“Son Of A..!”: Thoughts on Softening the Bible

Earlier this morn, in 1 Samuel 20:30, I came across King Saul calling his son, Jonathan, a “stupid, son of a bitch!” Not your average morning devotional reading, eh?

This got me thinking: How can this kind of language be in the Bible?

The Bible is full of tenderness and toughness and translators have been known to take the tough edges off a bit.

Well, actually it is not. I found it in the notes in my Bible. The translation I have been reading from lately is the NET Bible which has over 60,000 translation notes within it, and they translated Saul’s angry outburst toward his son: “You stupid traitor!” Yet in the notes they make the following admission:

A better English approximation of the sentiments expressed here by the Hebrew phrase would be “You stupid son of a bitch!” However, sensitivity to the various public formats in which the Bible is read aloud has led to a less startling English rendering which focuses on the semantic value of Saul’s utterance (i.e, the behavior of his own son Jonathan, which he viewed as both a personal and a political behavior [= “traitor”]). But this concession should not obscure the fact that Saul is full of bitterness and frustration. That he would address his son Jonathan with such language, not to mention his apparent readiness even to kill his own son over this friendship with David (v. 33), indicates something of the extreme depth of Saul’s jealousy and hatred of David.

So, the translators, of the NET Bible and many others, decided to soften the blow of the Hebrew to make it more sensitive to various listeners even though the Hebrew itself wasn’t nearly as sensitive. Now, I am sure they had good reasons for doing so, but I think it brings up an important point. We love to soften the hard edges of the Bible.

Now in no way am I trying to give everyone who wanted to have an excuse to cuss a biblical reason for doing so. Clearly Saul’s statement was the result of sinful anger. Nevertheless, the Bible is full of tenderness and toughness and translators have been known to take the tough edges off a bit.

Holiness is humble but it is not always nice.

For instance, in Philippians, Paul compares all of his religious accolades to “rubbish” or “dung” in comparison to knowing Christ. Yet in all probability he wasn’t just saying “rubbish” with a British accent over tea; instead, as the NET Bible puts it,

The word here translated “dung” was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers.

Obviously, “dung” isn’t very shocking or vulgar. I could say that to my (almost) three-year-old and not blush. However, I can think of other words I could say that would be more alarming about fecal matter that I would not say in front of my three-year-old. That is what the Holy Spirit inspired apostle is after here.

I am not pretending to be a Bible translator. I am nothing of the sort and don’t even know the Greek or Hebrew alphabet. But I think there is a desire here by translators to temper the Bible a bit that carries over to the pulpit and to the daily lives of Christians.

We want to be able to read our Bible’s without being provoked with foul language. We want to hear sermons with the offensiveness drained out. We want to be good, nice Christian people that say nice Christian things. The problem is the original languages of our God-breathed book sometimes says “son of a bitch” and calls idolaters whores and even our Savior, Jesus, calls the Pharisees names.

Bible-reading, you can call it devotions, is meant to kick us in the gut sometimes and not just massage our nice-and-neat hyper-spiritual sensibilities. It is meant to awaken us to the reality of sin and the beauty of scandalous grace in Jesus.

This isn’t about cussing. This is about our sinful tendency to soften God’s word to us and his call to us.

I think there are a few things to take away from this:

1) The Bible isn’t a cutesy story full of butterflies and rainbows. It is the story of men and women who were created in God’s image being broken by sin and redeemed by the gracious plan of the Triune God. We should expect scandal and uncouthness in the Bible.

2) Preachers aren’t supposed to preach sermons to make you feel good and Christian books aren’t supposed to be written to entertain you or improve you. They should awaken you.

3) Godly communication is tough and tender. The way you communicate differs depending on who you are talking to, what the circumstances are, and what you are talking to them about. For instance, sarcasm can be a biblical means of communication when used in rebuke.

4) We, like translators, have a propensity to soften God’s word to us in the Bible. We naturally want to weaken the offensiveness of the cross, tone down the exclusivity and sufficiency of the work of Jesus, soften our Bible-translations, only experience encouraging encouragement and avoid encouraging rebuke, have devotions and listen to preaching that massages what we already know and doesn’t call us higher, etc.

This isn’t about cussing. This is about our sinful tendency to soften God’s word to us and his call to us. Jesus laughed and played with little children, wept with Lazarus’ family, and he also made a whip to drive out salesman in his house.

Let’s not soften the Bible and lets not repackage holiness into niceness. Holiness is humble but it is not always nice.

False Teaching Is Chrome

False teaching in the church is subtle. It sneaks in all shiny-like. As the rock bank Wilco put it in their song Hell is Chrome

When the Devil came

He was not red

He was chrome

And He said

Come with me

Satan doesn’t look like the Devil. Nor do his teachings. They both come in chrome.

Eugene Peterson, when commenting on the false teachings that Jesus mentions in his letters to the churches in the book of Revelation, writes,

It is unlikely that the terms “Satan” (four times), “Nicolaitans” (twice), “Balaam,” and “Jezebel” refer to any conspicuously outrageous sin or teaching that was taking place in John’s churches. Church, the head and body of Christ, is rarely defied and challenged outright from within. Sin and lies within the church work at a more subtle level. They almost always show up as a promised improvement or an extension of what has been already definitively revealed in Jesus Christ. [Practice Resurrection (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 153]

You can’t improve upon Jesus and you can’t extend him. That word, “extension”, that Peterson uses, is meant to, I believe, make us think of something like a fake hair extension. We don’t get to take the work of Jesus and attach something to it.

False teaching is anything that improves upon or adds to the person and work of Jesus. It takes what is peripheral and makes it central. It seeks to dilute or enhance the message of the crucified and resurrected Jesus and all that he accomplished at the cross.

False teaching doesn’t come with horns nor do its proponents carry pitchforks. They smile and slither from within the body of Christ slowly adding to and/or subtracting from the person and work of Jesus.

Jesus didn’t come in chrome and he didn’t offer a flashy message. He came as a servant, was crucified on a Roman cross, and has risen from the dead in victory over Satan and his minions. The message of the gospel will always be tweaked by charlatans to offer something better than or in addition to Jesus, but the robust once-for-all accomplishment of Jesus is always the best news in the whole world. It is not chrome, but it is blood-red purifying the worst of sinners by the one-and-only Savior.

Remember God Doesn’t Remember Your Sins

I had the privilege of preaching yesterday at The Town Church, a new church in my neck of the woods, planted by my good friend Nate Downey. I spoke on the theme of remembering that is replete in Scripture, and encouraged the church to engage often in the spiritual discipline/practice of remembering who God is and what God has done. All of us have a case of spiritual forgetfulness, a kind of spiritual Alzheimer’s, that we have to daily confront with remembering.

This theme is all over the place in the Old Testament, and also found throughout the New Testament, but one of the most beautiful things about the new covenant is that God no longer remembers our sins. We get the joy of remembering that God does not remember our sins. Hebrews 8 makes this clear when the writer, quoting the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, states,

For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (8:12)

In the Old Testament God’s people were under the old covenant and constantly had a daily reminder of sins because the sacrifices were always being repeated. They sinned (unintentionally and intentionally) and they sacrificed, they sinned and they sacrificed–over and over again. But now Israel’s Messiah has come and the new covenant is “more excellent than the old as the covenant [Christ] mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Heb. 8:6). Therefore sins are no longer in need of new sacrifices because Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice has completely forgiven sin, and since there is no need for sacrifice we no longer need to be gripped by incessant reminders of our sins. In view of this, we need to be more mindful of God’s grace than our sin.

New Testament scholar Peter T. Obrien, commenting on this theme, writes,

…under the old sacrificial system there was ‘an annual reminder of sins (Heb. 10:3). No such calling of sins to mind operates under the new covenant, for God says that he will remember their sins no more. His grace has determined to forgive them because of Christ’s sacrifice offered once for all on the cross (7:27)….

By Christ’s perfecting work the ‘perfection’ of his people is able to be realized. The Levitical sacrifices could only remind the people of their sin (10:1-4), while the Day of Atonement ritual ‘in the old covenant’ (Lev 16) enables Hebrews to present Christ’s death as the sacrifice that fulfills the new covenant‘. Unlike the old covenant, the new cannot be broken. ‘Sin cannot imperil the divine-human relationships guaranteed by this new covenant, for sin will not be brought into account: God will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more‘. For these reasons, one must conclude that the new covenant is radically new. And with the fulfilment of its divine promises new meaning is given to the covenant formula, ‘I will be their God, and they shall be my people’. [The Letter to the Hebrews, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 301, 302.]

A daily practice of the Christian then is to remember that the newness of the new covenant removes the sin-reminders that go off in our hearts regarding past sin and enables us to experience the sacrifice-reminder of Jesus’ sin-forgetting work on the cross that he has accomplished on our behalf. Remind yourself of that sacrifice every-single day.

Mosaic Liberalism: Returning to Our Beginnings

Pulitzer Prize winning Novelist Marilynne Robinson:

“The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor.”[When I Was a Child I Read Books, Location 1479]

“At present, here in what is still sometimes called our Calvinist civilization, the controversies of liberalism and conservatism come down, as always, to economics…There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them as we can. If we really did attempt to return to them, we would find Moses as well as Christ, Calvin, and his legions of intellectual heirs. And we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful, and enjoying the great blessings God has promised to liberality to the poor.” [Ibid., Location 1227]

Yahweh’s prophet Moses:

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that theLord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother,but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be…10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” (Deut. 15:7-8, 10-11)

“You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)


6 Reasons Not to Be Discouraged & Depressed Over Your Sins

William Bridge, a seventeenth century Puritan minister, and author of A Lifting Up for the Downcast, fills his book with ways to be encouraged when you are under discouragement or depression. In one particular chapter titled “A Lifting Up in the Case of Great Sins” he outlines several ways to be lifted up even after committing great sins.

One of the reasons he recommends for not being discouraged over your sins is that discouragement itself is a sin against the gospel. Countering the question, “Shouldn’t I be discouraged because of such and such a sin?” He answers, “No! for discouragement itself is a sin, another sin, a gospel sin.” (68). The biggest problem with discouragement is that it doubts the gospel. Depression over sin believes that sins power is greater than gospel power. Consequently, we must fight proneness toward discouragement and depression with all our might.

The biggest problem with discouragement is that it doubts the gospel. Depression over sin believes that sins power is greater than gospel power.

In the following I summarize and elaborate on some of Bridge’s reasons for Christians not to be depressed and discouraged over their besetting sins:

1. You will never be condemned for your sin because Christ was condemned for you. Since Christ was made sin for his saints, Bridge argues, “…sin shall not hurt them” (69). He quotes Luther, who wrote, “‘Christ is made sin-damning, our sin is sin damned: I confess, indeed…that I have sinned, but sin-damning is stronger than sin-damned, and Christ was made sin-damning for me'” (69).

2. You will never be forsaken by God for your sins even though you may lose a sense of the presence of God because of your sins. Your “sins may hide God’s face…but shall never turn God’s back” (70).  God’s covenant of mercy with his people is unalterable, and as a part of the people of God mercy is yours forever. You will be disciplined for sin, but never experience God’s wrath for your sin. The comforts of God’s presence may be felt as lost, but the privileges of the believer remain. “This sin of mine, indeed, it is a pest, and the plague of my soul, and a leprosy…[and] although I cannot come to the use of Him as I did before, yet I have right unto Jesus Christ now, as I had before” (73).

3. Your abundant sins are overruled by God’s superabundant grace. Paul, in Romans 11:32, says that God “shut up all to disobedience” in order to have mercy on all. Therefore “God never permits His people to fall into any sin but He intends to make that sin an inlet unto further grace and comfort to them” (71). Furthermore, “He never permits any of His people to fall into any sin, but He hath a design by that fall to break the back of that sin they do fall into” (72).

4. Your power for great sin is not as strong as God’s greater power to forgive. Bridge asks, “Is your sin as big as God, as big as Christ? Is Jesus Christ only a Mediator for small sins? Will you bring down the satisfaction of Christ, and the mercy of God, to your own model?” (74). David sinned greatly and confessed it in Psalm 25:11, and if David’s great sins can be forgiven so can yours.

Discouragement sees only God as Judge, while humility sees God as a just Judge and loving Father.

5. The commandment you have broken by sinning always has a promise attached to it. He states,

God has joined commandment and promise together; the promise and the commandment are born twins. There is never a commandment that you read of but has a promise annexed to it, a promise of assistance, a promise of acceptance, and a promise of reward. If you look upon the commandment itself without a promise, then you will despair; if you look upon the promise without the commandment, then you will presume: but look upon the promise and the commandment…together, then you will be humbled if you have sinned, but you will not be discouraged (83-84).

6. You should be humbled by your sins but not be depressed by them because God is a forgiving Father. The author continues,

God is not pleased with grief for grief, God is not pleased with sorrow for sorrow. The purpose of all our sorrow and grief is, to embitter our sin to us, to make us prize Jesus Christ, to wean us from the delights and pleasures of the creature, to reveal the deceitfulness and naughtiness of our own hearts (79).

The difference between humility over sin and depression over sin is the difference between a God-centered view of sin and a man-centered one. Man-centered views of sin bring massive discourgament because one is primarily focused one their own condition and says, “I have sinned; I have thus and thus sinned, and therefore my condition is bad, and if my condition be bad now, it will never be better; Lord what will become of my soul? (81). On the other hand, God-centered views of your sin are primarily focused on sin as an offense against God. Since sin is an offense against the God who is revealed also as a forgiving God, one can be forgiven and humbled for sin instead of discouraged and proud. Discouragement sees only God as Judge, while humility sees God as a just Judge and loving Father. Humility and discouragement have an inverse relationship. Bridge states, “…the more you are discouraged, the less you will be humbled; and the more humbled you are, the less discouraged you will be” (83). Therefore labor to seek true humility by focusing on the God-centered nature of your sin and seeking to know your Father more.