“that he was caught up into Paradise and heard unspeakable words which a man is not permitted to speak.”2 Cor 12:4
There is much debate over the meaning of Paul’s statement here. Either Paul can’t express in words what he saw and heard, i.e. he is still puzzling over it himself. Or he can’t express in words what he saw but he can repeat what he heard (related to the theories in the last Gem). Or another alternative is he was told not to say anything of what he saw and heard by the Lord.
We have to wonder why Paul didn’t go on to explain more clearly what he saw in the vision or revelation once he started. If he couldn’t or shouldn’t say anything, why mention it at all? That would be like children when they say “I have a secret but it’s for me to know and you to find out”. Perhaps Paul is using this to infer to those who take to heart what the false prophets say that he too knows secret things and he won’t even talk about them. Some have suggested that too.
The word which is rendered here as “unspeakable” [ἄῤῥητα] arrēta may either mean what cannot be spoken, or what ought not to be spoken. The word means unutterable or ineffable. The idea that Paul meant to say that he could not attempt by words to do justice to what he saw and heard. The use of the word “words” here would seem to imply that he heard the language of exalted praise; or that there were truths imparted to his mind which he could not hope to convey in any language spoken by people.
The word inexpressible [ἐξὸν] exon may well include both meanings – not able to express or not allowed to express. The word is most commonly used in the signification of “lawful” or “proper” or “permitted”. It might be also true that it would not have been possible for language to convey clearly the ideas connected with the things which Paul was then permitted to see. Remember in the Lazarus account (Luke 16:17-31) that Lazarus was not permitted to go back.
Why didn’t God allow Paul, whom he had permitted to behold the glories of paradise, to testify simply to what he had seen, and tell us what was there? It is possible that this vision was just for Paul, to strengthen him for the persecution that he was to face in serving the Lord. It is also likely that if we were to receive the full revelation of the glory of heaven that we would not be able to take it in. It would overload our senses and memory banks so we would not know where to start in attempting to explain to others what we have seen. When something is so different from what we know already how do you start to explain it to someone who has not yet experienced it? If indeed it was forbidden by God for Paul to tell us, then there are things that God does not want us to know this side of heaven.
It was the practice of the Jews not to mention the name YHWH. It is the unmentionable name of God. I have dealt with this matter before and don’t intend to do it again. Suffice to say here that it is right and proper for us not to treat commonly the things of God. It is conceivable therefore that there are things that God does not want us to make mention of.
I will leave you to ponder what you think about it. Once you have pondered and come to a decision of what you think on this matter then I will tell you what I think, but not before. Why would I do that to you? Am I playing children’s games like some suppose Paul is doing? No, I am merely encouraging you to think about it for yourself and decide what you think then we can talk about. In small groups when it comes to the Word of God I regularly adopt the practice of hearing what others have got to say first. Partly because that is a good thing to do. God gave us two ears and only one mouth. Does that infer we should listen twice as much as we speak. As an extrovert I fail at that. The main reason I practise holding my comments to the end in small groups is that most often I find if I make comments at the beginning it stops people from saying what they think. So better to hold off expressing my opinions first and give others a chance to think about their thoughts and be willing to express them. That is a good approach to take with the commentaries too. Don’t go looking at the commentaries at the beginning you will tend to just accept what they say if you have not thought about it first. Look at the angles for yourself first then you are in a position to evaluate other input.
I will gladly tell you what I think but only if you show me you have thought about it. So no, I am not likely to post it on Twitter or Facebook or email it to thousands. I will interact with you personally on it if you show me you have thought about it first. Now there is something to ponder.
A man may hear and know more than he can speak. God gave us two ears and only one mouth, inferring we should listen twice as much as we speak.Ian Vail
When you wrestle with the text you walk away limping; Some people have no limp because they haven’t wrestled.Rob Bell