Why have Bible translators avoided the word sublime?  

Of course, the word sublime may be in there somewhere, among all my many English versions, and I have just failed to find it yet. And you may well ask me why I’m bothered about it anyway.

According to my thesaurus and dictionaries the adjective sublime means: ‘aloft, august, elevated, eloquent, eminent, exalted, grand, great, lofty, majestic, noble, raised and sacred’ – even ‘exhilarated’. Those last two words surely suit the experience of Isaiah in his vision of ‘The Lord sitting on a lofty throne’, and ‘mighty seraphim . . . calling out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy [= ‘set apart’ – exalted over all his creatures] is the Lord . . . The whole earth is filled with his glory [= his radiance]. Their voices shook the temple to its foundations, and the entire building was filled with smoke’ (Isaiah 6:1-4 New Living Translation, unless otherwise indicated).

Without question, what the prophet saw, and then personally experienced in his subsequent cleansing and commissioning, was utterly sublime (see Isaiah 6:5-13).

The shaken threshold

Through my eight decades of life I have been a wordsmith – but who can’t handle numbers very well (if the sum adds up to more than ten toes and ten fingers, as I am digital still!). So I just had to pursue the unearthing of the origins of ‘sublime’ – only to discover it hidden right there in that awesome experience of Isaiah’s. ‘The foundations’ that ‘shook’ are rendered in most Bibles as ‘the threshold or doorstep of the heavenly temple where ‘the Lord of heaven’s armies’ sits enthroned.

Going back to my dictionaries and concordances I discovered the following. The limen part of the words sublime, subliminal, and sublimate means lintel or doorstep or sill (as in windowsill), which seems a low place rather than one that is supreme! This was ‘all Greek to me’ and most puzzling – although, in fact, it is all Latin, for limen (lintel) comes from limes, meaning ‘a boundary path between fields’. In fact, the word limits derives from it too! Now, with that picture in mind, rather than thinking of vertical concepts like ‘exalted aloft’ as the meaning of sublime, we can consider ‘going across’ horizontally field by field.

And what are subliminal advertisements? 

When split-second images were projected onto a cinema screen advertising sweets, ice creams and soft drinks just before the interval, they were intended subliminally to persuade viewers to spend cash on such treats that some potential customers might otherwise ignore and just visit the cinema’s toilets instead. In other words, the ads acted ‘below the threshold of conscious awareness’ – they crossed a border; they went under (= ‘sub’) the threshold (= ‘limen’) – beneath the limits of conscious thought. For those reasons they were made illegal.

Isaiah actually had a sublime experience, one that reached his heart below the boundaries of his logical powers of reasoning. It would seem from the preceding five chapters of his writings that he had been gung-ho, just as I had been as a youthful preacher, socking it to the unsaved sinners and backslidden believers in my audiences. For instance, Isaiah had been sounding forth about ‘the day of judgment’ (Isaiah 2:11, 12, 17, and 20); and had told his listeners that they were ‘doomed (as) they deserve’ (Isaiah 3:11); ‘what sorrow for those who . . .? he had asked (Isaiah 5:8, 11, 18, 20, 21, 22 = Woe unto the wicked’, King James Version and English Standard Version). But as ‘The Sublime’ himself shook the temple’s ‘threshold’, Isaiah experienced:-

Sublimation – when a burning ‘altar coal touched (his) unclean lips’

In chemistry, sublimation occurs when something solid is caused to transmute into a gas or vapour without experiencing the intervening boundaries of a liquid stage – such as ice directly caused to become steam, by-passing the liquid state of water. When the seraph’s tongs touched the prophet’s lips with the burning coal from the Lord’s altar, his sin was instantly purged and his iniquity taken away. Now his lips were fit to herald forth messages of doom, calls to repentance for salvation from judgment. It was all a glorious mystery to him, evading the logic of his brain.

Thresholds of entrances and exits in Scripture

[] Judges 19:7 climaxes a sordid story about gang rape of the concubine of an unnamed man from Bethlehem at a time of moral disorder in Israelite society: ‘When her husband opened the door to leave, there lay his [dying] concubine with her hands on the threshold.’ This humiliated woman had been seeking sanctuary, to gain entrance to the house where her uncaring husband had been an overnight guest (See Judges 19:1-30). And in his final recorded letter, Paul warned of similar gravely immoral conditions ‘in the last days’ of this age (2 Timothy 3:1-9).

[] In Ezekiel 9:3; 10:4,18 the prophet was shown God’s radiant presence making a reluctant exit from his temple because of just such national spiritual disarray.

[] However, after God’s disciplining of his people in exile, Ezekiel foretold that The Prince ‘shall worship at the threshold of the gate’ of the restored temple (Ezekiel 46:2 KJV, ESV), as also would ‘the common people’ (verse 3, NLT). Interestingly, in the story of Solomon’s building of the original temple, the last detail mentioned is about the threshold/door/entrance (1 Kings 7:50-51). Keep that in mind whenever you sing Wesley’s hymn:

‘Finish then Thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be;

Let us see Thy great salvation perfectly restored in Thee.’

Henceforth the gates of the celestial city will remain open and welcoming (Revelation 21:25).

[] When Ezekiel was shown the sublime river of God, the Holy Spirit, advancing in depth till the water that had begun as a trickle over the threshold of the temple was now above head height and deep enough to swim in, and was full of fishes (Ezekiel 47:1-12). God speed the day!

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