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Volume 14, Issue 1: Poetics

God the Riddler

Douglas Jones

Fine metaphor is praised for its mysterious ability to capture much more about reality than monotone literalness could ever dream. Unlike the allegedly simple correspondences of literal speech where each word is tied to—one and only one—referent, metaphor shoots off in many directions at once. And its imagery can reach down deep inside of us and hook emotions and aesthetic affections and inexpressible devotions that no simple proposition could ever pull up. Metaphor can do this not only because it pretends to make a surprise identity where none truly exists, but it does so via images, and images can call up seven other images, and those bring their friends too. The simplest metaphor produces a parade of referents, associations, connotations, imaginations, melodies, and more.

When, for example, Solomon says to his son that wisdom will be a "graceful ornament on you head, and chains about your neck" (Prov. 1:9), he invokes images of health and peacetime and wealth and royal power. But "chains about your neck" imagery doesn't just stop with the positive; the images keep going, inviting suspicions of burdens and responsibilities and even hints of ancient slavery. Similar displays appear when Jude describes lewd hypocrites as "clouds without water. . . raging waves. . . autumn trees without fruit. . . wandering stars" (Jude 12, 13), or when Christ is described as a lion (Rev. 5:5). This most famous image asks us to think of Christ as not only fearless, calm, and majestic, but also as terrifying and merciless and unpredictable and wild. Our God is wild, it says.
Metaphor can go to such depths, wreaking amazing clarity for us, but it does more than this. If we stand back for a moment from metaphor, especially scriptural metaphor, we can see that not only do individual metaphors tell us about God and the world, but the whole process of metaphor making itself reveals an aspect of the personal style of the Triune God.
Most importantly, it reveals the playfulness of God; it reveals God as a holy riddler. One of the beauties of metaphor is its coyness, its indirectness, its refusal to be straight with us. When someone uses metaphor or any of the common figures of speech, they are playing a bit of a game with us. They are giving us a puzzle to sort out.
This becomes especially intriguing when we realize that God Himself delights to toy with us by using this sort of language from Genesis to Revelation. Of course, it's not just in the pervasiveness of figurative language that He does this. All of redemptive history is a play within a play, much like that of Job's drama.
Sometimes God's riddling is explicit. He tells Ezekiel, "Son of man, pose a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel" (Ez. 17:2). Notice that riddles and parables share a platform. Solomon tells us that divine wisdom will enable us to "understand a proverb and an enigma, the words of the wise and their riddles" (Prov. 1:5, 6). Then he gives us a whole collection of riddles called Proverbs. Samson, a type of Christ, is best known for his riddling (Jdg. 14), but Daniel also was described as one who was known for "solving riddles" (Dan. 5:12).
Towering above all of these, though, is the Son of God Himself, the master riddler. We praise metaphor for its mysterious clarity, but sometimes such games as metaphors and riddles are intended to test and confuse. Christ comes speaking riddles or parables. Were these just helpful sermon illustrations intended for flannel-board clarity? Of course not. When His disciples asked, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" (Mt. 13:10), He answered, "it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given" (Mt. 13:11). The parallel passage in Mark explains that He speaks in parables "so that `Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them'" (Mk. 4:12). In short, He speaks in figures in order to exclude the dull of heart (Mt. 13:15). There's a chilling edge to His ways. This game is for keeps.
In fact, we might tend to joke among ourselves that some of us are more poetic, and others of us are of a more scientific bent, and never the two shall change. But Christ assumes that a lack of poetic sense is a moral failing. When the disciples had forgotten bread, and Christ made reference to the "leaven of the Pharisees" (Mt. 16:6), the disciples thought He was grumpy about a lack of bread. Christ doesn't apologize for waxing too metaphorical. He rebukes them for their spiritual lapse: "How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?" (Mt. 16:11). In another context, He rebukes them for not grasping His parables: "And He said to them, `Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?'" (Mk. 4:13). He shows equal rebuke to Nicodemus who is having trouble understanding all this talk about reentering his mother's womb: "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? . . . If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?" (Jn. 3:10, 12).
Give us ears to hear. Save us from sanitizing the Master Riddler.

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