I vividly remember my first New Testament Greek class at Bogenhofen Seminary, Austria. After our small band of six students—including two from Germany (counting myself as well)—were introduced to all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet and a few first words, our professor dismissed us with “perhaps you could have a look at these over the weekend.” Little did we Germans expect to encounter a blank sheet of paper during the following Monday class. Our pleas and cries did not help, because our teacher was convinced he had asked us to prepare for a test. Now, the word “perhaps” in German has the same meaning as “perhaps” in English. However, our Greek teacher was Austrian. So on that day I learned rapidly that the Austrian “perhaps”—which, of course, is written and pronounced the same as the German one—can be used as a typically polite way to ask somebody else to do something. Welcome to Austria . . . and to the first lesson of what the language of “perhaps” can do.
“Perhaps” in the Hebrew Bible
The word “perhaps” belongs to God’s most favorite vocabulary. He is especially fond of it. Not that He uses it frequently, for He is a God of decisive action. Rather, He wants to hear it often. Let me explain.
The Hebrew word for “perhaps” is ’ûlay (pronounced “u-LIE,” with “u” as in ruler). Something very interesting happens whenever such a “perhaps” is directed toward God. But don’t take my word—see for yourself as we look at some of the 45 instances in the Hebrew Bible in which ’ûlay occurs. For the sake of easy recognition I will always translate the term with “perhaps.”
We find the first instance of the word directed to God in a rather well-known story. When the Lord remained standing before Abraham, He wanted him to start doing what a prophet is supposed to do: intercede for people. Abraham began with ’ûlay: “Perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city” (Gen. 18:24).1 The Lord immediately replied, “If I find fifty, I will spare the city.” And then follows a chain of ’ûlays, or perhapses.
five less than fifty.”
“If I find forty-five, I will not destroy it.”
“Perhaps forty are found there?”
“I will not do it for the sake of forty.”
“No, I will not destroy it for the sake of ten.”
This is far from bargaining at the bazaar. I cannot help being impressed that the Lord was more than willing to listen to His prophet. He did not have to be convinced or pushed. When His human friend started with “perhaps,” God was able to show what He can do. I just wonder, silently, why Abraham stopped at 10. Perhaps he should have asked for less . . . but perhaps, he knew that 10 was the absolute minimum.
The dynamics are quite similar in other usages of ’ûlay. Moses, when confronted with the great sin of the Israelites, feared the worst. “Now I am going up to the Lord, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Ex. 32:30). And God forgave.
Jonathan said to his young armor bearer: “Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the Lord will work for us, for the Lord is not restrained to save by many or by few” (1 Sam. 14:6). And the Lord gave these two brave men an astonishing victory, freeing Israel from the Philistine oppression.
When David, while fleeing from his son, had to duck stones and curses, he set his hope in God: “Perhaps the Lord will look on my affliction and return good to me instead of his cursing this day” (2 Sam. 16:12). A few weeks later the Lord led David back the same way, now with honor and glory.
Hezekiah’s entreating words reached the prophet Isaiah: “Perhaps the Lord your God will hear all the words of Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to reproach the living God, and will rebuke the words which the Lord your God has heard” (2 Kings 19:4; cf. Isa. 37:4). The Assyrian siege was lifted, and a little later 185,000 dead bodies of the incredibly large Assyrian force were witnesses to the Lord’s complete triumph.
The one who suffers and who believes can still say, “Perhaps there is hope” (Lam. 3:29), for “the Lord is good to those who wait for Him” (verse 25), and He just might help in surprising ways.
Little did the captain of that ship, sailing to Tarshish, realize what he really said when he reprovingly encouraged Jonah, “Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish” (Jonah 1:6). A few hours later the captain certainly knew. This God indeed can help.
The king of Nineveh also relied upon the same “perhaps” principle, even though the word itself is not used in the text when he says: “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:9). The king obviously believed that this God was able to destroy the city, but he was uncertain if God wanted to avert His judgment. Yet he still threw himself on the mercy of God.
You see, God loves it when someone directs a “perhaps” His way. Such a “perhaps” provides Him with all the possibilities to act. It reveals human limitations, shows that the end of the rope is reached, confesses personal uncertainty—and counts on divine mercy and guidance.
Another “Perhaps” Story
This “perhaps” story came together during the International Pathfinder Camporee in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1999.2 That’s where Sara Stricker met Michelle Bush for the first time and told her what happened in her life because of a decision Michelle made 19 years earlier.
In 1980, as a freshman at the University of Nebraska, Sara went as part of the women’s track team to the national meet at the University of Texas. She was a member of the 4x800-meter relay team of her university. Browsing through the program book, Sara read about Michelle Bush, who was named one of the nation’s top-10 1,500-meter runners. She also read that Michelle, being a Seventh-day Adventist, would probably not compete if a race would be scheduled on a Saturday. Sara was amazed that someone would make such a sacrifice of faith, exchanging all the sweat and training of years for an act of honoring God.
Michelle Bush, having grown up near Los Angeles, was on a track-and-field scholarship at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), which had one of the best U.S. track teams. Some of Michelle’s teammates are still known today, such as Florence Griffith-Joyner (three-time Olympic gold medalist, 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4x100-meter relay) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (three-time Olympic gold medalist, heptathlon [twice] and long jump). In 1980 UCLA was favored to win the team championship at the national meet in Texas. Michelle’s 1,500-meter race was scheduled for late Friday afternoon. But the start got delayed, and she realized that the race would take place after sundown. Michelle had to make a decision. She knew what was right. But still it was a moment of “perhaps.” She decided to withdraw from the race. She did not run. UCLA lost the team championship by two points. “If I had run,” said Michelle, “and had run as well as I normally did, I would have picked up the two points and probably more.”
Her teammates could not understand. They were upset. They felt cheated. Michelle said, “It was very painful for me the night that I decided not to run.” She thought about it again and again. It was another of those “perhaps” decisions.
Returning home, Sara looked in her phone book for an Adventist church in Lincoln, Nebraska. She found several, and on the next Sabbath she went to the Piedmont Park church. There she met Roger and Norma Baker, who did what every Adventist would do when seeing a stranger in church. They invited Sara for the fellowship dinner and began to study the Bible with her. Eventually Sara got baptized. She became a lawyer and teacher and in 1999 served as principal and teacher at the Ashland Seventh-day Adventist Elementary School. She is convinced that “the strongest witness that one can have is to live up to the light that you have and lift up Jesus. Your witness will be strong, and you will influence many people just by living a Christlike life.”
Michelle continued to run the 1,500 meters. She won the U.S. championship in 1983, and helped UCLA win the national team championship. She ran professionally for 10 years and won several national titles. The year 1980 marked her last struggle with the temptation to run on Sabbath.
After she met Sara in Oshkosh in 1999 and learned what God had done through that decisive moment 19 years before, she said, “To think that at the darkest point in my life a soul was being saved is really awesome. It is much better than running and winning a national championship to know that what I did influenced a life and helped someone to accept Jesus Christ.”
“Perhaps” in My Life
I don’t know about you, but when I am faced with a decision, the word “perhaps” occurs often on my lips—because I do not know the outcome. I cannot see beyond the present time and calculate all the effects of my decision. I am restrained by my own limited thoughts. But perhaps God is not. Perhaps He will steer events and people. He certainly is able. Yet He can do whatever He wants to do, and I am not in a position to tell Him what to do.
Even after I have made my decisions, my thoughts may still circle around that word. “Perhaps I should have decided differently. Perhaps it was the right decision.” Directed to God such a “perhaps” is a powerful device to vest Him with the right to be in charge of my life, to lead and guide, and to intervene if necessary.
While we do not know the future, we can completely entrust it to the One who holds it and is able to accomplish anything He wishes. My “perhaps” concerning the future is rooted in my trust in God in the present. Thus “perhaps” is not a sign of insecurity or of doubting God’s willingness to save, or even less God’s existence. It is in fact a sign of reliance and dependence on God; exactly because I realize my myopia in many life situations.
Those who ask and proclaim “perhaps” are those who are willing to let God work in their lives. I especially love how Jonathan put it: “Perhaps the Lord will work for us.” Indeed, perhaps He will.
1 The translations of all Bible references in this article—except for the Hebrew word ’ûlay—are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (Note, however, that the dialogue between God and Abraham is not taken verbatim from Scripture.)
2 Based on Richard Dower, “A Star in Her Crown,” Lake Union Herald (October 1999), p. 13.
Martin Proebstle, Ph.D., is an Old Testament professor at Bogenhofen Seminary, Austria. He is married to Marianne and enjoys playing soccer and volleyball with his teenage sons, Max and Jonathan. This article was published April 21, 2011.