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Psalm 40:12 (KJV) " For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me."

Is it possible to read "they are more than the hairs of my head" as speaking of the evils surrounding him instead of Iniquities? Because I've read from an answer on this site that "Iniquities" can mean punishment instead.

It would make sense because he said the evils are "innumerable " which he says are "more than the hairs if my head

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  • The KJV, Young's Literal and Green's Literal, all disagree with your suggestion.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 6, 2018 at 11:44
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    Iniquities - in KJV - cannot mean punishment.
    – Robert
    Aug 15, 2022 at 4:18
  • @Robert I would assume someone incorrectly interpreted the expression "..._visiting_ the iniquities of the fathers..." found in the Ten Commandments. The "visiting" might refer to punishment (or it might not), but the "iniquities" certainly would not.
    – Biblasia
    Nov 26, 2022 at 17:25

9 Answers 9

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Evils surround, but iniquities occupy, or reside within. Iniquity is "bent," or inclination. A particular sin that we are in bondage to is referred to as iniquity, such as perversion (pornography or acts outside of Godly matrimony that cannot result in a pregnancy) or gluttony or greed - something that is part of our constitution, and not infrequent. My bent is ever weighing on me, and knowing that the Lord has a a date for my deliverance (because I have experienced victory over a particular sin inclination in past), repentance is a daily practice.

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    – agarza
    Sep 15, 2023 at 3:10
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I would translate starting at the beginning of the sentence in v11

Ps 40:11 You, O LORD, withhold not Your tender pity from me.
Let Your mercy and truth continually preserve me
12 for troubles have encompassed me until [they are] without number.
My iniquities have overtaken me
so that I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head
and my heart leaves me.

He is surrounded by troubles, not iniquities.
"More than the hairs of my head" describes iniquities, not troubles.
But the troubles surrounding him are innumerable, which is about the same as "more than the hairs of my head".

You are right that the word "iniquities" may mean punishment or consequences for those iniquities. I think that is what David means.

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Psalm 40:12 (KJV)

For innumerable evils have compassed me about:
mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up;
they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me."

Is it possible to read "they are more than the hairs of my head" as speaking of the evils surrounding him instead of Iniquities?

It is possible to push your interpretation that way. However, a more strict reading shows that they refers to the iniquities as the closer antecedent. Psalm 38:4 confirms this reading:

For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me.

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If you considered the characteristic of a Hebrew poetry parallelism, then you know "evils" and "iniquities" were similar in the writing. Even replace "iniquities" by "punishment", it didn't change the mood that David was in suffering. And this suffering led to the consequence "therefore my heart faileth me" which is the focus of this verse.

Losing the heart (to God) was David most fear so he continued writing in next verse asking God for saving and helping.

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The poetic parallelism between "evils" and "iniquities" is significant.

enter image description here

In the interlinear, the grammatical notations, coupled with the lexical aids giving the definitions for each word, are revealing. "Evils" (raowt), having the feminine plural suffix, are paired to a third-person common plural verb (apepu), but the object is slipped between, that being a preposition meaning "against" or "above" or "around" or "(down) upon" which is combined with the first-person common singular (my) pronominal suffix. (Note that first-person pronouns are always considered "common" in Hebrew, and do not have masculine or feminine forms, unlike second- or third-person pronouns.)

The link between the two clauses also ties them integrally together. What the gloss in the interlinear shows here is "innumerable else innumerable." That could actually be rendered as "until nothing numerable"--which doesn't sound good in English, but could be rephrased slightly to say: "until [they were] without number."

The KJV translation has not captured the same sense.

For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me. (Psalm 40:12, KJV)

Notice that in the KJV there is a colon (:) between these clauses. That does not exist in the Hebrew. In fact, the word translated as "iniquities" (עֲ֭וֹנֹתַי) starts with a conjunctive accent, showing it should not be separated from the previous expression. Here it is a bit larger...

enter image description here

The first character (on the right of the image) of this word has what appears to be a patach (like a dash), a shewa (like a colon), and the tarcha (like a backwards comma). It is that latter mark which is the conjunctive accent. (And one must assume there were some font issues here with all three marks trying to fit under the same character.)

The accents in two of the following words also give us some direction.

enter image description here

Notice in the first of these words (the one on the right), there is a backwards "L"-looking accent under one of the middle characters. This, again, is a conjunctive accent mark, meaning there should be no logical separation between this word and those before it.

But the second word (the one on the left) has a caret-looking character (^) under it which is finally a disjunctive accent, showing this word begins a new thought or clause.

So what is it saying?

My novice attempt at translation for this verse might render it something like this:

For evils have surrounded me until, without number, my iniquities have taken hold upon me so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart forsakes me.

An Additional Insight

One further insight into David's thinking can be found in Psalm 19. In verse 11 we see "great reward" which is followed in verse 13 by the mention of "great transgression." The word "great" here in Hebrew (these are both the same Hebrew word) is unlike the Aramaic equivalent: whereas Aramaic is focused on the quality of the noun in question, Hebrew is focused on its quantity. To say "great," then, means to say "much" or "many." Thus, this "great transgression" of Psalm 19:13 parallels the concept addressed here in Psalm 40:12.

Conclusion

As the matres lectionis (the reading aids added by the Masoretes) indicate, the clauses containing "evils" and "iniquities" are closely joined and part of the same thought expression. The words are used in parallel, and it seems, therefore, natural to conclude that the "they" which follows applies to both of these concepts together.

David's own iniquities are included among the "evils" which surround him.

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  • So what might it mean to be "surrounded by evils"?
    – Ruminator
    Dec 16, 2023 at 1:16
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In the KJV, evils translates the Masoretic Text רָעוֹת (ra'ot) - plural nominative form - and iniquities translates עֲוֺנֹ֥תַי (avonotai) - plural genetive form. Both are feminine nouns in gender, so I think either could theoretically be being referenced.

Unfortunately, the Greek words used to translate both of these - πολλαί (pollai) and ἁμαρτίαι (hamartiai) - are also both feminine, so the Septuagint doesn't offer any additional clues.

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Iben Ezra also explains this verse saying that punishments may be called iniquities to remind one that punishments are simply the extension of sin.

However, there is also room for your suggestion that the evils are the one without number, whereas the sins are few. The cantillation marks in the text also serve as punctuation, so you can see that the verse is broken into parts. You can read the text as:

"Evils have surrounded me without number. My sins got the better of me until I was blind [to choose the right path]. They [my misfortunes] are more than the hairs on my head, such that my heart has left me [i.e.my fortitude is lost].

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I think it’s referencing to iniquity. I think David is trying to say ‘My iniquities are so much, more than the hairs on my head. Because of my iniquity, my troubles surround me.’ Also, iniquity does not surround, it’s immoral behavior so it’s in you. But troubles can surround you.

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As I read it, "they" are both "evils" and "iniquities".

Consider this passage:

"There are gangsters all around me and thugs standing over me; they have me surrounded!"

The "they" refers to the gangsters and the thugs.

In the Psalm, the psalmist says evils and iniquities have cut off his every way of escape.

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