On Biblical Rhetoric and Prophetic Speech
‘The church is in a mess.’ ‘We have cowards in the pulpits.’ ‘There is rampant sin in the pews.’ ‘Believers have lost their backbone.’ I and others are often making statements like this. They are all-inclusive or stereotypical statements. Examples of this are legion of course. I might say any number of things which use rhetorical devices of all-inclusion or generalisation:
-we have become slaves to the world
-where are all the men of faith?
-God’s people love the world more than God
-we are nothing like the New Testament church
-we are in great need of repentance
-why are we so far from where Christ wants us to be?
Does that mean I or others believe there are no true believers or churches anywhere? Of course not. We are using deliberately strong language to make a point – and to also include ourselves in such warnings or concerns. We all know (did I just make another all-inclusive claim?) that God is at work in the world and many good things are happening. But we also realise there are many problems.
As we will see in a moment, such rhetoric is a common feature of biblical testimony, especially among the prophets. But often when I use such language, the critics seem to come out of the woodwork. I often will write an article, post something on social media, or say something with a fully biblical rhetorical fashion, only to get attacked for it.
As a simple example, I might make a comment such as this: “the church is in a mess”. It is a generalised or all-inclusive statement designed to have some effect, and challenge the hearers. Thus it is a rhetorical device, but one which is meant to add some punch and stir up my hearers.
It is a very common rhetorical device. So do I mean by that that the entire church everywhere on the planet is only always screwed up? Of course not. There are always exceptions to anything, and many churches are doing a good job, but generally speaking this is a fully correct statement – certainly when describing things in the West.
My point is quite simple: the church is in a mess, and we all can do better here. Yet so often when I say or write something like this I get all these Christians coming out of the woodwork to blast me. And often it is someone I otherwise never hear from. They never seem to come to praise you; but only open their mouths when they want to criticise you!
This must be their idea of WWJD sadly! So there I was, with the best of intentions, seeking to stir up the church and encourage believers, only to get slammed by some believer who thinks I was being unhelpful in my remarks. They will invariably come out with something like this:
-but my church is not like this
-you are over-generalising here
-don’t be so broad in your statements, etc.
So these folks are committing two errors in my books: One, they are missing entirely the point of what I am trying to say, and two, they seem to be clueless as to how prophetic utterances and biblical rhetoric work. As but one example, a friendly critic recently said this: “The church is wide. The title should read ‘time for some spring cleaning in one of the church’s cupboards’. I know it wouldn’t be as catchy but it would be truer.”
No, it sure isn’t catchy. Which is exactly why such watered-down and half-hearted statements are rarely used when God is stirring up his spokesmen to get his message out. But these critics, instead of getting the gist of what I am trying to do, and instead of letting God speak to them and spur them on to bigger and better things for Christ, actually get all in a huff. Instead of letting God’s Spirit speak to them about how they can go further on for Christ, they get all defensive and grumpy.
One thing I have learned over the years is this: those who are the most humble and open Christians are those who will always hear God speaking from any quarter. They will always apply the word spoken or prophetic utterance given to themselves first.
But the proud and self righteous will always (there I go again, using generalisations) get upset with you, want to argue with you, and not receive what is being said, or receive the spirit in which something is being given. So we have a double problem here of misunderstanding rhetorical language, and of not being receptive to God’s word.
As to the first point, they seem to be totally unaware that this is always how God’s spokesmen have spoken, both in the Bible and church history. This is just common practice to help make a point and bring some emphasis. It happens throughout Scripture and elsewhere.
Let me just take one example from recent US history. Martin Luther King Jr used plenty of such language in order to make a more powerful, more challenging, more convicting, and more inspiring speech. Part of it goes:
I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
Now, his critics would have said, “Hey Luther, not everyone in Alabama is a racist. You are using all-inclusive language here which is just not helpful. You should have said ‘some racists’ etc.” Yes he could have toned everything down to assuage these bothersome critics, but no one would remember such a speech today, and blacks might still be second class citizens in America.
And also notice the biblical text he uses – that too is loaded with such inclusive and all-encompassing language. Will every hill indeed be made low? Or is this yet another example of biblical rhetorical language? Such rhetorical devices are found all throughout Scripture of course, with the prophets, Jesus and the disciples all using them frequently.
Let me give just a few examples of this utilising just a few of these all-inclusive words: always and never. How often are these words used by the prophets and others?
-Jeremiah 8:5: Why then have these people turned away? Why does Jerusalem always turn away? They cling to deceit; they refuse to return.
-Acts 7:51: “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!
Always? Without any exceptions?
-Isaiah 56:11: They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, they seek their own gain.
-Matthew 13:14: In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
Never? Without any exceptions?
In these examples and plenty others like them we find the use of exaggeration or over-generalisation to make a point. So it is a very common and well accepted rhetorical device which I am also happy to often use. And plenty of times I do offer a rider to what I am saying. Often I will use words of qualification as well, such as: most, many, often, usually, etc.
And many times in my articles I will make these obvious disclaimers, such as:
-of course there are some good churches around
-fortunately not all pastors have lost the plot
-thankfully we still have some Bible colleges standing strong
But it is to have an effect that such rhetorical devices are used by me and others. Great men of God have also used such rhetorical devices. Consider just a few. George Whitefield could say: “The Christian world is in a deep sleep and nothing but a loud voice can waken them out of it.”
A. W. Tozer used this device constantly:
“The ‘deeper life’ is deeper only because the average Christian life is tragically shallow.”
“Never has there been more activity in religious circles and, I confidently believe, never has there been so little of God and so much of the flesh.”
“I have preached myself off of every Bible Conference platform in the country.”
“The Holy Spirit is not necessary to the church; we have arranged it so that he is not required. He has been displaced by what we call ‘programming’ and by social activity.”
Leonard Ravenhill said things like this:
“The Church used to be a lifeboat rescuing the perishing. Now she is a cruise ship recruiting the promising.”
“We have an all-time high in church attendance with a corresponding all-time low in spirituality.”
“I get calls from all over the world, everyone wants my anointing and mantle… but nobody wants my sackcloth and ashes.”
In each case (and there are plenty more like them) the use of stereotypical, exaggerated or all-inclusive language is being used – and with powerful effect. Sure, to appease the many critics, Tozer could have offered us mealy-mouthed statements like this:
“The Holy Spirit is often not very necessary in some parts of the church; we quite often have arranged it so that he is not required. He has often been displaced by what we call ‘programming’ and by social activity. Sure, this is not true of every church, and I don’t want to be seen as judgmental here.”
Um, I know which version I prefer. I know which one carries Holy Ghost power and authority. Yet the critics will just not get it. They will offer their silly criticisms about not being nuanced enough or being too broad-brushed. I can just imagine the same critics who just don’t get it condemning Jesus for also making such strong and absolute statements.
Take just one text – Mark 7:6-8: He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
‘But Jesus – and Isaiah – you are being too intolerant here, and too absolute. Surely not everyone is like this. Surely not all people deserve this rebuke!’ As I say, they miss the point doubly: they do not recognise the use of rhetorical language to make a point, and they are proud and arrogant, refusing to let God’s word first soak into their own hearts.
I of course do not claim to be a Jesus or a Isaiah or a Tozer. But I do have a burning desire to encourage, exhort and stir up the entire body of Christ to be fully sold out to Christ and the Kingdom. And I include myself in such exhortations. I too desperately need to hear what has been said.
So I will keep using such rhetorical devices, just as the biblical writers and the saints of God have always done. Those who don’t like it may just have to go elsewhere I am afraid.
17 Replies to “On Biblical Rhetoric and Prophetic Speech”
Another blog recently asked the question:
“Is American Evangelicalism Dying?”
To which I answered with the following
I sure hope so.
I can’t wait til the fires of real persecution do their purifying work in the church on this continent. I hope I live to see it. When it might cost someone their very life to utter the name of Jesus. The name that is today so casually married to every form of rank heresy and godless perversion imaginable. We’ll see who’s who when God has finally completed his giving over of the oh so tolerant west to alllll the raging depravity and harmless theology we’ve been begging him for. We have absolutely NO IDEA over here what it means to sacrifice for the gospel. Oh what glorious times of worship and prayer those will be. I wonder who’s gonna care what’s on TV, or in the movies or who’s in the super bowl then? I wonder how much “cultural consumption” will be going on in THAT church. I dare say by the grace of God I’m ready. Today wouldn’t be soon enough for me.
Some may accuse me of what you are discussing on this piece. The trouble is I don’t think there’s much exaggeration there. That’s another thing. How many times have you been accused of being overly negative or critical when you may not have been either enough? I’ll say right up front. IFI am to take my bible seriously? I doubt if 15% of the regular pew dwellers in the United Sates are actually regenerate members of the body of Christ. IF passages like 1 John 3 have any meaning whatsoever. It’s the attitude I speak of far more than the actions.
On ACA this week they showed 3 people who’d converted to Islam and they all cited the strong stance Islam takes against immorality as their reason for doing so. Weakness does not command respect and many churches are weak and do not stand for anything.
Dean M. Kelley in his controversial book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, published in 1972, argued that the mainline denominations have lost members because they have become weak as religious bodies. Strong religions provide clear-cut, compelling answers to questions concerning the meaning of life, mobilize their members’ energies for shared purposes, require a distinctive code of conduct, and discipline their members for failure to live up to it. Weak religions allow a diversity of theological viewpoints, do not and can not command much of their members’ time or effort, promote few if any distinctive rules of conduct, and discipline no one for violating them. In short, strong religions foster a level of commitment that binds members to the group; weak religions have low levels of commitment and are unable to resist influences that lower it even further.
I hear this exact same thing from all the Bill Muehlenbergs I know of.
You are speaking truth Bill and we ALL need to hear it. Keep fighting for the cause of the Gospel and keep saying it like it is. God bless
We are all up for critique, well chosen words for building up, thanks Bill.
The wilfully blind and deaf are so terrified of seeing and hearing the truth they automatically refuse to accept what is blindly obvious to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
The truth can set you free but if you find being bound and gagged more ‘comfortable’ you wont want to be free.
It’s a bit like stating a truth to telstra, and being given 3 options. Make a payment/make a complaint/speak to a operator.
These critics only have 3 options.
I wouldn’t worry too much about criticism. I doubt the child that hasn’t said “I hate you” after being disciplined by their parent doesn’t exist but it is precisely these children that eventually grow up and end up loving their parents. It’s the ones where the parent does not bother to correct them that end up hating their parents. As long as we remember the difference between admonishing and accusation, the difference between edifying and being critical we are alright.
We live in a time which is very much the equivalent of the human teenage years. We think we know everything but our knowledge is yet to be tested. I always say you either learn things the easy way or you learn them the hard way. The big problem with most people today, including the majority of our politicians, is they close their minds to facts and simply do not put enough effort into finding the truth before making decisions that affect us all. They don’t want to admit that, when you do this, you come up with exactly the same conclusions that God has been telling us all along.
We have tried free sex arrangements at various times, including Roman times such as under Nero and we found it did not work. We have tried “survival of the fittest” or its modern equivalent “the greedy gene” under Nazism and found it did not work. We have tried forcing people by law to share everything and be nice to each other (as the government defines niceness) while excluding God under Socialism and found it did not work. We have tried giving capitalism absolute free reign at various times including lately under George W Bush and found it did not work. Now is the time to open our minds to what does work and to do our best to put it into action. I, for one, would like to thank you for your excellent work in this area.
How dare you speak in exclusive terms! How dare you speak of issues of lazyness and sin in all when all have clearly not sinned! How dare you rebuke us for lukewarmness towards God and a need for repentance!
What presumption, what arrogance, what high-horsed looking down your nose uppity nonsense!
We all know that we are the best and most important and perfect people in the universe and that our God is so small that he fits in our back pockets let alone accomodates our prejudice and sin….
Oops let the cat out of the bag at the end then didn’t I ;).
God bless you in this necessary work. Wake up the sleepers and make the lazy uncomfortable. Those who are awake to the greatness of God and the dreadful all invasiveness of sin will say a hearty amen with you.
It’s also important to note that one of the main reasons, that the use of such ‘all-inclusive’ language is so powerful, is because it is all-inclusive! That is to say, every individual that such a claim is aimed at, in this case Christians, is forced to reflect on the statement, they must ask themselves the question “Does this apply to me?”. The reason they are so critical of such a statement is probably because they are guilty of the criticism being asserted. Yet the wise at heart should be able to take criticism on board and use it as a catalyst for change.
If the statement was not all inclusive, then people would effortlessly wash it aside proclaiming: “Yes that’s so very true.. but of course it doesn’t apply to me”, and wouldn’t give it a second thought, nor do anything about it.
Excellent Bill, couldn’t agree with you more. It is absolutely Biblical and there are times/things that God wants declared that cannot be said without it.
In Scripture, God did it Himself.
And I think Geoff English hit the nail on the head too – God uses this language device (one of many, that can be objected too in the same way) so that ‘every single person’ is included and therefore must search themselves so that no one can brush it aside easily. None will be innocent having actually be made to think about it and make a choice of what to do with it.
It also seems to me that those who react, are those who refuse to have the spotlight on them and will blame whoever turned the light on, to shift the uncomfortable focus.
Reminds me of the saying ‘Those caught with egg on their face, get angry with the person who turned the light on.’
We all understand this, Bill. No need to explain. Oh, and well done with all of your articles. (I just thought I’d come out of the woodwork with some praise.)
P.S. Can you please hold off on new articles for a while. I’m getting behind!
Hi Bill, just caught up with reading this today.
Your comment “One thing I have learned over the years is this: those who are the most humble and open Christians are those who will always hear God speaking from any quarter. They will always apply the word spoken or prophetic utterance given to themselves first.”
has brought conviction and encouragement.
God bless you.
Bill, people forget that prophecy is “forth-telling”, the word, applying it to your day, as Peter did in Acts 2, announcing the fulfilment of prophecies by Joel and David.
Foretelling the future is a small part of it.
Keep on your great work of “forth-telling” Bill!
We need a complete re evaluation of the faith!
We need to be considering the very things we refuse to consider, that we have missed it somewhere. And not just recently. We need to humble ourselves and let our pride and even arrogance go and get back to basics, not necessarily Christian basics, but the basics of the word and the context of the gospel and the faith in the setting it appeared! We must be prepared to put aside Christian tradition and practice if necessary and presume nothing or our presumption will be the death of us!!! Maybe it already is for many!
Two such serious works that challenge us and where we are at, works that call for a re alignment and that may prove significant as the time goes on (I know they will) I can recommend are: 1. John P Harrigan 2015 (Revised Nov 2019) “The Gospel Of Christ Crucified”. “A theology of Suffering before the Glory”. Many recommendations as a must read! Joel Richardson has it at the very top of his must read list.
2. A work in 2005 by the, “challenging would be an understatement”, Daniel Gruber that shook the world of Christian theology to its core at the time, to the point they had to acknowledge it or ignore it, and because it meant they had to abandon some things, they ignored it. Described as “Profound and compelling” “Shattering and overwhelming”, “If this is true it changes everything”. (And I for one believe it is true, and it does change everything) The Separation of Church and Faith: Copernicus and the Jews.
You can read the first chapter at http://www.elijahnet.net/
Find the book, and click learn more. If you can disprove it post me reasons why!!
Gruber has a way of sneaking up on you and has a great sense of humor. The first ten chapters are addressing ten systematic errors the church has made!! Neither of these men are light weight authors . Highly recommended by Dr Michel Brown. Interestingly both are recommended by Walter Kaiser the distinguished Old testament professor from Gordon Conwell Seminary.
In my opinion two of the most influential and challenging works in this millenium!