Who is the man who desires life and loves length of days that he may see good? Psalm 34:13 (numbered according to the Hebrew text)
Life – Are you a person who desires life and yearns for what is good? Before you answer, you might want to take a careful look at this verse. While even a superficial reading of the text lets us gather the general idea, there is a lot more below the surface. Some patient inquiry is needed in order to see just how different the Hebrew view of life really is.
On the surface the inquiry seems clear enough. This looks like one of life’s basic questions. But we tend to read it as if it said, “What kind of man desires life and loves many days?” In other words, we think that the answer to this question is a description of the attributes of a person who has a passion for living. We look for the characteristics of such a person – a list of adjectives about this person. But the Hebrew word here is mi, not ma. Mi is a question about identification, not characterization. Ma is the question “What?” but mi is the question “Who?” In other words, it is as if I asked you to point to a particular person. “Who is this man?” is not a question about describing him to me. It is a question of identifying him to me.
We also discover that there is no “is” in Hebrew. The text actually reads “Who the man desiring.” In Hebrew it is not as if there is a man and he is being described as one who desires. In Hebrew I am asking you to point to this particular man, the man desiring. I already know his description. He is the desiring man. What I don’t know is his name!
This shift is important because it assumes that I can identify the man without knowing his name simply by his actions. He exhibits purposeful behavior that shouts out his love for life. I see this and I want to know who he is. He is the man determined to seek good for many days. Ah, but that’s not quite all.
The Hebrew word for life is hayyim. Notice that it is plural, not singular. Technically, it should be translated “life(s)” but we don’t have a word for that except “lives” and “lives” is attributed to many individual people, not to plural life(s) of one person. This is particularly odd since the rest of the sentence structure is singular. “Who is the man (singular) desiring (singular verb) life (plural). In other words, Hebrew does not conceive of life as singular. David wants to emphasize the quality of life and so he uses the intensive plural. It is as if he wants us to see that life, real life, needs repeating. Life is plural, just as heaven and Jerusalem are plural. The life man experiences is not confined to one level, one experience, one dimension. There is more going on here than meets the eye. Who is the man desiring life so full, so rich that it is multiplied every moment? This man I must know.
So, let’s ask the question again, as a Hebrew: “Who the man desiring life(s)?” What is the name of the man whose every action points toward life here and life somewhere else at the same time? Tell me who he is so that I might know him. Is he you?
Topical Index: who, mi, life, hayyim, Psalm 34:13