Is Poetry Less or More Accurate – Part II

scribe.2After the last post, I found in my old friend from the last 40 years, The New Bible Commentary, IVP, 1960 the following quote.  The commentators on the Psalms in that work are Leslie M’Caw, J. A. Motyer.  My guess is that this particular quote is by Motyer, it sounds like him. ( His commentary on Isaiah is the best mis of scholarship and faith on that book that I have encountered.)

The question was, is poetry less accurate than theological language?  I said that poetry and theological prose are complimentary.


 “It is characteristic of the bible to express its great truths in the context of personal experience.  Partly, this is because God is never proposed as a subject of man’s intellectual, speculative enquiry (cf. Jb. 11:7,8), but for his devotion, worship and obedience. It is also because the Bible never considers a truth ‘known’ until it controls the life of the learner.  Of all this view of things, Ps. 139 is a classic instance. The psalm could be said to teach  God’s omniscience (vv. 1-6), omnipresence (vv. 7-12), sovereignty (vv. 13-16) and holiness (vv. 17-24), yet in the truest sense nothing could less exactly express the psalmist’s mind than these four great abstractions.  To the psalmist, omniscience is “god’s complete knowledge of me’, omnipresence is that ‘God is with me no matter where I am’, an so forth.  The ‘I-thou’ relationship is basic to the poem.”   (p. 537)


“Security is the central truth of the psalm. God’s complete knowledge of him (vv.1-6) focuses on God’s encirclement and tender care (v. 5); God’s omnipresence (vv. 7-12) means that his hand ever guides and holds (v. 10); and God’s creative power (vv.13-16) includes the pre-planning of all his days (v. 16).  At all times, in all places and in every circumstance, god is in control and the psalmist is in safety.”  (p. 528)

Psalm 139 (NRSV)

To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.

Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
    and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
    and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

On Rocks, Windows and the Law

This sermonic riff is based on a comment by J. A. Motyer

“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” James 2:10

The Word of God is more like a glass window than it is like a pile of rocks. Suppose I find a large pile of rocks.  It is a big pile with many hundreds of rocks in it.  There I find one rock I do not like.  I don’t like its color or its shape.  So I go, take the rock out of the pile and throw it away as far as I can.  I think, “Now it looks better. No one will miss that one stone.”

Now imagine a window.  I take a stone and strike the glass.  A crack develops and spreads through the whole window and destroys it completely.  I cannot treat the window like a pile of rocks.  The Word of God is like a window.  We must take all of it, not just some part.  If we break one part, we have broken the whole.  So then if I practice favoritism, I have broken the entirety of the Law.

“Has not God chosen the poor…” James 2:5

James certainly has a preference for the poor.  In the rich brother/poor brother discussion in 1:9-11 the poor are elevated and the rich are taken down a few pegs.  In the rich visitor/poor visitor event (2:1-4), he is not against the rich, but against us if we prefer the rich to the poor.  In 4:13ff he warns the businessman to remember God in his plans and in 5:1-6 he has harsh words for rich oppressors, who do not pay the promised wages to their workers.

In addition, he mentions the major categories of groups that are given special concern in the OT prophetic, legal and wisdom literature. For example: Deuteronomy 10:17-19 –

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19  Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  (ESV)

The widow and the orphan are mentioned in 1:27, the laborer in 5;4 and the poor in chapter 2 extensively.  One of the marks of true religion is how we treat others who can not give us advantages.

So is James against the rich?  Not per se, but as James is writing in the wisdom style, as we find in the book of Proverbs, his observations are generally true, but not always true.  (Diligence does not always lead to wealth, even though many proverbs say there is a link.)

It is in this light that I add three more comments by J. A. Motyer.

“…we see that he is expressing a general rather than an invariable truth.  The Lord does not choose only the poor; it is not only the rich who persecute the believers and blaspheme the name of Jesus.  Yet, in general, this is not only true but overwhelmingly true.  The preponderance of the Lord’s concern is shown for those who are towards the bottom of the world’s heap.  This appeared in the Old Testament’s fundamental historical event, the Exodus…” p. 88

“We can so easily excuse ourselves from facing the bluntness of James’ words by allowing that (after all!) he is expressing a general rather than an exclusive truth. Yet the infrequency with which the Bibles makes comparisons in this way — by allowing one side of the comparison to swamp the other — should alert us to the fact that we are not permitted to find an escape hatch for ourselves…” p. 89

“Money still does the talking far too loudly in Christian circles, and where and when it does, the glory of Christ departs.” p. 90

The Message of James, J. A. Motyer, IVP, 1985

James, the Word & J. A. Motyer

“We might wonder why the ever-practical James does not proceed to outline schemes of daily Bible reading or the like, for surely these are the ways in which we offer a willing ear to the voice of God.  But he does not help us in this way.  Rather, he goes deeper, for there is little point in schemes and times if we have not got an attentive spirit.  It is possible to be unfailingly regular in bible reading, but to achieve no more than to have moved the book-mark forward; this is reading unrelated to an attentive spirit.”

J. A. Motyer, The Message of James, 1985, IVP