A Loss for Words

Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. The first row shall be carnelian, chrysolite and beryl; the second row shall be turquoise, lapis lazuli and emerald; the third row shall be jacinth, agate and amethyst; the fourth row shall be topaz, onyx and jasper.

–          Exodus 21:17-20a


The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald,  the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.   The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.  The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.  The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.  On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.  The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.  Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

–          Revelation 21:19-27


“John Updike has said that ‘our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe.’  The very words sound old-fashioned, and to the degree that they do, to that degree we have strayed from the picture of God revealed in the Old Testament.  We cannot box him in, explain him away.  God seems a wild and mysterious Other, not a God we can easily figure out.  No one tells him what to do (the main point in God’s blistering speech to Job).”

–          Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read


More on the book of Job later.


This is a strange combination of quotes.  I could end up far from where I thought at the start.  In a way, I have a loss for words, but isn’t that also what happened to Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, and the Apostle John?  Any of the prophets who saw something ‘heavenly’ would have a hard time describing it.  Was the language of the day adequate to even come close?  Then you have the cynical jaded-ness of the modern generation who grew up with Star Wars, and the best an ancient prophet could describe in a book would be nothing compared to what they have seen on the silver screen.


I have just started reading Leviticus in my plodding approach of studying the Bible while trying to absorb as much as possible.  This means I just finished Exodus.  We just finished Revelation 21 in Sunday school, maybe not all the study questions.  And I just finished The Bible Jesus Read by Philip Yancey.  So, these three things came into my head at the same time.


In Sunday school, everyone was talking about this unbelievable, or very believable – just not describable – account of the new Jerusalem by the Apostle John.  I was silent, because I had a naughty thought in my head at the time.  They were talking about grandeur beyond anything that mad King Ludwig could dream up.  By the way, mad King Ludwig or Bavaria built two palaces and a castle that were beyond anyone’s imagination.  The most famous is Neuschwanstein, the model for Cinderella’s castle in the Disney movie.  God’s new Jerusalem makes Ludwig’s castle and palaces look like they were made out of tinker toys.


No, the idea of not having words entered my flawed brain, and I thought of an old Justin Wilson joke.  To give the story in plain English without the accent and idioms, it seems that the duck hunters of one parrish in Louisiana went to the sheriff to petition for another month to hunt duck.  An argument ensued.  Finally, the sheriff asks, “What are you going to call it?”  This question started further argument, but the sheriff explained, “You already hunt duck twelve months out of the year.  (legally or illegally not mentioned here.)  So, if you come up with a new month, you got to have a new name!”  For any fellow members of the Sunday school class that noticed my silence.  This is the reason, and I apologize.


But the fact is that the prophets who were given glimpses of God’s Glory were stuck with having twelve words, but having to describe thirteen things.


Thinking of twelve things, there were twelve stones on the breastpiece and twelve stones providing the foundations for the new city walls.  If you kept track or created a chart, ten of the stones are the same: chrysolite, beryl, turquoise, emerald, jacinth, agate, amethyst, topaz, onyx and jasper.  They aren’t in the same order, but those ten are the same.  The breastpiece also has carnelian and lapis lazuli, where the wall foundations had ruby and sapphire.


Lapis Lazuli is a semiprecious stone that looks a lot like the blue sapphire.  Carnelian is a red stone, as is the ruby.  It is possible in my mind that the stones actually used in the breastpiece and the foundations are the same, but the language at the time that the Scripture was written versus our interpretation of the language today leaves doubt as to what those stones were in a precise analysis of the stones.


In other words, the breastpiece was a physical object, but is our understanding of ancient Hebrew that precise?  What the Apostle John saw was written in Koine Greek in the book of Revelation.  You have John’s observations, and what he knew about stones, and you have Koine Greek.  Koine Greek did not have all the complexity of the Greek used by Greeks of that day.  It had been taught to the nations conquered by Alexander the Great so that Alexander’s broad and diverse empire could communicate and have commerce within its borders without language barriers.  This has been noted as being a reason for the rapid expansion of the early Christian church.  They used the ‘business language’ of the day.  The Romans went along with Koine Greek, sense it was widely used.  Yet, was Koine Greek, a simplified language, capable of describing the differences in a lapis lazuli and a blue sapphire?  Did the Apostle John have the instruments needed to be that precise in his description?


Could it be that we have several factors here?  The knowledge today of ancient languages and the ancient observers’ loss for words?


On the other hand, what the Apostle John described regarding the lack of sun, moon, and temple can easily be understood.  Why would we need any of those things?  We will be in the presence of Almighty God.


And we will be the ones at a loss for words.


Soli Deo Gloria.  Glory to God Alone.


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