December 1, 1986 Issue

by Steven Bowen

    "More to be desired are they than gold... sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb." Those words, poetically penned by the singer of Israel, expresses what should be the sentiments of every man who ponders upon God's message to man. Although that message has been attacked through the years, both from within and without, it has been able to survive every war waged against it, to weather every storm. What is it about the Bible that makes it such a unique book, one that, indeed, is "sweeter than honey?" Why does it continue to intrigue its readers? Part of the answer to those questions lies in the message it contains--a message that, despite the ages that have elapsed, is unlike any conceived by human intellect. When man has trouble comprehending that message, he soon finds that it is not the fault of the message; he just has not traveled far enough, grown tall enough, to reach such a level of spiritual comprehension. That message, then, sets the Bible apart, thus intriguing its readers. It is not, however, the message alone that makes the Bible "sweeter than honey": the methods the writers used to convey that message are also instrumental to that end. The language the Bible employs is filled with figures of speech that make its teaching both understandable and beautiful. Christ and the writers of the various books were not unfamiliar with the surroundings and lifestyles of the day; thus, they used such information to illustrate spiritual truths. Those spiritual truths, and the figurative language that envelops them, indeed, are instrumental in setting the Bible apart as a book that is unique and, still "sweeter than honey."

    One device that the Bible employs to relate physical surroundings to the spiritual realm is the parable. Christ, of course, was the master of this medium of illustration as he availed himself of numerous opportunities to place spiritual truths "side by side" with temporal situations. Ever the opportunist, Christ was always prepared, both mentally and verbally, to unveil mysteries that the people of his day were unfamiliar. In unveiling those mysteries, Christ used the parable to accomplish one of several purposes it often serves: to reveal the truth. Because the people of his day were ignorant concerning the kingdom, and other subjects with spiritual implications, Christ would put those messages in terms that were understandable, always drawing his lessons from the familiar aspects of their daily lives. In the process, he invariably would reveal invaluable truths. A second purpose of the parable, paradoxically, is to conceal the truth. Responding to the question the apostles raised concerning why he spoke in parables, Christ answers: "Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand" (Mt 13:11, 13). Adhering to his own principle of not casting "pearl before swine" (Mt 7:6), Christ refused to insult the sublime spiritual pearls by casting them to those who had no desire to appreciate their beauty. Thus, the parable was an ideal instrument to conceal such beauteous gems. A third purpose the parable serves is to convict men of error. The parable, because it is fictitious, has the uncanny ability of removing all subjectivity and bias from the minds of the hearers, thus allowing them to listen objectively. Often, then, such listeners would consent to the obvious truth before they realized that truth indicted them. Such an indictment is, precisely, the final outcome in the parable of the wicked husbandmen in Mt. 21. Christ, in the midst of the self-righteous chief priests and elders who, without question, were in need of a lesson, tells about some wicked husbandmen who beat the servants of the house holder who were sent to receive the fruits that belonged to him. As an ultimate insult, these wicked men killed the man's heir. Having related those grotesque details, Christ turns to his own accusers and confronts them with this question: "When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?" (vs. 40). Viewing those events with objective eyes, these religious leaders readily admit that the householder will destroy such wicked men. Christ, of course, quickly turns the tables on them when he explains to them that, unknowingly, they had just issued their own verdict, for they had rejected the stone that was to become the chief corner stone. Yes, they would soon kill the householder's heir themselves! The classic example, no doubt, of a parable being used to convict one is in the Old Testament, a familiar story which reaches a momentous climax when Nathan shocks David with the immortal, but indicting, words, "Thou art the man." The silence that followed those words of indictment has thundered through the centuries. David, having moments earlier pronounced a death sentence upon a rich man who had robbed and slaughtered a poor man's only ewe lamb, could only resume his seat, lower his scepter, and, with all the contrition he could muster, admit his error. Certainly, the beauty of Nathan's parable, and the tremendous impact that it had on David has made this parable immortal. Centuries later, the story is still told. The effect is still dramatic. Lives are still touched when these words are again resounded: "Thou art the man!" Such parables are effective not only in causing men to consent to the truth, as David did, but they are also effective in embalming the truth, evidenced by the significant impact the parables have on modern audiences. What better reason for inspired men to use this medium of illustration than this fourth reason: TO ENSURE THAT THE TRUTH NEVER BE FORGOTTEN!!! Who can forget the parable of the sower, the good Samaritan, the great supper, the prodigal son--and who can miss the beautiful and paramount truths such parables present? They are ingrained on our minds, exemplified in our lives, preserved in our hearts. Such truths shall never become obsolete. They are embalmed! They are preserved IN A PARABLE!

    Another useful figure of speech that the Bible employs to convey its imperative messages is the simile, a poetic or imaginative comparison that can be recognized by the use of the words "like" or "as." The simile is used to achieve basically the same purposes of the parable, but it contrasts the parable because it furnishes the means of comparison by a statement, not a story. In Mt. 13, Christ, though, combines the simile and the parable to teach his disciples some basic, yet unfamiliar, lessons concerning the kingdom. Such similes, or similitudes since they are expanded into a story, serve effectively to compare the kingdom of heaven to things with which the disciples were familiar. Thus, by placing the two in juxtaposition, the disciples could readily see the similarities between the two. He compares the kingdom to leaven, to a treasure hid in a field, to a merchant man selling pearls who decides to sell all to buy the "pearl of great price," to a net cast into the sea. Each similitude effectively reveals a distinct characteristic of the kingdom: its influence, its value, its uniqueness, and its various types of members. Christ purposely chose the similitude in this case because his objective was to compare, to teach them about the unfamiliar by comparing it to the familiar. He did more than merely teach them those truths about the kingdom, though: he ingrained those truths in their minds by the use of figurative language. Christ concludes this great sermon by using a simile to compare a scribe of the kingdom, or one who searched for spiritual truths, to an house holder who brings from his treasure house "things new and old" (vs. 52). Often a householder in that day would go to his treasure house to provide his family with its necessities. The message Christ here is conveying is a timely and beautiful one: often a man must go into the treasure house of truth and glean from the pages of God's word lessons that, whether new or old, will be sufficient for him, for his family. How often, when we journey to that treasure house, do we look on that shelf that contains God's truths "embalmed" in beautiful figurative language--and how many timely truths can be gleaned from that shelf!?

    Another figure of speech that the Bible employs that aids in conveying spiritual truths, and in setting the Bible apart from all other books, is the metaphor, a term which literally means "to carry beyond." Unlike the simile, the metaphor is stripped of comparative words, thus making it more direct. Christ, and inspired writers used this device skillfully on occasions when they wished to deliver a message that was brief and pungent. Thus, one important reason this particular medium of illustration was chosen was to express magnitudes, that is, to be most emphatic! The weeping prophet, centuries before Christ, had a message that he wanted to deliver, and he had no desire to circumvent the issue nor to soften the flow. "For my people have committed two evils (saith the Lord); they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (Jer 2:13). Like many in the religious world today, the Israelites had lost perspective concerning what God demands. They had forsaken his way, refused his "fountain", and chosen their own way, "hewing" out their own salvation, hewing out man-made "cisterns." These are, the Lord says, "broken cisterns that can hold no water." What impact such an effective metaphor must have had on these digressing people! They not only had forsaken God's plan--their first evil--but they also had devised their own plan, a man made plan, a "leaky" plan. That was their second evil.

    These people may have had difficulty differentiating between God's plan and their plan, but they readily saw the difference between a "fountain of living water" and a leaky bowl!!! Jeremiah's message, by the way, is not outdated. Christ, also, used the metaphor in order to be emphatic in his teaching. Such teaching took place on one occasion in an upper room: "This is my body which is given for you," Christ says as he institutes the Lord's supper only hours before his climatic death, and "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you" (Lk 22:19-20).

    Because the metaphor is more forceful than the simile, Christ chooses this figure of speech to express the importance of the sacrifice that he would soon make, the importance of the blood that was to flow, the body that was to be mangled and torn, the new testament that he was to ratify by the shedding of his blood. Such an important message necessitated the most effective and emphatic tool available to convey it. Indeed, no greater message has ever been delivered than the message proclaimed from that upper room, and later, on a wooden beam from a knoll called Calvary. Christ also used the metaphor to establish relationships. It was not uncommon for Christ, in terms that the disciples could understand, to refer to himself as such common things as the door, the rock, the fountain, or the good shepherd. Those metaphors, and numerous others, effectively illustrated Christ's relationship to his disciples as well as certain characteristics that he possessed. On one occasion, perhaps in that upper room, or near a vineyard on his way to the mount of Olives, Christ stopped to deliver a discourse that was intended to draw his disciples close to him, to make them realize that they cannot exist outside of the vine. He chose this metaphor to convey that paramount message: "I am the vine, ye are the branches... Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can you except ye abide in me" (Jn 15:1-5).

    Having just completed the Lord's supper, and realizing that his blood would soon be spilled, even as the juice of the grape is squeezed from its cluster, Christ puts this illustration in the ideal context. From the simple declarative and metaphorical statement-"I am the vine"--Christ continues to show not only the dependence of the branches on the vine, but also the dependence of the vine on the branches. The branches must bear fruit, not the vine! Christ extends the metaphor a step further by showing that God is the husbandman and it is his responsibility to prune the fruit-bearing vines, and to sever those that are barren. A third purpose of the metaphor is, like the parable, to embalm the truth. To find a satisfactory example of such a metaphor, one need look no further than the immortal psalm of David which begins with these memorable words: "The Lord is my shepherd." David, whether in the midst of trouble and in the abyss of despair, could find solace in the Lord, a caring, protecting, providing shepherd. In the same psalm, David uses another metaphor, this time refer ring to God as a host who "prepares a table before me." This host, not at all unlike the King in Christ's parable of the King's Son in Mt. 22, withholds nothing to meet the needs of his people. How often did David adjourn to his treasure house of spiritual meditation, and there express such sentiments as those in Ps. 23, there write psalms and sing songs that proclaim God and his truth!? Those songs and psalms, with their magnetic figures of speech, have a special place, of course, in our own treasure houses. How often, indeed, we go there to get treasures both old and new!

    This same David, remember, described the value of God's word as more desirable "than gold," its taste as "sweeter than honey." Even today, centuries later, that Word remains worthy of such epithets.

    God's word is incomparable both in its message and its language. Part of the beauty of its message, I think, is its language, and part of the beauty of its language is its message. For ages, when man has needed help that temporal methods cannot provide, he has gone to that message, to that treasure house to get what he needed, both "old and new." Christ's description of God's word as both old and new is certainly an appropriate one despite the paradox. Indeed, God's word is old. It has had to endure the ages; it has had to weather the many storms. In spite of all of those ages, though, in spite of those waging storms, still it is new! Its language has remained fresh, its message timely, its taste "sweeter than honey."

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