Morning Prayer: Ps. 69 | Gen. 24:1-27 | John 7:1-13
Evening Prayer: Ps. 73 | Heb. 12:3-11
After listening to the most recent of Derek Olsen’s Psalmcasts (which you can find here!) yesterday, one of the first things which I was struck in this morning’s psalm is the use of quotation marks. As Olsen notes, the Hebrew text that the psalter in the BCP is a translation of does not actually include quotation marks, or any punctuation at all, so the inclusion of particular punctuation marks is always a choice by the translator. Indeed, the RSV version of the psalms does not include any quotation marks at all for Psalm 69. It’s an interesting exercise, when reading a psalm like today’s, to remove or change the placement of the quotation marks and see how that affects the meaning.
This might be a bit of a stretch, but it seems to me like the use of quotation marks in the BCP Psalm 69 serves to distance the imprecatory elements, especially v. 24-30, from prayer to God. By ending the Psalmist’s words in v. 14 “But as for me, this is my prayer to you, at the time you have set, O Lord” end with a colon and then including v. 15-21 in quotes, the translator suggests that those verses specifically, rather than the psalm as a whole, comprise the Psalmist’s prayer. This means that the Psalmist’s call for his enemies’ violent destruction need not be counted as prayer per se. Given the Christian consensus that v. 24-30 is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he enjoined us to pray for our enemies, this makes it a little bit easier to use this psalm devotionally, although I wonder if it alters the likely original meaning of the psalm in its historical context.
Now, I am not arguing that such an interpretive decision is necessarily wrong — one cannot translate without making interpretive decisions, after all! I also want to stress that this is very much an amateur analysis; the translators may have had something else in mind entirely when making the decision about these quotation marks, though I do believe that the effect I describe is real, whether intended or not. Moreover, even if the translators included the quotation marks specifically to downplay the strength of the imprecatory verses, that is not necessarily a bad decision; the question of how we Christians use difficult bits of Scripture liturgically or devotionally, especially the so-called imprecatory or cursing psalms, is a very real and difficult one. But it is important to know that this particular translation of Psalm 69 (like, again, all translations of Psalm 69), does involve some very real decisions on the part of the translators that meaningfully effect our experience of this psalm.