Tag Archives: metaphors

Swarm Integrity

I was alone, staring at a leaf, trying to figure out if it was maple, oak, or something else. My handbook for the botany merit badge didn’t show any leaves like this one. I stood still for two or three minutes, studying. Then I felt a pinching on my ankles. I batted it off, then looked down and saw what it was.
I had been standing for several minutes in the largest ant bed I had ever seen. It was several feet wide, and I, the Godzilla of ant-world, had crushed half of their great nation while identifying leaves. The ants were staging a retaliation that ranged from my shoes, which were covered, up past my knees. I ran, tossing my shoes off as I entered my troop’s campsite. Other scouts laughed as I quickly pulled my pants off and brushed dozens of ants from my legs. (Luckily, there were no girls at the camp.)

Ant Intelligence
A remarkable discovery about ants and bees is that they are able to make decisions effectively without a leader. With a total absence of central control, ants make decisions based on signals received from other ants about their environment. In this way, they can test the distance of food sources, detect threats, and, in my case, respond to those threats. All of this happens without leadership.
Although National Geographic gave major press to this burgeoning study of “swarm intelligence” in July 2007, Solomon was aware of how ants work thousands of years ago:

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food in harvest.
— Proverbs 6:6-8, ESV

If you have noticed how in a flock of birds or a school of fish, the entire group seems to turn as one, then you have been aware of “swarm intelligence” as it appears in nature.

New Testament Manuscripts
If we look at my unfortunate encounter with ants, we can learn two things that also apply to the spread of New Testament manuscripts:
1. I had no reason to fight them until I realized they had spread.
2. Once they have spread, there is no central mechanism by which I can control (or destroy) all of them.
I can simplify my two points about the New Testament in another way: in the beginning, there was no motive to change the manuscripts, and later, there was no power to change them.

Earlier, No Motive
Signals can spread through an ant community quickly; likewise, on a human timescale, the spread of New Testament manuscripts would be relatively fast and unnoticed in the beginning. Most importantly, the gospels, Acts and letters spread without central control. At any stage, however early, there would be no means of knowing where every manuscript is or what every manuscript says. Without seeing the future, no opponent of Christianity would know the power that any of the New Testament books would carry, and therefore would have no motive to change them.
People who argue that the Bible has been changed by political heavyweights imagine a world in which Jesus appointed Peter as pope and the two marched triumphantly over the ruins of Roman civilization and religion. But Christianity first spread under a hail of persecution, execution and imprisonment. A few letters from a converted Jewish scholar to the converts of his cult would not have raised the eyebrows of the affluent. Christianity did not look good on resumés. It would have repelled the power-hungry and offended the money-minded. Christianity began as the religion of the little Lamb.

Later, No Power
In the absence of any religious “big brother,” no one could change every manuscript of the New Testament, and even if they changed one, the community would find out easily. (Case in point, 1 John 5:7.) For instance, if someone changed every manuscript in Asia Minor, the community could find out by comparing a copy from Jerusalem; this is actually how the modern science of textual criticism verifies our New Testament’s authenticity. In this sense, the swarm cannot be defeated or manipulated. It grows, spreads and influences. It is self-organizing and self-protecting.
The next time a self-styled scholar tells you that the New Testament has been changed, ask them to provide a year it was changed, a person who changed it, or a manuscript that was corrupted. If they point to 1 John 5:7, Mark’s longer ending or the adulteress of John 8, they have proven themselves wrong; the fact that we have found these additions means that the rest of our manuscripts are authentic, because no one has ever had enough power to change every manuscript in existence.

Stones That Speak

The whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice … saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!“ …

And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”

He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.“ (Luke 19:37,39-40, ESV)

The passage in which this quote appears is a knot of contradicting characters: the unknowing worshippers; the angry rebukers; and Jesus, who seems unmoved by all the attention.

First, he rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey that no one had ridden. People wave branches and lay their clothes for him as a royal carpet. He is honored so extravagantly that the resident Stick-in-the-Mud Party, unable to hush the crowd, asks Jesus himself to calm them down. Jesus responds, somewhat cryptically, that if his disciples hold their peace, the stones would cry out. In the very next verse, he himself begins to cry over Jerusalem.

In Western pulpits there is one typical way of reading this verse, but there are at least three viable ways of understanding what Jesus meant when he said the stones would cry out. I’ll start with the most familiar to me.

1. The earth praises God.

The first interpretation is that the stones would cry out in worship, in answer to the silenced worship of Jesus’ followers. This connects Jesus’ statement to the preceding context in the story of the Triumphal Entry. Even if the disciples don’t worship, rocks, the most inflexible members of God’s creation, will replace their voices.

Creation is often spoken of as praising God in Jewish worship language. First, the desert can “rejoice” (Is. 35:1) and the fields can be “jubilant” (Ps. 96:12). Then mountains and hills can “burst into song” (Is. 55:12). The meadows and valleys “shout for joy” (Ps. 65:13). The trees of the field and rivers “clap their hands”  (Is. 55:12, Ps. 98:8).

In Psalm 148 we reach fever pitch, and all Creation is catalogued in one giant exhortation to join in: heaven, angels, sun, moon, stars, sea creatures, lightning, hail, snow, clouds, winds that do his bidding, cattle, birds, trees, kings, nations, men, women, and children. At the end, we’ve reached the most disorderly bunch of all: humans. We seem the least likely in the whole list to willingly praise God. But we are assured that if we stay silent, the stones will lift their voices, and God will have no lack of praise in the universe he created. Righteousness will always be the majority in his universe.

2. The bedrock of reality testifies about God.

E. Stanley Jones makes a totally different application about the stones. On his preaching, he says, “if I held my peace, the stones—the hard, bare facts of life—would cry out.” Jones emphasizes in many of his books the ring of truth that the Gospel has because it is founded on reality itself. The truth we find in the Bible constantly resonates with the truth we find in life.

Creation testifies to its King, along with Jesus’ disciples. But Jones does not just limit this testimony to a vague concept of God’s nature; he applies it to Christian missions. He says in The Christ of the Indian Road that even if Jesus hadn’t made the Great Commission the punchline of his entire speaking ministry, we would be compelled by all the other factors. The facts of Christ’s character, his atoning work, and the rebellion of humanity would demand that the rescue mission go on. It would be anti-reality to stay silent about Jesus.

Nature has a limitation though. For all that Nature can say about God’s unity, majesty, and worship, “it is silent about His love for sinners. It is only at Calvary that we learn that He loves us without stint and reserve.” (H. Lockyer) Reconciliation with God through the Gospel is a message which cannot be ‘hunted and gathered.’ It must be preached.

3. The ground cries out for justice.

The third way of understanding stones that speak connects them with the closest Old Testament cross-reference, in Habakkuk:

For the stone will cry out from the wall,
and the beam from the woodwork respond.
Woe to him who builds a town with blood
and founds a city on iniquity! (Hab. 2:11-12, ESV)

If Jesus was referencing a Scripture, my money would be on Habakkuk. The prophet speaks of a building built on injustice. In Jesus’ case, this could be the temple which he cleansed. The entire metaphor of “the stones crying out” is changed if we re-orient around the context that directly follows it:

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44, ESV)

Here we have a totally different tone. Jesus prophesies here the siege of Jerusalem which happened just four decades later. In one way, it was the prophecy of the crying stones come true: Jerusalem did hold its peace, and did hold back worship when it was owed, and in due time the stones of the temple crashed in grief, crying out for justice for the ignored testimony of Jesus. The judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was God’s megaphone, trying to rouse a stifled people to praise.

Injustice always leave behind a cry, long after its’ victims have passed on. God told Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10) The Christian martyrs in John’s heavenly vision “cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?‘” (Rev. 6:10) Moses’ law says that spilled blood pollutes the land, so Creation groans under the injustice.

Even as Jesus laments Jerusalem’s future, he speaks of the day when all cries for justice will be fulfilled. And he recalls the exact words of his worshippers (from Psalm 118):

For I tell you [Jerusalem], you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Matt. 23:39, ESV)

The greatest injustice in history is that Jesus came to his own, and his own did not receive him. But even if God’s people again reject him, the stones will cry out, and justice will be had. Jesus’ disciples may cry ignorantly, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”—though he still reigns only as a King in exile in his own kingdom, betrayed in the house of his friends. But this same hymn that was shouted ignorantly—by those who little knew Jesus’ path to the cross—will be sung in full chorus when Christ triumphantly enters Jerusalem a second time, this time on a horse. And when that happens, no one will be able to ignore the world’s unjust silence toward its God.

Precarious Places

“So Saul took three thousand able young men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats.” (1 Samuel 24:2, NIV)

A young man exiled from his own kingdom, hiding out on a cliff face. He remembers how his brothers had lorded over him, claiming that he was not their brother. They had sent him out with the sheep and a kind of lyre, and he had spent his younger years singing to heaven, roaming for the best grazing land. He remembers how he could not always keep the sheep from danger, but he could keep them from harm.

Then one day a prophet had given him great news, like something out of a fairy tale. David was to be king. But he would have to bide his time; such promises do not always spring fruit like magic; they have to be watered, nurtured, and awaited.

Now our exiled king is alone at the end of the world, sitting under the shady side of a rock. He holds his little instrument in his hand. He is looking now down the road for the man who hunts him, and now up the rock at a wild goat who walks the same crags.

He slinks down when he sees a silhouette moving towards the cliff. Too short to be a human. The distinctive jaunt gives the animal away: it is a lone hyena. He crouches lower and watches to see what the mountain goat will do. But it doesn’t seem to care about the hyena. The graceful animal turns towards him calmly. The hyena reaches the face, and the goat leaps straight up, the height of a man, and perches on a tiny outcropping in the rock. David is awestruck at this amazing animal.

The goat doesn’t even deem the danger worthy of looking down. He is in no danger; the hyena cannot navigate the cliff-face. And so the poet-king plucks a string on his lyre and conjures a tune:

For who is God save the Lord? or who is a rock save our God?
It is God who girds me with strength, and makes my way perfect.
He makes my feet like the feet of a mountain goat, and sets me in high places.
He enlarges my steps, so that my feet won’t slip.


Hinds’ Feet in High Places

We were rock climbing with a group of tourists recently. Some of them had never seen rock climbing equipment like special shoes and harnesses. One asked me if the shoes actually helped. I explained that the rough material allows you to grab the rock, and the pointed toe allows you to wedge your foot onto very small footholds.

After a few hours of hot and dusty climbing, we were on the bus ride home. Most of us were knackered from the climb. As we ascended out of the hot valley, I looked to the left and saw a short cliff face, steeper and slicker than any I had climbed. At the top, a group of goats were poking around the cliff for grass. Further up the road I saw a goat-herder or two, common in this part of the world. Then, with a shock, I remembered that word from Habakkuk:

“God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.” (Hab. 3:19, ESV)

Now animal names in ancient Hebrew are not always precise. English versions use “deer” or “hind”; but Habakkuk was certainly paraphrasing the older words of King David, who lived among the mountain goats.1 I found that the word involved still means mountain goat in Arabic, and it must be the more ancient of the two meanings.

Amazingly, three thousand years later, the nature show Planet Earth shows the Nubian ibex, a type of wild goat, in Ein Gedi National Park in Israel—the very same oasis where David hid from Saul (1 Samuel 24:1). This leaves no doubt as to where David got his inspiration.

Mountain goats are found all over the world with awe-inspiring abilities. Many nature articles have been written about their unique feet, which have properties very similar to rock climbers’ shoes: rough pads for friction, and pointed toes for grabbing. Another key to rock climbing is having multiple points of contact. One wildlife biologist points out that North American mountain goats have toes that actually spread as they climb, giving them not four, but eight points of contact with the rock.2


Habakkuk and David: Living Precariously

If Habakkuk was walking in a precarious place spiritually and financially, David was living for years in great physical danger and persecution. Saul, the anointed king, who had been rejected by God, was committed to killing David. But David couldn’t just kill the king. He had to return kindness to him, since God had also chosen him as king. David humbly trusted that God would change the situation in his own timing. At the time, though, the situation was very dim. Though God had spoken to David as a child, he was for a time disinherited, living in caves, with no earthly guarantee that he would ever be king.

“So Saul took three thousand able young men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats.” (1 Samuel 24:2, NIV)

David was a shepherd himself, so he knew sheep and domestic goats. As he was driven into the wilderness by Saul, he must have seen the ibex, or wild goat, and received this goat as a parable and a promise from God. His Creator God, who had equipped these goats to straddle cliffs which no man can climb, would enable David to make his home in the most precarious of places—a narrow ledge between a king’s death wish, and God’s anointing. God did equip him, and his song was part and parcel of this equipping. God birthed in him a desire to worship his Creator in the most perilous of places.

The Safest Place

Mountain goats have many predators, but their chief protection is to live in precarious places. Steep ascents keep these magnificent animals from their earth-bound enemies. Their strategy reminds me of Pippin’s words in The Two Towersmovie:

The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm.

If we want safety for our children, our disciples, our friends, and our congregations, the safest thing that we can do is involve them in the mission of God. It is the mission of God to reconcile that keeps us from withering into a religion that is merely “personal business.” It is the mission of God that keeps us exercising our faith on behalf of a fallen world, testing the might of our prayers for our neighbors, joined in the work that astonishes angels. The mission of God is the high cliff that no mocking enemy can reach.

Faith is a muscle that must be flexed and stretched regularly, or it will atrophy. David may have retreated from the physical battle with Saul, but he was advancing against his spiritual enemies. We either retreat into danger, or we advance into safety. And in the heat of battle, we always find that God has set a table for us, a place to recline and receive nourishment from our Savior.


1 The Hebrew word in Psalm 18:33 is the feminine plural of אַיָּל, ayal (H355). Gesenius allows that this word could refer to deer, a large she-goat, or a gazelle; but David’s location as well as his analogies about strong footing make it seem likely that the אילוֹת (hinds) of Psalm 18 are identical with the יעלים (wild goats) in 1 Samuel 24:2. There is also a poetic parallel in Job 39:1. See Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, H352 (ram) and H355 (hind). Public domain.

2 Douglas Chadwick spent seven years studying mountain goats in the Rocky Mountains. See Douglas H. Chadwick, A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed. pp. 50-52.