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"יָ֭קָר (yaqar) in Psalm 116:15 is translated to the KJV as "precious", the verse reading:

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

But the Hebrew Bible, quoting the same text, reads:

Difficult in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones.

Pious ones/saints find an obvious correlation, but...

Is it "precious", or "difficult"?

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    "Hebrew Bible" normally refers simply to what Christians call the Old Testament. There are many Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible and as @Rachel points out, some important editions agree with the KJV Commented Jan 29 at 15:24
  • The problem with "precious" is that this is not a psalm about the martyrdom of saints, but about the physical salvation of a person who cried out to God. Commented Jan 29 at 16:13

4 Answers 4

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Precious vs difficult narrows our choices too much. Strong's Concordance adds: rare, splendid, weighty. I would add costly (several translators use this word). The question boils down to this: are these deaths something the Lord cherishes or something that are weighty or costly, and thus difficult for God to bear?

For the best choice of translation, we should look to the context of the verse, rather than how the verse reads in isolation. The psalmist is expressing gratitude for God's saving his life:

3 The terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow. 4 Then I called upon the name of the Lord: “Please, Lord, save my life!” 5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; Yes, our God is compassionate.

In that context, "costly" or "weighty" is to be preferred, because it implies that God does does not delight in a death of a person who calls out to him. Instead, God is gracious to him. "Precious," on the other hand, implies that God cherishes the death of saints. While the latter is true and makes for an inspiring quotation, the former makes more sense in the context of this particular psalm. The psalmist is telling us that God saved him when he cried out, not that God cherishes a holy person's sacrifice.

Conclusion: if we must choose between "precious" and "difficult, then "difficult" is better. This psalm deals with God saving the person's life, rather than God considering the person's death precious. Of the available English translations, I prefer the CEB

The death of the Lord’s faithful is a costly loss in his eyes.

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  • I totally agree....this question was posited to me following my mother's death this past week. My mother was already "Precious" in the eyes of the Lord-her life was lived for Him. But her death was Difficult...though she was a Saint/Pious One in the eyes of the Lord, she had to experience the physical consequence of Adam and Eve's Fall, the sting of Death, as her soul and spirit separated from her body. Death was not God's Original Plan-it is a consequence of the Fall. It will be overcome when the Last Enemy is under the feet of Jesus. She was Precious, her death was Difficult.
    – Tau
    Commented Jan 29 at 16:41
  • Thanks for relating this. I can accept God considering a martyr's death precious but that isn't what this psalm is about. Commented Jan 29 at 16:48
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It depends. Both are found in Judaism. Medieval and modern Chabad scholars translate it as “difficult”, whereas modern scholars such as the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), who print the Tanakh used in many synagogues, translate it as “precious”. There are interesting arguments for both ideas. One source is from a professor of Judaic Studies. Psalm 116 – Is the Death of the Righteous Precious in the Eyes of YHWH?

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    @agarza, thanks again for your formatting help, it’s very much appreciated. I’m only an iPhone user, and not tech-y, and try my best. Thank you.
    – Rachel
    Commented Jan 29 at 15:07
  • + 1 thank you for clarifying that there is more than one Jewish translation of the verse in question. Commented Jan 29 at 15:22
  • @DanFefferman, Thanks. I try. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people in my sphere of influence that there isn’t only one view within Judaism.
    – Rachel
    Commented Jan 29 at 19:43
  • @Rachel Your source is a Good Commentary-he rightly extracts the Hebrew root "yqr", and then brings in the various arguments with conjugations which are sympathetic-or not. His solution is the verse was intended as a rhetorical question, without the punctuation marks to distinguish it as such. Along this line he quotes several other verses that are implied questions. Then he comes back to the basic point-it is unlike YHWH to find the death of His Holy Ones "Precious", rather their death is "Difficult" as they are precious to Him.
    – Tau
    Commented Jan 30 at 2:22
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The operative word in Ps 116:15 is יָקָר (yakar) which means, "precious, rare, splendid, weighty" (Strong's). BDB is similar. It occurs 35 times in the OT and is always translated thus. Eg, 1 Sam 3:1, 2 Sam 12:20, 1 Kings 5:17, 7:9, 10, 111, etc.

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Precious vs difficult narrows our choices too much. Strong's Concordance adds: rare, splendid, weighty. I would add costly (several translators use this word). The question boils down to this: are these deaths something the Lord cherishes or something that are weighty or costly, and thus difficult to for God to bear.

For the best choice of translation, we should look to the context of the verse, rather than how the verse reads in isolation. The psalmist is expressing gratitude for God's saving his life:

3 The terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow. 4 Then I called upon the name of the Lord: “Please, Lord, save my life!” 5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; Yes, our God is compassionate.

In that context, "costly" or "weighty" is to be preferred, because it implies that God does does not delight in a death of a person who calls out to him. Instead, God is gracious to him. "Precious," on the other hand, implies that God cherishes the death of saints. While the later is true and makes for an inspiring quotation, the former makes more sense in the context of this particular psalm.

Conclusion: if we must choose between "precious" and "difficult," then "difficult" is better, because this psalm deals with God saving the person's life, rather than God cherishing the martyrdom of saints. Of the available English translations, I prefer the CEB

The death of the Lord’s faithful is a costly loss in his eyes.

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