For comparison's sake, Psalm 26:1-3 in Hebrew:
כִּי־אֲנִי בְּתֻמִּי הָלַכְתִּי
וּבַיהוָה בָּטַחְתִּי לֹא־אֶמְעָד׃
בְּחָנֵנִי יְהוָה וְנַסֵּנִי
צְרוֹפָה כִלְיוֹתַי וְלִבִּי׃
כִּי־חַסְדְּךָ לְנֶגֶד עֵינָי
ESV Psalm 26:1-3:
Vindicate me, O Lord,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
test my heart and my mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
and I walk in your faithfulness.
In most respects, ESV preserves RSV on which it is based. RSV is a revision of KJV based on 20th century Hebrew philology, liberal appropriation of the ancient versions, and a felt need to modernize KJV’s language. ESV modernizes RSV in turn, removing “thee” and “thou” language completely. ESV on the other hand reverts to the traditional Hebrew text over against RSV’s adoption of versional readings, not always but in many cases. Finally, ESV corrects toward the diction of the Hebrew where RSV was thought to have unnecessarily departed from it.
Vindicate me. As noted in a previous post, translating שפטני with “judge me” (KJV) doesn’t quite work. The syntagm “judge a person” in today’s English has an inherently negative ring. On the other hand, the translation of שפט by “judge” when the context suggests that a guilty verdict is in mind, and by “vindicate” or “declare innocent” when the context suggests that an innocent verdict is in mind – so RSV/ESV, (T)NIV, and NLT2 – adds insult to injury. The specific sense of the verb is no longer respected, and the semantic coherence across the passages is obscured. NJB’s “be my judge” captures the sense of שפטני better than other widely-used translations, and preserves concordance with other passages with phrases like “O Lord, judge (שפט) the nations.”
The psalmist is not asking God to declare his innocence. He is asking God to be his judge, convinced as he is of his fundamental innocence. He is inviting God to put him through the ringer, to prove his metal, convinced as he is of God’s loyalty and devotion to his person. There is a difference.
Without wavering. RSV/ESV might seem to disrespect the text’s syntax by translating לא אמעד ‘I shall not waver’ with ‘without wavering.’ At first glance, the clause seems to hark back to the earlier “I have walked” as opposed to “I have trusted” immediately preceding. It is the case that “I have walked” leads up, semantically, to “In יהוה I have trusted without wavering,” a rhetorical peak in the flow of the psalm. But, as the asyndeton and a comparison with Ps 21:8 suggest, it is more likely that לא אמעד is adverbial to the preceding. לא אמעד is to בטחתי as לא כחדו is to וחטאתם כסדם הגידו in Isa 3:9 (one of GKC’s examples, §156g). Ps 21:8: “For the king trusts in יהוה, / in the kindness of עליון, without tottering (בל־ימוט).”
Franz Delitzsch, who knew his Bible inside and out, anticipated these conclusions. He notes that the psalmist says that he “trusted unwaveringly (לא אמעד, an adverbial circumstantial clause, cf. 21:8) in Jahve.”
Assuming Delitzsch is correct, the example is telling. A literal translation can mislead. The psalmist is not saying, “I shall not falter,” though the thought is compatible with the context. He is saying, “In יהוה I have unfalteringly trusted.”
Prove me, O Lord, and try me. Try me is a context-sensitive translation of נסני, but still open to criticism. Verb and syntax are those of Gen 22:1. Ideally, the content-specific syntagm would be translated in the same way both there and here. How else is the reader to stand on the common ground the two passages share? God tests (נסה) Avraham; the psalmist, insofar as he is a person who trusts God greatly, invites God to test (נסה) him.
“Try” doesn’t work as a generally suitable translation of נסה. Generally suitable translation equivalents are helpful because they vehiculate semantic coherence across passages.
Test my heart and my mind. Robert Alter sought to bring out the specifics of the Hebrew turn of phrase. He has “Burn pure my conscience and my heart.” It is the first attempt I know of in English to capture Hebrew צרף in today’s English. צרף conjures up images of fire and intense heat burning away impurities. צרף also occurs with the washed-out sense of “separate” (Judg 7:4). But that is unlikely to be the sense here, as a comparison of Ps 26:1-3 with Ps 66:8-12 demonstrates.
RSV/ESV’s test amounts to a metaphor-free, generalizing equivalent of צרף. In my view, a metaphor-for-metaphor translation strategy is preferable. See the next paragraph for a proposal in that sense.
Hebrew “kidneys” poses a challenge to English translators. “Kidneys” is unintelligible in context to all but the most learned of readers. English is poor in internal body parts freightable with metaphorical weight. It’s not surprising that translations swap out the concrete reference and replace it with a supposedly equivalent abstract substitute, based on pseudo-analysis according to which “kidneys” are the seat of the conscience or the will. Said translation strategy yields “conscience,” “motives,” whatever. But if we take our cue from the fact thatחלב כליות חטה “the fat of kidneys of wheat” (Deut 32:14) = “the richness of kernel of wheat,” “core” as a translation presents itself. A metaphor-for-metaphor translation might go like this: “refine with fire my heart and core!” For the sake of intelligibility, I switch the order of “core” and “heart,” forge the pair into a hendiadys, and use a complex phrase, "refine with fire," to represent Hebrew צרף.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes. RSV/ESV “steadfast love” is a wordy but accurate stand-in for חסד, an important term in ancient Hebrew literature. חסד has a depth dimension: “love,” because of the depth of its resonances, captures that to some extent. On the other hand, your steadfast love is before my eyes is somewhat cryptic, whereas the equivalent in the original is limpid. A freer translation may be necessary here, something like: “My eyes are on your kindness: I shall walk relying on your faithfulness.”
And I walk in your faithfulness. In place of KJV “And I have walked in thy truth,” RSV substituted “and I walk in faithfulness to thee.” ESV accepts RSV’s rendering of אמת with “faithfulness” and the tense change from past to present. Both changes are justified. אמת is not a noetic concept. In this context, it references the quality of an interpersonal relationship. With respect to tense, it seems preferable to treat והתהלכתי as a weqatal, an echo of earlier yiqtols in the Psalm, and a follow-up to the preceding verbless clause.
To be sure, the forms in question, yiqtol, a verbless clause, and weqatal, do not necessarily reference the present and/or future from the speaker’s point of reference. But they often do, and seem to here, in contrast to the qatal structure in context,כי־אני בתמי הלכתי ‘for I have walked with integrity.’ The qatal structure references a fact anterior to the speaker’s temporal location in the logic of the text.
ESV modernizes RSV’s language in this locus, and revises it toward the syntax of the Hebrew. No more “walk in faithfulness to thee.” RSV suggests that the psalmist’s faithfulness is in view. That probably has it backwards. ESV’s alternative, “walk in your faithfulness,” is a more credible rendering. In this respect ESV returns to KJV.
The diction “I walk in your faithfulness” is intelligible, but it is not idiomatic English. In contrast, (T)NIV stands out as a completely idiomatic rendering: I “have lived in reliance on your faithfulness.” My preference goes in the direction of “ I walk in reliance on your faithfulness,” identical to (T)NIV in terms of the prepositional phrase, unlike (T)NIV in that the metaphor of walking is preserved, and with respect to tense ((T)NIV apparently overlooked the weqatal).
ESV marks an advance over RSV in this locus. On the other hand, ESV would gain from further revision toward the diction of the Hebrew.
Psalm 26 series
 Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002 ) 5:222.