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Many (56) of the Greek Psalms begin (in what is the superscript in English on most chapters, not represented at all in a few):

Εἰς τὸ τέλος.

This is a mystery to me. The NETS translates it, Regarding completion. Brenton: For the end or, occasionally, For the End. But most of them have no obvious eschatalogic theme nor any clear connection to 'completion.'

In every case, this corresponds to the Hebrew:

לַמְנַצֵּ֥חַ
TO THE CHOIRMASTER. (ESV)
To the leader. (NRSV)

This connection is even more mysterious. I'm guessing it has something to do with the fact that the word looks suspiciously like a piel participle from נצח whence comes the adverb נֶצַח (more often לָנֶצַח) which is (I think consistently in the psalms?) translated εἰς τέλος, e.g:

Ἕως πότε, κύριε, ἐπιλήσῃ μου εἰς τέλος; (LXX, Rahlfs, 12:2)
How long, O Lord, will you totally forget me? (NETS, 12:2)
How long, O Lord, wilt thou forget me? for ever? (Brenton, 12:1)
עַד־אָ֣נָה יְ֭הוָה תִּשְׁכָּחֵ֣נִי נֶ֑צַח (BHS, 13:2)
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? (NRSV,* 13:1)

If the mem is ‘substantivizing’ נצח, I can vaguely see how this relates an adverbial phrase that means ‘completely’ (to the Greek translator, if the NETS reading is accepted) with a noun meaning ‘completion’ (with the article to emphasize its noun-ness I suppose). However, as far as I see that’s not how any translation understands the Hebrew, which apparently derives its meaning from a verb that has something to do with directing music.

What does Εἰς τὸ τέλος mean on top of the psalms, and how is it related to the Hebrew?

(Bonus points for resolving the issue in the footnote.)


*Included because the NETS has a stated policy of sticking to the NRSV unless they have reason to believe that the Greek translator meant something else. (Stated more eloquently there: ‘...all modifications of the NRSV should reflect as closely as possible what meaningful differences exist between the Greek and Hebrew texts and, conversely, no departures from the NRSV should be introduced without good reason....a useful modus operandi might be: "Retain what you can, but change what you must.”’) In light of that, I’m very curious about this (very consistent) decision to depart from the most obvious reading of the Hebrew, the NRSV, and Brenton. Even, e.g., (English) 49:9: 'that one should live on forever' → 'and will yet live completely.’

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  • I am not sure I understood your question, but it seems as though the validity of the translations behind the Greek "εἰς τέλος" and the Hebrew "נצח" are fair game. Is this the direction of your inquiry? Commented May 28, 2015 at 5:59

2 Answers 2

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Perhaps, if this does not refer to "a choir", these Hebrew and Greek phrases may refer to the fulfillment of promises or prophecies, (especially in Psalms 12).

(A.) The Greek "τέλος" is translated differently from "εἰς τέλος", (often interpreted as a figure of speech), which is a consistent translation of the Hebrew, נצח, (fulfillment, consummation, finish line). (B.) "נצח" is itself questionably translated as "Choir". (C.) It is certain that "εἰς τέλος", (whether literal or a figure of speech), is a very suitable, semantic, translation for "נצח", (though perhaps not a suitable "pragmatic" translation--if indeed "נצח" should be translated as "Choir").

NOTE 1: "εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα" is very similar to "εἰς τέλος"--but is not equivalent as seen in Psalms 49:9.

εἰς τέλος and נצח Connote Fulfillment of Time, a Predefined Course

From Brown-Driver-Briggs: "εἰς τὸ τέλος (probably לַמִּנְצָח) follows the ordinary meaning of noun נֵצַח, which may be explained in an eschatological sense as referring to end of the age of the world after Euseb Theod; or for full rendering after De; neither satisfactory."

The LXX Consistently Translates "נצח" as "εἰς τέλος"

The LXX consistently translates the Hebrew "נצח" with the Greek "τέλος"1 within the content of the Psalms.


Psa 9:1 -

εἰς τὸ τέλος ὑπὲρ τῶν κρυφίων τοῦ υἱοῦ ψαλμὸς τῷ Δαυιδ ἐξομολογήσομαί σοι κύριε ἐν ὅλῃ καρδίᾳ μου διηγήσομαι πάντα τὰ θαυμάσιά σου

למנצח עלמות לבן מזמור לדוד׃ אודה יהוה בכל־לבי אספרה כל־נפלאותיך׃


Psa. 9:6 -

τοῦ ἐχθροῦ ἐξέλιπον αἱ ῥομφαῖαι εἰς τέλος καὶ πόλεις καθεῖλες ἀπώλετο τὸ μνημόσυνον αὐτῶν μετ᾽ ἤχους

האויב ׀ תמו חרבות לנצח וערים נתשת אבד זכרם המה׃


Psa 9:18 -

ὅτι οὐκ εἰς τέλος ἐπιλησθήσεται ὁ πτωχός ἡ ὑπομονὴ τῶν πενήτων οὐκ ἀπολεῖται εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα

כי לא לנצח ישכח אביון תקות [ענוים כ] (עניים ק) תאבד לעד׃

etc...

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    I thought this was a useful answer and have upvoted it. Many thanks. I am mystified why it was so savagely downvoted!
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 11:03
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What does Εἰς τὸ τέλος mean on top of the psalms, and how is it related to the Hebrew?

While not a full answer, given the context of the Pslams, my understanding of this phrase in the Greek is that it is a reference to the timing and completion of the music (as we know the Psalms are in fact meant to be performed), in relation to something associated with the timing while singing and or performing the Psalm) and not an eschatological statement (as you seem to implicitly asked).

This is a mystery to me. The NETS translates it, Regarding completion. Brenton: For the end or, occasionally, For the End. But most of them have no obvious eschatalogic theme nor any clear connection to 'completion.'

Here are the possible uses of telos, given the context, I think that 'completion' in the musical sense fits perfectly; "closing act" or "performance" fit as well.

Word analysis τέλος (telos) 'goal/tax' (G5056) (Noun Accusative Singular Neuter ) end, result, outcome, finish, goal; revenue, tax, duty

Occurs about 39 x Meaning end, result, outcome, finish, goal; revenue, tax, duty an end attained, consummation; an end, closing act, Mt. 24:6, 14; 1Cor. 15:24; full performance, perfect discharge, Rom. 10:4; fulfillment, realization, Lk. 22:37; final dealing, developed issue, Jas. 5:11; issue, final stage, 1Cor. 10:11; issue, result, Mt. 26:58; Rom. 6:21, 22; 1Pet. 1:9; antitypical issue, 2Cor. 3:13; practical issue, 1Tim. 1:5; ultimate destiny, Phil. 3:19; Heb. 6:8; 1Pet. 4:17; a tax or dues, Mt. 17:25; Rom. 13:7; εἰς τέλος, to the full, 1Thess. 2:16; εἰς τέλος, continually, Lk. 18:5; εἰς τέλος, μέχρι, ἄχρι τέλους, throughout, Mt. 10:22; Mk. 13:13; Jn. 13:1; Heb. 3:6, 14; 6:11; Rev. 2:26 - (this is from Stepbible on Psalm 49 https://www.stepbible.org/?q=version=LXX_th%7Creference=Psa.49)

Unfortunately, I am not proficient enough to comment on the translation or relation between the Greek and the Hebrew, nor am I familiar with ancient musical traditions to tell you exactly what this meant in terms of specific musical instructions today.

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