I think about words and their meanings quite a bit. I regularly digest political commentary, right and left, and find myself irritated by hyperbole and the perverting of the language for the sake of ideology which is why I was so impressed and moved by Patrick Reardon's comments on Psalm 12 in his book Christ in The Psalms. This and other recent articles on language in the culture at large, prompted me to finally post Reardon's complete essay with his permission.
Note: At about Psalm 9 the Greek Orthodox Bible parts with the Hebrew Scriptures on the numbering of the Psalms. The Western/Protestant Bible is consistent with the Hebrew, therefore, Psalm 12 is actually Psalm 11 in Reardon's book.
Christ In The Psalms
By Patrick Henry Reardon
Psalm 11 (12)
Save Me O God, For There Is Not A Godly Man Left
The idea is now common that the primary purpose of speech is communication, the sharing of ideas, impressions, and feelings with one another. Language is currently considered to be, first of all, social and therefore completely subject to social control. Human speech is widely interpreted as a matter of arbitrary and accepted fashion, subject to the same vagaries as any other fashion. Thus, the senses of words can be changed at will, different meanings being imposed by the same sorts of forces that determine whatever other tastes happen to be in vogue. Words become as alterable as hemlines and hats.
According to this view, words are necessarily taken to mean whatever the present living members of a society say that they mean, so that the study of language really becomes a branch of sociology. In fact, sociology textbooks themselves make this claim explicitly. Moreover, this notion of speech is so taken for granted nowadays as nearly to assume the rank of a self-evident principle. Nonetheless, it is deeply erroneous.
It is also egregiously dangerous to spiritual and mental health, for such a view of language dissolves the relationship of speech to the perception of truth, rendering man the lord of language without affirming the magisterial claims of truth over man. Declared independent of such claims, language submits to no tribunal higher than arbitrary social dictates. Human society, no matter how sinful and deceived, is named the final authority over speech, which is responsible only to those who use it, subject to no standards above the merely social. That is to say, in this view words must mean what people determine them to mean, especially such people as cultural engineers, political activists, feminist reformers, news commentators, talk-show hosts, and other professionals who make their living by fudging the truth.
This current notion of language was well formulated in the declaration of the proud and rebellious in Psalm 11 (Hebrew 12), in a passage manifestly portending the mendacious times in which we live: “With our tongue we will prevail. Our lips are our own; who is lord over us?”
How different is the view of the Bible, where speech is not regarded, first and foremost, as a form of communication among human beings. In fact, Adam was already talking before ever Eve appeared. Human speech, that is to say, appears in Holy Scripture earlier than the creation of the second human being, for we find Adam already naming the animals prior to the arrival of the marvelous creature that God later formed from his rib.
At the beginning, before the Fall, Man was possessed of an accurate perception into reality. He was able to name the animals because he could perceive precisely what they were. His words expressed true insight, a ravishing gaze at glory, a contemplation of real forms, so that the very structure and composition of his mind took on the seal and assumed the formal stamp of truth. Human language then was a reflection of that divine light with which heaven and earth are full. The speech of unfallen man was but the voice of vision.
This primeval human language, the pure progeny of lustrous discernment, flowed forth already from the lips of Adam prior to the creation of Eve, who heard it for the first time when her husband, awaking from his mystic sleep, identified her and told her exactly who she was: “You are bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” Human speech was already rooted in the vision of truth before it became the expression of human communication.
Moreover, the Fall itself, when it came, derived from that demonic disassociation of speech from truth that we call the Lie: “You will not surely die.” Eve’s acquiescence in that first lie was mankind’s original act of metaphysical rebellion. It had more to do with the garbling of Babel than with the garden of Eden. It was human language’s first declaration of independence: “Our lips are our own; who is lord over us?”
Just as truthful speech streams forth from vision, springing from the font of a pure heart, so lying is conceived in the duplicitous heart before it issues from the mouth. Says Psalm 11: “Each one has spoken follies to his neighbor, deceitful lips have spoken with divided heart.” The situation described here is so bad that one despairs of finding any truths left in human discourse: “Save me, O God, for the godly man has disappeared, because truths are diminished among the sons of men. . . . The wicked prowl on every side.”
In contrast to these varied, seemingly universal lies of men stand the reliable words of God: “The words of the Lord are pure words, smelted silver purged of dross, purified seven times.” In this very unveracious world we yet trust that, though heaven and earth pass away, His words will never pass away.
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