Sunday, April 17, 2005

Never Read a Bible Verse...

Update: in response to LotharBot, and to more fully explain my position, please refer back to some posts I wrote in January, 2004 - The Plain Reading of the Text 1, 2, and 3. ********************** Greg Koukl, over at Stand to Reason, has a nice article titled Never Read a Bible Verse. He states,
If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one single skill I could impart, one useful tip I could leave that would serve you well the rest of your life, what would it be? What is the single most important practical skill I've ever learned as a Christian? Here it is: Never read a Bible verse. That's right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph–at least.
Once we understand that meaning, within a text, comes from the top - down, or from the larger unit to the smaller unit, then we'll more readily see how easy it is to take a smaller unit of thought (e.g., a verse of Scripture) out of context. The Never Read a Bible Verse advice is probably violated more often than not when we venture into the book of Jeremiah. For it is in chapter 29 that we find a veritable El Dorado for the 21st century Christian,
For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. - Jeremiah 29:11 (NET)
Wow! What a verse! What could be clearer than a direct declaration from the Lord that He has plans to make us prosper?! Indeed, this verse was the cornerstone of this morning's sermon at our church. While the point of the message was not one of financial prosperity, it was an irresponsible use of Scripture, nonetheless. Would that we instead hear a message which informs the church that Jeremiah 29:11 is one sentence in a paragraph, which begins at verse 10, and concludes at verse 14. A paragraph. A unit of thought that is larger than the unit of thought contained within in a sentence. Here are verses 10 - 14 of Jeremiah 29,
“For the Lord says, ‘Only when the seventy years of Babylonian rule are over will I again take up consideration for you. Then I will fulfill my gracious promise to you and restore you to your homeland. For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers. When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, I will make myself available to you,’ says the Lord. ‘Then I will reverse your fortunes and will regather you from all the nations and all the places where I have exiled you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you.’
Doesn't a reading of the entire paragraph now put verse 11 into proper perspective? Is verse 11 really about the Lord having plans to bring us prosperity? If so, then can we also infer that we'll have to wait seventy years for this prosperity to arrive (after, of course, the Lord gathers us back from our exile). Would it be too difficult to reference back to Jeremiah 29:1 and find out that the discourse in Jeremiah 29 is from a letter that Jeremiah sent to the exiles in Babylon? Perhaps, in our self-centeredness, we've come to think that virtually every passage in the Bible must have some significant meaning for us - the How does this apply to me? syndrome. While it may tickle our ears to hear that the Lord has specific plans to make us prosper, I think we would be better off understanding the history from which we came: that of the nation of Israel, how they were chosen by God, how they related to God through the Old Covenant, and how we should relate to God through the New Covenant.


LotharBot said...

We should be able to ask "how does this apply to me?" about every passage in the Bible, and it should always have an answer. The problem, I think, is that people ask it far too quickly. It should not be the first question you ask.

The first is "what does this say?" That's a question, primarily, of transmission and translation. What are the appropriate words to have on the page, based on what was originally written in other languages thousands of years ago? For the most part, any modern translation will give you a fair idea of this, though for those who want to be more sure, study tools like Lexicons and the NET Bible can give you an even better idea.

The second question is "what does this mean?" Once we're sure we have the right words on the page, we need to ask what story is being told, or what lesson is being given. That's where standard rules of interpretation apply. Context is the biggest one -- what is the surrounding material, and how does this fit in? "Never read a verse" is a good start, and ideas like literary genre (which I'm sure we've discussed before) also come in to play.

The final question we should ask is "what does this mean to me?" But the question isn't about what the words on the page mean to me -- it's about how the story or the lesson applies. To use your example: it's not "what does the verse that says 'I know the plans I have for you' mean to me", but rather, "what does the story where God tells Israel He will bring them back from exile mean to me?"

When the questions are asked in this order, you get a far more appropriate answer. Instead of thinking Jer 29:11 says God will make us personally prosper, we recognize that it shows us the way God interacts with His chosen people even after they've abandoned Him. As you said, we understand the history from which we came, and how God relates to Israel and to us. The passage does still mean something to us, but the meaning comes indirectly through understanding the history.

sozo said...

Rusty - That's a great article from Koukl. I saw it a few years ago and have used it quite often since then. Good thoughts also from Lothar and where personal application comes into the picture.

What I think happens is that we get too ego-centric and forget that it really isn't "all about me". It becomes all too easy to look at the Jeremiah passage(or any other) and put ourselves at the center of it's meaning.

Instead, we need to back up and realize that scripture is the revelation of God and his unfolding plan which continuously points to Jesus Christ. Then we can look at Jeremiah and see the wonderful character of God which is revealed in that passage.

arcee said...

This is a powerful principle for correct Scripture understanding. Even the completion of the writer's thought often requires awareness of more than a single verse. A pet example of this for me is 1 Cor. 2:9 which generally gets quoted without the following verse which declares a profound truth about the englightenment of the Spirit in a believer. - - - - Memorization of Bible passages rather than single verses is also often the preferable practice.