Talk is cheap, we are told, and if the sheer number of words produced is any guide, growing cheaper every day. Today, we are all afloat on an ocean of words—written words and words recorded in audio or visual formats. Getting published has never been easier or faster. Anyone with a keyboard and access to the internet can have their thoughts in front of a global audience in mere moments. The World Wide Web hosts more than 600 million bloggers. That’s six followed by eight zeroes. If each of those blogs averaged just 50 words a day, that would add up to 30 billion words a day, 210 billion words a week, and nearly 11 trillion words in a single year. Of course, a blog entry usually contains at least ten times that many words.
Most of those words are probably read by only a few and quickly forgotten. Others “go viral” and attract a million or more readers worldwide. Most of them will be forgotten, washed out of memory by tomorrow’s torrent of verbiage. What’s the big deal, anyway? We often dismiss even profound words with the jest, “It’s not like it’s written in stone!”
But it was not always so. In the distant past, few people possessed writing skills, and few of their words survived, mainly because of the instability of writing materials. Sun-dried clay tablets were fragile, and organic materials such as bone, shell, papyrus, and parchment suffered from physical and chemical breakdowns.
To guarantee that their names and deeds endured, powerful and wealthy men of the past had them carved into stone. But the cost of this labor-intensive means of writing ensured that only such men could afford to do so. And even that did not secure their permanent remembrance.
Egyptian pharaohs directed the carving and painting of hieroglyphs on monuments and in tombs, beginning around 3100 BC, the last such inscription occurring approximately AD 500. Despite their physical survival, the ability to read these writings disappeared for nearly 1,500 years.
Similarly, Persian monarchs Darius the Great and his son Xerxes the Great commissioned inscriptions in three languages, carved in the living rock on Mount Alvand, a few miles from Ecbatana, the present-day Hamadan, Iran, in the fifth and sixth centuries before Christ. Once again, people lost knowledge of the language. Those inscriptions could not be read until Sir Henry Rawlinson deciphered them in the 1840s. These were undoubtedly great empires and great rulers, but records of their conquests and projects were lost, unread, and unremembered.
Whole kingdoms and cultures—the Hittite Empire, for example—faded from memory with the loss of their written texts. Knowledge of that once-great empire all but disappeared for many centuries. Even as all these records disappeared from memory, even as the meaning of words carved in stone was lost, some words endured—preserved in the book we call the Bible.
This Book, or rather, collection of books, comes down to us not from any great empire nor from a dominant people who conquered all in their path. Quite the contrary. At its height, the kingdom of Israel was a middling power. The Jewish people endured centuries of slavery, multiple conquests by the great powers through the ages, exile, captivity, and dispersion. Nor were these words carved in stone but instead had to be repeatedly copied by hand on fragile papyrus or perishable parchment.
No wonder the Jews became known as “the people of the Book.” Even as it has been reviled, ridiculed, forbidden to be read or translated, outlawed, smuggled, and seized for destruction, the Bible has endured. Along with its survival, a knowledge of the other great military and political leaders and nations, whose writings had long since vanished or ceased to be read, was preserved. For example, until recently, hints of a Hittite Empire existed only in the Bible.
the Bible helps us understand the “why” of life
This leaves us with a daunting question: Why? We who live in a culture of cheap and ephemeral words find it difficult to understand why this Book, from this relatively insignificant people, survives when so many other writings—again, the Hittites are a prime example—faded into the mists of history. And the answer is that it survived because of the enduring value of the words. The Bible answers our most challenging questions and meets our deepest needs.
For example, if there is a God, and He is good, why is there so much evil, pain, suffering, and death? Why do the innocent suffer, and sometimes the most corrupt, cruel, and cunning villains appear to prosper? And finally, why do bad things happen to good people?
The Bible’s book of Job tells of a righteous man who suffered devastating losses and cruel suffering. Some of his so-called friends thought it must be his fault, that he committed some wrong to incur this terrible affliction. But as we read the narrative, we find quite a different story. The narrative shows us that bad things happen to good and innocent people because an evil power seeks to dethrone God, and so Satan, as the Bible calls him, sometimes strikes righteous people to discredit God.
Sometimes this works. Many today who identify as atheists view the suffering and cruelty in the world as proof that no benevolent God can exist and that only simpletons can maintain faith in a Supreme Being in the face of such evil. But these critics fail to recognize that their objections come from a rather simplistic view of a Book they are not taking seriously. The late singer-songwriter Ray Charles saw this clearly: “There’s nothing written in the Bible, in the Old or New Testament, where it says, ‘If you believe in Me, you ain’t going to have no trouble.’ ”1 In contrast with the critics of every era, those who study the Scriptures seriously find great truth, comfort, and hope in its pages.
Isaac Newton, the foremost physicist and mathematician of his time, reportedly testified that he held a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. He is said to have studied his Bible daily.
And it certainly cannot be said that those who believe in the Bible have no difficulty in understanding the prevalence of evil or never had any doubts. Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom many consider one of the greatest novelists, was unjustly imprisoned. While there, he read the Bible and, in its pages, encountered Christ. Dostoevsky said of this terrible yet wonderful experience “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My ‘hosanna’ is born of a furnace of doubt.”2
This isn’t a theoretical exercise for me. Dear friends of mine had a child who developed a virulent form of cancer just short of the child’s second birthday. Some, even some Christians, repeated the falsehoods that Job’s friends employed, telling my friends that they had done something wrong, and therefore, God had struck this child. Years later, my friend said the only comfort he received through the entire experience came from understanding the truth found in the book of Job. Namely, that there is a malevolent power that delights in inflicting pain on the innocent.
Even without its claims to offer salvation, peace, and serenity in this life and eternal life hereafter, the Bible would have survived because it is great literature, feeds our souls, and addresses the fundamental questions of our existence.
Much of great literature originates in the Bible, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost. But within the Book itself are stories of great drama, deep irony, and enduring value: the three youths and the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lions’ den, and Jesus betrayed by one of His friends.
The story of Esther alone contains many dramatic plots, twists, and reversals, making it a masterpiece of its own. Haman is a perfect villain. Infuriated by Mordecai, who refuses to bow to him, he is further enraged when forced to lead the disrespectful Jew, the man he hated the most, sitting astride the king’s horse and clothed in the king’s robe, through the city streets, announcing that the king thus honors the one in whom he delights. And then, Haman was hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai! What a story!
Great as the stories are, we find even greater words in the many passages of poetry. One such example is from Psalm 19:1–4:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
it speaks to our hearts
And yet, beyond all this, the Bible speaks to our deepest needs and offers us hope of a better life. Sir David Suchet, who portrayed Hercule Poirot for 24 years, first experienced this in a hotel room in 1986 when he read the book of Romans. In an interview, he discussed the appeal of reading the Bible. “Why is it necessary for me? It’s because on every page I meet God, and in meeting God I meet Jesus.”3
It is this heart encounter that has always been God’s desire for His children. When Israel was about to be conquered and taken into exile, the prophet Jeremiah wrote these words of hope:
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).
The Bible’s words have survived because they have been written on something more enduring than stone; they have been written in minds and hearts. Generation after generation has surrendered to God and given Him their lives. The Living Word, preserved in books and etched in hearts, continues to be a powerful force for good, bringing hope and salvation to the world.
Ed Dickerson is a regular contributor to Signs of the Times®. He writes from Iowa.
1. Dotson Rader, “Ray Charles Sees the Beauty,” Parade, August 7, 1988, 6.
2. Harold V. Martin, Kierkegaard: The Melancholy Dane (London: Epworth, 1950), 86.
3. Jamie Cutteridge, “Q & A: David Suchet,” Premier Christianity, July 10, 2014, https://www.premierchristianity.com/home/q-and-a-david-suchet/419.article.