Another Verse I Never Understood
Another verse I never understood, and I’m pretty excited about this one. I can’t exactly blame the King James, because I don’t think the KJV translators did anything wrong. And the ESV and NASB translators did pretty much the same thing. Here’s the verse, Psalm 16:6:
- KJV The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
- NASB The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.
- ESV The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Like I said, none of these are wrong in any way I can figure. But I’ve read it many, many times and never understood it. I asked another long-time Bible reader (a KJV-only youth pastor, as it happens—a gracious man), and he guessed that the verse is talking about lines of genealogy. He was a step ahead of me because, to my shame, I can’t say I ever stopped to ask: what lines? Or lines of what? I think I always assumed that it was just a very obscure way of saying that things were going well for David.
But I was doing some personal Bible reading the other day in BibleWorks—something I don’t normally do—and that meant that when I arrived at Psalm 16:6 I could easily see two other translations that instantly solved the puzzle I didn’t know was there:
- NIV The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.
- CSB The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Boundary lines! Now that makes sense. Why didn’t I think of that before? Largely, I think, because of the KJV word “heritage” at the end of the verse. It’s a fine word, but my sense is that today we rarely use it to mean the inheritance of physical property. Instead we speak of the “heritage” of shared values or traditions in a given culture or family. A heritage is an intangible inheritance.
Like Psalm 119:111—”Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart.” Testimonies aren’t an inheritance; they’re a heritage. I was never able to put falling lines together with goodly heritages. But boundary lines and inheritances—those fit well.
I admit that a few forays into English dictionaries (OED, AHD) failed to confirm absolutely my guess that in 1611 “heritage” was a closer synonym of “inheritance” than it is today, but if that supposition proves accurate we have yet another example of a KJV verse that is inaccessible to modern readers through no fault at all of the KJV translators. Words change their meaning over time, and no one—or no human—can stop them.
The commentaries confirm my reading. It’s really a beautiful line in a rich, beautiful psalm. Verses 5 and 6 are the tiniest bit obscure, but it appears that David—who in this psalm speaks so much about security that he may be writing from exile—views the Lord as his inheritance, even and especially when his own land is out of his grasp. “Lines” refers literally to boundary lines, but the whole verse is a metaphor: God Himself is David’s portion, lot, and heritage. What more beautiful and pleasant property could you get? It’s no wonder that David ends the psalm by saying,
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psa 16:11)