Psalm 78 calls Israel to hear a “parable” (mashal) and a “dark saying” (cheedah) (cf. Ps. 49). Proverbs opens introducing wisdom that will give the simple tools to understand the “parable” and the “dark saying.” So what are “parables” and “dark sayings” anyway?
Though not exhaustive definitions, the first uses of these words in the Hebrew Bible give us some significant hints:
The first “parables” in the Bible are spoken by Balaam, the wayward prophet hired to curse Israel, constrained to utter some of the most beautiful blessings concerning Israel in the entire Bible (Num. 22-24). One of the first “dark sayings” comes from Samson who tells a “riddle” to the wicked Philistines (Jdgs. 14). The Philistines pressure the answer out of Samson’s new bride and ultimately murder her, but it becomes an occasion for blessing when Samson slaughters a few hundred Philistines, weakening their hold on Israel. One of the most common uses of the word “parable” in the Old Testament is often translated “byword” and refers to the judgment that will come upon Israel if she disobeys and breaks covenant. She will be conquered and go into exile and become a byword among all the nations (e.g. Dt. 28:37).
Jesus comes speaking in parables and dark sayings, but then the apostles go around explaining to the Jews and Gentiles that now the mystery has finally been revealed that was hidden for ages. The parable is finally explained, the dark saying, the riddle has been solved. Of course the solution is in Jesus, and His death and resurrection. But I wonder if sometimes we have not fully understood the riddle.
I think the riddle goes back to the promise to Abraham, that in His seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. How is this possible when Israel is such a basket case? How is it possible when Israel can’t seem to handle the blessings of God? In other words, how can God remain true to Himself and His Word? How can God turn the curse of Israel into a blessing?
Part of the answer is that God is planning to turn Israel into a blessing precisely through Israel’s death and judgment and cursing. What Israel intends for a curse, God will overturn for blessing (like Balaam). The judgment that ought to devour Israel, God will tear apart and cause honey to flow from its carcass (as with Samson). And though they do in fact go into exile and become a byword, a proverb, by that very means, the light of Israel goes to the gentiles. And all of this is finally fulfilled in Jesus, the true Israel, who not only tells parables, but becomes the same parable. He becomes the curse of Israel, He bears the judgment due to sin and death, like Samson, and goes down into the deepest exile of the grave, but even there he is bringing the light of God into the darkness, and He tears the death-beast apart and honey flows from His pierced side. Because the curse has been paid for and exhausted, now only blessing can flow.
The application for us should be a simple encouragement that the God who spoke light out of darkness and made a great nation out of an old man and his barren wife, is the same God who raised Jesus from the dead and called each of us back to life. There may be real judgments that fall on us, our families, our churches, our nation, but the riddle of God has been solved, and the power of the curse has been broken. And when any “Balaam” arises to curse, we all kind of smile cause we know what’s coming.