by Samuel James McBride, N. Ireland
SIMILES AND FIGURATIVE DESCRIPTIONS OF GOD
ANALOGICAL FIGURES FROM HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS
FIGURES FROM GOVERNANCE AND RULE
There is no theme greater than the glory of God. We do well to reflect upon this. The Shorter Catechism correctly states, "Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever". Unlike humans whose glorious achievements and greatness fade with familiarity and diminish with critical analysis, the oftener we survey the glory of God and the closer we study this subject, the more unworthy we shall feel in our contemplation, and the more keenly we shall feel our vulnerability to some inadvertent inaccuracy of expression concerning the blessed and holy Trinity. The safest expressions are those given to us in the words of Scripture itself, i.e. in the "words … which the Holy Ghost teacheth" 1 Cor.2.13. The impact of an encounter with the glory of God is exemplified in the cases of Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, and Daniel, whose lives bore its lasting effect.
When we consider the Persons of the Holy Trinity separately¸ we discover that some of the Divine similes / figures of speech for God the Father are also applied to the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. A long list of Divine titles could be produced to show that indeed Divine similes / figures and titles that refer to the Father also refer to the Son. This highlights the equality, eternality and Deity of the Son. Down through the centuries, this interchangeable use of Divine titles within the Trinity has been used by Christian writers and defenders of the faith whenever they wished to defend the great truths of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. The mighty weight of such testimony in the Scriptures has convinced many sceptics and nourished the faith of believers in successive generations.
That being said, merely listing these similes / figures of speech used to describe God, and noting their joint attribution to both Father and Son as an exercise in Trinitarian apologetics, falls somewhat short in bringing us to a fuller appreciation of what they mean. A simile is taken to mean an expression of similarity or likeness, which is used to convey meaning by asserting that there is a valid analogy or comparison between something and the object of our attention. The link-words "as" or "like" are often used in propounding a simile. Metaphor implies a carrying over of meaning from one thing to another, often omitting such link-words as characterise the simile. For example, concerning Israel it is written, "he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of His eye" Zech.2.8. This is a complex metaphor that attributes to God a highly sensitive response when His people Israel are disturbed. This allusion to the exquisite sensory innervation of the human cornea cannot literally apply to God but it conveys a vivid truth nevertheless. Such is the power of metaphor, i.e. the carrying over of meaning from one thing to explain a fact that is true of another entity that is otherwise wholly different. Scholarly works are available which analyse metaphors into different subgroups*. More extended figurative discourse to illustrate God and His ways is seen in the form known as parable. Typical teaching constitutes a further method of illustrating God’s ways and character.
- * Bullinger, E. W. “Figures of Speech in the Bible”. Kregel Publications, is one of the most comprehensive.
As we read the Bible, when we notice a simile or metaphor, we ought to be asking ourselves, why is this figure of speech used?
- What is its meaning as applied to God?
- What do I learn of God by surveying Scriptural usage of this term?
- What does it tell me about God the Father?
- When used of the Son of God, what do I learn about Him?
For example, what is it about the idea of a rock that is appropriate to utilise in the appreciation of God? What is the Spirit-breathed revelation of God brought to us by such a description and figure of speech?
The elevated expressions found in Divinely inspired psalms and prophecies illustrate the deployment of such descriptive terms about God in a wonderful way. We shall not find the uninspired compositions of men, talented though they may be, rising to the heights of the Holy Scriptures.
The best of hymn writers have mined the rich resources of the Psalms and Prophets in their ascriptions of praise and glory to God. Much though we value their efforts, the Scriptural source material is unsurpassed.
Since the principal focus of the present article is on God the Father, our study must concentrate on those figures that describe the Father rather than the other Persons of the Godhead. In the Old Testament this is difficult. Dr. A. T. Schofield* put it well when he wrote, "It has been found practically impossible fully to classify the names and titles of Jehovah, especially when looked at as applying to Christ – the fact being, that although New Testament light shows us that it is the Son who ever carries out the Father’s will, and that this Son is the same as the "I am," or Jehovah of the Old Testament, still inasmuch as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a revelation distinctive of Christianity, the difference between God the Father and God the Son is not generally brought out before the New Testament." Dr. H. Lockyer cites A. T. Schofield as a key source for his valuable book "All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible". He summarises Schofield thus, "While the names and titles of Christ can be satisfactorily worked out, those of God cannot be so clearly defined. A cited list is given of the more remarkable titles of Jehovah given in each book of the Bible, which are doubtless applicable to Christ. What must be borne in mind is that titles and types are quite distinct."**
- * Schofield, A.T. “The Bible Student: for intercommunication on Biblical Subjects amongst young Christians, Conducted by the Editor of “The Young Believer, Vol.1(2), W.B. Horner, London, 1881.
- ** Lockyer, H. “All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible, Pickering and Inglis, London, 1975.
THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING GOD
Great though it is to know about God, and the Bible is our only source of accurate information in this regard,* it is a different thing, and better far to know God. Such knowledge can only be attained through personal relationship with God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This was Paul’s goal, Phil.3.10. Now the knowledge of God is not merely some individual attainment of mystical bliss. Throughout Scripture history, we find that those who were practical achievers in the things of God were those who knew God. The heroes of faith exemplified in Hebrews chapter 11 were those who knew their God. Daniel was told "… the people that do know their God shall be strong and do exploits".** Paul was able to say with thankful confidence "I know Whom I have believed". Not just a creedal statement –"I know what I have believed".
- * There is a Divine message in creation and providence, though this is always culpably distorted by the hostile mind of fallen man. (See Ps.19, Rom.1.18-32, Acts 14.15-17 and Acts 17.22-31)
** Dan.11.32. While especially prophetic of a future faithful Jewish remnant, this is true of faithful believers in any age.
The wonderful thing is that God has seen fit to allow us to learn about Himself through certain illustrations that aid our finite understanding. How can a finite creature grasp truth about the infinite Creator, the Lord God Almighty? We are reminded of the gap between our thinking and Divine thinking: "for My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways" Isa.55.8,9 and Job was likewise reminded of this truth by Elihu, Job 34.31-33.
It is an inescapable fact that fallen man has a fertile imagination that is used to generate misleading and inappropriate ways of thinking about God and wrong depictions of Him. While Romans chapter 1 provides the starkest proof of this, there is a lot of additional evidence throughout the Old Testament Scriptures, where the intellectual and romantic lure of idolatry is seen as a powerful attractant to the self-aggrandising mind of unregenerate man. The mind of the flesh is enmity against God and is not subject to the law of God neither indeed can be.
Intellectual speculations about God that stray from a God-fearing adherence to the words that the Holy Ghost teacheth, and deviate from sound doctrine bring damaging results – even if those who engage in such speculations purport to be pious Christians.
The tragic results of various forms of "new light" and "authoritative ministry" which permeated the post-Darby era of Exclusive Brethren is eloquent testimony to this. We do well to cultivate reverence of mind and avoid intellectual pride as we approach the great subject of God the Father and His depiction in Scripture. A worshipper is not a philosophiser. Bearing this in mind, we may approach specific examples of figurative language for God.
SIMILES AND FIGURATIVE DESCRIPTIONS OF GOD
God as Light
"God is Light and in Him is no darkness at all" 1 Jn.1.5. Light is attributed to God, and He is the Creator of physical light, upon which earthly life depends. He is called "the Father of lights", the Giver of every good and perfect gift, Jms.1.17. The first beam of creation light in Genesis chapter 1 is taken as illustrative of the sovereign power of God in the conversion of the sinner, where the entrance of the Divine light gives the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" 2 Cor.4.6. Even children know that obnoxious "creepy-crawlies" flee the light. This analogy is applied to sinners in Jn.3.19-22 as the wonderful light of God seen perfectly in His Son is described as repellent to them.* Much more is written of light as a descriptor of God. It is well worthy of study.
- * Paul uses similar terms in Eph.5.8-14.
Strength, stability, shelter, and permanence are all brought to our mind by the Biblical applications of the term "Rock" to God. The great Song of Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 32 gives at least four direct references to God as the Rock; see vv.15,18,30,31. David in his last official utterance said, "The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me" 2 Sam.23.3. David had a particular affection for this metaphor, having spent so long with his loyal band hiding from Saul in the rocky wilderness of southern Judaea. In one of his great songs of victorious thanks to God he collects several figures together as he says, "The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; The God of my rock; in Him will I trust: He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my high tower and my refuge, my saviour; Thou savest me from violence" 2 Sam.22.2,3. In these two verses there are joined together eight different metaphors, all of which relate to the defence and shelter sought by a refugee. There are two principal words for rock in the Old Testament. One is "cela" (Strong 05553) which is often taken to mean "bed-rock" and the other is "tsur" (Strong 06697) taken to mean "elevated rock". They appear in that order in the two references to "rock" in the two verses just quoted. Both words are often used to depict God.* Inhabitants of the U.K. are not accustomed with the varieties of rocky landscape that would be so familiar to an Israelite; hence our language is not so rich in words for "rock". The reference to the refreshing "shadow of a great rock in a weary land" while clearly a reference to God, is linked with "a man" Isa.32.2, and that man can only be the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Rock upon which the Church is built,** and Who is revealed as the water-bearing Rock that sustained the Israelites on their trek from Egypt to Canaan, " … they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ" 1 Cor.10.4.
- * The reader should continue his/her own study using a Strong’s or Wigram’s Concordance.
** Matt.16.18. How anyone purporting to be an expositor can suggest that this Rock refers to any other than Christ Himself is a conundrum.
Figures Related to Building
Founder, Builder, Maker
God’s house is something that features in both Old and New Testament Scripture. The doctrine connected with this great subject is central to all questions about how God’s people are gathered together and how their communities are organised in testimony to God in today’s world. The Bible clearly establishes that God’s house is something that is built and designed by God Himself, and that He is the Master of the house. The practical challenge to each of us (whether as individuals or as companies of Christians) is this: do I (and the religious associations to which I adhere) conform to Scriptural teaching about the house of God? If He is the Master of His own house, then the constitution of this house, and behaviour within it, are not matters for our clever innovations or compromise. Conformity to house of God doctrine is viewed as an indicator of our faithfulness. Hence the idea of stewardship is used to illustrate Christian service. Just as the responsible household servants in a great Roman household were held accountable for discharge of their delegated authority in service to the Master, so we, in whatever sphere of Christian service, are accountable for our stewardship in light of the coming assessment.
Terms that are used of God in this context are Master of the house, oikodespotes; technites – this word is used of God as the builder and maker of the future "city which hath foundations" to which Abraham by faith looked forward; demiourgos – constructor: almost with the thought of "town planner". These last two terms are used in Heb.11.10.
Then there is the construction of the very creation itself. The "worlds were framed by the word of God" Heb.11.3. This makes us think of the Creator as the designer of all things. It is by faith that these matters are accepted and understood. Whether we think of God’s initiative and design in organising and implementing the material creation, or His providential planning of the programme of history as referred to by the "worlds" (‘ages’, Gk. ‘ainon’): the entire vista of successive dispensations is the object of Divine planning and outworking. To accept this by simple faith in God’s revelation in Scripture, confers upon every believer advantages and insights that are utterly unattainable by human wisdom. It cannot be overemphasised how that all true wisdom consists in entire acceptance of God’s revelation about these matters. We ought to be so thankful that we have been spared the futile fumbling of fallen human intellectual endeavours to explore these grand themes. The efforts of sinful man in self-proclaimed pursuit of the truth are like the efforts of the blind men of Sodom to find the door to Lot’s compound. It is a doomed attempt to assault God’s messengers while refusing to recognise their blindness as God’s judgment.
Figures From Farming
This view of God has been held dear through successive generations of believers. The ancient Hebrews were a pastoral people and the idea of the shepherd was prized among them. The task of a shepherd in the climate of Israel was more arduous than what is required of a shepherd here in the U.K. All aspects of the sheep’s well-being were the responsibility of the shepherd: a round-the-clock burden. Shepherds had to protect from predators such as the lions and bears that David dealt with, or wolves, as in Jn.10.12, or marauding bands of outlaws, see 2 Samuel chapter 25. The shepherd needed to lead his sheep to pasture and a water supply. The sheep were not capable of finding this on their own initiative. The young lambs, weak and ailing or injured sheep needed individual attention. These tasks demanded strength and courage and wisdom, so it is natural that the king of Israel should be looked upon as the shepherd of the people. The Hebrew ideal of the shepherd projects a heroic figure. The word "hero" may be derived from the Hebrew word for "shepherd".*
- * Hislop, Alexander, “The Two Babylons” 3rd Edition, 1862. James Wood, Edinburgh, p318.
For the believer, in either Old or New Testament times, the ultimate shepherd is God. David celebrated this in Psalm 23, which is so beautiful that even multitudes of darkened souls in Christendom take unwarranted comfort from using his majestic lyrics. The New Testament shows this term being applied to Himself by the Lord Jesus Christ, and also used of Him in the epistles, in relation to the Church. This continuity of figurative descriptions across the dispensations opens up to Christians today the wealth of encouraging and restorative revelation of God’s care for His people, individually and collectively, which abounds in both Testaments. We do well to spend time dwelling upon these precious vignettes of Divine Persons.
The proprietor, planter and manager of a vineyard are all used in various passages as descriptive of God and especially so in relation to Israel, which is likened to His vineyard, or to His vine. In Psalm 80, Asaph the Psalmist bemoans the tragic circumstances of Israel. He begins by addressing God as "the Shepherd of Israel" and as the ruined vine which had once enjoyed such favour and plenty, due to the sovereign initiative of God, but which now has been wasted by the "boar out of the wood and the wild beast of the field". He repeatedly implores, "Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause Thy face to shine; and we shall be saved".* While this Psalm does not elaborate on the failings of Israel as the cause of the sad state of this vine, when we look at other passages this is clear.
- * The Divine title in each of the three instances of this petition in Ps.80 are different: v.3 “O God”, v.7 “O God of hosts” and v.19 “O LORD God of hosts”. A progressive appreciation of God’s majesty and greatness is expressed.
Isa.5.1-7 give the ‘Song of the Vineyard’. A clear explanation is given in v.7, "The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel". The problem is inherent in the vine itself. Jer.2.21 lets us hear God expostulate to Israel, "How then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto Me?" God’s gracious dealings with Israel had furnished it with every possible opportunity to be fruitful and well pleasing to Him. "Judge, I pray you, betwixt Me and My vineyard, What could have been done more to My vineyard, that I have not done in it?" Isa.5.3,4. The obnoxious outcome is not God’s fault. As always, it is the inveterate fallen nature of man that leads to ruin in spite of God’s gracious provision.*
- * The successive breakdown of programmes of Divine testimony in the hands of men is central to the dispensationalist insight of J. N. Darby and the early 19th Century movement to recover the truth of New Testament Assemblies. See J.N.D. on “The Apostasy of the successive Dispensations” which was first published in the Christian Witness in October 1836.
"The Lord of the Vineyard" is a title of God the Father used by the Lord Jesus Christ in His parable of the vineyard in Matt.21.33-41. Here it is the husbandmen to whom the vineyard has been let during the Lord of the Vineyard’s absence who are the focus of the Lord’s rebuke and future vengeance.
The Arable Farmer
The farmer, who in the harvest of corn or wheat gathers in his sheaves, is used as a picture of the Lord as Israel’s future deliverer.* The destruction of the enemy nations is likened to the threshing floor with the Jewish remnant doing the threshing, and being depicted as a new threshing instrument with teeth (a hand flail of some kind), and also depicted as the oxen of the threshing floor. After the threshing comes the fanning, and here too God as the supervising farmer sees Israel fanning the grain to eliminate the chaff (of the nations) that is carried away by the wind of God’s judgment. It is instructive to see that John the Baptist uses this figure to describe the Lord Jesus’ future judgment activity to the curious multitudes in Lk.3.17.
- * See Isa.41.15,16, and Mic.4.12,13.
The Cattle Farmer
The diligent care of the farmer over his cattle is used as a figure of God’s diligence and care over Israel, with the sad contrast that whereas the domesticated beasts know their owner, Israel lacked this basic understanding.* This figure is extended by Hosea** where he alludes to the farmer using cattle for threshing, and cultivating the fields, speaking of Israel as God’s "backsliding heifer", and of Ephraim as a heifer that has been taught to thresh corn, and Judah likewise being made to pull the plough and Jacob the harrow. All such useful deployment of animal power on the farm requires that the beast knows how to behave under the yoke. This demands discipline, and the farmer needs to train the animal accordingly. Here too, God is spoken of as a farmer chastising an unruly bullock (Ephraim) that is being "broken in" that it might bear the yoke for use on the farm.
- * Isa.1.3-4
** Hos.4.16; 10.11
- *** Jer.31.18
In the days of our great-grandparents these concepts were the routine of everyday country life. We do well to think about them now as illustrating God’s gracious care for His people and His unquestionable sovereignty in choosing how He deploys each in His service. The Lord Jesus directly uses such figurative language in Matt.11.29,30, "Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me … for My yoke is easy and My burden is light".*
- * This apparent paradox between yoked-in labour and rest is aptly expressed thus “Whose service is perfect freedom”.
The ancient world saw a lot of conflict. From the beginning of Israel’s history they were surrounded by powerful enemies and fighting was frequent. Both Moses and David saw front line military action, and the other Old Testament writers would have been very familiar with soldiering. The good kings acknowledged God as the author of any military success they had. It is therefore easy to understand the use of military figures of speech applied to God as the true guarantor of national and personal protection beyond the self-effort of the Israelite infantry.
The Lord is a Man of War – "The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is His name" Ex.15.3.
These prophetic descriptions of God as warrior especially relate to the great future intervention of God to deliver His people Israel, i.e. at the end of the Great Tribulation. This naturally links with the Divine title, the Lord of hosts. As warrior, there is mention of God’s armoury, Jer.50.25, "the weapons of His indignation" Isa.13.5, and reference to "My battle axe and weapons of war" Jer.51.20. This is especially noteworthy with reference to Babylon, which used the club and the battle axe as a key component of their fighting technique. These weapons were wielded to incapacitate the enemy by breaking his bones. Hence, the reference by God to "break in pieces" Jer.51.20.
The Mighty Man (infantryman) – "The Lord shall go forth as a mighty man, He shall stir up jealousy like a man of war" Isa.42.13.
His intervention as the warrior comes after a long time of restraint (i.e. a tacit reference to this present day of grace). The silence of God is broken with a cry, "Now will I cry like a travailing woman" Isa.42.14. This juxtaposition of similes, is striking. In a single discourse we find combined a combat-ready warrior and the cry of a woman in labour (see also the later paragraph "Feminine Language"), which speaks of God’s sympathy with the suffering remnant and His righteous campaign of vengeance on Israel’s behalf at the end of the Great Tribulation. The great and terrible day of the Lord will be characterised by a complex campaign of battles, of which Joshua’s long day with its great battles is a type; see Joshua chapter 10.
The great Commandant – "The Lord of hosts mustereth the host of the battle" Isa.13.4; also as a guerrilla planting a trap to catch the enemy: Jer.50.24, "I have laid a snare for thee, and thou art also taken O Babylon and thou wast not aware: thou art found and also caught, because thou hast striven against the LORD."
Military Instructor – David wrote, "Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight" Ps.144.1; see also Ps.18.34.
Quartermaster – Supplier of weapons and armour: "Thou hast given me the shield of Thy salvation" Ps.18.35.*
- * Eph.6.11. It is very interesting to compare this passage with Isa.59.16,17, where similar armour is put on by the avenging Saviour as He comes to deliver Israel at the culmination of the Great Tribulation.
Compare also the "whole armour of God" supplied today for the Christian in the conflict with the Devil.
Archer – "Shoot out Thine arrows, and destroy them" Ps.144.6.
A few of the descriptions of God use pictorial references to female entities or actions. In recent times these have been seized upon by feminists and their theological followers in an effort to "depatriarchalise"* the Bible. It irks such persons to observe that feminine pronouns are not used of God, that the vast majority of similes and metaphors for God are masculine, and that God is universally referred to as "He", in Whose image man was created, "Male and female created He them" Gen.1.27. The strident tone of feminist thinking has influenced evangelical circles considerably, the Inclusive Language (or Gender Neutral Language) in Bible translations – e.g. the N.I.V., being a case in point. It is true that some expressions are used that apply feminine attributes to God. However, it is unwarranted to jump from this to the false conclusion that God is not to be referred to as "He", or is indeed gender-neutral in some vague and politically correct way. The attribution of feminine language to male humans in the Bible casts no aspersion on their masculinity.** Why should it be different when God is spoken of?
- * Such terminology is used by those who insist that the Bible is a product of ancient patriarchal, male-dominated societies, and to be relevant to modern society, with its gender-equality agenda, must be systematically purged of male-dominated language and themes. As more departments of academic theology give heed to such influence, we may expect more efforts to rob God of His glory by trying to delegitimise traditional doctrine about God in the name of gender-equality.
- ** Paul and his fellow labourers in 1 Thess.2.7 “But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children”; Paul likened to a mother travailing in birth in Gal.4.19; Moses likened to both a mother and a father (of Israel) in Num.11.12.
Consider the figure of child-bearing as used of God in relation to His people Israel, Isa.42.14. Here is a prophetic view of God’s final intervention to deliver Israel in the final phase of the Great Tribulation. The intense sympathy of God with His suffering people in this cataclysmic crisis of world history is here depicted. The following verses, Isa.42.15-17, which describe God’s overwhelming power in His rescue of Israel, convey anything but a feminine impression. The picture of a mother comforting a distressed child is used as a likeness of God’s care for Israel, Isa.66.13. It is not an attribution of feminine identity to God. Another feminine figure, the mother of the sucking child, is used of God’s commitment to Israel. This vivid imagery has been used repeatedly in paintings and sculpture by the most illustrious artists. It is the most potent and emotive evocation of love and care for a helpless infant. But here, the image is used by way of contrast rather than comparison. "Can a woman forget her sucking child? … Yea, they may forget" Isa.49.15. Every baby faces a certain risk that the mother may stop caring, but Israel need have no such worry. "Yet will I not forget thee", says God. The strongest human bond is examined and shown to be weak compared with God’s love and care for His people, which is surely not a strong foundation for feminist theology.
Some motherly instincts of certain members of the animal kingdom are used to furnish selected similes of God. One such is the eagle. In Deut.32.11 we read concerning Israel, "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, Fluttereth over her young, Spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, Beareth them on her wings: so the Lord alone did lead him…". This expands on the brief allusion to the eagle in respect of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in Ex.19.4, "I bare you on eagles’ wings". The emphasis is on the solicitous nurturing and training of vulnerable offspring in a hostile wilderness environment. "Stirring up" refers to the initial unwillingness of the chicks to leave the nest. The Israelites were not enthusiastic to leave Egypt until God "stirred up the nest", as their initial reception of Moses demonstrates. Divine leading involved God doing for Israel what would be deemed risky and frightening, like the scary process of eagle-chicks being taught to fly. It is essential that the young birds trust the mother bird, or they could never survive. Yet the exhilarating aerobatics of the eagle, the most powerful of birds, carrying its young in this way, surely opens our eye of faith to the fact that God’s care for us may involve episodes of "stirring up" followed by wonderful protection and training in the face of extreme danger. The figure of the eagle is also used of God in relation to enemy nations. Here the emphasis is predatory not nurturing. Jer.48.40, "For thus saith the LORD, Behold he shall fly as an eagle and shall spread his wings over Moab", making Moab a zone of predation. The same prediction is made against Edom in Jer.49.22. Swift violent rapacity characterises the attack of the eagle. This is not the mother-eagle protecting, but the male-eagle attacking. Thus is depicted God’s punishment on Moab and Edom for their centuries-long vendetta against His people Israel.
Another interesting feminine simile of God is that of a bear robbed of her whelps. Even in the modern era of firearms, no hunter wants to meet a bear robbed of her whelps. It is a fearsome image. This depiction of God occurs in Hos.13.8. The passage is about God’s judgmental programme for dealing with Israel’s chronic idolatry. Three different animals are chosen for comparison to God’s manifestation of Himself in judgment. They are the lion, the leopard and the bear. Each is a terrifying predator. The truth is that Israel deserved each punitive encounter. It is interesting that each of these three animals shares the same context again in Daniel chapter 7, where they each depict an imperial beast that has a role to play in the final drama of Gentile dealings with Israel, and who outlast the "fourth beast, dreadful and terrible and strong exceedingly" v.7. Is not the joint use of such figures by Daniel and Hosea showing Israel that behind the terrible Gentile regimes lies the sovereign hand of Jehovah against whom Israel has rebelled? It is surely missing the point to fasten upon the femininity of the bear. Such indeed is the fruit of feminist theology.
ANALOGICAL FIGURES FROM HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS
Figures From The Family
While much that is essential to our thinking of God as Father is dealt with in other chapters of this book, nevertheless, features of human relationships from human family life are taken up to illustrate truth about God. God’s depiction as Father within the Old Testament is more analogical and illustrative than actualised – for this we need New Testament revelation. The fatherhood of God as Creator is asserted clearly in Mal.2.10, "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us?". This creational fact forms no basis for unredeemed sinners to lay claim to God as Father in the New Testament sense.* God cannot be known or worshipped as Father by those not brought into that relationship through faith in His redeeming Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Much plausible nonsense about the universal fatherhood of God has been propagated by nineteenth century churchmen and their followers to this day – all characterised by reluctance to face up to the fact of man’s ruin and God’s remedy i.e. the propitiation through faith in His blood – the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, that cleanseth us from all sin.**
- * The “Fatherhood of God” theologians should temper their enthusiasm by considering that parental imagery is even applied to God in the meteorological aspects of creation – both fatherly and motherly language is used in Job 38.28,29, “Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?”
- ** Rom.3.25; 1 Jn.1.7
In the Gospels we find the Father revealed by the Son of God. Thus, the Lord Jesus is recorded addressing God as "Father" directly, and also using the additional terms "Holy Father" and "Righteous Father" Jn.17.11,25. He speaks to others of "My Father" and to the disciples of "your Father".* The apostle Paul introduces us to the use of the appellation "Abba Father" in address to God. This had been used by the Lord Jesus once in Gethsemane in addressing His Father, Mk.14.36.
- * In post-resurrection discourse He introduces the new relationship thus: “I ascend unto My Father and your Father, and to my God and your God” Jn.20.17.
We are taught its use on the basis that we are sons of God and led by the Spirit of God; delivered from Jewish bondage into Christian freedom, Gal.4.6.* The two terms combine both the pre-rational, affectionate language of the infant and the intelligent, respectful language of the grown-up son. Intimacy and reverence are coupled together.** Intelligent worship of God as Father is incumbent upon us as Christians, for we remember the words of the Lord Jesus Christ in Jn.4.23, "… worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him". Concerning worship of the Father, J.N.Darby said, "In worshipping the Father, I go to One Who in infinite, uncaused love … has revealed Himself to me, reconciled me to Himself by Him, and given me His Spirit that I may have the consciousness of the place He has put me in, so that I cry, Abba Father"; and that this worship consists of, "the soul, by the Holy Ghost, being with and adoring the Father, to Whom Christ has brought us, loved as He is loved." Only a diligent spiritual attention to all that God has revealed of Himself in Scripture can equip us for such worship. It (quoting J.N.D. again) "lifts us up simply to God for our new man to dwell in and delight in, and surely worship Him."***
- * “Jewish Bondage and Christian Freedom” is the title of an excellent book by a most respected figure in the early Brethren in Plymouth, which expounds the New Testament basis for Christian worship in the dispensation of grace, as opposed to the Judaistic legalism that pervades much of Christendom. Harris, JL. Jewish bondage and Christian freedom; or, Jewish and Christian worship contrasted. London, A.S. Rouse, 1892.
** It is sad to point out that there is often a manifest neglect of Scriptural patterns of respectful language and terms of address to God in public prayer today.
*** These excerpts are from a letter of J.N.D. written in 1881 in which he discussed the lack of hymns to the Father, and his exercise (at over 80 years old) to write some. Pp170-174, Vol III “Letters of JND” Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot (no date).
That a child should have reverence for its father is deemed correct and normal in Scripture. The absence of such filial respect to God is highlighted as a symptom of moral and spiritual decay in the nation of Israel, Mal.1.6. The prerogative of a father to discipline his sons is not only accepted in Scripture, but is used to illustrate the gracious sovereignty of God as our Father disciplining us, His children, for our benefit by inculcating holiness and the peaceable fruit of righteousness, Heb.12.5-13. In this passage we see the Old Testament teaching about God as a disciplining Father carried over into direct application to our own New Testament age. The caveat is added, "if ye be without chastisement whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards and not sons". He is encouraging the Hebrew believers not to mistake God’s chastisement for capricious displeasure, but to regard it as a necessary feature of paternal care.
Such is the rebellious decay of our own contemporary western culture that sadly, such a passage jars upon modern thinking about child rearing.*
- * Thus even the most straightforward analogical pictures of God used in the Bible become difficult to apply as our culture re-norms itself in ever more strident rejection of the Divine order as to the building blocks of human society. Alas, it is now all too easy to empathise with the reported difficulties in communicating gospel truth faced by early missionaries encountering the degraded society of a tribe of heathen savages.
This designation of God is used in relation to His relationship to Israel, who is depicted as the wife, Isa.54.5,6. In the context of this metaphorical relationship, references to "the covenant" – to which Israel is unfaithful, liken God’s covenant with Israel to a human marriage covenant. In spite of her sinful ways, the loving concern of God in winning back Israel is outlined in Hosea’s prophecy. This relationship is not the same as the "great mystery" of Ephesians chapter 5 where marriage is compared with the bond between Christ and the Church.
The Mourner Piping a Lament
Jer.48.36 depicts God’s heart sounding like pipes; playing a lament for the destruction and desolation of Moab. This is an example of a figurative description applied to another figurative description. The primary figure is God’s heart, the secondary figure is that of a heart piping –clearly a surreal figure, but very descriptive of a sorrowing emotional response.
FIGURES FROM GOVERNANCE AND RULE
Kingship is first encountered in the Bible in Genesis chapter 10, where Nimrod’s kingdom is mentioned. This primordial rebel against God "began to be a mighty one in the earth" Gen.10.8. His career as king begins in Babel and foreshadows that of the end-time Assyrian, Mic.5.6. Earthly kingship thus begins as a usurpation of a Divine prerogative with regard to the governance of nations.* Israel was forbidden to mimic the nations in having a king. When they insisted on having one, God told Samuel that "They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them" 1 Sam.8.7. Israel had God as their king directly until this rebellion. Saul, the first king, ultimately proved to be a disaster. His later course, characterised by hunting down David, marks him as a type of the future Antichrist. The Hebrew ideal of kingship celebrated in the Psalms and the Prophets and chronicled in the historical books, is best seen in David and the early reign of Solomon. Both are explicitly linked to the future Messianic kingdom, which will be characterised by all that was best in these two great kings. The Kingship of God, though usurped by the rapacious pride of satanically minded men, is a great theme that develops throughout Scripture. Asaph recognised its vast antiquity saying, "For God is my King of old, Working salvation in the midst of the earth" Ps.74.12. He then cites a list of God’s historical actions as King, which includes the Red Sea deliverance of Israel, and the creation itself.
- * The first persons actually named as Kings in the Bible are the confederate kings in Gen 14, whose military might was crushed by Abraham in a remarkable battle –which was a turning point in world history, for rather than idolatry being reduced by this defeat of the idolatrous confederacy, it became stubbornly reinforced, see Isa.41.2-7. Melchizedek whom we meet in Genesis chapter 14 is the first good king in the Bible.
Desirable kingly attributes include power, wisdom, righteousness* and each of these is found to perfection in God. The apostle Paul toward the end of his busy life of service pens the majestic doxology, 1 Tim.1.17, "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen."
- * ”Where the word of a king is, there is power” Eccl.8.4. Wisdom was the great aspiration of Solomon as King, Eccl.1.12,13, see also Prov.20.28. Isa.32.1, “Behold a King shall reign in righteousness …”.
In Ps.22.28, in a passage that depicts future millennial conditions, we read, "For the kingdom is the Lord’s: and He is the Governor among the nations." An Old Testament saint would doubtless have taken this to be a simple promise of God’s future direct-rule over the earth. But this same word is used of Joseph as "governor over all the land of Egypt" and thus to borrow an analogy from contemporary big business, admits the idea of Joseph as Chief Executive Officer, with Pharaoh as the less prominent Chairman. When we see this term applied to God, we must bring the passage to the New Testament for further light. This is found in 1 Cor.15.24-28, where the final putting down of all rule and all authority and power comes about by the Lord Jesus having a personal reign and yet delivering up the kingdom to God, even the Father. The glorious final result is, "that God may be all in all". Such comparison of Scripture with Scripture helps us appreciate the glorious actions of the blessed and holy Trinity.
This term is often explained as "kinsman redeemer". It refers to the ancient custom of a relative who would act to fulfil a family duty to avenge an injustice, and redeem alienated property, if necessary marrying the widow and restoring the fortunes of the dispossessed family member, either by direct action*, or legal action**. Boaz is the most obvious example in the Old Testament.
- * The references to the “avenger of blood” and the balancing rights conferred upon residents of the cities of refuge are part of the law of the kinsman-redeemer. Num.35.9-15.
When God is so described, we can identify with the gladsome expectancy that the poor Israelite victim of misfortune or injustice would have felt when he / she knew that the kinsman-redeemer was on the case. Unlike the protracted processes of contemporary civil litigation with oft-postponed hearings, where the aggrieved party often feels that the advocates do not really care, the kinsman-redeemer, certainly did care, and was not going to accept any delay.* Isaiah is the Old Testament writer who makes most use of this description of God, and then only in the latter section of the prophecy, i.e. after chapter 40. It is part of his ministry of "speaking comfortably to Jerusalem" Isa.40.2, and holding out the promise of future deliverance by God as the ultimate Kinsman-Redeemer, setting out to avenge His own dear people from the injustices and enemies that had befallen them. When we survey the geo-political scene today with its escalating Jew-hatred, we can see this as part of an emboldening God-hatred that is gearing up for acceptance of the coming Antichrist. All those united nations** that are whipping up hatred against Israel will find "in that day" that they must encounter the avenging Kinsman-Redeemer, when the arrears of injustice against Israel accumulated by the nations will be finally redressed. Would you want to be taking sides with God’s enemies in opposing Israel? It is well to rejoice in the "redemption that is in Christ Jesus" Rom.3.24. Can the reader so rejoice?
- * “The man will not be in rest until he have finished the thing this day” Ruth 3.18.
** Prophecy clearly shows the amazing unity amongst the diverse nations that concur in wiping out Israel, Ps.83.4. Such international consensus is gathering momentum day by day. This genocidal slogan is often heard nowadays – particularly from Islamic countries.
The Judge of all the earth. Such a description of God was uttered by Abraham as he concluded his intercessory plea for Sodom to be spared. The great judgment Psalm states, "for God is Judge Himself, Selah" Ps.50.6. Unlike all earthly judges, God is characterised by righteousness, and impartiality, with all mitigating contingencies being duly considered.*
- * The severity of sentence facing the privileged cities of Galilee will outweigh that of the men of Sodom, who would have repented if exposed to the same degree of light: Matt.10.15; 11.24. This glimpse of Divine counterfactual thinking should humble us and keep us from hasty judgements in matters that are far beyond our ability or responsibility. Of course the phrase “judge not that ye be not judged” Matt.7.1, does not contradict our God-given duty to judge things that clearly fall within our remit to judge, e.g. matters in the churches of God, 1 Cor.6.1-7.
As Judge of the world, it becomes clear when we consult the New Testament, that this will be done by "that man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead" Acts 17.31. The detailed doctrine of God as judge centres upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is He Who is depicted as judge in Rom.14.10 at the Judgment Seat of Christ; also in Matt.25.31-46 when He judges the living nations; furthermore, He is the Judge at the Great White Throne, Rev.20.11-15.
Many other similes and metaphors for God remain to be considered, but space precludes their study in this chapter. Those that are included, however, demonstrate the range of pictures that the Holy Spirit has seen fit to draw upon in teaching us about God. Musing upon the use of highly figurative language in relation to God, Herbert Lockyer has written, "Another explanation may be that God, because of His infinitude, had to condescend to expressions of speech finite minds could understand, in order to make clear and plain His being, revelation and purpose."*
- * Lockyer, H. “All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible”, Pickering and Inglis, London 1975. (Chapter 1).