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כי רשעים יאבדו ואיבי יהוה כיקר כרים כלו בעשן כלו

"But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the LORD shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away." Psalm 37:20 KJV

I don't know much about Hebrew, so I have two questions:

Depending only on ancient Hebrew (without any dagesh markings), how does one determine whether "wicked" or "wickedness" is meant by the author?

Could this verse be interpreted as:

For wickedness will perish- and the enemies (hatred, lust, covetousness, ect) of YHVH: like the glory of the pastures, will be consumed; like smoke, will be consumed"

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The word used in Ps 37:20 is רְשָׁעִים (rᵉšāʿı̂m). This is an adjective (lexical form רָשָׁע, rāšāʿ, "wicked") used as a substantive (i.e. a noun, "the wicked ones").

There are two terms for the abstract "wickedness" derived from the same root (רשע, r-š-ʿ): רִשְׁעָה (rišʿāh), a feminine noun spelled differently from the word of interest, and a masculine segolate noun רֶ֫שַׁע (rešaʿ) which indeed has the same consonants as the word of interest.

There are a few reasons I see that the consonantal רשעים can not be from the abstract noun רֶ֫שַׁע (rešaʿ) here:

  1. The word רְשָׁעִים (rĕšāʿı̂m) is plural. Although certain abstract nouns are plural, רֶ֫שַׁע (rešaʿ) is not one of them. It does not appear anywhere in the HB in the plural.1 In contrast, the adjective is usually plural.2

  2. The verb is plural. Although certain abstract nouns are plural, the verbal predicate of a singular idea is generally singular (Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley § 145h).

  3. The word רְשָׁעִים (rĕšāʿı̂m) is in parallel with both תְמִימִם (tĕmı̂mim, "the blameless [ones]", antithetically) and אֹיְבֵי יְהוָה (ʾōyĕbê yhwh, "the enemies of the LORD", synonymously). These most naturally all refer to concrete entities, people.


1. One may doubt that others have been correctly understood/translated. In most cases, there is really no question. See, for one example among many, Isa 13:11 where רְשָׁעִים must represent the ones punished, not the abstraction "wickedness."

2. I did not count how many of the 249 instances are substantive; it's common.

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  • Are abstract nouns often feminine? It's a pattern I think I've observed a little. Or maybe that's more in Greek. – curiousdannii Aug 4 '16 at 13:11
  • I've been searching here: biblehub.com/hebrew/reshaim_7563.htm and I can see several instances where the plural could be replaced with "wickedness", especially considering the poetic style of these verses. "Singular nouns which include in themselves a collective idea, or which occasionally have a collective sense, may readily, in accordance with their meaning, be construed with the plural of the predicate, whether it precedes or follows." Would wickedness be considered an abstract noun that includes a collective idea? Or am I completely missing the point? Thank you Susan. – Cannabijoy Aug 4 '16 at 13:52
  • @anonymouswho The collective singular is not relevant here; this is, in a way, the converse. As it happens, though, the observation you include above affirms the same principle alluded to in this answer: Hebrew tends to construe verbal number ad sensum (according to the "sense" of its subject) rather than strictly grammatically. In this case, an abstract which is plural in form but singular in "sense" would be expected to have a singular verb. (But it's not. So it doesn't. :-)) – Susan Aug 4 '16 at 21:09
  • Thank you Susan. This is something I've wondered for a while, so that was a big help. If it's okay to ask (so I don't post another question for the same verse), can יאבדו here mean "are lost"? So that it says "the wicked are lost, but the enemies (hatred, lust, covetousness, ect) of YHVH: like the glory of the pastures, will be consumed; like smoke, will be consumed". It seems "lost" is an acceptable translation for יאבדו, and the Septuagint translates it as ἀπολοῦνται. Also, I have trouble understanding how God can have human enemies, but that's off topic. – Cannabijoy Aug 4 '16 at 21:39

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