Posted by Rev. Edward A. Engelbrecht, Concordia Publishing House
O you sons of men, return,
And you their daughters, come.
And abandon the ways of that Corrupter,
And approach me. (Ode of Solomon 33:6–7)
This beautiful plea for repentance from an early Syrian Christian is one that should resonate with us Lutherans. This late first or second century poem speaks the language of the ancient Near Eastern “Two Ways” tradition by contrasting the foolishness of the Corruptor with the wisdom of Grace, “the perfect Virgin” (cf. Proverbs 8:1–21 where King Solomon gives voice to wisdom’s appeal).
Two ways—the binary contrast between good and evil—are absolutely natural to Semitic poetry like that in Hebrew and Syriac, which depends on parallel thoughts rather than things like rhyme. The poems fall naturally into contrasts between good and evil, construction and destruction, “those who obeyed . . . the Evil One” and “my elect” as the themes in Ode 33 demonstrate.
This binary thinking is likewise utterly natural for us Lutheran whose minds are hard wired with Law and Gospel. But we should be careful not to lose sight of the poet’s steps, which although two-at-a-time, also ascend. They start with the contrast between the way of the Corrupter and the way of the Perfect Virgin, which is the Church (Ode 33:1–6). Next, they describe two steps in the way of repentance, “Abandon the ways of that Corrupter . . . and [I, the Church] will make you wise in the ways of truth” (Ode 33:7–8). Ultimately, they take two steps from the present into eternity, “They who have put me on [here]” through Baptism “will possess incorruption in the new world” (Ode 33:12; Baptism is like clothing in Syriac Christian poetry—you wear it and live in it, as in Galatians 3:27). The binary thinking, the parallelism of the poetry, takes in more than two steps. As the poem develops, it becomes a path for the hearer, led from corruption into eternity by grace. The poem proceeds with a wonderfully simple two-step by two-step presentation, which could serve as a model for step-by-step Law and Gospel preaching in our tradition.
Here is a sermon outline with this binary progression:
- Contrast the good and the evil of your topic.
- Call the hearer away from the evil and into the good—God’s blessings.
- Call the hearer through the present blessings into the eternal blessings.
Quotations of the Odes are from James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 2:763–64.
Note: Identifying the Two Ways feature of the Odes has freed them from earlier interpretations that dated them to the third century since some interpreters understood “the Corrupter” to be the heretic, Mani. They are now recognized as a very early example of baptismal preaching.