2 Kings 3:16 – A Translation Puzzle

  • Read 2 Kings 3 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

My sermon this week focused on 2 Kings 3:16.  The kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom came to Elisha asking God to provide water for their armies that were fatigued and needing to drink.  Elisha replies that God will answer their request without even using wind or rain.  But v16 is interesting as it can apparently be translated two ways.

I don’t know enough Hebrew to determine the correct translation.    Here are the choices:

  1. “This is what the Lord says: I will fill this valley with pools of water.” (tNIV, CEB, CEV, ESV, NIV, NLT)
  2. “This is what the LORD says: Make this valley full of ditches.” (NIV84, NASB, HCSB, MSG, KJV)

According to some notes I found apparently the Vulgate and Septuagint go with option 2.  I opted for #2 simply because I heard another preacher use this translation, and because my only verse-by-verse commentary also went with “digging ditches”, however it didn’t explain the choice.

This is a good example of how academics and Bible translation directly influence our teaching and even our faith. The two translations present quite different messages.  In option #1 God will do everything and the kings can just sleep soundly and wait for God’s water to arrive in the morning.  In option #2 the kings have to at in faith.  They must mobilize their thirsty armies to dig ditches all over the valley.  If and when they finish this task God will send water for them to drink.

As we apply this verse to our lives, #1 says “Pray, then stand back and trust God to act.”  #2 says, “Pray, listen to God, do all you can to accomplish his purposes, and God will bless your efforts with water only he can provide.”  #1 is passive.  #2 is active.

I believe there are moments in our lives where both messages are true.  When we reach the end of our rope and nowhere to turn but to God, all we can do is stand back and trust him to act.  At other times God answers our prayers by blessing our efforts.  I guess a third application is that when we live our lives (dig ditches) consistent with God’s will he sometimes delivers our needs even when there’s no direct connection between our actions and our needs.

  • Does it make you uncomfortable not knowing what God really says in this verse?
  • Which of the two applications do you think is MORE consistent with God’s character?
  • How do you usually resolve translation issues like this?
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One comment

  1. Anthony

    I discovered the same thing today as you did. Strange, isn’t it? Thanks for your post; I found it via Google. Nice to see I wasn’t the only one scratching my head on this one. I’ve only ever heard this story told with them having to dig the ditches, so I was stunned by the ESV leaving it out. Keep up the Christian blogging…the world needs more of it.
    Thanks and regards,
    Anthony.

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