Their Eyes Swell Out With Fatness: Metaphor and Emotion in Psalm 73

Their eyes swell out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.

Psalm 73:7 (NRSV)

Richard Liantonio, University of Manchester

Gorged-out eyes, fat bulging between eye and socket, a horrifying gaze, an evil scheme. The picture is stark and perhaps shocking, but a reasonable first impression from the line their eyes swell out with fatness. This expression only occurs once in the Bible, prompting debate over its meaning and even proposals to correct the Hebrew text. Some commentators call the expression “absurd,” or “incomprehensible.” Others refer to it as an “ancient” or “archaic” metaphor.  The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer (BCP) translates “Their iniquity comes from gross minds.” This seems to follow the path of changing one consonant in the Hebrew text of “their eyes” (Heb. עֵינֵמוֹ) to “their iniquity” (Heb. עֲוֹנָמוֹ), while interpreting the Hebrew “from fat” (מֵחֵלֶב) metaphorically as a “gross mind.”

My PhD research focuses on the use of metaphor and metonym to express emotion in the Psalms, particularly happiness. Metaphorical language can be notoriously difficult to interpret. Part of the joy of my research is discovering new ways to view texts in light of their ancient linguistic contexts. Psalm 73:7a is often interpreted as a negative metaphor (BCP “gross mind”), as a caricature depicting the disgusting, bulging eyes of an abhorrently evil person. I would like to suggest the possibility that instead of referring to being “gross,” “callous/unfeeling,” “gluttonous,” “lustful,” “proud,” “lazy,” or “unreceptive,” (as other scholars have suggested) this line is a metaphorical figure of speech[1] for the excitement, pleasure, and even happiness of the albeit wicked person. The reasons are as follows:

  • Though at times fat, when occurring with heart (לֵב), has negative connotations related to callousness or lack of feeling (cf. Ps. 17:10; 119:70; Isa. 6:10), we see earlier in Psalm 73:4 בָּרִיא fat, a word semantically related to חֵלֶב (cf. their use together in Judg. 3:17, 22; Ezek. 34:3), where the reference is clearly positive: For they have no pain, their bodies are perfect and fat. The use of fatness to refer to health and well-being is common in the ANE.[2] The larger conceptual domain of fat (דשׁן, חלב, שׁמן, etc.)  is commonly associated with prosperity, abundance (Gen. 45:18; Num 18:12; Deut. 32:14; Psa. 81:17; 147:14), fertility (Num. 13:20; Neh. 9:25, 35), well-being, and happiness (cf. Psa. 23:5; Prov. 15:30; Sir. 26:13, 43:22).
  • While translations like “swell out” (NRSV) and “bulge” (NASB, NKJV, HCSB, CEV) can suggest an abnormal anatomical phenomenon, these are interpretive translations of the Hebrew יָצָא, which simply means to go out. Obviously eyes protruding can seem prima facie abnormal, but not necessarily when contrasted to the opposite – a sunken eye which can indicate (or be a metonym for) unhappiness: my eye becomes weak from grief (Psa. 6:8, also 31:10); my eye melts away (sinks?) from sorrow (Psa. 88:10); my eyes are finished from weeping (Lam. 2:11; cf. Ps. 69:4). In this light, the eye that “goes out” rather than sinks reflects the normal, healthy, and happy condition.
  • Swelling is a common metaphor for happiness in Akkadian and Ugaritic (two ancient languages closely related to Hebrew), though this swelling routinely occurs in the heart or liver/innards, rather than in the eyes. As a representative example from the Ugaritic Baal epic:[3]

Her innards/liver swelled with laughter

Her heart filled with joy

Anat’s innards/liver with victory.

The Hebrew Bible does not seem to contain this particular metaphor, but is replete with broader metaphorical frameworks that happiness is swelling participates in: happiness is expansion/unhappiness is constriction (Psa. 4:2; 18:20; 25:17; 31:9; 66:12)[4] and happiness is an object/fluid in a container (a flexible container will “swell” as it is filled; Psa. 4:8; 16:11; 19:3; 45:2; 119:171; 145:7). 

  • The parallel phrase: their hearts overflow with follies (NRSV) also contains a metaphor for happiness. As noted above, a number of biblical passages depict happiness as a fluid inside the container of the heart, which enthusiastically overflows, often in the form of speech. For example, Psalm 45:2: my heart overflows with a pleasing theme (cf. Psa. 19:3; 119:171; 145:7).

Taken together, it seems less likely that the line in question is a caricature, an intentionally exaggerated and disgusting physical depiction of the wicked. This especially so, considering none of the surrounding verses attempt to do likewise, and the physical descriptions in verse four are overwhelmingly positive (their bodies are perfect!). Rather, in this line, the protruding rather than sunken eyes seem to depict the emotions of a person experiencing happiness and prosperity, similar to phrases describing the shining eyes/face of a person (cf. Num. 6:25; Psa. 34:6; 104:15; Eccl. 8:1; Isa. 60:1). Perhaps this line is automatically taken as negative because it is describing otherwise evil persons. But central to this Psalm is that the wicked are prosperous and well off, while the righteous suffer, creating a crisis of faith for the psalmist. I hope this brief exercise shows the significance of metaphor and emotion in our reading and interpretation of biblical texts.

[1] Technically an instance of metaphtonymy, an interaction between metaphor and metonymy.

[2] cf. Dan 1:15; Gen. 42:2ff.

[3] CAT 1.3 ii 25-27. Cf. also CAD E: 88; CAD : 8-9; 138 for more examples.

[4] Philip D. King, Surrounded by Bitterness: Image Schemas and Metaphors for Conceptualizing Distress in Classical Hebrew (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 140–209.

One thought on “Their Eyes Swell Out With Fatness: Metaphor and Emotion in Psalm 73

  1. Patty

    Fascinating article. Very well written. Very informative. Articles such as this open one’s mind and aid in creating a new perspective. An excellent lesson!!

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