Psalm 19:3/4 reads:

אֵֽין־אֹ֭מֶר וְאֵ֣ין דְּבָרִ֑ים בְּ֝לִ֗י נִשְׁמָ֥ע קוֹלָֽם׃ (BHS, 19:4)
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. (ESV, 19:3)

The idea that speech and words have voices seems kind of odd and backward, but whatever, it’s poetry. Then I ran across the NET:

There is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard.

They eliminate the relative clause and instead use the possessive pronoun 'its' to refer back to to 'heavens' in verse 1.* Semantically, this seems a little easier to me. As far as I can decipher, there is indeed no relative pronoun in the Hebrew. But the LXX (for those interested):

οὐκ εἰσὶν λαλιαὶ οὐδὲ λόγοι, ὧν οὐχὶ ἀκούονται αἱ φωναὶ αὐτῶν·

This has the same basic structure as the English of the ESV, with an explicit relative pronoun ὧν (whose).

My problem with the Hebrew seems to be that I don’t have a good grasp on how בְּ֝לִי is functioning. Could someone help me figure out the syntax and offer an opinion about the translation decision?

*The numbers are fine as far as the Hebrew goes — they (the pronominal suffix and the antecedents understood in both translations) are all plural. It’s interesting to me that the NET footnotes ‘its’ to point out that ‘the antecedent of the [Hebrew] plural pronoun is “heavens” (v.1.),’ yet they translate ‘heavens’ as plural (v.1: 'The heavens declare∅ ...') and ‘its’ as singular, making that very relationship grammatically implausible in English. Unless you make a footnote about it. Then it’s OK. (I’m probably missing something...)

3 Answers 3


The Masoretic Text provides clues as to how to read and understand this verse.

First, the Masoretes provided a system of cantillation and accent marks, which had signaled to the listener (and reader) the Hebrew hierarchy of thought for every single verse of the Hebrew Bible.

For example, the following parse provides the schematic understanding of how the cantillation and accent marks worked - please click to enlarge the diagram, below.

enter image description here

According to this arrangement, the verse would make more "logical" sense to the Western ear (and mind) if translated in reverse cascading order as follows.

enter image description here

The idea here is that the creation (heavens, day, and night) are the silent witness to the existence of the Creator. In this context, the Hebrew root word for "heard" (שָׁמַע) therefore would not mean to discern audible sounds with the human ear. The wider context instead would point to cogitating thoughts in the mind in order to understand that all aspects of the creation (heaven and earth) are testifying in silence (imperfect action) to the very existence of the Creator.

Finally, since this structure of cantillation and accent marks provides the parallel of clauses, the Hebrew clause in "Revia B" would modify the substantive בְּלִי in "Revia A," and thus the negative statement appears. That is, the parallel continues where Atnach B modifies Atnach A. Again, as noted, this reverse hierarchical "logic" is not typical for the Western ear (and mind), but would have been typical "logic" when sung as Hebrew poetry.

  • Thanks, Joseph! A couple thoughts: ① I would think that the idea that "Atnach B modifies Atnach A" would tend to favor the “relativizing” of B, heading toward opposite interpretation. “There is no speech without its voice being heard” is essentially “there is no speech whose voice is not heard,” i.e . "all speech is heard." ② I’m not quite following the second-to-last paragraph's explanation of שמע. If the idea is that x is "not heard" (—>”silent"), why do we need the ‘cogitate’ meaning? ③ (Minor point): I don’t think this is the substantive use of בְּלִי (last paragraph).
    – Susan
    May 4, 2015 at 5:31
  • @Susan - In the Bible "hearing" is not only the idea of processing sounds through the human ear but also perceiving and understanding with the mind. As you know, in Biblical Hebrew, "listening to the voice" of someone is an idiom for obedience.
    – Joseph
    May 4, 2015 at 10:50
  • @Susan - This Psalm is about the creation testifying (in silence) to the existence of the Creator. The Apostle Paul alluded to this Psalm in Romans 1:20 as the basis for the existence of God. That is, this silent testimony to mankind occurs without the use of any words. The response of man is obedience to the Creator, but not through any objects (idolatry) of the creation.
    – Joseph
    May 4, 2015 at 10:53
  • That seems good as far as it goes, and conceptually relevant enough, but here where שמע is used as a negated passive, "their voice is heard not" (your rendering), how does "perceive/understand" fit it? "Their voice is perceived not"? (Or "they are obeyed not"?) But you're making a positive statement about creation's testimony, so....I'm still not following.
    – Susan
    May 4, 2015 at 11:35
  • 1
    @Susan - According to vv. 1-2 of this Psalm, the heavens and earth are "declaring" and "uttering" the existence of the Creator, but these proclamations do not come through spoken words but through what is seen. This context suggests that the שָׁמַע of v.4 has nothing to do with sounds per se, but with the wider context of understanding "words unspoken." The same implication was evident when Jesus said, "let him who has ears hear" -- that is, the emphasis is not on processing audible words, but understanding through what was seen (e.g., the signs of Jesus as the "word" of God).
    – Joseph
    May 4, 2015 at 12:54

Disclaimer: I am not a guru on Hebrew Poetry.

Parsing Psa 19:3(4)

Psa 19:3(4) אֵֽין־אֹ֭מֶר וְאֵ֣ין דְּבָרִ֑ים בְּ֝לִ֗י נִשְׁמָ֥ע קוֹלָֽם׃

Psa. 19:4
אין־    Particle adverb                            nothing, is not
אמר     Noun common masculine singular             speech
ו       Particle conjunction                       and
אין     Particle adverb                            nothing, is not
דברים   Noun common masculine plural               word, speech
בלי     Particle adverb                            without
נשׁמע    Verb nifal participle masculine singular   to hear
קול     Noun common masculine singular construct   voice
ם       Suffix third masculine plural

I went out looking for Andrei Desnitsky or John Hobbins talking about the syntax and structure of Psalm 19:3(4 BHS) and didn’t find anything by A. Desnitsky but here are some links to John Hobbins comments on Psalm 19:2 and 19:4 and his translation of Psalm 19.

Psalm 19:2: Text, Translation, and Notes

Psalm 19:4: Text, Translation, and Notes

Psa 19:3(4) What we have is three adverbs, two with nouns followed by one with a participle + noun construct + mas pl suffix . This is a simple species of parallelism[1]. Hobbins makes the structure visible in his rendering:

John Hobbins Psalm 19:3(4)

Thereof is no speech,
   thereof no words,
      thereof no sound not heard.

Note in the third line that John Hobbins repeats the negative particle (adverb) with both the noun and the verb.

“their voice” קולם

Is tagged as a construct state w/Suffix third masculine plural which here functions like a genitive of possession in greek αἱ φωναὶ αὐτῶν.

LXX οὐκ εἰσὶν λαλιαὶ οὐδὲ λόγοι,
    ὧν οὐχὶ ἀκούονται αἱ φωναὶ αὐτῶν·

ὧν is marked as an LXX + (plus) reading in Emanuel Tov’s MT/LXX. This means there is no equivalent word in the Hebrew text.

The use of the LXX to disambiguate Hebrew idioms has a very long history both in the English bible and in the ancient church with the Hexapla of Origen serving as an example. Translators of the Hebrew bible don’t always notify the reader when they are using the LXX. However, the ESV rendering “whose voice is not heard” is probably nothing more than an alternate rendering of the construct state + suffix “their voice is not heard” NRSV. It does not require the relative pronoun found in the LXX.

[1]There are numerous types of parallelism in the Hebrew bible. Andrei Desnitsky has written on both Hebrew poetic parallelism and LXX translation of the same. Mostly written in Russian. Alternate source to same article

EDIT after comments:

RE:ὧν ... αὐτῶν

Conybeare & Stock Grammar of Septuagint Greek

  1. Hebrew Syntax of the Relative. a. One of the most salient characteristics of LXX Greek is the repetition of the pronoun after the relative, as though in English, instead of saying ‘the land which they possessed,’ we were to say habitually ‘the land which they possessed it,’ and so in all similar cases. This anomaly is due to the literal following of the Hebrew text. Now in Hebrew the relative is indeclinable. Its meaning therefore is not complete until a pronoun has been added to determine it. But the relative in Greek being declinable, the translator was forced to assign to it gender, number, and case, which rendered the addition of the pronoun after it unnecessary. Nevertheless the pronoun was retained out of regard for the sacred text.

Conybeare & Stock cite Psalm 18(19):3(4)LXX as an example. But there is no relative pronoun in the Masoretic Text. Perhaps C&S are assuming that the vorlage for the LXX had a relative pronoun. There is nothing in BHS apparatus indicating this.

  • This is really interesting. But I’m not following the last paragraph about the ESV and NRSV saying basically the same thing despite the lack of RP in the latter. My reading of that English is that the RP (ESV) flings the (now double) negation back onto the first two statements and makes the whole thing say the opposite of the NRSV. (NRSV here agreeing with NET; the ESV agrees with Hobbins, NKJV, LXX.) Thinking through this has been a lot of fun (although I think I may be confusing myself more!), so thank you.
    – Susan
    May 4, 2015 at 2:41
  • @susan οὐκ εἰσὶν λαλιαὶ οὐδὲ λόγοι, ὧν οὐχὶ ἀκούονται αἱ φωναὶ αὐτῶν· I would suggest that ὧν … αὐτῶν are both anaphoric (pointing backwards) and both have same antecedent. What that antecedent might be is open to discussion. How would we argue that they have different antecedents and what would they be? NETS Psalms Albert Pietersman There are no conversations, nor are their words, the articulations of which are not heard. Jewish Publication Society, 1985. There is no utterance, there are no words, whose sound goes unheard. JPS used the Hebrew Bible. May 4, 2015 at 18:07
  • @susan Ridged formal correspondence renderings of Hebrew construct chains can sound wooden and unnatural in the target language. The present generation of English speakers (millenials) didn’t for the most part grow up reading the KJV so they are less likely to respond favorably to literal renderings of Hebrew construct chains. Many decisions that affect the surface structure of an English Bible are driven by issues of style and readability. May 4, 2015 at 18:09
  • Susan, I appended a quote from Conybeare & Stock Grammar of Septuagint Greek to my original post. It raises problems for Psalm 19:3. May 4, 2015 at 20:15
  • Thanks for this addition! Regarding your first comment: I’m not suggesting that ὧν and αὐτῶν have different antecedents. In the Greek, I think it’s clear that they share the antecedent "λαλιαὶ [και] λόγοι." In English, the relative pronoun (a la ESV, NETS) implies the same. In NET/NRSV, the antecedent (to my ear, also made explicit in the NET footnotes), seems to be “heavens” in v.1.
    – Susan
    May 5, 2015 at 11:25

We have to lay out

  • the root of the passage,
  • as well as the basis of the meaning of the words [אין] and [בלי], as consistently used throughout the Hebrew of the Masoret.
[אין] is quite different from [לא].
  • Whereas [לא] = no, do not
  • [אין] = is not, not-being
  • [בלי] = not-having,
    translated as "without".

The root of the passage is Jewish enumeration verse 2:

  • השמים מספרים
    The heavens makes account of

  • כבוד אל
    glory of G'd

  • ומעשה ידיו
    and work of His hands

  • מגיד הרקיע
    telling of the extraterrestrial space (aka firmament)

Therefore, "they" refers to

  • The heavens
  • work of His hands

These artefacts are dereferenced in the verses the follows.

Therefore Jewish enumeration verse 4 says,

  • אין אומר
    (They) are not spoken

  • ואין דברים
    nor are (they) words

  • בלי נשמע קולם
    their voice has no being-heard

In plain English, the psalm says, the two artefacts speaks but is not spoken of.

Verse 2:

Day unto day, night unto night, the two-artefacts speaks revealing knowledge.

Verse 3, However:
  • The two artefacts are not constituted by being spoken
  • Nor are they constituted by descriptive words
  • Their voice is not constituted by being heard
Verse 4:

They are a continuum that goes out to all the earth ...

That is to say, this psalm is a philosophic thesis on the continuum of two artefacts. The continuum cannot be discretized or quantized by mere words. They speak, but is not spoken of. They have voice, which cannot be heard.

The actual mystery of the verse is:
  • ומעשה ידיו
    and work of His hands
  • מגיד הרקיע
    telling of the extraterrestrial space (aka firmament)
The mystery is
  1. Is the work of His hands the telling by the firmament?
  2. Or, is the work of His hands telling the firmament?
The mystery is solved, because had it been case #2, it would have been an infinitive
  • להגיד הרקיע
  • If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it ...
    – Cynthia
    May 10, 2015 at 21:36

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