The Hebrew text of Jonah 2:9 reads:
שַׁמְּרִ֖ים הַבְלֵי־שָׁ֑וְא חַסְדָּ֖ם יַעֲזֹֽבוּ
The English translations of Jonah 2:9 translate this verse in different ways:
The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB): “Those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love.”
The Douay-Rheims: “They that are vain observe vanities, forsake their own mercy.”
The English Standard Version (ESV): “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.”
The King James Version (KJV): “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.”
The New American Standard Bible (NASB) : “Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness.”
The NET Bible (NET): “Those who worship worthless idols forfeit the mercy that could be theirs.”
The New International Version (NIV): “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
The New Living Translation (NLT): “Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God's mercies.”
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.”
The Tanak (TNK): “They who cling to empty folly Forsake their own welfare.”
In this prayer of deliverance, the writer addressed his audience, the people of Israel. From the belly of the great fish, Jonah mentioned those who do not worship Yahweh, the true God. To understand the words of Jonah in verse 9, what the Hebrew says, and how the English translations interpret the Hebrew, it becomes necessary to look at the words of the text.
The word מְשַׁמְּרִים (mesharim) is the participle masculine plural of the verb שָׁמַר (shāmar), a word that means "to keep" or "to guard." Only here is the word shāmar translated "worship" or "revere." Thus, I think that the word should be understood as "those who keep" or "those who possess." The Hebrew word implies more than just worshiping idols. It includes the idea of owning or possessing idols.
The word הֶבֶל (hebel) is generally translated as "vanity" as in Ecclesiastes 1:2: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." It is also translated as "nothing" and as "idols" because the idols were considered to be nothing.
The word שָׁוְא (šāwʼ) means "worthless" "in vain." The combination of hebel and šāwʼ , הַבְלֵי־שָׁ֑וְא, means that "which is worthless," that is, an idol.
The last two words, חַסְדָּ֖ם יַעֲזֹֽבו literally mean "forsake their hesed." The key to the verse is in the meaning of the word hesed.
I have written several posts on the word hesed (you can read a few of them here, here, and here). The word hesed is generally translated as "mercy," as the King James Version does (see above).
Since the word hesed is a word related to the covenant between Israel and God, a better translation of hesed is "faithfulness" (NASB) or "true loyalty" (NRSV). I like to translate the word hesed as "commitment" since hesed is what brings the two parties together in a committed relationship. This is the reason that in many commentaries the word hesed is translated as "covenant love."
The issue in Jonah 2:9 is whose hesed is the writer talking about? Is it God's hesed or is it human hesed? In his commentary on Jonah, Wolf, using Nelson Glueck's study on the word hesed, wrote that in Jonah 2:9 the word hesed is "a synonym for God" (p. 138). Wolf wrote:
"Here חֶסֶד [hesed], 'steadfast love,' does not mean human faithfulness. It means the divine attitude which in the Psalter is continually extolled as God's faithfulness, goodness, and graciousness, which is the one true help for human beings."
Using the understanding of hesed, Wolff is saying that those who worship idols are forsaking God, their source of hope. This is the approach taken by the ESV, the HSCB, the NET, the NIV, and the NLT.
Those who take the word hesed to be a reference to human loyalty imply that those who worship idols abandon their covenant obligation to be faithful to God. That is the position taken by the KJV, the NASB, and the NRSV.
I believe that the word hesed in Jonah 2:9 refers to a human attitude in which the people forsake their commitment to God when they place their trust in idols. This was the complaint of Hosea when he wrote: “Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites! For the LORD has a covenant lawsuit against the people of Israel. For there is neither faithfulness nor loyalty (hesed) in the land, nor do they acknowledge God” (Hosea 4:1 NET).
So, understanding the word hesed to refer to loyalty towards God, I think that Jonah 2:9 should be translated as follows: "Those who worship worthless idols forsake their commitment [to the LORD].
Hans Walter Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1977.
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Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Tags: Hebrew Bible, Hesed, Jonah 2:9, Idols, Vanity