I happen to have — for once — a copy of the King James Bible at my elbow. I open it at random while I’m waiting for the computer to boot up, and read this:
The burden of the valley of vision.
What aileth thee now, that thou art wholly gone
up to the housetops?
Thou that art full of stirs,
a tumultuous city, joyous city:
thy slain men are not slain with the sword,
nor dead in battle.
All thy rulers are fled together,
they are bound by the archers:
all that are found in thee are bound together,
which have fled from far.
Therefore said I, Look away from me;
I will weep bitterly, labour not to comfort me,
because of the spoiling of the daughter of my people.
For it is a day of trouble, and of treading down,
and of perplexity by the Lord God of hosts
in the valley of vision, breaking down the walls,
and of crying to the mountains.
That was from Isaiah, the beginning of Chapter 22. I really don’t know what the hell it means — nor, I’m afraid, do I particularly care. Though I do kind of admire the way Isaiah and the other prophets challenged the authorities and institutions of their day, they were all basically a bunch of fanatical whack-jobs, as far as I’m concerned. But isn’t it terrific poetry? “Thou that art full of stirs, a tumultuous city, joyous city” — the way this is phrased, all metaphorical possibilities remain open. Compare the New International Version, that favorite of modern evangelicals: “O town full of commotion, O city of tumult and revelry.” Gone is the familiar, affectionate “thou,” replaced by the affected “O.” Any suggestion that this “thou” might be a female, tapping into that city/woman metaphor so popular among the literary prophets, has been eliminated as well.
Then of course there is the inaptly titled New Living Translation, an almost unspeakable abomination among “translations.” If any book should ever be burned, this nuance-destroying exercise in tone-deaf exegetical hubris tops the list. Here’s what it does with the verse: “The whole city is in a terrible uproar. What do I see in this reveling city?”
Maybe this is why, when I try to explain why I love the Old Testament, I get puzzled looks.
But I guess I’m a mystery-monger and an obscurantist at heart, because it occurs to me that one of the things I most love about the King James Version is the near-impenetrability of many of its archaic phrases. Last week, a post at Read Write Poem asked poets to list the four books that most influenced their writing. My list led off with the great anthology Roots and Wings: Poetry from Spain 1900-1975, edited by Hardie St. Martin, but I forgot to mention the book which had prepared me for all that surrealism in the first place, by whetting my appetite for difficult language and nightmarish visions. And I’m quite sure that the kind of rhythmic free verse I specialize in was strongly marked by my youthful reading of the KJV.
I had the Bible out this morning because yesterday I’d been to a funeral, and the choice of readings struck me as a little unusual. Instead of the nauseatingly familar 23rd Psalm, the minister read Psalm 140 — one of the vengeful Psalms. This seemed especially incongruous given that the sermon that followed took the parable of the Good Samaritan as its text, extolling the kind and generous spirit of the departed. And the other reading could not have been more different: Ecclesiastes 3, in its entirety. That’s the one that begins, “To every thing there is a season.” It was, I thought, an inspired choice for a funeral.
I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
As most regular readers of this blog are probably aware, I’m not a conventionally religious person; I can’t see having a man or woman of the cloth officiating at my funeral, with all the usual assurances about an afterlife in which I do not believe. But if the Bible had to be part of the last rites for my small portion of supernova excrement, which verses could I stand to have read? Psalm 139 is a favorite — at least up until the 19th verse, when it turns hateful and paranoid. It’s got that whole pantheist vibe going on. And Verse 8 might be especially interesting at a funeral:
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there;
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
Job 14 might be good for mourners to hear, as well:
Man that is born of a woman is of few days,
and full of trouble.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down:
he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not…
But my top choice would probably be Ecclesiastes 11, beginning as it does with an exhortation to be generous, followed by a defense of religious agnosticism, and concluding with the Biblical version of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”
Cast thy bread upon the waters:
for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight;
for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth:
and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north,
in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.
He that observeth the wind shall not sow;
and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.
As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit,
nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child:
even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
In the morning sow thy seed,
and in the evening withhold not thine hand:
for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that,
or whether they both shall be alike good.
Truly the light is sweet,
and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all;
yet let him remember the days of darkness;
for they shall be many.
All that cometh is vanity.
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth;
and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth,
and walk in the ways of thine heart,
and in the sight of thine eyes:
but know thou, that for all these things
God will bring thee into judgment.
Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart,
and put away evil from thy flesh:
for childhood and youth are vanity.
What about you? What Bible verses can you imagine being read at your funeral?