The inspiration of scripture: divine disclosure

Raphael’s 1518 painting of Ezekiel’s visionNote: If this is your first exposure to this series, I’d appreciate it if you’d start with the introduction to the series so that you’re able to put this post in context.

The previous installment in this series cataloged those few texts in which God (or a related heavenly being such as angel) is claimed to have told someone to write something, and to have quoted to that person the exact words they should write. I concluded that discussion with the observation that “no biblical writer claims that God wrote or dictated the book they wrote, though they may claim that for very short texts that they quoted in their books.”

Various biblical texts also testify that God told somebody to write something, but didn’t tell that person exactly what words to use. These passages paint a picture related to, but noticeably different from, those passages that paint a picture of divine dictation of some short text.

Returning to my Accordance search for imperative forms of כתב (plus one weqatal form used imperatively in Jer 36:2), I find the following passages where this is clearly the case:

  • Now go, write it before them on a tablet,

    inscribe it on a scroll,

    so in the future

    it will endure as a witness. (Isa 30:8 CEB)

  • The LORD proclaims:

    Mark (כתב) this man as childless;

    he will not prosper during his lifetime.

    None of his children

    will sit on David’s throne

    and rule again in Judah. (Jer 22:30)

  • The Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims: Write down in a scroll all the words I have spoken to you. (Jer 30:2)
  • Take a scroll and write in it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah, and all the nations from the time of Josiah until today. (Jer 36:2)
  • Get another scroll and write in it all the words that were in the first scroll that Judah’s King Jehoiakim burned. (Jer 36:28)
  • When they feel humiliated by all that they have done, make known to them the shape of the temple and its adornment, its exits and its entrances, its entire plan and all of its regulations. Write them down in their sight so that they may observe all of its entire plan and all its regulations and perform them. (Ezek 43:11)
  • Write a vision,

    and make it plain upon a tablet

    so that a runner can read it. (Hab 2:2)

Turning to the New Testament, searching Accordance for imperative forms of γράφω and looking for verses where a heavenly being tells someone to write, but doesn’t tell them exactly what words to use, yields results only in the book of Revelation:

  • It said, “Write down on a scroll whatever you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” (Rev 1:1)
  • So write down what you have seen, both the scene now before you and the things that are about to unfold after this. (Rev 1:19)

Before moving on, I’d also like to point out a couple of cases that I consider ambiguous:

  • So in light of all that, you must write down this poem and teach it to the Israelites. (Deut 31:19; God seems to say here that he’ll dictate a poem to Moses, but the dictated poem refers to God in the third person and embeds quoted divine speech)
  • Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev 21:5; I’m not sure whether “this” is limited to the words “Look! I’m making all things new,” or whether “this” extends to the previous vision of the new Jerusalem)

Bracketing these ambiguous cases doesn’t really alter the overall picture, so I’m going to leave them off to the side. Since I’m a scholar of the Tanakh, I’m also going to let Revelation lie, but I think that my observations about the book of Ezekiel cross-apply pretty consistently to the book of Revelation.

So let’s take a look at Ezekiel, starting with Ezekiel’s long, not-necessarily-exciting vision of an idealized Israel, including Jerusalem and its temple (Ezekiel 40–48). In this vision, a glowing dude with a measuring stick gives Ezekiel a guided tour of the idealized temple compound, measuring lots of stuff and occasionally giving Ezekiel some instructions about how people are supposed to behave in this temple. The command to write comes in Ezekiel 43:11, quoted above. Here Ezekiel’s claim is that the angelic tour guide told him to write, and told him what to write—but not that the angelic tour guide dictated the exact words Ezekiel should write. The glowing guy doesn’t write Ezekiel’s book for him.

The beginning of the book of Ezekiel presents a subtle but important variation on this theme. As is well known, Ezekiel makes a considerable effort in Ezekiel 1 to describe “how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared” (Ezek 1:28), as he seen it during his first visionary experience. Although this vision included “the sound of someone speaking” (Ezek 1:28, again), that voice didn’t describe “the Lord’s glory” to Ezekiel. Rather, the voice gave Ezekiel various instructions, including the instruction to “go to the house of Israel and speak my [i.e., God’s] words to them” (Ezek 3:4). The voice didn’t tell Ezekiel to write anything at all; it didn’t tell Ezekiel to share “how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared” with the house of Israel. Yet share it Ezekiel did, and eventually in writing. (I happen to think that Ezekiel was literate, and mostly responsible for writing the book that bears his name, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.) Readers who believe Ezekiel’s account can conclude that God showed or disclosed something special to Ezekiel, which Ezekiel either wrote down or described to someone else who (sooner or later) wrote it down—but Ezekiel 1–3 does not give such readers any support in thinking that God chose the words that Ezekiel should use to describe his vision, or that God even planned for Ezekiel to write down “how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared” at all. In the book of Revelation, the visionary John was repeatedly told to write down what he sees. Habakkuk 2:2 seems to present a similar case. Ezekiel, however, doesn’t claim to have received any such command to write—only to speak—except in the vision of Ezekiel 40–48.

These passages present, then, a model of “inspiration” that is close to, but not identical do, inspiration by dictation. Let’s call this “inspiration by disclosure.” These texts claim that God disclosed or revealed some truth or insight to a prophet or apocalyptic visionary, and entrusted that person with the responsibility to craft appropriate words as a vehicle for communicating that truth or insight. Some of these passages claim that God told the recipient of this disclosure to write down the content of the revelation; others claim only that God told the recipient to communicate the content orally, although obviously somebody wrote a version of that communication down at some point. We do not have divine authorship of texts with this model; instead, we have divine commissioning, with more or less detailed specifications, of texts.

At the end of part 2 of this series, I promised that I would work prophetic sermons into this unfolding model. The present post incorporates prophetic vision reports into my unfolding, multidimensional model of “inspiration,” but we haven’t hit prophetic sermons yet. Once again, I say to you: don’t worry, for that discussion is coming.


3 thoughts on “The inspiration of scripture: divine disclosure

  1. Joseph Kelly


    Are you familiar with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks? He explores the notion of divine commissioning as a mode of divine speech. I’m enjoying the series.

    1. Chris Heard Post author

      I haven’t read the book myself, but I’m aware of it and have read reviews on “both sides.” Wolterstorff’s notions of “deputized discourse” and “appropriated discourse” both resonate with me to some extent, as you’ll see in later posts.

  2. Pingback: Around the Blogosphere (10.12.2012) | Near Emmaus

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