Two facts about the original languages of the Bible are important in appreciating God’s master plan. First, the fact that the New Testament was written in Greek, which had the same cross-cultural importance as English in the first century, meant that though few of the readers or writers spoke Greek as their mother tongue, everyone understood it and thus the gospel stories and the letters could rapidly and easily be disseminated all over the Roman world.
Second, the fact that much of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, especially the works of poetry and prophecy, mean that readers of translations of these literary styles can still appreciate the beauty of the language. Why? Unlike English or many other languages, the poetic devices of Hebrew do not depend on the sounds of the original language. In English, traditionally, we have depended mostly on metre (how many syllables in a line and the pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables in a foot) and rhyme (same sounds at the end of a line). For example,
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word? (10)
He is a brittle, crazy glass; (8)
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford (10)
This glorious and transcendent place, (8)
To be a window, through thy grace. (8)
(From The Windows by George Herbert, 1593-1633)
If you speak another language, try translating the first and third lines. Do they still rhyme? Probably not. What makes this a poem is completely lost in translation and the only literary device remaining, the metaphor of our lives as stained glass windows allowing the grace of God to shine through, will be expressed in mere prose.
I believe God was anticipating the translation of the Psalms, Proverbs and poetic passages of the Prophets into every language on earth. For the longest time, I bemoaned the fact that because I couldn’t speak Hebrew, I couldn’t appreciate the beauty of the Psalms. Then one day, I came across a slim book called How to Read the Psalms by Tremper Longman III which introduced me to something I had seen many times without actually noticing it. Take a look at these simple examples:
Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting? (Hosea 13:14, ESV)
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped! (Psalm 124:7, ESV)
What we observe is an A-B-B’-A’ pattern, which stays intact, regardless of the word order of a given line. This is called a chiasm, from the Greek word for X. This structure is found all through the Bible, even in some of the lengthier arguments in the New Testament epistles. (Can you find the chiasm structure of Hebrews 12:18-29?)
The key to identifying these structures is to look for repetition of key words, or synonyms of key concepts and to see if they follow this A-B-B’-A’ or even A-B-C-D-E-D’-C’-B’-A’ pattern. If you find an element in the middle of the structure that does not have a mirror image, you can be sure that this is the centre of the X, the very important idea to which the author is drawing your attention. Psalm 11 is a perfect example:
In the LORD I take refuge;
how can you say to my soul,
“Flee like a bird to your mountain,
for behold, the wicked bend the bow;
they have fitted their arrow to the string
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;
if the foundations are destroyed what can the righteous do?”
The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.
The LORD test the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
For the LORD is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.
(Psalm 11, ESV)
The message is to take refuge in the fact that the LORD is still the true ruler, even if all around us violence and wickedness reign.
I hope this concept is helpful to you in both your study of the truths of the Bible (The LORD is in his holy temple) and appreciation of the Bible as art (beauty in structure).