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The Polemic of Jerusalem 5

The presentation of God’s truth over against the falsehood of the father of lies and his children can take many forms. Often times, an explicit teaching is presented over against a prevailing untruth so that a clear distinction can be seen. Other times, more subtle forms are used that require the careful attention of the reader but provide a powerful counterpoint to falsehood. One such subtle form, which we see in Jeremiah 5 and elsewhere, falls into the category of polemical theology. In his primer on the polemical theology of the Hebrew Bible, John Currid gives the following definition for this idea: it is "use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning."[1] 

One of the most striking examples of this kind of polemic in the Scriptures is Psalm 29. This psalm describes God in language that draws heavily on imagery from nature. “The voice of the Lord” sounds a lot like a hurricane ripping through a forest. The imagery, by itself, teaches us that God is powerful, but this imagery also has parallels in other ancient Near Eastern cultural artifacts. Specifically, there are descriptions of Baal, the storm god, in Ugaritic literature that use substantially the same imagery. Addressing the similarities, Currid writes,

How are we to understand the many and significant parallels between Psalm 29 and Ugaritic literature? Again, many scholars merely see Psalm 29 as borrowed and sanitized Canaanite hymnody. In reality, it is more likely a polemic against Baal and Canaanite religion. The point of the psalm is the exaltation of Yahweh, and that glory is to be ascribed to his name and to none other. It is the name Yahweh that dominates this hymn; Yahweh is the leitwort (“leading word”) of the song, appearing 18 times in a mere 11 verses! The Hebrew psalmist is a zealous monotheist, and this monotheism is at the expense of the Canaanite pantheon. Thus, it is not Baal who thunders, but “the God of glory thunders” (v. 3). And the “sons of El” ascribe glory to Yahweh and not to the chief deity of the Canaanites. This psalm is about the glory of Yahweh and of no other—the biblical writer’s radical monotheism shines forth brightly through this polemic that taunts the false gods of Canaan.[2]

The point, then, is that a thought form or story can be subtly referenced and then redefined from error to truth.

Something similar happens in Jer 5:22 (ESV), which says, “Do you not fear me? declares the LORD. Do you not tremble before me? I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail; though they roar, they cannot pass over it.” In this verse, “the sea” is the thought form that is filled with new meaning. J. A. Thompson makes the connection in the following way:

The stupidity and senselessness of the people consisted in the fact that they did not reverence (Heb. yārēʾ) Yahweh or tremble in his presence. … By contrast, presumably, either they showed reverence for other deities like Baal or simply neglected Yahweh. Such insensitiveness to the facts was incomprehensible since it was Yahweh who controlled the mighty seas. The choice of the sea in making the point was an apt one. In the mythology of the peoples of the ancient East there was perpetual conflict between the gods and the chaos monster. But Yahweh stood outside of such considerations. In creation he set bounds to the waters and set apart the dry land (Gen. 1:6–10; Job 38:8–11; Ps. 104:5–9). … What Baal could not control, Yahweh could. It was therefore a cause for astonishment that the people should fail to bring to Yahweh the profound reverence that was due him.[3]

The power of this polemic in Jeremiah 5 is that it addressed a significant sin issue without distracting from the main idea. In our day to day, this seems to be a needed form for confronting error with truth, because it allows for God to be proclaimed without getting enmeshed in the intricacies of an error that need not receive significant airtime. So long as the audience is attentive, this form of polemic theology is a powerful way to positively proclaim Christ and his gospel as preeminent over the thought forms and stories of the day.

[1] John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 26.

[2] Currid, 137.

[3] John A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 248.

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