I recently had a conversation with a friend that allowed me to clarify some of my thinking on expressing ourselves biblically and speaking the way God speaks. I’m grateful to him for the dialogue, and grateful also for his permission to share a portion of our conversation with my readers. (I actually wrote this particular email, but I quoted him a couple of times, and felt it necessary to discuss the matter with him first since it was a private conversation.) The message has been lightly edited.
Dear [name withheld by request],
Let me start with your statement:
> There are a lot of examples in the Bible that I would not feel free to follow.
> For example, unlike Solomon, I would not describe my wife’s body in picturesque terms
> to anyone besides her, much less in public. I would be unlikely to write imprecatory
> psalms against my enemies, even if it were permissible.
I would, and have, written and publicly prayed imprecatory prayers, and will again. As to describing my wife’s body…let me put it this way: Solomon is eminently satisfied with his wife’s body, and he doesn’t care who knows it. He commands his sons to be satisfied — intoxicated is a better translation — with their wives’ bodies (Prov.5:19) in turn. I have taken this advice. I am utterly intoxicated with my wife’s body, and I don’t care who knows it.
I would not go as far as Solomon does, but that is a matter of my lack of talent/maturity as a poet.
If you have a close look at Song of Songs, I think you’ll find that the language, while quite evocative, isn’t explicit in the way we usually mean that word. Beyond the fact that one is a man and the other is a woman, you’d have a devil of a time trying to draw a portrait of either Solomon or the Shulamite based on the information in the Song — but you know they’re breathless with desire for each other. You’ll have trouble even telling what’s going on, exactly, at times. It seems fairly clear where the…um…intimate moments are. But you’d be hard pressed to draw out more detail than that there is an evocatively described intimate moment.
They know what’s going on, but we don’t. In other words, it’s the Song of Songs, not the Kama Sutra, nor Playboy, nor a Harlequin romance. If you come to the Song previously “educated” by those pagan works, then you’ll be disappointed: “Why does he get so vague just when he’s getting to the good parts?”
I imagine Solomon responding, “I said be satisfied with your wife, not with mine. What do you want with knowing more about us? Go and learn each other, and when your lovemaking has the flavor of my Song, then you’re getting somewhere.”
The Song gets us close enough to their love to be warmed by its fire, but not close enough to get burned.
I write poetry off and on, and I can tell you: that’s really, really hard to do. It’s a lofty goal worthy of a really great Christian poet.
> Is it your position that anything found in Scripture, anything attributed to or endorsed by
> God, should inform our manner of speech?
I don’t think I’d want to just say yes to this without some elaboration. “Inform” is the point of difficulty. If you mean, should we take what God has said into account, then obviously, yes. If you mean, can we say it, then definitely maybe, depending on what it was, and the circumstances, and who we are.
Yeah, I know — not helpful. Let me try to clarify.
Proverbs gives a number of guidelines for wise speech. One of the signal ones is in 26:4-5, which requires answering a fool without getting sucked into his folly, but also answering him in a way that does not permit him to be wise in his own eyes. If we want a look at what sort of talk does this, there are a few places where wisdom personified talks to a fool, notably 1:22-33 and 8:1-36. If you’re going to follow the advice that Solomon gives to his sons, i.e., apply 26:4-5, you’re going to have to speak wisely to fools. On the evidence, that includes some pretty rough language.
Sinking our roots deeper into Proverbs, we find that an important facet of wise speech is ridicule: “As a door turns on its hinges, so turns a lazy man upon his bed.” It makes sinners look ridiculous — and this is not slanderous, but true, because sin really is that ridiculous. The thing about this mode of expression is that the lazy fool can’t deny the validity of the comparison — once the image is in his head, he can’t ‘un-see’ it — and he is no longer wise in his own eyes. This is exactly the point.
Vividness enters in other ways. If I’m addressing, say, a bunch of high school boys on sexual purity, Proverbs 7:6-27 looks like a good place to go. The passage is extremely vivid; the movie version would be a very disturbing montage of sex and violence. It’s meant to be that, and it should be presented vividly — I’m not faithful to the passage if I do any less. But if I really present that passage as vividly as it deserves, I’m gonna get a bunch of angry phone calls from parents.
The first question to entertain is this: Must we present these passages?
If so, then the second question: Are we free to present them in a way that blunts the force that God put into them?
If we say no, we dare not do that; we must be faithful to the force of the passage, then we’re already most of the way there. Just presenting things that are clearly applicable today, in ways that are suitably reflective of the force with which the passages are written, will compel some pretty colorful speech. That sort of speech is therefore not wrong in itself — in fact, it’s required.
Next question: At whom must I aim this speech? In the case of applying Prov.26:4-5, obviously, at the fool. How do I know who he is? By studying what Proverbs says about him.
If you undertake a serious study of the characters in Proverbs, what Solomon says about them, and how to interact with them, you will come out carrying a heavy weight of understanding that you must rebuke certain people, and that you must do so colorfully and memorably. Sarcasm, insults, and invective are among the many tools that are presented for your use within the book. This is how Wisdom speaks to fools — and above all things, get wisdom.
You’ll note I haven’t touched the minor prophets, Jesus, Paul, etc. We’re getting there shortly. But first…
There are clear NT commands to sing the Psalms, notably Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, and Jam. 5:13. There are 150 of them, and we should learn to sing them all. When we do that, and do it regularly, we will be taught by the Psalms. We will learn to live with our emotions as God teaches us to do. We will also find that our prayers change, and the things we are comfortable praying for will change as well.
A Christian that is raised singing the Psalms will not be uncomfortable with imprecatory prayer. Many Christians are uncomfortable — a further damning evidence that we have utterly failed to be educated by the Psalms as we should. This discomfort is not an overabundance of sanctification; it’s simple squeamishness. That David and the Holy Spirit prayed these prayers in the Psalms is proof enough. If further evidence is desired, note that Paul is no stranger to imprecatory prayer (2 Tim. 4:14), nor are the departed (and therefore perfected and sinless) saints of Rev. 6:9-11.
The excuse — and it is an excuse — arises that all these people are in situations that guarantee the righteousness of what they’re doing: David and Paul are Spirit-inspired, and the departed saints are dead and sinless. Therefore, so the argument goes, they could do these things, but I cannot, because I could not guarantee the righteousness of it in my case.
But one has to ask, what sort of evidence would satisfy this objection? If the biblical examples of imprecation were in situations that did not guarantee the righteousness of the practice, then the imprecation would be taken as clear evidence that the speaker was in sin. When the imprecations are in situations where they have to be righteous, that very guarantee of righteousness becomes an excuse not to emulate the biblical example. The objection therefore stands revealed: it is not a conviction derived from Scripture, but a simple predjudice, an a priori assumption that flesh-and-blood normal people cannot righteously pray imprecations.
And it’s baloney. If we are not to emulate righteousness, then what, pray tell, are we to emulate?
It is God’s character to vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. One has to wonder how it could be a sin to pray for God to act in accord with His character.
The critical question is, in what context does one pray these prayers? The answer is largely in the prayers themselves. A careful study of the imprecatory psalms gives a good sense of the circumstances in which, by biblical example, such prayers are appropriate. Someone trying to kill you? Okay. Common thieves preying upon the innocent? Sure. The guy who cut you off in traffic just now? Not so much. Sorry.
Following Jesus is tricky business. If somebody is walking around in a robe and sandals, and he says he’s folloiwng Jesus, well… Jesus wore the clothing of his day. A follower of Jesus today should wear the clothing of ours.
“So following Jesus means not wearing what Jesus wore?” robe-and-sandal guy will ask.
“Yes” we should say, without embarrassment. “That’s exactly what it means.”
On the other hand, when Jesus verbally flays the sectarian hypocrites of His day in such colorful terms, He is applying the commands of Proverbs: answering fools according to their folly, lest they be wise in their own eyes. We ought also to apply the commands of Proverbs, and we could do worse than to do it like Jesus did.
One could describe the ministry of the minor prophets in similar terms. People wonder how one could justify postmodern life-as-performance-art from the Bible. Hosea was doing it centuries before Christ — and making a very Solomonic point in so doing.
We are ambassadors of Christ to a watching world. We dare not do any less than faithfully present Scripture. We must speak about things as God speaks about them.
The alternative is to speak ‘kindly,’ where ‘kind’ is defined not by what God has said and done, but by our sentiment which we have assumed and pasted willy-nilly onto the Scriptures. “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me, and in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Hope this helps.