- 1 Introduction
- 2 Overview of current translations and interpretations
- 3 Hebrew Analysis
- 3.1 ‘When he ‘made firm’ the skies above’? Analysis of the verb ʾmṣ
- 3.2 Does šĕḥāqîm mean’clouds’ or ‘sky’?
- 3.3 ‘When the springs of the deep were fixed securely‘? Analysis of the verb ʿzz
- 3.4 Conclusion on the Springs of the Deep, and on 8:28 as a Whole
- 4 The Wider Context: Proverbs 8:22-31
According to many versions, Proverbs 8:28 speaks of a ‘firm sky.’ For instance, both the NASB and the NRSV read: “When He made firm the skies above…” What basis is there for this rendering? On the other hand, at least as many interpreters have translated šĕḥāqîm — the Hebrew word translated as ‘sky’ above — as clouds, not as sky. If šĕḥāqîm indicates ‘clouds’ here, it would mean this verse makes no reference to a firmament at all. But the somewhat ambiguous nature of this word means we cannot lean to heavily on it alone, which brings the context and other considerations to the fore. What then of this ‘made firm’ business? Well once again we find that many other versions have given a different rendering of the Hebrew verb here, ʾmṣ, such as: “when he established the (clouds / sky) above.” So which one is it? We will see that in fact the literal sense of the verb, ʾmṣ, is simply to be or make strong. We will analyze this word in depth below. We must also come to a right understanding of the second clause of this verse, as it is clearly parallel to the first.
The purpose of this article is to analyze this passage in detail, and in particular to: a) review the way current scholarship and the versions have dealt with it, b) offer a detailed analysis of the Hebrew, giving special attention to the parallel verbs in each clause, and c) explore the larger context of 8:22-30. The conclusion I reach is that many of the interpretations went off course when they interpreted this strengthening language in a highly concrete manner, even though both verbs show little (to no) precedent for those kinds of renderings. Even more important is the context, which shows, I would say beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this ‘strengthening’ language was speaking of abundant waters. This is what the clouds above and the springs of the deep were ‘strengthened’ with, life-giving waters at creation. As such this passage, besides having quite a different meaning than so many have given it, has nothing at all to do with a firmament.
When He made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep … (NRSV)
When He made firm the skies above …” (NASB)
(When He) set Sky firmly in place … (and) built the vast vault of Heaven … (Message)
בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל בַּעֲזוֹז עִינוֹת תְּהוֹם
Overview of current translations and interpretations
Rather than jump directly into a Hebrew analysis of Proverbs 8:28, let us first review how many versions, commentaries, and lexicons have handled it. There are three main words to keep our eye on in particular:
- šĕḥāqîm — does this mean ‘sky,’ or ‘clouds’ (or something else)?
- ʾmṣ (ʾamatz) — two main options predominate: a) ‘to make firm,’ b) ‘to establish,’ and more rarely c) simply ‘to strengthen.’
- ʿzz (ʿazaz), which verb modifies the springs of the deep. Most translate this along the lines of: ‘when he established,’ or ‘when he fixed securely‘ and the like.
While we are particularly interested in how each interpretation deals with clause a, and particularly in whether or not they support a ‘firm sky’ view, we are also interested in how they deal with the entire verse, because as we will see, the second clause, which clearly stands in parallel to the first, is critical to rightly understanding the verse as a whole. All emphases in this article should be considered my own, unless otherwise stated.
LXX: ἡνίκα ἰσχυρὰ ἐποίει τὰ ἄνω νέφη καὶ ὡς ἀσφαλεῖς ἐτίθει πηγὰς τῆς ὑπ᾽ οὐρανὸν
When he made strong the clouds above, and when he made steadfast / unfailing the springs under heaven.
Most notable is the LXX’s rendering of šĕḥāqîm as ‘clouds’ (νέφος), as well as its literal rendering of ʾmṣ with ἰσχυρός (‘strong’). Only in clause b, with the springs of the deep, do we see the LXX choose a more interpretive route, in which God made them — not ‘strong’ or some other literal rendering of the Hebrew — but ἀσφαλής (secure, stable, steadfast, unfailing, trusty).
Targum (CAL): כד איגרים ענני שׁמיא מלעיל וכד אעשׁין מעייני ותהומי – When he strengthened the clouds of the heavens above, when he strengthened (/made substantial) the springs and the deeps.
Most notable is the targum’s rendering of šĕḥāqîm as not just ‘clouds,’ but as ענני שׁמיא — literally ‘clouds of the heavens.’ Was this the Aramaic author’s interpretation of what šĕḥāqîm are? Not just clouds, nor just sky, but a combination of the two? On the verb in clause a (which I rendered above: ‘when he strengthened’), it is a denominative from גרם in the causitive (Aphel); on the form, Jastrow cites this passage as אַגְרֵים (without the initial yod). See HALOT: “*גרם… JArm. to be strong, pa. to strengthen, …” and see also Jastrow (גְרֵם) “Pa. to strengthen, Af. to make substantial, harden.” So it is probably fair to say that the simple sense of ‘strength’ or ‘strengthen’ predominates with this Aramaic verb, but that we can’t rule out an intended sense of ‘firmness,’ making it hard to glean anything from this usage.
- KJV: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep.
- NIV: When he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep.
- NRSV: When he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep.
NJB (New Jerusalem Bible): When he thickened the clouds above, when the sources of the deep began to swell.
This is a remarkable translation in comparison to most of the others. We will come back to this later.
ESV: When he made firm a the skies above, when he established 1 the fountains of the deep.
The cross reference (note a) is to Genesis 1:6, which obviously shows, given the ‘made firm’ translation, that the ESV takes this as a reference to the firmament. Meanwhile, in note 1 the ESV states: “The meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.”
- NKJV: When He established the clouds above, when He strengthened the fountains of the deep.
- OJB (Orthodox Jewish Bible): When He established the clouds above, when He strengthened the fountains of the tĕhôm.
- NET: When he established the clouds above, when the fountains of the deep grew strong.
NASB: When He made firm the skies above, when the springs of the deep became fixed. 1
Note 1: Literally became strong.
- NLT: I was there when he set the clouds above, when he established springs deep in the earth.
- Message: (I was there long before God) set Sky firmly in place … (and) built the vast vault of Heaven, and installed the fountains that fed Ocean.
The one thing I appreciate about this rendering is that, at least, it reveals what many interpreters had in mind with their ‘establish’ and ‘make firm’ terminology. ‘Establish’ or ‘set firmly … in place’ interpreted freely as ‘built the vast vault of Heaven.’ A vault that can be built …
EIN (German Einheitsübersetzung)
Als er droben die Wolken befestigte und Quellen strömen ließ aus dem Urmeer.
When he fixed (befestigen) on high the clouds and let flow springs from the deep.
- TWOT (ʾmṣ): when God confirmed (made firm) the skies above.
- BDB (ʾmṣ): 1. make firm, strengthen, … of giving clouds their place.
HALOT (ʾmṣ): to make firm (clouds).
HALOT (under šĕḥāqîm) references Krašovec Merismus 35 as saying:
שְׁחָקִים probably indicates here the etherial heights with the associated clusters of clouds which as such comprise the heavens.
We will only discuss šĕḥāqîm briefly in this article, but this is an interesting conclusion by Krašovec, particularly in that it melds the two notions of sky and clouds into one. It is hard to know for certain, but I suspect this is close to the truth.
- Bartelmus cites this passage as referring to the sky, of which he translates: “make firm” (Bartelmus 2006, p. 221)
John Lange’s Proverbs commentary: “When he established the clouds above, when the fountains of the deep raged loudly.”
Elsewhere though, Lange writes: “When he fixed the clouds above. Literally, “when He made firm, made strong” (בְּאַמְּצוֹ).”1 So while Lange importantly confirms the view of many others, that šĕḥāqîm refers to the clouds, he clearly takes the verb to mean something along the lines of ‘make firm.’ Lange goes on to posit the absurd notion, while making reference to Job 26:8 and 38:37, that the reason these clouds could be ‘strengthened’ or ‘made firm’ is because the clouds here are “conceived of as bags, which only in case they are suitably secured and do not burst, prevent the mighty outpouring of the upper waters upon the earth.” It seems clear that Lange was not simply positing this as figure of speech either. This illustrates why it is so necessary to answer what the text meant by God ‘strengthening’ the clouds, even after one has decided that šĕḥāqîm refers to clouds.
Reyburn and Fry Proverbs commentary: “When he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep.”2
It is worthwhile to consider the uncertainty portrayed in the exegetical comments Reyburn and Fry offer on this verse, as it aptly depicts the uncertain (and I believe flawed) understanding of this verse by so many commentaries and versions to date.
When he made firm the skies above: Made firm or made strong is used in regard to making something strong or resistant; for example, the repaired temple in 2 Chr 24:13. Skies renders a word meaning dust or clouds and in this context refers to the sky or the sky with its clouds. Some translations render this line “when he put the clouds in the sky.”
When he established the fountains of the deep: Established, as the RSV footnote shows, is uncertain in its meaning. Some interpreters change the word slightly to get a rendering like that of RSV. Others take it to mean to restrain or control. The Septuagint says “made secure.”
Recap of the current interpretations
The following table shows at a glance how the translations we just considered handled the important parts of this verse:
|Source||בְּאַמְּצוֹ – ʾmṣ||šĕḥāqîm||בַּעֲזוֹז – ʿzz|
|When he … made firm? established? strengthened?||the … clouds? skies?||When he established? (the springs)|
|LXX||made strong||the clouds||made steadfast (the springs)|
|NIV||established||the clouds||fixed securely|
|NRSV||made firm||the skies||established|
|NJB||thickened||the clouds||began to swell|
|ESV||made firm||the skies||established|
|NET||established||the clouds||grew strong|
|NASB||made firm||the skies||became fixed (lit: became strong)|
|EIN||fixed (befestigen)||the clouds||let flow|
|BDB||make firm, strengthen, give (clouds) their place||clouds||–|
|TWOT||confirmed (made firm)||skies||–|
|HALOT||make firm||clouds / skies||–|
|Lange||established||the clouds||raged loudly|
|Reyburn and Fry||made firm||the skies||established|
We see that šĕḥāqîm was translated as ‘clouds’ 14 times, and as ‘sky’ or ‘skies’ 8 times. So we already have a small majority of interpretations that at least lean towards the view that šĕḥāqîm makes reference to the clouds, which would mean, if they are right, that this verse cannot be used at all in support of a ‘firm-sky’ notion. On the other hand, perhaps the other translations are right.
For those translating šĕḥāqîm as clouds, even most of these translate the verb that modifies these clouds as ‘establish,’ or otherwise as ‘set,’ ‘fix,’ and so forth. It seems clear they were thinking in physical and concrete terms. Now it is certainly possible, all on its own, that the word ‘establish’ be used in a non-concrete and non-physical sense. A champion’s ‘legacy’ can be ‘established,’ for instance. But it would seem from context that most of these interpreters were indeed thinking in concrete terms, not to mention in ‘static’ terms as well (e.g. ‘fixed in place’ and the like). The way they render the synonymous verb of the second clause illustrates this well. The ‘make firm’ rendering seems to simply take this sense a progression further, where they directly read in the concrete notion into the rendering (namely, of firmness), as opposed to the possibly more open ended ‘established.’
We must analyze the Hebrew itself to see what the text really meant and intended to communicate, but before we do that, two of the ‘cloud’ interpretations stand out as important alternatives in how this verb is to be rendered. Namely:
- The Septuagint: “When he strengthened the clouds above.”
- The New Jerusalem Bible: “When he thickened the clouds above.”
Is there any merit to these renderings? I believe they are actually spot on. As we will see in what follows, the Septuagint’s translation of this verb as ‘strengthen’ represents the most literal rendering of the Hebrew verb one can give. The NJB, on the other hand, is clearly giving a dynamic equivalent interpretation of what ‘strengthening’ the clouds actually means.
The main words we must analyze are these, as was stated at the top of this article:
- The verb that modifies these šĕḥāqîm: ʾmṣ (pronounce: ʾamatz). The vast majority of interpreters rendered this as either ‘establish’ or ‘make firm.’ The LXX translated it as ‘to strengthen.’ Which view is correct?
- šĕḥāqîm: does this mean ‘sky?’ or ‘clouds?’ or is it something in between?
- The verb that modifies the springs of the deep: ʿzz (pronounce: ʿazaz). Most interpreters rendered this as ‘establish,’ though there were important exceptions. Particularly with Lange (‘when the fountains of the deep raged loudly‘), and once again the LXX (‘made steadfast / unfailing’ – ἀσφαλεῖς) and the NJB (‘began to swell‘).
In the meanwhile we must also properly understand the verse as a whole, which includes rightly appreciating the parallelism of the two clauses.
‘When he ‘made firm’ the skies above’? Analysis of the verb ʾmṣ
I will argue below that most translations of ʾmṣ, such as we have seen above, are misleading. They are certainly unusual renderings when compared to this root’s usage elsewhere. It is clear that most interpreters simply failed to understand the basic sense this verse was conveying, and in particular, they failed to understand how ‘clouds’ could be spoken of as being ‘strengthened.’ And thus they felt constrainted to offer an interpretive rendering. As for their renderings of ʾmṣ as to establish and as to make firm, there are slim to none other occurrences of this root with such a meaning in its 41 scriptural occurrences. That is to say, there is not a single other instance in which the literal ‘firmness’ of an object is conveyed by this verb, and there probably is not a single instance in which it is used to speak of ‘establishing’ something in a physical and concrete sense (as in ‘establishing’ a pillar by setting it in concrete). Instead, ʾmṣ simply means ‘to be (or make) strong or mighty.’ Consider this excerpt from the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament:
All meanings of the word group [ʾmṣ] result from the primary meaning “to be strong, mighty.” … In addition to the verb … [are] the adjective ʾammîṣ “strong” and the substantives ʾōmeṣ, ʾamṣâ … “strength,” and maʾamāṣ “exertion”.3
BDB: be stout, strong, bold, alert.4
HALOT: be strong, to strengthen, let grow strong, make firm (only this verse), prove to be strong. (Citing all bolded definitions given for ʾmṣ.)
The prophet ‘Amos’ (ʾāmôṣ) has his name based on this root (so his name means ‘strength’ or perhaps ‘strong one’), as did other Israelites (ʾamaṣyâ(hû)). Not once does the TLOT list the meaning of ‘firmness’ for this word. It is true that they join the crowd of partially misunderstanding this verse, and thus they gloss its meaning as: “God’s establishment of the clouds.” And yet nowhere else does that article speak of ‘establishing’ as a meaning for this root. Instead, it is always the sense of ‘strength’ or of ‘strengthening’ that shines through. Meanwhile, HALOT only lists firmness as a meaning in a single instance, that being this very verse, which they gloss as: ‘to make firm (clouds).’ The singular rarity of this rendering is reason enough to seriously question the interpretive renderings ‘make firm’ and ‘to establish.’
It is true that this verb is sometimes translated with the phrase ‘to harden (one’s) heart,’ although it should be recognized that: 1) the famous usages of this phrase (such as with the Pharaoh of the Exodus) employ a different Hebrew verb (ḥzk). 2) This ‘harden’ language is an English metaphor, and although that is perfectly fine, the literal meaning is still ‘to strengthen / make strong the will.’ In fact, most translations do not even use the ‘harden the heart’ language for this verb. For instance, consider the first occurrence of this verb in the piel, from Deut 2:30. This is in reference to Sihon, king of Heshbon, who would not listen to the entreaties of Moses to let Israel pass through his land, but who, on the contrary, boldly gathered his people to war against them:
- “(God) made his heart obstinate” (NASB, NIV, KJV, ESV)
- “(God) made his heart defiant” (NRSV)
But again, the literal translation is simply: ‘(God) strengthened his heart.’ Other than the heart, the piel form of ʾmṣ can also be used to speak of ‘strengthening one’s arms’ (which obviously does not mean “harden one’s arms”) such as occurs with the meritorious woman in Proverbs 31:
חָגְרָה בְעוֹז מָתְנֶיהָ וַתְּאַמֵּץ זְרֹעוֹתֶיהָ
She girds her loins with strength, and she makes strong her arms.
In the qal, this verb is used over and over in the phrase: ‘be strong and courageous‘ (חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ, e.g. Josh 1:6). The versions typically translate ʾmṣ as ‘courage’ or as ‘courageous’ in these cases, in part to differentiate it from the previous synonymous verb, but it could just as well be translated: ‘be strong and mighty‘ (or: ‘be mighty and strong.’).
Notably, this same verb can also be applied to the heart in positive contexts as well, with the couple cases we have of this being in the hiphil form. And as we would expect, since the sense in these cases is a positive one, the translations of course do not render them ‘to harden the heart,’ but rather give a positive sounding translation:
Psalm 27:14 קַוֵּה אֶל־יְהוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל־יְהוָה
ESV: Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage (NASB, NRSV; NIV: take heart; LXX: κραταιούσθω ἡ καρδία σου); wait for the LORD!
Psalm 31:24 חִזְקוּ וְיַאֲמֵץ לְבַבְכֶם כָּל־הַמְיַחֲלִים לַיהוָה
NIV: Be strong and take heart (ESV, NRSV, NASB: let your heart take courage) all you who hope in the LORD.
Looking at the usages of this verb more broadly, it occurs 41 X, while the TLOT counts 50 X for the word group as a whole (namely with the other noun forms). The following examples give a good sense for how it is typically used. We will limit these occurrences to the piel form, which is what we have in Proverbs 8:28:
- Deut 3:28 (ESV) But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people…
- 2 Chr 11:17 (ESV) They strengthened the kingdom of Judah, and for three years they made Rehoboam the son of Solomon secure (also NRSV; KJV: ‘made strong’, NIV: ‘supported’)
- Job 4:4 (NIV) Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees.
- Job 16:5 (ESV) I could strengthen you with my mouth, and the solace of my lips would assuage your pain.
- Ps 80:15 (NASB) Even the shoot which Your right hand has planted, And on the son whom You have strengthened for Yourself. (KJV: “and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself“; of which the NET gives the dynamic equivalent: the shoot you made to grow“)
ʾmṣ in 2 Chronicles 24:13
We must consider one last use of this verb, particularly as almost every commentator of this passage mentions this reference. In fact, typically they mention this reference alone, which is 2 Chronicles 24:13.
So those who performed the work labored, and the healing (ʾărûkâ, often rendered: ‘restoration’) went up for the work in their hand (וַתַּעַל אֲרוּכָה לַמְּלָאכָה בְּיָדָם), and they made the house of God to stand according to its appropriate design (or measurements: עַל־מַתְכֻּנְתּוֹ) and they strengthened it (ʾmṣ – וַיְאַמְּצֻהוּ).
וַיַּעֲשׂוּ עֹשֵׂי הַמְּלָאכָה וַתַּעַל אֲרוּכָה לַמְּלָאכָה בְּיָדָם וַיַּעֲמִידוּ אֶת־בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים עַל־מַתְכֻּנְתּוֹ וַיְאַמְּצֻהוּ
This was not the founding of a new building, but a restoration job (albeit a big one), as we see in 24:4: It was on the heart of Yoash to renew / restore (ḥdš) the house of Yahweh. This was described as a ‘strengthening’ (ḥzq) of the building in 24:5 (לְחַזֵּק אֶת־בֵּית אֱלֹהֵיכֶם), as it had not only been left in disrepair and neglect, but had been ‘broken into’ (24:7): פָרְצוּ אֶת־בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים וְגַם כָּל־קָדְשֵׁי בֵית־יְהוָה עָשׂוּ לַבְּעָלִים. This seems to refer to the fact that breaches were made in some of the walls, and to the robbing (as the text directly states) of the sacred items of God’s house. As to this damage, the parallel account in 2 Kings also mentions its ‘strengthening’ (again ḥzq) of the ‘breaches'(?) (or ‘mends / repairs’? a hapleg.) of the house.
Most interesting is that our verse (24:13) speaks of this work as a healing (ʾărûkâ – אֲרוּכָה) that ‘went up’ for the building. This is in fact an idiom, that a ‘healing goes up‘:
Is there no balm in Gilead? Or is there no physician there? Why then has the healing of the daughter of my people not gone up? (כִּי מַדּוּעַ לֹא עָלְתָה אֲרֻכַת בַּת־עַמִּי) – Jeremiah 8:22
See the two other occurences of this word ‘healing’ in Jeremiah (30:17, 33:6) and the one in Isaiah (Is. 58:8), where the word ‘go up’ is always used in conjunction with it (‘sprout up’ in Isaiah). For its meaning, HALOT cites ‘new flesh growing on a healing wound’ (Hempel) and ‘new skin on a wound’ (Arabic). The fact that our passage not only employs this noun ʾărûkâ, but also employs the idiomatic usage common to it, where a healing ‘goes up’ (probably originally denoting the sense of the skin ‘growing up or over’ a wound, as we just saw), is remarkable. So the text paints this restoration work as a work of healing.
It’s curious to me why this 2 Chronicles passage is the one passage most interpreters felt the need to mention. Why is that? I think it is because this is one of the few cases where this verb modifies a cold and hard physical object — a stone building! And yet most of the time the ‘strengthening’ referred to is more of a, I suppose you could say, ‘abstract’ notion. The heart is ‘strengthened’ … towards courage or towards obstinancy; one’s arms are ‘strengthened’ … to do good and bountiful deeds (as with the Proverbs 31 woman of valor), and so forth. The latter point was not that this industrious woman has well chiseled biceps! Rather, the works she does with her arms and hands speak of ‘strength’. And this really does result, in a real sense, in ‘strength,’ as for instance, her children do not go cold because of all the fine clothes she busily spins for them. Often too, strength refers to physical energy or vigor, or to one’s health or conversely one’s sickness:
I will seek that which is lost, and I will return those lead astray. And I will bind up the injured, and the sick will I stengthen (ḥzq).5
אֶת־הָאֹבֶדֶת אֲבַקֵּשׁ וְאֶת־הַנִּדַּחַת אָשִׁיב וְלַנִּשְׁבֶּרֶת אֶחֱבֹשׁ וְאֶת־הַחוֹלָה אֲחַזֵּק
Thus we see that a sick person (חוֹלָה) can be ‘strengthened’ in the sense that they are brought up to health and wholeness. Since this very verse explicitly employs ‘healing’ language, it brings the possibility that the strengthening mentioned in the same verse carries connotations of restoring a ‘sick’ entity onto ‘health.’ I don’t mean to read all of this “‘strengthening’ of the house” language through that lens; many senses can be conveyed by such language. But it is notable that even when this ‘strengthen’ terminology is applied to a building, that the intended sense even then not necessarily so concrete and wooden in nature as we often assume. Furthermore, the ‘strengthening’ of the house of God through this work undoubtedly refers not just to the strengthening of broken walls and so forth (though that was a major part of the equation), but to the restoration of the sacred gold and silver furniture and utensils (which the worthless sons of Athaliah had stolen or at least defiled) along with the sacred service itself. In fact, these are the two main issues that were enumerated at 24:7, that they had ‘broken into the house of God,’ and that ‘they also had rendered (taken) all the holy things of the house of Yahweh unto the Baalim.’
Given this overview of ʾmṣ, we have to ask: Why is it that almost all interpreters have shied away from a straightforward rendering of this verb: ‘when he strengthened the clouds above’? I think it is clearly because such a statement didn’t make a lot of sense to them. And thus, many opted for the notion that this ‘strengthening’ must refer to a ‘making strong’ of a solid firmament (or even to the clouds as hard sacks, as with Lange above). Or for the many that use ‘establishing’ language, consider how the BDB deals with this: “make firm, strengthen, … of giving clouds their place.” To give its place? As if the Hebrews thought of clouds as static, non-moving entities? This just does not sound right, and more importantly, none of these suggestions fit well with how this verb is used elsewhere. So what did the text mean by God’s having ‘strengthened the clouds above’? It is so simple, and the context makes it abundantly evident, but we will have to save this answer for just another minute, while we analyze the other two key words of this passage.
Does šĕḥāqîm mean’clouds’ or ‘sky’?
For the precise meaning of the word šĕḥāqîm, and whether it’s core meaning is clouds or sky (or something else), see this (currently unfinished) article which will be devoted entirely to this word. In short, according to virtually all of the lexicons, the first or primary meaning given for šĕḥāqîm is clouds (or as is often said, dust-clouds), but in a number of cases they also recognize that šĕḥāqîm might simply mean sky. Personally, I find it unsatisfying to have a word supposedly jump meanings like this, particularly when it is used within the same book or by the same author. My suspicion is that even when šĕḥāqîm did not simply mean ‘clouds’ — that is, where it seems to carry some sense of the full sky — that even then clouds were still part of the picture, like in: ‘cloud-strewn skies,’ or ‘cloudy-skies.’ But more study needs to be done on this. Suffice it to say for now that one can be justified in translating šĕḥāqîm as clouds or as sky, and that the overall context carries a heightened importance for determining what the intended sense was.
Note that the absolute form of this noun is the singular šāḥāq, but since all but one chapter employs this noun in the plural form (excepting where this noun simply means dust), it seems right that we use the plural form as well.
‘When the springs of the deep were fixed securely‘? Analysis of the verb ʿzz
When he … fixed securely the springs of the deep. (NIV)
בַּעֲזוֹז עִינוֹת תְּהוֹם
No one would deny that there is an important parallelism between clauses a and b in Proverbs 8:28, and that the verbs in both clauses are synonymous. So even though we are chiefly interested in gaining a correct understanding of clause a, clause b and its verb clearly has much bearing on the package as a whole. The verb that modifies the springs of the deep in the second half of this verse — ʿzz (pronounce: ʿazaz) — was rendered by many interpreters as either ‘establish,’ or as something similar to that (NIV: fixed securely, Message: installed). It is hard to know what each of these interpreters had in mind with such renderings, but it seems clear that many of them were uncomfortable with giving a straightforward and literal rendering of the Hebrew. This was not true of all of the versions though, consider the OJB:
… when he strengthened the fountains of the tĕhôm. (OJB)
No Hebrew scholar would disagree that this is the most literal and straightforward rendering of ʿzz, even though they clearly felt the need to give their own interpretive renderings instead. Some did this while admitting, such as the ESV does, that the meaning was uncertain to them: “the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.”6 Or consider again Reyburn and Fry:
When he established the fountains of the deep: Established, as the RSV footnote shows, is uncertain in its meaning. Some interpreters change the word slightly to get a rendering like that of RSV. Others take it to mean to restrain or control.7
The TWOT also admits the same (said with regard to clause b):
The exact meaning of this verse is difficult.8
Since so much of this problem hangs upon the meaning of the verb (as was true in clause a as well), let us take a closer look at this root word. ʿzz (ʿazaz) is an exceedingly common root in the Bible and in other Semitic languages, and it simply means “to be strong, powerful” (TLOT, sc.). This root does not occur often in the verbal form (11 verses altogether), while it occurs very frequently in its adjectival (ʿaz) and noun forms (ʿôz, ʿezûz, meaning strength, power). Many Israelite names were formed with this root (ʿazazyāhû, ʿuzzîyâ(hû), ʿuzzîʾēl, ʿazîzâ), such as Uziah, meaning the might / power / strength of Yahweh.
Here are a few usages of this root (these could be multiplied at length):
- Exod 15:2: The LORD is my strength and my song…
- Ps 68:33(4): To him who rides in the (heavens) … he speaks forth with his voice, a mighty voice (קוֹל עֹז).
- 2Sam 6:14: And David was dancing with all his might (בְּכָל־עֹז) before Yahweh.
Out of the eleven verbal occurrences, they often speak of one being powerful over against (עזז על, i.e. prevailing over or overpowering) an enemy. This was often worded in terms of the strength of one’s hand. But its use was not restricted to this construction:
- Judg 3:10: And his (Othniel’s) hand was strong / prevailed against Cushan-rishataim.
- Judg 6:2: And the hand of Midian was strong / prevailed against Israel — וַתָּעָז יַד־מִדְיָן עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵל.
- Prov 7:13: She (the adulteress) took strong (hold) of him (-> seized / grabbed him) and she kissed him. She made her face strong (ESV: bold, NRSV: impudient) and said to him…
- Eccl 7:19: Wisdom gives strength to (תָּעֹז לֶ) a wise man more than ten rulers that are in the city.
There is no need to belabor our general discussion on this word. Suffice it to say that ʿzz means strength or might, or to be strong or mighty. But as for the renderings that so many translators have given for this verb here in Proverbs 8:28, such as to establish, to fix securely, and other similar senses, notably I did not find a single other instance in which this root was rendered that way. This is certainly true with the 11 other verbal occurrences of this root, but even for its many noun or adjectival occurrences, the same seems to be true. Since there are so many occurrences of this root, I limited this search more to an analysis of the lexicons, particularly HALOT, BDB, TWOT, TLOT and NIDOTTE.
So it looks like there may not be much (if any) precedent for rendering this word as ‘to establish,’ much less as ‘to fix securely’ (and so forth), as so many interpreters and versions have done here. To be clear, I am not saying their interpretive rendering are disqualified as such, for if something is strengthened, that could be a way of saying that the same thing is ‘established.’ But it is important to realize that such interpretive renderings can entirely miss the sense. For instance, when God speaks with a mighty voice of thunder and power, as we just saw in Psalm 68:33(4) above, we would all agree that it would be entirely incorrect to translate this as ‘a fixed’ or ‘established voice’ (much less an ‘installed’ voice). Interpretive renderings are a fact of life, but they can be wrong, and particularly so when a proposed meaning has little other precedent in the other scriptural occurrences of a word. The fact that the same thing appears to have been done in the first clause with ʾmṣ casts a shadow on this proposed interpretive rendering.
Why then did so many interpreters avoid offering a straight-forward, literal rendering of the Hebrew, such as the OJB offered? I suggest that they probably tripped over what it means for a water source to be ‘strong.’ ‘How can water, a liquid, be strong?’ they might have asked. Perhaps they were thinking too concretely. Since this didn’t make sense to them (I hypothesize), they seem to have gravitated towards thinking of the spring’s (strong) rock walls, or of the ocean’s (strong) boundaries, and so forth. Relatedly, some interpreters have taken this ‘strengthening’ of the springs of the deep to refer to their having been restrained at this time, as TWOT suggests with regard to this passage:
God demonstrated his strength at creation when he made firm (established) the fountains of the deep in the sense that he restrained them.9
While I understand what the commentator was thinking of, it’s important to remember that: 1) while the deep can be a source of destruction, it can also be a source of life. Thus the tĕhôm carries some very positive connotations (life-giving and blessings oriented connotations) in the blessings of Israel and Moses towards Joseph (Genesis 49:25 and Deuteronomy 33:13). 2) It is true that the very next verse (Prov 8:29) refers to God when he set up boundaries for the sea, but in the next section we will see how that actually forms part of the progression of this passage. So the event described in this verse forms a prior event to when these boundaries were set. And in any case, working mightily against this ‘restraint’ reading is that while there are of course many such passages that speak of God as having mightily set up a boundary for the sea (e.g. Job 38:11), the thing that is glorified and exalted as strong in those cases is God’s right arm, not the water sources that were just restrained! If anything, such talk would make those water sources weakened and humbled, not strengthened, which is what this passage actually says. That the springs of the deep were, to the contrary, strengthened, would seem to put them in the positive light we just spoke of.
Another interpretation where the springs are interpreted as being restrained (‘fixed fast to prevent them from breaking through…’) is endorsed by Robin Wakely:
Once, the vb. (in the pi.) is used with the meaning establish. Personified wisdom declares that she was present when Yahweh “fixed securely the fountains of the deep” (NIV), “fixed fast the springs of the deep” (JB), “set the springs of ocean firm in their place” (NEB), “contained” (McKane, 223), or “confined the springs of the deep” (REB)…. Both the upper and the lower oceans had to be contained. The clouds dammed the upper ocean, (8:28a) and the springs of the nether deep were fixed fast to prevent them from breaking through the disc of the earth (v. 28b; McKane, 355).10
At least Wakely (and / or McKane) interpreted šĕḥāqîm here as clouds, but then you come to the unlikely interpretation that ‘strengthening’ those clouds meant that they were dammed up (‘the clouds dammed the upper ocean’). Just as counter-intuitive is the notion that strengthening water-sources means damming them up or restricting them. You would have to assume the focus was on the rock cavities or on the ocean barriers, that these were what were ‘strengthened,’ not the actual water outlets themselves.
Conclusion on the Springs of the Deep, and on 8:28 as a Whole
I contend that precisely the opposite point was being made in this verse, and that the most natural sense of the text is indeed what was being communicated. Namely, that these springs of the deep really were strengthened, not restrained or weakened. They were strengthened, that is, with the very thing that makes up a spring in the first place: an abundance of water! A weak spring would be a spring (or reservoir) that is drying up, whereas a strong spring or water source is one which is abounding in, if not even gushing forth with, water. We will see in a bit how the context clearly shows this is what Wisdom was describing, but first let us wrap up the following points related ʿzz and to clause b in particular:
Water itself can be described as ‘mighty waters’ — mayim ʿazzîm / מַיִם עַזִּים. This description was used in reference to the parted waters of the Red Sea which God used to destroy Pharaoh’s army (Isaiah 43:16, Nehemiah 9:11). In addition to waters, a wind can also be described as mighty or as powerful, using this same root: רוּחַ קָדִים עַזָּה (Exod 14:21).
We have been focusing on the many translations and interpreters who went the ‘established’ or ‘fixed securely’ route, but there have nonetheless been a fair number of interpreters who understood clause b of this verse similar to the way I am advocating. Namely, where the focal point of the strengthening of these springs rests on the strengthening of the water source itself:
- Lange: “… when the fountains of the deep raged loudly.”11
- LXX: “… when he made steadfast / unfailing (ἀσφαλεῖς) the springs under heaven.” ἀσφαλής might indicate a few different senses here, some which would support either side of this argument, but it is possible it meant unfailing and trusty (both senses go to the core meaning of this word), meaning these springs of the deep do not run out or dry up, like Yellowstone’s old-faithful, if you will.
- NJB: “… when the sources of the deep began to swell.” Clearly, NJB interpreted the statement that the springs were ‘strengthened’ as a strengthening of the flow of water itself. The strengthening of the springs caused them to swell with an abundance of water.
Lange had the following important note to say on this clause:
When the fountains of the deep (see ver. 24 above) raged violently. This is the interpretation to be given, with UMBREIT, WINER, HITZIG, etc.; for the verb here unquestionably has the intransitive meaning, invalescere, vehementer agitari (comp. in Isa. 43:16 the “mighty waters”). The transitive signification, “when He made firm, i.e. restrained, bound up” … is inadmissible from the absence of the suffix with the infinitive. (Lange, 2008 (orig. 1870), pp. 99–100).
Significantly, Lange arrays a number of interpreters of his time (Umbreit, Winer, Hitzig) who had also advocated this view. But as far as his ‘intransitive’ argument goes, that must be discarded. For if God made the springs strong (a transitive action), ultimately that means the springs became strong. Mutatis mutandis. Furthermore, the force of the text and the overall emphasis of the passage (see on this below) strongly argues against some notion that these springs of the deep ‘just happened’ to grow strong ‘all on their own.’ No, the entire purpose of this short creation account is to reveal Wisdom’s active presence alongside God when he was establishing the primal elements of the cosmos, where the emphasis is through and through upon God’s and / or Wisdom’s active deeds. Note also that Lange’s argument with regard to the lack of the suffix on the infinitive depended on the significance of this (faulty) transitive / intransitive argument. Even so, most importantly, Lange cited v. 24 at the beginning, which is a critical key, so even if his later arguments had flaws, he was still on the right track in this regard.
It’s a shame that Lange failed to interpret the first clause in this same sense. Namely, if the strengthening of the springs of the deep refers to their having been strengthened with an abundance of water, so too the strengthening of the clouds in the first clause most likely means that they were filled with an abundance of water as well. Waters above, and waters below, graciously provided by God at the earth’s inception. That, I believe, is the real meaning of Proverbs 8:28:
When he strengthened the clouds above (with life-giving waters), when the springs of the tĕhôm grew strong.
The Wider Context: Proverbs 8:22-31
Up to now we’ve been analyzing this passage more or less with a microscope trained upon a few key terms. This needed to be done, but it would be helpful at this point to look at the broader context, which is a brief creation account given by Wisdom (8:22-31):
22 Yahweh acquired me at the beginning of his way, before his ancient deeds. 23 From eternity I was appointed, from the beginning, from (before) the olden times of the earth. 24 When there were no tĕhômôt (depths / oceans) I was given birth, when there were no springs heavy with water. 25 Before the mountains were sunk in place, before the hills I was given birth. 26 Before he made the earth or its open fields, and the first dust of the world. 27 When he ordered (/prepared) the heavens, there I was! When he marked out a circle on the face of the deep. 28 When he strengthened the clouds above, when the springs of the deep grew strong. 29 When he made a decree for the sea, that (its) waters shall not transgress his command. When he declared (/marked out) the foundations of the earth. 30 Then I was beside him as a master craftsman. I was daily filled with delight, rejoicing before him at all times. 31 Rejoicing in the world, his earth. And my delights were with the sons of man.
In this beautiful passage, Wisdom emphasizes the fact that she existed before the creation of the world, and that she was there alongside God when he was creating it. With this emphasis, it is understandable why the events enumerated concerned the large-scale cosmic elements: earth, sky, and seas. That is, all the major elements that might have preexisted her. In every case, she was prior to them.
Verse 24 begins the enumeration of such elements, the first of these being the tĕhômôt, which can variously mean watery depths, oceans, underground-waters, and so forth. This verse is extremely important for how we are to interpret verse 28, because it too mentions the springs of the tĕhôm(ôt) (plural in v. 24, singular in v. 28):
|When there were no tĕhômôt I was given birth, when there were no springs heavy with water.||When he strengthened the clouds above, when the springs of the tĕhôm grew strong.|
|בְּאֵין־תְּהֹמוֹת חוֹלָלְתִּי בְּאֵין מַעְיָנוֹת נִכְבַּדֵּי־מָיִם||בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל בַּעֲזוֹז עִינוֹת תְּהוֹם|
Do we even need to comment on this? Simply pointing to this verse should settle what Proverbs 8:28b meant. For only a few verses before v. 28, the text speaks of the time prior to when the springs of the deep had any water — when they were not yet ‘heavy with water.’ Note that vv. 24-26 are all ‘before there were any’ examples, while in vv. 27ff., we begin to be made privy to the first creation events (with Wisdom declaring at that point: there I was!). The first thing spoken of as being made is the heavens, which is followed by a marking out of a circle on the face of the deep.
Then comes our verse, v. 28. No longer are the springs of the tĕhôm(ôt) empty and devoid of waters, as it was in v. 24. Now they have become strong. In context of v. 24, this must mean strong with an abundance of waters. With regard to the šĕḥāqîm then, the parallelism of the two clauses (above || below, clouds || springs, strengthen || strengthen) gives us every reason to interpret their strengthening as referring to waters as well. Which is to say, at this time, God ‘strengthened’ the clouds above with the very thing clouds are useful for … life-giving rains.
If there was any doubt left about this interpretation, Proverbs 3:20 should settle the matter. There we find, just like in 8:28, a parallel comparison between the šĕḥāqîm and the tĕhôm. The order in which they are compared is reversed, with the tĕhôm now being mentioned first, which should tell us that the order in 8:28 wasn’t of crucial significance. Most importantly, what is explicitly highlighted now in 3:20 is that (by Wisdom and by God’s knowledge) Yahweh made these two sources to give forth water!
18 She (Wisdom) is a tree of life to those who take hold of her. Those who hold her tightly are enriched.
19 Yahweh, by Wisdom, founded the earth. By understanding He ordered (/prepared) the heavens.
20 By his knowledge the tĕhômôt burst forth (with water), and the clouds drip dew.
בְּדַעְתּוֹ תְּהוֹמוֹת נִבְקָעוּ וּשְׁחָקִים יִרְעֲפוּ־טָל (v. 20)
Notice how vv. 19 and 20 parallel 8:27-28. First one verse talks of God as having ‘ordered’ or ‘prepared’ the heavens,12 and then the next verse talks about the šĕḥāqîm (clouds) and the tĕhôm(ôt):
|By his knowledge the tĕhômôt burst forth, and the clouds drip dew.13||When he strengthened the clouds above, when the springs of the tĕhôm grew strong.|
|בְּדַעְתּוֹ תְּהוֹמוֹת נִבְקָעוּ וּשְׁחָקִים יִרְעֲפוּ־טָל||בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל בַּעֲזוֹז עִינוֹת תְּהוֹם|
That the clouds drip forth dew obviously refers to a life-giving and crop blessing source of water, not to a destructive one. But for the deeps (the tĕhômôt), one could argue, from the wording alone, that these were destructive waters. The coming of Noah’s flood, after all, came when the springs of the great deep were, likewise, ‘burst open’ (נִבְקָעוּ). But I think the context argues against this. First of all, the bursting forth of water (bqʿ, pronounce baqAH) is more often than not a positive statement:
Then the blind man shall leap like the deer, and the tongue of the mute shall sing for joy. For in the wilderness water shall burst forth (נִבְקְעוּ בַמִּדְבָּר מַיִם – bqʿ), as well as streams (nĕḥālîm) in the desert (/Arabah). 16 The burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty land shall become bubbling springs.
כִּי־נִבְקְעוּ בַמִּדְבָּר מַיִם וּנְחָלִים בָּעֲרָבָה
Ps. 74:15-16 – You opened up (/ you split open) springs and streams (naḥal), (while) you dried up ever-flowing rivers.
אַתָּה בָקַעְתָּ מַעְיָן וָנָחַל אַתָּה הוֹבַשְׁתָּ נַהֲרוֹת אֵיתָן
There are arguably more positive instances like this than there are negative ones, that is when abundances of water are mentioned (coming from either above or below).
It should be remembered that one of the major threats these peoples lived under was drought, which is particularly true of the land of Israel, as opposed to the great river nations (Egypt, Mesopotamia). So it should be no surprise that waters from above and below are typically mentioned in nothing other than blessing, while a curse would be that these provisional sources of life be withheld or restrained:
From the God of your father, and he will help you, and from the Almighty, who shall bless you, with blessings of the heavens above, with blessings of the deep that lies below. Blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
— Genesis 49:25 (Jacob’s blessing of Joseph)
And may God give you of the dew of heaven (מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם) and of the fatness of the earth, and an abundance of grain and wine.
— Genesis 27:28 (Isaac’s blessing of Jacob)
As we will see in an accompanying article, when the ‘treasuries’ or ‘storehouses’ of heaven are opened up, this almost always spoke of provision and blessing. The great threat was when these water sources were closed off. That meant famine, and ultimately deprivation if not death. So if we were more in tune with this Old Testament (if not simply agriculturally aware) understanding, we might have reached this correct understanding of Proverbs 8:28 on the very first read. Where it speaks of God as having strengthened the clouds above, and the springs of the deep below … with life giving waters.
When the poor and needy seek for water, and there is none, and their tongue is dried up in thirst … I, Yahweh, shall answer them; the God of Israel, I shall not abandon them. 18 I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and springs in the midst of valleys. I will make the desert a pool of water, and parched ground fountains of water. 19 I will plant14 in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle and the olive trees. I shall plant the cypress in the desert (Arabah), the elm and the pine together. 20 That they may see and know, that they may place it to heart and perceive together, that the hand of Yahweh has done this, and that the Holy One of Israel has created it.
— Isaiah 41:17-20
John Peter Lange et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Proverbs (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 95, 99. ↩
William David Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry, A Handbook on Proverbs (UBS Handbook Series; New York: United Bible Societies, 2000), 193. ↩
A. S. van der Woude, ‘ʾmṣ,’ Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (eds. Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 158. ↩
Sc. The primary definition given for ʾmṣ. ↩
The word for ‘strengthen’ here is not the same as Proverbs 8:28’s (ḥzq instead of ʾmṣ), but it hardly matters. ↩
This note was given on clause b. Though perhaps the ESV was referring to the form of the verb, an infinitive lacking a pronominal suffix, which some have conjectured should be ammended to בְּעַזְּזוֹ (a form with the pronominal suffix and in the piel; see e.g. HALOT, sc.). In any case, it doesn’t seem to affect the sense much, one way or another. ↩
Reyburn and Fry, Proverbs, 193. ↩
“מעין,” TWOT. ↩
TWOT, sc. ↩
Robin Wakely, “עָזַז,” NIDOTTE, 368, citing W. McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach, OTL, 1970. ↩
Lange, pp. 99–100 ↩
We will talk about this verb (הָכִין, the Hiphil or Polel form of kwn), which frequently modifies the heavens, in a separate and forthcoming article. ↩
The fact that the springs were not explicitly mentioned here is of little significance. They were mentioned in the other two instances in combination with the tĕhôm(ôt) (8:24, 8:28); we should assume their existence is implicit here. ↩
Literally ‘set,’ here and in v. 20. This is a very common Semiticism that sounds wooden and unnatural in Western languages like English. The same thing occurs in Genesis 1:17, where God ‘set’ the sun, moon, and stars in the heavens, but where there is no reason to take that in some static and rigid sense. Just as the ‘set’ in this case means something like ‘plant’ or ’cause to grow.’ ↩