The Hebrew Bible loves mystery and to hold things in tension. The Bible describes mystery as the Glory or Honour of God (the same word in Hebrew). Many times in the sacred texts a prophet speaks, or the Lord declares a thing or a prayer is prayed by one of the heroes of the Bible and then left un-analysed and not expounded. But why..?
Mystery in the Hebrew Mindset
The ancient Hebrew mind is content to dwell on the mystery and the Bible will often allow a mystery to pan out over thousands of years before it can be explained. King David says in the Psalms ‘I meditate on your Word, day and night’, he doesn't say he solves it!
In contrast the Greek (Western) mind does not do well with Mystery - we have the constant compulsion to solve everything there and then. The Western mind dislikes an unsolved mystery.
Diving Deeper - Hebrew and Greek Thought
To highlight a difference between Hebrew and Greek thought, the Hebrew word for Womb is רָ֫חֶם Rechem, this is also the word for Mercy. By comparison the Greek word for Womb is ὑστερικός Hysterikos, from where we derived the words hysterical and hysterectomy.
One thought describes a mysterious secret place that is warm, compassionate and full of mercy, the other alludes to hysteria and suffering and something to be removed. So also is the difference in approach to Mystery.
God is a Mystery
God is a mystery, and no greater concept of God is more mysterious than the concept of the Trinity.
In the Christian calendar there's a day set aside as "Trinity Sunday" - the day assigned to the preaching of God and His mysterious trinitarian nature. Most preachers are happy that Trinity Sunday only comes around once a year. For if you talk about the Trinity for longer than 5 minutes it’s highly likely you are now entering into heresy.
Describing the nature of God is not rocket science, it’s more difficult than that. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t fully describe the majesty of God. The word trinity does not appear in the Bible and only first came into use in the 3rd Century by Tertullian of Carthage (present day Tunisia). While the word Trinity is not in the Bible the mystery of God’s nature is. The Apostle Paul reminds us that for us there is one God and one Lord in 1 Corinthians 8:6.
We only have one God, so what do we do with this Father-Son-Spirit thing? The nature of God truly is a mystery. And those early mysteries are indeed found in Hebrew Bible.
Genesis Initiates the Mystery
The opening verse of Genesis initiates the mystery. God (אֱלֹהִים Elohim) which is a plural subject whose actions are described by a singular verb Created (בָּרָא Bara). This is grammatically incorrect to have a verb in singular form in conjunction with a plural subject.
Despite its grammatical incorrectness for most of the Hebrew Bible this is how God’s actions are described. But not always! In Genesis 20:13 for example, Abraham declares that Gods (using a plural verb form הִתְעוּ) caused him to wander from his father’s house. One would think that if this was a mistake in the text it would have been corrected after several thousand years. And yet this example and others of plural verb forms have been preserved as the text has been copied and handed down, guarding the mystery but not explaining it.
Yeshua (Jesus) tells his disciples in John 16:12 that He has many things still to explain to them, but they cannot bear it at present and must be patient.
The Mystery in the Shema
One of my favourite allusions to the Mystery occurs in the Prophet Isaiah 48:12-16. The passage begins with a powerful Hebrew word שְׁמַע ‘Shema’. Shema means listen or hear in the imperative form. Hebrew was predominately an oral language and when you heard the word Shema you thought of the Oath of Loyalty to the King of the Universe known as the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4. ‘Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord Alone’. It’s a powerful start to the passage and demands attention.
שְׁמַע אֵלַי יַעֲקֹב, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל מְקֹרָאִי: אֲנִי-הוּא אֲנִי רִאשׁוֹן, אַף אֲנִי אַחֲרוֹן
(Listen to Me Jacob and Israel whom I called. I am He, I am the First I am also the Last) NASB
Here in Isaiah 48:12 the person commanding us to listen then defines himself as the First and the Last. This begs the question: Who is the First and the Last?
Well we know that Yeshua calls Himself that, but only at the end of Revelation. While Jesus was on the planet He titled Himself as the Son of Man, an allusion to the eschatological figure in Daniel 7. At the time of the prophet Isaiah we do not initially know who belongs to the title, the First and the Last. However this being continues to describe himself through to verse 16.
The First and the Last laid the foundations of the world, ordered the universe, is supernatural in power, when He calls the Heavens and the Earth they stand up for Him. The answer to the question, Who made the Heavens and the Earth? is of course, God. In Isaiah the First and the Last creates the World and thus the First and the Last must be God. Case solved right? No! not so easy, the Mystery now begins to unfold.
קִרְבוּ אֵלַי שִׁמְעוּ-זֹאת, לֹא מֵרֹאשׁ בַּסֵּתֶר דִּבַּרְתִּי--מֵעֵת הֱיוֹתָהּ, שָׁם אָנִי; וְעַתָּה, אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה שְׁלָחַנִי וְרוּחוֹ.
(Come near to Me, listen to this: From the first I have not spoken in secret, From the time it took place I was there, and now the Lord God has sent Me with His spirit) NASB
Isaiah 48:16 starts softly with a call to ‘Come close and listen’, then the word Shma appears again, linking the passage together with the previous verses. לֹא מֵרֹאשׁ בַּסֵּתֶר דִּבַּרְתִּי ‘Not since the beginning have I spoken in secret?’ The question is asked!
The word for Speak is the same word as Word, דִּבַּרְ, which is also the same word for Thing. So the Word is a Thing. Then in Hebrew we have מֵעֵת הֱיוֹתָהּ. Which literally means “from the time that was, or from the beginning”. שָׁם אָנִי means “I was there”. וְעַתָּה means “and I am there now”. אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה שְׁלָחַנִי means “My Lord Yahweh (God) has sent me. Suddenly we learn that the Lord God (Yahweh) is not the First and the Last. וְרוּחוֹ means ‘and His Spirit’ and is also sent’.
The Mystery is the Glory of God to conceal and the honour of Man to seek
We have multiple powerful personalities present in these few verses.
The Mystery is that the First and the Last is not the Lord God, but instead it is Yahweh who sends Him along with the Spirit of God. The First and the Last is a supernatural being, capable of creating the world, existing before time and serves God.
The Prophet Isaiah does not go on to elaborate who He is - the Mystery is the Glory of God to conceal and the honour of Man to seek. Yeshua could not explain it to us for we could not bear it, but when we see Him we will know Him as He is.
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