by Al Maxey

Issue #124 ------- May 11, 2004
To have doubted one's own first
principles is the mark of a civilized man.

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)
"Ideals and Doubts" -- Illinois Law Review, May 1915

Psalm 74:8 and Synagogues
Responding to a Reader's Challenge

A contemporary of mine, Christopher Matthews, made the following astute observation in his book Hardball: How Politics Is Played, "Most people believe that if any shot goes unanswered it must be true." In other words, if a critic hurls an accusation against someone, and that person allows the critic's vocal volley to cross his bow unanswered by return fire, some will indeed regard the accusation as valid. This was likely the case with some people in the crowds who witnessed the silence of our Lord in response to the groundless criticisms of His enemies. "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth" (Isaiah 53:7; Acts 8:32f). Yes, there are times when silence is preferable to argumentation. "Do not speak to a fool, for he will despise the insight of your words" (Proverbs 23:9). "When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, the foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest" (Proverbs 29:9). "Keeping himself away from strife is an honor for a man, but any fool will quarrel" (Proverbs 20:3). "The one who guards his mouth and tongue keeps himself out of trouble" (Proverbs 21:23).

On the other hand, there are clearly times when the accusations and criticisms of others must finally be addressed. This may be because the concerns of the critic are indeed legitimate, or it may simply be because, like a pit bull, they refuse to let go of some point of contention and their dogged persistence is causing undue distress among disciples. In such cases, the more noble path may be to respond. This will most likely not convince the critic, but it may serve to calm the concerns of those in the crowd who are looking on. Such is the purpose of the present issue of Reflections.

The Challenge

In one of the early issues of Reflections, I presented a study titled The "Law of Silence" and the Synagogue System (Issue #13). This was just one in a series of several in-depth articles dealing with the fallacy of the so-called "Law of Silence," which is one of the interpretative tools of the patternists and legalists in their quest to establish authority and to bind their own assumptions and exclude those of all others with whom they differ. In that article, which I hope the reader will take time to review, I point out that the synagogue system "was not 'ordained of God' via the Law of Moses or the inspired OT documents. In other words, the Scriptures are completely 'silent' with respect to this 'synagogue system.'" I went on in that article to note: "The OT writings do not 'authorize' it; it is an addition to the Temple system, and it was conceived and created by man."

A reader took exception to this article, and to my whole perspective on the matter of biblical "silence," and pointed out to me several months back that the Old Covenant writings were not "silent" about the synagogue. Indeed, this writer asserted, the synagogue was clearly mentioned in Psalm 74:8. This, the reader apparently assumed, constituted divine authorization of the entire system. I assumed, wrongly it turns out, that the reader would soon see how ludicrous such an assertion was, and thus did not devote much time to debunking his theory. The other day I received the following comment from this reader from Alabama:

The Response

First, there are several major misconceptions this reader has that need to be cleared up. I do not "justify mechanical music in worship" based on the "silence" argument. Indeed, my own personal preference is a cappella. I do not seek to "justify" or promote either preference. My only hope is that Christians can come to the point where they cease condemning one another for practices and preferences that the Scriptures neither permit nor prohibit. For us to condemn where God has not is to usurp His authority. We do not have that right. For those who would like to read a fuller discourse on the music issue, I submit to you my Reflections article -- Musings On Music (Issue #71).

Second, a careful reading of my above mentioned article on "silence" and synagogues will reveal that I nowhere suggested that the word "synagogue" itself does not appear in the OT writings. In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the OT documents), the Greek word sunagoge appears a great many times. It is simply a word that conveys the idea of an "assembly;" it is a gathering together or congregating of the people. For example, the word appears in Exodus 12:6 in the context of the Passover -- "And you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight." The word simply refers to a meeting of the people, and over the course of time even came to refer to specific "meeting places" or locations throughout the land. These were not Jewish Synagogues as known during the time of Christ (replete with their elaborate system of leadership, rules and regulations, rituals, customs, etc.). Thus, even though one will find the Greek word sunagoge, this does not suggest the elaborate synagogue system that had originated primarily during the Babylonian captivity and had come to such prominence by the time of Christ Jesus.

The reader, apparently relying upon the King James Version and/or the American Standard Version of 1901, found the following sentence in Psalm 74:8 -- "They have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land." Interestingly enough, in my copy of the KJV (The Ryrie Study Bible), there is a footnote to this verse which reads: "Better: meeting places. NOT a reference to synagogues, which developed later, but to the Temple viewed as the last of God's successive meeting places" (p. 849). What the reader from Alabama is apparently unaware of is that the Greek word sunagoge does NOT appear in Psalm 74:8 in the text of the Septuagint. This is something the more recent translations are very much aware of, and thus they have translated the passage far more correctly. Consider just a few of the following renderings of Psalm 74:8.

  1. New International Version -- "They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land."
  2. New American Standard Bible -- "They have burned all the meeting places of God in the land."
  3. Holman Christian Standard Bible -- "They burned down every place throughout the land where God met with us."
  4. New English Bible -- "All over the land they burnt God's holy places."
  5. Contemporary English Version -- "Then they burned every one of your meeting places all over the country."
  6. Revised Standard Version -- "They burned all the meeting places of God in the land."
  7. Living Bible -- "They went through the entire country burning down the assembly places where we worshiped you."
  8. English Standard Version -- "They burned all the meeting places of God in the land."
  9. Young's Literal Translation -- "They did burn all the meeting-places of God in the land."
  10. Darby Translation -- "They have burned up all God's places of assembly in the land."
  11. New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition -- "Let us burn all the shrines of God in the land."
  12. New King James Version -- "They have burned up all the meeting places of God in the land."

We could list a great many more translations and versions, but I think the reader gets the idea. The word "Synagogue" is not a correct translation of the original here. In point of fact, as previously noted, the Greek word sunagoge does not even appear in the passage in the Septuagint. The Hebrew word used in the passage is a word very commonly used in the Torah, and simply signifies "an assembly; a place of meeting." The Greek word used in the Septuagint in Psalm 74:8 is heorte, which is the word signifying "feasts, festivals." Thus, the actual translation is: "Let us abolish the feasts of the Lord from the earth." This is also the rendering found in the ancient Aramaic of the Peshitta -- "Let us abolish all the feast days of God from the land" (taken from George M. Lamsa's translation of the ancient Eastern Text). "The LXX favors 'your feasts' in verse 8" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 486).

Many reputable scholars believe the psalm was written following the Babylonian Captivity, at the beginning of which the Temple was pretty much destroyed, and has reference to that destruction. In fact, in the Masoretic Text (the Hebrew OT) the phrase in question is singular ("your meeting place"). This would tend, again, to focus the thought on a single "meeting place" in the land which had undergone a destruction; a "meeting place" identified as the Temple. As a footnote in the Expositor's Bible Commentary notes, however, "Regardless of whether the word is plural or singular, a more basic issue concerns the meaning of the phrase." This commentary (as many do) takes the position that "the lament focuses on the act of defiling the temple, designated by various expressions: 'the sanctuary' (vs. 3), 'your meeting place' (vs. 4), 'your sanctuary' (vs. 7), 'the dwelling place of your Name' (vs. 7), and 'the meeting place of God' (vs. 8)" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 486).

But, returning to the argument of the reader from Alabama, even if we give in to his belief that the word "synagogue" actually appears in Psalm 74:8 -- just for the sake of argument, let's assume he is right on this point -- how does this refute my previous assertion in my article The "Law of Silence" and the Synagogue System? The fact is: it does not! Even if the land was filled with synagogues (of the type and structure familiar to Jesus in the first century), there is still NOWHERE in the Old Testament writings where God specifically commanded, established, authorized or approved of such a system. There is SILENCE with regard to their divine origin (if indeed they were ordained by God rather than man). If "silence" is prohibitive, or exclusive in nature, then synagogues are an unauthorized innovation of MAN ... or so goes the theory of those who embrace this aspect of the CENI theory of interpretation.

The patternists and legalists simply must not ... they dare not ... acknowledge that the synagogue system was of human design. They must find some way to make this system "of God," otherwise we have Jesus Christ, and the apostles, taking part in (and not condemning) an "unauthorized innovation of man," and doing so without sin! This would mean these patternists would have to acknowledge that we can embrace some things about which Scripture is SILENT, and do so acceptably! They simply cannot allow that to happen, as it would undermine their entire legalistic, patternistic theology. That is why this reader from Alabama is so persistent about trying to prove the word "synagogue" exists in Psalm 74:8. He MUST find a way to get this whole system INTO THE TEXT of the OT writings. Failing to find a way will result in the defeat of his precious patternistic theory. He faces the same problem with our Lord's use of four cups of wine in the Passover celebration, by the way. I would refer the reader to my Reflections article on this topic in Issue #14.

The fact is, this whole attempt to prohibit practices based upon what ISN'T found in Scripture is an exercise in futility and frustration. The adherents of this hermeneutical theory are faced with some major challenges .... primarily that of consistency. The very theory upon which they condemn the use of instruments in worship is the theory upon which we may also condemn the synagogue system and the use of multiple cups of wine in the Passover celebration -- both of which Jesus embraced! If Jesus and the apostles could do so without sin, then by what rationale do we declare other areas forever forbidden upon pain of loss of fellowship and salvation? Consistency? Not with this theory!!


The reader from Alabama wrote, "Dear brother, are you honest? If you are, why have you not corrected your error and apologized to your readers?" I believe, dear brother, that I have been honest with my readers. I see no "error" in my previous declarations, thus see no need for any apology to the readers. In light of this current study, however, I might make the same request of you. I shall await your reply. In the meantime, my prayer is that you will seriously reconsider your approach to the inspired revelation of our Father. It is horribly flawed and leads inevitably to horrendous factions within the One Body. We can do better than this, brother. May God guide you into a much fuller appreciation of His marvelous grace!

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in Kentucky:

Al, I read with interest the comments of the attorney from Texas about the (partial) origin of the CENI concept, and especially its proliferation and popularization by certain lawyer/preacher types. I had often thought the same thing. One brother once exclaimed to me, as I was explaining the finer points of some argument, that "preachers have to be a lot like lawyers, don't they?" I took it as a compliment then, but in more recent years I have come to realize that the practice of law is not to be the profession of a preacher, but rather the proclamation of the good news of God's love and grace.

It is remarkable that those who consider themselves to be lawyers usually don't stop there. They also become the judges who so readily condemn others as "false teachers" when they don't reach the same conclusions by employing the same method of interpretation. After all, the method is supposedly "infallible," and if I have been honest in my application of it and have reached this conclusion, then if someone else reaches a different conclusion he must not just be wrong, but dishonest. And so we see the ease with which the lawyers become judges who so readily condemn others as "false teachers."

I read with interest every issue of Reflections, and have profited much from your writings. Needless to say, I don't fully agree with everything you say, but I will not allow that to keep me from reading and being challenged by your thoughts (I don't fully agree with everything my Non-Institutional brethren say, for that matter). Incidentally, I have been (and still am) among the Non-Institutional brethren. I will stay here and use my influence to try to moderate some of the extremism that I see in this group.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, I'll put my two cents worth in on the matter of debates. I have been in three public debates. I don't know of anyone who was swayed in any of them. The one with the brother was well attended, as were the others, but outsiders seldom understand our internal problems. To them it is a "church fight." It seems to me that such are nothing more than bad advertisement -- we show our inconsistency in talking about "unity" while practicing the opposite.

From a Reader in Montana:

Maybe it is, or maybe not, that by "coincidence" you wrote on the subject of "false teachers." Our preacher here in -------- just preached a sermon on this subject, along with some other related sermons. Needless to say, his teaching is the very same misunderstanding and misapplication you noted in your article. I wonder if people like this ever really study or do any research on the subjects they present. I forwarded this Reflections on to him and pray he will read it, and if he does, maybe he will see some of his wrong thinking. Also, I just received a copy of a book on Grace from Scripture Research. I think you would be pleasantly surprised what can be learned about that subject that perhaps one never realized before. If you would have an interest in reading this book, I will have them send you a copy (no charge to you).

From a New Reader in Australia:

I am an Aussie newly come to share in these amazing biblical insights. Would you be so kind as to add my name to the list of readers of your Reflections? I look forward to reading all of your material.

From an Elder in West Virginia:

Dear Al, I am an elder in a small Church of Christ in -----------, West Virginia. A member forwarded me one of your articles which related to a class I was teaching on Sunday mornings on "The Distinctive Nature of the Church." I really enjoyed reading your article on the Lord's Supper, and consequently went to your web page and read the article you wrote on women's roles in the church. Please add me to your mailing list, as I would like to read your thoughts on other subjects on and about the Lord's church, etc.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, Your Reflections article The Legalistic Leap of CENI: May Human Deduction = Divine Decree? -- Issue #122 -- needs to be printed in our local paper in ------, Alabama. So many of our hometown brothers that need to understand what you have presented will read it if it runs locally. I'm sure it will become fodder for some pulpits, but there may be a few honest souls whose eyes will be opened. Let me know if I may run this in the newspaper under your name. If it's OK, do you want me to include some way you may be contacted? (Does it sound like I'm trying to stay out of the crossfire?!) I really think more folks will consider it seriously if my name is not connected to it. Thanks for all you do!

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