There are moments, as a writer, when ideas flow quickly and smoothly, one after the other, and the words follow. That’s not to say, of course, that the words emerge in their finished form; the translation from thought to text is always imperfect. Personally, I probably spend as much time editing as I do writing — if not more.
Just as often, however, the thoughts are inchoate and incomplete, lost in a mental sea. Some sentences and paragraphs defy my efforts to bring them to expression. Often, I’ll type something just to get words on the screen, hoping to clear the fog.
Then again, there are times when it’s best to leave thoughts unfinished, to leave sentences trailing off into ambiguity. Whatever your English teacher taught you, not every sentence demands a period. Not every thought reaches a neat conclusion. Words can bring order to disorder, but in the life we live outside the text, not all disorder will be so easily tamed.
. . .
Psalm 27 contains a sentence that is difficult to translate precisely into English, and the translation matters. As we’ve seen, the New Revised Standard Version takes the psalm as a “triumphant song of confidence,” and renders the problematic verse accordingly: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (vs. 13). Both the Common English Bible and the New International Version echo the confident tone, albeit with different words: “I have sure faith” and “I remain confident,” respectively.
But in the New American Standard, the verse reads, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.” The NAS notes that the words “I would have despaired” have been inserted by the translators to make sense of the verse. Otherwise, the original would simply read, “Unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” — a sentence left open-ended as if the psalmist’s thoughts simply trailed off into silent contemplation.
Some translators, recognizing that the Hebrew sentence is unfinished, try to preserve its ambiguity. Robert Alter, for example, begins the sentence with “If I but trust,” as if the psalmist were trying to encourage himself to believe in God’s goodness when God seems absent. Rabbi Edward Feld renders the Hebrew as “Would that I could see…”: getting to witness the goodness of God is a hope, an aspiration, rather than a certainty.
And note how the psalm actually ends:
Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! (vs. 14, NRSV)
If verse 13 is rendered as a declaration of confidence — I believe! — then verse 14 reads one way. The psalmist hardly needs the encouragement to be strong, and may be encouraging others to share his confidence. But if verse 13 is left open-ended in the English as it is in the Hebrew — If I could just believe... — then that final verse reads differently. The psalmist may be encouraging himself to keep clinging to a faith that at the moment seems shaky. If I just believe…If I could just trust…Wait, be strong, take courage!
The latter reading, I think, is more consistent with the middle section of the psalm. And it does a better job of capturing the ambiguities of our own faith.
Confidence in God, in other words, isn’t something we simply possess by strength of will. When we’re surrounded by trouble, it’s something toward which we struggle and strive. And for the sake of our life together in the church, the question we must ask is this: is our congregation the kind of community in which people feel safe to admit when they’re struggling, without fear of being seen as faithless?
We’ll explore that question in the next post.