“I will lay waste mountains and hills,
and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
and dry up the pools.
“I will lead the blind
by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42: 15, 16 NRSV)
This is a powerful, irresistible, transformative resolve, to be undertaken with a high level of emotional intensity. It is a burst of generativity that is going to change everything and create a newness. This is a God who will not forsake: “I will not forsake them” (42:16); “You shall no more be termed Forsaken” (62:4). In this resolve to new creation, YHWH promises to overcome all forsakenness and abandonment known in Israel and in the world. When creation is abandoned by YHWH, it readily reverts to chaos. Here it is in YHWH’s resolve, and in YHWH’s very character, not to abandon, but to embrace. The very future of the world, so Israel attests, depends on this resolve of YHWH. It is a resolve that is powerful. More than that, it is a resolve that wells up precisely in tohu wabohu and permits the reality of the world to begin again, in blessedness.
— Walter Brueggemann, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible.
Note: The phrase “tohu wabohu” is a reference to the Hebrew phase used in Genesis 1:2, where before God’s creative action, the world is spoken of as being “formless and empty” (NIV). I have highlighted the phase in bold in the text below:
וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם
יִשְׁלַח מִשָּׁמַיִם וְיוֹשִׁיעֵנִי חֵרֵף שֹׁאֲפִי סֶלָה יִשְׁלַח אֱלֹהִים חַסְדּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ
“He will send from heaven and save me, he will put to shame those who trample on me. Selah. God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.” (NRSV)
My first reading of this is: “God will send help from far away.” And, there is some basis for this reading. But, that’s not the whole story.
In the Jenni-Westermann Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament we read:
Heaven often appears as the dwelling place of Yahweh and his hosts…, so that he also acts from heaven (e.g., Deut 4:39; 10:14; 26:15; 1 Kgs 8:23, 30, etc.; Isa 63:15; 66:1; Psa 2:4; 11:4; 20:7; 89:12; 102:20; 115:3, 16; Lam 3:41, etc….).” The Lexicon quickly adds that even Heaven itself is, of course, not adequate to either contain or constrain God. “As God’s resting place, heaven naturally belongs to the cultically pure realm (cf. Exod 24:10; …). Heaven is not able to contain God, however, because he stands beyond any cosmic boundary (1 Kgs 8:27; 2 Chron 2:5; 6:18; cf. Jer 23:24).
There is one other thing I should say about Psalm 57:2 (which, by the way, is verse 3 in the Hebrew text):
אֶקְרָא לֵאלֹהִים עֶלְיוֹן לָאֵל גֹּמֵר עָלָי
“I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.” (NRSV)
As I said last time: this expresses the intent to pray. The initial cry for help, is followed by a statement of intent: a general statement telling us why the Psalmist cries out to God. It’s not just a momentary thing: it’s a way of life.
But, what I want to point out is the brevity of that final phrase:
לָאֵל גֹּמֵר עָלָי
It’s longer when translated into English. This phrase illustrates why it’s nice to pray through the Psalms in the original language.
When I was younger I expected the study of Biblical languages to make the Scriptures clearer to me. I thought that knowing the original Greek or Hebrew words, would allow the deeper and clearer meanings to arise. And, yes, sometimes they do. But, more often than not, what they reveal is the ambiguity in the original that has been lost in translation. (more…)