Thursday, January 2, 2014

Heaven (and the Fulness of God)

"...with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light." Ps. 36:9

Parallel (in contrast)
Hebrew poetry follows the logic of parallelism: the first part of a poetic line is mirrored in the second part, either in contrast or by compliment. The parallelism found here is complimentary, implying that "life" and "light" are in some way synonymous, which is not an unheard of biblical image. Jesus was said to be the "life" that was "the light of men" (John 1:4), and He Himself said that any who followed Him would have "the light of life" (John 8:12). This imagery even has its biblical contrasts, such as when the "Shepherd Psalm" talks of "the shadow of death" (Ps. 23:4). None of this is new symbolism: light and dark have long been associated with good and evil and all their corollaries, and this image is consistent in the Bible as well.

What is interesting here is the odd repetition in the second part of the verse: "in Your light we see light." It smacks of tautology, but I believe it can't be anything so banal. Psalm 36 is broken into three movements: the first describes the wicked as those "with no fear of God" before their eyes (vs. 1-4), the second describes God and why it is foolish to not fear Him (vs. 5-9), and the third describes the separate fates of the righteous and the wicked, of those who fear God and those who don't (vs. 10-12). The odd repetition comes at the end of the second movement; it is the climax of the psalmist's thoughts on God, the purest expression of why we should "fear" Him. As such, I like to think it is more than a mere redundancy.

More than just this.
The Hebrew word used here both times for "light" is "owr," which means more than just illumination (like lighting a match). It means illumination in every sense of the word: glory, splendor, the dawn, happiness (i.e., someone's face "lights up"), enlightenment, and of course, life (the "spark" or "flame" within). It is an all-encompassing light, a Light of lights, one that includes all lights and yet is reducible to none. Now, there is still a repetition, but it is not "light" and "light" but rather "all-light" and "all-light". In short, the psalmist is saying, "In Your All-Light we see all light," or "In Your full Goodness, we see all that is good," or "In Your full Glory, we see all that is glorious," etc.

It is similar to Psalm 16:11 where it says, "In Your presence is fullness of joy." The Hebrew word for "fullness" is "soba," which means to be filled to satisfaction. "Fullness" of joy is a summation and fulfillment of joy, a culmination of all that is joyous. Likewise, just as God is "fullness of joy," He is also "fullness" of light. He is all things joyous, all good and glad moments and objects and concepts, in a single source; and He is all things luminous, all glorious and vivid and illuminated things, in a single source. He is the All-Light and the All-Joy: in His Light we see all other lights, and in His Joy we find all other joys.

Home at last.
This is why Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God, and why Anselm said that the "most supreme" Being had to encompass all that was good while being reducible to none of it, and why Aquinas posited God as the proper desire and home of the soul, drawing it to Himself like gravity draws a stone to the earth. In the Christian mind (as in the mind of our Hebrew ancestors), there is only one place of complete satisfaction, only one place of rest and peace at last and forever, and it is not in money, sex, power, success, prosperity, self-actualization, self-discovery, activism, capitalism, socialism, progressivism, conservatism, or the thousand other flawed institutions and endeavors of fallen humanity. Rather, it is in God alone, for He alone is the All-Joy, the All-Light, the All-Good, the source and fullness of all things joyous and splendorous and wonderful.

In this life, we are blessed enough to catch just shadows and echos of His greater life, both in the way that all facets of existence declare His glory (Ps. 19:1-4) and all visible things reveal His invisible attributes (Rom. 1:19-20). The numinous moments allotted to us now contain enough beauty to weaken us like a wound, if we're paying attention. How much more then shall the effect be when faith turns to sight and all shadows turn to all-light and all echos swell into one mighty voice as singular and as multifaceted as a symphony? How much sweeter will life itself be when we find its fountain in God and taste and see its fullness in Him? I know no other definition of Heaven than that.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2014

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