Beauty in Paul’s Literature: Poet, Prophet, or Oracle

Beauty in Paul’s Literature: Poet, Prophet, or Oracle July 25, 2019

I’ve been waiting for an opportune time to speak of beauty in in my series on Ephesians 4.  I would like to propose that Paul is using a form of parallelism which can be found in various forms of ancient Near East poetry (aNE).

i. Recognizing aNE Poetry

In this case, Paul uses a triple repetition for each saying or stanza.  The second line offers a parallel thought to the first line (one type of parallelism).  The third line of each stanza offers a final point in-line with the two above it, or in contrast to the two above it.

There are many facets to this writing, but Paul also uses a technique known as a climax.  Paul builds up to, “But that is not the way you learned Christ” (verses 17-20, ESV).  Then Paul builds up again to the statement, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (verses 21-24).  Once more he builds up again to the injunction, “and give no opportunity to the devil” (verses 25-27).  Because of this pattern, this is not only like poetry, but also like proverbs or wisdom literature.

Jan Lievens | Aposteln Paulus | 1627 | Public Domain

Poet, Prophet, or Oracle:
Beauty in Paul’s Literature

Take a look at the Ephesians 4.17-27 again, now that I’ve organized it into my proposed stanzas that reflect aNE parallelism.  I have italicized the three proposed climaxes.

Now this I say and testify in the Lord,
that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do,
in the futility of their minds.

They are darkened in their understanding,
alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them,
due to their hardness of heart.

They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality,
greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 

assuming that you have heard about him
and were taught in him,
as the truth is in Jesus,

to put off your old self,
which belongs to your former manner of life
and is corrupt through deceitful desires,

and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
and to put on the new self,
created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore, having put away falsehood,
let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor,
for we are members one of another.

Be angry and do not sin;
do not let the sun go down on your anger,
and give no opportunity to the devil.

Some Bibles show this type of pattern clearly, especially in the Hebrew Bible where Psalms, Proverbs, and Prophets abound.  However, in the English New Testament, you will seldom find stanzas in print unless the version is highlighting a specific song of the New Testament, or perhaps a prophetic word.  However, once one learns a little bit about Hebrew poetry, these patterns are easier to see.  After all, Hebrew Christians write the New Testament.

ii. The beauty of Paul’s poetry

a. Paul has a Hebrew audience

There are still plenty of Hebrews in the synagogues, even though Paul is preaching across the Roman Empire.  They would instantly recognize this type of poetry, and would receive it on the same level as the Proverbs.  Hebrew Christians see Paul as an authority.  Paul is a Christian Rabbi, a unique voice.

b. Greeks recognize good poetry

The Greeks may have different types of poetry, but one of their classic virtues is indeed beauty in the arts.  Their philosophers often use poetry of various types to relay their message.  However, their love for beauty often makes their message that much more profound.

Paul is considered a Rabbi to the Hebrew Christians.  However, he would be considered a philosopher and poet to the Greeks, and there is only a fine line between the two roles because of their love for the virtue of beauty.  In fact, the roles of poet, philosopher, and prophet are often intermingled in the beautiful writings of Classic Greek literature.

c. Paul’s poetic gift seems effortless

Paul’s poetry seems to be profound because Paul does not seem to be trying.  It does not seem to be a strain for him to write large portions of Ephesians with a poetic rhythm and refrain.

Isaiah does the same.  Most of Isaiah’s book is divided into poetic stanzas.  Not only is Isaiah writing poetically, it is possible that he is prophesying extemporaneously in beautiful poetry.  The written words of Isaiah are more than likely from his disciples who are recording his sermons in the moment.

This speaks to me of something greater than human effort.  This is a divine utterance.  At times Paul, Isaiah, and others seem to be operating in a higher virtue, that of beauty, not stumbling over their words, but flowing.

iii. Implications of speaking as an Oracle

For the record, there are a couple of ways that the term Oracle is used in the aNE.  In most of the Biblical literature, at least how it is translated into English, an Oracle represents some sort of unquestionable word from the Lord.  However, in other aNE countries, the term Oracle is also used to refer to the person, who stands as an intermediary between God and man (i.e. priest, priestess, prophet, etc.).  It is this definition of the Oracle as person, or the role of the person, to which I am referring in the following paragraphs.  I also believe there are instances in the Bible where there is a fine line between the Oracle as a divine message and the Oracle as the messenger.

a. Some utterances are spoken by Oracles

If Paul’s sustained poetic and prophetic speech is not possible for the normal human mind, then I must deduce that there are utterances in the holy writ that are entirely inspired by the Holy Spirit.

This is not only prophecy.  It is poetry that the Spirit uses to capture the mind of those in the aNE.

It is more than the Spirit divinely inspiring the prophet or apostle to speak, thereby utilizing the personality and speech of the prophet.  This poetry occurs in real-time, far too quickly for someone to be a wordsmith and toil over every word.

Think of ancient Israelite prophets with their traveling bands of minstrels, prophesying the exact words that the Spirit wants to speak to the nation, in perfect poetry, rhythm, and song.

In these types of scenarios, we have reason to believe that the prophet is not expounding on an inspired thought from the Spirit.  No, the prophet becomes the Oracle of the Spirit in the moment.

b. The Pentecostal sign is not the end, it’s the means to the end

Another implication is that the chief reason for the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not speaking in tongues, as much as we Pentecostals would like believe.

Just like water baptism is in some way a divine ordinance initiating us into the church and Kingdom, baptism in the Spirit is an initiation into something more.

Water is the symbol of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.  Tongues is the symbol of initiation into something greater.

The Spirit has a greater purpose, to clothe us with power, to give us a supernatural ability to witness.  I think we see evidences of power to witness in this excerpt from Paul’s writings.  The Spirit not only wants to gain a hearing, He will captivate His listeners with beauty if they’ll allow Him.  He has the ability to do so through us, earthen vessels of His glory.

We can become an Oracle at times.  However, we can’t expect to allow God to fully control our utterance, if we seldom yield it to Him in our prayer language.

c. God touches our pursuit of excellence

Finally, we fine-tune our gifts, talents, and skills because we want to be used by the Spirit of God.  Paul is a strong pharisee before he becomes a Christian.  Gamaliel trains him.  At that time, there are only two Jewish ministry schools that surpass all the other schools by far, the schools of Hillel and Gamaliel.  So Paul has the equivalent of an ivy-league divinity education, the best Israel can offer.  Paul also exemplifies stability and commitment on a professional level.

However, God confronts Paul on the road to Damascus and redirects his misguided pursuit of the people of God.  Yet it is Paul’s drive and pursuit of excellence that God touches, uses in the Kingdom of God in new ways, and makes him a mouthpiece to the whole Mediterranean world.

In the same way, God touches our pursuit of excellence, making us shine His light in the dark world that surrounds us.  This dark world is the bleak background, upon which Paul paints brilliant rays of hope in the latter half of Ephesians 4.

So it should be with us, whether a solitary candle lighting the whole room, or a city on a hill lighting up the night sky for miles around.  May our words be as light that commands darkness to flee and miraculously calls souls to awaken.


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