טוֹב: An Explosive Word
There’s an old line in Tozer we’ve come to appreciate a great deal. It’s this: “God is speaking. He is, by His nature, continuously articulate. He fills the world with His speaking voice.” And it is a provocative voice. No one comes to the father except through me. You are like whitewashed tombs.
Jesus is a notorious straight-shooter. It seems, though, that not all the language God employs is so self-evident. By way of example, consider the end of creation, where God looks at what he has done and says, “Good,” like creation was a functioning faucet.
Given what’s just happened—light bursting into life, water rushing up through the cracks of the earth—“Good” feels like an understatement, and yet good and goodness permeate the intervention of God into the world from one testament to the other. That being true, we’ve asked a couple friends of ours who know a thing or two about that to fill it in for us, to explain the richness of the language of the speaking God.
Tov is an almost ludicrously small but infinitely expansive Hebrew word. Today’s native English-speakers may be vaguely familiar with tov only because of hearing the Jewish/Yiddish saying “Mazel Tov” (“Good Luck” in English), but it’s arguably one of the richest words out there. The explosive power in tov can be felt right from the beginning.
Tov first arrives on the scene in the creation story—the first story detailed in scripture. It’s the one word God uses to describe what God sees after completing various acts of creation. God’s usage of tov in Day 3 of creation does a spectacular job of unveiling for us what tov is.
“Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good [tov]."
Genesis 1:11–12 (NRSV)
In these two verses there is a beautiful progression of movement: God calls forth the seeds he has embedded in creation, creation brings forth those seeds with the seeds of future life in them, and God sees the process as tov.
Metaphorically speaking, if we are trees and we drop seeds but none of them grow...no tov. If we drop seeds and some of them grow and become trees of their own but none of them have seeds of their own...no tov. The reason why the plants and trees must have seeds inside of them is so that in due time those plants and trees will drop their seeds into the earth and further the cycle of creating life.
So what would God call good? Anything that produces life and contains the potential for more life within it. Think of a seed becoming an orchard. Or, more practically speaking, think of a conversation or story that stirred you to bring forth life from inside of you and offer it in a way that had the potential to call forth life in another.
Put simply, tov occurs when our friend with the ginormous red beard calls out the courage in kids by training them to jib on rails, and those kids then in turn offer encouragement to their peers as they help them perfect their boarding tricks. Tov also occurs when that same friend inspires others to praise God as they witness him painting during worship times at fellowship gatherings.
Tov occurs yet again when our friend Becky speaks to countless crowds of churchgoers who experience visceral transformation as she teaches on the beauty, wildness, and power of sex when it’s embraced in a mutually honoring way and in the context of a covenant.
The difference between how modern society uses the word good and how God uses the word good is staggering. In our day and age it’s not uncommon to hear good being used to describe a new craft beer or an entertaining sitcom or the latest pithy tweet by a celebrity. Scripture, on the other hand, is significantly choosier when it comes to applying the label “good” (tov) to something.
Let’s explore the story of Solomon receiving the gift of extraordinary wisdom and exercising it with the-two-prostitutes-and-the-one-living-baby predicament. This story fleshes out what tov in action looks like. In the first part of 1 Kings 3:9, Solomon says to God, “'Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good [tov] and evil….”
What frequently gets translated as “an understanding mind” is לֵב שֹׁמֵע in Biblical Hebrew (pronounced “lev shomea”) which is “a hearing heart” if translated with simple literalness. The purpose behind God giving Solomon a hearing heart is so Solomon can govern God’s people and discern between good (tov) and evil.
Shortly after the interchange between God and Solomon, two prostitutes show up on Solomon’s doorstep with one living baby whom they both claim to be their own son. Solomon devises a test intended to reveal which woman will choose tov. Based on the women’s responses in the face of a death threat to the child, Solomon discerns who the true mother is: the woman who cares more about the life of the child than her own desire to rear the child.
Scripture abundantly speaks of tov. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph states the following to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good [tov] to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’” In the first part of Psalm 23:6, David declares to God, “Surely your goodness [tov] and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life….”
Tov is talked about all throughout the Old Testament, and the concept of assessing the fruit one brings forth isn’t only addressed there. We know from the New Testament that we are to judge a tree not by its height or the number of leaves it produces or its visually aesthetic appeal but by its fruit. (Mt. 7:16; Lk. 6:44)
In Genesis 1 we see that creation is far reaching and encompasses everything from the textured dirt into which we dig our toes to the core fibers of our very beings. God speaks seeds of life into the earth, and in Genesis 2:7 we read about God breathing seeds of life into us as well: “And forming is Yahweh Elohim [the LORD God] the human of soil from the ground, and He is blowing into his nostrils the breath of the living, and becoming is the human a living soul.”
Now it’s our turn to bring forth the seeds of life within us—seeds of encouraging, teaching, interceding, healing, designing, building, creating, and so on. We’ve heard it said that people who don’t find meaning and fulfillment in their lives aren’t bringing forth what God planted inside of them and intended for them to bring forth. We can choose whether or not to have a hearing heart like Solomon, and we can choose whether or not to partner with God in bringing forth the seeds of life inside of us.
God’s invitation is on the table, so here’s to wishing you much tov.
Editor's note: for more information on Scott and Mandy's work, check out their ministry The Ranch.