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Some examples:

  1. Proverbs 8:10: “Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.” The question is: did Solomon intend to say, ‘Always refuse silver and gold when it comes your way, and be sure to accept instruction and knowledge only’? Or, much more reasonably, ‘You may receive, or earn, silver and gold when you can, but it is much more important at all times to look for instruction and knowledge’?
  2. Hosea 6:6: Here the LORD says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” However, the Law of Moses — given by the LORD and certainly operative at the time — actually commanded sacrifices. So the only reasonable way to read such a statement would seem to be: ‘I desire not only sacrifice, but also — and especially — mercy!’ (This verse is quoted by Christ in Matt 9:13; 12:7.)
  3. Psalm 51:16,17: This is another interesting example along the lines of the previous one. The psalmist says to God, “You do not delight in sacrifice… you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” But since God commanded sacrifices and burnt offerings, we are justified in reading this: ‘You desire not only the outward form of sacrifices but especially the broken spirit and contrite heart which should accompany them.’
  4. Joel 2:13: Here the prophet commands the people: “Rend your heart and not your garments.”  Of course, rending one’s garments was an acceptable means of expressing grief or repentance (cp Gen 37:29,34; 2Sam 1:11; 1Kgs 21:27; 2Kgs 5:7;6:30;22:11; Job 1:20; Acts 14:14). So it’s easy to see here that the prophet was really saying: ‘Rend not only your garments, but especially rend your heart; don’t make grief and repentance a vain show, but make sure it is heartfelt.’

Consider how this idiom makes sense in other Old Testament passages: Jeremiah 7:22,23; Psalm 50:8,9 compared with Psalm 50:14.

Because Jesus and the apostles were so familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures, the same idiom occurs regularly in the New Testament. Some examples are:

  1. Mark 9:37: “Whoever shall receive one of these little children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me does not receive me but the one who sent me.” But obviously those who      received Jesus did in fact receive Jesus! The real point is that, much more importantly, they were at the same time receiving the God who sent him.
  2. Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — he cannot be my disciple.” There are two issues here. “Hate”, in such verses, is what we might call a hyperbole, an obvious and purposeful exaggeration. It should be read as ‘be prepared to give up’, or ‘be ready to abandon, if necessary’. With that caveat in mind, then we may employ the “not only, but also” paradigm and paraphrase the verse in this way: ‘If anyone follows me but is not [that’s the “not only” part] prepared to give up his family ties if necessary, he cannot be my disciple. And even more so [that’s the “but also” part], if he is not prepared to give up his own life in the effort, he cannot be my disciple.’
  3. (c) John 6:27: “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.” Of course, we are commanded elsewhere to labor for our own bread (Gen 3:19; Prov 21:25; 1Thess 4:11; 2Thess 3:10). So here the meaning is surely: ‘Work not only for your daily bread, but especially work for the bread of life.’

Other New Testament examples of this Hebrew idiom include Mark 2:16,17; Luke 5:32; John 3:17; 7:16; 12:44,47; 14:24; Acts 5:4; Romans 2:13; 1 Corinthians 1:17; 7:10; 15:10; 1 John 3:18.

As Bible students, we may take note of these examples and learn from them. The real test, however, is this: can we keep the principle in mind and apply it elsewhere while we read, and deepen our understanding and appreciation of the Divine communication?

Here, then, is another possible application of this idiom, from the prophecy of Jeremiah. There, in fairly rapid succession, the prophet is commanded three times by the LORD (and there are probably other instances):

  1. “So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you” (Jer 7:16);
  2. Very similarly, “Do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them, because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress” (11:14); and
  3. “Do not pray for the well-being of this people” (14:11).

Yet surely it is generally true that “the Lord is not willing that anyone should perish, but that everyone should come to repentance” (2Pet 3:9; cf Ezek 18:23,32; John 3:15-17; 1Tim 2:4; Tit 2:11). Furthermore, elsewhere in Jeremiah, we see that the prophet does continue to pray for the whole nation (see, e.g., Jer 14:7,20-22; 42:2,4; again, we could probably multiply examples). Was the righteous Jeremiah disobeying the LORD when he did this? Not necessarily.

It is possible that there is an aspect of this “not only, but also” idea implied in these words. Perhaps we should read the commands to “Pray not” in a different way. Not so much as absolute prohibitions, but rather the LORD’s way of saying: ‘Don’t pray for this so much as for that!’ If so, what is the “that”?

How about this as a rough paraphrase of the commands, in their broader context?: ‘Pray not only for this whole nation, but also pray especially for those who will be saved out of the nation — the remnant who will listen to God’s Word and truly repent.’

George Booker

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