I have learned that it is curmudgeonly to quibble over words and their usage, but, having acknowledged that this is the case, I will take the risk of appearing to be a teensy bit cantankerous in order to get to the point of Nehemiah’s prayer in chapter one of his Old Testament memoir. Derek Kidner’s commentary notes that “Nehemiah begins by putting us in our place,” and this is the point of verse 5, in which Nehemiah addresses God as “the LORD God, the great and awesome God.” For a king’s cupbearer, about to become a building contractor, the term “awesome” would have carried overtones of fear. The KJV actually renders that term as “terrible,” which inspires interesting mental pictures of just exactly what would constitute an “awesome” cup of coffee or “awesome” music.
In his use of the word “awesome” or “terrible,” Nehemiah exalts the absolute freedom of God to accomplish whatever His unfailing love, His unlimited foreknowledge, and His uncluttered perspective might dictate. Nehemiah has signed on for the task of advancing God’s redemptive plan, and since emoticons had not yet been invented, his feelings and intentions had to take the form of language.
Truly, all language pales when we attempt to describe the God of the universe — or even one of His glorious sunsets! Here’s a solution, humbly offered from the heart of a geekish lover of words: let’s measure our words so that, when we need one that packs a wallop, we won’t have wasted it describing our morning coffee.
(For further study, refer to Megan Hill’s excellent article in CT, November 2014 entitled “Almighty God in an Age of Exaggeration” . . . or join us at Spruce Head Community Church for my Sunday School class on the book of Nehemiah!)