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Tuesday
Jan242012

Is “God Inhabits the Praises of His People” Really Biblical?

I reluctantly lift up the truce-flag of exegetical honesty.  I desperately want it to say it.  Many worship leaders (including myself) have quoted it as saying it.  It would be a great proof-text-style summary verse for a very important aspect of the theology of worship.  But the fact is that the translational evidence leans heavily against us being able to say that “God inhabits the praises of His people” is an accurate rendering of the Hebrew of Psalm 22:3.  Now, it is certainly a possible translation, but it is not the one that makes the best sense of the poetry.  Before we unpack this, let’s look at why it would be so valuable for it to say what it doesn’t say.

Why I Wish It Says What It Doesn’t Say

This verse, for worship leaders, is akin to that elusive “one verse” that proof-texts the Trinity for many Christians.  It’s an exegetical silver bullet.  “God inhabits the praises of His people” is a one stop shop articulation of the core of Christian worship: that God chooses to manifest Himself uniquely in the context of gathered, corporate worship generally and perhaps in the singing1 of God’s people particularly.  In an effort to elevate singing to nearly “sacramental” status (many have observed that evangelicals [probably due in part to the influence of Pentecostal theology on the whole of evangelicalism] have made congregational singing the “third sacrament” of Protestantism because of how much weight we give to experiencing God’s presence in the midst of singing), this verse would be a slam dunk argument in less than ten words. 

Does God really inhabit the praises of His people?  You better believe it.  We would just need to work a little harder and ponder Scripture more broadly and systematically to unearth this rich theological/doxological truth.  Psalm 22:3 just doesn’t say it as clearly as we would hope.

Why It Probably Doesn’t Say What I Wish it Would Say

Hebrew poetry is different than English poetry.  Typically, English poems use rhyme at the ends of phrases alongside other wonderful poetic devices, but Hebrew poetry was more often concerned with other elements of style, like balanced metrical patterns.  Hebrew meter is often defined by “units” (not necessarily syllables) in how meter is counted and added up.  A phrase which groups these units is called a “colon”—one line of poetry.  Two lines paired together are called “bicola,” while three grouped lines are called “tricola.”   Scholars will often shorthand syllables and cola with little equations like this (Psalm 22:1, 12):2

(1) My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
     My moaning is of the distance of my salvation!   (4+4)

(12) Don’t be distant from me,
     for trouble is near;
     there is certainly no helper!     (2+2+2)

Verse 1’s equation reads “4+4,” meaning, “there are four (Hebrew, not English) units in the first line and four units in the second line of this bicola.”  Verse 12’s equation reads “2+2+2,” meaning, “there are two units in each of the three lines of this tricola.”

All this is important to the translational debate surrounding 22:3.  This verse is a bicola, but the question is whether it is 3+2 or 2+3.  In this five-unit bicola, the word in the middle could either be grammatically tied to the first colon (making it 3+2) or the second colon (making it 2+3).  The middle word is yoshev, the verb for “sit, dwell, inhabit.”  Various translations will render yoshev as “inhabit” (KJV) or “enthrone” (NIV, NASB, ESV).  If yoshev were part of the first colon, the translation would be something like:

You are enthroned as holy;  (3)
     The praise of Israel.  (2)

If yoshev were a part of the second colon, the translation would be something like:

You are holy; (2)
     Inhabiting/enthroned on the praises of Israel.  (3)

Hopefully, even in somewhat straightened English, you can see the difference in meaning depending on where the key verb fits.  Either is plausible.  How do we decide?

John Goldingay, siding with the translation of the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and Jerome’s Vulgate, offers what is to me a convincing case that the former 3+2 rendering should be preferred over the latter:

The idea of Yhwh’s sitting enthroned in the heavens or in Zion is a familiar one (2:4; 55:19 [20]; 80:1 [2]; 99:1; 123:1; cf. 99:1-3 for the association with Yhwh’s being the holy one; also Isa. 57:15).  Likewise, the idea that Yhwh as Israel’s praise is a familiar one (Deut. 10:21; Jer. 17:14), but the idea of Yhwh’s being enthroned on or inhabiting Israel’s praise is unparalleled, and if either of these is the psalm’s point, one might have expected it to be expressed more clearly.  The fact that 3-2 is the more common line division supports the conclusion that LXX construes the line correctly.3

In other words, two things stand out:

  1. The content of the 3+2 rendering is more “normal” for the way Scripture talks about God elsewhere.  (God as “enthroned Holy One” is a common attribution, whereas God “inhabiting/enthroned on Israel’s praises” is an utterly unique phrase.)
  2. 3+2 is apparently more common than 2+3.

This argument isn't air tight.  It’s just sensible, given the data.  It’s still possible that the other translational option is correct, but it is less reasonable.  If I’m honest, I really want to believe the less reasonable option, but if I’m truthful, it’s not the best choice.  So while it doesn’t seal the deal, the “reasonable doubt” I now have leads me to not want to misquote Scripture.  Here I side with the NIV and Goldingay (and Jerome and LXX), over against great translations and scholars like the NASB, ESV, and Peter Craigie. 

Leading with Rigorous Integrity

Why have I taken so much time to dissect Hebrew minutiae on a blog post?  Ultimately, it comes down to integrity.  Will I approach the Scriptures as honestly as possible, and will I model that honesty thoroughly before the people I lead, even when it eliminates what I considered a major tool in my “worship theology shorthand” arsenal?  Sometimes (and I am guilty of this, too), we allow a little mis-exegesis to slide because “it’s just too good.”  But if we desire to be trustworthy as pastors, teachers, and leaders, we need to try to be as exegetically honest as possible, even as Christ forgives and washes His blood over all our shoddy best efforts. 

(By the way, how did I come up with this?  Do I sit around reading my Hebrew Bible?  No way.  The punch line of this little exercise is that, upon seeing so many varying translations of this key verse, I decided to dive into the Hebrew, aiming at proving the validity of “God enthroned on the praises of His people.”  Quite the opposite occurred, much to my chagrin.)

********************

1 The Hebrew word for “praises” (tehillah) is used elsewhere (e.g. the inscription of Psalm 145) to mean, quite particularly, “praise-songs” or “hymns.”
2 This translation is from Peter Craigie, Psalms 1-50 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 194.
3 John Goldingay, Psalms: Volume 1: Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 327-328.

Reader Comments (54)

Thanks for the analysis, Zac- very interesting, especially considering the frequency with which this concept is cited. By the way, the NET seems to shy away from the conflict altogether: "You are holy; you sit as king receiving the praises of Israel." :)
Oh and...I'll have a tricola, please. Sounds refreshing! Ah!

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElaine E

Thank you for the reminder to be a faithful pastor and for leading by example. Great post!

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosiah R

Zac, thanks for the blog post. I've fallen into similar traps regarding that verse.

A few years ago I was looking for the exegetical silver bullet regarding marriage and families. First, I didn't find the model marriage I was looking for, and second, I discovered that the New Testament says a great deal more about the family of God than it does about the traditional family.

Great stuff! And thanks for keeping me on my toes!

Mike Klassen

January 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael J. Klassen

Elaine: Nice. The NET still takes a stand on the placement of the middle verb, but you're right, it side-steps a bit.

Josiah: Thanks for the kind words.

Mike: That's a REALLY important insight that I don't hear a lot of people talk about...especially the folks from the "family first" movement.

January 24, 2012 | Registered CommenterZac Hicks

I really appreciate this kind of honesty, it's good to see. Thank you.

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim S

Zac,Your truthful approach to scripture is the method the Spirit of Truth wants you to take. I have written a few short books on biblical subjects which have been stretched by popular / political influences. One short piece, "The Last Enemy of Christ", can be viewed online free at http://comeoutofhermypeople.com/lastenemy.html
It's about a twenty minute read that may change the way you think about eschatology.
Blessings,
CW

March 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterC W Steinle

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD. - Zechariah 2:10

May 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRick

CHOOSING NOT TO SEE THE TRUTH DOES NOT MAKE IT SO. Take away Psalm 22:3 and you still have to ignore all of the other accounts that support the fact that God does inhabit the praises of His people...Acts 16:23-26 “And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely: Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks. And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.”...Matthew 18:20 "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”...2 Chronicles 20:18-24 "18 Then King Jehoshaphat bowed low with his face to the ground. And all the people of Judah and Jerusalem did the same, worshiping the Lord. 19 Then the Levites from the clans of Kohath and Korah stood to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud shout. 20 Early the next morning the army of Judah went out into the wilderness of Tekoa. On the way Jehoshaphat stopped and said, “Listen to me, all you people of Judah and Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be able to stand firm. Believe in his prophets, and you will succeed.” 21 After consulting the people, the king appointed singers to walk ahead of the army, singing to the Lord and praising him for his holy splendor. This is what they sang: “Give thanks to the Lord; his faithful love endures forever!” 22 At the very moment they began to sing and give praise, the Lord caused the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir to start fighting among themselves. 23 The armies of Moab and Ammon turned against their allies from Mount Seir and killed every one of them. After they had destroyed the army of Seir, they began attacking each other. 24 So when the army of Judah arrived at the lookout point in the wilderness, all they saw were dead bodies lying on the ground as far as they could see. Not a single one of the enemy had escaped."

May 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Hausler

Agreed, Steve. It doesn't sound like we disagree on the overarching principle, and perhaps another read of my post would solidify that for you. I am merely advocating exegetical honesty as to what INDIVIDUAL passages say. I wholeheartedly support the proposition that God inhabits the praises of His people. Thanks!

May 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterZac Hicks

Zac. Great post. Really clear description of the translational options. And I really like that you were honest in saying what you wanted. And how easy it is to go with what we all want. Nicely done.

June 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Harris

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