“That Book in Your Hand”
Previous sermons on the nature of the Bible: 1) The inspiration of the Scriptures, their divine nature, from II Timothy 3:16. 2) The moving of the Spirit in giving us the Scriptures, from II Peter 1:19-21. 3) The inerrancy (complete reliability) of God’s Word.
Now, we are looking at the fourth sermon, “God’s work in ensuring that the Book that He gave us came down to us,” the preservation of the Scriptures. In my first post on preservation, we saw that preservation is strongly implied in the Scripture, and in the second, that it is directly taught. In this post, I’d like to look at some examples from Scripture of preservation taking place.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.
Inscripturation (defined here) is the process by which parts of God’s revelation were recorded (written) in the Scriptures. The words were inspired once they were given by God (and remain so today), whether spoken by a prophet at that time and written later, written moments later by an assistant (as for instance in Romans 16:22, where Tertius was the “pen man” for Paul’s letter to the Romans), or written by the prophet or apostle at the very moment they were given by God.
Inscripturation refers not to the giving of the words by God, but the writing of them. God intended His Word to be written, so that it could be preserved for those beyond the immediate time and place of the apostle or prophet.
We do the same today. You could have come to hear me preach on preservation, but most of the people who will read this didn’t make it to Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes that day. I’m writing about it because I am hopeful that some of my thoughts on the topic will have value beyond the time and place of my speaking them. I wanted to preserve them for you to read, so I’ve written them down.
The particular verse from Exodus that I’ve cited above is only one example of a prophet being told to write. I chose this one, because it says to write for a “memorial,” something to be remembered. God is stating clearly here that He wants this particular prophecy to be written so that it will be remembered. That is preservation.
Side note: rarely do we think of inscripturation, the act of writing, as being preservation. That is because we tend to think of inscripturation as “inspiration” — but that is not how Scripture uses the word inspiration, as I’ve written previously in this series. Inspiration is primarily about God-given words having a divine nature, not about the physical act of writing them on pieces of paper. Pieces of paper are what God used to preserve His words. It may seem like a minor distinction, but if we get slightly off-course as we steer our theological ships, before too long we can end up in an unhappy place, and possibly lead others on to the rocks even if we find a channel back to safety ourselves.
We might say that inscripturation is the deposit / down payment / earnest (choose your term depending on where you live) by which God demonstrates His intent to preserve His Word, and begins to “pay the bill” of preservation. Because of inscripturation, we can be confident that as He has begun, so He will continue to do. If He wasn’t going to preserve, He just wouldn’t have bothered to have it inscripturated.
Sometimes theologians like to distinguish between a providential work of God and a miraculous work of God. Inscripturation was probably, for the most part, providential. It probably did not take a miracle of God for Moses to accurately remember what God told him to write and record it, nor did it take a miracle for Tertius to write what Paul told him to write. This is not to say that God was not working, nor to say that He did not give the words (for He surely did give them). It is just to say that He was not working in the actual penmanship in the way we usually think of a miracle.
Exodus 34:1, 28
1 And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.
28 And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
In Exodus 31:18, we are told that God gave Moses two tables of stone written “with the finger of God,” containing the Ten Commandments. In chapter 32, we read that the tables were broken after the children of Israel had broken the Law which was written on them. Here in chapter 34, we see that God takes a direct “hand” in preserving His Word, again writing on stone tables with His finger. (We recognise that God is a spirit, and that He does not have a physical finger in the sense that we do.)
Here we see preservation of God’s Word even before it was included in what we know as the Bible. These words were not yet written in the Book of the Law, what later was known as the Law of Moses and we know today as Exodus. Yet, they were God’s Word, destined to be included in Scripture, and thus He preserved them.
This act of preservation is not a providential work of God, but a miraculous one, by any definition of the word “miraculous.” God directly worked contrary to our understanding of any laws of nature.
Side note: this incident is somewhat problematic to the autograph-only view of inspiration (discussed and refuted here and here). For the question arises, which is the original autograph that alone is inspired? The first tables of stone (which were destroyed), the second set of tables (written by God), or when Moses recorded the words in what is now Exodus chapter 19? It is silly to suggest that any of those three copies were not inspired, so if you want to hold to autograph-only inspiration, you have to say that there were three (?) original autographs. Alternatively, and much more consistent with Scripture, we should see the words as the inspired words of God, in whatever form they may be recorded.
Then took Jeremiah another roll, and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah; who wrote therein from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the book which Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire: and there were added besides unto them many like words.
In Jeremiah 36, God told Jeremiah to write his prophecies in a scroll to give to the king, as a warning against his evil ways. Jeremiah enlisted the help of his friend, Baruch, as his amanuensis (pen-man), and the scroll was written. Later in the chapter, in rebellion against God the king caused the scroll to be burned. In verse 28, God commanded Jeremiah to write the words on another roll.
Here in verse 32, we see that the scroll was written, and that it included all the words from the book Jehoiakim had burned. So we see perfect and complete preservation at work by what I’ll call re-inscripturation. The words God had given had been written once before, and now He sees that they are written again, so that none are lost. Man cannot destroy God’s Word — He will ensure that it is preserved.
This passage illustrates the fact that the distinction between providential and miraculous works of God is not always a helpful one. If Jeremiah had a photographic memory, this reproduction could have been done by natural means — a providential work of God. It is much more likely that it was done by a second act of what is known as “immediate inspiration,” where God directly and miraculously intervened in giving the words again. The Bible doesn’t tell us which it was, and no one really cares. All that matters is that God ensured that the original words were preserved — the providential / miraculous distinction may be of academic interest to theologians, but it doesn’t really matter at all. God worked one way or another to provide us the prophecies of Jeremiah.
These are also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.
These proverbs of Solomon were copied more than 200 years after he (or one of his secretaries) wrote them down. I would classify this also as re-inscripturation. The words were given by God (“immediate inspiration”), written down so as to preserve them in Solomon’s time (“inscripturation”), and then written again in the collection that came to be our book of Proverbs (ensuring their permanent preservation). Some might question whether the writing in Solomon’s time deserves to be called “inscripturation”, but certainly the words were written once then and written again later in Hezekiah’s time, to ensure that they were preserved.
If anyone cares, this was probably “providential” preservation — the use of the word “copied” makes it very unlikely that there was any miracle involved here. It takes no miracle to copy.
Again as in the illustration from Exodus above, both of these instances of what I’ve called re-inscripturation are problematic to the “original autograph-only” view of inspiration. Which book was inspired, Solomon’s collection, or the book which Hezekiah’s men assembled? Which was the original autograph to which inspiration is confined? Which original autograph of Jeremiah’s scroll was the inspired one, the one that was burned, or the one that was written later, which was really only a copy? In my view, when Jehoiakim burned Jeremiah’s scroll, the “autograph-only” view of inspiration went up in smoke….
And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.
18 And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:
19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:
Both of these passages directly teach the value of having a copy of Scripture, whether a small portion or all of it, for the purpose of continually reminding us of the Lord and the need to obey Him. The most common way in which God has preserved His Word is by turning our sinfulness to accomplish His good purpose.
- Because we are sinners, we need to have His Word.
- Because we need His Word, we want an accurate record of the things He has said.
- Because we want accurate records of His words, God’s people have always been concerned to make and have accurate copies.
We see in these verses in Deuteronomy that copying the Scriptures has God’s blessing. We can glimpse the value which God places on copies in Luke 4:16-21:
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
I can’t believe that anyone thinks the original copy of Isaiah was in remote Nazareth. Jesus must have been reading from a copy. Yet, it is called the book of Isaiah, and “Scripture.”
There is no particular miracle involved in making a copy. Nor is there any indication that God would work miracles to ensure that copies would be completely accurate — in fact, we have indications that He was not going to work such miracles, in general.
Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
This warning would be superfluous if God were going to miraculously intervene to ensure the accuracy of all copies. God promised no “Xerox” miracles. Thus, the copying of Scripture is generally preservation by providential means, rather than miraculous ones.
Because the most common method of Scriptural preservation is by the copying of the Scriptures, and because this is generally providential means, theologians usually say that the preservation of Scripture is a providential work of God. As we have seen, this is not strictly accurate. God has used both miraculous and providential means to accomplish His purpose in the preservation of His Word, though for the most part His work in this has been in the realm of what is known as providential. Perhaps it would be better to say this:
God’s work of preservation is usually through providential means, but He has shown He will do whatever is necessary to ensure that His Word will not return void.
Thus, in the Biblical accounts we see God working in various ways to guarantee that the Book that He gave us came down to us. This leaves another question — if the most common means of preservation is copying, and God didn’t guarantee the accuracy of any particular copy, how has preservation worked so that the bad copies haven’t supplanted the good ones? Lord willing, I’ll try to shed a little light on that question in the next post.