Psalm 110 is prayed by the Church every Sunday evening at Vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours. It has long been seen as a prophecy of Christ and his victory over death, evil, and the powers of this world. It is cited or alluded to in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 22:44), the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:33-35), the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:13, 5:6, 10:12-13), and the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 3:22). Most New Testament citations refer to verse 1, which prophecies that Jesus would be seated at the right hand of the Father. Hebrews also applies verse 4 of the Psalm to Christ and his priestly office.

Verse 3 presents an interesting text-critical conundrum. The Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament (which was used by most early Christians) contains language that is very prophetic and can also be applied to Christ, while the Hebrew Masoretic Text has a significantly different meaning. The footnotes in the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) helpfully provide a translation of both the Greek and Hebrew texts:

Psalm 110:3 (Greek):

With you is the royal dignity…from the womb before the dawn I begot you.”

Psalm 110:3 (Hebrew):

Your people is generosity on the day of your strength,
in sacred splendours, from (or: from the time of) the womb of the dawn (meaning uncertain),
to you the dew of your youth.

The New Catholic Bible (NCB) also offers a translation of the Hebrew text in its footnotes:

Your people will volunteer freely
on your day of battle.
In holy splendor, from the womb of the dawn
the dew of your youth is yours.

Many modern translations follow some variation of the Hebrew text. Even the ESV, which tends to harmonize its Old Testament translation with quotations in the New Testament, follows the Hebrew text here, and that is consistent with their translation methodology. Verse 3 is not explicitly quoted in the New Testament, so the translators translated the Hebrew:

Your people will offer themselves freely
on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.

Psalm 110:3 ESV

As I looked up this verse in many different translations, a pattern began to emerge. The translations that follow the Greek reading are Catholic or Orthodox (NABRE, NCB, DR, Knox, Grail, Revised Grail, Abbey Psalms, Psalter According to the Seventy), while many protestant or ecumenical translations have followed the Hebrew reading (sometimes with emendations—NRSV, RSV, ESV, CEB, NET, NIV, NLT, NKJV, KJV, NASB). The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and the New Community Bible have followed an emended reading that doesn’t conform to the literal readings of either the Hebrew or Greek stated above.

Considering the Catholic versions that are close to the Greek text, the New Catholic Bible footnotes provide the only detailed explanation for following the Greek text (which apparently is also followed by the New Vulgate):

Yours is royal dignity…I have begotten you: this is the usual Catholic translation and comes from the revised Latin Vulgate, which is based on the ancient versions. The current Hebrew is obscure and seems to be corrupt. Before the daystar: when the sun had not yet been created, i.e., from all eternity. Like the dew: in a secret, mysterious manner. Hence, the Messiah and Son of God existed before the dawn of creation in eternity.

The Hebrew…refers to numerous royal troops at the Messiah’s command. The people come voluntarily on the day of battle, as in the days of Deborah (see Jdg 5:2,9). They consecrate themselves, are fully prepared, and place themselves at his service. They will be as abundant as the dew at dawn. The image is close to those of Paul about “living sacrifices” (Rom 12:1) or a life poured out like a “libation” (Phil 2:17). It should be noted that, even not considering the linguistic difficulties that argue against this reading and the fact that the Septuagint of pre-Christian times already confirms the text of the Vulgate, the Hebrew reading does not fit the great theme of the psalm as well as the Latin translation does. Every connection with the central thought that speaks of the royal and priestly dignity of Melchizedek is missing.

Footnote to Psalm 110:3 – New Catholic Bible

As a non-scholar, I wonder if the NCB’s explanation attempts to prove too much. The NRSV makes a slight emendation to the Hebrew text (translating “the dew of your youth” as “like dew, your youth”), but it mostly follows the Hebrew, and many other good scholarly translations do likewise. Furthermore, the Hebrew text does indeed fit the historical theme of the psalm, which is God’s favor toward the king of Israel and a prophecy that God will subdue the king’s enemies and extend his rule. The description of the king’s subjects offering themselves willingly in military service and being as numerous as the drops of dew doesn’t seem out of place in the psalm’s original context.

It’s possible that the Greek text of Psalm 110:3 (numbered as Psalm 109:3 in the Septuagint) preserves an earlier manuscript tradition that is no longer present in the Hebrew, but most translations do not seem to favor that view at present. On the other hand, the Greek and Latin versions have been a part of the Church’s liturgy for many centuries, and they provide a powerful witness to the doctrine of the Trinity and Jesus’ nature as the eternal Son of the Father.

This speaks to a tension in current Catholic biblical studies and translation. The Latin Vulgate was considered authoritative for centuries, and the textual basis behind the New Vulgate is still authoritative for liturgical translations as required by Liturgiam Authenticam (paragraph 37). But since Pope Pius XII published his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, the original languages of the biblical texts took on a primary importance for biblical translations and scholarship. For specific verses like Psalm 110:3, this leads to a conflict over text criticism and debates over which manuscript tradition represents an older and more authentic version of the original author’s words.

Further reflection on the importance of the Greek Septuagint is probably needed in future theological and biblical work. Pope Benedict XVI suggested in his Regensburg address in 2005 that the Septuagint was not merely a translation, but a step in the history of revelation:

Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria – the Septuagint – is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion.

Pope Benedict XVI – Meeting with the Representatives of Science, Lecture of the Holy Father – Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg. September 12, 2006

2 thoughts on “Bible Study Tidbit: Psalm 110:3”

  1. It’s rather unfortunate that Psalm 110 wasn’t preserved in the DSS, as that would’ve been nice to consult.

    In the New English Translation of the Septuagint, the verse reads as follows: “With you is [note: or “be”] rule on a day of your power among the splendors of the holy ones. From the womb, before Morning-star, I brought you forth.” In Robert Albert’s Hebrew Bible translation, it reads as follows: “Your people rally to battle on the day your force assembles on the holy mountains, from the womb of dawn, yours is the dew of your youth.”

    Alter then gives the following five-part footnote:

    [Your people rally to battle.] It is at this point that the language of this psalm begins to be cryptic, a problem that will persist to the end of the poem. The literal sense of the Hebrew here (just two words) is “your-people acts-of-volunteering.” But the noun ‘am, “people,” and the verbal root n-d-b, “to volunteer,” “to act nobly,” in conjunction are associated with volunteering to do battle, as in the Song of Deborah, Judges 5:9. So this translation assumes an ellipsis with that general sense here.

    [on the day your force assembles.] The Hebrew says only “on the day of your force.” Again, an ellipsis is assumed.

    [holy mountains.] The Masoretic Text reads “holy majesties,” hadrey qodesh, which sounds very odd in the Hebrew. But many manuscripts show harerey qodesh, “holy mountains,” and the similar-looking letters dalet and resh are often switched in scribal transcription.

    [from the womb of dawn.] The second of the two nouns here in the Masoretic Text, mishḥar, is doubtful in meaning. The translation follows the Septuagint in reading mireḥem shaḥar, “from the womb of dawn.” A scribe may have inadvertently repeated the mem at the end of reḥem and at the beginning of shaḥar as well (an instance of dittography). The image is evidently of an army sallying forth at daybreak.

    [yours is the dew of your youth.] This somewhat mystifying phrase might refer to the fresh energy of a young king. Many manuscripts read “I gave you birth” instead of “your youth” (a difference only of vocalization), but this scarcely improves matters because the idea of giving birth to the king like (?) dew is puzzling.


    I would also like to note that while the RSV and RSV-CE give a version of the Hebrew, the RSV-2CE completely retranslates verse 3 to align with the Greek.

    RSV/RSV-CE: “Your people will offer themselves freely on the day you lead your host upon the holy mountains. From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you.”

    RSV-2CE: “Yours is dominion on the day you lead your host in holy splendor. From the womb of the morning I begot you.”

  2. Great study tidbit! Interestingly, this is one of the passages that was changed in the RSV2CE to conform to the LXX rather than MT.

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