensively inoffensive “offense”. How
about “crimes”, for instance? Remember, David committed the offense of
adultery with Bathsheba and was responsible for the death of her
husband, Uriah. I could offend someone with crude language. They’re not
remotely offenses of the same magnitude.


The RSV and ESV use the rather archaic word “iniquity”. The
NAB’s use
of “guilt” is a step in the right direction, but it lacks force. My
choice would have been “wickedness”, “depravity”, “impurity”, or
something similar. Why do I insist on less archaic words? The
Scriptures were written by uneducated men. Average Joe shepherd could
understand them without a dictionary handy.

Justified in your words

“Justified in your words”? Yuck! How did that
it past the editors? That’s just plain awful. What’s so wrong with
“sentence”? It goes so well with the judge imagery in the first verse.

Behold…brought forth

I would change the NAB’s “True” to “consider” or something
like it and
keep the rest. “Iniquity” has to go, as must “brought forth”. Even
“brought into the world” would work better. IIRC, the NJB says,
“Remember, I was born guilty, a sinner from my conception.”.

Truth in the inward being

One of these things is not like the other. “Desirest” and
strike me as a bit stronger than “delight”. I think “desire” would have
been fine. As for “inward being”, the NAB seems to capture the meaning
while losing the literal translation. What is an “inward being” anyhow?
That concept (if I rightly understand it) is generally referring to the
heart in Scripture. “Core” or “soul” might work as well. “Heart” seems
especially appropriate here given the conceptual repetition with
“secret heart”. Ironically, that phrase becomes “inmost being” –
basically equivalent to “inward being” – in the NAB. So the NAB
basically flips the two parts of the verse. *scratches head* Anyhow,
“secret heart” is a little awkward, but it does evoke vivid images and
so I’d be inclined to leave it be. The only reasonable replacement I
can think of is “recesses of my heart”.

Purge me

Hyssop is a plant used for ritual purification with either
blood or
water. In that sense of purging sin, I can understand the use of “purge
me”. However, the phrase seems a bit awkward to me. “Purify me” ought
to work well in it’s place. It retains the dual imagery of physical
cleanliness and spiritual purity.

Let me hear

Given that both the ESV and NAB change “Fill me with joy” to
“Let me
hear [sounds of] joy”, I suspect that the former is an inaccurate
translation. I’m inclined to agree with the NAB’s insertion of “sounds
of”, even though it’s probably not found in the source language. Some
translations change “rejoice” to “dance”, so “sounds of joy and
gladness”, i.e. merry music, fits well.

A right spirit

What exactly is a “right” spirit? Is it “lawful”, “correct”,
or (archaically) “genuine”? I think “right” is too ambiguous to use in
this context. I’d have to know the source language to suggest the right
replacement, though.

Cast me not away

I don’t think the imagery of casting someone away is foreign
to modern
readers and indicates forceful removal against one’s will. The NAB’s
“Do not drive me” evokes images of herding cattle, that is pushing a
stubborn animal away from where it’d otherwise want to be, often at the
expense of much energy. Which image do you think more accurately
reflects God’s omnipotent actions?

Uphold me with a willing spirit

I applaud the use of “uphold” rather than “sustain”, as it
brings to
mind a weak person being propped up by someone stronger. “A willing
spirit”? Willing to do what? Perhaps the NJB’s “generous spirit” would
make more sense. I’m not sure. Again, I’d need to know the source


I’ve already expressed my distaste for “transgressions”, so
I’ll mostly
leave “transgressors” alone. I’ll just point out that in a twist of
irony, the NAB uses “wicked”, a variation of a strong word I liked in
place of the equally strong “iniquity”, whereas “transgression” became
a mere “offense”. *scratches head*


“Bloodguiltiness” is very tricky and I honestly can’t blame
the ESV
translators for not changing it. It means “guilty of murder or
bloodshed”. This is no hyperbole. After committing adultery with
Uriah’s wife, David sent him to the front of a fierce battle. Uriah was
killed in that battle. Uriah’s blood was on David’s hands. A reasonable
translation might be “Free me from the guilty of my bloody crime”,
whereas “Rescue me from death” obscures the sin David implied.

Sacrifice…burnt offering

Perhaps it’s in agreement with the source language, but I
don’t like
the ESV’s use of future tense in verse 16. The RSV and NAB both use
present indicative. If one insists on the future, I would use the
subjunctive in the second half. My rendition of this verse would be,
“For you do not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; a burnt
offering would not please you.”

Sacrifices of God

There’s a problem with verb-noun agreement in verse 17. “The
of God are…a broken spirit”. I can only assume the implication is
that every sacrifice is the same broken spirit. Even so, it’s still an
awkward phrase. I’d probably have used “The sacrifice to God is a
broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you will not spurn.” “Scorn”
would work for the last word as well. On the whole, though, the ESV’s
translation beats the NAB which is egocentric and insubordinate.

Do good

“Do good” just doesn’t feel right. I can’t put my finger on
it, but it
just doesn’t sound like mature English. “Good pleasure” is similarly
flawed. How about this? “Be gracious to Zion in your goodness”

Right sacrifices

Given the confusion regarding meanings of “right” mentioned
I’d have avoided that word here. The NAB’s “proper” seems adequate, if

Whole burnt offerings

While I respect the retention of the poetic repetition of
offerings” in the last verse, I think the phrase “whole burnt
offerings” falls flat. “Holocaust”, a sacrificial offering that is
consumed entirely by flames (which is mentioned numerous times in the
Old Testament), is an ideal substitute.


The ESV translators describe their work as “an ‘essentially
translation…[that] seeks to be transparent to the original text,
letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and
meaning of the original.” They also “sought to be ‘as literal as
possible’ [formally equivalent] while maintaining clarity of expression
[functional equivalence] and literary excellence” From reading this
psalm, it seems that literalness has sometimes gotten in the way of
clean, clear English. For the most part, though, the ESV seems to be an
acceptable replacement for the venerable RSV, but I’ll reserve judgment
until I’ve read more. It’s certainly better than the NAB, with its
egocentrism and wishy-washy feel-good word choices, and I wouldn’t mind
seeing the ESV, or a refinement thereof, replace it as the official
English translation for the Catholic Church in the U.S. Now if we can
only convince the translators to provide the deutercanonical books…

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