Things unsaid

There’s a corny old joke that goes something like this:

Joe was touring a retirement home for the first time. As the director showed him around, they passed a room where several seniors were gathered, laughing and enjoying themselves.

But the conversation was a strange one. Someone would simply call out a number —  19! 27! — and the room would erupt with laughter. This happened again and again, until one poor fellow called out “82!”  The room fell silent for a few awkward seconds, before someone else called out another number, and the laughter began anew.

“What was that all about?” Joe asked. “What do those numbers mean?”

The director smiled. “Oh, that’s just their special code. They’ve all heard the same jokes so many times that they’ve given them numbers. Now all anyone has to do is say the number to get a laugh.”

“But what about the guy who called out ’82’?” Joe pressed. “Why didn’t anyone laugh then?”

“That’s Fred,” the director replied, shaking his head sadly. “Poor guy never could tell a joke.”

There’s a point to this, I promise.

Scripture quotes Scripture. Before the letters of Paul, before the gospels, there were the books of Moses, the Psalms, the writings of the prophets, and so on. Read the gospels, for example, and you will find Jesus quoting frequently from the Psalms or Isaiah. Jesus and the New Testament writers understood themselves to be living out the most recent chapters of a story begun long ago. 

But when a short passage from the Old Testament is quoted in the New, there’s reason to believe that those words are meant to stand in for a longer passage, a larger context of meaning. If you can assume that people already know the “joke,” you don’t have to tell the whole joke to get the right reaction. Sometimes, just the number will do.

For example, consider Jesus’ piercing cry of abandonment from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, NRSV). He’s quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22, a song of David that points with eerie prophetic precision toward the crucifixion of Jesus.

But are we to suppose that Jesus only quoted the first verse because it was the only verse that mattered? That he was just looking for one that would adequately express his feelings?

Whenever an event is described in Scripture, we cannot be told every last detail, nor can we have a verbatim transcript of every word said. Some things, of necessity, are left out. Under the authority of the Spirit, the writers give us what we need to know.

I’m not saying, however, that Jesus recited the whole of Psalm 22 from the cross and that Matthew only recorded the first verse. I’m saying that Jesus knew the mission he had come to accomplish, the prophecy he had come to fulfill. When he quoted Psalm 22:1, in other words, I take the rest of psalm as implied. 

Jesus’ distress was real, and his words expressed that. But at the same time he knew, as did the psalmist, that God remained sovereign. We are given the cry of dereliction, but the context of divine deliverance and dominion from the rest of the psalm is also implied. Though the words of abandonment are in the foreground, they must be heard against the background of the expectation of rescue.

The reason I’m saying this is because I think it lends some richness to the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. As Philip approaches the chariot, he overhears the man reading from the scroll of Isaiah (reading aloud was a common practice). The passage is from Isaiah 53:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth. (Acts 8:32-33; Isa 53:7-8)

Philip asks the eunuch if he understands what he’s reading. He admits that he doesn’t and, seeker that he is, invites Philip to climb up into the chariot for some private tutoring. 

Luke doesn’t give us the whole conversation. But I cannot imagine that Philip explained those two verses from Isaiah without explaining the whole chapter and indeed, the larger context. At some point, Philip must have directed the eunuch to the words of chapter 56 — and as we’ll see in the next post, I suspect that’s what got the eunuch so excited.