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Study of the King James Bible Part 5

That is all Saxon. When our theologian comes to comment on it he says we are to understand that "the validity of the service does not lie in the quality of external signs and sacramental representation, but in its essential property and substantial reality." Now there are nine words abstract in their meaning, Latin in their form.

It is in that kind of words that the Bible could have been translated, and in our own day might even be translated. Addison speaks of that: "If any one would judge of the beauties of poetry that are to be met with in the divine writings, and examine how kindly the Hebrew manners of speech mix and incorporate with the English language, after having perused the Book of Psalms, let him read a literal translation of Horace or Pindar. He will find in these two last such an absurdity and confusion of style with such a comparative poverty of imagination, as will make him very sensible of what I have been here advancing."[1]

[1] The Spectator, No. 405.

The fact that the words are short can be quickly illustrated by taking some familiar sections. In the Ten Commandments there are three hundred and nineteen words in all; two hundred and fifty-nine of them are words of one syllable, and only sixty are of two syllables and over. There are fifty words of two syllables, six of three syllables, of which four are such composite words that they really amount to two words of one and two syllables each, with four words of four syllables, and none over that.

Make a comparison just here. There is a paragraph in Professor March's lectures on the English language where he is urging that its strongest words are purely English, not derived from Greek or Latin. He uses the King James version as illustration. If, now, we take three hundred and nineteen words at the beginning of that paragraph to compare with the three hundred and nineteen in the Ten Commandments, the result will be interesting. Where the Ten Commandments have two hundred and fifty-nine words of one syllable, Professor March has only one hundred and ninety-four; over against the fifty two-syllable words in the Ten Commandments, Professor March has sixty-five; over against their six words of three syllables, he has thirty-five; over against their four words of four syllables, he uses eighteen; and while the Ten Commandments have no word longer than four syllables, Professor March needs five words of five syllables and two words of six syllables to express his ideas.[1]

[1] This table will show the comparison at a glance:

Syllables 1 2 3 4 5 6 The Commandments 259 50 6 4 0 0 319 Professor March 194 65 35 18 5 2 319

The same thing appears in the familiar 23d Psalm, where there are one hundred and nineteen words in all, of which ninety-five are words of one syllable, and only three of three syllables, with none longer. In the Sermon on the Mount eighty two per cent. of the words in our English version are words of one syllable.

The only point urged now is that this kind of thing makes for strength in literature. Short words are strong words. They have a snap and a grip to them that long words have not. Very few men would grow angry over having a statement called a "prevarication" or "a disingenuous entanglement of ideas," but there is something about the word "lie" that snaps in a man's face. "Unjustifiable hypothecation" may be the same as stealing, but it would never excite one to be called "an unjustifiable hypothecator"

as it does to be called a thief. At the very foundation of the strength of the literature of the English Bible there lies this tendency to short, clear-cut words.

Rising now from this basal element in the literature of the version, we come to the place where its style and its ideas blend in what we may call its earnestness. That is itself a literary characteristic. There is not a line of trifling in the book. No man would ever learn trifling from it. It takes itself with tremendous seriousness. Here are earnest men at work; to them life is joyous, but it is no joke. That is why the element of humor in it is such a small one. It is there, to be sure. Many of its similes are intended to be humorous. A few of its incidents are humorous; but it has little of that element in it, as indeed little of our literature has that element markedly in it. We have a few exceptions. But what George Eliot says in Adam Bede is true, that wit is of a temporary nature, and does not deal with the deep and more lasting elements in life. The Bible is not a sad book. There are children at play in it; there are feasts and buoyant gatherings fully recounted. But it never trifles nor jests.

So it has given us a language of great dignity.

Let Addison speak again: "How cold and dead does a prayer appear that is composed in the most elegant and polite forms of speech, which are natural to our tongue, when it is not heightened by that solemnity of phrase which may be drawn from the sacred writings. It has been said by some of the ancients that if the gods were to talk with men, they would certainly speak in Plato's style; but I think we may say, with justice, that when mortals converse with their Creator they cannot do it in so proper a style as in that of the Holy Scriptures."

As that earnestness of the literature of the original precluded any great amount of humor in the wide range of its literary forms, so in the King James version it precluded any trifling expressions, any plays on words, even the duplication of such plays as can be found in the Hebrew or the Greek. You seldom find any turn of a word in the King James version, though you do occasionally find it in the Hebrew. One such punning expression occurs in the story of Samson (Judges xv:16), where our version reads: "With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of an ass have I slain a thousand men." In the Hebrew the words translated "ass" and "heaps" are variants of the same word. It comes near the Hebrew to say: "With the jawbone of an ass, masses upon masses," and so on. These translators would not risk reproducing such puns for fear of lowering the dignity of their results. There is a deadly seriousness about their work and so they never lose strength as they go on.

That earnestness grows out of a second fact which may be emphasized--namely, the greatness of the themes of Bible literature. Here is history, but it is not cast into fiction form.

History always becomes more interesting for a first reading when it is in the form of fiction; but it always loses greatness in that form. Test it by turning from a history of the American revolutionary or civil war to an historical novel that deals with the same period; or from a history of Scotland to the Waverly novels. In some degree the earnestness of the time is lost; the same facts are there; but they do not loom so large, nor do they seem so great. So there is power in the fact that the historical elements of the version are in stately form and are never sacrificed to the fictional form.

These great themes save the work from being local. It issues from life, but from life considered in the large. The themes of great literature are great enough to make their immediate surroundings forgotten. "The English Bible deals with the great facts and the great problems. It is from the point of view of those great facts that it handles even commonplace things, and you forget the commonplaceness of the things in the greatness of the dealing. Take its attitude toward God. One needs the sense of that great theme to read it fairly. It quietly overlooks secondary causes, goes back of them to God. Partly that was because the original writers were ignorant of some of those secondary causes; partly that they knew them, but wanted to go farther back. Take the most outstanding instance, that of the Book of Jonah. All its facts, without exception, can be told without mention of God, if one cared to do it. But there could not be anything like so great a story if it is told that way. One of his biographers says of Lincoln that there is nothing in his whole career which calls for explanation in other than a purely natural and human way. That is true, if one does not care to go any farther back than that. But the greatest story cannot be made out of Lincoln's life on those terms. There is not material enough; the life must be delocalized.

It can be told without that larger view, so that it will be of interest to America and American children, but not so that it will be of value to generations of men in all countries and under all circumstances if it is told on those terms. Part of the greatness of Scripture, from a literary point of view, is that it has such a tremendous range of theme, and is saved from a mere narration of local events by seeing those events in the light of larger considerations.

Let that stand for one of the great facts.

Now take one of the great problems. The thing that makes Job so great a classic is the fact that, while it is dealing with a character, he is standing for the problem of undeserved suffering. A man who has that before him, if he has at all the gift of imagination, is sure to write in a far larger way than when he is dealing with a man with boils as though he were finally important.

One could deal with Job as a character, and do a small piece of work. But when you deal with Job as a type, a much larger opportunity offers.

It is these great ideas, as to either facts or problems, that give the seriousness, the earnestness to the literature of the Bible. Men who express great ideas in literary form are not dilettante about them. One of the English writers just now prominent as an essayist is often counted whimsical, trifling. One of his near friends keenly resents that opinion, insists instead that he is dead in earnest, serious to the last degree, purposeful in all his work. What makes that so difficult to believe is that there is always a tone of chaffing in his essays. He seems always to be making fun of himself or of other people; and if he is dead in earnest he has the wrong style to make great literature or literature that will live long.

It is that earnestness and greatness of theme which puts the tang into the English of the Bible. Coleridge says that "after reading Isaiah or the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homer and Virgil are disgustingly tame, Milton himself barely tolerable." It need not be put quite so strongly as that; but there is large warrant of fact in that expression.

Go a little farther in thought of the literary characteristics of the Bible. Notice the variety of the forms involved. Recall Professor Moulton's four cardinal points in literature, all of it taking one of these forms: either description, when a scene is given in the words of the author, as when Milton and Homer describe scenes without pretending to give the words of the actors throughout; or, secondly, presentation, when a scene is given in the words of those who took part in it, and the author does not appear, as, of course, in the plays of Shakespeare, when he never appears, but where all his sentiments are put in the words of others. As between those two, the Bible is predominantly a book of description, the authors for the most part doing the speaking, though there is, of course, an element of presentation. Professor Moulton goes on with the two other phases of literary form: prose, moving in the region limited by facts, as history and philosophy deal only with what actually has existence; and poetry, which by its Greek origin means creative literature.

He reminds us that, however literature starts, these are the points toward which it moves, the paths it takes. All four of them appear in the literature of the English Bible. You have more of prose and less of poetry; but the poetry is there, not in the sense of rhyme, but in the sense of real creative literature.

A more natural way of considering the literature has been followed by Professor Gardiner.

He finds four elements in the literature of the Bible: its narrative, its poetry, its philosophizing, and its prophecy. It is not necessary for our purpose to go into details about that.

We shall have all we need when we realize that, small as the volume of the book is, it yet does cover all these types of literature. Its difference from other books is that it deals with all of its subjects so compactly.

It will accent this fact of its variety if we note the musical element in the literature of the Bible.

It comes in part from the form which marks the original Hebrew poetry. It has become familiar to say that it is not of the rhyming kind.

Rather it is marked by the balancing of phrases or of ideas, so that it runs in couplets or in triplets throughout. In the Psalms there is always a balance of clauses. They are sometimes adversative; sometimes they are simply cumulative. Take several instances from the 119th Psalm, each a complete stanza of Hebrew poetry; (verse 15) "I will meditate in thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways"; or this (verse 23), "Princes also did sit and speak against me: but thy servant did meditate in thy statutes"; or this (verse 45), "And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts"; (verse 51,) "The proud have had me greatly in derision: yet have I not inclined from thy law."

Each presents a parallel or a contrast of ideas.

That is the characteristic mark of Hebrew poetry.

It results in a kind of rhythm of the English which makes it very easy to set to music.

Some of it can be sung, though for some of it only the thunder is the right accompaniment.

But it is not simply in the balance of phrases that the musical element appears. Sometimes it is in a natural but rhythmic consecution of ideas. The 35th chapter of Isaiah, for example, is not poetic in the Hebrew, yet it is remarkably musical in the English. Read it aloud from our familiar version:

"The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing; the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon; they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the excellency of our God. Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."

That can be set to music as it stands. You catch the same form in the familiar 13th chapter of I Corinthians, the chapter on Charity.

It could be almost sung throughout. This musical element is in sharp contrast with much else in the Scripture, where necessity does not permit that literary form. For example, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is argumentative throughout, there is no part except its quotations which has ever been set to music for uses in Christian worship. It is rugged and protracted in its form, and has no musical element about it. The contrast within the Scripture of the musical and the unmusical is a very marked one.

Add to the thought of the earnestness and variety of the Scripture a word about the simplicity of its literary expression. There is nothing meretricious in its style. There is no effort to say a thing finely. The translators have avoided all temptation to grow dramatic in reproducing the original. Contrast the actual English Bible with the narratives or other literary works that have been built up out of it.

Read all that the Bible tells about the loss of Paradise, and then read Milton's "Paradise Lost." Nearly all of the conceptions of Milton's greatest poem are built up from brief Scripture references. But Milton becomes subtle in his analysis of motives; he enlarges greatly on events. Scripture never does that. It gives us very few analyses of motive from first to last.

That is not the method nor the purpose of Scripture. It tells the story in terms that move on the middle level of speech and the middle level of understanding, while Milton labors with it, complicates it, entangling it with countless

details which are to the Scripture unimportant.

It goes straight to the simple and fundamental elements in the account. Take a more modern illustration. Probably the finest poem of its length in the English language is Browning's "Saul." It is built out of one incident and a single expression in the Bible story of Saul and David. The incident is David's being called from his sheep to play his harp and to sing before Saul in the fits of gloom which overcome him; the expression is the single saying that David loved Saul. Taking that incident and that expression, Browning writes a beautiful poem with many decorative details, with keen analysis of motive, with long accounts of the way David felt when he rendered his service, and how his heart leaped or sang. Imagine finding Browning's familiar phrases in Scripture: "The lilies we twine round the harp-chords, lest they snap neath the stress of the noontide-- those sunbeams like swords"; "Oh, the wild joy of living!" "Spring's arrowy summons," going "straight to the aim." That is very well for Browning, but it is not the Scripture way; it is too complicated. All that the Bible says can be said anywhere; Browning's "Saul" could not possibly be reproduced in other languages. It would need a glossary or a commentary to make it intelligible. It is beautiful English, and great because it has taken a great idea and clothed it in worthy expression. But the simplicity of the Bible narrative appears in sharp contrast with it. In my childhood my father used to tell of a man who preached on the creation, and with great detail and much elaboration and decoration told the story of creation as it is suggested in the first chapter of Genesis. When it was over he asked an old listener what he thought of his effort, and the only comment was, "You can't beat Moses!" Well, it would be difficult to surpass these Bible writers in simplicity, in going straight to the point, and making that plain and leaving it. Where the Bible takes a hundred words to tell the whole story Browning takes several hundred lines to tell it.

The simplicity of the Bible is largely because there is so little abstract reasoning in it. Having few or no abstract ideas, it does not need abstract words. Rather, it groups its whole movement around characters. Three eminent literary men were once asked to select the best reviews of a novel which had just appeared. One of the three statements which they rated highest said of the book that it "achieves the true purpose of a novel, which is to make comprehensible the philosophy of life of a whole community or race of men by showing us how that philosophy accords with the impulses and yearnings of typical individuals." Few phrases could be more foreign to Bible phrases than those. But there is valuable suggestion in it for more than the literature of the novel. That is exactly what the Scripture does. Its reasoning is kept concrete by the fact that it is dealing with characters more than movements, and so it can speak in concrete words. That always makes for simplicity.

There are two elements common to the history of literature about which a special word is deserved. I mean the dramatic and the oratorical elements. The difference between the dramatic and the oratorical is chiefly that in dramatic writing there is a scene in which many take part, and in the oratorical writing one man presents the whole scene, however dramatic the surroundings. There is not a great deal of either in the Scripture. There is no formal drama, nothing that could be acted as it stands. It is true, to be sure, that Job can be cast into dramatic form by a sufficient manipulation, but it is quite unlikely, in spite of some scholars, that it was ever meant to be a formal drama for action. It does move in cycles in the appearance of its characters, and it does close in a way to take one back to the beginning. It has many marks of the drama, and yet it seems very unlikely that it was ever prepared with that definitely in mind. On the other hand, a most likely explanation of the Song of Solomon is that it is a short drama which appears in our Bible without any character names, as though you should take "Hamlet" and print it continuously, indicating in no way the change of speakers nor any movement. The effort has been measurably successful to discover and insert the names of the probable speakers. That seems to be the one exception to the general statement that there is no formal drama in the Scripture. But there are some very striking dramatic episodes, and they are made dramatic for us very largely by the way they are told.

One of the earlier is in I Kings xviii:21-39. It is almost impossible to read it aloud without dramatic expression:

"And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.

And the people answered him not a word. Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord; but Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under; and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken. And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under. And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud; for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or, he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awakened. And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded. And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down. And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be thy name. And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord; and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood. And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time.

And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water. And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.

Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God."

That is not simply a dramatic event; that is a striking telling of it. It is more than a narrative.

In narrative literature the scene is accepted as already constructed. In dramatic literature such appeal is made to the imagination that the reader reconstructs the scene for himself.

We are not told in this how Elijah felt, or how he acted, nor how the people as a whole looked, nor the setting of the scene; but if one reads it with care it makes its own setting. The scene constructs itself.

The dramatic style does not prevail at most important points of the Scripture, because it is a fictitious style for the presenting of truth. It inevitably suggests superficiality. Things actually do not happen in life as they do in drama.

One of our latest biographers says that a scientific historian is always suspicious of dramatic events.[1] They may be true, but they are more liable to be afterthoughts, like the bright answers we could have made to our opponents if we had only thought of them at the time. You never lose the sense of unreality in the very construction of a drama. Life cannot be crowded into two or three hours, and justice does not come out as the drama makes it do.

So that at most important points of the Scripture dramatic writing does not appear. The account of the carrying away into captivity of the children of Israel is at no point dramatic, though you can see instantly what a great opportunity there was for it. It is simply narrative.

It is noticeable that none of the accounts of the crucifixion is at all dramatic. They are all simply narrative. The imagination does not immediately conjure up the scene. There may be two reasons for that. One is that there are involved several hours in which there is no action recorded. The other is that by the time the accounts were written the actual events were submerged in importance by their unworded meaning. The account of the conversion of Paul, on the other hand, brief as it is, has at least minor dramatic elements in it. On the whole, the Old Testament is far more dramatic than the New.

[1] McGiffert, Life of Martin Luther.

There is even less of the oratorical element in the Scripture. There is, to be sure, a considerable amount of quotation, and men do speak at some length, but seldom oratorically. The prophetical writings are generally too fragmentary to suggest oratory, and the quotations in the New Testament, especially from the preaching of our Lord, are evidently for the most part excerpts from longer addresses than are given.

There are few of the statements of Paul, as in the 26th chapter of Acts, which could be delivered oratorically; but here again the Old Testament is more marked than the New. The earliest specimen of oratory is also one of the finest specimens. It is in the 44th chapter of Genesis, and is the account of Judah's reply to his unrecognized brother Joseph:

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