The Prophet’s Eye

Malachi turns to a barnyard image to express exuberant joy.

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading through the twelve Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. I’d long ignored some of them. I thought they had little to say to me. Was I wrong! I encountered a number of surprises along the way.

Just as I was about to end my journey, I encountered one more at the end of Malachi, the last of the twelve. In one of his final paragraphs (Malachi 4:1-3), Malachi looks into the future. He talks of a day coming when all wickedness will be uprooted like pesky weeds pulled up and thrown into the fire. Neither root nor branch of wickedness will survive.

In that day, he says, the “sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2). It’s a beautiful metaphor, even if mixed. It calls to mind–to my mind at least–the detail in the story of Noah’s flood when the dove comes bringing an olive twig in his peak (Genesis 8:1-12). The new day of a cleansed earth has begun.

Then Malachi draws upon an image that caught my breath. In that same day when wickedness is fully uprooted, the prophet says, “you shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:2). Calves leaping and dancing as they race out the stall in which they have been penned up. What an expressive image of exuberant joy!

I loved the image. It’s so vivid. It captures aptly that feeling of joy upon liberation. I think back to the photographs of people dancing in the streets on V-J Day when World War II came to an end. I think of the jig African-American slaves danced when they received news of the Emancipation Proclamation, a day commemorated in Texas as the Juneteenth Festival. I think of the dancing that takes place at weddings.

What also impressed me was the prophet’s observant eye. We don’t know if Malachi was a farmer or grew up on a farm, but he had obviously watched what goes on in the barnyard. He must have seen just this kind of behavior as he watched a farmer release his calves out to pasture.

Discerning God in the Details of Daily Life

This is one reason, I believe, for the power we find in the prophets’ expressions. They often use images in their oracles and sermons. Those images show that they had a sharp eye for the details in daily life. Their messages were messages from God, but from a God who does not live in colorless abstraction, but “has his eye upon the sparrow, and therefore he watches me.”

It is no accident that so much of the prophetic literature is expressed in poetry. The prophets have the gift that poets have. They see in the particular, not in the abstract. And so they see in the particulars of daily living an instrument for divine revelation. Every detail of our daily lives has the potential to reveal the God who creates in a wild diversity of individualities.

How different this is from the spirit of Greek philosophy and science. Greek intellectuals tended to devalue the particular. It expressed transience and therefore imperfection. They sought instead the unchanging universal behind all the variegated diversity of the world. They sought the general laws or principles, not the specific phenomenon, that applied to all. Aristotle expresses this drive when he writes, “…as their names imply, the sciences are sciences of the universal.”*

Modern science follows in this same pathway. It seeks the universal laws that govern all natural phenomena. And often those laws are expressed in the most abstract form: a mathematical formula.

I do not have a scientific mind in this sense. I find it tedious to read page after page of scientific prose that deals in abstract laws. Mathematical formulas remain opaque to me.

A Preference for Story and Poetry

Likewise I have always found it tedious to read page after page of abstract, rational argument, such as we find in many philosophical texts (and theological texts as well). Several weeks after reading such texts I find hardly anything has stuck in my memory. It’s all slipped away.

Why is that? Because there is no vivid image or expression that hooks on to a piece of my brain and becomes rooted there like a barnacle on an ocean vessel. I need the particular to engage me.

I would compare the experience of reading abstract, rational argument to watching a parade of cardboard boxes moving steadily down a conveyer belt in a retail warehouse. Each box comes down the line in the same, basic shape of a tan, rectangular container. There might be incredible treasures inside, but I am not likely to want to pick upon any one of them and open it up.

But then down the line comes a box wrapped in bright, colorful paper. A big red bow winds around the box. Little tiny bells tingle from the ribbon. Now that is a box that will grab my eye. It will entice, and I will want to reach out and pull it off the line, to open it and to explore what treasure may lie inside.

That’s how vivid images or details work for me. They have a power to engage. They hook into my memory. That’s why poetry has such power, even in our age of boring prose.

What is true for me, I believe, is true for a great many people. We need the vivid image or the revealing detail from daily life before something we hear or read hooks into their minds. That’s why so many more people resonate to the telling of a story than to a rational argument. This is a rhetorical strategy that good public speakers use skillfully.

The Biblical writers, therefore, show a wisdom in choosing the literary forms they choose to use. They opt far more for story and poetry to express meaning than for abstract argument. It gives the Biblical texts some of their unusual power to communicate not only concepts, but also to move the spirit.

______________________

* Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics), Book X:9, translated by J.A.K. Thomson. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962. Page 313.

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