Stop That! 5 Ways You May Be Misinterpreting Scripture

The Bible contains many precious promises of God to the believer. They are and should be a great source of comfort to us. Promises of God’s presence with His people, His enduring strength in our weaknesses, and mostly, His covenant with His people through the perfect work of His Son, Jesus, are causes of rejoicing and celebration, and rightly so.

Problems arise, however, when we begin to misinterpret or misapply these promises. Do not fret. We all do it. We are all guilty of making these promises more than they were intended to be. The important thing is to recognize what we are doing wrong and readjusting so that we interpret and apply Scripture correctly. Here are five ways we may be misinterpreting Scripture.

it’s me! (allegorizing yourself into scripture)

Allegory is a useful way to teach theological truths. What else are Jesus’ parables but allegorical stories that demonstrate their spiritual meanings? The parable of the soils teaches us the condition of the human heart in response to the gospel. The prodigal son shows us God’s acceptance of a repentant sinner and a self-righteous person’s indignant attitude of the repentant person. And one of my favorite allegorical stories in the Bible is found in Judges 9:7-21. After Gideon’s death, his son, Abimeliech became the self-appointed king and murdered all of his brothers, save one. This youngest son, Jotham, confronted him and told him an allegorical tale that would be Abimilech’s downfall.

Allegory is not a problem in and of itself. Problems arise when we attempt to take a passage of Scripture, usually historical or narrative, and place ourselves as one of the main characters in the story. Perhaps the most famous type of this fallacy is that of David and Goliath. The common Evangelical pastor interprets this to mean that God will help you defeat your “giants” and that with His help you can overcome anything. Marshmallowy mush like this has caused many a Christian to wrongly interpret the story of David and Goliath and claim a promise of God not found in the narrative. How do we avoid such fallacies? Here are three simple rules on how not to misinterpret allegory.

  1. True allegory will be presented as such. Therefore, you will not find allegory in historical and narrative passages unless it is stated as allegory. Parables, hyperboles, Apocalyptic literature, and the like are introduced by specific phrases and keywords such as, “there was a man…”, “he told them a parable…”, “it was like…”, etc.
  2. Allegory is full of imagery. The passage in Judges, for example, depicts the enemies of Jotham as certain types of trees while the main character, Abimilech, is depicted as an olive tree. Since olive trees were viewed as good and safe, the imagery is useful and appropriate for the occasion. If the passage you are reading does not contain these types of elements, it is not an allegory. Don’t interpret them as such or place yourself as one of the characters. Narrative is written to inform us of something past and usually contains an over-bearing theme for the benefit of the reader. Hence, the entire book of Judges warns us of apostasy and the continual wavering between serving the Living God or dead idols.
  3. Allegory will always be tied to the lesson that the author is presenting. In other words, the author has a point to make and launches into a story that represents this. Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants in Luke 20:9-18 exemplifies this type of allegory where the Pharisees represent the tenants, the prophets of old represent the king’s messengers, and Jesus represents the heir. The point of this allegory is that God has a vineyard, Israel, and expects fruit. He has placed the religious leaders over the people to care for them. They failed and so He sent prophets they ignored. The final person is the heir, Jesus. They will also reject Him and therefore be kicked out of the Kingdom of God. If your allegory is not indicative of the lesson the author is trying to make then it is not an allegory.

stone skipping in the pond (skipping straight to the application)

One of the greatest temptations of Scripture reading is not understanding the full context. This tends to happen when we see a verse that stands out to us or affects us emotionally one way or another. Instead of examining the surrounding verses, we tear up and go with that “feeling.” We never consider whether the application that we think is correct is valid because it makes us feel good. Just as interpretation is dependent upon the context, so too our application must reflect the context. It is doubtful that a first-century audience would have understood Zepheniah 3:17 as God giving believers the feel-good assurance of His love. That is a purely modern application and stems from lazy Bible reading/study. It is a total disregard for the text and ignores the entirety of God’s judgment upon the leaders of Israel, of which the context of Zepheniah 3:17 speaks. Before jumping to an application ask these questions:

  1. What is the full context of this passage?
  2. What message is the author trying to convey?
  3. How would the original audience have understood it?
  4. What was the response the author was seeking?

verbs, tenses, & roots (word study fallacies)

“The Greek word for power is dunamis. It’s where we get our word ‘dynamite.’ This passage is saying that God’s power is dynamite!”

NOT!

How many times have you heard this or something similar? Enter, the word study fallacy. Word studies yield vital information when done properly. However, the saying, A little Greek is a dangerous thing, should always be minded carefully. Understanding syntax, not just basic definitions, goes a long way in proper interpretation. Most fallacies of the word study type occur in two areas:

  1. Tenses – verbs are packed with tenses which indicate time and Greek is no different. Most unskilled interpreters look at a specific tense, ascertain a basic definition, and conclude that this tense bears the same nuance every time it occurs. One of the most famous examples is John 1:1. The ‘to be’ verb in that passage is an imperfect tense. Imperfect, as given in many grammars is described as a past event that is not yet completed or an action that is yet ongoing. For this reason, I have heard pastors attempt to translate John 1:1 as, In the beginning, was being the word, and the word was being with God, and the word was being God. This kind of fallacy stems from a misunderstanding of how tenses work. Though the imperfect may bear this kind of action in some way, it is not always the case and should not always be assumed. Careful consultation of Greek scholars and grammarians will go a long way to aiding you in the syntax of word studies. One of the primary sources used is Dan Wallaces Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. It is an excellent resource that will help with understanding verbal aspects and how they work together.
  2. Root words – also called the Etymological Fallacy, it assumes the root meaning of the word must continue to mean the same thing throughout time. A wise person once said that language is dynamic rather than static. In other words, words change their meanings over time and it should not be assumed that the word you are now studying carries the same meaning as it once did. The Greek word διαθήκη, for instance, is translated as covenant in the New Testament. However, the original use of the word according to the LSJ Greek Lexicon is that of a will of property. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament further indicates that it was often used as coming to an agreement or a distribution of property. It would be improper to assume that it means this in every context simply because the root word initially indicated this usage. But one of the vilest misuses of this fallacy I have ever encountered came at the attempt to equate the same usage of the Greek preposition ἐν (in) in all contexts. The sermon was on Ephesians 2:2, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience. The pastor came to the conclusion that because the basic definition of ἐν is a place of location, and the text stated that lost people had the spirit of disobedience working ἐν them, then all lost people must be demon-possessed! This kind of reasoning is destructive and always leads to bad theology. Beware of the Root Fallacy.

For more information on these types of bad hermeneutical practices, D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is an excellent resource.

unintended promises (is it for me or another group of people?)

Scripture is replete with promises. God’s word is written to assure us of His faithfulness and goodness towards us. But one thing that we need to reckon with is that not every promise in Scripture is individualistic. That is, many of the promises are corporate, or for a specific people group. When we take a corporate promise and make it individual, it often results in disappointment. Jeremiah 29:11 is perhaps the most misapplied promise in all of Scripture.

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

This verse has been hung on thousands of walls in homes, venerated in countless Bible studies, and passed around social media like wildfire. The promise is not a promise for God to fulfill a plan for your life, or even to bring you to a place where He can begin to shape your “destiny,” as has been so wrongly taught. God’s promise here is a corporate promise to the nation of Israel to restore them as His inheritance and to bring them back to the land of Israel after their time of punishment has ended. It is His assurance that even in the midst of their chastisement, He has not forgotten His promise to be their God and for them to be His people.

Therefore, the only feasible way to apply a modern application of this passage is the realization that when God now punishes His people, the Church, it is out of love. The Church should cling to the promise that despite their discipline, it is through the covenant of His Son that He will not forsake them. He does this because He knows the plans He has for [them] declares the LORD

It is truly sad when a person becomes depressed and begins to think that God is unfaithful. Knowing a little context goes a long way. When claiming promises from Scripture, be extra diligent that you understand the full extent and context of that promise.

hello, my name is context. You ripped me from my pages. prepare to die! (context–the over-arching theme)

You may have guessed by now that the main thing stressed throughout this post has been the importance of context. Context ripping is all too often a reality in the pulpit as well as in our personal studies. Misinformation, misinterpretation, and misapplication are all a result of destroying the context. Do not fret, Christian for we are all guilty of this at one time or another. The important thing is to recognize and correct our mistakes. There are guidelines that can help us avoid this pitfall and though we will not always be one hundred percent correct, we can be confident that we did not butcher God’s word to such a degree that it is irreparable. Here are some things to consider when interpreting and applying Scripture.

  1. Read the entire context. The entire context includes the verses before and after the passage you are reading. Sometimes it may include entire paragraphs depending upon the genre. A lot of heart misinterpretation is suddenly taken care of when the full context is taken into consideration.
  2. Understand the background of the book. Part of knowing the context consists of knowing the who, what, why, when, where, and how–the 5WH method–of what you are studying. Understanding the background is a tremendous help in interpreting the passage. For example, the book of Galatians was written for the purpose of debunking Judaizers. These were men that were teaching the young church that adherence to the Mosaic Law was required alongside of faith in Christ. When we realize what is at stake, we begin to understand some of the harsh and condemnatory language Paul uses towards his audience. The book of 1John serves as another example. Some people are baffled at the opening of this treatise. What does John mean by all of this talk? Simply stated, he was combating a form of Gnosticism that taught that Jesus did not have a real physical body because the flesh was evil and the spirit was good. At the outset, John makes it very clear that he and the other disciples physically touched, talked, and heard Jesus.
  3. Keep the book’s context in mind while reading. If you know the context of the book it should always be front and center while attempting to interpret. The New Testament authors wrote for specific purposes and this purpose is what drove them to engage their audience. Jude, for example, states that his brief epistle was written for his audience to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. He wanted to write to them concerning their common salvation but changed gears as he felt the necessity to address false teachers. The Gospel of John was written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. When you know the why of the book, it must be kept at the forefront to understand a correct interpretation. Grasping for an interpretation or application outside of this context will usually be wrong. No doubt there will be many topics addressed in a book or an epistle but the important thing to remember is that the authors usually had a specific audience in mind with a specific reason for writing to that audience.
  4. Know your genre & literary devices. Genre and literary devices are important when it comes to interpreting Scripture. You don’t interpret poetry the same way you would interpret a didactic (teaching) passage, for instance. Or you would not interpret apocalyptic literature the same way as an historical or narrative passage. How are hyperboles to be interpreted? What about some of the stranger sayings in Scripture? Though context is the guiding factor in all interpretation, different genres must be interpreted according to their rules. Let’s take, for example, Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26: If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother… he cannot be My disciple. Are we to come to the conclusion that Jesus is commanding us to hate our parents or other family members? What of His own teaching on honoring your parents? This particular verse demonstrates hyperbole, a literary device used to exaggerate something in order to make a point. Here, Jesus is not advocating hate for family. He is using the extreme to make a point. Your love for family members should be of such degree that it pales in comparison to that of even your closest Jesus. And if those family members keep you from following Him, you are to forsake them instead of rejecting Him. I once knew a pastor who took this passage at face value and encouraged others who had family members that were unsaved to do the same. This is why great care should be taken when interpreting different genres and literary devices.
  5. Go with the plain meaning of the text. There is no reason to complicate things. Sometimes, it really is that simple. When the Bible states that we are all dead in sin (Eph 2:1) it really means that. When Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again of water and Spirit (John 3:5) that’s what it actually means. Sometimes there’s a deeper meaning like our example passage Luke 14:26 above, but most times it really is as simple as the text states. If the plain meaning of the text is the plain meaning of the text, then the plain meaning of the text is the plain meaning of the text. Let’s not complicate it.

It may be discouraging to realize that you have been guilty of any of these interpretive fallacies. When I began to understand how hermeneutics properly worked, I had many ooops moments of my own. Do not let it deter you from studying God’s word. We are all guilty of these methods and we must all learn how to correct our mistakes. Be sure to visit the Study Aids page for books and other tools that will be of help. Until then, God bless your study of His word!

Considering Context – Matthew 18:19-20

The Context & Interpretation

Matthew 18:19-20 is often quoted in reference to church and prayer meetings.

19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

This is one of the most quoted verses for used in declaring that Jesus hears the prayers of His people when they are gathered together. When we examine the context a little more closely we find that this verse really isn’t talking about prayer meetings or church gatherings, at least in the realm that most people believe it to be.

The immediate context of our passage goes back to verse 15.


“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (emphasis are mine)

Surprised by Context

Jesus’ address is to one who has sinned within the Church. Verse 15 starts by Him telling the disciples how to handle one who sins. They are to approach the individual alone and confront the person’s sin. If the person refuses to acknowledge and repent of his sin then the first person is to take two or three other brothers with him as witnesses. This practice goes all the way back to Jewish law of having a testimony firmly established.

Deuteronomy 19:15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (emphasis mine)

This is where we need to start reading a little more closely. Note what Jesus is saying. He is instructing the disciples how to perform Church discipline correctly by quoting the law from Deuteronomy 19.

At this point some may object that Jesus is not at all speaking about the Church but only about those sinning against others in a personal manner. However, the fact that Jesus uses the word ‘church’ when speaking to His disciples is evidence that Church discipline is indeed in view at this point. Further, the same law also carries over into the epistles as Paul instructs Timothy not to entertain any accusations brought against another elder unless there are at least two or three witnesses. (1Timothy 1:19). For this reason it is a safe bet to state that the outline of discipline that Jesus gives is specifically for Church discipline. Let’s move on to the actual interpretation of the passage.

What Is Matthew 18 Referencing?

Now that we have examined the context in full it’s time to start interpreting the text as to what it really means. I find the best way to do this is to ask questions of the text. Personally, I love the 5W-H method (who, what, when, where, why, & how). Not all of these elements will be present in all the texts you consider but there will always be enough of them to help interpret a passage correctly.

When we consider the full context of the passage, the first thing we should ask is who are the two or three gathered together in Jesus’ Name? Given the use of Jesus’ quotation of Deuteronomy we must conclude from the context that the two or three are those witnesses first mentioned in verse 16. You will note that I have bolded several portions including every time where the two or three or mentioned. This is to show how they are traced throughout the passage. Understanding the ‘who’ of the passage often aids in understanding the ‘what.’

The next thing to be considered is the ‘what.’ Jesus tells His disciples that if the unrepentant person will not listen to the first or the witnesses that he has taken then that person must be brought before the Church. The entire congregation is to implore his repentance and upon that refusal the instructions are to excommunicate the said individual and treat him as a tax collector and sinner. It is at this point that Jesus makes the mysterious remark about binding and loosing. This is the second part of the ‘what’ question that must be answered.

What exactly is loosing and binding in this context? This requires us to look into the original language to get the answer. The two words, δέω (deō) and λύω (luō) connote an authoritative use. According to the Mishnah, a Rabbinical commentary on the Law of Moses, the interpretations were in fact binding on the people. However, a person could be loosed or even bound under certain circumstances, especially with particular vows made. Consider a small portion of the Mishnah:

He who vows [abstinence] from meat may eat broth and meat sediment. But Rabbi Judah prohibits. Rabbi Judah said: it once happened that Rabbi Tarfon prohibited me from eating [even the] eggs boiled [with the meat]. They replied: That is so. When is this true? When he says “This meat is prohibited to me.” For if one vows [to abstain] from something, and it is mixed up with another thing, if there is a sufficient [amount of the prohibited food] to impart its taste [to the other] it is forbidden.

Mishnah Nedarim 6:6

Jesus uses this same idea of binding and loosing when He gives the apostles the authority to enact discipline on a wayward believer. The idea is that the apostles would “ask in Jesus’ Name” and the discipline of the sinner would be bound (authoritative) on Earth and have the backing of the authority of Heaven. Therefore, if two or three ask in Jesus’ Name He is there in the midst of them with His authority.

Application

How then do we apply this Scripture? It can only be applied by the leaders of the Church universal. That is, as ordained ministers chosen by God they must engage in church discipline whenever the need is presented. This verse cannot be applied in a personal manner or as a promise for Jesus to show up in your prayer meeting.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us always examine Scripture closely that we may be able to apply it in the proper manner. May the LORD continue to bless you as you seek to understand and apply the Truth of His Word.

Considering Context – Jerimiah 29:11

This week’s Considering Context looks at popular verse often quoted as proof that God has a wonderful plan for every believer’s life. Jeremiah 29:11 says,

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).

(Note: I purposely quoted from the NIV because this is the version I have heard quoted the most.)

The Perceived Meaning & Actual Context

“God has a wonderful plan for your life, and this verse tells us that!”

This is the interpretation I’ve heard most. People read into this text because of words like ‘plan,’ ‘hope,’ & ‘future,’ and automatically assume that it must be talking about their own individual, personal lives. This false assumption only leads to disappointment as they cling to it, waiting for God to bring them their “breakthrough.” But what does this text actually teach? Let’s look at the full context and unpack it a little bit. The full context of Jeremiah 29:11 is below. Read carefully and pay attention to some key elements, which we will discuss.

Jeremiah 29:1–14 (NIV)

1 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said: 4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. 10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

There are some general things to be noted about this text:

  1. This is a letter from Jeremiah sent by Elasah to the already exiled Israelites (vv. 1-3). Why is this important? Because it means that this portion of Jeremiah was written to a specific group, (the exiles) at a specific time, (after Nebuchadnezzar came in and conquered Jerusalem), for a specific reason (discussed in v. 4, ff). Context needs to always take precedence when interpreting a passage.
  2. The letter’s contents are concerning the Israelites’ expectations during their captivity (vv. 4-7). Through Jeremiah God was telling His people to basically get comfortable in their new conditions because it would be 70 years before they would be going anywhere. They were told to “seek the welfare” of the nation of their captors because they would benefit from it, as well. In essence, this promise was NOT individualistic prosperity but nationalistic peace.
  3. The lying prophets would declare peace & prosperity (vv. 8-10). Just as we deal with false teachers, so the Israelites dealt with their false teachers. God had warned His people for hundreds of years that judgment was coming. Instead of repenting, false teachers came along saying, “Peace, Peace!” Yet God tells them that He did not send them and that they were lying by saying that they had had dreams and visions (v. 9). This is an important part of the overall context because these false prophets were still declaring God’s favor even after judgment had been rendered.  Jeremiah’s letter ensured his hearers that they were in Babylon for their sins. God’s favor was still on His people but it would not be experienced until the time of the exiled had come to its fruition (v. 10).
  4. The promise of verse 11 is actually a causal condition of verse 10. What does that mean? Simply speaking the word ‘for’ at the beginning of verse 11 is actually the reason or support for God’s statement in verse 10. In other words, the promise that everyone seems to think that verse 11 is based upon is actually dependent upon the seventy years of exile.
  5. The “Ater-promise” is the real promise of this text (vv. 12-14). Verse 11 is not even the centrality of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles. It is the promise of God once again being their God, dwelling with them, and bringing them back into His presence. We know this because God tells the people at that time they will begin to seek Yahweh once again. Every Israelite’s pride was being part of Yahweh’s covenant people and Jerusalem was Yahweh’s dwelling place. The reason they had been exiled was because they had failed to keep the covenant. Now they would have to endure God’s chastisement for seventy years before true fellowship could be restored. But in all their discipline God would not forsake them because He “knows the plans [He] has for them, declares the LORD…”  

Conclusion

Just like interpretation, application must be kept in its original context. Today, we cannot claim that we have been exiled from the land because of our sins. However, as a church we can recognize that (1) the Church is God’s covenant people (2) God uses his preachers to exhort us to repentance and faith in His Son, (3) He may discipline the Church if we do not heed His word, (4) even if we, the Church, experience His discipline it is not to harm us but to bring us back into fellowship with the Triune God.

What a blessed thought, Christians, that God still loves and honors His promises to His covenant people, even in the midst of our sin. Let us confess and forsake our false views of God and let us return with our whole heart to Him, seeking Him while He may be found.

Considering Context – Hebrews 10:25 & COVID 19

Note: this post was originally published on Long for Truth March 19. I still believe it is relevant at this time, though most churches are now able to meet. 

In the midst of the ongoing Coronavirus or COVID 19 as is being called by experts, some Christians have already begun taking Scripture out of context in defiance of government sanctions to restrict large gatherings. Some of the verses I’ve seen quoted out of context?

Psalm 91:10 No evil shall befall you, Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling

Amos 4:6 “Also I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities. And lack of bread in all your places; Yet you have not returned to Me,” Says the Lord.

and my personal favorite…

Hebrews 10:25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching

The latter of the three is the focus of this post. Recently, I saw a Facebook post from a popular apologist quoting Hebrews 10:25 and adding to the end of it something along the lines of, “unless a virus causes you to close church.” The quote is not exact and could not be obtained as the tweet has been removed since then.

Even though the gentleman apologized (though he stated he adamantly stands by his belief) others have taken up the mantle, using this verse to chide and rebuke other Christians for “forsaking the assembling of [themselves]. They have been accused of abandoning God’s Word in favor of fear or man’s mandate. But is that what is really happening? Are Christians who refrain from going to church temporarily forsaking the Word of God? Let’s put this verse in its full context.

Examining the Scripture in Context

Several things need to be noted about how this verse is used to support the said persons’ views of not obeying the government-mandated orders of no large gatherings.

  1. The historical context of Hebrews is to persecuted Jews. The author of Hebrews is writing to his fellow Jews and admonishing them not to return to the worthless sacrifices of the temple that can no longer cleanse sin or conscience. The entire theme of Hebrews is the superiority of Christ over the Priesthood and the Temple sacrifices. As a result of following Jesus, many Jews had lost their homes, businesses, and had been arrested. This is present just a few verses later (Hebrews 10:32-34). This context is important to keep in mind as our government is not trampling our right to meet as believers; nor or are they persecuting us simply because we are Christians. The mandate, at this point, is simply to control the spread of a deadly virus.
  2. The quoted verse comes in the middle of an exhortation. Verse 25 comes smack dab in the middle of two other exhortations. The author begins chapter 10 by reminding them that the Law was a foreshadowing of the Messiah. He begins verse 19 with the usual inferential οὖν (therefore) demonstrating the logic of the better Christ over the old priesthood. Jesus has made the once-for-all sacrifice and we may now approach God the Father without the aid of a priest. Now come the three exhortations that include our verse. (1) let us draw near, (2) let us hold fast our confession, and (3) let us consider one another. Our verse is found in the last exhortation and is subordinate to the verb, ‘consider’. The verse itself is part of a participial phrase describing the means or the way in which the main verb is carried out, or in this case the way it was not being done. Grammatically this is important because those decrying the temporary closing of churches due to the virus apply it wrongly. The forsaking of the assembling of the Jews was in light of the other two exhortations and especially the last exhortation which was imploring them to stir each other into the action of good works and love This could not be accomplished if they were not meeting together on a regular basis.
  3. The sin of the Jews was forsaking Jesus, not church. Hebrews 10:25 was not written so that we would all continue to “go to church”. The real exhortation is that of not forsaking Jesus, which was the cause of neglecting the assembling of themselves. Because of the persecution, it seems that some of the Jews had decided it would be better to return to the former way of worship and forsake the better way, Jesus, that the author had been stressing from the very beginning of the epistle.
  4. The usage of the word ‘forsake’ in other contexts. It’s important to examine the usage of the word in its other contexts. This gives us a snapshot of sorts to determine how the word is being used in our passage. A quick examination tells us that the Greek word ἐγκαταλείπω is used nine times, 6 of those being translated as ‘forsake’ or ‘forsaken.’

We see two of the occurrences as Jesus’ quote of Psalm 22:1 during his crucifixion. The last four uses indicate the word is used in a bit stronger way, especially in 2Timothy where Paul states that Demas turned his back on him and the work of the gospel for gain. 2Corinthians gives us a picture of God’s faithfulness to Paul by not turning His back on them in times of trouble and persecution. And lastly, we see our passage in Hebrews. Comparing these verses gives us a pretty good idea of what the author had in mind when writing to his Jewish audience. But another interesting thing to note is the usage of this Greek word in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This would have been the version familiar to Jesus and His disciples, as much of the world was Hellenized at that time.

Above we have the Septuagint version along with the English translation below. This Greek word is used in Judges six times, all of them bearing the definition of complete abandonment of faith in the Living God to idols! The word is never used as a mere failure to “meet together” as many of the so-called Facebook theologians would have you to believe.

Concluding Thoughts

Those who see themselves as spiritually superior seem to be the real antagonists of this debate. We have clearly seen that the Scripture used to shame people into going to church during the time of this outbreak, Hebrews 10:25, is being misapplied. The meaning of this passage is a complete abandonment of the faith not staying away from church in order to stay healthy or keep from passing a sickness on to someone else. If the government was commanding us to stay away permanently or refusing to let Christians meet simply because we are Christians those “super saints” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like may have a cause and a case. But Christian, you are not in sin if your church decides to cancel services due to this illness, or decides to have a live stream in place of services, or even meet together online temporarily until this thing blows over. Those who would hold you to their standards only think of the good of themselves rather than the good of the entire Body.

Considering Context – Psalm 46:10

This week’s Considering Context looks at a popular meditation/peace verse.

Psalm 46:10  Be still and know that I am God.

The Perceived Meaning of the Text

I often hear this verse interpreted as a means for quiet meditation on God in order to bring peace to oneself. To be sure, a peaceful, quiet assurance of God is certainly thematic but that is only true, partially, as we will see by examining the full context of this Psalm.

The Text in its Original Context

There are are a lot of factors that need to be considered when we interpret the Psalms. The most important factor is the type of genre one is reading. Because the Psalms are poetry they must be interpreted within the poetic genre. And Hebrew poetry is much different from  English poetry.

Hebrew poetry typically uses parallelisms and structure rather than rhyme in its composition. This may seem a bit odd to us but in an ancient context this style greatly aided in memory since many of these psalms were used during the worship at the tabernacle. When interpreting the Psalms and any type of Hebrew poetry it is a good practice to understand some of the basics. Before moving on to the the interpretation we will spend a little time looking at the basics of Hebrew poetry. For more information I would highly recommend Dr. Mark Futato’s book Interpreting the Psalms.

Parallelism is the major defining factor in Hebrew poetry. Scholars have identified several, but the three major categories are synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic. Each will be briefly discussed: 

  1. Synonymous – this parallelism has two lines of text that mean the same thing but said in different ways. Psalm 33:2 is a good example

    Ⓐ Give thanks to the Lord Ⓑ with the lyre; Ⓐ make melody to him Ⓑ with the harp of ten strings!
  2. Antithetic – this is when two lines are contrasted, showing what one is or should be and what the other should not be. Psalm 1:6 illustrates this form of parallelism

    for Ⓐ the Lord knows Ⓑ the way of the righteous, but Ⓑ the way of the wicked Ⓐ will perish.
  3. Synthetic – often times the author will make a statement and then develop or further elaborate the point. This development is known as synthetic parallelism. Psalm 147:16-17 is synthetic in nature. The explanation of line B is that no one stands before His power, which is pictured as cold and snow. 

    Ⓐ He gives snow like wool; Ⓐ he scatters frost like ashes. Ⓐ He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; Ⓑ who can stand before his cold?

Structure is also an important theme in Hebrew poetry. Like parallelism the structure is usually categorized three different ways.

Acrostic – each new line or stroph begins with the next successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 119 is an excellent example of this style. As you can see the first eight verses begin with the letter Aleph and the next eight begin with the letter Bet. This pattern will follow until the end of the Hebrew alphabet has been reached.

Chiastic – the parallels in this structure branch out to a central theme. Then the parallels are reversed until reaching the conclusion. See the screenshot below for an example.

Strophic – this is more of a thematic type of poetry where the lines are grouped together by themes to conclude to a main theme. Note the the thematic elements of the grouped lines in the below Psalm. They culminate in the Lord being the Psalmist’s refuge.

Though it seems a bit much to review all of this it is necessary when interpreting the context for our Psalm. Now, we can look at it in its entirety and interpret it correctly.

The first thing to be noted is that the Psalm is usually not quoted in its entirety. The full text of the Psalm is, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

As you see this verse is a little bit more than simply being still and meditating on God. Our Psalm is of the chiastic structure, paralleling ideas to a central theme and then reversing the parallels. To understand the structure more fully it would be helpful to see the entire Psalm laid out.

As you can see, the Psalm peaks at verse 6: the nations rage, the kingdoms tooter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The context of the Psalm can be found in 2Chron 20:1-30, when Jehoshaphat is king and the destruction of Jerusalem seems imminent. God gave His people a remarkable deliverance and this Psalm was written as the response. The culmination at verse 6 is God winning the victory for Jerusalem. This is the theme or central portion of the Psalm, not meditating on God.

Verse 10 falls in parallel to verse 2. Looking a little closer at these two verses helps us even more with the context. verses 2 and 10 state, respectively,

2 Therefore, we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea.

10 Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. 

Examining these two verses side-by-side we quickly see how they relate to one another. Jerusalem is in danger! But the God of Jacob is our refuge, and because He is we won’t be afraid. Be silent and watch God work. He will overthrow our enemies and His Name will be exalted over all the earth.

The second part of our interpretation must deal with the type of parallelism found in verse 10. Synthetic parallels state a single point and then develop or expound upon that idea. Verse 10 is synthetic and the parallel can be seen below.

The parallels are marked with the letters ‘a’ and ‘b.’ Since synthetics expound the meaning of the original statement we must then ask what it means to be still and know the He is God. The two following lines explain the meaning. It is God’s exaltation upon the earth, plain and simple.

The Application of the Text

This might seem to be a killjoy for some because they have clung to this verse during the chaotic times of their lives. While we cannot claim a meditative peace for Psalm 46:10 we can certainly know that God watches over His people and that His deliverance of them will bring greatness to His Name throughout the entire earth.