A People of One Language
I read the Bible in English. Which is actually two keys to understanding language. I read the Bible in English, the still, though languishing, language of this country. It is a language I share with Muslim Americans, with secular Americans, with Jewish Americans. We, in this context, speak the same language. But, in English I read the Bible, words that set me apart from Muslims, Jews and secularists. The form of my language is English. The content is, or at least ought to be, the Bible.
It has been my habit of late when reading the Bible in English to read the Psalms, where this distinction becomes clear. The Psalms, we would be wise to remember, are, like the rest of the Bible, both the words of the human authors and the words of God. But unlike much of the Bible, these words also became the words of God’s people. The passionate personal prayers of David, the music of Asaph became the corporate prayers of God’s people, and the service music of the church, the meditations of God’s people during the week, going back into the Old Covenant. Hebrew was a common language. The Psalms, however, spoke a common experience. They speak of God, His people, His enemies, His grace, His wrath, His provision, His glory, His Son. This they speak to His people, and in hearing Him speak, they become a people.
Too many of us share not only a common language with those around us, but a common content. We, like them, indeed with them, speak of the latest news from the world of sports, the latest gossip from Hollywood, the latest band to make it big. We talk about the rise and fall of the economy and the latest folly from Washington. We snicker at the same sarcastic humor, mock the same honor. We, like they, are far more apt to quote Oprah or Hannity than we are the Psalms. We no longer, because we do not sing, pray, indeed read the Psalms, share common content with one another in the church, nor with our fathers that went before us.
Language shapes reality. That we do not speak as students of the Psalms we do not see our lives in terms of the antithesis, the battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. We do not see God at work in our lives, in our battles. We do not in turn see our circumstances as connected at all to our own sins, our own stubbornness. We do not even see ourselves as God’s own people, His beloved. Instead we see ourselves for what we are, twins of our unbelieving neighbors who, unlike them, have added a profession of faith, and wait for heaven. Our fathers saw themselves as belonging to something bigger than themselves. We don’t even speak our fathers’ language. More damning still, we don’t know what we have lost.
Were we wise we would hear our fathers, and speak what we have heard. So tells us Asaph, “Give ear, O my people, to my law; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known. And our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generations to come the praises of the Lord, And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done” (Psalm 78: 1-4).