Everyone has a mental picture of God. Perhaps you think he is distant, aloof, angry, even terrifying. Possibly you envision him holding a whip in his hands…
For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives. (Heb 12:6, NASB)
Yet your heavenly Father is not like this. How do I know? I’ve seen Jesus. Jesus is none of these things. Rather, he is loving, gracious, kind and desires to share his life with you. Jesus said he was about his Father’s business and that business is not the condemning business but the adoption business. God loves you and wants to spend eternity delighting in you.
So how does scourging fit into this picture? It doesn’t. It sticks out like a cobra in a kindergarten. It shouldn’t be there. Yet it is, in black and white in Hebrews 12. So does God scourge his kids or doesn’t he?
What is scourging?
In our era of first world problems, we may not be acquainted with the horrors of scourging. But those who lived in the first century were familiar with at least two types of scourging.
First, there was the Jewish form of scourging which involved the application of a leather whip to your shoulders and chest. This form of scourging was limited by Jewish law to 40 stripes. This is why the Jews called it the “forty lashes minus one” – they didn’t want to risk breaking the law by miscounting so they deliberately reduced the maximum number of lashes to 39! The law also said the actual number of lashes was supposed to be commensurate with the crime. However, Paul got the “forty minus one” five times for breaking no law (2 Cor 11:24).
Then there was Roman scourging which was worse. It was typically applied to criminals before execution and there was no law limiting the number of strokes applied. In fact, if you wanted to kill a man at the whipping post, you could do it with a vicious tool called the flagellum. Since there may be children reading this, I won’t describe what the Roman whip could do to a body of flesh and blood, but if you have seen The Passion movie, you will know.
Regardless of whether you got the Jewish version or the Roman version, scourging was torture. Today it’s not the sort of thing civilized societies would inflict even on the worst criminals. Yet apparently God does it to his kids.
Is this good news?
Does God really scourge us?
“The Lord scourges every son he receives.” That’s what it says. The original Greek word for scourges is mastigoō. It’s a verb that means “to scourge.” It is the same word that describes what Pilate had done to Jesus (John 19:1). So if you need a mental picture of God’s scourging, you’ll be wanting the Roman flagellum with the bits of metal in the thongs and the little hooks called scorpions at the end.
If this troubles you, I’m glad. It means you have a brain! It means you are struggling to reconcile a good God with an evil whip. I’m here to tell you that God never, ever, ever scourges his kids. But before I give you my reasons, I have to be honest and admit that every single commentator I’ve read says he does. As far as I can tell, they all say stuff like this:
“Scourges” means literally to flog or scourge… and entails any suffering which God ordains… God’s chastisement includes not only his “whipping” us so to speak for specific transgressions (but even here with the idea of remedial not retributive intent), but also the entire range of trials and tribulations which he providentially ordains and which work to mortify sin and nurture faith, ultimately serving to conform us to the image of His Son… Notice that “scourges” is in the present tense, which indicates that this is not a one time event, but can be expected in the lives of those who are truly God’s spiritual children. ~Precept Austin
God scourges us repeatedly. Isn’t that wonderful? Sheesh. No wonder sinners aren’t running into church when we’re preaching stuff like that.
In my next post I am going to give you seven solid reasons why you can be convinced that God never scourges his children. But first, how are we to account for Hebrews 12:6, which says he does?
It’s a misquote
Look in the margin notes of your Bible and you will see that Hebrews 12:6 is quoting Proverbs 3:11-12. It’s a direct quote copied from the Old Testament and pasted into the New. Let’s put the original Proverb and the Hebrews version side by side and see if you can spot any differences:
|Original Quote from Prov 3:11-12||Copied in Hebrews 12:5-6|
|My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor detest his correction;
For whom the Lord loves he corrects,
Just as a father the son in whom he delights.
|My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by him
For whom the Lord loves he chastens,
And scourges every son whom he receives
The first three lines of the original Proverb are faithfully reproduced in Hebrews 12. But look at that last line – the copy is nothing like the original. How are we to account for this? One of them must be wrong.
According to Adam Clarke, the Victorian theologian, the incorrectly translated verse is the one on the left. Apparently, our English version of the old proverb is a poor translation. Read Proverbs in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) and you’ll find something that looks more like the one on the right. According to him, God scourges us in both testaments.
My problem with Clarke’s interpretation is that paints a picture of God wholly inconsistent with his character, as revealed in Jesus. What is the best translation of the Bible? It’s not the Septuagint – it’s Jesus!
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being… (Heb 1:3)
It seems to me that we might just as easily conclude that the wrong verse is the one on the right. Something was lost in translation.
Have you ever seen Joseph Prince preach? If so, you will know he sometimes switches from English to Chinese to better make a point for his Chinese-speaking audience. I think something like that happened with the book of Hebrews. Either,
1. Hebrews was written in Hebrew, or
2. Hebrews was written in Greek but the author quoted the old Hebrew proverbs in Hebrew for the benefit of his Hebrew speaking audience
…and later, when Hebrews 12:6 was translated into Greek, the translator/copyist (not the author) made a mistake.
Lost in translation
I admit, I’m no linguist. But Andrew Farley is and on p.234ff of his book God Without Religion he explains how a translation error like the one I just described could’ve happened. In his expert opinion, a Hebrew word that can be translated “to scourge” can also be translated “to inquire into.” In other words, God doesn’t scourge us, rather
God deeply inquires into our lives as he disciplines us, so that we can experience a harvest of righteousness and peace. (Heb 12:6, Farley’s paraphrase)
This Hebrew word with two meanings could explain how the Septuagint got it wrong. I encourage you to read Farley’s book if you want to dig deeper.
What is Hebrews really saying?
In my view, the Hebrew author of the epistle to the Hebrews meant to say something like what we see in the Hebrew proverb, namely:
For whom the Lord loves he instructs, just as a father the son in whom he delights. (Heb 12:6, my translation)
This may be a better translation than the one you may have in your English Bible because it satisfies three tests: (1) It is consistent with the revelation of God the Father given to us through Jesus the Son, (2) it is consistent with many other scriptures indicating that God delights in his children and that he cares enough to bring life-giving correction, and (3) it fits the context of Hebrews 12, as I will explain in my next article.
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