I’ve been making Psalm 8 part of my daily prayer for much of the past month, occasionally switching between translations to bring out nuances of the prayer. In the process, I’ve come across a variety of ways that translations deal with verses 1 and 2 (or verses 2 and 3 in the NABRE). Here’s how the NRSV translates the difficult passage:
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.Psalm 8:1b-2 NRSV
It’s difficult to understand what this means. How has God founded a bulwark against his foes out of the mouths of babes and infants? This could well be a case where the writer is referring to imagery that was common at the time of writing, but has become lost to history. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary suggests this with the following simple comment:
Scholars’ efforts to elucidate these difficult lines have not met with success.John S. Kselman, SS and Michael L. Barre, SS, Psalms, New Jerome Biblical Commentary
The difficulty of understanding the passage as it currently stands in Hebrew has not stopped translators from offering speculative meanings in the hope of shedding light on what this text means. The NABRE offers the following alternative:
I will sing of your majesty above the heavens
with the mouths of babes and infants.
You have established a bulwark against your foes,
to silence enemy and avengerPsalm 8:2b-3 NABRE
Here, the NABRE translators corrected a Hebrew word in the first line, allowing them to write “I will sing” rather than “You have set” as in the NRSV. They also broke up the sentences differently, separating the reference to babes and infants from the sentence about establishing a bulwark. This certainly makes the text more intelligible. The NABRE also offers a speculative explanation in the footnotes:
With the mouths of babes and infants: the psalmist realizes that his attempts to praise such an awesome God are hopelessly inadequate and amount to little more than the sounds made by infants. Established a bulwark: an allusion to lost myth telling how God built a fortress for himself in the heavens in primordial times in his battle with the powers of chaos. This “bulwark” is the firmament. Enemy and avenger: probably cosmic enemies. The primeval powers of watery chaos are often personified in poetic texts.Psalm 8:3 — NABRE footnote
Here the NABRE displays the over-confidence that is so often served up in study bible notes. It offers a definitive explanation of the difficult lines, only qualifying its assertions on the last point with the word “probably.” The speculations are thought-provoking, but they should not be taken as certain, despite the self-assured tone.
The New Jerusalem Bible offers another unique translation:
Whoever keeps singing of your majesty higher than the heavens,
even through the mouths of children, or of babes in arms,
you make him a fortress, firm against your foes
to subdue the enemy and the rebel.Psalm 8:1b-2 NJB
Here, the NJB makes the whole passage into a single sentence and brings the imagery of babes, infants, and fortresses together in the most natural way of any of the three translations we’ve seen so far. In light of the scholarly uncertainty about the meaning of the passage, though, a translation like this glosses over a lot of difficulty. The footnotes offer little explanation, although they do point out the correction to the Hebrew word in the first line (a similar correction made in the NABRE).
Finally, consider Robert Alter’s translation:
Whose splendor was told over the heavens.
From the mouth of babes and sucklings
You founded strength
on account of Your foes
to put an end to enemy and avenger.Psalm 8:2b-3 Robert Alter’s Translation
This is very similar to the NRSV, although it offers a slightly different correction of the Hebrew in the first line compared with any of the other translations we’ve seen (“was told” instead of “I will sing” or “You have set”) and Alter provides a sober assessment of the difficulty in his footnotes:
was told. The Masoretic text has tenah, which appears to be an imperative of the verb “to give,” and does not make much sense in context. I have revocalized it as tunah, yielding “was told.” The beauty of the night sky, which the psalmist contemplates in verse 4, speaks out God’s glory wordlessly.
From the mouth of babes and sucklings. The meaning of this phrase, however proverbial it has become, has not been satisfactorily explained. One distant possibility: God draws strength from consciously aware humankind, made in His image, even from its weakest and youngest members, against the inhuman forces of chaos. Perhaps the innocence of infants is imagined as a source of strength.Robert Alter, Psalms, Footnotes
Clearly, this passage presents multiple difficulties for understanding its meaning. Possible corruption of the Hebrew text, combined with difficulty interpreting the grammar and imagery, make it very challenging to decipher this passage. The alternatives offered by the NRSV, NABRE, NJB and Robert Alter offer interesting food for thought, though, and the NABRE’s footnote provides a historical perspective that can help us 21st century readers to shed some of our modern assumptions.