So that you don’t miss the point, or the satire, or the sarcasm, let me say at the outset what this article is about.
This article is a biblical defence of indefensible language, comments that pierce the heart and judgements that appear, by our standards, to be less than tender.
The biblical writers show themselves to be capable in the use of wit, humour, satire, sarcasm, as well as the occasional outlandish and even crude remark.
The use of such language is not for the faint-hearted or the novice, but for the mature. The use of sarcasm and satire is not for the hot-headed, the arrogant or the impatient. Such language is to be used only by those who have, by reason of use, had their senses trained in holiness and righteousness and know what spirit they are of.
When called for, the bible is quite capable of using strong language and sometimes shocking imagery in order to rattle the cages of dead men. Men dead in their trespasses and sins. Men whose good deeds remind Isaiah of a bloody rag (Isaiah 64:6).
Hey, Isaiah, what’s with all this potty talk, man? Where’s your purity dude?
In Philippians 3, Paul warns us to watch out for those who demand that, in addition to the finished work of Jesus Christ, other things are needed to satisfy a Holy God.
Paul calls those who would teach such things, ‘dogs’, which isn’t very nice.
In vivid language, he goes on to describe the stuff he has lost on account of the gospel as the kind of stuff you scrape off a farmer’s boot. (Gk, skubalon, crap). Which isn’t very polite.
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as dung, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8)
Strong language, satire, biblical humour, and side-swipes, delivered with “less-than-perfect tenderness”, are peppered throughout scripture toward the unrepentant idolator and those who would seek to undermine the grace of God.
From the hippy fringe to children’s Goldenbooks, we tend to have a wafty, softly-spoken, cotton wool vision of Jesus of Nazareth. But Neither Jesus nor Paul were verbal pacifists.
Jesus, with satirical bite, showed the folly of pursuing wealth by declaring that it would be easier to drive a combine harvester through the tailpipe of a Ford Mondeo than for a rich man to enter heaven (Matthew 19:24).
He said that those who imagined they could separate the altar from the sacrifices laid on the altar were blind idiots (Matthew 23:16-17).
Further back in time, Amos does not hesitate to poke the ribs of Israel who thought they could roll around on the mattress like rock stars (Amos 6:5-6) without consequences.
And, mocking our idolatry, Isaiah pointed out with blunt sarcasm what every wise woodworker knows: One end of the stump is better than the other when whittling yourself a Saviour (Isaiah 44:16-17).
Even Solomon was is in on this kind of jive-talking, saying that a woman without discretion was about as attractive as lipstick on a camel, or something (Proverbs 11:22).
But then we read from Paul,
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Yes, be kind. Be tender-hearted toward one another.
Paul could speak one way to sheep and quite another way to wolves because he hadn’t thrown in his lot with the cult of softness. Paul understood the difference between wolves and sheep and spoke the way he did because he really did love sheep.
Sheep are to be kind to sheep. Shepherds are to be tender-hearted toward lambs. Sheep are to be gentle toward strangers.
But when a shepherd is kind to wolves, he is not being at all kind to sheep. When a shepherd is kind to wolves, it’s just another way of letting wolves savage the sheep.
Paul wasn’t taken in by smooth speech. His love was true speech. Plain speech. Humble speech. Humble because it is speech that submits to the truth, and not to the virtue-signalling of the sanctimonious mob.
Paul knew what we often deny: That engaging wolves in a polite, love-in dialogue over an ecumenical, “we’re all in this together”, cup-of-tea, simply led to mangled sheep and fat, contented wolves.
Should such harsh rebukes, course language, satire or sarcasm be part of a believer’s daily speech? No. But as students of scripture, it should be something we aim to understand and, when the occasion arises, from a mature and stable spirit, know how to imitate without sin.
Such a stable and mature spirit is marked by an absolute love for sheep and an absolute dislike for dogs, wolves and anything that would lead the sheep astray.
Jesus, and so Paul, Amos, Isaiah, Elijah and others, understood that a strong adversary called for strong words, and strong words were often needed to fend off the dogs and protect the sheep.
Sheep that Jesus loved. And a love that could well spill over into a verbal whipping.