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.

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* 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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God in the Center, not in the Gaps

When God moves from being a theological construct to being a divine Thou

Bible text: Psalm 23

I think it’s safe to say that Psalm 23 is the most beloved passage in all of the Bible. It is a hymn of quiet confidence in God. And for that reason it has spoken solace to many an agitated heart.

It is so familiar, however, that we can easily miss its remarkable artistry. Its author is a superb poet.

Two Dominant Metaphors

We see that in his use of metaphors. Two dominate the psalm. One is the metaphor of the shepherd. The psalm starts out with that ringing declaration: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. The line is like the mighty bells of a great cathedral reeling out their joy on Easter Sunday.

The shepherd leads his flock into nourishing pastures. He protects them from predators. He is the model of the ideal king, whose chief job is to provide for and protect his people, especially the most vulnerable in society. (For another Hebrew reflection on ideal kingship, read Psalm 72).

The second metaphor the poet uses is the metaphor of the host. God is said to be a superlative host. He welcomes the traveler. He spreads before him a wonderful meal. He grooms his guest’s hair with fragrant olive oil. He fills his guest’s cup with overflowing wine.

You can appreciate why this image would speak so powerfully to its original audience when you remember that travelers in the ancient Near East relied on the generosity of local residents to provide them with food, drink, and shelter from bandits. Inns and hotels were rare.

In the Old Testament when God is described as a good shepherd, he is usually seen as the shepherd of the people of Israel. But in Psalm 23, the poet sees God as more than a national provider. God is MY shepherd. Faith has moved from a community into an intimately personal level.

Trust against a Backdrop of Danger

Both of these metaphors play against a backdrop of danger and potential despair. The psalmist is walking through a valley of deep darkness. He consumes his meals aware that his enemies are jealously looking on. Evil lurks in the shadows, like a tiger just waiting for the opportune moment to pounce. Anxiety enwraps his life.

Yet the poet remains confident. At the moment in the poem of greatest danger, when he is walking through the valley of deep darkness, he sounds out his confidence in these resounding words: I fear no evil, for you [God] are with me.

Here is where we particularly glimpse his artistry. First, this is the point in the psalm where the poet stops talking about God and starts talking to God. The sentence turns from third-person discourse to second-person address. The language shifts from testimony to prayer.

This is the point when God becomes something more than an intellectual construct. God becomes someone whom the poet not only thinks about, but also meets. God as theological It has become God as divine Thou.

God at the Center

But here is something more amazing. The “you” in verse 4 comes at the exact middle of the psalm. The Hebrew word for “you” is atah. And in the psalm in Hebrew, 27 words precede it; 27 words follow it. At the exact center of the poem comes the divine “you.”

At the heart of biblical faith, God is not one who stands on the outskirts of life. God stands at the center of our lives as well as at the center of the universe. Now that needs to be said forcefully in our day and age.

In years past there was an old tradition in science of appealing to God when we confronted mysteries in nature. We looked at a natural process. We didn’t understand how that process worked. So we’d invoke God as the hidden hand behind nature. A scientist as eminent as Sir Isaac Newton did that when he ran up against puzzles in the universe that he could not solve.

But as science progresses and more and more of the mysteries of nature are solved, the God of puzzles keeps being pushed more and more to the margins of life and the universe. After a while, God is no longer needed as a hypothesis to explain the world.

That is the attitude of many people today, especially scientists. They can dispense with God, because they don’t need God as an explanation.

I was recently watching a TV interview by Bill Moyers with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson is the host of the new National Geographic TV series called Cosmos. It looks at what modern science tells us about the amazing evolution and structure of our universe.

In the interview Tyson comments that if we look upon God as the answer to nature’s mysteries, then we really have to abandon that kind of God. For that kind of God will be progressively whittled away by the advance of science.

“If you are going to stay religious at the end of the conversation,” he says, “God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian whom Hitler executed, said something similar in a letter he wrote a friend from his prison cell. As he reflected upon his prison experience, he said:

…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. For the frontiers of knowledge are inevitably being pushed back further and further, which means that you only think of God as a stop-gap…[God] must be found at the center of life: in life and not only in death; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in activity, and not only in sin. [Letters and Papers from Prison, Letter dated March 25, 1944]

The psalmist does what Bonhoeffer says needs to happen. He finds God at the center of his life, not just in its gaps.

If we ask, How do we begin to do this?, I answer: Do what the poet does. Begin to pray. In prayer, we may not yet have truly placed God in the center of our being, but we begin that process. For in prayer, we relate to God as that eternal Thou, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. We not only speak to God, but in contemplative prayer, we also begin to listen to and for God. In this two-directional process of prayer, a relationship with God grows that in time becomes central to everything we are and do.