May God Destroy You and Your Children

Isn’t the Bible so wonderful? Day after day, we are presented on Facebook with the many inspiring and heart-warming promises and truths from the Good Book. We all know them. We can be confident in all our pursuits since “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Never do we need to worry about the future, because Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you—this is the Lord’s declaration—plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

Yes indeed, we have many sweet hopes to cling to in the Bible. But not everything is quite like you’d think. Truthfully, most of the pretty little quotes we pull out of the Bible—especially the Old Testament—and put on pillows are arbitrarily ripped out of context. They sound nice, so we use them without paying any attention to the who, what, when, where, and why behind them. This, however, isn’t an entirely appropriate way to handle God’s written word.

To see what I mean, think about verses like these:

Let his children wander as beggars, searching for food far from their demolished homes. Let a creditor seize all he has; let strangers plunder what he has worked for.

Psalm 109:10-11

Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:9

I will bring distress on mankind, and they will walk like the blind because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung.

Zephaniah 1:17

Indeed, I am about to send snakes among you, poisonous vipers that cannot be charmed. They will bite you. This is the Lord’s declaration.

Jeremiah 8:17

You will eat your children, the flesh of your sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you during the siege and hardship your enemy imposes on you. The most sensitive and refined man among you will look grudgingly at his brother, the wife he embraces, and the rest of his children, refusing to share with any of them his children’s flesh that he will eat because he has nothing left during the siege and hardship your enemy imposes on you in all your towns.

Deuteronomy 28:53-55

None of these have quite the same inspirational quality, do they? They’re actually a bit scary and difficult. But without context, there’s no less reason to think that these apply to us than that the happy stuff does. What, after all, makes Jeremiah 8:17 different from Jeremiah 29:11?

So what? Are we, again especially with the Old Testament, forbidden from quoting anything to encourage? Clearly not. Paul does this himself on multiple occasions. But if we can do encouraging quotes rightly, how do we do so?

Basically, the key word is context. We have to pay attention to the who, what, when, where, and why. To make my point simple, I’ll just dive into two examples.

First, an example of my scary verses. Deuteronomy 28:53-55 speaks of God sending such a harsh judgment that people in their distress will resort to eating their own children, and even then not sharing any with others. So what’s the context? Can this be applied to us? In the passage’s original place in Deuteronomy, God is declaring the blessings and curses of the Old Covenant to Israel. If they obeyed His laws, they would receive many blessings. If they disobeyed, they would receive many curses, including this one. Of course, we modern Gentile believers are not under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant in Christ (Heb. 9:15). There are no curses in the New Covenant (Rom. 8:1, Gal. 3:13). This means this passage clearly is not about us.

There is, however, a twist. Even though this passage does not directly apply to us, such a harsh judgment does reveal the intensity and severity of God’s condemnation against sin. How serious must disobedience be if God even punished Israel by letting their enemies terrorize them so much that they ate their children? And if God would provide such a punishment to those who received only types and shadows, how much greater will those who refuse the fully revealed salvation of God’s only Son be punished (cf. Heb. 2:2-3)? Moreover, if Jesus bore the full wrath of God for our sin, how much of a sacrifice must that have been! So even though this passage isn’t directly about us, there are applications which affect us.

Now for an example of thinking context through for the happy verses. I’ll take Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you…” What was the original context of this verse? Jeremiah was writing a letter to the Jews who were exiled in Babylon. In verse 10, he told them that God promised to bring them back to Israel after 70 years. The good plans involved Israel’s return to the promised land. God’s judgment, the Exile, was not His last word, because His plans were for their good. Again, then, we run into a verse which is not directly about us. Jeremiah 29:11 was written to and for exiled Jews in Babylon to reassure them of God’s promise to bring them back to Israel. We are obviously not in the same situation, so this verse is not about us.

Even still, there is clearly a way that this verse can be applied to us. We who are the Church are the true Israel, according to the New Testament. We are not at home in this broken age; we are exiles waiting for our restoration when God makes the New Heavens and New Earth. And God has promised to do this, to bring us safely home to the recreation of the new age. He will indeed resurrect us just as He did His beloved Son, who brought the beginning of the kingdom to the world. Like the exiled Jews, God is promising to bring us safely home. For “we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Therefore Jeremiah 29:11 can actually be applied to us as well, just in a secondary way.

Hopefully these two examples are helpful. The Bible is filled with texts which were written neither to us nor about us, but all of them were still written for our benefit (2 Tim. 3:16-17). When we look at the Scriptures, we must be discerning, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Many verses are not directly to us, but they do have wider applications which affect us. This is especially the case when looking at the Old Testament. Only context (both the immediate context and the context within the whole story of the Bible) can tell us exactly what is for, about, or to us. So let’s keep that in mind, that we may be approved by God.

May God Destroy You and Your Children

How to Not Take Bible Verses Out of Context

Context. Possibly the most important word in Biblical interpretation. Nearly anything in the Bible, if ripped from its proper context, can be used wrongly or just be perplexing. Imagine, for example, Elijah’s instructions to the rich leper Naaman being used to tell someone how to treat skin cancer. “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” Obviously, if you take into account the context of Elijah telling Naaman how God will heal him of leprosy, then you realize this has no relevance to how you should deal with skin cancer. But if you don’t know this context, and someone just quoted this to you, then by the way many people handle Scripture you probably would think that washing in the Jordan will cure skin cancer!

This is only the beginning. Missing context can lead to all sorts of nonsense, contradiction, and outright heresy. For this reason, all abuses of Scripture without context should be combated. Unfortunately, that means a lot of combat. For I have found this rule: The more quoted a verse is, the more likely the quote is being used out of context. So now I’ve made this guide to combat taking Bible verses out of context.

According to the Bible, washing in the Jordan will cure skin cancer!

See, all language needs contextual information to really communicate anything. For example, even if I said, “The sky is blue,” we need context to understand it. If we didn’t already know that I was speaking from the context of planet Earth, we might wonder whether this means all skies, the Martian sky, or something named Sky. Also, with the word “blue,” if we did not realize that this statement is usually used about the color of earth’s atmosphere, we might think “blue” refers to depression.

We see, then, that context is vital to meaningful language. But when you simply cite a single Bible verse, context is easy to miss. Several important levels of context—history-level, book-level, argument-level, and verse-level—can be far from obvious. So ask these questions before you cite a verse and interpret it:

  • Who? It matters who wrote the text, to whom the text was written, and (when applicable) who spoke the words quoted. If you’re citing a verse with the words of Satan, for example, they should obviously not be treated as the words of Jesus. If a promise or command was written to Israel, we cannot assume it applies to our lives without further examination. If there are any pronouns in the verse, check to whom they refer.
  • What? What is the topic of the passage in which the verse is found? If the topic of a psalm which speaks of God with nostrils isn’t about God’s anatomy but His wrath, we should recognize that and not assume God has a nose. If we’re dealing with a historical incident, we should not assume that whatever happens in it is something we ought to do.
  • When? When is the verse about? Was it before Israel? During the Old Covenant? While Jesus was on earth? After the arrival of the New Covenant? If we’re dealing with a verse from a historical part of the Bible, what century was it from? What happened before and after? All of these questions make a difference.
  • Where? Where the verse was written isn’t super important in most cases, but the location of a verse within the flow of a book matters greatly. This is where the structure of a book comes into play. If nothing else, see what the verses immediately before and after the verse in question say. Sometimes you’ll want need to go back and check out the flow of the argument or story, and the layout of the entire book.

  • Why? What is the purpose of this verse? Why was it written? Is it for encouragement, information, necessity, inspiration, etc? Why does it use the words it does? Sometimes it can help to understanding this by seeing what difference it would make if you took the verse out of the passage.

Now, often you don’t need to go through all of these questions to see if your interpretation of the verse is at least a decent fit in context. Here is an easy test to see if your interpretation is contextual: paraphrase it with what you think it means and see if it fits with the surrounding text. Don’t understand? I’ll lead by example. A commonly abused verse is Philippians 4:13, which says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Usually, this is quoted as encouragement that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to do with Jesus’ help. Is this what the verse means in context? Let’s test it. Here’s Philippians 4:10-13, using the interpretive paraphrase.

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do anything I set my mind to do as long as I have help from Christ who strengthens me.

This isn’t horrible, but doesn’t seem to fit quite right. So what is the real meaning? I think the new NIV does a good job at making it clear when it translates 4:13 this way: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” In this case, Paul is saying that he can endure and be content in any situation, however rough or posh, by Christ’s strength. Let’s try this paraphrase:

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can make it through any situation and be content with the help of Christ who strengthens me.

Here is an easy test to see if your interpretation is contextual: paraphrase it with what you think it means and see if it fits with the surrounding text.

It should be quite evident that this is a much better fit. The interpretation of this paraphrase fits better in the paragraph than that of the popular interpretation. This is a really easy way to test if an interpretation of a verse fits in context or takes the verse out of context. So when in doubt, just try that. While more work may be required to find the right interpretation and use of the verse, this method can easily eliminate many obviously wrong ones.

How to Not Take Bible Verses Out of Context

What If God Doesn’t Have a Wonderful Plan for My Life?

God has a wonderful plan. But it’s not for my life.

Well, to be more precise, the primary plan and purpose of God only includes me as a footnote. And I don’t know what my part in His plan actually is. In fact, to be honest, God’s plan for me might be, by all ordinary definitions, horrendous. Maybe in order to accomplish His ultimate plan God will send me to the jungles of Brazil, where I immediately contract a painful, paralyzing disease while my wife gets kidnapped in the woods, and then I die of torture at the hands of savage tribesmen before I even get to mention Jesus. No matter how much grace comes from that when I enter eternity, that is not what anyone would call a wonderful plan under normal circumstances.

This isn’t to say that things won’t work out right someday. After I die, and even more so after I am resurrected, life will be pretty sweet. I can’t wait to see what wonders of grace God has in store for me in the new creation. Even so, I must make a point.

Continue reading “What If God Doesn’t Have a Wonderful Plan for My Life?”

What If God Doesn’t Have a Wonderful Plan for My Life?