One of the joys of poetry is that it often forces the reader to come to terms with jarring, discordant meanings. In Meaning, Michael Polanyi cites Max Black on metaphor: “In the end Black seems to think that ‘the secret and mystery of metaphor’ reside in the connection that the reader is forced to make between the two ideas in a metaphor, but how this works remains unexplained.” (Meaning, 76) He provides an example, “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously . . . It is easy to see that ‘green ideas sleep furiously’ may mean simply that ‘immature ideas foster violent dreams’” (77). The point for Polanyi is that in addition to the subject matter, the metaphor itself has a significance. Both the metaphor and the subject matter work in reciprocity to convey the meaning of what is written. Both the metaphor and the subject matter have intrinsic interest for the reader.
I sometimes think–though I’m not an Old Testament scholar–that Hebrew poetry especially from the Psalms is so horribly mutilated by English translations that the metaphors have almost wholly lost the jarring discordant quality, which is present in the original (Perhaps this is done in the name of the perspicuity of Scripture?). And this loss, due to bad translation, is a loss of a good portion of the meaning of the metaphors. I present an example from this morning’s reading from Psalm 10:3:
Yes, the wicked man boasts because he gets what he wants;
the one who robs others curses and rejects the LORD.
For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the LORD.
For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire,
and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth.
The Hebrew reads:
Structually, the poetic line looks like this (read right to left):
(noun) (verb) (verb) (subj, participle)-(conj) (noun) (noun)-(prep) (subj, noun) (verb)-(conj)
(the LORD) (despise) (bless) (and the greedy) (of his soul) (over the desire) (the wicked) (for, praise)
Admittedly, it’s difficult to discern what is happening here. But clearly the conjunctions signal the division of the couplet pair. Further, the two subjects, which are parallel, are “the wicked” and “the greedy.” What’s jarring and fascinating about this particular line, however, is that the wicked are said to “praise” and the greedy are said to “bless.” Seemingly, the poet means that these wicked men are praising and blessing the LORD. Yet, he avoids giving an object to these transitive verbs, instead providing the illicit reason for praising in the first couplet, “over the desire of his soul” and jamming an antonym between the verb and its object in the second couplet. It might literally read, “and the greedy bless (that is to!) despise the LORD.”
In other words, the wicked may even be thanking God for the bounty they receive, but even this thanksgiving is an act of despising God because their gains have taken advantage of the poor (vs. 2) for the end of their own desires.