Translation commentary on Habakkuk 3:5

Some scholars think that here pestilence and plague are personified and spoken of as if they were the LORD’s attendants whose work was to punish his enemies. Diseases were thought of as one of the accompaniments of war (compare 2 Kgs 19.35), and the LORD was often pictured as punishing his enemies with disease (Lev 26.25; Deut 32.24; 2 Sam 24.15-16) or saving his own people from it (Psa 91.3, 6). Such a picture is in keeping with the wider context of verses 3-15. God is still being thought of as directing his actions toward the prophet, and then more widely toward the rest of the world’s inhabitants as they watch him acting in the skies above. Possible translation models in languages which must show the direction of actions are the following: “He sends disease (coming) before him” or “He causes disease to come (down) before him.”

The word translated plague is originally a darting flame and can be used of lightning (Psa 78.48). Fever, the disease which makes people feel hot, was thought to be caused by such flames.

The terms translated pestilence and plague do not refer to any of the specific illnesses known to modern medicine. They are general terms and should be translated by generic words like “disease” or “illness” rather than by specific terms like “malaria” or “typhoid.” Good News Translation renders them as “disease” and “death.” “Death” indicates that the illness is fatal.

Good News Translation has also restructured the sentence to show that God is the agent who is in control of the diseases (“He sends … and commands”). In certain languages it will be helpful to expand this verse slightly and say “He sends disease to go in front of him, and commands death to follow close behind him.”

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. & Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on the Book of Habakkuk. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1989. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

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