Vision: Imagery in the Bible
**We have completed the first section of Isaiah, The Book of the King, chapters 1-37. I have decided to take a break from that book and the prophets and write on some more topical things. Variety, I think, is a good thing.**
Lately I have been fascinated by imagery, not just in the Bible, of which there are tons, but also in mythology. Mythology is comprised of stories that people invented in their limber imaginations that were based upon deep things that mattered to man. They mattered because all men are in the image of God and all men have a conscience created by God. Though all men are fallen, all men care about love, grief, heroism, courage, charity (at least when they receive it), and however they define it, truth in their fallen way. Imagery is a picture planted in the mind and that picture, no matter how much detail or how many components it contains, has a simple meaning. If we don’t know hardly any of the details of the story of Narcissus, we know the meaning - don’t push away the advances of wood nymphs, I mean, uh, rather ... self-love is the lesson.
The beautiful Narcissus was a hunter and the son of a god. Many fell in love with him, but he only showed them contempt. He was stuck-up like a valley-girl. One day while hunting in the woods, a nymph named Echo spotted him and fell in love with him. She revealed herself and tried to embrace him, but Mr. I’m-too-good-for-anyone pushed her away. Echo roamed the wood for the rest of her life and wilted away until all that was left was her sobs, her echo sound. Nemesis, the goddess of, you guessed it, friendship, eh, rather … revenge, discovered what had happened and punished Narcissus by leading him to a pool where he fell in love with his reflection. At first, he really did think it was another person; the old cliché of all looks and no brains, but eventually he did come to know it was just a reflection. Knowing that he could not love another, he killed himself. Comedy or Tragedy? I’ll let you decide.
For the image to be meaningful and emotionally moving, the meaning has to be something that humans really care for; the love of another, compassion, victory, inner strength, grief, evil etc. In mythology a story is told that is generally fantastic or incredible. No one thought the stories to be real. That’s important to understand since they are not meant to be interpreted. Classifying the heck out of them leads one to think he can comprehend them. Sure, we can comprehend self-love because we all have it. No one needs to think up a really cool story to tell us that it exists and that it’s bad. The story is helping us to understand what we already know. Therefore, the story defies analysis. The contemporary student of folk-lore tends to want to analyze hunting, beauty, nymphs, echoes, sound reflection, woods, revenge, and on and on, but he is only ruining the batter by adding something that was never meant to be there, scientific analysis. The listener, the reader is to form his own image of these things. That’s the fun of it, as well as the excitement and discovery of it. It is those things, the vision, that is personal.
No one hearing or reading the myth would suffer to have a picture or vision in his mind. But some pictures in some minds are better than others. The picture in a child’s mind when he hears that a cow jumped over the moon is different from a college professor’s. Little Hiawatha was told by his nurse that a warrior threw his grandmother over the moon, and I’m sure he laughed like any child today would when they hear that the same thing happened to the cow. Christ told us to be like children, and this is one way in which that advice is essential.
In our scientific world, our material and practical world, mythology is a lost art. We say that such ancient tales were made by a primitive people who didn’t know much about the world. I’m sure that they knew more than we do. Just because we have developed technology that makes our lives easier and longer does not mean we know more about life. The Man who knew the most about life, in fact the only One who knew anything about it at all, died in His thirties, but then again, His life didn’t come to an end, just one stage of it. That was one of those things that only He knew. When Alice heads down a rabbit hole after a tardy white rabbit, a child’s wonder is peaked and eager for discovery. And after hearing the wonderful fantasy of a subterranean world, deeply desires to find a similar hole in the woods, and has enough faith to actually excitedly look for one. The adult father reading the story to the child is more interested in finishing the book and getting the kid to bed. I’m not saying that we should be looking for tunnels in the woods … or am I?
The Bible uses loads of ways to communicate its truth to us. Some of it is purely doctrinal, and what I mean by that is that we find many statements or verses that are to be ordered and categorized together in a sort of outline form that will convey a foundational truth. The doctrine of angels, fallen man, the Trinity, soteriology (salvation), Christology, demonology, dispensationalism, eschatology, etc. are to be treated by systematized theology. Systematic theology is a map that gives us the truth of the matter. And like all truths, they do not change. Our understanding of them deepens with time, but their truths are timeless and immutable.
There is a difference between looking at a map of Athens and actually walking around it. I’d prefer the latter. I probably wouldn’t need a map to find the Parthenon, not because I know Athens very well, but it’s a huge building sitting on the tallest hill in the center of the city. However, I would need a map if I wanted to find the place that made the city’s best gyro; likely to be a hole in the wall on some backstreet. Theology is the map. Living by the map is discovering Christ in a real, experienced relationship. In the history of the church age, certain movements have grabbed the map and rejected the experience while others have sought to drink only the experience and decided to tear up the map. This is typical human behavior and typical Satanic deception. Satan likes to offer us two wrongs and ask us to determine which one is worse. Our response to this should always be, “They are both wrong.” What is more often missed, in my opinion, is that Satan likes to offer us two rights and ask us to determine which one is better. Our response should be, “They are both right. I need them both.”
The Bible is written for us so that we can be like Christ. We need the map, theology, and we also need the experience, walking with Him by living His way, obeying His truth, discovering His life. And this walking, following, discovering is so often like following the rabbit into a dark hole we have never seen but we know is full of adventure. However, unlike Alice, the Christian knows what he is going to find, though he doesn’t exactly know what it is going to look like - he is going to find the face of Christ.
My more stuffy, doctrinal colleagues (I don’t really mean to call them stuffy out of disrespect or dislike, it just fits the article better and has a better effect) might think I’m headed down a road of liberal theology, meaning that I’m going to tell you not to take the scripture so literally. Nothing of the kind, in fact, I’m going to ask you to take it more literally than ever. Theology is essential to interpretation, and it is for wise adults, and in some things the Bible communicates, the child in us has to lay aside the volumes of the university and simply wonder.
Was Christ resurrected? That is a certainty; and bodily, literally, and He will return again in that same physical, resurrected body. Is He God and Man in one Person forever? Most definitely, and I am not to take either of these facts or any other biblical fact and interpret it through my own imagination. If I do, I destroy it and I destroy Him; and that is just what liberal theology does. It is from the pits of hell.
So where is imagination in the Bible? It reveals itself plainly. Take the parable of the sower for instance. I choose it because Christ interpreted its parts and called it the chief of all the parables. It turns out that parables have one simple meaning, because they are full of imagery. If you delve into all of them you will find that this is true. There are many parts to them, but the simple and singular meaning is always there. In the parable of the sower the meaning is that those who receive the word of God with joy will produce fruit. And in the parable, we have seed, birds, a road, rocky places, thorns, and good soil. Jesus interprets this parable for us at the request of the disciples and we come to understand the meaning behind each of the elements. We might think that Jesus is trying to teach us about the devil, the Word, affliction, persecution, the worries of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and fruit production. For sure, this is quite extensive. But when we look at the Sower, the seed (Word), and the good soil, we find that the things that might have destroyed growth faded away. You and I can’t really do anything about the devil, the worries of the world or its riches or persecutions. Neither can I alter the Sower or the Seed. The Sower will keep on sowing regardless of what any of us do. But we can receive the word of God with joy, and all those other things can’t stop it. So, the parable, as full of things as it is, melts down to one single principle.
But what Jesus doesn’t do is paint a picture for us. He leaves that to us. Personally, I have always imagined the birds as ravens, and I’m sure that is because out of all of God’s feathered creatures I dislike them the most, plus having seen the movie The Omen, I associate them with darkness and the devil. But perhaps you think of a vulture or maybe a beautiful multicolored parrot because you know that the devil disguises himself. What kind of rocks do you see, and what size are they? Many things have thorns, which ones do you place is this unkempt field? How big is the field; or perhaps it’s a garden, or what was once a garden, overgrown at the back of an abandoned mansion infested with restless demons?
Some have told me that of the four types of men in the parable, which ones are believers and which are unbelievers. In my opinion they go too far. Certainly, the one who bears fruit is a believer, but Jesus doesn’t address the salvation status of any of them. I don’t think that means that we can’t address their eternal future in our mental picture, but we must be careful when we say that their type is a doctrinal fact like the resurrection. If we do that, we are trying to paint our own image over the image formed in another person’s mind, and we must never do that. The Lord is the only one who gets to do that.
If we don’t decide definitively on the status of the first three are, we in danger of doctrinal error? Not in the least if we stick to the words. Jesus doesn’t tell us, so we cannot know for sure. We might like to think we know, and in our mind’s picture it may be so determined, but it is enough to protect the whole realm of theology to simply admit we are unsure, and that one way or the other, it doesn’t affect the one, simple meaning of the parable - “If I receive the word of God with joy, I will produce fruit.” Is it not clear that if I do that, I will have escaped those nasty ravens with their terrible shrieks they call birdsong, and that horrible soil, and those entangling, prickly thorns? Most certainly.
I digressed a bit. The point of this article was not the parable of the sower, but only to use it as an example of how the theology from the adults within us can ruin the vision of the child in us. God has made us both adults and children. I guess that is adult sons. How wonderful to be made with the wisdom of adult minds and the fun and adventure of children. We get the benefits of both without the limitations they both naturally have.
This is what I meant when I said that I was proposing that you interpret the Bible more literally than ever. Don’t alter God’s pictures with theology. Let the pictures form in your mind just as He intended, like a child hearing a fairy tale, and know that that picture is uniquely yours.
Let’s take another image from the Bible out of the thousands - the valley of death.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
The meaning of the image is plain and unchanging for eternity, but what about the picture? What kind of valley do you see? Is it a green valley between hills or between high mountain chains? Is it a chasm with thousand-foot shear walls of rock? Is the floor of the valley a desert or soil or grass or lava? Is it a dried up river bed like a wadi so common in the Middle East? How long and deep is the shadow? How long is the valley itself? What is the temperature, what season is it?
If you admit that you don’t get a picture in your mind when you read this psalm or any biblical poetry, then I would ask you to check inside yourself for a sleeping child that may have long ago been fed a sleeping potion disguised as a juicy apple by an emerging adult. The Lord Jesus is the Prince come to awaken the child.
And taking the child by the hand, He said to her, "Talitha kum!" (which translated means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise!").
The child is not to arise and usurp the adult, taking its place, taking its throne, but uniting with the adult in peace and harmony; giving fun and imagination to the adult, while in turn the adult gives wisdom and discipline to the child.
Some may say that there is no need for an image in the mind. Certainly, it will form, they say, but it must be quickly removed and replaced by the doctrinal meaning. “The words mean that God will see you through, so don’t fear.”
But why do we have to do away with the image in order to see the doctrine? Why then doesn’t God just write down the meaning plainly without the image, and therefore for that matter, why does God use poetry at all? We can easily see why He does use the image, the poem, the parable, the typology so often. He intends for us to have our own image in our own imaginations and to link that unforgettable and fascinating image to the doctrinal truth of the matter. When I think of fresh baked bread, I immediately smell it, and I honestly wouldn’t want the image without the olfactory memory. I couldn’t ever separate the two after the day I walked past a bakery that emitted the noxious odor, and I can in fact remember the precise moment and place when I did, walking alone down a street in Killorglin Ireland on a summer morning when I was but a wee lad.
Finally, the image will not remain static. Our personal growth in the knowledge and wisdom of Christ is bound to alter the image over time. It is beautiful that throughout our Christian lives, we will never become bored with discovery as it seems all adults do. Wonderful stories are written about this as well. The stingy miserable old rat in a top-hat by the name of Scrooge dances around his bedroom in his stockings feeling light as a feather and as “merry as a school-boy.”
As our maturity in Christ extends itself, our adventure, our discovery, our wonder, if you will, our childishness will also grow. If you had an image of the valley of death and then went through an actual experience that made you feel that the image became your world, when you return to Psa 23 your image of the valley will definitely have changed, not entirely, but in some special way that is personal to you. Before, maybe, the valley was barren, and now it is lined with angels atop the mountains that seemed to always have been in Elisha’s purview. Or maybe Jesus is walking with you on the floor of the valley and you will never see yourself as alone again - anywhere. But I’m only inventing these visions. You have your own. And notice, out of thousands of them that we could imagine, none of them change the core meaning of the image, hence the beautiful doctrine is preserved and the wonderful vision is preserved, the adult and the child live together in peaceful harmony.
Pastor Joe Sugrue