Do Angels Actually Sing?

Disclaimer: Please take this post in the mirthful manner I intend. I do not intend to be argumentative or to directly oppose the writings of a fellow blogger and priest whom I respect and appreciate. Frankly, I hope and piously think Father Ryland is correct, but for reason stated below, I wonder if his stated, and my hoped-for conclusion is correct, namely that Angels sing. Here is a link to his post: Can Angels Speak or Sing? – Fr. Ray Ryland

In his brief article Father concludes that angels can both speak and sing. This is the most commonly held view, to be sure. I have no doubts that they can and do speak, and that God provides some way for them to do that when interacting with us. But has for singing, I am less certain and here’ why:

1. There is no Scriptural verse that I have ever read that describes them as singing. Even in the classic Christmas scene where we depict them as singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” the text indicates that they SAYING (Gr: legontōn) the song  not that they sing it (cf. Luke 2:13).  If you can find a Scripture text that shows the angels singing please share it, but I’ve looked for years and can’t find it. Here too I state this humbly and may be wrong. If so you will help me.

2.  The catechism doesn’t say that angels sing.

3. The liturgy of the Church does not to indicate that angels sing. Perhaps the closest that we come are the prefaces. There is reference to the “song of the angels” (the Holy, Holy, Holy) but they are said to “say”  this song. The most common ways of describing what angels do regarding the heavenly hymn, Holy Holy, Holy are with are phrases such as: Sine fine dicentes (saying, without end), Clamantes (shouting), in gaudio confitentes (declaring  in joy), Concinunt – This is about as close as the Latin gets to saying they sing. It can be translated “they sing”  but can also be translated “they agree in saying”  or “they say together.” There is also a phrase that comes up in the prefaces which says, cumque omni militia caelestis exercitus hymnum gloriae tuae canimus (and with all the heavenly hosts we sing the hymn of your glory). But the “we” who sing is us. That the angels are referred to as singing is not clear. It may well be a gloss on Psalm 137:1  In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises Lord.

4. I cannot say I have comprehensive knowledge of the Fathers of the Church so here I cannot definitively declare they never indicate that angels sing. Perhaps you can assist in this regard?

5. Though there are references to nine “choirs” of angels, the word choir here means “order” or “group.”

6. It would also seem that, having no bodies, they cannot sing. For to sing is to cause the vocal cords to vibrate, causing the air to vibrate as well. While it is true that angels are said to talk, and do other things such as blow trumpets, it is unclear if this is meant literally or analogously. It also is possible that humans hearing  or seeing angels were able to do this through a temporary grace from God. St. Thomas effectively argues that angels do sometimes assume bodies, (Pars Prima, 51.1). Even if this is the case, they are still never said to sing.

So here is my proposition: “Angels don’t sing.”  Perhaps singing is a particular glory of the human person; a capacity unique to us, a very special gift. In the heavenly liturgy I propose to you that it is we who will sing, and not the angels.

But please this is only a proposition about a matter not essential to salvation!  I have thought about it for years. I do not declare it with pride as though I am certain I am right. The long and consistent belief of the faithful should not be easily set aside. But for the reasons stated I want to propose this for your consideration. How say you?

If the Angels do sing, here is how they sound:

Are Some of the Psalms Boastful?

To anyone who regularly reads the Liturgy of the Hours, some of the psalms seem downright boastful. They sound too much like the Pharisee who went to pray and said, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). In the very next verse, Jesus recommends a briefer prayer for us: God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).

How, then, are we to understand some of the psalms that seem to take up a rather boastful and presumptuous tone? Consider these three passages:

    • The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight (Psalm 18:21-24).
    • My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:1-4).
    • I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me … therefore I hate every wrong path (Psalm 119:100-102).

For us who would pray these, the spiritual approach is twofold.

These psalms are prayed in hope. While we are not worthy to say such words without a lot of qualifications, by God’s grace they will one day be true for us. God is drawing us to perfection. While total perfection will not come until we attain Heaven, if we are faithful we should be progressing toward this lofty reality even now.

Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation. One day in Heaven we will be able to say, “I do not sin; I am blameless before God. I am not proud and never depart from your decrees, O Lord.” Hope is the vigorous expectation that these words will one day apply to us fully; for now, we recite them in that fervent hope.

In effect, we are memorizing our lines for a future moment, when by God’s grace we will actually be able to recite them truthfully. Praying psalms like these is like a dress rehearsal for Heaven. These psalms amount to prolepses of a sort, whereby we proclaim a future reality as if it were already present. Our confidence to speak proleptically is in Christ alone.

These psalms are on the lips of Christ. When the Church prays, Head and members pray together; it is the whole Body of Christ that proclaims these psalms.

Christ never wavered, never drew back from God’s Law. He never sinned; His hands were clean from defilement and He was rewarded for His righteousness. Christ alone prays these psalms without any qualification.

In the Old Testament, these psalms pointed forward to the Christ, to the anointed Messiah. Today, they still point to Christ and He alone utters them authentically. None of us can really pray them apart from Christ, as members of His Body.

Even the perfected in Heaven cannot pray them without reference to Christ, for it is He who accomplished in them the perfection that makes such psalms a reality for them.

It is Christ who prays these psalms, and we—through Him, with Him and in Him—head and members—are praying them to the Father.

Without Christ, such psalms amount to haughty boasts and presumptuous declarations, but with Christ our Head, they are true; we can rightly pray them in the hope of our own perfection, one day, by His grace. We can also pray them in the joy that some of our brothers and sisters in Heaven have already attained to the perfection described therein. This is because the grace of Christ has had in them its full effect.

“Seal Up What the Seven Thunders Have Said” – A Meditation on Sinful Curiosity

In the Office of Readings during these Easter weeks, we are reading from the Book of Revelation. In it is this passage reminding us that there are some things that are not for us to know:

Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down” (Rev 10:1-4).

A similar passage occurs in the Book of Daniel. Having had certain things revealed to him, Daniel is told,

But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, even to the time of the end (Dan 12:4).

To the apostles, who pined for knowledge of the last things, Jesus said,

It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power (Acts 1:7).

In all of these texts we are reminded that there are some things—even many things (seven is a number indicating fullness)—that are not for us to know. This is a warning against sinful curiosity and a solemn reminder that not all of God’s purposes or plans are revealed to us.

A few reasons come to mind for this silence and for the command to seal up the revelation of the seven thunders:

    • It is an instruction against arrogance and sinful curiosity. Especially today, people seem to think that they have right to know just about everything. The press speaks of the people’s “right to know.” While this may be true about the affairs of government, it is not true about people’s private lives, and it is surely not true about all the mysteries of God. There are just some things that we have no right to know, that are none of our business. Much of our prying is a mere pretext for gossip and for the opportunity to see others’ failures and faults. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that more than half of what we talk about all day long is none of our business.
    • It is a rebuke of our misuse of knowledge. Sadly, especially in the “information age,” we speak of knowledge as power. We seek to know in order to control, rather than to repent and conform to the truth. We think that we should be able to do anything that we know how to do. Even more reason, then, that God should withhold from us the knowledge of many things; we’ve confused knowledge with wisdom and have used our knowledge as an excuse to abuse power, to kill with might, and to pervert the glory of human life with “reproductive technology.” Knowledge abused in this way is not wisdom; it is foolishness and is a path to grave evils.
    • It is to spare us from the effects of knowing things that we cannot handle. The very fact that the Revelation text above describes this knowledge as “seven thunders” indicates that these hidden utterances are of fearful weightiness. Seven is a number that refers to the fullness of something, so these are loud and devastating thunders. In His mercy to use, God does not reveal all the fearsome terrors that will come upon this sinful world, which cannot endure the glorious and fiery presence of His justice. Too much for this world are the arrows of His quiver, which are never exhausted. Aside from the terrors already foretold in Scripture, the seven thunders may well conceal others that are unutterable and too horrifying for the world to endure. Ours is a world that is incapable of enduring His holiness or of standing when He shall appear.

What, then, is to be our stance in light of the many things too great for us to know, which God mercifully conceals from us? We should have the humility of a child who knows what he does not know but is content that his father knows.

O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.

Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
even so is my soul.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and forever (Psalm 131).

Yes, like humble children we should seek to learn, realizing that there are many things that are beyond us, that are too great for us. We should seek to learn, but with a humility that is reverence for the truth, a humility that realizes that we are but little children, not lords and masters.

Scripture says, Beyond these created wonders many things lie hid. Only a few of God’s works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).

Thank you, Lord, for what you have taught us and revealed to us. Thank you, too, for what you have mercifully kept hidden because it is too much for us to know. Thank you, Lord. Help us to learn; keep us humble, like little children.

On a Strange and Horrible Biblical Story and the “Bad” Memory of God.

We are reading from Hebrews 12 in the Liturgy this week (Monday  of the 4th Week) which mentions, among the heroes of ancient Israel, Jepthe. More on that in a moment.

But one of the most strange and horrifying stories of the Bible is the story of Jephthah  (Pronounced “Jeff-tha” and alternately spelled Jepthe) and his ritual murder of his daughter. It is a tale of faith and piety gone terribly wrong and a teaching of what happens when error and false religion are substituted for the true faith.  It is also a tale of how God can work even with the worst of us to accomplish his ends. Let’s look at this “fractured fable” of a story.

The story of Jephthah  is told in Judges 11. He is described as a mighty warrior and would one day be numbered among the Judges of Israel. As the chapter opens we are told:

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute.  Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him. (Jdg 11:1-3).

Jephthah the Ganger – Tob is a land to the extreme east of Jordan. Having been dispossessed of any personal resources Jephthah became ranked among the roving bands of dispossessed youth who had little to lose. While the text above says describes Jephthah as gathering “adventurers”  around him, many translators render the Hebrew as “worthless men” or “ruffians.” In effect Jephthah is a gang member, the head of a group of marauders who allied themselves with local inhabitants who felt over-taxed or had other grievances against local rulers. They sustained themselves by raiding caravans or towns and enemies of their friends.

It is quite a remarkable thing that the likes of Jephthah would rise to Judge Israel for six years. Judges were those who, in the years prior to kingship in Israel, served as charismatic leaders. They usually rose to power in response to some crisis or need.

And, sure a enough, a crisis did arrive that would catapult Jephthah to power. The text says,

Some time later, when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob.  “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”  Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”  The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.” Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me—will I really be your head?”  The elders of Gilead replied, “The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them (Jdg 11:4-10).

The Israelites needed a warrior and Jephthah had gained the reputation of being a skilled and fearsome warrior. He would be their man and he came to Judge (rule) over Israel. He first, as a formality,  sent messengers to negotiate a settlement with the Ammonites. In a lengthy message he sets forth both an  historical and theological basis for Israel’s claim on the Transjordan area to which the Ammonites were now laying claim. Among other things the Israelites had lived in the land over 300 years. But the Ammonites rejected all negotiations. So Jephthah prepared for war. (cf Jdg 11:12-28)

Here is where things get strange. Prior to going to war Jephthah vows a vow. It is an immoral vow, on the face of it. It is a vow that would require something wicked of him. The text says:

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord. (Jdg 11:29-31)

This is a wicked vow. It is wrong to vow to kill some as a sacrifice to God. It is forbidden explicitly by to offer any human being in sacrifice to any god let alone Him: You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12:31; cf also Lev 18:21) It is murder that Jephthah vows. It is false religion that he embraces.

Some have tried to soften the vow by translating the vow as “whatever” comes out of the house, Jephthah would offer in sacrifice. Thus he could have meant an animal. But it is difficult for the Hebrew (צֵא הַ) to support this notion. The gender of the word would have to be in the feminine form to support this theory. But the form is masculine which everywhere else means “whoever” and it is coupled with the verbs  “to come out” and “to meet.” It does not usually pertain to things and animals to do this. Hence, it seems the plain meaning of this text is that Jephthah vowed to kill the first human who came forth to meet him upon his return. One may suppose he figured that a slave or servant would be the first to greet him?

What makes the vow even more troubling is that it was generally presumed that one who was called to be a judge had an anointing from God. Verse 30 does speak of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Jephthah How could one anointed by God be guilty of such a gross violation of God’s law. We can only recall  that God’s approval of one area in a person’s life is not an approval of every area of their life. Most of Israel’s greatest leaders had serious flaws: Moses and David had murdered, Jacob was a usurper, Abraham “pimped” his wife and so forth. God can write straight with crooked lines. St. Paul reminds us that we carry the great treasure of God within “earthen vessels.” An old gospel hymn says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.” God does not call the perfect, that much is clear.

The story of Jephthah then has it’s horrible twist and dreadful end:

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”  “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”  “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite (Jdg 11:33-40).

In the end, Jephthah is met by his only daughter and is “forced” to fulfill his vow to kill her as a sacrifice. But in fact he is not forced for no one is compelled to fulfill a wicked vow. Yet the plain meaning of the text indicates that did just that. There are attempts by some scholars to try and show that Jephthah really didn’t do it. But, their attempts are very contrived and, in the end, set aside the plain meaning of the text which quite clearly indicates Jephthah went through with his vow.

What happened to Jephthah? We can only speculate. But it would seem that he had come under the influence of the false religions of the pagans. In particular, he seems to have come under the influence of the Canaanite practices of human sacrifice. The Jewish people had often fallen prey to just such a syncretism. Their faith in the God of Israel was often selective and weak. Superstition often drew them to the Baals and other gods of the surrounding nations. Their straying often led them to great wickedness, sexual promiscuity, deviance and even human sacrifice. Jephthah seems to have been among their number. His rejection by his brothers in Israel and his wandering at the fringes of the land were surely factors in his religious confusion and the evil that flowed from it.

And what of us? We too do well to consider the rapid descent into evil of our culture as we have increasingly and collectively rejected the true faith. Things once thought shameful are now practiced proudly by many. Things once thought immodest are flaunted. A terrible toll of abortion also mounts as our children are sacrificed to the gods of promiscuity, contraception, illicit sexual union, career, and convenience. As God has been shown the door in our culture, and kicked to the curb, we have descended mightily in to confusion and corruption, to debauchery and decay. It begins with forsaking faith in the One, True God. This nation, though always pluralistic and non sectarian, did once have a clear place for God. Now He has been escorted to the margins. And we, like Jephthah, are increasingly able and willing to do the unthinkable.

On the Bad Memory of God – One final thought on the story of Jephthah. It occurs to me that God has a “bad memory.” I say this because God the Holy Spirit holds Jephthah up later in scripture for our admiration. It’s right there in Hebrews 11 where Jephthah is said to be among the cloud of witnesses:

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies….. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 11:32-34; 12:1-2)

It is a remarkable thing to see Jephthah listed among the great Old Testament saints. Perhaps we can say that Jephthah repented? We can surely hope. But it is also possible to celebrate the “bad memory” of God. I hope you will understand, I mean no irreverence here. Scripture says, For I [the Lord] will forgive [my people] their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:34). And also, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more,” says the Lord (Heb 10:17) I don’t know about you, but I am depending and the “poor memory” of God. I am hoping for a poor recollection on the part of God of certain incidents and passages in my life  🙂  And if Jephthah can make the cut, perhaps there’s hope for me too!

There have been a number of musical oratorios based on the Story of Jephthah. One of my favorites is “Jepthe” by Carissimi. In this first video I have assembled some images to the story and set it to a Chorus from Jepthe by Carissimi. The song is led by the daughter and is one of the happy moments in the Oratorio. The text says, Cantemus Omnes Domino! Laudemus belli principem, qui dedit nobis gloriam et Israel victoriam (Let us all sing to the Lord! Let us praise the prince of war, who gave glory to us and Israel Victory).

 

The final chorus of Jepthe by Carissimi is a minor masterpiece and a deep lament for the only daugther of Jepthe. The text says: Plorate filii Israel, plorate omnes virgines, et filiam Jephte unigenitam in carmine doloris lamentamini (Weep O children of Israel, weep, all you virgins, and in sorrowful songs lament the only daughter of Jepthe). The final lamentamini repeats over and over as we are drawn into the deep sorrow of loss.

Pondering Some Proverbs

In daily Mass this week we are reading from the Book of Proverbs, in which a common theme is the contrast between the wise man and the fool.

Let’s examine a few passages from the Proverbs. They go a long way toward explaining the ultimate destiny of the wise and the destruction wrought by foolishness and evil.  My comments are presented in red text.

Blessings are for the head of the just, but a rod for the back of the fool (Proverbs 10:6).

God’s law is a great blessing to those who love wisdom. His commandments are not prison walls; they are defending walls. His commands do not limit freedom so much as they frame it within necessary limits.

To the foolish, though, to those who despise God’s wisdom, to those who hate discipline and reasonable limits, God’s law—any authority that tries to limit behavior—is hateful and punishing, like a rod on the back.

Many today are not simply indifferent to God’s wisdom as proclaimed by the Church and Scripture, they are openly hostile to it!

It is like the reaction of someone who has been sitting in a dark room and is suddenly subjected to bright light. He despises the light and protests its presence as something obnoxious and intrusive. Jesus lamented, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil (Jn 3:19).

A wise man heeds commands, but a prating fool will be overthrown. A path to life is his who heeds admonition, but he who disregards reproof goes astray (Proverbs 10:8, 17).

The wise man listens to instruction and strives to base his life upon it. The wise humbly accept that they do not know all things and must be taught by God.

Fools, those who hate wisdom, prattle on and on about their own opinions. They believe something is true simply because they think it.

The text says that the end of a fool is destruction. Many nations, empires, political ideologies, trends, and philosophies have come and gone over the years, yet God’s truth remains. The wisdom and the Word of the Lord endure forever.

He who winks at a fault causes trouble, but he who frankly reproves promotes peace (Prov 10:10).

There is tremendous pressure today to remain silent about sin and evil. Those who do speak of sin are labeled judgmental and intolerant. Sadly, many Christians have succumbed to this pressure; nothing but trouble can result from such capitulation. The moral cesspool that is our modern age is evidence of this.

The correction of faults, frankly and with love, is an act of charity (St. Thomas Aquinas). Error and sin bring war and division, both individually and collectively, but God’s truth, lovingly proclaimed, brings peace by insisting on what is good, right, true, and beautiful.

We live in an age that turns a blind eye to evil. The world often celebrates it in visual entertainment, written media, and music. One can see the destructiveness of the glamorization of evil simply by reading the news.

God’s law is His peace plan for this broken world of ours; it is His wisdom that will bring us peace.

A fountain of life is the mouth of the just, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Proverbs 10:11).

Jesus warned that Satan and those who are evil often masquerade in sheep’s clothing, while underneath they are ravenous wolves (see Mat 7:15). Many in our world today who despise God’s wisdom attempt to conceal their violence by using euphemisms such as pro-choice, pro-woman, no-fault divorce, reproductive freedom, euthanasia, and death with dignity.

Despite the cloak of pseudo-compassion, they ultimately peddle death and division. God’s wisdom, on the other hand, speaks to the dignity of every human life, to hope, and to the promise of life in spite of any difficulties.

The soul of the wicked man desires evil; his neighbor finds no pity in his eyes (Proverbs 21:6).

There comes a steady hardening of the heart of a person who loves evil. As the hardening grows worse, they care less and less for the pain they cause others. They show little pity and don’t seem to mind that they destroy the reputations of others. Their cruelty, both physical and emotional, grows ever worse.

The just man’s recompense leads to life, but the gains of the wicked, to sin. Better a little with fear of the Lord than a great fortune with anxiety. Better a little with virtue than a large income with injustice (Proverbs 10: 15, 16).

For those who are striving to be just and to follow God’s wisdom, the rewards received are to be shared generously with others. The gains of the wicked, however, lead to sins such as gluttony, greed, and hoarding. Rather than sharing their abundance with others, they spend it on the flesh; they place their trust in creatures rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.

Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but he who restrains his lips does well (Proverbs 10:19).

In an age of non-stop communication and 24/7 news reporting, the sin of gossip is an almost endlessly available temptation. Discretion appears to have been lost. Almost everyone thinks he has a right to know everything about everyone else. The people’s “right to know” seems to have no limits.

Our age is one of many media (visual, verbal, musical, etc.) and on account of this sin is not wanting. We talk endlessly about other people’s business and often ignore our own issues. Why stay in our own lane when we can “tune in at 11,” read a scandal sheet, or surf to a website for the latest gossip?

Rare indeed are those who “restrain their lips” and limit their critique to what is truly helpful unto conversion.

Crime is the entertainment of the fool; so is wisdom for the man of sense (Proverbs 10:23).

Our culture often celebrates the sins of others as entertainment. On television, in the cinema, and in many other forms of communication, fornication, adultery, and all kinds of sexual misconduct are normalized—even celebrated.

It is the same with violence. Most adventure movies today glamorize its use solve problems. We also glorify mobsters and some other violent criminals.

Some will argue that movies should reflect life. That is fine, but most people are not killing other people, burning cities, crashing cars, or blowing up buildings. Most people are not involved in organized crime. Sadly, however, there is a lot of fornication, adultery, and participation in homosexual acts. In movies, this behavior seems to bring few negative consequences; in real life, however, the consequences are often devastating.

Where are the movies that depict wisdom, beauty, love, truth, chastity, and strong families? There are some out there, but they are far outnumbered by those that celebrate crime, violence, dysfunction, and sinfulness.

When the tempest passes, the wicked man is no more; but the just man is established forever (Proverbs 10:25).

The Church alone is indefectible, by the promise of Jesus Christ. Although evil movements, political forces, and sinful regimes rise and boast of their power, they eventually fall. The Church has seen empires rise and fall and philosophies come and go. Evil men have threatened the Church with destruction for thousands of years, but we have read the funeral rites over every one of them.

The truth will out. Evil will not remain; it cannot last. Christ has already won the victory.

The foolish keep resisting; they laugh at God’s wisdom, dismiss the Scriptures, and ridicule the Church. When they are gone, though, we will still be here proclaiming Christ crucified, gloriously resurrected, and ascended to glory.

Those who mock this resist the consistent message of history. Jesus is Lord, and though He permits His enemies time to repent, their days are ultimately numbered—evil cannot last.

These are just a few proverbs that are particularly appropriate for our times. They help us to understand what God has to say about many modern trends.

Here’s a video with some other sayings. In posting this I do not mean to affirm every saying presented in it, but some of them do make good sense!

In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.

Does God Harden Human Hearts?


One of the more difficult biblical themes to understand is that of God hardening the hearts and minds of certain people. The most memorable case is that of Pharaoh. Before sending Moses to him, God said that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 4:21). There are other instances in which biblical texts speak of God hardening the hearts of sinners, even from among His own people.

Jesus hinted at such a theme in Matthew 13, when He said that He spoke in parables (here understood more as riddles) so as to affirm that the hearts of most people “outside the house” were hardened. He quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 as He does so. Jesus’ own apostles wondered why He spoke plainly only to them and a close company of disciples, but in riddle-like parables to the crowds outside. In His answer we are left to wonder if Jesus has not perchance written off the crowds and left them in the hardness of their hearts. To be fair, Jesus’ remark is ambiguous and open to interpretation.

What are we to make of texts like these which explicitly or implicitly speak of God hardening the hearts of people? How can God, who does no evil, be the source of a sinful mind or hard heart? Why would God do such a thing when Scripture also says this:

•  As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)

•  God our Savior … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).

To be sure, these questions involve very deep mysteries, about the interaction between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, about time, and about causality. The question of God hardening hearts cannot be resolved simply. Greater minds than mine have pondered these things and it would be foolish to think that an easy resolution will be found in a blog post.

Some distinctions can and should be made and some context supplied. We do not want to understand the “hardening texts” simplistically or in ways that use one truth to cancel out others that balance it.

I propose that we examine these texts along four lines:

  1. The Context of Connivance
  2. The Mystery of Time
  3. The Mystery of Primary Causality
  4. The Necessity of Humility

To begin, it is important simply to list some of the hardening texts. These will be referred to as we examine each of the four points above. The following are not the only hardening texts, but they provide a wide enough sample to use in our discussion:

•  The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21).

•  Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country (Ex 11:10).

•  Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance (Is 63:17).

•  He [God] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them (Jesus quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, in John 12:40).

•  They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie, so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thess 2:10-12).

•  Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. … Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done (Rom 1:24, 28).

Point I: The Context of Connivance In properly assessing texts like these we should first consider the contexts in which they were made and written. Generally speaking, most of these declarations that God hardens the heart come after a significant period of disobedience on the part of those whose hearts were hardened. In a way, God “cements the deal” and gives them what they really want. Seeing that they have hardened their own hearts to Him, God determines that their disposition is to be a permanent one. In a sovereign exercise of His will (for nothing can happen without God’s allowance), He declares and permits their hearts to be hardened in a definitive kind of way. In this sense there is a judgment of God upon the individual that recognizes the person’s definitive decision against Him. Hence this hardening can be understood as voluntary on the part of the one hardened, for God hardens in such a way that He uses the person’s own will for the executing of His judgment. God accepts that the individual’s will against Him is definitive.

In the case of Pharaoh, although God indicated to Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, the actual working out of this is a bit more complicated. We see in the first five plagues that it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (Ex 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; 9:7). It is only after this repeated hardening by Pharaoh of his own heart that the Exodus text speaks of God as the one who hardens (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27). Hence the hardening here is not without Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness. God does this as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.

The Isaiah texts (many in number) that speak of a hardening being visited upon Israel by God (e.g., #3 and #4 above) are also the culmination of a long testimony by Isaiah of Israel’s hardness. At the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, God describes (through Isaiah) Israel’s hardness as being of their own doing: For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him (Is 1:2-4). There follows a long list of their crimes, their hardness, and their refusal to repent.

St. John Chrysostom: Of the numerous texts later in Isaiah (and also referenced by Jesus (e.g., Jn 12:40)) that speak of Israel as being hardened by God (and having their eyes shut by Him), St. John Chrysostom wrote, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaiah said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaiah said they would … For He does not leave us, except we wish Him … Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun, that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words (on a gloss of Is. 6:9-10 at Jn 12:40, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

St Augustine: This is not said to be the devil’s doing, but God’s. Yet if any ask why they could not believe, I answer, because they would not … But the Prophet, you say, mentions another cause, not their will; but that God had blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. But I answer, that they well deserved this. For God hardens and blinds a man, by forsaking and not supporting him; and this He makes by a secret sentence, for by an unjust one He cannot (quoted in the Catena Aurea at Jn 12:40).

In the passage from 2 Thessalonians, while the text speaks of God as having sent the delusion, the verses before and after make clear the sinful role of the punished.

Of this text St. Augustine wrote, From a hidden judgment of God comes perversity of heart, so that the refusal to hear the truth leads to the commission of sin, and this sin is itself a punishment for the preceding sin [of refusing to hear the truth] (Against Julian 5.3.12).

St. John Damascus: [God does this] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (The Orthodox Faith 4.26).

The passages from Romans speak of God handing them over only after they have suppressed the truth (1:18), persevered in their wickedness (1:18), and preferred idolatry (1:23). Hence, as a just judgment, God hands them over to sexual confusion (homosexuality) and countless other destructive drives. So although it is said that God hands them over, it is really not that simple. They do not want to serve Him and so He, knowing their definitive decision, gives them what they want.

Thus our first point of distinction in understanding the hardening texts is that the context of connivance is important in assessing them. Scripture does not assert that God takes a reasonably righteous man and, out of the blue, hardens his heart, confuses his mind, or causes him (against his will) to become obstinate. The texts are usually presented as a kind of prevenient judgment by God, that the state of the person’s hardness has now become permanent. They refuse and so God “causes” them to walk in their own sinful ways since they have insisted on doing so.

Point II: The Mystery of Time In understanding these hardening texts (which we have seen are akin to judgment texts) we must recall that God does not live in time in the same way that we do. Scripture speaks often of God’s knowledge and vision of time as being comprehensive rather than speculative or serial (e.g., Ex 3:14; Ps 90:2-4; Ps 93:2; Is 43:13; Ps 139; 2 Peter 3:8; James 1:17).

To say that God is eternal and lives in eternity is to say that He lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, present, and future are all the same. God is not wondering what I will do tomorrow; neither is He waiting for it to happen. For Him, my tomorrow has always been present. All of my days were written in His book before one of them ever came to be (Ps 139:16). Whether and how long I live has always been known to Him. Before He ever formed me in my mother’s womb He knew me (Jer 1:4). My final destiny is already known and present to Him.

Hence, when we strive to understand God’s judgments in the form of hardening the hearts of certain people, we must be careful not to think He lives in time the way we do. It is not as though God is watching my life like a movie. He already knows the choices I will make. Thus, when God hardens the hearts of some, it is not as though He is trying to negatively influence the outcome and trip certain people up. He already knows the outcome and has always known it; He knows the destiny that they have chosen.

Be very careful with this insight, for it is a mystery to us. We cannot really know what it is like to live in eternity, in the fullness of time, where the future is just as present as the past. Even if you think you know, you really don’t. What is essential for us to realize is that God does not live in time the way we do. If we try too hard to solve the mystery (rather than merely accepting and respecting it) we risk falling into the denial of human freedom, double predestination, or other misguided notions that sacrifice one truth for another rather than holding them in balance. That God knows what I will do tomorrow does not destroy my freedom to actually do it. How this all works out is mysterious, but we are free and God holds us accountable for our choices. Further, even though God knows our destiny already, this does not mean that He is revealing anything about that to us, so that we should look for signs and seek to call ourselves saved or lost. We ought to work out our salvation in reverential fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

The key point here is mystery. How, why, and when God hardens the heart of anyone is caught up in the mysterious fact that He lives outside of time and knows all things before they happen. Thus He acts with comprehensive knowledge of all outcomes.

Point III: The Mystery of Causality One of the major differences between the ancient and the modern world is that the ancient world was much more comfortable dealing with something known as primary causality.

Up until the Renaissance, God was at the center of all things and people instinctively saw the hand of God in everything, even terrible things. Job said, The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised … if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil? (Job 1:21; 2:10) The ancients would commonly attribute everything as coming from the hand of God, for He was the first cause of everything that happened. This is what is meant by primary causality. The ancients were thus much more comfortable attributing things to God, even things that we are not. In speaking like this, they were not engaging in superstitious or primitive thinking; rather, they were emphasizing that God was sovereign, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and that nothing happened apart from His sovereign will. God is the primary cause of all that is.

Of this ancient and scriptural way of thinking the Catechism says, And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes [e.g., human or natural]. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

The key point here is understanding that the ancient biblical texts, while often speaking of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, did not mean to say that man had no role, no responsibility. Neither did the texts mean to say that God acted in a merely arbitrary way. Rather, the emphasis was on God’s sovereign power as the first cause of all that is. Hence, He is often called the cause of all things and His hand is seen in everything. We moderns are uncomfortable speaking in this way.

After the Renaissance, man moved himself to the center and God was gradually relegated to the periphery. Man’s manner of thinking and speaking began to shift to secondary causes (causes related to man and nature). If something happens we look to natural causes, or in human situations, to the humans who caused it. These are secondary causes because I cannot cause something to happen unless God causes me. Yet increasingly the modern mind struggles to maintain a balance between the two mysteries: our freedom and responsibility, and God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.

In effect primary causality has largely been thrown overboard as a category. Even modern believers unconsciously do this and thus exhibit three related issues:

1. We fail to maintain the proper balance between two mysteries: God’s sovereignty and our freedom.

2. We exhibit shock at things like the “hardening texts” of the Bible because we understand them poorly.

3. We try to resolve the shock by favoring one truth over the other. Maybe we just brush aside the ancient biblical texts as a “primitive mode of speech,” inappropriately concluding that God didn’t have anything to do with this or that. Or we go to the other extreme and become fatalistic, denying human freedom, denying secondary causality (our part), and accusing God of everything (as if He were the only cause and shouldered the sole blame for everything). We either read the hardening texts with a clumsy literalism or we dismiss them as misguided notions from an immature, primitive, pre-scientific age.

The point here is that we have to balance the mysteries of primary and secondary causality. We cannot fully understand how they interrelate, but they do. Both mysteries need to be held. The ancients were more sophisticated than we are in holding these mysteries in the proper balance. We handle causality very clumsily and do not appreciate the distinctions between primary causality (God’s part) and secondary causality (our own and nature’s part). We try to resolve the mystery rather than holding it in balance and speaking to both realities. In doing so, we become poor interpreters of the hardening texts.

Point IV: The Necessity of Humility By now it is clear that we are dealing with the mysterious interrelationship between God and Man, between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, between primary and secondary causality. In the face of such mysteries we have to be very humble. We ought not to think more of the details than is proper, because they are largely hidden from us. Too many moderns either dismiss the hardening texts or accept them and then sit in harsh judgment over God (as if we could do such a thing). Neither approach bespeaks humility. Consider a shocking but very humbling text in which Paul warns us in this very matter:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:14-20)

None of us can demand an absolute account from God for what He does. Even if He were to tell us, could our small and worldly minds ever really comprehend it? My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8).

SUMMARY – In this (rather too long) post, we have considered the “hardening texts,” in which it seems that God hardens the hearts of certain people and groups—and so He does. But texts like these must be approached carefully, humbly, and with proper understanding of the scriptural and historical context. At work here are profound mysteries: God’s sovereignty, our freedom, His mercy, and His justice.

We should be careful to admit the limits of our knowledge when it comes to such texts. As the Catechism so beautifully states, when it comes to texts like these they are to be appreciated as a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

Towering Pride: What the Story of the Tower of Babel Can Teach Us

The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is a memorable one. In Genesis 10, we read the genealogy of Noah’s sons and their dispersion across many different lands with many different languages. The beginning of Chapter 11 describes the scattering of Noah’s descendants and the multiplication of languages in story form:

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore, its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth (Gen 11:1-9).

One language? The text states that the human family originally spoke a single language. Other (i.e., non-biblical) ancient texts seem to confirm this. For example, there is a Sumerian tablet that tells the story of a time when all languages were one on the earth (see Samuel Noah Kramer, “The Babel of Tongues: A Sumerian Version,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, 108-111).

They build a tower with its top in the heavens. Such towers, called ziggurats, were common in ancient Mesopotamia; they resembled tall, stepped pyramids. The remains of some of them can still be seen today.

What was the problem? The tower itself wasn’t the problem. The sin was in thinking they could build a tower that could reach to God in Heaven. (St. Augustine sees pride in that they thought they could avoid a future flood (as if anything could be too high for God!) (Tractates on John 6.10.2).) The later verse calling this place Babel is significant. Babel is a Hebrew word meaning “gate of God,” or by extension, “gate of (to) heaven.” What they really think they can do is to ascend to Heaven, and God, by their own strength. Bad idea! Remember, Adam and Eve had been barred from paradise because they could no longer endure the presence of God. Never think that you can walk into God’s presence by your own unaided power. Only grace can do this. We cannot achieve Heaven by our power. We do not have a ladder tall enough or a rocket ship powerful enough.

To make matters worse, they say, let us make a name for ourselves. Not only are they seeking to enter Heaven by their own power, but also to make a name for themselves. Now that’s pride with a capital P, and that rhymes with T, and that stands for trouble. Yes (to quote the Music Man), we’ve got trouble right here in River City (Mesopotamia is the land between the rivers).

A further insight into the pride involved in trying to make a name for oneself comes from the concept of naming. Recall that Adam named all the animals (Genesis 2), but God named man (Gen 5:1). To name something is to have superiority over it and to know something of its essence. Parents name their children. In the ancient world naming was very significant. Today this is less so. Ultimately, it is God who names us. In so doing, it is He who declares our essence. It is pride, in this ancient sense, for man to try to “make a name” for himself. Only God can really name us and assign us any lasting glory.

Why did they do it? According to the text, the purpose for this prideful act is that is must be done lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. Hence, they want to build the tower to make a name for themselves and to preserve unity among themselves.

Wait, isn’t this good? Yes, but although unity is precious, it is not a work of Man; it must be based on God and His truth. Without God, unity can become a source of despotic power. Consider atheistic communism and secular socialism. Concentrated, centralized power can be a serious problem if God is not its center and source. If God is not the source of our unity, you can be sure that despotism is on the way.

Comical! The text goes on to say, And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. This great tower, so high as to reach to the heavens, was really so puny that God had to come down to see it.

What is God worried about? The text describes God’s concern for the growing pride of the human race: If now … they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do.

God almost seems worried that Man will become too powerful, but what he is really saying is that if He does not intervene, there will be no limit to our pride or the depths of our depravity. God intervenes and puts limits on us lest our wickedness grow uncontrolled. He does two specific things: He confuses their speech, and He scatters them abroad. We prideful moderns, who seem to know few limits to our depravity (or even celebrate it), ought to heed this story. God may well have to fell our towers.

Conclusion – Our greatest enemy is pride. In terms of our salvation, the greatest virtue is humility. Unity is indeed a good to be sought, but if it fuels our pride, we’ll all just end up all going to Hell together! In this case God saw fit to humble us by scattering us and confusing our language. Unity in wickedness is best scattered. Only unity for good is praiseworthy. Of this St. Jerome says,

Just as when holy men live together, it is a great grace and blessing; so likewise, that congregation is the worst kind when sinners dwell together. The more sinners there are at one time, the worse they are! Indeed, when the tower was being built up against God, those who were building it were disbanded for their own welfare. The conspiracy was evil. The dispersion was of true benefit even to those who were dispersed (Homilies 21).

Bringing it close to home. To those who like to build and to make a name for themselves, St. John Chrysostom has this to say:

There are many people even today who in imitation of [the builders at Babel] want to be remembered for such achievements, by building splendid homes, baths, porches, and drives. I mean, if you were to ask each one of them why they toil and labor and lay out such great expense to no good purpose, you would hear nothing but these very words [Let us make a name for ourselves]. They would be seeking to ensure that their memory survives in perpetuity and to have it said, “this house belonged to so-and-so,” “This is the property of so-and-so.” This, on the contrary, is worthy not of commemoration but of condemnation. For hard upon those words come other remarks equivalent to countless accusations—“belonging to so-and-so, the grasping miser and despoiler of widows and orphans.” [Such behavior will] incite the tongues of onlookers to calumny and condemnation of the person who amassed these goods. But if you are anxious to for undying reputation, I will show you the way to succeed in being remembered … along with an excellent name … in the age to come … If you give away these goods of yours into the hands of the poor, letting go of precious stones, magnificent homes, properties and baths (Homilies on Genesis 30.7).

What are you and I building? Be careful! Babel might not be a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, after all.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Towering Pride: What the Story of the Tower of Babel Can Teach Us