The Silence of God

Silent Statue

Introductory Note: This is longer than I intend blog posts to be. The purpose of this article is to respond to a question from one of my Bible Education students at Grace College who asked how God speaks to us.

On opening the pages of Scripture we find angelic messengers, voices from heaven, dreams, visions and a whole lot of confidence about what God expected of His people. Many characters in the Bible seem to have had a direct line of communication to God, a kind of speed dial by which any moral dilemma may be quickly addressed. Today, however, God is silent.

His silence is particularly worrying to those of us who are trying to obey, know or understand him. Yet in spite of our desperate questions about the evil that surrounds us, in spite of our personal cries about the future and his will, in spite of sincere longing simply to hear his voice, God remains silent.

LatteSome have responded to this problem by finding messages in their alphabet soup that God left for them, images of Jesus in latte foam or dreams and visions in which God or one of his angels appears. Many of the rest of us try to listen to God and so close our eyes and empty our minds and wait for a still small voice. Sometimes it comes to us in the form of a butterfly or a flock of birds or an inner peace, sometimes it is in the form of a chill down the back of our spines. Sometimes someone else comes and speaks on God’s behalf to tell us what God wants us to know because still, God himself is silent. Or is He?

MegaphoneIt is difficult to argue against experiences. The previous paragraph of spine-tingling, butterfly flapping events, however, do not constitute the voice of God. The first thing to realise about God speaking is that when God speaks, He is communicating. If God speaks in a way that is not clear and certain, he has failed to communicate. A teacher fails to communicate if s/he gives unclear instruction and leaves students uncertain as to what is required, likewise God fails to communicate if you are left uncertain. Considering God is not given to failure, it seems probable that God is not instructing you to do something if you are left unsure that it was Him to begin with (and so I am reluctant to call butterflies and spine-chills “God’s voice”). This leads us to the obvious question: How does God communicate with us? How can we hear the voice of God?

As has been said, Scripture is filled with angels, voices, dreams and visions. It is useful to begin by disabusing us of such an expectation. It’s worth realising that the vast majority of people were not the king of Israel or priests or prophets; they were ordinary and they listened to what prophets, priests and kings told them. It was surprising for Samuel to hear God’s voice, not even Eli the high priest expected it (1 Sam. 3:1-21) and in fact we read at the start of that story that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (v1). Encounters with angels are rare enough that they are commonly associated with fear (1 Chron. 21:30, Luke 1:13, Luke 1:30, Matt. 28:5). The burning bush type experiences of God are not the norm for His communication.

The Heavens Declare

Rather, we find first that God reveals himself to all people in creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork … Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world,” David writes in the Psalms (Ps. 19:1,4). It by looking at creation that any human being can learn something about God. In Psalm 19, David speaks of how the language of creation is wordless and understood irrespective of language of culture. It is on the basis of creation that Paul says people who have never read the Bible can be held accountable for their actions, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made,” (Rom. 1:19-20). So we can know something about God through the world around us. Still, it is an imperfect knowledge and the world is distorted by sin. Rather than knowing about God, how do we know and hear Him?

Immanuel - God With UsThe best answer to that question is the one every Sunday School child knows: Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on you do know him and have seen him,” (John 14:6-7). So speaking to Jesus is speaking to God and if we know Jesus, we know God. The writer of Hebrews explains, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1‑2). Far from being silent, God became man so that his voice may clearly be heard and still, that voice echoes down through history.

Perhaps you are dismayed then that we do not have Jesus walking around explaining things to us today. Remember this though, before Jesus came God’s people were living in captivity and oppression wondering whether God existed or had forgotten them. They had little certainty about their interpretation of the Old Testament. It was only during Jesus’ short life, that the Old Testament began to be ultimately fulfilled and only after Jesus’ death that anyone realised. That’s why in the New Testament – which was written after Jesus was raised from the dead – we read the authors’ realisation, “This happened to fulfil what was written …” (e.g. John 18:9, 19:24, 19:36) or “as it is written …” (e.g. John 6:31, 12:14).

The people who lived in Old Testament times looked forward to something they could not imagine and could only hope against hope would turn out to be true. The people who knew Jesus didn’t understand him much of the time and didn’t realise who he was until after his resurrection – some of the men trying to be the most godly tried to kill him because they could not understand who he was or what he had come to do. In New Testament times, we have the benefit of the writings of people who knew Jesus and realised how his life fit into God’s plan, we have the evidence that God fulfils his promises and we look back on an event in history in which we can place our confidence rather than looking forward in hope. Even so, with Jesus at the right hand of God since his Ascension, the question of how God speaks to us remains.

The Bible Speaks TodayJesus, after his resurrection, comes alongside a couple of men who are leaving Jerusalem having given up hope in him because they believe that he is dead. They don’t recognise him to begin with and explain what they understand about his death but his response is, “beginning with the Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them, in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” (Luke 24:27). In its essence, the Bible is about Jesus: the Old Testament looks forward to Him, the New Testament looks back on Him. At the heart of the Bible, Jesus stands as God’s Word to us. The way God speaks to us today is through his word. For this reason, Paul explains that “All Scripture … is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). In fact, the writer of Hebrews says that the Bible, “is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart,” (Heb. 4:12).

Sometimes we may wonder why God chose to speak to us through a book written long ago and over thousands of years that can be hard to understand. That does not change the fact that He did though and it means that if we want to hear the voice of God, the only way to do that is in the words of Scripture. As the Christian writer Francis Schaeffer famously wrote of God, “He is there, and He is not silent”.

Basic Exegesis Diagram in isiZulu

Zulu Bible: iBhayibheli ElingcweleOne of the most exciting elements of my ministry this year is that of training lay preachers. In South Africa many rural churches share a pastor who alternates visiting churches under his leadership and so sees each once a month (and sometimes less frequently than that). As a palliative measure (which has turned out to be permanent), lay people generally preach on the Sundays the pastor is away. The lay preachers often have very limited biblical literacy and so depend more heavily on their abilities as public speakers. It is, therefore, an enormous need and an enormous opportunity to train people to whom the preaching of God’s word is entrusted most weeks of the month.

I am covering Bible Handling skills and in the first lesson I presented, I included the following diagram which may be useful to others doing exegesis or hermeneutics courses in Zulu so I thought I’d put it online.
Indlela Yokuhluza iBhayibheli
Each step involves looking somewhere:

  1. Up: Prayer
  2. Down: Studying the words
  3. Back: looking at the text’s Biblical Theological context
  4. Forward: Looking to where it points
  5. Here: Applying the text to the present day

I hope it’s useful to someone out there.

The Lord is With You: Idiom Observations

GabrielSomehow the inevitable reading of an account that has likely been read or heard every year of my life was nevertheless fresh on Sunday. The reading was from Luke and covered Gabriel’s appearance to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). Perhaps it is because I have been reading Ruth recently but I particularly noticed Gabriel’s greeting, “Greetings, favoured one, the Lord is with you!” (NET). The reason that reading Ruth has any relevance to this greeting is that the narrative of Ruth reveals a Semitic greeting, “… Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “May the Lord be with you!” They replied, “May the Lord bless you!”” (Ruth 2:4, NET). Semantically, “May the Lord be with you” and “The Lord is with you” barely differ (if you’re that way inclined; the former’s Hebrew is simply “יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם” which the LXX translates as “κυριος μεθ’ ὑμων”, Luke 1 has “ὁ κυριος μετα σου”).

A while ago I posted on another expression that I noticed because idioms are one of the major barriers when trying to understand a language. It’s no use being able to understand the Zulu for “the cat is sleeping in the fireplace” and then offering to get it a blanket when the idiom means that there’s no food (otherwise there would be a fire in the fireplace on which to cook the food). In the case of “The Lord is with you” it’s useful to note that this is a simple greeting. This realisation has a couple of applications:

First, we shouldn’t heap up theological meaning on every occurrence. While it would certainly be useful to ask the significance of the greeting – did surrounding nations have similar greetings or was Israel unique in understanding God as near and did this theology filter into everyday speech? – it is not the point every time we find it. We shouldn’t, therefore, read Mary’s “trouble at the angel’s words” as being the result the sudden revelation of her Lord’s immanence.

Second, we should read in light of it’s actual meaning. When the angel says to Gideon, in Judges 6:12, “The Lord is with you, courageous warrior!” (NET) we should read it as saying, “Good morning, imposing soldier!” Gideon’s response is, then, amusing and a bit cynical in that he doesn’t question his designation as a courageous warrior (even though he is not – and strikingly so); rather, he responds with something like, “You think it’s a good morning? What are you smoking? How is this ruddy morning good when everywhere I look I see disaster”.

gabriel2The phrase can be found in a number of Pauline epistles (e.g. 2 Tim. 4:22, 2 Thess. 3:16) and he seems to have modified it slightly to “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” (1 Cor. 16:23, 1 Thess. 5:28, 2 Thess 3:18). 2 Thess 3:16,18 have both of these versions and it seems that Paul may have personally written verses 17 and 18 which means that his scribe would have written v16 and “signed off” and Paul concluded with his own greeting.

In the case of Luke 1:28, Mary’s trouble is not the result of the “hello” but of the idea that she is “one who is favoured” – a recipient of grace – (contra Gideon) it makes sense that she would then wonder what this grace was. In an unrelated note; I suppose that, like Zechariah, the source of her fear would be the sight of Gabriel.

So next time you see “The Lord [is/be] with you” ask yourself what would be different if the passage read “Hi!”.

Let’s be Sensible: Original Insights [Titus 2]

Being Sensible

Most people arrive at Bible College dreading the prospect of  Greek and Hebrew – nerdy as I am, I relished it. Not because I expected to have original insights on any given text but because I could have insight based on any given the original text. In general, to be perfectly honest, our translations do a fantastic job of conveying just what the original is trying to say because English is a wonderfully diverse and expressive language. Sometimes, however, English fails us and something exciting happens in Greek that is totally unseen in our English translations.

In Bible study we are working our way through Titus and we’ve just hit Titus 2:1-10. Already we’ve noticed that Paul is concerned about the mental activity of the Cretans. In his introduction, Paul says that it is “knowledge of the truth” that “leads to godliness” (1v1) and his response to bad behaviour on the part of the church in Crete is “instruction in sound doctrine” (1v9).

In my preparation I always like to read through the Greek and jot down my own thoughts before looking at commentaries or other translations simply so that I approach the text with some kind of freshness of mind. As I worked through 2v1-10 I was struck by the prevalence of σώφρων and its cognates (see vv2, 4, 5, 6 and outside 2v1-10 there’s 1v8 and 2v12).

The word “σώφρων” means something like “of a sound mind” and the idea is that living sensibly (sound mindedly) will result in curbing of one’s desires. The words “temperate” or “self-controlled” are, therefore, sometimes used in translation. In this instance “sensible” (HCSB, RSV, NET) seems like a good translation because it communicates the sound-mindedness of the behaviour. “Self-controlled” is certainly the more common option though (ESV, LEB, NLT, NIV – the ESV has actually reworked this section from the RSV). The trouble is that “self-controlled” lacks the link to thought life. Then there is also the annoying cognate “σωφρονίζω” which means to make someone be “σώφρων” – a concept that English cannot express in a word and so we have “encourage” (HCSB), “train” (ESV, NLT) and “urge” (NIV) but nothing that shows the link Paul is making between a sensible mind and good behaviour (“make the young women sensibly minded so that they love their husbands and love their children”).

No translation I have found picks up on all these occurrences and their cognates. But then, it’s not good English style to repeat words, English prefers synonyms. The unfortunate result is that as English translations alternate between “self-controlled” and “sensible” and even “train”, we lose the emphasis that Paul places on “sensibility” by his repetition.

This is a good example of why I am grateful of the little knowledge I have of Greek: as I read Titus 2, I automatically see a broader theme of Titus, how Paul believes that right thinking leads to right living.

Coming and Going: Idiom Observations

come-in-go-away-doormatSome time ago I preached from Mark 6 and thought verse 31b a little weird, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat”. Of course eating introduces a major theme in the narrative but what on earth are people coming and going for? Surely they come and sit down?

When I preached the passage I looked up the line from verse 34 “they were like sheep without a shepherd” which comes up in Isaiah and Kings (as well as a parallel passage in Chronicles) but also in Numbers 27:17 which caught my eye because of what else Numbers 27:17 says. Moses is asking God to appoint a new leader for Israel, “who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd”. This as a delightful discovery because if Mark is picking up this text, his comment is that Jesus is the new Joshua of Israel; Jesus comes to go out and come in before the people so that they will not be like sheep without a shepherd.

I have still wondered about the expression though and as I’ve been reading the Bible this year it’s jumped out at me a few times. In 1 Samuel 18:13, Saul makes David the commander of a group of soldiers and David, “went out and came in before the people” and in verse 16, “all Israel and Judah loved David [in contrast to Saul], for he went out and came in before them.” Then later in 1 Samuel 29:6, Achish trusts David but the rest of the Philistines don’t (probably a wisely so) but Achish bemoans them saying, “to me it seems right that you should march out and in with me in the campaign.”

What’s the point of all this? Well really that’s pretty much it: I just thought it was an interesting expression and one that is not immediately intuitive; “going out and coming in” seems to be a Semitism (i.e. an idiom that has Near Eastern roots) meaning “to lead”. Have you noticed it anywhere else?

Clarity

clarityGraham has recently done some thinking on clarity so I wanted to write to clarify my views, not so much for the reader but for my own sake. My major concern with popular articulations of clarity (or, if you prefer, perspicuity) is its limitation to the “gospel”. That is, the definition that goes something like, “Clarity is that doctrine by which we mean the elements essential to salvation are clear in Scripture”. The implication of this definition is that there are parts of Scripture that are unclear and this implication is leveraged as an explanation of why differing interpretations arise from a single passage.

Two important points the proponents of clarity make are (1) Scripture interprets Scripture (the unclear in light of the clear) and (2) clarity is not partial (that is, the “elements essential to salvation” are not only partially clear; they are fully clear). This is because the idea of clarity, if partial, is emptied of meaning: how is the interpreter to know which bit is unclear and which bit is clear? Following this, how is the interpreter to know which bits of Scripture to interpret in light of which others? Both of these points are important Scripture must guide our reading of Scripture and for clarity to mean clarity, it cannot be partial.

focusMy concern, however, is that by limiting clarity to “the elements essential to salvation” we are defining our clarity as partial. This leads, in my mind, to having to say that if we disagree about what is essential to salvation, either we must acknowledge that it is not essential (since it is not clear, and what is essential is clear), or we must conclude that our opponent is not a Christian since he cannot see what is clear. In our day and age we would probably opt for the former and the outcome would be a lowest common denominator kind of ecumenical Christianity but there are those who would err on the other side ending up with a “my way or the highway” type of Christianity. Let me, therefore, articulate the points I would want to make about clarity.

What Clarity Is

First and foremost, clarity is the promise of God to communicate. Scripture, as the revelation of God, is His Word to us; we no longer have prophets but we do have the written Word, the communication of the incarnate Word. If Scripture is not clear, God fails at his attempt to communicate. Clarity flows from the character of God as light, communicating himself to us and penetrating our darkness.

Second, the promise of clarity is not to say that the truth is equally accessible and comprehensible to all though. Rather, clarity is the promise that the truth is there and it can be searched out. Varying interpretations do not testify against clarity as though the commentators were wanderers in the dark. Nor does our clarity mean that each commentator is coming to his own truth as though the meaning is wrapped up in the subjectivity of each reader. Rather, varying interpretations testify to the fact that there is something to be gained by grappling with the text and more so in community with others who approach the same text illumined by the Spirit. Hermeneutics and exegesis are not aimless exercises where anything hit becomes a target; clarity teaches that truth is there to be sought.

informationFinally, the promise of clarity is unique to the reading of Scripture. This means that, where in any other field of reading and understanding, critical and creative thinking are at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, this is not the case when reading Scripture. The telos of the communication of God is not information but transformation. The scientific study that common grace affords the unbeliever does not, therefore, achieve the purpose of reading Scripture. The objective meaning of Scripture does not arrive at the recipient as a quiet guest but as one who would ransack the house of the sinful mind leaving everything on its head.

agree? disagree? tell me what you think…