Psalm 116 – Is the Death of the Righteous Precious in the Eyes of YHWH?
Psalm 116:15 states יָ֭קָר בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְ־הוָ֑ה הַ֝מָּ֗וְתָה לַחֲסִידָֽיו, yaqar beʿeinei YHWH ha-mavta la-ḥasidav. The word yaqar is rendered in opposite ways in different translations. The King James famously renders it as “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” The NJPS translates it quite differently: “The death of His faithful ones is grievous in the LORD’S sight.”
How is it possible for the same term to be interpreted in such diametrically opposed ways? Which translation—if either—is correct?
The root yqr is generally used to refer to something precious, valuable or scarce; its typical meaning is clear from its frequent use with fine stones (see e.g. 1 Kings 7:9-11). Unsurprisingly then, all the ancient versions understand yaqar in Psalms 116:15 as “precious”:
τίμιος ἐναντίον κυρίου ὁ θάνατος τῶν ὁσίων αὐτοῦ
Precious before the Lord is the death of his devout ones.
יקיר קדם י־הוה מיתותא דמשׁתלחא לחסידוי
Precious before the LORD is the death that is sent to his devout ones.
יקיר הו בעינוהי דמריא מותא דזדיקוהי 
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his precious ones.
gloriosa in conspectu Domini mors sanctorum eius
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
This understanding was common in early Christian texts, where it was applied to martyrs. Strikingly, even though rabbinic texts speak of chastisement of love, they do not extend this idea to suggest that God desires to kill those who are most loyal to him.
The Context of the Verse
Although “precious” is the typical translation of the term, it doesn’t fit the psalm’s context well. While the flow of Psalm 116 is difficult to discern, perhaps due to its anthological nature, most scholars agree that it is a psalm of thanksgiving. As such, praise of death seems inappropriate to the psalm, especially since in an earlier verse, the psalmist thanked YHWH for saving his or her life (vv. 8-9):
תהלים קטז:ח כִּ֤י חִלַּ֥צְתָּ נַפְשִׁ֗י מִ֫מָּ֥וֶת אֶת־עֵינִ֥י מִן־דִּמְעָ֑ה אֶת־רַגְלִ֥י מִדֶּֽחִי׃ קטז:ט אֶ֭תְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵ֣י יְ־הוָ֑ה בְּ֝אַרְצ֗וֹת הַֽחַיִּֽים׃
Ps 116:8 You have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. 116:9 I shall walk before YHWH in the lands of the living.
Furthermore, v. 15 is framed by a notice that the supplicant will pay his vows, which appears both in v. 14 and then again in v. 18.
נְדָרַי לַי־הוָ֣ה אֲשַׁלֵּ֑ם נֶגְדָה־נָּ֝֗א לְכָל־עַמּֽוֹ׃
I will pay my vows to YHWH in the presence of all His people.
These verses presume that the supplicant is alive and kicking, rather than dead!
Hamavta: Maybe It’s Not Death?
Some scholars try to avoid the problem by emending the word הַ֝מָּ֗וְתָה (hamavta), ostensibly a unique form of the word מָוֶת (mavet), death. Michael Barré suggests emending it to המנותה hēmānûtāh, “trust.” But this has little merit, as the word he reconstructs is not found elsewhere in the Bible, and his suggestion has garnered little support.
Most likely this deviation from the expected form reflects a “completely meaningless” elongation of מָוֶת; other words are similarly elongated, especially in poetry. This form may have been motivated by meter, so that the two-word second part of the verse would be closer in length to the three-word first part. Alternately, the author may have wanted to sound fancy; that may also explain why he earlier used the unusual forms לִמְנוּחָ֑יְכִי (v. 7) and תַּגְמוּל֥וֹהִי (v.12). Whatever the reason, the word certainly means “death.”
Modern Defense of Precious Death
Some modern scholars have retained the main meaning of yaqar as “precious.” Most recently Robert Alter rendered the verse in his new Bible translation as: “Precious in the eyes of the LORD is the death of His faithful ones.”
Years earlier, Mitchell Dahood in his Anchor Bible commentary rendered it: “Yahweh considers precious in his eyes the death of his devoted ones.” He defends this translation, noting:
This statement that Yahweh puts great value on the death of his faithful assumes that he will take them to himself when they die. This belief accords with the oft-expressed conviction of the psalmists that the just will enjoy Yahweh’s presence after death.
Contra to Dahood’s assertion, however, this conviction is not “oft-expressed” in the Psalter; in fact, this understanding of Ps 116:15 is difficult to maintain because it would be so exceptional. Of course, any biblical text may be expressing, unbeknownst to us, a sui generis idea, but the unusual nature of the idea prompted many interpreters to seek an alternative meaning.
Many of the medieval commentators understand yaqar here as “difficult”—just the opposite of its expected meaning. For example, Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) glosses:
הראני הקב״ה שדבר קשה וכבד הוא בעיניו להמית את חסידיו.
God showed me (David, the implied speaker of the psalm) that it is very hard and heavy for him to kill his devotees.
Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) similarly glosses yaqar as קשה “difficult.” Unlike Rashi, however, he justifies his understanding through a prooftext:
כמו: ויקר פדיון נפשם (תהלים מט:ט) קשה הוא בעיני השם להמית חסידיו בלא עתם.
As in “veyiqar the price of life” (Ps 49:9), it is hard in the eyes of God to kill those loyal to hm before their time.
This prooftext is not compelling, since the verb yqr there likely means “precious” or something very similar.
The commentary likely written by Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, 1085–1158) offers a different prooftext for this interpretation:
יקר בעיני י״י – לשון הוקר רגלך (משלי כה:יז), מנוע הוא בעיני י״י שיכין מיתה לצדיקים ולחסידים.
Yaqar in the eyes of the LORD: See similarly (Prov 25:17): “Visit your neighbor sparingly (hoqar)”—God refuses to kill the righteous and loyal ones.
Rashbam works backwards from the hiphʿil causative form in this verse, “make scarce,” to the adjectival form in our verse. Yet moving from “making scarce” to something never happening—i.e., those loyal to God are never killed—is problematic.
Yet a third prooftext is adduced by Radak (R. David Kimchi, ca. 1160–1235):
יקר בעיני י״י – כמו ויקר דמם בעיניו (תהלים עב:יד),
“Yaqar in the eyes of the LORD”—as in “veyeqar their blood in his eyes” (Ps 72:14).
Radak understands the first words in this verse, as does the NJPS, as “to weigh heavily.” He continues by explaining our verse:
יקר הוא בעיניו להמית חסידיו בלא עתם, ואני מן חסידיו, לכך מלט נפשי מן המות.
It is grievous (yaqar) in His eyes to kill his devotees before their time—and I am one of his devotees, therefore save me from death.
Even though this prooftext is used by some modern scholars, the root yqr here in Ps 72:14 has its typical meaning of “precious.” The point of the verse, as made clear from its context, is that since the blood of the righteous is precious, God will not allow it to be spilled frivolously.
Modern Defenses of “Difficult”
Though most modern scholars fail to acknowledge the medieval Jewish interpreters, many interpret the term similarly, as “hard” or “weighty,” motivated primarily by context. As noted by the German commentator H.-J. Kraus:
First, v. 15 is probably to be understood that Yahweh does not let his חסידים die (cf. Ps. 16.10f.), he saves them from death (v. 8).
Kraus bases his argument on a verse from a different Psalm:
תהלים טז:י כִּ֤י ׀ לֹא־תַעֲזֹ֣ב נַפְשִׁ֣י לִשְׁא֑וֹל לֹֽא־תִתֵּ֥ן חֲ֝סִידְךָ֗ לִרְא֥וֹת שָֽׁחַת׃
Ps 16:10 For You will not abandon me to Sheol, or let Your faithful one see the Pit.
Various psalmists motivate God to save their lives by stating that He does not let the righteous die; it would be odd if this psalm said exactly the opposite!
Etymological Defense of Yaqar as “Difficult”
The reading of yaqar as “difficult” is defended etymologically by John Emerton, the late Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford. He notes that in Aramaic, and Rabbinic Hebrew, and likely in Ps 49:9 and 139:17, and Daniel 2:11, yqr means “costly.” He cites ibn Ezra and Heinrich Graetz (the latter is mostly known as a historian, but he was an important biblical scholar as well), and translates the verse: “Grievous in Yahweh's sight is the death of his saints.”
The evidence that yqr can mean “difficult” from Daniel 2:11, an Aramaic text, is supported by uses of the root in other Aramaic dialects. Emerton bolsters the argument that this (Aramaic) meaning of yaqar is at play in Psalm 116 by noting other likely Aramaisms in the psalm, and its likely late date. This position has some merit, yet, this meaning for the adjective is only well-attested in Aramaic, and is never found in Hebrew.
Moreover, having the same word mean either “precious” or “grievous” would create significant communicative difficulties. Although contranyms—words that mean themselves and their opposites—exist in many languages, they rarely are ambiguous in single contexts. In other words, an utterance that could be interpreted as God either loves or detests the death of his those loyal to him would be very unusual, given that language typically aims to communicate clearly. For these reasons, Emerton’s proposal is best rejected.
Two Impossible Readings?
In short, we are stuck with no good way of reading this verse. On the one hand, translating yaqar as “difficult” or “costly” fits with what we expect from other biblical texts, but that simply isn’t what the word means. On the other hand, translating it as “precious,” while etymologically sound, ends up making this verse unique, and directly contradictory to the standard theological assumption in the Bible—and elsewhere in this psalm itself—that YHWH protects those loyal to him.
To extricate us from this quagmire, I suggest that instead of trying to reinterpret a term in the verse, we reinterpret its syntax.
Reading the Verse as a Question
With one exception known to me, scholars and translators render v. 15 as a declarative statement. But this need not be the case. Although Hebrew has a wide set of interrogative pronouns, and can indicate questions by slight shifts in syntax, it sometimes leaves yes-no questions unmarked. Intonation, such as a rise in pitch, would indicate to the listener that the phrase is a question.
This phenomenon is well-known in English; someone may say “got milk” as a statement, or, with a rising voice, might be asking a yes-no question: “Got milk?” Given the lack of punctuation marks such as question marks in MT, it is only through context that such questions may be determined.
The grammars bring many cases where questions are not marked with specific particles, and must be determined from context. Here are three examples:
בראשית יח:יב וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃
Gen 18:12 And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?”
שמואל א כב:ז וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שָׁא֗וּל לַֽעֲבָדָיו֙ הַנִּצָּבִ֣ים עָלָ֔יו שִׁמְעוּ־נָ֖א בְּנֵ֣י יְמִינִ֑י גַּם־לְכֻלְּכֶ֗ם יִתֵּ֤ן בֶּן־יִשַׁי֙ שָׂד֣וֹת וּכְרָמִ֔ים לְכֻלְּכֶ֣ם יָשִׂ֔ים שָׂרֵ֥י אֲלָפִ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֥י מֵאֽוֹת׃
1 Sam 22:7 Saul said to the courtiers standing about him, “Listen, men of Benjamin! Will the son of Jesse give fields and vineyards to every one of you? And will he make all of you captains of thousands or captains of hundreds?”
שמואל ב יח:כט וַיֹּ֣אמֶר הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ שָׁל֥וֹם לַנַּ֖עַר לְאַבְשָׁל֑וֹם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲחִימַ֡עַץ רָאִיתִי֩ הֶהָמ֨וֹן הַגָּד֜וֹל לִ֠שְׁלֹחַ אֶת־עֶ֨בֶד הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ יוֹאָב֙ וְאֶת־עַבְדֶּ֔ךָ וְלֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְתִּי מָֽה׃
2 Sam 18:29 The king asked [lit. “said”], “Is my boy Absalom safe?” And Ahimaaz answered, “I saw a large crowd when Your Majesty’s servant Joab was sending your servant off, but I don’t know what it was about.”
Context marks all of these cases as questions. Psalm 116:15 could be similarly rendered: “Is the death of his loyal ones dear to YHWH?!” The answer to this yes-no rhetorical question would be a clear “no.” Psalm 116:15 would then be similar to other such rhetorical questions in the Bible, which “aim not to gain information but to give information with passion.”
In short, I am suggesting that Ps 115:16 is a question—and would have been recognized as such given similar questions elsewhere in the Psalter. Rendering Psalm 116:15, “Is the death of his loyalists precious in the eyes of YHWH?!” fits this tradition well. Moreover, such a translation fits the broader psalm, allows it to comport well with ideas and structures of other psalms, requires no emendation, and does not take a word at the opposite of its usual meaning.
The Biblical Ḥasidim
Who are the חֲסִידִים (ḥasidim), translated by the KJV as “saints” and by NJPS as “faithful ones”?
The term ḥasid appears 32 times in the Bible: 25 of these are in Psalms, and most of the biblical uses of the terms (20/32) are in the plural. Ḥasid is related to the difficult to define term ḥesed, sometimes translated “lovingkindness”; it often expresses loyalty, typically from a more powerful entity (e.g., God) to a less powerful one.
A ḥasid is thus a “one who practices ḥesed” in devotion to YHWH, namely someone who is loyal to God. The KJV rendition as “saint,” which in seventeenth century English meant “a holy person,” is not very far off the mark, though certainly not appropriate in contemporary English.
The Name of a Group?
Several scholars have suggested that ḥasid, especially in the plural in Psalms, was a designation for a particular group, much like the later Pharisees were a group that gained their designation meaning “separate ones” from a common noun that became a group name. This happens often in language, as seen in the English Shakers and Quakers, or with the Loyalists, the group that remained loyal to the British crown at the time of the American Revolution.
Several uses of the term ḥasidim in Psalms in parallelism with other groups may suggest that it is a group designation. In Psalm 132, for instance, the ḥasidim are parallel to priests and can be understood as the name of a group:
תהלים קלב:ט כֹּהֲנֶ֥יךָ יִלְבְּשׁוּ־צֶ֑דֶק וַחֲסִידֶ֥יךָ יְרַנֵּֽנוּ׃
Ps 132:9 Your priests are clothed in triumph; Your loyal ones (or “Loyalists”) sing for joy.
The use of ḥasidim in Psalm 149 allows for this understanding as well. For instance:
תהלים קמט:א הַ֥לְלוּ יָ֨הּ ׀ שִׁ֣ירוּ לַֽ֭י־הוָה שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ בִּקְהַ֥ל חֲסִידִֽים׃
Ps 149:1 Hallelujah. Sing to the LORD a new song, His praises in the congregation of the faithful (or Loyalists).
None of these verses, however, requires that ḥasidim be understood as a defined group rather than as individuals who show loyalty to YHWH.
Not the Name of a Group
The push to translate ḥasidim in some Psalms as a group, predominantly found in older biblical scholarship, comes from the belief that many psalms are Maccabean in origin, and that several texts from that period know of a group called Ḥasidim, Ἀσιδαῖοι in Greek.
This word, however, is found only three times in literature of that period, in 1 Macc 2:42 7:13 and 2 Macc 14:6. Although most scholars understand this as a reference to a group, party, or movement, this is uncertain, and several scholars have argued, with merit, that such a defined group by this name never existed, and that these three texts referred to pious individuals. A helpful analogy may be the scholarly misunderstanding of the 12th century German pietists, referred to as Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, as being a named group.
Though we cannot conclusively disprove the idea that ḥasidim was a technical term for a group in the biblical period, given the evidence, it is best to render ḥasidav here as “his loyal ones” or even “loyalists” (with a lower case initial el), namely those who follow YHWH.
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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