Section IV.1 – Abstract versus Concrete
It is common for us to think in abstract terms. I’ll give an example: faith. What is faith? What is grace? What is mercy? What is love? What does it mean to bless? What is praise? All of these words that we have taken as precious have very elusive definitions. They are slippery words. Just as we think we’ve come to a place where we can define them, they slip once more through our fingertips. Even words like righteousness and holiness are very difficult for us to truly define. The reason for this is simple. We think in abstract format. This is not so with the Hebrew. Everything comes back to something concrete. For example, the idea of praise comes from the picture of a man with his hands raised up to heaven.
To define terms, abstract thinking is experiencing the world through the mind. Concrete thinking is experiencing the world through the senses. However, unlike what we’re commonly taught in modern times, emotions are part of the senses to the Hebrew. You can experience the sense of joy. That feeling is tangible. Therefore, it is concrete. However, many times even the emotions go back to other concrete statements. For example, there is a Hebrew idiom of the nose being on fire. This is a description of anger. Your nostrils flare, and the Hebrews recognized that when your nostrils flare (catch on fire), that you are in an outrage. The description of the word roots the meaning in something concrete instead of an ethereal abstraction.
Consider John 7:38-39, “‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” What comes to your mind when you think of the Spirit? Do you think of some sort of wisp, or a cloud? Do you think of some sort of ghost-like premonition? This is because you are thinking in abstract terms, and our minds cannot solidly grasp abstract concepts. So, we try to think of pictures or descriptions or some sort of concrete concept to describe this abstract thought, but the problem is that we’ve begun with the abstract and now we’re trying to make it concrete. The Hebrew, however, begins with the concrete and then uses that to explain the abstract.
When talking to Nicodemus, Jesus explained what it is to walk according to the Spirit. He said that as the wind blows, and we can feel it and see the effects of it, but we cannot see it, so it is with they who walk according to the Spirit. We cannot see where they come from, nor do we know where they are going, but when they pass by, we know that they are indeed a man or woman of the Spirit. Do you see how Jesus relates these things back to concepts we already perceive and understand? The Spirit is defined as “living water”, which the Greek term can also be translated, “flowing water”. He then says to walk according to the Spirit is like the wind. We understand these statements because they are nestled in concrete concepts.
Consider with me Psalm 1:3, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” Notice the concrete wording being used as metaphor. The tree represents the righteous – upright in life, and steadfast. The stream of water represents the nourishment of the Spirit. The fruit yielded represents godly character. The leaf that does not wither speaks of the prosperity of this man. Whatever he puts his hand to, God blesses it, and it prospers. These are all expressing the abstract ideas that we have about the faith and explaining them through the concrete.
When we come to verses of the Bible like Aaron’s blessing, we see a compaction of English abstract concepts. In Numbers 6, Aaron blesses the people Israel. The first statement is, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.” What does that mean? The Hebrew word for bless is barak, which literally means to kneel, or to bend the knee. A barakah is a blessing, but it is more literally a gift brought to another on a bended knee. To bless God or others is to submit, or subject unto, the other. The Greek word for this is ύποτασσω (hupotasso). It is translated as “be subject to”, but the word itself has a different connotation than our English translation. It is the idea of supporting, coming alongside of, building up, edifying, and/or giving rights over to the other. Shortly put, it is the notion of serving, and not of coming under. Blessing is when we bend the knee, an expression of humble service, in order to bestow a gift. When Aaron says, “May the Lord bless you,” he is saying, “May the Lord be your humble servant to bestow upon you all spiritual gifts.” Read Ephesians 1:3 in that context: “Praise be to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Paul is not talking about some sort of ethereal blessing or reward, as though God is somehow materialistic, but instead expressing a God that has humbled Himself to taking off His deity and becoming a man to set us free from the bondage of sin and offer us the gift of grace – life eternal. God has bent the knee toward us as a servant of humanity. The expression of Philippians 2 is found in the Jesus that took off his outer garment and washed the disciples’ feet.
The second word that we need to explain a little more deeply is “keep”. What does it mean for the Lord to keep you? We have considered it means that God would not lose one who comes into His hand, as John records the prayer of Jesus, “None as been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” The Hebrew word for keep is shamar. It literally means to guard. A related word is shamiyr, which means thorn. When a shepherd was out in the field, they would make a hedge of thorns around their flock at night to keep the sheep from wandering off, and also to keep the predators out. Other places in the Old Testament refer to this concept as a “hedge of protection.” That hedge is a number of thorn bushes placed around the flock to keep them safe. So, for the Lord to keep you is for the Lord to guard you and keep you safe. It is for God to build around you a hedge of protection from all of your enemies.
Lets apply this to other concepts. We are commanded to keep the Law. We’ve commonly translated that as meaning obeying the Law. Yet, God uses the same word, shamar, here. God is commanding that we would guard the Law of God. We would protect it. The way that you protect it might be obedience to it, but obedience comes from understanding it. We protect God’s commandments when we rightly divide the word of truth. The Jewish tradition tells the rabbis that you cannot understand the 613 laws given in the Torah without the rabbinical interpretation handed down through the centuries. That is completely false. The 613 commandments are given as expressions of the heart of God, and if we see past the commandment to understanding God’s heart, we then preserve the whole point of the command. Certain things are straightforward. Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. I can understand these laws.
However, what does it mean to keep the Sabbath? What does it mean to honor our father and mother? Why do we not boil a kid in its mother’s milk? These are expressions of a deeper understanding. When we see the heart of God, we better understand what it is that God is conveying with these laws. To observe the Sabbath is not a command saying that we cannot drive on the Sabbath, we cannot push any buttons, we cannot harvest grain to eat off of the heads in the field, and all of the other many traditions. God was not saying that to observe the Sabbath that you need to go to your church and worship. God was not commanding that we stop working. God was commanding that we cease our work. Just as God ceased His work, and therefore rested on the seventh day, and Christ ceased His work to sit down at the right hand of the Father, we too are commanded to cease our work and live in the rest and tranquility of God. It is that simple.
To guard the commandments takes obedience, but it takes fulfilling the Law. We need to rightly discern what the command is saying, and we need to then teach others how to observe the law. Keeping the commandments is about guarding them, protecting them. We protect them from false teaching. We hold steadfast to the faith once and for all given. It is about contending for the faith. That contention has a multiplicity of manifestations, but we have got to get past the keeping the law means obeying the law. If I were to use the word guard instead of keep, or say protect, or put up a hedge of protection around the commands, how many people would rejoice because they can obey that? And yet, the command to protect the Law is all the more radical.
This is the beginning of thinking in concrete terms. Much of this is learned by diligent study of the text. We find tendencies. For example, I remind you of the Spirit being expressed as living water. That is in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. We search for these metaphors and symbols. Yet, another way to come into the Hebraic understanding of the concrete is to learn Hebrew. Study the words. Search for their interpretation past just the abstract. Every body part in the Hebrew language has an emotion or feeling tied to it. The heart is the mind – the place of thought. The kidneys are the seat of emotion. The shoulder is the place of stress. Your hip is the place of ruthlessness. The guts are the place of intuition. They all have the same Hebrew word to mean both the body part as well as the emotional counterpart. These body parts help us to understand what is being expressed. When there is mention of God’s hand or arm, those words have metaphoric meaning of authority and perpetuation. It is Hebraic to not think one or the other, but both. These words like stress and ruthlessness are better understood by their bodily counterpart.