Psalm 73 is my favourite Psalm. Verse 8 seems to be a little obscure.

In the NASB, one clause is rendered, "they mock wickedly and speak of oppression".

Other formal equivalence translations render it "They threaten oppression"; there's quite a divergence.

Is there a reasonable, even if unpreferred, interpretation that verse 8 could include any speaking about oppression that is wicked in intent, or is there vocabulary/grammar/an idiom that narrows it down to the speech of an archetypal rich oppressor?

The reason I ask is because it's relevant to cultural debates; depending on your politics you could argue that neomarxist ideology such as critical race theory, radical feminism, etc, speak of oppression in a way that is opposed to an orthodox Christian worldview but not in an archetypal 'rich oppressor' manner; and there may have been precedents in Israel and Judah.

All of which is for interest only, and is value laden, political and speculative; what I want to know is what biblical hermeneutics has to say about the possibility of such an interpretation.

FWIW, I speak no Greek or Latin, but the Septuagint seems to be translated more loosely than normal here; interlinears of the Hebrew look to me as a layman like the NASB, whereas the LXX looks to be at the opposite extreme.


2 Answers 2


The MT for Psalms 73:8 with cantorial markings is:

יָמִ֤יקוּ ׀ וִידַבְּר֣וּ בְרָ֣ע עֹ֑שֶׁק מִמָּר֥וֹם יְדַבֵּֽרוּ

The translation difficulty starts with the first word, ימיקו, yamiku.

This is a unique word in the OT, so its meaning must be guessed from similar words and from the Aramaic translations, and the translation will not be certain without other corroborative linguistic evidence.

The Aramaic translation known as the Targum Jonathan translates the OT Hebrew word לצים, meaning "clowns" or "mockers", in various places as ממקנין. Some translators think that the word ימיקו in this verse is a Hebrew verb derived from this Aramaic usage, so they translate "scoff" or "ridicule".

But in this verse, the Targum Jonathan translates this word as יתמקמקון1, which is to rot in Aramaic, so other translators see ימיקו as a Hebrew usage similar to מק as in Zachariah 14:12,

וְזֹאת תִּהְיֶה הַמַּגֵּפָה אֲשֶׁר יִגֹּף יְהוָה אֶת כָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ עַל יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם הָמֵק בְּשָׂרוֹ וְהוּא עֹמֵד עַל רַגְלָיו וְעֵינָיו תִּמַּקְנָה בְחֹרֵיהֶן וּלְשׁוֹנוֹ תִּמַּק בְּפִיהֶם
This is the plague with which the Lord will strike all the nations that fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths (NIV)

and Leviticus 26:39

וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִים בָּכֶם יִמַּקּוּ בַּעֲו‍ֹנָם בְּאַרְצֹת אֹיְבֵיכֶם וְאַף בַּעֲו‍ֹנֹת אֲבֹתָם אִתָּם יִמָּקּוּ
Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their ancestors’ sins they will waste away (NIV)

and translate either as "They will rot", or "They will cause a stench by speaking badly", and this is how most of the classical Jewish commentators translate.

The second problem in the verse is the conflict between the cantillation marks and the meter of the verse that you would expect if not for the cantillation. That is, if the word translated as "oppression" is the end of the first half of the verse (cantillation) or the first word in the second half of the verse (the natural meter).

The reading with the cantillation (using the NIV as a base) is:

They scoff, and speak with malice oppression, in arrogance they speak.

The more natural reading is:

They scoff and speak badly, oppression they speak arrogantly

It looks like most English translations accept the cantillation mark punctuation.

My own translation, staying close the Hebrew word-for-word and reading against the cantillation and consistent with the Ibn Ezra commentary would be:

They cause a stench by speaking evil, voicing threats from on high

Note how different this translation is from the common English translations, which often surprise my Israeli ears.

The third problem in the verse is the use of "oppression" to translate עשק. This is an unfortunate translation choice that today is loaded with partisan and political overtones that are not in the base text. A translation closer to the usage of עשק in other verses such as:

Leviticus 5:21 (CJB):

If someone sins and acts perversely against Adonai by dealing falsely with his neighbor in regard to a deposit or security entrusted to him, by stealing from him, by extorting him

and 5:23 (CJB):

then, if he sinned and is guilty, he is to restore whatever it was he stole or obtained by extortion, or whatever was deposited with him, or the lost object which he found

and 19:13 (NIV):

Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

Deuteronomy 24:14 (NIV):

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns

I Samuel 12:3-4 (NIV):

Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the Lord and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these things, I will make it right.

and many other verse would be a term that means to cheat, or take unjustly, or take by threats or bullying, done by someone in a more privileged position against a widow, woman, a servant, sojourner, pauper or other similar less privileged person. It refers to a type of specific individual behavior that is specifically prohibited in the Mosaic law. Unfortunately in English there is no such compact term for this behavior, so some translators use "oppress" as the closest term, not intending to drag in the political baggage, but unable to prevent the reader who doesn't know the Hebrew term from doing so.

So, to answer the OP question, you can't rely on a translation choice for a particular word (especially a word that is crucial to an argument that you might be promoting) to give you an accurate sense of the verse. I see this as a natural limitation of verse-by-verse translations. As a translator, you have to choose what aspects of the verse you are going to emphasize and what aspects of the verse you ignore or compromise. To get an accurate sense of the meaning you need to look at the word in the base text, use a concordance, and look at corresponding words in cognate languages of the time.

The most that you can say is that this verse, and many others as cited above, indicate a profound sensitivity to the plight of the less privileged in society and a castigation of those who take advantage of positions of power over those people, even if they, the perpetrators are themselves relatively less privileged.

I would classify the OP as a "speculative translation" class of question, the answer to which is almost always "no", usually for linguistic reasons, but sometimes also for historical reasons. Questions in this class on this site are often looking for a direct relationship between a verse and a specific position in some current religious, social or political debate. The text is in fact conveying a very strong social message, but it's application to current debate is not straightforward or one-sided.

  1. יתמקמקוּן מן פטמא וימללוּן לאַבאשא ולטלוּמא מן רוּם לבהוֹן ימללוּן from https://www.daat.ac.il/daat/tanach/parshanut/yonatan/ktuvim.pdf
  • Thanks, this is the sort of answer I was hoping for. I would say in my defence against charges of speculative translation and political eisegesis that asking how literally we can take a reputable translation is legitimate; some historical themes recur and are forgotten, recur and are forgotten, and it's healthy to question the limits of application (not to wilfully shoehorn meanings in or project specific issues back in time though). Anyway, a minor complaint about a really detailed answer that you have been very generous to provide. Thanks again. Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 2:39
  • @Psalmsfan Sorry if my answer sounds harsh. I re-read it this morning after a few hours sleep and it does look a bit more than called for. I'll try to do a softer re-write. The point is that you can't start from the semantic field of a word in translation and make inferences. You have to go back to the semantic field of the word in the base text. And avoid mistakes such as the common BDB usage mistake of selectively applying a meaning listed for a word from one context back into another context. Might have been better to restrict the OP to be about the translation choice for "oppression". Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 6:00
  • I think everyone is so used to eisegesis creeping in alongside anything pertaining to current politics that we forget it actually is legitimate to scour the Bible for guidance on such things. There's nothing new under the sun. It's exegesis, even if the question does have bearing on politics. I specifically do NOT want to add to the Bible or get guidance on issues that isn't in there. Which seems to be the case here. Re: not mentioning my motivation, I considered it but decided that as my motive was an honest hermeneutical question, I didn't mind too much if people took it some other way. Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 7:28
  • @Psalmsfan Attempted to mellow it somewhat. Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 10:07
  • You're a gentleman, it was a great answer even as it was! Commented Sep 4, 2022 at 18:26

A very literal translation of Ps 73:8 would read:

They scoff and speak wicked oppression; loftiness they speak.

Most versions then render this in more idiomatic English my changing some adjectives into adverbs, nouns into adverbs, etc, eg, "speak wickedly ...", and, "speak proudly", etc.

What is this verse saying? The subject of all verse 4-9 is exactly the same - the arrogant and the wicked and the way they appear to behave with absolute impunity to their moral failings:

  • They have no struggle in their death;
  • their bodies are well-fed.
  • They are free of the burdens others carry;
  • they are not afflicted like other men.
  • Therefore pride is their necklace;
  • a garment of violence covers them.
  • From their prosperity proceeds iniquity;
  • the imaginations of their hearts run wild.
  • They mock and speak wicked oppression;
  • with arrogance they boast.
  • They set their mouths against the heavens,
  • and their tongues strut across the earth.

Thus, this part of Ps 73 is an enumeration of the pompous indifference and self-sufficient narcissism of the arrogant wicked. V8 is just part of that description. The wicked appear to get along quite well without God and without living moral, humble lives.

The psalm is completely apolitical; it never mentions rulers, kings or governors and how they rule. It is not even about rich vs poor or the oppression of the poor by the rich. It is simply about the apparent prosperity of the wicked as contrasted with (v17) their final end.

APPENDIX - LXX of Ps 73:8

The LXX renders Ps 73:8 as

διενοήθησαν καὶ ἐλάλησαν ἐν πονηρίᾳ, ἀδικίαν εἰς τὸ ὕψος ἐλάλησαν

They have taken counsel and spoken in wickedness: they have uttered unrighteousness loftily.

The difference between the LXX and the Hebrew is very common - the LXX is very uneven in two respects:

  • its style varies between the extremes of overly literal word-for-word to highly interpretive and paraphraistic
  • It also appears to sometimes use a completely different Hebrew text from what we now have

Which of these two is responsible for the divergence in Ps 73:8 cannot be now known, but the differences should not surprise us as it is so common.

  • 1) Thank you, 2) What's your source for your very literal translation? That gets to the heart of the matter. 3) "The psalm is completely apolitical" Agreed, or close to; nonetheless, it does seem to be describing a certain subset of the wicked, who have earthly prosperity (hence the psalmist's frustration). It seems reasonable then that you could have very broad language that describes something common to many, many types of prosperous wicked people, namely speaking of oppression (in whatever form that speaking is). Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 12:22
  • 1
    @user49311 - the literal translation is my own. The "Prosperity" is in all things not just money, including health, relationships, ventures, etc.
    – Dottard
    Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 19:51
  • Coming away from point 3, is the broad/generic reading (an entirely literal 'they speak of oppression') I propose/speculate on implausible? Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 20:09
  • 1
    @user49311 - I have explained the way I understand the psalm.
    – Dottard
    Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 20:11
  • OK, thank you kindly. Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 20:14

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