Scriptural Hyperbole or Understatement? You Tell Me!

by Edmond Lo

“The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom… Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (Is 35:1,4-6).

When younger, I just didn’t know what to make of scriptural passages like this. So much exaggeration! “Do people really believe this stuff? What is God thinking? Why do passages like this appear everywhere in the scriptures under His mighty inspiration, especially in the Old Testament books? Does He think we must necessarily accept His every word even if it’s clearly ridiculous?” I wondered aloud. After many years of hearing them at the Mass, my resentment gradually turned into indifference; my protest became a muffled groan. “O, well”, I would shrug my shoulders and sigh, “just another example of scriptural hyperbole!”

Then something happened to me personally in the early nineties that changed everything. It was as though a bulb in my head had suddenly lighted up, or a veil that had covered my eyes for so many years since my birth had been lifted. Suddenly – miraculously - I began to understand God’s word! Like the Bride (the Church) in Song of Songs, to whom the fragrance of her Groom (God) “is like perfume poured out”, I found myself savoring every little word He said in the scriptures as though I could never have enough (SS 1:3). I wanted to find out more what He really meant, what the word in its original language referred to, what the immediate and overall contexts were, how the historical setting underlying those words would help me understand better the real message, etc. Slowly but surely, I came to realize that what I used to see as “exaggerations” or scriptural hyperboles were in fact gross understatements!

Like a baby struggling to speak the adults’ language, we are only blabbering when it comes to expressing our feelings and experiences about God and the heavenly realities. As blessed as Prophet Isaiah is, he is struggling mightily to try to tell us what God has opened his eyes to see. In his gravely insufficient and inadequate human understanding and expression, he wants us to see what he sees – or what he is given by God to see. Completely overwhelmed and overpowered, he has to use the strongest words he can find from his repertoire of vocabulary to express his strong feelings and the unbelievable message from God.

What did Isaiah see? He saw “the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God” (Is 35:2). He can’t quite put it in words what it is like to behold God’s glory. “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom” is the best he can come up with to describe the awe and unspeakable excitement in the human heart on seeing God’s splendor. Is Isaiah’s description enough to capture the true picture, the out-of-the-world experience that he was able to behold with God’s permission? Probably not. But one thing is certain: what he is given to see and understand is many times more unbelievable and powerful than the few words that he managed to put together for us. In other words, his words are grossly understated.

More specifically, Isaiah is talking about the coming of the Messiah. “He comes with vindication” because his mission is to un-do the devastation that Satan has inflicted on us through sin and death; “he comes to save you” because he is our Savior (v.4). Having experienced first-hand what Jesus did to me in the fore-mentioned personal conversion, I can embrace Isaiah’s words with no hesitation: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (vv. 5-6). If anything, I find his words still inadequate, not because they are exaggerated but because they are grossly understated. They can’t really express the earthshattering experience that I personally went through. No, it’s not even close!

So, what was it that happened to me in the early nineties that turned exaggerations into understatements and made me literally a different person? This cursory Sunday reflection can’t possibly do justice to my long, personal conversion story. Therefore, I won’t go into the details here. But I do want to conclude by quoting the words of a nun whom I once considered a personal nemesis because she really minced no words in criticizing me before my conversion. In her view, my way of thinking was “too secular”, my mindset “too liberal”. Looking back, I must admit she was absolutely right.

On a beautiful sunny morning after my conversion, in a special trip I made to the parish where she served, I shared with her how God’s word had transformed me. I talked non-stop for almost an hour because there were so many amazing things that had happened to me. I just had to get them off my chest. She listened intently and patiently until I finally stopped, almost exhausted with emotions. Smiling and squeezing my arm tenderly, she said, “Edmond, the Holy Spirit has touched your heart!” Touch my heart He did! In fact, He was more like a skillful surgeon who weaved his knife lovingly and magically to remove my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh (Eze 36:26)!