Jesuitically I often hear the Bible characterized as an instruction manual. But instruction manuals are mono-layered, have a single purpose and method. If I want real, life-giving, applicable, intimate advice, I don’t go to my IKEA flat-pack furniture manual, I go to a close friend. A well-chosen friend can offer me what the manual can’t. They still offer instruction, sure, but their words mingle with empathy, love, care, respect and all manner of other emotions to offer an experience-drenched interaction, not just a dry, lifeless transfer of information.
If we believe that the God of the Bible chooses to reveal himself through the Holy Scriptures found in the book the Church refers to as the Bible, then he invites us to engage with a friend at the kitchen table, not a bullet-point, bookcase instruction manual. Allow me to explain what I mean:
Among all Old Testament passages, Psalm 23 and I became deeply acquainted when I was a child and have been good friends ever since. However, after having muttered Psalm 23 under my breath, I do not feel an immediate sense of deep equipping (although I’m sure God works in this way too). My first reaction is “ahhhhhhhh”. I breathe more deeply, its poetry washes over me and I inextricably feel more whole than before. Psalm 23 has become part of my journey – or I have become part of it, as I am literally led beside the waters and made to lie down in the pastures and in the process I begin to understand what it means to be restored and pursued by the things of God’s heart.
Recently though, my friendship with Psalm 23 took an interesting turn. I learned to speak its language. I learned how to read Hebrew. The process of being invited to access a Psalm I knew so well in a totally new way felt a little like what I imagine it is to be asked to be someone’s best man. It comes with a deep sense of privilege but equal sense of responsibility.
Only one verb in Psalm 23 (other than ‘to be’) appears more than once, which is significant, arguably pivotal, in a short Psalm such as Psalm 23 (only 6 verses) and yet no English translation reflects this repetition. In verse 3, the verb in “he restores my soul” is יְשׁוֹבֵ֑ב which literally translates, “he brings back my soul”. The Hebrew verb conveys a sense of retrieval and movement – the power of God reaches down and puts us back where we belong. Then, the same “bring back” verb appears again in verse 6, in a different form וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י and this is where it gets really fun!
Most English translations of verse 6 read: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.” Yet, one of its verbs can equally well be translated as the same “bring back” expression we saw above. Surprisingly though, it is not the verb often rendered ‘follow’ but ‘dwell’.
Using the English word “follow” hides the deep sense of urgency in the Hebrew. See Jeremiah 29:18 and Deuteronomy 19:6 for examples of the bloodthirsty, life or death “hot pursuit” in which goodness and mercy are engaged. And yet this sense of goodness and mercy being hot on the Psalmist’s heels should impact the translation of the 2nd half of the verse. How can it be that, if goodness and mercy are hotly pursuing me all my life long and I am just chilling out in the House of the Lord, that they haven’t caught up with me yet? The urgency and movement of the first half of verse 6 conflicts with a static, sedate arrival of the second half.
Let me suggest to you an alternative translation of v6 which is just as grammatically valid as the interpretation with which I grew up: “Surely goodness and mercy shall hotly pursue me all my life long and I will come back/ return into the house of the Lord for my length of days”? From my perspective, this changes my friendship with Psalm 23. The restoration of my soul isn’t a one-time thing but an ongoing process. And so too, whatever the movement of the Psalmist in relation to the House of the Lord, it is not a one-time occurrence. I can no longer think that the restoration of my soul is about waiting to wake up one day ‘fixed’ but dependent on a choice I make to either continually return, or not, to God’s house. God is using his good gifts to drive me back into his arms and the safety of his purview. In other words, goodness and mercy are the tools God uses to remind us that we have a home – in His house.
Learning Hebrew hasn’t introduced me to a new friend, just helped me discover a new aspect of an old one. The sense of dwelling in the House of the Lord we began with, is still here – it hasn’t been lost, but the Bible has done what it always does, refuses to be reduced to a poor, thin, tepid use of words or be limited by my human brain’s inability to imagine anything bigger or more wonderful! God’s idea of dwelling – the unavoidable destination of this Psalm is not a static, disconnected, unrealistic, unattainable kind of dwelling but a real, growing, passionate journeying kind of dwelling.