May 3, 2012

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.           Hebrews 1:1, 2

Perhaps you caught a small news item in the papers a couple of months ago, concerning a startling discovery at New Jersey’s Thomas Edison National Historical Park (NHP).

When the Edison home and laboratory in West Orange were donated to the National Park Service in 1957, a quick inventory showed a wooden box with brown wax cylinders in it. Two words were scratched on the wood: “Edison” and “Wangemann.”

Thomas Edison developed the phonograph in the 1870s, as a result of his work on two other inventions, the telegraph and telephone. At first he used paper wrapped around a cylinder to record sounds; later he tried tin foil and then finally wax. Cylinders had many problems—they were fragile, could only record 2-4 minutes of material, and couldn’t be mass-produced. They continued to be used until the late 1920s, as superior disc recordings—which had been introduced in the early part of the 20th century—gained popularity (read the full history here).

When Jerry Fabris became curator of the sound recording collection at the Edison museum in 1994, he began the long process of cataloging all 39,000 phonograph recordings—wax and disc—in the collection. He finally got around to the intriguing box in 2005, but didn’t have what he needed to convert into digital files the sounds from the dozen cylinders in the box that weren’t too badly broken.  In 2010 the Friends of the Thomas Edison NHP purchased the equipment and consultant services to do so.

When Fabris heard German, he thought he might have something important.

In 1889, Thomas Edison had sent Theo Wangemann to showcase Edison Phonograph Works machines at the Paris World’s Fair. While there Wangemann recorded, among other things, Johannes Brahms playing the piano (unfortunately, that cylinder was worn out before it could be copied).

Then Wangemann went on to his native Germany. But the recordings from that trip had been thought lost. Until Fabris uncovered them.

It took two years and two additional consultants before the voices on the cylinder were identified: Helmuth von Moltke, aide-de-camp to Kaiser Wilhelm and later chief of staff for the Prussian Army, and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

It wasn’t what they said that was so electrifying—Moltke read Shakespeare and other literature, while Bismarck recited songs and implored his son to live morally and moderately. It was the fact that the recording is believed to the only one of a person born in the 18th century (Bismarck).

“In the 18th century, the human voice was described as one of the most noble capacities of human beings,” writes Stephan Puille, the German researcher who identified Bismarck’s voice, in an email quoted in an Associated Press article. “Bismarck is no longer mute. I think his voice allows a new access to him.” An essay written by Puille about the Moltke/Bismarck recording is found here, and includes a link to the digital transcription.

It’s easy to understand why the researchers were excited to make this discovery—how amazing to be able to hear famous voices from 120 years ago!  But you know what’s even more wonderful? We have the voice of God—who’s existed from eternity past—every day! We have it written down in the Bible—the word of God, instructions from His voice for all to read, understand and follow. “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach…But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:8, 10-14).

And while Moltke and Bismarck don’t say anything earth-shattering, God does. He shows His power, glory and yes, fury, through His thundering voice (Psalm 18:13-15, 29:3-7), and His comfort, strength and gentleness through a whisper (1 Kings 19:11, 12). At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus (described as the Word in human form—John 1:1, 14) was introduced by God as One with equal voice—“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:5)—who too would proclaim truth (John 18:37). Jesus healed merely by speaking (Matthew 8:8:5-13), and commanded the wind and rain to cease with just a few words (Mark 4:36-39).

The Holy Spirit left behind after Jesus’s death and resurrection continues that ministry of communication  (John 16:13). And we can look forward to the day when “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with trumpet of God” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17), “when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live” (John 5:25).

Do you hear that voice speaking to you? I guarantee you it is. Oh, I’m not going to go all woo-woo on you, and tell you that He necessarily speaks audibly. But you’ll know the Good Shepherd’s call, because He makes it plain (John 10:1-11). And what He says will reach down into the deepest depths of your soul (Hebrews 4:12).

Of course, you can stop up your ears and refuse to hear or believe (John 8:45). The children of Israel challenged God’s authority and rebelled, and failed to enter the land He had promised them and instead died in the wilderness (Psalm 95:7-11, Hebrews 3:7-11, Numbers 14-21). A more dire fate awaits those who ignore God’s compelling voice—eternal separation from Him (Luke 16:19-31). “See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking,” the writer of Hebrews solemnly concludes. “For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25).

As the German researcher noted, those long-ago historical voices are no longer mute, and are now accessible. It’s great that they were able to be captured off those brittle cylinders so now everyone can hear them via Internet.

But God’s never been silent, as the first verse of Hebrews notes. He’s always been available (Psalm 145:18, James 4:8), for the whole world (John 3:16). And He and His Word live forever (Psalm 9:7, Isaiah 40:8, Daniel 7:14, Hebrews 13:8).

All we have to do is listen.

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