'The presence of my enemies'? Translating Psalm 23.5

Inspired by Psalm 23.5 – ‘You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me’ – Bible Society is encouraging churches to host banquets for those who might have been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This is one of a series of articles reflecting on the psalm. 

There lies the dog buried! 

Such is the literal translation of a well-known saying in my native language. Well-known in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, that is. To English ears it sounds ungrammatical and makes no sense. 

A less literal translation would be, ‘This is where they buried the dog.’ Now it is proper English; but it lacks the connotation of the German phrase and we are still left puzzling over what folk living north, west and east of Lake Constance are on about. As you probably suspected, they haven’t just located a deceased canine friend; in fact, what they’re really saying is ‘Aha! So, that’s the issue.’

The moral of the story: beware of anyone trying to tell you that only literal Bible translations are good translations. Just as we had to move from a literal to a figurative understanding of interred pooches, Bible translators regularly alter the original, literal wording, so the English reader can understand the meaning. 

Psalm 23.5 is a case in point. The venerable King James Bible renders the original Hebrew as follows: ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.’

Some translations, however, replace ‘in the presence of’ with ‘in front of’ or ’in the sight of my enemies’, while others translate ‘where all my enemies can see me’ or ‘while my enemies watch’ – and on it goes.

The issue? The word in the original Hebrew is ambiguous. It can mean ‘in the presence of’, ‘opposite’ or ‘against’. Therefore, we can read our verse in more ways than one. We are forced to abandon the idea of one, correct, literal reading. We have to interpret.

If the enemies are present, as in the King James and several other Bible versions, has God, who is graciously waiting on King David, invited them too? Is this the great reconciliation? Or are they made to watch David feast away, while they go hungry – an image of David’s triumph over his enemies?

Alternatively, suppose we opted for the other meanings of the Hebrew term, ‘opposite’ or ‘against’. Does the verse then imply that the enemies are just on the other side of the hill, ready to attack? And does David continue his gourmet dinner, nonetheless, because he knows God is on his side and will protect him?

Let’s remember, Psalm 23 is poetry. More often than not, good poems have multiple meanings. They force us to use our mental and imaginative faculties. In doing so, we can make all sorts of enriching discoveries. 

David goes on to say that his cup overflows. In the ancient Near East, people were used to preparing veritable banquets for folk – even strangers – who passed by, dehydrated and weary from their long journey through the arid wilderness. David’s cup overflows, because when he is running on empty, God generously provides for him. Now, that message of Psalm 23 is easy to interpret: even in the face of literal or figurative adversaries, God cares for us when we are exhausted and look to him for help and restoration.

Michael Pfundner is a Bible Society writer

It's our prayer that the Psalm 23 Banquet will become a movement sweeping England and Wales – for more about this, see our website. We're working with Christians against Poverty and Welcome Churches to embody the psalm in our churches and communities.  


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