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Psalm 78:38

"Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath." ESV. My emphasis.

Being compassionate was the reason for God's atoning, but is compassion by itself sufficient?

Romans 6:23

"For the wages of sin is death".

Atonement involved the death of an animal in Leviticus 5:16

"And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering".

Is death a component of this atoning in Psalm 78:38? If death is a component of this atoning whose death was involved?

What is the meaning of "atoned" in Psalm 78:38?

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    This could be a translation-choice issue. The RSV just says "forgave". Apr 26, 2023 at 15:09
  • @Stephen Disraeli Is ESV actually wrong? i.e.. does "forgive" have element of "atone"?
    – C. Stroud
    Apr 26, 2023 at 15:28
  • merriam-webster says that an archaic meaning of "atone" is "reconcile." And ESV says that it is generally preserving a legacy going back to Tyndale. So it may be that translators who use "atone" are not exactly wrong, but also not quite up to date. Apr 26, 2023 at 20:33
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    Both the KJV and the NIV say that God forgave the iniquity of His people.
    – Lesley
    Apr 27, 2023 at 7:40

6 Answers 6

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The Hebrew means that God "dealt with" their sin by covering it over (but not covering it up - on the contrary, it has to be exposed). The means he used to demonstrate this was via sacrificial offerings on the part of those seeking forgiveness for their sins. In Leviticus 5:16 the blood of animals was shed (meaning the animals had to be killed) though that blood could not, in itself, cover over their sins (Hebrews 9:9-16). It was symbolic of the seriousness of sin. Interestingly, the K.J.V. says,

"And he shall make amends for the harm that he hath done in the holy thing... and the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering, and it shall be forgiven him." Leviticus 5:16 K.J.V.

The Hebrew word translated 'atonement' is 'kaphar' which means 'to cover'.

But in Psalm 78:38 it is also 'kaphar' which means 'to cover' yet this time the K.J.V. translates it as 'forgave'. The link (for the purpose of this question) is that the Hebrew conveys the sense of God taking in hand - in the 'kaph' of God - the matter of the contradiction of the creature in humanity against the Creator in deity. Only God can contain it, 'kaphar', and he has resolved it in righteousness, by redemption. This supreme containing of sin in the hand of God required the blood of the sinless Son of God to secure, on behalf of repentant sinners. There is, therefore, an intriguing link between Jesus speaking of his disciples being contained securely in his hand, and that they are equally contained securely in the hand of God (John 10:28-30).

God alone can take in hand our sin, and that only due to the shed blood of the sinless Son of God. When he does that, he contains our sin and lifts it up and away from us. He resolves it in righteousness, by redemption.

In Psalm 78:38, the Psalmist did not yet know of that supreme resolution of sin. He knew of the sacrificial system in the temple, but he also knew of being forgiven personally, when he cried out to God as here:

"Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile." Psalm 32:1-2 K.J.V.

The whole of that Psalm needs to be read to grasp the enormity of what it means to have one's sins lifted up and away, in God's holy hand. That is the sense of 'atonement' in the Psalms.

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The English word atone in the context of the Psalm does not mean to make amends or reparation, nor does it mean that practically anywhere in the Bible. The word never actually meant this until sometime after the King James Bible was published, sometime later in the 17th century. The archaic meaning of atone was to be reconciled or to make peace. The origin of the word in English is the contraction of the words "at" and "one", so that "at-one-ment" is literally the act of making two into one (again). All this can be confirmed in the Oxford English Dictionary.

What has happened is that newer versions of the Bible retained the verb "atone" or the noun "atonement" - retained the words as written - but read new meanings into them that were not consistent with the underlying text. In logic this could be referred to as semantic shift or equivocation, leading to confusion and miscommunication.


The King James Bible translates כפר as forgive, as another answer has suggested, but imputing a meaning of "atoning for sin" in my opinion would not be accurate for the reasons above and not because of context. The Septuagint translates כפר as ἱλάσκομαι - a word used twice in the New Testament, in Luke and Hebrews, which the KJV translates as be merciful [towards] (Luke 18:13) and make reconciliation for (Hebrews 2:17).

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  • It seems to me that "atone" is usually correct. Scores of references are found where it is clearly used in the sense of reparation. Usually it is the sinner, the priest or the nation who "atones" but in Ps. 78 it is God. Apr 26, 2023 at 20:44
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    @Dan Fefferman Whether he atoned or he forgave, either way, God is dealing with unfaithful people[ P78:37]. The atonement or forgiveness come from him; could this be a foreshadowing of the cross? Yet while we were sinners Christ died for us. Ro 5:8.
    – C. Stroud
    Apr 26, 2023 at 21:31
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The verb כָּפַר (kaphar) literally means "to cover over". For example:

  • Gen 6:14 - Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch.
  • Isa 47:11 - “But evil will come on you Which you will not know how to charm away; And disaster will fall on you which you cannot cover; And destruction about which you do not know Will come on you suddenly.

According to "The Complete Word Study Dictionary of OT", the word means:

At its most basic level, the word conveys the notion of covering, but not in the sense of concealing. Rather it suggests the imposing of something to change its appearance or nature. It is therefore employed to signify the cancellation or "writing over" of a contract (Isa 28:18); the appeasing of anger (Gen 32:20, 21, Prov 16:14) and the overlaying of wood with pitch so as to make water-proof (Gen 6:14). The word also communicated God's covering of sin. ...

Thus, when used theologically in the sense of covering sin, it effectively means to propitiate or pacify. Tyndale invented the word "atone" to describe this idea.

  • Ps 78:38 - And yet He was compassionate; He covered/atoned/forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them. He often restrained His anger and did not unleash His full wrath.
  • Ps 79:9 - Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; deliver us and cover [= atone] for our sins, for the sake of Your name.
  • Dan 9:24 - “Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to cover/atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy.

The idea of covering sin (and by extension forgiving it) is contained in the Bible idea of a "robe of righteousness" which covers the sinner.

  • Isa 61:10 - I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, my soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom wears a priestly headdress, as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
  • Isa 64:6 - Each of us has become like something unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind. (See also Zech 3:3, 4)
  • Luke 15:22 - But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
  • Rev 19:8 - She was given clothing of fine linen, bright and pure.” For the fine linen she wears is the righteous acts of the saints.

A closely related noun, כַּפֹּרֶת (kapporteth) designates a lid or covering and used exclusively for the lid on the Ark of the Covenant and is thus translated as either "mercy seat" or better, "atonement cover". Ex 25:17-22, 26:34, 30:6, 7, 12, etc.

Thus, the Hebrew idea of forgiveness, atonement and propitiation is bound up with the concept of covering the sin and is often but not always associated with blood doing the covering during a ceremony of sacrifice, Ex 29:33, 36, 37, Ex 30:10, Lev 8:15, etc.

There is another closely related verb describing the act of covering, namely, כָּסָה (kasah) which also illustrates the idea:

  • Ps 32:1 - Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

This famously occurs in the NT as well:

  • 1 Peter 4:8 - Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.
  • James 5:20 - consider this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
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  • Any idea why related verses like Prov 16.6 don't exist in the LXX?
    – Michael16
    Apr 27, 2023 at 5:49
  • @Michael16 - The LXX and the MT differ in many places - in hundreds of places
    – Dottard
    Apr 27, 2023 at 5:53
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    @Dottard On this site there is a question, "Does 1 Peter 4:8 mean that some sins are covered over?" In the answers Anne puts -"kaphar does not mean "cover" but speaks of "containment".
    – C. Stroud
    Apr 27, 2023 at 11:13
  • @C.Stroud - Interesting post but she does not provide any evidence for her assertion, nor any path of reason for that assertion. "Contained" is not inherent in the meaning of the Greek word either.
    – Dottard
    Apr 27, 2023 at 11:53
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The Hebrew word כָּפַר is normally translated as "atone." But it can also mean "cover," "forgive," "cleanse," etc. Given the context of God's compassion, "forgave" is the better translation. Indeed it is the preferred word of most translators as seen here. ESV uses the term in the sense of reconciliation rather than reparation.

Is death a component of this atoning in Psalm 78:38? If death is a component of this atoning whose death was involved?

Yes, but mostly in the sense of Israel atoning for its sins, by God punishing them. God atones in the older sense of reconciling with Israel.

He made their days vanish like a breath and their years in terror. 34 When he killed them, they searched for him; they repented and sought God earnestly.

This psalm deals with Israel's history in relationship to God prior to the coming of King David: from their rebellion in the desert (v. 17) to their idolatry during the period of the Judges when he abandoned his dwelling at Shiloh (v. 58-60). Here, the psalmist is apparently thinking of the capture of the Ark by the Philistines. (1 Samuel 4) It is the nation itself that has sinned and provoked God to anger. The psalm refers to the deaths of many young men, priests and warriors. So yes, death is a component of the atonement and many have died as a result the nation's sins. Yet in the end God was merciful.

He chose his servant David and took him from the sheepfolds; 71 from tending the nursing ewes he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel, his inheritance. 72 With upright heart he tended them and guided them with skillful hand.

What is the meaning of "atoned" in Psalm 78:38?

It means "forgave." There is also a sense here in which Israel atoned for its sin through suffering, bloodshed and rejection. But since God is the subject of the sentence, the meaning here is that he forgave.

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According to BDAG, the word atoned in Ps 78:38 (kaphar, Strong’s 3722) means to cover over or atone for sin:

  1. cover over, atone for sin, without sacrifice: b. "with God as subject… with accusative of the sin Psalm 65:3; Psalm 78:38… It is conceived that God in his sovereignty may himself provide an atonement or covering for men and their sins which could not be provided by men."

The word kaphar means literally “to cover,” which could be understood in one of two ways. Consider the difference between these sentences: “I cover the table with the cloth” vs. “The cloth covers the table.” To cover could mean to put a cover over or provide a covering over something; the figurative sense is to forgive. Many English translations of Ps 78:38 thus render kaphar as forgive or pardon (e.g., KJV, NIV, NASB, YLT). But to cover could also be understood instrumentally – to cover as in to act as a cover or be a covering for; the figurative sense is to make atonement for. Compare to how the word is used in Lev 17:11:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement (kaphar, Strong’s 3722, V‑Piel‑Imperf‑3ms) for the soul. – Lev 17:11 NKJV

But He, being full of compassion, forgave (kaphar, Strong’s 3722, V‑Piel‑Imperf‑3ms) their iniquity – Ps 78:38

In Ps 78:38, the word kaphar could therefore be rendered as either “forgave” or “atoned for.” In other words, Ps 78:38 could refer to “he” who forgave their iniquity, but it could also refer to “he” who atoned for their iniquity.

There is a duality of meaning that cannot be easily conveyed by any one rendering. Beyond the issues of translation, I believe these words foreshadow God’s salvation. Like two sides of the same coin, they present two aspects of God’s saving action as one: the forgiveness made possible by the atoning sacrifice. I agree with what is implied in the OP’s question – that the word kaphar allows us to read Ps 78:38 as a foreshadowing of the death of Christ and the blood of the new covenant that atones for our sins (Mt 26:28).

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    +1. Jesus atones as priest [Leviticus 5:16] and as atoning lamb [John 1:29]
    – C. Stroud
    Apr 28, 2023 at 13:51
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God's mercy is the cause of the atonement. You shouldn't see the sacrificial system for the consequences of sin to be in contradiction with God's mercy. The sacrificial system was ordained so that man may not become lax concerning the penalty or repurcussion of sin.

NHEB 1Peter 4:8: “Above all things be earnest in your love among yourselves, for love covers a multitude of sins.”

Micah 6:6-8: “How shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams? With tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my disobedience? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does the LORD require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Proverbs 16:6 ESV “By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil.”

The Greek and Hebrew word used in Psalm 78.38 means expiate, atone, reparation, propitiation. See commentaries for details.

The theme of faithfulness and repentance being superior to sacrifices is consistent throughout scripture Cf Amos 5:21-27; Hos. 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Isa. 1:11-17; Jer. 6:20; 7:21-22; Eze 18. Sacrifices of the unrepentant man are useless to God. Prevention is better than cure. Your righteous works atone or cover your sins, by balancing them. This is called justice.

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  • Though sacrifices of the unrepentant are useless to God, yet for the truly repentant is it not always true that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins". Heb 9:22?
    – C. Stroud
    Apr 27, 2023 at 11:47
  • that pertains only under the sacrificial system of the law. Man was bound under the law, not God.
    – Michael16
    Apr 27, 2023 at 11:51
  • Jesus fulfilled the law [Mat 5:17] as a perfect sacrifice. God's Son was born "under the Law" Gal 4:4.
    – C. Stroud
    Apr 27, 2023 at 12:07
  • That doesnt mean God is under the law.
    – Michael16
    Apr 27, 2023 at 12:24

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