Both regular and casual readers of the psalms might legitimately question my supposition that the heart of “the man after God’s own heart” was one primarily characterized by and possessed of happiness. In light of the fact that the psalter is heavily laden with poems of complaint and lament, many of which were composed by David, I realize that mine is a bold statement. But I believe that it is supported both by the text and the life of David. So I will attempt now not so much to defend my assertion as to lead others along the path that led me to that conclusion.
The best place to start is to emphasize again the importance of recognizing the “Hebrewness” of the psalms each time we approach one. When I say that, I am not suggesting just the obvious fact that the poems we read in English were originally recorded in the Hebrew language but, more importantly, that the authors of these magnificent praises were Hebrew-thinking people. To achieve even an approximate understanding of these poems and authors’ intent, we must seek out their ancient Hebrew meaning — as distinct from one we contemporary Americans might assume — as best we can.
For me that means leaning substantially on the work of reliable Hebrew translators. Robert Alter, whose footnotes I frequently cite, is certainly one. Another — who shares my conviction that the Complete Jewish Bible, as he chooses to call it, is one single story in two testaments of God’s redemptive work in behalf of the people called by his name — is David H. Stern. Both approach the text in context and with respect, which means that they give fastidious attention to every word.
The biblical Hebrew word ashrei is generally understood to be equivalent to the English words for happiness and happy. However, the precise translation of that word is neither the singular abstract noun nor the simple adjective I used in the previous sentence, despite the fact that the majority of our English modern translations render it in those ways. Ashrei is, in fact, an interjection. As a means of accurately capturing its exclamatory sense, Alter and Stern both frequently choose to convey it as “how happy.” In my own work on Psalm 119 I rendered that opening word as “ah, happiness,” a choice with which Rabbi Michael Greenstein did not take issue nor, do I think, would Alter or Stern.
In addition to its being the initial word of that great alphabetic acrostic psalm, ashrei is also — and significantly — the first word in the psalter. By it the stage is set for the tehillim, the book of praises. Ashrei occurs 26 times in the psalms. Readers of many popular standard English translations, such as the English Standard Version, the New International Version, the New American Standard, likely would not be aware of that word’s prevalent use, however. That is because the translators of those versions often exchanged the word blessed where the psalmist penned happy/happiness.
I find such word substitution a peculiar decision, particularly because there is another word for blessed –namely baruch — which also appears frequently in the psalms. To my knowledge, baruch is always translated blessed. I mention that to emphasize that the two words clearly were and are not synonymous. Additionally, it is odd that the editorial license that interchanges them in the psalms seems only to have moved in one direction; that it is exercised at all robs the psalms of the richness and depth of the original texts that contain both words. That, in turn, diminishes the strength of an important Davidic theme. Precision of language, conscious and deliberate word selection, is an essential hallmark of the work of any serious poet. Careful word choice drives meaning, clarifies voice and establishes tone in poetry.
David’s voice throughout many of the psalms is characterized by an intense and unwavering happiness and the accompanying tone is one of distinctly confident security that can flow only from a heart aligned with his Lord’s. To the Hebrew-thinking man or woman, as we have examined before, the heart was never conceived as the seat of an emotion, and certainly not an emotionalism, separate from will and reason. Consequently, the heart was not giddy and would never have been governed strictly by feelings or circumstance.
Why so many translators chose to substitute blessed in place of happy is a mystery. My only surmise is that the editorial latitude the translators of the NASB, NIV, and ESV employed might have been an attempt to speak clearly to their own contemporaries both in response to the dynamism of language itself and as a deliberate counterweight to the pervasive “I just want to be happy” philosophy that was being espoused so widely and cavalierly in the popular culture of the mid- and late twentieth centuries.
On that point, I can remember with clarity — and with much embarrassment — a conversation I had years ago with someone I know well and love. It went something like this. “Don’t embrace that empty expression,” I insisted. “Happiness is just a feeling and a fleeting and fickle one at that,” I opined. And then, as though I knew what I was talking about, I declared authoritatively something like “the Bible really does not have much to say about happiness, you know — but it does speak a lot about blessing. They are not the same.” Yes, I was serendipitously right on the last point but drastically in error on the other. In those days, I suppose my error (but certainly not my arrogance) was excusable. I was steeped in NASB and NIV at the time. And as a young reader I had fallen in love with the psalms of the melodious King James Version. All substituted blessed for happy.
My personal experiences, foibles and need for confession aside, here is the point: “How happy the people whose God is the Lord!” So David emphatically declares in the final verse of Psalm 145. To put that last line of Psalm 145 in its proper context, and to substantiate its meaning, it is instructive to look back at the first verse. “Blessed be Adonai (my Lord)” the psalmist chooses to commence his praise.
So this psalm begins with baruch and ends with ashrei, and in structuring the poem that way the psalmist sketches out a clear and deliberate distinction as well as a theological truth. His word choice clarifies the meaning of the state of heart and soul that he, David — a man plagued throughout his life by tragedy, pain, loss, longing, fear, grief, regret, failure, and serious transgressions against his fellow man, both enemy and dear friend, as well as his God — calls ashrei.
If you find yourself dwelling under the ponderous weight of some of those “plaguings” that David knew so well, as I personally do at this particular season of my life, then turn with me and claim as your own the psalmist’s outpourings of heart. Take his words and promises as given to you, for they are.
The unassailable truth they enshrine is simply but surely this: “How happy” are those, all those, regardless of station or moment or circumstance who are His — who are His own possession and who possess Him by allegiance, by need, by faith, and principally by surrender of heart.
Blessed then is the Lord when those people emphatically declare their happiness by turning to Him with thanksgiving, by enthroning Him on their praises, by crying out to Him in their agony and need, by finding in Him their unshakable refuge and stronghold.