Are We Losing Our "Oh!"?

by A.W.Tozer on August 2, 2022


Are We Losing Our "Oh!"? By A.W.Tozer

WE WHO SPEAK the English language have in that language a most remarkable instrument for the communication of ideas. Emerson said of Shakespeare that he more than any other man had the ability to say anything he wanted to say; any idea his mind could entertain, his mouth could utter. What Emerson did not remember to say (if my memory serves me) was that Shakespeare's genius was indebted greatly to the fluidity and fullness of the English tongue. Without such a free and abundant vocabulary as English affords, even the mighty Bard of Avon could not have risen so high nor soared so far. However great his mind, he required a language capable of receiving and expressing what his mind conceived. And that he had in his beloved English. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary lists 550,000 words. And it is a solemn and beautiful thought that in our worship of God there sometimes rush up from the depths of our souls feelings that all this wealth of words is not sufficient to express. To be articulate at certain times we are compelled to fall back upon “Oh!” or “O!”—a primitive exclamatory sound that is hardly a word at all and that scarcely admits of a definition. Vocabularies are formed by many minds over long periods and are capable of expressing whatever the mind is capable of entertaining. But when the heart, on its knees, moves into the awesome Presence and hears with fear and wonder things not lawful to utter, then the mind falls flat, and words, previously its faithful servants, become weak and totally incapable of telling what the heart hears and sees. In that awful moment the worshiper can only cry”Oh!”  And that simple exclamation becomes more eloquent than learned speech and, I have no doubt, is dearer to God than any oratory. It is not by accident that the idiom of the Christian religion abounds with exclamations. Christianity contemplates things transcendent and seeks to engage the infinite and the absolute. It approaches the Holy of Holies and looks with astonished wonder upon the face of God; then language, no matter how full or how facile, is simply not adequate. "O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of Godl unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out" (Rom. 11:33)  The exclamation "0" could not be omitted from that rhapsody. It is the fountain out of which everything else flows. Many of our Christian hymns reveal this same exclamatory quality, chiefly because they embody an intensity of feeling that rises above rational meanings and definitions into the realm of the numinous. The Moravian Hymnal, for instance, lists about three hundred verse lines that begin with “O.” While it would not be wise to press this too far (since literary custom may dictate the use of emotional language where no particular emotion is present) still the fact that there is such a large number of exclamations among the hymns surely does have real meaning for us. In the inspired Scriptures, where no imperfection is to be found, the exclamatory vocable occurs constantly. Prophets and psalmists continually find themselves on the brink of the infinite gazing into an abysm of divinity that quite overwhelms them and squeezes from their hearts such bursts of feeling as mere words cannot express. It is then that “Oh!" and “Ah!" come spontaneously to their lips, as when Jeremiah, upon hearing the voice of the Lord, responds, "Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child"; or when Ezekiel standing in the valley of bones cries out, “O Lord God, thou knowest." In theology there is no "Oh!" and this is a significant if not an ominous thing. Theology seeks to reduce what may be known of God to intellectual terms, and as long as the intellect can comprehend it can find words to express itself. When God Himself appears before the mind, awesome, vast and incomprehensible, then the mind sinks into silence and the heart cries out"O Lord God!”. There is the difference between theological knowledge and spiritual experience, the difference between knowing God by hearsay and knowing Him by acquaintance. And the difference is not verbal merely; it is real and serious and vital.  We Christians should watch lest we lose the “O!” from our hearts. There is real danger these days that we shall fall victim to the prophets of poise and the purveyors of tranquility, and our Christianity be reduced to a mere evangelical humanism that is never disturbed about anything nor overcome by any "trances of thought and mountings of the mind.”  When we become too glib in prayer we are most surely talking to ourselves. When the calm listing of requests and the courteous giving of proper thanks take the place of the burdened prayer that finds utterance difficult we should beware the next step, for our direction is surely down whether we know it or not. Churches and missionary societies should keep always before them the knowledge that progress can be made only by the "Ohs" and "Ahs" of Spirit-filled hearts. These are the pain cries of the fruitful mother about to give birth. For them there is no substitute not plans nor programs nor techniques can avail without them. They indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit making intercession with groanings that cannot be uttered. And this is God's only method in the church or on the mission field. From "Born After Midnight", By A.W.Tozer