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Psalm 19:1-3 in the English Standard Version reads:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God,
       and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
       and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
       whose voice is not heard.

The way verse 3 is phrased makes it sound like inaudible words in general do not exist, which doesn't really make sense.

The KJV says:

There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.

... saying that the evidence of God visible in creation is understood regardless of the language of the audience. This makes sense to me.

The ASV says:

There is no speech nor language; Their voice is not heard.

... meaning that the heavens don't use actual words to communicate truth about God. This also makes sense.

Why do the various translations differ so much on this verse? Is there something particularly difficult or ambiguous about this verse in the original Hebrew? Why does the ESV in particular seem to be "off" on this verse?

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Added KJV italics as @disciple mentioned in his answer. –  Daniel Schilling Jun 18 at 13:21
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2 Answers 2

This is a case of ambiguity in the translation, as some of the explanatory words like "where" or "which" are not present in the Hebrew. Unfortunately it is very hard to put into English without making a judgment about the details.

See http://biblehub.com/interlinear/psalms/19-3.htm to read an interlinear text and http://biblehub.com/psalms/19-3.htm to see a number of translations.

The interlinear text says approximately, "not speech nor language is not do heard their voice"*. Either of the two words quoted as "speech" and "language" can actually mean either "speech" or "word".

I like the New Living Translation version: "They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard" as a probably accurate meaning, yet in a study Bible I would prefer it to be a bit of a puzzle. I think the ESV translators meant "whose" to refer back to "the heavens" and "the sky", but it is difficult to read it that way.

The added words like whose where and their are commonly put in italics to indicate possible ambiguity, which helps to avoid over-confidence in the details. Unfortunately the italics are often missing in online texts, and sometimes even in printed texts.

The generalization of inaudible words not existing is not likely to be made if we remember the context. It appears that there are no words, either audible nor inaudible, in spite of the fact that verse two says there is "speech".

*remember that Hebrew reads right to left. I reversed the actual order on the page.

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The verse appears in the Masoretic Text and LXX as follows, respectively -

Psalm 19:3 (MT)

3 אֵֽין־אֹמֶר וְאֵין דְּבָרִים בְּלִי נִשְׁמָע קֹולָֽם׃

The literal translation - There is no speech and there are no words: their voice is not heard.

Psalm 19:1-3 (LXX)

3 οὐκ εἰσὶν λαλιαὶ οὐδὲ λόγοι ὧν οὐχὶ ἀκούονται αἱ φωναὶ αὐτῶν

The literal translation - There are no speeches and there are no words, of which their voices are not being heard.

Please click here to view the expanded analysis of this verse in both Greek and Hebrew.

What we see here is the double negative, which appears in Isaiah, when the Lord describes Himself as "the First and Last" (Is 44:6) after indicating that there are no gods before Him nor are there any gods after Him (Is 43:10-11). In other words, the Almighty Lord is transcendent, and this transcendence is understood through terms in the double negative. Otherwise, the simple positive propositional statement "God is eternal" would in no way convey this nuance of transcendence; the double negative however does convey the nuance that nothing is transcendent before (beyond) His non-beginning, and nothing exists after (beyond) His non-ending. This double negative also occurs here in the Psalms, but now with the glory of God in view.

The first two verses in this Psalm indicate the universality of the "spoken" declarations of glory of God. In the vertical sense, the heavens declare this glory, and in the horizontal sense, the earth ("from day to day and night to night") declares this glory. The double negative now is to say that there is NO such place (heaven or earth) or time (day or night) where this glory is NOT declared. An expanded colloquial translation of the third verse therefore would be as follows -

Psalm 19:1-3
1 The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There are no speech or words extant (in God's creation),
Where this voice (of God's glory) is not heard.

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I see the double negative in the translation of the LXX above, but don't see it in the translation of the MT. "There is no speech and there are no words," and, "their voice is not heard," seem like two parallel agreeing negative statements, not a negative modifying a negative. Is this just something that must be inferred? –  Daniel Schilling Jun 18 at 12:56
    
@DanielSchilling - Yes - the double negative in Hebrew is not grammatical but conceptual. –  Joseph Jun 19 at 0:35
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