“With the faithful you prove yourself faithful, with the blameless you prove yourself blameless, with the pure you prove yourself pure, but with the crooked you prove yourself shrewd.” Psalms 18:25-26 CSB
In Psalm 18, there is a verse that often leaves me scratching my head. In verses 25-26, David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes about the ways God relates to people differently according to their spiritual condition.
Three of them align perfectly with what I understand about the character of God. He is faithful to the faithful. He is blameless to the blameless. He is pure to the pure. Check, check, and check.
But then, God is shrewd to the crooked? One of these things is not like the other.
Whenever a word in Scripture seems strange to me, the first thing I do is compare the verse in other translations.
Pro tip: Most Bible apps or webpages allow you to do this, In YouVersion, it’s the “compare” button that shows up whenever you select a verse. On Biblegateway.com, if you select one verse, the option “compare verse in all English translations” appears. This will give you the most comprehensive list.
Sometimes there is a wide discrepancy in how that word is rendered. When I searched Bible Gateway, there were at least twenty variations. Astute, Contrary. Tricky. Sincere. Crafty. Tortuous. Hostile. Clever. Crooked. Honest. And my personal favorite: “Froward” in the KJV.
Froward? I can’t even type that without Siri trying to autocorrect it.
Apparently the translators struggled with this word also. How do you translate a word used to describe God that goes against what you think you know about God’s character?
So the next step for me when I come to something like this is to look up the word in Hebrew or Greek. Blue Letter Bible has the best tool for this. You tap on the verse, and then select “Interlinear/Concordance” from the options that appear.
When you select it, you’ll see each word in the verse. Scroll down until you find the word you want:
Pro Tip: If you are preparing to teach or preach, tap the speaker icon and you can hear the word pronounced. In this case, it can be a hard “p” sound or a soft “p,” as in “phone”
Do you see where it says “H6617?” That is the reference number for the entry in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, which gives you the meaning for every word in the Bible.
In the old days, you had to look it up in a book the size of the Manhattan phone book. Now, its all on your phone. Tap it, and it will show you not only what the word is in Hebrew, but it will also show you how many times that word appears in Scripture, and how it is translated differently in the other places it appears.
So we’ve gotten a sense of what the word means, how it is used in the rest of the Bible in the same translation, and how it is translated differently across the spectrum of translations.
And we still haven’t answered the question. How does patal describe the character of God?
This is where systematic theology comes in. We know from Scripture that in God there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). We also know that Scripture is internally consistent. It doesn’t contradict itself. So any option that describes God as wicked or sinful is off the table. Notice in our list of English translations how often the translators build in a “qualifier”: You make yourself seem tortuous. You show yourself shrewd. Not saying that God is like that, but the wicked perceive Him to be that way. Compare Titus 1:15:
“To the pure, everything is pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; in fact, both their mind and conscience are defiled.” Titus 1:15 CSB
Now we begin to see how this word could describe God. God’s character never changes, but our character changes all the time. And when we are in sin, it is going to change the way we see God.
There is another way to interpret this difficult verse. Notice that Genesis 30:8 is one of the four other places patal is used. It’s when Rachel, through her maidservant Bilhah, has another son:
“Rachel said, “In my wrestlings with God, I have wrestled with my sister and won,” and she named him Naphtali.” Genesis 30:8 CSB
In the Hebrew Rachel is saying, “in my phatal-ing with God, I have patal-ed with my sister and won. So I’m gonna name my son Na-phatal-i.”
So let’s get back to our confusing word. We know that God is opposed to the proud (James 4:6-7). We see this in the way He opposed Saul in 1 Samuel 28-31, which is the context in which David wrote Psalm 18.
If I was part of a translation team (which I never will be because I don’t know enough about Hebrew), I would suggest rendering Psalm 18:26 as “With the faithful you prove yourself faithful, with the blameless you prove yourself blameless, with the pure you prove yourself pure, but to the crooked you will be an adversary.”
In my opinion, the whole weird episode of Samuel being called up from the dead to appear to Saul was God allowing an evil spirit to appear to Saul as Samuel (28:11-19). This was God wrestling with Saul. It was God showing Himself tortuous against a king who had fallen so far from God that he could no longer see God as anything good.
God does not hide the meaning of His revealed Word from His children. But sometimes, because the way language changes over time, you have to dig a little deeper to find it.
Leave a Reply