March 22nd, 2018

The limitations of language

By Submitted Article on November 4, 2017.

Word Power

Second of three parts

Jacob M. Van Zyl

The sting of death and crisis

reduces well-meant words

to empty, hollow sounds

of powerless sympathy.

The proverb, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” underlines the power of words. And yet, when we are faced with tragedy, we struggle to find meaningful words.

Even a president’s words, intended to underline the heroism of a fallen soldier, may be misunderstood and painted as a mean effort to increase a widow’s pain.

When a loved one strays, wading deeper into the marshes of immorality or addiction, family members wish they had the persuasive words to open the person’s eyes before it is too late.

Ministers of religion, doing their level best in preparing and delivering messages, often feel their words lack the power to stir church members into deeper commitment.

When we enjoy the beauty of nature, a sunset or mountain vistas, we wish we had the gift of a poet to express our awareness adequately at that moment.

Even the incarnated Son of God felt that frustration when people did not accept him for who he was – despite his miracles and parables. He pronounced a woe on the towns where most of his miracles took place because they did not repent and did not grab the kingdom of heaven he held out to them (Matt. 11:20-24).

He pitied the people of Jerusalem, whom he wanted to gather as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but they refused (Luke 13:34-35). Amid the “Hosanna!” of the crowds on Palm Sunday, he wept, knowing the welcome would be short-lived, and would soon change to “Crucify him!” (Luke 19:45-48).

Because Israel did not listen to the words of the prophets, God sometimes let the prophets demonstrate a prophecy without words to stir curiosity. Jeremiah carried a yoke on his shoulders to portray Israel’s pending captivity (Jer. 27). Ezekiel cooked food on fire made with impure dung to show the dire circumstances Judah would suffer in exile (Ezek. 4). Hosea had to marry a prostitute to portray Israel’s infidelity towards God (Hos. 1-3).

The apostle Paul, who brilliantly developed New Testament theology in his letters, had to hear from his critics that the messages he delivered in person were weak (2 Cor. 10:10).

On one occasion, Paul was speechless: when he had a vision of heaven (2 Cor. 12:1-4). He heard inexpressible words. He could not tell us what he saw or heard.

Jesus said to the learned Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12). Because heaven is so wonderful that no earthly language can describe it, the Bible says little about heaven.

Jacob Van Zyl of Lethbridge is a retired counsellor and the author of several faith-based books.

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