Can you explain the meaning of “worthless” in Psalms 119:37 and Psalms 101:3?


In Psalms 119:37 the word "worthless" is used in the NKJV and the word "vanity" is used in the NASB. Also in Psalms 101:3, the NASB uses the word "worthless" and the NKJV uses "wicked." Which is correct? Sometimes it seems wicked men are called worthless men, but could worthless mean something other than wicked in these cases? What is the meaning of Psalms 119:37? If vanity is a correct translation, could it be referring to things other than wickedness?  Do you know the Hebrew words being used?


"Incline my heart to Your testimonies, and not to covetousness. Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way" (Psalms 119:36-37).

"Worthless" or "vanity" in Psalms 119:37 is translating the Hebrew word shawe. It can be translated as "vain," as in "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain" (Exodus 20:7). Or "false," as in "You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness" (Exodus 23:1). Or, "worthless" or "futile," as in "Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies - I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting" (Isaiah 1:13).

Actually, in English "vain" and "worthless" are similar in meaning. But this word in Hebrew carries the shade of meaning beyond just "worthless." It is things that are worthless because they deceive people into thinking it has meaning when it doesn't.

The Hebrew word shawe is derived from shaw, which means lies, deceit, or vanity.

"Shawe refers often to what was without result or something unstable, including delusional or false dreams by false prophets (Ezekiel 13:6-9, 23; 21:29) or false visions (Ezekiel 12:24). The word describes that which was troublesome, harmful, disastrous, or mischievous (Isaiah 30:28), as were Job's months of futility and trouble during his sickness (Job 7:3).

"The noun is used in a variety of other ways, which demonstrates its semantic flexibility; for example, Gilead and its people were called worthless; the pleas of the wicked were useless and vain, and the LORD would not hearken to them (Job 35:13). In Malachi's day, some Jews had foolishly concluded that it was "useless" to serve God (Malachi 3:14)." [The Complete Biblical Library].

If we take Psalms 119:36-37 together, we see that the vain or worthless things are things that someone might covet. As Solomon said, "Do not overwork to be rich; because of your own understanding, cease! Will you set your eyes on that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away like an eagle toward heaven" (Proverbs 23:4-5).

"I will behave wisely in a perfect way. Oh, when will You come to me? I will walk within my house with a perfect heart. I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; It shall not cling to me. A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will not know wickedness" (Psalms 110:2-4).

Here the word "wicked" is translating the Hebrew word beliya'al. It is the same word that was the name of one of the false gods in Canaan, Belial. The word literally means "worthless." It "denotes those who are useless or good-for-nothing. Specifically, it refers to those who deliberately deprive others of justice or good, through false testimony, defamation, oppression, etc." [The Complete Biblical Library].

The phrase "sons of Belial" referred to anyone who was particularly wicked, such as the men in Gibeah. "As they were enjoying themselves, suddenly certain men of the city, perverted men, surrounded the house and beat on the door. They spoke to the master of the house, the old man, saying, "Bring out the man who came to your house, that we may know him carnally!"" (Judges 19:22). "Perverted men" is literally "sons of Belial." Eli's sons were of this sort as well. "Now the sons of Eli were corrupt; they did not know the LORD" (I Samuel 2:12). "Corrupt" is literally "sons of Belial."

While "worthless" is a literal translation, it doesn't hold a strong enough meaning for English speakers. It refers to things that are corrupt or evil and, therefore, hold no true value for people. The commentator Adam Clarke, said that "I will set nothing wicked before my eyes" means, "What is good for nothing or evil in its operation, what is wicked in its principle, and what would lead me away from righteousness and truth, I will never set before my eyes."

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