Psalm 91:1-2

Posted: 1st May 2007 by ElShaddai Edwards in Translation

You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, Who abide in His shadow for life,
Say to the Lord, “My Refuge, My Rock in Whom I trust.”

Another inspirational verse. This one resonates with me because of the adaption that Michael Joncas did in his song “On Eagles’ Wings” (above), which my mom liked and was sung at her funeral and memorial services. And I can’t but also help remember the connection that someone from a former small group made, talking about this psalm and how it was their “911” verse (Psalm 91:1, get it?), what they looked to when they needed spiritual help and safety. And that was even before the events of September 11, 2001.

TNIV: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. They say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.'”

NLTse: “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare about the LORD: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him.”

REB: “He who lives in the shelter of the Most High, who lodges under the shadow of the Almighty, says of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and fortress, my God in whom I put my trust.'”

HCSB: “The one who lives under the protection of the Most High dwells in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.'”

This is the first verse that I’ve considered where there is a definite difference in gender and voice. The TNIV, NLTse and HCSB studiously avoid masculine language in identifying the gender of the subject of verses 1 and 2; I’m actually quite surprised that the HCSB didn’t use “He” here given their adherence to the Colorado Springs Guidelines. Ironically the REB, which was associated with the early “gender neutral” movement uses “He” here.

The NLTse leaves open the possibility of a plural subject in verse 1, while the TNIV, REB and HCSB use singular language. Reread the TNIV with “He who” or “They who”; the verb “dwells” indicates a singular subject, similarly for the HCSB’s “lives”. So the early comparison is:

TNIV: third-person singular, gender neutral
NLTse: third-person plural, gender neutral
REB: third-person singular, masculine
HCSB: third-person singular, gender neutral

Jumping forward to verse 2, we find that only the TNIV and REB maintain voice consistency, the former using a singular “they”. The NLTse makes the abrupt shift from third-person plural to first person singular; the HCSB also shifts from third-person to first-person, but still singular. Careful readers of this blog will have already noted that I like consistency.

There are two clauses in verse 1: “He who lives in the shelter of the Most High” and “who lodges under the shadow of the Almighty” (REB). The phrase “the Most High” is a translation of Elyon, while “the Almighty” is a translation of Shaddai; both are common epithets of God in the Old Testament texts.

The TNIV and NLTse have a cause-and-effect translation… if you do A (“live in the shelter of the Most High”), then you will get B (“find rest in the shadow of the Almighty”). The HCSB is similar, but perhaps not as explicit. This approach is also taken in the Jewish Study Bible and the older translations, e.g. KJV, NASB and ESV, that I’ve checked. There must be a textual basis for this approach.

However, I really like how the REB has approached these verses, making them into parallel phrases, each saying essentially the same thing but with different language and under a different attribute of God. Using the parallel construction as a setup for verse 2 allows the text to use the subject of verse 1 as the voice of verse 2 without breaking the flow of the thought. The TNIV also maintains a third-person subject through both verses, but it just feels weaker and a less personal statement of trust than the REB.

It’s ironic to me that the second-person voice approach taken by Michael Joncas is probably the most consistent translation within the context of the entire psalm. Beginning in verse 3 and continuing until the Lord speaks his promises in verses 14-16, the text addresses the reader/listener as “you” or “your”. What if verses 1-2 were translated as such:

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who rest in the shadow of the Almighty, say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”

That’s a translation approach that’s gender neutral, singular and consistent with the rest of the psalm! Unless, of course, verses 1-2 are set apart in the text as a prologue, just as verses 14-16 end the psalm. I would like to hear from anyone familiar with the Hebrew if the shift to first-person in verse 2 is explicitly in the original text. In the meantime, for my tastes, this round goes to the REB. I prefer the verse construction and continuity, and the masculine language doesn’t bother me.

Update: Please see Psalm 91 Redux for some additional comments on this post based on the NET Bible.

Update: Please see Part 3 for consideration of the NRSV’s translation of this passage.

Update: Please see Part 4 for a discussion of the pronouns used in verses 1-2 of Psalm 91.

  1. […] back at a few of the Old Testament verses that I did translation comparisons on. In one of those, Psalm 91:1-2, the differences between translations (TNIV, HCSB, REB, NLTse) were significant in how they […]

  2. […] in Psalm 23 prompted me to dredge up my previous posts on the opening verses of Psalm 91 (see here, here and here) and take another look. These are the relevant examples from my previous looks at […]

  3. […] more on Psalm 91, see my previous comments here, here, here and here. See also Suzanne’s recent comments at Better […]