“Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God. . . ” Psalm 55:19
Sometimes it pays to have a stack of Bibles, but sometimes you may find that the old standby – the King James Version – gets it right, or at least gets it better than the newer translations. As you know if you are a reader of this blog, I try to read a psalm every day. I can’t – or at least I don’t – take all the time necessary for the study of a chapter or book somewhere else in the Bible, but the Psalms are poems and they each may stand at a given reading on their own two feet. You can read most of them in a few minutes and get at least an idea or two about their import and meaning.
I like to read the psalms in the King James for several reasons. First, I learned them in that version when I was just a kid and the KJV was still the go-to in churches. Second, remember that the psalms are poetry and appeal to the emotions. Although they may not have sounded as formal in their original language as they now do in the KJV, the KJV, given the archaic and strange sound of the language, keeps reminding me that I am reading poetry and not USA Today. I’ll admit that the newer translations are often clearer and may correct mistakes or misunderstandings that the KJV might cause (I use them for these purposes everyday) something great is lost when the high-emotion, poetic voice of the psalmist is made to read like an instruction manual. Add to all of that that I still find, now and then, that the real meaning of a passage is best captured in the old translation. Maybe when the modern translators aim at clarity they eliminate ambiguity that ought to be there.
Let’s look again at Psalm 55: 19. There, David says of his enemies: “. . . Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.” Here is an example of what I mean by ambiguity. What does it mean, “they have no changes?” The very uncertainty of it intrigues me; draws me in. And so I looked at the verse in other translations. Here is how the NIV renders it: “men who never change their ways and have no fear of God.”
Not exactly the same idea conveyed in these two versions. “Have no changes” doesn’t sound like the same thing as “never chang[ing] one’s ways.” The newer translation implies a deliberate, internal decision: in spite of everything happening around me, I won’t change my ways. The older version, it seems to me, allows the reader to think of something quite different – changes that are external to the people in question. It allows the notion that it is not so much – or at least not only – that these men have refused to change their ways, it may be that their surroundings and circumstances have not changed. They have not been confronted with disorienting changes in their lives and so they trust and carry on in their own strength. In either case it is true that the men in question do not change internally – do not change their minds – but the earlier translation gives us more room and at least implies or suggests that the “changes” that these men “do not have” are external changes – changes in their circumstances that might awaken them to the fact that they are not in control of their own lives and that they must place their trust in God.
That idea is certainly present elsewhere in the Bible. We have discussed here in the last few days passages in Jeremiah and Zephaniah that employ the metaphor of wine being left on the lees. That is, the wine as it aged was left undisturbed and not poured off from the lees or dregs or sediment that settles out of the juice as it ferments over time. In both of these prophetic passages, this lack of change will bring judgement. And in both places the changes referred to are not merely internal or mental changes, but are external or cultural. Jeremiah warns that Moab has been complacent in the peace and prosperity it has enjoyed over generations. Zephaniah warns the dwellers in Jerusalem:
12 And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.
Isn’t it fair to say that here the internal hardness is a product of what the men see outside themselves. Life has been so regular, so unchanging in their days that they now believe that God does not intervene in the affairs of men. He does not judge the wicked. He does not reward the faithful. The men with these attitudes are to be searched out and punished. To be taught that God does judge the wicked and does reward the righteous.
If that is a fair reading, then the verses in question would certainly seem to speak directly in today’s headlines. Given the unrelenting cycle of news these days and the seemingly inexhaustible stores of evil in the actions of men and nations it is rather easy to believe that nothing could shock or surprise us ever again. But I must say that in my six decades I have never quite seen the like of the recent purge of those in high places who have exploited those who were weaker or subservient to them. Men, powerful, rich and privileged are being brought to judgement. Men in media – broadcasting, movie making – men in politics; men in religious offices are all being unmasked and brought to task for these long histories of exploitation and abuse. Surely it can be said of them as they continued in their power and prestige for decades and continued to injure the weak without consequence to themselves that they said in their hearts: The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.
What is so striking in today’s news is not so much the criminal conduct itself – that’s terrible enough, but we all knew about it. Not to say that we knew the exploits of this or that particular star or senator, but we knew that this kind of thing goes on everywhere, all the time. Men in power prey on the weaker people around them. Doctors hit on nurses. Law partners hit on associates. Priests abuse children. And the story of the “casting couch” is decades old and no one doubted it.
What is remarkable and unprecedented is the size and strength of the wave of judgement now sweeping the country. God is not mocked. One who persists in such exploitation does, finally, reap what he has sown.