Context, Context, Context

September 13, 2019

The disc jockey on the Christian radio station had a verse to read — the word of God for us. He read Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV)

He went on about how comforting these words were for us. And he is not alone. The verse appears on posters, wall hangings, and Internet memes.

But there is a problem. It ignores the context of these words. Look at the verses before and after.

For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:10, ESV)

Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:12–14, ESV)

Jeremiah wasn’t even promising this to the people of his day. It was a future message of hope for Israel after the Babylonian Captivity. I certainly cannot apply this directly to my situation. I do believe that the people of God have a bright future. I can read Revelation 21-22, which is more directly related to the Christian life, and realize that. However, I don’t know what we may have to pass through on our way to there. Revelation was predicting persecution and economic hardship for those first century Christians who first read Revelation.

I cannot know that the future has prosperity and no harm for me personally or for my country on the basis of Jeremiah 29:11. I know that it will be well for the people of God if we are faithful, but I don’t know the circumstances we may face. I’m not a prophet, and Jeremiah 29:11 is not addressing us.

The Bible is not meant to be read as a series of isolated verses. It is intended to be read as a book with us asking basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? The old adage for Bible interpretation (and for that matter, any interpretation of a text) is true: context, context, context.

— Russ Holden


Handling Accurately the Word of Truth

August 27, 2016

Charles Shultz had a great “Peanuts” cartoon where Charlie Brown is so busy reading his Bible that he forgets to feed Snoopy. Snoopy bangs on the door, enters and fixes his own meal, but before leaving has Charlie Brown read Psalm 50:12: “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee.” Charlie Brown cries out in reply, “Give me two weeks and I’ll find a verse to answer you.”

In his cartoon, Schultz poked fun at an all too common approach to scripture. Many people take the verses of the Bible as if they were a string of unrelated statements which can be pulled out to prove just about anything.

We must guard ourselves against this danger. Even though the Bible is inspired by God, we must use the same kind of common sense approach that we would use in understanding other books. We need to ask what kind of writing is this? For example, is this part of the Bible narrating history? Is it a letter? Is it prophecy? Is it poetry? After determining what style of writing it is, there would be further questions. To whom is it written? (In answering this question, we would want to include in our answer whether it is written to people under the old covenant or the new covenant.) And we need to ask who is speaking. After all, Satan is quoted in the Bible.

We would want to understand the verse within its immediate context (the surrounding verses and chapter), the wider context of the book, and the overall context of the whole Bible. We would want to interpret difficult and obscure passages in the light of clearer passages on the same subject.

There are in fact two distinct steps: (1) what does the passage mean, and (2) how does the passage apply to me. In the first step, we are asking what did the passage mean when first written and read by its first readers. After determining that, we may ask how do we apply this to ourselves.

Let us go back to the example of Psalm 50:12: “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee.” In the psalm this quote is spoken by God. He is rebuking his people for combining wickedness with worship. They continue to offer the sacrifices, but it is not matched by right living. He reminds them that the sacrifices are not made because God is hungry or has needs, “for the world is Mine, and all it contains” (Psalm 50:12b). In application to us, this psalm can remind Christians that we must serve God in all things, both in our worship and in our everyday behavior. God doesn’t need us; we need him. But clearly the verse means something different in the context of scripture, than it did in the context of the conversation between Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Their error is an easy one to commit, but with care an easy error to avoid.

The Bible is not an impossible book to understand as long as we approach the Bible the right way. May we follow Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB).