I enjoy translating from the Hebrew Bible, especially when I find a gem that has been missed or mistranslated in our common versions.

Here’s an example:

Psalm 18:49 (verse 50 in the Hebrew)

For this I will extol you, O Lord, among the nations,

And sing praises to your name. (NRSV)

My translation:

Therefore let me praise you among the nations, Lord,

And to your name let me sing.

Let me write it again:

Therefore let me praise you among the nations, Lord,

And to your name let me sing.

Hebrew poetry uses a typical ancient near east poetic style of parallelism that piles up phrases that say nearly the same thing but in different words. This Psalmist is also using a technique called “Chiasm” where the parallelism is reversed:

Praise: Lord:: Your name: sing

When we translate this way, the Lord’s name is surrounded by the Psalmist’s praise. Isn’t that beautiful!

Another anomaly I noticed was when I translated a psalm that was included in the Opening of Parliament ecumenical service in August last year.

I was interested to notice that the first line of Psalm 65 is translated as, “Praise is due to you, O God” (NRSV). This is a departure from the underlying Hebrew text which literally says, “To you silence is praise, God”. Perhaps the translators struggled with that paradox of claiming that silence is the appropriate response to the God of the universe who is beyond what any language can express, and yet goes on in 14 more verses to fill that silence with many words.

Silence may indeed be praise. But like artists and poets everywhere and in all times, people of faith cannot remain silent forever. Jewish and Christian faith has always been a dialogue expressed through words. We bring hymns and praise and prayer and lament to God, and we hear God’s words back through words of scripture and the incarnate Word that stepped into our world in human form. God also speaks to us through nature and through our relationships with each other, of course, but what a wonderful resource for inspiration and challenge the Bible has been and continues to be.

The bible is a diverse collection of literature and more often than we realise it uses poetry and poetic techniques to capture words to and about God and about our relationships with God and with each other. Good poetry and good literature evoke emotion and give us metaphors to talk about feelings as well as joyful or challenging situations we found ourselves in. Have a read of Psalm 65 and notice its wonderful imagery: the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain! Can you hear those parallel ideas? Here are some more: the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves, the tumult of the peoples. But these ancient words are for our time also – the psalm is full of references to the natural world: to rain and soil and growth and bounty. A picture is drawn of a world of humans and nature in harmony, worshiping together. The psalmist doesn’t just speak about the natural world, but affirms that creation itself is capable of a voice. As we move into this new semester let’s do all we can to hear our natural environment roar and shout and sing again with the joy of that psalm.

Just recently I came across a reference to the Jewish philosopher George Steiner in his book Real Presences (1989) where he says we should learn poetry by heart so the words can become present to us when we need them. In another wonderful image he says that poetry will be like a pacemaker which gets the heart going again when its own impulses have failed.

This is what these words of poetic scripture are: a pacemaker to get our hearts going again. Some think in our day that God is beginning to disappear. Each time the census results come out a greater proportion claim to have “no religion”. The institution of the Church is losing the influence and respect it once enjoyed. It is true there will be times when silence is a more appropriate response than defensive words of self-justification for those of us in the Church. There will be time when our own impulses fail. But thank God we have a pacemaker in the timeless words of poetry of the long biblical tradition, words that can remain alive and relevant today – they can remind us that God is in the world for good. May our studies this semester reawaken our hearts!