The Dress of Thought
Improving your way with words
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The preacher of Ecclesiastes waited until his conclusion to write down his credentials: "Not only was the Teacher wise" he says with unsettling candor, "but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true" (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10). To impart his knowledge and to come up with just the right words, the ancient preacher evidently wrote a manuscript.
Not all preachers write out their sermons, nor do preachers who write out sermons write out every sermon, but the discipline of preparing a manuscript improves preaching. Writing scrapes the fungus off our thought, arranges our ideas in order, and underlines the important ideas. "Writing," said Francis Bacon, "makes an exact man exact in thought and in speech."
An expository preacher professing a high view of inspiration should respect the power of words. To affirm that the individual words of Scripture must be God-breathed, but then to ignore our own choice of language smacks of gross inconsistency. Our theology, if not our common sense, should tell us that ideas and words cannot be separated. Like Jell-O, concepts assume the mold of the words into which they are poured. As pigments define the artist's picture, so words capture and color the preacher's thought.
The sage of Proverbs compares a word fitly spoken to "apples of gold in settings of silver"(Proverbs 25:11). "The difference between the right word and the almost right word,"wrote Mark Twain, "is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." The English poet John Keats was keenly aware of how words shape ideas. One evening as he sat in his study with his friend Leigh Hunt, Hunt read while Keats labored over a poem. At one point, Keats glanced up and asked, "Hunt, what do you think of this? 'A beautiful thing is an unending joy.'"
"Good,"said Hunt, "but not quite perfect."
There was silence for a while. Then Keats looked up again, "How about this: 'A thing of beauty is an unending joy.'"
"Better,"replied his friend, "but still not quite right."
Keats once more bent over his desk, his pen making quiet scratching noises on the paper. Finally he asked, "Now what do you think of this? 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'"
"That,"said Hunt, "will live as long as the English language is spoken."
Most of the Scriptures that we love best express God's truth in memorable language—Psalm 23, 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 8, John 3:16. Even though Paul disdained eloquence as valuable in itself, he wrote his inspired epistles in inspiring language. While a painting such as Rembrandt's Christ at Emmaus can leave us speechless, anyone who generalizes that "a picture is worth a thousand words"has never tried to capture John 3:16, a twenty-five-word sentence with a picture.
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