From the Rabbi: “Going to Heaven on a Preposition!”

For all you Bible lovers out there, here’s a taste from the rabbi of what deep exegesis of the Hebrew Psalms yields.  I am so appreciative of pastors and teachers like Brian and Bruce and many others who labor to present as neutrally as possible the original Hebrew of the Bible so the rest of us can engage with far fewer layers of cultural interpretation and inference.  Here’s Brian:


Dr. Bruce Waltke, my mentor for almost four decades, sends me his unpublished translations and exegesis of psalms, one by one, for which I then create Power Point slides and reformat his exegesis to make it more accessible for his students. IMG_4343_2I have felt so privileged to slowly digest the inspired poetry of the Hebrew poets under the clarity and beauty of Waltke’s magnifying lens. When giving a definition of a Hebrew word, Bruce has a way of summarizing fifty years of scholarship into a concise sentence. There is no scholar I know who matches his clarity, precision, faithfulness to the text, and remains faithful to Davidic authorship and the historical superscripts. But Bruce’s greatest gift to the church is his humility that is born out of his supreme love and devotion to Christ.

Last summer I found myself deeply moved by the way he handled a difficult phrase, a mere preposition, that stumped most translators in Psalm 7:10.

The first line consists of just two nouns and one preposition. מגני על אלהים

Literally: my shield / upon / God

magenni       ‘al        elohim

The second line is more straightforward:   מושיע ישרי לב  

who saves/ the upright of/ heart

moshia             yishrey             lev

Translators have difficulty knowing what to do with the preposition ‘al (עַל) in the first line:

NASB & ESV: My shield is with God
TNIV: My shield is God Most High
JPS: I look to God to shield me
NRSV: God is my shield

Bruce is the only scholar who seems able to penetrate the Gordian knot and unravels the difficulty. He translates it:

God takes it upon himself to be my shield,

the one who saves the upright of heart.

He explains,

“The preposition (עַל)‘al “upon” requires an appropriate verb of motion, such as “take.” The preposition marks a burden or duty that the subject feels with pathos as “upon” him. Some English versions emend the text to ‘ali (“O most high God”), but the final yodh is missing, unlike ‘ali in verse 8. The circumlocution God takes it upon himself to be (על אלהים, literally “is upon God”) aims to unravel a terse use of the preposition עַל (“upon”), which has no one word equivalent in English. “With,” found in many English versions, misses the thought. עַל ‘al here signifies that God feels the burden to be David’s shield.

My shield (מגני magenni) is a round, light shield, made of wood or wicker and covered with thick leather rubbed with oil (cf. Isa 21:5) to preserve it and to make it glisten. It is carried by the light infantry to ward off the enemy’s sword, spear or arrows; it is frequently employed to describe God’s presence in warding off a foe’s attack (Ps 18:2, 30, 35).[1]

I was reading these lines three summers ago, when Emily and I spent a week on the coast north of San Francisco in a home perched on a hilltop with stunning panoramas of the ocean. But needless to say, what I gleaned from a mere preposition was just as breathtaking as the vistas that assaulted our senses each morning.

“God takes it upon himself to be my shield,

the one who saves the upright in heart.”

With this new lens I began to think back on my life and considered all the times I have been protected from evil’s lures, attacks, or consequences solely because God took the initiative to be my shield. God chose to protect me long before I knew I would be in danger, and even at times when I chose to go my own way headlong into temptation, he set up roadblocks and barriers. And even if I chose to ignore the signs, and fell prey to the ugly consequences of sin and death, he became a “hiding place for me,” and the “rush of great waters (of judgment)” (Ps 32:6) did not reach me.

In appreciation for Bruce’s labors in the text, I wrote him – “Bruce, I went to heaven on a mere preposition!” He wrote back, “I did too.” Think of that. A mere preposition can transport us to heaven under the wings of God’s protective care. May his word bless you, as it did me.

“God takes it upon himself to be (write your name) shield,

the one who saves the upright of heart.”

[1] Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming).

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