Translating Psalms (53)

When David is on the run from Saul he is at his most heroic.  He and his ragtag band of  the disaffected of Israel split time between hiding in wilderness areas from Saul’s relentless searches and attacking the Philistines to protect Israelite towns–basically doing Saul’s job as king while he is wasting his time trying to kill an innocent man.  At one point in that saga, the (non-Israelite) people of the wildness of Ziph betray David to Saul.  You can read about it in I Samuel 23.

You can also sing David’s lyrical take on it below!

“Deus, in nomine tuo” (Psalm 53)

[1] In finem, in carminibus. Intellectus David,

Unto the end, in songs.  An understanding of David,

[2] cum venissent Ziphaei, et dixissent ad Saul : Nonne David absconditus est apud nos?

when came the Ziphites and said unto Saul, “Is not David hidden among us?”

[3] Deus, in nomine tuo salvum me fac, et in virtute tua judica me.

God, in Your name make me safe and in Your power judge me.

[4] Deus, exaudi orationem meam; auribus percipe verba oris mei.

God, hear my prayer; with ears perceive the words of my mouth.

[5] Quoniam alieni insurrexerunt adversum me, et fortes quaesierunt animam meam, et non proposuerunt Deum ante conspectum suum.

For foreigners have risen against me and the strong seek my soul and they have not placed God before their gaze.

[6] Ecce enim Deus adjuvat me, et Dominus susceptor est animae meae.

For behold God aids me and the Lord is the upholder of my soul.

[7]Averte mala inimicis meis; et in veritate tua disperde illos.

Turn away evils for my enemies and in Your truth ruin them down.

[8] Voluntarie sacrificabo tibi, et confitebor nomini tuo, Domine, quoniam bonum est.

Willingly I will sacrifice to You and confess Your name, O Lord, for it is good.

[9] Quoniam ex omni tribulatione eripuisti me, et super inimicos meos despexit oculus meus.

For out of all trouble You have rescued me and above my enemies my eye has looked down.


v. 5 alieni Tempting to use “gentiles” here but I forebear.  The Ziphites were not Israelites, so you cannot use a softer translation like “strangers.”  The alternative is “enemy,” since it’s actually Saul who is seeking David’s life and the Ziphites are merely complicit.  Interesting hint that Saul has made himself a gentile through his wickedness.

v. 5 insurrexerunt Irony alert: Saul would say that David is leading an insurrection and David is very explicitly avoiding doing exactly that.  At the more important level, even though he is the nominal king, Saul is actually the insurrectionist: David was anointed by Samuel already in secret and Saul is opposing his reign.

v. 7 inimicis meis Here’s a vague little phrase.  David is definitely asking God to turn away evil things; the only question is how David’s enemies factor in.  The prefix of the verb calls for an ablative describing who God is turning the evils away from, but that doesn’t fit the psalm well at all.  The broad context of the psalm calls for a genitive, “the evils of my enemies;” this surely ain’t no genitive but it could be a dative of possession satisfying the same idea.  Finally the immediate context calls for things to be done “to my enemies” but it feels strange to use a dative for that–there’s a strong sense of motion calling for an accusative construction.  Choosing a vaguely dative “for” means I’m siding with the third option but not liking it.

And just to double back on myself: since the theme of I and II Samuel is intercession, I do like the sneaky double-entendre of using the ablative there so that David really is praying for his enemies.  Maybe St. Jerome felt the same way…

2 thoughts on “Translating Psalms (53)

  1. Reading your translation of v. 7: could the idea be that the enemies are not destroyed by evils of the world but by being confronted by the truth of God? A destruction that could lead to redemption? David praying for his enemies, indeed.


    1. That’s pretty cool. I didn’t consider that when I was reading and it took me a moment to understand what you meant, but now I see it. The Vulgate does have its own grammar of conjunctions sometimes, so that “et” could be adversative (turn away their evils from them, and rather ruin them in Your truth). I’d rather see an “autem” or something there but the words as written will support your reading.

      Now let me take all that back with my other hand. “Everyone knows” that truth in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, refers to God’s faithfulness. So “obviously” David is asking God to honor His promises to David and keep him safe from his enemies by rebounding their evils upon them. “No one” in the Old Testament speaks as metaphysically as you suggest.

      And maybe–big maybe–that’s all true for the Old Testament’s original authors. But this is St. Jerome’s work which the Church embraced as a definitive understanding of the whole sense of God’s plan of revelation. The whole point of these translations, for me personally, is to get a better feel for the quasi-Magisterial status of the Vulgate. Scripture means whatever the Church says it means, and long ago She said “yep” to St. Jerome’s work in a way that transcends mere philological approval.

      Your reading makes sense in the whole plan of Revelation and I think St. Jerome would like it. I know I do.


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