I quote it here in the King James Version, because that is the only translation that we had when I was a boy: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9 KJV).
It seems like this verse was read quite often in our old, Swedish Baptist church. I think our pastor must have liked it. It is a rich verse. In it, the Apostle Peter draws from many Old Testament sources to demonstrate to the Christians of his day the richness of our heritage and our high calling. Each one of those phrases in the verse brings to mind the image of some special way in which God related to his people in the Old Testament. Peter then applies these same phrases to the Christians of today. We also are a chosen race, a royal priesthood.
But I always smiled to myself when I heard the term peculiar people. As a young adolescent, I perhaps should have had more respect for my elders, but I remember looking around the congregation and thinking to myself that the word peculiar maybe did describe some of the people there.
At the time, I only knew of one meaning for the word peculiar. To me, something that was peculiar was something that was strange or odd.I thought that the hat the lady two rows ahead of me was wearing was quite peculiar, and the man across the aisle had a peculiar way of fidgeting with his beard when he was reading… and so my mind wandering continued. Needless to say, the rest of the sermon was lost to me and I never did come back to focus.
But there is another definition to the word peculiar. The word also can refer to something that is unique or of exclusive ownership. Or it might be a particular trait. For instance, we might say that a family has a certain characteristic that is peculiar to their family. Perhaps they have a particular way of speaking, or perhaps the family has a certain color of eyes or shape of their nose that distinguishes them.
It is the latter definition, the one showing exclusive ownership, that really is the older of the two meanings of the word. This definition comes from yet an older meaning, which actually has more to do with wealth. Specifically, the wealth to which this word referred was a wealth that was moveable, such as cattle or money, as opposed to wealth that could not be moved, like real estate. The Latin word from where we get our word peculiar in fact did mean “wealth in cattle.”
Ours, of course, is an English word, and Peter was not writing in English, nor was he quoting the King James Version of the passage in the Old Testament. Interestingly, however, there are some similarities in the meanings of our English word with the Hebrew and Greek words. One of these similarities is that all of these languages make a distinction between wealth that is portable, and that which is not.
It is almost the same as when we speak of “liquid assets” as opposed to “non-liquid assets.” We look at what we call liquid assets as something that we can quickly turn around and sell because by their nature, they are simple to convert into cash. We also very often see them as a resource that we can take with us if we move or go on a journey.
Non-liquid assets, such as houses and land, are sometimes not so easy to convert, nor are they transportable if we should move to another city or country. When God called first his people “a peculiar treasure,” he used the term for a treasure that was transportable. And so the early Israelites were, because of their nomadic lifestyle.
This word peculiar only occurs a few times in the Bible, almost always in reference to how God views his people. The first is in Exodus 19:5: “Now, therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine” (KJV).
When God spoke these words, he spoke them to a nomadic Hebrew people. The nomadic life was common in those days. These wanderers thought of their wealth in two manners: that which was stationary, like real estate, which they could not take with them on their journeys, and their other wealth, which was transportable and could be carried or taken with them.
Because of this distinction in definition and how one views wealth, I have come to prefer the word peculiar in the Old King James in reading this verse rather than the comparatively bland “my own possession” or even, “my treasured possession” of the more modern versions.
Value Beyond Money
Wealth, of course, has a monetary value, but a simple dollar amount cannot adequately describe most items that we truly value as being a part of us. We know that wealth has other distinctions. It did back in the Old Testament days, and it still does today.
As the nomads traveled from place to place, they acquired wealth. Many times, this wealth took the form of precious jewels, because jewels were something that were of great value and could be carried easily.
This wealth in jewels was not the same as carrying around a pocket of cash, however. The jewels possessed something beyond mere monetary value. Each gem was precious because it also had sentimental value. A wealthy nomad might carry around a bag full of very costly stones and could tell where he had acquired each one and at what cost. Jewels of different colors and values are mentioned often in the Bible, because the people of that day were acutely aware of their worth and rarity.
As I said, my mind still wanders when I read or hear the words “peculiar treasure.” But today I do not think of odd hats. I think instead of a campfire set under a desert sky, jeweled with a million stars. I think of large tents staked in the sand and of a spicy meal of goat meat that I have just eaten. I think of a bearded old Bedouin nobleman pulling out a bag from under his robe. It is his bag of jewels, each of a different color and clarity.
Each has its own story. One by one, the old man takes the precious stones of his peculiar treasure out of the bag with great care and holds them up to the light of the campfire. Slowly and deliberately, he begins to tell me of each gem’s peculiar beauty, and how he obtained it.
“This rare sapphire I purchased at a great price,” he might say to me. “It belonged to a powerful king of the north, and he had gotten it from the Far East. That king had had it in his possession for many years, but I was able to trade many of my best cattle and horses for it, and now it is mine. Look at its beauty. See how the glow of the fire can be seen through it and how it reflects the flames.”
He carefully pulls out another. “This opal was given to me by my father. The light that is reflected off its surface is like a rainbow. It was my father’s favorite jewel. He had given it to my mother when they were married. When she died, he said he wanted me to have it. Its worth in gold is very great, but I will never part with it for any price.”
This is the meaning of a peculiar treasure. It is a treasure that is unique and special. Its economic value may be great, but its actual worth to the owner far exceeds simple monetary wealth.
A Peculiar Penny
Many years ago, I was at a lumber yard buying supplies for a building project. A young college student was back in the lumber shed helping me load my boards. Trying to make conversation, I asked him if he liked working there and how his day has been so far.
“Today is a good day,” he told me. He pulled out an old penny from his pocket and showed it to me. “This is my lucky penny,” he said, holding it up so that I could see it better. “Whenever I have this penny in my pocket, I have a good day.”
I thought of turning the conversation to superstition, but instead I asked him what made the penny so lucky.
“My gramma gave it to me,” he said, “and it is very special to me.”
For fun, I decided to see how valuable it was. “I’ll give you a dollar for it,” I told him. He just laughed.
I raised my price: “Five dollars!”
“No,” he said grinning, “I can’t sell my penny.”
I stopped there. I did not know if I would have five extra dollars after I paid for my lumber anyway, and I really didn’t want the penny. Maybe he would have sold it if I went high enough, but I preferred to think that he would not have sold it at any price. It was his peculiar treasure.
A Peculiar Song
In my boyhood church, besides hearing sermons about peculiar people, we also sang old Swedish hymns. I am not so old that we still sang them in Swedish in our church, but occasionally I would hear someone insert Swedish lyrics in place of the English.
One of the songs we sang was called “When He Cometh.” As I remember them, the words go like this:
When He cometh, when He cometh, to make up His jewels.
All His jewels, precious jewels, His loved and His own.
Like the stars in the morning, His bright crown adorning,
They shall shine in their beauty, bright gems for His crown.
This song is taken from Malachi 3:17, which says, “And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels” (KJV).
Little children, little children, who love their Redeemer,
Are jewels, precious jewels, His loved and His own.
Like the stars in the morning, His bright crown adorning,
They shall shine in their beauty, bright gems for His crown.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word used for jewels in Malachi is the same Hebrew word that God used in Exodus when he called his people “a peculiar treasure.” In my boyhood pastor’s favorite verse in the book of 1 Peter, the apostle Peter draws from the same term to demonstrate to the church its great wealth in the eyes of God. God still thinks of his people in this way. We are his precious and peculiar treasure.
God has paid a high price for each one of us. Paul writes that Jesus “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people” (Titus 2:9 KJV).
A Peculiar Person
God, I suppose, might hold me up gently in his great hand and tell my story.
“This one,” he might say of me, “I purchased at a very great cost, but I loved him so much that I was willing to sacrifice much. I obtained him from the evil one who did not want to let him go and held tightly to him, and even tried to get him back. This precious jewel still bears some scars from that old ownership, but these I will polish out. When he is placed in my crown, the glow of my Spirit will shine through unhindered. He will reflect the light of my Word and show forth my praises.”
God will have a special and individual story to tell of each one of us. He was willing to pay a very great cost for each of us. He wants us to know that in his eyes, his people are his peculiar treasure.
Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. (Exodus 19:5-6 KJV)
For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2 KJV)
Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name. They shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not. (Malachi 3:16-18 KJV)
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. (1 Peter 2:9 KJV)