Word Study: Tremble רלז



Psalms 4:4: “Stand in awe and sin not, commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.”

Perhaps you are more familiar with the ESV translation of this verse which is “Be angry and sin not.” The NIV says: “Tremble and do not sin.” There is a big difference between standing in awe, being angry and trembling. So which is the right translation. It must be one or the other. If you are someone with anger issues you might accept the ESV rendering. If you are a fearful person the NIV would be your choice. If you are a romantic I suppose the good old KJV of “Stand in awe” would be appropriate. But, then of course in our Modern Western cultural, it can only be one and only one translation is the true translation.

However, why not think like the Semitic people for whom this was originally written? The Western mindset is very scientific and mathematical. Two plus two must equal four and nothing else. In the Semitic mind, who cares what two plus two equals but doesn’t that have a such a poetic ring to it, two plus two. The Semitic mind would have no problem saying that all three renderings are correct. We must stand in awe, tremble and be angry and sin not.

All three renderings easily fit the context. The Psalmist is exhorting us to live a Godly life and let nothing deter us from that. To not live a Godly life would be a sin. So don’t let anger deter you, don’t let fear deter you and don’t let shyness or standing in awe of God deter you from living a Godly life.

The word in Hebrew for standing in awe is ragaz which has a wide range of meanings. It could mean anger, grief, fear of trembling as being so angry you tremble or you are so fearful you tremble or you are so awe struck that you tremble. In its Semitic root the word comes from an old Phoenician word used by sailors who trembled from the cold weather on the seas. In other words the very root meaning of this word is to tremble. One can tremble for many reasons as indicated above. It would seem the Psalmist is cleverly using a word to cover a lot of territory. Whatever makes you tremble can distract you from living a Godly life. Trembling is an involuntary action and you can’t help it, but don’t let it interfer with your Godly life.

Forty years ago Rabbi Kushner was teaching a Hebrew class to adults. He started the class off by asking why each student wanted to learn Hebrew. The answers were predictable – to follow the prayers, to read from the scrolls, or to keep up with their children. But one answer changed the meaning for the whole class and follows Rabbi Kushner to this day. In fact it is also my reason for studying Hebrew and teaching Hebrew. This woman’s answer was: “I am learning Hebrew because I don’t believe God is done talking.” Jewish tradition teaches that Hebrew is a l’shon kodesh or a holy language. That is a way of saying that Hebrew somehow has to do with God. Hebrew is an instrument which helps to make God visible.

Thus, I read this passage in the KJV and find it says “Stand in awe and sin not.” The NIV says to be angry and sin not, the NASB says to “Tremble and do not sin.” None are a mistranslation or wrong translation, they are all correct and much more for you see, God is not done talking yet. Perhaps you will read something more into this for instance grieve and sin not, don’t let grief hinder you from living a godly life. How about be joyful and sin not. Joyful fits as joyful people can let their joy distract them from an godly life and people do tremble with joy or laughter. Nothing wrong with having a good time but if it distracts you from living a Godly life, that is sinful.

Just don’t choose any rendering and cling to it and close your mind to other possible renderings or emotions that can cause you to shake or tremble and distract you from living a Godly life. For you see God is not done speaking and with every new modern English translation reflecting our broadening knowledge of the Hebrew and Aramaic God is continuing to speak to us in new and fresher ways.

In our Western culture we are frustrated by the 150 or so modern English translations wondering which is the most accurate or which is the best. We are so scientific and mathematical in our thinking that we just cannot accept the idea of numerous interpretations and translations, there must be one and only one. But God is not done speaking to us and with every new modern English translation putting another twist on certain Hebrew words or expressions, God continues to speak.