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Some translations have this verse reading "They that wait (up)on the Lord" (eg. NKJV) while others have "They that wait for the Lord" (eg. ESV) and still others "Those that hope in the Lord". (eg NIV)

What is the meaning of the verb here? Is it "wait on" - which to me implies an active, serving kind of waiting (waiting on tables in a restaurant), or "wait for" - which implies sit back and do nothing until something happens - or some other sense? What's the most accurate way to render the intended meaning of this verse in English?

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Your suggestion of "waiting at table" is an artefact of English. "Wait on" is not now as common as a synonym of "wait for", but it exists. –  Colin Fine Mar 10 '13 at 22:19
    
@ColinFine yes. anachronistic fallacy akin to asking when someone saw a floating bug that looked like a piece of butter flying. –  swasheck Aug 19 '13 at 18:47
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1 Answer

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Hebrew

The entire English phrase "Those who wait upon" (or "Those who wait for") is translated from one word: vekovye (וְקֹויֵ֤). This word finds its root in Hebrew qavah.

If we look at the Strong's entry for this word, we see this:

  1. to wait, look for, hope, expect
    1. (Qal) waiting (participle)
    2. (Piel)
      1. to wait or look eagerly for
      2. to lie in wait for
      3. to wait for, linger for
  2. to collect, bind together
    1. (Niphal) to be collected

We can see from this definition, that the idea of "waiting on" as in "serving" or "waitressing" is not at all the definition. However, "hope for" is also a bit of a loose translation here (since "to wait or look eagerly for" does signify "hope" in our modern English). That's why most translations use "wait".

Looking at the three possible definitions ("looking eagerly for", "lie in wait for", or "to wait for, linger for"), it's not clear whether it's an active waiting, as defined in the previous two definitions, or more of a passive waiting, as the third definition shows.

Context

However, if we look at the word in context, I'm more inclined to believe it's more of the active waiting:

Isaiah 40:31 (NASB)
Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.

With words in there like "mount up", "run", and "walk", and with the result of the waiting to "gain new strength", this seems more like an active waiting.

(This idea also supports the translation of "hope for" since it's more of a active verb in the English than "wait".)

Summary

I don't really see any indicator that this is either an active waiting (in eager expectation) or a passive waiting (lingering). It's hard to say. However, the verse in context makes me think it's more of an active waiting.

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The example is in Qal; the entry you quoted from Strong gives only the basic meaning ("to wait, look for, hope, expect") for the Qal, the other meanings being given for other binyanim. –  Colin Fine Mar 10 '13 at 22:17
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