Monthly Archives: May 2014

Accentuate the . Negative?

A wonderful song has been sung as a standard from its
recording by the lyricist, Johnny Mercer, in 1944 up to the present.
Although the song has been part of the soundtrack of several recent popular
TV shows and movies, I haven’t heard it in awhile. You likely know the
catchy tune:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative, Don’t mess with Mr. Inbetween.
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum, Bring gloom down to the minimum,
Have faith, or pandemonium Liable to walk upon the scene.
To illustrate that last remark: Jonah in the whale, Noah in the arc.
What did they do Just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said we’d better
Accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative, Don’t mess with Mr. Inbetween.
(Accentuate the Positive, Johnny Mercer, 1944)

Mercer explained to an interviewer that he wrote the song after hearing a
sermon on cultivating an attitude that could combat sin.

We certainly can use a positive approach to daily living.
Even when we attempt to live by faith in God, succumbing to a negative
outlook can sour the bright hope of faith into a toxic pool of rules,
judgment, and condemnation. Appreciation of God’s goodness and awareness of
God’s grace reflected in others helps us to remain full of hope and to
ever-fresh demonstration of God’s loving-kindness. David wrote a Psalm
voicing that kind of effervescent outlook:

Protect me, O God; I trust in you for safety.
2 I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; all the good things I have come from
3 How excellent are the Lord’s faithful people! My greatest pleasure is to
be with them..
5 You, Lord, are all I have, and you give me all I need; my future is in
your hands.
6 How wonderful are your gifts to me; how good they are!
7 I praise the Lord, because he guides me, and in the night my conscience
warns me.
8 I am always aware of the Lord’s presence; he is near, and nothing can
shake me.
9 And so I am thankful and glad, and I feel completely secure.
11 You will show me the path that leads to life; your presence fills me with
joy and brings me pleasure forever. (Psalm 16:1-3, 5-9, 11 GNB)

David’s song invigorates us with assurances of God’s loving care. It stirs
us to participation in the enriching community of others who seek along with
us to live in faithful relationship with God. It expands our horizons from
the conflicts and struggles of daily life to sustaining faith that God is
present with us now and forever. We can sing that song of faith!

But what about the two verses I left out of the text of
Psalm 16 printed above? All of those nine verses are strongly positive
statements. Poets have long recognized the rhetorical power negative
statements can have when combined with such positive assertions. Douglas L
Wilson notes that Abraham Lincoln “demonstrated an acute understanding of
the power of negation in language and was unusually adept at putting that
force to use.” Douglas L. Wilson, “The Power of the Negative,” The Wall
Street Journal January 16, 2013) Wilson cites Lincoln’s strategic employment
of phrases such as “The world will little note, nor long remember what we
say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Wilson observes that
Lincoln’s negative line, “with malice towards none” rivets our focus on
living “with kindness towards all.”

The two negative statements from Psalm 16 cause the
affirmations of living by faith in God to radiate more brightly with hope.
Verse 4 draws sharp contrast between people who abandon faith in God and
those who know the utter joy of remaining faithful to God: “Those who rush
to other gods bring many troubles on themselves. I will not take part in
their sacrifices; I will not worship their gods.” The life of faith shines
as being full and pleasant and satisfying. Verse 10 calls attention to God’s
constant presence sustaining faithful people in this life and forever: “.
you protect me from the power of death. I have served you faithfully, and
you will not abandon me to the world of the dead.” Peter and Paul applied
this verse to Jesus’ resurrection by God’s gracious and loving hands. (See
Acts 2:27, 31; 13:35.) Christian commentators through the centuries have
followed Peter’s understanding of Psalm 16:10 as prophesying Jesus’
resurrection. But original hearers and singers of David’s psalm would have
been inspired by assurance that the shadowy land of the dead (Sheol) is not
the last word for those who live by faith in God. In contrast to the
negative implications of being forgotten in the grave, God’s loving counsel
guides us along the most fulfilling way of life now and Secures us in God’s
presence forever. The two negative verses are essential for us to envision
the goodness and loving provision God makes for us in all of God’s vibrant

“.eliminate the negative .” – but not all of it! Praise God
for the positive faith it illuminates.

-J. Edward Culpepper

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