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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Historical Details, Forests and Trees

When I pick up a Bible and try to understand a particular verse or passage, I am at a very slight disadvantage, compared to the original reader, in grasping its meaning.

“Slight?” you might say, as you take out your logical 2x4 and prepare to give me a whack, hopefully in the interest of bringing me to my senses.

“How can you possibly call the disadvantage of living thousands of years after the original writer ‘slight’? Sure, you can read the words that the author penned, assuming there has been no significant textual corruption along the way, but you have no idea what was in the author’s mind. You’re not a Hebrew, and you didn’t live in his day. You don’t know the cultural baggage with which his language was freighted. You didn’t have his experiences. You don’t know Greek idioms or how they came about. Chances are quite high that you are coming to the text with all kinds of modern assumptions that influence how you read things.”

The answers to these objections, respectively, are True, True, True, True, True, True and True.

And yet I would still maintain that my disadvantage in coming to either the Old or New Testament is comparatively minor.

If you disagree, you’ll have to do it with the apostle Paul, who wrote of the Israelites that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

If they were written down “for our instruction”, two things are certain: (1) that it was intended that we understand them well enough to be able to put into effect the practical lessons taught by them; and (2) that we are equipped — or can become equipped — to do so. Otherwise Bible study is an exercise in futility.

Sure, the passage of thousands of years has rendered a number of subtleties and details understandably obscure, but the main point the author is seeking to make invariably comes through clearly notwithstanding all that.

I don’t know what an Edomite or a Philistine look like, or what sorts of racial tensions existed between them and the Israelites, beyond projecting from the facts we are specifically given about the disagreements and wars between the groups, but when I read David insist that “Through God we shall do valiantly, and it is he who will tread down our adversaries,” this much is instantly clear: that these folks were both the enemies of God and of Israel, and that it was only with the help of God that David expected to be delivered from their attacks.

There’s lots more in there that’s equally obvious and easy to grasp too, but you see what I mean: The essence of what David is trying to communicate to his readers is evident without my having to become a historian, humanities professor, linguist or time traveler in order to grasp it.

Which explains the enduring appeal of Scripture thousands of years after it was written by dozens of authors in dozens of different cultural situations.

I often hear preachers get caught up in explaining details they have observed in Scripture (but more often heard somewhere else), because if you talk to the right Hebrew or Greek scholars or read the right history books, you will often discover interesting minutiae that seem to make a passage come alive for you personally.

I’ll concede that some bits are more interesting than others but … you know, forests and trees, folks. A little perspective might be in order:

Recently I heard a Bible teacher describe the whip with which the Lord Jesus’ back was struck, something he dug up from a historical reference. He had lots of specific detail, most or all of which may even have been correct: Bits of bone and leather and little metal balls. It sure sounded painful.

Thing is, the Bible doesn’t describe the whip in that kind of detail. Call me crazy, but I suspect it’s relatively unimportant to know about how bone fragments, leather and lead shot can be arranged to do maximal damage and expose internal organs by shredding and dragging the flesh from the bone.

See, I already have every single detail I need about the suffering of the Lord Jesus without stepping outside the word of God for amplification, and the best part about it is that there’s a spiritual point to be made every time I get a detail. Isaiah says:
“… he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
The prophet gives details, certainly: He was pierced, he was crushed. But never does he drift into sensationalism, morbidity or unnecessary colour. We never lose the majesty and grandeur of the forest we’re standing in for the sake of scrutinizing tree bark. His emphasis is that the sufferings of the Lord were for your sins and mine, and brought peace and healing.

Surely that’s the bigger point, no? Back to the Psalms for a moment:
“The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows. The Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked. May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward!”
Sure, we could spend all day discussing exactly how deep the furrows were, how long, and how they got there. And it might make us feel horrified, sad or guilty, all of which are really poor motivators for godly living. But this is not the psalmist’s occupation or emphasis. He goes right from the plowing and the furrows to the conviction that the Lord will overturn injustice.

And the spiritual lesson, rather than the historical detail, is surely the most important reason to read the Psalm, is it not?

One more, and then I’ll quit beating this drum:
“As many were astonished at you — his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind — so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.”
How horrible was the Lord’s punishment? Beyond human semblance, beyond that of the children of mankind.

But before we start banging our guilty heads against the pews, please read on, because Isaiah’s point, once again, is that God is going to reverse the judgment of man and exalt his Son just as high as man brought him low; he shall be “high and lifted up”. In this passage, that does not simply refer to the cross, but to the blessings that comes from his sacrifice and God’s acceptance of it on our behalf (“he will sprinkle many nations”), to his exaltation (“Kings will shut their mouths because of him”) and there is even an intimation of the spread of the gospel in “that which they have not heard they understand”.

Wallowing in the details of the sufferings of Christ — or, for that matter, the details of anything else in the word of God — without giving priority to the message associated with it by the Spirit of God in the very same sentences and passages is, I suspect, not the Lord’s highest intention for us.

If all you ever see of a tree is the chunk of wood burning in your fireplace, you certainly have something there; it can be useful. But even high school science classes tell us that a growing tree provides a whole lot of other things.

And if you haven’t seen a tree in its rightful setting, you’ve missed the main purpose of trees.

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