Unfurling the Word

Psalm 119.129-136

Part of the work of a preacher is to open doors and invite people to walk through. In one sense then, what we do is unfurl the word just as this psalm says.

The Hebrew word is petach (to open) and the associated noun means both “tent flap/opening,” and “mouth.” There’s even a pun in this verse because the ones given understanding (translated as ‘the simple’ in the NRSV) are the p’tayim who are opened to God by the opening of the word.

Using “unfurl” for this opening is on one hand a rather poetic bit of translational work but it is also a true word because on one hand we unfurl a scroll (the word keeper of the day) and on the other hand when understanding is shared to another, it is “unfurled” before them. Those who have had that “now I get it” moment will remember that it is like the clouds rolled back and a bright light went on. Eureka moments are like that, a sudden, glorious revelation that seems to blind us with its intensity.

So the opening of the word opens the understanding the way a banner unfurls. It’s a nice and uplifting image and I guess we can hope that at some point our lives too might unfurl. sigh. Anything for us today?

Just this: in 1 Kings, Solomon’s life unfurls because of the word. He has just gotten to the throne and is just smart enough to know he’s out of his depth but not smart enough to carry the whole thing off with assurance. So when God says “what do you want me to do for you?” Solomon’s reply is “give me wisdom to do this work.”

When people win the lottery, they know exactly what they want to spend their money on. They have a long list of things to do and the enthusiasm to do them. Stopping to reflect on what this will mean to them is very low on their list. But Solomon knew that knowing how to do what needed doing was key to doing anything well.

So he asked for wisdom and God unfurled his understanding. Further, through Solomon’s work, God unfurled the nation of Israel to what is generally accepted as its largest extent culturally and geographically. While David’s reign is mostly a list of who he defeated (or lost to) in battle, Solomon’s reign is full of economic prosperity and boring building programs (which sound boring to a bloodthirsty eight year old boy but think of the tranquility of life needed for the building of a highway overpass to be Big News).

There’s another unfurling in the Gospel. Jesus is telling parables and asks “do you get it?” The disciples (who are either experiencing a sudden moment of inspiration or simply want to make the teacher happy) say ‘you bet, we got it all!’ Ignoring what may well be a bit of foolishness on their part, Jesus goes on to say that for a person who has come to understand God’s way with the cosmos, their lives are like that of a housholder who can bring out (unfurl?) from their stores both new and old.

And now we come to the real fun in this text. You see, the Hebrew word davar (translated “word”) also means deed. This is because the words perform what they say (the technical name for this is “the performative word“). This is part of why blessings and pronouncements are so powerful, saying “the LORD bless you and keep you” is itself the unfurling of the blessing into your life.

So the unfurling of God’s Word causes light to shine in dark places, it causes the uninformed (“the simple”) to gain understanding. And what is the other meaning of The Word when used in a Christian context? “In the beginning was the WORD…” So Jesus is himself the Word of God that unfurls into our lives, gives light, and causes understanding (for the grammar nuts, yes, both verbs in this sentence are causative, the word causes light and understanding to come to be).

This short verse then points to a key reality of spiritual life, that it opens, it unfurls in us through the word of scripture, the word which is also the deed of God, and the Word who is Jesus among us. Knowing these unfurlings are going on around us, it is worth our time to see and appreciate that the word really is unfurling in us. Even now it is growing and giving light to us. It is as welcome as water in the wilderness and certain as the dawn.


And just because I love techno and this particular tune, here is a secular interpretation of what God is doing and unfurling within us. Caress the Hardest Heart by Blank and Jones.




About pstrobus

The product of a youth misspent in libraries. I realized early that language is important and that words have a great deal of power and so I listen for the shape of the ideas as well as the words.
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