You are herePain Forces Us to Hope. Silence Forces Us to Listen.
Pain Forces Us to Hope. Silence Forces Us to Listen.
We live in a wonderful time for reading the Bible. There has never been a time when the word of God was so freely and so widely available to those wishing to read it, especially those readers who read and speak English. There are so many English translations and paraphrases of the bible, that one can easily be confused by their multitude.
There is that old standard the KJV – the King James Version. There is the RSV – the Revised Standard Version. There is the NJB – the New Jerusalem Bible, the Living Bible, the New King James Version, the Living Translation, Young’s Literal Translation, The Message Bible, the New American Standard, the New Century Version, and the list goes on and on.
And what this plethora of English translations and paraphrases can hide is that translation is difficult work. We take it for granted that we can read the Bible in English, but the process of translating it from Hebrew, and Aramaic, and Greek is tricky and, even risky. It’s not a matter of simple substitution. It’s not a simple one for one exchange of words. Languages are slippery entities, twisting and changing in surprising ways, evolving over time. Languages are shaped by culture, and history, and geography. And languages in turn shape cultures, change history and can even affect geographical borders as drawn on maps.
When a thought is formed it is formed and framed by language. When that thought is translated into another language it can easily be warped into something else. We know the phrase “lost in translation,” but rarely do we think about this as we read the Bible. We trust that the translators haven’t lost anything. Or maybe we just assume that they haven’t.
I don’t speak Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic. I know a few words here and there, but I can’t read it. I can’t read the scriptures for myself. I have to read them through the translators. And, I have to trust that the translators who worked on these various versions did their job correctly and that they did their job well.
There are differences between the various translations, of course. That is readily apparent. Some are easier to read. Some are more archaic. Some are written specifically with younger readers in mind. These differences represent the various choices that the translators made when crafting their English translation. They made choices with each and every word they put on the page. They chose this word over that. They chose to use a long sentence here instead of two short ones. They made choices.
And sometimes those choices can dramatically altar the translation. I want you to hang on to that thought as we begin to work through Psalm 77.
In our congregation this year we have been focusing our Sunday morning worship on the Psalms. We’ve used the Psalms found in the standard lectionary as our guide. Now, I don’t know who chose the particular psalms that are included or why they put them in this particular order. Perhaps it’s just me and my already melancholic nature, but I am curious as to why last week we looked at Psalms 42 – 43 (read together as one psalm, as they should be) which was a lonely cry of distress and now this week we have Psalm 77 which is, again, a cry of distress and despair from another lonely psalmist.
Perhaps our impression that the Psalms are “so comforting” and “so uplifting” is not altogether accurate. Perhaps the Psalms are just as much discomforting as they are comforting. What we have in Psalm 77 is the desperate cry of a desperate psalmist. His psalm is part lament, part hymn of praise, and part outpouring of doubt and fear.
I cry to God in distress
I cry to God and he hears me. (77: 1 New Jerusalem Bible)
He is worn out with misery. He has been sleepless for nights without end – and this, he says, is because of the hand of God.
…all night I tirelessly stretched out my hands,
my heart refused to be consoled, …
You have kept me from closing my eyes;
I was too distraught to speak… (vs. 2, 4)
In our service this Sunday we sang the song “He Leadeth me” by Joseph Gilmore, which include these words:
Lord, I would clasp thy hand in mine,
nor ever murmur or repine,
content, whatever lot I see,
since ‘tis my God that leadeth me.
Our psalmist certainly had a different attitude than Mr. Gilmore. Our psalmist is murmuring. He’s complaining. He is not content, and he will not be comforted. If he’s singing, it’s not “Blessed Assurance,” and if there’s a melody in his heart it’s not ringing “with heaven’s harmony.” This is a psalm of doubt. This is a psalm of unanswered questions.
Is the Lord’s rejection final?
Will he never show favor again?
Is his faithful love gone forever?
Has his Word come to an end for all time?
Does God forget to show mercy?
In anger does he shut off his tenderness? (vs. 7 – 9)
And then this is where the translation gets tricky. Consider the ways that verse 10 is variously translated:
vs 10 – NIV – Then I thought, “To this I will appeal; the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
NKJV – And I said, “This is my anguish; But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
Which seems to mean that after all my despair, after all my struggle I will, in the end call to mind the years when God’s strong right hand rescued and saved us. And that does make a certain amount of sense in the context of the rest of the psalm. But when compared to numerous other translations, the NIV and the NKJV seem to be dodging the more difficult issue.
New Century Version – Then I say, “This is what makes me sad; for years the power of God Most High was with us.”
This, I think, is getting closer. For years and years God was with us, but now…. He seems absent and this makes me sad.
Now try this one:
NAS (New American Standard) - Then I said, "It is my grief - that the right hand of the Most High has changed."
NJB (New Jerusalem Bible) – And I said, “This is what wounds me, the right hand of the Most High has lost its strength.” *1
Can you begin to see why translators working with more than one possible and plausible translation would choose one over the other? It’s dangerous and discomforting to think that God has changed. It rubs against those very confident statements in the Bible that God does not change. It seems to create a contradiction. And rather than face that apparent contradiction, some translators have chosen another set of words.
We sang the song “Forever” with the lines “Forever God is faithful. Forever God is strong,” *2 but the psalmist who wrote psalm 77 doesn’t seem to believe that – or at least he’s so stricken with despair that he questions whether or not God is always faithful and strong.
“Has God abandoned us?” He wonders. “Will he never again show us favor?”
The psalmist knows, of course, that God has done many marvelous things in the past. He meditates on God’s interventions in Israel’s history, remembering Yahweh’s great deeds and reflecting on the wonders that he performed in the past. But those things are in the past. And this is what wounds him to his spirit, that it seems that God is no longer intervening for his people. And he cannot resolve this crisis. He cannot resolve it and he will not be comforted.
Instead he recounts how God lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. With his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, he parted the waters of the Reed Sea so the children of Israel could escape their Egyptian slave-masters.
When the waters saw you, God,
when the waters saw you they writhed in anguish,
the very depths shook with fear
the clouds pelted down water,
the sky thundered,
your arrows shot back and forth.
The rolling of your thunders was heard,
your lightning flashes lit up the world,
the earth shuddered and shook.
Your way led over the sea,
your path over the countless waters,
and none could trace your footsteps. (vs. 16 – 19 New Jerusalem Bible)
Even then we couldn’t see him. Even then we could not see God. We could see the lightning. We could hear the thunder. We could feel the wind and the pelting rain on our skin. But even in storm we could not see God or trace his footsteps.
Is it wrong to question God like this? Is it a sign of disbelief or faithlessness? Is it blasphemy? Is it permissible to challenge God like this?
I think of Agnes.
When Agnes was a little girl she believed in God with a fierce intensity, she burned with belief. And she knew with an undeniable certainty that she would give her life in service to God. She wanted to “love Jesus as he has never been loved before.” Her faith was such that she wrote in her journal that “my soul at present is in perfect peace and joy.” She left home and became a missionary.
And then God left her.
At least that’s how it felt to her. God’s all pervading presence seemed to disappear from her life. All that had been joy and peace and light was now emptiness, despair and darkness. She tried to pray. “I utter the words of community prayers – and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give. But my prayer of union is not there any longer. I no longer pray.”
Agnes continued to serve despite this inner darkness; for nearly fifty years she brought the love of Christ to those who knew no love. But inside she longed to hear from God.
This was the secret desperation of Agnes, better known to the world as Mother Teresa. *3
I watched a movie with my wife the other night. In it one of the characters said that there are two kinds of people in the world – those who are running towards pleasure and those who are running away from pain. The movie concluded with this thought: “Pleasure can make us forget [the pain and desperation of our lives] but pain forces us to hope.” *4
I am convinced that God is good, even when there is no evidence. I am convinced that God loves me even when I can’t hear him say it. And I am convinced that he is here, even if I can’t feel his presence.
Pain forces us to hope.
It’s not a great answer. But sometimes there’s no answer but silence. Perhaps there are times – even lengthy periods, years and years – when God says nothing at all. But pain forces us to hope and silence forces us to listen.
*1 Or the Anchor Bible’s translation which even assigns the pronouns differently: “Has his kindness ceased forever, have visions from him come to an end? / Have the inmost parts of God dried up, or his bosom shrunk in anger? / Perhaps his sickness is this: the right had of the Most High has withered.” 77: 8 - 10
*2 Forever - Words and Music by Chris Tomlin
*3 Mother Teresa’s story found in Faith and Doubt by John Ortberg, Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2008. page 106 – 7
*4 Tenderness 2009 directed by Josh Polson