Language and Mystery

Most people have a favourite psalm or psalms, perhaps one that they have become familiar with at some special moment in their life, or that means a lot to them for some other reason. For many people it might be Psalm 23, just because it’s one of the shortest and best-known. When I was at primary school, many years ago, it was one of the pieces of verse we were encouraged to learn in our English class. (I never learned it: even at the age of 10, I was the bolshy child who wants to learn ‘A Poem of Your Own Choice’, rather than one that the teacher had chosen for us.) Or it might be Psalm 139, at some moment in our lives when it’s especially important for us to learn that God knows us intimately, and values us:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (verses 14-16, ESV)

My ambition is to get to know all the psalms so well, that they are all my favourites for their own unique reason. In the meantime, there are lots that stand out for me. One of the recent additions to my ‘list of favourite psalms’ is Psalm 85. For a number of years, I would say Evening Prayer on Christmas Day, using the Book of Common Prayer order for Evening Prayer. The traditional lectionary lists Psalm 85 as one of the psalms appointed for the day, and I came to love the verses which explain that, in the coming of Christ into the world, God’s mercy was satisfied, and God’s righteousness and justice also.

For his salvation is nigh them that fear him:
that glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth are met together:
righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (verses 9-10)

Whenever I say Psalm 85 in the daily course of psalms, it reminds me of that message about the Incarnation. So I have a great affection and concern for these words. Imagine my dismay, then, when I find that the Psalter used in Common Worship Daily Prayer, and the translation that appears in the New Revised Standard Version, reads

9 Truly, his salvation is near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth are met together, *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other;

Where has that his come from? How has it crept in before the word ‘glory’, when my guess is, it’s not present in the Hebrew? And why does it make such a difference to me, and grate so, and feel that it has taken something away from the meaning of the line?

It’s because there is something about modern translation – in the Bible and in liturgy, too – that wants to over-specify, over-define. By making it crystal clear, what it wants you to understand by the words, it takes away ambiguity, and the possibility of reading different things in the text, from what the translators want you to read. This impoverishes Scripture and liturgy, where it is often the ambiguity of a phrase, its ability to bear many possible shades of meaning, that leads the reader or the worshipper deeper into the meaning and reality of God.

Thomas Cranmer, and the translators of the King James Bible, often had a better sense of this. It wasn’t that they didn’t know the different meanings: what they knew was, that if there were several possible meanings, it wasn’t their job to define any single one as the meaning

Clearly, language is supposed to communicate meaning; but if the meaning of a thing is mystery, then it is mystery that the language ought to convey. That’s one of the reasons why I find some of the more traditional formularies of liturgy and hymnology so much more satisfying than modern attempts to update them.