I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase. It means to take someone else’s idea, using it for your own advantage, or to preempt someone else’s rhetorical impact. (Another literary word for this is plagiarism, which, unfortunately, I see sometimes while grading college essays.) I digress.
Most adages, like this one, have curious origins. This saying came from a not-so-successful 18th century British playwright named John Dennis. Seems the guy had developed a new offstage sound effect for his play, Appius and Virginia, that simulated the sound of thunder. The play itself was not well-received. It closed quickly. Then a director, using the same theatre, took Dennis’ idea and used it for his production of Macbeth. John Dennis happened to be in the audience of this production when he heard his sound effect being used. Mr. Dennis was incensed and stood up in the theatre and shouted, “They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”
During storms that have passed our way lately, I thought of this idiom. I realized how often we take credit for what God has done. How we try to steal His thunder. But we’re not the only ones who have done this. There is, of course, a biblical precedent for it.
Remember the Tower of Babel? You can read about it in Genesis 11.
The story starts like this: (quotes from The Message) “At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language.” Everything was great, right? Then the people became arrogant and decided to build a tower to elevate themselves with a building that would reach to heaven. And here is their reasoning: “They said, ‘Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.’” This did not please God, of course, and so He scrambled their speech so that they couldn’t understand each other. So “from there God scattered them all over the world.” That’s why there are so many languages today.
I’m not sure their purpose in all this. Not only did God’s people think that building a tower (or fortress) would make them famous—but that it would keep them from being scattered. The only thing I can figure out is that they were comfortable with their circumstances, warm and cozy, and they didn’t want that to change. They also had a built-in work ethic. They didn’t mind hard work, apparently, but their contentment led to boredom and they became self-absorbed, letting the can-do attitude take their eyes off of their Creator. This is something about which we all need to be careful, even if it is in doing God’s work. It’s too easy to look at our accomplishments and forget under whose power it was done.
In Philippians 3:3 (The Message) Paul writes “The real believers are the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry, filling the air with Christ’s praise as we do it. We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it—even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials.”
James speaks to those who have veered off course and are now hitting rock bottom. He writes, “Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet.” (James 4:10)
Next time it thunders—remember—it is not your thunder. Neither is your strength your own. “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” (Phil. 4:13)