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Could someone please check if the Ancient Hebrew translation of the word "fairer" is meant to be used as a figure of speech in Ancient Hebrew that indicates a person's character, personality, inner spirit, etc., as opposed to physical looks, beauty, outward appearance, presence, etc?

Psalm 45:2 (NASB)
You are fairer than the sons of men; Grace is poured upon Your lips; Therefore God has blessed You forever.

Psalm 45:2 (KJV)
Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever.

45:2 Hebrew OT: Westminster Leningrad Codex
יָפְיָפִ֡יתָ מִבְּנֵ֬י אָדָ֗ם ה֣וּצַק חֵ֭ן בְּשְׂפְתֹותֶ֑יךָ עַל־כֵּ֤ן בֵּֽרַכְךָ֖ אֱלֹהִ֣ים לְעֹולָֽם׃

תהילים 45:2 Hebrew OT: WLC (Consonants Only)
יפיפית מבני אדם הוצק חן בשפתותיך על־כן ברכך אלהים לעולם׃

תהילים 45:2 Paleo-Hebrew OT: WLC (Font Required)
יפיפית מבני אדם הוצק חן בשפתותיך על־כן ברכך אלהים לעולם׃

Could someone please check if the Ancient Hebrew translation of the word "fairer" is meant to be used as a figure of speech in Ancient Hebrew that indicates a person's character, personality, inner spirit, etc., as opposed to physical looks, beauty, outward appearance, presence, etc?

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The simple literary structure of Psalm 45 as it has come to us is uncomplicated. Psalm 45 appears to be bridal wedding hymn celebrating the marriage of a king of Israel to a Tyrian princess.

  • V1: Comments by the author
  • V2-5: Praise of the king about to married
  • V6-7: Reminder that the king is only a deputy of God (whose throne is eternal)
  • V8-9: Praise to the bride that the king will marry
  • V10-12: Advice to the bride
  • V13-15: Praise of the bride and bridal procession
  • V16-17: Praise to the king and a hope for a long reign and dynasty

Thus, V2 appears to be a poetic and rather hyperbolic description of the king. The first part of the verse is rendered in a number of versions as:

  • NIV: You are the most excellent of men ...
  • NLT: You are the most handsome of all.
  • ESV: You are the most handsome of the sons of men
  • NASB: You are fairer than the sons of men
  • BSB: You are the most handsome of men
  • NKJV: You are fairer than the sons of men
  • CEV: No one is as handsome as you!

... and so forth. I see no reason to read this phrase as anything other than a literal description of Bridegroom (the king) on his wedding day.

The operative word is יָפָה (yaphah), which occurs seven times in the OT and always describes something (usually someone) as very beautiful or handsome/attractive: Ps 45:2, Song 4:10, 7:6, Jer 7:6, 10:4, Eze 16:13, 31:7.

Brown-Driver-Briggs suggests the following meaning: "be fair, beautiful".

Now, if one wishes to interpret Psalm 45 as metaphor or symbol of the Messiah and His church that is another matter and a reasonable thing to do (and many commentators do this). However, the literal meaning here is a very handsome man on his wedding day. As Maclaren's Expositions has:

There is no doubt that this psalm was originally the marriage hymn of some Jewish king.

The Cambridge commentary observes:

Thou art fairer &c.] Personal beauty was always regarded as a qualification for a ruler, partly on account of its intrinsic attractiveness, partly as the index of a noble nature.

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  • We do not need to be embarrassed, dear Antipodean Friend, of enlarging fulsomely when Christ is seen in a glorious way on the page of scripture. Just because it is in Hebrew and not Greek does not mean we have to be "embarrassed" about His Presence. +1 nevertheless. My heart is inditing a good matter - for I speak of the things touching The King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Amen. – Nigel J Jul 5 at 2:48
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    @NigelJ - I am not the least "embarrassed" about what the Hebrew says - I fully agree that this Psalm can be interpreted Messianically as my answer says. But before interpretation comes linguistic exegesis - let be clear about what the text says before we interpret it. Many thanks for your comments. – Dottard Jul 5 at 2:56
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The genre and imagery of Psalm 45 is similar to that of Song of Songs. The language is simple and embarrassingly sensual (e.g. verse 10 נִצְּבָה שֵׁגַל לִימִינְךָ, "a concubine on your right"), which has led commentators, Jewish and Christian to insist that this Psalm be interpreted allegorically as referring variously to a messianic king of one persuasion or another, or to Torah scholars (!)(Rashi). Besides being far-fetched, I don't see how allegory explains away the bawdy imagery. Like Psalm 137:9 (NIV)

Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

the wording of Psalm 45 is hard not to find jolting.

The word in question, יפיפית מ is a super superlative, meaning "more beautiful than", made by doubling the root יפה, adjective, beautiful, which is a little jarring since it refers to a male in verse 5. It is not a figure of speech. The root יפה isn't used in the OT in any sense except the physical sense. See usages:

Genesis 12:14

When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman.

Genesis 39:6 (NIV)

... Now Joseph was well-built and handsome,

Samuel 16:12

So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Proverbs 11:22

Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.

Some 19th century scholars (See the Wikipedia article) speculated that this Psalm was written for some historical royal wedding. There is no modern scholarly basis for these speculations.

My personal opinion is that like Song of Songs, this Psalm was a wedding song that was much to popular to be suppressed but found an allegorical fig leaf early enough (first century BCE to second century CE) to make it into the Jewish cannon. Weddings in the ancient Jewish and Roman world were both worldly and religious affairs at one and the same time, which probably made it easier for this Psalm to be re-purposed as a religious ode.

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    Abu Munir I happen to agree with you that it doesn't fit into the book of Psalms (and there are many other psalms that are completely out of place), but I don't think it comes close to the sensuality of the song of songs, and I look at it as a cultural difference (between us and the biblical authors) rather than it posing a fundamental problem to religion or the bible. It is constant reminder to all of us that the biblical authors were not exactly how they are portrayed by christian artists, but I think you are getting too worked up. – Bach Jul 6 at 15:11
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    I think it describes more of an ancient Israelite harem than a 'stag party song' or a 'wedding hymn'. There is nothing to indicate that the song is about a wedding between two ordinary people. It's clearly about a Judean king that is aroused by the beauty of his princess/consort and her many companions (the harem), and is described as chosen/anointed by god. You can read my detailed answer here hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/33101/… – Bach Jul 6 at 15:23
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    I think it would be. I'm not into allegory so I am the wrong person to ask, but I could see other people seeing allegorical meaning in poetic biblical passages. For example, I happen to believe that song of songs was originally written as a love song between two passionate lovers (i.e., the language has a plain meaning). At the same time, I do not think that they were mistakenly added to the canon. – Bach Jul 7 at 0:36
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    I think that at the time it was included in the canon it was already perceived by the audience as having a deeper meaning, and that we attached our own meaning to these poetic verses, e.g., as referring to the love between god and his chosen nation, the suffering of the bride as referring to their own suffering or of Christ, etc. while that wasn't the original meaning of the verse, it took on a new meaning later on. But who said only the original intent matters? The meaning that we give them is just (almost) as important as the original meaning. – Bach Jul 7 at 0:36
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    And just like good poetry where every reader finds themselves in it, so it is with biblical poetry. – Bach Jul 7 at 0:37

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