Go One More Time For Me…

In the 40 year long ministry of Jeremiah the prophet he was often threatened and sometimes physically abused and even put in jail, and yet the word of the Lord would come to him again and again. We, reading in hind sight, are often apt to miss the pathos of God that comes through in the terrible contexts of judgement.  But Jeremiah misses nothing.  At times he felt unduly “put upon” but he would often be moved by the pathos of YWHW to tread the path to the court of the Lord’s house and appeal to the people in the most affecting ways. One might even imagine Jeremiah hearing the echo of “Go one more time for Me” stirring the deep embers of love for God for whom he suffers the loss of all things. 

 “In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah came this word from the LORD, saying,
2 Thus saith the LORD; Stand in the court of the LORD’S house, and speak unto all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the LORD’S house, all the words that I command thee to speak unto them; diminish not a word: 3 If so be they will hearken, and turn every man from his evil way, that I may repent me of the evil, which I purpose to do unto them because of the evil of their doings. 4 And thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the LORD; If ye will not hearken to me, to walk in my law, which I have set before you, 5 To hearken to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I sent unto you, both rising up early, and sending them, but ye have not hearkened; 6 Then will I make this house like Shiloh, and will make this city a curse to all the nations of the earth.

In the course of these great prophecies that Jeremiah not only spoke but recorded twice (once after being burned by the King) we often miss the nuance of short phrases by God. The great and mighty God is viewed in heaven surrounded by fire and angelic beings thundering judgement in His august sovereignty.  The urge to make “maximal greatness” the fundamental hermeneutic keeps us from hearing these affecting revelations.

“If so be they will hearken” as the King James renders it though we find other versions make these gems easier to perceive.  The New American Standard for instance has “Perhaps they will listen and everyone will turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the calamity which I am planning to do to them because of the evil of their deeds.”

Still many read those words and say “Ok, and?” As if only their eyes read those words but they never really entered their mind or heart.  Theology is the most blessed of the “sciences” but often traditions blunt the force of the text.  It is instructive to unpack the Hebrew of the phrase “Perhaps they will listen” and “that I may repent of the calamity”.  Calamity that God had purposed to bring upon them.

Verse 3: “Perhaps they will hear” – “אוּלַ֣י  .אוּלַ֣ייִשְׁמְע֔וּ is a particle that literally means “perhaps” and is so translated 35 times in the Old Testament.  In cases where humans are involved no one has a problem.  But when God uses that term a whole hive’s worth of hornets swarm around us threatening us to keep in conventional tradition.  There is no “uncertainty” with God.  And yet there it is unambiguously staring back at us from the page of Scripture. Language means something and here God is speaking in mode of contingency.  That means the thing that He hopes for has no certain outcome in view. And in the second phrase “that I may repent” is equally unambiguous.  The word of repent is וְנִחַמְתִּ֣י :  regret: a) have regrets, a change of heart 1 S 15:29; b) niḥam ʿal allow onesf. a change of heart regarding, relent regarding Ex 32:12; c) abs. turn fm. former attitude, repent Jb 42:6;—2. (allow onesf. to) be sorry: a) subj. God Ps 90:13, w. that Gn 6:6f; b) subj. man.[1] This is also a prospective contingent event and speaks of an outcome that is not a fixed certainty to God.

This whole chapter is a recitation of God’s overwhelming love that seeks every opportunity to appeal to rebellious men and women to repent in a way that reveals the pathos of His heart.  They heard that pathos and yet turn away from its appeal.  In fact they determined to do away with Jeremiah himself. “Thou shalt surely die” v8.  Jeremiah reiterates the message further underscoring the contingent nature of the prophecy.

“The LORD sent me to prophesy against this house and against this city all the words that ye have heard.  Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God; and the LORD will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you.” v 12-13. He argues further and cited three previous similar occasions where judgement was averted in the same way being offered then.

It is a wonder to witness the great lengths scholars have gone to wrap God’s works in theological burritos to disguise the magnitude of their direct meaning.  The reasoning goes, “God always knew that they would not repent for He knows everything”.  This was just accommodating speech because man can’t really understand the Mind of God.  Well one thing’s for sure, God has spoken to us so much as if we can understand Him that their arguement rings hollow, if not irreverent. Their theology has become the ultimate hermeneutic above what is actually written.  They have tried to twist the words of God to mean the opposite of exactly what He said. 

Maybe theologians don’t want to hear about the moving ethos of God’s heart.  Maybe they want a theology of the head that does not move the heart. I say, a man ought to humble himself, and indeed even tremble at His word and take it at face value. 

Passages like these are the mirror images of Jesus’ life and teaching.  No wonder he could say, “If you have seen Me, You have seen the Father.”  Jn. 14:9 

When “Can’t” means “Won’t”

Well known Calvinists, e.g., Jonathan Edwards were unable to make that simple observation when it came to God’s nature.  Failing to distinguish between His ontology and His moral attributes he interpreted “God is love” as an ontological attribute.  In other words he reduced the Divine Perfections to cause and effect.  Process theologian Thomas Jay Oord’s latest book “God Can’t” reveals a similar blurring of that all important distinction.  It has been his contention that  Pentecostalism needed process thought for philosophical justification.  That he does not consider other possiblities for the meaning of “cannot” taints that claim with a bit of irony.[1]

Gregory of Nyssa (circa 350 AD) wrote an essay on the possible meanings of “cannot” taken from various locations in Scripture and general literature.
A snippet from “Reading Scripture with the Church Father’s” by Christopher A. Hall

“Norris notes that Gregory understood that “the meaning of a word in Scripture can also be enhanced by know what options exist for the means the word in everyday language as well as in the Bible.” The example Norris supplies from Gregory’s work concerns the Eunomian controversy …

The Eunomians’ denial of the equality of the Father and the Son was based on texts such as John 5:19. Here Jesus teaches that “the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing.” The Eunomians interpreted Jesus’ inability to act on his own as a sign of his inequality with and submission to the Father. 

Gregory knew, however that to “understand what ‘can do nothing’ means, the interpreter must as what ‘cannot’ means.” Gregory responded with a detailed study of what “cannot” means and does not means, an analysis largely base on how “cannot” functions in every day language. Norris has identified at least five aspects of Gregory’s exegesis of “cannot.” 

  1. It can “refer to an ability at a particular time in relation to a specific object. Young children are not accomplished athletes, but they may grow to be such. A little puppy with closed eyes certainly cannot fight, but later he may both see and attack.” 
  2. “Cannot can refer to “something that is usually true but is not true from a particular perspective.” For example, Jesus speaks of a city “on a hill that cannot be hidden.” Does he mean that it could never be hidden” No. “If one stands with a higher hill in the line of sight, the city cannot be seen.” 
  3. “Cannot can refer to “something unthinkable” or not sensible. “At the celebration of a wedding feast, the friends of the bridegroom ‘cannot’ fast while everyone around them is celebrating.” 
  4. “Cannot” may “designate a lack of will as when Jesus ‘could not’ do miracles because of the people’s lack of faith. Jesus did no mighty works in his home town, but that did not mean that he had no power to do them.” 
  5. “Cannot” can refer to things that are simply “impossible,” such “God not existing … or something non-existent existing, or two plus two equaling ten, not four.”

    In this way Gregory compared Scripture with Scripture and showed a wide range of possible meaning for “cannot.”

    [1] “Oord argued that “because Pentecostals and Charismatics claim to be in direct communication with God, they should find a sophisticated philosophical basis in process philosophy for their claim” (Oord 2006:254). “According to Oord, Pentecostalism needs process thought for philosophical justification.” Reichard, Joshua D. 2010. Pentecost, Process, And Power: A Critical Comparison of Concursus in Operational Pentecostal-Charismatic Theology and Philosophical Process-Relational Theology.”