Any time even a good translator tries to translate poetry from one language to another it presents many more problems than translating prose. How do you find words that keep the meter of the original, that rhyme if the original poem did, and that still translate the thought of the foreign poet? Words that rhyme in one language do not rhyme in another, and words with two syllables do not always have two in the second language, and you certainly cannot count on the accents being in the same place.
But God in His providence chose a culture where “rhyme” and “meter” have nothing to do with the poetry. Instead of words sounding alike, each line of a Hebrew couplet “rhyme” in thought. In their culture, each line restates the first in a more emphatic way. The point of the “accent” is not the way word sounds, but in the gradual intensity of meaning. That way the translators from any culture could translate without worrying about rhyme or meter and simply translate the words, giving us exactly the same meanings as the original, just as we would ordinary prose. The imagery is still there word for word so the effect of the poem is not lost, and the psalm can do exactly for us what it did for those people thousands of years ago.
Imagine if it had been the other way around. Imagine if the original psalms were written in Occidental mode—rhyme, meter and all. I spoke to a woman who had done some translating once from Spanish to English. She said it was an overwhelming task because in her case she had to find those words that rhymed, that had the same singsong sort of meter, yet still meant the same thing. Even with three dictionaries in front of her, the job was long and arduous. If we were Hebrew-speaking people trying to make sense of Western poetry, could we even be certain we had the right words? If that were important, as it certainly would be, the whole effect of the original would be lost.
But we can be sure, because God’s providence works in amazing ways we probably never thought about before. We can know that we have the exact wording of the original psalms, the exact meaning of those heartfelt phrases because of the nature of Oriental poetry.
If God takes such pains in such detailed items, surely His providence will work in other ways. Surely He knows what we need when, and how to make it come about even by ordinary, everyday means; just as He made Joseph second in command to Pharaoh and supervisor of the stores just when the family of the future Messiah would have starved without them; just as He had a Jewish girl declared Queen of Persia just when an anti-Semitic Persian came to hold sway over the king; just as He had Caesar declare a census just when a certain Jewish maiden was about to deliver so she would be in the town prophesied in Micah.
Don’t ever doubt that God works in the world today. We may not understand exactly what is going on. We may, in fact, never see the results of things set in motion during our lifetimes. But I know He is working by this one simple example: God has taken pains to give me a Word I can trust.
Go find Peter, the angel told Cornelius, who will teach you “words whereby you shall be saved,” Acts 10:14. Those same words can save us too, and we can have the utmost confidence in them.
And for this cause we also thank God without ceasing, that, when you received from us the word of the message, even the word of God, you accepted it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God, which also works in you that believe, 1 Thess 2:13.