Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
The Negation Idiom: Part I
03/01/2005 - James White
So then it [does] not [depend] on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. (Romans 9:16, NASB)
So then it is not of the man willing nor of the man running but of the God mercying.
"For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Jeremiah 7:22, NASB)
In seeking to respond to Romans 9:16, J.P. Holding makes the following comments:
Jeremiah 7:22 For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices...
By [this Skeptic]'s line of thinking, Jeremiah 7:22 "stands in flagrant contradiction of what the last four books of the Pentateuch say" with their many commands of offerings and sacrifices. Presumably we are to think that Jeremiah represents some "anti-cultus" faction that denies the Mosaic heritage -- some would say, that he is speaking against a recent forgery of Deuteronomy "discovered" in the Temple.
The simple answer to this notes that this is rather the use of hyperbole to effect a point. The purpose of this phrase is to show the relative importance of sacrifices, etc. in terms of inward attitudes...
...Jeremiah (as well as other Biblical writers - cf. Amos 5:21-5, Micah 6:1-8, Is. 1:10-17) here employs a type of idiom designed to grab the attention of his hearers and cause his message to be noticed and remembered...in our verse (22), a rhetorical negation is used to bring attention to the fact that internal posture is more important than external ritual. By expressing the matter in terms of a negation, the hearer/reader is first shocked, then realizes from the admonitions following what the actual point is: As it is expressed in 1 Samuel 15:22 --
Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
This sort of outrageous, rhetorical teaching technique was quite common to Semitic and ANE culture...Bright [Brig. Jer, 57] speaks for the overwhelming majority of commentators (conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike) when he writes of Jer. 7:22--
It is unlikely, however, that it is to be taken either as a categorical rejection of the sacrificial system as such, or as a statement that there was no sacrifice in the wilderness.
The point, he continues, is rather that "God's essential demands did not concern ritual matters, but the keeping of the Covenant stipulations." For this view, see also Alle.Jer, 64-5; Clem.Jer, 46-7; Huey.JerLam, 109; Thomp.Jer, 287-8.
The negation idiom emerges from the Hebrew word lo, which transliterates as "not." On this matter, the principal study has been done by Whitney [Whit.Jer 7:22, 152], who describes the usage of lo in Jer. 7:22 as "a form hyperbolic verbal irony intended to intensify the contrast between what is present in the mind of the audience and what ought to be present." Whitney shows this idiomatic usage of lo elsewhere in the OT: Gen. 45:7-8, Ex. 16:8, 1 Sam. 8:7, 1 Sam. 20:14-15, Job 2:10, Jer. 16:14-15, Ezek. 16:47 and Hos. 6:6. His conclusion agrees with that of Feinberg [Fein. CommJer, 75]:
...The negative in Hebrew often supplies the lack of the comparative - i.e., without excluding the thing denied, the statement implies only the prior importance of the things set in contrast to it.
Likewise, Laymon [Laym. IntB, 380]:
Hebrew idiom allows the denial of one thing in order to assert another, and the intention here is not wholly to deny but only to relegate to second place.
We therefore conclude with these scholars that Jer. 7:22 is in no way at odds with the Pentateuch. [X]'s case for disharmony is based upon his inability and/or refusal to grasp the passage in its socio-linguistic context, and it therefore fails to hold up under scrutiny.
He then makes this amazing assertion:
And thus we now pose the Calvinists another question: Is there any reason why the "not" in Romans 9:16 (as well as in a similar passage, John 1:12-13) should not be read in the same sense as the "not" in Jer. 7:22 -- as a negation idiom, not excluding the thing denied, but rather, stressing the prior importance of God's sovereignty in contrast? Given the Hebraic background, I think the burden is upon those who would read "not" absolutely rather than otherwise.
This was the citation which pushed me over the edge into responding to Mr. Holding's assertions. All of the issues relating to whether this "negation idiom" is even valid at Jeremiah 7:22, let alone whether it is at all relevant to a completely unrelated text written in a different language aside for the moment, Holding's assertion is simply beyond belief. It is amazing to see someone utilize this kind of argumentation who claims standing as a Christian apologist. He is presenting an odd, unusual, vastly minority understanding of a Greek text based upon a controversial interpretation of a completely unrelated Old Testament text written half a millennium earlier, and yet can seriously suggest that the burden lies with the majority who see no connection whatsoever? Surely we must see that the person suggesting the odd, the unusual, the strained, bears the burden of proof, not those who read the text in its own context without bringing in an odd view of a completely unrelated text! When you see someone suggesting an understanding that requires the acceptance of a far-fetched explanation without even offering a single reference to confirm it, but instead says the burden lies with everyone else, suspicion would be a good attitude to adopt.
Sometimes it is next to impossible to refute such unfounded assertions as this one by Holding. I mean, seriously, are we to look at every negative particle in the New Testament and go, "Oh, well, given the Hebraic background, it doesn't really mean 'not' but it actually means 'sort of'?" What kind of utter nonsense would result from such a practice? If you are going to assert that "not" does not really mean not, you need something more than one particular reading of Jeremiah 7:22 to support your assertion.
In the case of Romans 9, however, we can, in fact, refute the assertion in two ways: 1) immediate context, and 2) demonstrating a far better reading of Jeremiah 7:22 itself. The second portion of this response will provide that interpretation as found in Keil and Delitzsch's older, but still excellent, commentary on the Old Testament. So in support of the first point, consider well the context once again. Romans 9:11 states, "for though [the twins] were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to [His] choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, 'The older will server the younger.'" Are we to (consistently) apply this "negation idiom" to this passage as well? Note the parallel in the last phrase: "not because of works" is played off against "God's purpose according to His choice" and "but because of Him who calls." Can we make heads or tails of this passage by applying Holding's concept? No, Paul is drawing a contrast that is stark and strong. It is not because of works, not "well, it is mainly because of God's choice, but a little about works.
Next, if we follow this, Paul's imaginary objector repeatedly affirms the reading Holding is so desperate to avoid. If, in fact, all Paul is saying is that it is mainly God's sovereign choice, but that man's works, actions, etc., do, in fact, play a minor part, but a part nonetheless, why would Paul has his objector say, "What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!" And how does Paul prove there is no injustice? By appealing to man's role? Just the opposite: "For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." Now, Holding's odd take on the meaning of mercy aside (I will address that as well), Paul's point is clear. Why is there no injustice with God? Because God's mercy and compassion are, by nature, and by necessity, free. There can be no controlling factor outside of God's own will. And this consistent theme continues past 9:16. Romans 9:18 says, "Therefore, He mercies whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires." Is there not a stark contrast intended between the action of mercying and that of hardening? Is the one not the opposite of the other in this context? And is not the deciding factor the will of God? The consistency of the text is compelling and overwhelming. There is simply no basis for seeing a "negation idiom" in this text.
In our next installment we will examine the relevance of this "negation idiom" in Jeremiah 7:22.