The Language of God
October 15th, 1967 @ 10:50 AM
THE LANGUAGE OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-15-67 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled: The Language of God. Before we begin this sermon, could I add my personal word of deepest love and gratitude and appreciation to these children and grandchildren of our former illustrious pastors? You greatly honor us in your presence. And your father and your grandfather, as each of our pastors may have been to you, oh! how much have they built, and on how much do we stand, as we seek to carry forward and onward their glorious ministries.
I have said so many times—and it could be disputed by others, I know; but to me, it was true long before I ever came to Dallas, and it is true today, and it will always be true to me—that the most sacred of all the Baptist soil in the earth is the First Baptist Church in Dallas. There is more of the devotion and the summation of what our people mean and have meant in this dear place than in any other one place I know of in the earth. May God grant that the noble ministries of these predecessors who preached in this pulpit, may God grant that the truth they delivered may live a thousand times over again in us.
Now the message today is one in a long series on the Book of Daniel. This is the fifth message as we begin this long series. And each one has been somewhat of an introduction, describing the background of the writing of this unusual book in the Bible.
Now in the second chapter of the Book of Daniel, verse 4, the verse reads: “Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriac, in Syriac—then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriac…” And immediately our attention is riveted by that word “Syriac”; they spake in Syriac. For the years of my life, I have always said that the New Testament was written in Greek and that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew; that there were two languages in which the Book of God was written: the Old Testament, Hebrew; and the New Testament, Greek. But, that is not quite correct. The New Testament is written in Greek; that is correct. But it is not correct to say that the Old Testament is written alone in Hebrew. For the Old Testament is written in two languages. Most of it is written in Hebrew; but there are extensive passages in the Old Testament that are written in Aramaic, called here “Syriac,” in Aramaic.
There are four places in the Old Testament where some of it is written in Aramaic. One passage is in Genesis 31:47. Here is a Hebrew toponym that is translated also into Aramaic. A second passage is in Jeremiah. In Jeremiah, 10:11, there is a unique phenomenon in the Bible. The whole of Jeremiah is in Hebrew; but this one verse is in Aramaic. And there is no Hebrew original for it in the world. Apparently from the beginning this one verse was written in Aramaic. It’s a verse where apparently Jeremiah is telling the Hebrew exiles: “When you are invited to worship the heathen gods with your neighbors around you, this shall ye say unto them…” And it is written in the language of the Jewish neighbors. It is written in Aramaic.
Now the third section in the Bible where there is Aramaic, extensively so, is in the Book of Ezra. Over one-third of the Book of Ezra is written in Aramaic. Ezra 4, beginning at verse 8 through Ezra 6, verse 18 [Ezra 4:8-6:18]—all of that, extensively— all of that is in Aramaic. And in chapter 7, in the Book of Ezra, beginning at verse 12 and continuing through verse 26, all of that is Aramaic [Ezra 7:12-26]. Over one-third of the Book of Ezra is Aramaic.
When we turn then to the Book of Daniel, a little more than one-half of the Book of Daniel is in Aramaic. Beginning at Daniel chapter 2, verse 4, all the way through to the end of chapter 7, through Daniel 7:28, all of that section in the Book of Daniel is in Aramaic [Daniel 2:4-7:28]. More than half of it!
Now Ezra was apparently born in the Babylonian captivity, and he lived in those days of the Babylonian exiles. Daniel as a young man was taken a captive to Babylon [Daniel 1:1-7]. To both of them Aramaic was a second language, and both of them apparently fall into the use of Aramaic upon the slightest suggestion. Ezra does so when he begins quoting from those documents in the Persian archives relating to the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem. And Daniel falls into Aramaic and uses Aramaic when he begins quoting what these frightened Chaldeans said to the king. So in the Bible, and especially in Ezra and Daniel, and most especially in Daniel, is the Word of God written in Aramaic.
Now, what is Aramaic? And who spoke it? And how did it come to pass that a part of our Bible was written in that tongue? And what does it mean in our study of the Book of Daniel? Well, let us begin first with the story of the Aramaean people. Who were they? In the tenth chapter of Genesis and the twenty-second verse, the sons of Shem are named. Now Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth [Genesis 10:1]. And in the tenth chapter of the Book of Genesis, the sons of Shem are named [Genesis 10:22-31]. And one of those sons is Aram, Aram, and the descendants of Aram are called Aramaeans [Genesis 10:22]. They were the most multiplied, and scattered, and diverse of all of the Semitic people.
Now that word Semitic, you use it all the time. If somebody’s is anti-Jewish, you call it anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is anti-Judaism—against the Jewish people. Now that comes from “Shem,” and when you make an adjective out of the substantive, you leave off the “h” and use the word “Semitic,” Semitism, a descendant of Shem; and the Hebrews are descendants of Shem, and the Aramaeans are the descendants of Shem.
Now, the Greeks called the Aramaeans, “Syrians,” which is a mistake. For when the Greeks met the Aramaeans, they were subjects of the empire of Assyria. And “Syria” is a shortened form of “Assyria.” So the Greeks called the Aramaeans “Syrians.” And that is followed in the King James Version and in the Revised Version of the Bible. Wherever the Hebrew uses the word “Aramaean,” it will be translated in the Bible as “Syrian.” I think that’s a misnomer because you get the idea that the Aramaeans are the Syrians that we know today, whose capital is Damascus. That is only partly true.
The Aramaeans were the most prolific and the most multiplied and scattered of all the Semitic people. And they lived from time immemorial in the great—what is called the “Fertile Crescent,” from the hills of Media, all through the Mesopotamian Valley; many of them scattering up through Asia Minor, all through Phoenicia; all through Palestine and down to the Nile Valley. In that great Fertile Crescent, the Aramaean was at home anywhere.
There are many mentions of the Aramaeans in the Old Testament Scriptures. They were a people who were the most closely-related in contact with the Hebrew nation. For example, in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis, is the story of Abraham as he calls his servant and sends him to get a wife for his son Isaac. And Abraham says to his servant, Eliezer, he says to him: “You are not to take a wife for my son Isaac from these Canaanites—from the daughters of Canaan—but you are to go back to my people” [Genesis 24:2-4]. So the servant, in keeping with Abraham’s instruction, took all of those gifts, and he arose and went to Mesopotamia. It is written here in the King James Version, “and he came to Mesopotamia unto the city of Nahor” [Genesis 24:10].
Now Nahor was Abraham’s brother. But that word translated here, “Mesopotamia,” in the Hebrew it is “Aram Nahărayim,” Aram. There’s that land, and there’s that people— Aram Nahărayim—”Aram of the Two Rivers”; that is, of the Tigris and of the Euphrates. All of that area up there was filled with Aramaeans. And Abraham when he left Ur went to Haran of Aram Nahărayim, and from Haran came down unto the land of Canaan [Genesis 11:31]. So when Abraham sent Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, he sent him to the great center of Aramaean population [Genesis 24:2-4].
Well, when I turn the pages of the Book of Genesis, I read: “And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah to wife, the daughter of Bethuel,” and in the King James Version has it, the Syrian, the Hebrew is “the “Aramaean of Padan—aram,” which is another word. Padan-aram is another Hebrew word for “Aram Nahărayim.” “And she was sister to Laban the Syrian” [Genesis 25:20]. She was sister to Laban, the Hebrew says, “the Aramaean,” the Aramaic family of Abraham.
Now when I turn the page here in the Book of Genesis, I come to the story of Jacob. And Isaac called his son Jacob and said to him, “You are not to marry a daughter of the Canaanites. But I am going to send you back to where our people came from. And you take a wife from them.” So Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and said: “Rise, go to Padan-aram, up there in the north of the Mesopotamian Valley. And there find a wife” [Genesis 28:1-2].
So Isaac sent away Jacob, and he came to Padan-aram, unto Laban, son of Bethuel, the (and you have it translated here, “Syrian”) [Genesis 25:20], the Aramaean. And there he married Rachel and Leah—Aramaeans [Genesis 29:16-30]. Well, we haven’t time to continue.
One of the great sections of that Fertile Crescent, settled prolifically by the Aramaeans, was the upper Mesopotamian Valley. Now another section so often mentioned in the Bible is Aram Damascus. Those people as a whole never made a political unit. They were never a national state. But they did have a state, and Damascus was its capital. Then you read in the Bible often of Aram Zobah, against which David and Saul went to war [1 Samuel 14:47; 2 Samuel 8:3]. Well, this is just a little background of how you find those Aramaean people in the Old Testament.
Now let us look at them closely and see who they were and what kind of people they were. The Aramaeans were traders and shepherds. They were not shepherds like the modern Bedouin Arab—if you have been over there, you know what I mean. But the Aramaeans were shepherds in the sense that they kept their flocks for the marketplaces of the great cities; near which they were always found. What the Phoenicians were by sea, the Aramaeans were in the traffic by the land. And through the successive empires of Assyria, and Babylonia, and Persia, they controlled the business and the commerce of the ancient world. Their great trading center in the Near East was at Haran, up there, at the top of the Euphrates River. And their great trading center in the northeast of Palestine was at Damascus. And wherever they went, they dominated the commerce and the merchandising and the trading of the nation.
Now we come to the heart of this study. Not only were those ubiquitous Aramaeans traders and commercial men and businessmen; and not only did they dominate the business life of the nations in those series of empires; but the most phenomenal thing I have ever read in history—and you’re going to see it as we come down to the Jews—the Aramaeans dominated every land in which they lived by their language. Every one! For example, the empire of Assyria: the Assyrian conquerors made it a policy of state that they uprooted the people they conquered and placed them over there in some other area of the Assyrian Empire. So as the Assyrians conquered nation after nation, they conquered the Aramaeans of Damascus. Now they had a great many Aramaeans there in Assyria already, but they uprooted thousands and thousands of Aramaean Damascene families and transported them to Nineveh and to that area of the Assyrian Empire. And a marvelous thing came to pass: the Aramaeans conquered the Assyrians in their language. And the language of Aramaic became the state language of the Assyrian Empire. The way Assyria spoke and communicated with all of the vast outreaches of her empire was by the use of Aramaic.
Now you find that interestingly in a story in the Second Book of Kings and those middle verses. Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, is besieging Jerusalem. And Rab-shakeh, who is an officer in the army of Sennacherib is speaking to the Jewish people on the walls of Jerusalem [2 Kings 18:19-25]. And he is speaking to those Jewish people, that they had best lay down their arms and surrender to his master, Sennacherib. So as this Rab-shakeh, this officer of the Assyrian army, speaks to those Jewish people on the wall in Jerusalem, trying to get them to surrender, why, Eliakim the Jew says to the Rab-shakeh: “Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language,” it’s translated, “in Aramaic. Speak to thy servants in Aramaic; for we understand it; but do not talk with us in the Jew’s language”—”In Hebrew” [2 Kings 18:26].
Now, isn’t that interesting? Aramaic is the diplomatic, communicative language of the whole Assyrian Empire; and it is understood by the high Assyrian officials, and it is understood by the high officials in Jerusalem. But the common people do not understand it—they speak Hebrew.
Well, what is the difference between Aramaic and Hebrew? Because they can’t understand each other. Aramaic is a universal language, the lingua franca of the whole Assyrian Empire; like English and French are today in the world. But a Hebrew cannot understand it. Well, the difference is this: the “Romance Language” is, for example, of French and Italian—both of them coming from Roman language, from Latin language. But a Frenchman cannot understand an Italian, and an Italian cannot understand a Frenchman, unless they know the language.
Same way with our Germanic Teutonic language. Anglo-Saxon English is a Teutonic language. German, of course, is a Teutonic language. But an Englishman cannot understand a German, and a German cannot understand an Englishman, unless they know each other’s language.
It was the same way with Aramaic and Hebrew. When Abraham came from Ur, to Haran, down to Canaan [Genesis 11:31], I would suppose that he spoke Aramaic. But when he came to Canaan, there was a change in the language of Abraham and his descendants, and he began to speak Canaanitic Hebrew—the language of Moab—a kindred language to Moab and of the Canaanite tribe who lived in Palestine.
So Aramaic, in the days of the Assyrian Empire, is the language of diplomacy, and of business, and of government; it is the universal language of the civilized world. Now, to the amazement of anyone who would study it and think about it, when Assyria was conquered by Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar— and the Babylonian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was founded—Aramaic was also the language by which the Babylonians governed their extensive realms. And in the city of Babylon, in that polyglot, great metropolis, Aramaic was the common language between all of the people. For example, they dig up over there in the city of Babylon cuneiform tablets, business contracts between men. And on the backside of those cuneiform Babylonian tablets, you will find labels that are written in Aramaic, so that the clerks could easily file them, and classify them, and find them.
So Aramaic became the language of Babylon. Now Babylon, as you know, was conquered by Cyrus in 539 BC. And to my amazement at least, Aramaic—that had been the language of the Assyrian, and Aramaic that had been the language of Babylon—Aramaic became and continued the language of the Persian Empire, which covered at that time practically all of the civilized world.
Then, this phenomenal and remarkable thing that came to pass: when the Jewish people were taken captive out of Jerusalem and out of Judah and were placed in Babylon, the speech habits of the Jews changed. Not only did they speak Hebrew, but in order to communicate with their non-Jewish neighbors, they also began to speak Aramaic.
And when the exiles under Zerubbabel and under Ezra and under Nehemiah returned home to Jerusalem and to Judah [Ezra 2:1-3:1], they returned home bilingual. I know that they still spoke Hebrew because the prophets Haggai and Zechariah and Malachi spoke to the people in Hebrew and wrote their prophecies in Hebrew; but the people also spoke Aramaic. And when they returned to the land, they found Aramaic spoken in their homeland.
Then this unbelievable thing that came to pass: somewhere in that postexilic period—and nobody knows just when—but somewhere in that postexilic period, the people that belonged to the Hebrew nation quit speaking Hebrew, and all of them began speaking Aramaic. And Hebrew, as a living language, died among the Hebrew people themselves. Can you imagine that? That’s one of the most phenomenal things that I have ever found in the history of a people!
So Hebrew was forgotten by the common people. And the common people, the vernacular of the people, was no longer spoken in Hebrew; but the people spoke Aramaic. You see that in such passages as this: in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah, in those middle verses it says that when Ezra opened the Book—Ezra was the preacher, he was the pastor, he was the scribe, he was the priest—and when Ezra opened the Book of God, all of the people stood up [Nehemiah 8:5]. And that’s what we do when we read the Book, we all stand up. Now Ezra opened the Book, and all the people stood up. Then it says that he caused the people to understand the Book: “So they read in the Book of God distinctly,” you have it translated here, “distinctly”—that does not mean with fine enunciation and pronunciation—that means they read in the Book of God, written in Hebrew, and they translated it into Aramaic, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” [Nehemiah 8:8]. So even in the days of Nehemiah, when the Bible was read that was written in Hebrew, they also had to interpret it in Aramaic, the language of the common people.
Now as time continued and as the days went on, Hebrew was no longer spoken among the people at all; but they spoke Aramaic. Now there are several things that come from that: one is, the Bible had to be translated into Aramaic, and that translation we called targums, the Jewish targums are Aramaic interpretations and translations of the Hebrew Bible. Then another thing: all of the Hebrew Bibles were written—every one of them, in Aramaic script—in Aramaic characters. There are no Hebrew Bibles in the world that are written in Hebrew script, in Hebrew characters, nor has there been for thousands of years. The Aramaic simply swept before it every national language that it touched. And all my life, I’ve been taught that our alphabet came from the Phoenicians. That is not true! Practically all of the alphabets of the civilized world come from the Aramaean script, from the Aramaean alphabet. And every Hebrew Bible that is in the world and that has been for thousands of years is written in Aramaic script, in Aramaic characters.
And not only that, the Talmud is written in Aramaic. The Babylonian Talmud is written in Babylonian Aramaic. And the Palestinian Talmud is written in Palestinian Aramaic, and not only that, but when the Lord came into this world and lived in the days of His flesh, the Lord spoke Aramaic. For example, when I turn to the fifth chapter of the Book of Mark: “And He took the damsel, the Lord took Jarius’ twelve year old daughter by the hand, and said unto her, “Talitha cumi”; that is Aramaic for “Maiden, arise” [Mark 5:41].
I turn the page of the book here, and I read where there was a deaf man, and the Lord looked to heaven, and then said to him: “Ephphatha” [Mark 7:34]. That is Aramaic for “be opened.” And I turn pages of the Book, and I read in the story of the crucifixion: “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi” [Mark 15:34], or as Matthew writes it, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, “My God, My God, why,” lama, “why has Thou forsaken Me [Matthew 27:46]? That is Aramaic; Jesus spoke Aramaic when He lived in the days of His flesh.
I turn to the first Corinthian letter, the last chapter, chapter 16 and the twenty-second verse, and I see the word Maranatha, Maranatha—that is Aramaic for “He is coming.” Jesus is coming again, Maranatha, and that’s the way the first Christians and disciples sometimes bid one another goodbye: Maranatha, Maranatha, “Jesus is coming, He is coming.” It’s Aramaic!
I read in the Book of Acts where the apostle Paul, standing on the steps of the Tower of Antonio, addressed the maddening throng below [Acts 21:35-36]. And the Bible says—the King James Version says—that he spoke to the people in Hebrew [Acts 21:40]. What it means is he spoke to the people in Aramaic, in their language. And then, in that address on the steps of Antonio when the apostle Paul described his conversion, he says that on the road to Damascus, that the Lord Jesus met him in the way. And Paul says: “And He spake unto me in the Hebrew tongue,” saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest Thou Me’“ [Acts 26:14]? That’s the way it’s translated in the King James Version. The Lord Jesus spoke to the apostle Paul in Aramaic: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest Thou Me?” And that’s why I gave this study the title, The Language of God. When Jesus spoke in this world, He spoke in Aramaic. And when Jesus appeared to the apostle Paul from heaven and spoke to Him, He spoke to Him in Aramaic [Acts 26:14]: a phenomenal thing that Hebrew should have died in the very land of the Hebrews, by the Hebrew people themselves, and that they should speak Aramaic.
Now, what does this mean for us in our study of Daniel? And we must hasten so quickly. More than half of the Book of Daniel is written in Aramaic, not in Hebrew. What does that mean? It means one of three things. First: it could mean that there are two authors in Daniel; or a multiplicity of authors—at least two, let’s say—and one wrote in Hebrew and one wrote in Aramaic. That suggestion is impossible because where the Hebrew leaves off and where the Aramaic begins is in the middle of a coherent narrative. And whoever wrote it above is the same one who wrote it below; the style is the same. The language, the style is the same, the syntax is the same; the vocabulary, the idiosyncrasies, the idioms; all of it is the same. So there are not two authors. And again, chapter 7 in the Book of Daniel is written, as I said, in Aramaic; chapter 8 is written in Hebrew, and those two chapters go together; there are not two authors, one writing Hebrew and one writing Aramaic, it is the same author writing both.
Nor can you divide Daniel down the middle as though the first six chapters were written by a historian, and the last six chapters were written by a prophet: for the first six are historical, and the last six are prophetical. You can’t divide that because chapter 2 is a parallel of chapter 7; and chapter 7 parallels chapter 2. There is one author in the Book of Daniel, whoever he was. There are not two. It is the same writer throughout.
All right, the second possibility: there could be a possibility that Daniel had in it a large lacuna, a large gap, a large open space. And if it was originally written in Hebrew, then it was filled in—that gap in there—was filled in from an Aramaic translation: or turn it around, if it was originally written in Aramaic, the gap at the front and the back was filled in with Hebrew. Now of course, nobody knows, but we have this certain thing to say about it: the Qumran Scrolls—the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered recently—in those scrolls was not only the scroll of Isaiah the prophet, but there are fragments of the Book of Daniel in those Dead Sea Scrolls. And those fragments are exactly like the Bible that we have today. Where the Book of Daniel is written in Hebrew, those scrolls are written in Hebrew. And where the Book of Daniel is written in Aramaic, those scrolls are written in Aramaic. Identical! And where one changes into the other is the identical change in those Hebrew scrolls. Now those Hebrew scrolls were written, some of it, in the second century BC. So as far as back as we can know, this part in Hebrew and part in Aramaic obtained!
All right the third possibility: if there’s not two authors, if it’s all the same; if there was not a lacuna, a gap, a missing page, and they filled it in with the Aramaic translation, if that is not true; then the third has to be true. When Daniel wrote the Book of Daniel, he wrote it as you see it here: part in Hebrew and part in Aramaic. And as you look in the book to see why such a thing should have been true, it becomes very apparent: the part of the book that pertains especially to the Jews, Daniel wrote in Hebrew; but the part of the prophecy that pertains to the Gentiles, he wrote in the language of the world. He wrote it in Aramaic.
Now why should he have done that? For this simple reason: the things that pertain to the Jews, he wrote in the Jews’ language, in Hebrew; but the things that pertained to the nations of the earth and to the families and peoples of the earth, he wrote in Aramaic—because Aramaic was the language of the government, and of the diplomats, and of the business, and of communication. And by writing in Aramaic, Daniel made it possible for the families, and the nations, and the kings, and the prime ministers, and the governments, and the princes of merchandise to know what God says, and what God’s will, and what the sovereign purposes of God shall be in the working out of the great sovereign purpose of God in the nations of the earth—which shows this corollary for certain and for sure: it is God’s will that we know His purposes in the earth. It is not God’s will that we stagger in the dark; that we grope like a blind man for the wall. It is not God’s will that we live in frustration, and in despair, and in darkness. It is God’s will that we know the future. It is God’s will that we face the future with sublime confidence. These things that happen in history, and these revolutions, and these turmoils, and these wars, and a thousand other things that afflict and storm through the human families of the earth, these things are not advantageous, they are not peripheral, they are not accidental, they are not fortuitous.
But the great movement of history is according to the sovereign will of God! And the Lord presides over it all! And God’s people are not to be full of despair; and they are not to be fearful. But we’re to face the future in God’s sovereign grace; knowing that above the storm and the fury and the revolutions of life, there presides the great Judge and King of all the earth. And He holds the nations of the world in the palm of His hand [Isaiah 40:15]. And in keeping with that revelation, that all of the nations could know, Daniel wrote the times of the Gentiles in the language of the Aramaean—the universal language, the lingua franca of the earth.
O Lord, what a triumph, and what a victory, and what a note of infinite gratitude are always to be on the lips and in the hearts of the children of God. Whatever happens, however history turns, this is in God’s purview, in God’s foreview, in God’s purposive will. And He is working towards some great and glorious consummation for those who place their trust in Him. Never for us, a low note; never for us a dirge of despair and defeat, but always for us that God lives, and the Sovereign of all the earth rules, and these things under the aegis of His mighty name shall finally come to that glorious consummation He has purposed for His people in history. That’s the way we’re to be, that’s the way we’re to live, that’s the way we’re to die, that’s the way we’re to work, that’s the way we’re to give our lives to the cause of Jesus in the earth; it is victory, Daniel says, for us!
Well, we’ve gone too long—you’ve got a song there to sing? You got a good song to sing? Well, let’s sing us a good song; let’s sing us a good song. And while we change this song, a family you, in the balcony ‘round, a family you, on this lower floor, a couple you, or one somebody you, while we sing this song, come and stand by me. “Pastor, today, I give my heart to the Lord, and here I stand.” Or “Pastor, this is my wife, these are our children, all of us are coming today.” As the Spirit of Jesus shall press the appeal to your heart, while we sing this sweet song of invitation, you come. “Here I am, preacher, I make it now.” Do it now; do it this morning, when you stand up in a moment, stand up coming. Make it now, while all of us stand and sing.