I have been teaching through some of the Wisdom Psalms in my Summer Bible Study series at church. Psalm 36:1 presents several unusual challenges for a teacher since translations vary greatly:
NIV: I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked
ESV: Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart
LXX: The lawless one, to sin, says in himself that there is no fear of God before his eyes
The vast differences in the translation of verse 1 are due to the difficulty of the Hebrew text and the way the Greek translation interpreted the verse. Both the NIV and ESV provide a note with an alternate translation. Rolf Jacobson comments the first few words of the verse are “undoubtedly corrupt” (Psalms NICOT; 339 n. 3).
As in most cases, the reason for the difference is the difficulty of the Hebrew text and the way the Septuagint (LXX) coped with the difficulties. It is always possible the translator had a different Hebrew manuscript, but that is not likely the case here. It is also possible the translator did not understand the Hebrew and made an attempt to make sense of what the Hebrew text says. This could be from a lack of Hebrew skills, as most first year Hebrew students will attest, Hebrew poetry can be difficult to translate! But in this case, it seems to me the translator became an interpreter when approaching Psalm 36:1. (To complicate matters, this verse is Psalm 36:2 in the Hebrew Bible and 35:1 in the LXX.)
The first word (נְאֻם) usually refers to an oracle of the Lord, so the first line could be a title analogous to the prophets: “An oracle of transgression concerning the wicked.” The LXX interpreted this as “the transgressor, in order to sin, says to himself” (Φησὶν ὁ παράνομος τοῦ ἁμαρτάνειν ἐν ἑαυτῷ). My overly-literal translation attempts to read the articular infinitive τοῦ ἁμαρτάνειν as the purpose or intent of the verb “he speaks.” This translates the Hebrew לָ֭רָשָׁע, a noun with a prefixed preposition (“to the sinner”).
Since the Hebrew text already has a word for sin (פֶּשַׁע), the LXX translator took the second sin word as an infinitive explaining why the sinner is speaking: “in order to sin, a sinner has to speak within his own heart and convince himself there he has no dread of the Lord.” This is the gist of the Hebrew verse as well as the LXX, although one problem yet remains, the meaning of the first word of the Hebrew text, נְאֻם. Does this mean “speak” as the LXX has, or “an oracle”?
Allen Ross represents a more or less traditional response to this textual difficulty. He translates the first line, “An oracle concerning the transgression of the wicked is within my heart” (Ross, Commentary on the Psalms, 1:779). Kraus, on the other hand, suggests the word oracle (נְאֻם) ought to be read as “pleasing” (נָעִים), resulting in the translation “pleasing is the transgression to the wicked deep in his heart” (Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 396).
Jacobson reads נְאֻם as related to the Arabic naʾama to howl, growl or the Akkadian and translates “Transgression whispers to the wicked one deep in his heart” (Psalms, NICOT, 339). Transgression becomes an evil persona who speaks into the inner person of the wicked and prevents them from recognizing the “dread of the Lord.”
A final difficulty is the Hebrew first person “my heart” (לִבִּ֑י). If the first word is not “an oracle,” then the pronoun needs to be changed to the third person “his heart,” since again based on the reading of the LXX.
In any case, the verse refers to the inner machinations of a sinner who resists the fear of the Lord and lives outside of the Wisdom Lifestyle.