Reading For Understanding

Reading through the Psalms can present a number of challenges. First, there is the cultural distance between our day and a millennium before the birth of Christ.  While human emotions and desires have not changed, many of the references and illustrations in the Psalms don’t naturally resonate with us.

Second, is the form of poetry. While some folks enjoy poetry many people today are not used to reading it. Hebrew poetry has its own rules and forms which we don’t understand, making it harder for us to make sense of some passages.

Finally, there is the whole area of translation. Anyone living in a foreign culture knows that word-for-word translation seldom leads to clarity of message. Bible translators strive to stay faithful to the original wording yet want to convey a more meaningful understanding of the Biblical verse. This is why reading from more than one Bible translation can help us understand a passage better.  

For example, I’ve heard a few sermons based on Psalm 101 and verse 3. The reading from the New Kings James Bible says, “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes.” (Ps. 101:3 NKJV) For some preachers this meant that we should not watch television, or at least be very selective in our viewing.  The point of the verse, I was told, was to be careful about what I looked at with my eyes. Indeed, this is a Biblical truth but not totally what this verse means.

Looking at the same verse in the New International Version indicates that there is a broader idea being expressed. “I will not look with approval on anything that is vile.” (Ps. 101:3 NIV) Both are considered good translations, but we can see how the choice of words might affect our interpretation.

In fact, when we look at the context of this Psalm, we understand that David isn’t just talking about what he looks at with his eyes. He’s using a figure of speech, an expression about evaluating what is good or evil. He is saying that as king, he will not look favorably on evil or those that do evil. This Psalm is about David’s commitment to serving God and administering justice and mercy.

So, if you find yourself confused by some of the Psalms you encounter, take a moment and read it in a different translation. It often helps us to get a fuller understanding of the Word.