An Ailing Translation: Psalm 114

hallelpsalmsWe’re doing a series on the Psalms at Trinity Hilton and for my preaching slot, I decided to do Psalm 114 because it looked like the least insurmountable of these surprisingly perplexing poems. It’s an awesome poem in its own right: I can almost hear a taunt, as the history of the sea fleeing and the Jordan turning back is recounted,

What ails you, Oh sea, that you flee?
Oh Jordan, that you turn back?

I was a bit concerned that the skipping hills mountains were “ailed” in the ESV. I considered that “skipping” may be more like trembling but realised that the hills and mountains are compared to rams and lambs. So having read the ESV, I looked at the Hebrew which simply says, “מַה־לְּךָ֣ הַ֭יָּם כִּ֣י” (literally: “what is there to you, sea, that”, i.e. “what do you have, sea, that …” or just “why …”). I checked the Septuagint which is pretty wooden “τί σοί ἐστιν θάλασσα ὅτι … ” and so I checked the NIV which I’ll be preaching out of. Low and behold it says, “Why was it, O sea …”. I checked the NLT (cause it’s growing on me) and it says, “What’s wrong, Red Sea, that …” (you can sea the interpretive calls they make there). Now I am left a bit surprised by the ESV’s “What ails you …” – I am not given the impression that the sea is “ailed” at all. I think perhaps they simply followed the KJV, “What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest?” (which, I admit, has a lovely poetic ring to it).

It’s interesting to me, though, that between the NIV and the ESV, the NIV went with a more literal translation whereas the ESV made an interpretive call. It’s also strange to me that the ESV’s decision doesn’t really make sense of the text. Why did the sea flee and the Jordan turn back? Why do the mountains and the hills skip? I can almost hear the earthy reply that conjures up the final refrain of the Psalm:

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
At the presence of the God of Jacob

It is the presence of the God who brings water from rock that causes the sea to flee and mountains to skip.

So does anyone know why the ESV included “ail”?

James Cuénod
Student at Wheaton College
I love Jesus, preach his Gospel, disciple his children, study his word and I am incurably passionate about the glory of God.
Inching my way towards teaching pastors in South Africa. Student at Wheaton College. Excited by Hermeneutics, Old Testament and Biblical Theology.