I was reading Psalm 141 and could not understand verse 5b. When I check the commentaries, I realise that there are quite a number of different interpretations and even translation of the same verse! In particular, the KJV rendering seems to be very different from all the other versions I checked, including NKJV, NIV, ESV and NASB. Do you have any view on which translation is correct based on the Hebrew text?

I am not an expert in Hebrew, but I can share with you some ideas from my own study of the verse. But before I do so, for the sake of our readers, let me reproduce the five different translations of the verse which you have supplied for me:

  • King James Bible (KJV)—Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities.
  •  New King James Version (NKJV)—Let the righteous strike me; It shall be a kindness. And let him rebuke me; It shall be as excellent oil; Let my head not refuse it. For still my prayer is against the deeds of the wicked.
  • New International Version (NIV)—Let a righteous man strike me--it is a kindness; let him rebuke me--it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it. Yet my prayer is ever against the deeds of evildoers.
  • English Standard Version (ESV)—Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it. Yet my prayer is continually against their evil deeds.
  • New American Standard Bible (NASB)—Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me; It is oil upon the head; Do not let my head refuse it, For still my prayer is against their wicked deeds.
We notice that the main difference between the KJV and the versions lie in the last two phrases which is rendered as (1) “which shall not break my head” and (2) “for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamity.”

Looking at the Hebrew text of the first phrase, it does look like the consistent translation of the other versions, whether the verb is rendered with the imperfect or jussive (prayer) mood, is correct. The wordaWn’ (nuw’; in the Hiphil stem) is translated as ‘break’ only in this verse in the KJV. In all other verses, the idea carried is that of ‘discouraged’ or ‘disallowed.’ And the standard Hebrew Lexicon (BDB) also carries the meaning as ‘hinder, restrain, frustrate.’ That said, however, I can appreciate how translating the word as ‘break’ will make a lot of sense in the context. A rebuke is not a fatal blow on the head. It is rather like excellent oil on the head (a reference to the Hebrew custom of honouring guests, cf. Ps 23:5), and will not break the head. Perhaps the translators of our version were seeking to translate it according to what they understand the Hebrew idiom or expression to mean.

But looking at the Hebrew text for the second phrase, we see that the KJV translation is actually the most literal of all the versions. The crucial difference in the translations actually lies in a simple prepositionB (‘b’ as in “µh,yte/[r;B]“) translated as “in their calamities” in the KJV). Now, the preposition is as most first year Hebrew students know, most literally and commonly translated as ‘in.’ It is true that it can sometimes be translated as ‘against.’ However, as the BDB suggests, it is usually translated as “against” only when they ware use “with words expressing or implying an act of hostility.” Apparently, the other translators assume that the prayer referred to in the last part of the verse is an imprecation or a hostile prayer! But this appears to me to be quite out of context, for at the beginning of the verse, those strike and rebuke are said to be ‘righteous’! Does it not seem rather contradictory and hypocritical to speak well of the rebuke of the righteous and then suggest as the ESV and NASB does that their rebuke is not appreciated? The NIV and NKJV maintaining the meaning of the preposition B as ‘against’ (contra ‘in’) tries to solve the problem of contradiction by addition the words “of the wicked” or “of evildoers” to steer the imprecation to another party. But the problem is: these words are not in the original Hebrew text!

And so we return to square one. Perhaps the preposition
B ('b') should be translated as the usual 'in' rather than 'against', and h[;r; ('ra-ah') should be translated as 'calamity' rather than 'wickedness.'

It appears to me that the only way to consistently keep the 'against' translation, is to translated the second part ("and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head") as “but let not the oil of the wicked anoint my head.” as in Adam Clark's translation. Ω