Language; June 20, 2020

Isaiah 38:16-17 Lord, by such things men live;
and my spirit finds life in them too.
You restored me to health
and let me live.
Surely it was for my benefit
that I suffered such anguish.

Comparing different Bible translations, it’s easy to see the theological bent of the translators. Whereas it is true that by God’s grace we sometimes say things beyond what we know, it is also true that translations can make people “say” things they never intended, and that may or may not have been what God wanted to communicate in having that included in the Bible. One Hebrew word that can complicate that is ruach, which can variously mean breath, wind, or spirit. Here, where the NIV says, “my spirit finds life in them too,” the Japanese says, “the life of my breath follows/obeys all of this.” When Hezekiah obviously had very little concept of eternal life, it seems doubtful that he would have intentionally written about his spirit being alive. That said, the experience of suffering to the point of death and then recovering obviously changed him for the better. I am guessing that in verse 17 he said, “It was for my shalom that I suffered such anguish,” since the Japanese translates it as “inner peace.” Different languages add different things to the richness of human experience. God has brought some good out of the confusion of Babel! (Genesis 11:1-9) That said, any time we read the Bible we need to ask the Holy Spirit to be our guide, to speak to our heart what God is saying to us right now, rather than what translators wanted us to hear.

I’ve not been a student of Biblical languages, though my father was, but being bilingual in such different languages as English and Japanese has given me a real appreciation for this issue. Discussions of such things are fairly frequent in a Facebook group for adult Missionary Kids that I participate in. I have a Mexican friend who speaks not only Spanish, English, and Japanese, but also Latin, Italian, French, German, and Russian, and I think another language, since I have the total of nine in my memory. And he does it all so well that he interpreted both for Pope John-Paul II and Michael Gorbachov when they visited Nagasaki! (Maybe his other language is Polish, but then, the Pope could have spoken in any of a number of languages himself.) All of this gives me another reason to look forward to heaven, where all barriers to communication will be gone. I can’t know for sure, but somehow I think the richness of all the languages will be preserved, and we will enjoy every one of them in praising God. I am constantly faced with the challenge of communicating the richness of God’s grace and love, which is beyond all human language. I need to ask God’s anointing both on my mouth and my hearers’ ears, so that what He is saying may get through, whatever the language or the specific words used.

Father, thank You for language, and for what You have placed in me in relation to it. May I use it as You intend, building up and not tearing down, speaking Your words after You whatever language I’m using, so that Your will may be accomplished for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

About jgarrott

Born and raised in Japan of missionary parents. Have been here as an adult missionary since 1981.
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