Saturday, October 10, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (3)

“The word of the Lord” is an expression that occurs 242 times in the Old Testament. It is a claim that God has spoken and a demand that he be heard. It is not the only way that the writers of the Old Testament choose to convey the truth that God has something to say, but it is probably their most prominent and frequent way of expressing it.

The word of the Lord is unspeakably powerful. The psalmist records that by it “the heavens were made”. Sometimes the word of the Lord tells great men of great things to come. Other times it warns of  impending judgment. Still other times it appears to address and correct a small, technical injustice, or to establish a personal relationship. It may operate on a grand scale, or intimately and personally.

The Word of the Lord in the Prophets

Unsurprisingly, the phrase occurs most frequently in the Prophets: Ezekiel uses it 60 times, Jeremiah 51 and Zechariah 13. The book of Jonah, the subject of this study, uses the expression three times, including in its very first verse.

The phrase also occurs 46 times in the books of Kings, twice concerning God’s encounters with King Solomon, and the rest having to do with the giving of various messages from God to the prophets of that era: the unnamed “man of God” out of Judah, the old prophet who got him killed, Ahijah, Jehu the son of Hanani, Elijah, a “certain man” from among the sons of the prophets, Elisha and Isaiah.

The High Hand

Interestingly, the phrase “the word of the Lord” is almost never associated with the Law of Moses, which is where we might reasonably expect to find it most prominently. The expression is only used on one occasion in that connection, and that singular and notable exception is found in Numbers 15:31.

That passage has to do with the reviler, a person who “does anything with a high hand”, who despises the word of the Lord and who is to be cut off from his people.

If we wonder what it might mean to do something with a “high hand”, throughout the rest of the Old Testament this word gadaph is translated “blaspheme”. A blasphemer was a person who publicly contravened the word of the Lord, within Israel or outside it, as in the case of Rabshakeh in 2 Kings 19, who dared to mock the living God. It is also used to refer to anyone in Israel who made a public offering to another “god”. A high-handed man was not a man who made one accidental slip of the tongue, or committed one rash act. He was a man who deliberately and consciously set himself against God, not just in the privacy of his own heart, but in the public square. He was a rebel who had no place among the people of God.

The Written Word and the Prophetic Word

So then, the vast majority of the time the expression “the word of the Lord” refers not to the Law of Moses, the written word accepted and sometimes followed by the nation of Israel, but to specific, one-off, prophetic utterances given either to supplement or reinforce what had been written in the Law of Moses, or else to provide individuals with the sort of specific, personal directions the Law was never designed to convey.

The “word of the Lord”, then, generally means the prophetic word as opposed to the written word. Of course, these prophecies would later be written down. We have many of them recorded for us today. But in the first instance, the expression refers to a message delivered from God to the prophet for the benefit of his immediate audience.

The Missing “Word”

There were lengthy periods of time in Old Testament history when, as 1 Samuel puts it, the word of the Lord was rare. Many OT books contain no reference at all to the “word of the Lord”, among them Leviticus, Judges (no surprise there), Ruth, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (again, definitely no surprise there), Song of Songs, Lamentations and four of the prophets. To my great surprise that also includes Daniel, whose only reference to the “word of the Lord” is a previous word to Jeremiah.

This may help us distinguish the word of the Lord from other ways in which God reveals himself in the Old Testament, especially dreams and visions, which certainly left strong impressions on the people who received them, but also often required further interpretation to exposit their meaning. Wherever we find the expression “the word of the Lord” in scripture, there is no such ambiguity. God spoke in the language of his people, and the prophets merely passed on what God had said. Sometimes they even received words from God without fully knowing what those words referred to.

Incidentally, the expression “the word of the Lord” occurs only 13 times in the New Testament, where it always means either “the word spoken by the Lord Jesus”, as in Luke 22:61 or Acts 11:16; or, more often, “the testimony about the Lord Jesus”, as in Acts 8:25 or Acts 16:32, where it is really a euphemism for the gospel.

Claims and Proofs

To say “the word of the Lord came to me”, as the prophets so frequently do, is to make a claim, and a very important one. A claim is not an unequivocal proof of the divine origin of one’s words, but it is certainly a challenge. To make it was to prick up the ears of one’s audience. Claiming to speak for God is not something a devout Israelite did lightly, or at all.

For example, the writings of Jeremiah’s amanuensis Baruch are held by some to be part of the canon of scripture, but Baruch himself never makes any such claim. He wrote the phrase “the word of the Lord” over fifty times in connection with the prophecies of Jeremiah, but not once concerning his own writings. Baruch’s meditations may have been useful to believing Israelites and an accurate reflection of their times, but they make no pretense to be on the level of holy writ. No godly man would dare attach his name to such a claim.

So then, when we read in the very first verse of this book that “the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai”, we are reading something of great significance. The Law of Moses — that great body of truth which so powerfully speaks of God’s character and his requirements for his people, which points to Messiah and governed every aspect of corporate life in Israel — was wholly insufficient to deliver this particular message. God had a specific, personal word for the wicked city of Nineveh, and he very deliberately chose a man to deliver it who did not want the job.

Jonah was a prophet. He knew exactly what that meant. That’s why he ran.

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