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In Psalms 46-10 (Christian versions) or 46:11 (in Jewish versions), is the phrase

 הרפו ודעו כי אנכי אלֹהים

In most English Bible translations

הרפו

is translated as

Be still .

With the exception of the NASB, giving a much more precise translation.

Naturally, of course, the JPS has the most precise translation - and perhaps, the Beatles read the Hebrew Bible while they authored their song "Let it be".

I understand

הרפו

to mean

  • relax y'all,
  • slacken y'all or
  • let go y'all.

I cannot see it having the meaning Be still.

A couple of Christians I spoke to have defended the translations as saying "Be Still" means "to relax". I don't buy that because I have seen televangelists preaching to the tune of

Be still! Shut up and don't move until the lord has done his work.

To me, הרפו should be read as

Relax, go on with your business, go where you need to go, stay where you need to stay and stop being tense. Don't worry because I am.

Therefore, the verse is far from telling people to "be still". To me, it is spiritually important that people get the message clearly that their Creator is telling them to "relax" rather than "be stiff and shaddup".

Question

Why do the Christian bibles translate it as Be still? Why don't they translate it more precisely as "relax", or "let it be"?

Are there some theological arguments or principles that would be violated if it was translated as "relax"? Bearing in mind the frequency of disagreement between Christian, Jewish translators and Linguists on the meaning of words - such that the choice of translation of the Jewish section of the Bible must be subjected to the interpretation due to the theological assertions of 1st century Christian scriptures.

Perhaps, it is to ensure the continued meaning of the wonderful hymn that I enjoy humming frequently? That is, so that this classic hymn continues to be relevant? Imagine singing "Relax and know ..." Which I think is improbable.

Perhaps, most probably, Christianity is holding evidence that "Be still" is a better translation. What is that evidence, I pray thee?

Perhaps, "relax" is too informal a word to be used in the Bible? Too colloquial? To much of a "street language"? To that I would ask - Wasn't Koine Greek a more colloquialized derivative of classical Greek?

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    The way you've phrased your question, it looks a more like you're picking a fight than simply asking a question. Your tone is pugnative, and your assumptions of what those who disagree with you might say coupled with your rebuttals of those responses do not suit themselves well for this site. The idea here is to ask honest questions in a civil manner. Could you pair down the question, deleting some of your musings? I am eager to answer the basic question here about Psalm 46:10—but not to get into a debate about Christian versus Jewish translations. – Kazark Sep 4 '12 at 1:38
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    "Could you pair down the question" - Pare down. – Cynthia Avishegnath Sep 28 '12 at 1:02
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    be still means.. give up, desist, let go, stop struggling and striving, stop all the effort. let go, because in the stillness that follows our full attention turns to the infinite one. – user6094 Oct 16 '14 at 18:02
  • For goodness' sake, Bible translations should simply use the word "relax" to correspond to the Hebrew. – Cynthia Avishegnath Oct 26 '14 at 3:16
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Psalm 46 and 47 are usually (by which I mean A. S. Hartum, M. D. Cassutto) understood as exhortations sung in Israelite worship but addressed to the nations.

The first stanza (verses 1-3) introduces G-d, our shelter from trouble. The second stanza (4-5) contrasts the tumult of the nature with the quiet of a river that will in the future flow through the city of G-d. The third stanza (6-9) compares the tumult of war with the tumult of the forces of nature that G-d controls and claims that G-d is with the House of Jacob in times of war.

Up to this point the psalm is descriptive. The last stanza (verses 10-11) is an imperative sequitur addressed to the nations: "Stop [your wars and your scheming (against us)] and know that "I am the Lord"...

Compare the use of "harpu" in this psalm with a parallel imperative construction to which I think this verse alliterates, "heref mimenu v'ashmidem" הרף ממני ואשמידם ואמחה את שמם מתחת השמים ואעשה אותך לגוי עצום in Deuteronomy 9:14. See also Judges 11:37. (There are about 30 other instances in the OT, in various forms, mostly not imperative.)

In this sense "harpu" is "desist!", here addressed to the nations.

Note that the Cambridge NEB translates "Let it be", though probably not in the sense that the Beatles intended, more likely in the sense of "Drop it buddy, let it be!".

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  • I found 20 other instances in the forms הרף הרפה רפה תרף . All of them easily carries them meaning, relax, slacken, give her some slack. Even Deut 9:14 - why should the LORD need to tell Moses to desist. Was Moses capable of actions that would impede the LORD, that he needed to desist? Rather He told him to "Don't be uptight that I am destroying those people. Relax, why don't I make your descendants a people instead?" – Cynthia Avishegnath Oct 26 '14 at 3:40
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I don't think the Scripture is leaning in the direction of passivity.

The JPS actually translates the Masoretic Text as "desist":

Psalm 46:11 (Tanakh)
“Desist! Realize that I am God!
I dominate the nations;
I dominate the earth.”

The Septuagint Greek translated the Hebrew into σχολάσατε (scholasate). It is the verb form of σχολάζω, which although used in a sense related to "empty" (e.g. Matthew 12:44), is used elsewhere in Scripture to convey a sort of focused silence, as in prayer:

1 Corinthians 7:5 (KJV 1900) Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to [σχολαζητε] fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.

This latter less passive sense seems to be what was understood by some of the Church Fathers when reading the Psalm, who see in the Psalm's directive a urging to withdraw from worldly things. Cyril of Alexandria quotes the Psalm in reference to the Parable of the Unjust Steward:

The sense therefore of the present parable is something like the following: “The God of all willeth that all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.” [1 Timothy 2:4] For this reason “He also gave the law for a help,” [Isaiah 8:20] according to the expression of the prophet. And the law in such passages we say means, not of course that which was ministered by Moses, but rather the whole inspired Scripture, by means of which we learn the path which leads straight unto every good and saving thing. The Lord of all therefore requires us to be thoroughly constant in our exertions after virtue, and to fix our desires upon the better and holy life, setting ourselves free from the distractions of the world, and from all love of riches, and of the pleasure which wealth brings, that we may serve Him continually, and with undivided affections. For He also says by the harp of the Psalmist; “Be constant[*], and know that I am God.” And further, by His own mouth, the Saviour of all says to those who possess worldly riches, [Luke 12:33] “Sell your possessions, and give alms: make for you purses that grow not old: a treasure for ever, unfailing in heaven.” Now the commandment is indeed for our salvation, but the mind of man is very weak, fixed constantly, so to speak, upon things which are of earth chiefly, and unwilling to withdraw itself from the delight of riches. It loves vain boasting; is soothed much by the praises of flatterers; longs for beautiful equipments, and counts nothing better than temporal honour. [Luke 18:24] And knowing this, the Saviour has Himself somewhere said of them, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” And further, “that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than a rich man into the kingdom of God.” For as long as a man lives in wealth and pleasure, he is careless about piety to God. For wealth renders men contemptuous, and sows in the minds of those that possess it the seeds of all voluptuousness.

Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, Sermon CVIII


[*] The above translation is actually out of a Syriac translation of Cyril's commentary, which was originally written in Greek but not all of which is available in Greek. The English translator, R. Payne Smith, chose the phrase "be constant" to represent the underlying Syriac (which is a dialect of Aramaic). Another English translation of the Syriac version of the Psalm itself (George Lamsa's) renders the verse, Repent, and know that I am God. These are translations or translations of translations, but it is interesting to see that the semantics all lean toward a non-passive meaning.

Cyril of Jerusalem shows a similar understanding of the Psalm:

The present is the season of confession: confess what thou hast done in word or in deed, by night or by day; confess in an acceptable time, and in the day of salvation [2 Corinthians 6:2] receive the heavenly treasure. Devote thy time to the Exorcisms: be assiduous at the Catechisings, and remember the things that shall be spoken, for they are spoken not for thine ears only, but that by faith thou mayest seal them up in the memory. Blot out from thy mind all earthly care: for thou art running for thy soul. Thou art utterly forsaking the things of the world: little are the things which thou art forsaking, great what the Lord is giving. Forsake things present, and put thy trust in things to come. Hast thou run so many circles of the years busied in vain about the world, and hast thou not forty days to be free (for prayer), for thine own soul’s sake? Be still, and know that I am God, saith the Scripture. Excuse thyself from talking many idle words: neither backbite, nor lend a willing ear to backbiters; but rather be prompt to prayer. Shew in ascetic exercise that thy heart is nerved14. Cleanse thy vessel, that thou mayest receive grace more abundantly. For though remission of sins is given equally to all, the communion of the Holy Ghost is bestowed in proportion to each man’s faith. If thou hast laboured little, thou receivest little; but if thou hast wrought much, the reward is great. Thou art running for thyself, see to thine own interest.

Catechetical Lectures, I.5

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  • I really don't care much about the septuagint, or church fathers. I am also no fan of JPS. I veer towards orthodox judaism, so we don't pretty much depend on English translations, so I guess I would have to direct the same question to progressive Judaism. I am a fervent believer of resolving the linguistics first. Language of the scriptures define doctrine, not the other way round. To me, the masoret is the final authority. [רפה] means slack, weak. Therefore [רפו] is imperative/exhortative "to slacken" and linguistically is nowhere near the opposite "stiffen up". – Cynthia Avishegnath Sep 19 '16 at 16:49
  • I can understand and appreciate your position. I suppose it is an issue of whether one wants to interpret the Masoretic Text or the original Hebrew text. Since we don't have the latter, we rely on the former as well as other sources that point to earlier Hebrew texts than those consulted by the Masoretes. – user15733 Sep 19 '16 at 17:03
  • Regarding having cited the Septuagint and the Church Fathers, I was responding, I thought, to your question "Christianity is holding evidence that "Be still" is a better translation. What is that evidence, I pray thee?" On this basis, I assumed you were seeking opinions based on a Christian hermeneutic, but it seems I was mistaken. – user15733 Sep 19 '16 at 17:09
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    I should upvote you instead of a rant. Sorry. – Cynthia Avishegnath Sep 19 '16 at 20:44
  • @Cynthia Using the rules of formation where the word derives its meaning from the combined metaphor of the letters: הרפו means hearing ה the revelation ר of mystery פ distinctly ו. One can rest in a clear understanding of God. Rest, and know that I am God. The first thing we ask is what must I do? He responds: Rest in knowing me. If you know me, no one need tell you what to do. So "Be still" is not all bad especially when we realize that it meant 'rest' during much of the history of English. – Bob Jones Nov 27 '17 at 0:35
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I think our problem here is not a misunderstanding of the Hebrew, but a misunderstanding of the English phrase "Be still" as translated from the Hebrew. "Be still" carrying the idea of "don't do anything" is neither the idea of the Hebrew nor is it what was intended to be communicated by those words in English, but rather "Be still" carrying the idea of "Still yourself" or as you put it, "Relax." It appears that this is how it was taken by Christians of old as well. Consider the song "Be Still, My Soul:"

"Be Still, My Soul" by Catharina von Schlegel, 1697-?
Translated by Jane Borthwick, 1813-1897

  1. Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
    Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
    Leave to thy God to order and provide;
    In every change He faithful will remain.
    Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
    Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

  2. Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake
    To guide the future as He has the past.
    Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
    All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
    Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
    His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

  3. Be still, my soul, though dearest friends depart
    And all is darkened in the vale of tears;
    Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
    Who comes to soothe thy sorrows and thy fears.
    Be still, my soul; thy Jesus can repay
    From His own fullness all He takes away.

  4. Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
    When we shall be forever with the Lord,
    When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
    Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
    Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
    All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

    Hymn #651 The Lutheran Hymnal
    Text: Psalm 46:10
    Author: Catharine Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel, 1752, cento
    Translated by: Jane Borthwick, 1855
    Titled: "Stille, mein Wille"
    Composer: Jean Sibelius, b. 1865, arr.
    Tune: "Finlandia"

    http://www.lutheran-hymnal.com/lyrics/tlh651.htm
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