Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Words, Words, Words

Back in 1971 warmed-over sixties folkie Pete Seeger penned this little ditty:

“Words, words, words in my old bible
  How much of truth remains?
  If I only understood them
      while my lips pronounced them
  Would not my life be changed?”

It goes on. Seeger riffs on the Constitution, oral tradition and written history in much the same vein. But his tone is meditative rather than rebellious. He has no new “truth” to declare with his usual hippie bravado. In fact, he seems to wish he could find some of that rare truth in all those “words, words, words”.

Because, yeah … if he understood them, his life would most surely have been different.

The Emanation of Penumbras

His lyric echoes the scrambled thoughts relentlessly bouncing around in my frozen cranium the last couple of days during the moments my morning walk has been too blisteringly frigid to enjoy. These add up to something like this: There are half a dozen or more takes on the meaning of any given Bible verse, line of the Constitution, or bit of conventional wisdom. But only one of any given set of interpretations can be correct, or maybe none at all.

And the number of weird Bible interpretations out there is no more an indication that its writers had no particular intended meaning to convey than the number of weird Constitutional twists currently being coughed up by the U.S. district courts indicates that the Founders lacked a coherent vision of America.

I have seen some truly bizarre interpretations. The U.S. Constitution, we’re told, has “penumbras” “emanating” from it. (A penumbra, if you’re blissfully unaware, is by analogy a ‘shadow’ cast by the written word; a series of implications that may be deduced from it.) It is the province of the great legal minds of this century (read: “radical leftist jurists”) to presume to deduce what the Founders really meant by what they wrote. Thus some lefty loony manages to unearth a “Right to Contraceptives” embedded in the words of Thomas Jefferson et al., or perhaps a right to “gay marriage”. And so on, and so on.

Men Carried Along

The same thing happens with scripture. It is, after all, only “words, words, words”. God-given words, of course. Inspired words. Words written by men “carried along by the Holy Spirit”. But words in the end, and therefore inevitably subject to mankind’s crazy spate of politicized redefinitions.

The sheer number of bad interpretations out there in Christendom is daunting. I have genuine, heartfelt sympathy for seekers who throw up their hands and conclude there is no truth to be found. But the fact that the task is gigantic and riddled with rabbit trails, false leads and deliberate obscurantism does not excuse any of us from trying to find out what the writers of the Bible intended by their words.

The Challenge of the Carried

Because the writers surely intended something. They were not being coy and enigmatic for their own amusement. They were expressing truth in a way that was understandable to the generation in which they spoke, and which charged that generation with the responsibility of seeking out that truth and ordering their lives in accordance with it.

Further, in putting the truth on paper, papyrus, or whatever, they obligated honest men and women everywhere throughout the coming generations to try to seek out their intended meaning, pronounce it, and thereby change their lives.

I readily acknowledge that my life will not be long enough to get there, and neither will yours. There are too many truths that need to be sought out, held up and enthusiastically redeclared for a world in need of them. But you know what? We can definitely eliminate the really dumb interpretations; the ones that are agenda-driven, ridiculous and logically self-defeating. Those should refute themselves if we can be bothered to give them a few minutes of our time rather than running away from them.

There is Great Reward

Why bother? Because:
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
  the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
  the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
  the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
  the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
  the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.”
And here’s the payoff:
“More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
  sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
  Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
      in keeping them there is great reward.”
Yes, they’re “words, words, words”. But if you only understood them your life might be something else entirely.

Something amazing.


  1. I have found Gooding’s “The Riches of Divine Wisdom” to be a big help for me.

    Some of it is a little over my head, but I have found it profitable.

    You likely know the book, but the sub-title is: “The New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament”.

    He goes into all the various ways of understanding the Old Testament’s grammatical and societal use.

    1. I will look that up. I greatly enjoyed his book on Luke.

    2. Devoured and thoroughly enjoyed, Patrick. What an excellent read!