Do We Really Trust the Word of God to Not Return Void?

Before I begin, allow me to say thanks to all of you who responded to my previous post on homosexuality and Jennifer Knapp.  Most of the readers over at my blog are not that big into commenting, so I am not used to getting that much feedback on a single post.

Here is the issue that I wish to throw out today:

In Isaiah 55:10-11 we read:

As the rain and snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

The King James renders verse 11 like so:  “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth:  it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”

In The Brothers Karamazov, the elder Father Zossima has an interesting take on this concept.  He had a high esteem of Scripture from very early on in life, though this ebbed significantly during his young adulthood prior to his entering the monastery.  In the story he relates what it was like for him as a child the very first time he heard and was able to understand the Bible being read aloud in church, how the story of Job which was being read that day captured his imagination.  (I won’t go into all of that here; if you are interested you can get the book and read it for yourself.)  In his deathbed speech he lays out a vision of priests bringing about meaningful change in the lives of their people by inviting children, and then the parents, into their homes and reading to them from Scripture:

Let [the priest] open that book and begin reading it without grand words or superciliousness, without condescension, but gently and kindly, being glad that he is reading to them and that they are listening with attention. Let him read loving the words himself, and only stopping from time to time to explain words that are not understood by the peasants. Don’t be anxious; they will understand everything. The faithful heart will understand all!

Let the priest read to them about Abraham and Sarah, about Isaac and Rebecca, of how Jacob went to Laban and wrestled with the Lord in his dream and said: “This place is holy”–and he will impress the devout mind of the peasant. Let him read, especially to the children, how the brothers sold Joseph, the tender boy, the dreamer and prophet, into bondage, and told their father that a wild beast had devoured him, and showed him his blood-stained clothes. Let him read to them how the brothers afterwards journeyed into Egypt for corn, and Joseph, now a greater ruler, unrecognized by them, tormented them, accused them, kept his brother Benjamin, and all through love: “I love you, and loving you I torment you.” …Let the priest read to them further how happy old Jacob was on learning that his boy was still alive, and how he went to Egypt leaving his own country. Let him read to them how Jacob died in a foreign land, bequeathing the great prophecy that had lain mysteriously hidden in his meek and timid heart, that from his offspring, from Judah, would come the great hope of the world, the Messiah and Saviour.

…Let him weep too, the priest of God, and be sure that the hearts of his listeners will throb in response. Only a tiny seed is needed–drop it into the heart of the peasant and it won’t die….And there’s no need of much teaching or explanation, he will understand it all simply. Do you believe that peasants don’t understand? Try reading to them the touching story of the fair Esther and the haughty Vashti; or the miraculous story of Jonah and the whale. Don’t forget either the parables of Our Lord, choose especially from the Gospel of St. Luke…and then from the Acts of the Apostles the conversion of St. Paul (that you mustn’t leave out on any account),…and you will penetrate their hearts with these simple tales. Give one hour a week to it in spite of your poverty, only one short hour. And you will see for yourself that our people are gracious and grateful, and will repay you a hundredfold. Mindful of the kindness of their priest and the moving words they have heard from him, they will of their own accord help him in his fields and in his house, and will treat him with more respect than before–so that it will even increase his worldly well-being. The thing is so simple that sometimes one is even afraid to put it into words, for fear of being laughed at, and yet how true it is!

Just read to people from the word of God, straight up.  Don’t add anything to it, except to explain ideas and concepts which may be hard to understand.  Father Zossima had immense faith in the power of this kind of reading of Scripture to effect meaningful life change in people.

How different this is from the way things are done in contemporary evangelicalism.  Many preachers and teachers approach the Bible as if it requires a wealth of study and explanation to make clear what God is saying to us in His word.  Many don’t approach the Bible that way at all; instead they see it as nothing more than a collection of proof texts from which to draw in order to support whatever moral, political, social, or other hobby horse they wish to ride.

What if we were to adopt Father Zossima’s idea of simply reading to people straight out of the Bible and trusting the word of God to go forth and not return without affecting life change in people?  Of course this would mean letting go–letting go of our words as a means to control the way in which people understand Scripture–and trusting the word of God to do the work for which He has sent it.

I know.  Perhaps this may be a stretch.  Perhaps there are things in Scripture which need to be carefully explained, lest people hear them and come to ideas which are contrary to sound doctrine.  Perhaps it is asking too much of people to take the word of God as it is, without the wealth of study and explanation that we would offer, and understand it rightly without falling into the pits of false doctrine.

But wouldn’t evangelicalism be a different place if we had more of the simple faith which Father Zossima shows in the Bible, in and of itself, to transform the lives of people?  And wouldn’t that change be a good thing?

Do we really believe Isaiah 55:10-11?  Do we really trust the word of God to not return void?  Or does it need our help?


One thought on “Do We Really Trust the Word of God to Not Return Void?

  1. On the one hand, I’m reminded of the Ethiopian who, when asked by Phillip if he understood what Isaiah was talking about, said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” There certainly are circumstances when all of us need to have an explanation given to things we just don’t understand.

    On the other hand, and to your larger point, there is certainly an element of priestly mediation in evangelicalism in which the preacher or teacher who knows everything dispenses his wisdom to the people who know very little and must constantly come back for more every week (or for every book, radio sermon, download, or blog post). Contrary to what they’ll say, this isn’t teaching, it’s creating a dependence.

    I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. If reading the Scriptures publicly were all that we needed, then why would there even need to be teachers and preachers in the church? Clearly it is important that a church have those who are wise enough to explain things that are difficult, make connections between the Scriptures (the most important part, in my opinion), and provide guidance for living out what they have learned in their lives. But the Scriptures must be read, widely, often, and at length; sermons with more words from man than from God should not be tolerated.

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